No national solutions

The Commune's Clifford Biddulph replies to the debate on the national question.

Submitted by Django on June 23, 2010

In the Earth is not Flat, David Broder argued that the aim of getting rid of capitalism by class struggle is too abstract in the face of some forms of nationalism. For David, nationalism which is a reaction to imperialism cannot be sidestepped or simply opposed by communism.

This seems to be the Leninist point about two kinds of nationalism: those of oppressed, and oppressor, nations. A limited extension of popular democracy or the sovereignty of an oppressed nation can be supported. This, although David does not entirely share the orthodox Leninist position of unconditional support for the self-determination of nations.

But David does go on to say, contrary to the anti-statist platform of The Commune, that in Colombia the state does not represent the long term interests of the bourgeoisie, implying that some form of anti-imperialist nationalist state could be progressive or in some sense represent the proletariat or be a transition stage to communism. In his own words, a government of state capitalist development would undermine imperialism. The implication is that in some circumstances communists can be nationalists. Nationalism, he claims is not tied to the bourgeoisie. This is not surprising since in The Earth is not Flat he tends to reduce class struggle to trade unionism or so called ‘economism’.

Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network believes that nationalism is too important to be left to the nationalists. Hence RCN’s support for Scottish independence. Small state nationalism is dressed up in a slogan: internationalism from below. The RCN stands for internationalism, but until that is achieved more limited federations of states based on the break-up of imperialist states or, to use the slogan, ‘internationalism from below’.

A form of nationalism is presented as the way forward, and true internationalism is paradoxically based on nationalism. Allan’s republicanism is thus a timeless ideal free of class determination, social and historical context. Internationalism from below floats through history, appearing now as Levellers then as Chartists then again as United Irishmen, John MacLean or the resistance to the poll tax.

But it is not the class struggle between capital and labour that is abstract, but the concept of nation. What is a nation? There is no satisfactory definition and concepts of what constitutes a nation have changed throughout recent history. Is a nation a subjective feeling of identification? In which case there could be endless fragmentation with any significant group of people declaring themselves a nation. Is it unity around a capitalist free market area? Is it unity stuck together with language or religion? Yet there have been multi-language and religious states. Is it a shared culture despite class antagonism? It is not ethnic unity, that is just a myth. There are always exceptions to any check list, and no clear objective and consistent answer. Many modern nation states originated in lines drawn on a map: in short, nationalism is a bourgeois ideology.

The national bourgeois state is a machine of oppression directed against workers. As Roman Rosdolsky put it: “the working class have no nation. We cannot take from them something they have not got.” The modern state is a product of bourgeois development. In a class society there is no homogenous national culture or community. And the nation state has a capitalist tendency to become non national or imperialist. In that sense there is no fundamental difference between nationalisms. Vietnam was oppressed by American imperialism until 1975, but then four years later became the oppressor of Cambodia.

In the words of Marx from his Critique of the Gotha Programme, political rights cannot rise above the economic structure of society. Class interest determines the nature of capitalist society. The idea of a general right to self determination is utopian. Communists cannot support all national demands, as in some circumstances self-determination would be against the interests of the working class. Marx did not apply a general right of self determination but supported some forms of nationalism from a strategic and tactical point of view, for example supporting Polish nationalism as a check to Russian reaction. But as a speaker at a meeting of the First International said: Russia was not the only country or nationalism that needed checking.

Marx had a check list of what he described as viable nations such as Hungary, Italy and Germany, nationalism which would establish a nation state and capitalist development and the growth of the working class. But German unity was not on the basis of revolutionary democracy from below but conservative unity from above imposed by Prussia. Allan refers to Marx and Engels as if they were one person, but there are important differences in their approach to the national question and other issues such as philosophy. Engels followed Hegel in his notion of non-historic peoples. Both friends made errors of judgment. Some supposedly ‘non-viable’ peoples established nation states. Riazanov, whose knowledge of Marxism Lenin feared, thought Marx’s obsession with Tsarist Russia as the main danger missed the main danger: the developing antagonism between Germany and Britain over colonies which led to the imperialist war. Some of their political perspectives on nationalities seem at odds with what we understand by historical materialism. Engels’ comments on Germany’s civilising mission were used by Social Democrats to justify support for the first imperialist war.

Lenin did not adhere to the general principle of the right of nations to self determination. He accepted the conquest of Georgia and Ukraine following the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks considered the self determination in these areas was counter revolutionary or against the international interests of the working class. The revolution and social development did not unfold as Lenin expected. The Russian revolution was not a bourgeois democratic revolution as he had long predicted. The slogan for the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was based on Karl Kautsky’s schemas, whereby such a right was premised on the political sphere of bourgeois democracy. It was precisely this bourgeois-democratic content Lenin supported.

But the schema was based on the separation of economics and politics. When Rosa Luxemburg said imperialism economically shaped nations, Lenin denounced her views as ‘economistic’. But how could there be political emancipation without economic emancipation? The independence of many ex-colonial nations has tended to be formal and has prevented rather than facilitated communism. The assumption was that political democracy would provide the widest conditions for the working class to fight the class war. But the western nation state was not replicated in China and elsewhere. Nationalism in Turkey and China in the 1920s did not lead to a form of revolutionary democracy, but to the destruction of the communist workers’ movement.

Lenin was in favour of ‘temporary’ alliances with bourgeois nationalists in China and elsewhere. This compromise undermined the independence of the workers’ movement. The aim was not directly the overthrow of capitalism. How temporary was ‘temporary’? The position was full of ambiguities and inconsistent and implied a transitional historical stage. So counter-revolutionaries were described as objective revolutionaries. Why would the sons of Chinese landlords, as officers in the Kuomintang national army, tolerate revolutionary activity by peasants and workers? A temporary truce between workers’ internationalism and nationalism was not possible.

The right of nations to self-determination, which Lenin borrowed from bourgeois nationalism, assumes the world is flat or all nations could be formally equal. According to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg did not grasp the fact that Asia had yet to have its bourgeois democratic revolution and he strongly denied that nations demanding equal rights would lead to the proliferation of small states. Provided communists did not advocate separation, as the RCN do for Scotland, self-determination would result in very large states and federations. In Lenin’s opinion workers should always stand for the larger state. But has history demonstrated the truth or falseness of Lenin’s view? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been the emergence of numerous small states. There has been no internationalism from below or small state internationalism.

We can ask the question Rosa Luxemburg once asked. Where is the nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and content of their national political and social existence? It is only when capitalist exploitation is ended that the oppression of one nation by another can be ended. This was the implication of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution which attempted to address the uneven nature of capitalist social development. The working class would become the leading class of the nation in the sense of the Communist Manifesto: national in form only, as in 1917 which was a year of international, not national, revolution.

The ideology of nationalism is historically novel and the majority of people once lived without it. Nationalism had an historical beginning and as far as communists are concerned it will have an end. The communist objective is to liberate humanity, not liberate nations.

Originally published in The Commune, Issue 15