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At a press conference in late 2021, Putin declared that modern Ukraine was created by Lenin. His keynote article, written in the summer of that year, stated that the right of the free secession of the republics from the Union, enshrined in the Declaration on the Formation of the USSR, had laid “a most dangerous time-bomb.” The implication was that Lenin had ostensibly flirted with national sentiment in a conscious effort to boost the Bolsheviks’ popularity. Hence, even the policy of “korenizatsiya” — the participation of national cadres in the administration of the republics and the promotion of local languages and cultures — was a kind of temporary measure and a cunning ruse. Surprisingly, critics of Russian propaganda in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states, repeat the same invective. The national policy of the Bolsheviks seems to be the result of either political opportunism or the product of latent imperial ambitions, or both.
So what is the real meaning of self-determination of nations for Marxism? If we try to answer this question, we will see that imperialism and the Marxist understanding of a nation’s right to self-determination have nothing in common. Moreover, the classical Marxist texts provide a direct and unambiguous answer to the challenge of current events: the war currently waged by Russia in Ukraine is clearly imperialist, thus the left in Russia and other countries should, if they are not interested in their own privileges but in the struggle against oppression and chauvinism, do everything to support Ukraine. In sum, the key elements of the Bolsheviks’ approach were, first, the connection between class and anti-colonial struggle, and second, the strategic understanding that there can be no equal “partnership” between an oppressed and an oppressor nation, and that solidarity between the workers of the metropolis and the colony will always be shaky. Importantly, this understanding rejects the primitive determinist scheme according to which history, regardless of human actions, must culminate in a worldwide victory of the proletariat. On the contrary, it is based on the strategy and political principles necessary to fight the oppressors in the here and now.
First national question debates in Marxism
Although the relationship between Marxist theory and nationalism has never been straightforward, the principle of self-determination of nations was first enshrined as early as the London Conference of the First International in 1865 in connection with support for the Polish liberation movement. Thus, the Proclamation on the Polish Question talks about “the need for annulling Russian influence in Europe through enforcing the right to self-determination and through reconstituting Poland upon democratic and social foundations.” How is it that despite the famous phrase from the Manifesto of the Communist Party that “the worker has no country” it was the international communist movement that first formulated the principle of national self-determination, which subsequently laid the foundation of modern international law?
As is well known, national liberation movements were a new phenomenon in the time of Marx and Engels, with the “spring of nations” — the national revolutions of 1848-1849, which revealed the unprecedented political significance of national ideas — leaving a particularly vivid impression on all Europeans. It makes little sense to list all the statements of the Marxist classics on the national question since such attempts have been made repeatedly serving to expose either a lack of systematic theory on the subject (this applies not only to the national question but also to feminism, the concept of history, revolution, socialism, etc.), or the hidden racism, chauvinism and allegedly totalitarian inclinations of Marx and Engels. However, the anti-communists often fail to explain how to distinguish a true statement from a “strategic ruse.”
Marx’s position evolved with the development of the labor movement, the changing political situation, and the elaboration of the theory of capital. Things therefore could gain more clarity if we consider the arguments for or against the national movements, rather than producing endless collections of arbitrarily selected quotations. For example, Marx seriously reconsidered his views on the Irish question, and such a change can not be attributed to the conjuncture alone as it led to a new understanding of the revolutionary process and its relationship to global capitalism. In this sense, the Irish question in Marx’s thinking can serve as a vivid illustration and starting point for an actual rearticulation of the Marxist approach to the national question as a whole.
Marx and the Irish question prior to 1867
Having lived in London for a long time, Marx closely observed the struggle of Ireland for independence and clearly imagined the difficult relationship between the English and Irish workers. Marx’s approach can be roughly divided into two periods, before and after 1867 (1). The unprecedented influx of migrants from Ireland to England, caused by the Great Famine of 1845-1849, led Marx to note the economic paradox that would later be described in Capital (Volume I, Chapter XXIII). Although the famine reduced Ireland’s population of eight million by two and a half million (one and a half died of starvation, another million emigrated), the standard of living in the country did not rise. The case of Ireland refuted the Malthusian theory popular in the XIX century, which tied the deterioration of living conditions to overpopulation. It was the case of Ireland that prompted Marx to introduce the concept of “relative overpopulation,” which is necessary to replenish cheap labor and is caused not by “natural” demographic processes, but by the structural mechanisms of capital.
During this period, however, Marx considers the English workers to be the main revolutionary force, for it is in England that capitalist relations take their most developed form, while the Irish workers, former peasants, are much less organized and their dispositions are “rougher” than those of the English. Thus Engels’ early work On the Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) states that the Irish contribute to the moral degradation of the English workers: “These people having grown up almost without civilisation, accustomed from youth to every sort of privation, rough, intemperate, and improvident, bring all their brutal habits with them among a class of the English population which has, in truth, little inducement to cultivate education and morality..” Yet, Engels did not hide his admiration for the reckless courage of the Irish workers: “Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I will overthrow the whole British monarchy,” he wrote in a Swiss newspaper as early as 1843.
Thus, before 1867 Ireland appears only in passing in the works of Marx and Engels, and their approach to the emancipation of the Irish can be described as “anglocentric” (2). Although the Manifesto of the Communist Party speaks of the national struggle of the proletariat, it implies a struggle within existing state boundaries: “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.” Along this line, the Irish workers in England were not to stand up for Irish independence, but to join forces with the English proletariat in the struggle against the English bourgeoisie.
“The Fenian Affair:” why do the English workers need Irish liberation?
After 1867 Marx changes his position on the Irish question due to the “Fenian affair.” The Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenian Brotherhood (the name refers to ancient Irish mythology) was founded in 1858 both in Dublin and New York. The aim of this secret organization was to liberate Ireland from British rule by any means necessary. What distinguished the Fenians from other radicals was their moderate attitude toward the Catholic Church and great popularity among the workers.
In 1867, after unsuccessful rebellions in Dublin and Cork, the leaders of the movement, Colonel Thomas Kelly and Captain Timothy Deasy, were arrested. While the two prisoners were being transported, a group of conspirators attacked the police van and freed the two leaders, accidentally killing a policeman. In response, the British authorities raided the Irish quarter of Manchester, captured five Brotherhood members not involved in the case, and sentenced them to death. The First International began a vigorous campaign to overturn the death sentence, which, however, was unsuccessful as the three condemned men — Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen, and Michael Larkin, referred to as the “Manchester Martyrs” in the Irish liberation history — were hanged on November 22, 1867 (3).
The Fenian amnesty campaign forced Marx to pay closer attention to the relationship between British colonial policy and class oppression. On November 2, 1867, Marx writes to Engels that his position on the question of Irish independence changed: “The Fenian trial in Manchester exactly as was to be expected. You will have seen what a scandal ‘our people’ have caused in the Reform League. I sought by every means at my disposal to incite the English workers to demonstrate in favor of Fenianism. I once believed the separation of Ireland from England to be impossible. I now regard it as inevitable, although Federation may follow upon separation.” And in a letter to Meyer and Vogt of April 9, 1870, Marx deplores that workers’ solidarity in England is threatened by the chauvinistic attitudes of the English workers themselves, rather than by Irish morals and their willingness to work in less favorable conditions (as it seemed to be the case prior to 1867). “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 regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.”
Thus, it was Ireland’s colonial status that called into question the solidarity between Irish and English workers. Marx proceeds: “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 classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization.” In the same letter, Marx insists that the main task of the Social Democrats was “to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland… to make the English workers realize that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.” In other words, the sense of imperial superiority that united the English working class with the bourgeois and aristocratic elites, according to Marx, weakened the labor movement not only in England but throughout Europe. For it was in the most industrialized country with the most organized proletariat that the latter took the side of the oppressors rather than that of the oppressed. Thus in the case of Ireland, for Marx, the right of a nation to self-determination was not an abstract principle, but a response to the colonial ambitions and chauvinism typical of imperialist countries.
Lenin in the debate on the national question: the right to self-determination and the right to divorce
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the center of revolutionary activity moved from Britain and France to Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia. The national question in these empires was even more entangled than in Britain since drawing a clear boundary between the colonies and the metropolis was impossible. In this context, the “right of self-determination for all nations,” endorsed at the London Conference of the Second International in 1896, and then enshrined in Article 9 of the RSDLP Program adopted at the Second Congress in 1903, provoked a fierce debate in European social-democracy. In the course of this debate, several competing projects emerged. For example, the Austrian socialists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer proposed that national extra-territorial autonomy be granted to the various peoples, preserving the unity of the state borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rosa Luxemburg, for her part, was critical of the very idea of national self-determination, seeing in it a threat to the unity of the working class in the Russian Empire.
Among the Bolsheviks, the chief opponents of national self-determination were Georgy Pyatakov, Eugenia Bosch, and Nikolai Bukharin. They saw nationalism as a product of capitalist development, growing out of competition between states. Hence nationalism distracts the proletariat from the main conflict (class struggle) and revolutionary activity by conflating its interests with those of the national bourgeoisie. This critique proceeds from “class reductionism,” which was given this label because it does not take into account any contradictions (gender, nationality, race, culture, etc.) other than that of the economic “base,” the confrontation between labor and capital.
Lenin sharply criticized “class reductionism” in his article On the Right of a Nation to Self-Determination (1914). Although his main opponent in this text is Rosa Luxemburg, she serves more as a collective image, which does not reflect the nuanced position of the Polish-German socialist (4). In the article Lenin admits that nation-states are the product of capitalism and that nationalism in general undermines the unity of workers. At the same time, Lenin does not regard nationalism as an a priori positive or destructive phenomenon, instead he draws a distinction between the nationalism of an oppressed nation and that of an oppressor nation.
Lenin is concerned with more than political tactics, although granting the right to self-determination plays an important role in bringing other nationalities to the side of the Russian proletariat. His position on national self-determination reflects a deep concern for the chauvinism of Russian workers and social democrats (the vast majority of industrial workers and social-democratic party members in the periphery of the Russian empire considered themselves Russians). Lenin compares the right to self-determination to the right to divorce, stressing that any union can be based solely on voluntary consent: “Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defense of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods.”
In the polemic on the right of nations to self-determination, Lenin draws on Marx’s arguments for Irish independence. Marx, according to Lenin, sought to point out that for workers belonging to an oppressor nation, domination of an “oppressed nation” would turn out to be a political disaster. Work on this issue was stymied by the position of some Bolsheviks of the national periphery, who considered their nationalist comrades hostage to prejudice. The situation was aggravated, as Lenin points out in A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (1916), by the fact that the workers of the oppressor nation participated, albeit by default, in the oppression of the workers of the oppressed nation. The wages of workers who were not classified as Russian were lower, as were their chances of moving up the social ladder. Besides, they were completely deprived of their political rights. But most destructive to the cause of the common struggle was the “disdain and contempt for the workers of the oppressed nations.”
Explaining the problem of national oppression by the uneven development of capitalist relations, Lenin divides national entities into three main groups. The first included the countries with fully developed capitalism: they were oppressor nations, and therefore nationalism had no right to exist there. The second group consisted of Eastern European countries that had recently embarked on the path of capitalist development. “There the ‘defense of the fatherland’ can still be the defense of democracy, of one’s native language, of political liberty against oppressor nations.” The third group did not yet possess a strong nationalist movement: nation-building was its future. Although Lenin takes a stadial approach, he does not believe that oppressed workers have an advantage over oppressed indigenous peoples. Moreover, Lenin sees opportunities for a revolutionary movement in the uneven development of capitalism and its contradictions, with the right of nations to self-determination being one of them.
The Marxist argument presented here can be summarized as follows: in order to become revolutionary, the working class must realize that solidarity as such has no borders, while the practice of solidarity sometimes demands that new borders be drawn, this time separating the oppressor from the oppressed. The positions articulated by Marx and Lenin have nothing moralizing about them, nor do they appeal to some “universal morality.” For both, the solidarity of the oppressed is not an abstract slogan but a concrete political practice. Both argue that in the history of capitalism different kinds of oppression converge and intersect, becoming an element of the whole. Therefore, the struggle against capital cannot be isolated from the national liberation struggle. To become a class in the political sense, workers must fight for the cause of the oppressed people. It is not simply a question of party strategy, but that the working class can only become a political force by accepting the struggle of oppressed peoples as part of its own struggle.
Needless to say, the national policy of the Bolsheviks in the early USSR was contradictory in practice and not all peoples were granted full right to self-determination. The brutal victory of the Stalinist line on the national question resulted in the suppression of national autonomies as well as in the heinous forced deportations of peoples. Yet the right to self-determination in the Bolshevik program was not limited to tactics, resting on the fundamental idea of the communist revolution as a struggle against oppression. If the working class is to play an important role in this struggle, it must renounce any claim to privilege. The past cannot be changed, but it can reveal the germs of the future. And our task is to find the bifurcations and ruptures in the past that will make it possible to write the history of the oppressed today.
- Kevin B. Anderson. Marx at the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
- Ian Cummins. Marx, Engels and National Movements, London, Croom Helm, 1980.
- Deleixhe M. Marx, the Irish Immigrant-Workers, and the English Labor Movement, Historical Materialism 27.2, 2019. Pp. 222–247.
- Jeremy Smith. The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, London, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999.
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