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 Chapter  XV

The National Question

Marxist Understanding Regarding Early Nationality Movements

Leninist Linking of the National and Colonial Question

National Liberation Struggles


Marxist Understanding Regarding Early Nationality Movements

The earliest national movements arose in Western Europe. The bourgeoisie in their fight against the old unstable feudal monarchies, set up modern independent states which were in most cases single-nation states : that is to say, each country was occupied by a single people speaking a common language. Lenin explained the material basis of these movements:

"Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

"Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these conditions of modern capitalism are best satisfied." 178

In the whole of Western Europe, only on the British Isles, was there a national minority large enough to give rise to a struggle for independence. The English failed to consolidate their conquest of Ireland, and during the eighteenth century there arose an Irish national movement. Marx and Engels lived in this period, when the national movements of East Europe were yet to emerge, and the upsurge of struggles against imperialism were yet to become a reality. They thus did not devote much attention to developing Marxist theory on the national question. Marx however formulated the basic stand in relation to the Irish Question by calling on the English proletariat to support the national struggle of the Irish people and oppose its national oppression. Marx and Engels took the position that, the liberation of Ireland was a condition for the victory of the English working class. A resolution of the First International drafted by Marx said "A people which enslaves others forges its own chains" 179

The next phases of nationality movements came in Eastern Europe, with the spread of capitalism, and the weakening of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. It was during this period that Stalin, in 1913, made the first systematic Marxist presentation on the national question. He defined a nation as "a historically evolved, stable community of people, based upon the common possession of four principal attributes, namely : a common language, a common territory, a common economic life, and a common psychological make-up manifesting itself in common specific features of national culture." 180 Further he saw a nation as "not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism." 181 Stalin concentrated his analysis on the multinational states of Eastern Europe which were then experiencing a growth of capitalist relations. Further since Marxism had at that time not yet made a complete analysis of imperialism, his analysis could not sufficiently explain the national question of the colonies and semi-colonies. Colonies do not qualify as nations under Stalin’s definition. Colonies and semi-colonies did not really possess an integrated economy given their dependent economic status. And equally inapplicable was the concept of ‘rising capitalism’ to the position of these societies.

Leninist Linking of the National and Colonial Question

The development of a theory which does apply to colonies and semi-colonies was begun by Lenin only two years after the publication of Stalin’s article. It was with the development of the theory of imperialism that this came about. Thus, in the words of Stalin:

"Leninism laid bare this crying incongruity, broke down the wall between whites and blacks, between Europeans and Asians, between the ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ slaves of imperialism, and thus linked the national question with the question of the colonies. The national question was thereby transformed from a particular and internal state problem into a general and international problem, into a world problem of the liberation of the oppressed peoples in the dependent countries and colonies from the yoke of imperialism." 182

Lenin explained the situation regarding the self-determination of nations and the tasks of the proletariat in the face of different situations in different countries. He divided the countries of the world into "three main types:

"First, the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States of America. In these countries the bourgeois, progressive, national movements came to an end long ago. Every one of these ‘great’ nations oppresses other nations in the colonies and within its own country. The tasks of the proletariat of these ruling nations are the same as those of the proletariat in England in the nineteenth century in relation to Ireland.

"Secondly, Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans and particularly Russia. Here it was the twentieth century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movements and intensified the national struggle. The tasks of the proletariat in these countries — in regard to the consummation of their bourgeois-democratic reformation, as well as in regard to assisting the socialist revolution in other countries — cannot be achieved unless it champions the right of nations to self-determination. In this connection the most difficult but most important task is to merge the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations.

"Thirdly, the semi-colonial countries, like China, Persia, Turkey, and all the colonies, which have a combined population amounting to a billion. In these countries the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun, or are far from having been completed. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation — and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing more nor less than the recognition of the right to self-determination — but must render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their rebellion-and if need be, their revolutionary war against the imperialist powers that oppress them."183

This thesis thus summarised the stand of the revolutionaries as unequivocal advocation to the right of self-determination and total support to the struggle for national liberation. To the criticism that the proletariat is internationalist and favours the merger of nations, Lenin explained the material basis and the proletariat’s standpoint.

Thus Lenin pointed out, "Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies in the national question. The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the break-down of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.

"Both tendencies are a universal law of capitalism. The former predominates in the beginning of its development, the latter characterises a mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society. The Marxists’ national programme takes both tendencies into account, and advocates firstly, the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect (and also the right of nations to self-determination, ...); secondly, the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind."184

Thus, Lenin says, "The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them."185 This merger of nations cannot however be achieved by the forced merger of nations; it can only be achieved by them achieving full freedom and merging in a voluntary union. Thus, "Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede." 185

This applied all the more to the proletarian state. That is why when Lenin presented the Revision of the Party Programme in October 1917, he insisted, "We want free unification; that is why we must recognise the right to secede. Without freedom to secede, unification cannot be called free." 186

National Liberation Struggle

On the basis of the Leninist understanding of the National Question, it is clear that in the colonies and semi-colonies, it is imperialism that generates nationalism. "In colonial and semi-colonial nations there is no epoch of rising capitalism, i.e., no epoch dominated by a rising domestic bourgeoisie. Domination is exercised by foreign monopolists and the big bourgeoisie which is depending upon it, i.e., the bourgeoisie is comprador in nature.

"Under these circumstances, the nation is not the outcome of a struggle waged primarily by a rising bourgeoisie against the fetters of feudalism. It is the outcome mainly of an anti-imperialist struggle waged by all the oppressed classes, primarily of the toiling masses. In order to achieve victory in this struggle, the establishment of the hegemony of the working class is a historical necessity.

"Thus colonial nationalism and the national liberation struggle would lead not to a form of ‘mature capitalism’ but to socialism. Therefore, it is not a part of the old bourgeois democratic revolution, but of the new democratic revolution, the essence of which is agrarian revolution." 187

These national liberation struggles and democratic revolutions of the new type have become the main trend in the period after Lenin. Drawing attention to this trend Mao says, "A weak nation can defeat a strong, a small nation can defeat a big. The people of a small country can certainly defeat oppression by a big country, if only they dare to rise in struggle, dare to take up arms, and grasp in their own hands the destiny of their country. This is a law of history." 188

Another aspect of this trend is the growing to life and the upsurge of the national liberation struggles of the nations within the multi-national states formed in the semi-colonies. "After Lenin, particularly from the second world war period, two important things have taken place in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. First is that the national movement has become a thing of the present, the second is theat many of the colonial countries, instead of becoming free democracies, were changed into states wholly dependent upon the imperialists economically, financially and militarily, under the guise of politically dependent states. When we say that national movement has become a thing of the present, we mean that national formation have taken place in backward multinational colonies and semi-colonial countries. Since these colonial countries were changed into semi-colonial countries, the newly emerged nations are not only subjected to the domination of the ruling big bourgeois national chauvinists of their own countries who control their central governments. Therefore, the newly emerged oppressed nations of the multinational semi-colonial countries are suffering under double yoke. Hence, along with the task of liberating the country from imperialists the task of fighting for the right to self-determination of these oppressed nations of these countries also comes to the forefront." 187

How the proletariat in these countries and nations grasps the national question, according to Marxist principles, and how it implements this understanding, is of crucial importance to the success of revolution not only in these countries but also to the progress of world socialist revolution.



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