Many questions on nations and states

By Frieda Park

“The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.” [i]

In these few sentences in their Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 Marx and Engels encapsulate a contradiction imposed on the working-class by capitalism’s form of political and economic organisation – the nation state. On the one hand nation states create divisions between peoples and disunity in which the working-class has no objective interest. On the other this is the political framework in which our battles take place, against our own capitalist class first and foremost. Whilst we can only ultimately win as one international working class, nevertheless our struggles nearly always happen within national parameters.

Immediately this can lead to a concentration on national concerns at the expense of international unity. Worse, and under the influence of capitalist, nationalist ideology, the working class of one country can perceive itself to have a different set of interests to the working class of another or with immigrants to “its” country. Neither of these positions is consistent with a Marxist approach. However, the debate within Marxism on what became known as the national question has been quite complex. A central reason for this was that it was being elaborated at the very time when nation states were being formed in Europe. It was, therefore, a key political concern at that point in time. The writings of Marx, Lenin and others are rooted in this historical milieu and they could not entirely foresee how nations and national movements would develop throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. As nations were being formed and national movements emerged so also their views changed.

Creation of national capitalist states

In the revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century national capitalist states were created, overthrowing the last remnants of feudal absolutism. While Marx welcomed this as progressive, he also condemned national claims of small nations which effectively served imperial Russian or feudal interests. The consolidation of small nations into larger ones he regarded as positive. [ii] On the other hand he supported the anti-colonial movements of countries, such as Ireland, oppressed by British imperialism. In other words Marx did not view the claims of nations to independence as automatically progressive, but viewed each from the perspective of what would benefit the working-class.

In 1903 the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) adopted the policy of “The Right of Nations to Self Determination”, a formulation which became the subject of a furious debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg[iii]. Lenin himself acknowledged that both he and Marx analysed the national question in their own specific historical circumstances and it helps to bear this in mind. His writings are not an easy read. They are polemical in style, with Lenin heaping scorn on his opponents and going into great detail concerning their disputes. There are propositions which superficially appear to be contradictory. For example he says;

“Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity...”[iv]


“...the principal practical task both of the Great-Russian proletariat and the proletariat of other nationalities: that of the day-by-day agitation and propaganda against all state and national privileges, and for the equal right of all nations to their national state.”[v]

Some of Lenin’s arguments become quite convoluted and it is easy to see how he can be misinterpreted. So whilst he argues that the working class should unconditionally support the right in principle of nations to self determination he also argues that does not mean support for secession in every circumstance. However, if secession is the democratic will of the people of a country, even if lead by the capitalist class, then it should not forcibly be prevented. He argues that the recognition of national rights makes it possible for nations to deal equally with each other and this will counteract nationalism.

To get to grips with this we need to understand how Lenin sees the historical juncture in which he is writing. Like Marx he sees himself addressing the national question principally in two respects:

1) The creation of nation states by capitalism in democratic revolutions overthrowing the last remnants of feudalism.

2) The struggles of colonial peoples for their liberation. This was of major importance to his party as Russia was an imperial power oppressing nations within its bounds.

Generally he regards the process of nation-forming in Western Europe to be complete and expresses his support for the assimilation of nationalities of the kind he saw happening in the melting pot of New York City.[vi] In these states he is against federalism and de-centralisation and says:

“But while, and insofar as, different nations constitute a single state, Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralisation. The great centralised state is a tremendous historical step forward from medieval disunity to the future socialist unity of the whole world...”[vii]


“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...”[viii]

Yet he also indicates situations in which these seemingly categorical positions might not represent the best option.[ix]

As some of Lenin’s statements can seem contradictory his works need to be read as a whole to get a sense of how he sees the national question. He views national movements in a positive light as, in his era, they represented the triumph of capitalism over feudalism and of liberation from colonialism. The victory of capitalism would lead to its further internationalisation (what we now call globalisation), paving the way for socialism. He also believed the overthrow of capitalism was imminent.

However, Lenin constantly hedges the slogan “The Right of Nations to Self Determination” round with explanations of what it means in practice and when a specific national demand should be supported and when not. A whole theoretical area is opened up as to what constitutes a nation, which can then claim rights. As a principle it becomes relative rather than absolute. Even though the slogan is understandable in its historical context it always had its problems in providing clarity as a guide to action.

Developments since Marx and Lenin

In addition our world has been transformed since Marx and Lenin were writing. Some developments relevant to the national question are:

  • The completion of the territorial division of the world between imperialism, with the establishment of the British Empire as the foremost power in the world.
  • The ethnic cleansing of existing populations in vast areas such as North America and Australia and their replacement by white, British settlers.
  • The whole world divided into nation states.
  • Two world wars aimed at the re-division of that world between competing imperial powers.
  • The ascendency of United States imperialism as the dominant world power and the decline of British imperialism.
  • The rise and fall of fascism in Europe.
  • The Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions with socialism established in one third of the world.
  • Political independence for colonies and the replacement of colonialism by neo-colonialism.
  • The formation of an extensive network of capitalist military, political and economic blocs, alliances and treaties, such as NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, and NAFTA.
  • The defeat of socialism (apart from Cuba) and the break-up of the Soviet Union.
  • The rise and decline of the non-aligned movement and the rise of the BRICS.
  • Since the end of the Soviet Union, imperialism waging war at will to promote its interests.
  • The rise of movements which owe their allegiance to a religion rather than a nation.
  • The mass migration of peoples.
  • Increasing ethnic and cultural diversity within all nation states.
  • Increasing globalisation, economic interdependency and the greater connectedness provided by information and communications technology.

Despite all of this nation states have remained durable as the preferred form for the capitalist class to organise itself. Even the ceding of some powers within the European Union is a far cry from their disappearance. However, whilst nation states endure it is much less clear what constitutes a nation. Our world seems less homogenous than Europe at the start of the 20th century.

But if nations are to have rights then we needed to know what a nation, as distinct from a state, is. Stalin argued that a nation was defined by a common character, language, geographic territory and economic life.[x] Yet nations and nationalism were promoted by capitalist classes to justify the formation of their state structures. It was they who gave us the dominant definition of what it is to be British, French, German or Italian. In Europe this drew on pre-existing feudal structures and cultures, which to a greater or lesser extent are reflected in modern European nation states. Viewed from a euro-centric perspective this has a logic and it is one that xenophobic and racist parties play into. For example they will assert that Britain has certain values and beliefs not shared by immigrants. But the concept of naturally occurring nations, which we can endow with rights is challenged by a global perspective and developments in the last 100 years.

Nation states created by imperialism

All nation states are now more ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse. Large scale movements of peoples do not respect national borders. Outside of Europe the world is full of nation states created by imperialism in totally non-organic processes. Lines were drawn on maps, peoples divided and existing countries partitioned. Whole continents are populated by people whose recent ancestors came to colonise them, displacing the existing peoples of those countries. This has lead to all manner of conflicts and instability, yet trying to unpick the mess that this has created by simply asserting national rights would not get us very far. What are the organic nations in Africa that have a right to determine their own futures? What or who really are the nations of Canada or Australia? Should the Kurds have a homeland? What about Israel, Palestine and the huge Palestinian diaspora? Western powers may seek to break up countries like Iraq into smaller ethnic/religious/national entities. And so on.... Nation states continue, but defining nations or national identities has become harder. It is also clearer that national claims may not be progressive. (One could cite the break-up of the Soviet Union in this context.)

Framing our policy on the basis that nations have rights is, today, the wrong place to start. The effort to define national legitimacy or asserting that nations have rights does not tell us whether national movements, in our highly diverse and conflict riven world, are progressive or reactionary. In any case our ultimate goal is the end of nation states and national divisions, so we should be very wary of political nationalism. But there are conditions in which national movements have a progressive content.

Surely the key question is not whether a movement is national or not, but whether it is progressive or not. Each should be judged on its own merits according to the objective class content of the movement. This does not mean taking at face value what a movement says about itself, or what alliances it has built, but examining what interests it actually represents. Some useful questions might be:

Does the movement represent the interests of oppressed peoples against imperialism?

Might secession and fragmentation help imperialism control and manipulate countries?

Does it divide the working-class within a nation state?

Is the movement led by the working-class or by capitalist interests, co-opting other classes in support of its national project?

Does it help the working-class and build international unity or does it appeal to the sectional/national interests of one group of workers against another?


[i] The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels 1848

[ii] See the series of articles written by Marx in 1851-52 edited by Eleanor Marx under the title “Revolution and Counter Revolution” Unwin Books 1971 For example he says, “Thus the Bohemian and Croatian Panslavists, some intentionally, some without knowing it, worked in the direct interests of Russia; they betrayed the revolutionary cause for the shadow of nationality...” p. 49 and “...the natural and inevitable fate of these dying nations was to allow this process of dissolution and absorption by their stronger neighbours to complete itself. Certainly this is no very flattering prospect for the national ambition of the Panslavistic dreamers who succeeded in agitating a portion of the Bohemian and South Slavonian people...” p. 76

[iii] For Luxemburg’s position see The National Question Selected Writings, Rosa Luxemburg Monthly Review Press 1976

[iv] Critical Remarks on the National Question p27 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[v] The Right of Nations to Self-Determination p 64 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[vi] Critical Remarks on the National Question p22 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[vii] Critical Remarks on the National Question p38 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[viii] The Right of Nations to Self-Determination p73 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[ix] For example in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination he says that it is possible that federation might be a better option than secession. p113 and in the discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up he places greater on the importance on nations in Europe that have been “annexed” and “revolts of small nations in Europe” p159 in Progress Publishers Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism V I Lenin 1970

[x] Marxism and The National Question J V Stalin 1913

"...the world is full of nation states created by imperialism in totally non-organic processes. Lines were drawn on maps, peoples divided and existing countries partitioned. this has lead to all manner of conflicts and instability, yet trying to unpick the mess that this has created by simply asserting national rights would not get us very far."