Jim Blaut on Lenin and the National Question -- Part 2
rfidler at SPAMcyberus.ca
Sun Nov 19 19:33:19 MST 2000
'Imperialist Economism' - A Renascent Trend?
Reading Hobsbawm and certain other modern Marxists on the national question I
have the eerie feeling of being transported back into the midst of the debate
which was raging on this question in 1915 and 1916, the debate in which (as I
mentioned previously) Lenin characterized the position of his opponents as
'imperialist economism'. This was part of the larger debate in and around the
Zimmerwald Left concerning the wartime crisis and the issues of theory and
practice which it raised. The issue of wartime annexations by belligerents
(e.g., Germany's occupation of Belgium) became fused with the issue of the
liberation of colonies (including Ireland), and with the issue of whether or not
to retain the demand for selfdetermination in the Bolshevik programme and
whether or not to assert this principle on a wider scale than the Russian. All
such questions merged into a great debate on the national question, probably the
most important one in the history of Marxism. On one side of the debate were
Lenin along with what must have been a majority of the Bolshevik participants,
and doubtless other socialists. On the other side were Bukharin, Pyatakov,
Radek, Luxemburg (who was in jail in Germany and participated indirectly,
through her 'Junius' pamphlet), Polish socialists close to Luxemburg, and
One central issue was the right of self-determination of nations as a general
principle, and the question whether and how socialists should fight for the
liberation of oppressed nations. Among many arguments put forward by Lenin's
opponents (as I will describe them for brevity's sake) were the following:
(1) Big states are more progressive than small states, and it is therefore
reactionary to advocate the secession, or even the right of secession, of
portions of these big states. The Luxemburgians and others extended this
argument to the matter of the secession of colonies, which was judged by them to
be something to advocate publicly but with no confidence in the possibility,
perhaps even the desirability, of realization under capitalism, since colonies
were parts of big states.
(2) 'Imperialism', said Radek and two Polish associates, 'represents the
tendency of finance capital to outgrow the bounds of a national state'. This
is the argument that capitalism is now a single international system, and thus
the national state (or any state) is rendered obsolete, while under socialism
ultimately there will be, of course, no states at all.
(3) To advocate the right of self-determination and, beyond that, to advocate
secession (or liberation) for any country is to throw the workers of that
country into the arms of the bourgeoisie, and at the same time to cut off this
community of workers from their brother workers of the larger (or oppressing)
state. In sum: socialists are interested only in self-determination for the
working class, not for the nation (which in any case no longer exists except as
an abstraction, thanks to the differentiation of its population into warring
classes). Bukharin advanced this argument even after the October revolution; it
seemed to him to be an important reason for refusing the right of
self-determination, of secession, to the nations within post-Tsarist Russia.
(4) National liberation movements, whether or not they are progressive, are
inherently bourgeois, because nation state formation is a dimension of the rise
of the bourgeoisie, of capitalism, and not part of the rise of socialism.
Lenin forcefully and successfully answered the opponents of self-determination
and national liberation, responding to the first two of the four arguments in
the 1915-1916 debates and dealing with the latter two arguments somewhat later.
Lenin also found a phrase which seemed to provide an accurate label for his
opponents. He described them as 'imperialist economists' in a series of articles
written in 1916, the first of which (directed mainly against Bukharin) was
called 'The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism'. As we noted earlier,
Lenin considered an 'imperialist economist' to be someone who advocated a new
form of the old disease called 'economism' (i.e., stressing economic forces and
neglecting the political ones), a form suited to the new era of imperialism. Why
were the arguments of Lenin's opponents 'economistic'? Because, he said, they
were asserting that the new era of imperialism is one which renders obsolete all
partial and local struggles for political democracy, including most pointedly
struggles for national independence. Why obsolete? Because, they claim,
capitalism in its imperialist stage is now fully international, and this means
that the principle of scale or concentration renders small states irrelevant and
struggles to create small states reactionary, while the internationalization of
this economic system, capitalism, makes all individual states, large or small,
obsolete. Thus the arguments (1) and (2).
Lenin's answer deserves to be read, not summarized. His most telling points were
perhaps the following.
(1) The Marxist principle of concentration is an economic principle, not a
The law of economic concentration, of the victory of large-scale production
over small, is recognized in our own and the Erfurt programmes . . . Nowhere is
the law of political or state concentration recognized . . . Everyone would
laugh at this amusing imperialist Economism if it were expressed openly and if,
parallel with the law that small-scale production is ousted by large-scale
production, there were presented another 'law' . . . of small states being
ousted by big ones!'
(2) In the era of imperialism, political struggles are no less important than
they were in capitalism's preceding era, because capitalism is inherently a
political system as well as an economic system; or, stated differently, the
capitalist economic system cannot function without a political environment which
it controls, and that political environment is mainly supplied by states and
state power, in the present era as in others. In Lenin's words:
A vast distance separates the era of the establishment of capitalism and the
national state from the era of the collapse of the national state and the eve of
the collapse of capitalism itself.'
The question is the relation of economics to politics: the relation of economic
conditions and the economic content of imperialism to a certain political
(3) In the same text there is the kernel of an argument that national movements
need not be inherently bourgeois - as there is the kernel of such an argument in
Marx's and Engels' writings about Ireland many years earlier- but this argument
in its full form, as an assertion that working masses and socialists can and
should lead national movements in colonial countries, was developed in Lenin's
(4) The argument that national liberation struggles 'divide the class' or 'unite
workers with bourgeoisie' was answered by Lenin in a number of subtle arguments.
In 1918 he responded to Bukharin by pointing out that in no modern country,
including even capitalist Germany and revolutionary Russia, had
the'differentiation of the classes' approached anything like completion; hence,
the nation was still a reality, not an abstraction. (Elsewhere in later
writings he went further, discussing, for instance, the distinctiveness and
cohesiveness of national cultures, which would persist after the withering away
It would take us too far afield to discuss in full Lenin's response to those
whom he called 'imperialist economists'. In the course of this debate Lenin
asserted, I think for the first time, the general principle that liberation
struggles in colonies should be supported categorically, providing only that
they were genuine and serious, of the type of a 'national uprising or a serious
popular struggle against oppression'. In later writings he stated the
principle more fully. It clearly followed from his analysis of the politics
The direction of my own argument should by now be apparent. The four
generalizations advanced by Lenin's opponents are very similar to the arguments
of those Marxists today who assert that (1) the creation of mini-states and even
nation-states in general is irrational or reactionary, (2) capitalism is now
fully international and its characteristic institutions, multinationals and
other giant corporations, are able to transcend the bounds of national states at
will, thus rendering all states more or less obsolete, (3) to advocate the
secession or independence of any state, colonial or otherwise, is to 'throw the
workers into the arms of the bourgeoisie', 'conciliate the nationalists',
'divide the working class', or 'undermine proletarian internationalism', and (4)
national struggles are essentially bourgeois struggles, because they are
inherently part of the rise of capitalism, and thus all nationalism is
Hobsbawm, as I think I have shown in the present essay, subscribes to
generalizations (1) and (2). As to (3), Hobsbawm is frustratingly ambiguous.
He asserts that nationalism -- meaning in context any national movement
whatever' -- by definition subordinates all other interests to those of its
specific "nation,", while nationalists - meaning in context any fighters for
state independence, anywhere - 'are by definition unconcerned with anything
except their private collective'. It is unthinkable that Hobsbawm would mean
such statements to apply to the past struggles in Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, and
other socialist countries which gained victory in a national liberation
struggle, or to struggles such as those in Puerto Rico and Namibia where the
same goal is being sought today. These statements are of course
devastatingly correct when applied to reactionary and unrealistic national
movements. Yet Hobsbawm proffers no qualifications. Hence the ambiguity.
Hobsbawm is again ambiguous about generalization (4). He speaks of 'the category
of movements directed against imperialist exploitation and representing
something like the "bourgeois-democratic phase" in the development of backward
countries', a 'category' which seems in context to include all anti-colonial
national movements. Thus he seems almost to argue the diffusionist thesis that
nationalism equals rising capitalism, and to deny that Lenin was right to
categorize anti-colonial national movements as 'national revolutionary' and not
'bourgeois democratic' (a question of theory, not simply terminology).
Hobsbawm has explicitly called it an error to equate nationalism only with
capitalism and thus to dismiss contemporary nationalisms as 'troublesome
"bourgeois" . . . survivals'. But the statement, in context, seems directed
at the reactionary nationalisms within socialist countries, and perhaps also the
nationalisms within advanced capitalist countries. Thus we cannot tell whether
Hobsbawm truly enlarges the national process to include struggles, not for
capitalism, but against it. Yet Hobsbawm is not one to denounce any socialist
revolution, including those in colonies. Hence, again, the ambiguity.
Hobsbawm is not an 'imperialist economist', although some other modern Marxists
richly deserve that title. Yet Hobsbawm's position on the national question is
an extremist one, He is just about as strongly opposed to national movements and
national struggles as one can be without departing entirely from the mainstream
tradition on the national question, the tradition which both he and I consider
to be Leninist.
There is, in all of this, a very important question about the long-term
development of Marxist thought, a question which has immense political
implications for the struggles of the 1980s and beyond. I would express the
matter as follows. It appears that there has always been a differentiation among
Marxists, sometimes even an oscillation in the thinking of a given Marxist at
different periods, on the subject of national movements and the national
question. In each period there is a 'Luxemburgist' position which tends to limit
its vision to cosmopolitan or international horizons and be suspicious of, or
hostile to, the merely national forces. And there have been the 'Leninists',
taking more or less opposing positions, and not for merely pragmatic reasons.
The first great cycle of 'Leninist versus Luxemburgian' quarrels occurred before
and during the First World War. Leninism officially won, and the Third
International became a powerful force for national liberation in the colonial
world. Within national communist parties ofadvanced countries, I suspect that
the Luxemburgian view was rather powerful, and must have had something to do
with the far from proud record of some of these parties in the matter of the
liberation of 'their own' colonies. Nevertheless, the Leninist position on the
national question was the dominant one, and this explains a great deal about the
relative ease with which Marxism became the philosophical underpinning of very
many national liberation movements. And in the period from 1945 to the
present the Leninist position has been far more prominent than the Luxemburgian.
This has been the era of national liberation movements, and the theory and
practice of 'imperialist economism' has had precious little to offer this kind
Today, however, a change seems to be taking place, at least in the universe of
discourse embracing Marxist journals and books in advanced capitalist countries.
It may well be the trend of 'imperialist economism' renascent. Certainly it
projects the view that national struggles today are of secondary importance,
emphasizes their limitations and failings rather than their successes, and so
on. And certainly this is done with the use of theoretical arguments which would
have sounded familiar to Lenin in his day. (Capitalism is no longer national.
Nations, states, and nation states are no longer important, are indeed
dissolving. Multinational corporations are not fettered by national boundaries.)
The world of the 1980s is of course different from that of Luxemburg's and
Lenin's time. But not entirely different. Old arguments may seem still to make
sense, and likewise the answers to these arguments. 'Imperialist economism' may
be as relevant today as it was in 1915-1916. Or as irrelevant.
The bottom line is political struggle. Perhaps thirty million people still live
in old-fashioned colonies and are still fighting for their freedom. A billion
people live and struggle in neocolonies. Arguments like Hobsbawm's and those of
the 'imperialist economists' can have a progressive effect with regard to silly
and reactionary national movements, of which there are many. But they can have a
damaging effect on anticolonial liberation movements, like that of Puerto Rico.
And they can be just as damaging for countries like El Salvador in which there
is a national struggle for genuine state sovereignty and against neocolonialism,
and likewise for countries like Nicaragua which have won a precarious national
liberation and are struggling to hold on to what they have won. Arguments like
Hobsbawm's do not help these struggles at all.
75. Pyatakov: 'we limit ourselves, in respect to the colonies, to a negative
slogan . . . "get out of the colonies!" Unachievable within the framework of
capitalism, this demand serves to intensify the struggle against imperialism,
but does not contradict the trend of development'. Quoted in Lenin's 'A
Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism', pp. 64-5. For Luxemburg, see
The National Question, esp. pp. 131 290.
76. From'Theses' of the editors of Gazeta Robotnicza (Radek, Stein-Krajewski,
and Bronski), English text given in Luxemburg, The National Question, p. 303.
Lenin's 'The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up', is in part a reply to
77. See Lenin's Works 29, pp. 170-75 (a response to Bukharin).
78. 'The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism', 'Reply to P. Kievsky (Y.
Pyatakov)"A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism' Lenin's Works 23.
79. 'A Caricature', pp. 49-50.
80. Ibid., p. 37.
81. Ibid., p. 45.
82. See Chapter 5.
83. See note 77.
84. See, e.g., ' "Left-Wing" Communism - An Infantile Disorder', Works 31, p.
85. .'A Caricature . . .', p. 61.
86. See note 25.
87. There is ambiguity in Hobsbawm's position on the growing obsolescence of
states, or perhaps he has changed his mind: see his Workers (1984) p. 22.
88. 'Some Reflections on "The Break-up . . ."', p. 9.
89. Ibid., p. 7.
90. In one of his characteristically sweeping and unqualified generalizations
about the national question, Hobsbawm asserts: 'It is or ought to be obvious
that the specific character of regions or groups,'',does not point invariably in
one direction . . . _Political independence is one option out of several_.
('Some Reflections on "The Break-up"', p. 20, italics added.) Does Hobsbawm mean
to apply this statement to colonies like Puerto Rico and Namibia which are
struggling for independence today? Is political independence just 'one option
out of several' for classical colonies? (Note also Hobsbawm's criticism of 'the
assumption that state independence, or what amounts to it, is the normal mode of
satisfying the demands of any group with some claims to a territorial base . . .
a "country",' ibid., p. 8.)
91. See 'Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions', p.
92. 'Some Reflections on Nationalism', p. 405.
93. See, in this regard, Ho Chi Minh's essay, 'The Path Which Led Me to
Leninism', Ho Chi Minh: Selected Articles and Speeches: 1920-1967 (1970).
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