Jim Blaut on Lenin and the National Question -- Part 1

Richard Fidler rfidler at SPAMcyberus.ca
Sun Nov 19 19:33:46 MST 2000

Jim Blaut, who died last week, was one of the foremost Marxist writers on the
national question in recent decades. I have just finished reading his book, The
National Question: Decolonising the Theory of Nationalism, published by Zed
Books in 1987 and now unfortunately out of print. Among other things, I was
struck by the many ways in which this work addresses and illuminates issues that
have been debated in recent months on this list. Jim himself posted to the List
last July an excerpt from the book that dealt with Stalin's Marxism and the
National Question, in answer to the centrist DSP of Australia, which has
apparently embraced Stalin's 1913 approach.

His chapter on Tom Nairn, an editor of New Left Review who published a book "The
Break-Up of Britain" in the mid-1970s, goes a long way toward answering the
questions raised by those List subscribers who were recently speculating on why
NLR had so little to say about the Irish question. (Nairn looked to the
Protestant community of Northern Ireland as one of the "national" forces that
would help to emancipate Great Britain from its archaic constitutional

But the major contribution of Blaut's book is its discussion, throughout, of how
Lenin's analysis redefined the parameters and implications of the national
question in revolutionary strategy. He takes aim in particular at two
misconceptions that were characteristic of pre-1914 Marxism: the belief that the
national struggle is autonomous from the class struggle, and the analysis of
other Marxists who recognized that national struggles were class struggles but
limited the progressive validity of nationalism to the ideology of the
bourgeoisie characteristic of an ascendant capitalism. Lenin, in contrast,
modified his position over the years, and during World War I carried out a
fundamental shift in his assessment of nationalism by incorporating his analysis
of the national question into his developing theory of imperialism.

Blaut's major concern in writing this book was to counter the mistaken theories
being propagated by many Marxists concerning the Puerto Rican struggle, with
which Blaut was closely identified. But the book is one of the most interesting
and valuable discussions on the national question I have read. The following
extract, from his critique of Eric Hobsbawm (an English ex-Stalinist who treats
all nationalism today as "irrational") describes the transformation of Lenin's
thinking on the national question.

I have divided this extract into two parts, to keep within our post limits.
Footnotes (at end of each part) follow the numbering of the original text.

[Blaut follows]

        * * *

Lenin's Theory

In a sense there are two Leninist theories of nationalism or the national
question. Hobsbawm's essential error lies in his neglect of the second and later
theory. This second theory is not associated with some intellectual 'break',
some biographical phenomenon of intellectual maturation of the sort which
certain Marxists claim to find in the life and ideas of Karl Marx. In Lenin's
case it was the World War which forced this great thinker to try to come up with
an explanation for a historical crisis which was catastrophic, unexpected (at
least in its effects on the workers' movement), and not comprehensible within
the corpus of Marxist theory as it existed at that time. (I will call this
corpus of pre-war ideas 'post-classical Marxism' to distinguish it from the
'classical' Marxism of the Marx-Engels period.) Postclassical Marxism contained
a body of accepted ideas about the national question, national movements, and
the emergence of nation states during the period of 'rising capitalism'. There
were indeed differences of theory and practice, but most of the central ideas
were held in common. Lenin broke with this post-classical corpus of ideas on
national struggle (and on other matters of theory, notably imperialism) in his
writings of the period 1915-1920. By 1920 he held a radically different view of
national struggle.

The emergence of this distinctively Leninist theory of nationalism or national
struggle has tended to be neglected for a number of reasons, one being the high
visibility of Lenin's earlier debates with Luxemburg, another being the
prominence of Stalin's 1913 essay on national struggle, 'Marxism and the
National Question', in most respects a typical example of post-classical Marxist
thought which nonetheless continued to be accepted as biblical dogma all through
the Stalin period and beyond. (See Chapter 5 below. [The discussion on Stalin
was posted by Jim to this List on July 23, 2000.]) In 1913 and thereabouts it
was agreed by all the major theorists on the national question, including Lenin,
Stalin, Luxemburg, Bauer, and Kautsky, that the set of phenomena embracing
national movements and the emergence of nation states was characteristic only of
the period of early or rising capitalism. As Marx and Engels had said before
them, nationalism would tend to quieten down or disappear as capitalism matured,
because mature capitalism was fully international: because the modern
bourgeoisie had become or were becoming a world-wide class with common,
world-wide interests, and with no interest in maintaining the 'fetters' (as they
were called) of national barriers. In a nutshell: national struggle was part of
the struggle of the rising bourgeoisie, was thus innately 'bourgeois', and would
have no function after capitalism had matured and the bourgeoisie had
'risen'.[59] Some Marxists then extended this argument to the point where it
became transformed into an argument against all national struggles, and against
any participation by socialists or workers in such struggles. This view we
associate mainly with Luxemburg, although others agreed with her. She maintained
that the era of nationalism was definitively ended; that new nation states were
very unlikely to emerge anywhere; that national movements were thus rather idle
and utopian, and they should not be supported for that reason and also because
they were now, in the period of mature capitalism, reactionary.[60]

Lenin replied to Luxemburg by attacking this extended or elaborated argument,
but holding to the basic position they both shared with post-classical Marxism
in general. He said in effect: of course national movements and national
struggles are characteristic of the period of rising capitalism, and of course
they will tend to die out, along with the national question in general, as
capitalism matures. But, he said, the maturation of capitalism is very uneven
over the face of the earth. In eastern Europe capitalism is still rising, and
national movements may still, in certain circumstances, have a chance of
success, of forming new nation states. Furthermore, the peculiarly barbarous
character of the Russian Empire leads to intense national oppression, hence to
intense and popular resistance which may take the form of national movements.
And finally, the peculiar characteristics of the Tsarist empire tend to unite
the national movements in oppressed nations with the struggle for bourgeois
political democracy - another feature of the period of rising capitalism - and
hence to bring the national question close to the centre of the socialists'
struggles for democratic rights.[61] There is of course much more than this to
Lenin's pre-war position (and to Luxemburg's), but what I have said will suffice
for our purposes. And what I have said would probably not be challenged by

We have to note two additional elements for a theory of nationalism which were
enunciated by Lenin before the start of the World War. The first of these was
the proposition that discussions about nationalism could not be limited to the
nationalism of small and oppressed nations and aspiring national movements. What
he called 'great nation nationalism' tended to be ignored by Marxists notably,
he pointed out, by Luxemburg - but it was something that had to be taken account
of as seriously as, and indeed more seriously than, the nationalism of those who
aspired to state independence.[62] In essence, great nation nationalism was the
dialectical opposing force to national movements. It was also, in its
ideological form, easily disguised behind arguments that great states are more
progressive, more suitable for modern capitalism, etc., than small ones. In
later years Lenin elaborated this idea of great nation nationalism into a major
theoretical proposition about the intensification of great nation nationalism in
the era of imperialism. In the pre-war period he was far ahead of his
contemporaries in understanding the nature and significance of great nation

The second theoretical element was an extension of the argument that national
movements in eastern Europe were still viable, important, and in some cases
progressive. Lenin began to argue this clear and simple proposition: national
movements in the advanced capitalist countries of western Europe are a thing of
the past; those of eastern European imperial states, a thing of the present;
those of the colonial world, a thing of the future.[63] In other words,
anti-colonial national movements and those of semi-colonies (like China) were
progressive and viable, and deserved support. Hobsbawm agrees on this matter:
the Leninist position, he notes correctly, 'widened the category of "national
movements" regarded as essentially "progressive" in their impact much beyond
Marx's and Engels' own'.[64] On the other hand, Hobsbawm badly neglects the
other Leninist proposition, that great nation nationalism needs to be looked at
through the same theoretical lens as the nationalism of small and oppressed
nations and national movements aspiring to independence. I suppose he accepts
the proposition in principle, but there is scarcely any mention of great nation
nationalism in his discussions of nationalism and when he uses the word
'nationalism' it seems to refer almost always to movements for autonomy or

Lenin developed his theory of imperialism mainly in 1915 and 1916. It was
inherently a political theory, designed to explain the political realities of a
war which was destroying the European workers movements, and necessary to reveal
the basic features of the era in which the war was taking place. The overt
problem was flag-waving nationalism, but Lenin did not make the mistake of
imagining this to be some merely ideological epidemic. It was clear that a
profound change in both the economics and politics of capitalism was taking
place. Capitalism had always sought to export its crises by spatial expansion,
mainly colonial and semi-colonial. With the rise of finance capital and monopoly
capitalism the need for expansion (including the export of capital) increased
very greatly, but, the earth being finite in extent, fields for new territorial
expansion had disappeared. Therefore, according to, Lenin, two basically novel
and very powerful political forces had come into play: first, struggles among
great powers to 'repartition' (Lenin's word) the already 'partitioned' world,
which necessarily implied political struggles among the powers and thus
eventually world war, and second, the growth of national liberation movements in
colonies and semi-colonies, roughly in proportion to the intensifying economic
exploitation and deepening national oppression which the new era brought
forth.[65] This analysis led Lenin to a series of fundamental theorems about

(1) Nationalism is not merely characteristic of the era of early or 'rising'
capitalism, dying down as capitalism matures, and associated only with the early
capitalist process of state formation. In the era of imperialism, the 20th
Century, nationalism becomes more intense than ever, and acquires new functions.
Great nation nationalism becomes more important and powerful than ever because
of the need to repartition economic space, and this leads to world war. This
newly intensified great power nationalism is not precisely a new phenomenon,
since great power nationalism already had its own inglorious history prior to
the 20th Century; it is new in that it is immensely increased in intensity and
in significance, leading to the Great War and all its consequences.[66]

(2) The nationalism of colonies and semi-colonies is called into being by the
intensification of exploitation and oppression. In an important way, this is a
new phenomenon, or, to be more precise (since anti-colonial resistance also had
its history), it cannot be assimilated to the theory of national movements which
emerge during the rise of capitalism and have as their (as it were) purpose or
goal the simple creation of a bourgeois state. The nature of colonialism is such
that producing classes suffer along with whatever young or incipient bourgeoisie
may exist. Therefore the national liberation movements in colonies and
semi-colonies are profoundly different from the national movements of earlier
oppressed nations such as those in non-colonial portions of the Tsarist empire.
It is not innately a bourgeois struggle against feudal forces for the creation
of a classical bourgeois state. It is a multi-class struggle directed primarily
against imperialism.[67]

(3) The old-fashioned nationalism of rising capitalism continues to be found in
various parts of the world, but it is distinct from, and now less important
than, the two new forms: the intensified bourgeois nationalism of the great
capitalist states and the national liberation struggles in colonies and
semi-colonies. What all three forms have in common is struggle over the
sovereignty of states. And indeed for Lenin this is the essence of the national
question, and the subject matter for the theory of nationalism.

Lenin's ideas on colonial liberation struggles had evolved in his later years.
By 1920 Lenin was convinced that workers and other exploited classes, with the
proletariat in the van, could take the leading role in such struggles sooner or
later. Even when these movements had bourgeois leadership they were struggles
against monopoly capitalism and could be turned onto a socialist trajectory or a
noncapitalist trajectory which would result in socialism.[68] On the basis
(mainly) of this reasoning Lenin quite categorically argued that national
independence movements must be supported[69] (Hobsbawm notes only Lenin's
pre-war position, which did not call for categorical or unconditional support of
national movements in oppressed nations.[70] And it was clear to Lenin that
colonial liberation movements were a new form of national movement in the sense
that they could not be assimilated to the old model of the rise of capitalism.
New states and new nations were emerging under conditions of monopoly
capitalism, not early capitalism. Some of them were part of the rise of

All of this adds up to a new Marxist theory of nationalism, new in the precise
sense that it implies the negation of some important theorems of the earlier
theory, the view characteristic of post-classical Marxism. Nationalism is not
simply a part of the state-forming process of the young, rising bourgeoisie; of
early capitalism. It is also characteristic of monopoly capitalism. And it is
also characteristic of the struggle for socialism during the period when
monopoly capitalism still dominates most of the earth, a period during which the
rise of socialism must take the form (from a geographical perspective) of a
multiplicity of struggles to create socialist states. Nationalism is not an
innately bourgeois phenomenon: in the colonial and semi-colonial countries the
national struggle is engaged in by workers and peasants as well as the
conventional 'rising bourgeoisie', and workers and peasants can, under the right
circumstances and with the right politics and tactics, take the lead. In the
case of these struggles, though not necessarily in other sorts of national
struggles, the proper posture for socialists is to provide full and unqualified

The difference between Hobsbawm's approach to the theory of nationalism and
Lenin's should now be fairly clear. Hobsbawm builds his theory on the basis of
post-classical Marxist thought, which includes Lenin's pre-World War writings.
Hobsbawm appears to maintain that all nationalism, if it is indeed rational, is
part of the state forming process associated with the rise of capitalism. He
certainly believes that national liberation movements in colonies are likely to
be progressive but he seems to assimilate these, in their turn, to the rise of
capitalism in a straightforward diffusion model: capitalism arose in Europe in
the 19th Century and then spread outwards across the world, bringing nationalism
with it.[72] Lenin, on the other hand, postulates that national movements in
colonial countries are essentially different, and may either be struggles for
socialism, not capitalism, or will at least be struggles against monopoly
capitalism. And they are struggles which deserve pretty much unconditional
support, unlike earlier national movements involved in the rise of capitalism,
movements to which socialists were expected to concede the unconditional right
of self-determination, of independent statehood, but movements which socialists
were not enjoined to support.

Hobsbawm's second definite category of national processes consists of the
'irrational' nationalism of our time (and that of the 'Ruritanias' of
yesterday), a category which appears to include all sorts of cases of 20th
Century national movements including those of colonies and those of ethnically
distinct regions within advanced capitalist countries. Nationalisms of this type
are 'devoid of any discernible rational theory': they have no theory and they
succumb to no theory. Lenin, on the other hand, provides a theory that broadly
explains these movements. Perhaps the matter should be put negatively: the old
Marxist theory could not explain major tendencies towards state formation, with
their national movements, in the era of mature or modern capitalism. It was
Lenin, then, who added certain crucial propositions to the Marxist theory of
nationalism and deleted others which were inapplicable to the modern period.
Lenin may not have prevised the special sorts of nationalism which one now finds
in some developed capitalist countries (for example, Scottish or Basque
nationalism). But the fact that nationalism would be intense and important in
the era of imperialism is very explicit in Lenin's theory.

Lenin's theory also provides an explanation for a phenomenon which clearly
puzzles Hobsbawm to the point where he must make fun of it: the process leading
to the creation of small peripheral states, some of them 'mini-states'. ('Any
speck in the Pacific' with 'enough beaches and pretty girls to become a tourist
paradise . . .'; 'Kuwaitis . . . treated like the English milord of old'[73] a
'vast Saharan republic resting on 60,000 nomads'[74]). It is a fairly direct
deduction from Lenin's theory of nationalism to argue as follows: the overall
force of superexploitation in colonies and semi-colonies, and its attendant
political force, national oppression, is the basic, underlying cause of the rise
of national movements in these sorts of areas. Hence the cause has nothing
intrinsically to do with the size of the eventual independent state. Presumably
there are forces of nationalism in every town and village over great portions of
the colonial world. What turns some of the resulting movements into struggles
which eventually create mini-states is a completely different set of
circumstances. Usually it is nothing more than the conversion of a 'mini-colony'
into a 'mini-independent-state'.

The national liberation process would be at work almost regardless of the size
and shape of the territory to be liberated. It is in essence the same force in
India as in the Seychelles, in Nigeria as in Grenada. I think it most unlikely
that any leader of any genuine national liberation movement anywhere fails to
see the desirability of a large and powerful state. But for an oppressed,
exploited, colonized people, a mini-state is likely to appear better than no
state at all. And the conditions which lead national movements to create small
states, occasionally mini-states, conditions which include the colonizer's
cartography and also matters of ethnic complexity, political ambitions of local
despots, intrigues of the CIA and multinational corporations, etc., all such
forces are fundamentally distinct from the basic and prior force, the national
struggle against colonial exploitation and oppression. Here, I believe, is
Hobsbawm's most serious error. A large share of the political problems of the
world of modern states he attributes to one or another sort of irrational
nationalism. But the national struggle of colonial areas is perfectly rational:
it is a struggle for freedom.


59. Lenin's best-known statement of this position is in his (1913) essay,
'Critical Remarks on the National Question', Works 20. The following passage
from that essay is still very frequently quoted by Marxists of all tendencies,
in spite of the fact that Lenin specifically rejected this theoretical position
in later years: '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
characterizes a mature capitalism that is moving toward its transformation into
socialist society' (p. 27).
There is no problem with regard to the first of the two tendencies, nor with the
concept of growing internationalization of capital, science, etc. But the idea
of 'break-down of national barriers' as 'mature capitalism' transforms itself
into socialist society was completely superseded. Lenin's later position, as I
show in the present chapter, substituted a theory of intensified and profoundly
altered national processes under imperialism for the concept of 'mature
capitalism . . . moving toward its transformation . . .' More precisely, the
period of the 'break-down of national barriers', etc., was later seen by Lenin
as having ended in 1914.
60. See Luxemburg, The National Question, particularly the essay entitled 'The
Nation-State and the Proletariat' and other essays in the 1908-1909 series 'The
National Question and Autonomy'.
61. The basic statement is Lenin's essay of 1914 'The Right of Nations to
Self-Determination', Works 20.
62. See for example Lenin's 'The National Programme of the RSDLP', Works 19, and
'The Right of Nations to Self-Determination'.
63. The division is almost explicit in'The Right of Nations to
Self-Determination' and completely so in 'The Socialist Revolution and the Right
of Nations to SelfDetermination: Theses' (early 1916), Works 22.
64. 'Some Reflections on "The Break-up [of Britain"], New Left Review 105
(1977), p. 10.
65. Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism is of course the basic
source on the economics of imperialism (Works 22, pp. 185-304). But, as Lenin
warned in the preface to the book (which was not published until April 1917), he
had been forced to avoid political analysis in this work, and concentrate only
on economics, in the hope of passing the censor. This caution is cavalierly
ignored by very many modern Marxist and non-Marxist scholars, who for that
reason hopelessly misunderstand Lenin's theory of imperialism. Because of the
widespread misunderstanding, I give the following partial list of the works by
Lenin which present the political dimension of this theory and which in
particular discuss matters relevant to the present essay: 'The Question of
Peace', 21, pp. 290-4; notes for a lecture in Geneva, Oct. 1915, 39, pp. 735-42;
'The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination',
21, pp. 407-14;'The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up', 22, pp. 320-60;
'A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism', 'Imperialism and the Split
in Socialism', 23, pp. 105-20; 'War and Revolution', 24, pp. 400-21; 'Revision
of the Party Program', 26, pp. 149-78; 'Report on the International Situation'
(2nd Congress of the Communist International), 31, pp. 215-34; and'Report of the
Commission on the National and special note: see his Works 19, pp. 332-6 and 22,
pp. 353-8.
66. 'Imperialism is the era of the oppression of nations on a new historical
basis', Works 39, p. 739. See also 21, p. 293; 31, pp. 215-18.
67. See, e.g., 'A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism'. See also
later discussions, e.g., 31, pp. 240-45; 332, pp. 481-2.
68. See Works, 31, pp. 240-45; 33, pp. 350, 500. See also, on non-capitalist
development: V. Solodovnikov and V. Bogoslovsky, Non-Capitalist Development: An
Historical Outline (1975). On the specificity of the national liberation
struggle and its differences from the classical bourgeois nationalist struggle
see: K. N. Brutents, National Liberation Revolutions Today (1977).
69. See note 57.
70. 'Lenin, in fact, did not recommend socialists in the countries concerned to
_favour_ secession except in specific, and pragmatically identifiable,
circumstances'. 'Some Reflections on "The Break-up of Britain"', p. 10.
71. Works 29, pp. 172-3.
72. "'progressive" nationalism was therefore not confined only to the category
of movements directed against imperialist exploitation and representing
something like the "bourgeois-democratic phase" in the development of backward
countries', 'Some Reflections on "The Break-up . . ."' p. 10.
73. Ibid., p. 7.
74. Ibid.

Richard Fidler
rfidler at cyberus.ca

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