May 5, 2018


Critical Remarks on the National Question

As the reader will see, the article in Severnaya Pravda, made use of a particular example, i. e., the problem of the official language, to illustrate the inconsistency and opportunism of the liberal bourgeoisie, which, in the national question, extends a hand to the feudalists and the police. Everybody will understand that, apart from the problem of an official language, the liberal bourgeoisie behaves just as treacherously, hypocritically and stupidly (even from the standpoint of the interests of liberalism) in a number of other related issues.

The conclusion to be drawn from this? It is that all liberal-bourgeois nationalism sows the greatest corruption among the workers and does immense harm to the cause of freedom and the proletarian class struggle. This bourgeois (and bourgeois-feudalist) tendency is all the more dangerous for its being concealed behind the slogan of “national culture”. It is under the guise of national culture—Great-Russian, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and so forth—that the Black-Hundreds and the clericals, and also the bourgeoisie of all nations, are doing their dirty and reactionary work.

Such are the facts of the national life of today, if viewed from the Marxist angle, i. e., from the standpoint of the class struggle, and if the slogans are compared with the interests and policies of classes, and not with meaningless “general principles”, declamations and phrases.

The slogan of national culture is a bourgeois (and often also a Black-Hundred, and clerical) fraud. Our slogan is: the international culture of democracy and of the world working-class movement.

Here the Bundist Mr. Liebman rushes into the fray and annihilates me with the following deadly tirade:

“Anyone in the least familiar with the national question knows that international culture is not non-national culture (culture without a national form); non-national culture, which must not be Russian, Jewish, or Polish, but only pure culture, is nonsense; international ideas can appeal to the working class only when they are adapted to the language spoken by the worker, and to the concrete national conditions under which he lives; the worker should not be indifferent to the condition and development of his national culture, because it is through it, and only through it, that he is able to participate in the ‘international culture of democracy and of the world working-class movement’. This is well known, but V. I. turns a deaf ear to it all....”

Ponder over this typically Bundist argument, designed, if you please, to demolish the Marxist thesis that I advanced. With the air of supreme self-confidence of one who is “familiar with the national question”, this Bundist passes off ordinary bourgeois views as “well-known” axioms.

It is true, my dear Bundist, that international culture is not non national. Nobody said that it was. Nobody has proclaimed a “pure” culture, either Polish, Jewish, or Russian, etc., and your jumble of empty words is simply an attempt to distract the reader’s attention and to obscure the issue with tinkling words.

The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of “elements”, but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. This fundamental and, for a Marxist, elementary truth, was kept in the background by the Bundist, who “drowned” it in his jumble of words, i. e., instead of revealing and clarifying the class gulf to the reader, he in fact obscured it. In fact, the Bundist acted like a bourgeois, whose every interest requires the spreading of a belief in a non-class national culture.

In advancing the slogan of “the international culture of democracy and of the world working-class movement”, we take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them onlyand absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and the bourgeois nationalism of each nation. No democrat, and certainly no Marxist, denies that all languages should have equal status, or that it is necessary to polemise with one’s “native” bourgeoisie in one’s native language and to advocate anti-clerical or anti-bourgeois ideas among one’s “native” peasantry and petty bourgeoisie. That goes without saying, but the Bundist uses these indisputable truths to obscure the point in dispute, i. e., the real issue.

The question is whether it is permissible for a Marxist, directly or indirectly, to advance the slogan of national culture, or whether he should oppose it by advocating, in all languages, the slogan of workers’internationalism while “adapting” himself to all local and national features.

The significance of the “national culture” slogan is not determined by some petty intellectual’s promise, or good intention, to “interpret” it as “meaning the development through it of an international culture”. It would be puerile subjectivism to look at it in that way. The significance of the slogan of national culture is determined by the objective alignment of all classes in a given country, and in all countries of the world. The national culture of the bourgeoisie is a fact (and, I repeat, the bourgeoisie everywhere enters into deals with the landed proprietors and the clergy). Aggressive bourgeois nationalism, which drugs the minds of the workers, stultifies and disunites them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter—such is the fundamental fact of the times.

Those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic and foreign. The place of those who advocate the slogan of national culture is among the nationalist petty bourgeois, not among the Marxists.

Take a concrete example. Can a Great-Russian Marxist accept the slogan of national, Great-Russian, culture? No, he cannot. Anyone who does that should stand in the ranks of the nationalists, not of the Marxists. Our task is to fight the dominant, Black-Hundred and bourgeois national culture of the Great Russians, and to develop, exclusively in the internationalist spirit and in the closest alliance with the Workers of other countries, the rudiments also existing in the history of our democratic and working-class movement. Fight your own Great-Russian landlords and bourgeoisie, fight their “culture” in the name of internationalism, and, in so fighting, “adapt” yourself to the special features of the Purishkeviches and Struves—that is your task, not preaching or tolerating the Slogan of national culture.

The same applies to the most oppressed and persecuted nation—the Jews. Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie, the slogan of our enemies. But there are other elements in Jewish culture and in Jewish history as a whole. Of the ten and a half million Jews in the world, somewhat over a half live in Galicia and Russia, backward and semi-barbarous countries, where the Jews are forcibly kept in the status of a caste. The other half lives in the civilised world, and there the Jews do not live as a segregated caste. There the great world-progressive features of Jewish culture stand clearly revealed: its internationalism, its identification with the advanced movements of the epoch (the percentage of Jews in the democratic and proletarian movements is everywhere higher than the percentage of Jews among the population).

Whoever, directly or indirectly, puts forward the slogan of Jewish “national culture” is (whatever his good intentions may be) an enemy of the proletariat, a supporter of all that is outmoded and connected with caste among the Jewish people; he is an accomplice of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, those Jewish Marxists who mingle with the Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and other workers in international Marxist organisations, and make their contribution (both in Russian and in Yiddish) towards creating the international culture of the working-class movement—those Jews, despite the separatism of the Bund, uphold the best traditions of Jewry by fighting the slogan of “national culture”.

Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism—these are the two irreconcilably hostile slogans that correspond to the two great class camps throughout the capitalist world, and express the two policies (nay, the two world outlooks) in the national question. In advocating the slogan of national culture and building up on it an entire plan and practical programme of what they call “cultural-national autonomy”, the Bundists are in effect instruments of bourgeois nationalism among the workers.