Nationalism (was Arguing against Imperialism and Militarism) - reply to Tom O'Lincoln (final)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jul 18 06:34:56 MDT 2003

dms wrote:
> Or, there's another possibility-- Lenin was wrong.  There is no notion of
> self-determination that is not tied to preserving the dominant relations of
> the world market.
> Perhaps we recognize the appearance of a "national" rebellion or resistance
> as a manifestation of the conflict between the means and relations of
> production, a manifestation driven at core by the demands and conflicts of
> capital upon wage-labor echoing throughout the local economy.  Perhaps we
> recognize the national aspect as a "moment" in the struggle that must be
> superceded, from the inside, by a program for proletarian revolution.
> For example Venezuela.  Why defend Venezuela along the lines of the right of
> nations to self-determination, when the real essence, and real struggle is a
> class struggle?  Certainly the bourgeoisie recognize the struggle for what
> it is. Why shrink from the terms of your own battles?  They sure don't.

On Easter Monday in 1916, 1200 members of the Irish Volunteers and the
Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office and other sites in
Dublin in the hopes of sparking a general uprising.

The British crushed the rebellion. Nevertheless, it send a shiver of
fear through the ruling classes of Europe who were in bloody midcourse
of W.W.I. W.W.I was supported by most labor and socialist leaders and
the Easter rebellion was a warning signal that the class-struggle would
soon confront the imperialist warmakers and their socialist collaborators.

During W.W.I, the class-struggle left-wing of the socialist movement was
debating issues of national self-determination. The issues raised by the
Eastern rebellion became part of this debate. There were broadly
speaking 3 positions within this left-wing grouping. One position as put
forward by the Polish revolutionary Karl Radek maintained that "the
right of a petty-bourgeois formula that has
nothing in common with Marxism." At the other pole was the position held
by Lenin who argued that socialism was inconceivable "without revolts by
small nations in the colonies and in Europe." Trotsky held a position
somewhere in the center between Radek and Lenin, stating that "the
historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in
backward Ireland."

I will present some significant sections of articles by Trotsky
("Lessons of the Events in Dublin") and Lenin ("The Irish Rebellion of
1916") and conclude with my own views on the debate.


The historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in
backward Ireland. Insofar as the Irish movements in the last century
were popular in character, they always drew their strength from the
social antagonism between the rightless and starving pauper-farmers and
their all-powerful British landlords. But whereas for the latter Ireland
was merely an object of exploitation by agrarian plundering, for British
imperialism it was a necessary guarantee of domination of the seas...

It was Gladstone who first set the military and imperial interests of
Britain quite clearly higher than the interests of the Anglo-Irish
landlords, and inaugurated a broad scheme of agrarian legislation
whereby the landlords' estates were transformed, through the
instrumentality of the state, to the farmers of Ireland--with of course
generous compensation to the landlords. Anyhow, after the land reforms
of 1881-1903 the farmers were transformed into conservative petty
proprietors, whose attention the green flag of nationalism could no
longer distract from their small holdings...

The experiment of an Irish national rebellion, in which Casement [a
nationalist leader, LP] represented, with undoubted personal courage,
the outworn hopes and methods of the past, is over and done with. But
the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning.


On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the
Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the
Irish rebellion entitled "Their Song is Over" and signed with the
initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being
nothing more nor less than a "putsch", for, as the author argued, "the
Irish question was an agrarian one", the peasants had been pacified by
reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a "purely urban,
petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it
caused, had not much social backing..."

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by
small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary
outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie WITHOUT ALL ITS
PREJUDICES [italics in original], without a movement of the politically
non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression
by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national
oppression, etc.--to imagine all this is to REPUDIATE SOCIAL REVOLUTION.
So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and
another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that
will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously
pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a "putsch".


While there's much more I have to learn about the history of class
relations in Ireland, I tend at this point to agree with Lenin's
approach to the 1916 rebellion. Trotsky's approach, while not as
schematically sectarian as Radek's, bends too much in that direction. It
represents what one might call a "workerist" approach, one that Trotsky
broke with in latter years.

For Lenin, the class-struggle never appears in its pure form where an
undifferentiated mass of workers stands opposed to an undifferentiated
mass of the bourgeoisie. Mass struggles against capitalist oppression
have always involved all sorts of petty-bourgeois prejudices,
reactionary fantasies and weaknesses and errors. It was Lenin's gift to
be able to approach such mass struggles dialectically and see the
objectively anticapitalist character that defined them. As Lenin put it
in the same article, it rests upon the "class-conscious vanguard of the
revolution, the advanced proletariat" to express the objectively
anticapitalist character of the "variegated and discordant, motley and
outwardly fragmented" mass movement and unite and direct it toward
capturing power.

It seems that Lenin's approach to Ireland would also serve to help us to
understand much of the mass movement in the United States since the
1960's. Phenomena such as black and latino nationalism, feminism, gay
liberation, etc. are not pure expressions of proletarian militancy. They
incorporate all sorts of reactionary fantasies, weaknesses and errors,
but those in the US left, who like Radek, stand on the sidelines and
cluck their tongues at these inchoate movements, are also missing the
essential point. The Marxist movement does not set the terms of the
class-struggle. It must participate wholeheartedly and unselfishly. That
is the way capitalism will be eventually defeated.


The Marxism list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list