Revolutionary Socialists and the National Question: Five Draft Points

1. Nations as such do not exist (apart from in the minds of nationalist theoreticians) other than in the form of national consciousness and national movements; national existence itself is a function of national movements and national consciousness, and not the other way round.

A nation, in the sense in which the word is commonly used and understood, refers to group of people which is demarcated off through the special and unique – ‘national’ –  qualities they share and embody; special qualities – comprising British-ness, Spanish-ness, German-ness, and so forth – which are not ultimately reducible to such tangibles as language, territory, or political institutions, but which take the form of the ‘national character’ that the people both embody in the present and have embodied since time immemorial.  For each nation thus understood the world is divided into ‘them’ and ‘us’: us-ness being defined by the special foundational qualities of our own national character, and them-ness by their absence, which is, for each nation, the one thing that all other nations have in common.  Nations do not therefore treat other nations with equanimity: being national does not signify being an equal member of a brotherhood of nations but precisely being different from all the other nations put together.  The lack in other nations of that which makes us what we are not only makes us unique but also frequently marks us off as superior, and often our superiority over the rest of the other nations comes from the fact that we have been chosen by God as special: with alarming frequency, the native tongue of each nation is quite literally the language of heaven.

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The Bolsheviks, the National Question and the Civil War

The policy of Bolshevism on the national question, having ensured the victory of the October revolution, also helped the Soviet Union to hold out afterward notwithstanding inner centrifugal forces and a hostile environment.

–– Leon Trotsky

During a debate on the national question in an internet forum, I was challenged on a comment I had made to the effect that ‘the Russian Revolution would not have taken place if it had not been for the positions of the Bolsheviks on the national question.’ The objections that were raised were these:

  • ‘Between the February and October revolutions national governments were formed in many of the nations within the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks did nothing to either encourage or dissuade this process as they could do nothing about it.’
  • ‘With the exception of the Ukraine and Byelorussia all the nations peripheral to the Empire were lost to counter-revolutionary forces regardless of the position the Bolsheviks held on self-determination.’
  • ‘In the Ukraine the argument that self-determination won the masses to the revolution simply will not wash given that more than once Lenin had to intervene their to rebuke the local representatives of the party for Great Russian chauvinism. When a stable regime was finally established in the Ukraine it was to be headed not by a Ukrainian or a Great Russian but by a man whose very nationality was more than a little in flux. I refer to Christian Rakovsky.’

And finally, that the national question ‘was a very secondary ideological weapon in this struggle.’

Given that my interlocutor saw fit to cast doubt on my capacity to engage with the ‘historical process’ and suggested that I really knew nothing about the events under consideration, the historical ignorance he displayed was staggering. To keep this discussion at least some way manageable I am going to concentrate my comments on the Ukraine, since it was here not only that the most important phase of the civil war was played out but where the national question was posed most sharply. But it is not true that the national question only emerged in the Ukraine: in the east, in Turkestan, the Bolshevik’s position was also a vital factor in winning over the most militant fighters for national liberation, a point admitted by the region’s bourgeois nationalist leaders themselves.

More (pdf: 115KB): The Bolsheviks, the National Question and the Civil War

‘The Secret of the Forest is the Trees’

The principle is not: Whoever wants to be a nation is a nation. It is just the opposite: A nation simply is, whether the individuals of which it is composed want to belong to the nation or not. A nation is not based on self-determination but on pre-determination.

––Friedrich Meinicke

A nation is […] a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarised, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

––Ernest Renan

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.

––Joseph Stalin

The difficulties that Marxists (and others) have had in coming up with a definition of ‘the nation’ are well known. What I am suggesting here is that this is not surprising, and that it is not necessarily a problem: indeed, I suggest that those who want and try to produce a definition of ‘the nation’ do so because they understand neither for what nor at what they are looking. In essence, what I suggest is that ‘the nation’ has not been satisfactorily defined by materialists, nor will it be, simply because, as it does not exist, a definition is impossible. Please note that I am not saying that nationalism does not exist, nor that states, even national states or nation-states, nor the ‘national question’, do not exist; simply that ‘the nation’ does not exist. Nor do I intend to say much about the myriad matters of political strategy and tactics that the national question poses. But I contend that a materialist political outlook that is dependent upon a prior definition of what a nation is will always in the end fail.

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Marx and Engels and the National Question

There are two ways to look at Marx and Engels: as the creators of a brilliant, but in its deepest essence, thoroughly critical, scientific method; or as church fathers of some sort, the bronzed figures of a monument. Those who have the latter vision will not have found this study to their taste. We, however, prefer to see them as they were in reality.
––Roman Rosdolsky


Benedict Anderson, the author of one of the most suggestive theoretical examinations of modern nationalism of recent years, offered the judgement that for Marxism nationalism represents an ‘anomaly’, and has, as a consequence, been ‘largely elided, rather than confronted’, theoretically speaking. This is evidently not intended to mean that the broader Marxist tradition—that movement incorporating not solely the theoretical explications of Marx and Engels themselves but also the practical experiences of subsequent generations of Marxists—has not concerned itself with the question of nationalism. Far from it, for the writings of Communists of such diverse outlooks as Kautsky and Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, Luxemburg and Bauer, are littered with endeavours to address the incidence of nationalism as both a theoretical question and as a practical difficulty as it presents itself to Marxist revolutionary politicians. The problem rather appears to be that there is no apparent direct lineage between the latter body of work and a ‘classical’ framework of Marxist theory—as there is (naturally after having made allowances for theoretical discrepancies of a partial nature and the necessary evolution and development of concepts), in relation, say, to the inner mechanisms of the capitalist economy, or to the historical origins and functional operation of the modern state. Further: upon examination, it is not clear whether there is within ‘classical’ Marxism itself even the elements of an essential notional framework upon which it is possible to develop, build and expand a coherent theoretical discourse; at first sight all we are able to discern are a series of fragmented and mutually contradictory references, apparently guided more by pragmatic considerations than by a framework of ‘scientific’ principles, and, after the passage of more than a century, ostensibly as of little use in the explanation of the modern world as is, say, the theory of ‘felicific calculus’ of Bentham.

Thus of the many lacunae evident in the corpus of ‘classical’ Marxism (by which here is meant that body of social and political theory as expounded by Marx and Engels themselves) the whole problematic related to nations and nationalism perhaps stands out as the most taxing. It is of note perhaps that Tom Nairn—one of the most prominent commentators on the phenomenon of modern nationalism to emerge from the British Marxist tradition—once remarked that its theory of nationalism represented Marxism’s ‘great historical failure.’ The reason that writers of the calibre of Nairn are able to offer this judgement, and an examination of whether or not they are right to do so, will form the bulk of what follows below.

More (pdf: 149KB): Marx and Engels and the National Question