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Peter Hadden

The National Question in the epoch of imperialism

Neither nationalism nor unionism – but workers’ unity!

(October 1984)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 125N, October 1984.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Examine the globe and you will find few countries where the national question in some form is not an issue. The colonial world is aflame with secessionist movements and struggles by national, religious, racial and tribal minorities against oppression.

In the Stalinist states, including Russia and China, the problem is not resolved. And now also in the advanced capitalist countries, even in areas where nationalism has been dormant for a century or centuries, the last decade has shown that it has the capacity to re-emerge.

Nations and nation states have not always existed. They are a product of the capitalist epoch and will disappear with the establishment of socialism internationally.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the rising capitalist class in Europe performed the historically progressive function of overcoming feudal particularism, capturing for their industries territory and a market and welding the peoples of this area into a nation. Out of this economic development there grew for the first lime a national consciousness among people that they were “British”, “French”, “German” or whatever.

Such a voluntary assimilation of tribal, village and in cases even national groups was possible because of the development of production. From the beginning of this century the potential of material markets to satisfy the appetites or the expanding productive forces was exhausted. To-day national boundaries and nation states are a reactionary barrier to further progress.


The largest multinationals today have annual turnovers greater than the budgets of even major countries. A mere 25 companies account for 35% of total industrial production worldwide. At a time when for example one chemical company can satisfy world demand the existence of national chemical, steel, aerospace industries etc. is a fetter on further progress.

Yet, just at the moment when the forces of production have far outstripped national markets, and when the nation state stands as a brake on the further development of society, the tendency for nationalism to raise its head has become apparent. This is one of the fundamental contradictions of the present period.

The explanation lies in the present profound economic impasse of both capitalism and Stalinism combined with the failure of the reformist leaderships of the labour movement to show a way out. This explains developments in the Basque, Catalan and other regions of Spain, and similar developments in other countries.

But it is in the colonial world where this whole question is most sharply posed. By the beginning of this century capitalism had entered what Lenin referred to as its highest stage, the stage of Imperialism. Imperialist conquest and plunder were nothing new. But the scale was different. In the space of a few decades virtually the entire globe was annexed by major capitalist powers. As Lenin in his book Imperialism described it: “The characteristic of the period under review is the final partitioning of the globe in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories of our planet”. For Africa he gives figures to provide the conclusive evidence of this. In 1876 this continent was 10.8% colonised. By 1900 90.4% of its territory had fallen under the control of the colonial powers.

The native capitalist class in the colonial countries evolved late onto the scene of history. This class proved too weak to accomplish the tasks bestowed upon it, the development of industry, the unifying of a national market, the creation of a nation state free of imperialist domination and the ending of feudal land relations. Instead, as with the Irish capitalist class, they slavishly lowered the fence to imperialism.

The nation states and “Nations” which exist in the colonial world did not evolve in the manner of the West where a sometimes reluctant bourgeoisie put itself at the head. Rather they were carried out by imperialism, their boundaries cutting across the living bodies of tribes and peoples. The nation states of Africa and most of Asia are caricatures of the advanced capitalist states. Within them they contain tribal, religious and national minorities which have never been assimilated.

The manner of their formation plus now a complete economic impasse, gives a sharp sting to the national question in all these areas.

In the West, and in the Stalinist states, especially Yugoslavia but also Russia – national antagonism leading to secessionist movements in the long run, threatens the existence of present day nation states. If the working class in, for example Spain, do not succeed over a period in overthrowing capitalism and creating a socialist Spain there exists the possibility that Spain and the Iberian peninsula could disintegrate.

Such a nightmarish scenario which could only emerge after a long period of defeats for the working class is already an immediate danger in many colonial countries.

India, both a nation state and a subcontinent containing many nationalities and seething with national revolt, provides a vivid illustration of what capitalism means in terms of irreconcilable national conflict in the colonial countries.

After almost four decades of independence, India remains as relatively backward and underdeveloped as under the Raj. Over half the population subsist below the official poverty line. A measure of the incapacity of the Indian bourgeoisie is the fact that even the sense of Indian national identity which existed before 1947 has all but disappeared.

On a capitalist basis there can be no genuinely united India. Already two new states, each with its own problems of nationalities within it, have emerged. Pakistan, formed at the time of partition, itself gave birth to Bangladesh after a bitter secessionist struggle in 1971. Within India, and in Pakistan, there is the basis for further disintegration, further national sub-division.

Throughout the colonial world capitalism has come to mean an endless succession of wars between states, revolts within states, struggles for secession, the dismantling of existing boundaries and the formation of new states no more stable than those from which they emerged.

This, and the distorted forms which the colonial revolution has taken over recent decades, is the penalty which the masses in these countries are being made to pay for the failure of the leadership of the working class movement, especially the failure of Stalinism, to seize the opportunities it has had to implement the socialist solution as did the Bolsheviks in 1917.

All this is a crushing refutation of those who dangle in front of the colonial masses. The “strategy” of two stages. First, they say, solve the national problem, remove imperialism, create an independent democratic republic and then begin the struggle for socialism. This was the theory of the Mensheviks in Russia. It was used by Stalin to chart the Chinese revolution to disastrous defeat in 1925–27, and is echoed by the Communist parties internationally today.

In Ireland it was the persuasion used by De Valera and willingly accepted by the labour leaders to excuse their inactivity after 1918. Today it is advanced by Sinn Fein, and by many ultra-left sects who have hopelessly capitulated to nationalism in Ireland.

Yet the history of the colonial countries, especially since Imperialism was forced to withdraw from direct military domination after World War 2, reduced this theory to ashes. In 1950 the colonial countries had 33% of world trade. By the late 1970s despite independence, they had 20%. The colonial world is now more closely ensnared than ever to the advanced capitalist countries. The national question is unresolved, and unless capitalism and landlordism is overthrown, will intensify.

As the Russian revolution demonstrated it is only the working class who can resolve the national problem. The working class are the only class capable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution wherever they have not been accomplished. In doing so, as happened in Russia, the working class will immediately move to the accomplishment of socialist tasks, to the taking over of industry and to the establishing of socialism first of all on a national, but then necessarily on an international, place.

Colonial Countries

In the colonial countries only the working class can carry out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, while in the advanced countries it is only the working class who can ultimately prevent the break-up of nation states and through the socialist transformation of society, build upon the gains of the bourgeois revolutions of one, two or even more centuries ago. This is how things stand today.

Lenin referred to Tsarist Russia as a prison house of nationalities. Without the understanding of the Bolsheviks of the national question and without the programme which they put forward, the Russian revolution could not have been accomplished.

As Lenin explained, and it would be well remembered now with regard to Ireland, socialists are not nationalists but internationalists. Nationalism is, in fact, a poison in that it lowers the consciousness of workers, making them feel that they are separate, different and masking their common international identity of interest.

In formulating a programme on the national question the purpose of Marxism is to reduce nationalism. Every national demand must be, in Lenin’s words, “evaluated from the angle of the class struggle. ”

The correct demands are those which will advance the unity of workers within a nation and internationally. Or, expressed more bluntly, the national question is subservient to the class question.

So Lenin and the Bolsheviks implacably opposed those who argued for different workers’ parties and trade unions for different nationalities and stood for one party for the workers of all Russia, irrespective of nationality. In this tradition Marxists totally oppose different organisations for Basque workers as opposed to Spanish workers and in Ireland defend the 32 county unity of the trade union movement which has been preserved despite partition and despite the efforts of bigots on both sides to dismantle it.

Marxists do not advocate the creation of nations. The way out for the working class is not to be exploited by native as opposed to foreign capitalists but through the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of socialism which by its nature must be international. For the peoples of India, of the Middle East, of Europe, the only way out is through socialist federation of their region as part of a world socialist federation.

Lenin’s Programme

In order to convince especially the more backward layers who may be tainted by nationalism it is necessary for the working class to demonstrate that it has no interest in coercing or subjugating any national minority.

For this reason Lenin advanced the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination, which means simply the right of a nation to separate from a state if it should so wish.

This right cannot be applied to every caste, religious or other minority, but to national minorities who occupy or could occupy a certain definable territory which could be the basis of a separate state. Marxists apply this right as it is demanded by for example, the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Tamils in India, the Kurds in Iran and Iraq and so on.


By offering this right and permitting it to be exercised as the new revolutionary government in Russia did in relation to Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland after 1917, the purpose is to expose the nationalists, answer their lies about socialism, and draw the working class together.

To advocate the right of a nation to determine its own destiny is not to advocate that it should secede. The utopia of freedom in a new small state is a reactionary panacea put forward by petty bourgeois nationalists. While upholding the right to secede, Marxism in general advocates unity in one socialist state or in a federation which ever would be appropriate and demanded by the circumstances, but with the maximum autonomy devolved to minorities in the regions so as to give them the power to administer their day to day affairs.

As Lenin explained the Marxist programme on the national question is essentially a negative one, against national oppression, against the forcible suppression of national culture, identity and so on.

The Bolsheviks supported every struggle against national oppression but always resisted falling into the camp of the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nation in doing so. In Lenin’s words “but insofar as the bourgeois of the oppressed nations stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation and do not in any way condone strivings for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation. ”

Truth is always concrete. There is no set of universal commandments writ on stone, no timeless set of demands which are a readymade prescription for each national problem. Rather there is the method of Marxism, of dialectical thinking and of class analysis, which can permit Marxists today to draw the correct conclusions as the Bolsheviks did in Russia.

British Capital

In Ireland, as was the case in Russia and has now generally become the case even in the advanced countries, the socialist transformation of society will not be achieved unless the Marxist vanguard of the movement adopts a correct position on the national question.

Despite its relative development and geographical location, all the main features of Irish history are those of a colonial country. In general, since the defeat of the United Irish uprising of 1798, the native bourgeoisie have played no role in the struggle for independence. The nominally independent 26 county state which emerged from the defeat of the independence struggle of 1918–21 and the partition of the country, is in reality a client state of British and now world capital.

The Southern ruling class has no interest or desire to end partition. For this reason and because of the resistance of the million Protestants in the North, the dream of right-wing nationalists of a capitalist united Ireland is a reactionary illusion. If a serious step were to be taken in this direction, the result would be civil war, a Lebanon situation and ultimately repartition.

On the other hand the Northern state is an artificial creation which remains in existence only due to government subventions which are now the equivalent of one third of its Gross Domestic Product. The North is not a separate Protestant nation. Neither the territorial nor the cultural prerequisites for a separate Protestant nation exist. The theory of two nations, which gained a certain echo among confused intellectuals a decade ago, is now seen for what it is – a theoretical justification for Unionism.

There can be no two stages in the struggle in Ireland. Rather the national problem can only be resolved by the working class overthrowing capitalism North and South and so ending partition. The only solution is a socialist solution.

Marxists in Ireland therefore stand against sectarian division, against nationalist illusions, for the unity of the working class in the North, the unity of workers North and South and a common struggle through a single trade union body and ultimately a single political organisation, for socialism.

Partition can only be ended on a socialist basis just as the withdrawal of the British troops can only be achieved by the movement of the working class in Ireland and in Britain. This has been the position of Militant over the fifteen years of the present troubles.

Our slogan is for a socialist united Ireland, as part of a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, within which the right of self-determination of the Irish and indeed the Scottish and Welsh peoples would be upheld.

Middle East

Internationally the working class have a choice between two scenarios. There is the example of the Middle East, particularly the Lebanon, where failed revolution in the region has given way to nationalist disintegration and chaos. Lebanon has been cantonised, reduced to a myriad of warring factions.

For the Lebanese people capitalism opens up only a vista of horror without end. Or there is the example of Russia, where the national question in 1917 was as acute as anywhere today, where only a minority of the population were Great Russians, and yet where the Bolsheviks succeeded in uniting the oppressed of all nationalities against Tsarism and against capitalism.

Today the working class internationally is infinitely stronger than in Russia in 1917. This strength, the new movements of the class to struggle, if combined with the programme of Marxism, can lead to the unity of all workers, to the creation of a world socialist federation and to the final ending of the persecution and enslavement of nationalities.

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Last updated: 24 April 2015