Nation and Class: Marxism and the National Question

The Activist - Volume 5, Number 9, 1995
By Doug Lorimer

[The following article is based on a talk presented to the Sydney Marxist Educational Conference on April 15, 1995.]

At the end of the 20th century we are confronted by a historical paradox. On the one hand, the economics, politics and culture of the world has become more unified than ever before, as a result of the growing domination of transnational capital. And yet, at the same time, we see an explosive growth of national struggles.

While some national movements are directed against foreign political domination and thus have an emancipatory character, the burning issues of our times – such as the growing gap between the rich, developed countries (the so-called "North") and the poor, underdeveloped countries (the so-called "South" or "Third World"), the threat of global ecological catastrophe, the world capitalist economic crisis – are obviously of an international character. They can hardly be solved on a national level. Why then has there been an explosion of national struggles and a surge of nationalism in so many countries and areas of the world?

One could perhaps consider the rise of national struggles as a sort of reaction to the growing internationalisation of the economy and culture, a struggle against the threat of homogenisation. Such an explanation, however, is clearly incapable of accounting for the extraordinary diversity of the phenomenon. For example, the rise of nationalism in the former so-called socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR has been accompanied by the acceptance by many of those who espouse a virulent nationalism of economic (and therefore also political) dependence upon Western capital. And in Western Europe, the rise of xenophobic nationalism is directed not so much against other West European nations or big capital's project of a politically and economically unified West European "super-state," but against the immigrant workers of Arab, African, Turkish, Kurdish or East European origin. Furthermore, the mere presence of these immigrant workers – who constitute no more than 2% of the European Community's population – cannot explain why the wave of xenophobic nationalism and racism is taking place today. After all, most of these immigrant workers have been in Western Europe for 15 or 20 years, without provoking the same reactions.

In other parts of the world the focus of national movements is very clearly directed against the growing domination of transnational capital. In Latin America, for example, the focus of innumerable rallies, strikes, and even of mass riots and armed rebellions is directed against the deepening poverty imposed on these nations by the impossible debt repayment schedules of the IMF and the World Bank. The "advisors" and "experts" of the international finance institutions dictate to Latin American governments their rate of inflation, their budgetary allocations for education and health, their wages policy and their tax structure. The rise of national struggles in these countries is a direct result of popular opposition to this new form of direct foreign control over the economic and social policies of these countries.

Clearly then, the upsurge of national movements takes very different forms in different parts of the world. Of what help, confronted by the diversity of national struggles and conflicts in the world today, can the theoretical tool of Marxism be? It is fashionable today among many social and political commentators, particularly those influenced by "post-modernism," to claim that Marxism does not offer any answers to the national question because it is a theory of class struggle.

It is true that Marxism is a theory that is pivoted around the idea that the struggle between social classes is the motive force of history. But this does not mean that Marxism is incapable of providing an explanation of, and perspective for dealing with, national struggles. To the contrary, it is precisely because Marxism is the most consistent theory of the class struggle that it also provides the most consistent theory of the national struggle. This is because the national question arises from and is a reflection of the class struggle, or as the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky put it, the national struggle is "one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle." (1)

What is the nation?

Marxism maintains that the nation is the product of the class struggle, more particularly, the struggle of a specific class, namely the bourgeoisie, against feudalism and other pre-capitalist social relations. The rising capitalist class created the nation. As Lenin pointed out:

Capitalism's broad and rapid development of the productive forces calls for large, politically compact and united territories, since only here can the bourgeois class – together with its inevitable antipode, the proletarian class – unite and sweep away all the old, medieval, caste, parochial, petty-national, religious and other barriers. (2)

Thus for Marxists the nation is a product of a specific stage of historical development of class society and the class struggle, that is, the rise and consolidation of the capitalist mode of production, an economic system based on generalised commodity production, an economic system in which both the means of production and human labour power are transformed into products for exchange on the market. Lenin explained the process of the formation of nations as follows:

For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speaks a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards this goal, and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period. (3)

For Marxists, the nation is a historically constituted, relatively stable community of people created by the amalgamation of pre-capitalist communities into a unified system of class and market relations on the basis of a common territory. Historical materialism maintains that sustained life within a single capitalist economic formation is what forges diverse peoples into unified nations, with a common language and common culture. For example, it was only through the rise and consolidation of a unified capitalist economic formation that the French nation came into being. Prior 1789 less than 50% of the inhabitants of the territory ruled over by the Bourbon monarchy spoke French, and only 12% spoke it "correctly." In the Italian peninsula, prior to the moment of unification in 1860, only 2.5% of the population used Italian for everyday purposes. It was only this tiny group of people – the bourgeoisie – who needed a common language for their everyday business transactions.

For historical materialists the nation is not an "imaginary community" but an objective entity defined by four features – common economic life, common territory, common language and common culture. These four features are necessary to the form of community that each distinct capitalist socio-economic formation creates. It is sheer idealism to speak of the formation of a nation without all of these four features – without a distinct and integrated system of commodity production, distribution, circulation and consumption driving it forward, without a definite territory upon which that economy operates, without a common language that facilitates commodity production and exchange, and without a common culture being forged in the process.

In the Marxist view, a nation is the product of a distinct and historically definite capitalist social-economic formation internal to itself. This is true even for nations that develop as by-products of capitalist colonialism or imperialism, as have most of the nations of the Americas, Asia and Africa. Lacking such an internal formation, a colony or neo-colony may never become a nation, but instead might remain a country consisting of many tribal groups, might develop into a multinational state, or might be amalgamated into a larger nation. Not all colonies or settlements become nations; this is determined by the nature of their internal class formation that takes place in the course of foreign capitalist penetration.

A historical-materialist, i.e., consistently scientific, understanding of what defines a nation is not simply a matter of theoretical clarity, it also has enormous political significance. The assertion that a non-national formation (a religious, racial or tribal group) is a nation can lead to reactionary political consequences. The most glaring example of this is the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. In order to create the common territory for a common economic life for the Jews (a religious group), the Zionists opposed the struggle of Palestinian Arabs for national liberation from British colonial rule and then usurped most of the territory of the Palestinian Arab nation.

To hasten the process of capitalist development and formation, every national bourgeoisie strives to forge a nation-state that can bring its political and economic force to bear on the situation. But nations and states are qualitatively distinct social formations, the one being the unit of capitalist class formation and the other being a concentrated expression of the political power of a ruling class.

Sometimes the nation and the nation-state coincide, e.g., the French nation and the French nation-state. But often they do not. Sometimes different nations are politically unified under a state that represents the power of one nation's ruling class (e.g., the United Kingdom, which politically unifies the English, Scottish, and Welsh nations, plus part of the Irish nation, under the English ruling class's state power). And sometimes there are states that do not coincide to nations at all, such as the early colonial states of the Americas, Asia and Africa and many existing African states, which are composed of diverse ethnic and tribal groupings forcibly combined into political units as a result of the highly arbitrary territorial divisions imposed by European colonialism.

In essence, the nation is the normal unit of the formation, development and struggle of classes in the capitalist mode of production. By contrast, in primitive collectivism, the unit of social organisation was the clan or tribe; in the Asiatic mode of production it was the village community; under ancient slavery it was the estate; under feudalism it was the domain or fief. Under capitalism the unit of class formation is, generally speaking, the nation. Because the main classes which comprise the class formation of the capitalist mode of production – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – only develop and mature within nations, the class struggle under capitalism generally assumes a national form. There is no such thing as the class struggle between the capitalists and the working class "in general"; it always takes place within a given nation or between nations. Nations are the terrain of the class struggle in the capitalist epoch. This is why the national question is so central to the working class's struggle for socialism.

National oppression arises out of the uneven development of capitalism, though uneven development in itself does not give rise to national oppression. The driving force of national oppression is the capital relation itself, which is both exploitative (surplus-value producing) and expansive (accumulation of capital). Thus the bourgeoisie of the more developed nations exploits the labour, raw materials, and markets of others. National rivalry (inter-capitalist competition) and national oppression are therefore inherent in capitalism.

Since a nation is the unit of class formation under capitalism, the form and content of the national question changes according to the stage of development of capitalism and the class struggle. In the period of the triumph of capitalism over feudalism (roughly the 16th through the 19th centuries), the national movements of both oppressed and oppressor nations were part of the worldwide development of the capitalist system and were led by the bourgeoisie. In the imperialist epoch, the principal content of the national question is the struggle against imperialism by the oppressed nations, colonies, and neo-colonies. These national movements are driven forward by the working class and the peasantry and are part of the struggle to overthrow imperialism and the transition to socialism.

The right of nations to self-determination

Marxists fight against national oppression and for equality between nations. One of the key demands supported by Marxists in order to fight national injustice, is the demand for the right of self-determination of nations. What does this demand mean?

Firstly, the demand for the right of national self-determination is not a moral imperative against all forms of national oppression. Nor is it something that Marxists uphold for all nations. It is a demand that applies only to oppressed nations. Specifically, the right of self-determination is a democratic political demand that means an oppressed nation has the right to determine its political relationship to the oppressor nation, including the right to secede and form a separate nation-state.

However, the winning of the right to national self-determination in of itself can only end national oppression in the political sphere; it cannot end the national oppression stemming from imperialism, that is, the domination of the world market by the monopolist capital of the industrially developed countries. As Lenin noted:

The domination of finance capital and of capital in general is not to be abolished by any reform in the sphere of political democracy; and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this sphere. (4)

From the standpoint of national relations, the best conditions for the development of capitalism are undoubtedly provided by the national state. This does not mean, of course, that such a state, which is based on bourgeois relations, can eliminate the exploitation and oppression of nations. It only means that Marxists cannot lose sight of the powerful economic factors that give rise to the urge to create national states. It means that "self-determination of nations" in the Marxists' Programme cannot, from a historico-economic point of view, have any other meaning than political self-determination, state independence, and the formation of a national state. (5)

If national oppression is inevitable under capitalism and cannot be ended simply through oppressed nations winning the right to self-determination, why then do Marxists defend this right? The reason is because, as Lenin put it, "nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice." (6) By defending the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, the workers of the oppressor nation demonstrate to the workers of the oppressed nation that they are opposed to the national injustices imposed on them by the capitalist rulers of the oppressor nation, and this facilitates an internationalist alliance between the workers of both nations against their common enemy – the capitalist rulers of the oppressor nation.

Does support for the right of national self-determination mean that Marxists support the formation of an independent state by every nation? To the contrary, we are for the abolition of national frontiers and for the integration of nations into a single, democratically centralised world socialist state, in which of course each nation would enjoy national-territorial autonomy. As Lenin explained:

Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the "most just," "purest," most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers' association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims). (7)

However, Marxists recognise that such an amalgamation of nations can only be achieved on the basis of the fullest democracy, including recognition of the democratic right of formerly oppressed nations to secede from a multi-national socialist state. This was how Lenin explained it:

We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e, freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede. (8)

By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality "only" – "only"! – with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including in the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the "sympathies" of the population, including complete freedom to secede. And this, in turn, will serve as a basis for developing the practical elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations that will be completed when the state withers away. (9)

Explosion of national conflicts in ex-`socialist' countries

It was the suppression of democracy in all spheres by the Stalinist regimes in the multi-national states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and their subordination of all aspects of people's lives to the dictates of a centralised bureaucracy dominated by one nationality such as the Serbians in Yugoslavia and the Russians in the USSR, that laid the basis for the explosion of national conflicts after the collapse of these regimes. This is the most obvious motive behind the nationalist wave, both in the ex-USSR and in its former "satellites," as well as in the former Yugoslavia. There is no doubt, for example, that Stalin's annexation of the Baltic states during World War II, or the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 left a very deep imprint in the national consciousness of these countries.

However, rebellion against decades of "Great Power" hegemonism does not fully explain the diversity of national conflicts in the former "socialist bloc." We can list a number of others.

Firstly, the collapse of socialist ideas and values, including the idea of proletarian internationalism, as well as of working-class culture, discredited by so many years of bureaucratic manipulation, and identified by broad masses in these countries as the official doctrine of the Stalinist regimes. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. No other rival political ideology such a powerful tradition and such long established roots in popular culture as nationalism – often combined with religion. The dominant ideology in the West, liberal individualism, while attractive to intellectuals and the rising class of private entrepreneurs, had little appeal to the broad masses of the population.

A similar phenomena, that is, the decline of socialists ideas and working-class culture, so long identified with the USSR and the Communist parties, in the context of continuing economic crisis, mass unemployment and the degradation of popular living standards has made room for the growth of anti-immigrant nationalism and racism among broad sectors of the populations of Western Europe. From this standpoint the rise of nationalist values, in both parts of Europe, has common roots. In the West, an added factor is mass disappointment and disillusionment with Social-Democratic management of the capitalist economic crisis, which is increasingly indistinguishable from the neo-liberal one. The failure of Social-Democratic governments to combat the growing social inequalities, their adoption of the conventional bourgeois economic wisdom, and their involvement in various affairs of public corruption have paved the way for all sorts of xenophobic "populist" movements. As a result of the weakening of socialist ideas, capitalism appears increasingly as a "natural" system, as the only possible form of socio-economic organisation; as a consequence, economic and social problems like unemployment, poverty and urban insecurity are no longer attributed by significant sections of the population to the capitalist system (or even to the disfunctioning of this system), but to the presence of immigrants and other "foreigners."

Another factor in the rise of nationalism in the ex-"socialist bloc" is the desire of the embryonic bourgeoisie in relatively advanced nations to cut loose from their poorer and more backward areas, in order to keep their own resources for themselves, and to join, as quickly as possible, the unified West European market. This applies particularly to Slovenia and Croatia, to the Baltic states, to the Czech republic, and in general to the Western parts of the ex-USSR. A similar phenomena, by the way, can be found in the north of capitalist Italy with the rise of the so-called Lombard Leagues.

A further factor that has played no small role is the deliberate and cynical manipulation of popular fears and national sentiments by neo-Stalinist or neo-liberal elites in the former "socialist bloc" in order to hold onto (or win back) power by scapegoating national minorities.

Marxism and nationalism

Marxists support the right of oppressed nations to secede from multinational states. Does this mean we are supporting the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nations? This was also an accusation thrown at Lenin by some Marxists. Lenin's reply to this accusation is instructive, in that it illustrates why the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations is so important for Marxist practice on the national question. He wrote:

Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation 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 privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.

"The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation," Lenin added, "has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support. At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency toward national exclusiveness..." (10)

That is, Marxists are opposed to nationalism because this is a component part of bourgeois ideology. In opposition to nationalism – to idea that "sectional" or class interests should be subordinated to national unity in defence of "common national interests," which in reality, means subordinated to the class interests of the national bourgeoisie – Marxists advocate proletarian internationalism, that is, the solidarity and unity of the workers of all nations against capitalist exploitation. However, while opposing the nationalism of the bourgeoisie of every nation, Marxists recognise that the nationalismof oppressed nations has a "general democratic content" that is directed against national oppression. It is this "general democratic content," manifested in specific demands directed against national oppression, that Marxists unconditionally support.

It is important to be very clear about this distinction between supporting national liberation struggles and supporting nationalism because bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists deliberately seek to confuse the two.

What is nationalism and what is the attitude of Marxists toward it? Nationalism is an ideology that arose with the formation of nation-states. It was the intellectual and emotional expression of the objective need to unite disparate peoples inhabiting a multitude of feudal domains into larger territorial units in which people spoke a common, national, language. The feudal domain was no longer adequate for the expanding productive forces brought into being by capitalism.

The level of development of the productive forces in our own time, however, demands an end to capitalist ownership of the means of production and to national boundaries. The ideology that corresponds to modern conditions of production is proletarian, or socialist, internationalism.

"The proletariat," Lenin pointed out, "cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism." (11)

Nationalism both unites all members of a given nation and separates or distinguishes all members of that nation from members of other nations. Thus its tendency is to blunt proletarian class consciousness within any given nation, while sharpening the distinctions between nations. It therefore is also a powerful obstacle to the development of international working-class solidarity. This corresponds exactly to the interests of the capitalist class. That is why Marxists have always been unqualified internationalists and opponents of all forms of nationalism.

Marxists oppose national oppression because it is an obstacle to the promotion of proletarian internationalism, to the class unity of the proletariat. Because the nationalism of oppressed nations is a reaction to their national oppression and the national chauvinism of the oppressor nation, the nationalist prejudices among the workers of the oppressed nation can only be overcome if the workers of the oppressor nation support the struggle of the oppressed for national liberation. Marxists' support for national liberation struggles is an anti-nationalist policy, i.e., it is aimed at liquidating the ideology of nationalism within the working class.

Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists deliberately confuse and identify support for national liberation struggles with nationalism in order to infect the nationally oppressed masses with the nationalist ideology and nationalist prejudices and thus derail their liberation struggles from a consistent anti-capitalist, socialist, i.e., internationalist, course. The Marxist approach to national struggles is to support all struggles against national oppression while simultaneously conducting an ideological struggle against all forms of nationalism. Lenin explained this approach as follows:

The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.

The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist's bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the "positive" activity of the bourgeoisie to fortify nationalism.

To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of. (12)

What is this border-line? It is the distinction between the "negative" task of opposing any kind of national oppression, privilege, or coercion and the "positive" activity of favoring, promoting, fortifying national exclusiveness, national culture, etc., i.e., nationalism.

Nationalism of the oppressed

But didn't Lenin also say that Marxists must make a distinction between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor? Indeed he did: "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." (13)

But in what did this distinction consist? Firstly, it meant recognising that while the nationalism of the oppressor nation has a thoroughly reactionary content, being a tool to justify national privileges, the nationalism of the oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against national oppression. Did this mean Lenin believed Marxists should oppose the former and uncritically support the latter? No: In all his writings on the national question Lenin made it clear that Marxists oppose all forms of nationalism. But Marxists must oppose the nationalism of oppressed nations in a different way than they oppose the nationalism of oppressor nations.

The nationalism of an oppressed nation is an understandable reaction to the chauvinism of the oppressor nation. This means that while Marxists make no ideological concessions to the nationalism of the oppressed, they must be fully sensitive to the feelings of suspicion, distrust and even hatred on the part of the masses of the oppressed nation toward the oppressor nation. It means that Marxists who are members of oppressor nations must express their opposition to the nationalism of the masses of the oppressed nations with great tact and patience. Furthermore, they must insist not on formal equality in all situations, because this often means perpetuating real inequalities, but be willing to support measures that provide for an inequality in favor of the oppressed nation. Lenin explained the approach required by a proletarian internationalist from an oppressor nation toward the nationalism of the oppressed nations as follows:

In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have always been guilty, in historical practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. It sufficient to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated; how the Poles are not called by any other name than Polyachishka, how the Tatar is nicknamed Prince, how the Ukrainians are always Khokhols and the Georgians and other Caucasian nationals always Kapkasians.

That is why internationalism on the part of the 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.

What is important for the proletarian? For the proletarian it is not only important, it is absolutely essential that he should be assured that non-Russians place the greatest possible trust in the proletarian class struggle. What is needed to ensure this? Not merely formal equality. In one way or another, by one's attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russians for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the "dominant" nation subjected them in the past. (14)

Nationalism among the masses of an oppressed nation can also be a distorted expression of rebellion (as is frequently also the case with religion) and is often an unavoidable phase in the development of a full socialist consciousness. National pride, aggressiveness, even hatred of all members of the oppressor nation is a step forward from subservience, feelings of inferiority and passivity. Such nationalist sentiments can act as a factor in mobilising them against national oppression. But none of this means that Marxists uncritically identify with or support the nationalism of the masses of oppressed nations. To the contrary, while orienting to and basing themselves on the democratic aspirations that are expressed in a distorted way by this nationalism, Marxists must counterpose the class unity and internationalist solidarity of the workers to the bourgeois ideology of nationalism.

This dual task is indispensable because in the imperialist epoch, the national liberation of oppressed nations can be accomplished only when the proletarian vanguard, organised into a revolutionary party of the Bolshevik-type, wins the leadership of the masses of workers and peasants away from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists. It cannot win this leadership unless it organises the worker and peasant masses independently of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists, on the basis of the defence of the workers' and peasants' class interests. And it can only organise them on this basis by developing the masses' distrust of and opposition to the national bourgeoisie and its petty-bourgeois nationalist appendages. It is for these reasons that the struggle against the nationalist ideology of "classless" national collaboration and national unity, is absolutely indispensable.

This approach was spelt out in the "Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Questions" adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 and further in the "Theses on the Eastern Question" adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. The latter, for example, stated:

The objective tasks of the colonial revolution go beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy because a decisive victory for this revolution is incompatible with the rule of world imperialism. The colonial revolutionary movement is at first championed by the indigenous bourgeoisie and the bourgeois intelligentsia, but as the proletarian and semi-proletarian peasant masses become more involved and the social interests of the ordinary people come to the fore, the movement starts to break away from the big-bourgeois and bourgeois-landowner elements...

The struggle for influence over the peasant masses will prepare the indigenous proletariat for political leadership [of the national liberation movement]...

The refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the fight against imperialist tyranny, on the pretext of their supposed "defence" of independent class interests, is the worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East. No less harmful, it must also be recognised, is the attempt to remain aloof from the struggle for the immediate everyday demands of the working class in the interests of "national unity" or "civil peace" with the bourgeois democrats. A dual task faces the Communist and workers' parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries: on the one hand, they are fighting for a more radical answer to the demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, directed towards the winning of national political independence; on the other hand, they are organising the masses of workers and peasants to fight for their own class interests, making good use of all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp. By putting forward social demands, Communists will stimulate and release revolutionary energy which can find no outlet in liberal bourgeois demands. The working class of the colonies and semi-colonies must be firmly convinced that it is only the overall intensification of the struggle against Great-Power imperialist oppression that can promote it to revolutionary leadership. On the other hand, it is only the political and economic organisation and the political education of the working class and the semi-proletarian layers that can increase the revolutionary scope of the anti-imperialist struggle.15

The Comintern urged Marxists in the oppressed nations to form tactical alliances with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists against imperialist domination, so long as the latter would actually take up the fight for national liberation. But precisely because the attainment of national liberation in the imperialist epoch requires the development of the class struggle within the oppressed nation and thus the destruction of national unity and class collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the cardinal condition for such anti-imperialist united fronts is complete freedom for the Marxists to wage an ideological and political struggle against their nationalist allies.

The struggle for national liberation today

Today, most of the oppressed nations have won their right to self-determination, i.e., have constituted themselves as independent nation states. However, they are still subject to national oppression resulting from the distortion and retarding of their economic development at the hands of transnational capital and the imperialist banks. As I noted above, with regard to Latin America, this economic domination also takes political forms – the acceptance by the governments of nominally independent "Third World" countries of the dictates of the IMF and World Bank. In this context, the struggle for national liberation no longer focuses on the demand for the right of national self-determination, i.e., for the right to politically secede and set up a separate nation-state. Rather, it focuses on demands to end these countries economic subservience to international finance capital, in particular rejection of the repayment of the foreign debt and of the austerity measures imposed by the IMF/World Bank via the local capitalist rulers. As a result, national and social liberation are intimately linked in the consciousness of the masses. It is therefore not surprising that in many of these countries, it is the labour movement, the unions and the socialist parties, that lead the fight against repayment of the foreign debt.

But how can a single country – even a powerful one like Brazil or Mexico – refuse the dictatorship of the World Bank and break the yoke of imperialist domination? How can national and social liberation be achieved in an underdeveloped country without the economic and military support of an industrial power like the USSR? How important are the contradictions between the imperialist powers of Western Europe, Japan and the USA and could they be utilised by liberated countries?

These and similar questions are being debated among socialist and anti-imperialist forces, in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. They show that national liberation is still a key issue in these countries. But they also show that purely national solutions are of limited value; the need for an internationalist perspective is increasingly perceived as essential to this task.

The example of Cuba seems to show than even a relatively small post-capitalist country can, at least during a limited amount of time, and provided it has built up a certain level of industrialisation, survive confrontation with a US economic blockade, a boycott by the world financial institutions and no support from the ex-USSR. But in the longer run, the survival of Cuba as a post-capitalist society will depend on anti-imperialist victories in other parts of Latin America.

During recent years, the various socialist and anti-imperialist forces in Latin America – including among others the Brazilian Workers Party, the Nicaraguan FSLN, the Salvadoran FMLN, the Mexican Revolutionary Democratic Party, and the Communist Party of Cuba – feeling the need for an international, or at least, continental, coordination, have associated themselves in an anti-imperialist united front, called the Forum of Sao Paulo, which meets yearly and discusses common perspectives.

At the first conference of the "Foro", in 1990, a document was endorsed, which presented the broad outlines of a common strategy for national liberation in Latin America. First of all, it rejected the proposition of "American integration" proposed by US President George Bush, denouncing it as an attempt to "completely open our national economies to the disloyal and unequal competition of the imperialist economic apparatus, submitting entirely to its hegemony and destroying our productive structures, by integrating them into a zone of free exchange led and organised by US economic interests." The document opposed to this proposition of integration under imperialist domination, "a new concept of continental unity and integration," based on the sovereignty of Latin America, the recovery of its historical and cultural identity and the internationalist solidarity of its peoples. "This presupposes," the document stated, "the defence of the Latin-American patrimony, and end to the flight and exportation of capital, a common and united policy towards the scourge of an unpayable foreign debt, and the adoption of economic policies in benefit of the majorities, able to combat the situation of misery in which millions of Latin-Americans live."

In conclusion, let's return to the initial paradox with which we began: the rise of national struggles and nationalism at time when the most urgent problems have more than ever, an international, character. The search for a way out of the economic crisis of the ex-"socialist bloc," the question of the Third World debt, and the imminent ecological catastrophe – to mention just three major examples – require planetary solutions. Those proposed by capital are well known and perfectly organised on a world-wide scale. They have inevitably, in whatever place they have been implemented, the same double result: make the rich even richer, and the poor even poorer.

What alternatives exist to the nightmare world of "really existing" capitalism. The old pseudo-internationalism of the Stalinist Comintern, of the followers of various "Socialist Fatherlands," is dead and buried. A new internationalist alternative of the oppressed and exploited is desperately needed. It is from the fusion between the international socialist, democratic and anti-imperialist tradition of the labour movement (still very much alive among revolutionaries of various tendencies, and radical trade-unionists), and the new "universalist," democratic, culture of social movements like ecology, feminism, anti-racism, and Third World solidarity that the internationalism of tomorrow will arise. This tendency, which finds its most complete expression in the contemporary Marxist movement, may be a minority now, but it is nevertheless the seed of a different future and the ultimate guarantee against capitalist barbarism.


  1. L. Trotsky, "Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads," Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40 (New York, 1977), p. 50.
  2. V.I. Lenin, "Critical Remarks on the National Question," Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism (Moscow, 1977), p. 38)
  3. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," ibid., pp. 46-47.
  4. Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (Theses)," ibid., p. 112.
  5. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," ibid., p. 50.
  6. Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities or `Autonomisation'," ibid., p. 168.
  7. Lenin, "Critical Remarks on the National Question," ibid., p. 27.
  8. Lenin, "The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination," Collected Works, Vol. 21, pp. 413-414.
  9. Lenin, "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up," Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p. 130.
  10. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," ibid., pp. 61-62.
  11. Lenin, "Critical Remarks on the National Question," ibid., p. 28.
  12. Lenin, "Critical Remarks on the National Question," ibid., pp. 27-28.
  13. Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities or `Autonomisation'," ibid., p. 167.
  14. Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities or `Autonomisation'," ibid., pp. 167-168.
  15. Alan Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp. 414-415.