Marxists and the National Question

Ben Curry

As the capitalist system lurches from one crisis to the next, old contradictions are re-emerging. Instability, polarisation and huge political shifts are taking place all over the world. As part of this process, unsolved national questions are erupting once more with renewed force around the globe — from Catalonia to Kurdistan to Ireland.

And it is not just on the national question that these giant shifts are taking place. The emergence of new political movements and formations, from Sanders to Corbyn to Podemos, reflect the impasse of the system and the fact that the masses — deprived of a party with a clear, revolutionary programme – are searching for a way out.

The Marxist method

For Marxists, the national question presents one of the most challenging and complex questions — one for which there is no “catch-all” formula. When addressing this question, our first principle is always the goal of uniting the working class of the whole world to fight for the overthrow of capitalism.

In general, Marxists wish to abolish borders, not to throw up new ones. And yet, the position of Marxists, developed particularly by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, has been to defend the democratic right of nations to self-determination, up to and including the point of secession. This can present an apparent contradiction. After all: do we not want to get rid of all borders? Why then defend the right to establish new ones?

In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDLP) (of which the Bolsheviks were a faction) debated this exact problem. Russia at that time was labelled the “prisonhouse of nations” because of the horrific oppression of the Ukrainians, Georgians, Belorussians, Lithuanians, Jews and other national minorities. The Russian Marxists, in opposition to Tsarist oppression, inscribed onto their banner the defence of the right of nations to self-determination.

At the time, this stance was opposed by Rosa Luxemburg, who was waging a fierce struggle against Polish nationalism. In this debate, Lenin correctly pointed out that the best way to undercut Polish nationalism was precisely for the Russian working class (the working class of the oppressor nation) to declare openly that they had no interest in continuing Russian Tsarist national oppression. The policy of defending the democratic right of oppressed nations to secede was therefore aimed at cementing the unity of the working class against their common enemy.

This method was proven 100% correct. Without this policy, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917 would likely have led to various republics breaking from the Soviet Union. These national movements would have looked upon the Bolsheviks with distrust as purely a ‘Russian’ party.

In other words, the position of Marxists on the national question is approached precisely from the point of view of breaking down national animosity and distrust, thus clearing the decks in order to achieve real, international class unity.

Marx and the national question

Defending the right of nations to determine their own destiny, however, is clearly not the same thing as always arguing for independence and separation. We can make an analogy with divorce. We of course defend the right of either party in a marriage to divorce. Does this mean one should argue for every marriage to end in divorce? Of course not!

The question of whether Marxists argue for self-determination in this or that case is always a concrete question. On a number of occasions Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky came out in support or opposition to national movements in Europe. Their criteria was always: how does this serve the interests of the working class?

For example, in the 1840s, Marx was of the opinion that the struggle for the victory of the English workers’ struggle (e.g. the Chartist movement), was primary for Irish freedom. But by the 1860s he came to the contrary view: that the separation of Ireland from England was the necessary precondition for the socialist revolution in England itself.

Marx explained how the separation of Ireland would have revolutionary consequences in England. The land of the absentee English landlords would be completely unprotected with the removal of the British army. Independence would therefore be the signal for an agrarian revolution in Ireland. The revolutionary defeat of English landlordism in Ireland would have been the prelude to the overthrow of capitalism in England itself.

The separation of Ireland would have other positive effects for the workers’ movement. The oppression of Ireland led to increasing national tensions between British and Irish workers in cities in Britain. The capitalist class knew how to use these animosities. The separation of Ireland would have helped to clear the decks of national hatred and prepare the ground for unity between Irish and English workers also in England.

We see then how Marx and Engels supported independence for Ireland from an internationalist perspective. In assessing the many manifestations of the national question today, the writings of the great Marxist teachers represent a wealth of experience and examples of flexibility and sensitivity in addressing this question.

National question reemerges

It is a testament to the depth of the crisis today that even in countries where the national question was considered ‘solved’ for centuries, it is now reemerging. Such is the case in Scotland, where the union with England and Wales — until recently — had existed relatively unchallenged for 300 years.

Why then has it re-emerged? The cause is fundamentally rooted in the economic situation. The crisis of the 1970s led to a period of class struggle involving workers across Britain. But with the defeats faced by the labour movement in the 1980s (the miners, printworkers, dockers, etc.) conditions didn’t simply stand still. People continued to look for answers to their problems.

And if the working class is unable to find a way out because of its reformist leadership, the national question can reemerge in a big way, with petty bourgeois and bourgeois nationalists appearing to offer a way out. This was the case in Scotland. In the past the Scottish National Party (SNP) was seen as a right-wing party. Referred to as the ‘Tartan Tories’, they enjoyed little support among workers.

But with the rise of Blairism, the SNP outflanked Labour on the left. The Scottish nationalists have thus been able to offer solutions — by promising separation from England — where Labour for decades offered none. Many of the most politically conscious workers and youth have therefore turned towards Scottish independence as a possible solution to the problems of austerity, poverty and suffering that British capitalism imposes on them.

The SNP eroded Labour support by outflanking it from the left during the right-wing Blair years. Then in 2014, Scottish Labour support was smashed by a wave of support for Independence.

For Marxists, our fundamental position is unchanged. We are for the unity of the working class. We are for a Socialist Federation of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, as part of a United Socialist States of Europe. We continue to explain that “independence” on the basis of capitalism is no independence at all. The austerity, poverty and exploitation that Scottish workers want to escape would continue because it is driven by the crisis of capitalism.

But the 2014 independence referendum represented a decisive turning point. Although the “No” vote narrowly won, masses of workers and youths entered the political scene, and their conception of independence by no means corresponded to the kind of “independence” advocated by right-wing nationalists.

We cannot dismiss these national aspirations with a wave of the hand saying, “socialism will solve all these problems”. Marxists therefore raise the slogan of an independent Workers’ Republic in Scotland, as part of the socialist transformation across these islands and a step towards a socialist federation.

But again, the story has not reached an end point. The national question will continue to evolve until capitalism itself is overthrown. In the coming period, it is not ruled out that rising class struggle across Britain could cut across the independence movement for a time. But to a great degree this depends on the ability of the Labour leaders in Britain to deal sensitively with the national aspirations of Scottish workers, which have a progressive kernel.

It must be said that in 2014 the biggest impulse to Scottish nationalism was provided by the Blairites, who stood on the same platform as the Tories as part of the “Better Together” campaign.

Despite the election of Corbyn and Richard Leonard (as leader of Scottish Labour), the Labour left continue to have a blindspot when it comes to the national question, as we saw with Labour’s refusal to clearly support the right to a second referendum.


In Catalonia too we have seen a similar development. Until 2017, in many respects the Catalan national movement had not reached the same stage as developments in Scotland. But on 1 October 2017 the nationalist leaders in Catalonia attempted to hold an independence referendum. They anticipated that the Spanish state would crush the referendum and expected to gain some political capital. Certainly they had no stomach for a real fight.

The rotten Spanish state reacted with levels of repression that hark back to the Franco era. In fact, the backward Spanish capitalist class have never solved the national question and at decisive moments have only been able to hold the Spanish state together by brutal repression.

However, all parties were taken by surprise when millions of Catalan workers mobilised to defend the referendum against the brutal repression of the Spanish state.

Trotsky once said that nationalism can be “the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. We could say this with some justice of the “nationalism” of the thousands of left-wing Catalan firefighters, nurses and school students who bravely stood up to Spanish state repression.

However, nationalism can also be the outer shell of an incipient fascism. We see this in the case of Spanish nationalism, which has been whipped up in a reactionary manner by the Spanish establishment — the remnants of the Francoist regime — in response to events in Catalonia.

The events in Catalonia provide an even more striking lesson of how important it is for the left to adopt a correct attitude on the national question. The left party, Podemos, lamentably took a position of “equidistance” between Catalan and Spanish nationalism — as if the two were equals!

Spanish nationalism, represented by parties like the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, has a rotten, right-wing and fascist tradition. But the Catalan independence movement has a progressive, republican content. Unlike the Podemos leaders, the Marxists in Catalonia therefore put forward the slogan: For a Catalan Socialist Republic as a spark for the Iberian revolution!


In few parts of the world have the contradictions of the dying capitalist system reached such acute and agonising proportions than in the Middle East. Following the Arab Spring the imperialist powers felt the ground beneath their feet crumbling. The balance of power they’d carved out was disrupted. In Syria this led to a scramble for influence, with the most reactionary consequences.

The rapid alternation of revolution and counter-revolution has had a profound impact on the destiny of the Kurdish people, the world’s biggest national group without a homeland. Forty million Kurds are divided for the most part between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

When the Syrian Revolution began in 2011 it could have moved in the direction of the workers coming to power. Had a revolutionary party existed in Syria at that time it would have raised the slogan of the need for a socialist federation of the Middle East, emphasising above all the need for the unity of the working class, and for the right of autonomy for the different national groups. In Syria there exist numerous ethnic and religious groups in the most populous regions: not only Arabs and Kurds, but Sunnis, Alawis, Druze, Christians and other religious groups.

However, with the descent into civil war, and the growing dominance of the Islamists in the opposition, the predominance of reaction led the Kurds in the northern Rojava region to take control of their own affairs. Over the border in Iraq meanwhile, the Kurdish regions had increasingly become separated from the rest of the state. Oppressed by a sectarian regime in Baghdad, the desire of the Kurds to break away is easy to understand.

These parallel developments have sparked the idea in the imagination of millions of Kurds that the establishment of their own state could be close at hand.

It is in this context that Barzani, a right-wing nationalist in Iraqi Kurdistan, called an independence referendum in 2017, which won a huge majority of 92.73%. What was the result? The powers in the region, fearing the echo this would have among their own Kurdish populations, moved to intimidate Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds. Both Iran and Turkey closed their borders, while the Iraqi regime sent troops to Kirkuk to cut off the flow of oil.

On a side note, it should be mentioned that the Barzani gang have tried to extend their control beyond the Kurdish-majority areas to cities like Kirkuk and elsewhere, where there is a mixed population. It is tempting to simplify the world into black and white; oppressed and oppressor nations. But the bourgeoisie in oppressed nations more generally aspire to become the main oppressors themselves!

The US for its part did nothing to protect the national rights of the Kurds. Since the rise of ISIS, the US has rested increasingly on the Kurds as the region’s most competent fighting force. Marxists warned that the US and other imperialist powers would use the Kurds (and other small and oppressed nationalities) as small change in their dealings with one another. How true this has turned out to be.

In the context of this struggle, Marxists have supported the right of the Kurdish people to independence. However, we have explained — and events have proven — that this independence can only be achieved by the overthrow of Erdogan in Turkey, the Ayatollahs in Iran, etc. by the workers of the whole region.

In other words, a democratic, independent Kurdistan can only be achieved as part of the struggle for a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. The bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist leaders clearly have no interest in such a solution of the Kurdish question.

In Kurdistan, perhaps more than anywhere else, it can be clearly seen how — under imperialism — the struggle for self-determination of oppressed peoples is intimately tied to the international struggle of the working class for socialism. Indeed, without an internationalist and a class perspective, the complex knot of national contradictions that exist throughout the Middle East are impossible to resolve and become only a source of misery and suffering for the people.

Not a simple process

Whilst the crisis of capitalism in Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan and elsewhere has led to the emergence of progressive national struggles, elsewhere the bourgeoisie have whipped up the national question to cut across rising class struggle. Even if this means pushing things to the brink of civil war, for the ruling class this is far preferable than allowing their power and privilege to slip away.

In 1968-69 the eruption of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, inspired by events in France, took on revolutionary features. The British capitalist class deliberately pushed developments away from class struggle and towards sectarianism.

The Tories actively colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in carrying out sectarian murders. Meanwhile, a section of the bourgeoisie in the South of Ireland channelled money and guns towards the Provisional IRA — a right-wing, anti-communist outfit. The use of individual terror by the PIRA actually widened the sectarian divide. This was far preferable for the British ruling class than facing a united, revolutionary working class.

In early 2018 we saw the growth of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) movement in Pakistan. Pakistan was created artificially by British imperialism with the partition of India in 1947. This crime led to the deaths of more than two million people through communal violence. To this day the national question remains unresolved. We see in Kashmir how the ruling class in Pakistan and India use these open wounds to further their own interests and stoke national chauvinism at home.

In Pakistan, the capitalist class is unable to create a stable, democratic state. Rather the ruling class, based predominantly in the Punjab region, have used brutal oppression to prevent centrifugal forces from ripping Pakistan apart. In the tribal Pashtun regions this has led to thousands of forced disappearances, with loved ones unable to speak out for fear of the consequences.

But in 2018 this reached breaking point. Mass marches and meetings of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Pashtun people were organised around the PTM. But the Pashtuns are not the only oppressed nationality in Pakistan. The oppressed Hazaras took inspiration from the PTM, as did the Balochis.

The Pakistani state were mortally afraid that this movement could link up with the struggle of other oppressed groups and act as a tremendous accelerant to the class struggle in Pakistan. Indeed, Marxists argued precisely for the PTM to link up the Pashtun struggle with the struggle of other oppressed groups — and above all with the workers’ struggles.

It ought to come as no surprise then that the ruling class of Pakistan had a very favourable attitude to those in the PTM movement who wanted to push the movement down purely nationalist lines. These nationalists have unfortunately had some success in making inroads into the PTM leadership. Thus what began as a very promising movement has been consciously diverted down nationalist lines by the ruling class.

A concrete question

From just a few examples we can see how multifaceted the national question can be. No national question is like any other. And from one moment to the next, the same national question ceases to be as it was. The only constant is change itself.

Bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists will often use nationalism for their own purposes: either to divide the working class or to wrest privileges for themselves. The ruling class are quite conscious of how national differences can be used to throw up barriers and divide workers.

The method of Marxism on the contrary, aims to arm the most advanced, class-conscious workers with the ideas, slogans and policies necessary to lead the rest of the class away from national, racial, and religious bigotry, tearing down the barriers that the capitalist class erect.

But finding the right slogans, the right policies and the right demands is not a simple task. Prepackaged formulae don’t exist. Instead it is necessary to first study each question carefully, to tease out its dynamic. Above all the national question should be seen as a process. In this process the changing attitudes of the different classes is primary in making a correct appraisal.

Fortunately to assist us there exists a rich body of literature on the subject left behind by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, which should be studied by all Marxists and class conscious workers. This represents the condensed experiences acquired as Marxists confronted these questions in the past.

Going forward the contradictions of capitalism are only going to become sharper. National antagonisms will become further aggravated. In answer we must be armed with a clear and lucid policy on the national question.

May 2021