Part 1: The debate on the national question at the dawn of decadence

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IR 34, 3rd Quarter 1983

Communists and the National Question, Part 1 (1900-1920): The debate on the national question at the dawn of decadence

Workers of countries, unite.” This call at the end of the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848 was not just an exuberant exhortation; it expressed one of the most vital conditions for the victory of the working class. From its very birth the movement of the working class proclaimed its international class character against the national boundaries which marked the development of the domination of the capitalist class over the proletariat. But in the 19th century capitalism had not yet exhausted all its potential for development in relation to pre-capitalist production relations. At certain moments and wider certain conditions communists took into account the possibility for the working class to support factions of the bourgeoisie because, in developing itself, capitalism accelerated the maturing of the conditions for the proletarian revolution.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, with the existence of a world market sanctioning the extension of the capitalist mode of production all over the globe, a debate began on the nature of this revolutionary support to national movements. The following article, the first of a series devoted to the attitude of communists towards the national question, goes back over the terms and the concerns of the debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

The failure of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia and the 50-year subjection of the proletariat to the barbarism of decadent capitalism did not allow for a complete clarification of the national question in the workers’ movement. Throughout this period, the counter – revolution did everything to distort the content of the proletarian revolution, constantly trying to pretend that there was a continuity between the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 and the state capitalism established in Russia, a continuity between the proletarian internationalism of the revolutionary period and the imperialist policy of the Russian state capitalism pillaging in the name of ‘the right of self-determination of peoples’ and the ‘national liberation of oppressed peoples’. The positions of Lenin were transformed into infallible dogma. Thus the possibility for the proletariat to use national movements as a ‘lever’ for the communist revolution, a tactic adopted at the time of the reflux of revolution in the key countries and the need to defend the ‘proletarian state’ in Russia, tended to be embraced as an absolute truth in the ranks of revolutionaries with the exception of some minorities.

    Today the dispersion and the crisis of revolutionary organisations, particularly the crisis of the Bordigist party, the ICP (Programma) highlight the importance of communists defending a clear and principled position on the so- called wars of ‘national liberation’ if they want to avoid being broke under the enormous weight of bourgeoisie ideology on this crucial point. The fact that the ICP abandoned the internationalist position in the inter-imperialist conflict in the Middle East in order to critically support the capitalist force of the Palestine Liberation Organisation - a position which provoked the dislocation of the group and the birth of an openly nationalist and chauvinist split (1) – i.e. a recent example of the danger to the proletariat of any concession to nationalism in the period of capitalist decadence.

    The source of the theoretical weaknesses of the Bordigist on the national question, like the whole so-called `Leninist’ tradition, lies in their defence of Lenin’s position in the early years of the Communist International in favour of supporting national movements under the slogan of ‘the right of self-determination of nations’. The ICC rejects all support of this nature in the epoch of imperialism. This rejection is based on Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of Lenin’s ideas developed at the beginning of the century. Today, in the light of the experiences of the proletariat in the last 60 years, we can only reaffirm that Luxemburg’s position and not Lenin’s has been confirmed by history and offers the only clear basis for a Marxist approach to this question.

Today there are many elements emerging in the revolutionary milieu or at least making a partial break with leftism, who still take Lenin’s position against Luxemburg’s on this question. Because it is so essential to break clearly with all aspects of Leftist ideology, we are publishing a series of articles which critically examine the debates which took place in the revolutionary movement before and after the first imperialist world war. We want to demonstrate why Luxemburg’s position is the only one to deal coherently with all the implications of capitalist decadence on the national question. We also aim to restore to memory the real position of Lenin which was an error in the workers’ movement in the past but has been distorted and used by the left of capital.


(1)    See International Review 32.


“Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just’, ‘purest’, most refined and civilised brand.” (Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question)

In view of the gross distortions of Lenin’s position on the national question inflicted by his epigones, it is necessary first of all to point out that Lenin, as a marxist, based his attitude to support for nationalist movements firmly on the foundations laid down by Marx and Engels in the First International: as with all social questions, he affirmed, marxists must examine the national question:

  • within its definite historical limits and not as an abstract or a historical ‘principle’;
  • from the point of view of the unity of the proletariat and the primary need to strengthen its class struggle for socialism.

So while Lenin advocated that the proletariat should recognise ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ – meaning the right of a bourgeoisie to secede and establish an independent capitalist state if necessary – he emphasised that this should only be supported where it was in the interests of the class struggle, and that the proletariat, “while recognising equality and equal rights to a national state values above all and places uppermost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle”. (Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1914).

For Lenin, the right to self-determination was a necessary demand in the struggle of the proletariat for democracy, along with equal rights, universal suffrage, etc. He posed the fundamental question as the completion of the bourgeois revolution which was still underway in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Nationalist movements were historically inevitable in the destruction of feudalism by the rising bourgeoisie and the spreading of capitalist social relations across the world. Where these bourgeois democratic nationalist movements arose, Lenin said, marxists must support them and fight for the maximum degree of democracy, to help sweep away feudal remnants and remove all national oppression, in order to clear away all obstacles to the class struggle against capitalism.

This task had a particular significance in Russia for the Bolsheviks who were concerned to win the confidence of the masses in the nations oppressed by the Tsarist Empire. Lenin saw ‘Great Russian’ nationalism as the principal obstacle to democracy and to the proletarian struggle, since it was “more feudal than bourgeois” (ibid): to deny the right of these small nations to secede would mean, in practice, supporting the privileges of the oppressor nation and subordinating the workers to the policy of the Great Russian bourgeoisie and feudal landlords.

But Lenin was well aware of the dangers of the proletariat supporting nationalist movements, because even in ‘oppressed’ countries the struggles of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie were diametrically opposed:

  • the proletariat supported the right to self-determination only in order to hasten the victory of bourgeois democracy over feudalism and absolutism, and to secure the best, most democratic conditions for the class struggle;
  • the bourgeoisie raised national demands in order to obtain privileges for its own nation and to defend its own national exclusiveness. For these reasons, Lenin emphasised that the proletariat’s support for nationalism was “strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements”; it supported the bourgeoisie “conditionally”; “only in certain direction”.

From the point of view of the completion of the bourgeois revolution through the struggle for democracy and against national oppression support for the bourgeoisie of an oppressed  nation was only to be given where it was actually fighting the oppressor nation: “... insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations 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”. (ibid). In other words, bourgeois nationalist movements were to be supported solely for their democratic content, i.e. in their ability to contribute towards the best conditions for the class struggle and the unity of the working class: “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation 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 towards national exclusiveness...” (ibid) original emphasis)

As for the historical limits of the struggle for democracy and the need to raise the slogan of self-determination, Lenin in 1913 was quite specific. In western continental Europe the epoch of bourgeois democratic revolutions was over by about 1871: “Therefore, to seek the right to self-determination in the programmes of West-European socialists at this time of day is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of Marxism”. (ibid). But in Eastern Europe and Asia the bourgeois revolution was yet to be completed, and “It is precisely and solely because Russia and the neighbouring countries are passing through this period that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of nations to self-determination” (ibid, our emphasis).

From the beginning, the slogan of self-determination was full of ambiguities. For example, Lenin was forced to admit that it was a negative demand, for a right to form a separate state, for which the proletariat could give no guarantees, and which could not be given at the ‘expense’ of another nation. His writings, limitations and exceptions, some of them contradictory, and it was intended above all to be raised as a propagandistic slogan by socialists in the ‘oppressing’ countries. But according to Lenin’s strictly historical method, at root it was based on the continuing capability of the bourgeoisie in those areas of the world where capitalism was still expanding to struggle for democracy against feudalism and national oppression, the inescapable conclusion being that when this period was over the whole democratic content of these struggles disappeared, and then the only progressive task of the proletariat was to make its own revolution against capitalism.


Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks’ acceptance of the slogan of ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ was inseparable from the struggle of the left-wing of the social democratic parties in Western Europe against the growing tendencies towards opportunism and revisionism in the Second International.

By the early 20th century it was possible to see the emerging trend in the advanced capitalist countries towards state capitalism and imperialism, and the consequent tendency of the state machine to absorb the permanent organisations of the workers’ movement – the trade unions and social democratic parties. Inside the International, theoreticians like Bernstein arose to ‘revise’ the revolutionary marxism of the International in order to justify its accommodation to these developments in capitalism. Luxemburg was one of the foremost theoreticians on the left who fought the ‘revisionism’ and sought to expose its root causes.

She rejected the notion of self-determination so energetically because she saw it as a sign of dangerous ‘social-patriotic’ influences in the International; reactionary forces who disguised themselves in socialist colours and were justified by such leading theorists as Kautsky.

The adoption by the Second International in 1896 of a resolution recognising “the complete right of all nations to self-determination” was in response to an attempt by the Polish Socialist Party to obtain official support for the restoration of Polish national sovereignty. This was rejected, but the adoption of the more general formula in Luxemburg’s opinion avoided the underlying issues: the historical basis for the proletariat’s support to nationalist movements and the need to combat social-patriotism in the International.

Luxemburg began her critique by accepting the same basic framework as Lenin, that:

  • the bourgeois-democratic revolution remained to be completed in Russia, Asia and Africa;
  • in the interests of developing the conditions for revolution the proletariat could not ignore nationalist movements for their democratic content in areas of the world where capitalism was still destroying feudalism;
  • the proletariat was naturally opposed to all forms of oppression, including national oppression, and was in no way indifferent to the plight of oppressed nations.

But her first task was to defend the marxist approach to the national question against those who, like the Polish social patriots, used the writings of Marx in support of Polish independence to justify their own reactionary projects for national restoration, trying hard “to transform a particular view of Marx’s on a current issue into a genuine do dogma, timeless, unchangeable, unaffected by historical contingencies, and subject to neither doubt or criticism – after all, ‘Marx himself’ once said it”. This is nothing but “an abuse of Marx’s name to sanction a tendency that in its entire spirit was in jarring contradiction to the teachings and theory of Marxism”. (Foreword to the Anthology ‘The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement’, 1905).

Against this fossilisation of the historical methodology of Marxism, Luxemburg affirmed that “without a critical assessment of the concrete historical conditions, nothing of value can be contributed to the problem (of national oppression)”. (The Polish Question at the International Congress, 1896), and from this standpoint, proceeded to outline her main arguments against the slogan of self-determination:

  • the dependence or independence of nation states was a question of power, not ‘rights’, and was determined by socio-economic development and  material class interest;
  • it was a utopian slogan, since it was clearly impossible to solve all the problems of nationality, race and ethnic origin within the framework of capitalism;
  • it was a metaphysical formula which offered no practical guidelines or solutions to the day-to-day struggle of the proletariat, and which ignored the marxist theory of social classes and the historical conditions of nationalist movements, Nor could it be equated with the struggle for democratic rights as it did not represent a legal form of existence like the right to organise, for example, in a mature bourgeois society;
  • it did not differentiate the position of the proletariat from those of the most radical bourgeois parties, nor from the pseudo-socialist and petty- bourgeois parties. In fact it was a paraphrase of the old slogan of bourgeois nationalism and not specifically connected with socialism or working class politics at all;
  • it would lead to the fragmentation of the workers’ movement, not its unification, by leaving it up to the proletariat in each separate oppressed nation to decide its own national position, with inevitable contradictions and conflicts.

The majority of her arguments, which in many cases simply repeated basic marxist positions on the state and the class nature of society, went unanswered by Lenin. Against the idea of the proletariat supporting self-determination, she emphasised the second part of the general resolution adopted by the International in 1896, which called on workers on all oppressed countries “to join the ranks of the class conscious workers of the whole world in order to fight together with them for the defeat of international social democracy”. (Cited on The National Question and Autonomy, 1908). Only in this way, in the victory of international socialism, could real self-determination be effected.


Luxemburg’s critique of self-determination was developed with particular reference to Poland, but the reasons she gave for rejecting support for its independence from Russia have a general importance in clarifying the marxist approach to such questions and the implications of change in the conditions of capitalism for the national question as a whole.
    Marx and Engels originally gave their support to Polish nationalism as part of a revolutionary strategy to defend the interests of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in
Western Europe from the Holy Alliance of feudal, absolutist Eastern European regimes. They went so far as to call for a war against Russia and for insurrections in Poland to safeguard bourgeois democracy. Luxemburg pointed out that this support for Polish nationalism was given at a time when there were no sign of revolutionary action in Russia itself; nor indeed was there a significant proletariat in Russia or Poland to wage a struggle against feudalism: “Not socialist theory or tactics, but the burning political exigencies of German democracy at the bourgeois revolution on Western Europe-determined the viewpoint that Marx, and later Engels, adopted with respect to Russia and Poland” (Foreword).

Luxemburg’s re-affirmation of the marxist approach was based on an analysis of the historical development of capitalism: by the last half of the nineteenth century Poland was experiencing: “the frantic dance of capitalism and capitalist enrichment over the graves of the Polish nationalist movements and the Polish nobility...” (ibid), which gave rise to a Polish proletariat and a socialist movement which from the start took up the interests of the class struggle as opposed to nationalism. This was matched by developments in Russia itself where the working class began to assert its own struggle.

In Poland, capitalist development created an opposition between national independence and the interests of the bourgeoisie, which renounced the nationalist cause of the old nobility in favour of the closer integration of Polish and Russia capital, based on their need for the Russian market-which would be denied to them if Poland were to break away as an independent state. From this, Luxemburg concluded that the political task of the proletariat in Poland was not to take up the utopian and diversionary struggle for independence but to join in a common struggle with the Russian workers against absolutism, for the broadest democratisation in order to create the best conditions for a struggle against Polish and Russian capital.

The revival of Marx’s 1848 support for Polish nationalism by the Polish Socialist Party was therefore a betrayal of socialism; a sign of the influence of reactionary nationalism within the socialist movement which used the words of Marx and Engels while turning its back on the proletarian alternative to national oppression: the united class struggle, which showed itself in 1905 when the mass strikes spread from Moscow and Petrograd to Warsaw. Nationalism in Poland had become “a vessel for all types of reaction, a natural shield for counter-revolution”; it had become a weapon in the hands of the national bourgeoisie who in the name of the Polish nation attacked and murdered striking workers, organised ‘national unions’ to counteract the class’s militancy, campaigned against ‘unpatriotic’ general strikes, and used armed nationalist bands to assassinate socialists. Luxemburg concluded: “Mistreated by history, the Polish national idea moved through all stages of decline and fall. Having started its political career as a romantic, noble insurgent, glorified by international revolution, it now ends up as a national hooligan – a volunteer of the Black Hundreds of Russian absolutism and imperialism”. (The National Question and Autonomy, 1908).

Through an examination of the actual changes brought about by capitalism’s development, Luxemburg was able to wipe away the abstract talk of ‘rights’ and ‘self-determination and most importantly to refute the whole rationale for Lenin’s position that it was necessary to support Polish self-determination in order to advance the cause of democracy and hasten the erosion of feudalism. Nationalism itself was becoming a reactionary force wherever it was faced with the threat of unified class struggle. Whatever the specificities of Poland, Luxemburg’s conclusions could only have a more and more generalised application in a period when bourgeois national liberation movements were giving way to the growing antagonism between the bourgeoisie as a class and the proletariat.


Luxemburg’s rejection of self-determination and Polish independence was inseparable from her analysis of the rise of imperialism and its effect on national liberation struggles. Although this was a major issue in the socialist movement in Western Europe, Luxemburg’s comments were not taken up at all by Lenin until after the outbreak of the first world war.

The rise of capitalist imperialism, Luxemburg argued, rendered the whole idea of national independence obsolete; the trend was towards “the continuous destruction of the independence of more and more new countries and peoples, of entire continents” by a handful of leading powers. Imperialism, by expanding the world market, destroyed any semblance of economic independence: “this development, as well as the roots of colonial politics, lies at the very foundations of capitalist production....colonialism will inevitably accompany the future progress of capitalism.... only the innocuous bourgeois apostles of ‘peace’ can believe in the possibility of today’s states avoiding that path” (ibid). All small nations were condemned to political impotence, and to fight to ensure their independence within capitalism would mean, in effect, returning to an earlier stage of capitalist development, which was clearly utopian.

This new feature of capitalism gave rise, not to national states on the model of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in Europe, but states of conquest, better suited to the needs of the period. In such conditions, national oppression became a generalised and intrinsic feature phenomenon of capitalism, and its elimination impossible without the destruction of imperialism itself by the socialist revolution. Lenin dismissed this analysis of the growing dependence of small nations as irrelevant to the question of national movements; he did not deny that imperialism or colonialism existed, but for him political self-determination alone was the issue, and on this question he defended Kautsky, who supported Polish restoration, against Luxemburg.

The development of imperialism as a condition of the world capitalist system was not yet unequivocally clear, and Luxemburg could point only to a few ‘model’ examples – Britain, Germany, America – while she recognised that the world market was still expanding and that capitalism had not yet entered into its mortal crisis. But the value of her analysis was that it examined some of the basic tendencies in capitalism and their implications for the working class and the national question: her rejection of national liberation struggles was based on an understanding of the changed conditions of capitalist accumulation, and not on moral or subjective consideration.


The slogan of self-determination for Lenin served a dual purpose: as an important demand in the proletariat’s struggle within capitalist society for democracy; and as a propaganda tactic to be utilised against national chauvinism in the Tsarist empire. But from the beginning this slogan contained theoretical ambiguities and practical dangers which undermined the Bolshevik’s defence of proletarian internationalism on the eve of capitalism’s imperialist phase:

-- as a democratic demand it was utopian. The achievement of national independence by any faction of the bourgeoisie was determined by relations of force, not rights, and was a product of the evolution of the capitalist mode of production. The task of the proletariat was first of all to maintain its autonomy as a class and defend its own interests against the bourgeoisie.

-- the forging of proletarian unity was undoubtedly a problem for communists, in the Tsarist empire or anywhere else, in their struggle against the influence of bourgeois ideology. But it could only be solved on the solid ground of the class struggle, and not by giving concessions to nationalism, which even in the late nineteenth century was becoming a dangerous weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Furthermore, Lenin’s use of the terms ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations was inadequate even in ascendant capitalism. It is true that Luxemburg used the same terms herself in describing the rise of a handful of ‘Great Powers’ which were dividing up the world between them, but for her these ‘states of conquest’ were only models for a general tendency within capitalism as a whole. One of the values of her writings on Polish nationalism was to demonstrate that even in so-called oppressed nations, the bourgeoisie used nationalism against the class struggle and acted as an agent of the major imperialist powers. ‘All talk of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations leads to an abstraction of the bourgeois ‘nation’  which hides the fundamental class antagonism within it.

The whole strategy of ‘self-determination’ was adopted not from Marx and Engels, but the Second International which, by the end of the nineteenth century, was thoroughly corroded by the influence of nationalism and reformism. Lenin’s position was shared by the centre of the social democratic parties and on this question he supported Kautsky, the foremost ‘orthodox’ theorist, against Luxemburg and the left-wing in the International. Arguing strongly from the point of view of the situation in Russia, Lenin failed to show that self-determination was adopted in the first place as a concession to nationalism: in order to go to the roots of social democracy’s degeneration, it was therefore necessary to reject ‘the right of nations to determination’.

The real importance of Luxemburg’s position was that it was based on an analysis of the major tendencies in the heart of the capitalist mode of production, and in particular the rise of imperialism in Europe, as indicators of the nature of the whole world economy in the imperialist epoch. Lenin’s position, in contrast, was based on the experience and needs of these countries in backward areas of the world where the bourgeois revolution was not yet completed, on the eve of the epoch in which it was no longer possible for the proletariat to win reforms from capitalism, and in which nationalism could serve no further progressive role. It was a strategy for a fast disappearing historical period, which was incapable of serving the needs of the working class in the new conditions of capitalist decadence.

(to be continued)

S. Ray

Part 2: The debate during the years of imperialist war

Part 3: The debate during the revolutionary wave and the lessons for today