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Nationalism



Lenin: 'In my writings on the national question I have already said that
an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of
no use at all.'

******

Tom O'Lincoln: 'As for your précis of the Lenin-Luxemburg debate, you
miss the whole point. Lenin was for the RIGHT of self-determination, but
AGAINST NATIONALISM. And especially so in imperialist countries. This is
real dialectics.'

I'm afraid not, Tom. With respect, this smacks more of sophistry than
real dialectics, I fear.

You quote Lenin like this, to support the claim that Lenin did not
support the nationalism of the oppressed:

'The whole task of the proletarians in the national question is
"unpractical" from the standpoint of the nationalist bourgeoisie of
every nation, because the proletarians, opposed as they are to
nationalism of every kind, demand "abstract" equality; they demand, as a
matter of principle, that there should be no privileges, however
slight.'

But, in the same article, a few paragraphs later, he says precisely
this:

'Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the
oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone
else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent
enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed
nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We
fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and
do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the
oppressed nation.

'[...]

'The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general
democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this
content that we unconditionally support.'

So Lenin's position on nationalism is *concrete*: in this article he
differentiates between bourgeois nationalism, the nationalism of the
oppressed nation and the nationalism of the oppressor nation. This is
not a blanket opposition to nationalism per se, but a concrete
examination of what is progressive and what is regressive in its
different manifestations in different circumstances.

In this context, then, it is worth referring to another article of
Lenin's from 1914, one that is, hardly surprisingly, completely ignored
by those who would want to paint Lenin as some kind of
'national-nihilist'. In this piece, Lenin says this:

'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. To us it is most painful to see and feel the
outrages, the oppression and the humiliation our fair country suffers at
the hands of the tsar's butchers, the nobles and the capitalists. We
take pride in the resistance to these outrages put up from our midst,
from the Great Russians; in that midst having produced Radishchev, the
Decembrists and the revolutionary commoners of the seventies; in the
Great-Russian working class having created, in 1905, a mighty
revolutionary party of the masses; and in the Great-Russian peasantry
having begun to turn towards democracy and set about overthrowing the
clergy and the landed proprietors.

'[...]

'"No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations," said Marx and
Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth-century
democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat.
And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want,
come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and
proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours
on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle
of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation. Just because we
want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in
Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to "defend the fatherland"
otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the
monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one's own fatherland,
i.e., the worst enemies of our country. We say that the Great Russians
cannot "defend the fatherland" otherwise than by desiring the defeat of
tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the
inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those
nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises,
degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress
other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and
quasi-patriotic phrases.' ['On the National Pride of the Great
Russians']

Lenin is, as I say, nothing if not concrete, as all these quotations in
fact reveal, if they are taken together and in context. What Lenin is in
fact saying in general is that, yes, of course, we are not nationalists,
we are social-democrats, we have a Marxist programme, but, despite this,
we recognise the progressive content contained within specific national
movements in specific conditions, even where these movements involve the
bourgeoisie, and, in so far as they express this positive, progressive
content, we support them, bourgeois elements and all. Lenin's approach
is not yes-no: it is sensitive to the real features of the real movement
and the real conditions in which that movement existed. (Not for nothing
was Lenin so fond of Goethe's 'Grey is all theory, but green alone the
tree of life'.)

Yet, in addition to this, there is the constant sense in Lenin that the
bourgeoisie is not going to be able to realise the concerns of even
those democratic movements with which it associates itself, that it is
the socially oppressed that will have to realise the tasks of political
emancipation. But Lenin does not simply declare this as miraculously
revealed dogma: with Lenin you cannot get away from the idea that the
masses have to learn this, and that this will have to be a supremely
practical lesson. (And to accumulate the practical lessons learned in
the concrete classroom of political struggle is exactly why Lenin
believes so strongly in the necessity of a party: but a party precisely
able to act as the centralising and totalising vehicle of practical
struggle, which means a party a long way from the top-down,
bureaucratic-military machine of myth.)

So in fact, what really comes through with respect to Lenin's writings
on the national question is not a kind of crude and dogmatic
anti-nationalism but a real sensitivity to national questions in
general. And it is important here not to forget that the bulk of Lenin's
writings with which we are familiar are targeted not at chauvinists
within the social-democratic movement but precisely at those he would
characterise as having a sectarian and economistic orientation to the
realm of the national. In addition, of course, you cannot forget with
Lenin that he is almost always polemicising, and in polemics (we see on
this list!) people over-emphasise and go too far. History could not
afford Lenin the kind of tranquillity and peace of mind that could have
made him at times less ambiguous; but, by the same token, had history
been different then Lenin would not have been Lenin in the first place.

So playing quotation tennis with Lenin (or with anyone else) has its
dangers. What one has to see is the overall content, the overall
direction, of what Lenin is saying; in short, one absolutely has to be
*concrete*. What you have done here Tom, I'm afraid, in raising the idea
that Lenin was 'against nationalism' is to take the concreteness out of
Lenin, and if you take the concreteness out of Lenin you precisely take
the dialectic out of Leninism, and you end up with nothing but
shibboleths.

Since this is all a practical question, how should revolutionaries
orientate themselves to nationalism, and especially nationalism in the
oppressor countries? I argue that in general revolutionaries have not
dealt well with this problem: either they have succumbed to national
chauvinism, or, as a reaction against this (understandably, since
national-chauvinism is the predominant trend in the workers' movement)
they have adopted an attitude that here I am calling
'national-nihilism'. Now, in this sense, 'anti-nationalism',
'national-nihilism', has a clear healthy element to it, but, in itself,
it manifests a degree of economism and as such is not an adequate
instrument when we have to confront the task of building a mass
revolutionary movement.

In his 'Left-Wing Communism', Lenin addresses himself to a letter
written by the young Willie Gallacher (in which Gallacher counsels
against giving 'any support to parliamentarism' whatsoever). Lenin
comments thus:

'In my opinion, this letter [...] expresses excellently the temper and
point of view of the young Communists, or of rank-and-file workers who
are only just beginning to accept communism. This temper is highly
gratifying and valuable; we must learn to appreciate and support it for,
in its absence, it would be hopeless to expect the victory of the
proletarian revolution in Great Britain, or in any other country for
that matter. People who can give expression to this temper of the
masses, and are able to evoke such a temper (which is very often
dormant, unconscious and latent) among the masses, should be appreciated
and given every assistance. At the same time, we must tell them openly
and frankly that a state of mind is by itself insufficient for
leadership of the masses in a great revolutionary struggle [...].

'The writer of the letter is full of a noble and working-class hatred
for the bourgeois "class politicians" (a hatred understood and shared,
however, not only by proletarians but by all working people, by all
Kleinen Leuten to use the German expression). In a representative of the
oppressed and exploited masses, this hatred is truly the "beginning of
all wisdom", the basis of any socialist and communist movement and of
its success. The writer, however, has apparently lost sight of the fact
that politics is a science and an art that does not fall from the skies
or come gratis, and that, if it wants to overcome the bourgeoisie, the
proletariat must train its own proletarian "class politicians", of a
kind in no way inferior to bourgeois politicians.

'[...] the writer of the letter expresses the absolutely correct idea
that the Communist Party in Great Britain must act on scientific
principles. Science demands [...] demands that account be taken of all
the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given
country, and also that policy should not be determined only by the
desires and views, by the degree of class-consciousness and the
militancy of one group or party alone.'

This seems to me something of a statement of method. To my way of
thinking, 'national-nihilism' is as much a version of economism (which
is what Lenin is really addressing himself against here) as is the
revolutionary syndicalism of the young Gallacher. And maybe it is true
that a general anti-nationalism is 'the beginning of all wisdom', but,
by the same token, it is, in itself, insufficient when it comes to
building a revolutionary movement of masses. And the danger of
national-nihilism, of 'national-economism', is not just that it is
effectively a dogmatic shibboleth, that it can build a false barrier
between revolutionaries and the broader class in the oppressor country,
but also that it has a tendency to spill over into how revolutionaries
view the national question in oppressed countries too. The militant
'anti-nationalism' of the English-dominated British state
r-r-r-revolutionary left for example has contaminated it to such an
extent that it is almost entirely incapable of addressing real and just
national demands arising in the non-English parts of the British state.
So although cloaked in the garb of 'internationalism', the British state
revolutionary left almost to a man and a woman end up in an effective
position of solidarity with mainstream Great British chauvinism, in much
the same way that syndicalism economism accommodates itself to
parliamentarism by ceding it the political ground without a fight.

Now there is a common trend within Marxism to see nationalism as a
'problem' to be 'solved': that if only nationalism didn't exist the
world would be for us a simpler and more comfortable place. This is
again a result of an economism, in my view, which sees the social
question (i.e. class oppression) as the fundamental concern of Marxism
and other questions - national ones, for example, but not exclusively -
as inconveniences which need to be got rid of. Either, as Marxists, we
just appear disinterested in national (and other) questions, or, and as
a consequence, where we do pay the national special attention, our
position comes across insensitive and not genuine. I think we need to
stress therefore that our treatment of the national question in general
should not come across as some special device to deal with an
unfortunate contingency, but that national questions arise in the normal
course of capitalism and that we deal with them on their own merit, as
we deal with all questions.

The problem with 'national-economism' is that, just as revolutionary
syndicalism, for all its laudable intentions, is incapable of addressing
the politico-ideological roots of the real dictatorship of the
bourgeoisie, then national-nihilism is as incapable of dealing with the
nature of the national in oppressor nations as much as it is in
oppressed ones.

What do revolutionaries say then with respect to the nationalism of the
oppressor nations?

I would argue that instead of blanket and dogmatic denunciations of
'nationalism', it is necessary to be concrete in what we oppose in
nationalism and what we do not. What do we demand, for example, of the
British-English working class? That it give up being 'national'? That it
give up being British-English? But what could this possibly mean in
practice? No: what we demand of the British-English working class is
that it give up its *chauvinism*: that it understand that one of the
principle barriers to its own freedom is its sharing in the carnival of
reaction that has been empire and the associated ideological
monstrosities that empire has thrown up. Why should we Welsh be
permitted a post-revolutionary flowering of national culture that is to
be denied to the British-English? Of course, British-English culture
will need to be stripped of its chauvinism, and some will say that that
is impossible. But there is no natural connection between Britishness
and Englishness and chauvinism: we do not believe in congenitally
revolutionary and reactionary nations just as we do not believe in
nations with and without history. Of course, the British-English working
class will realise this task not as on the road to Damascus but through
concrete struggle and practical experience, as all mass radicalisation
is made. But it will not thus be forced to give up its national
existence, but merely to 'cleanse' it. By the same token, of course, the
British-English working class cannot wish its own history into
nothingness: it lives (or dies) with what it has and what it has done.
In this sense it must learn to be proud of that in its history which
merits pride and to reject that which has prolonged not only its own
state of slavery but the enslavement of others. And in this sense it is
possible too to talk about the liberation of nationalities that are
today national oppressors. To demand of the British working class that
it give up being national would be to build a brick wall between
ourselves and the British revolution, for the necessity for the
British-English working class is not to give up its Britishness and
Englishness but to free its national existence from the chauvinism of
its past. The point is that it cannot do this within the framework of
capitalism, which imposes upon it an oppressor ideological framework and
a chauvinist, anti-historically progressive character; capitalism in
this way imposes upon the British-English national project the negation
of its own realisation, as much as, for example, capitalism imposes
Zionism on the Jews, and for us, as Marxists, this acts as a barrier to
historical progress: we thus seek not to destroy British-English
nationalism, but to liberate it. The point is that to do that requires
socialist revolution. And that is the real dialectic at play here.



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