Nationalism and Internationalism

The document reproduced below is the presentation made at the CWO meetings in Cardiff (16 October 2021) and in Liverpool (26 March 2022). The aim of the meetings was to encourage participants to think about how Marxist debates of the past can inform our perspectives today and what internationalism really means. In Cardiff, the discussion naturally turned to the latest episode of the Israel–Palestine crisis, while in Liverpool the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the focus of the day.

The first states emerged some 5,000 years ago as a consequence of the need to defend private property in the early class societies. But we have to understand that nationalism only took shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rather than an expression of some eternal community, nationalism was a modern ideology, part and parcel of the bourgeois political revolution.


Historians may dispute what was the first ever nation-state, but it is no coincidence that among the candidates are those countries where mercantilism initially thrived, the likes of the Kingdom of England and the Dutch Republic. It was however the French Revolution of 1789 which came to symbolise the new national consciousness. Famously point three of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen stated:

The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

No longer was power to be held exclusively in the hands of the nobility and clergy, it was now citizens of the nation who would govern. Or so the republican ideal proclaimed (who actually got to be a “citizen” was an entirely different matter). In the decades following the French Revolution, nationalism provided the political motivation for the emergence, restoration or unification of various nation-states. It was the dominant ideology of the revolutions of 1848, also known as the "spring of nations".

It wasn't however the only political ideology that arrived on the historical scene in this period of capitalist ascendancy. The formation of a class of wage labourers in the most economically advanced states of Europe – Germany, England, and France – gave birth to the workers’ movement. Also in 1848, a group of radicals of various nationalities, headed by Marx and Engels, published their Communist Manifesto. Not only did it attempt to break with the utopian socialist ideas of the past, by providing a materialist basis for the class struggle, it also stated that:

In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, [communists] point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

This observation, that the class struggle is international and communists need to be internationalists, led to the formation of the First International some sixteen years later, in 1864, which reinforced the point that:

... the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists ...

However, Marx and Engels were the harbingers of a workers' movement that was still only in its early stages. In many places the working classes were still a minority. The bourgeoisie had not yet settled its score with the feudal system everywhere. Which raised the question, how do communists relate to national movements of a democratic and bourgeois character?

Contrary to popular opinion, Marx and Engels never lent their support to all struggles for national independence. In fact, they outright opposed some, like the national aspirations of the various Balkan states which they saw as playing right into the hands of the Russian Empire. For them it was a tactical question, of which national movements could provide favourable conditions for the development of a workers' movement in the near future. And here Marx and Engels singled out Poland, because "situated in the centre of the continent ... the maintenance of its partition [was] the very tie which binds the Holy Alliance [of Russia, Austria, and Prussia] together" and Ireland, because "English reaction in England ... had its roots in the subjugation of Ireland". In the First International, Marx and Engels defended their views on Poland against the idealist followers of Proudhon, and on Ireland among the conservative English trade unionists.

But the First International collapsed soon after and a new generation of revolutionaries, who now accepted the materialist conception of history, arrived on the scene. In the Russian Empire, where after the abolition of serfdom a space was opened up for capitalist development, the foundations of a workers’ movement were being set up. In the early 1880s the first Marxist groups were created in Russia proper, such as the Emancipation of Labour Group headed by Plekhanov, but also in places like partitioned Poland, with the International Social Revolutionary Party “Proletariat” headed by Waryński. The Polish Marxists in particular sought to break with the romantic nationalism of their predecessors, and declared themselves as part of “one great nation which is even more unfortunate than Poland, the nation of the proletariat.” They no longer fought for an independent Poland, be it feudal or democratic, but for a socialist revolution which would engulf the whole of the Russian Empire. Engels dismissed this current, saying it would “play itself out without much effect”, but ten years later some of Waryński’s arguments would influence Rosa Luxemburg and the formation of her party, the SDKPiL.

Which brings us to the famous debate in the Second International between Luxemburg and Lenin. Straight away we have to point out for both revolutionaries it was a question of how to best develop an internationalist practice in the particular context they found themselves in. For Lenin, the disciple of Plekhanov, recognition of the right of nations to self-determination was a weapon against Great Russian chauvinism. For Luxemburg, the disciple of Waryński, opposition to the right of nations to self-determination was a weapon against Polish social-patriotism. It was not so much a debate over whether to support self-determination of nations or not – in fact, Luxemburg supported certain national liberation struggles where there was no developed working class (as in the case of Armenian independence from Turkey) and Lenin stressed that recognition of “the right of nations to secede in no way precludes agitation against secession by Marxists of a particular oppressed nation”. Rather it was a question of whether this right should be elevated to a principle. For Luxemburg, doing so meant opening up a pandora’s box, causing more problems than it solved.

As this debate went on, capitalism was entering a new period. Between the 1890s and 1914, capitalist relations expanded across the globe, the accumulation of capital was taking place at a scale never seen before, and production was becoming more and more concentrated in order to squeeze out more profits out of the working class. In this way, free competition was gradually replaced by capitalist monopoly, large-scale industry began to force out small industry, cartels, syndicates, trusts and finance capital began to rule the economy. The significance of state power grew enormously, and a world economy was being created. Competition between individual capitals became competition between national capitals, inaugurating a global drive to war. The Second International was split between a reformist right, which tended to accommodate itself to state monopoly and revise Marxism towards that end, and a revolutionary left, which defended the cause of internationalism and attempted to critically analyse the growing imperialist trends within the capitalist mode of production. Both Lenin and Luxemburg, whatever their disagreements at that time, belonged to that revolutionary left. And both used their diverging views on the national question to combat the reformist right.

The outbreak of the First World War and the initial success of the Russian Revolution of course inevitably changed the terms of debate over the national question. As the Second International collapsed under its own weight, efforts were made to regroup genuine revolutionaries in a Third International. The Polish, German-Dutch and Russian Left were now arguing, with Luxemburg, that:

In the era of the unleashing of this imperialism, national wars are no longer possible. National interests serve only as the pretext for putting the laboring masses of the people under the domination of their mortal enemy, imperialism … The policy of the imperialist states and the imperialist war cannot give to a single oppressed nation its liberty and its independence. The small nations, the ruling classes of which are the accomplices of their partners in the big states, constitute only the pawns on the imperialist chessboard of the great powers, and are used by them, just like their own working masses, in wartime, as instruments, to be sacrificed to capitalist interests after the war.

Lenin, ever the dialectician, refused such absolutist statements, and upheld that while the First World War was indeed imperialist, and as such revolutionary defeatism was the only correct response to it, it did not necessarily mean that all national wars from now on were imperialist. He argued that to the degree the “national liberation movements in the colonies and among the oppressed nationalities'' can ally themselves with Soviet Russia, they can play an anti-imperialist role on the international stage. By 1921 Lenin’s views, despite opposition from the Left, became policy for the communist parties. The Third International was to:

support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries [but] only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations.

The Italian Left accepted Lenin’s view, even if with some reservations. It was however the crushing of the Chinese Revolution in 1926-7, at the hands of the forces of national liberation, that made them reconsider:

Lenin could be for the right of self-determination of peoples (although, on this point, Rosa saw more clearly than he), because he believed that this position, specific to bourgeois revolutions, could still, in certain countries, be reconciled, with the struggle for the proletarian revolution. After the Chinese experience, the problem is fundamentally resolved and we follow in Lenin’s footsteps by correcting his views in light of our experience.

And when the Internationalist Communist Party was founded in 1943, in the midst of another imperialist slaughter, by militants of the Italian Left, our predecessors came to the following conclusion:

The Party believes that the epoch of national movements is incontrovertibly over. This also goes for the colonial countries with an essentially precapitalist economic structure where indigenous capitalism entangles itself with that of the colonising country through tight links of the same class character in order to jointly realise their domination over the “colonised” proletariat. In the period between the Second and the Third World Wars, i.e. in the harshest period of imperialist domination over the world, struggling in solidarity with national liberation movements, whichever they might be, means putting the Party on the side of the class enemy, acting on the side of the bourgeoisie, which is where every national movement necessarily leads us. Therefore, the Party rejects revolutionary alliances with the bourgeoisies of the West or the East (including Asia) and participation in wars of national formation; it likewise rejects the false dialectical conception that the Party should struggle for the victory of bourgeois revolutions over feudal regimes in order to support the success of the capitalist revolution. It believes that in all cases this would mean struggling for the triumph of one imperialism over another.


So much for a brief, and by no means comprehensive, overview of the evolution of Marxist views on the national question. In the blurb for this meeting, we asked: “Can the Marxist debates of the past inform our perspectives today?” Let us recap.

We can agree with Lenin that even if Marx’s standpoint on the special importance of Poland was:

quite correct for the forties, fifties and sixties or for the third quarter of the nineteenth century, it has ceased to be correct by the twentieth century.

Poland, rather than becoming the spark that blew the Holy Alliance apart, only gained independence in 1918 after the collapse of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, thanks to the wave of revolutions that engulfed the continent. But, and here is what Lenin missed, the same applies to Ireland. The long awaited Easter Rising in 1916, rather than strengthen the working class movements in Ireland and England as Marx, Engels and Lenin hoped, instead legitimised the Republican and nationalist movement over the bodies of working class militants. And today, nationalism continues to dominate the political scene in both Poland and Ireland.

Furthermore, we can extend the same sentiment to Lenin. If in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries his views were an understandable response to the existence of the Russian Empire, infamous for its oppression of other nationalities and ethnic groups, they lose their pertinence in a world entirely dominated by imperialism. The Third International’s support for various national movements often proved disastrous, and once Soviet Russia lost its soviet character, all this support meant was a reshuffling of imperialist alliances in preparation for the Second World War.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Luxemburg was on the right track. After the Second World War, the move to decolonisation by the powers that be, and the emergence of the so-called “Third World” in the context of a Cold War between the US and the USSR, did not make it any easier for independent workers’ movements to emerge. The newly independent states were not only completely dependent on world imperialism, but also just as vehement in crushing any working class opposition. Formal independence did not even end national oppression, at best it shifted who is oppressed.

In the world of today, to uphold that nationalism, even that of the “oppressed”, still offers any kind of solution, is to completely ignore the developments of the past 200 years. We are no longer in an era where it makes sense to speak of the need to “complete the bourgeois democratic revolution”. One could argue when exactly the capitalist world economy emerged, but what is undeniable is that today the bourgeoisie is in power everywhere and capitalist social and economic relations rule the world.

Whether it is a question of reforming relations between existing states (as with the Brexit and Scottish independence referenda or the prospect of Welsh independence), freeing would-be states from their formal subordination to other states (as with Palestine, Chechnya, Tibet or Catalonia) or the creation of new state entities (such as Rojava or the Donbass People's Republics), we insist the only solution lies in workers uniting across borders and recognising their common interests.

We are internationalists precisely because we believe workers have the same interests everywhere in putting an end to production for profit and bringing about a global cooperative commonwealth. Because we believe in the need for an international revolutionary organisation to politically link up all the various struggles of our class around the world. And because we believe national strife represents a barrier to the only thing that can overcome the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation – class solidarity. Every day the problems that humanity is facing – economic crises, pandemics, climate collapse, war – cry out for an international solution. It is still nation vs. class, and we know which side we stand on. Workers have no country, but we have a world to win.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
Tuesday, March 29, 2022