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Red Theory: The National Question in the era of imperialism

By J. Sykes |
September 11, 2022
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Imperialism means monopoly capitalism, but it brings along with it war and national oppression. Because of the peculiar dynamics of imperialism in the era of proletarian revolution, the national question takes on a particular importance, and, concretely, must be understood and dealt with practically in ways that differ from the pre-imperialist period of competitive capitalism. 

What do we mean by the “national question” and why is this important? Essentially, Marxist-Leninists, when referring to the national question, are referring to the analysis of the problems posed to the revolutionary movement by the materialist process by which nations form and develop, and the role that plays in revolutionary change. 

The Second International failed the test posed by the national question. Founded under the guidance of Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, the Second International helped to lead the international workers movement at the turn of the 20th century, from 1889 to 1916. But after Engels’s death in 1895, the leaders of the Second International found that they were not up to the task, and unable to grapple with the problems posed to the workers’ movement by the rise of imperialism, and their analysis and leadership gave way to revisionism and opportunism. 

To Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, who came to dominate the Second International, socialism was something for Europeans, while imperialism was expected to develop the productive forces of the colonies. This opportunist and social-chauvinist position was correctly condemned by Lenin and was a primary reason for the break with the Second International and the formation of the Third, Communist International.

The opportunists of the Second International committed two errors regarding imperialism and the national question. First, they believed that imperialism would lead to peace and development among nations and lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition to socialism. Kautsky called this ultra-imperialism, where all the imperialist powers would merge under one global economic interest. This led them to their second error, which was to fail to grasp how imperialism changed the nature of the national question itself. 

There are two periods in the development of the national question. In the earlier, pre-imperialist period of capitalism, nations were formed through bourgeois-democratic revolutions out of the remnants of feudalism. This is the way the nations of western Europe came into being. In Marxism and the National Question, Stalin outlined the definition by which Marxist-Leninists would from then on understand what a nation is: a stable community of people formed on the basis of a common territory, language, economic life, and psychological makeup, manifested in a common culture. The revolutionary class at the forefront of the formation of these nations in this first period was the bourgeoisie. 

In the second period of the development of the national question, the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, the national question becomes a national-colonial question. Imperialism develops unevenly, and the imperialist powers, having grabbed up as much of the world as they can, freeze the oppressed nations into a semi-feudal state. The aspects of nationhood are not free to develop on their own, as they are oppressed by the imperialists. Their common territory is plundered and occupied, marred by artificially imposed boundaries. Their language is suppressed, their economic life stunted, and their culture stolen and trampled upon.

Because imperialism means that the world is divided up among the imperialist powers, then the question of bourgeois-democratic revolutions is taken off the table for the colonized people. The national liberation struggle thus often begins as a national-democratic revolution, uniting the broad masses with the national bourgeoisie against the imperialists and their domestic agents, the comprador class. But unless it proceeds to the stage of proletarian-socialist revolution, the national bourgeoisie will almost certainly be bought off to replace the pro-imperialist compradores. In this way nominal independence, short of socialist revolution, has been met with semi-colonialism, or neo-colonialism, and the monopoly capitalists continue to assert their control through economic pressure, and by installing and propping up pro-imperialist governments. 

Thus, in this second period of the development of the national question, imperialism limits the possibility of a bourgeois-led, democratic revolution, and the national question becomes solvable within the context of, and as a part of, the proletarian revolution. The revolutionary class at the forefront of the formation of the national liberation struggles in this second period must therefore be the proletariat of the oppressed nation, in alliance with the broad anti-imperialist classes. 

Stalin, in his work Foundations of Leninism, addressed the issue of opposing national oppression and the fight for socialism: 

“Leninism has proved, and the imperialist war and the revolution in Russia has confirmed, that the national question can be solved only in connection with and on the basis of the proletarian revolution, and that the road to victory of the revolution in the West lies through the revolutionary alliance with the liberation movement of the colonies and dependent countries against imperialism. The national question is a part of the general question of the proletarian revolution, a part of the question of the dictator of the proletariat.”

We see then that there are two tendencies regarding the national question at work under imperialism. On the one hand, imperialism seeks to unite vast territories under its control, for the purposes of the super-exploitation of their lands, peoples and resources, and for the export of capital in the form of factories, infrastructure, military aid and predatory loans. However, imperialism can only accomplish this by way of violence and oppression. This gives rise to the second tendency, which is expressed in the struggle of the oppressed nations to liberate themselves from imperialism. Under imperialism, these two tendencies are utterly irreconcilable, and in fact, this antagonistic contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations makes up the principal contradiction on a world scale. 

Because the monopoly capitalist class is not only the exploiter of the working class, but also responsible for the oppression of these nations, the role of communists is to unite the working-class struggle for socialism with the anti-imperialist national liberation movements. The working class and the national liberation struggles are natural allies, bound together by a common enemy. Every blow by the workers against the monopoly capitalist class is a blow against the architects of national oppression, and every victory for the anti-imperialist liberation struggles likewise weakens the monopoly capitalist class. 

Thus, communists in the United States must support the anti-imperialist liberation movements of oppressed nations, be they in Palestine, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Chicano nation in the Southwest, or the African American nation in the Black Belt South. This means raising the demand for self-determination, meaning the right for the oppressed nation to determine its future as a nation, including the right to separate and form an independent state in its national territory. 

Some have argued that advocating for self-determination would lead to the formation of small and weak states, therefore helping imperialism automatically. However, Lenin argued that the purpose of self-determination was not to divide peoples, but to be able to unite freely, without compulsion. Lenin compared this to the right to divorce, as the basis of a freely chosen union. 

It must be stated that the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, as always, must be taken into account, and the demand for self-determination, like any democratic demand, should be judged according to whether or not it ultimately helps or hinders imperialism.

The fight against national oppression, including the recognition of the right of self-determination, is the foundation on which the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the oppressed nationalities is built. In the current era, that strategic alliance is absolutely indispensable. Nothing can be accomplished without it.