Marx, Engels and the National Question

Peter Solenberger

WITH THE RETREAT of the workers’ movement in the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ebbing of national liberation struggles, sections of the left concluded that classes and nation-states were no longer relevant to an understanding of the global order. Hence, Marxism was no longer relevant, or at least less so.

In their 2000 book Empire, post-Marxist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri postulated that imperialism, centered on nation-states, was being replaced by “Empire.” The rulers were the United States and the rest of the G8, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and other international organizations, with the collaboration of multinational corporations and subordinate governments. The ruled were no longer the working class and oppressed nations but the “multitude,” the collection of individuals oppressed by Empire, whose resistance would bring it down.

In 2018 this post-Marxist view of the global order seems quaint. Donald Trump rants about making America great again. The G8 is gone, and the G7 and NATO are in shambles. The IMF and the WTO are shown to have no independent power.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Trans Pacific Partnership have failed, and NAFTA is threatened. The European Union is coming apart along national lines. Russia and China are asserting themselves as imperialist powers.

In the Middle East, not only the governments of the United States, Britain, France, Israel, Russia and China pursue their national interests, but also the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran and to the extent they can, Iraq and Syria.

In the advanced capitalist countries the “multitude” is closer to the language of right-wing populism, while sections of the working class have again asserted their identity as workers and embraced social-democratic reforms, if not yet workers’ power.

In Latin America, Africa and Asia the struggle is not Empire against the multitude, but the United States and other imperialist powers and their allies in the dominated countries against the workers and peasants. National struggles among the oppressed abound. Class and nation are still highly relevant.

The Marxist movement has drawn many lessons from the experience of the 170 years since the publication of the Communist Manifesto, lessons which provide insight into the struggle of classes and nations today.

In this article we’ll focus on lessons Marx and Engels drew in their lifetimes about the national question. Much more was learned later, with the rise of imperialism and national libration struggles against it, but their insights provided the foundation.

From the Beginning

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were born in Prussia, Marx in 1818 (hence the bicentennial celebrated in these pages) and Engels in 1820. They lived, studied and organized in Germany, France and Belgium before relocating to Britain after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution.

Their intellectual focus was the development of capitalism and with it the working class, capitalism’s gravedigger, as they put it in the Communist Manifesto, published in February 1848 when Marx was 29 and Engels 27. Capitalism was most developed in Europe and the European settler-colonies, so these received most of their attention.

In this sense Marxism was “Eurocentric” from birth. But Marx and Engels had a global, historic vision. They followed the most advanced thinking of their time in the natural and social sciences and studied, as best they could, the history and conditions of people around the world.

The Communist Manifesto identifies modern industry and the world market as capitalism’s two great economic contributions, which give “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”

They knew that the relationship between economically advanced and economically backward countries is reciprocal, a process of uneven and combined development, as Marxists of the 20th century would say. They learned from events and from their studies how complex this process could be, and came to conclusions rather far from where they started.

This was particularly the case with nationality and the relationship between oppressed and oppressor nations. Marx and Engels started with a relatively simple paradigm: Capitalism developed the forces of social production to the point where the working class could overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism.

Along the way, capitalism consolidated nations and created nation-states as a framework for its development. As they saw it, the more advanced countries showed the less advanced their future. The working class of the more economically advanced countries would overthrow capitalism first and then help the workers of the less advanced countries to free themselves. The reality turned out to be much more complicated.

Capitalism and Nation-States

The foundations for nation-states preexisted capitalism in groupings of people by geography, history, language and culture. In Europe from the 16th through the 19th century, moving from west to east, capitalism helped consolidate these groupings into nations by its economic activity and by first supporting the centralizing monarchies against the feudal aristocracy and then taking direct control of the state.

In Britain and France, the monarchies refused to cede power gracefully and were hurried on their way by revolution and the execution of recalcitrant kings. After that the monarchy and the bourgeoisie generally reached an accommodation, since both feared the rising working class more than they hated each other. But wars and revolutions were still part of the transition in most countries.

At the time of the Communist Manifesto Britain and France had consolidated as capitalist nation-states. In 1865, the United States put down the secession of the slave states. Canada became a dominion in 1867, Japan subordinated the shoguns in 1868, and Germany and Italy became unified states in 1871. By 1871 the capitalist great powers of the 20th century were in place.

In other parts of the world, the transition to capitalist rule and nation-states was complicated by the existence of empires and then imperialism. More on that below.

Marx and Engels generally supported the formation of capitalist nation-states. For most people, these were an improvement over the disintegrating feudal order. Living standards rose. Personal freedom expanded. The rule of law was established. Democratic rights and the franchise were extended, even in the monarchies.

But there was still plenty of misery. The main reason Marx and Engels supported the formation of independent, unified nation-states was that they provided a framework for capitalist development, and capitalist development created the preconditions for workers’ power and socialism: social production and the working class.

Nation-states provided home markets for obtaining labor, raw materials and other inputs and for selling commodities. They provided governments to protect the capitalists from the workers, peasants and in the United States slaves, and from their competitors and enemies abroad. They provided an ideology of a shared national interest to obscure the power dynamics of class, race and gender.

While Marx and Engels supported the formation of nation-states as conducive to the development of capitalism and hence historically progressive, they opposed nationalism. A stateless, classless society was their goal. “Workers of all countries, unite!” was the Manifesto’s slogan.

Multinational States

The situation became more complicated in eastern Europe, where three empires ruled over a multitude of nationalities: the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire.

The Austrian Empire incorporated Germans, Hungarians and Slavs. From the standpoint of national unification, the Austrians should have joined Germany, and the Hungarians should have formed their own nation-state. But what about the Czechs, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Croatians and other Slavs?

The Russian Empire incorporated a much vaster number of nationalities and ethnic groups, from the Baltic and Black Seas to Alaska. It was the bulwark of 19th-century reaction in Europe and sent or threatened to send armies against every major progressive development. Marx, Engels and most democrats and socialists of their day saw the Russian Empire as the arch-enemy.

By the mid-1800s the once-mighty Ottoman Empire was feeble and disintegrating, a cat’s paw for Britain, France, Germany and Russia. It still nominally ruled much of the Middle East, mainly because the European powers couldn’t resolve how to carve up the region. In Europe it still ruled the Balkans from Serbia south and east. So here too, what about the Slavs?

Marx and Engels advocated national independence and unification for Poland, Hungary and Greece. But they didn’t support the mainly intellectual Slav nationalists of the Austrian and Turkish empires. They saw Balkan independence as necessarily meaning unification with Russia and the strengthening of European reaction. Engels wrote some quite nasty words about pan-Slavism.

“Now you may ask me, whether I have no sympathy whatever for the small Slavic peoples, and remnants of peoples, which have been severed asunder by the three wedges driven in the flesh of Slavdom: the Germans, Magyars and Turks? In fact I have damned little sympathy for them. The Czecho-Slovak cry of distress ‘Boze ak jus nikto nenj’ na zemi ktoby Slavom [sic] spraviedlivost cinil?’ [‘Is there, oh God, no man on earth who will render the Slavs their due?’ — ed] is answered from Petersburg, and the entire Czech national movement tends in a direction in which the Tsar will spraviedlivost ciniti [render them their due — ed]. The same with the others, Serbs, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Galician Ruthenes (at least in part). But we cannot stand for these aims. Only when with the collapse of Tsarism the nationalist ambitions of these dwarfs of peoples will be freed from association with Panslavist tendencies of world domination, only then we can let them take their fate in their own hands…” (

As the European working class strengthened and Czarism weakened, socialists took a more generous view of the national aspirations of the Balkan Slavs.

After World War II Yugoslavia came close to resolving the national question in the Balkans on the basis of self-determination of nations, despite the limitations of the Tito government. But in the 1990s, Stalinist and imperialist exploitation of national tensions plunged the region into war and genocide once again.

Empires and Imperialism

Colonial empires existed in the mid-19th century, but not yet imperialism in the 20th-century sense: monopoly capital, the unification of bank and industrial capital into financial capital, a financial oligarchy, the export of capital as distinct from commodities, the economic partition of the globe, and inter-imperialist conflict over the division, from diplomatic maneuvering and trade wars to world war.

Marx and Engels began with the idea that the workers of the economically more advanced, colonizing country would overthrow capitalism, take power, and free the colonies for their own capitalist development and socialist revolution. But they soon realized that capitalist development was creating the conditions for revolution in the colonies and semicolonies too.

In the mid-19th century, India was Britain’s most important colony. In 1853 Marx wrote “The Future Results of British Rule in India” in the New York Daily Tribune:

“All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the [Indian] people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

“The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether…” (

Marx and Engels supported the Indian side during India’s first war of independence from 1857 to 1859. They carefully followed the rebellion and reported on it in the New York Daily Tribune and elsewhere. The rebellion began as a mutiny of Indian soldiers (sepoys) and gained wide support.

But capitalism had not yet created enough of an Indian working class or national bourgeoisie to unite the population against British rule. The rebellion was brutally defeated, and conditions weren’t favorable for an extended guerrilla war, as in neighboring Afghanistan. [For one harrowing account of the massacres and mass executions in the crushing of the Sepoy revolt — written by a British officer — celebrating the slaughter of prisoners as “the manifest and wondrous interposition of Almighty God in the cause of Christianity” — see Reza Asian’s history of Islam, No god but God (Random House, 2011, 225ff — ed.)]

Capitalist development continued, and in 1947 India was finally able to “throw off the English yoke” as the British Empire began its collapse.

Marx and Engels supported the independence of the colonies and semicolonies as a matter of democratic rights and solidarity with the oppressed. But they lived before the rise of the colonial revolution made possible the alliance of workers and oppressed peoples embraced by the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International. (See “1917 and the Colonial Revolution” in Against the Current, no. 194, May-June 2018,

Labor Aristocracy and Imperialism

By the late 19th century a reformist trend had consolidated in the international socialist movement, based on the most privileged layer of workers sometimes called the “labor aristocracy,” and the officialdom of the unions and the mass workers’ parties. The extraordinary profits the capitalists of the imperialist countries extracted from the colonies and semicolonies helped fund it.

Marx and Engels saw enough of this process to make observations that Lenin and other Marxists would follow. In his 1916 article, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin cites two passages of particular importance to him. An 1858 letter from Engels to Marx:

“(T)he English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat. In the case of a nation which exploits the entire world this is, of course, justified to some extent.” (

Engels’ 1892 preface to the second Ger­man edition of his Condition of the Working Class in England (originally published in 1844):

“The truth is this: during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why, since the dying-out of Owenism, there has been no Socialism in England. With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position; it will find itself generally — the privileged and leading minority not excepted — on a level with its fellow-workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be Socialism again in England.” (

As the effects of the relative privilege of English workers became clearer, Marx and Engels revised their view that that the workers of the more economically advanced oppressor country would rise first. In an 1869 letter to Engels, Marx wrote:

“The way I shall express the matter next Tuesday is: that, quite apart from all “international” and ‘humane’ phrases about Justice for Ireland — which are taken for granted on the International Council — it is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland. I am fully convinced of this, for reasons that, in part, I cannot tell the English workers themselves. For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always took this viewpoint in the New-York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.” (

This was not yet a general critique of imperialism and its effects on the working class, but it was a beginning.

War, Peace and Workers’ Power

Marx and Engels generally supported the formation of nation-states to create the preconditions for workers’ revolution and socialism. But that was the limit of their support. The capitalists needed nation-states. The workers needed internationalism.

This class difference was shown dramatically in 1870-71, during the life of the First International, of which Marx and Engels were central leaders.

In July 1870, the government of Louis Bonaparte sent an army into Prussia, hoping to seize territory, thwart the process of German unification, and divert attention from the corruption and misery in France. The French troops were defeated, and Louis Bonaparte, vaingloriously leading them in battle, was captured.

In September 1870, French workers proclaimed a republic, and bourgeois politicians scrambled to lead it. Their main concern was to prevent revolution, and they conspired with the Prussian government to do this. The workers resisted and in March 1871 proclaimed the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government.

The First International opposed the war as dynastic on both sides, but it recognized that the war was also defensive on the German side. The French section of the International denounced the war and declared its solidarity with the German workers. The German section had a more complicated task.

In his “Second Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War,” after the French defeat and before the proclamation of the Commune, Marx wrote:

“The German working class have resolutely supported the war, which it was not in their power to prevent, as a war for German independence and the liberation of France and Europe from that pestilential incubus, the Second Empire… In their turn, they are now coming forward to ask for ‘guarantees’ — guarantees that their immense sacrifices have not been bought in vain, that they have conquered liberty, that the victory over the imperialist armies will not, as in 1815, be turned into the defeat of the German people; and, as the first of these guarantees, they claim an honorable peace for France, and the recognition of the French republic…

“The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly… They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organization. It will gift them with fresh herculean powers for the regeneration of France, and our common task — the emancipation of labor. Upon their energies and wisdom hinges the fate of the republic.” (

These observations were completely within the framework of capitalism and nation-states. Seeing no way to transcend these yet, Marx and the International sought to limit the damage from the war and maintain working-class solidarity. Then the French workers committed “a desperate folly” and turned the world upside-down.

On the dawn of March 18, Paris arose to the thunder-burst of “Vive la Commune!” What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?

“’The proletarians of Paris,’ said the Central Committee in its manifesto of March 18, ‘amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs… They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.’…

“If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labor, emphatically international. Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world.” (

The perspective was no longer the development of capitalism, the strengthening of the working class, and the struggle for reforms in the framework of the nation-state — but workers’ revolution and workers’ power, internationally. Of course there were more historical twists and turns, and there still are. But the future was visible.

September-October 2018, ATC 196