The national question is, without doubt, one of the great issues facing socialists and marxists today. Lenin described Tzarist Russia as a prison house of nationalities – 57% of its peoples were non-Russian. He argued that without a correct approach on this issue the Bolsheviks would not have been able to lead the working class to power in 1917.
What Lenin said applies with increasing force to virtually every corner of the globe today. It applies most assuredly to Ireland.
Of course the question was somewhat different in the days of Marx and Engels and even of Lenin. Marx wrote at a time when the capitalist system was still capable of developing the productive forces and taking society forward. A feature, indeed one of the crowning achievements, of capitalism in this, its progressive phase, was the assimilation of peoples into nations and the creation of nation states.
Lenin lived in the epoch of imperialism – that period at the close of the last, and beginning of this, century, which saw the rest of the globe carved into spheres of control and influence of the major powers. The export of capital to the less developed countries meant that their political and military domination was further cemented by an economic enslavement to these mighty capitalist states.
Marx, while faced with the progressive features of capitalism in creating nation states was always sensitive to its other side – the domination and subjugation of countries and of nations by the ascending capitalist states. His writings on Ireland and his conclusion that: “The English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke”  is an example. Marx advocated independence for Ireland, adding that: “after separation there may come federation.” 
In a similar vein Lenin opposed all forms of national oppression:
“Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality is not a marxist; he is not even a democrat.” 
After 1917 the Bolsheviks used the example of the Russian revolution to inspire as well as give concrete assistance to the national liberation movements in the colonial countries.
Yet Lenin also in his pre-World War 1 writings on the national question repeatedly laid stress on the tendency still of capitalism in the more developed areas of the globe to bring peoples together into nations. He pointed to “capitalism’s world-historical tendency to break down national barriers, assimilate nations – a tendency which manifests itself more and more powerfully with every passing decade, and is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism”. 
Lenin’s programme on the national question was drawn up for countries like those of Eastern Europe and Asia which could not stand against the economic power of the imperialist states and which were denied the route of historical development which these had taken.
Of the national question in the more developed states, he was able to say: “In most western countries it was settled long ago”  and further, that, by 1871
“Western Europe had been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois states, which, as a general rule, were nationally uniform states. Therefore to seek the right to self-determination in the programmes of west European socialists at this time of day is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of marxism.” 
Even at the time this was probably a one-sided view but it is certainly no longer apt. Lenin, who argued the need to analyse the national question within concrete and definite historical limits, would be the first to revise this conclusion for today. Two world wars and now with a second period of prolonged economic depression since Lenin penned these lines, the national question presents itself anew, not only in the ex-colonial world but in the ‘settled states’ of the West. Alongside the economic crisis of capitalism, the historical failure and now outright capitulation of reformism and the absence of any mass revolutionary alternative have laid the conditions in many countries for nationalism to arise or re-arise in some form.
A further twist has been provided by the collapse of Stalinism. From the Balkans, through the Caucasus, to central Asia a torch of national/ethnic and religious conflict has been lit. In some cases this has reached the level of civil war, elsewhere it registers still as smouldering discontent. Nowhere can it be extinguished fully on the basis of the re-imposition of capitalism on these societies.
Broadly the tendency to assimilation of peoples into nations, apparent in the last century, and even then most often by the most brutal methods, has, in the present epoch, been replaced by the opposite tendency – to the accentuation of division, even to separation. The case of German reunification, brought about by unrepeatable circumstances, stands as a single exception.
The nation states which have emerged in the ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa are caricatures of the nation states of western Europe. They are based, not on the natural assimilation of peoples, but on the artificial boundaries imposed by imperialism in the past.
A complex of identities exists in these areas. There is a general feeling, often linked to an anti-imperialist sentiment, of a broader identity – expressed as pan-nationalism, pan-Africanism, a sense of being Latin American or whatever. All attempts to give this an organisational form on the basis of capitalism, for example efforts to merge Arab states, have failed and will always be liable to fail.
There is also a certain sense of ‘national’ identity based on the states which now exist, no matter how artificial their boundaries. Arabs will describe themselves as Arabs but also as Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese or whatever.
Beneath this, and because of the historical weakness and economic impasse of most of these ‘nations’ other identities based on tribe, religion, caste, etc., tend to rise.
In pre-independence days, the struggle to wrest free of the control of imperialism acted as a unifying factor and helped develop a national consciousness in colonial countries such as India and most of Africa. After independence, and with national movements based on capitalism in power, this national consciousness has tended to decline. In other words once these independence movements defined themselves as capitalist governments which could neither break the economic domination of the West nor deliver a secure future, they were no longer able to draw together the peoples of different tribal, ethnic, religious or regional identities. Most often people associated with one ethnic group placed themselves at the top of the heap and by discrimination against others, opened the sores of future conflict.
Only the working class movement, fighting on a state and a regional level for a socialist solution, can cut across the tendency to division. Outside of this national/ethnic/tribal conflicts are bound to intensify – at their most extreme leading to wars, mass displacement of peoples and to a situation whereby states may remain on the map but in reality will have ceased to exist as centralised units. In many cases their actual break up will occur.
The conflict in ex-Yugoslavia has given the peoples of Europe a close up of what, for more than four decades, they would probably have viewed as an African or an Asian problem. Already in some European countries – Belgium and Spain for example – there are acute national problems. In others the lines erased by the past assimilation of peoples threaten to reappear. National problems, if they have not yet arisen, have the capacity to arise in all the once more ‘settled’ nation states of the advanced capitalist world.
It would be wrong to have an apocalyptic view. The development of nationalism is never in a straight line. Rather it progresses or falls back in a series of ebbs and flows which most often are opposite reflections of the advances and retreats of the class struggle.
A new movement of the working class in Europe could, for example, erode the basis of nationalism and likewise could deal a blow against racism for a whole period.
55. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, 1979 Edition, p. 51.
56. Ibid., p. 48.
57. Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question, Progress Publishers 1976 Edition, p. 17.
58. Ibid., p. 16.
59. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, 1979 Edition, p. 17.
60. Ibid., p. 17.
Last updated: 4.1.2011