the working class and the british nation state: a reply to the morning star

by Chris Ford

The national question continues to be an issue of primary importance to communists and the workers movement as a whole.  The nation-state has not been transcended – transnational corporations remain tied to their home nation-states and capitalists draw on the military and political power of their states to promote their interests.  Our era of global capitalism has further institutionalised the system of national oppression and inequality which is a characteristic of bourgeois society.  How should we respond to this question has been a matter of controversy for generations of communists.

One mistaken response has been to consider globalisation has rendered the nation a superfluous construct; this has fuelled a trend which views struggles, such as against neo-colonialism, as a diversion from the real business of class struggle.  We find this in such views as equating the unity of the UK state with the unity of the working class such as on the Scottish question.  Another trend, prevalent in the UK, has come to adapt itself to the dominant nationalism of the UK state, British nationalism.  This social-patriotism emerged in the working class during the growth of the British Empire in the second half of the 19th century. We find it expressed in some aspects of the anti-European Union current, represented most vocally by the Stalinist Communist Parties.

Both these reactions, as opposed to strengthening the struggle of labour with capital, blunts its edge and retards the overall struggle for a free communist society.  At present it is the anti-EU current which is having the most negative consequence for us today.

Since the end of World War Two the European capitalist states have taken consecutives steps towards “ever closer union”. This process is not a conspiracy but a form of appearance of the general law of the further concentration and centralisation of capital as put forward by Marx.   This is a process by which the capitalists concentrate and extend the scale of their operations: it is nothing new.  With regard to the EU the capitalist class has displayed higher-class consciousness than the labour movement, realising they must surrender some of their own state prerogatives in order to be effective. There is no more chance of rolling back this integration than the old aristocracy had in halting the rise of bourgeois society.  Unlike the aristocracy the working class could not fuse into a new ruling class with capitalists – as Chartism demonstrated  it required an independent class-line to move forward.

In those days some called for a return to the land and cross class alliances against capital: Marx described such ‘reactionary’ socialisms as displaying a “total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”.  Equally wrong would be for us today to take the same ground of the ‘Euro-sceptics’ and their campaigns.  That some in the 19th century mistakenly wanted to turn back the clock, can be understood in the context of the deprivations of a then new system.   Yet even then the attempt to restore small-scale production and smallholding agriculture was opposed by those who argued to move forward to a new society, by the means of the working class created by capitalism.   The question for us today is whether this process of European integration creates the potential for a more universal pan-European fight of workers.  In contrast the anti-EU viewpoints demand we turn the clock back: it would preserve the debilitating insularity of our movement from the wider European workers’ struggles.  A victory of a struggle whose primary focus was to withdraw from the EU, would not represent an advance but a triumph for particularistic privilege and ‘little-Englander’ nationalism – even if that is not the intention of its left advocates.

In British politics anti-EU opinion is dominated by those who bring to the fore all that is rotten, those who would fall back on the basest prejudices. This is swamp we will do well to keep out of.  Some on the traditional left continue to advocate a left-opposition to the EU and see this as the strategy for the workers’ movement.   Recently Alex Gordon, the new president of the left-wing union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, has articulated such a perspective in an address at Marx’s grave organised by the Marx Memorial Library, published in the Morning Star.  This is an important viewpoint and should be debated.

Alex rightly rebukes those who claimed ‘the death of the nation state’ and considers the key institutions of global capital as ‘vehicles for limiting nations’ rights to self-determination and for removing sovereignty’.  Alex considers this aspect  as primary and bemoans that a confused left has adapted to the ideology of imperialist globalisation that ‘‘Marxian slogans such as “Workers of all lands, unite” and “The working men have no country” have been appropriated as crude justifications for the proposition that the nation state is, indeed, dead.’  Instead he argues:

‘Progressive forces must respond to this threat by defending and restoring national democracy. Ultimately, national independence is required for democracy to flourish. The freedom of all nations to develop without external, imperialist interference should be the touchstone for our understanding of Marxism in the modern context.  National independence should once again play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.’

The workers’ movement should indeed advance the struggles for greater freedom which arise in response to the international division of labour and continuation of neo-colonialism.  However, Alex considers we need to engage in a similar ‘battle for democracy’ for the UK state against the EU.  Writing that ‘the overriding logic and purpose of the EU is to hollow out the democratic structures of states and incrementally to transfer law-making powers to unelected, undemocratic, supranational institutions in Brussels through treaties and directives’,  He contends that:

‘National independence should once again play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.  As Marx said, “capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society” – by which, I believe, he meant the state.’

Now Marx certainly does not equate the state and society: what this amounts to is a rallying cry for an essentially British state-socialism.  Such a viewpoint has some similarity to the old right-wing Austrian social-democrats who sought to preserve the unity and sovereignty of the decaying Habsburg Empire.  Alex cites in support of his argument a section of the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels: ‘Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.’  Now, this is not the first time this passage has been used for this purpose.  The respected Marxist scholar Roman Rosdolsky and former leader of the Communist Party of West Ukraine wrote a full response in 1947 which is published below.  Despite its years this rare text more than adequately addresses the views advocated by Alex and Stalinist communism in the UK.

‘A Note on a Passage in the Manifesto of the Communist Party’,

by ROMAN ROSDOLSKY (written in 1947).

(Translated by J. Bunzl)

The passage in question discusses the attitude of the workers to their country. It reads:

‘The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.

‘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 constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

‘National differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day, 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. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

‘In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”[1]

And on a preceding page, the Manifesto says:

‘Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.'[2]

These passages have been cited innumerable times in socialist literature, usually in order to justify the negative attitude of the socialist labour movement towards bourgeois patriotism and chauvinism. Often, however, the attempt has been made to temper the stern language of these passages and to give them a contrary, nationalist meaning.

As an example we may cite H. Cunow, the well-known German Social Democratic theoretician. He discusses the above passages in his book on Marx’s Theories of History, Society and State. According to Cunow, all that Marx and Engels wanted to say was:

‘Today (1848) the worker has no country, he does not take part in the life of the nation, has no share in its material and spiritual wealth. But one of these days the workers will win political power and take a dominant position in state and nation and then, when so to speak [?] they will have constituted themselves the nation, they will also be national  and feel national, even though their nationalism [!] will be of a different kind than that of the bourgeoisie.”[3]

This interpretation by Cunow[4] stumbles over a little phrase, the phrase ‘so far’ (‘Since the proletariat…. must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national’), which indicates that Marx and Engels did not expect the proletariat to remain ‘national’ for ever…

Cunow’s interpretation became the standard one in the reformist literature; but after World War II, it found acceptance in the Communist camp as well. Thus, we read in the ‘Introduction’ of the edition of the Manifesto published by the Stern-Verlag in Vienna in 1946:

‘When Marx says in the Communist Manifesto: “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national”, we must understand that it is precisely in our time that the working class acts as a national class, as the backbone of the nation in the struggle against fascism and for democracy. The working class of Austria is fighting today to win its Austrian fatherland by creating an independent, free and democratic Austria.’[5]

This evidently is not only equivalent to Cunow’s interpretation, but even goes beyond it.

In complete contrast to these nationalistic interpretations is what Lenin wrote in his famous essay ‘Karl Marx’:

‘The nation is a necessary product, and inevitable form, in the bourgeois epoch of social development. The working class cannot grow strong, cannot mature, cannot consolidate its forces, except by “constituting itself the nation”, without being “national” (“though not in the bourgeois sense of the word”). But the development of capitalism tends to break down national boundaries, does away with national isolation, substitutes class antagonisms for national antagonisms. In the more developed capitalist countries it is perfectly true that “the workers have no fatherland” and that “united action” of the workers, in the civilised countries at least, “is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”.'[6]

Yet even Lenin’s interpretation is not satisfactory either. While, according to the Manifesto, the proletariat, even after winning political supremacy, will be ‘so far, itself national’, Lenin restricts this ‘being national’ only to the beginnings of the working class movement, before the working class ‘comes of age’. In a. fully developed capitalist society, says Lenin, the workers more than ever will have no fatherland!….

That much about various interpretations of the quoted passages of the Manifesto. It may not appear strange that a number of socialist authors attempted to find their real meaning. It is much stranger that, in the course of time, these passages became a sort of credo, that far reaching programmatic slogans were derived from them, even if the words of the Manifesto were not fully understood…. This applies in particular to the statement that the workers have ‘no country’. It was much easier to repeat it constantly than to explain this apparently simple sentence and bring it into agreement with the everyday practice of the Socialist (and later the Communist) parties. And, unfortunately, this practice seemed more and more to give the lie to the authors of the Manifesto….

II

What then is the actual meaning of the statements of the Manifesto? In what sense do the workers have ‘no country’, and how is it that, nonetheless, even after acquiring supremacy, they will still remain ‘so far, national’? To answer this question, it would seem, we must first examine the terminology of the Manifesto.

It is well known that the terms of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ are not always and everywhere used in the same sense.  In English and in French, for example, a ‘nation’ is usually taken to mean the population of a sovereign state, and the word ‘nationality’ is taken to be either a synonym of citizenship or to designate a mere community of descent and language (a ‘people’ — German ‘Volk’) — whereas in Germany and in Eastern Europe both terms refer primarily to communities of descent and language.[7]

Marx and Engels, especially in their early writings, almost always followed the English and French usage. They used the word ‘nation’ primarily to designate the population of a sovereign state (by way of exception, they also applied this term to ‘historical’ peoples, such as the Poles, who had been – temporarily – deprived of a state of their own).   ‘Nationality’, on the other hand, meant to them: (1) either belonging to a state, that is, a people having a state’; [8] or (2) a mere ethnic community. Accordingly, this is almost the only term they used in relation to the so-called ‘peoples without history’, such as the Austrian Slavs (Czechs, Croats, etc.) and Rumanians, or to ‘remnants of peoples’, such as Gaels, Bretons and Basques. And just this concept of ‘nationality’ – in sharp contrast to that of ‘nation’ (by which they understood a people which had a state of its own and therefore its own political history) — was most characteristic of the terminology of Marx and Engels!  We cite some examples:

‘The Highland Gaels and the Welsh [said Engels in the journal The Commonwealth in 1866] are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France….’[9]

And in the article ‘Germany and Panslavism’ (1855) he says of the Austrian Slavs:

‘We can distinguish two groups of Austrian Slavs. One group consists of remnants of nationalities, whose own history belongs to the past and whose present historical development is tied up with that of nations of different race and speech…. Consequently, these nationalities, although living exclusively on Austrian soil, are in no way constituted as different nations.’[10]

In another place Engels says:

‘Neither Bohemia nor Croatia possessed the power to exist as nations by themselves. Their nationalities, gradually undermined by historical factors which cause their absorption by more vigorous races, can expect to win back some sort of independence only if they link themselves with other Slavic nations’ (Engels refers here to Russia).”[11]

How much importance Engels attached to the terminologi­cal differentiation of the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ can be seen from the article cited from The Commonwealth, in which he makes a sharp distinction between the ‘national’ and the ‘nationality’ questions, between the ‘national’ and the ‘nationality’ principles. He approved only the first principle, vigorously rejecting the second. (As is well known, Marx and Engels mistakenly denied a political future to the ‘peoples without history’ — Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Rumanians, etc.[12])

III

The Manifesto of the Communist Party too provides a number of instances of this use of terminology. When it speaks, for example, of the ‘national industries’ being undermined by the development of capitalism,[13] it evidently refers to industries confined to the territory of a given state. The ‘Nationalfabriken’ (in the English version, ‘factories owned by the State’) referred to at the end of the second section are, of course, to be understood in the same sense. And in the sentence: ‘Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier and one customs tariff”[14], the words ‘nation’ and ‘national’ refer evidently to the state, the people having a state, and not to the nationality in the sense of descent and language. Finally, when in the Manifesto Marx and Engels speak of a ‘national’ struggle of the proletariat; this means something quite different from the reformist and neo-reformist interpretations. This is clear from the following passage, which portrays the origin of the proletarian class struggle:

‘At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the work-people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them…. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’[15]

Here the ‘national’ struggle of the proletariat, i.e. the struggle waged on the scale of the entire state, is equated directly with the class struggle, since only such a centralisation of the struggles of the workers on the scale of the state could oppose the workers as a class to the class of the bourgeoisie and give these struggles the stamp of political struggles.” [16] To return to the passage cited at the outset, when Marx and Engels speak of the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie as one that is ‘at first national’, they evidently have in mind a struggle waged at first within the framework of a single state, as is clear from the reason given, that ‘the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie’. But from this point of view the statement of the rise of the proletariat ‘to be the leading class of the nation’, its constituting itself ‘the nation’, likewise takes on a very definite meaning. It says that the proletariat must at first be guided by existing state borders, must rise to be the leading class within the existing states! That is why it will at first be ‘so far, national’ — ‘though not in the bourgeois sense of the word’ — for the bourgeoisie sees its goal as political detachment of the peoples from each other and exploitation of foreign nations by its own. On the other hand, the victorious working class will from the beginning work towards the elimination of national hostilities and antagonisms of peoples. By its hegemony it will create conditions under which ‘the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end’. From this, and only from this standpoint, it is possible to understand what the young Engels meant when he wrote of the ‘abolition’ or ‘annihilation’ of nationality: certainly not the ‘abolition’ of the existing ethnic and linguistic communities (this would have been absurd!), but of the political delimitations of peoples.[17] In a society in which (in the words of the Manifesto) ‘the public power will lose its political character’ and the state as such will wither away, there can be no room for separate ‘national states’!….

IV

We feel that our analysis of the terminology of the Manifesto is more than a mere philological ‘hair-splitting’. It has shown that the passages in question relate primarily to ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ in the political sense and are therefore inconsistent with earlier interpretations. This applies especially to the thoroughly arbitrary and sophistical explanation by Cunow, who tried to derive a specific ‘proletarian nationalism’ from the Manifesto and reduced the internationalism of the working class movement to the desire for international cooperation among peoples”.[18] But neither did the Manifesto preach that the proletariat should be indifferent with respect to national movements, should display a sort of ‘nihilism’ in questions of nationality! When the Manifesto says that the workers ‘have no country’, this refers to the bourgeois national state, not to nationality in the ethnical sense. The workers ‘have no country’ because, according to Marx and Engels, they must regard the bourgeois national state as a machinery for their oppression” [19]— and after they have achieved power they will likewise have ‘no country’ in the political sense, inasmuch as the separate socialist national states will be only a transitional stage on the way to the classless and stateless society of the future, since the construction of such a society is possibly only on the international scale! Thus, the ‘indifferentist’ interpretation of the Manifesto that was customary in ‘orthodox’ Marxist circles has no justification. The fact that by and large this interpretation did little harm to the socialist movement, and in some sense even furthered it, is due to the circumstance that — although in a distorted way — it reflected the inherent cosmopolitan tendency of the workers movemen0[20], its effort to overcome national narrow-mindedness and the ‘national separations and antagonisms between peoples’. In this sense, however, it was much closer to the spirit of Marxism and of the Manifesto than the nationalistic interpretation of Bernstein, Cunow and others.


[1] Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (International Publishers, 1948), p. 28.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Die Marxsche Geschichts-, Gese/lschafts- und Staatstheorie, Vol. II, p. 30.

[4] Cunow was not the first to interpret the Manifesto in this sense. Like many other reformist innovations, this too originates with the founder of revisionism, E. Bernstein. He says, in an article on ‘The German Social Democracy and the Turkish Tangle’ (Neue Zeit, 1896-7, Mr. 4, pp. 111 ff.): The statement that the proletarian has no country is amended where, when and to the extent that he can participate as a full citizen in the government and legislation of his country, and is able to change its institutions according to his
wishes.’

[5] The idea that the Austrian workers might have wanted to fight for socialism in their country apparently did not even occur to the writer of the ‘Introduction’…

[6] V.I. Lenin, The Teachings of Karl Marx (International Publishers, 1930), p. 31.

[7] K. Kautsky says on this subject: The concept of the nation is likewise hard to delimit. The difficulty is not decreased by the fact that two different social formations are denoted by the same word, and the same formation by two different words. In Western Europe, with its old capitalist culture, the people of each state feel closely tied to it. There, the population of a state is designated as the nation. In this sense, for example, we speak of a Belgian nation. The further east we go in Europe, the more numerous are the portions of the population in a state that do not wish to belong to it, that constitute national communities of their own within it. They too are called “nations” or “nationalities”. It would be advisable to use only the latter term   for them’ (Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, Vol. II, p. 441).

[8] Compare Marx’s speech on Poland dated 22 February 1848: The three powers [viz. Prussia, Austria and Russia] marched along with history. In 1846, when incorporating Cracow into Austria, they confiscated the last ruins of the Polish nationality…’ (MEGA, VI, p. 408; see also Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I, p. 247). Here too, as in many other passages in Marx and Engels, ‘nationality’ refers to nothing but government.

[9] Grunbergs Archiv, VI, p. 215 ff.

[10] Gesammelte Schriften, I, p. 229.

[11] Revolution und Kontrerevolution in Deutschland, pp. 62 ff.

[12] See   my   monograph:   ‘Fr.   Engels   und   das   Problem   der “geschichtslosen” Volker’, in Archiv fur Sozialgeschichte, IV, pp. 87-282.

[13] The Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 12

[14] Ibid., p. 13.

[15] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[16] Compare  Die  deutsche  Ideologic: ‘Precisely  because  the bourgeoisie is no longer an estate, but a class, it is compelled to organise itself nationally, no longer locally, and to give its average
interests a general form’ (MEGA, V, p. 52).

[17] Along these lines, Engels wrote in 1846: ‘Only the proletarians can abolish nationality; only the awakening proletariat can allow various nations to fraternise’ (MEGA, IV, p. 460). Similarly, In the
German Ideology, the proletariat is referred to as a class that is ‘already   the   expression   of   the   dissolution   of   all   classes, nationalities,    etc.    within    present-day   society….    in    which
nationality is already abolished’ (lbid.,V, pp. 60 and 50; and cf. ibid.,

[18] The high point of Cunow’s misreading of the Manifesto is perhaps the following passage in his book: ‘And it is just as unreasonable to conclude from the call “Workers of all countries
unite!”… that Marx intended to say that the worker is outside the national   community.   No   more   than   the   call,   “Journalists, physicians, philologists, etc., get together in international unions
to carry out your tasks!” means that the members of these profes­sional associations should not feel linked to their nationality….’ (Op. cit..ll, p. 29).

Cf. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875, whose point 5 reads:

The working class strives for its emancipation first of all within the framework of the present-day national state, conscious that the necessary result of its efforts, which are common to the workers of all civilised countries, will be the international brotherhood of peoples.’

On this Marx said: ‘Lassalle, in opposition to The Manifesto of the Communist Party and to all earlier socialism, conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint. He is being followed in this — and that after the work of the International! It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to fight at all, the working class must organise itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle. In so far its class struggle is national, not in substance, but, as The Manifesto of the Communist Party says, “in form”. But the “framework of the present-day national state”, for instance, the German Empire, is itself in its turn economically “within the framework” of the world market, politically “within the framework” of the system of states. Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade, and the greatness of Herr Bismarck consists, to be sure, precisely in his pursuing a kind of international policy. And to what does the German workers’ party reduce its internationalism? To the consciousness that the result of its efforts will be “international brotherhood of peoples” — a phrase borrowed from the bourgeois League of Peace, which is intended to pass as equivalent to the international brotherhood of the working classes in the joint struggle against the ruling classes and their governments. Not a word, therefore, about the international functions of the German working class!’ (Selected Works, II, p. 25 f).

[19] In one of his notebooks Marx excerpted the following from Brissot de Warville: There is one insight that only those suspect who draw up plans of education for the people — that there can be
no virtue since three-quarters of the people have no property; for without property the people have no country, without a country everything is against them, and for their part they must be armed
against all… Since this is the luxury of three-quarters of bourgeois society,  it  follows that these three-quarters  can  have  neither religion nor morality nor attachment to the Government…’ (MEGA,

VI,p. 617).

The Workers and the British Nation state:

A Reply to Alex Gordon by Roman Rosdolsky

The national question continues to be an issue of primary importance to communists and the workers movement as a whole.  The nation-state has not been transcended – transnational corporations remain tied to their home nation-states and capitalists draw on the military and political power of their states to promote their interests.  Our era of global capitalism has further institutionalised the system of national oppression and inequality which is a characteristic of bourgeois society.  How should we respond to this question has been a matter of controversy for generations of communists. One mistaken response has been to consider globalisation has rendered the nation a superfluous construct; this has fuelled a trend which views struggles, such as against neo-colonialism as a diversion from the real business of class struggle.  We find this in such views as equating the unity of the UK state with the unity of the working class such as on the Scottish question.  Another trend, prevalent in the UK, has come to adapt itself to the dominant nationalism of the UK state, British nationalism.  This social-patriotism emerged in the working class during the growth of the British Empire in the second half of the 19th century. We find it expressed in some aspects of the anti-European Union current, represented most vocally by the Stalinist Communist Parties.

Both these reactions as opposed strengthening the struggle of labour with capital, blunts it edge and retards the overall struggle for a free communist society.  At present it is the anti-EU current which is having the most negative consequence for us today.

Since the end of World War Two the European capitalist states have taken consecutives steps towards “ever closer union”. This process is not a conspiracy but a form of appearance of the general law of the further concentration and centralisation of capital as put forward by Marx.   This is a process by which the capitalists concentrate and extend the scale of their operations, it is neither new.  With regard to the EU the capitalist class has displayed higher-class consciousness than the labour movement, they realised they must surrender some of their own state prerogatives in order to be effective. There is no more chance of rolling back this integration than the old aristocracy had in halting the rise of bourgeois society.  Unlike the aristocracy the working class could not fuse into a new ruling class with capitalists – as demonstrated Chartism – it required an independent class-line to move forward.

In those days some called for a return to the land and cross class alliances against capital, Marx described such ‘reactionary’ socialisms as displaying a “total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”.  Equally wrong would be for us today to take the same ground of the ‘Euro-sceptics’ and their campaigns.  That some in the 19th century mistakenly wanted to turn back the clock can be understood in the context of the deprivations of a then new system.   Yet even then the attempt to restore small-scale production and smallholding agriculture was opposed by those who argued to move forward to a new society, by the means of the working class created by capitalism.   The question for us today is whether this process of European integration creates the potential for a more universal pan-European fight of workers.  In contrast the anti-EU viewpoints demand we turn the clock back; it would preserves the debilitating insularity of our movement from the wider European workers struggles.  A victory of a struggle whose primary focus was to withdraw from the EU, would not represent an advance but a triumph for particularistic privilege and ‘little-Englander’ nationalism – even if that is not the intention of its left advocates.

In British politics anti-EU opinion is dominated by those who bring to the fore all that is rotten, those who would fall back on the basest prejudices. This is swamp we will do well to keep out of.  Some on the traditional left continue to advocate a left-opposition to the EU and see this as the strategy for the workers movement.   Recently Alex Gordon, the new president of the left-wing union of Rail and Maritime and Transport Workers has articulated such a perspective in an address at Marx’s grave organised by the Marx Memorial Library, published in the Morning Star.  This is an important viewpoint and should be debated.

Alex rightly rebukes those who claimed ‘the death of the nation state’ and considers the key institutions of global capital as ‘vehicles for limiting nations’ rights to self-determination and for removing sovereignty’.  Alex considers this aspect  as primary and bemoans that a confused left has adapted to the ideology of imperialist globalisation that ‘‘Marxian slogans such as “Workers of all lands, unite” and “The working men have no country” have been appropriated as crude justifications for the proposition that the nation state is, indeed, dead.’  Instead he argues:

‘Progressive forces must respond to this threat by defending and restoring national democracy. Ultimately, national independence is required for democracy to flourish. The freedom of all nations to develop without external, imperialist interference should be the touchstone for our understanding of Marxism in the modern context.  National independence should once again play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.’

The workers movement should indeed advance the struggles for greater freedom which arise in response to the international division of labour and continuation of neo-colonialism.  However Alex considers we need to engage in a similar ‘battle for democracy’ for the UK state against the EU.  Writing that ‘the overriding logic and purpose of the EU is to hollow out the democratic structures of states and incrementally to transfer law-making powers to unelected, undemocratic, supranational institutions in Brussels through treaties and directives.‘  He contends that:

‘National independence should once again play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.  As Marx said, “capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society” – by which, I believe, he meant the state.’

Now Marx certainly does not equate the state and society, what this amounts to is a rallying cry for an essentially British state-socialism.  The UK today and such a viewpoint have some similarity to the old right-wing Austrian social-democrats who sought to preserve the unity and sovereignty of the decaying Habsburg Empire.  Alex cites in support of his argument a section of the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels: ‘Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.’  Now this is not the first time this passage has been used for this purpose.  The respected Marxist scholar Roman Rosdolsky and former leader of the Communist Party of West Ukraine wrote a full response in 1947 which is published below.  Despite its years this rare text more than adequately addresses the views advocated by Alex and Stalinist communism in the UK.

Chris Ford

‘A Note on a Passage in the Manifesto of the Communist Party’,

by ROMAN ROSDOLSKY (written in 1947).

(Translated by J. Bunzl)


The passage in question discusses the attitude of the workers to their country. It reads:

‘The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.

‘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 constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

‘National differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day, 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. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

‘In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”[1]

And on a preceding page, the Manifesto says:

‘Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.'[2]

These passages have been cited innumerable times in socialist literature, usually in order to justify the negative attitude of the socialist labour movement towards bourgeois patriotism and chauvinism. Often, however, the attempt has been made to temper the stern language of these passages and to give them a contrary, nationalist meaning.

As an example we may cite H. Cunow, the well-known German Social Democratic theoretician. He discusses the above passages in his book on Marx’s Theories of History, Society and State. According to Cunow, all that Marx and Engels wanted to say was:

‘Today (1848) the worker has no country, he does not take part in the life of the nation, has no share in its material and spiritual wealth. But one of these days the workers will win political power and take a dominant position in state and nation and then, when so to speak [?] they will have constituted themselves the nation, they will also be national  and feel national, even though their nationalism [!] will be of a different kind than that of the bourgeoisie.”[3]

This interpretation by Cunow[4] stumbles over a little phrase, the phrase ‘so far’ (‘Since the proletariat…. must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national’), which indicates that Marx and Engels did not expect the proletariat to remain ‘national’ for ever…

Cunow’s interpretation became the standard one in the reformist literature; but after World War II, it found acceptance in the Communist camp as well. Thus, we read in the ‘Introduction’ of the edition of the Manifesto published by the Stern-Verlag in Vienna in 1946:

‘When Marx says in the Communist Manifesto: “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national”, we must understand that it is precisely in our time that the working class acts as a national class, as the backbone of the nation in the struggle against fascism and for democracy. The working class of Austria is fighting today to win its Austrian fatherland by creating an independent, free and democratic Austria.’[5]

This evidently is not only equivalent to Cunow’s interpretation, but even goes beyond it.

In complete contrast to these nationalistic interpretations is what Lenin wrote in his famous essay ‘Karl Marx’:

‘The nation is a necessary product, and inevitable form, in the bourgeois epoch of social development. The working class cannot grow strong, cannot mature, cannot consolidate its forces, except by “constituting itself the nation”, without being “national” (“though not in the bourgeois sense of the word”). But the development of capitalism tends to break down national boundaries, does away with national isolation, substitutes class antagonisms for national antagonisms. In the more developed capitalist countries it is perfectly true that “the workers have no fatherland” and that “united action” of the workers, in the civilised countries at least, “is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”.'[6]

Yet even Lenin’s interpretation is not satisfactory either. While, according to the Manifesto, the proletariat, even after winning political supremacy, will be ‘so far, itself national’, Lenin restricts this ‘being national’ only to the beginnings of the working class movement, before the working class ‘comes of age’. In a. fully developed capitalist society, says Lenin, the workers more than ever will have no fatherland!….

That much about various interpretations of the quoted passages of the Manifesto. It may not appear strange that a number of socialist authors attempted to find their real meaning. It is much stranger that, in the course of time, these passages became a sort of credo, that far reaching programmatic slogans were derived from them, even if the words of the Manifesto were not fully understood…. This applies in particular to the statement that the workers have ‘no country’. It was much easier to repeat it constantly than to explain this apparently simple sentence and bring it into agreement with the everyday practice of the Socialist (and later the Communist) parties. And, unfortunately, this practice seemed more and more to give the lie to the authors of the Manifesto….

II

What then is the actual meaning of the statements of the Manifesto? In what sense do the workers have ‘no country’, and how is it that, nonetheless, even after acquiring supremacy, they will still remain ‘so far, national’? To answer this question, it would seem, we must first examine the terminology of the Manifesto.

It is well known that the terms of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ are not always and everywhere used in the same sense.  In English and in French, for example, a ‘nation’ is usually taken to mean the population of a sovereign state, and the word ‘nationality’ is taken to be either a synonym of citizenship or to designate a mere community of descent and language (a ‘people’ — German ‘Volk’) — whereas in Germany and in Eastern Europe both terms refer primarily to communities of descent and language.[7]

Marx and Engels, especially in their early writings, almost always followed the English and French usage. They used the word ‘nation’ primarily to designate the population of a sovereign state (by way of exception, they also applied this term to ‘historical’ peoples, such as the Poles, who had been – temporarily – deprived of a state of their own).   ‘Nationality’, on the other hand, meant to them: (1) either belonging to a state, that is, a people having a state’; [8] or (2) a mere ethnic community. Accordingly, this is almost the only term they used in relation to the so-called ‘peoples without history’, such as the Austrian Slavs (Czechs, Croats, etc.) and Rumanians, or to ‘remnants of peoples’, such as Gaels, Bretons and Basques. And just this concept of ‘nationality’ – in sharp contrast to that of ‘nation’ (by which they understood a people which had a state of its own and therefore its own political history) — was most characteristic of the terminology of Marx and Engels!  We cite some examples:

‘The Highland Gaels and the Welsh [said Engels in the journal The Commonwealth in 1866] are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France….’[9]

And in the article ‘Germany and Panslavism’ (1855) he says of the Austrian Slavs:

‘We can distinguish two groups of Austrian Slavs. One group consists of remnants of nationalities, whose own history belongs to the past and whose present historical development is tied up with that of nations of different race and speech…. Consequently, these nationalities, although living exclusively on Austrian soil, are in no way constituted as different nations.’[10]

In another place Engels says:

‘Neither Bohemia nor Croatia possessed the power to exist as nations by themselves. Their nationalities, gradually undermined by historical factors which cause their absorption by more vigorous races, can expect to win back some sort of independence only if they link themselves with other Slavic nations’ (Engels refers here to Russia).”[11]

How much importance Engels attached to the terminologi­cal differentiation of the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ can be seen from the article cited from The Commonwealth, in which he makes a sharp distinction between the ‘national’ and the ‘nationality’ questions, between the ‘national’ and the ‘nationality’ principles. He approved only the first principle, vigorously rejecting the second. (As is well known, Marx and Engels mistakenly denied a political future to the ‘peoples without history’ — Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Rumanians, etc.[12])

III

The Manifesto of the Communist Party too provides a number of instances of this use of terminology. When it speaks, for example, of the ‘national industries’ being undermined by the development of capitalism,[13] it evidently refers to industries confined to the territory of a given state. The ‘Nationalfabriken’ (in the English version, ‘factories owned by the State’) referred to at the end of the second section are, of course, to be understood in the same sense. And in the sentence: ‘Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier and one customs tariff”[14], the words ‘nation’ and ‘national’ refer evidently to the state, the people having a state, and not to the nationality in the sense of descent and language. Finally, when in the Manifesto Marx and Engels speak of a ‘national’ struggle of the proletariat; this means something quite different from the reformist and neo-reformist interpretations. This is clear from the following passage, which portrays the origin of the proletarian class struggle:

‘At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the work-people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them…. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’[15]

Here the ‘national’ struggle of the proletariat, i.e. the struggle waged on the scale of the entire state, is equated directly with the class struggle, since only such a centralisation of the struggles of the workers on the scale of the state could oppose the workers as a class to the class of the bourgeoisie and give these struggles the stamp of political struggles.” [16] To return to the passage cited at the outset, when Marx and Engels speak of the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie as one that is ‘at first national’, they evidently have in mind a struggle waged at first within the framework of a single state, as is clear from the reason given, that ‘the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie’. But from this point of view the statement of the rise of the proletariat ‘to be the leading class of the nation’, its constituting itself ‘the nation’, likewise takes on a very definite meaning. It says that the proletariat must at first be guided by existing state borders, must rise to be the leading class within the existing states! That is why it will at first be ‘so far, national’ — ‘though not in the bourgeois sense of the word’ — for the bourgeoisie sees its goal as political detachment of the peoples from each other and exploitation of foreign nations by its own. On the other hand, the victorious working class will from the beginning work towards the elimination of national hostilities and antagonisms of peoples. By its hegemony it will create conditions under which ‘the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end’. From this, and only from this standpoint, it is possible to understand what the young Engels meant when he wrote of the ‘abolition’ or ‘annihilation’ of nationality: certainly not the ‘abolition’ of the existing ethnic and linguistic communities (this would have been absurd!), but of the political delimitations of peoples.[17] In a society in which (in the words of the Manifesto) ‘the public power will lose its political character’ and the state as such will wither away, there can be no room for separate ‘national states’!….

IV

We feel that our analysis of the terminology of the Manifesto is more than a mere philological ‘hair-splitting’. It has shown that the passages in question relate primarily to ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ in the political sense and are therefore inconsistent with earlier interpretations. This applies especially to the thoroughly arbitrary and sophistical explanation by Cunow, who tried to derive a specific ‘proletarian nationalism’ from the Manifesto and reduced the internationalism of the working class movement to the desire for international cooperation among peoples”.[18] But neither did the Manifesto preach that the proletariat should be indifferent with respect to national movements, should display a sort of ‘nihilism’ in questions of nationality! When the Manifesto says that the workers ‘have no country’, this refers to the bourgeois national state, not to nationality in the ethnical sense. The workers ‘have no country’ because, according to Marx and Engels, they must regard the bourgeois national state as a machinery for their oppression” [19]— and after they have achieved power they will likewise have ‘no country’ in the political sense, inasmuch as the separate socialist national states will be only a transitional stage on the way to the classless and stateless society of the future, since the construction of such a society is possibly only on the international scale! Thus, the ‘indifferentist’ interpretation of the Manifesto that was customary in ‘orthodox’ Marxist circles has no justification. The fact that by and large this interpretation did little harm to the socialist movement, and in some sense even furthered it, is due to the circumstance that — although in a distorted way — it reflected the inherent cosmopolitan tendency of the workers movement [20], its effort to overcome national narrow-mindedness and the ‘national separations and antagonisms between peoples’. In this sense, however, it was much closer to the spirit of Marxism and of the Manifesto than the nationalistic interpretation of Bernstein, Cunow and others.


[1] Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (International Publishers, 1948), p. 28.

[2] Ibid., p. 20

[3] Die Marxsche Geschichts-, Gese/lschafts- und Staatstheorie, Vol. II, p. 30.

[4] Cunow was not the first to interpret the Manifesto in this sense. Like many other reformist innovations, this too originates with the founder of revisionism, E. Bernstein. He says, in an article on ‘The German Social Democracy and the Turkish Tangle’ (Neue Zeit, 1896-7, Mr. 4, pp. 111 ff.): The statement that the proletarian has no country is amended where, when and to the extent that he can participate as a full citizen in the government and legislation of his country, and is able to change its institutions according to his
wishes.’

[5] The idea that the Austrian workers might have wanted to fight for socialism in their country apparently did not even occur to the writer of the ‘Introduction’…

[6] V.I. Lenin, The Teachings of Karl Marx (International Publishers, 1930), p. 31.

[7] K. Kautsky says on this subject: The concept of the nation is likewise hard to delimit. The difficulty is not decreased by the fact that two different social formations are denoted by the same word, and the same formation by two different words. In Western Europe, with its old capitalist culture, the people of each state feel closely tied to it. There, the population of a state is designated as the nation. In this sense, for example, we speak of a Belgian nation. The further east we go in Europe, the more numerous are the portions of the population in a state that do not wish to belong to it, that constitute national communities of their own within it. They too are called “nations” or “nationalities”. It would be advisable to use only the latter term   for them’ (Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, Vol. II, p. 441).

[8] Compare Marx’s speech on Poland dated 22 February 1848: The three powers [viz. Prussia, Austria and Russia] marched along with history. In 1846, when incorporating Cracow into Austria, they confiscated the last ruins of the Polish nationality…’ (MEGA, VI, p. 408; see also Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I, p. 247). Here too, as in many other passages in Marx and Engels, ‘nationality’ refers to nothing but government.

[9] Grunbergs Archiv, VI, p. 215 ff.

[10] Gesammelte Schriften, I, p. 229.

[11] Revolution und Kontrerevolution in Deutschland, pp. 62 ff.

[12] See   my   monograph:   ‘Fr.   Engels   und   das   Problem   der “geschichtslosen” Volker’, in Archiv fur Sozialgeschichte, IV, pp. 87-282.

[13] The Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 12

[14] Ibid., p. 13.

[15] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[16] Compare  Die  deutsche  Ideologic: ‘Precisely  because  the bourgeoisie is no longer an estate, but a class, it is compelled to organise itself nationally, no longer locally, and to give its average
interests a general form’ (MEGA, V, p. 52).

[17] Along these lines, Engels wrote in 1846: ‘Only the proletarians can abolish nationality; only the awakening proletariat can allow various nations to fraternise’ (MEGA, IV, p. 460). Similarly, In the
German Ideology, the proletariat is referred to as a class that is ‘already   the   expression   of   the   dissolution   of   all   classes, nationalities,    etc.    within    present-day   society….    in    which
nationality is already abolished’ (lbid.,V, pp. 60 and 50; and cf. ibid.,

[18] The high point of Cunow’s misreading of the Manifesto is perhaps the following passage in his book: ‘And it is just as unreasonable to conclude from the call “Workers of all countries
unite!”… that Marx intended to say that the worker is outside the national   community.   No   more   than   the   call,   “Journalists, physicians, philologists, etc., get together in international unions
to carry out your tasks!” means that the members of these profes­sional associations should not feel linked to their nationality….’ (Op. cit..ll, p. 29).

Cf. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875, whose point 5 reads:

The working class strives for its emancipation first of all within the framework of the present-day national state, conscious that the necessary result of its efforts, which are common to the workers of all civilised countries, will be the international brotherhood of peoples.’

On this Marx said: ‘Lassalle, in opposition to The Manifesto of the Communist Party and to all earlier socialism, conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint. He is being followed in this — and that after the work of the International! It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to fight at all, the working class must organise itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle. In so far its class struggle is national, not in substance, but, as The Manifesto of the Communist Party says, “in form”. But the “framework of the present-day national state”, for instance, the German Empire, is itself in its turn economically “within the framework” of the world market, politically “within the framework” of the system of states. Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade, and the greatness of Herr Bismarck consists, to be sure, precisely in his pursuing a kind of international policy. And to what does the German workers’ party reduce its internationalism? To the consciousness that the result of its efforts will be “international brotherhood of peoples” — a phrase borrowed from the bourgeois League of Peace, which is intended to pass as equivalent to the international brotherhood of the working classes in the joint struggle against the ruling classes and their governments. Not a word, therefore, about the international functions of the German working class!’ (Selected Works, II, p. 25 f).

[19] In one of his notebooks Marx excerpted the following from Brissot de Warville: There is one insight that only those suspect who draw up plans of education for the people — that there can be no virtue since three-quarters of the people have no property; for without property the people have no country, without a country everything is against them, and for their part they must be armed against all… Since this is the luxury of three-quarters of bourgeois society,  it  follows that these three-quarters  can  have  neither religion nor morality nor attachment to the Government…’ (MEGA, VI,p. 617).

[20] In his letter to Sorge of 12-17 September 1874, Engels wrote of the ‘common cosmopolitan interests of the proletariat’. This is an interesting contrast to the derogatory connotation which the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ has assumed in the political vocabulary of the Soviet Union.