The National Question in the Workers’ Movement: An Error Makes History
[Translated from MSZ 1-1983]
The communists’ struggle would be child’s play if they only had to fight against lies, because these lies would quickly be dispelled by the real conditions. However, the sacrifices for state and capital are mainly legitimized with bitter truths: for the sake of peace, freedom and country, a person must sacrifice money and life – in war and in peace. The ideology consists in the conception of the goals, not the goals themselves or the sacrifices they require. These lofty goals can’t be reached without sacrifice, and they get their propagandistic impact from being shared by the victims. Since communists have a tough nut to crack in the nationalism of their addressees, it is the constant subject of their criticism.
This simple answer obviously does not form part of the general repertoire of the workers’ movement, as its history up until today has been one of bitter debates about the “correct position” of the various socialists and communists on the “national question,” even though Marx and Engels would seem to have unambiguously clarified its relevance for the organized workers movement:
“Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto)
This indicates a barrier to the proletarian movement – their immediate enemy is a national sovereign and a national capital. Therefore the nation is a bond established by the enemy, based on force, and not a positive condition for their struggle, never mind their objective. This was turned by the workers’ movement after Marx and Engels into the strange problem: what is the relation between the “national question” and communism? The advances in solving this “question” range from attempts to use nationalistic movements for communism to debating it as a “question of alliances,” and finally to the identification of the nation with the revolution in the “socialist fatherland” whose welfare is the supreme good of socialism.
Wage labor and capital
The basic criticism of nationalism could have been found in Marx, however, even if he never managed to write the “Book on the State.” His essay “On the Jewish Question” explains that nationalism is not a mere ideology, but a very practical relation between the state and its citizens:
The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man – not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life – leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. The relation of the political state to civil society is just as spiritual as the relations of heaven to earth. The political state stands in the same opposition to civil society, and it prevails over the latter in the same way as religion prevails over the narrowness of the secular world – i.e., by likewise having always to acknowledge it, to restore it, and allow itself to be dominated by it. ... In the state, on the other hand, where man is regarded as a species-being, he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, is deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality.” (Marx, “On the Jewish Question”)
The necessity of the opposition of the state to its society refutes any thought of reconciling the two sides, every pious wish of turning the state, finally, “really” into a “state of the whole people,” because the state is the state of the whole people precisely in this opposition. With the image of heaven and earth, Marx makes clear that the state’s dominance over class society is its service to it; the state “acknowledges it, restores it, and allows itself to be dominated by it” – it accomplishes this by subjecting it, obligating it to its laws, protecting and maintaining capital and wage labor by virtue of its power. The state’s separation from the society, its absolute nature and its freedom, originates in a society of antagonisms which can only be maintained by force. The endlessly bemoaned separation of the state from the people (“top-down,” “autonomous bureaucracy”) occurs for the sake of the people, “and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state.’” (Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”)
A society certifies itself as a “people,” fulfilling its duty to serve as a condition and means for state power, when each citizen carries out his legally permitted private business, and so becomes a “plaything of alien powers.” This is how he acts in accord with his “species purpose” as a citizen: by contributing his share to the functioning of the whole society within the framework of laws and rights and according to his own – very class-specific – circumstances. This is the basis of nationalism and the specific content of national consciousness. The daily bread of the worker, his toil and tribute is the “heaven” for which he pays on earth, and with which he continuously reproduces his own chains, a life-long dependence on wage labor.
That’s why Marx couldn’t find anything positive in democracy, even long before it existed in practice, when it still only existed in the minds of its proponents as a progressive ideal against monarchical absolutism, because he recognized it as the form of government – suitable for capitalist society and competition – which complements the rule of the state by virtue of the self-ruling of the ruled:
“Democracy is the truth of monarchy, monarchy is not the truth of democracy. Monarchy is necessarily democracy in contradiction with itself, whereas the monarchial moment is no contradiction within democracy.” (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
“The representative constitution is a great advance, for it is the open, genuine, consistent expression of the condition of the modern state. It is the unconcealed contradiction.” (ibid)
Marx pointed out that the most abstract determination of the state requires an analysis of the economic content of the competition between the citizens: they are private actors only in their specific relationship to objects of property, and the antagonisms in this relationship create the need for a higher power. When discussing the economic substance of property relations in bourgeois society in Capital, Marx does not explicitly derive the state, but its activities appear in every chapter as a necessary precondition of the relations of capital, and precisely because of them, the state is always a class state:
- Freedom and equality are the duty to wage labor and the right to exploitation
- the limitation of the working day is to preserve labor power from being excessively worn out, and therefore
- the means of living consumed by the worker and his family are factors in the reproduction process of capital!
So Marx would never have thought of judging the bias in state activities without regard to their content, that is, dealing with the common good and class rule as an opposition, and even less would he consider the institutionalized violence for controlling the exploited as a means for them to achieve their interests. However, seeing rule as an opportunity is the ideological superstructure corresponding to bourgeois practice: the citizen, on top of being in a position of subservience, anticipates it ideally and becomes an active nationalist.
That’s why the main attack against the Gotha Program of the Social Democrats – “almost every word … lays itself open to criticism” (Engels) – was directed against its nationalism. Marx and Engels accused it of “canonizing the Lassallian articles of faith” because the program elevated the state to the guardian angel of the proletarian cause, demanding – of all things – that Bismark’s state, which had just banned and fought the worker’s party, help the workers.
“It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!” (Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”)
They held the “litany” of democratic demands “objectionable”:
“They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. ...Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic, and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion — even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism, which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.” (ibid.)
Compare this to today’s “struggles” for rights and democracy by officially recognized revolutionaries and rebellions approved by the state!
Proletarians of the world
But the insights of Marx and Engels did not make the history of the workers’ movement: starting with them and up through the days of Real Socialism, revisionism lunged with a sure feel for the usefulness of appropriate quotations from the classics in which the old men actually made theoretical errors, where they sacrificed their own conclusions for strategic considerations (which they definitely had, as can be read in their correspondence!). That is, carried away by a false optimism, they adapted to the perspective of a labor movement that was just beginning to emerge, or real struggles and conflicts in the imposition of imperialism. They confused the process of forming objective and subjective conditions for the proletarian revolution with opportunities and advancements of it. In this way, and especially as representatives of the International Workingmen’s Association (or the First International), they sent messages of solidarity to places where conflicts and wars were going on for the creation of modern national states, and thus were leading to the introduction of capitalistic relations. They perceived in them the emergence of the proletariat as a social power, and they hoped to encourage it to concentrate on its real interests and become communist – since it already exists and even fights. In doing so, Marx and Engels had nothing in common with the mania of today’s defenders of “international solidarity” who see a “revolutionary tendency” at work in anything that moves in the world, foists its own goals on obviously blinkered nationalist movements, calling them “objectively progressive” and refraining from any criticism of them in the name of “solidarity of all progressive (or, these days, peace-loving) forces.” Even the most enthusiastic messages of solidarity by Marx and Engels were driven by the desire to intervene in the course of events to promote communism. That’s why even the “Manifesto,” which is a compendium of such militant and upbeat mistakes, still bears the title “Communist” and not one of the codewords which are used by revisionist blockheads and their “mass” organizations to affirm the most idiotic interests of this society, because they can not be used for communism.
As a result of their enthusiastic yet incorrect conclusion that the existence of the revolutionary class also guarantees the revolution, Marx and Engels reduced their thoughts on wars and rebellions into evaluations: is a conflict a favorable condition for the success of the proletariat? So, even though he knew better, Marx hailed the American Civil War not only as a struggle against slavery, but as an improvement of the conditions for the workers' struggle:
“The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.” (Address of the International Workingmen’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, written by Marx between November 22 & 29, 1864)
Economic knowledge about the antagonism between wage labor and capital is clouded here by a historical vision which wants to make the general imposition of wage labor in the USA a beacon for the uprising of the working class. While at the same time in Capital Marx was analyzing the economic incompatibility of slave labor with the capital relation, identifying the “humanist” rejection of slavery as a capitalist ideology and refusing to differentiate between the misery of wage labor and slave labor, as secretary of the International he was addressing a letter to “Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America,” in which he celebrates him as
“the single-minded son of the working class [who will] lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.” (ibid.)
As luck would have it, these passages are still used today to “prove” that Marx took sides in “struggles of his times” that, by his own admission, had nothing to do with the struggle for communism. But at least Marx had no illusions when composing such letters of “greetings” – never mind the derogatory comments about Lincoln’s personality in his letters to Engels – since he was tactically accommodating members of the recently founded IWA whom he assigned to the bourgeois camp:
“The worst thing about agitation of this kind is that one gets very bothered as soon as one becomes involved in it. E.g. Address to Lincoln now on the agenda again, and again I had to compose the thing (which is far more difficult than writing a proper work) – so that the phraseology to which that kind of writing is limited, is at least distinguishable from vulgar-democratic phraseology.” (Marx to Engels Dec. 2, 1864)
Today the justification for siding with “national liberation struggles” must primarily be served by their taking positions on the Irish, Polish, Italian and German “questions,” at least as long as the liberation movement in question has not been disavowed by too obvious a pandering to imperialism.
The struggles of peoples against foreign domination, which gave them a choice between rebellion or death, and the installation of a rule completely their own – Polish, Hungarian, Irish – Marx and Engels did not consider merely an issue of supporting a worthy cause. Because these revolts were directed against the rule of capitalist states, they judged them from the standpoint of the world revolutionary proletariat and made them the object of international solidarity – even if the content of these rebellions was not at all directed against the capitalist state, but in favor of the establishment of their own national rule. Hence they identified the national independence of Ireland as detrimental to England, the enemy of Ireland, and therefore favorable.
Alongside remarks by Marx in his correspondence with Engels in which he expresses his theoretical nausea in drafting the various resolutions and addresses to European liberation struggles – “Insofar as International politics is mentioned in the ‘Address,’ I refer to countries and not to nationalities … I was, however, obliged to insert two sentences about ‘duty’ and ‘right,’ and ditto about ‘Truth, Morality and Justice’ in the preamble to the rules, but these are so placed that they can do no harm.” (Marx to Engels, November 4, 1864)
Unfortunately there are others by Engels about the Irish struggle or the disputes in the Balkans – which he didn’t keep private, but published with theoretical aims – which he provides with natural or historical higher “interpretations”:
“And even when the rain lasts for days, as it does in late autumn, it does not have the chronic air it has in England. The weather, like the inhabitants, has a more acute character, it moves in sharper, more sudden contrasts; the sky is like an Irish woman’s face: here also rain and sunshine succeed each other suddenly and unexpectedly and there is none of the grey English boredom....Only with the Irish the English could not cope. The reason for this is the enormous resilience of the Irish race.” (Engels, History of Ireland, 1870) “Among all the large and small nations of Austria, only three standard-bearers of progress took an active part in history, and still retain their vitality — the Germans, the Poles and the Magyars. Hence (!) they are now revolutionary. All the other large and small nationalities and peoples are destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm. For that reason (!) they are now counter-revolutionary.” (Engels, “The Magyar Struggle,” 1849)
But while Engels otherwise fiercely protested against monopolizing for national purposes – “There is, however, one favour I would ask of you, and that is not to keep chucking the word ‘comrade’ at me in the paper.... And then again, we here are not in fact ‘comrades’ in the narrower sense of the term. We can hardly be said to belong to the German party any more than to the French, American or Russian, nor can we regard ourselves as any more bound by the German programme than by the minimum programme. We set no little store by this, our special position as representatives of international socialism. But it also precludes us from belonging to one particular national party ...” (Engels to Eduard Bernstein, in Marx, Engels: Collected Works, vol. 46, 1880-1883. pp. 446-447.)
– it falls to the editors of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to note that Engels’ people characterology fails in its historical prediction about the decline of “non-historic peoples” or “ethnic trash” because he had been “deceived” about the the “vitality” of some Balkan peoples!
The classics had nothing to do with what constitutes nationalism today anyway. That fully developed capitalist states can leave their constitutional administration of class antagonisms to the civic maturity of their proletariat, whose democratic consent allows them to use the products of labor as a means of power against other states – the classics authors could not imagine in 1848: “The workers have no country.” (Communist Manifesto) That’s why, long before imperialism existed, they formed the false idea that the creation of the global market would diminish national antagonisms: “National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action of the leading civilized countries at least is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat. In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” (ibid.)
But it is impossible to deduce from this that the national struggle is, in any form, level or whatever, a contribution to the class struggle, much less identical to it. The last sentence highlights that national antagonisms disappear through the class struggle.
Peoples of the world, rise up …
For the quotation vultures of the workers’ movement, however, such statements are just what they are looking for. While Marx speaks ambiguously of post-revolutionary “nations,” the nationalists of the workers’ movement affirmed a concept of the nation (even if one not as hostile as in capitalism), and as testimony revisionists took citations from Engels’ categorizing of the world into “advanced or regressive” nations – inspired more by the Hegelian world spirit and people’s spirit than the critique of political economy – even though the old “afficianados of militaria” would have found nothing more disgusting than to divide the world into “objectively revolutionary” and “subjectively reactionary,” which future members and friends of the “socialist camp” used to make every nationalist folly a contribution to international solidarity worthy of their support.
The most famous historical example was provided by the German Social Democrats: “Against the Aggressive and Reactionary Czarism,” the SPD in 1914 awarded its own state war credits and signed the “truce” (suspension of all wage struggles against the class enemy), and so – like other working class parties of Europe – gave the nod to the proletarians of the world to kill each other on behalf of and for their national capital.
The errors of Marx and Engels are, however, not responsible for this development, which was neither a “turn” nor a “betrayal,” but the necessary consequence of a party which since its foundation aimed all its state-subversive activities at attaining its Gotha ideal of a state that benefits the workers. The next step was to defend that state in its “hour of danger” and shed the “blood of their own people” for it:
“... Our most heart-felt wishes go out to all those, irrespective of party, who have been called to arms... The victory of Russian despotism, stained with the blood of the best of its own people, would put much – indeed, everything – at stake for our nation and its future development toward liberty. We must ward off this danger; we must protect our civilization and the independence of our own country. Thus, we are making good on what we have always emphasized: in the hour of danger, we are not deserting the Fatherland. In doing so, we feel that we are in accord with the International, which has always recognized every nation’s right to national independence and self-defense …” (Social Democratic Party of Germany, “Statement on the Outbreak of the War,” August 4, 1914)
Lenin, for his part, did not see the founding of nation-states, but a battle between capitalist states to exclude each other from the exploitation of the globe, and a labor movement that contributed their old internationalist slogans, slightly transformed, into a critical solidarity with the imperialist aims of their states. With the exception of the Bolsheviks, all the affected workers parties in the Second International decided to “defend the fatherland” and actively propagate a “just war of self-defense.” Lenin, however, refused to do so by emphasizing “a few simple truths of Marxism,” although his explanation for why the “renegade Kautsky” had betrayed the proletarian revolution shows that he did not really know what nationalism is and why the leaders of the workers movement had become “opportunists” and “social chauvinists”:
“‘It is my right and duty as a socialist to defend my country if it is invaded by an enemy,’ he argues not like a socialist, not like an internationalist, not like a revolutionary proletarian, but like a petty-bourgeois nationalist. Because this argument ignores the revolutionary class struggle of the workers against capital, it ignores the appraisal of the war as a whole from the point of view of the world bourgeoisie and the world proletariat, that is, it ignores internationalism, and all that remains is miserable and narrow-minded nationalism.” (Lenin, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”)
Insofar as Lenin criticizes the social democrats’ esteem for parliamentary democracy, he refutes illusions about the promotion of the cause of the proletariat within any form of bourgeois state, including democracy; insofar as he concludes that defense of the fatherland in all its versions and justifications negates the class conflict and solidifies the rule of capital, his polemic is on target and remains true today of “left” citizens of Germany, France, Great Britain and Spain. But the fact that Lenin never criticizes nationalism itself and without qualification, but always denounces it with adjectives (“petty-bourgeois,” “despicable,” “inveterate,” etc.) shows that he regarded nationalism as an ideology invented by the bourgeoisie, ignoring its basis in the state and economy. His explanation that the working masses adhering to it were “seduced” or “betrayed” by their leaders is so bad that he was only able to accuse the “Kautskys and Scheidemanns” of having “deviated” from ideals that they used to share:
“Kautsky’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, as well as his economic and political critique of imperialism, are permeated through and through with a spirit, absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism, of obscuring and glossing over the fundamental contradictions of imperialism and with a striving to preserve at all costs the crumbling unity with opportunism in the European working-class movement.” (Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916)
Because Lenin had little to criticize about the principles of the Second International and its theorist Kautsky – he essentially agreed with them – he condemns the practice of German Social Democracy as contrary to these principles, accuses its spokesmen of malicious “cover-ups” and “mystifications” and can only explain their pro-war line, which they based on theory and implemented in practice, as their having been bribed by the bourgeoisie. To corroborate this, we serve up the mistakes of his theory of imperialism (see: Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: A topical, but wrong classic):
“What is the economic substance of defencism in the war of 1914-15? The bourgeoisie of all the big powers are waging the war to divide and exploit the world, and oppress other nations. A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie's huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petty-bourgeois fellow-travelers. Social-chauvinism and opportunism have the same class basis, namely, the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with 'their' national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting. Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism.” (Lenin, “Opportunism and Collapse of the Second International,” in: Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 112)
This explains Lenin’s long-lasting hope that the working people of Europe would send their corrupt leaders to hell and support the Russian revolution.
What Lenin (and later Stalin) treated as the “national question” had nothing to do with the nationalism of capitalist states:
“The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods; the promulgation of a law for the whole state by virtue of which any measure (rural, urban or communal, etc., etc.) introducing any privilege of any kind for one of the nations and militating against the equality of nations or the rights of a national minority, shall be declared illegal and ineffective … Working-class democracy contra-poses to the nationalist wrangling of the various bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., the demand for the unconditional unity and complete amalgamation of workers of all nationalities … Only this type of unity and amalgamation can uphold democracy and defend the interests of the workers against capital … and promote the development of mankind towards a new way of life that is alien to all privileges and all exploitation.” (Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913)
Hatred of Great Russian privileges in the Czarist empire seemed to him an opportunity and a limitation at the same time: an opportunity, because the hatred was against Czarism; a limitation, because it represented an obstacle to the action of a united proletariat.
For the time being, Lenin wanted to get rid of this nationalism by meeting its demands. For good reason: the Soviet power, which even in Russia had not yet been successfully consolidated, had other concerns than engaging in the removal of reactionary customs in Uzbekistan. Here again the deficiency of Lenin’s concept of nationalism appears when he discusses the position of non-Russian peoples towards the Soviet power as a“nationality question,” which he claims has its reason in such silly “wrangling” as the language question, instead of realizing that “cultural peculiarities” are only the material with which a conflict with the central state authority can be opened up or submission carried out under it. Lenin already countered it with the ideal of the unity of the oppressed people and the workers, a state that lets all peculiarities dissolve by themselves (“amalgamation”), something Stalin expanded into the crazy idea that in communism it was a burning issue whether everyone will speak one of the existing languages or “something completely new” emerges.
Because the Bolsheviks agitated a people who under the rule of Czarism had none of the conditions for identifying with “their” state – as is the case under forms of democratic rule – and because it was Lenin who after the February Revolution pushed through his view of advancing to the proletarian revolution without a “transitional stage” of a democratic republic, they fought against any proposal that they were defending a fatherland liberated from the Czar in the war against Germany and Lenin denied the accusation of a lack of patriotism (apparently, it must have been one for him!) by pointing out the only thing worth defending for a Bolshevik:
“Is a sense of national pride alien to us, Great-Russian class-conscious proletarians? Certainly not! We love our language and our country, and we are doing our very utmost to raise her toiling masses (i.e., nine-tenths of her population) to the level of a democratic and socialist consciousness … We are full of a sense of national pride, and for that very reason we particularly hate our slavish past (when the landed nobility led the peasants into war to stifle the freedom of Hungary, Poland, Persia and China), and our slavish present, when these selfsame landed proprietors, aided by the capitalists, are loading us into a war in order to throttle Poland and the Ukraine, crush the democratic movement in Persia and China, and strengthen the gang of Romanovs, Bobrinskys and Purishkeviches, who are a disgrace to our Great-Russian national dignity.” (Lenin, “On the National Pride of the Great Russians,” 1914)
While Lenin here legitimizes “national pride” with – of all things – Soviet power and socialism, and explains the victory of socialism as the reason for this pride, Stalin with his “Great Patriotic War” reversed things: the Soviet man was called to arms against Hitler’s army not to defend “socialist achievements,” but as Russians to defend the fatherland, even if they did not agree with socialism in their country.
The existence of the first socialist state – instead of the hoped-for revolution in the imperialist states, the Bolsheviks had to grapple with counter-revolutionaries, intervention forces and imperialist blackmail – posed for Lenin the problem of self-defense in a world that would prefer that the first workers’ and peasants’ state was killed as soon as possible:
“Under these circumstances the only real, not paper, guarantee of peace we have is the antagonism among the imperialist powers.” (Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” 1918)
But the wars of intervention in which all the capitalist states, winners as well as losers, strongly got involved, taught Lenin that there was no “guarantee.” So for Lenin the hope that the imperialist states could be moved to peace mingled with the knowledge that this was impossible – a knowledge which, however, missed the reasons: this explains the attempt to “split” the League of Nations with the tactical concept of a pacifist program. The drafting and negotiation in Genoa were entrusted to the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Chicherin, who complained bitterly in a letter to Lenin:
“I do not know how we should finish with the ‘comprehensive program.’ All my life I have fought petty-bourgeois illusions, and now the Politburo forces me in my old age to invent petty-bourgeois illusions, we do not even know on which sources one should rely. Can you give no detailed instructions?”
Chicherin got them, and with them made the first steps of the Soviet state on the diplomatic stage, setting the foundation for “socialist foreign policy.” At the Genoa Conference, he presented to the representatives of the capitalist states a plan which expressed the willingness of the first socialist state to arrange the capitalist world economy by mutual agreement with its enemies and to “ban” the threat of war created by the imperialist states. He developed a concept of the “peaceful coexistence of peoples” which would later become the seriously intended and practiced policy of the “world peace power,” while at the same time urging the Soviet power to have no illusions about the realization of such plans:
“I consider it necessary to insist that we communists of course have no illusions about the possibility of actually removing the causes of war and economic crisis in the existing conditions, but that we are willing to cooperate in the general work in the interests of Russia as well as Europe and the millions of people who are exposed to inhuman privations and suffering because of the current economic anarchy; we are ready to support all efforts, even if slight, to improve the world economy and eliminate the danger of war. We are ready to support all progressive proposals from other countries that go in this direction ...”
The Bolsheviks anticipated with this strategy that they were preparing a wonderful tool for imperialist intervention, something all attempts to insert protection mechanisms against it reveal. The attendance of colonies and the “inclusion of labor organizations to particiate in strength by a third” in the “World Congress” was not enough for them, “because the leaders of the colonial peoples could show themselves marionettes just like traitorous labor leaders ... It is therefore necessary to include the principle of non-intervention into the internal affairs of different peoples at international conferences or congresses.”
Despite knowing that what they needed was defense against the antagonism of the peoples, they developed the hope that they could take advantage of it, which would become the general line of the Third International:
“First, what is the cardinal idea underlying our theses? It is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations ...We have discussed whether it would be right or wrong, in principle and in theory, to state that the Communist International and the Communist parties must support the bourgeois-democratic movement in backward countries. As a result of our discussion, we have arrived at the unanimous decision to speak of the national-revolutionary movement rather than of the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movement.” (Lenin, “Report of the Commission on the National and the Colonial Questions,” 1920)
But for all that, the main task of Lenin’s Comintern was to promote and coordinate the class struggle in the imperialist states; with regard to “national-revolutionary movements,” what was required was “systematic propaganda for communism” and “the Soviet government must help them with all available means.”
Fatherland of all working people
While the specific content of the liberation movement was no longer relevant as a criterion for support – as revealed by the name change from “bourgeois-democratic” to “national- revolutionary” that Lenin introduced – the aim of the support remained making use of the “fighting spirit” of the movement to change the “national revolution” into a “proletarian revolution.” When the criterion was reduced to being merely an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, the motive for anti-colonial struggles was irrelevant to the question of how events could serve to improve the position of the socialist state in the world:
“The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism...” (Stalin, “The National Question”)
This bind of having to build “socialism in one country” – which Lenin sought to remedy with the help of world revolution – Stalin conceived as a positive condition and adapted movements around the entire world, including the proletariat’s, to the requirements of the Soviet state, starting with the subordination of the Communist Parties to the doctrines of Soviet foreign policy and up to sacrificing the Comintern for collaboration with the Allies in World War II, the “Great Patriotic War.”
Also internally they clarified to the workers that they now have, finally, a fatherland that deserves their sacrifices: “The defense of the fatherland is the highest value of life.” (Pravda, Sept. 6, 1934)
The consolidation of the Soviet state became the main task of the Soviet people. The development of its ability to compete politically required ever new efforts from them, the results of which were not reflected in improved living conditions, but increased pride in the progress of the state that became world power number two.
Communist nations and national communists would then be the practical result, reflecting a theoretical debate that went so far as to make, after recognizing the national borders of the proletariat, the following ideological gem of “Marxist-Leninist” doctrine:
“Proletarian internationalism is the basis of the struggle of the working class for the interests of the nation ... The historical development of the working class has the task of directing the destiny of the nation” (Writers Collective of the Karl Marx Party School of the Central Committee of the German Democratic Republic, Berlin 1970, pp. 380 and 399)
Proletarian internationalism, which was intended so that the working class should overcome the forced unity of the nation, becomes “the basis” of the struggle for the nation: interproletarian nationalism! The victory of the revolutionary proletariat is not the end of the nation, but its destiny: world proletarian national revolution! Such are the ideologies that the international communist and workers movement came to hold:
The “first socialist nation” declared itself “homeland of all working people” and instrumentalized the socialists under its leadership for the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. And one after another, it ordered them to stop fighting against their own state power as long as the national interests of the USSR favored “cooperative relations” with it, even assuming that the communists in these countries would be killed in order to achieve the alliance with its statesmen (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, etc.).
Between the socialist nations there were contracts and alliances in which mutual support for the “construction of socialism” had national interests as their criterion and measure. It was the success or failure of these that united or divided the “socialist camp” (China, Romania, Poland, etc.).
When the USSR submitted its relations with fraternal parties in the imperialist states to the criteria of its national policies, these relations became obstacles to the national success of these parties. National- and Euro-communists critically reviewed their relations with the “party of Lenin” and the “country of the October Revolution” in view of their (electoral) prospects at home, distanced themselves and sought their political success in persistent criticism of Soviet policy (Italy, Spain, France, etc..).
A party like the German Communist Party (Federal Republic), which was always loyal to the CPSU, struggled ideologically against the accusation of “serfdom to the USSR,” instead of declaring in all frankness that it advocated its success; because it respected the national interest, it wanted to be a German and communist party. In the 80s, for example, it agitated against NATO rearmament plans by arguing that the German nation would become targets of Soviet missiles.
So does revisionism lead to nationalism? Or are modern socialists revisionists because they were always nationalists?