www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 14 | PDF Version of this article

International Socialist Review Issue 14, October-November 2000

Marxism and Nationalism

By Tom Lewis

The first part of this article appeared in ISR 13 (August-September 2000). The article discussed Marx' and Engels' approach to the national struggles of their day and summarized the important debates on nationalism that took place at the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Lenin's position that socialists are duty-bound "to conduct an implacable struggle" against all those who at any time "defend or sanction national oppression or the denial of the right of nations to self-determination" was explained in detail. The Bolshevik Party understood self-determination as the right to secession. Yet the idea that self-determination expresses a political right, instead of an economic or cultural right, led Lenin into heated debates. From one side, Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists advocated a cultural interpretation of the right to self-determination. From the other, Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish Marxists argued that capitalist economic development had eliminated the very possibility of self-determination. Part One ended with Lenin's criticisms of Bauer and cultural nationalism. Part Two begins with the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg.

Luxemburg and Imperialist Economism

The slogan of self-determination of nations should also be advanced in connection with the imperialist era of capitalism.

--V. I. Lenin, "The Question of Peace"

LENIN HAD argued against Otto Bauer's cultural nationalism that the banner of socialism "does not carry the slogan 'national culture' but 'international' culture, which unites all the nations in a higher, socialist unity, and the way to which is being paved by the international amalgamation of capital." Yet it was precisely the "international amalgamation of capital"--the spread of capitalism around the globe and the development of imperialism as capitalism's highest stage--that prompted the great Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg to adopt a dramatically different position from Lenin's on the national question. While recognizing that the nationalities issue was a crucial one for socialists, Luxemburg asserted that all talk of the right of nations to self-determination had become pure utopianism in the modern era. "A 'right of nations' which is valid for all countries and all times," she wrote, "is nothing more than a metaphysical cliché."1

In The National Question and Autonomy (1909), Luxemburg based her objections to Lenin on her perception that "the actual possibility of 'self-determination' for all ethnic groups or otherwise defined nationalities is a utopia precisely because of the trend of historical development of contemporary societies."2 This trend possessed two key features, according to Luxemburg. First, the growth of a few powerful nations as the leaders in capitalist development meant that the independence of the smaller nations was increasingly an illusion. "Big-power economy and politics--a condition of survival for the capitalist states--turn the politically independent, formally equal, small European states into mutes on the European stage and more often into scapegoats."3 From this perspective, "the idea of insuring all 'nations' the possibility of self-determination is equivalent to reverting from Great-Capitalist development to the small medieval states."4

Second, the acquisition of colonies by the strongest capitalist countries--that is, the development of imperialism--had undermined not just the actuality of independence but even the possibility of self-determination. Luxemburg argued that "the very development of international trade in the capitalist period brings with it the inevitable, though at times slow ruin of all the more primitive societies, destroys their existing means of 'self-determination,' and makes them dependent on the crushing wheel of capitalist development and world politics."5 In any event, "a general attempt to divide all existing states into national units and to re-tailor them on the model of national states and statelets is a completely hopeless, and historically speaking, reactionary undertaking."6 To Lenin's idea that the right of nations to self-determination is a democratic right which socialists should support along with the other democratic demands, Luxemburg therefore responded:

The above view completely overlooks the fact that these "rights," which have a certain superficial similarity, lie on completely different historical levels. The rights of association and assembly, free speech, the free press, etc., are the legal forms of existence of a mature bourgeois society. But "the right of nations to self-determination" is only a metaphysical formulation of an idea that in bourgeois society is completely nonexistent and can be realized only on the basis of a socialist regime.7

Throughout a series of writings, Lenin vigorously disputed Luxemburg's claim that the right of nations to self-determination had become irrelevant to the imperialist epoch. "The policy of national oppression," Lenin stated, "inherited from the autocracy and the monarchy, is maintained by the landowners, capitalists, and petty bourgeoisie in order to protect their class privileges and to cause disunity among the workers of the various nationalities. Modern imperialism, which increases the tendency to subjugate weaker nations, is a new factor intensifying national oppression."8

Because imperialism actually tightened the grip of the stronger nations on the weaker ones, Lenin argued that struggles for national liberation could be expected to play an even greater role in the imperialist epoch than in the past. This was especially true where subjugated peoples were the weakest: Africa and Asia. As capitalism spread across Asia, for example, it "has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent;...[T]he tendency of these movements is towards the creation of national states...[since] it is such states that ensure the best conditions for the development of capitalism."9 The global march of capital--far from eliminating the need for socialists to uphold the right to self-determination--has in fact heightened the legitimacy of this demand, in Lenin's view.

The semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia and Turkey, and all the colonies...have a combined population of 1,000 million. In these countries the bourgeois-democratic movements either have hardly begun, or have still a long way to go. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation--and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing else than the recognition of the right to self-determination. They must also render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their uprising--or revolutionary war, in the event of one--against the imperialist powers that oppress them.10

Because she failed to understand the continuing dynamic between capitalism and nationalism in the imperialist period, Luxemburg finally adopted a fundamentally "nihilistic attitude to the national question."11 Lenin argued that her attitude misperceived reality despite the correctness, in abstract terms of her analysis of the difficulties of ending national oppression under capitalism.

It is impossible to abolish national (or any other political) oppression under capitalism, since this requires the abolition of classes. But while being based on economics, socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation--socialist production--is essential for the abolition of national oppression, but this foundation must also carry a democratically organized state, a democratic army, etc. 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.12

In other words, successful socialist revolution creates new economic conditions that remove the material cause of national oppression. But the realization of the democratic potential embodied in the new economy also depends on its expression and organization within a political state that is itself committed to and capable of abolishing national oppression. Lenin identified Luxemburg's greatest error, therefore, as one of ignoring the importance of politics in the national question and of thereby falling into the trap of "imperialist econ-omism."

"Economism" as a tendency among Russian Marxists arose in the 1890s and represented the view that "workers should by and large interest themselves in nothing other than mere narrow economic questions: everything else...did not concern workers, they did not understand other things and we must talk to them only about things which directly affect them, that is, only about their economic demands."13 Now, the obvious weakness of economism was that it discouraged and disabled workers from participating in and leading struggles against any of the forms of political oppression, including national oppression. Economism made it difficult to demonstrate in practice both the need for and the advantages of unity throughout the working class. Economism stood in the way of acquiring the kinds of experiences that can spark and develop fully democratic, internationalist principles among workers.

In Lenin's view, Luxemburg's dismissal of the right of nations to self-determination thus involved "a sort of 'imperialist Economism' like the old Economism of 1894-1902, which argued in this way: capitalism is victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time. Imperialism is victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time!"14 In fact:

for the question of the political self-determination of nations and their independence as states in bourgeois society, Rosa Luxemburg has substituted the question of their economic independence. This is just as intelligent as if someone, in discussing the programmatic demand for the supremacy of parliament, i.e., the assembly of people's representatives, in a bourgeois state, were to expound the perfectly correct conviction that big capital dominates in a bourgeois country, whatever the regime in it.15

Lenin here understood the imperialist epoch as actually increasing the importance of politics for the workers' movement. His concern was that, in opposing the right of self-determination for Poland, Luxemburg and the Polish Socialist Dem-ocrats forgot thÝt the "program of Social-Democracy...must postulate the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed as basic, significant and inevitable under imperialism."16 That is why:

The important thing is not whether one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of the small nations are liberated before the socialist revolution, but the fact that in the epoch of imperialism, owing to objective causes, the proletariat has been split into two camps, one of which has been corrupted by the crumbs that fall from the table of the dominant-nation bourgeoisie--obtained, among other things, from the double or triple exploitation of small nations--while the other cannot liberate itself without liberating the small nations, without educating the masses in an anti-chauvinist, i.e., anti-annexationist, i.e., "self-determinationist," spirit.17

In his debate with Luxemburg on the national question, Lenin emphasized at all times that the "self-determination of nations today hinges on the conduct of socialists in the oppressor nations. A socialist of any of the oppressor nations...who does not recognize and does not struggle for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination (i.e., the right to secession) is in reality a chauvinist, not a socialist."18 This perspective alone, Lenin argued, leads to a consistent application of the principle of combating any form of the oppression of nations: "It removes mistrust among the proletarians of the oppressor and oppressed nations, [and] makes for a united international struggle for the socialist revolution (i.e., for the only accomplishable regime of complete national equality)."19

Poland and the First World War

This, the most important aspect of the question, is ignored by our Polish comrades, who do not view things from the key position in the epoch of imperialism, the standpoint of the division of the international proletariat into two camps.

--V. I. Lenin, "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up"

With imperialist rivalry reaching a new intensity during the first decade of the twentieth century, and in keeping with the closing words of the Communist Manifesto--"Workers of all countries unite!"--the 1907 Congress of the Second International passed the following resolution:

If the outbreak of war threatens, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, with the aid of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of coordinated action. If war nevertheless breaks out, it is their duty to work for its speedy end, and to exploit with all their forces the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule.20

These brave words turned out to be an illusion. In August 1914, the vast majority of the parties in the Second International--including its largest party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)--voted their support for the horrific conflict into which imperialism had dragged them. The Second International immediately collapsed under the impact of this betrayal.

The outbreak of the First World War thrust the national question quickly to the fore. German socialists who supported the war--the "opportunists"--justified their criminal collusion with the German bourgeoisie by claiming that a defeat for Russia would be progressive, since it would "liberate" Poland and the other nationalities oppressed by the Tsar. For their part, the Russian opportunists justified their support for imperialist war, either by invoking what Lenin sarcastically referred to as the "who-started-it?" theory, or by claiming that a victory for Russia would strengthen Russian capitalism and thereby hasten the day when socialist revolution would be possible in Russia.

Even the leading theoretician of the Second International, the SPD's Karl Kautsky, failed the test of war. Labeled by Lenin as a "social-chauvinist," Kautsky argued that every nation had the right to defend itself--a thesis known as "defense of the fatherland." Kautsky's thesis was related to his theory of "ultra-imperialism." Rather than viewing imperialism as an era of wars and revolutions, as Lenin did, Kautsky believed that the carve-up of the globe among the imperialist powers, once complete, would act as a force for stability and peace. Kautsky considered that the war would be short-lived and that, after having relieved some pent-up pressures, imperialism would resume its steady march toward harmony and equilibrium.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks resolutely condemned the war. They called upon the working classes of all the belligerent nations to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary war against their capitalist rulers.

Lenin was scathing in his attack on socialists who supported the war. "Opportunism and social-chauvinism stand on a common economic basis--the interests of a thin crust of privileged workers and of the petty bourgeoisie, who are defending their privileged position, their 'right' to some modicum of the profits that their 'own' national bourgeoisie obtain from robbing other nations, from the advantages of their Great-Power status, etc."21 The war in fact presented the leaders of the social democratic parties with a clear choice. "Maintain their political position, their internationalism, which meant opposing the war, and face a return to illegality, persecution, prison, and the seizure of their massive assets. Or abandon all they had stood for in principle, support 'their own' imperialist state and gain an honored and increasing role in capitalist society. They capitulated and became recruiting sergeants for the First World War."22

The fortunes of Poland during the First World War provided the occasion for Lenin to further develop his theory on the right of nations to self-determination. In 1915, the German army captured Poland from Russia. Polish nationalists quickly allied themselves with Germany as a means of gaining independence from the Russian empire. Predictably, German opportunists welcomed their government's victory, while Russian opportunists deplored it.

For their part, Luxemburg and the Polish Social-Demo-crats argued correctly that national independence for Poland would remain a mirage as long as either Germany or Russia dominated Poland. But the Polish Social Democrats not only drew their familiar conclusion that the right to self-determination should therefore not apply to Poland. They also argued against "any revolt of the annexed regions," and, "any restoration of their independence, even a peaceful one!"23 In practice this meant their willingness to accept German annexation of Belgium and Russian annexation of Galicia.

Lenin responded to the opportunists and social-chauvinists alike by declaring that "Russian democracy...has undoubtedly gained from the fact that at present Russia does not oppress Poland and hold it by force. The Russian proletariat has undoubtedly gained from the fact that it no longer oppresses a people it had helped to oppress yesterday. German democracy has undoubtedly lost, for as long as the German proletariat tolerates Germany's oppression of Poland it will remain in a position which is worse than that of a slave."24 True internationalism, Lenin observed, requires that socialists be "indifferent" to whether "small nations belong to [their] state or to a neighboring state."25 What matters is that small nations have a democratic choice to be independent or to voluntarily integrate with a larger nation.

Regarding the views of the Polish Social Democrats, Lenin agreed that Polish independence was impossible at the moment. "To raise the question of Poland's independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighboring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o'-the-wisp [and] plunge into narrow-minded nationalism."26 He emphasized that no socialist could be "in favor of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland"; such a position would place "the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war."27 Nevertheless, Lenin took pains to clarify that the inability of socialists to support Polish independence, in a situation in which Poland had become the "plaything" of imperialist rivals, emphatically did not mean that socialists should withhold support for Polish self-determination.

The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilized by another "great" power for its own, equally imperialist, aims, is just as unlikely to make [genuine] Social-Democrats refuse to recognize the right of nations to self-determination as the numerous cases of bourgeois utilization of republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial plunder...are unlikely to make the Social-Democrats reject their republicanism.28

Lenin formulated the theoretical problem posed by Poland during the First World War in these terms: "The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland's independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, or they take part in annexing her."29

The immediate task for Polish workers was thus to stress "the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such can help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighboring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists."30 At the same time, the question of Polish independence remained very much alive for Russian and German workers. On the one hand, if Russian or German workers were to consent to Poland's annexation by "their" particular country, it would mean their political descent into the "basest turpitude" and their acceptance of the role of "executioner of other peoples."31 On the other hand, if Russian or German workers were to demand Poland's independence, they would objectively play into the hands of one or the other of the two imperialist powers battling over Poland.

Lenin's solution to the apparent contradictions among the positions and interests of Polish, Russian, and German workers was to demonstrate that in order "to strengthen internationalism you do not have to repeat the same words":32

The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional "freedom to secede"; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.33

In sum, Lenin advised socialists in the oppressor nations to uphold Poland's right to self-determination even as they withheld support for Polish independence in the context of the First World War. From the standpoint of the interests of the international working class and of democracy in general, Lenin showed that liberating Poland would unjustifiably require more war and that it could not be achieved without the national movement itself fatally becoming an instrument of one or the other imperialist power.

To socialists in Poland as the oppressed nation, Lenin similarly counseled that they not raise the demand for Polish independence in existing circumstances. By specifying that he was speaking in reference to "the given epoch or the given period," however, Lenin implicitly reiterated his conviction that, in other circumstances, nothing "precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal."34 Clearly, for Polish socialists to be able to consider the possibility of Polish independence or its voluntary integration with another state in the future, they needed to uphold Poland's right to self-determination in the present.

Throughout his discussion of Poland during the First World War I, Lenin consistently argues that, even when the slogan of independence cannot be raised because of the alignment of a given national movement with one among a set of rival imperialist powers, revolutionary socialists in both the oppressor and oppressed countries must find a way to affirm the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.


Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations--such is the national program that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.

--V. I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination"

Lenin's theory of the right of nations to self-determination became the cornerstone of the international communist movement prior to Stalin's rise to power. In presenting the commission report at the Second Congress of the Communist International in August 1920, Lenin added to Marx' and Engels' call for the workers of all countries to unite. Lenin put forward a new call for "the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial question [to] be based on the union of the workers and toiling masses of all nations and countries in the common revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landlords and the bourgeoisie."35

This policy represented the putting into practice of the right to self-determination in connection with the imperialist epoch. It took the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed and made it a guide to action. There could, of course, be no question of painting the bourgeois-led national liberation movements in revolutionary socialist colors. But equally there was no doubt that the workers and peasant masses of the colonized lands were far from being the passive victims of imperialism. They were also the agents of their own liberation, historical actors from whose ranks would come the components of the future proletarian parties.

Lenin firmly believed that "it would be a betrayal of socialism to refuse to implement the self-determination of nations under socialism."36 Between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, he thus supported Russia's nationalities in the demands they made upon the Provisional Government. And on November 2, 1917, the new Bolshevik government, as one of its first acts, decreed the right of Russia's oppressed nations to freedom. That right included self-determination up to secession and the formation of an independent state.

In the years between the October Revolution and his death in January 1924, Lenin battled on several occasions to defend the theory of self-determination he had elaborated prior to the revolution. Rival views developed among the Bolsheviks, some of whom claimed that the right to self-determination was no longer necessary under socialism, while others asserted that only the proletariat of an oppressed nationality, rather than the oppressed population in its entirety, should be allowed to vote on the question of forming an independent state. According to the historian E. H. Carr, "Lenin almost single-handed defended the old party position."37

Debates over the question of self-determination under socialism often counterposed Lenin and Trotsky, on one side, to Bukharin and Stalin, who had become People's Commissar for Affairs of Nationalities, on the other. In the middle of harsh disagreements over independence for regions such as Georgia and the Ukraine, Lenin's ideas stood out for their honesty and clarity:

We want a voluntary union of nations--a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another--a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent. Such a union cannot be effected at one stroke, we have to work toward it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust, and so that the distrust inherited from centuries of landowner and capitalist oppression, centuries of private property and the enmity caused by its divisions and redivisions may have a chance to wear off.

We must, therefore, strive persistently for the unity of nations and ruthlessly suppress everything that tends to divide them, and in so doing we must be very cautious and patient, and make concessions to the survivals of national distrust....In this matter we can afford to wait, and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardize the cause of complete and ultimate unity.38

Lenin's critics today accuse his ideas on self-determination of harboring a fundamental contradiction: "Lenin supported the 'right' to separation without actually advocating separation. He argued that it was like a divorce law, which allowed for separation but did not promote it."39 But Lenin himself penned the appropriate response when he answered the critics of his own day:

People who have not gone into the question thoroughly think that it is "contradictory" for the Social-Democrats of oppressor nations to insist on the "freedom to secede," while Social-Democrats of oppressed nations insist on the "freedom to integrate." However, a little reflection will show that there is not, and cannot be any other road to internationalism and the amalgamation of nations, any other road from the given situation to this goal.40

Lenin's theory of the right of nations to self-determination is one of the most outstanding achievements of Marxism. It is a beacon of workers' democracy that can guide socialists in the anti-imperialist struggles of the twenty-first century as surely as it has in the past.

1 Rosa Luxemburg, "The National Question and Autonomy," The Nationalism Reader, ed. Omar Dahbour and Micheline R. Ishay (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995), p. 199.

2 Luxemburg, p. 202.

3 Luxemburg, p. 202.

4 Luxemburg, p. 202.

5 Luxemburg, p. 203.

6 Luxemburg, p. 203.

7 Luxemburg, p. 204.

8 Lenin, "Resolution on the National Question," Collected Works (Moscow: International Publishers, 1963), Vol. 24, p. 302.

9 Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 399.

10 Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination," Collected Works, Vol. 22, pp. 51-152.

11 Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Bookmarks, 1980), p. 60.

12 Lenin, "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up," Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 325.

13 Grigorii Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party (London: New Park Publications, 1973), p. 56.

14 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 323.

15 Lenin "The Right of Nations," p. 399.

16 Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations," p. 147.

17 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 343.

18 Lenin, "The Question of Peace," p. 293.

19 Lenin, "The Question of Peace," p. 293.

20 Quoted in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985), p. 14.

21 Lenin, "Socialism and War," Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 310.

22 Hallas, p. 16.

23 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 333. Lenin highlighted the absurdity of the position of the Polish Social-Democrats: "This is downright annexationism," he wrote. "There is no need to refute it because it refutes itself. No socialist party would risk taking this stand: 'We oppose annexations in general but we sanction annexations for Europe or tolerate them once they have been made.

24 Lenin, "Peace Without Annexations and the Independence of Poland as Slogans of the Day in Russia," Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 139.

25 Lenin, "Summed Up," pp. 346-347.

26 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 350.

27 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 350.

28 Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations," p. 148.

29 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 351.

30 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 351.

31 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 351.

32 Lenin, "Speech on the National Question, April 29 [1917]," Collected Works, Vol. 24, p. 298.

33 Lenin, "Speech on the National Question," p. 298.

34 Lenin, "The National Question in our Programme," Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 460.

35 Lenin, "Theses on the National and Colonial Question," in Alex Callinicos, Marxism and the National Question (London: Socialist Workers Party, 1989), p. 22.

36 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 321.

37 E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution (London: Macmillan & Co. 1950), p. 267.

38 Lenin, "Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine Apropos of the Victories over Denikin," Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 293.

39 Ronaldo Munck, The Difficult Dialogue: Marxism and Nationalism (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1986), p. 75.

40 Lenin, "Summed Up," p. 347.

Back to top