Marxism and the national question

The national question is, without doubt, one of the great issues facing socialists and marxists today.

Peter Hadden, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)

Lenin described Tzarist Russia as a prison house of nationalities – 57% of its peoples were non-Russian. He argued that without a correct approach on this issue the Bolsheviks would not have been able to lead the working class to power in 1917. What Lenin said applies with increasing force to virtually every corner of the globe today. It applies most assuredly to Ireland.

Of course the question was somewhat different in the days of Marx and Engels and even of Lenin. Marx wrote at a time when the capitalist system was still capable of developing the productive forces and taking society forward. A feature, indeed one of the crowning achievements, of capitalism in this, its progressive phase, was the assimilation of peoples into nations and the creation of nation states.

Lenin lived in the epoch of imperialism – that period at the close of the last, and beginning of this, century, which saw the rest of the globe carved into spheres of control and influence of the major powers. The export of capital to the less developed countries meant that their political and military domination was further cemented by an economic enslavement to these mighty capitalist states.

Marx, while faced with the progressive features of capitalism in creating nation states was always sensitive to its other side – the domination and subjugation of countries and of nations by the ascending capitalist states. His writings on Ireland and his conclusion that: “The English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke” is an example. Marx advocated independence for Ireland, adding that:

“after separation there may come federation.”

In a similar vein Lenin opposed all forms of national oppression:

“Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality is not a marxist; he is not even a democrat.”

After 1917 the Bolsheviks used the example of the Russian revolution to inspire as well as give concrete assistance to the national liberation movements in the colonial countries.

Yet Lenin also in his pre-World War 1 writings on the national question repeatedly laid stress on the tendency still of capitalism in the more developed areas of the globe to bring peoples together into nations. He pointed to: “capitalism’s world-historical tendency to break down national barriers, assimilate nations – a tendency which manifests itself more and more powerfully with every passing decade, and is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism”.

Lenin’s programme on the national question was drawn up for countries like those of Eastern Europe and Asia which could not stand against the economic power of the imperialist states and which were denied the route of historical development which these had taken.

Of the national question in the more developed states, he was able to say:

“In most western countries it was settled long ago” and further, that, by 1871;

“Western Europe had been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois states, which, as a general rule, were nationally uniform states. Therefore to seek the right to self-determination in the programmes of west European socialists at this time of day is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of marxism.”

Even at the time this was probably a one-sided view but it is certainly no longer apt. Lenin, who argued the need to analyse the national question within concrete and definite historical limits, would be the first to revise this conclusion for today. Two world wars and now with a second period of prolonged economic depression since Lenin penned these lines, the national question presents itself anew, not only in the ex-colonial world but in the ‘settled states’ of the West. Alongside the economic crisis of capitalism, the historical failure and now outright capitulation of reformism and the absence of any mass revolutionary alternative have laid the conditions in many countries for nationalism to arise or re-arise in some form.

A further twist has been provided by the collapse of Stalinism. From the Balkans, through the Caucuses, to central Asia a torch of national/ethnic and religious conflict has been lit. In some cases this has reached the level of civil war, elsewhere it registers still as smouldering discontent. Nowhere can it be extinguished fully on the basis of the re-imposition of capitalism on these societies.

Growing divisions

Broadly the tendency to assimilation of peoples into nations, apparent in the last century, and even then most often by the most brutal methods, has, in the present epoch, been replaced by the opposite tendency – to the accentuation of division, even to separation. The case of German reunification, brought about by unrepeatable circumstances, stands as a single exception.

The nation states which have emerged in the ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa are caricatures of the nation states of western Europe. They are based, not on the natural assimilation of peoples, but on the artificial boundaries imposed by imperialism in the past.

A complex of identities exists in these areas. There is a general feeling, often linked to an anti-imperialist sentiment, of a broader identity – expressed as pan-nationalism, pan-Africanism, a sense of being Latin American or whatever. All attempts to give this an organisational form on the basis of capitalism, for example efforts to merge Arab states, have failed and will always be liable to fail.

There is also a certain sense of ‘national’ identity based on the states which now exist, no matter how artificial their boundaries. Arabs will describe themselves as Arabs but also as Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese or whatever.

Beneath this, and because of the historical weakness and economic impasse of most of these ‘nations’ other identities based on tribe, religion, caste, etc, tend to rise. In pre-independence days, the struggle to wrest free of the control of imperialism acted as a unifying factor and helped develop a national consciousness in colonial countries such as India and most of Africa. After independence, and with national movements based on capitalism in power, this national consciousness has tended to decline. In other words once these independence movements defined themselves as capitalist governments which could neither break the economic domination of the West nor deliver a secure future, they were no longer able to draw together the peoples of different tribal, ethnic, religious or regional identities. Most often people associated with one ethnic group placed themselves at the top of the heap and by discrimination against others, opened the sores of future conflict.

Only the working class movement, fighting on a state and a regional level for a socialist solution, can cut across the tendency to division. Outside of this national/ ethnic/ tribal conflicts are bound to intensify – at their most extreme leading to wars, mass displacement of peoples and to a situation whereby states may remain on the map but in reality will have ceased to exist as centralised units. In many cases their actual break up will occur.

The conflict in ex-Yugoslavia has given the peoples of Europe a close up of what, for more than four decades, they would probably have viewed as an African or an Asian problem. Already in some European countries – Belgium and Spain for example – there are acute national problems. In others the lines erased by the past assimilation of peoples threaten to reappear. National problems, if they have not yet arisen, have the capacity to arise in all the once more ‘settled’ nation states of the advanced capitalist world.

It would be wrong to have an apocalyptic view. The development of nationalism is never in a straight line. Rather it progresses or falls back in a series of ebbs and flows which most often are opposite reflections of the advances and retreats of the class struggle. A new movement of the working class in Europe could, for example, erode the basis of nationalism and likewise could deal a blow against racism for a whole period.

The historical epoch may be different, the problem may present itself differently, but still the approach taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks remains thoroughly modern, thoroughly illuminating today. That is not to say that a ready made programme tailored to all situations can be found in the writings of Lenin or any marxist. No such programme exists and those who search for it will search in vain.

Demands on the national question must be related to actual circumstances and to the consciousness of various layers, particularly of the working class. And as neither conditions nor consciousness are fixed or static but are constantly changing, so demands need to be re-evaluated, fine-tuned and altered. What was correct twenty five years ago at the dawn of the Northern Ireland Troubles may no longer be appropriate in the changed situation brought about by twenty five years of sectarian violence.

What we take from Lenin and from marxism generally, is a method of approach and analysis which, if skilfully applied, can help unlock the complexities of the national question today. If Lenin stressed one point on this subject it was the need to be concrete, to view things as they have arisen, as they are and as they are developing. His advice – to avoid supra-historical dogma and abstraction, but deal with actual historical circumstances – remains valid whether we are dealing with Ireland on any other country.

“The categorical requirement of marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits and, if it refers to a particular country (e.g. the national programme for a given country) that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.”

Our approach is as internationalists, never as nationalists. The development of the nation state and of modern nations has been a product of capitalism and has helped take society forward in the past. But modern productive techniques have far outstripped the limitations of national boundaries. Even the regional markets which the capitalists are attempting to create in their various spheres of influence – Europe, North America and the Far East – are not large enough to satisfy the productive appetites of the huge modern corporations. The financial markets have become globalised with billions of dollars daily switching from country to country, continent to continent, at the push of computer buttons.

The nation state is an outmoded anachronism from the point of view of production, of finance, and of a harmonious development which can protect the climate, environment and eco-system of the world. It is not for sentimental but for entirely practical reasons that we are for a world plan of production to replace the anarchy of capitalism; that is of production based on private property and the nation state.


The starting point of our programme is the need for the unity of the working class of all races, creeds, tribes and nations, both within the boundaries of existing states and on an international level. We reject the reactionary ‘one nation’ philosophy espoused by Disraeli in the last century and regurgitated by modern Tories and increasingly by right wing leaders of the British Labour Party.

Within every capitalist nation there are two distinct groups – the ruling class and their acolytes on the one side and the working class on the other, with various other strata in between. In items of mutual interest, life-style and even of broad culture, especially in the modern electronic age, the working class of one country have far more in common with workers of other countries than with their own rulers.

Bourgeois nationalism sets out to disguise this fact stressing that we are all French, English, German, etc, whether we live in a dilapidated terrace or a mansion, whether we travel by bus or private helicopter, whether we are idle and penniless on the dole, or idle and cossetted by wealth, living off shares and investments. To this national solidarity of oppressor and oppressed, marxism counterposes the international solidarity of all the oppressed against all oppression.

For the most advanced sections of the working class such a straightforward appeal to class solidarity and internationalism may be enough. But where a national issue has arisen perhaps in the form of opposition to national oppression, for the majority of people, workers included, it will be necessary to go beyond this.

There will be a need to show that socialists stand opposed to all national oppression and are the firmest advocates of the rights of nationalities and indeed of all minorities within a state. The experience of Stalinism, which, while it failed in every area, failed particularly visibly on the national question only reinforces this. Hence the need for a programme of democratic demands; against oppression, against the suppression of language, literature and other aspects of the culture of a nation, and including the right to self-determination i.e. the right of a national minority within a state to secede from that state and establish itself as an independent nation.

While nationalism itself is ultimately divisive it has two quite distinct aspects which cannot be lumped together. The nationalism of a fascist demanding a new Reich is not the same as the nationalism of a Palestinian in a refugee camp striving for a homeland for his or her people. The former is entirely reactionary, while the latter represents an elementary yearning for freedom and for a better life. One is a brake on history while the other, in the form of mass national liberation movements has been one of the greatest engines of historical change in this century.

The difference is not just between various manifestations of nationalism but also within national liberation movements themselves. Within every national movement there are different and ultimately conflicting class elements. On the one side is the nationalism of the emerging ruling strata or elite. They want to establish their nation so that they can ape the rulers of other capitalist nations, and enjoy the same fruits of exploitation as they do. On the other side is the nationalism of the oppressed who want to break free of domination in order to better their lot. Ultimately there is the same difference between these two aspects of nationalism as there is between the rulers and the ruled in states like Britain, Germany etc.

A marxist programme supports all that is progressive in national movements but offers no measure of support to their backward features. Essentially, this is a negative programme. We are against the suppression of culture, language, nationality. But we do not promote any particular culture, language or nationality over any other. We opposed the banning of the Irish tricolour by the Unionist state in Northern Ireland as a denial of the national rights of those Catholics who identified with it. Militant opposed the ban but we ourselves did not, and now that it is lifted, do not carry that flag or promote it over any other national emblem.

The aim of this largely negative programme is to say to those who look to nationalism as a solution that it is the working class who are the only real guarantors of their national and democratic rights as well as their economic liberation. Its intent is not to promote nationalism, but to open up class divisions in national movements, to develop class unity and to promote the class struggle. The best way to assess whether a demand or a set of demands is correct, is to pose the simple question – does it make it easier to gain the ear of nationalist minded workers, does it advance the class struggle?

This was the approach of Lenin:

“The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle”.


“While recognising equality and equal rights to a nation state, it (the working class) values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletariat of all nations, and assesses every national demand, every national separation from the angle of the working class struggle”.

It is with this proviso that Lenin advanced and defended the right of nations to self-determination as a key element of the Bolshevik programme and later of the programme of the Third International.

Right to self-determination

The right to self-determination means basically the right to secede from a state. Marxists do not apply this right to each and every minority but to historically evolved communities, who have a distinct sense of national identity and who have or could have the territorial basis to realise themselves as a nation. The issue of whether or not such a state would be economically viable is a red herring. No small state is independently fully viable in this age of multinational corporations and global finance. If this were to prevent us from guaranteeing the right of self determination it would cut us off from subject nationalities discussing secession.

To uphold the right to secede is not necessarily to advocate secession – at least that is to national minorities within a state. In relation to colonies or territories occupied by foreign armies it is a different matter. Under such circumstances marxists stand unequivocally for independence and for the withdrawal of imperialist troops. So Marx stood for Irish independence. So Trotsky demanded of the Republican government during the Spanish civil war that it issue a decree guaranteeing Morocco its independence. So Militant supported the Vietnamese in their long war against French and then US imperialism.

Where it is a question of a national minority within the boundaries of an existing centralised state, Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Sardinians in relation to Italy, the future of the Scottish and Welsh nations in Britain, the question is not so straightforward. Here Marxists hesitate before becoming proponents of independence and have a responsibility to point to the pitfalls of this course. This is especially so of marxists based among the subject nationality. While dealing sympathetically with the national aspirations of that people they need to counter illusions that capitalist independence will be an answer to their problems. Above all they need to point to the dangers of such unity as exists between the working class of that state being broken. Even the idea that the national problem would be solved by secession is most often also an illusion. It is more likely that such a ‘solution’ of one problem would only lead to the creation of others.


Yugoslavia has given a living, if extreme example. The hiving off of Slovenia and then Croatia upset the delicate balance of nationalities in what remained of the old state and helped precipitate civil war. Slovenia was fortunate to have a relatively homogenous population. Croatia had within it a substantial Serbian minority and its independence created in turn the problem of a new minority seeking to escape the clutches of the new majority in Zagreb. In the ex-Stalinist world there are more Croatias than Slovenias. Likewise in the countries of the colonial world, the past crimes of imperialism have left a potentially explosive patchwork of tribal, religious and national minorities and sub-minorities.

And in the advanced countries the question is not so different. Were Belgium to divide between the French speaking Walloons and the Flemish, it would be a matter of time before new tensions would arise in the new states. Among the four Basque provinces in Spain there is a substantial Spanish minority who actually are a majority in one province – Navarra. There are certain similarities, but also differences, between this situation and Northern Ireland where the Protestants have proven a hopelessly complicating factor to those who seek neat and easy solutions. Does this mean that in every case Marxists uphold the right to secede but in practice would argue against? The answer is no. Whatever position that would be taken would depend on the actual situation, on class relations within the state and on the perspectives both for the development of national sentiment, and for the class struggle.

The key is the effect this stance would have on the class struggle and the unity of the working class. In a case where the desire for separation had clearly achieved a majority among the working class, where this had been shown to be both deep seated and enduring and where the likely prospect was of its increasing, we would have to consider going further than the right to secede and demand independence. This would be more than a programmatic question. We would have to advocate, and where possible conduct, a struggle in both parts of the existing state to achieve independence, posing at the same time the idea of a socialist federation.

If the working class movement in such a case did not support independence it would risk losing the most combatative sections of the working class to whatever radical nationalist forces might emerge. The nationalists would point a finger at the working class of the dominant nation accusing them of chauvinism. The problem in Israel/ Palestine has elements of a colonial situation but also of that of a national minority within a state. Here there can be no doubting the deeply felt and enduring desire, cultivated by decades of oppression, of the Palestinian masses for their own state.

In order to gain a hearing for socialist ideas among the Palestinians it is necessary for marxists, not just to support the call for a state, but to put forward a programme of struggle to achieve it. Anything less and we would not be taken seriously. The best answer is to advocate two socialist states, one for the Palestinians, one for the Israelis. This means a redrawing of existing boundaries since a viable Palestinian state could not just be based on the occupied territories, but would also have to include those Palestinian areas of Israel where a majority would opt to join it.

The alternative of a single socialist state for Israelis and Palestinians would seem fanciful to both sides and would seem to Palestinians to fall short of their aspiration for a land of their own. The division between Israelis and Palestinians is far deeper, far more fixed than that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In formulating a programme there is no alternative but to accept the reality of this division and put forward the idea of two socialist states, of Jerusalem as an open city and the capital of both, and of a socialist federation of the entire region, as the only plausible answer. On the other hand where the demand for separation is not at such a level, where the working class remains torn between the conflicting pressures of nationalism drawing it apart and of class bonding them together, it would be foolish to advocate secession. In such a case to do so would be to stand on the nationalist side of the working class and would serve to reinforce nationalism.


Despite an undoubted rise in nationalist sentiment this is still the situation in Scotland. The unity of Scottish with English and Welsh workers and the existence of Scottish Militant Labour as an emerging force potentially capable of playing a significant role in limiting the growth of the SNP, are not unimportant factors.

Nonetheless it is also necessary to recognise the strength of nationalist feeling in Scotland and its potential to grow rapidly on the basis of disillusionment with a Labour government in Britain. At this stage we answer this with the demand for extensive autonomy in the form of a Scottish Assembly with wide ranging powers. If there is a further development of Scottish nationalism which is likely to be sustained, it is possible that we may have to go further and support independence, arguing for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Scotland, England and Wales.

When it comes to autonomy it is not the right to autonomy but autonomy itself that we uphold. Autonomy means the devolution of powers to be administered on a local basis. What powers would be devolved would depend on the actual situation and on what was demanded. It could mean that only defence, foreign affairs, and some aspects of the economy would be conducted at the centre. Control over health, education, housing and other services could be devolved. Policing could be under local control as could environmental regulation, transport and taxation. Autonomous powers could include the right to take control of industry and land and to enforce legislation on working conditions and health and safety. Local control over the legal system would mean that a devolved parliament could scrap the Tory anti-trade union laws, substituting legislation which protects the rights of workers.

Existing centralised capitalist states will resist such extensive powers of autonomy. For us it is a question of setting out clearly the powers we seek and conducting a struggle to achieve them. Where today there is a genuine support for autonomy we would give support to that demand – provided it was territorially based and could be realised. It is ludicrous and also potentially divisive to argue that all minorities, even those scattered across a state, should be given autonomy if they desire. Autonomy needs to be based. on a region or a national territory if it is to make practical sense. It could be applied to Scotland but not, for example, to the Scottish people living in London.

This is not to say that we ignore or take lightly the rights of minorities scattered across the territory of a dominant culture or nationality. We oppose all discrimination and also uphold the rights of minorities to have their language, culture and customs respected, especially when it comes to the education system. But where there is not the territorial possibility of realising it, we stop short of the demand for autonomy. A state made up of territories, each enjoying varying degrees of autonomy, is not the same thing as a federation. In the case of autonomy a centralised state will agree to cede various, formerly central, powers to local control.

A federation can only come about differently. It presupposes the existence of independent states which have agreed to combine in certain areas for their mutual benefit. In the first case powers are devolved from the centre, in the second they are transferred from different states by agreement, to a new federal centre. Implicit in this is the right of each member state to cede from a federation should it wish. So, while we talk of the right to autonomy and to self-determination, that is the right to be free of suffocating central decision making, or of national oppression, it makes no sense to talk of the right to federate. It is the difference between the right to divorce and the right to marry. One must be upheld as the right of either party, while the other can only come about by mutual consent.

Capitalist society cannot guarantee the equality of treatment of nationalities or other minorities, the respect of all cultures, languages, etc, which we demand. Nor can it provide the real measure of freedom from over-centralised decision making intended in the call for autonomy and the right to secede. Those capitalist states which call themselves federations, the United States or Germany for example, are in reality no such thing. They are centralised states which exercise only a degree of autonomy to their component parts, but which, in practice, deny the right to secede.

Only within a socialist society could all these freedoms be truly applied. Socialism would mean that the contradiction between centralised and local power would be broken down. There would be the maximum devolution of powers to local control. Decisions which had to be taken at a central level would not be taken in contradiction or opposition to local democratic bodies, but would be taken as a culmination of discussion on these bodies and then would be referred back to them for implementation. Such genuine participatory democracy is not possible under the capitalist system, which drains the energies of the working class in the workplace. A drastic cut in the working week would give the working class the key ingredient of time to allow it, for the first time, to take part in the planning and running of society.

A socialist federation means a federation in the true sense, achieved through negotiation and agreement and with no element of compulsion. When we put forward our slogan of a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, we add the rider on a free and voluntary basis’. We need to do so because of Ireland’s long history of domination by England and because the concept of a federation has been debased both by the USSR and by those capitalist states who misuse the term.

Strictly speaking the rider is not necessary. The clarification is in the term ‘socialist federation’ itself. Such a federation can only be on a free and voluntary basis, otherwise it is not a socialist federation. The method of Lenin on the national question has nothing in common with that of Stalin, whose role was as the brutal suppresser of national rights and culture, even of whole nationalities. Similarly, socialism is not the same as the bureaucratic, dictatorial caricature which existed in Russia and Eastern Europe. That offered no appeal, no model to which the working class in Ireland could look.

Neither capitalism, nor the now crumbled failure of Stalinism, offer any solution to the national problem. But the idea of building a genuine socialist society – that is a very different thing. Socialism means taking the major industry and all key services into public ownership and running them democratically with need replacing profit as the motive. It means no privileged elite, only the right of people themselves to manage their own affairs. It means creating an international brotherhood and sisterhood, a unity based on respect of difference and in which all national and minority rights would be guaranteed.

This article is an extract from Troubled Times, The national question in Ireland by Peter Hadden, published in 1995.