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How Should Socialists Approach Nationality? Part Two

Amal Samaha

 
Part Two
 
Problems in the Marxist Theory of Nationality

In Part One of this series, I discussed the problems of "red" patriotism, left-liberal patriotism, and crude antinationalism, and treated them as one entity: national chauvinism. At the time I was writing, I wasn’t aware just how controversial a simple discussion of the national question could prove in leftist communities—especially those in the United States. At the conclusion of my last article, I noted that I had demonstrated some superficial similarities between nationalist and antinationalist chauvinists, namely their shared economism, their anti-Indigenous outlook, and their opposition to any study of settler-colonialism. I also noted that I had not really dug down to the roots of the problem. To borrow a nice analogy from Andy Blunden: I’ve noted the position of some planets, but I have not yet talked about Kepler’s Law of planetary motion.


In this article, I intend to go a bit deeper: into the history of Marxist discussions on the national question. I will avoid putting forward my own theory for the time being, and instead focus on problems within the Marxist theory of nationality, and how these problems were gradually overcome. I will also discuss some non-Marxist theories, and how these have something to add—even if they are often quite superficial. My hope is to build some consensus on which theories were historically dead ends, and which continue to influence the study of nationality today. It can be very hard to understand something like Lenin’s advocacy for the right to self-determination, without understanding what theories it was counterposed against. As we will see, in its proper context Lenin’s theory still represents a viable starting point for today’s Marxists.


Marx and Engels on the National Question

It is important to understand Marx and Engels’ early theory of nationality, expressed in their correspondence and articles during the revolutions of 1848, precisely because of how alien it will seem to most Marxists today. Over the course of the revolutions, Marx and Engels were thoroughly opposed to any talk of self-determination, of revolutionary nationalism, or indeed any national politics that contradicted the expansionism of the most industrialised national bourgeoisies. This included a tacit support for the destruction, be it through warfare or assimilation, of any national minority that stood in the way of the advanced countries, or which was not seen to have any potential for cultural development. [1]


This is most apparent in the way Engels wrote of the Slavic nations on the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, describing them as totally lacking in cultural development, except where they accepted the "tutelage" of advanced German and Magyar bourgeois overlords. In the article "Democratic Panslavism" of 1849, Engels concludes:

"Except for the Poles, the Russians and at best the Slavs in Turkey, no Slavic people has a future, for the simple reason that all other Slavs lack the most basic historic, geographic, political and industrial prerequisites for independence and vitality." [2]

Engels goes on. If these backwards Slavic nationalisms are allowed to continue, they will surely destroy the more advanced elements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire:


"Then for a moment the Slavic counterrevolution with all its barbarism will engulf the Austrian monarchy and the camarilla will find out what kind of allies it has. But with the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat, the Germans and Magyars in Austria will become free and will take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war which will then break out will explode this Slavic league and these petty, bull-headed nations will be destroyed so that nothing is left of them but their names. The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties but also entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. And that too would be progress." [3]

It may be the first instinct of many Marxists to assume that I am taking Engels out of context here—yes and no. It is true that the Russian Empire was, even at this time, the "prison of the peoples," and Engels assumed that all Slavic nationalisms would rally to the banner of a deeply reactionary Russia. It is also difficult not to read Engels with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that a more modern German chauvinism towards "backwards" Slavic peoples would result in the deaths of some 7.6 million Slavs in the Holocaust. And yet I am not taking Engels that far out of context: these views were entirely consistent with Marx and Engels’ initial, rigidly stagist and deterministic historical materialism. In their view, Communists had to align with all of the most industrialising and consolidatory bourgeois forces, and accelerate those processes in a manner that would build a proletariat in the advanced countries.


Indeed Marx and Engels had very specific plans for the resolution of the national question in Europe, which has later been called their "1848 programme." By the 1850s they had begun advocating for a Europe comprised of enormous states constructed around the most developed nations: there would be a Greater Germany, a Greater Poland, a Greater Hungary, a Greater France, and a Greater England, which already existed as the British Empire, and acted as a kind of prototypical greater nation for the others to follow. This was only natural: Great Britain was seen as the most industrially and politically developed nation, and since a rigid historical materialism saw all nations as following the same developmental path, it seemed natural that this tendency towards advanced, great nations represented a progressive force that ought to be supported. "Ruined peoples" (Völkertrümmer) that failed to form a great nation would be assimilated, and these included the Scots, the Welsh, the Basques, and the Czechs.


 
This view, that only the most advanced nations can develop progressive forces, and "ruined peoples" must accept assimilation, certainly has parallels with how some modern day Marxists view indigenous peoples! And yet Marx and Engels would ultimately reject this view.
 

Did Marx and Engels see the light of universal self determination, and support all conquered and colonised peoples? Not at all. Advocates for unconditional self determination did exist during the 1848 revolutions, such as Mikhail Bakunin, but Marx and Engels dismissed these ideas, and their reasoning is still relevant today. [4] In their view, unconditional support for self determination out of principle alone would simply play into the hands of the most reactionary great powers (in their day, Russia; in our day we might say this of the United States). Instead, only by engaging in a more specific analysis of each national movement in their broader world context would it be possible to decide whether or not those movements would lead to progressive political conclusions. But neither Bakuninist unconditional self-determination nor the 1848 programme represented any future for the workers’ movement. Instead, it would be through further study of the British Empire that Marx saw the error in his earlier support for a Europe of Greater Englands. Britain was a severe contradiction within Marx’s early historical materialism. Here was the world’s most advanced country, with its most organised workers’ movement, and yet politics in Britain was headed towards a reactionary consensus! Advanced material conditions did not lead to a politically advanced working class, and instead seemed to have created a reactionary strata of workers aligned with the bourgeoisie on many issues. The problem was the colonisation of Ireland.


Marx would write in 1870:

"Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland [...] The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland […] This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it […] Therefore to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Workingmen’s Association. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent." [5]

In short, by exploiting a colonised people, the English bourgeoisie was able to enforce a reactionary consensus upon the workers’ movement through largely superstructural, ideological means. The only solution? To support the self-determination of the colonised nation.


The second blow to the 1848 programme of "great nationalism" came during the same year, in the context of the Franco Prussian war. Marx and Engels initially supported Prussia’s campaign as representing progressive Great German nationalism, but by the end of the war they had switched sides, as Prussia turned towards annexing largely French-speaking territories, and crushing the Paris proletariat. The final blow came slowly, as by the late 1870s Marx and Engels began to anticipate a progressive bourgeois revolution in Russia, making their old bogeyman of reactionary pan-Slavism somewhat obsolete. Marx and Engels’ views on nationality hadn’t entirely solidified by the time of Marx’s death, but by then it was possible to see what a more consistent position might look like: highly conditional support for self-determination, insofar as it might disrupt reactionary states, or support the development of progressive forces.


The National Question in the Second International

However, Marx and Engels’ views on the national question were hardly the most well-known of their writings, and after their death the majority of their followers were what we would nowadays call nationalist reformists or social imperialists. The greatest defenders of Marxism against the rival socialist tendencies of Possibilism, Blanquism, or Anarchism—such as the German Social Democrats—were, by and large, simple bourgeois nationalists with some vague interest in advancing their respective nations’ proletarians. [6] To a certain degree, this crude bourgeois nationalism never really left the Marxist movement, rearing its ugly head wherever Marxism has been co-opted by reformism and labour aristocracies.


However, as the Second International underwent theoretical development through debate and dialogue, new approaches to understanding nationality arose. During these debates, the national question was framed in programmatic terms: how should a post-revolutionary society handle nationalities? What rights will they be granted? What lands will be given? Were they developed enough to be viable? This was much more important than theoretical clarity on what nationality actually is: the Marxists of the period usually took nations as a given. The more theoretically advanced members of the International quickly split into four factions:


The German Social-Democratic Centre

Represented by Karl Kautsky, the German Social-Democrats advocated for universal self-determination, meaning that the big empires would be broken up, with each nation forming its own unitary nation-state. He took the nation to be an objective, material phenomenon.


The Austro-Marxists

Represented by Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, the Austro-Marxists advocated for the existing European empires to reconstitute themselves as federative states, with each national minority given inalienable and significant rights up to but not including self determination. They took the nation to be a primarily subjective phenomenon, and a very positive one at that, suggesting that each people should develop and maintain its own cultural nationalism even after the establishment of socialism.


The Luxemburgists

Naturally represented by Rosa Luxemburg, the Luxemburgists advocated for a position highly specific to Poland. Poland was a highly developed nation within the Russian Empire, and she correctly identified that most Polish nationalism of the time was petty bourgeois and reactionary in nature. She therefore believed that the Polish workers should oppose self determination for Poland so that they could participate in the Russian revolution, which she expected to have a more progressive character, however in doing so she alienated many Poles. She emphasised economics above all aspects of nationalism, expecting that appeals to international class consciousness would prove stronger than national sentiments.


The Bolsheviks

Represented by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks advocated for a position very similar to Kautsky, but with some key differences. Lenin's position was unique in that it stressed the agitational aspects of national self determination as a tool to break apart the big reactionary states. He did not feel strongly either way on whether independence for every nationality would ever actually be achieved, rather the right to self-determination was important. Nations could coexist within one state if they so desired, but they could also secede where coexistence was impossible. The Bolsheviks were clear that nationalism was both objective and subjective, but an overall reactionary force in world affairs, with effects that should be mitigated wherever possible. At the same time, nationalism was a fact that had to be dealt with pragmatically, and progressive nationalisms deserved support.


It was the conflict with the Austro-Marxists that would have the greatest impact upon the ultimate Bolshevik position on the national question. By advocating for absolute cultural-national autonomy, the Austro-Marxist position implied that each large socialist party ought to fragment itself into different smaller parties for each nationality. This threatened the overall strength of the Bolshevik party, which by following an agitational position on self-determination, had developed large cadres of national minorities it could ill afford to lose.


Lenin also viewed the Austro-Marxist position as a threat to any successful revolutionary society, as by deliberately fostering cultural nationalisms while forcing different peoples into federative states, this could only result in resentment and violence. Such fears would prove prescient when we consider the breakup of Yugoslavia.


Lenin tasked Joseph Stalin with producing a counterargument to the Austro-Marxist position in early 1913. Stalin, who was seen as an expert on the interrelationship between small nationalities in the Caucasus region, produced what would become the official party position on the national question, published as "The National Question and the Social Democracy" in the party magazine Prosveshchenie over the following year. [7] The text famously defined a nation as "a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture." [8] But too often this definition is taken out of its proper context as just one side of the Bolsheviks’ polemical interventions against purely objectivist and subjectivist deviations. While Stalin’s text emphasised a view of nationality that was more objective, in contrast to the Austro-Marxists vague appeals to cultural values, Lenin’s The Right of Nations to Self-Determination of the following year was more subjective, in contrast to Rosa Luxemburg’s cold and economistic class analysis. A more accurate view is only apparent when viewed together: nationality is a subject-object. The Leninist position that nations have a right to self determination, but will not seek to exercise this right until they have sufficiently developed, is readily apparent in both. Nor should either text be considered the last word on the national question: the Bolsheviks would rapidly adapt their views to the changing circumstances of the Russian Civil War, utterly contradicting Lenin and Stalin’s texts on several occasions, and even adopting the same federative state model that Lenin clearly despised.


Lenin in the Present Day

It would be reductive to say that Lenin always held a consistent view on the national question. During the Civil War he would scold party members for contradicting minorities’ right to self-determination only to contradict it himself elsewhere, as the military situation dictated. But as he neared his death it is clear where he stood in principle:

"A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation […] In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it […] That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or 'great' nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question, he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view." [9]

We must push for an inequality of the oppressor nation!


Let us return to the present day for a moment. What do we think Lenin would have thought of today’s "red" patriots in the settler-colonies? It would be reductive of me to base my argument only on what Lenin did or didn’t say, but this is a useful exercise if only because our so-called "red" patriots imagine themselves to be faithful Leninists.


Leaving aside Lenin’s personal hatred of anti-indigenous settler-colonial populations (if you think Sakai is harsh, read Lenin’s notes on New Zealanders), do we really think that Lenin wouldn’t have supported present-day indigenous nations’ right to self determination, given that he advocated for the right of every small culture with an existing nationalist movement to self determination? [10] He clearly did not expect most small nations to exercise that right—and in some cases he may have advised against it—but that right was always theirs, and this was a crucial factor in the establishment of a major revolutionary party. Agitation for self determination, when and where it might assist in the overthrow of a reactionary state, was much more important than the practicality of its post-revolutionary establishment, which he maintained "will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors." [11] Anti-indigenous national chauvinists on the other hand, will speculate about endless practical barriers to indigenous statehood, and the atrocities they imagine those states will commit, without realising that it is a question of political rights in the here and now.

It is not my intent to suggest that the national question was resolved by Lenin, in fact I think it’s fair to say that of the four factions in the Second International, the Leninist position was the most open-ended, changeable, and sometimes self-contradictory. It was nonetheless the right position for the Bolshevik party at the time, in part because their refusal to adopt any dogmatic position on a complex question gave them greater programmatic flexibility.


The Bolshevik position on the national question has also been thoroughly misrepresented, and taken out of its proper context amid the Second International’s debates. It has been characterised as a position of unconditional support for self-determination based on principle alone, to the point that Lenin is sometimes discussed in the same breath as Woodrow Wilson at Versailles! [12]


 
The Bolshevik position has also been characterised as rigid and economistic when it was precisely the opposite of this, and some Marxists seem to have internalised this criticism by reproducing a rigid and economistic caricature of Leninism.
 

This misrepresentation is important to counteract, since if we think that Lenin or Stalin were putting forward an immutable, purely objectivist theory of what a nation is and advocating for universal national rights, then it would be possible to misinterpret them as saying that even the most reactionary nations have some permanent right to exist. This is not the case, and instead modern day Marxist advocates for the permanence of settler-colonial nations usually put forward some meaningless mish-mash of Austro-Marxist cultural autonomy or Luxemburgist economism to disguise their chauvinism. It simply isn’t enough to give people special cultural rights and institutions in post-revolutionary fantasies, or to demand that they abandon all national identity in favour of class, when their land has been stolen.


The National Question after Lenin

Bourgeois theories of nationalism took some decades to catch up with the Marxist views of the 1910s. For much of the 20th century, nationalism scholars were stuck in a "perennialist" or romantic "primordialist" view of nationhood, viewing nations as static entities that stretched back to premodern times, rather than relatively recent and constantly developing phenomena. These bourgeois theories no longer hold any weight in academia, but they certainly linger as ideology. [13]


By the 1960s however, the "modernist" school of nationalism studies began to displace the old perennialist views. This school offered a comparatively radical view of nationhood as something that could be constructed and shaped by political forces, even in the case of nationalisms without any real basis in ethnicity or culture. It is from this early modernist school that we get the idea of "nation-building," the idea that state intervention into culture could create or alter nationalist ideologies so as to better correspond to the needs of the state. This was used to accelerate both reactionary and progressive national political forces around the world: recently decolonised states in Africa forged their own official nationalisms to better consolidate themselves against imperialism, and the imperialist powers would use the rhetoric of nation building to create their own reactionary puppet governments in their image. [14] In the 1980s a more deconstructivist modernist outlook gained traction, which now constitutes the orthodox view among academic nationalism scholars. This school is best represented by Benedict Anderson’s thesis that nations are nothing but "imagined communities," imagined because each member will never meet most others, and a community because it evokes deep horizontal solidarity despite this. He associated nationalism with the development of print capitalism. [15] While not all modernist scholars shared Anderson’s definition of the nation, they did all agree that there was very little objective basis to nationhood beyond what has been consciously constructed by bourgeois states and sub-state political elites since the 1700s. [16]


In contrast to this highly subjectivist tendency within academic nationalism studies, there was also an "ethno-symbolist" school, which accepted some modernist views but argued that the modernists had overstated their case, and that there was still some objective basis to nationhood. Anthony D. Smith, for example, argued that many modern nations have some basis in an "ethnie," an existing cultural-linguistic group with its own common history. [17] By arriving somewhere between a strictly subjectivist or objectivist view of nationality, this might be said to represent academia’s rehabilitation of the Bolshevik definition some 80 years later, and without the radical politics. It is no wonder that many Marxists were influential amidst this critical turn in academic nationalism studies. Tom Nairn notably became an early advocate for the British left to support sub-state nationalisms as part of a programme to pull apart Great Britain, and his The Break-Up of Britain is a worthwhile Marxist and modernist critique of global nationalism. [18] Eric Hobsbawm, in The Invention of Tradition, offered a more critical view, suggesting that through artificially creating material cultures for different nationalities during the early modern period, all nationalisms rest atop imagined histories that bear almost no relation to any historical cultures. [19] Immanuel Wallerstein, drawing from both aforementioned authors, suggests that while nationality may have little historical basis, it nonetheless acts as a proxy for class struggle within the capitalist world-economy, and I will return to this idea in my next article. [20]


Crucially these Marxist modernists retained both Lenin’s utter distrust of nationalism, but also his acknowledgement of its limited progressive potential. [21] This dual aspect is important: nationalism is the "modern Janus" says Nairn. "[A]ll nationalism is both healthy and morbid. Both progress and regress are inscribed in its genetic code from the start." [22] Hobsbawm writes that even in the case of a progressive nationalism there "is the danger that the detour will become the journey." [23]


If there is one overarching "Marxist theory of nationality," it seems to be this dual aspect. Marxists have, from the start, acknowledged that there are both regressive and progressive nationalisms, however we have disagreed on how to predict which of these tendencies will become predominant within any given nationalist movement. Still, it should be clear to any Marxist who has read anything written after the year 1870 that the official nationalisms of big imperialist powers represent an irretrievably reactionary force. Yet even within progressive nationalisms there have always been dangers and deviations, even if the overdeterminative force of many revolutionary nationalisms has multiplied the contradictions within the capitalist interstate system.


There are still problems within this theory, and in the next article I will examine the philosophy that underpinned Marx’s view of the nation, as well as how this might be applied to a modern world-economy.

 
Endnotes

[1] Unless otherwise stated, my points in this section come from Seymour, Joseph. “The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848–1914”.

[2] Engels, Friedrich. “Democratic Pan-Slavism.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bakunin, Mikhail. “Appeal to the Slavs.”

[5] Marx, Karl. “Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York”.

[6] Cope, Zak. The Wealth of (Some) Nations, pp. 169–182.

[7] The suggestion that the text was secretly Lenin’s or Bukharin’s is silly. Stalin wrote it with some minimal direction from Lenin, and besides the text hews closer to an orthodox Kautskyist view than Lenin usually did. Tucker, Robert C. Stalin As Revolutionary, 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality, pp. 152.

[8] Stalin, Joseph. “Marxism and the National Question”.

[9] Lenin, Vladimir I. “The Question of Nationalities or "Autonomisation"”.

[10] Lenin says of the New Zealand settlers: “...they [the workers] are wholly conservative, they have something to “guard”...A country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistines, who have brought their “c i v i l i s a t i o n” with them from England and keep it to themselves like a dog in a manger. (exterminated the natives–the Māoris–by fire and sword; a series of wars)” [bold spacing indicates that Lenin underlined this word four times]. Lenin, Vladimir I. “Notebook ‘ν’ (‘NU’)”, pp. 533–532.

[11] Lenin, Vladimir I. “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”.

[12] Fedyashin, Anton. “How Lenin and Wilson Changed the World”.

[13] Coakley, John. “‘Primordialism’ in nationalism studies: theory or ideology?”

[14] Mylonas, Harris. “Nation Building.”

[15] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.

[16] Mylonas, Harris and Tudor, Maya. “Nationalism: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know”.

[17] The similarities between Smith’s definition of ethnie and Stalin’s definition of a nation really are striking. Smith, Antony D. “The genealogy of nations: an ethno-symbolic approach.” pp. 95–100.

[18] Nairn, Tom. The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism.

[19] Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence, eds. The Invention of Tradition.

[20] Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Politics of the World-Economy, pp. 8–11, 20–22.

[21] With wildly differing interpretations of this dual aspect of course: Hobsbawm was far more cynical than Nairn, but he did not slide back into Luxemburgist economism.

[22] Nairn, Tom. “Marxism and the modern Janus,” p. 17.

[23] Hobsbawm, Eric, “Some reflections on the break-up of Britain,” p. 17.


Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.


Bakunin, Mikhail. “Appeal to the Slavs.” The Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/michail-bakunin-appeal-to-the-slavs.


Coakley, John. “‘Primordialism’ in nationalism studies: theory or ideology?” Nations and Nationalism 24, no. 2 (2018): pp. 327–347.


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Engels, Friedrich. “Democratic Pan-Slavism.” marxists.org, https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1849/02/15.htm.


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Gordana Uzelac, pp. 94–112. London and New York: Routlege, 2005.


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Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Politics of the World-Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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