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National Question

The New International, December 1942

F.W. Smith

The National Question

Some Views of Marx


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 11, December 1942, pp. 335–337.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Karl Marx did not leave behind a systematic elaboration of his views on the national question. That, of course, does not mean that he had never occupied himself with this problem. He lived in an epoch in which the large nations of Europe constituted themselves, united and built up the modern European states. As sociologist, as practical politician, and as leader of the first international socialist organization, Marx continually was confronted by questions of national economy, politics and culture. And he was not the man to use general phrases about “the national question being outmoded,” in order to escape reality and a concrete position on his part. He took a position on the effort of the Germans and Italians to achieve national unification, on the struggle for national independence of the Poles, the Irish, the Hungarians and the Czechs – all the national movements of the nineteenth century are mentioned in his works.

Just as one can still learn a lot from Marx’s Capital, in spite of the many changes since the period of liberal capitalism, so are Marx’s remarks about the national question still of great value. Their importance lies not so much in their concrete content, which in many cases might be outmoded, but in his method and manner of approach.

The only difficulty lies in the fact that no Capital exists on that topic. Marx’s remarks about the national question are scattered over a period of forty years, in numerous articles, books and letters. Some of them are of casual character and the author would object to any hasty generalization; in others, however, one can clearly recognize the principled position. To collect all this material, to arrange it and to develop from it a rounded picture of the views of the founder of scientific socialism – that is not an easy task. It demands a thorough study of all of Marx’s works; a reliable knowledge of the circumstances which brought about the different remarks; a general understanding of Marxist theory. As far as I know, there exists no systematic study of Marx’s views on this question; here, too, the vulgar “defenders” of Marxism together with the vulgar revisionists outdo each other in their ignorance of Marx’s works.

In this case, it is a merit in itself to give a serious presentation of the “national implications” of Marxist theory, as Sol F. Bloom has undertaken. [1] And even if one cannot, in many instances, agree with the author’s presentation and interpretation, nobody can deny that we are dealing with a serious attempt. The man knows his Marx and has succeeded in treating the vast amount of material which he had collected in a scientific manner, without making the book unclear or difficult to read.

The author of the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite” was undoubtedly, throughout his life, a true internationalist, who placed the interests of humanity above the interests of any individual nation. The class struggle, which with the development of world economy took on a more and more international form, occupied the most important position in his theoretical and practical work. However, Marx did not forget for a minute that humanity still consists of French, English, Germans, Americans, Hungarians, Poles, etc., and that nations still have to play an important role in history; for those people who would like to “do away” with the national question with a stroke of the pen he had only mockery and contempt.

Today it is still instructive to read how, on unmasking the apparently radical “anationalism” of the French followers of Proudhon he discovered a naive chauvinism, which claimed that “the great nation” alone will make the revolution, while all other nations should just sit tight and then receive the finished results served on a silver platter. The denial of the national question means, in effect, as Marx so ably pointed out, the absorption of all nations by the French model nation. Lenin, too, remarked once that the conviction of some revolutionaries that their nation alone will decide the fate of the revolution, is nothing but a sublime form of national prejudice. Neither Marx nor Lenin suffered from this weakness; with Lenin’s epigones, however, it supplied the transition to vulgar Stalinist nationalism.

Marx and the Nation

To Marx, the nation represented an organic – and transitory – creation of history. It did not mean an individual society, which “by nature” is made up of the same blood or the same race; the conception of a nation could also not be limited to the bonds of common language, for there are nations in which several languages are spoken, and there are areas in which one common language is prevalent, although they consist of several nations. Although we can find nowhere in Marx’s works a specific definition, his characteristics of a nation are similar to Otto Bauer’s ideas which he has embraced in the words “fate community.” Bloom says:

The “nation” of Marx may be described as an individual society which functions with a considerable degree of autonomy, integration and self-consciousness (page 17).

The class struggle had to develop at first within the so-considered national societies. The Communist Manifesto dismissed the common taunt that the socialists proposed to abolish nationality as unworthy of serious consideration. The proletariat had the task of “raising itself to the position of a national class and constituting itself as a nation.” On the other hand, the victory of socialism could be possible only in an international sense, with the cooperation of the proletariats of, at least, a few large progressive nations. And Marx was firmly convinced that the rule of the proletariat would largely do away with “national peculiarities and contrasts” of the various nations. As Bloom points out correctly, there is no contradiction between these two thoughts. The class struggle begins within the national boundaries and has to solve a series of “national tasks,” then inevitably outgrows the national boundaries and leads to international fraternization. The “national peculiarities and contrasts” cannot be ignored; they must be overcome organically through socialism.

But what should be the position of socialists on national peculiarities and struggles for national independence before the achievement of the international proletarian revolution? Should they ignore these problems and wave them aside contemptuously in the name of the coming socialist revolution?

The answer to this can be found by studying Marx’s position on the Irish question. Marx, as a well-matured man, believed that the Irish people should have the right of self-determination and that they should separate from England, even if, later on, a voluntary federation should take place. He demanded self-determination in the interests of the Irish as well as the English people. And I think that Bloom in general estimates his reasons correctly, when he states:

His opposition to national oppression was not unaffected by ethical and humane motivations. He was also moved by other considerations: the idea of the interconnection of all forms of oppression and their basis in class exploitation; the belief that human society could not permanently attain true tolerance in one realm if it denied it in another, somewhat in the spirit of the statement of Lincoln that a nation could not endure half slave and half free; and the realization that the technique of power was such that instrumentalities devised for one end could easily be turned to another. The result was a strong conviction that no nation could be free unless it allowed other nations to live freely as well. Marx appealed to the history of Rome and Great Britain as witness that “the people which subjugates another people forges its own chains.” It seemed to him that the English Republic of the seventeenth century had sealed its own doom when it reconquered Ireland. He interpreted the foreign policy of the Germany of the Old Régime in the same sense. Forces employed abroad were available for action against lower classes at home. Freedom was indivisible for social, political and philosophical reasons (pages 196–97).

It seems that in another case, however, Marx’s attitude is in direct contradiction to his principles. In 1848, he was, as is well known, opposed to the self-determination of the Czechs and the Suedslavs. Bloom accounts for this position mainly because of Marx’s conviction that these groups were insufficiently large, compact and advanced to establish modern economies and states. He concludes from this that Marx favored only the self-determination of large nations, capable of leading a more or less independent existence.

It may be that Marx, who had seen in Western Europe with his own eyes how the language groups of the Bretons, Basques, Wallons, etc., had been absorbed by the English and French nations, merely underestimated the ability of the Slavic groups in Austria to participate again in cultural life.

Lenin’s Addition to Marx

Yet the Hungarians, whose struggle for independence Marx supported so enthusiastically, were neither a large nor an economically progressive people. And the same is, after all, true about the Irish. I think, therefore, that Marx’s above mentioned position was interpreted more correctly by Lenin, who devoted to this question a chapter of his work, The Results of the Discussions About Self-Determination. [2]

Lenin holds that the main reason for Marx’s position against the Czechs and the Suedslavs (this, by the way, was also mentioned in Bloom’s book) was brought about by the circumstance that these peoples were at that time on the side of the Czar and on the side of the Austrian monarchy – in short, on the side of the counter-revolution. According to Lenin, this means “no more and no less” than that Marx placed the interests of democracy in Europe as a whole above the individual (in itself democratic) demands for self-determination of a few small peoples. Says Lenin in this regard:

The individual demands of democracy, among them the right of self-determination, are not absolute; they are only a small part of the universal democratic (now universal socialistic) world movement. It is possible, in some concrete instances, that the interests of the part are opposed to the interests of the whole; in this case one is obliged to disregard the interests of the part. It is possible that the republican movement in one country is nothing but the tool of a clerical or finance-capitalistic intrigue of other countries. In that case, we cannot support this given concrete movement. It would be absurd, however, for this reason to oppose the existence of the republic in the program of international social democracy. [3]

In any case, this example teaches us that demands for national independence did not represent something absolute to Marx or his disciples, but had to be subordinated to the progress of humanity, on the road to socialism.

These are just a few of the problems which are brought up in Bloom’s book. In the light of the present time, when national struggles again play such an important role, they help to make the book twice as interesting. Special chapters, devoted to Marx’s position on the national problems of England, France, America, Germany, Russia and India illustrate the application of Marx’s principles to concrete cases.

There is one chapter that finally I would like to emphasize. Bloom begins the book with the statement that at the basis of every social philosophy lies a certain conception of human nature. Nobody, of course, was more aware of this fact than Marx, namely, that social-being influences human nature and that historical circumstances constantly change it. In the struggle against utopian systems, Marxism was, of course, forced to emphasize historical conditionality. For that reason many have forgotten that Marxism, just like every other socialist theory, is based on the conviction that man, provided social conditions are favorable, is a progressive, social being, capable of living happily and making other people happy on this earth. In the nineteenth century, when everybody believed in progress, it was not necessary to emphasize this particularly. However, it is all the more important now, when the general misery creates all kinds of theories which set about to prove the “natural impossibility” of democracy, classless society, and harmonic development. I just wish to remind the reader of the theory which claims that, because of human nature, every type of organization necessarily has to lead to oligarchy and suppression (R. Michels); the idea that every social overturn inevitably brings with it a new exploiting “elite” (Vilfredo Pareto); Freud’s theory of the “longing for death,” to explain psychologically the eternal social evil – all these are modern variations of the ancient doctrine of inherited sin and of the vulgar petty bourgeois theory that master and servants always have and always will exist. I don’t know if Bloom consciously emphasized the importance of Marxist optimism, especially today. He does not speak of these theories which I mentioned above. But this chapter, serving as an introduction to his study of the national question, sums up so well the Marxist views of the ability of human nature to progress and to be happy, that it contributes no little to the value of this book.


1. The World of Nations. A study of the national implications in the works of Karl Marx, by Solomon F. Bloom, Columbia University Press, 1941.

2. In Sbornik Socialdemokrata, October 1916, Ges. Schriften, XIX, page 293ff.

3. Ibid., page 319.

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