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

Appendix I: Communists on the Nation
Scientific Socialism – Marxism – is international in scope, both in its aims and in the objective circumstances for achieving them. This does not mean that a revolution can only be successful if it is carried out at one moment on an international scale. Leon Trotsky has been, most often, reported, inaccurately, as arguing this. However, he made his position to the contrary quite clear.

‘We had a socialist revolution in the Soviet Union. I participated in it. The Socialist revolution signifies the seizure of power by a revolutionary class, by the proletariat. Of course, it cannot be accomplished simultaneously in all countries. Some historic time is given for every country by its conditions. A socialist revolution is not only possible but inevitable in every country. What I affirm is that it is impossible to construct a socialist society in the environment of a capitalist world.’ ‘On the Eve of World War II’ – Interview 23.7.39, from Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-1939), New York, 1969 Merit Publishers.

Subsequently Trotsky reinforced this statement:

‘Help comes to him who helps himself. Workers must develop the revolutionary struggle in every country, colonial or imperialist, where favourable conditions have been established, and through this set an example for the workers of other countries. Only initiative and activity, resoluteness and boldness can give reality to the call 'Workers of the world, unite'. – Manifesto on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution, 1940.

What proletarian internationalism does mean is that socialist revolutionaries in each country strive against developing the national demands of their working classes into policies complete in themselves or into spheres where they will alienate the workers of other nations from true internationalism. Lenin, the great authority on this, wrote in ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’:

‘Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just', purest, most inspired and civilized brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers' association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims).

‘The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historic legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.

‘The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist's bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the 'positive' activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.

‘To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as: a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a borderline here, which is often very slight. . . .’ – Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, pp.27-28, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1967.

Later, in his article. ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, he deals with the matter again:

‘The proletariat . . . while recognising equality and equal rights to a national state . . . values above all and places foremost the alliance of !the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national preparation, from the angle of the workers' class struggle.’

And: ‘The International's resolution reproduces the most essential and fundamental propositions in this point of view: on the one hand, the absolutely direct, unequivocal recognition of the full right of all nations to self-determination, on the other hand, the equally unambiguous appeal to the workers for international unity in their class struggle.’

And for James Connolly:

‘Under Socialism, states, territories or provinces will exist only as geographical expressions, and have no existence as sources of governmental power, though they may be seats of administrative bodies.’ – Socialism Made Easy, Plough Book Service, 1971, p.40.

What does this mean in practice? Connolly never defined his concept of a nation. (He seems to have confused ‘Nation’ with ‘Race’.) Lenin accepted (indeed, he may even have inspired JV Stalin's definition:

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

'. . . like every other historical phenomenon (it) is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end.’

This cannot develop before the rise of capitalism. As Lenin remarked: ‘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 population 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. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

‘Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards the goal and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period.’ – Lenin op cit. pp.46-47.

But economic differences – the law of combined and uneven development – mean that all nations do not appear at the same moment in time. To quote Stalin again:

‘The British, French, Germans, Italians and others formed themselves into nations at the time of the victorious advances of capitalism and its triumph over feudal disunity.

‘But the formation of nations in these instances at the same time signified their conversion into independent national states. The British, French, and other nations at the same time, British, French, etc., states. Ireland, which did not participate in this process does not alter the general picture.

‘Matters proceeded somewhat differently in Eastern Europe. While in the West the nations developed into states, in the East multi-national states were formed, each consisting of several nationalities. Such are Austria-Hungary and Russia. In Austria, the Germans proved to be politically the most developed, and they took it upon themselves to amalgamate the Austrian nationalities into a state. In Hungary, the most adapted for state organisation were the Magyars – -the kernel of the Hungarian nationalities – and it was they who united Hungary. In Russia, the role of the welder of nationalities was assumed by the Great Russians, who were headed by an aristocratic military bureaucracy, which had been historically formed and was powerful and well organised.

‘Such was the case in the East. This peculiar method of formation of states could take place only where feudalism had not yet been eliminated, where capitalism was feebly developed, where the nationalities which had been forced into the background had not yet been able to consolidate themselves economically into integrated nations.

‘But capitalism also began to develop in the Eastern states. Trade and means of communication were developing. Large towns were springing up. The nations were becoming economically consolidated. Capitalism, erupting into the tranquil life of the ousted nationalities, was arousing them and stirring them into action. The development of the press and the theatre, the activity of the Reichstat (Austria) and of the Duma (Russia) were helping to strengthen 'national sentiments'. The intelligentsia that had arisen was being imbued with 'the national idea' and was acting in the same direction.

‘But the ousted nations, aroused to independent life, could no longer shape themselves into independent national states, they encountered the powerful resistance of the ruling strata of the dominant nations, which had long ago assumed the control of the state. They were too late!

‘In this way the Czechs, Poles, etc., formed themselves into nations in Austria; the Croats, etc., in Hungary; the Letts, the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, etc., in Russia. What had been an exception in Western Europe (Ireland) became the rule in the East.

‘In the West, Ireland responded to its exceptional position by a national movement. In the East, the awakened nations were bound to respond in the same fashion.’

Similarly, in Asia, national demands were made after the appearance of the Western European nation-state.

‘The revolutions in Russia, Persia, Turkey and China, the Balkan wars – such is the chain of world events of our period in our 'Orient'. And only a blind man could fail to see in this chain of events the awakening of a whole series of bourgeois-democratic national movements which strive to create nationally independent and nationally uniform states.’ – Lenin op. cit. p.56.

The stimulus for the Asiatic national movements and for the subsequent struggles that they had to fight was not the growth of capitalism within a multi-nation state, but of course, the development of the capitalism of established national capitalist states into imperialism. As Lenin wrote, in his analysis of this phenomena:

‘The characteristic feature of the period under review is the final partition of the globe – final, not in the sense that a repartition is impossible, on the contrary, repartitions are possible and inevitable – but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet.’ – Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, p.90, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1969.

The reasons for this are simple:

‘The principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism is the domination of monopolist combines, of the big capitalists. These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are captured by one group, and we have seen with what zeal the international capitalist combines exert every effort to make it impossible for their rivals to compete with them by buying up, for example, iron ore fields, oil fields, etc. Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle with competitors, including the contingency that the latter will defend themselves by means of a law establishing a state monopoly. The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate is the struggle for the acquisition of colonies.’ p.98.

‘Finance capital is interested not only in the already discovered sources of raw materials, but also in potential sources, because present--day technical development is extremely rapid, and land which is useless today may be made fertile tomorrow if new methods are applied (to devise these new methods a big bank can equip a special expedition of engineers, agricultural experts, etc.), and if large amounts of capital are invested. This also applies to prospecting for minerals, to new methods of working up and utilising raw materials, etc., etc. Hence the inexorable striving of finance capital to enlarge its economic territory and even its territory in general. In the same way that the trusts capitalise their property at two or three times its value, taking into account its 'potential' (and not present) profits and the further results of monopoly, so finance capital strives in general to seize the largest possible amount of land of all kinds in all places, and by every means, taking into, account potential sources of raw materials and fearing to be left behind in the fierce struggle for the last scraps of undivided territory, or for the recognition of those that have already been divided.

‘The interests pursued in exporting capital also give an impetus to the conquest of colonies, for in the colonial market it is easier to employ monopolist methods (and sometimes they are the only methods that can be employed) to eliminate competition, to make sure of contracts to secure the necessary connections, etc.’ Ibid, pp99-100.

This process was described also, by Leon Trotsky in his article ‘The Nation and the Economy’. (This was denounced by Lenin for its form but its content is relevant):

‘France and Germany in the past period approached a type of nation state. By no means did this prevent their policy of colonialism, nor their present plans to extend their respective frontiers to the Rhine and the Somme. An independent Hungary, Bohemia or Poland will, in exactly the same way, seek an outlet to the sea by means of the violation of the rights of other nations, as Italy is seeking to do at the expense of the Serbs and as the Serbs themselves are seeking at the expense of the Albanians. National democracy is awakened by capitalism which strives to weld as many elements of nations as possible into one economic unit. But it is this very capitalism which strives everywhere it sets down its roots to expand the limits of the internal market as widely as possible, to create as many favourable outlets as possible to the world market, to impose its domination over regions with an agrarian type of economy. The national principle is for national capitalism neither an absolute idea nor the final crowning of the edifice. It is only the springboard for a new leap – in the direction of world domination. At the present stage of development, the national idea appears as a banner of struggle against feudalism, particularist barbarism or foreign military aggression. In the long term, by creating a self-sufficient psychology of national egoism, it becomes itself a tool of capitalist enslavement of weaker nations: an indispensable tool of imperialist barbarism.’ Nashe Slovo 3.7.15. Reproduced in Marxist Review No. 2, January-February, 1973.

With these facts, in mind:

‘There is every sign that imperialism will leave its successor, Socialism, a heritage of less democratic frontiers, a number of annexations in Europe and in other parts of the world. Is it to be supposed that victorious socialism, restoring and implementing full democracy all along the line, will refrain from democratically demarcating state frontiers and ignore the sympathies of the population?’ – Lenin, Question of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, pp.128-129.

In fact, the Socialist must distinguish between nations. In the World Wars of the twentieth century, the leading participants (apart, by its socialist Government, from the USSR in the Second World War) were all struggling equally as oppressors (as Trotsky pointed out above). But at the same time, there were nations such as the Irish, the Arabs, and the Chinese (and, indeed, many of the oppressor nations that had the misfortune to be occupied, such as the French) whose struggles were on a different level: they were oppressed nations struggling against imperialism (in the first cases) and to complete (or renew) the tasks of historically-bourgeois revolutions. Such struggles had to be supported, albeit conditionally.

‘Limitations of freedom of movement, disenfranchisement, suppression of language, restriction of schools, and other forms of repression affect the workers no less, if not more than the bourgeoisie. Such a state of affairs can only serve to retard the free development of the intellectual forces of the proletariat of subject nations. There can be no possibility of a full development of the intellectual faculties of the Tartar or Jewish worker if he is not allowed to use his native language at meetings and lectures, and if his schools are closed down.

‘But the policy of national repression is dangerous to the cause of the proletariat also on another account. It diverts the attention of large strata of the population from social questions, questions of the class struggle, to national questions, questions 'common' to the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. And this, creates a favourable soil for lying-propaganda regarding 'harmony of interests', for glossing over the class interests of the proletariat and for the intellectual enslavement of the workers. This creates a serious obstacle to the work of uniting the workers of all nationalities. If a considerable proportion of the Polish workers are still in intellectual bondage to the bourgeois nationalists, if they still stand aloof from the international labour movement, it is chiefly because the age-long anti-Polish policy of the 'powers that be' creates the soil for, and hinders the emancipation of the workers from this bondage.

'But the policy of repression does not stop here. It not infrequently passes from a 'system' of oppression to, a 'system' of inciting nations against each other, to a 'system' of massacres and pogroms. Of course, the latter is not everywhere and always possible, but where it is possible – in the absence of elementary civil rights – it frequently assumes horrifying proportions and threatens to drown the cause of unity of workers in blood and tears. The Caucasus and South Russia furnish numerous examples of 'Divide and Rule' – such is the purpose of the policy of inciting nations against each other. And where such a policy succeeds it is tremendous evil for the proletariat and a serious obstacle to the work of uniting the workers

‘But the workers are interested in the complete amalgamation of all their comrades into a single international army, in their speedy and final emancipation from intellectual subjections to the bourgeoisie, and in the full and free development, of the intellectual forces of their brothers, whatever the nation to which they belong.

‘The workers therefore combat and will continue to combat the policy of national oppression in all its forms, subtle or crude, as also the policy of inciting nations against each other in all its forms.’

Thus Stalin (Marxism and the National Question). Lenin is equally definite:

‘In their fear of playing into the hands of the bourgeois national-ism of oppressed nations, people play into the hands, not merely of the bourgeois but of the reactionary nationalism of the oppressor nation.’ – Lenin op. cit. p.10.

'If we do not want to betray socialism we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class. By refusing to support the revolt of annexed regions we become objectively, annexationists. It is precisely in the 'era of imperialism', which is the era of nascent social revolution, that the proletariat will today give especially vigorous support to any revolt of the annexed regions so that tomorrow or simultaneously, it may attack the bourgeoisie of the ‘great' power that is weakened by the revolt.’ Ibid. p.137.

‘In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.’ Ibid. p.168.

And Trotsky agrees:

‘Social Democracy stands always and everywhere for the interests of economic development and opposes all political measures capable of holding it back. However, it understands economic development, not as a self-sufficient, extra-social, productive-technical process, but as the basis for the development of human society into its class groupings, with a national, political superstructure, etc. This view-point leads in the last analysis, not to insuring for local or national capitalism success over the capitalism of other places and countries, but to insuring the historic progress and systematic growth of man's power over nature. The class struggle of the proletariat itself is the most important factor ensuring the further development of the productive forces – by leading them out of the imperialist blind alley into the broad arena of socialism. A state of nationalities and national groups which exists through force (Russia and Austria are examples) may, without doubt for a certain time, develop the productive forces by creating for them a broader internal market. But, by generating the bitter struggle of national groups for influence on the state power, or by working 'separatist' tendencies – that is the struggle for separation from that power – such a state paralyses the class struggle of the proletariat as the most important force of economic and of general historic progress. The workers are deeply interested in the elimination of all artificial frontiers and barriers in the greatest possible extension of a free area of development. But they cannot buy this aim for a kind of price which, above all, disorganises their own historic movement, and thus weakens and lays low the most important force in contemporary society.’ The Nation and the Economy – I.

On this basis both Lenin and Trotsky could approve the Easter Rising. Lenin approved on several occasions the participation of Socialists in national struggles.

‘K. Kautsky . . . opposed Rosa Luxemburg and proved that her materialism was extremely 'one-sided' . . . according to Kautsky, the International could not at the time make the independence of Poland a point of its programme; but the Polish socialists were fully entitled to put forward such a demand. From the socialist's point of view it was undoubtedly a mistake to ignore the tasks of national liberation in a situation where national oppression existed.‘ – Lenin op. cit. p.82.

‘The working class should be the last to make a fetish of the national question, since the development of capitalism does not necessarily awaken all nations to independent life. But to brush aside the mass national struggles once they have started, and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means, in effect, pandering to nationalistic prejudices, that is recognising 'one's own nation' as a model nation or, we would add, possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state.’ – Ibid. p.87.

‘We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat's great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crises.’ Ibid. p.162.

To defeat the reactionary tendencies that exist in the national claims of even an oppressed nation, Lenin declared:

‘A Social-Democrat from a small nation must emphasise in his agitation the second word in our general formula: 'voluntary integration' of nations. He may, without failing in his duties as an internationalist, be in favour of both the political independence of his nation and its integration with the neighbouring states of X, Y, Z, etc. But in all cases he must act first against small-nation narrow-mindedness, seclusion and isolation, consider the whole and the general, subordinate the particular to, the general interest.’ Ibid. p.152.

In his 1915 article quoted above, Trotsky put forward the call for a United States of Europe in a desperate attempt to encourage internationalism on the part of the national movements of the workers.

Connolly can be seen not to have opposed this line (as some have claimed he did): he made it clear that the Irish national revolt was but the beginning of a European Socialist one:

‘Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.’ – Irish Worker, 8th August, 1914.

In the second place, the revolutionary socialist in the oppressed country has a duty to maintain the democratic nature of that country's national struggle.

‘The proletariat demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any one of the nations within the bounds of the state. In order not to infringe the right to self-determination, therefore, we are duty-bound . . . to vote for the right of the seceding region to decide the question itself.‘ – Lenin, op. cit. p.9.

‘The right to secession presupposes the settlement of the question by a parliament (Diet, referendum, etc.) of the seceding region, not by a central parliament.’ – Ibid. p.100.

‘By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression – the possibility becomes reality only – 'only'! – with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the 'sympathies' of the population, including complete freedom to secede. And this, in turn will serve as a basis for developing the practical elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations that will be completed when the state withers away.’ p.130.

‘The national programme of working class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods; the promulgation of a law for the whole state by virtue of which any measure (rural, urban or communal, etc., etc.) introducing privilege of any kind for one of the nations and militating against the equality of nations or the rights of a national minority shall be declared illegal and ineffective, and any citizen of the state shall have the right to demand that such a measure be annulled as unconstitutional, and that those who attempt to put it into effect be punished’ – p.15.


‘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, we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’ – p.62.

In the last resort application of the principles of self-determination are dependent on the Marxist analysis of the specific circumstances of their spheres of action:

‘There can be no question of the Marxists of any country drawing up their national programme without taking into account all these general historical and concrete state conditions.’ – Lenin, Ibid. p.52.

‘The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement, but it would be ridiculous to delete the demand for a republic from the programme of international Social-Democracy on these grounds.’ – Ibid. p.146.

‘No democratic demand can fail to give rise to abuses, unless the specific is subordinated to the general; we are not obliged to support either 'any' struggle for independence or 'any' republican or anti-clerical movement. Secondly, no formula for the struggle against national oppression can fail to suffer from the same 'shortcoming'. – Ibid. p.154.

It is in the manner defined above that Marxists must formulate their tasks in reference to the national question in Ireland.

Forward to Appendix II, Document A

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