One of the most important aspects of Marxism-Leninism is the concept of the national question. That is, how to make a revolution in a state comprised of multiple nations. In this essay, I will explain what the national question entails, as well as argue in favor of Lenin’s concept of national self-determination.
To begin, I would like to briefly explain why communists ought to support national liberation struggles regardless of whether or not they are anti-capitalist in nature. Historically, national Liberation has been a linchpin in the struggle for communism. Communists in china, Vietnam, and Cuba gained support by leading national liberation movements. National Liberation is an interest the masses come to on their own. Therefore, it is one that communists can use to link with the masses and draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. National Liberation work, while being important in its own right, also reflects a deep understanding of the mass line. At its core, national Liberation is communist and anti-imperialist. National Liberation must be a cornerstone of all socialist work.
In order to understand why, we must define what exactly a nation is. A nation, writes Stalin in Marxism and the National Question, is a historically-constituted people. They share a common language, a common territory, and a common economic life. These components come together to form a common culture. It is necessary for a particular group to have all these characteristics in order to be considered a nation. There are two important characteristics to note about Stalin’s definition. First, while territory and geography is a defining feature of a nation, it is not its sole determining characteristic, meaning that within the existential boundaries of a country–itself a recent social development–many nations may exist. Second, while a common economic life is also a defining characteristic, nations are not formed on the basis of class unity. In other words, there is no proletarian nation or bourgeois nation, but rather these two classes are both part and parcel of their respective nations.
When Lenin was writing, little attention was paid to the existence of nations in revolutionary circles. The majority of Russian Marxists held that distinctions between nationalities served only to divide the working class. In their view, Russia was already a unified whole, so discussions of national oppression were trivial. The unity of the working class, said most revolutionaries, is the only thing that matters when making revolution.
Lenin took a firm stance against this view. He understood Russia not as a unified body which was divided only along class lines, but as a “prison house of nations.” He understood that there was no such thing as a Russian. Rather, there were a variety of nations. These included Muslims, Jews, Georgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and others. Under the Tsar, these groups faced an incredible restriction of rights. Many had their languages banned, their religions outlawed, and were forbidden from holding public office. Jews in particular were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms. These oppressed nations all faced underdevelopment and feudal conditions.
Thus, Lenin understood that the revolution could not be made merely on the basis of formalistic working class unity. To really win over and unify the people, special attention had to be paid to the violence faced by the workers of oppressed nations. He was clear that the Party had to oppose Great Russian racism and “national chauvinism” at every turn. The Party was to lead the fight for equal education, cultural rights, and religious expression. Only when oppressed nations rallied behind the Party and its movement could true working class unity be attained. This is consistent with the ideas of Karl Marx, who wrote that “Labor in the white skin will never be free so long as labor in the black skin is still branded.”
Lenin’s ideas about the national question can be summed up by the term self-determination. This meant that the workers of oppressed nations had the final say in what happened to them. They had full autonomy, including the right to break away and form their own countries should they choose to do so. This did not mean that socialists would advocate for a separate state in every case. Sometimes, succession would be inadvisable. The concrete results of the struggle for national liberation depended, as all struggles do, on the material conditions of society. Still, the core principle of solidarity with and support for oppressed nations remained a constant.
Lenin stressed that national liberation was a struggle that worked in service to and in tandem with the struggle for the liberation of the working class. He rejected imperialist bourgeois conceptions of nationalism, which preached unity between the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and the workers of oppressed nations. Lenin said that the national liberation struggle’s primary purpose was to unite the working class of the entire world, so that they could eventually overthrow global capitalism.
Lenin also held that the national question was important because of its relevance to the tactics of revolutionaries. By this, he meant that oppressed nations had the greatest interest in revolution, so it was important to win them over to the Party. Working class members of the dominant nation (Settlers) were often handed things like higher wages or better working conditions, while the working class of oppressed nations was left to suffer. This meant that settler workers’ interest in revolution was greatly diminished. As a result, revolutionaries had to go deeper into “the real masses” of oppressed nations.
It is important to recognize that the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question is indeed tactical. Nationalism is a tool that Communists can use to liberate the oppressed masses of society. In determining our support for nationalist movements, we should always evaluate whether or not they serve this goal.
It might at first appear that devoting time to discussing the national question is a pointless exercise. Why are we talking about something so distant in the past? What use could we possibly have for it now? Asking these questions is an important and necessary task, so I will do my best to answer them. I have already explained the continuing relevance of anti-imperialist, bourgeois nationalism, but Lenin’s thought on the matter remains important for other reasons.
As we have seen, Lenin said that Russia was a “prison house of nations.” It was composed of multiple oppressed nationalities, and as such was not divided solely along class lines. I hold that this is also the case for the United States of America. It, too, is a prison house of nations. My aim is to substantiate this claim through historical analysis.
Originally, what would become the United States was made up of several different Native American groups, such as the Sioux, the Cree, and so on. Then, white European colonists landed on the continent. These colonists were primarily English, meaning that they shared a common language, culture, and identity. However, they did not share a common history or territory at the time.
Soon, the colonists began pushing westward. There were two main features to this westward expansion. The first was the genocide of the Native Americans, and the second was slavery. These two main principles allowed the United States to build its economy and eventually become politically dominant.
Throughout this process, Native American nations were continually marginalized. Some were simply destroyed, while others were forced into reservations. They were ripped from their land, slaughtered, and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions. White Christian missionaries stole the children of the natives and forced them to learn English. This meant that Native culture was also destroyed.
A common myth, especially among conservatives, is that since this process took place hundreds of years ago, it has no bearing on our current situation. This is false. There are still reservations, and there are still natives living on them. Natives are a historically constituted people. Today, there are Native American nations within the United States. These nations are still oppressed, subjected to poverty and isolation. A 2008 report from American Indian Census Facts showed that the percentage of Natives living below the poverty line is 28.2 percent. Compare this to 14.5 percent of the general population, according to the Census Bureau. A 2010 study determined that the life expectancy for Natives living on reservations trails that of the general population by almost five years. This is primarily due to underfunded health services. A Gallup independent study said that some reservations are “comparable to the third world,” in terms of living conditions. It is plainly obvious that Natives ought to be considered an oppressed nation. I should note that there is not merely one Native nation, but many. Since there are multiple Native tribes, there are multiple Native nations. Their struggles are all very different, but the above issues are ones that every Native nation faces.
As I said above, the second feature of colonial westward expansion was mass slavery. Millions of Africans from the west coast of their home continent were abducted by slavers and brought into the new United States. These Africans stolen into servitude were constituted in a very particular area: the South. In some areas, the concentration of slaves was so great that they outnumbered white slave owners by as much as ninety percent (90%). The effect of this was that, while the slaves came from different African countries, they all began to share a common culture. This culture was created by the economic conditions of slavery, as well as by their struggle against these conditions. Part of this struggle was the creation of a language that was distinct from that of the slave owners. Think of codes that were used to advocate for freedom, as well as the pidgin English slaves came to speak.
This concentration still persists in some form today. There is a belt, stretching roughly from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta, in which black Africans still form the majority of the population. One of the areas encompassed by this belt is Missouri. This belt is known as the Kush in Pan-Africanist theory. This area includes Ferguson. Roughly seventy out of one hundred of the residents in Ferguson are black. However, less than one out of a hundred members of the police force in the city is black. You will find similar statistics in the rest of this belt. Almost none of the people with actual power in these communities are black, despite the majority of the population itself being black. African Americans in the United States do not even have surface-level control of their own communities, much less control in a substantive sense.
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Kevin Lang shows that black workers receive extra scrutiny from employers, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, the black unemployment rate is 2.2 times greater than that of whites. Finally, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that the wage gap between white workers and black workers is the worst it has been in nearly four decades. Not only do African Americans share a common Economic life, it is a life fraught with difficulties and oppression.
I would be remiss not to mention the epidemic levels of police violence faced by African Americans. A report from the Center for Equitable Policing determined that the use of force in police interactions is more than three times greater for African Americans than it is for whites. A study by the University of California found “evidence of significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans.” Finally, a 2015 analysis by Campaign Zero found no correlation between police killings and violent crime rates.
The above facts prove that African Americans, like Natives, are an oppressed nation within the United States.
While African and Native Americans are by no means the only oppressed nations in the United States, I feel that these examples are sufficient to prove my point. The situation of the United States parallels the situation of Revolutionary Russia regarding the national question. There is not simply a working class and an owning class. There are several oppressed nations who are waging their own liberation struggles. To make a successful revolution in the United States, we must support these struggles unconditionally and work to develop socialist consciousness within them. Above all, we must assert that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination.