[Marxism] The National Question

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 21 11:40:55 MDT 2014

In the early days of Marxmail and before I began blogging (blogs did not 
yet exist in fact), I used to write the kinds of articles I write now 
but as email to the list. One of them was a series of posts on Black 
Nationalism that looked back at the literature on the National Question 
in general. As it turns out, I used Ephraim Nimni's "Marxism and 
Nationalism: Theoretical Origins of a Political Crisis" as background. 
This is the same author mentioned by Richard Fidler but another book.

I now remember that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not the first to have 
problems with the national question even though Nimni viewed him as an 
advance over what came before. That's what's reflected in my article but 
hindsight gives me a better perspective on Lenin's failings especially 
on Ukraine.

This demonstrates that perhaps Lenin's shortcomings and Rosa Luxemburg's 
more egregiously might be rooted in their reading of Marx and Engels:


Most of what Marx and Engels were concerned about on the national 
question has to do with the task of the bourgeois revolution. Feudal 
social and economic relations were an obstacle to capitalist 
development, which in turn created the preconditions for proletarian 
revolution. Hence the urgency was to unite a nation having in common the 
following criteria:

--It must hold a population large enough to allow for an internal 
division of labor which characterizes a capitalist system with its 
competing classes; and

--occupy a cohesive and sufficiently large territorial space to provide 
for the existence of a viable state.

The French revolution was a model for this form of national development. 
Just as the Russian revolution was a model for 20th century revolutions, 
so was the revolution of 1789 a model for bourgeois democrats in places 
like Italy, Germany and Ireland that had remnants of the old order.

The Jacobins believed that the only way to consolidate a modern, 
bourgeois state was to follow a path of tight centralization and 
*linguistic standardization*. We should not neglect the importance of 
the second task. Before the revolution, France had a patchwork of 
linguistic communities that spoke either Romance languages (Langue d'Oc, 
Langue d'Oil, Catalan), other Celtic languages (Breton), and other 
ancient pre-Latin languages (Euzkera). In the period before the 
revolution, only 3 million inhabitants of Paris and the surrounding 
areas spoke "French" as their mother tongue and a smaller number could 
read and write in this language.

The reason it became an urgent political task for the Jacobins to 
enforce French as a national language was that feudal counter-revolution 
tended to be strongest in areas where the language was not spoken, such 
as Brittainy where Breton was the native tongue.

In the context of the bourgeois revolution, the *crushing* of culture 
and language of the non-Parisian French national communities was 
progressive. Marx and Engels agreed completely that such action was 
necessary not only for 18th century France, but contemporary Europe as 
well. State centralization and national unification, with the consequent 
*assimilation* of small national communities was the only viable path to 
social progress.

However, what role do stateless or numerically small national 
communities such as the Bretons play? Are they all grist for the mill of 
bourgeois revolution? The answer from Marx and Engels is not 
encouraging. If the number one priority is to create strong national 
states, how else can they view cultural and ethnic obstructionists. If 
doctrinaire Marxism of the twentieth century puts forward the slogan 
that nationalism divides the working-class, there is some antecedent for 
this since Marx and Engels put forward slogans 150 years ago that the 
nationalism of the lesser nationalities divides the bourgeoisie.

They pinned their hopes above all on the national unification of the 
German peoples, who they contrasted as a "more energetic race" to the 
smaller national communities on the eastern outskirts of the German 
national territory, who could only be an obstacle to unification:

"Bohemia and Croatia (another disjected member of the Slavonic family, 
acted upon by the Hungarian, as Bohemia by the German) were the homes of 
what is now called on the European continent 'Panslavism'. Neither 
Bohemia nor Croatia was strong enough to exist as a nation by herself. 
Their respective nationalities, gradually undermined by the action of 
historical causes that inevitably absorbs into a more energetic stock, 
could only hope to be restored to anything like independence by an 
alliance with other Slavonic nations." ("Panslavism--the Schleswig 
Holstein War").

Who would be the leader of such a federation of Slavonic nations? The 
only such leader waiting in the wings is the Russian czar, according to 
Marx. There is one consolation. The democratic movement in the 
Austro-Hungarian monarchy will assimilate these "relics of people", 
transforming their culture and national identity into the 'superior' 
German and Magyar culture.

Here is the clearest theoretical statement on the attitude of Marx and 
Engels on the national question:

"There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or 
another one or several fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former 
population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation of 
which later became the main vehicle for historical development. These 
relics of a nation, mercilessly trampled under the course of history, as 
Hegel says 'these residual fragments of peoples' always become standard 
bearers of counter revolution and remain so until their complete 
extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole 
existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical 

"Such in Scotland are the Gaels, the supporters of the Stuarts from 1640 
to 1745.

"Such in France are the Bretons, the supporters of the Bourbons from 
1742 to 1800.

"Such in Spain are the Basques, the supporters of Don Carlos.

"Such in Austria are the panslavist Southern Slavs, who are nothing but 
residual fragments of peoples, resulting from an extremely confused 
thousand years development. This residual fragment, which is likewise 
extremely confused sees its salvation only in the reversal of the whole 
European movement, which in its view ought not to go from west to east, 
but from east to west." ("The Magyar Struggle")

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