Ten Draft Points on the National Question
[August 1995; Document presented to a Socialist Outlook Summer School held in the summer of 1995]
Why do we need a discussion?
Ten Draft Points
1 The question of defining a nation has been a constant problem for Marxists. In opposition to the idealism of Bauer and the schematic materialism of Stalin, the definition offered by Trostky is both materialist and dialectical: 'An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question; far more decisive is the historical consciousness of a group, their feelings, their impulses. But that too is not determined accidentally but rather by the situation and all the attendant circumstances.'1
2 A sharp distinction must be drawn between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed. We are completely hostile to the first, whilst to the second we take a sympathetic and patient attitude. Our approach to the nationalism of small nations within larger imperialist states is also a sympathetic and patient one, though they may not suffer direct national oppression.
3 It is important to distinguish between nationalism as an ideology and nationalism as a mood or sentiment amongst the masses. Nationalism as an ideology is expressed in the platforms and programs of nationalist parties and movements, which offer a specifically national solution to the problems of a given nation. National consciousness can on the other hand be channelled in a socialist direction. It is perfectly conceivable that a nationalist movement could be led by revolutionaries on a non-nationalist program.
4 Whilst whole-heartedly opposing the nationalism of an oppressor nation this does not mean that revolutionaries should adopt a completely a-national attitude. It is vital that revolutionaries in the oppressor nations draw on all the best traditions of the oppressor nation, its socialist, feminist and working class movements, in order to become truly rooted within the working class and oppressed of that nation.
5 Marxists defend the right of nations to self-determination, i.e. the right of all nations to form a separate state, if they desire. This does not mean that we advocate independence at all times, as a universal solution to national problems. What we do promise is that if a nation desires to separate we will support them with all the means at our disposal. Our program is one of federation and the drawing together of nations. However, under specific circumstances, we will support or even advocate a struggle for independence. In doing so we support the struggle but not the illusions,2 explaining that independence which leads to national isolation is not a path to national liberation.
6 The fact that we are not generally advocates of national independence does not mean that we are indifferent to the fate of nations. On the contrary, we believe that real national liberation is possible only through federation and unity on a socialist basis. It is only in this way that the full economic and cultural freedom of the nation can be secured. Whilst advocating federation, we also maintain the right to self determination; whilst advocating unity, we also support extensive autonomy for national districts, if that is their wish.
7 We completely oppose the Austro-Marxist approach of imposing compulsory nationality on the workers of a given state and of structuring the state institutions and workers' organisations on a purely national basis. We defend the unity of the workers organisations, particularly the revolutionary party, on a non-national basis, whilst defending the right to caucus for national minorities and autonomy for party units.
8 The advent of socialist society will not solve the national question or lead to a rapid or immediate merging of nations. Indeed, for many small and oppressed nations, socialism will be an opportunity for the full flowering of the nation. 'In the sphere of the national question there must be no restraint; on the contrary there must be an all-sided material assistance for the cultural needs of all nationalities and ethnic groups. If this or that national group is doomed to go down (in the national sense) then this must proceed in the same way as a natural process, but never as a consequence of any territorial, economic, or administrative difficulties.'3
9 The nation state, created by capitalism in its infancy, is now completely outmoded and must be eliminated. Our goal is nothing less than an end to the political differentiation of peoples, that is, an end to their separation into a myriad of nation states. It is only on this basis that real national liberation can be ensured. 'The national problem merges everywhere with the social. Only the conquest of power by the world proletariat can assure a real and lasting freedom of development for all nations of our planet.'4
10 In order to intervene on the national question we need a revolutionary party and that party needs a national program, just as much as the Bolsheviks did in 1917. I propose that the key elements of such a program should be:
1 On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (New York, 1980), 28
2 Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (New York, 1973), 90
3 Trotsky on the Jewish Question (New York, 1980), 19
4 Leon Trotsky, 'War and the Fourth International', Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34 (New York, 1975), 306
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