Tom O'lincon, Ed George and others and national self determination and nationalism

glparramatta at glparramatta at
Mon Jul 21 03:09:09 MDT 2003

Bob Gould enlists me as an ally (on the basis of my article in Links #13 -- against the views of
Tom O'Lincoln. Altough I have not followed their debate closely, I do not
think I am in fundamental disagreement with Tom on the question of the
Marxist attitude toward the the nationalism of the oppressed. (For more on
this see Malik Miah's reply in Links #14 and my response in Links #15 --
both issues caqn be ordered at the Links web site at

Here are the key passages of argument, which I doubt that Tom will find a
problem with.

Right to self-determination

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, building on the foundations laid by Marx and
Engels and applying them to the new era, put great emphasis on the right of
oppressed nations to self-determination as part of their revolutionary
arsenal, both during the Russian Revolution and in the struggle against
world imperialism.

The demand for the right of national self-determination applies only to
oppressed nations. It is a democratic political demand that means an
oppressed nation has the right to determine its political relationship to
the oppressor nation, including the right to secede and form a separate

Marxists defend this right, Lenin explained, because "nothing holds up the
development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as
national injustice".

The national question for Lenin and the Bolsheviks was not simply a
theoretical question. A correct position on the question was essential for
the success of the revolutionary movement. Russia was formed, not as a
national state, but as a state made up of many nations.

Trotsky explained in the History of the Russian Revolution: Seventy million
Great Russians constituted the mass of the country. There were gradually
added about 90 million "outlanders" ... Thus was created an empire, of
whose population the ruling nationality constituted only 43%. The remaining
57% were nationalities of various degrees of culture and subjection,
including Ukrainians 17%, Poles 6%, White Russians 4.5% ... The vast
numbers of these nationalities deprived of rights, and the sharpness of
their deprivation, gave the national problem in Tsarist Russia a gigantic
explosive force.15

Through defending the right of oppressed nations to self-determination,
Lenin and the Bolsheviks showed how the workers of the oppressor nation
could demonstrate to the workers of the oppressed nations that they were
opposed to the national injustices imposed upon them, and lay the basis for
an internationalist alliance between the workers of both nations against
their common enemy—the capitalist rulers of the oppressor nation.

Does support for the right of national self-determination mean that
Marxists support the formation of an independent state by every nation in
all cases? Not at all. Marxists are for the abolition of national frontiers
and for the integration of nations into a single, democratically
centralised world socialist state, in which each nation would enjoy
national-territorial autonomy.

As Lenin explained: "In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances
internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity".16

But Lenin recognised that such an amalgamation of nations could be achieved
only on the basis of the fullest democracy. An amalgamation of nations
could come about only if it were thoroughly voluntary:

We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom
of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of
splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states,
but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and
even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist
basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede...17

In a slightly earlier work, Lenin put it this way: ... To accuse those who
support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of
encouraging separatism is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who
advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties.
Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on
which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the
capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the
right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the
privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to
the detriment of democratic methods... From their daily experience the
masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties and
the advantages of a big market and a big state. They will, therefore,
resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction
make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder any and all economic

Lenin adds that such freedom is essential after a socialist revolution:

By transforming capitalism into socialism, the proletariat creates the
possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes
reality "only"—"only!"—with the establishment of full democracy in all
spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with
the "sympathies" of the population, including complete freedom to secede.
And this, in turn, will serve as a basis for developing the practical
elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national
mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations that
will be completed when the state withers away.19

Does support for this demand imply support for nationalism, albeit the
nationalism of the oppressed? This was the argument put forward by Rosa
Luxemburg. Lenin over and over again explained that this was not the case: 

Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we
are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour,
for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression.
But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own
bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges
and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone
strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.20 

The working class supports the bourgeoisie [in the national question] only
in order to secure national peace (which the bourgeoisie cannot bring about
completely and which can be achieved only with complete democracy), in
order to secure equal rights and to create the best conditions for the
class struggle ... What every bourgeoisie is out for in the national
question is either privileges for its own nation, or exceptional advantages
... The proletariat is opposed to all privileges, to all exclusiveness...
The demand for a "yes" or "no" reply to the question of secession in the
case of every nation may seem a very "practical" one. In reality it is
absurd; it is metaphysical ... With the proletariat, however, these demands
are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle ... For the
bourgeoisie it is important to hamper [the class struggle] by pushing the
aims of its "own" nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the
proletariat, so to speak, confines itself to the negative demand for
recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees
to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of
another nation.21

In response to Luxemburg's complaint that Lenin's support for the right to
self-determination boosted the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries like
Poland, where she was active, Lenin reiterated that while the bourgeois
nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that
is directed against oppression, and this component revolutionaries
unconditionally support, any tendency towards national exclusiveness should
be opposed. "We fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to
oppress the Jews etc. etc.", Lenin declared.22

Echoing Marx and Engels, he asked:

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot ... The
Great-Russian proletariat cannot achieve its own aims or clear the road to
its freedom without systematically countering these prejudices ... We are
fighting on the ground of a definite state; we unite the workers of all
nations living in this state; we cannot vouch for any particular path of
national development, for we are marching to our class goal along all
possible paths ... we cannot move towards that goal unless we combat all
nationalism, and uphold the equality of the various nations. Whether the
Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter
that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without
attempting idle "guesses", we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt:
the right of the Ukraine to form such a state ... We do not uphold the
privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the
masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of
rejecting state privileges for any nation... We proletarians declare in
advance that we are opposed to Great-Russian privileges, and this is what
guides our entire propaganda and agitation... This is the only [way] to
ensure the greatest chances of national peace in Russia, should she remain
a multi-national state, and the most peaceful (and for the proletarian
class struggle, harmless) division into separate national states, should
the question of such a division arise.23


Marxists are opposed to all nationalism because it is a capitalist
ideology. Capitalist elements urge the working class and poor to set aside
their "sectional", i.e. class, interests for the good of the "nation". In
response, Marxists advocate working-class internationalism: solidarity and
unity of the workers of all nations against capitalist exploitation.

But, while opposing the nationalism of the bourgeoisie of every nation, we
recognise that the nationalism of the oppressed nations, generated as it is
by the struggle against imperialist oppression, has a "general democratic
content". We support this struggle against national oppression.

With the advent of imperialism, genuine national liberation of oppressed
nations can be won only when the working-class vanguard wins leadership of
the masses away from the capitalists by championing workers' and peasants'
rights. It cannot win this leadership without organising the workers and
peasants independently of the bourgeoisie. This approach was spelled out in
the Supplementary Theses on the National Question and Colonial Question
adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 and
again in the Theses on the Eastern Question adopted by the Comintern Fourth
Congress in 1922.

In the latter, the Bolsheviks explained: The refusal of Communists in the
colonies to take part in the fight against imperialist tyranny, on the
pretext of their supposed "defence" of independent class interests, is the
worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution
in the East ... A dual task faces the Communist and workers' parties of the
colonial and semi-colonial countries: on the one hand, they are fighting
for a more radical answer to the demands of the bourgeois-democratic
revolution, directed towards the winning of national political
independence; on the other hand, they are organising the masses of workers
and peasants to fight for their own class interests, making good use of all
the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp.24

The Bolsheviks urged Marxists in the oppressed nations to form tactical
alliances with the bourgeois nationalists against imperialist domination,
while laying down that the cardinal condition for such anti-imperialist
united fronts is complete freedom for the Marxists to wage an ideological
and political struggle against their nationalist allies.  

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