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(Note: Ber Borochov wrote "The National Question and the Class Struggle" in 1905. This edition is based primarily on the English translation published by Poale Zion -- Zier Zion of America and the Young Poale Zion Alliance of America in 1937. I have also used the 1935 English translation by Levic Jessel (published by Farlag Borochov) as a reference and have imported from Jessel footnotes by Borochov and certain paragraphs which were either left out of the 1937 translation or whose ideas are expressed more clearly in the Jessel translation. Several grammatical corrections have also been made.)


by Ber Borochov

I. Two-fold Division of Human Society

In the preface to his book, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx states: "In the social production which men carry on, they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production."

In order to live, men must produce. In order to produce, they must combine their efforts in a certain way. Man does not as an individual struggle with nature for existence. History knows man only as a unit in a social group. Since men do live socially, it follows that between them certain relations are developed. These relations arise because of production. Indeed, Marx terms them: relations of production.

"The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness." Thus the relations of production in China, or in France, for example, are the basis for the whole "social order" of Chinese or French society.

But when we refer to societies by different names, we imply that there are several societies. These societies are in some manner differentiated one from the other. If this were not so, we could not speak of an English bourgeoisie, for example, and a German bourgeoisie or an American proletariat and a Russian proletariat. Then we would speak only of mankind as a whole, or at least of civilized humanity, and no more. But the English and the Germans, the Americans and the Russians, are each part of mankind, and if you will, of civilized humanity, and yet they are differentiated from one another. We therefore, see that humanity is divided into several societies.

The above is common knowledge, and it would never occur to anyone to deny it. The question is, however, how can we explain the causes which make for this division of humanity? To be sure, many explanations have already been offered. One has but to inquire of those who speak in the name of "national ideologies," of a "pure Russian spirit," of a "true German spirit," of "Judaism," and so on. The problem for us, however, is to explain this in terms of the materialistic concept, which teaches us to seek the basic causes of every social phenomenon in economic conditions.

We know why men are divided into classes. We know that all members of a given society are not in the same position in the relations of production. Each group in society takes a different part in the system of production (feudal or capitalistic). Each group bears a specific relation to the means of production. Some are the entrepreneurs, others the workers, a third group are peasants, and so on. The groups which are so differentiated from one another represent the different classes. Every society is therefore divided into classes.

But what is responsible for the difference between the various societies which give rise to the whole national question and its concomitant struggles? On what grounds do these differences arise, and what are the conclusions to be drawn from the previously stated Marxian theory.


II. Conditions of Production

We stated above: in order to live, men must produce. In the process of production various relations of production arise. But the production itself is dependent on certain conditions, which are different in different places.

Citing Marx above, we said that the nature of the relations of production is independent of man’s intellect and volition. The character of the relations of production depends on the state of the forces of production, which are in the control of man. But in the state of the forces of production and their development is primarily dependent on the natural conditions which man must face in his struggle for existence. The condition of the forces of production is therefore dependent on the geographic environment, and the latter is, of course different in different places.

What is true of the forces of production is also true of the development of production. This development is always influenced by certain naturally and historically different conditions, which result in different economic structures among different peoples.

The conditions of production vary considerably. They are geographic, anthropological, and historic. The historic conditions include both those generated within a given social entity and those imposed by the neighboring social groups.

Engels recognizes these conditions in his second letter in the Socialist Academician. He states therein that among the many factors which make for different economies are also the geographical environment, the race, and even the human type, which has developed differently in different places.

In the third volume of Capital Marx also states that one and the same economic base can develop in different ways because of different conditions, such as natural environment, race, and external historical influences. Therefore we see, according to the teachers of historical materialism, that one and the same process of development of productive forces can assume various forms according to the differences in the conditions of production.[1]

Of the above-mentioned conditions of production, the natural non-social factors predominated first. As society develops, however, the social and historic environment gains in importance over the non-social, natural conditions, just as man in general assumes mastery over nature.

In this conception of the "conditions of production" we have a sound basis for the development of a purely materialistic theory of the national question. For in it is contained the theory and the basis of national struggles.

For scientific accuracy, however, we must add the following explanation: the foregoing citation from Marx speaks about historic influences asking from without. When we say "from without," it means that the thing which is being influenced is a distinct entity from the other. It therefore has an internal and an external life. But is there anything in the world which is an absolute totality in itself? No. And yet we do speak of certain totalities. It is common knowledge that to the present day humanity must still be considered an aggregate of certain entities, which are to an extent distinct from one another. Thus, for example, everyone knows that the French masses are distinct from the German masses, and so on. Scientists very often do speak of various things, which are in some measure connected one with the other, and yet are considered distinct entities. Why is this so?

As we gave already emphasized, there are many things, which are to a certain extent totalities in themselves. True, they are absolute, but only to an extent, in other words, not relatively distinct entities. Humanity must to the present day be considered an aggregate of relatively distinct entities. It is therefore apparent that when speaking of such relatively distinct entities, we can also speak of internal and external relations. In speaking of "influences acting from without" Marx by that alone recognizes the relative totality of modern societies.

What, however, brings about this relative totality of social life of a certain group, so that we may consider it a closed entity? Why do we consider England as something different than France, although both these societies have an identical capitalistic system of production? We may speak, and do speak of a relative distinctness of social groups only because there is a relative distinctiveness in the conditions of production under which each group must develop its life. Sometimes such a group is called a socio-economic organism. [2]

We, therefore, come to the formulation and explanation of the following two sorts of human groupings: 1) the group into which humanity is divided according to the differences in the conditions of the relatively distinct productions are called societies, socio-economic organism (tribes, families, peoples, national); 2) the groups into which the society is divided according to their role in the system of production itself, i.e., according to their respective relations to the means of production, are called classes (castes, ranks, etc.).

III. The National Struggle

Having ascertained the causes for the division of humanity into societies, we can now proceed to a discussion of the national struggle and the grounds from which it arises.

We know that the class struggle arises because of conditions of the various classes in the system of production are different. The position of one class may be better or worse, more advantageous or less so, than the position of a second class. The striving of the various groups within a given society to gain for themselves an already achieved position, or to retain for themselves an already achieved position, results in the class struggle.

The class struggle assumed the character of a social problem wherever the development of the forces of production disturbs the constitution of the relations of production, i.e., when the constitution of the relations of production is archaic, obsolete, and no longer suitable to the further development of production.

The same is true of the national struggle. The situation as regards one set of material conditions of production may be more advantageous than the situation in another set of material conditions of production; and there develops a striving of the same character as that previously described in connection with the class struggle. The result of this striving is the struggle between social entities.

Nor is it even necessary that the conditions should differ as to relative advantageousness. For no matter how advantageous the position of a given society may be in the sphere of its usual conditions of production, it may nevertheless strive to expand its production, to increase the sum total of its energies. It therefore becomes necessary in the process of enlarging the scope of its conditions of production to annex those of other social entities. And here we perceive the same phenomenon: one body seeks to annex the field of the other, or to defend itself against the other; in other words, we are witnessing a national struggle.

We have thus demonstrated two bases which give rise to the struggle between social entities. We may quite simply state that a national struggle takes place whenever the development of the forces of production demands that the conditions of production belonging to a social group be better, more advantageous, or that in general they be expanded. In other words a national struggle comes about when the existing conditions of production are no longer compatible with the further development of production. The national problem therefore arises when the development of the forces of production of a nationality conflicts with the state of conditions of production.

Every social phenomenon is primarily related to the material elements of society. A struggle is waged not for "spiritual" things, but for certain economic advantages in social life. The class struggle is waged not for "spiritual" values, but for the means of production. So too, with the national struggle.

The class struggle is waged for the material possessions of the classes, i.e., for the means of production. The means of production may be material or intangible. Material wealth is for the most part something that can be expropriated, such as machines. Intangible assets, on the other hand, are those which cannot be expropriated, as for example, technical proficiency, skill, and so on. Despite the fact that the struggle between classes very often assumed the form of a conflict between cultural-spiritual ideologies, such a struggle is not waged for the possession of intangible assets, but for the control of the material means of production.

The national struggle is also waged for the material possessions of social organisms, the assets of a social body like in its control of the conditions of production. These, too, may be material or "spiritual," i.e., such as can and such as cannot be expropriated. The material conditions consist of the territory and all the products of the material culture, which have been developed by man, particularly the tangible conditions of production. The "spiritual" conditions consist of languages, customs, mores, weltanschauungen, in other words — the "historic" conditions of production.

The national struggle is waged not for the preservation of cultural values but for the control of material possessions, even though it is very often conducted under the banner of spiritual slogans. Nationalism is always related to the material possessions of the nation, despite the various masks, which it may assume outwardly.

But first it is necessary to determine what is "nationalism." The terms "nationalism" and "national question" are directly linked with the term "nation," and it therefore becomes imperative to ascertain precisely what we mean by this latter term.

IV. Peoples and Nations

The terms "people" and "nation" each denote a different stage or degree of development in the life of a given society. In order that we may better understand the distinction between the two, we may bring as an illustration the single word "class," and the interpretation of which it is capable. It is well known that the meaning of the word "class" as employed by Marx is ambiguous and somewhat complicated. On the one hand, Marx considers as a class every social group which differs from other groups in the same society as regards its participation in production or in its relation to the means of production. It is in this sense that Marx and Engles stated that the history of humanity is the history of class struggles.

But then again we find passages in Marx which indicate that he employed the term "class" in another, much narrower sense. Here it appears that he understands a class to be not merely any economic group occupying a special place in the system of production, but such a group as has already achieved a measure of self-consciousness and has appeared on the political arena with clearly expressed interests and demands.

These two meanings of the word "class" are to be found in Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy. In one instance we find "the working class will substitute, in the course of its development, for the old order of civil society and association which will excluded classes and their antagonism…" In another instance we find, "So long as the proletariat is not sufficiently developed to constitute itself as a class, so long as, in consequence, the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has not acquired a political character…" And in still another instance we find, "Many researches have been made to trace the different historical phases through which the bourgeoisie has passed from the early commune to its constitution as a class." In these last two examples we have the second meaning of "class." Here Marx distinguishes between the two different conditions of the group: one, when the group is a class only in relation to the other groups; and the second, when it enters the political arena and becomes a class in its own consciousness.

A whole society may also find itself in one of these two conditions: in the first, when it appears as a relatively distinct entity only in relations with other social organisms; and in the second, when it appears as a social organism with a consciousness of its own.

When we wish to denote the respective states of groups which developed under different conditions of production we have two terms. Thus a social group which developed under the same conditions of production is commonly called a "people." And the same social group, which is united also through the consciousness of the kinship between its members, is commonly called a "nation." Thus, a people become a nation only on a higher plane of its development. When did peoples acquire their national character? We shall discuss this question later. For the present, we shall confine ourselves to an explanation of the concept, "nationalism."

V. Nationalism

The psyche of every personality adapts itself, in a greater of lesser extent, to the conditions under which its group lives. In this way there develops a group psychology, and definite earmarks of a group character emerge. The keen observer will always discover in these traits some relationship to the material conditions of a given system of production or to a definite stage in the development of the system. This relationship may, however, often be obscure.

Furthermore, although the members of each group, be it a class or a society, may have certain generally common characteristics, it does not yet follow that this similarity denotes the community and solidarity of their interests. And even where there is such community of interests; there may not always be any consciousness thereof.

There are some groups among whose members there can be no mutuality of interests, because they are in constant conflict with one another as a result of inner group contradictions. And even groups, which really have common, harmonious interests, do not easily become conscious of them, for this consciousness can develop only to the course of a more or less extended period of time.

But in groups which are organized so harmoniously that their individual members adapt themselves uniformly to their environment, there sooner or later develops also the consciousness of this harmony. Thus we perceive that because the group lives under uniform and also harmonious conditions of production or relations of production there sometimes develops, in addition to the group character, also a group-consciousness. All the emotions, which result from this group-consciousness, give rise, in the main, to what is commonly called the feeling of kinship or affinity.

Life under relations of production, which are harmonious for the individuals of the group, evokes class solidarity.

Life under one and the same conditions of production, when the conditions are harmonious for the members of a society evokes the national consciousness of that society, and the feelings of national kinship.

The individual members feel this kinship as something associated with their common past. Naturally, this does not always mean that they really have a common past. Sometimes the antiquity of the common past is purely fictitious.

This feeling of kinship, created as a result of the visioned common historic past and rooted in the common conditions of production, is called nationalism.

VI. Nationalism and the Territory

We previously stated that, in the last analysis, nationalism is always related to the material resources of the nation. What are the material resources of the nation?

The resources of a society, in general, we have pointed out, are the conditions of its system of production. These may be material or spiritual. The most vital of the material conditions of production is the territory. The territory is furthermore the foundation on which rises all other conditions of production, and it serves as a base for the introduction of all external influences.

In addition, every nationality also has fashioned certain instruments for the preservation of its resources. These are its political unity and the political institutions, its language, its national education, and nationalism itself.

But here it is necessary to remember that the nation is

divided into classes (in both senses of the word). They are each in a different position in the system of production of the nation; their places in the relations or production are not the same. Therefore, the conditions of production can under no circumstances be of equal value to all. Each class has a different interest in the national wealth and therefore possesses a different type of "nationalism." If we should formerly define nationalism as a striving to preserve the national interest, which are always in some manner or other related to the base of the conditions of production, the territory, and to its instruments of preservation, then we have, because of the diversity of national interests, also various types of nationalism.

The national interests may be directed internally or externally; they may be conservative or progressive, aggressive or defensive in character. All this naturally accounts for certain variations in the types of nationalism.


VII. The origins of Nationalism

There can be no nationalism where the conditions of production have not yet been nationalized, i.e., where the relatively distinct society has not yet been segregated from without and united from within.

Both conditions mentioned above — the segregation from the outside world, and the internal unity — must be met.

The feudal system satisfied only the first condition — it only served to segregate one society from another, but it did not unite the members of each society with a strong national bond. The feudal era was not possessed of a harmonious wholeness in the conditions of production. Consequently it had not conception of the existence of nations, but only of "peoples." And therefore, too, it had no conception of nationalism and the national question.

The nationalism of ancient times was purely political in character. It often flared up spontaneously at times when the external relations between peoples became sharply strained. This sort of nationalism came to life and subsided together with the great wars, which, however, were not waged because of national interests, and were not, therefore, national in character.

When, however, commerce began to develop out of the feudal system, a great revolution was set in motion. Gradually, nationalities, nationalism, and in consequence the national question came into being. The first simple national policy — which cannot yet be termed national — shifted from without to within society. Instead of being purely occasional and accidental, as heretofore, it assumed permanent and regular features. And only by the shift to within the society did it become national. The development of capital slowly shook the foundation of the existing order, and with its aid there began the consolidation of the land and great monarchies developed.

We may well ask: What interest prompted the movement which nationalized the conditions of social production? In the next chapter, we shall answer this question. Before concluding this chapter, however, we wish to point out the following: the first protagonist of national ideas, the bourgeoisie (the mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie), which was so young and progressive in its day, waged an energetic struggle with the old order and created a new world. Needless to say, it could not at the same time also defend the traditional concepts. From its very beginning nationalism has been independent of traditions.

Those who berate nationalism in general as something obsolete and reactionary, as a traditional thing, are remarkably shallow and ignorant. Nationalism is a product of the bourgeois society — it was born simultaneously with it, its reign is as old as that of the bourgeois society, and it must be reckoned with as much as any other phenomenon of bourgeois society. Speaking from the proletarian standpoint, we must therefore say that the proletariat is directly concerned with nationalism, with the national wealth, and with the territory. Since the proletariat takes part in the production, then it must also be interested in the conditions of production, and there must develop a specific proletarian type of nationalism —, as is, indeed, the fact.

A generally essential condition, one of the prerequisites of the capitalistic system of production, is freedom. Commerce and industry develop only through free competition, i.e., when there is freedom to transport capital and goods and to trade with them. The worker must also be free to sell his labor power; he must be able to move about freely, for only in this manner can surplus value, the life-blood of capitalism, be created. The freedom to travel is the first and most essential of all liberties, for without it all others have no value.

Travel and transportation, naturally, depend on the territory. The prerequisite of freedom of transportation is a free territory. And this makes clear to us what interest led the bourgeoisie to engage in the struggle to make the land free. The struggle was waged first to free a specific territory, with definite boundaries. These boundaries marked off the whole territory in which a given language was spoken.

It also became necessary to emancipate the population living within this territory and to abolish the feudal barriers, which covered the land like a network and obstructed the freedom of transportation. Thus the bourgeoisie created a relatively segregated social organism, freed it from serfdom, and harmonized the conditions of its production. That is why it was nationalistic. In addition, it also emancipated the whole population of the country — to be sure, with the aid of the masses. It united with all classes jointly against the one class — against the lords of that period. This strengthened and encouraged all the more its militant and really progressive nationalism.

Thus the European peoples became nations.

There developed among each people a national consciousness and the members of the nation became imbued with the feeling of kinship arising from their common historic past, or — to employ the materialistic terminology — from the common conditions of their system of production. The various peoples, who now desired to develop their national wealth, realized that such wealth indeed did exist, but that it was necessary to wrest it from the toils of reigning feudalism. Thus they each began to love their respective territories — the homeland, the fatherland; that is to say the common base of the conditions of production. They began to love its instrument of preservation and to cultivate the national language, and aspired to a truly national commonwealth. [3]

After the French Revolution, however, the divisions within the society itself became clearly manifest. It became evident that the nation consists of different classes. And after the national wealth had been emancipated, and the controlling powers proceeded to the division thereof, the class struggle broke out in all its fury. The harmony and solidarity of which they formerly spoke were dispelled like smoke. The fundamental postulate, "the people," proved to be a fiction. The "homeland," "our" land, "our" language, "our" culture — all these conditions of the system of production remained a part of the national wealth. But they no longer appeared as the common possession of all members of the nation. Even the basic feeling of kinship, arising on the ground of the common historic past, lost its original aura. It lost its passion, and remained a mere experience; it became a tradition.

The above is true as regards free nations which oppress no one and are not themselves oppressed, i.e., nations which live under normal conditions of production. With them the feeling and consciousness of kinship has become a tradition, an historic reminiscence. And life itself has helped to further this condition. The material conditions of life, which gave rise to class antagonisms, have pushed aside this tradition and prevented it from exerting any social influence. Each class has assumed its social position, and it values a particular aspect of the national wealth — that aspect with which it is most concerned.

Free nations, which do not oppress others are not oppressed themselves, lack the environment in which all national interests may merge. In other words, there is no instance in the conditions of production, which finds that the common interests of all members of the nation are affected. Such nations have dynamic "nationalism." It expresses itself only in weak sympathies, in "love for one's own," so to say. This "love" may simply mean that, all other conditions being equal; [4] an individual will "help his own" more readily than "a stranger."

Among certain classes of free nations, there may, however, sometimes exist a latent sort of nationalism. But this is no more than a potential (a repressed) nationalism, which may manifest itself strongly at the first opportune occasion. It must always be remembered, however, that this occasion will arise only when the national resources are affected, and at that, only the material resources. These, incidentally, must be affected in such a manner that the interests of some class are also involved, because the center of gravity of free nations lies not in their national existence -- for their conditions of production are normal -- but in their class structure, in the relations which are developed within the confines of the system production itself. As long as the national interests of some class are not endangered, so long does the propaganda of nationalism sere only to dampen class-consciousness; and on that consideration it is harmful.

But it goes without saying that when the conditions of the system of production of a certain nation are in an anomalous state, its nationalism assumes an altogether different aspect.



[1] Undoubtedly, conditions of production as everything else in the world are not absolutely independent. They, too, develop and alter; they can even be influenced in turn, by the very productive forces and relations of production, which originally evolved out of the self-same conditions of production.

[2] The greater the growth of the productive forces, the more intimate became the relations among the people both within and also without the given socio-economic organism. The organism is thus rendered less and less distinct. This process is repeated among the adjacent "organisms." Undoubtedly, the growth of the productive forces, if it does not lead to an amalgamation of these "organisms" into which mankind is divided, does at least lead to a mutual rapprochement. But the growth of the productive forces itself occurs within the conditions of production of the given community; and these conditions of production, be it remembered, are relatively distinct.

[3]In conjunction with this progressive type of nationalism there grew up among the militant bourgeoisie also a cosmopolitan -- more correctly a universal sentiment. It strove to bring happiness to all humanity and to wipe feudalism completely out of the world. The world wars of Napoleon had no deliberate nationalistic purpose. There was even no indication of any desire to oppress foreign nationalities, root out their languages, smooth out their differences or establish uniformity in their customs. No, the youthful bourgeoisie dealt disinterestedly indeed with the differences that existed among the subject peoples. On the contrary, wherever he went, he merely overthrew the dynasty and permitted the people to retain their independence. (It is well known that Napoleon often depended for support in his campaigns, upon the oppressed nationalities while he simultaneously attacked their oppressors. According to certain date, he even planned to restore Palestine to the Jews.) But the wave of nationalism which swept over Europe finally washed away even this sign of cosmopolitanism which Napoleon had manifested.

[4]We said "all other conditions being equal," for when genuine solidarity embraces also the "foreigner," the entire nationalism collapses at once. To illustrate, the strength of Dutch nationalism is manifested by the fact that the Dutch employer would sooner help a starving Dutchman than a Belgian; nevertheless he would prefer the Belgian conservative to the Dutch socialist. Neither the national question, nor nationalism as a phenomenon of great social importance, has much connection with such simple nationalistic sentiments.

[5] Because the great landowners are in the limelight of political life, there are some observers who conclude that nationalism and traditionalism are synonymous. Such a superficial conclusion does no honor to those who believe in nationalism. Only in the case of the great landowners do nationalism and traditionalism have an identical meaning. Their nationalism is aggressive in foreign policy and is the chief supporter of militarism. Their nationalism is conservative in domestic policy and is the chief supporter of the status quo. These nationalists label as "anti-national" and "traitorous" every movement of the oppressed. They wish to obscure every difference between the "internal" and "external" enemy, pointing to the first as an ally of the second and characterizing both as conspirators, criminals, etc.