Marx, Engels and Lenin on the national question

By Norm Dixon

Norm Dixon is a member of the National Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party and a journalist for the newspaper Green Left Weekly.

The struggle of oppressed nations for national liberation remains one of the most burning issues in the world today. Most oppressed nations have won their right to self-determination. However, despite their formal independence, they remain subject to national oppression at the hands of transnational capital and imperialist banks. The struggle for national liberation has shifted overwhelmingly to demands to end the Third World's subservience to the dictates of the World Bank and IMF, rejection of the austerity programs formulated by these imperialist-controlled institutions, and the demand to cancel foreign debt. As a result, the labour and socialist movements are more centrally placed and essential in the struggle for national liberation than ever before.

Because national liberation struggles remain fundamental, socialists need to understand the national question if they are to make sense of the world, provide leadership and correctly determine their attitude and response to many international events.

Leon Trotsky, a central leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, once described the national struggle as "one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle".

The recognition that national struggles arise from, and reflect, the class struggle led the Marxist movement, beginning with Marx and Engels, to develop the most thorough and consistent theory of the national question.

Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels themselves introduced the essential pillars of the Marxist theory of the national question in their writings, although the detailed elaboration and development of the theory were later carried out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written in late 1847, Marx and Engels explained that the coming into existence of nations was the result of class struggle, specifically of the capitalist class's attempts to overthrow the institutions of the former ruling class and the forces based upon them and establish the economic, social and political conditions most conducive to their class needs. Prior to capitalism, nations did not exist.

This is how Marx and Engels put it:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment"...

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...

The bourgeoisie ... has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier and one customs tariff.1

1848-49 revolutions

Marx and Engels' early writings on the national question—such as in the Manifesto—were made against the back drop of their active involvement in the great democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848-49.

In February 1848, the French people overthrew the king and proclaimed a republic. Encouraged by the events in France, an uprising broke out in Vienna, the capital of the Austrian empire, on March 13. On March 18, Berlin, the capital of Prussia, revolted. The Austrian emperor was forced to promise a constitution. A capitalist opposition government came to power in Prussia. The peoples' gains in Vienna and Berlin intensified the revolutionary movement in other German states as well.

In Italy, also in March, the people of Milan expelled the Austrian army. The masses of Venice, Piedmont and Rome rose in revolt too.

The roots of the 1848-49 revolutions lay in the sharpening contradictions between rising capitalism and the surviving feudal order that still prevailed in most of central and eastern Europe. The most powerful representatives of the old order were the Austrian empire of the Hapsburgs, Prussia and, behind them, the tsarist autocracy in Russia.

The main goal of the revolutions was to overthrow the absolute monarchies, abolish feudal landed estates, throw off foreign rule and establish united nation-states in which the capitalist class ruled.

At this time, Marx and Engels believed the bourgeoisie could play a historically progressive role by sweeping away feudalism, despite clear signals that it was prepared to compromise with the old order because it feared the power of the growing working class that allied itself to the anti-feudal struggle.

Marx and Engels insisted the working class also had a stake in the overthrow of the old order, and in stiffening the resolve of the bourgeoisie. This is because, the Communist Manifesto points out: "Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement".2

Referring to the struggle in Germany at the time, Marx and Engels explained that this meant the working class must "fight [together] with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie".3

The unification of Germany, divided politically and economically, was the basic issue of the revolution. It was in the interests of the working class to be the most militant supporters of the bourgeoisie at this stage because it would bring into being conditions that make the task of socialist revolution that much easier:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie—i.e., capital—is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed-a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital...

But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more ... The collisions between individual work[ers] and individual [bosses] take more and more the character of collisions between two classes...

The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers ... What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.4

National liberation

Marx and Engels recognised that the 1848 revolutions were both bourgeois-democratic revolutions and struggles for national liberation. The key struggles centred on the German capitalist class's struggle to take control of the various German princedoms under the sway of the central European empire of the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy and create a unified German state. The Hapsburg empire was also threatened by revolutionary separatist outbreaks in its Italian and Hungarian outposts.

Independence for Poland was a key demand of Marx and Engels and the most advanced democrats. Poland had been partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia since 1795. Tsarist troops crushed a revolution there in 1830. Poles in the nominally independent district of Krakov again rose in 1846, and a radical government proclaimed the abolition of feudal dues and the redistribution of land. Krakov was recaptured and annexed to Austria.

Marx and Engels fought against chauvinist circles in the German bourgeoisie who later sought to claim that part of Poland formerly controlled by Prussia. Their position on Poland was based on their recognition that there were oppressor and oppressed nations, and oppressed nations should be given the right to self-determination in order to strengthen the struggle against reaction.

In a speech in London in November 1847—before the outbreak of revolution—to commemorate the 1830 Polish revolt, Engels asked permission to speak as a German. He then continued:

We Germans have a particular interest in the liberation of Poland. German princes have profited from the partition of Poland and German soldiers are still exercising oppression in Galicia and Posen [parts of Poland]. It must be the concern of us Germans, above all, of us German democrats, to remove this stain from our nation. A nation cannot be free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations. Thus Germany cannot be liberated without the liberation of Poland from oppression by Germans. And for this reason Poland and Germany have a common interest, for this reason Polish and German democrats can work together for the liberation of both nations.5

While Marx and Engels in 1848-49 recognised the existence of oppressor and oppressed nations and supported the right of oppressed nations to national self-determination, most concretely in the case of Poland, their support of this right was not based on some abstract notion of universal justice. It was based on concrete historical analysis of each national movement at the time and on what role each played in the life and death fight taking place between the two main class camps.

Nations and history

In his introduction to the Penguin collection of Marx's writings, The Revolutions of 1848, David Fernbach accuses Marx and Engels—Engels in particular—of a "general great-nation chauvinism" based, he claims, on "the major miscalculation that the smaller peoples of Europe were doomed by the logic of history, and had irrevocably lost their autonomy".

Is this the case? Marx and Engels supported the national struggles of the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples—the so-called "great historic nations"—because each had developed to the stage where their struggle for national unity and independence from the reactionary powers was politically viable and progressive. Their victory would hasten the demise of feudalism and speed the arrival of socialism.

Nations, as Marx and Engels outlined in the Communist Manifesto, are formed as a result of definite internal processes that cannot be wished into existence. Of the various peoples who were involved in the 1848 revolutions, only the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples had completed such necessary internal processes and succeeded in forming nations.

Engels pointed out the character of these processes in an 1848 speech to commemorate the 1846 Krakov uprising:

Poland's last struggle against her foreign oppressors was preceded by a hidden, unseen but decisive struggle inside Poland herself; the struggle of the oppressed Poles against the oppressing Poles, of Polish democracy against Polish aristocracy ... The Polish aristocracy completely separated from the people and [were] thrown into the arms of their country's oppressors; the Polish people were wholly won over to the cause of democracy; and finally the struggle of class against class, which is the prime mover of all social progress, established Poland just as it is here.6

Other peoples involved in the revolutions who had yet to go through such nation-forming processes were politically and socially backward and sided with the counter-revolution. These peoples were referred to as the southern Slavs. They included the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Bulgarians. The reactionary powers promoted a pseudo-nationalist movement, "pan-Slavism", in order to exploit and incite these ethnic and language groups against the European revolution. Engels' response to this movement, and those like the anarchic Bakuninists who attempted to find a democratic component to the movement, was vehement:

"Justice", "humanity", "freedom", "fraternity", "independence"—so far we have found nothing in the pan-Slavist manifesto but these more or less ethical categories, which sound very fine, it is true, but prove absolutely nothing in historical and political questions. "Justice", "humanity", "freedom" etc. may demand this or that a thousand times over; but if a thing is impossible it does not take place and in spite of everything remains an "empty figment of a dream".7

Engels' view was based on the firm materialist reasoning that the various southern Slav peoples were not yet nations—were not oppressed as nations—and therefore could not exercise a self-determination independent of the reactionary Prussia-Austria-Russia axis.

The revolution of 1848 compelled all European peoples to declare themselves for or against it. In the course of a month all the peoples ripe for revolution had made their revolution, and all those which were not ripe had allied themselves against the revolution. At that time it was a matter of disentangling the confused tangle of peoples of eastern Europe. The question was which nation would seize the revolutionary initiative here, and which nation would develop the greatest revolutionary energy and thereby safeguard its future. The Slavs remained silent, the Germans and Magyars [Hungarians], faithful to their previous historical position, took the lead. As a result, the Slavs were thrown completely into the arms of the counter-revolution.8

Engels' assessment of the legitimacy of the national demands of the various movements was not based on any "general great nation chauvinism", as Fernbach claims, but on a correct analysis of the concrete historical and political conditions of 1848-49.

But it is true that Engels underestimated the possibility that the various Slav peoples—and other groups such as the Bretons, Basques and Scots—could develop into nations in the future. (At this point, he did not foresee a long period of capitalist development.) Writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1849, he dismissed the southern Slavs as "nothing but the residual fragments of peoples [who] always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character".9

In another article, he went even further:

Apart from the Poles, the Russians and at most the Turkish Slavs, no Slav people has a future, for the simple reason that all the other Slavs lack the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability.10

While Engels noted the capitalist tendency towards centralisation and the establishment of large states, he underestimated the countervailing tendency for small nations to fight against national oppression and for independent states of their own—that the path to the elimination of national boundaries might first have to go through a proliferation of them—a fact that Lenin was later to recognise.

That Engels' dismissal of the possibility of the future national development of the Slav peoples was premature, should have been signalled by the awakening of the Czechs, who launched a democratic uprising in Prague in mid-1848. Engels himself in Neue Rheinische Zeitung reported that the uprising was a democratic revolution directed not only against Austrian oppression, but also against the Czech feudal lords. When Austrian troops massacred Czechs, they, not surprisingly, were chased into the arms of tsarist Russia. The democratic revolution not only lost a potential ally, but its main foe was also strengthened.

Engels used the Prague events to explain why revolutionists must support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination:

A nation which throughout its history [Germany] has allowed itself to be used as a tool of oppression against all other nations must first of all prove that it has been really revolutionised ... A revolutionised Germany ought to have renounced her entire past, especially as far as the neighbouring nations are concerned. Together with her own freedom, she should have proclaimed the freedom of the nations hitherto suppressed by her.

And what has revolutionised Germany done? She has fully endorsed the old oppression of Italy, Poland and now of Bohemia, too, by German troops ... And the Germans, after this, demand that Czechs should trust them?

Are the Czechs to be blamed for not wanting to join a nation that oppresses and maltreats other nations, while liberating itself?11

Irish question

Another key aspect of the self-determination question that Marx and Engels recognised was the potential political corruption of the working class of the oppressor nation. This was best expressed as Marx's views on the Irish question developed.

Ireland had been colonised by England for centuries, and since 1801 had been forcibly incorporated in a union with England. Marx first believed that Ireland would not be freed by the national movement of the oppressed Irish people but by the revolutionary movement of the English working class.

But the English workers' movement came under the influence of bourgeois liberals for a long period and became politically paralysed. In the meantime, the ruthless plundering of the country by the English rulers had stimulated a bourgeois national liberation movement in Ireland which began to take on a revolutionary momentum.

In a letter to Engels in 1867, Marx commented: "I used to regard Ireland's separation from England as impossible ... I now think it inevitable, although federation may follow separation."12

In April 1870, Marx explained how the colonisation of Ireland retarded the development of class consciousness of the English workers:

All English industrial and commercial centres now possess a working class split into two hostile camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself...

[Therefore] ... it is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland . I long believed it was possible to overthrow the Irish regime by way of the English working class ascendancy . A deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never achieve anything before it has got rid of Ireland.13

Marx clearly understood that a working class that supports its ruling class's colonialism is in a bloc with it and cannot properly wage a struggle against it. To be able to defend its own interests, it must first break with its ruling class and actively support the struggle of the oppressed nations. The working class of the oppressor nation must support the right of the oppressed nation to determine its own future, even up to the point of political separation.


It was on the foundations laid by Marx and Engels that Lenin and the Bolsheviks developed the modern, scientific Marxist theory of the national question.

The Bolsheviks' theory was formulated and clarified during a long debate on the international left in the first decades of the 20th century and was tested in practice during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Reformists, like Otto Bauer from Austria, opposed the right to self-determination of oppressed nations and put forward arguments that dismissed the material basis of the national question.

Bauer reduced the criteria for a nation to simply the identification as a member of a national culture; a nation did not require a definite territory, economy or class structure. This non-materialist theory suited the Austrian reformists: it was designed to appease the demands of the various national movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire—by granting them "cultural national autonomy"—without raising uncomfortable demands, such as the right to self-determination, that might threaten the integrity of the empire and the oppressive regime, which united the reactionary Hapsburg monarchy and the Austrian and Hungarian ruling classes.

Lenin's position was the direct opposite, regarding a nation as necessarily connected with territory, economy and class structure. He refused to regard as sacrosanct historical state borders that cut across living nations.

The Leninist theory was set out most clearly in Stalin's 1913 work Marxism and the National Question, which was written in close collaboration with Lenin and summed up the Leninist side of the debate with the reformists. The Leninist definition of a nation was summarised as "a historically evolved, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture".

The key to the Leninist position, which identifies a nation with its objective material conditions of formation and existence, is that the solution to the national question lies in changing those material conditions.

Marxists—guided by historical materialism—maintain that sustained life within a single capitalist economic formation is what forges diverse peoples into unified nations, with a common language and culture.

A nation cannot be reduced to a subjective common consciousness. It is an objective entity defined by the four features identified by Stalin. These four features are necessary. It is idealism to speak of the formation of a nation without all four features.

This is also true for nations that develop as by-products of capitalist colonialism or imperialism, as have most nations of the Americas, Asia and Africa. Without such an internal process, a colony or neo-colony may never become a nation, but instead might remain a country consisting of many tribal groups, might become a multinational state, or be amalgamated into a larger nation. Not all colonies or settlements become nations; this is determined by the nature of the internal class formation that takes place in the course of foreign capitalist penetration.

Nations and states are not the same thing. A state is the expression of the political power of a ruling class. Sometimes a nation and a state coincide e.g. the United States and the US nation, Australia and the Australian nation or New Zealand and the New Zealand nation. But, more often than not, the nation and state do not coincide.

Sometimes different nations are included within a single state—referred to as multinational states—that is ruled by the dominant nation's ruling class, such as the United Kingdom, which politically unifies the English, Scottish, Welsh and part of the Irish nations, under the English ruling class's state power. Another example is the Canadian state, which incorporates the Quebecois nation but is ruled by the dominant English-Canadian ruling class. The Spanish state too falls into this category, incorporating the Catalan and Basque nations. A section of the Basque nation is part of the French state as well.

Often, states do not coincide with nations at all, such as the early colonial states of the Americas, Asia and Africa and many existing African states which, as a result of borders arbitrarily drawn by Western colonial powers, forcibly combine diverse ethnic and language groupings into single political units.

As Marx noted, the bourgeois national-democratic movements were powerful promoters of the material, moral and cultural advancement of "the people". The completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution was an enormous historical advance due to the expansion of the productive forces and thus the modern working class, the solving of the agrarian question and the drawing into broader political, economic and cultural life of the plebeian masses.


However, the progressive character and capacities of the bourgeoisie decreased rapidly as it moved into the era of industrial capitalism and the expansion of the capitalist system throughout the world.

By the end of the 19th century, capitalism had undergone a decisive change. The classical free competition of early capitalism gave way to huge monopolies. Giant banks and corporations came to dominate the economy and political life of each country. The various capitalist powers fought to dominate the world market and control areas of foreign investment and sources of raw materials.

With the onset of the age of imperialism, the historically progressive phase of capitalism was well and truly at an end.

In his report to the second congress of the Comintern on the draft theses on the national and colonial questions, Lenin said:

The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world ... being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces. The vast majority of the world's population ... belong to the oppressed nations, which are either in a state of direct colonial dependence or are semi-colonies...14

The colonial and semi-colonial countries of the world—now known as the Third World—have been brought into the capitalist world system by imperialism, but they have not gone through an independent process of capitalist development such as the imperialist powers went through. Their capitalist development has been conditioned by the needs of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Imperialist domination of the Third World is an insurmountable barrier to their independent industrialisation and development. Imperialism blocks their bourgeois-democratic revolutions. As a result, in the imperialist epoch, the principal content of the national question has been the struggle against imperialism by the oppressed nations, colonies and neo-colonies. The national movements have been driven forward by the working class and rural poor. They are part of the struggle to overthrow imperialism and for socialism.

Right to national self-determination

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, building on the foundations laid by Marx and Engels and applying them to the new era, put great emphasis on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination as part of their revolutionary arsenal, both during the Russian Revolution and in the struggle against world imperialism.

The demand for the right of national self-determination applies only to oppressed nations. It is a democratic political demand that means an oppressed nation has the right to determine its political relationship to the oppressor nation, including the right to secede and form a separate nation-state.

Marxists defend this right, Lenin explained, because "nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice".

The national question for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was not simply a theoretical question. A correct position on the question was essential for the success of the revolutionary movement. Russia was formed, not as a national state, but as a state made up of many nations.

Trotsky explained in the History of the Russian Revolution:

Seventy million Great Russians constituted the mass of the country. There were gradually added about 90 million "outlanders" ... Thus was created an empire, of whose population the ruling nationality constituted only 43%. The remaining 57% were nationalities of various degrees of culture and subjection, including Ukrainians 17%, Poles 6%, White Russians 4.5% ... The vast numbers of these nationalities deprived of rights, and the sharpness of their deprivation, gave the national problem in Tsarist Russia a gigantic explosive force.15

Through defending the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, Lenin and the Bolsheviks showed how the workers of the oppressor nation could demonstrate to the workers of the oppressed nations that they were opposed to the national injustices imposed upon them, and lay the basis for an internationalist alliance between the workers of both nations against their common enemy—the capitalist rulers of the oppressor nation.

Does support for the right of national self-determination mean that Marxists support the formation of an independent state by every nation in all cases? Not at all. Marxists are for the abolition of national frontiers and for the integration of nations into a single, democratically centralised world socialist state, in which each nation would enjoy national-territorial autonomy.

As Lenin explained: "In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity".16

But Lenin recognised that such an amalgamation of nations could be achieved only on the basis of the fullest democracy. An amalgamation of nations could come about only if it were thoroughly voluntary.

We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede...17

In a slightly earlier work, Lenin put it this way:

... To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties. Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods...

From their daily experience the masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties and the advantages of a big market and a big state. They will, therefore, resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder any and all economic intercourse.18

Lenin adds that such freedom is essential after a socialist revolution:

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 practicalwithers away.19

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

Does support for this demand imply support for nationalism, albeit the nationalism of the oppressed? This was the argument put forward by Rosa Luxemburg. Lenin over and over again explained that this was not the case.

Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation 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.20

The working class supports the bourgeoisie [in the national question] only in order to secure national peace (which the bourgeoisie cannot bring about completely and which can be achieved only with complete democracy), in order to secure equal rights and to create the best conditions for the class struggle ... What every bourgeoisie is out for in the national question is either privileges for its own nation, or exceptional advantages ... The proletariat is opposed to all privileges, to all exclusiveness...

The demand for a "yes" or "no" reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very "practical" one. In reality it is absurd; it is metaphysical ... With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle ... For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper [the class struggle] by pushing the aims of its "own" nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the proletariat, so to speak, confines itself to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.21

In response to Luxemburg's complaint that Lenin's support for the right to self-determination boosted the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries like Poland, where she was active, Lenin reiterated that while the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and this component revolutionaries unconditionally support, any tendency towards national exclusiveness should be opposed. "We fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews etc. etc.", Lenin declared.22

Echoing Marx and Engels, he asked:

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot ... The Great-Russian proletariat cannot achieve its own aims or clear the road to its freedom without systematically countering these prejudices ... We are fighting on the ground of a definite state; we unite the workers of all nations living in this state; we cannot vouch for any particular path of national development, for we are marching to our class goal along all possible paths ... we cannot move towards that goal unless we combat all nationalism, and uphold the equality of the various nations. Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle "guesses", we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state ... We do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation...

We proletarians declare in advance that we are opposed to Great-Russian privileges, and this is what guides our entire propaganda and agitation...

This is the only [way] to ensure the greatest chances of national peace in Russia, should she remain a multi-national state, and the most peaceful (and for the proletarian class struggle, harmless) division into separate national states, should the question of such a division arise.23


Marxists are opposed to all nationalism because it is a capitalist ideology. Capitalist elements urge the working class and poor to set aside their "sectional", i.e. class, interests for the good of the "nation". In response, Marxists advocate working-class internationalism: solidarity and unity of the workers of all nations against capitalist exploitation.

But, while opposing the nationalism of the bourgeoisie of every nation, we recognise that the nationalism of the oppressed nations, generated as it is by the struggle against imperialist oppression, has a "general democratic content". We support this struggle against national oppression.

With the advent of imperialism, genuine national liberation of oppressed nations can be won only when the working-class vanguard wins leadership of the masses away from the capitalists by championing workers' and peasants' rights. It cannot win this leadership without organising the workers and peasants independently of the bourgeoisie.

This approach was spelled out in the Supplementary Theses on the National Question and Colonial Question adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 and again in the Theses on the Eastern Question adopted by the Comintern Fourth Congress in 1922. In the latter, the Bolsheviks explained:

The refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the fight against imperialist tyranny, on the pretext of their supposed "defence" of independent class interests, is the worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East ... A dual task faces the Communist and workers' parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries: on the one hand, they are fighting for a more radical answer to the demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, directed towards the winning of national political independence; on the other hand, they are organising the masses of workers and peasants to fight for their own class interests, making good use of all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp.24

The Bolsheviks urged Marxists in the oppressed nations to form tactical alliances with the bourgeois nationalists against imperialist domination, while laying down that the cardinal condition for such anti-imperialist united fronts is complete freedom for the Marxists to wage an ideological and political struggle against their nationalist allies.

Contemporary issues

In recent years, the Democratic Socialist Party has re-examined some of its positions in the light of this re-emphasis of the materialist basis of the national question.

In 1979, the DSP—then the Socialist Workers Party—published a book entitled Socialism or Nationalism?. It remains a very useful summary of the Marxist position on the national question. But some sections are imprecise and contain formulations that at best can lead to confusion and at worst lead to wrong positions. The document states:

Marxists support the right to self-determination of oppressed nationalities too ... In the United States, the Black and Chicano nationalities are oppressed along with the Puerto Rican national minority and the native American nationality. In Canada, the Quebecois nation is oppressed by the English-Canadian majority. In Australia, the Black people [presumably meaning Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders] are nationally oppressed. In Spain, the Basque and Catalan people are nationally oppressed...

Then there are the settler-colonial regimes. In Zimbabwe and South Africa itself, the indigenous people are nationally oppressed by colonialists who have actually settled in these countries. In Palestine, the settler-colonialists have forcibly expelled most of the indigenous people...25

In 1979, we jumbled together oppressed nations—the Quebecois, the Basques and Catalans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, Palestinians—and oppressed racial and ethnic groups—African-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans in mainland US, native Americans, Aborigines, Maoris, Lapps, Koreans in Japan, black Zimbabweans and black South Africans—and proposed a universal strategy of the exercise of the right to "self-determination".

This position betrays the fact that we did not fully understand the materialist basis of the Marxist theory of the national question. As I've outlined, the Marxist definition of a nation was clearly laid out by Stalin and Lenin:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture ... It is only when all these characteristics are present together that we have a nation.26

Oppressed racial and ethnic groups, in most cases, do not have a common territory or economic life separate from the oppressor racial group. They are most often concentrated in the working class or are disproportionately represented in a permanent reserve army of labour. In many cases, their old tribal or national languages have been lost or diluted. Certainly, many do have a common culture and political consciousness forged through their common experience of oppression. But this is not enough to form a separate nation.

Lenin stated emphatically in 1914, "It would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state".27 A people without a common territory or economic life do not have the objective material prerequisites to form a separate nation-state.

The struggle of African-Americans, Aborigines, Maoris and so on is not to form separate nation-states—their actual political demands show this to be the case—but to end racial oppression, i.e., to win full political, economic and social equality within the nation of which they are already a part.

In Australia, as our 1994 DSP program spelled out, Aboriginal people constitute a racially oppressed minority within the Australian nation, systematically discriminated against in employment, housing, education, health and other services.

Losing sight of the scientific socialist understanding of what defines a nation can lead to reactionary political consequences. The most glaring example of this is the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. In order to create the common territory for a common economic life for the scattered Jewish religious group, the Zionist movement opposed the struggle of Palestinian Arabs for national liberation from British colonial rule and then usurped most of the territory of the Arab Palestinian nation.

In South Africa, the apartheid regime denied the various black ethnic groups' membership of the South African nation and argued that each had a "right" to separate development. This was the ideology behind apartheid. Today, the reactionary Inkatha movement continues to base itself on the false claim that the Zulu people are a nation. So too do the remnants of the Afrikaner far right call for self-determination for Afrikaans-speakers. Likewise, in Northern Ireland the spurious claim for "self-determination" is raised by Protestant supremacists to justify the British-backed religious caste system that bestows privileges on them while discriminating against Catholics.

In Australia, at the worst and albeit most unlikely, such idealist notions of what constitutes a nation could play into the hands of racist segregationists who advocate a return to the reserve system or bantustan-like territorial islands denied access to the services and infrastructure of the Australian nation-state. Because there is no clear territory on which such a "state" could be located, such a scheme might involve expulsion from Australia and withdrawal of citizenship.

But more likely, it can lead to legitimising inter-Aboriginal community conflicts masquerading as conflicts between Aboriginal "nations", as those people who identify with their tribal origins and geography are sometimes loosely referred to. Such conflicts are open to manipulation by government, mining companies and agro-business.

A greater danger for anti-racists is to see Aboriginal leaders who use the rhetoric of nationalism and separatism as more "radical" or "militant" and underestimating the anti-capitalist dynamic and potential for radicalisation that demands for full equality have. This may lead to socialists abstaining from the movement for full equality.

Of course, many of the most militant and radical Aboriginal activists do utilise nationalist and separatist phraseology, influenced as they have been by the national liberation movements of the Third World and the ideas of radical leaders like Malcolm X. While we reject the view that Aborigines are an oppressed nation in the Marxist sense of the term, and therefore reject ``national self-determination'' as utopian and inapplicable as a solution to their oppression, it does not follow that all the ideas voiced by them are wrong.

The real actual content of their demands, which they refer to as "self-determination", is for the self-organisation of Aboriginal people in a politically independent movement to organise and win Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs, democratic control of Aboriginal communities and legal recognition of their right to land. We entirely support these demands and will work closely with "nationalists" to win them. As our 1994 program states:

As a racially oppressed minority within the Australian nation, Aborigines will only be able to fully win their rights through the independent mobilisation of their people and by winning the active support of those in the majority non-Aboriginal population who are also victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression. The struggle to win non-Aboriginal people to support the progressive demands of Aboriginal people is also crucial to the fight to remove the debilitating influence of racist ideology within the working class and the progressive movement.28


1. The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973, p.70-72.

2. ibid., p. 97

3. ibid.

4. ibid., pp.73-9.

5. Speeches on Poland (29 November 1847), ibid., p 100.

6. Speeches on Poland (22 February 1848), ibid., pp 106-8.

7. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 8, p365.

8. ibid., p. 374.

9. ibid., p. 234.

10. ibid., p. 367.

11. MECW, Vol 7, p. 92.

12. The First International and After, Pelican, 1974, p. 158.

13. ibid., p. 169.

14. Workers of the World and Oppressed People, Unite! Proceedings and documents of the Second Congress, 1920, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1991, p. 212.

15. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol 3, Monad, New York, 1980, p. 36.

16. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 20, p. 34.

17. ibid., pp. 413-4.

18. ibid., pp. 422-3.

19. LCW, Vol 22, p. 325.

20. LCW, Vol 20, pp. 411-2.

21. ibid., pp. 409-10

22. ibid., p. 412.

23. ibid., pp. 413-4.

24. Alan Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, Londond, 1980, pp. 414-5.

25. Socialism or Nationalism? Which Road for the Australian Labor Movement?, Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1979, pp. 92-3.

26. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1980, pp. 13-4.

27. LCW, Vol 20, p. 397.

28. Program of the Democratic Socialist Party, New Course Publications, Sydney, 1994, p. 105.

Excellent article, as a contribution to the debate and in line with the article's nuanced and detailed exposition, Stalin's 1913 definition of nationalism is not unproblematically "Leninist" or deriving overall from Lenin, as this excellent review of the development of a revolutionary theory of nationalism from Marx on shows:

"Stalin’s project started with discussions in Cracow with Lenin. Then he moved to Vienna where Bukharin played an important role. Since Stalin could not read German, Bukharin did most of the reading, selected and translated the key quotes and explained the argumentation of Bauer and others to Stalin. Under such circumstances it is very likely indeed that a good deal of Bukharin’s method and views found their way into Stalin’s text. Trotsky was later to observe that “the logical construction of the article, not devoid of pedantry, is due most likely to the influence of Bukharin, who inclined to professorial ways".27

Bukharin was greatly attracted to bourgeois sociological theory. This had an effect on his methodology.

Lenin said in his “Testament": “There is something scholastic about him, he has never made a study of dialectics, and, I think never understood it.” 28 This weakness, in the form of an eclectic combination of elements, was part of Bukharin’s “contribution” to Stalin’s work. On the national question, Bukharin was also clearly impressed by Bauer’s emphasis on psychology and culture and it was doubtless due to him that these “factors” found their way into Stalin’s famous definition. There was even a whiff of Bauer in the proviso that a nation was a “historically constituted stable community".

These elements taken from Bauer were indeed combined with the need for a common territory, economic life and language. But their mode of combination had a checklist character...

Lenin’s basic approach, rooting all linguistic, cultural and ideological attributes in the growth of bourgeois and petit bourgeois classes on the basis of capitalist property relations, is vastly superior theoretically to all subjectivist theories.

On the basis of this approach, we can provisionally offer the following definition of what constitutes a nation:

A nation is made up of antagonistic classes under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie or its agents. It is based on the possession of, or aspiration to gain, sovereign control of a territory on which to organise its economic, social and political life. Its component classes must share a common written and verbal means of communication, (language or languages). On the basis of real and/or mythologised common historical origins, the dominant class and its agents reproduce a national consciousness (which has a psychological, cultural as well as a political component).

Such a definition must not, however, be understood normatively. That is to say, we do not suggest that if a given claimant to nationhood lacks one or more of these characteristics then it is not a nation and, consequently, forfeits the rights appropriate to one."

It is part of a series that includes the Bolsheviks' practice in relation to the oppressed nationalities in the revolution and civil war.