The aim of this article is to isolate certain key theoretical and methodological aspects of the classic Marxist debate on the national question: a debate which had its starting-point in the relatively imprecise positions developed by Marx and Engels themselves in their writings, and which was carried on vigorously in the Second International before the First World War, culminating in Lenin’s formulation of a realistic revolutionary theory of the right of nations to self-determination.

Marx offered neither a systematic theory of the national question, a precise definition of the concept of a ‘nation’, nor a general political strategy for the proletariat in this domain. His articles on the subject were, for the most part, concrete political statements relating to specific cases. As far as the ‘theoretical’ texts proper are concerned, the best-known and most influential are undoubtedly the rather cryptic passages in the Manifesto concerning communists and the nation. These passages have the historical value of proclaiming in a bold and uncompromising way the internationalist nature of the proletarian movement, but they are not always free from a certain economism and a surprising amount of Free Tradist optimism. This can be seen particularly in the suggestion that the victorious proletariat will merely carry on the task of abolishing national antagonisms which was begun by ‘the development of the bourgeoisie, Free Trade, the world market’, etc. This idea, however, is contradicted in other texts from the same period, in which Marx stressed that ‘while the bourgeoisie of each nation still retained separate national interests, big industry created a class, which in all nations has the same interest and with which nationality is already dead’.footnote1 In his later writings (particularly those on the question of Ireland), Marx showed that not only does the bourgeoisie tend to foster national antagonisms, but it actually tends to increase them, since: 1. the struggle to control markets creates conflicts between the capitalist powers; 2. the exploitation of one nation by another produces national hostility; 3. chauvinism is one of the ideological tools which enables the bourgeoisie to maintain its domination over the proletariat.

Marx was on firm ground in stressing the internationalization of the economy by the capitalist mode of production: the emergence of the world market which ‘has destroyed industry’s national base’ by creating ‘the universal interdependence of nations’. However, there was a tendency towards economism in his idea that the ‘standardization of industrial production and corresponding living conditions’ helps to dissolve national barriers (Absonderungen) and antagonisms, as though national differences could be equated simply with differences in the production process.

As for Marx’s famous ironical and provocative statement that ‘the proletariat has no country’, this must be interpreted first and foremost in the sense that the proletariat of all nations have the same interests, a fact that Marx considered as being tendentially equivalent to the abolition of nationality (see the passage from The German Ideology quoted above): for the proletariat, the nation is merely the immediate political framework for the seizure of power. But Marx’s anti-patriotism had a deeper significance: 1. for proletarian humanism, the whole of humanity is the meaningful totality, the supreme value, the final goal; 2. for historical materialism, communism can only be established on a world scale, due to the immense development of productive forces which surpass the narrow framework of nation states.

While the Communist Manifesto did lay the basis for proletarian internationalism, it gave hardly any indication of a concrete political strategy in relation to the national question. Such a strategy was only developed later, particularly in Marx’s writings on Poland and Ireland (as well as in the struggle he waged in the International against the liberal-democratic nationalism of Mazzini and the national nihilism of the Proudhonists). Support for Poland’s struggle for national emancipation was a tradition in the democratic workers’ movement of the nineteenth century. Although they belonged to this tradition, Marx and Engels supported Poland less in the name of the general democratic principle of self-determination of nations than because of the struggle of the Poles against Tsarist Russia, the main bastion of reaction in Europe and the bète noire of the founding fathers of scientific socialism. This approach contained a certain ambiguity: if Poland was only to be supported because her national struggle was also an anti-Tsarist struggle, did this mean that pro-Russian Slavs (like the Czechs) did not have the right to self-determination? This was precisely the problem with which Engels was grappling in 1848–9.

The writings on Ireland, on the other hand, have a far wider application and state, implicitly, some general principles on the question of oppressed nations. In an early phase, Marx was in favour of Ireland having autonomy within a union with Britain and believed that the solution to the oppression of the Irish (by the big English landlords) would come through a working-class (Chartist) victory in England. In the sixties, on the other hand, he saw the liberation of Ireland as the condition for the liberation of the English proletariat. His writings on Ireland in this period elaborated three themes which were to be important for the future development of the Marxist theory of national self-determination, in its dialectical relationship with proletarian internationalism: 1. only the national liberation of the oppressed nation enables national divisions and antagonisms to be overcome, and permits the working class of both nations to unite against their common enemy, the capitalists; 2. the oppression of another nation helps to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie over workers in the oppressing nation: ‘Any nation that oppresses another forges its own chains’; 3. the emancipation of the oppressed nation weakens the economic, political, military and ideological bases of the dominating classes in the oppressor nation and this contributes to the revolutionary struggle of the working class of that nation.

Engels’s positions on Poland and Ireland were broadly similar to those of Marx. However, in his writings one finds a curious theoretical concept, the doctrine of ‘non-historic nations’, which—although in my view fundamentally foreign to Marxismfootnote2—is well worth examining as an extreme example of the mistakes which can be made on the national question, even when one bases oneself on a revolutionary socialist, democratic position.