The "National Question"

[The following was written on facebook in response to the philosopher Alonzo Fyfe, who had written a post about how the main reason he opposed socialism was because, in his view, socialism is almost always nationalistic.]

From the 19th century through the 1920s and beyond, there was intense and fascinating debate within the socialist world on what was called "the national question." Socialism and communism had initially grown out of nationalist movements, though they were forms of nationalism quite different that what we see today, or what we saw in the 20th century. The very word "nationalist" meant something very different from what we now take it to mean. For the most part, these initial "nationalist" movements were movements in favor of liberalism, open borders, an end to tribal rivalries, the merging together of governments, free markets, modernity, science, enlightenment values, human rights, and democracy. Why? Because they started in places like "Germany" and "Italy" which had not yet unified. There was no "Germany," at least as a sovereign state - there were only "The Germanies," and in fact people referred to these countries this way.  In German, people still call Switzerland "Die Schweiz" - a plural word, which might be rendered "the Switzerlands". Even though Switzerland has, in the intervening centuries, formed a national government, there is still a great deal of subsidiarity and local autonomy and even direct democracy among the cantons of Switzerland, which is officially only a confederacy of cantons. And even in English, we speak of "The Netherlands."

In the late 18th century, there had been more than 300 quasi-sovereign entities that made up the Germanies.  Almost every textbook says "over 300" - it's very difficult to get an exact number, because no one really knows. Not because we don't have the facts - we do - but because it's a matter of philosophical and historical and political debate, even to this very day, what was or could be or should be recognized as a sovereign state.  No wonder that Hegel made the problem of recognition (Anerkennung) the center of his moral philosophy.  Napoleon forcefully reorganized this into governable districts, and after the Napoleonic wars, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, these were recognized as the 39 official member states of the German Confederation.

But the struggle went on.  Nationalists - who were almost all liberals - wanted to further consolidate Germany into a single state... and maybe Austria and Switzerland as well. Their enemies, the conservatives, wanted to retain the traditional borders around the old tiny sovereign governments with their traditional authorities - keeping everyone divided along cultural and especially religious lines (the memory of the brutal 30 Years War, essentially between Catholics and Protestants, lingered). The conservatives felt humiliated by Napoleon's invasion, feared another such French invasion, and saw the whole liberal nationalist movement as a result of over-educated people being influenced by cosmopolitan France (and England) and turning away from their deep essential loyalties. (And by the way... agents of the ultraconservative Russian Empire were secretly fanning the flames, trying to keep people divided....)

Some among the nationalists actively wanted France to invade again. Some within the nationalist camp were starting to go further - not only should all of the German Länder unite into a single country, but Germany should unite with France, and all of the countries of Europe should unite together - indeed, all traditional loyalties should be put aside and the entire world should unite together. Obviously, this nationalist movement was moving beyond nationalism, into a kind of internationalism.

The socialist movement began among these nationalists who were gradually evolving toward internationalism. Karl Marx was born in Trier, which was a noncontiguous part of Prussia among the southwestern Germanies, not far from the border of France and very much under the influence of France culturally and politically (the only thing separating them was Luxembourg, the one small state that never did unify with the rest). He was a journalist and later editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a newspaper with the nationalist goals of German unification and war with ultra-conservative Russia. But then he began working for the Deutzsche-Französiche Jahrbucher (German-French Yearbooks), a newspaper whose avowed purpose was greater cooperation between France and Germany. He moved to Paris, and came into contact with the internationalist socialists there.

By the time he and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto (written 1847, after moving again, this time to Belgium; published 1848), he was declaring that "The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties....  In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature." Thus, "working men have no nation. We cannot take from them what they have not got." "Modern subjection to capital... has stripped [the worker] of every trace of national character."

And, most importantly, "The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole." It is precisely internationalism that makes communism distinct from other forms of socialism. The famous phrase we know as "Workers of the world, unite!" is a translation of "Proletarien alle Länder, vereinegte euch!" - more literally, "Proletarians of all Länder, unite yourselves," where "Länder" was the name of the quasi-independent German republics that had not yet unified, but which could more broadly be understood to mean "nations" in general.

On the other hand, the manifesto also has this rather ambiguous remark: "Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie."

Marx himself was a bit inconsistent in his internationalism; at times - for instance, during the Crimean war - he slipped back into his old nationalism. But some of his followers were more consistent internationalists, like his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue (this may have been in part due to Lafargue's complex and fascinating heritage: in appearance an African-American, he was born in Cuba to a family that was partly Jamaican, Haitian, Indian, French, Spanish, and Jewish, and he lived mostly in France, but often in Spain, and occasionally in Germany and England. He himself said "I was an internationalist of blood before I was one of ideology").  For his part, Marx sometimes mocked Lafargue's extreme commitment to internationalism.

It's no accident that the organization of which Marx was an important member was called "The International" (in full, the International Workingmen's Association, or as it was later known, the "First International"). But this international fell apart, in part due to nationalistic tensions. The Second International, formed after Marx's death, fell apart as well, in two steps: first, Marx and Engels' erstwhile friend Edouard Bernstein, easily the most popular leader within the movement, announced that he and his followers were breaking away from Marx's ideas via a set of reforms that became known as "revisionism". Revisionist socialism became very popular and influential among the "Social Democratic" parties of Europe, especially among the Scandinavian nations, which gradually evolved in the general direction of socialism until the 1970s, when they slowly been devolving in a more capitalistic direction.  This form of socialism is, as you point out, fairly nationalistic.  But within the Second International, Bernsteinian revisionists were rejected, precisely upon the principle of internationalism, according to the principles of the "orthodox Marxist", Karl Kautsky.

Under Kautsky’s leadership (Kautsky was not officially the leader of the 2nd International, but he was indisputably very influential within it), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Marxists of the Second International produced an enormous variety of literature.  They argued with each other vociferously on many topics, but the most important theme, in nearly every country, was “the national question.”  Nearly all of them were committed to some form of internationalism, but what exactly did that mean?  There were dozens of different positions, each argued for in enormous detail, in both lofty theoretical terms and immediate practical concerns.  I highly recommend looking through some of this literature, from all over the world, from Latin America to the Middle East.  Among the more well-known factions was that of “Austro-Marxism,” a kind of compromise position between nationalism and internationalism, with all kinds of arcane complexity.

 But the most important theorist of the national question was Rosa Luxemburg.

Many of the decisive shifts in the understanding of the “national question” had come during wartime: the First and Second Schleswig Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War.  The second step in the Second International's dissolution came with the outbreak of World War I.  In 1912, most of the leaders of the Second International, from every country in Europe, had committed themselves to the Basel Manifesto, in which they promised to oppose their own nations as those nations readied themselves for war, denouncing militarism, protesting against arms manufacture and mobilization, and should war break out, they pledged to oppose the war with every ounce of strength, to refuse to fight, and to affirm international solidarity.  Instead, when the war actually did begin rather suddenly in 1914, these very same socialist leaders for the most part lined up behind their own national governments and against each other.  Kautsky himself, it was widely believed, infamously voted for war credits.  Later, this turned out not to be true.  He had merely abstained from the vote, but was prevented from speaking out against his fellow socialists by the idiotic principles of democratic centralism.

It was devastating.  Socialists and communists throughout Europe and around the world saw this as a betrayal of everything the “international” had claimed to stand for.  One of the most indignant voices was Lenin, who declared that the Second International was dead, and vowed to create a Third International, on the basis of true internationalism.  He hated his fellow socialists for their nationalism, or as he put it in his rather quaint phrase, “social-chauvinism,” and he felt that social-chauvinism was the essence of reformism.  He now averred that Kautsky and the other leading intellectuals of the Second International had proven themselves as morally bankrupt as Bernstein.  He wrote pieces like “What is Internationalism?” (a section from “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”) and gradually came to a position of extreme internationalism, known as “revolutionary defeatism”.  According to this doctrine, a democratic socialist (Lenin considered himself a democratic socialist at the time) should be committed to internationalism even during times of war, and if this meant the defeat of one’s own country, so be it - indeed, a socialist should want his country - or, more accurately, the bourgeois state of his country - to be defeated by the invading army, and should do everything in his or her power to encourage this to happen.  He wrote on this subject as Germany was invading Russia, and the German imperialists took note of him, and saw how they could use his doctrine to their advantage.  So after the February Revolution, the German imperialists sent Lenin (who had been living in Switzerland at the time) in a sealed train to Russia, where, within the year, he and his Bolsheviks orchestrated a military coup to take over the government.  Along the way, Lenin wrote the famous “April Theses” which demanded, among other things, the dissolution of the Russian army and police, and “all power to the workers’ councils.”

Lenin had been hoping that the communist revolution in Russia would be followed by a communist revolution in Germany - that the “defeatists” on both sides would be triumphant.  But though the Kaiser was indeed deposed, and socialist revolutions occurred in Bavaria and elsewhere, the socialists in Germany failed to come to power and the result was the strange and unstable hybrid known as the Weimar Republic.  According to Lenin’s theory of imperialism, the Bolshevik Revolution should have kicked off a series of revolutions all around the world, but this failed to come to pass.  And so Lenin’s internationalism was short-lived.  They signed the ignominious treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they were engulfed in the Russian Civil War, and a new set of problems arose.  Lenin now became a theorist of “national self-determination”.  By this, he meant the right of oppressed people, like Kazakhs and Ukrainians and Jews, to rise up for independence from the former Russian Empire, but it was pretty easy to misinterpret him.  (Later the same year, Woodrow Wilson mimicked Lenin with his own speech about “national self-determination," in his famous 14 points.)  Then Lenin was shot, and though he survived, a series of aneurysms left him paralyzed and increasingly unable to rule (and also increasingly draconian and vindictive, especially towards the Socialist Revolutionaries or “Essers,” the faction that had shot him). 

After the ensuing power struggle, Stalin consolidated dictatorship, and the principle of his rule was “socialism in one nation” which he claimed was derived from Lenin’s writings.  (Before the revolution, Stalin had specialized as a theorist on the “national question” - and his time in office, let’s say, did not perfectly match his theories.  But I digress.)  In a certain sense, the USSR had little choice at this point but to pursue “socialism in one nation,” since the predicted revolutions in advanced capitalist countries had failed to transpire.  One by one, and then many at a time, Stalin wiped out nearly all of the original members of the Bolshevik Party if they didn’t support his “socialism in one nation” - or, often, even if they did.  His rival Trotsky, running around the world, continued to preach a confusing kind of internationalism, until one of Stalin’s agents tracked him down and murdered him in Mexico City. 

Later, the People’s Republic of China would try to ally itself with a kind of Third Worldism, and against the USSR, producing the "Three Worlds Theory"... a complicated story.  But they too advocated socialism in one country, based quite directly on the Stalinist state.  

True internationalists among the socialists are difficult to find, but one can find them if one looks.  Antonie Pannekoek, the Dutch socialist leader and brilliant astronomer and scientist, was a founder of a movement that never betrayed its commitment to internationalism - and thus he was a fierce opponent of both the reformist democratic socialists of the Netherlands, and a sharp critic of Lenin - though Lenin had once been Pannekoek's follower.  (Pannekoek was also an influence on Noam Chomsky.)  Another, quite different movement, also consistently internationalist, was started by Amadeo Bordiga.  They both founded movements that still exist in some form to this day.


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