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Nationalism and Internationalism

Let's begin with a dialectical tension: the proletariat, being an international class, has no nation; at the same time the proletariat is everywhere embedded in nations––this is because nations exist.  To be more precise, capitalism produces a global situation where the proletariat everywhere shares a common destiny (it is an international working class capable of uniting against international capitalism), and yet the proletariat emerges in concrete situations of nations, and nations that are sometimes parasitical on other nations, because global capitalism is also not a one world state but, rather, multiple states––some of which are imperialist, some of which are settler states, some of which are peripheral, and many of which share the previously mentioned characteristics.  So the proletariat, on one hand, should move towards a position of unity with its counterparts throughout the world but, on the other hand, cannot escape the fact that it is embedded in very concrete circumstances.  In this situation, the path of one revolutionary movement cannot just follow the diktats of another movement; in this situation, the people living in one nation may be oppressed by even the workers of another nation.

Nations: colonizers gave a shit about them during the colonial period the produced actually existing capitalism… shouldn't you?

Failure to resolve this tension has led some communists to make significant errors: on the one hand, if there is too much focus on the fact that the proletariat is an international class that sometimes exists outside of history and has not developed within particular concrete circumstances, we can lapse into colonial chauvinism; on the other hand, if there is too much focus on difference and the idea that the people in every country have no common ground and that each situation should be treated as complex and unique, we can lapse into national culturalism.

This is why the ideologues of the Third International spent so much time discussing the theoretical problems of the "National Question"––indeed, the majority of the Third International's Second Congress (two entire sessions!) was devoted to this theoretical problematic and it is amazing, almost a decade later, how insightful this Congress was.  Indeed, Lenin began the Fourth Session of the Second Congress of the Third International by arguing:
"What is most important, the fundamental idea of our Theses?  It is the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor nations.  We emphasize this difference––in contrast to the Second International and bourgeois democracy.  It is especially important for the proletariat and the Communist International during the epoch of imperialism to establish concrete economic facts and to approach all colonial and national questions not from the abstract but from the concrete point of view. […] Imperialism is characterised by the fact that the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense."
And by the end of the Fifth Session, after much debate, the Third International was passing statements against the Zionist colonization of Palestine, before that colonization ever reached its crystallization, because it recognized that nations could oppress other nations (either through settler-colonialism or imperialism) and because it further recognized that the workers of these oppressing nations could also oppress the workers of the oppressed nations.  It argued that there was a need for workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations to recognize their comment lot; at the same time it recognized that, just as bourgeois individuals should recognize their common humanity with proletarian individuals, only the revolutionary actions of the oppressed could force this common understanding.

People tend to forget that Lenin wrote some interesting things about nations and colonialism––this is because some people are under the impression that Lenin was some boring eurocentric marxist who only cared about an abstract proletariat facing an abstract bourgeoisie.  But for Lenin the proletariat and the bourgeois classes were never abstract; they were always concrete, always embedded in nations––and sometimes there could be oppressor and/or oppressed nations.  Take, for example, this statement from Lenin that connects colonialism with the concept of the labour aristocracy:
"And now we see that, as the result of a far-reaching colonial policy, the European proletariat  has partly reached a situation where it is not its work that maintains the whole of society but that of the people of the colonies who are practically enslaved.  The British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers.  In certain countries, these circumstances create the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat of one country or another with colonial chauvinism." [Lenin, Thesis on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Third International]
 Here we see that Lenin is arguing that the proletariat in a nation that profits from colonialism has more to lose than its chains; it is invested in colonialism, it is invested in a colonial nation, it is opposed to the revolutionary struggles of those nations upon whom it is parasitical.  Colonial chauvinism, racist oppression, is more of a result of this material fact than some bourgeois conspiracy to divide the working class.  Most importantly, though, Lenin recognized the fact of nations and, by recognizing this fact, that different sections of the international proletariat emerged within the context of nations.  "Europeans often forget that colonial peoples, too, are nations," Lenin wrote in A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism.

And this forgetfulness is the problem because it is through this forgetfulness that some self-proclaimed representatives of communist internationalism attempt to make proclamations against national self-determination.  By focusing on the first half of the dialectical tension, and accepting that the proletarian is international, there are those who will argue that we should ignore national oppression because it gets in the way of this abstract internationalism.  But this is precisely the forgetfulness that Lenin highlights because it is based on an assumption that only one type of nationalism counts––the nation-hood of the subjects of Europe and its heirs.  In The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Lenin claimed that this abstract internationalism was a "hypocrisy" because it is tendered by those who already possess the benefits of living in a non-oppressed nation and is used against peoples in oppressed nations from demanding the same benefits.  To argue that the masses in these nations will be liberated by uniting with the masses in those nations oppressing them is to ignore the fact that there is already a disparity: the former is oppressing the latter and, just as the proletariat cannot unite with the bourgeoisie, workers in oppressed nations cannot easily unite with people in the oppressor nations.  Something else is required, and at the very least this must be the recognition of national oppression.

But this something else is the very requirement of internationalism because it forces those who benefit from living in a fully articulate nation to realize that they must cross over, unite with the colonized (as Fanon argued), and "must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations 'its own' nation oppresses.  Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible; the hypocrisy of the reformist and Kautskyan advocates of self-determination who maintain silence about the nations which are oppressed by 'their' nation and forcibly retained within 'their' state will remain unexposed." [Lenin, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination] Point being: if you want to unify the dialectical tension between the fact that the proletarian is international and that it is embedded in nations, then you have to be willing to accept that some nations are oppressors, some are oppressed, and find a way to achieve unity within this context.  Otherwise you are not an internationalist: you are a hypocrite, a colonial chauvinist, someone who abides by the colonial logic of their own nation while pretending that they are part of no nation.  For if you are an internationalist, wouldn't you have to agree that your nation's dependency on colonialism and imperialism must be rejected because of the fact that it oppresses people in other nations?  Wouldn't you have to leave your own privileged nationhood behind to support the right of secession of a nation you are dominating so that the people of that oppressed nation can, through their moment of self-determination, come to see you as a comrade?

For, if we have read our Fanon, then we must recognize that oppressed nations can only see the workers of those nations whose entire existence is contingent upon colonial oppression as enemies unless they endorse this demand for self-determination.  If you exist, if you derive your privilege from the super-oppression of an entire group of people, then you have to question your social context.  You cannot just demand that the people in this oppressed population join your international if you haven't first recognized that they have the same national standing––which for you is invisible because you just happened to be born into a privileged and autonomous nation.

Again: Europeans  often forget that colonial peoples, too, are nations.  That is, people from European and Eurocentric nations, by the very fact that they enjoy the privilege of nationhood, get to forget that people they colonize are also nations.  Anarchist activists are especially privy to this hypocrisy: they like to trash the entire notion of nationhood while, at the same time, drawing their very existence from national privilege.  "All flags are coloured rags," some anarchists will proclaim, failing to recognize that the flag of their own nation, which they claim to reject, allows them a certain measure of political privilege––a privilege they might forbid to those nations upon which their own nation is dependent.

But forget the anarchists!  Marxists have historically, contra-Lenin, made the same mistake in their manic endorsement of an abstract international proletariat that they (the they here being the they of colonial and imperial privilege) seek to command.  The most tragic examples of this colonial "internationalism" are those marxists who claim the theory of the national question does not apply to actually oppressed nations but only those nations, being properly Europea, that they recognize: hence the idiocy of certain sectarian marxist groups in Canada to recognize Quebec, since they claim it is a proper nation according to European standards (it possesses a "political economy", it is white!), and not the nations that were actually colonized by British and French imperialism.  Yes: Europeans often forget that colonial peoples, too, are nations.

On the other side, however, is the line that seeks to reject this colonial approach to nationhood by presuming an ontological difference between the peoples of every nation.  Grasping that national chauvinism exists, a simple solution is to propose that there can never be any solidarity between the oppressed masses of disparate nations.  The cultural contexts, we are told, are irreconcilable and there is only the fact of oppression produced by those who speak of "internationalism"!  But this culturalist response is the product of the chauvinism that claims that nations do not matter while, at the very same time, speaking from the position of privileged nationhood… In the end it might be reactionary, but it is an answer to an inverse reactionary sentiment: if you say nations do not exist, while speaking from the position of an oppressor nation, then be prepared for oppressed nations to echo your sentiments and, in this process, arguing for the cultural foreclosure of any solidarity.

If you say that national oppression is not an issue while you benefit from national oppression, then be prepared for those you oppressed to say that national difference matters, that you are the enemy, that there can be no solidarity.  Again, Lenin had something to say about this: "age-old oppression of colonial and weak nationalities by the imperialist powers has not only filled the working masses of the oppressed countries with animosity towards the oppressing nations, but also with distrust of them in general, even of the proletariat of these nations." [Lenin, Preliminary Draft of Theses of the National and Colonial Questions]  This national oppression is "age-old" and, if we are ever to produce some sort of solidarity, we need to figure out how to approach an internationalism that is not riven with the false internationalism of those who stand within the sphere of eurocentric national privilege and argue that every nation they exploit should not possess the same autonomy.

But in the end we say this: the recognition of national self-determination produces solidarity, produces the possible amelioration of nations, produces a truly international proletariat.  In the end we reject the attempt to foist the particularities of one revolutionary movement upon another, but we accept that these particularities can meet in a truly equal international freed from national chauvinism.  In the end, because we are dialecticians, we accept that the proletarian can be international and national.  And in the last instance, long after the facts of internationalism and national embededness are truly recognized and met, we argue that there will eventually be no such thing as national or international.


  1. I like this article but if Lenin wrote about this 100 years ago and colonial leftists haven't changed then probably they will never change. Sorry if I sound like a suspicious native! ;)

    1. Well there are those who will change and those who won't, and usually it is the kind of education through revolutionary struggle that changes people. Colonial "leftists" are only colonial because their existence is dependent on colonialism, that material fact producing a general "common sense" way of accepting colonial ideology; attack colonialism, as Fanon and others argued, and you begin to puncture that ideology and produce a counter-ideology. (Not that this is easy, lol!)

  2. As a Québécois socialist, I'd be interested in your views on Québec. I know what the RCP here thinks; do you agree with them?

    1. Yes, I agree with the PCR-RCP's analysis of Quebec. This is because the French were losing colonizers and the national question applies primarily to the indigenous nations as oppressed nations. The French national struggle was revolutionary during the days of the FLQ but I think the PCR-RCP is correct in their analysis that it has been completed and that the French nation is no longer an oppressed nation [though there can still be anglo-chauvinism] but is an oppressor nation as well. And, as I noted above about "losing colonizers" it must be pointed out that Quebec was the result of European colonization of the Americas, just as much as English Canada and, in this sense, was the result of the mercantilist period of the contradiction of competing imperialisms.

  3. Your presentation to the Norman Bethune Forum in Montréal was inspiring and displays a critical method that is obviously revolutionary. Your polemic on Maoism or Trotskyism? is filled with extrapolations of the theory of permanent revolution.

    This article on National and Internationalism offers a beginning into the area of political theory that has been left to dry by the currents of socialist thought, without having been resolved. The current impasse between the Palestinian People and the State of Israel illustrates why this matter must be resolved now and furthermore that the existing currents of thought, whether socialist or not, have not been up to the task.

    This is what my Thesis is about after 46 years of solidarity work with the Palestinians as a Jewish Bundist. To begin with, as you have alluded to, the term Internationalism must be considered in its context of being Inter-National. That is, the relations of Nations in the world arena. The second distinction that must be made and that has not, is the differentiation between the Nation-State and the Nation per se. The theory of differentiating between the State and Civil Society is only a beginning. This becomes elaborated to form a theory of revolutionary social transformation based in the masses, predominantly working class in industrialized societies and heterogeneous in the dependent economies.

    Enough for now, but my published work is available at the web site indicated. And yes there is an e-book version available for 4$ and 456 pages.

    BTW i'm at

    1. Thanks for the kind comments.

      I'm not certain it has been left dry. The work of Samir Amin has examined this issue from the late 1950s to date, Class and Nation being one of his best books. Revolutionary movements such as the PCP and the CPI(Maoist) have had to deal with this question in regards to indigenous nations and tribal groups they have been organizing with––the latter is based primarily amongst the so-called "tribals" in India (the work of Anuradha Gandhy) is significant in this regard. Of course, your thesis looks particularly interesting.


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