Communists and the national question in the 19th century

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Despite certain contradictions and limitations in their analysis – limitations which were themselves a product of the period – the founders of scientific socialism understood a fundamental point that has been all but lost today in the immense welter of confusion coming from fifty years of counter-revolution. For Marx and Engels there was no doubt that the nation state and national ideology were purely and simply a product of capitalist development, that the nation state was the indispensable basis for the growth of capitalist relations of production out of and against feudal society. Whatever the contradictions in their writings about the possibility of socialist development within the boundaries of the nation state, the overall perspective of Marx and Engels was based on an analysis of the world market and on the understanding that the future socialist or communist society would be a worldwide association of producers, a global human community; and the 1st International was founded on the recognition that the working class was an international class which had to link its struggle on an international scale.

Nevertheless, as communists and proletarian internationalists, Marx and Engels often gave their support to movements of national liberation, and their writings on this question have often been used by self-proclaimed ‘marxists’ today to justify support for ‘national liberation struggles’ in the present historical epoch.

But it is the fact that we are living in a different historical epoch than Marx and Engels which enables communists today to make opposition to ‘national liberation’ struggles a key element in any revolutionary world view. Marx and Engels were writing in the period of capitalism’s historical ascendancy. In that period the bourgeoisie was still a progressive and revolutionary class struggling against the fetters of feudal domination. Inevitably the bourgeois revolution against feudalism took on a national form. In order to break down the barriers to trade imposed by feudal local autonomy, customs duties, manorial rights, guilds, etc., the bourgeoisie had to unify itself on a national scale. Lenin was well aware of this when he wrote:

Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose populations speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Unity and the unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism. Therefore the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which the requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied.” (Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1914)

From the formation of the citizen’s army in the French Revolution to the Italian Risorgimento, from the American War of Independence to the Civil War, the bourgeois revolution took the form of national liberation struggles against the reactionary kingdoms and classes left over from feudalism (the US slave owners were an exceptional case but still constituted a reactionary obstacle to capitalist development in America). These struggles had the essential aim of destroying the decaying political superstructures of feudalism and sweeping away the petty parochialism and self-sufficiency, which were holding back the unifying march of capitalism:

As scientific socialists, who based their opposition to capitalism on material and not moral grounds, Marx and Engels understood that socialism was an impossibility until capitalism had developed a real world market and the proletariat had become a truly international class. In their era, capitalist commodity relations were still the only basis for the progressive development of the productive forces. It is from this standpoint alone that revolutionaries of that time could give support to movements of national liberation. While there was not yet a fully developed world market, while a global industrial infrastructure had not yet been laid down, while the system was still expanding into the huge pre-capitalist regions of the world which existed then, and while the bourgeoisie was still capable of fighting feudalism and absolutism, it was necessary for the workers’ movement to play an active part in those national liberation struggles which were laying the material foundations for a future socialist revolution. And, indeed, in that epoch there was a genuine feeling of solidarity among the working class for a number of national liberation wars. The English textile workers, despite the hardships and unemployment caused by the American Civil War (the result of the blockade of cotton exports) gave their wholehearted support to the North and campaigned against the British ruling class’ tacit complicity with the Southern slave owners. In 1860, the dockers of Liverpool worked unpaid on Saturday afternoons to load supplies for Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily. Such attitudes contrast sharply with the workers’ present day indifference or hostility to the Left’s campaigns of support for nationalist movements.

But two things distinguished the revolutionary proletarian attitude to national wars in that period. First and foremost, communists did not recognize any abstract ‘right’ to national self-determination applying to all nations at all times.

National movements were supported only when they were seen to be contributing to a progressive development of world capitalism. For Marx and Engels one of the main criteria for judging whether or not a national movement was progressive was whether or not it challenged the power of Russian absolutism, which at that time was the bulwark of reaction on the whole continent of Europe – reaction not only against communism but also against bourgeois democracy, liberalism and national unification. Thus the German and Polish national movements were given support, while a number of Slavic nationalisms were opposed as reactionary because they were dominated by pre-capitalist classes and were being used by Tsarism to strengthen and extend Russian absolutism. Similarly in the capitalist colonies, while condemning colonial plunder and exploitation, communists did not rally to the support of every uprising by native lords and chieftains against the new imperialist masters. On the rising led by Ahmed Arabi Pasha against the British in Egypt, Engels wrote to Bernstein in 1882:

I think we can well be on the side of the oppressed fellahs without sharing their monetary illusions (a peasant people has to be cheated for centuries before it becomes aware of it through experience), and to be against the English brutalities without at the same time siding with their military adversaries of the moment.”

Such movements were seen as attempts by native feudal or Asiatic despots to maintain their hold over ‘their’ peasants rather than as expressions of a revolutionary national bourgeoisie. On the other hand some popular colonial revolts – such as in China – were supported insofar as they seemed to provide a basis for an independent national capitalist development free of colonial domination, or as possible detonators to the class struggle in the oppressor country. This latter criterion was particularly applied to Ireland, where Marx considered that England’s domination of that nation was having the effect of retarding the class struggle in England and diverting class consciousness into national chauvinism.

We do not propose to enter into a discussion about whether or not Marx and Engels were right or wrong to give support to this or that national movement. In some cases, such as Ireland, the possibility for national liberation had already been crushed when Marx was still advocating it; in other cases, the support given to national movements has been ably vindicated by subsequent experience. What is important is to understand the framework according to which communists judged whether national movements were progressive or not. They did not base their judgements on the ‘feelings’ of oppressed peoples, nor on an eternal ‘right’ to national self-determination, nor even on the particular conditions obtaining in any given country. “Their taking up of such positions, correct or mistaken, were invariably determined in relation to an immovable axis: that which on a world scale favoured the maturation of the conditions for proletarian revolution was progressive and had to be supported by the workers.” (M. Berard, Rupture avec Lutte Ouvrière et le Trotskysme, Revolution Internationale, 1973)

Secondly, communists understood the capitalist nature of national liberation struggles. They therefore understood the need for the proletariat to maintain a strict political independence from the bourgeoisie even when the workers were supporting the bourgeoisie’s struggles against absolutism. There were no confusions about nationalist struggles led by bourgeois factions having a capacity to establish ‘socialism’ or ‘workers’ states’ in however deformed a way, which is one of the great mystifications of Stalinism and Trotskyism (such theoretical monstrosities are based on the idea that Stalinist regimes in China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc, have a working class character). In the period of the bourgeois revolution, of ascendant capitalism, the proletariat was able to maintain its own permanent organizations and thus the strategy of ‘critical support’ by the proletariat for the progressive factions of the bourgeoisie was a possibility. Although there was always the danger – typified in the revolutions of 1848 – that the bourgeoisie would turn on the workers as soon as it felt able to do so, it was still the case that the bourgeoisie often relied on the working class to be the vanguard of national liberation wars, and that in that period the bourgeoisie was able to tolerate the independent existence of mass working class organisations within capitalism. The struggle of the working class for ‘democratic freedoms’ – right of assembly, press, trade unions, etc. – was not then the sham it is in the era of decadence when the bourgeoisie is unable to grant any real reforms to the proletariat. There was thus some possibility for the working class to engage in national wars for its own purposes and not as mere cannon fodder for the bourgeoisie.