3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“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.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

4 thoughts on “3 Lenin Against Nationalism

  1. I should say that a little while back I read a 1990 book called Empire and Emancipation by the Dutch sociologist and historian Jan Nederveen Pieterse called ‘Empire and Emancipation.’ In chapter ten he questions the explanation provided by Lenin and a few other ‘marxists’ as to the accuracy of the analysis of the new expansive imperialism that took place in the late nineteenth century. His account questions the role of the economic factor to the detriment of the political factor, his emphasis is on a reviving aristocratic class interest rather than the coming to political prominence of a bourgeois class interest as the driver for the new imperialism. What this means then is that Lenin overemphasised the bourgeois interest in his explanation of imperialism at the time he wrote his tract for the time. It should be said that he does not question Lenin’s research to let the bourgeois capitalism of the historical hook as the Schumpeter maybe sought to do, he questions it on the basis of the evidence.

  2. Yet when ‘Marxists’ speak about imperialism they mostly emphasis point three in Lenin’s list of the chief features ‘the export of capital , which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities.’

    So we have political assessments of imperialism on the basis of the level of ‘exported capital’. I have read lists were a country like the Netherlands is very high on the list and country’s like Russia and China are lower on the list, meaning the Netherlands is more of an imperialist threat to the rest of the world than the other two. This way of looking at the matter of imperialism, solely on overseas investment levels seems to be at odds with common sense.

    Likewise if we take the level export of capital to be the key register of imperialism, then a strict anti-imperialist government would be the one who acted to prevent foreign owned capital having automatic access to the national territory. This is how anti-imperialism, making use of Lenin’s feature three, is easily captured by left wing nationalism. Hence my point about trying to ride two horses at the same time, the certainty of fighting for national independence and the certainty of opposing ‘imperialism’ rather than what was more obvious, opposing Empires with colonies.

    ‘Marxists’ came to the conclusion that even though Empires and colonies as far as common sense knew it had been broken up and abolished, they really has not really been touched, the above was merely
    an appearance that fooled silly old common sense. The substantial reality is that Imperialism is more dominant than it was under Empire because of the role of the transformative role of capital export in its various guises. If Imperialism really is more dominant today than it was one hundred years ago it follows that a broad anti-imperialist ideology ought to be the guiding star for socialists everywhere, this is largely how is. It is at odds with common sense, then the conclusions of scientific study often are at odds with common sense. Marxism, under the unintended influence of Lenin has become an ideology defined by a radical anti-imperialism which coalesces rather easily with nationalism.

  3. There is something to be said for the idea that the greater influence of Imperialism the Higher Stage of Capitalism published later than most of Lenin’s other lesser essays acted as a spur to nationalism rather than as a deflation of nationalism. After all the demand for self-determination presupposes something more than ‘capitalism’ accompanied by some description like monopoly, financial or just Late. It presupposes ‘Imperialism’ a somewhat ambiguous political term in relation to the one that was more common when Lenin wrote his tract for the times, namely ‘Empire’. Those who favoured self-determination in 1918-1920 were against the politics of Empire, they dreamed of an end of the British, French, Germany, Spanish, Dutch, Ottoman, and Russian Empire etc.

    Lenin’s change of Political Lexicon from Empire to Imperialism has left behind a complicated legacy of the good and the bad. If self-determination presupposes not just capitalism but some political formation of capitalism described as Imperialism, this is the term that requires some deflating, maybe more so than the other one? In regard to the conflict over Ukraine, some think that Russia is an obvious instance of political Imperialism, while others argue that the strategic alliance between the Ukraine government and NATO cancels out all talk about self- determination for Ukraine, instead there is an understanding based on the idea of an intramural political struggle within ‘imperialism’. Interesting to note a distinction of another sort, Imperialism as one world economy thing and a world composed of more than just one Imperialism, that is Russian political Imperialism as a specific instance disconnected to the one world economy account of Imperialism.

    • The mature form of imperialism would indeed be a single world economy, but it is a process of becoming, hence contradictions within it, of competing “imperialisms”. Lenin’s “Imperialism” is indeed a cause of much confusion and error, but the misuse of it by first Stalinism, and later by others that have adopted the stance of “Third Worldism” and petty-bourgeois nationalism has compounded its errors, and led to even greater confusion and error.

      The key to understanding its actual message, however, is in the passage where Lenin, having accepted all the liberal guff from people like Hobson about the role of monopoly in holding back technological development and so on, states plainly in opposition to Kautsky that attempts to reverse monopoly or to hold it back are not only utopian, but also reactionary. Utopian, because, as Marx sets out as against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, and in detail in Capital, the nature of capitalism, even monopoly capitalism, resides in competition, and competition, by ensuring that the more efficient thrive and the least efficient are swallowed up, leads back to monopoly. Reactionary, because it attempts to stand in the way of such a natural process, and the maturation of the contradictions it entails, and which leads to the development of the productive forces and relations that are themselves the foundation of Socialism, in terms of monopoly, world market, socialised capital, planning and regulation.

      There is nothing in that which supports “anti-monopoly alliances”, or “anti-imperialist alliances” with the petty-bourgeoisie or nationalist bourgeoisie. Quite the opposite.

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