In the ascendant epoch, then, given certain guiding principles, there could be a debate within the workers’ movement about which national struggles to support. After 1914, as capitalism decisively entered its period of decline, its permanent historic crisis, the inevitable disjunction between objective conditions and the proletariat’s subjective awareness of these conditions prolonged the debate within the revolutionary camp. Some fundamental class lines – such as the need to destroy the bourgeois state – had already been assimilated by the revolutionaries of the late nineteenth century (after the experience of the Paris Commune). But other such class lines could only be definitively laid down through the bitter experience of the first imperialist world war and the revolutionary wave that followed. The counterrevolutionary role of unions, parliamentarianism, and Social Democracy was firmly established during the course of these events. But even so, during that hectic time, it was possible for an organisation to have a fundamentally revolutionary character and still retain profound illusions as to the nature of these institutions. As long as the revolutionary impetus of the whole class still retained a spark of life, it was possible for the mistakes and confusions of the class’s political emanations to be continually rectified in the light of proletarian experience; it is only with the final disappearance of the revolutionary wave that the class lines between organizations become firmly established, and what were once mistakes become the normal policies of counter-revolutionary tendencies. In this way the Bolsheviks were able for a time to lead the world revolutionary movement despite their lack of clarity on a number of questions; but their inability to learn all the lessons of the new period was equally to contribute to their becoming instruments of counter-revolution. This was the case not only with the question of unions, parliament, and Social Democracy where the Bolsheviks under the pressure of mounting counterrevolution attempted to apply formulae suitable only to the previous era, but also on the national question.
In effect, the discussion on the national question was being reopened some time before the new period had been unambiguously inaugurated by the imperialist world war. After 1871 the bourgeoisie of the major capitals no longer engaged in national wars of the old kind; the imperialist thrust of the latter part of the nineteenth century represented the rapid movement of capitalism towards its pinnacle – but the nearer it hurtled towards that point, the nearer also it approached its decline. The accelerating imperialist scramble of the pre-war decades, the intensification of economic problems, the rising tide of class struggle, were all-important signs of the approach of a new era, signs that were noted and discussed in the workers’ movement in the 1890s and early l900s.
Thus, for example, Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to Polish national independence in that period was based on an understanding that the nature of Russia had changed since Marx’s day. Russia was now fast developing as a major capitalist nation, while the Polish bourgeoisie now had its interests linked to Russian capitalism. At the same time, the possibility of a class alliance between the Polish and Russian working class was opened up, and Luxemburg insisted that Social Democracy should do all in its power to cement this alliance, not campaign for the isolation of the Polish workers under the ‘independent’ exploitation of the Polish bourgeoisie. But still she held that the immediate task of the Polish and Russian working class was the establishment of a unified, democratic republic, not socialist revolution. Moreover she gave wholehearted support to the national rising of the Greeks against the Turks in 1896, and asserted in Reform or Revolution (1898) that the era of capitalism’s historic crisis had not yet opened up. Her differences with the rest of Social Democracy were still in the realm of strategy, a discussion about the best outcome of world events for the workers within capitalist society. The perspective of an immediate revolutionary unification of the world proletariat had not yet been realistically posed.
Nevertheless, the debates within Social Democracy at that time were an expression of changing historical conditions. On the one hand, Luxemburg’s ideas show a real understanding of the need to adapt to these changes. On the other hand, the sclerosis of the Social Democratic establishment not only showed an inability to understand new developments, but also showed signs of regressing in relation to the coherence of the 1st International. This regression was more or less inevitable given the context, of Social Democracy’s function in the workers’ movement. The main task of Social Democracy was to fight for reforms in the period of capitalist stability in the advanced countries; and the struggle for reforms took place on a specifically national terrain. Since the national bourgeoisie could concede reforms it became easy for the reformists to argue that the workers indeed had a plethora of mutual interests with their own nation. In 1896 the 2nd International began to adopt the fatal formula of a right of nations to self-determination, applicable to all peoples. The consequences of this were to become very clear in the ensuing decades.