Some notes on the National Question

Nigel Smith

Nation States

Although people have lived in various large territorial areas which have been variously described as countries, kingdoms or nations for at least five thousand years, nation states are generally accepted as being created in the modern period (i). Nations are not “naturally” developing over time, but are actively constructed by people. In the late 18th and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist intellectuals and activists made their case that certain groups of people, usually living in one territory, supposedly speaking one language and supposedly sharing a culture, shared a special bond that was the nation. For most of human history and even most of the time since the beginning of nationalism (and hence the modern nation), the vast majority of people didn’t care about the nation. They did not identify as members of a nation but rather with their religion, village, region, profession, class, etc. Nationalists of various persuasions for the most part worked to convince the members of their supposed nation that they actually were part of a nation. This is where national self-determination – for Marxists – has to start: people should have the right to decide whether they want to belong to this or that state, or have their own national state. Nation states, historically, are the creation of political elites who seize territories, often via warfare, for their own enrichment power and prestige. They are lines drawn on a map, with the laws and customs of the ruling elites both of the region and beyond it, promoted over those of other local cultures, even if alternative cultures existed in the territories before the ruling culture usurped them. Of course, to achieve their aims, ruling classes develop nationalism as the official ideology of their state. 

National Question

Today, we are constantly reminded that the national question is a significant part of the political landscape. Across continents the misery and inequality created by national elites is palpable. The demarcation of nations has usually been born out of domination. One national culture for example England, dominating others, eg Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We see all across the globe, that the situation remains the same. Palestine / Israel is an example that many people are familiar with, but it is hard to look at any part of the world and find that the oppression of one national group over another is not present. Nationalists claim that a national culture (like territory and language) unites all members of the nation, but in fact bourgeois culture and peasant or working-class culture have little to nothing in common even within the same “nation”. It was nationalists who created nations and not nations that produced nationalists.

Socialist Position

The ultimate object of socialists is to rid the world of class division, nation states, borders, racism and oppression. It is to produce a world where democracy is localised and the rights of the people of one part of the planet are equal to those of any other part of the planet. The function of socialism is to impel humanity towards the international and cooperative and away from nationalist power struggle. 

Hunter gatherers for example usually did not compete for territory but shared the resources around them with other groups. Groups cooperated with one another over the use of resources. They understood that resources were finite and that they could be more effectively nurtured through cooperative methods. Hunter gatherer groups were also small and depended on cooperation with other groups to maintain a healthy gene pool. (ii)

As socialists we are aware that history under forms of agrarian, pre-feudal, feudal and capitalist societies robbed the world of that approach. Capitalism has replaced it with a system that supports the powerful against the weak and sets one group (nation) against another. This is a paradox for capitalism because at the same time it seeks a global system, but cannot counter the narrative of nationalism that competition between nation states fosters. This is for philosophical as well as political reasons. The expression of power based at the heart of capitalism supports the concept of the power of nation states over the rights of the people who live within the borders of those states. Patriotism and nationalism are fostered as positive attributes by the elites within states but at the same time the capitalists, who are part of the elite class, need to trade with other states. Imperialism today is not only about marshal conquest but is also carried out economically. Sub Saharan Africa, for example, is kept poor by richer nations in order to support the richer nations’ economic interests. Countries, like China, who begin to shake off the imperialist oppression, become oppressors themselves and the rivalry for global power prevents a cooperative approach between nations except on a superficial public level in times of plenty.

Struggles Against Nationalism

The struggle to solve the national question is, in my view, best illustrated by the progress made under the Bolshevik system following the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The national question was seen by Lenin and Trotsky as a key component of the struggle for a class-less socialist society and not separate from it. (iii) 

Although in 1913, Lenin asked Stalin to write a pamphlet on the National Question, he found himself in opposition to some of its content from the very beginning. Stalin drew deterministic/mechanistic conclusions about the nature of nations which didn’t allow for the transitional approach advocated by Lenin. Stalin saw nations as 

“historically constituted stable, communities of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (iv) 

This definition would rule out the rights of many peoples and reflected the trait that would later emerge under Stalin of cultural and political hegemony across the USSR and Eastern Europe. 

Lenin saw that Stalin was also unable to accommodate the rights of national groups to a different level of political development. Stalin’s approach, was towards the paternalistic interventionist, where he decried the appropriateness of an independent Poland and using rhetorical language sought to justify an interventionist approach towards a politically, less developed nation: 

“Can Social-Democracy look on indifferently when the beys and mullahs assume the leadership of the masses in the solution of the national question? Should not Social-|Democracy interfere in the matter and influence the will of the nation in a definite way?.” (v) 

Lenin, on the other hand was 

“unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.” (vi) 

Unlike Stalin he saw nations as at different stages of political development and believed that it was correct to intervene on behalf of the Finnish working class for example, because it represented a major force in Finland. However, where a proletariat did not exist Lenin, took a more pragmatic approach.  

“With regard to more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind…that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is dependent on…” (vii) 

In other words, Lenin took a position based on the commonality of class interests. 

Lenin’s view dominated and The Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, was published in 1917. It advocated: 

“The equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia. The right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, even to the point of separation and the formation of an independent state. The abolition of any and all national and national-religious privileges and disabilities. The free development of national minorities and ethnographic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.” (viii)

This document clearly outlines the rights of the various nations to self-determination. It later proved to be a powerful unifying factor for the Red Army in the civil war because the Whites and counter-revolutionary forces didn’t countenance such an approach to the national question. 

With Lenin’s illness and death in 1924, it fell to Trotsky to lead the opposition to Stalin on the national question. Trotsky had been the leader of the Red Army during the protracted civil war and was aware that there had been complicated events throughout the war across Russia. Counter-revolution was present and its territories were being invaded by more than 20 capitalist countries. The Revolution therefore, had to survive by supporting the workers and peasants against the counter-revolutionary and foreign forces. This was not to force Bolshevism on the peoples but to allow for the free determination of their futures following the civil war. 

“Our military invasion of Transcaucasia can be justified and has justified itself in the eyes of the working people insofar as it has dealt a blow at imperialism and established the conditions for real, actual self-determination for the Caucasian nationalities. If through our fault the masses of the people in Transcaucasia should come to look on our military interference as an act of conquest, then this interference will be transformed into a very great crime…” (ix) 

Although mistakes were made during the revolution and Russia is a massive territory and the presence of Bolshevik cadre in all regions was difficult to achieve, Lenin took a flexible approach when mistakes were made. 

Trotsky was steadfast in the realisation that the rights of nationalities were absolutely central to the revolution and eventual development of socialism and like Lenin, conscious of the fact that tendencies towards “the old-time forceful Great Power attitude”, were already a threat in 1923 (x). He saw that the formation of the Soviet Union envisioned by Stalin risked tying nationalities to a Greater Russian centre, rather than allowing their self-determination. 

Later on, Trotsky was confronted by the rise of nationalism and the failure of the left to combat it in both the USSR, with the rise of Stalinism and the rest of Europe, with the rise of fascism. He saw that the victory of the nationalist right could lead to, 

“the oppressed masses and entire peoples will be forced to climb anew, paying out their sweat and blood, retracing on their hands and knees the historic road already travelled.” (xi) 

He also saw that the way forward was a revolutionary one, 

“We look forward and not backward. The programme of the Fourth International states that the freedom of all European nations, small and large can, only be assured within the framework of the Socialist United States of Europe.“ (xi)

The National Question Today

The 21st Century has not brought any significant steps forward for national groups and the recognition of their political aspirations. How could it under capitalism? In Africa, where previously colonial countries gained their independence, the system itself, the arbitrary borders and power structures remain intact. In the case of South Africa for example, the end of apartheid has brought largely symbolic rather than structural change. The ruling class still holds its capitalist grip on the workers and gross inequalities between groups within society persist. Africa and the rest of the world faces greater inequality under capitalism and cultural aspirations continue to be thwarted. 

“Coups, structural adjustment, free trade and investor dispute tribunals are all ways that rich countries and powerful corporations have sought to secure their economic interests on the world stage.” (xii) 

They dominate poorer nations, holding them back economically and crush cultural differences as a consequence.

In Israel / Palestine, Catalonia, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Scotland etc Marxists should continue in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky to argue for the rights of national groups. This does not mean a support for nationalism or the poisonous ideologies of racism but support for the rights of groups that identify as culturally coherent to be supported in their desire for a cultural and political future, including their right to form their own nation state, against the suppression of another capitalist/imperialist state. 

Socialists believe in extensive democracy, not only in general but also on a rank and file and local level. They believe in worker’s control of the means of production and the right of the people to have a direct control of their future, working alongside socialists in other areas of the world. “Localism” combined with internationalism. It is the way to see all groups of peoples having their worth in the world and the freedom to plan for their locality alongside, not in competition with other cultural groups. 

“…the consciousness of small and historically oppressed nationalities, national ambitions and the idea of breaking with the status quo to form independent states can become entwined with the desire for an end to austerity, impoverishment and precariousness.” (xiii)

The Marxist demand for “national self-determination” has several purposes: Crucially, it is a means to overcome the destructive role nationalism plays in the consciousness of large segments of the working class and to provide a basis in which workers can be organized on a class-base without feeling discriminated against. Furthermore, it is a means to fight against national discrimination and oppression. On principle, Marxists do not care about the nation as such, but about the workers and the poor who identify with it, and they especially care about national oppression, as they care about every form of oppression. At the same time, the struggles for national self-determination and national “rights” are transitionary and have to go hand in hand in hand with the struggle for socialism. 

The demand for “national rights” is part of a transitional approach. We don’t believe in this bourgeois concept of inalienable “rights” of nations, an idea that appeals to the bourgeois order of the world. But we are willing to accept this and use it in a struggle against oppression and in the struggle for socialism. Because it is transitionary, Marxists are not overly concerned with whether national oppression or nationality is “real” or “imagined” (i.e., whether a certain group of people “historically” constitute a nation, whether it is advisable to re-elevate an old, supposedly “national” language that no one speaks anymore, etc.). The support for national demands has to go hand-in-hand with the struggle for socialism and the struggle in and by itself may render national demands useless and outdated. For example: the demand for a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine in a voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East appeals to the current consciousness of the masses in the region and responds to debates about how to end or at least mitigate the everyday national oppression and discrimination of the Palestinians while at the same time respecting the national feelings of Israelis and not threatening them. However, an actual implementation of this demand would require united revolutionary mass movements and cross-national self-organization of workers of all groups on an unprecedented basis. Marxists believe that such an experience of mass-struggle would by itself make questions of the nation irrelevant or at least of a very secondary nature. 

It is important to recognise that as Marxists we give critical support to national aspirations. We also understand that some movements can have reactionary and back-ward looking leaderships. We fight to free oppressed minorities from the forms of oppression produced by capitalism. We have to support the progressive parts of these movements, while also highlighting its problems. We always raise socialist demands and ideas, confident that they will gain an echo with the masses, but aware that forces of reaction can prevail. We engage in the struggle. We do not leave it to the bourgeois to keep the economic and cultural wealth of regions in the hands of tiny elites. 


i. R. Rudgeley 1998 Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, Arrow, 12-13

ii. C Turnbull 1961 The Forest People, Picador, 19-20

iii. R Jones 2020 How the Bolsheviks Treated the National Question, Sosialisticheskaya Alternativa (ISA in Russia)

iv. J V Stalin 1913 Marxism and the National Question, Collected Works Volume 2.

v. J V Stalin 1913 Marxism and the National Question, Collected Works Volume 2.

vi. Lenin 1913 Thesis on the National Question, Marxist.org archive

vii. Lenin 1920 Draft Thesis on the national Question 1920, Marxist.org archive

viii. Declaration on the Rights of the Peoples of Russia. 1917

ix. Leon Trotsky 1923 How Should Russia Act Towards Other Soviet Nations? Marxist.org archive

x. Leon Trotsky 1923 How Should Russia Act Towards Other Soviet Nations? Marxist.org archive

xi. Leon Trotsky 1938 A Fresh Lesson, Marxist.org archive

xii. Jason Hickel 2017 The Divide: a brief guide to global inequality and its solutions, Penguin Random House, 220

xiii. Danny Byrne 2017 Catalonia in Revolt, Socialism Today issue 216

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