A critique of Norm Dixon's article, 'Marx, Engels and Lenin on the National Question'

By Malik Miah

Malik Miah is a member of the Editorial Board of Links and of the US socialist organisation Solidarity.

In Links Number 13, Norm Dixon writes: "The struggle of oppressed nations for national liberation remains one of the most burning issues in the world today". And therefore "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".

I wholeheartedly agree. However, Dixon presents a formalistic and schematic understanding of the theory of the national question as first discussed by Marx and Engels in a period of rising capitalism and by Lenin in the age of imperialism. Dixon narrowly defines what a nation is and what Lenin means by self-determination, and rejects the nationalism of many oppressed peoples.

A most dangerous political error is to confuse the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of an oppressor nation. Dixon does this when he equates the nationalism of the Zulus in South Africa to the racist nationalism of the Afrikaners (page 20). The former were part of the oppressed Black majority, the latter of the white apartheid state. The new South Africa is a nation in formation. The Black majority continues to be divided along ethnic lines. It is the goal of the ANC leadership to transform South Africa into a nation-state where the various ethnic/national groups meld into in a new South African nation. The end of apartheid and making all South Africans equal under the law (i.e., citizens) opens the door for that to happen. As long as class divisions exist which will be the case as long as capitalism rules there will be resistance to this process, and not just from the whites. There is also a political struggle within the oppressed Black majority over this question. That political fight has nothing whatsoever to do with the nationalism of the former oppressor white nation of South Africa.

I will say more on this confusion by Dixon regarding the nationalism of the oppressed and oppressor nations later when I discuss the issue of African-Americans in the United States. I believe the same mistake is made regarding Aborigines in Australia.

Lenin's theory of the national question, as Dixon indicates, is the heart of our revolutionary approach to national liberation struggles. Lenin's theory is based on the writings of Marx and Engels and on his analysis of capitalism in the imperialist epoch.

Engels and Marx

Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto explain that the coming into existence of modern nations is the result of the class struggle—the revolutionary violence of the rising bourgeoisie against the old feudal order.

For Marx and Engels, the key to understanding the national question is the context: the rise of capitalism as a system and how various historic peoples responded to it. In a November 1847 London speech Engels states: "A nation cannot be free and at the same time oppress other nations".

Concerning the 1848 revolutions, in which Marx and Engels were active participants, Dixon criticises Engels' assessment of the Southern Slav peoples who played a counter-revolutionary role in the defeated revolutions. Engels wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ), No. 222, February 15, 1849:

We repeat: 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.

Dixon concludes from that quote that Engels "underestimated the countervailing tendency for small nations to fight against national oppression and for independent states of their own". He adds that Engels himself called the democratic uprising in Prague in mid-1848 a democratic revolution. The defeat of that uprising is what pushed the Czech people into the arms of tsarist Russia.

Was Engels making a "premature" statement about the Slav peoples, as Dixon states? The facts prove otherwise. Marx and Engels based their analysis on the historical data and facts as they existed up to and including the 1848 revolutions. For centuries, Engels explains, the majority of Slav peoples (not all) had sided with their oppressors. They had shown no revolutionary inclination whatsoever. It is for that reason Engels said most Slavs had no future, as opposed to the Polish people, who had a long history of resistance. He noted that many of the Slavs were willing to be absorbed and dominated by other peoples.

Yet in the next issue of the NRZ, Engels adds this point:

All that [we've written in the NRZ], however, would still not be decisive. If at any epoch while they were oppressed the Slavs had begun a new revolutionary history, that by itself would prove their viability. From that moment the revolution would have had an interest in their liberation, and the special interest of the Germans and Magyars would have given way to the greater interest of the European revolution. Precisely that, however, never happened.(My emphasis—MM.)

Although some Slavs did side with the democratic revolution, the bottom line is, as Engels states, "The revolution of 1848 compelled all peoples to declare themselves for or against it". The facts on the ground are Engels and Marx's criteria for determining which peoples are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary in a period when these peoples were still under the rule of feudal monarchies, and not yet modern nations. The creation of nations would mean some peoples would be absorbed or melded together with others.

The fact that other Slav peoples did begin to fight for their rights after the period of the 1848 revolutions, and especially in the twentieth century, doesn't negate the facts as they were evident in the 1848 revolutions.

As Engels correctly explains, when an oppressed people fight their oppressors, their true history as a people then begins. It's why Marx and Engels saw the people of Poland and Ireland as revolutionary peoples. Their history of heroic resistance is the proof.

What's instructive for us today is the materialist method utilised by Engels and Marx. What peoples are revolutionary and with a future is based on the facts as they are, not as we wish or hope them to be or as they may become. It is a people's attitude toward throwing off their oppressors which is decisive. They held no sentimental attitudes toward peoples who refused to stand up for themselves.

The real march of history is also why Marx and Engels in this period of rising capitalism said the extension of capitalist "civilisation" to more backward territories was progressive for humanity. Engels in the same NRZ article quoted by Dixon hails the US takeover of California and Texas from Mexico's more backward rulers in 1849. Many Marxists in the twentieth century mistakenly point to this stand as proving that Marx and Engels did not understand colonialism. But Engels' point is simple: while the march toward capitalist development is bloody and brutal, it represents progress over the old order.

Lenin's view

The modern theory of the national question is based on the writings of Marx and Engels but developed further under new conditions by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The heart of Lenin's political approach in his theory of the national question is the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination. The slogan, however, is not universal—it applies only to oppressed nations, not nations that oppress others.

This distinction is of huge import since in the period of rising capitalism when Marx and Engels lived, the emphasis was on ending feudalism and uniting various peoples into centralised nation-states. In the imperialist epoch the primary national struggles became battles against the imperialist nations that had colonised the world.

So when Dixon refers to the famous article written by Stalin under Lenin's editorship in 1913, it is important to remember the context. What is written then was based on the historical facts up to that period. The victory of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Comintern a few years later would lead Lenin to modify his views according to the new lessons learned.

In his 1913 article, "Marxism and the National Question", Stalin explains, "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". Stalin continues:

It must be emphasized that none of the above characteristics taken separately is sufficient to define a nation. More than that, it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and the nation ceases to be a nation.

Stalin notes, however, later in the same article:

A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations. (My emphasis—MM.)

Why is this important? Stalin's four criteria for what constitutes a nation apply to a specific historical epoch—the rise of capitalism. Even then he notes that that did not determine which peoples would form nations and which would not (in line with the method used by Engels).

The age of imperialism, when the older capitalist powers oppressed the rest of the world and denied those oppressed peoples the right to form independent nations, is a different context from the one Stalin's four criteria referred to. That's why Stalin's criteria for what is a nation can be used only as a guide, not a recipe list.

Dixon's presentation of the national question thus is ahistorical. He argues that if an oppressed people does not meet the four criteria as defined narrowly in Stalin's article, they are not a nation. "It is idealistic", he writes, "to speak of the formation of a nation without all four features". He puts forward the idea that if an oppressed people is intermingled among other peoples, as is true for most native peoples in Canada, the US, and Australia, they can't be a nation, since they don't live in a continuous single territory. Politically, he implies, if they proclaim themselves "nationalists", they are simply misguided, even if socialists should recognise why they feel that way!

So flowing from this narrow, formal thinking of what is a nation, we get this incredible sentence in Dixon's article: "Sometimes a nation and state coincide e.g. the United States and the US nation, Australia and the Australian nation or New Zealand and the New Zealand nation (page 13)". Just like that, the national rights of oppressed peoples in these countries are disappeared. We all become discriminated castes within the nation Dixon thinks we all want to be part of.

This is definitely news to me and most other Black Americans. I'm sure most Maoris of New Zealand and Aborigines of Australia feel the same way. When Malcolm X explicitly said he was not an American, and that no Blacks in the US were Americans, he struck a deep chord. Andrew Hacker, in his 1992 book Two Nations, Black and White, Hostile, Separate, Unequal, makes the following point:

There are moments when you understand [Black novelist] Toni Morrison's riposte, "At no moment in my life have I ever felt as though I were an American." This in turn gives rise to feelings of sympathy with figures like Cassius Clay, H. Rap Brown, Lew Alcindor, and Stokeley Carmichael, who decided to repatriate themselves as Muhammad Ali, Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kwame Toure.1

Reality is a little more complex than Dixon believes. Blacks, Native Americans, Native Canadians, Aborigines, don't see themselves as part of these nations in the way that Dixon presents it. In all cases, they have a different national make-up from whites who see the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as their countries.

The simple fact is that when someone in the United States says he or she is an "American" it is assumed that the person is speaking as a white person unless the adjective "African" or "Chinese" or "Latino" hyphen "American" is specified. There is no confusion on this point even though there are some liberals and conservatives claiming the United States is a "colour-blind" society. The term "colour-blind" is used particularly by right-wing opponents of equal rights and affirmative action. This is true in Australia as well, a country that had an official "white Australia" policy into the 1970s.

And what about Engels' definition? Haven't we Blacks in the US proved by our long struggle to be a "viable people" whose national rights should be supported by revolutionists?

The end of legal discrimination, as was accomplished in the overthrow of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the US south, of course, is a victory for the oppressed and the working class. But capitalism feeds on and reproduces race oppression just as it does class exploitation. Billions of dollars of profits are the stakes. Institutional oppression remains operative in the United States and Australia and will until socialism wins. This is the materialist source of national oppression, which is why nationalism of the oppressed will never disappear until they win their national rights.

To say that these oppressed peoples are only raising demands for equality does not mean they've denied their identity. The ruling class will never allow Blacks and other oppressed peoples to become fully equal citizens in these countries. It is why the nationalism of the oppressed continuously raises its banner.

The United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are multiethnic states. The whites from Europe who colonised the Americas, for instance, created white nations. The coloured peoples were not considered members of these new nations. (Even Stalin ignores the Indians and African slaves in his article when he writes, "Later, one section of the English emigrated from England to a new territory, America, and there, in the new territory, in the course of time, came to form the new American nation"—a white nation.) The native peoples were driven from their land, nearly exterminated and placed on reservations. Indians in the US do not see themselves as part of the US nation.

The former African slaves likewise see themselves as second class citizens demanding equal treatment. Two nations in one state is the reality. The legal and now institutional racism of the white-dominated state is why Blacks constitute a separate nation. While one could use Stalin's four criteria to argue Blacks aren't an oppressed nation or nationality, especially since Blacks have never occupied a strictly defined territory ever, it goes against the real history of African-Americans in the United States. Those early US socialists who held the view that Blacks were not a nationality were completely isolated from and stood against the Black people.

Dixon is on slippery ground, applying formal logic, to make having a continuous territory a decisive factor to determine what people is a nation. The algebraic method of Lenin is a better one. US Blacks do meet the four criteria, but not in the way Stalin outlined it. The common language (English), culture or psychological make-up, and territory and economy (the United States as a whole) are met.

Dixon is correct when he says the fight for equal citizenship rights is part of the fight to end the special domination of the white nationality over other peoples. This is a long-term struggle that cannot be resolved under capitalism.

But having a schematic, non-dialectical interpretation of the national question, Dixon becomes critical of the nationalist movements within these countries . He calls nationalists idealists and utopians. It is at best patronising to go to an Aboriginal militant who doesn't see himself part of the "Australian nation" and tell the person that his fight against racism is honourable and we support you, but by the way that nationalism of yours is wrong. I hope socialists in Australia will not polemicise against Aboriginal nationalism—nationalism that is directed at the power of the capitalist state.

Recently in Canada one group of the native peoples were able to win an autonomous territory as their own. It is a demand that other native peoples are raising in the oppressed nation of Quebec as well. Should Canadian socialists tell the native people of Quebec that the only people who have a right to nationhood on the land that the map says is Quebec is the Quebecois? No, the map must be redrawn if necessary to meet the native peoples' right to self-determination too.

Lenin on the right of nations to self-determination

As I've already explained, Lenin did not apply the national question the way Dixon indicates. Lenin didn't use the four criteria of the 1913 Stalin article as a checklist to determine what peoples are nations. The class struggle did that. Lenin used the method of Engels and Marx applied to the imperialist epoch regarding which people deserved the support of communists and who had the right of self-determination. In his "Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and the Colonial Question", presented on July 28, 1920, to the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin included "Negroes in America". He specifically included African-Americans in his report under point nine: "all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies".2

In other words, US Blacks in 1920 were considered an oppressed nation by Lenin. Blacks in 1920 lived across the United States, though the majority were still in the south, were integral to the US economy, had a special psychological make-up due to racism and spoke a common language, English. But if one used Dixon's interpretation of Lenin's theory of the national question, Lenin was in error for including Blacks in his report since they did not have a specific land mass or separate economy from the country as a whole.

I don't think Lenin made an error. He was applying the lessons of the Russian Revolution where the decisive criteria for an oppressed nation was the people themselves, their economic and political reality.

Trotsky, in discussions with the US Socialist Workers Party leadership in the 1930s, applied the same method that Lenin outlined in his report. Trotsky said he could see "no reason why we [socialists] should not advance the demand for self-determination". To the argument that Blacks were not demanding self-determination he responded:,

… that is naturally for the same reason that the white workers do not yet advance the slogan of the proletarian dictatorship. The Negro has not yet got it into his poor black head that he dares to carve out for himself a piece of the great and mighty States.3

Trotsky plainly expected the Negro to get this idea into his head as much as he expected the white worker to become revolutionary.

What is self-determination?

Dixon says, "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."

Dixon's schema, however, removes this right for all oppressed groups who don't meet the four-point checklist he has arbitrarily declared as the basis for who is and who isn't a nation. He leaves out oppressed peoples who are not yet constituted as such but could become nations.

Incredibly, Dixon places the onus on an oppressed people to prove to him they are a nation first before they have a right to self-determination. The fact that a people is nationally oppressed and fighting for its rights is not enough for Dixon. Those among them who call themselves nationalists he calls idealists and utopians.

Trotsky in his discussions with US socialists in 1933 made this point about the rapidity of change and the role of oppressed Blacks:

I believe that by the unheard-of political and theoretical backwardness and the unheard-of economic advance the awakening of the working class will proceed quite rapidly. The old ideological covering will burst, all questions will emerge at once, and since the country is so economically mature the adaptation of the political and theoretical to the economic level will be achieved very rapidly. It is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section. We have already a similar example in Russia. The Russians were the European Negroes. It is very possible that the Negroes also through the self-determination will proceed to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then furnish the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers. That, however, can happen only provided the Communist party carries on an uncompromising merciless struggle not against the supposed national prepossessions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers and gives it no concession whatever.4 (My emphasis—MM.)

Marxists don't operate with check lists. Our materialist method is based on the facts. There are oppressed peoples (nations, and racial and ethnic minorities) in all imperialist countries. These nationally oppressed people have a right to self-determination because of that oppression. Through their struggle to end that oppression, they will decide whether to form independent nation-states or join a federation of autonomous regions, or implement full integration. It is the policy of socialists to defend that right unconditionally even as those of us in the oppressed nation advance a socialist solution.

Nationalism of the oppressed

This is why Marxists today support the nationalism of the oppressed. It is a form of the class struggle. It is wrong to say, as Dixon does, that all nationalism is simply a form of capitalist ideology. He makes no distinction between the nationalism of oppressed and oppressor nations. That's like failing to recognise the complexity of feminism and trade unionism, which are aimed at reforming the capitalist state.

To call the ideology of these -isms "bourgeois" doesn't tell us what stance we should take toward the actual movements of feminists, militant unions and oppressed nations for their rights. Only a total sectarian would dismiss what some have called petty bourgeois movements since they don't see the capitalist system as the source of their oppression and exploitation.

We recognise the dynamics of these movements and embrace them. As socialists we explain that nationalism of the oppressed, feminism and militant unionism in mass struggle raise working people's political consciousness and open them to understand that the capitalist system is the problem and only socialist revolution is the solution.

We should never minimise the national struggle in the imperialist heartlands. It can lead us to be critics of the movements of the oppressed. It can lead us to define the movement as utopian and idealist. It can lead us not to be the uncompromising defenders of these nationalist movements and the leadership role they can provide for white workers in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia. Worse, we can end up like the US Communist Party leadership did in the 1960s, who attacked Black nationalism as serving the class enemy and called its greatest leader, Malcolm X, a government agent.

Finally, Dixon says the practical proof that Blacks and Aborigines are not oppressed nations is reflected in the fact that their main political demands today are for equality. This shows, he states, that they are simply racially oppressed minorities of the US and Australian nations. But as Trotsky said in the 1930s, that tells us nothing about what will happen in the future. A big reason Blacks and Aborigines focus on full citizenship rights is because that seems possible to win. Nationalist sentiments remain very strong in these communities. (Those Kosovars who were for independence, for example, were a tiny minority until Milosevic ended their special status in 1989. Nationalist sentiments were strong before that act, and became stronger afterwards.)

And let's not so quickly forget that the main slogan that developed in the Black struggle in the US when it was at its height in the 1960s was "Black Power!". Don't idealise the present, which in the US is one of relative quiescence and conservatism, compared to the previous period of the rise of militant Black nationalism.

The position that the Democratic Socialist Party held up to 1994 in my opinion is more correct than the one defended by Dixon. It more reflects the dynamism of the theory of the national question for nations within imperialist countries as promulgated by Marx and Lenin than what Dixon argues for today.


1. Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, Charles Scribner's Sons, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1962, p. 34.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 31, p. 148.

3. Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Merit Publishers, New York, 1967, p. 8.

4. ibid., pp. 18.