Two Centuries of the National Question

Critics say Marxism can’t account for the popular appeal of nationalism. But the Marxist tradition contains some vital insights into the origins and future of national communities.

Communist Manifesto, Brazilian edition, 1982.

In his 1975 essay “The Modern Janus,” Tom Nairn described the theory of nationalism as “Marxism’s great historical failure.” You can find similar claims throughout the abundant literature on the subject.

The argument usually goes something like this. From Karl Marx onward, socialists expected workers to identify with their class rather than their nation, and with international socialism rather than any form of nationalist ideology. When the actions of real flesh-and-blood workers didn’t conform to this abstract schema, most spectacularly upon the outbreak of a general European war in 1914, socialists couldn’t explain the appeal of nationalism in Marxist terms, except as the product of bourgeois manipulation intended to divert the working class from its true historic mission.

Ernest Gellner ridiculed the Marxist perspective in his book Nations and Nationalism:

Marxists basically like to think that the spirit of history or human consciousness made a terrible boob. The awakening message was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to nations. It is now necessary for revolutionary activists to persuade the wrongful recipient to hand over the message, and the zeal it engenders, to the rightful and intended recipient. The unwillingness of both the rightful and the usurping recipient to fall in with this requirement causes the activist great irritation.

This is certainly a memorable quotation, but it can’t do justice to the range and complexity of Marxist thinking on the subject. In what follows, I’ll concentrate on a selection of ideas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — a period when Marxism was supposed to be willfully blind to the importance of this question. They don’t add up to a comprehensive, full-fledged theory of nationalism, but they do supply us with some invaluable tools for thinking about it.

Nations and States

The idea of nationalism as we understand it was still taking shape when Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. The territorial nation-state had yet to become the standard political model. Some of the biggest nation-states in Europe today — Germany, Italy, Poland — were then composed of subnational city-states and principalities or fragments under the control of dynastic empires.

Two famous lines from the Manifesto seem to exemplify what Gellner dubbed the “Wrong Address Theory” of nationalism: “The working men have no country” and “National differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing.” First of all, let’s put those lines in the full context of what Marx and Engels wrote:

The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself as the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

National differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.

Right away, it looks as if there’s something more complicated going on here. If the workers have “no country,” then how can they be “national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word”? What other senses might there be?

Erica Benner suggested one answer in her book Really Existing Nationalisms, noting that the original German version of the Manifesto said that workers had no Vaterland: “By the time Marx and Engels were writing, the word Vaterland had already acquired highly charged political connotations quite different from those of the now neutral-sounding English ‘country’: the language of Vaterland was often and eloquently used by both defenders of the traditional state and the Romantic prophets of ethnic nationality.” Since 1848, of course, Vaterland has picked up even more baggage from the experience of twentieth-century German history.

Benner went on to offer her own interpretation of the passage:

The workers have no exclusive allegiance to the nation-state, and no stake in the survival of institutions and cultural practices which help to sustain class dominance over them. They therefore lack nationality in the “bourgeois sense of the word,” which holds that the interests protected by existing states are identical to those of society as a whole.

Roman Rosdolsky put forward a similar reading: “When the Manifesto says that the workers ‘have no country,’ this refers to the bourgeois national state, not to nationality in the ethnical sense.”

At this point, it’s important to distinguish between two concepts that are often jumbled together: national consciousness and nationalism. The first refers to the sense people may have of belonging to a particular nation, the second to the political conclusions they may draw from that sense of belonging. Take Scotland, for example. For much of the twentieth century, support for an independent Scottish state was negligible; today it is high enough to make Scottish independence a realistic prospect in the coming years.

This is not because there was a sudden increase in the number of people who considered themselves Scottish. For many years, a sense of Scottishness coexisted with support for the union with England. A political movement had to persuade a critical mass of Scots that a separate state was necessary to advance their interests, and it will have to persuade even more if independence is to be achieved.

In the modern world, if someone defines themselves as a nationalist in the political sense, it does not simply mean that they identify with a particular nation. It also means that they identify with the state that rules over the nation (or with the struggle to establish such a state in a case like Scotland).

On the other hand, the goal of internationalists is not to persuade people that they should cease considering themselves to be French, Greek, Thai, or Mexican in cultural terms. It is to question the political assumption that their primary loyalty must be directed toward the national state that claims their allegiance.

National Differences

Of course, the claim that “national differences, and antagonisms between peoples,” were “more and more vanishing” in the face of capitalist development proved to be badly mistaken. But we need to be more precise about what Marx and Engels got wrong. They obviously did not believe that cultural distinctions based on language and other factors would rapidly disappear (although they did look forward to the development of a “world literature” in which the “intellectual creations of individual nations” would become “common property”).

Rather, they seem to have anticipated that the rise of capitalism would create a more or less homogenous world economic model based on large-scale industry, with the same polarization between workers and capitalists as the primary social antagonism. In that scenario, it would have made little difference in socioeconomic terms whether someone was born in London or Lagos, New York or New Delhi.

A famous section from the Manifesto argued that “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe” and that “the cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.” In doing so, according to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

However, it wasn’t merely cheap prices that functioned as “heavy artillery” in the spread of global capitalism. With Britain in the lead, the big European powers also used actual heavy artillery to promote their economic interests. By the end of the nineteenth century, most African and Asian countries were under their direct control. During the 1850s, Marx wrote with savage contempt about the wars Britain had been waging to open China up to the opium trade and dismissed the arguments used to legitimize them: “The Chinese have at least ninety-nine injuries to complain of to one on the part of the English.”

In a series of articles on British rule over India, published a few years after the Manifesto, Marx suggested that the British bourgeoisie would play the same role there it had already played on the home front by promoting industrial development. This would, according to Marx, “neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people,” which depended “not only on the development of the productive forces, but on their appropriation by the people.” That moment of social emancipation would not come “till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

But what if the effect of colonial rule was to hold back the development of the productive forces in Asia? Marx moved toward this position in his later writings on India and depicted the revolt of 1857 as a natural response to British atrocities, including the routine use of torture to extract revenue from the population. By 1914, Vladimir Lenin could observe that most of Asia consisted “either of colonies of the ‘Great Powers,’ or of states that are extremely dependent and oppressed as nations,” yet the conditions for the “freest, widest and speediest growth of capitalism” had been created “only in Japan, i.e., only in an independent national state.”

In Europe and North America, the possession of an independent state was also an important tool in the development of capitalism. Countries like Germany and the United States made extensive use of tariffs and other forms of state intervention to build up their own manufacturing sectors, before preaching the virtues of free trade to countries that were still trying to catch up. In the past few decades, East Asian states like Taiwan and South Korea have followed a similar approach, not to mention China.

We cannot reduce the popular appeal of nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to a question of economics. But the uneven and combined development of capitalism around the world certainly gave a powerful impetus to movements for national independence, especially in what became known as the Global South. It also helped reproduce and exacerbate the “national differences, and antagonisms between peoples,” to which Marx and Engels referred in the Manifesto.

Class and Nation

While the Manifesto may be the most influential piece of writing by Marx and Engels, it accounts for a tiny fraction of the material they published, including their thoughts on the national movements of their own day. They took an especially strong interest in the affairs of Poland and Ireland. Shortly before the Revolutions of 1848 began, the two men spoke at meetings in London and Brussels to support the cause of Polish independence. Engels put forward a simple maxim, addressed in particular to his fellow Germans: “A nation cannot be free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.”

Toward the end of his life, Marx remained a staunch advocate of Polish independence. His comments on the subject in 1875 revealed a subtle understanding of the relationship between nation and class:

It is not in the least a contradiction that the international workers’ party strives for the creation of the Polish nation. On the contrary; only after Poland has won its independence again, only after it is able to govern itself again as a free people, only then can its inner development begin again and can it cooperate as an independent force in the social transformation of Europe. As long as the independent life of a nation is suppressed by a foreign conqueror it inevitably directs all its strength, all its efforts and all its energy against the external enemy; during this time, therefore, its inner life remains paralysed; it is incapable of working for social emancipation.

When he discussed the Irish struggle for land reform, Marx recognized that the discontent generated by social inequality could be more explosive when combined with foreign rule. He argued that it would be “infinitely easier” to overthrow the landed aristocracy in Ireland than in England, “because in Ireland it is not only a simple economic question but at the same time a national question, because the landlords there are not, as in England, the traditional dignitaries and representatives of the nation but its mortally hated oppressors.” There is little sign here of a man who subscribed to a simpleminded “Wrong Address Theory” of nationalism.

Marx’s observations about the experience of Irish immigrant workers in British cities foreshadowed the theory of the “psychological wage” that W. E. B. Du Bois later developed to account for the grip of racist attitudes among white workers in the United States:

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself.

In the case of North America, Marx was a passionate supporter of the abolitionist cause and agitated on behalf of the Union during the Civil War, predicting that its leaders would have no choice but to abolish slavery if they wanted to prevail over the Confederacy. He incorporated one of the key lessons to be drawn from across the Atlantic into the text of Capital: “Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.”

Unfortunately, Marx and Engels never generalized their views on Ireland or Poland into a coherent theoretical system. In the wake of the 1848 revolutions, Engels did far more harm than good by trying to distinguish between “historic” and “nonhistoric” nations. He was hostile to the national movements of the South Slavs because the monarchies of Central Europe had been able to enlist them on the side of counterrevolution.

Instead of explaining this alignment of forces as the product of one historical moment, Engels asserted that communities like the Serbs and the Romanians were permanently incapable of independent political action and destined only to be the tool of powerful reactionary states. The peoples that Engels identified as “nonhistoric” went on to falsify his predictions over the next century and a half.


Critics of Marxism argue that it is hopelessly in thrall to what they call “class reductionism.” Yet Lenin, who considered himself a perfectly orthodox Marxist of the generation that came after Marx and Engels, emphatically rejected the idea that conflicts over national identity were simply a disguised form of class struggle. He also denied that class consciousness would dissolve the problem of national disputes, even in the white heat of a socialist revolution:

While being based on economics, socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation — socialist production — is essential for the abolition of national oppression, but this foundation must also carry a democratically organized state, a democratic army, etc. By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; that possibility becomes reality “only” — “only”! — with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the “sympathies” of the population.

More consistently than Marx and Engels, Lenin drummed home the message that national communities without a state of their own would have to be granted the right to self-determination. This did not mean that socialists should actively desire the breakup of existing states: “To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism, is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties.”

For Lenin, there were “indisputable advantages” to big states rather than small ones, which meant that national minorities would “resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable.” He believed that the workers’ movement would actually discourage the tendency to political fragmentation by granting those minorities full democratic rights, including the right to form a state of their own: “The closer a democratic state system is to complete freedom to secede the less frequent and less ardent will the desire for separation be in practice.”

This was an urgent political question for Lenin and his comrades in the Russian socialist movement, because the non-Russian nationalities comprised the majority of the population in the territories ruled by the tsar. Lenin seems to have had a visceral loathing of big-nation chauvinism. He referred disdainfully to the self-styled “great nations” that were “great only in their violence, only great as bullies,” and condemned European socialists who refused to support anti-colonial liberation struggles in Africa and Asia as “chauvinists and lackeys of bloodstained and filthy imperialist monarchies.”

He wanted to see nationalism of all varieties give way to “internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity,” but only on a voluntary basis. The Bolshevik leader urged socialists from small, stateless nations to support the right of their conationals to self-determination, yet at the same time “fight against small-nation narrow-mindedness, seclusion and isolation.”

In his final articles, toward the end of 1922, Lenin was concerned that some of his associates in the Soviet leadership were beginning to revive Great Russian chauvinism beneath an internationalist facade. He stressed that internationalism on the part of socialists from a country like Russia “must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.” With that background in mind, it was “better to overdo rather than underdo the concessions and leniency towards the national minorities.”

Joseph Stalin was one of the Soviet leaders that Lenin had in mind when issuing this warning. Although Stalin was himself a Georgian, Lenin observed that it was “common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified overdo this Russian frame of mind.” We can only imagine what Lenin would have had to say when Stalin carried this “frame of mind” to the point of ordering the deportation of entire nationalities, like the Chechens, to Central Asia, before imposing puppet administrations throughout Eastern Europe by force.

It was ironic that this failure to respect the right of national communities to self-determination should have played a crucial role in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union. Yet the outcome of the policy followed by Stalin and his successors would probably not have come as a surprise to Lenin.

Since Lenin died, the number of independent nation-states around the world has grown spectacularly. We can apply his argument most directly in the remaining clear-cut cases of national oppression, from Palestine to Western Sahara, Kashmir, and Xinjiang. However, it also applies to countries like Scotland and Catalonia: their citizens may not experience the same oppression as Palestinians or Sahrawis, yet they should also be free to decide whether they want a state of their own.

This still leaves an important question for anyone who invokes the right to self-determination. How do we decide on the political unit in which that right should be exercised? When you have overlapping national communities, a majority can soon become a minority, depending on where you draw a line on the map. There is no straightforward answer to this question, which has fueled some of the most intractable modern conflicts.

Communities of Destiny

Lenin started with the assumption that national consciousness was an important phenomenon that socialists could not wish away. For the most part, he did not try to explain why people identified with nations. The most ambitious attempt by one of his contemporaries to do so came in a 1907 book by the Austrian socialist leader Otto Bauer, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy.

Bauer’s work was neglected for much of the twentieth century, and a full English translation only appeared in 2000. He fell between political stools in terms of legacy, too Marxist for the social democrats and too social democratic for the Marxists. That was a major loss, since Bauer’s work anticipated some of the best modern writing on nationalism.

Bauer rejected the idea that nations, as we understand them, had existed since time immemorial, seeing them as a development linked to the rise of industrial capitalism, which had resulted in “a completely new spatial and professional distribution of the population.” Uprooted from rural communities where they “did not even know the peasants in the next village, as a mountain range made communication difficult between the two,” countless people now found themselves in towns and cities where they were “thrown hither and thither with the ups and downs of the trade cycle.”

This world of profit and power required a new kind of education for the masses, which had to be delivered in a standardized language that most people could understand:

Modern capitalism needed a higher level of popular training, as without this the complicated administration of large-scale business would be impossible; the modern peasant needed education, if he was to develop into a modern farmer; the modern state needed it, if it was to create local administration and the modern army.

Conscription into national armies “tears the peasant’s son away from the narrow realm of the village” and “brings him together with companions from the town and from other parts of the country.” Meanwhile, the spread of political democracy “becomes the means of bringing the great questions of the day into every peasant village and every workshop. . . . Each speech in the assembly, each page of the newspaper, brings a piece of our mental culture to the last voter.”

Bauer defined national character as “the complex of physical and mental characteristics that distinguishes one nation from others.” He stressed that it was “not an explanation” but rather “something to be explained.” For Bauer, national character was a product of history, not biology or geography: “Nothing but a precipitate of history, it changes with every hour, with every new event that the nation experiences. . . . Placed back in the midst of world events, it is no longer a persistent being, but rather a constant becoming and perishing.” This historical view is a vital retort to fearmongers who claim that immigration will extinguish a supposedly timeless national way of life.

Bauer distinguished between “community of destiny,” which involved “common experience of the same fate in constant communication and ongoing interaction with one another,” and “similarity of destiny,” where such communication and interaction were lacking. He saw the working classes of different European countries as an example of the latter:

Whatever links of communication there may be between German and English workers, these are far looser than those that connect the English worker with the English bourgeois — who both live in the same town, read the same posters on the walls, the same newspapers, take part in the same political or sporting events, and occasionally either speak to each other or at least both speak to the same individuals, the various intermediaries between capitalists and workers.

You could write entire books exploring the ideas that Bauer sketched out, and some people have in the great efflorescence of writing on nationalism since the 1970s. Ernest Gellner based his own theory of nationalism on the need of industrial society for a literate mass culture in which people could be instructed. Benedict Anderson stressed the importance of “a half-fortuitous, but explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity.”

What unites Gellner, Anderson, and others who belong to the “modernist” school of theorizing about nationalism is the idea that national states have not always existed as a way of organizing human societies and, by implication, need not always exist in the future. In today’s world, the main danger is not that we will underestimate the force of nationalism but rather that we will see it as an all-conquering force and an eternal part of the human condition.