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On the National Question

The Nation-State

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1- Those who have an academic way of approach claim that there’s no methodological approach in Marx and Engels on the national question, that they even have not made a comprehensive definition of nation. However, Marxism is not a collection of “doctrines” made of academic studies and frozen definitions in the face of various problems. Since its first days Marxism has taken shape as a philosophy of action, aiming at changing the world through conscious revolutionary action of the proletariat and it has had a constantly developing character.

It is not the method of Marxism to examine and define a historical-social phenomenon as something frozen by isolating it from the complex elements that shape or characterize it and from the variability of factors it is related. Even a definition which seems most near to truth is faced with the risk that it may not embrace all aspects of that phenomenon’s movement and different properties it can assume at different historical moments. Marxism is neither a pile of dead ideas nor a collection of ready-made recipes. Marxism is a lively and dynamic worldview which aims at finding solutions in accordance with the needs of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to the problems arising at different historical moments.

2- As capitalist production relations developed and expanded within the hearth of the feudal society, the desire of the emerging bourgeoisie to dominate its market and commercial relations began to intensify. In the course of the bourgeoisie’s fight against feudal reaction to establish a modern central unity under its political power, the ideological foundations of nation and nation-state were created. Thus the main themes of bourgeois-democratic revolutions were embodied as the formation of a new society on the basis of a united market (a nation-community instead of old feudal provincialism and a society of kingdom subjects) and this appeared as the political target.

In the course of transition from feudalism to capitalism, the pace, sweep and form (from above or from below) of bourgeois-national democratic transformations involved great variety depending on whether the capitalist development was early (England, the Netherlands, France) or delayed (Germany). In the final analysis, nationalism appeared on the stage of history as the bourgeois ideology which is formed during the bourgeoisie’s struggle to establish its domination on the market and form its political unity.

3- Bourgeois nationalism was the main impetus of the revolutionary surges which broke out in Europe in 18th and 19th century; and bourgeois nationalist movements were everywhere in Europe. On the other hand, the 1848 revolutions breaking out in Europe were a turning point which began exhibiting the essential character of class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which began entering the stage of history with its own political demands.

The political significance of this turning point began to find its reflection in the analyses of the founders of Marxism following the 1848 revolutions. There were two main axes dominating the assessments of Marx and Engels at the time when the Communist Manifesto (1847) was written. The first was the estimation of the development tendencies of modern capitalism taking England -the country in which it was most developed- as base and from there to produce a historical perspective for the proletariat. The second was determining the role of the proletariat it can play (to be extreme opposition party) in a bourgeois democratic revolution and its demands on this basis, in light of the Germany example where feudal reaction was not overcome.

But later on the experiences of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels both in “Address to the League” (1850) and in 18th Brumaire (1852) put forward that the war slogan of the proletariat had to be “permanent revolution”. Thus, a perspective was developed, which asserted that the proletariat must not limit itself with the role of an extreme opposition party even in countries such as Germany and should enter political struggle with its own demands and for its own power.

Marx and Engels were exhibiting the contradiction between the progressive aspect of the bourgeoisie in relation to the past (feudal reaction) and the reactionary aspect it shows in relation to the future (the proletariat entering the stage of history) in a historical moment when bourgeois democratic struggles were still being carried out. This contradiction would put its stamp on the bourgeois democratic struggles carried out in the 19th century.

Under these circumstances, the perspective of “permanent revolution” put forward by Marx and Engels to define the character of the proletarian struggle found its significance as an expression of a historical perspective. 1871 Paris Commune was, a preliminary experience proving that the historical perspective of the proletariat could be realized, the war cry of communards who set out to conquer the sky reaching into the 20th century.

4- The approach of Marx and Engels towards the two national questions which were on the agenda in those days (Poland and Ireland) formed the essential lines of the revolutionary program of the proletariat on this question.

Supporting the nationalist independence movement of Poland against the Holy Alliance (Prussia, Austria and Tsarist Russia) which was the bastion of reaction at that time was in accordance with the class interests of the proletariat in regards with the elimination of the obstacles before its own development. For this reason, Marx and Engels regarded the national independence movement of Poland as one deserving support.

As with the Irish question, at first, they saw it as one which could be solved during the progress of the social revolution in Britain. That is, a national question that can be solved by the proletarian revolution in passing. But in a situation where the social revolution was at rest and the British imperialism managed to spread chauvinism to the working class, the national independence struggle in Ireland came to the fore and gained importance. Marx and Engels thought that under these concrete conditions, a success of the national liberation struggle would be an important political blow to British imperialism and that this could wake up the proletariat in Britain and trigger the social revolution. Therefore, although they were against federation in principle, they defended that, once the right to separate was acknowledged, it could be accepted as a means for a possible way of transition to voluntary unity. Most important conclusion the founders of Marxism drew from the Irish experience about national question was: “A nation which oppresses other nations cannot be free.”[i]

5- As a consequence of mainly the unequal development of capitalism, national awakenings have not taken place simultaneously all over the world. While the struggle for national unions which accompanies the period of bourgeois democratic revolutions mainly between 1789-1871, this awakening came about in the beginning of the 20th century in East Europe, Balkans and Asia. And the second half of the 20th century has seen the national liberation struggles in Africa. After colonies obtained their independence, the national liberation struggles took their place in history as a thing of the past with the exception of just a few belated cases (Ireland, Basque, Palestine, Kurdistan etc.).

6- Before the nation-state, which corresponds to modern capitalism, in every form of the feudal state (either a small kingdom or a great empire), the people or peoples under its sovereignty used to constitute a state community but not a national unity. So “nation” is not as old as state and its emergence on the scene of history does not correspond to state in general, but to a certain (capitalist) state in a certain historical moment. Thus, it is not in conformity with historical reality to consider the pre-capitalist past of peoples which differ in geography, culture and history under the title “national-cultural identity”. Although it is true that the past of communities which acquire a “national identity “ in the process of the formation of modern bourgeois state would have its impact on this identity to a certain extent, freezing the historical-cultural differences of communities by categorizing them as “characteristics of nations “ is an idealistic approach.

So, trying to explain the phenomenon of nation mainly by “historical-cultural-psychological” arguments is not a correct approach. Such an approach found its essential expression in the analyses of Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer and influenced many other Marxists.[ii] The thesis Bauer defended as a solution to national question was based on raising national cultural autonomy against the right of nations to self-determination. This approach was the natural outcome of Bauer’s reformist and social-chauvinist understanding.

7- On the basis of the fact that rigid-definitionist approaches would be insufficient in grasping formations in motion, Lenin too approached the problem from the standpoint of the historical formation of nation-state

8- Historically, nation is a socio-economic phenomenon which formed at a certain stage (transition to capitalism) of the evolution of society. The nation phenomenon which depends on the existence conditions particular to the bourgeois society, such as a united market and economic competition with other societies on the basis of this market, is doomed to be transient in the flow of history. And so called “national consciousness” which is the reflection of this phenomenon will not be everlasting on the basis of ‘cultural unity’ or “lingual unity” of various communities; it has a content and lifespan limited with bourgeois ideology which supports bourgeois society.

Marxism is in favour of fusion of nations and elimination of national divides. Capitalist development and worldwide expansive nature of capital create a historical tendency towards overcoming the obstacles of nation and state. But the realization of this potential is possible only with overthrowing the capitalist system, which is divided into different nation states on the basis of economic competition, by the advance of world proletarian revolution. Under capitalism the nation state is a reality.

9- Although various economic-political-military unions may well be formed between bourgeois nation states as a result of the worldwide expansion of capitalism, these unions can only be “unions” in competition. And while imperialist struggle for getting a bigger share from the global market disintegrates existing “unions” and leads to new ones, the inner tendency for conflict and competition continues to dominate. While capital tends to internationalize, the bourgeois ideology reflects the interests of a certain nation-state because of the division into nation states and economic competition. The bourgeois ideology, as the means of bourgeois hegemony on the proletariat, must keep its nationalist essence in order to conceal class struggle and maintain bourgeois domination with the propaganda of “national unity”

Marxism, on the other hand, which aims at forming the international unity of the proletariat, is internationalist in essence. Even in the case that proletarian revolution breaks out in a single state, the target of the proletariat is not to form and strengthen a new kind of “nation-state”, but carrying on the struggle in order to spread the revolution to the whole world. This is one and the most important of the points which must be understood from the permanency of the revolution. Otherwise, proletarian revolutions will inevitably be isolated and destroyed leading to formation of new “nation states” in the form of bureaucratic dictatorships.

10- The proletariat, whose state of wage-slavery is international, whose class enemy is international, whose liberation conditions are international, has no country. It will reach genuine freedom by gaining internationalist communist class consciousness and forming its international unity of struggle. Marxism, revealing that national borders are reactionary, that emancipation of humanity is possible only by abolishing nation-states by proletarian revolutions, aims at reaching the synthesis of word citizenship via voluntary fusion of nations.



[i] For a comprehensive summary of the thoughts of Marx and Engels on these issues see Lenin’s The Right of Nations to Self-determination dated February-March 1914.

[ii] The definition given by Stalin in his article Marxism and the National Question written in 1913 in Vienna reveals his eclectic approach being shaped partly by Otto Bauer: “A nation is 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.” (http://marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm)