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Marx, Engels and Lenin on the Irish Question

Liam O Ruairc The Starry Plough, August/September 2004

Throughout history, nationalism has taken (1) many different forms (conservative, radical etc), (2) has/is supported by many different social groups (bourgeoisie, working class, etc), (3) has very different political effects (reactionary, progressive). When dealing with nationalism, it is necessary like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Connolly to reject an abstract and timeless theory of nationalism. It was always historical and concrete. The fundamental point is that their analysis of nationalism was always put in terms of (a) the strategic interests of the working class, and thus always emphasised (b) the relation between nationalism and democracy. Marxists have to understand simultaneously the social roots of national struggles and the national content of the class struggle.

It is a commonly held misconception that Marx and Engels did not understand the importance of nationalism. They are famous for writing in the Manifesto that "the workers have no country". Does that mean that they have no interest in the nation? In fact, Marx and Engels understood very well the importance for nationalism for working class politics. In the same Manifesto, they write that the proletariat "must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not the in the bourgeois sense of the word."

The question of the leading class of the nation is of extreme importance. Societies are divided into classes, so the "national interest" must be represented by one of them. The most progressive class in society would be truly national in so far as it was able to take the whole society forward, even while it was promoting its own interest. If it is not that of the proletariat, the nationalism will be that of the ruling classes that conceive their own interest as those of the entire nation. That capacity to represent the interest of a particular social class as those of the entire nation is very important. Similarly, they have been accused of intending to abolish national differences. However, what Marx and Engels foresaw was not the complete disappearance of all national distinctions whatever but specifically the abolition of sharp economic and social differences, economic isolation, invidious distinctions, political rivalries, wars and exploitation of one nation by another. In the case of Ireland and Britain for example, they advocated "the transformation of the present forced Union into an equal and free Confederation if possible, or into complete separation if necessary" (255). The Irish question was decisive in the formation of the Marxist analysis of the national question.

For Marx and Engels, there was nothing intrinsically progressive about Irish nationalism, the right of a nation to self determination is not absolute. Marx and Engels were clearly aware that the relation between England and Ireland was one of oppression. But, Marx's support for the Irish struggle was "not only acted upon feelings of humanity. There is something besides." (404) His support for Ireland’s right to self-determination was based on a class analysis. In the 1840s and 1850s, Marx and Engels believed that Irish freedom would be a by-product of a working class revolution in Great Britain. But in 1869, he wrote:

"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." (398)

Why? Marx thought that the English aristocracy maintained its domination at home through its domination of Ireland. "A nation that oppresses another forges its own chains." (255) This is why "to accelerate the social revolution in Europe, you must push on the catastrophe of official England. To do so, you must attack her in Ireland. That's her weakest point. Ireland lost, the British Empire is gone and the class war in England till now somnolent and chronic, will assume acute forms." (404)

Thus, for English workers, "the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation." (408) Therefore the task for socialists was everywhere to put "the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with the Irish." (408) Their position on Ireland was analysed in terms of the European and British revolution. The situation was assessed in terms of its impact on the balance of forces between classes in Europe, Britain and Ireland and how it would increase the class struggle. Regarding the class struggle in Ireland, they arrived at the conclusion that the land question "is not merely a simple economic question but at the same time a national question, since the landlords there ..are..its mortally hated oppressor."

Marx saw the relation between the national question and the class struggle in the following terms: "In Ireland the land question has hitherto been the exclusive form of the social question, because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority of the Irish people, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question." (407)

The solution advocated by Marx was:

"What the Irish need is

  • (1) self-government and independence from England,
  • (2) an agrarian revolution,
  • (3) protective tariffs against England." (158)

It was in the interests of the class struggle that the Irish should give a central importance to the national question. In a 1882 letter to Kautsky, Engels wrote that the Irish "have not only the right but even the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalistic", "they are most internationalistic when they are genuinely nationalistic." (449)

To the idea that workers of oppressed and oppressor nations should somehow put their national differences behind, Engels replied:

"If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to 'sink national differences' and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloack of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish." (419)

What was true of the relationship between Britain and Ireland, in the later part of the 19th century was mirrored all over the world with the imperialist stage of capitalism. Imperialism is a worldwide system of colonial oppression and financial domination of the overwhelming majority of the world by a small number of capitalist countries. A handful of imperialist countries obtain high profits of the exploitation of oppressed people worldwide. Imperialism thus divides the world into oppressed and oppressor nations. Lenin, after Marx and Engels, developed the most advanced Marxist understanding of the national question. For Lenin, the focal point in the socialist programme "must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism." (CW21, 409) If one confronts the reality of imperialism, the first fact is that the world is now divided between oppressor and oppressed nations, and that national oppression has not only been extended, it has intensified. Imperialism has also the effect of dividing the working class. The superprofits are able to "buy off" a layer of the working class in the oppressor countries.

Lenin wrote that "The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nation should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its practical importance." (CW20, 442) Socialism for Lenin "will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question." (CW21, 413) Within their ultimate aim of socialism, communists support "every revolutionary movement against the present social system, they support all oppressed nationalities, persecuted religions, dowtrodden social estates etc. in their fight for equal rights." (CW20, 34)

He wrote this important statement:

"Increased national oppression under imperialism does not mean that Social Democracy should reject what the bourgeoisie call the 'utopian' struggle for the freedom of nations to secede but, on the contrary, it should make greater use of the conflicts that arise in this sphere, too, as ground for mass action and for revolutionary attacks on the bourgeoisie." (CW22, 146)

Nationalism is a potent mobilising agent and the necessary framework for the transition to socialism in societies dominated by imperialism. Lenin was keenly aware of nationalism as a catalysing agent. His analysis is based on distinctions between oppressor nations and oppressed nations, bourgeois nationalism and revolutionary nationalism.

In so far as the oppressed nation fights the oppressor "we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression." (CW20, 411-412)

"The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support." (CW20, 412)

Consequently, Marxism must take both tendencies of nationalism into account by advocating "firstly the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect (and the right to self-determination); secondly the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against the contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind." (CW20, 435) The task of the socialists is not simply to tail the bourgeois nationalism. Democratic demands, Lenin argued "must be formulated and put through in a revolutionary and not a reformist manner, going beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality, breaking them down, going beyond speeches in parliament and verbal protests, and drawing the masses into decisive action." (CW22, 145)

Real revolutions do not take a "pure" form, with a "pure" working class. Responding to Socialists who had dismissed the 1916 rising as a nationalist revolt, Lenin replied:

"To imagine that a social revolution is conceivable without revolts of small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without the movement of non-class conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression of the landlords, the church, the monarchy, the foreign yoke, etc- to imagine that is tantamount to repudiating social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says 'we are for socialism', and another somewhere else lines up and says 'we are for imperialism' and that will be a social revolution ! ... Who ever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is". ("The Discussion of Self Determination Summed Up", CW22, 355-356)

The role of nationalism and national question is crucial for the socialism: "The dialectics of history are such that small nations powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli which facilitate the entry into the arena of real power against imperialism, namely the socialist proletariat." (CW22, 357)

The rising failed, but Lenin nevertheless defended its validity.

"The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, ..., but only in revolutionary movements which are often premature, partial, sporadic, and therefore unsuccessful will the masses gain, experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in that way prepare for the general onslaught, in the same way as separate strikes, demonstrations, local and national, mutinies in the army, outbreaks among the peasantry, etc, prepared the way for the general onslaught in 1905." (CW, 358)

The 1916 Rising was also significant because it took place in Europe. "The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going to the lengths of insurrection and street fighting, breach of military discipline in the army and martial law, sharpens the revolutionary crisis in Europe infinitely more than a much more complete rebellion in a single colony." (CW, 357) The stance of Marx, Engels and Lenin on Ireland and the Irish question are the model for the socialist understanding of the national question.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

9 October 2004

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Update - Youth Suicide Prevention Project
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Father Mc Manus on Ron Lauder, David Trimble, the Orange Order, and Catholic anti-Semitism
Father Sean Mc Manus

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Four)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Some Inconvenient Facts
Patrick Hurley

Marx, Engels and Lenin on the Irish Question
Liam O Ruairc

The Gates of Hell
Elana Golden

After the Venezuela Referendum
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One for the Road
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5 October 2004

Marty O'Hagan Three Years On
Anthony McIntyre

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Three)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Shankill Education
Mick Hall

Where Are We After Fours Years of Intifada?
Haithem El-Zabri

The Letters page has been updated.



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