November 25, 2017

Critical Remarks on the National Question


The question of the “national culture” slogan is of enormous importance to Marxists, not only because it determines the ideological content of all our propaganda and agitation on the national question, as distinct from bourgeois propaganda, but also because the entire programme of the much-discussed cultural-national autonomy is based on this slogan.

The main and fundamental flaw in this programme is that it aims at introducing the most refined, most absolute and most extreme nationalism. The gist of this programme is that every citizen registers as belonging to a particular nation, and every nation constitutes a legal entity with the right to impose compulsory taxation on its members, with national parliaments (Diets) and national secretaries of state (ministers).

Such an idea, applied to the national question, resembles Proudhon’s idea, as applied to capitalism. Not abolishing capitalism and its basis—commodity production—but purging that basis of abuses, of excrescences, and so forth; not abolishing exchange and exchange value, but, on the contrary, making it “constitutional”, universal, absolute, “fair”, and free of fluctuations, crises and abuses—such was Proudhon’s idea.

Just as Proudhon was petty-bourgeois, and his theory converted exchange and commodity production into an absolute category and exalted them as the acme of perfection, so is the theory and programme of “cultural-national autonomy” petty bourgeois, for it converts bourgeois nationalism into an absolute category, exalts it as the acme of perfection, and purges it of violence, injustice, etc.

Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers’ association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims).

The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.

The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.

To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limit ed and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.

Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general?—Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations. The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.

Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false. The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.

When, at their Congress in Br\"unn (in 1899), the Austrian Social-Democrats discussed the plan for cultural-national autonomy, practically no attention was paid to a theoretical appraisal of that plan. It is, however, note worthy that the following two arguments were levelled against this programme: (1) it would tend to strengthen clericalism; (2) “its result would be the perpetuation of chauvinism, its introduction into every small community, into every small group” (p. 92 of the official report of the Br\"unn Congress, in German. A Russian translation was published by the Jewish nationalist party, the J.S.L.P.).

There can be no doubt that “national culture”, in the ordinary sense of the term, i. e., schools, etc., is at present under the predominant influence of the clergy and the bourgeois chauvinists in all countries in the world. When the Bundists, in advocating “cultural-national” autonomy, say that the constituting of nations will keep the class struggle within them clean of all extraneous considerations, then that is manifest and ridiculous sophistry. It is primarily in the economic and political sphere that a serious class struggle is waged in any capitalist society. To separate the sphere of education from this is, firstly, absurdly utopian, because schools (like “national culture” in general) cannot be separated from economics and politics; secondly, it is the economic and political life of a capitalist country that necessitates at every step the smashing of the absurd and outmoded national barriers and prejudices, whereas separation of the school system and the like, would only perpetuate, intensify and strengthen “pure” clericalism and “pure” bourgeois chauvinism.

On the boards of joint-stock companies we find capitalists of different nations sitting together in complete harmony. At the factories workers of different nations work side by side. In any really serious and profound political issue sides are taken according to classes, not nations. With drawing school education and the like from state control and placing it under the control of the nations is in effect an attempt to separate from economics, which unites the nations, the most highly, so to speak, ideological sphere of social life, the sphere in which “pure” national culture or the national cultivation of clericalism and chauvinism has the freest play.

In practice, the plan for “extra-territorial” or “cultural national” autonomy could mean only one thing: the division of educational affairs according to nationality, i.e., the introduction of national curias in school affairs. Sufficient thought to the real significance of the famous Bund plan will enable one to realise how utterly reactionary it is even from the standpoint of democracy, let alone from that of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.

A single instance and a single scheme for the “nationalisation” of the school system will make this point abundantly clear. In the United States of America the division of the States into Northern and Southern holds to this day in all departments of life; the former possess the greatest traditions of freedom and of struggle against the slave-owners; the latter possess the greatest traditions of slave ownership, survivals of persecution of the Negroes, who are economically oppressed and culturally backward (44 per cent of Negroes are illiterate, and 6 per cent of whites), and so forth. In the Northern States Negro children attend the same schools as white children do. In the South there are separate “national”, or racial, whichever you please, schools for Negro children. I think that this is the sole instance of actual “nationalisation” of schools.

In Eastern Europe there exists a country where things like the Beilis case[4] are still possible, and Jews are condemned by the Purishkeviches to a condition worse than that of the Negroes. In that country a scheme for nationalising Jewish schools was recently mooted in the Ministry. Happily, this reactionary utopia is no more likely to be realised than the utopia of the Austrian petty bourgeoisie, who have despaired of achieving consistent democracy or of putting an end to national bickering, and have invented for the nations school-education compartments to keep them from bickering over the distribution of schools ... but have “constituted” themselves for an eternal bickering of one “national culture” with another.

In Austria, the idea of cultural-national autonomy has remained largely a flight of literary fancy, which the Austrian Social-Democrats themselves have not taken seriously. In Russia, however, it has been incorporated in the programmes of all the Jewish bourgeois parties, and of several petty-bourgeois, opportunist elements in the different nations—for example, the Bundists, the liquidators in the Caucasus, and the conference of Russian national parties of the Left-Narodnik trend. (This conference, we Will mention parenthetically, took place in 1907, its decision being adopted with abstention on the part of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionaries[5] and the P.S.P.,[6] the Polish social-patriots. Abstention from voting is a method surprisingly characteristic of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and P.S.P., when they want to show their attitude towards a most important question of principle in the sphere of the national programme!)

In Austria it was Otto Bauer, the principal theoretician of “cultural-national autonomy”, who devoted a special chapter of his book to prove that such a programme cannot possibly be proposed for the Jews. In Russia, however, it is precisely among the Jews that all the bourgeois parties—and the Bund which echoes them—have adopted this programme.[1] What does this go to show? It goes to show that history, through the political practice of another state, has exposed the absurdity of Bauer’s invention, in exactly the same way as the Russian Bernsteinians (Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky, Berdayev and Co.), through their rapid evolution from Marxism to liberalism, have exposed the real ideological content of the German Bernsteinism.[7]

Neither the Austrian nor the Russian Social-Democrats have incorporated “cultural-national” autonomy in their programme. However, the Jewish bourgeois parties in a most backward country, and a number of petty-bourgeois, so-called socialist groups have adopted it in order to spread ideas of bourgeois nationalism among the working class in a refined form. This fact speaks for itself.

Since we have bad to touch upon the Austrian programme on the national question, we must reassert a truth which is often distorted by the Bundists. At the Br\"unn Congress a pureprogramme of “cultural-national autonomy” was presented. This was the programme of the South-Slav Social Democrats, § 2 of which reads: “Every nation living in Austria, irrespective of the territory occupied by its members, constitutes an autonomous group which manages all its national (language and cultural) affairs quite independently.” This programme was supported, not only by Kristan but by the influential Ellenbogen. But it was withdrawn; not a single vote was cast for it. A territorialist programme was adopted, i. e., one that did not create any national groups “irrespective of the territory occupied by the members of the nation”.

Clause 3 of the adopted programme reads: “The self governing regions of one and the same nation shall jointly form a nationally united association, which shall manage its national affairs on an absolutely autonomous basis” (cf. Prosveshcheniye, 1913, No. 4, p. 28[8]). Clearly, this compromise programme is wrong too. An example will illustrate this. The German colonists’ community in Saratov Gubernia, plus the German working-class suburb of Riga or Lodz, plus the German housing estate near St. Petersburg, etc., would constitute a “nationally united association” of Germans in Russia. Obviously the Social-Democrats cannot demand such a thing or enforce such an association, although of course they do not in the least deny freedom of every kind of association, including associations of any communities of any nationality in a given state. The segregation, by a law of the state, of Germans, etc., in different localities and of different classes in Russia into a single German-national association may be practised by anybody—priests, bourgeois or philistines, but not by Social-Democrats.