[I want to stress that this has little or no bearing on the Stalin-Trotsky disputes (between the mainstream pro-Moscow communism of the 1930s and later, on the one hand, and the dissident communists who looked to Leon Trotsky, on the other).]
“Marxism and the National Question.”
Although authored by Stalin, it has been looked to by pretty much the entire spectrum of the Communist left – including Trotskyists -- as an authoritative text.
What is a nation?The heart of Stalin’s pamphlet is generally perceived to be his definition of “nation”:
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.(Emphasis in the original).
It is undoubtedly true that Stalin's pamphlet reflected the views the Bolsheviks at the time, and in reality, of much of the international current that Lenin called "revolutionary social democracy."
But I believe a reading of Stalin's pamphlet shows that it was a rigid and formalistic presentation of that position, and, at any rate, one that is today solely of historical interest, very much circumscribed to the European experience before World War I, dealing with it inadequately even then, with dubious politics for those days and with no political value for today.
Are Blacks a nation?I'm not really very concerned with the right “definition” of the term “nation.”1
That Blacks don't fit what’s been accepted as this “classic” Marxist definition of “nation” only shows that the classic definition is inadequate.
It is a goofy idea that somehow, because the Black community did not adjust itself to Stalin’s or the Bolshevik’s definition, we have “proved” that Blacks aren't a separate and distinct people, and therefore all revolutionary internationalists, and above all those from the white American nation, aren't absolutely duty-bound to support the struggle of Blacks as a people for their liberation by whatever means Black people themselves choose.
Because the truth points to itself. Black people are what they are, a separate and distinct people with a strong sense of self-identity in fighting for their liberation.
To say, sorry, but colonialism and imperialism have scattered you so much that you really don’t have a common territory or a fully developed class structure internal to the Black community and therefore you don’t qualify as a nation and don’t have the right to self-determination, that is a capitulation to imperialism and white supremacy via academic pedantry.
Moreover it highlights what is missing from Stalin’s definition that is central to understanding “nation” and the politics of the national question, and that is the subjective side of the question.
Basically, a community or population is not a nation until and unless it conceives of itself as having a common political project or destiny.
For example, Cuba existed as an island and a colony for hundreds of years before the consciousness emerged among these islanders that they were a separate and distinct people, something which as a widespread phenomenon did not take place until the early 1800’s.
And it wasn't until the second half of that century, under the impact of the antislavery revolution in the United States (so-called Civil War) that Cuba’s first War for Independence (known as the 10 year’s war) broke out, and it broke out as a struggle both for political independence and to abolish slavery.
Is nationalism always bourgeois?But the problems with the analysis Stalin presents and the politics that flow from it are more important than the inadequacies of his definition.
Stalin says national movements are proper of the epoch of rising capitalisms. They are always bourgeois movements, in essence, moves by the bourgeoisie to consolidate a “home” market.
This described perfectly the historical evolution as rising and spreading capitalism overcomes localism and feudal divisions.
But he overlooks that what he is describing in his days is already a struggle between two “nationalisms,” that which he ascribes to the belatedly “rising” bourgeoisie, i.e., the nationalism of the oppressed nation, and the one he does not see, because he himself was infected with it to some degree, the nationalism of the bourgeoisie that has already risen, the nationalism of the oppressor nation.
He says even when other classes are drawn into a national movement, "In its essence it is always a bourgeois struggle, one that is to the advantage and profit mainly of the bourgeoisie."
He says, sure we're for self-determination, but that mostly as a way of trying to win workers away from nationalism, which is “always bourgeois.” And here he means the nationalism of the subjugated nation, for the nationalism of the subjugating nation for him does not exist.
What does exist is merely a “policy of national oppression,” which passes over into “a ‘system’ of inciting nations against each other, to a ‘system’ of massacres and pogroms.”
And he adds, “‘Divide and rule’ – such is the purpose of the policy of incitement.”
Thus his political prescription.
Noting that the 1905 Revolution and its temporary democratic conquests had awakened to political life the nations and nationalities oppressed by Tsarism, Stalin counterposes the class struggle of workers against bosses to the struggle for national liberation of these oppressed peoples.
Fighting ‘a wave of nationalism’“The wave of nationalism swept onwards with increasing force, threatening to engulf the mass of the workers. And the more the movement for emancipation declined, the more plentifully nationalism pushed forth its blossoms.
“At this difficult time Social-Democracy had a high mission – to resist nationalism and to protect the masses from the general ‘epidemic.’ For Social-Democracy, and Social-Democracy alone, could do this, by countering nationalism with the tried weapon of internationalism, with the unity and indivisibility of the class struggle.”
To translate it to American terms, racism is a trick the bosses use to divide the workers: the strategic axis of a revolutionary policy is “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”
But the truth is that much more than “divide and rule,” was involved, and the policy was and remains inciting oppressor nations against oppressed nations. The tsarists weren't inciting Jewish pogroms against Russians. And by this way of formulating the question, “inciting nations against each other” what he is doing is putting an equals sign between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.
Stalin's pamphlet is completely blind to the nationalism of the oppressor. Consider this passage: “But the unity of a nation diminishes not only as a result of migration. It diminishes also from internal causes, owing to the growing acuteness of the class struggle.
“In the early stages of capitalism one can still speak of a ‘common culture’ of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. But as large-scale industry develops and the class struggle becomes more and more acute, this ‘common culture’ begins to melt away. One cannot seriously speak of the ‘common culture’ of a nation when employers and workers of one and the same nation cease to understand each other. What ‘common destiny’ can there be when the bourgeoisie thirsts for war, and the proletariat declares ‘war on war’?”
August 1914Stalin's article is dated January 1913. In August, 1914, it was seen that all his claims that there was no "common culture" in the already developed, capitalist (in reality imperialist) nations between the working class and ruling class were false.
European social democracy's leaders, with a few, very few, honorable exceptions, rallied each to the defense of “their own” fatherland. There was no “war on war” but rather abject capitulation to the bourgeois nationalism of the imperialist powers, which Stalin never even mentions.
Why was Stalin unable to see it? Because at that time neither he nor the rest of the Bolsheviks understood imperialism, whose central characteristic is the division of the world between a handful of exploiting, oppressor nations and a big majority of exploited and oppressed nations, colonies, and peoples.
For Stalin, “national oppression” was mainly a policy deployed to divide the working class. Just as he did not see the nationalism of the oppressor he also didn't see the privileges of the oppressor nation, nor the super-exploitation of the oppressed.
How mistaken Stalin was is shown by his own summary of his political approach:
“The fate of a national movement, which is essentially a bourgeois movement, is naturally bound up with the fate of the bourgeoisie. The final disappearance of a national movement is possible only with the downfall of the bourgeoisie. Only under the reign of socialism can peace be fully established.
“But even within the framework of capitalism it is possible to reduce the national struggle to a minimum, to undermine it at the root, to render it as harmless as possible to the proletariat. This is borne out, for example, by Switzerland and America. It requires that the country should be democratized and the nations be given the opportunity of free development.”
What does this say? That Stalin and his friends didn't get it. They had absolutely no clue!
No greater proof of it can there be than that “America,” that blood-drenched white-supremacist European crime against humanity constituted as a colonial settler regime based on stealing half of Mexico, on genocide against the Indians, on the enslavement and lynching of Blacks, and on the imperialist domination of the rest of the hemisphere is held up as an example of … national harmony! Of rendering the national question “harmless.”
Fortunately when the cluetrain made its stop in August of 1914, Lenin did take delivery. All this utopian poppycock about reducing the national struggle to a minimum, undermining it at the root, rendering it harmless – which in practice become really just so many ways of telling oppressed people not to struggle as a people against “my” imperialism -- were rejected by Lenin.
Support to national movementsThe policy of trying to win the workers of oppressed nations away from the national movements was replaced by a policy of wholehearted, unconditional support to the national revolutionary movements of oppressed peoples against imperialism, which was now seen clearly, not as a divide-and-rule “policy,” but as a new stage of capitalism.
In that framework, the workers of the oppressed nations had to be organized to vie with the bourgeoisie for leadership of the national movements; and the workers of the oppressor nations had to be trained in their internationalist duty to aid the colonial movement against “their own” nation.
Contrast Stalin’s –- and the Bolsheviks’ -- 1913 approach with that of Lenin in 1920, at the Second Congress of the Comintern, presenting his “Theses on the National and Colonial Question” (which, be it said in passing, recognized the question of “Negroes in America” as a national question, like the Irish question.)
“What is the most important, the fundamental idea of our Theses? It is the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor nations. We emphasise this difference – in contrast to the Second International and bourgeois democracy....
“Imperialism is characterised by the fact that the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense.... This idea of the difference between nations, their division into the oppressed and the oppressors runs through all the Theses....”
“I would like to emphasise the question of the bourgeois-democratic movement in the backward countries.... We debated whether it is correct in principle and theoretically to declare that the Communist International and the Communist Parties have a duty to support the bourgeois-democratic movements in the backward countries, and the outcome of this discussion was that we came to the unanimous decision to talk not about the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movement but only about the national-revolutionary movement.
“There can be no doubt of the fact that any nationalist movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, because the great mass of the population of the backward countries consists of the peasantry, which is the representative of bourgeois capitalist relations.... But objections were raised that, if we say ‘bourgeois-democratic’, we lose the distinction between the reformist and revolutionary movement which has become quite clear in the backward countries and the colonies recently.... [W]e believed that the only correct thing would be to take this difference into consideration and to replace the words ‘bourgeois-democratic’ almost everywhere with the expression ‘national-revolutionary.”
Returning to Marx and EngelsI want to add one more thing, which is that the politics outlined in the Stalin pamphlet were no just thrown completely overboard by the Bolsheviks during and after World War I. Those prewar politics were also not the politics of Marx and Engels. Quite the contrary.
For example, Stalin denounces "the segregation of the workers according to nationality" in the working-class movement.
But in 1872, when the Irish workers within England were called to task before the General Council of the First International for forming separate Irish branches, and a motion was put that this violated the rules of the International, and refusing to submit to the British Federal Council, Engels rose to their defense.
He based his political approach on what Lenin also eventually come to see as central question, the difference between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor, and defended the former while denouncing the latter.
Engels on ‘true internationalism’“Citizen Engels said the real purpose of the motion, stripped of all hypocrisy, was to bring the Irish sections into subjection to the British Federal Council [of the International], a thing to which the Irish sections would never consent, and which the Council had neither the right nor the power to impose upon them...
“The Irish formed a distinct nationality of their own, and the fact that [they] used the English language could not deprive them of their rights... Citizen Hales had spoken of the relations of England and Ireland being of the most idyllic nature... but the case was quite different. There was the fact of seven centuries of English conquest and oppression of Ireland, and so long as that oppression existed, it would be an insult to Irish working men to ask them to submit to a British Federal Council.
“[The motion] was asking the conquered people to forget their nationality and submit to their conquerors. It was not Internationalism, but simply prating submission. If the promoters of the motion were so brimful of the truly international spirit, let them prove it by removing the seat of the British Federal Council to Dublin and submit to a Council of Irishmen.
“In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinct national organization, and they were under the necessity to state in... their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence....”
One more thought.
In defining “nation” or talking about the nationalism of the oppressed, yes, even 100 years ago and certainly today, any definition that doesn't place the material reality of imperialism and imperialist domination, oppression and exploitation at the center of it has got to be wrong.
1Some people make a distinction between a “nation” –a fully formed nation -- and “nationalities” as well as “national minorities.” Thus a “nationality” is a nationlike community of people but that lacks some of the characteristics of a fully formed nation; a “national minority” is a fragment of a nation’s population outside the “national” territory.
These are useful distinctions, but I mostly do not employ them in this article as they are not relevant to what I am addressing, which is our overall political approach and stance towards oppressed peoples (whether you would consider a given instance a fully formed “nation,” a “nationality” or “national minority.”)