Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism, by Robert Dorn (DR O'Connor Lysaght), 1973

Communism and the National Question

The Debate on the Irish National Question

Appendix I: Communists on the Nation

Appendix II: Documents of the Left Opposition (YS) and RMG on the Irish National Question

Communism and the National Question
The workers' struggle to achieve the classless stateless society is worldwide. It cannot be limited within the boundaries of any one state or among the people of any ethnic group. Communism, Scientific Socialism, Marxism or Bolshevik-Leninism, as it is variously known, recognises this. Accordingly, those who adhere to it operate to an international strategy and within an international organisation: The Fourth International.

But, in doing so, they have to face many problems. The uneven and combined economic, political and social development of different areas of the world has created over and above the basic social struggle of class against class, variations upon the form of that struggle within different areas and involving the exploitation and oppression of peoples whose categories overlap those of class.

One of the strongest of such groupings is that of the nation. It has been described, definitively in the Bolshevik primer on the subject by JV Stalin.

‘A historically evolved, stable community of language, terri-tory, economic life, and psychological make-up, manifested in a community of culture.’ Note

The nation and the modern proletariat have one thing in common; both are the product of Capitalist development. The workers grew in number as the capitalists accumulated their surplus value by increasing pauperisation, thus providing themselves with a pool of labour to exploit through the wage system. The nation was developed by the capitalists' need for a commodity market under their own control. Without this not only would the wage system not have got beyond its embryo form, but capital itself could not be amassed effectively except by methods that only would be developed out of the experiences of its later period. The early capitalists, then, had to create themselves a secure market.

Its security was ensured by its stability (a home market could scarcely develop under conditions of civil war), its common language and territory. In turn, these created a common economic life, and ‘psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture’.

The needs created by the forms of capitalist accumulation are not always, formally, the same (in under-developed workers' states accumulation is, of course, done under the plan rather than the market). However, a stable unit of culture, language, territory and economic life is necessary for any economic development before Socialism is achieved.

It can be said that all peoples must go through a national form of unity. However, this is not to say that national societies are already universal. (It seems likely that as much as half the world's population have only been assembled in nations, properly so-called, in the quarter-century since the Chinese revolution.)

Of course national development could not proceed smoothly. In Western Europe, the development of several nations within centuries of each other encouraged national wars. In Eastern Europe, the slow development of capitalism resulted in the appearance of multi-national states. Here, dominant nations (Germans, Hungarians, Great Russians) controlled but could not assimilate a number of nationalities, until the development of capitalism gave these latter the impetus to establish their own independent national states.

Outside Europe, the national question was complicated in a way similar to its Eastern European development. But by the time capital-ism had developed to the extent of igniting national feeling in Africa and Asia, it had reached its highest stage: Imperialism. In less than a century, the peoples of the earth were divided between the established nations, before being given formal (or achieving by force of arms, real) political independence. This process has hastened the development of national consciousness throughout the world

It is now foreseeable that all peoples will know national status within a generation. However, in turn, this will merely be the prelude to a greater international consciousness.

If the nations developed from the same processes as did the working class, the two phenomena's claims are not identical. On the one hand, the nation includes all classes within itself, once it has been formed. On the other hand, its demands can be, and often are in blatant opposition to those of the other nations, setting worker against worker.

Nationalism, then, cannot be reconciled with internationalism and is not to be confused with it. That it can be so is because the facts of the class struggle do not allow the simple counterposing of workers' demands to national demands. The international working class cannot ignore the claims of a nation when it is oppressed. If it does so, bitter experience has shown two dangers. The first is that it will thus merely alienate its members in the oppressed nation and force them into the arms of the nation's bourgeoisie who will take the lead in the national struggles. (The experience of the Irish workers from 1916 to 1924 is relevant here.) On the other hand, it will be acting in a complacent manner to the counter-revolutionary chauvinism of the oppressor nation's workers. Of course, opportunists in the working-class movement will support their nations' claims, even where they are the oppressors of others, on the plea that other-wise they will lose their workers to their local bourgeoisies. However, in doing so, they, too, endanger their workers' real interests. They encourage among them desires that can only be satisfied by the exploitation and oppression of other nations and demands that their local capitalists can always trump. At the same time by aiding and abetting national oppression, they are cultivating hostility towards their own nation among the nation or nations oppressed.

A further twist is provided by the fact that, occasionally, what would otherwise be a valid claim of a nation against oppression would, if granted, have disastrous effects on the course of the international class struggle. One example of this was the claim of the French Republic to the restoration to it of Alsace-Lorraine between 1871 and 1914. This was, in itself, a valid national claim; by occupying the territories claimed, Germany was committing a real act of oppression against France. Nonetheless Marxists could not support any attempt by France to undo the wrong by force – albeit as a war of liberation. Both the powers concerned were major, eventually imperialist, powers with international alliances. A ‘war of liberation of Alsace-Lorraine’ could not stop there; the peace of the whole world would be endangered by it. A second example of a national claim at once valid and counter revolutionary was the expansion of Germany in 1938: the Anschluss with Austria and the occupation of the Sudetenland. Both events were arguably (the first certainly,) the satisfaction of legitimate national claims. Nonetheless both meant the consolidation of Fascist power and the recognisable advance of the world towards war. These objective considerations overruled talk of self--determination for proletarian internationalists. However, here, the nature of Nazi Germany made the choice obvious for Marxists. Moreover, the occupation of the Baltic States and of parts of Finland was not self-determination by the Russians. However, they did perform a progressive function over and above the right of self-determination; the workers' state's right to protect itself from a Nazi threat. As such they were supported by such Marxist critics of the existing soviet regime as Leon Trotsky. But it must be said :that such breaches of the principle of support for oppressed nations are to be understood correctly as tactical: that they are forced upon Communists by the facts of the revolutionary struggle and that they will be rectified with that struggle's inevitably victorious conclusion.

In general, then, except under specific material circumstances, the Communists are in support of the democratic claims of oppressed nations, whether to independence, to a more equitable drawing of boundaries, to the ending of oppression of their culture or to the abatement of any other specific abuse. Beyond that Communists cannot go: once the national claims step over the objective border surrounding the nation concerned, the oppressed nation has become itself an oppressor. Marx and Engels supported the German people's right to a united state. But when the German capitalists added to their new empire by seizing the French territories of Alsace and Eastern Lorraine, these Communist leaders denounced those they had supported critically the previous day.

Support of the democratic claims of an oppressed nation is not to be denied leaders of the workers of that nation – always within the limits set above. But again, they cannot stop at this any more than the bourgeois leaders can. Whereas the bourgeois nationalists place their national claims over and above what is objectively democratic, the Communists place their revolutionary and international duties over their national ones. Not only must they withdraw from even the democratic struggle on those rare occasions where it weakens the international strength of the workers, but they must also go beyond the achievement of the most democratic self-determined national state. 0nce that is achieved, once the oppressive power has withdrawn its claims, the Communists must support, if not take the lead in, making any demand that their nation's state fuse as an equal with the now democratic ex-oppressor, or with any suitable or likely partner. In this way the people of Tsarist Russia, once liberated, first established their independent states and then (albeit with some exceptions) fused themselves voluntarily into the present Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Under imperialism, when the end of the political oppression merely means the continuation of economic exploitation by other means, this is only likely to be practicable under exceptional circumstances. Nonetheless the Communists must continue to struggle against any satisfaction with the national state, against national pride, and against feeling of hostility to other peoples.

These are merely general remarks on the Communist method of handling national questions. Over and above them is the duty – in this matter as much as in any other – to apply it in full consideration of the facts of each case.

For other quotations to clarify this theory of the nation see Appendix I. Back

Forward to Part 2

Back to Irish Trotskyism



Any constructive comments/suggestions regarding this site? Please direct them to: Matt Kelly