% $page_title = "Marxism and the National Question The National Question in History"; $include_print_link = true; include "/var/www/vhosts/newyouth.com/httpdocs/yfis-head.asp"; %>
Home : Marxist Theory : The National Question
The question of nationalitiesthat is, the oppression of nations and nationalminoritieswhich has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time,has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. In particular, the writings ofLenin deal with this important issue in great detail, and still provide us with a soundfoundation to deal with this most complicated and explosive issue. It is true to say that,without a correct appraisal of the national question, the Bolsheviks would never havesucceeded in coming to power in 1917. Only by placing itself at the head of all oppressedlayers of society could the proletariat unite under the banner of socialism the massforces necessary to overthrow the rule of the oppressors. Failure to appreciate theproblems and aspirations of the oppressed nationalities of the tsarist empire would haveundermined the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat severely.
The two fundamental barriers to human progress are on the one hand the privateownership of the means of production and on the other hand the nation state. But whereasthe first half of this equation is sufficiently clear, the second half has not receivedthe attention due to it. Today, in the epoch of imperialist decline, when the cryingcontradictions of a socio-economic system that is decaying on its feet have reached themost unbearable limits, the national question is once again raising its head everywhere,with the most tragic and sanguinary consequences. Far from peacefully receding into thebackground as an antiquated phase of human development, as hopeless reformists imagine, ithas acquired a particularly vicious and poisonous form that threatens to drag wholenations into barbarism. The solution of this problem is a vital component for the triumphof socialism on a world scale.
No countrynot even the biggest and most powerful statescan withstand thecrushing domination of the world market. The phenomenon which the bourgeois describe asglobalisation, predicted by Marx and Engels 150 years ago, is now working itself out underalmost laboratory conditions. Since the Second World War, and particularly over the last20 years, there has been a colossal intensification of the international division oflabour and an enormous development of world trade, to a degree that even Marx and Engelscould not have dreamt of. The knitting together of the world economy has been carried outto a degree never before seen in human history. This is a most progressive developmentbecause it means that the material conditions for world socialism are now established.
Control of the world economy is in the hands of the 200 biggest internationalcompanies. The concentration of capital has reached staggering proportions. Every day 1.3trillion dollars cross frontiers in international transactions and 70 per cent of thesetransactions take place within the multinationals. With every passing day, huge monopoliesengage in mortal combat to take over other giants. Vast sums of money are spent on theseoperations, which are concentrating unimaginable power into the hands of fewer and fewercompanies. They conduct themselves like ferocious and insatiable cannibals, devouring eachother in the pursuit of greater and greater profit. In this cannibalistic orgy, theworking class is always the loser. No sooner has a merger taken place than head officeannounces a new wave of sackings and closures, and remorseless pressure on the workforceto boost profit margins, dividends and executive payouts.
In this context Lenin's book, Imperialismthe Highest Stage of Capitalism,acquires a very modern ring. Lenin explained that imperialism is capitalism in the periodof the big monopolies and trusts. But the degree of monopolisation in Lenin's day seemslike child's play in comparison with the situation today. In 1999 the number ofcross-border take-overs was an astonishing 5,100. Moreover, the value of the deals rose byno less than 47 per cent compared to 1998, to a record high of $798 billion. With suchstaggering sums as these it would be possible to solve most of the pressing problems ofworld poverty, illiteracy and disease. But that presupposes the existence of a rationalsystem of production in which the needs of the many take precedence over the super-profitsof a few. The colossal power of these gigantic multinational companies, which isincreasingly fused with the capitalist state, producing the phenomenon which the Americansociologist Wright-Mills dubbed the "Military Industrial Complex", dominates theworld far more completely than at any time in history.
Here we see a striking contradiction. On the basis of globalisation, the argument isput forward by the bourgeois and particularly the petty-bourgeois apologists forcapitalism that in effect the nation state does not matter any more. This is not new. Itis the same argument that was put forward by Kautsky in the period of the First World War(the so-called theory of "ultra-imperialism"), when he argued in effect that thedevelopment of monopoly capitalism and imperialism would gradually eliminate thecontradictions of capitalism. There would be no more wars because the development ofcapitalism itself would render national states redundant. The same theory is put forwardtoday by revisionist theoreticians like Eric Hobsbawm in Britain. This ex-Stalinist whohas gone over to the right wing of Labourism argues that the national state was just atransient period of human history which has now passed. Bourgeois economists have putforward the same argument throughout history. They try to abolish the contradictionsinherent in the capitalist system merely by denying their existence. Yet precisely at thismoment in time, when the world market has become the dominant force on the planet,national antagonisms have everywhere acquired a ferocious character and the nationalquestion far from being abolished everywhere assumed a particularly intense and poisonouscharacter.
With the development of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, the capitalist system hasoutgrown the narrow limits of private property and the nation state which playsapproximately the same role today as did the petty local princedoms and states in theperiod prior to the rise of capitalism. During the First World War Lenin wrote:"Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. In the foremost countries capitalhas outgrown the bounds of national states, has replaced competition by monopoly and hascreated the objective conditions for the achievement of socialism." (Lenin, CollectedWorks, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination,January-February 1916, vol. 22. Henceforth referred to as LCW.) Whoever fails tounderstand this elementary truth will be incapable of understanding, not just the nationalquestion, but all the most important manifestations of the present epoch.
The whole history of the last hundred years is the history of the rebellion of theproductive forces against the narrow confines of the nation state. Out of this comes worldeconomyand with it world crises, and world wars. Thus, the picture painted by theProfessor Hobsbawms of a world in which national contradictions are being eliminated is anidle fancy. Just the opposite is true. With the general crisis of capitalism the nationalquestion is not confined to the ex-colonial countries. It is beginning to affect theadvanced capitalist countries also, even in places where it appeared to have been solved.In Belgium, one of the most developed countries in Europe, the conflict between theWalloons and the Flemish has assumed a vicious character which under certain circumstancescould lead to the break-up of Belgium. In Cyprus, we have the national antagonisms betweenGreeks and Turks, and the broader conflict between Greece and Turkey. Recently thenational question in the Balkans has dragged Europe to the brink of war.
In the USA there is the problem of racism against the Blacks and also the Hispanics. InGermany, France and other countries we see discrimination and racist attacks againstimmigrants. In the former Soviet Union the national question has resulted in the descentinto a bloody chaos of wars and civil wars in one country after another. In Britain, wherecapitalism has existed for longer than anywhere else, the national problem is stillunresolved, not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Wales and Scotland has also beenplaced firmly on the agenda. In Spain we have the question of Euskadi, Catalonia andGalicia. Most extraordinary of all, over a hundred years after the unification of Italy,the Northern League advances the reactionary demand for the break-up of Italy on thegrounds of self-determination for the North ("Padania"). The conclusion isinescapable. We ignore the national question at our peril. If we are to succeed intransforming society, it is imperative that we have a scrupulous and a clear and correctposition on this issue. For this purpose, we address ourselves to the workers and youth,to the rank and file of the Socialist and Communist Parties, who wish to understand theideas of Marxism in order to fight to change society. To these we dedicate the presentwork.
Back to Top
The National Question in History
"In Western Europe the epoch of the formative stage of bourgeois nations, ifyou leave out the struggle of the Netherlands for independence and the fate of the islandcountry, England, began with the great French revolution, and was essentially completedapproximately one hundred years later with the formation of the German Empire."(L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 889.)
Although most people think of the national state as something natural, and thereforerooted in the distant past, if not in the blood and soul of men and women, it is, in fact,a relatively modern creation, which really speaking has only existed for the last 200years. The only exceptions to that would be Holland, where the bourgeois revolution in the16th century took the form of a war of national liberation against Spain, and Englandbecause of its unique position as an island-kingdom where capitalist development tookplace earlier than in the rest of Europe (from the late 14th century onward). Prior tothis period there were no nations, but only tribes, city-states and empires. It isscientifically incorrect to refer to the latter as "nations", as is frequentlydone. One Welsh nationalist author even referred to the "Welsh nation"beforethe Roman invasion of Britain! This is wishful thinking. The Welsh at that time were anagglomeration of tribes not fundamentally different from other tribes which inhabited whatis now known as England. It is a pernicious trait of nationalist writers to try and createthe impression that "the nation" (especially their particular nation) has alwaysexisted. In fact, the nation state is an historically evolved entity. It has not alwaysexisted, and will not always exist in the future.
In reality, the nation state is a product of capitalism. It was established by thebourgeoisie which required a national market. It had to break down the local restrictionswith little local areas with their local taxes, toll roads, separate money systems,separate weights and measures. The following extract by Robert Heilbroner puts it verygraphically when he describes a journey by a German merchant about the year 1550:
"Andreas Ryff, a merchant, bearded and fur-coated, is coming back to his home inBaden; he writes to his wife that he has visited thirty markets and is troubled withsaddle-burn. He is even more troubled by the nuisances of the times; as he travels he isstopped approximately once every ten miles to pay a customs toll; between Basle andCologne he pays thirty-one levies.
"And that is not all. Each community he visits has its own money, its own rulesand regulations, its own law and order. In the area around Baden alone there are 112different measures of length, 92 different square measures for cereals and 123 forliquids, 63 for liquor, and 80 different pound weights." (R. Heilbroner, TheWorldly Philosophers, p. 22.)
The overthrowing of this local particularism was a giant step forward at that time. Thegathering together of the productive forces into one national state was a colossallyprogressive historical task of the bourgeoisie. The basis for this revolution was laid inthe later Middle Ages, in the period of the decline of feudalism and the rise of thebourgeoisie and the towns which gradually asserted their rights. The medieval kings neededmoney for their wars and were forced to lean on the rising class of merchants and bankerslike the Fuggers and the Medicis. But the hour of the market economy had not yet struck.What existed was only an embryonic form of capitalism, typified by small-scale productionand local markets. One could not yet speak of a truly national market, or national state.True, the elements of some modern European states were present in outline, but these werealso as yet in an undeveloped stage. Although France gradually took shape as a result ofthe hundred years' war with England, these struggles had a feudal and dynastic, ratherthan a really national, character. The soldiers who fought in the wars owed moreallegiance to their local lord than to the king of France, and despite the existence of acommon territory and language, considered themselves as Bretons, Burgundians and Gascognesrather than French.
Only gradually, painfully, over a period of several centuries did a real nationalconsciousness arise. This process runs parallel to the rise of capitalism, money economyand the gradual emergence of the national market, typified by the wool trade in England inthe later Middle Ages. The decay of feudalism and the rise of the absolute monarchieswhich, for their own purposes, encouraged the bourgeoisie and trade, accelerated theprocess. As Robert Heilbroner puts it:
"First, there was the gradual emergence of national political units in Europe.Under the blows of peasant wars and kingly conquest, the isolated existence of earlyfeudalism gave way to centralised monarchies. And with monarchies came the growth of thenational spirit; in turn this meant royal patronage for favoured industries, such as thegreat French tapestry works, and the development of armadas and armies with all theirnecessary satellite industries. The infinity of rules and regulations which plaguedAndreas Ryff and his fellow sixteenth-century travelling merchants gave way to nationallaws, common measurements, and more or less standard currencies." (Ibid., p. 34.)
The national question, from an historical point of view, therefore, pertains to theperiod of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Strictly speaking, the national questiondoes not form part of the socialist programme, since it should have been resolved by thebourgeoisie in its struggle against feudalism. It was the bourgeoisie that created thenation state in the first place. The establishment of the nation state was, in its day, atremendously revolutionary and progressive development. And it was not achieved peacefullyand without struggle. The first real European nation, Holland, was formed in the 16thcentury as a result of a bourgeois revolution that took the form of a war of nationalliberation against imperial Spain. In the United States it took place on the basis of arevolutionary war of national liberation in the 18th century and was consolidated througha bloody civil war in the 1860s. In Italy also it was achieved through a war of nationalindependence. The unification of Germanya progressive task at the timewascarried through by the Junker Bismarck by reactionary means, on the basis of war and apolicy of "blood and iron".
Back to Top
The French Revolution
The establishment of the modern European nation states (with the exceptions of Hollandand England) begins with the French revolution. Up to this point the notion of the nationstate was identical to that of kingship. The nation was the property of the rulingsovereign. This antiquated legal set-up, inherited directly from feudalism, was in directconflict with the new conditions related to the rise of the bourgeoisie. In order toconquer power the bourgeoisie was obliged to put itself forward as the representative ofthe people, that is, the Nation. As Robespierre put it: "In aristocratic states theword patrie [nation] has no meaning except for patrician families who have seized thesovereignty. It is only under democracy that the state is truly the patrie of all theindividuals composing it." (Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution,vol. 1, p. 414.)
The first principle of the French revolution was the most implacable centralisation.This was the prior condition for its success in the life-and-death struggle against theold regime backed up by the whole of Europe. Under the banner of "the Republic, oneand indivisible" the revolution united France for the first time into one nation,sweeping aside all the local particularisms and separatisms of Bretons, Normans andProvençals. The alternative was the disintegration and death of the revolution itself.The bloody struggle in the Vendée was both a war against separatism and feudal reaction.The overthrow of the Bourbons gave a powerful impetus to the national spirit throughoutEurope. In the first period, the example of a revolutionary people that succeeded inoverthrowing the old feudal monarchist order served as an inspiration and a focal point torevolutionary and progressive forces everywhere. Later, the revolutionary armies of theFrench republic were compelled to take the offensive against the assembled powers ofEurope which united under the leadership of England and Russian tsarism to crush therevolution. By a prodigious feat of arms, the revolutionary forces succeeded in throwingback the forces of reaction on every front, thereby revealing before an astonished worldthe power of a revolutionary people and a nation in arms.
The revolutionary army carried the spirit of revolt everywhere, and was bound to carrya revolutionary message to the territories it occupied. In the ascending phase of therevolution, the armies of the French Convention appeared before the peoples of Europe asliberators. In order to succeed in this titanic struggle with the old order, they wereobliged to appeal to the masses to carry out the same revolutionary transformations thathad taken place in France. This was a revolutionary war, the like of which had never beenseen before. Slavery was abolished in the French colonies. The revolutionary message ofthe Declaration of the Rights of Man was everywhere the rallying cry that announced theend of feudal and monarchic oppression. As David Thompson points out:
"They [the French] were aided, indeed, by native supporters, and the destructiveside of their work was often welcome enough. It was only when populations found Frenchmasters no less exacting than their old régimes that they were fired to ideas ofself-government. The idea that 'sovereignty of the people' should lead to nationalindependence was the indirect result of French occupation; its original meaning, ofabolishing privilege and universalising rights, came to merge into this new implicationonly as a result of conquests. The French revolutionaries spread liberalism by intentionbut created nationalism by inadvertence." (David Thompson, Europe after Napoleon,p. 50.)
The exhaustion and decay of the French revolution produced the dictatorship of NapoleonBonaparte, just as the degeneration of the isolated Russian workers' state later ended upin the proletarian Bonapartist dictatorship of Stalin. The earlier revolutionarydemocratic message was twisted and deformed into the dynastic and imperial ambitions ofNapoleon that proved fatal to France. However, even under Napoleon, albeit in a distortedform, some of the gains of the French revolution were maintained and spread throughoutFrance's European territories, with revolutionary results, especially in Germany andItaly:
"Its most destructive achievements were among the most permanent. Napoleonextended and perpetuated the effects of the French revolution by destroying feudalism inthe Low Countries, in much of Germany, and in Italy. Feudalism as a legal system,involving noble jurisdiction over peasants, was ended; feudalism as an economic systeminvolving payment of feudal dues by peasants to nobles, was ended, though often in returnfor compensation and indemnity. The claims of the Church were never allowed to stand inthe way of this reorganisation. Middle classes and peasants became, like nobles, subjectsof the state, all equally liable to pay taxes. The system of levying and collecting taxeswas made more equitable and efficient. Old guilds and town oligarchies were abolished;internal tariff barriers were removed. Everywhere greater equality, in the sense ofcareers open to talents, was inaugurated. A gust of modernisation blew through Europe inthe wake of Napoleonic conquests. His violent attempts to hammer western Europe into onesubservient bloc of annexed or satellite territories succeeded, at least, in shaking itfree from antiquated jurisdictions and privileges, from outworn territorial divisions.Most of what he swept away could not be restored." (Ibid., p. 67.)
But Napoleonic rule was not an unmixed blessing. In order to avoid imposing heavy taxesat home, Bonaparte laid heavy impositions on the conquered territories. And for all thesocial advances, French rule remained foreign rule. As Robespierre so wisely remarked,nobody likes missionaries with bayonets. The French invasion inevitably called forth itsopposite in the form of wars of national liberation which ultimately undermined theearlier triumphs. Napoleon's defeat in the frozen wastes of Russia and the destruction ofthe French army was the signal for a wave of national uprisings against the French. InPrussia the whole nation rose and compelled Fredrick William III into a war with Napoleon.Out of the bloody chaos of the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent carve-up of the victorsarose most of the modern states of Europe as we know them today.
Back to Top
The National Question After 1848
The year 1848 was a turning-point for the national question in Europe. Amid the flamesof revolutions, the suppressed national aspirations of Germans, Czechs, Poles, Italiansand Magyars were thrust sharply into the foreground. Had the revolution succeeded, theroad would have been open to the solution of the national problem in Germany and elsewhereby the most democratic means. But, as Marx and Engels explained, the 1848 revolution wasbetrayed by the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. The defeat of the revolution meant thatthe national problem had to be solved by other means. Incidentally, one of the causes ofthe defeat was precisely the manipulation of the national problem (for example, of theCzechs) for reactionary ends.
In Germany, the national question could be expressed in one word: unification. Afterthe defeat of the revolution of 1848, the country remained divided into a series of pettystates and principalities. This was an insurmountable obstacle for the free development ofcapitalism in Germanyand therefore of the working class. Unification was therefore aprogressive demand. But the question of who would unite Germany and by what means was ofcentral importance. Marx hoped that the task of unification would be achieved from belowbythe working class using revolutionary means. But this was not to be. Since the proletariathad failed to solve this question by revolutionary means in 1848, it was solved byreactionary means by the conservative Prussian Junker Bismarck.
The principal method of achieving this end was through war. In 1864 the Austrians andPrussians combined to defeat the Danes. Denmark lost the province of Schleswig-Holstein,which, after a tussle between Austria and Prussia, was united to Germany in 1865. Havingmanoeuvred to keep France out of the conflict, Bismarck then formed an alliance with Italyto fight against Austria. When Austria was defeated at the battle of Königgrätz in July1866, Prussian domination of Germany was guaranteed. By this act, the unification ofGermany was achieved by reactionary means, through the agency of Prussian militarism. Thisserved to strengthen the position of Prussian militarism and Bismarck's Bonapartistregime, and sowed the seeds of new wars in Europe. Thus, the way in which the nationalquestion is resolved, by which class and in whose interest, is by no means an unimportantquestion for the working class. This alone is sufficient to explain why it isinadmissible to demand that we should merely act as the cheer-leaders for bourgeois andpetty bourgeois nationalistseven when they are carrying out a task that isobjectively progressive. At all times the class standpoint must be maintained.
Objectively, the unification of Germany was, of course, a progressive development,which Marx and Engels supported. But this in no way presupposed that the German socialistsshould support Bismarck. The very idea would have been anathema to Marx. He always opposedthe reactionary Bismarck, but when the latter succeeded in uniting Germany, Marx andEngels reluctantly were compelled to support it as a step forward, because it wouldfacilitate the unification of the German proletariat. Thus, Engels wrote to Marx on 25July 1866: "The thing has this good side to it that it simplifies the situation; itmakes a revolution easier by doing away with the brawls between the petty capitals andwill in any case hasten development The whole of the petty states will be swept intothe movement, the worst localising influences will cease and parties will at last becomereally national instead of merely local
"In my opinion, therefore, all we can do is simply to accept the fact, withoutjustifying it, and to use, so far as we possibly can, the greater facilities for nationalorganisation and unification of the German proletariat which must now at any rate offerthemselves."
Back to Top
An analogous situation existed in Italy. At the end of the 1850s, despite many attemptsto achieve unification, Italy still remained hopelessly divided and subjugated to Austria,which had annexed its northern territories. In addition, several smaller states, includingthe Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Southern Italy and Sicily) were protected againstrevolution by Austrian troops ready to intervene. The Papal states of Central Italy wereunder French "protection". Only the small kingdom of Sardinia, based onSavoy-Piedmont, was free of Austrian domination. Under the leadership of the able diplomatand statesman Count Cavour, the conservative ruling dynasty gradually expanded its sphereof influence and territories, expelling the Austrians from one area after another.
Side by side with the dynastic-conservative opposition to Austria of the Piedmontese,there was also a radical and revolutionary nationalist movement, involving a heterogeneousmixture of republicans, democrats and socialists. These forces were present in every stateof Italy as well as in exile. The most visible representative of this trend was Mazzini,whose confused and amorphous ideas corresponded to the nature of the movement herepresented. By contrast, Cavour, who stood at the head of the independent North Italianstate of Piedmont, was a wily and unprincipled manoeuverer. In a typical diplomaticintrigue, he first got the permission of Britain and France to join them in their Crimeanexpedition against Russia in 1855. Then, secretly promising the French emperor NapoleonIII the territorial concession of Nice and Savoy, Cavour obtained a treaty pledging theFrench to come to the aid of Piedmont, in the event of hostilities with Austria. The warbroke out in 1859 and was the starting-point for the unification of Italy. There wereuprisings in all the Italian duchies and Papal states. Together with the French, thePiedmontese troops won a signal victory against Austria at Solferino. The unification ofItaly seemed to be imminent. But that did not correspond to the interests of LouisBonaparte, who promptly signed an armistice with the retreating Austrian armies, thusabandoning the Piedmontese and revolutionaries to their fate.
Finally, the Italian war of liberation was saved by the uprising in Sicily whichgreeted the landing of Garibaldi's expeditionary force of 1,000 red-shirted volunteers.After winning the battle for Sicily, Garibaldi's rebel force invaded Southern Italy andmade a triumphal entry into Naples. Italian unity was thus brought about by revolutionarymeans from below, but the fruits were harvested elsewhere. The perpetual intriguer Cavourpersuaded London and Paris that it would be better to accept the rule of a conservativePiedmont over a united Italy than to wait for all Italy to fall under the control ofrevolutionists and republicans. The army of Piedmontese dynastic reaction marched intoNaples unopposed. Garibaldi, instead of fighting them, opened the gates and greeted theKing of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel, on October 26, hailing him as "King ofItaly". Thus, the people of Italy only won one half a victory, instead of thecomplete triumph over the old order which they had paid for with their blood.
Instead of a republic, Italy got a constitutional monarchy. Instead of a democracy, itgot a limited franchise which excluded 98 per cent of the people from voting. The Pope wasallowed to continue his rule in the Papal states (a concession to Louis Bonaparte). Yet,despite this, the unification of Italy was a giant step forward. All Italy was united,except for Venice, which remained under Austrian control, and the Papal states. In 1866,Italy joined Prussia in its war against Austria and received Venice as a reward. Finally,after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war (1871) the French troops werewithdrawn from Rome. The entry of the Italian army into that city marked the final victoryof Italian unification.
By the latter half of the 19th century, the national question in Western Europe hadlargely been resolved. With the unification of Germany and Italy, after 1871 the nationalquestion in Europe appeared to be confined to Eastern Europe and, in a particularlyexplosive sense, in the Balkans where it was inextricably entangled with the territorialambitions and rivalries of Russia, Turkey, Austro-Hungary and Germany, a fact that ledinexorably to the First World War. During the first periodapproximately from 1789 to1871the national question still played a relatively progressive role in WesternEurope. Even the unification of Germany under the reactionary Junker Bismarck wasconsidered as a progressive development by Marx and Engels, as we have seen. But alreadyby the second half of the 19th century the development of the productive forces undercapitalism was beginning to outgrow the narrow limitations of the nation state. This wasalready manifested in the development of imperialism and the irresistible tendency towardswar between the major powers. The Balkan wars of 1912-13 marked the completion of theformation of the national states of south-eastern Europe. The First World War and theTreaty of Versailles (which was held, incidentally, under the slogan of the "right ofnations to self-determination") finished the job by dismantling the Austro-Hungarianempire and granting independence to Poland.
Back to Top
On to Part Two: Marx andEngels and the National Question