Forwarded from Anthony (on self-determination)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Aug 31 06:10:28 MDT 2000

Hey there and howdy y'all

Hi Lou.

Here is my first little contribution to the ongoing discussion on your list
which has developed mostly under the title "Self-Determination, support it!"

I think maybe there is some confusion about countries, nations, and
nationalism. It seems to me that people on this list assume that they are
all talking about the same thing, when maybe they have different concepts.

In my view a good starting point for clearing up confusion might be to
discuss definitions.

What is a nation? What is a country? What is a state? What is a nation-state?

In my view nations are not the same as countries, and nation-state is a
very slippery thing to define.

What is a Nation?

At the beginning of the 20th century, a commonly accepted definition, by
Marxists as well as by most nationalists, was that a nation is a group of
people with the same language, the same culture, a common history, living
in a contiguous geographic area. To this mix was sometimes added a common
class structure.

While there are, and have been, many groups of people who fit this
definition fairly well - there are a lot of problems with it. Most of these
problems have to do with the fact that the definition only defines some
groups of people, and not others - others which may include the majority of
people on this planet.

For example, what about the various Diaspora people - Jews, Palestinians,
etc. Or, what about large contiguous areas where the people speak the same
language, have the same religion, have a common history, but are redivided
into several countries? Say Northern Africa, or Spanish speaking America?
Or what about linguistic, ethnic and cultural minorities living in the same
geographical area as another national group? What about the indigenous
peoples crowded into the corners of the lands stolen from them by European
conquerors and colonizers?

What is a nation state?

Also at the beginning of the last century, a commonly accepted definition
was that a state was all of the bureaucratic, police, military, judicial,
and possibly parliamentary apparatus that governed a sovereign and
independent piece, or pieces, of land.

What is a nation-state?

A nation- state was, in theory, a state whose piece of land was the
"contiguous geographical area" inhabited by the "nation".

In the history of this planet there have been very few states that closely
approached the concept of a "nation state". And even those which most
closely approached it, only approached it.

What is a country?

A country is any piece or pieces of land with a unified and independent
state - regardless of the nationality of the people who live within it.
This is what we have on this planet, a lot of countries, most - maybe all -
of which are not nation states.

Nations are a product of history - they didn't always exist, and there is
no reason for anyone to expect them to continue to exist forever.

The formation of nations was the product of a finite period in human history.

Regional linguistic, religious and culture groups of people
(proto-nations?) developed before recorded history. Their linguistic and
cultural homogeneity was the product of their isolation and independence
from other groups.

Given the extremely low population density of the planet, and the fact that
the only means of transportation was on foot, communication and interchange
between different large groups was not intense during humanity's two or
three million years of tribal prehistory. Probably the part of this history
most interesting occurred only in the last part of this period, say the
last 30,000 to 100,000 years.

During that very long time, separate and distinct language and cultural
groups evolved. A look at the tremendous number of tribal languages which
still exist in the Americas, many spoken only by a handful of tribal
survivors, gives some insight into how many languages and cultures must
have existed before agriculture and "civilization" forever changed human

Isolation of one group from another was an essential element for the
evolution of different languages and cultures.

Between ten and fifteen thousand years ago a dramatic change in human
society occurred - which began a process of destruction of tribal language
and cultural groups and the formation of larger, more complex societies.

This change was the discovery of agriculture, the slavery which agriculture
eventually made possible, and the emergence of civilization based on the
triad of agriculture, slavery, and war (war for territorial conquest and
acquisition of slaves).

In Asia and Europe the addition of the horse, camel and elephant to the
equation meant that warfare could be intensified, and that armies could
conquer and hold larger pieces of land.

The resulting densely populated agricultural societies produced cities,
city states, and empires. But these were not nations in the sense of the
19th century European definition. Slaves and slaveowners frequently spoke
different languages, and worshipped different Gods. The process of
suppression of the languages and cultures of the conquered by the
conquerors, had varying results - and frequently the conquerors adopted
important linguistic elements from the conquered, as well as other aspects
of culture, a process made famous by the Roman adaptation of Greek culture
- but certainly not unique to the Roman empire.

The imperial societies that emerged from this process contained what might
be called proto-nations - approximately fitting the 19th century definition
of nation.

Such imperial societies seem (I say seem, because my knowledge of Asian and
sub-Saharan African history is too weak to really make a global statement
on the matter) to have developed all over the "old world" by about 2,000
years ago. From that point on the history of Europe, the Arab world,
sub-Saharan Africa and Asia should be viewed separately when it comes to
the formation of nations.

The disintegration of the Roman empire in Europe created a process in which
the regions within and on the fringe of the old empire were separated and
isolated from each other, and were to one extent or another subjected to
massive immigrations of Germanic speaking people.

Warfare now began to develop fixed borders between linguistic and cultural
groups. Frequently these borders were determined by some geophysical
feature which provided a natural line of defense by one group of people
from another. For example, in the case of the Germanic tribes, the Rhine
river had been their line of defense against Rome. The Rhine again became
the border between the Latinized Germanic kingdoms in France, and the
Germanic kingdoms which had never experienced the benefits of Roman
conquest to the North and East. The Pyrenees and Alps were more formidable
geophysical barriers, and thus more formidable lines of military
demarcation between linguistic and cultural regions.  In the east the
sparsely populated spaces, combined with he awful winters, produced a
similar effect of isolating Muscovy from Poland, and Poland from Finland, etc.

But the same processes of immigration and warfare which had remixed,
redivided and reisolated language and cultural groups in Europe, ended up
producing the feudal system of statelets - with its hereditary rulers and
hierarchical system of fealty. Marriage alliances could, and did, create
states that included pieces of land located in different linguistic, and
cultural regions. The Hapsburg empire being the crown jewel of those
historic amalgams.

The political map of Europe - when the first great bourgeois revolution,
and first great struggle for national independence against the Habsburgs,
occurred in Holland - was a patchwork quilt of little duchies,
principalities and kingdoms sometimes united in a big amalgam, and
sometimes independent, and only sometimes coinciding more or less with
"national" boundaries.

Four countries stood out as something close to nation states: France,
England, Spain, and Portugal. Each unified a large territory under one
state apparatus, with something approximating linguistic and cultural
homogeneity. All three had achieved this through the late medieval wars
which appear to have been something of a combination between civil wars and
dynastic wars of conquest, the War of Roses, 100 years war, the
Reconquista. The first two being more ciivil wars - in the sense of between
factions within the same cultural group, and the Reconquista being more of
a war of conquest of one culture over another.

 Marxists have debated issues of nations and nationalism since the
beginning. Marxism in many ways was a child a 19th century European
nationalism. You might say that Marx and Engels were the "negation" of
European nationalist politics. Marx and Engels cut their political teeth in
the failed German democratic revolution of the 1840's - a revolution with
the aim of uniting the German speaking countries into one country. At the
time there were dozens of small German speaking countries.

The idea of a nation to most German nationalists - (leaving aside the most
romantic, mythological, fantastic, racist, religious and otherwise idiotic
aspects of their thought - but not denying the importance of those aspects
of their thought to those nationalists), and also to the Italian
nationalists (who were carrying out the same struggle to unite dozens of
tiny countries into a single country) was that ... a nation was a group of
people with the same language, the same culture, a common history, living
in a contiguous geographic area, and sometimes who looked alike. To this
mix was sometimes added a common class structure.

To the German and Italian nationalists of the 19th century, these ideas
were a tool to help in the formation of powerful states that could compete
with France, England and Spain - the three countries that those
nationalists commonly believed were already nation states, and with the
Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, two countries very few people have
ever mistaken for nation states.

Larger "nation states" could - the nationalists well understood, provide a
powerful impetus to the development of the bourgeoisie and of the
capitalist economies of Germany and Italy. How? By providing a large
unified market free of internal tariff and customs barriers, and by
building large "state" apparti - especially armies and navies - that could
be a market for heavy industry, and could be used to build empires in
Africa, Asia, Latin America - but first of all in Europe.

But, and here's the rub, any larger market free from internal tariff
barriers, and protected from "foreign" competition, can serve the same
purpose - the large market does not need to include people who go to the
same churches, have the same cultural traditions, or even speak the same
language (although speaking the same language does lower all sorts of
costs, and makes creating a unified national market less expensive and more
"efficient.) So, the formation of nation states - for the rising capitalist
class, was mostly a matter of convenience. It was good if it helped form a
larger market, not so good if it broke up a larger market.

This accounts for the historic weakness of bourgeois nationalism in the
Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Russian empire.

At the same time as the Germans and Italians were trying to unite little
countries to form bigger "nation states" another nationalist debate was
beginning - inside two countries that clearly were not nation states: the
Russian and Austro Hungarian empires. Inside of the Russian empire, "the
prison house of nations" were at least two major linguistic groups: Slavic
and Turkic, each divided into smaller linguistic groups; and many smaller
linguistic groups, e.g. Estonian and Rumanian. The large linguistic groups
were divided culturally and by religion - and geographically.

The Austro-Hungarian empire - while not such a bewildering mixture of
linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity, mixed German speakers, with
Magyar and Slavic speakers, Orthodox churches, Catholic churches,
Protestants too,  and Islam afflicted the people of different parts of that

19th and early 20th century nationalisms in those countries were in some
ways the mirror image of German and Italian nationalisms - they were trying
not to unite many small countries into one more powerful country - they
were trying to divide a powerful country into smaller, weaker countries -
and by so doing end their oppression as a small group within the bigger

Like the Germans and the Italians they adopted the idea that a nation was a
group of people with the same language, the same culture, a common history,
living in a contiguous geographic area, and sometimes who looked alike. To
this mix was sometimes added a common class structure. (As with the Germans
and Italians, leaving aside the most romantic, mythological, fantastic,
racist, religious and otherwise idiotic aspects of Eastern European
nationalist thought- but not denying the importance of those aspects to
those nationalists).

Most of the debate among different varieties of nationalists, reflected
among different varieties of Marxists, occurred over which parts of the mix
were most important, and which to include. This had practical political
implications - for instance should all of the Slavic speaking people of
Eastern Europe be united into one country? Or maybe just the south Slavs.
And what about the non-Slavic people of Hungary in their midst? Or should
Poland be a separate country? Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin had a hot debate on
this one. Should the Ukraine be a separate country? Where should you draw
the boundaries, and how should you decide?   This in brief and in broad
terms, is how the debate in Europe - reflected in European Marxism,

Lenin's famous works on the subject, and his effort to get Stalin to write
something half-intelligent on the subject, really hinge on the problem of
the different national groups within the Russian empire - Lenin recognized
and opposed their oppression, and thus defended and supported their
struggle to be free of that national oppression.

That's why he supported their right to national self-determination. By
which he meant their right to secede and form a separate country.

However, Lenin was a smart guy. He also recognized that forming a separate
country was no automatic guarantee of an end to national oppression - not
to mention other sorts of oppression. Small countries can easily be
dominated and controlled by bigger and more powerful countries. They may
end cultural and linguistic oppression (at least for the dominant
nationality within their borders), and allow a freer hand to the "national"
bourgeoisie of the new country within their boundaries ...

But small countries have no hope of ever developing a large internal
market, a diversified economy, a powerful military etc. In other words they
are - in the medium to long run- historic do-do birds. Prey for bigger
birds in the mean-time. So Lenin stopped short of advocating national

Hopefully the above synopsis has not mangled the historic record too much.

All of that debate took on new meaning in 1917-18. Two great historic
events had occurred that changed the political and social map of the world:
the Russian Revolution, and the victory of the United States and Japan over
England and France - oops, I mean the victory of the alliance of the United
States, France, England, Japan and others over Germany, Austro-Hungary, and
Turkey. (And within victorious alliance the victory of the United States
and Japan over all other alliance members.)

The Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire were dismembered, the
German empire was pared down. New "nation" states were formed. Only for the
most part, they were not "nation" states. (Although they were states, and

Countries like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were designed by
people like Walter Lippman (the columnist worked for the state department
in a secret team redrawing the map of Europe for Woodrow Wilson, their maps
became the basis for the negotiations of new boundaries between new
countries. Who was doing the negotiating? Mostly France, England, and the
United States with others participating as supplicants. The Versailles
Treaty - never ratified by the USA - but still redrawing the map of the
"old world"  was the result.)

Yugoslavia - probably the most extreme example of the newly invented states
-  was never really a "nation" state. South Slav - of which spoken Croatian
and Serbian are two barely distinguishable dialects was not even the
language of the whole country, an important minority spoke Albanian,
another minority spoke Greek, and another minority spoke Magyar - and their
was Romanian and Romany, and maybe some others. The new country was divided
by religion and culture - Catholic, Orthodox(es) and Islam, etc.

However, Yugoslavia made the Serbian nationalists and their nationalist
monarchy - allies of the French in WWI - very happy. It also formed a
contiguous area that might make up a large enough internal market to get
capitalism going on a stronger basis in the new "country" and a big enough
population base for an army strong enough to defend the new territory from
its neighbors (but not from France or England, or as we have recently seen,
the United States in NATO clothing.)

But Yugoslavia was not a nation state by the definitions of "nation"
current at the time. (something Tit well understood, but could never find a
way to "solve".)

But what of the Russian revolution? Why do we call it the "Russian
revolution"? What about Kazakhistan, or the Ukraine? They were part of the
Czars' empire - but they were not, and are not now, Russian. Why don't we
say the "Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Kazakhi, etc. Revolution" instead of
calling it the "Russian" revolution?

This isn't the place for a full review of the history of the Russian
revolution and its degeneration - suffice it to say that Lenin's conflicts
with Stalin at the end of Lenin's life were mostly over Stalin's roughshod
handling of the non-Russian nationalities. And once in power Stalin made
sure that the new workers state would continue to be a prison house for the
non-Russian nationalities. (Thus the Soviet bureaucracy and its Russian
nationalist leadership lay the ground work for the future dissolution of
the Soviet Union into its component nationalities.)


Now, the most important point, in my view. The idea of nations, as it
evolved from the European experience, doesn't really fit with the
experience of the rest of the world.

The United States of America is not a nation. It barely has a common
language, does not have a common religion, the people really do not have a
common historical experience, most of having come most from other parts of
the world within two or three generations ... and many parts of the USA are
not linguistically very "pure. My own city is the most extreme example:
about 1/3 of the people's first languages are East Asian, another third
Spanish, and another third English. Of that last third about half of them
have grandparents with first languages other than English. 20% of the
"native English speakers", are black. And I will only mention, but not
analyze, the importance of the gay population of San Francisco.

This is a gigantic settler state, with only remnants of the conquered
people who inhabited it not very long ago.

Latin America is a strikingly different story. Here you have more than 20
countries with strikingly similar cultures: the same language, the same
dominant religion, historical experiences far more similar than different
regions within the USA - but divided into impotent little countries at the
mercy of the United States, Europe, and Japan.

The closest parallel is the Arab world: one language, one religion, a very
similar historical experience, but many countries.

But this parallel is very misleading, since Latin American countries,
without exception are the product of recent conquest, genocide, and
colonization. In contrast, the Arab world is mostly the continuity of
ancient, more or less unconquered - and mostly not colonized - since the
spread of Islam, societies. Palestine being the key exception.

India and China are again very different stories. Neither are nations.

India is an old-style empire - the Mogul empire which was simply taken over
at the top of society by the Brits, and then returned to the Hindi
aristocracy - but with its proto-nations of linguistic and cultural groups
more or less intact.

 China, on the other hand was an old-style empire where the process of
suppression of linguistic groups, and incorporation of aspects of their
cultural heritage into the dominant "han" culture went much further than in
the Roman or Mogul empires, to the point where China really began to
approach the idea of a "nation" as advanced by the 19th century European
nationalists. But only approach. This was largely the result of the
geography of China. Look at a map, or read the journals of Marco Polo.

The point of this essay is, that nations, nation states, and nationalism,
don't bear close examination. "Nations" are a very vague category of things
- invented by the 19th century European bourgeoisie who were interested in
constructing larger free market areas - just like Mr.. Clinton et. al want
to construct bigger free market areas. This idea, and the vague ideology
that goes with it, has been adapted, readapted, and adapted again, by
bourgeois and petty bourgeois political tendencies around the world.

Sometimes Marxists should give their support - wholehearted or
half-hearted, depending on circumstances - to one "nationalist" struggle or

How should we decide?

My own not very precise measuring stick has two sides: we support the
oppressed against the oppressor, no matter what. Argentina against Great
Britain. East Timor against Indonesia. Chechnia against Russia. Russia
against the USA and NATO. Vietnam against the USA. Kosovo against Serbia.
Yugoslavia against NATO.

Second, we judge these struggles by how they affect the growth and
development of the working class, as an independent, self-conscious force
in society. At this point in history this may seem like a pipe dream - but
it isn't. Any defeat for US imperialism, and to a lesser extent any defeat
for the second rank imperialisms- demonstrates to the workers that there
enemy can be defeated - and thus encourages the class struggle. So even a
victory by a reactionary theocratic movement, like the one in Iran, can
advance the class struggle in some small measure.

Following these guidelines is of course, not very easy. As in the case of
Kosovo. Imperialism - especially its most advanced and adroit
representative in the USA - has made an art, and almost a science, of using
petty bourgeois nationalism to its advantage against its imperialist
rivals, and against the real interests of the people of the countries whose
nationalisms - at this or that moment - coincide with the interests of

More later.


Louis Proyect

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