[Marxism] More on the national question (was re: The Latino immigrant rights movement and the revolutionary left)

Nick Fredman srcsra at scu.edu.au
Wed Apr 12 20:06:08 MDT 2006

I've read with great interest the comments by 
Joaquín and others on the immigrants rights 
movement, both due to the huge political 
importance of this upsurge, and its relation to 
questions of nationalism and national identity, 
which I'm currently writing about for academic 
purposes. My comments, as in the discussion of 
several weeks ago that began with the African 
American question, relate more to general 
theoretical questions than the specifics of this 
movement and the Latino question. I mean to raise 
points for discussion rather than thunderous 

Joaquín wrote:

>Stalin says in the famous 1913 Bolshevik 
>pamphlet on the national question that the heart 
>and soul of the nationalism of the bourgeoisie 
>is their home market. That is the same here, 
>even though it manifests in ways which the 
>Bolsheviks couldn't have imagined (and even 
>though I disagree with the Bolshevik 1913 
>position of reducing the national question to 
>just the interests of the bourgeois forces)<.

I think a problem with Joaquín's arguments is 
that there are a bit circular. He asserts that 
the African American and Latino American 
questions are essentially national, points out 
that this is somewhat different from the 
Bolshevik understanding of the national question, 
and concludes therefore the Bolshevik position is 
inadequate. The fact there is a broad, 
cross-class movement related to a strong sense of 
community identity does not necessarily make a 
movement national: there are some analogies with 
movements for immigrant rights in Europe and 
Australia, even if these are on a smaller scale 
and significantly different in various ways, and 
I think it would be much harder to argue that 
these movements are essentially national.

However conceding for now that this (and the 
African American) movement is national (and I 
think it is in important ways, discussed below), 
another problem with Joaquín's commentaries is 
that he is a bit unfair in his paraphrases of the 
Bolshevik position in general and the Stalin 
pamphlet in particular. I think it's not right at 
all to say the Bolsheviks reduced the question 
"to just the interests of the bourgeois forces". 
Stalin does say the national movement "is in 
essence always a bourgeois struggle" but goes on:

"But it does not by any means follow that the 
proletariat should not put up a fight against the 
policy of national oppression.

"Restriction of freedom of movement, 
disfranchisement, repression of language, closing 
of schools, and other forms of persecution affect 
the workers no less, if not more, than the 
bourgeoisie. Such a state of affairs can only 
serve to retard the free development of the 
intellectual forces of the proletariat of subject 
nations. One cannot speak seriously of a full 
development of the intellectual faculties of the 
Tatar or Jewish worker if he is not allowed to 
use his native language at meetings and lectures, 
and if his schools are closed down.

"But the policy of nationalist persecution is 
dangerous to the cause of the proletariat also on 
another account. It diverts the attention of 
large strata from social questions, questions of 
the class struggle, to national questions, 
questions "common" to the proletariat and the 
bourgeoisie. And this creates a favourable soil 
for lying propaganda about "harmony of 
interests," for glossing over the class interests 
of the proletariat and for the intellectual 
enslavement of the workers".


The point, that it was very much in the 
proletariat's interest to fight national 
oppression, and by implication, fight to 
hegemonise the national movement, was put more 
strongly, without changing Stalin's basic 
analysis, in post-1914 resolutions drafted by 
Lenin that more clearly developed the 
oppressor-oppressed nation distinction such as 
'The Socialist Revolution and the Right of 
Nations to Self-Determination' 

I think the actual difference between Joaquín and 
the Bolsheviks relates not to the point that the 
national question is important or that socialists 
shouldn't be part of and better try and lead a 
national movement (of an oppressed nation), but 
to the point of Morales' he notes"

>"No es excluyente" -- it doesn't exclude. You 
>can be indigenous, and Guatemalan, and 
>Mesoamerican, and Latin American, and a part of 
>the Third World, a person of color<.

I.e. one can be a nationalist in terms of an 
oppressed nation, and closely identify this that 
nation, and also in this case have range of other 
identities, and quite consistently be an 
internationalist, and by extension I suppose a 
revolutionary socialist. Whereas the Bolsheviks 
tended to emphasise that the proletariat and 
revolutionaries should fight for national rights 
of oppressed nations, and support "general 
democratic content" of oppressed nation 
nationalism, but rejected any nationalist 
ideology as a whole and placing any political 
emphasis on national identity. I think the 
Bolsheviks are right, if one takes a more nuanced 
view of national identity. BTW there's an 
interesting-sounding new book 'Marxism and 
National Identity', not yet available in 
Australia though the first chapter can be 
downloaded from 
which seems to be saying that the late 19th 
century French Socialist Party lost support from 
being too stridently cosmopolitan and realising 
that later swung round far too much to a 

The other difference debated previously, was 
whether a social formation to be definable as a 
nation needed to include a contiguous territory, 
which Stalin and Lenin insisted on, or could 
whether nationality could be forged by 
political-ideological-cultural-identity factors 
without necessarily contiguous territory. In this 
stuff I don't stubbornly defend Stalin for the 
eccentric sake of it, but can't see how his 
definition ("A nation is a historically 
constituted, stable community of people, formed 
on the basis of a common language, territory, 
economic life, and psychological make-up 
manifested in a common culture"), has been 
improved upon by any of the relevant theorists 
I've been studying recently including Benedict 
Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner, Michel 
Löwy (who basically follows the Austro-Marxist 
Bauer), Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, and the 
Australian philosopher Ross Poole, who all 
downplay material factors in favour of political 
or cultural ones (except for Smith, who uses a 
similar definition to Stalin's, though doesn't 
acknowledge this). That is, if Stalin's analysis 
is understood dialectically and developed a bit.

One way I think it's necessary to do that is to 
develop the category of "national character" that 
Stalin mentions, as does Lenin in 'Critical 
Remarks on the National Question' 
also from 1913, in relation to the Jewish 
question. I take what they're saying to mean that 
there can be social groups whose conditions of 
existence and history gives them certain features 
of a nation, and makes them (of part thereof) a 
potential nation, but they haven't yet developed 
into a nation, and whether they do so is an open 
question that will depend on the course of the 
class struggle internationally and the interests 
and actions of classes anmd political forces 
within them. I think this sort of perspective 
explains Zionism and the formation of the Israeli 
nation a whole lot better than the 
Bauerite-culturalist assertion that Jews, per se, 
as a whole, are and also were a nation, full 
stop, QED (which explains nothing and is 
implicitly Zionist). I also think the idea of 
national character as opposed to nation might be 
a fruitful way of looking at the African-American 
and Latino American questions.

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