The National Question

Socialism and Nationalism

by C. Desmond Greaves

Lecture given on 23 June 1968 during a Discussion Conference at Marx House, Clerkenwell Green, London

I hope that nobody will complain that the title of this conference was misleading. The concepts socialism and nationalism are not strictly comparable. Socialism is a definite system of society in which both production and appropriation proceed in common, but where personal consumption is related to personal contribution. By extension the word applies to the movement and doctrine of those striving to establish such a system. Nationalism, on the other hand is not a word that defines a system of society. It can only define a sentiment, doctrine or movement. As we will use it today it will refer to the aim of securing national independence in its broadest sense, an aim which is democratic but not inherently socialist. I thought it would be useful, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of James Connolly, a Marxist thinker who made such important contributions in this field, to make a general survey of the way in which these two concepts have been related at different stages in the history of the movement. The Communist Manifesto of 1848, the founding charter of scientific socialism, has about a dozen references to nationality and nationalism. That most widely known and quoted is the aphorism with which Marx and Engels replied to critics who accused them of wanting to “abolish countries and nationality”. They replied, “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got”.

You will recall how the first section of the Manifesto deals with the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, constantly revolutionising the means of production, breaking down all the social barriers of feudalism, in the pursuit of an ever-expanding market which becomes the world market. This is how the subject of nations and nationality is first introduced. I will quote:

“To the great chagrin of reactionaries it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed … In place of the old national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.”

and again:

The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production.It compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, ie to become bourgeois themselves. In one word it creates a world after its own image.”

It is quite clear from this that it is capitalist economic development which does away with countries and nationality, and not action by communists.

But there is more to the riposte than a “you as well”. The Manifesto notes the unevenness of the process. Capitalism makes the country dependent on the town, it makes “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West”.

Thus capitalism invents its own special form of national oppression.

Now wherever the capitalist mode of production is established, it necessarily gives rise to a proletariat. The growth of the proletariat in numbers, organisation and class consciousness is described, up to the point where it can challenge the bourgeoisie for the position of ruling class. The whole strength of the proletariat is seen in its unity and organisation. Shall this unity and organisation stop at the state frontiers upheld by the bourgeoisie? Shall the proletariat, whose basic defence mechanism is the elimination of competition within its own ranks, come to the aid of the bourgeoisie in furthering competition across state boundaries, or when the bourgeoisie is engaged in political or military struggle with another bourgeoisie? The reply is, of course, that the interests of the proletariat transcend these frontiers, and it is precisely this first enunciation of working-class internationalism which was read by contemporary philistines as the “desire to abolish countries and nationality”. It was in relation to the competition of the bourgeoisie that the working men had no country, for bourgeois property was the substance of bourgeois nationalism and the proletariat possessed none. It had already been made clear that, to quote again:

“Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle 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”

The second section, on Proletarians and Communists, emphasises proletarian internationalism from the start:

“The Communists are distinguished from other working class parties by this only:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class has to pass through they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

The picture is therefore that of an international movement composed of national parts. Marx and Engels indeed had some good fun at the expense of the Proudhonists who wanted to “abolish nationalities in the interests of the social revolution”. Marx pointed out that they continued to speak French and wondered if “abolishing nationalities” meant that we all became Frenchmen!

To return to the Manifesto, it notes that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples … are daily more and more vanishing owing to the development of the bourgeoisie”. It adds that “The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster”, and that “in proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes. The hostility of one nation to another will come to an end”.

Note there is no word of the nations themselves disappearing, merely of differences and antagonisms between them. Of course one can reasonably extrapolate from the bare text. When there are no differences there will be no nations in the old sense. There will be a united humanity. But this is not spelled out here. Not even sketched. Obviously it involves the too remote future. And it is reiterated:

“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. ”

I have already remarked on the implications of the bourgeois sense of the word.

In sections three and four of the Manifesto the different national tactics required in different European countries are fully recognised. Thus in Germany the Manifesto recommends fighting “with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, the petty-bourgeoisie”. In Poland the tactic is to support “the party that insists on an agrarian revolution as the prime condition for national emancipation “. And why such tactics? The answer is simple. It is “in order that after the fall of the reactionary classes … the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin.”

Marx and Engels did not consider that it was necessary for their purpose to define the word nation, which must thus be understood in its common or ordinary meaning. Nor is there developed a theory of the origin of nations, except that implicit in the struggle of national markets in the formation of the world market. And, notwithstanding references to the world market, the appeal is essentially to the developed countries of Europe, for though economically involved in the world movement, Africa and the East had not yet awakened to full political life.

GERMANY – 1848, 1849

It is possible to follow the application of these principles in the writings of Marx and Engels on the series of revolutions which shook Europe in the years 1848 and 1849. In general their hopes rested on Germany. This country was at that time divided into no less than thirty-six states, with two major capital cities, Vienna and Berlin. The hope was that with the aid of the proletariat and sections of the petty-bourgeoisie the bourgeoisie would come to power, establish a democratic republic, and clear the way for proletarian development.

But interspersed among the German regions, and among the regions conquered by the Hapsburgs in particular, there was a host of smaller nations and national groupings. Some of these, particularly those affected by Panslavism, were prepared to support the Czar rather than the German revolution. The cry was, for example, raised in Prague: “Better the Russian knout than Germany liberty”. The view taken by Marx and Engels was that the victory of the German revolution took precedence over the liberation of these nations by the aid of the Czar. But it must be emphasised that this does not imply opposition to the independence of the Czechs, Serbs, etc. from the German as a matter of principle. The separation of these nations, a justifiable democratic demand, must like all democratic demands, be taken in conjunction with the struggle for democracy as a whole in the concrete historical conditions in which it appears.

For those of you who would be interested to look it up, this question is referred to by Lenin in his Thesis on Self-determination of the year 1916. It is not a requirement of Marxism that every single solitary demand for national independence must be supported unhesitatingly under all conditions and at all times. Where democratic rights contradict each other, the greater must take precedence over the lesser for the time being. The principle of internationalism thus regulates the requirements of national independence.


Let us now turn to the colonial question.

In his Conditions of the Working Class in England 1844, Engels described the aim of the English bourgeoisie to become the workshop of the world with “an ever-increasing number of corn and cotton-growing Irelands revolving round her, the industrial sun”. In other words England was aiming at an industrial monopoly and directing her policy to such an end. Nevertheless the economic results of drawing foreign countries into the orbit of capitalism contradicted this aim. In his first article on India written in 1853, Marx described what he called English “swinishness” but warned that despite all, capitalism was going to develop in India, and then the conquistadors must look out for themselves. He saw in the mutiny of the Sepoys in 1857 an expression of popular revolt, describing their excesses as “a reflex of England’s own conduct in India” where “torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy”. He took this view while describing the Sepoys as the “fatted and pampered agents of England”.

Marx followed developments in India for many years. In 1881 he wrote to Danielson:

“What the English take annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus, pensions for military and civil servicemen for Afghanistan and other wars, what they take with them without any equivalent, and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England, it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India. This is a bleeding process with a vengeance.”

Note here that colonialism is not seen as the imposition of capitalism on another country. It is the systematic robbery of that country by all means available, in which pre-capitalist, feudal or slave forms are not only tolerated but protected. Thus while the destruction of the natural economy by the extension of the market renders capitalist development inevitable, it is at the same time delayed and distorted by the power of the oppressing nation. This was a situation not yet envisaged in the Manifesto.

It was in relation to Ireland, however, that Marx developed his teaching on the colonial question. It may be that from the standpoint of world history this was the most important consequence of the Fenian Rising of March 1867, the attempted rescue in Manchester the following September, and the consequent amnesty campaign.

Already in 1856 Engels had visited Ireland and written in a letter to Marx:

“Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony and as one which because of its proximity is still governed exactly in the old way, and one can already notice here that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country, and the sodden look of the bibulous Prussian gendarmes is developed to its highest perfection here among the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.”

The liberty of the English citizens was termed “so-called” because they were no longer, since the decline of Chartism, challenging the vital interests of the bourgeoisie. Even at this early date Marx and Engels appreciated the role of the colonial super-profits in making the English workers accomplices of their rulers in oppressing other peoples, and thus restricting their freedom of action in fighting for themselves.

In November 1867 Marx made his famous pronunciamento on the Irish question. What the Irish needed was first self-government and independence from England, second an agrarian revolution which nobody could accomplish for them but themselves, and third, protective tariffs to encourage the growth of industry. Two years later he remarked that this conclusion represented a revision of his former opinion. He wrote to Engels:

“For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working-class ascendancy …. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.”

His immediately previous letter to Kugelmann shows that what he envisaged was not a revolution in Ireland that would precipitate changes in England, but rather that the English working class should be brought to secure the freedom of Ireland in its own interests. This was because

“the English working class undoubtedly throws the decisive weight into the scale of social emancipation everywhere.” He adds: “As a matter of fact the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland”. Two months previously Engels had made a profound generalisation upon the whole course of English history. He wrote: “Irish history shows one how disastrous it is for a nation when it has subjugated another nation. All the abominations of the English have their origin in the English pale”. That was to trace the story back before the time of Cromwell.

Marx fought for his Irish policy on the General Council of the First International and established a tradition which was communicated to the socialists of a later period. It influenced the radicals, and bore a somewhat exotic fruit in the Liberal-Parnellite alliance in favour of replacing the United Kingdom by a federal kingdom, an arrangement miscalled “Home Rule”.


The course proposed by Marx was, of course, not adopted. Instead of an agrarian revolution made by the people themselves, Ireland got a succession of reforms. The crisis was self-regenerative and gave rise to the strange form of capital accumulation based on emigration which is described in the first volume of Capital. Land purchase was financed (in the last analysis) from the super-profits drawn from colonial countries, including Ireland itself. The landlords were gradually transformed into rentiers, the bourgeoisie flourished modestly amid odours of ruined castles, and the numbers and organisation of the proletariat increased. But the reform inherent in a land settlement carried out in this way was transferred to the party of the bourgeoisie and bourgeoisified landlords, and federalism became slowly whittled down to the measure of devolution. The climateric was when Gladstone turned on Parnell, and his own party failed to back him.

It was in order to deal with this situation that Leslie and Connolly undertook the further development of the work of Marx. Their conclusion was that since the bourgeoisie had given up the struggle for national independence, the working class should take over the leadership. This was a revolutionary conception, for it implied that the national revolution, which had for years been considered part of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, could now be regarded as part of the Socialist revolution. The relationship between nationalism and Socialism had undergone a profound change.

It is worthy of note that Engels came to a similar conclusion in respect of Poland at almost the same time. In the preface to the second Polish edition of the Communist Manifesto, written in February 1892, he declared:

“The Polish nobility was unable either to maintain or to gain independence; for the bourgeoisie it is, for the present at least, immaterial. It can be gained only by the young Polish proletariat, and in its hands it is secure. For the workers of the rest of Europe need the independence of Poland no less than the Polish workers themselves.”

It is curious that the Polish movement does not appear to have developed this suggestion of Engels.

Formerly it had been a matter of hastening the bourgeois democratic revolution, one of whose elements was national independence, by strengthening the national coalition led by the bourgeoisie. Now it was a question of the working class taking the lead, attaching to itself the intermediate strata and letting the bourgeoisie follow if they wished. Quite obviously the end point was not going to be the bourgeois dictatorship, not without a counter-revolution, but a situation from which the transition to Socialism was likely to be far easier than from the simple bourgeois republic.

It may be asked what had happened to create this change. The answer is, of course, the transition of the old industrial capitalism to monopoly capitalism, to imperialism. It is one of the curiosities of history that in Britain the existence of one of the typical features of imperialism, namely colonial possessions on a vast scale, served to delay the advent of others, such as the merging of bank and industrial capital. During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the greater part of the world was carved up between the capitalist states of Western Europe. The profits were immense.

Simultaneously came the ability of imperialism to bribe an upper section of the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and a parallel corruption of an upper stratum of the working class of the oppressor nation. Against these two forms of corruption Connolly fought all his life, and when in 1916 he faced the firing squad, Arthur Henderson, leader of the British Labour Party, was a member of the war cabinet that could have saved him but did not, and William Martin Murphy, leader of the Irish bourgeoisie, publicly called on the imperialists to show no mercy.

By the year 1900 practically the entire globe had been carved up among a handful of imperialist states. The scope of colonialism, and therefore the scope of the liberation movement, was enormously extended. Moreover, as the Irish and Polish convergence illustrates, the national question and the colonial question had begun to merge. The great world front of Socialism and national liberation was beginning to emerge, first as a necessity, then as an actuality. The national revolution was becoming part of the Socialist revolution on a world scale.

Connolly showed how well he appreciated this in his interpretation of the Basle resolution in Irish conditions. The International Socialist Congress at Basle had announced the pledge which was summarised by the Bolsheviks in the slogan: “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the exploiters.” The imperialist war was, of course: a war for the re-division of the world among the imperialist powers. Some were bound to lose, but all hoped to gain, as the secret treaties showed. Connolly saw in the war an opportunity for the oppressed nations to strike a blow for their freedom. Why should they be handed passively from one aggressor to another? He determined to turn the imperialist war into a war of national liberation against imperialism.

Such is the significance of Easter Week 1916. And here are Connolly’s own words to illustrate it:

“Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not bum out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.”

It would be hard to find more graphic expression of the new status of the national revolution as part of the Socialist revolution. Commenting upon the rising of 1916, Lenin remarked that small nations which might be powerless on their own could act as powerful ferments hastening the course of world revolution. This was Connolly’s thought, put another way.


Connolly had no great difficulty in convincing his comrades in Ireland of the need to combine their proletarian demands with the all-important democratic demand of national liberation. He found it less easy to convert English Socialists, who confused the growing fraternity of the peoples in the struggle against imperialism with the abolition of the state boundaries established by imperialism for the purpose of exploitation. To this day there survive sincere Socialists of the old school who are confused enough to believe that the Irish should withdraw their demand for independence in the interests of internationalism. There are some who fondly imagine that the international unity of the workers of Europe will be strengthened as a result of the Common Market. It is as much as to say we will be united provided we are all put in the one prison.

The classical centre of this argument was Poland. Lenin called it “imperialist economism”. Economism, as you will remember, was the doctrine that it was sufficient for a workers’ party to prefer proletarian demands, and that democratic demands were not their business. Lenin replied that this was to leave the stuff of politics to the bourgeoisie. In the same way, to refuse to challenge the frontiers established for and on behalf of landlords and capitalists, where they conflicted with the wishes of the people, was to leave vital questions affecting the lives of the millions to be decided by imperialism. It is remarkable that such splendid characters as Rosa Luxemburg should have been associated with this recrudescence of Proudhonism. The controversy continued over nearly twenty years, and it was against this background that Joseph Stalin drew up his celebrated theses on the National and Colonial Question, and Lenin conducted some of his most profound and thought challenging polemics, which continued until that stage of the First World War when theories could be tested in practice.

The theses of Stalin on Marxism and the National Question were concerned not so much to refute imperialist economism or the new Proudhonism, as to answer the Austro-Marxists who were trying to divorce nationality from territory of residence. These had made the fantastic proposal that members of the various nationalities inhabiting the Austro-Hungarian Empire should register the nationality they belonged to, and have the right to elect a national council, irrespective of their place of residence, which could then conduct “the cultural affairs of the nation”. Stalin showed that the main concern of these opportunists was to frame a national policy which would not upset the political integrity of the Empire, and could so leave the essence of national oppression untouched.

In the course of his refutation of National Cultural autonomy, Stalin was obliged to attempt a definition of a nation, which he described as:

“…a historically evolved, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.”

Stalin emphasised that it was sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent to disqualify a community from the title of nation. The national policy of Bolshevism was based on the right of self-determination of nations, which was meaningless without the right of territorial secession. At the same time the exercise or non-exercise of that right was a matter for the nation to decide in the light of circumstances, the paramount consideration being of course the question of class interests.

The work of Stalin on the national question was a powerful contribution to Marxist thought and stood the test of practice in the revolutionary period that followed to a remarkable degree.

Less than a year after the Easter Rising came the collapse of Czarism in Russia. The general principles of Bolshevik national policy were enshrined in the slogan for a peace “without annexations or indemnities “. Lenin explained carefully that this meant the undoing of old as well as new annexations; it meant England’s evacuating Ireland as well as Germany’s getting out of Belgium. And it is interesting to note the difference between Lenin’s approach and that of President Wilson’s, whose embellishment of the imperialist war was typified in his notorious fourteen points. At the peace conference it was agreed that no nation seeking independence should be heard unless Britain, France and the USA unanimously agreed to listen. On this basis both Irish and Egyptian claims were vetoed.

A glance at Stalin’s strict conditions will show that it could be a subject for considerable debate as to whether this people or that possessed all the qualifications of nationality. Was a people to be denied the coveted prize of independence because it could not convince an international jury that it was a nation in the full sense of the word? Who was to decide? Lenin’s reply was that in case of difficulty the people themselves decided if they were a nation or not. He put it this way:

“The theoretical definition of annexation involves the conception of an ‘alien’ people, i.e. a people that has preserved its peculiarities and its will for independent existence.”

He adds that the slogan must be “taken as inseparably connected with the proletarian revolution. Only in connection with the revolution is it true and useful.”

This was in May 1917, and the Bolsheviks were pointing out that an imperialist peace could only be an exchange of annexations. Of course, one should note that this presumes other things equal. As Lenin frequently pointed out, every democratic principle is open to abuse. I doubt whether English Socialists would accept the secession of Cornwall from a Socialist England after the United States had occupied it and secured a separatist majority while its troops were still there. Certainly the Irish will not accept an English-concocted nationality for Ulster. But the refusal to accept the abuse of a principle does not vitiate the principle. And on that principle the Bolsheviks acted and permitted secessions which involved future military risks.

Perhaps I should add one thing about the Stalin theses. It is a criticism which he made himself. In 1925, criticising Semich for underestimating the importance of the right of secession, he notes that Semich quotes from Stalin’s theses the passage “The national question is a struggle of the bourgeois classes among themselves.” He comments:

“Stalin’s pamphlet was written before the imperialist war, at the time when the national question had not yet assumed world-wide significance in the eyes of Marxists, and when the basic demands concerning the right to self-determination were considered to be, not a part of the proletarian revolution, but a part of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. It would be absurd to ignore the fact that since then a fundamental change has taken place in the international situation, that the war on the one hand and the October revolution in Russia on the other has converted the national question from being a particle of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a particle of the proletarian-socialist revolution.”

Would we be wrong in saying that in respect of this question, Connolly anticipated the Bolsheviks, noting the beginnings of the change in 1894 and showing his grasp of it the moment the imperialist war broke out? And may we not think that the Easter Rising in Ireland, which Lenin used as a test of the validity of his theses on national self-determination written earlier in 1916, was an important contributory factor in rendering Bolshevik thought more precise, just as the Fenian Rising had stimulated Marx? One of Lenin’s main points of emphasis was that imperialism had divided the world thanks to the corruption of a small section of the proletariat into two opposing camps, workers in the imperialist countries, a corruption which might of course ideologically affect the majority. We discern it in the two world trade union movements of to-day. It is still true that a people which oppresses another forges its own chains. This is the great significance of the national liberation struggle for the British working class.


If I were speaking anywhere else I am sure I would at this point hear somebody interject, “But the British Empire is no more. We have given the colonies their freedom. How can you talk in such an old-fashioned way? We have the affluent society because we are living above our income.”

Of course it is true that most of the territory occupied by British imperialism in its heyday is now the scene of independent sovereign states. But are they free to act independently to develop their economic life as their people require, without the payment of a financial toll to their old masters? First, the countries of monopoly capitalism, and remember imperialism is still monopoly capitalism, have enveloped them in a financial system which they can only break out of by relations with the socialist countries. This is the significance of anti-communism. It is no more possible for the ex-colonies than the Labour Left to fight imperialism and communism at the same time.

Price-fixing is a feature of monopoly. The world price system consistently discriminates against the producers of primary goods. British workers are familiar with the constant shrinkage in the value of money. The constant raid on their pay packet they try to balance by fighting for higher wages. The prices of many primary products are lower than when the countries that produce them secured independence; and they have to buy, as the British workers do, at constantly inflated prices. This is one of the most important forms of national oppression in the world today.

But of course, it is not just economic. There is constant political interference in the internal affairs of the former colonies. Some of them have frontiers imposed by imperialism, for example by partition. Whether this is accompanied by occupation or not it is still aggression. Others have constitutions imposed by imperialism which contain a built-in bias in imperialism’s favour. Others have to provide imperialism with bases. Others again are threatened and constrained in their policy by bases near them. Imperial investments constantly rise, and the resources of these countries are almost as much at imperialism’s disposal as they were in the old colonial days. All this, which constitutes a continuance of imperialism, is now known as neo-colonialism – the maintenance of colonialism by new means, means which were of course not unknown in the olden days whenever direct occupation was difficult or inadvisable, but which are the rule now whereas they were the exception in the past.

The scale on which monopoly capitalism operates today multiplies year by year. Investments in former colonies in many cases stand at figures above three times their value at the time of liberation. The activities of big business more and more prove incompatible with the most elementary forms of democracy. Hence the succession of palace-coups and counter-revolutions, from which it seems even the most advanced capitalist countries are not immune. On all sides rises the complaint that the common man has no say in the control of his destinies. A generation is beginning to grow up in the imperialist countries to whom the whole existing structure of society presents a huge question mark.

Neo-colonialism is the supreme proof that the national revolution is now more than ever an integral part of the socialist revolution. For one thing, the sole prospect of effective economic independence for the former colonies rests on socialist measures within their countries. But these need to be sustained by a foreign policy which brings the support of the socialist world, which does not impose imperialist conditions.

The imperial profit has increased. But the cost of collecting it has increased even more and it is more difficult since the old colonialism vanished. Direct looting is not so easy, to charge people with the cost of oppressing them. From this come the immense arms budgets, the world-wide system of bases, the troops kept abroad, and the distortion of the imperial economy which these entail. The constantly recurring crises in Britain, now levelling out into a state of permanent crisis, point inescapably to one thing. The policy of neo-colonialism, designed to solve the crisis of colonialism, has itself run into irrevocable crisis. And that means the basis for corrupting sections of the British workers is begin-ning to break up.

It is perhaps in connection with this that the appearance of Scottish and Welsh national movements must be viewed.

In my opinion the Scottish and Welsh peoples qualify as nations, and are entitled to self-determination, including the right of secession from the English State. I will not go into the question of how and to what degree it is expedient for them to attempt to exercise that right

I will ask, however, how is it that these nations have been acquiescent so long? In the case of both Scotland and Wales it is obvious that their industries have been developed in a one-sided manner in order to satisfy the requirements of the imperialist State. For years the famous admiralty coals of the Swansea valley fired the British navy. I will say nothing about the consumption of Scotch whisky among the Empire Builders. Now, in the crisis of neo-colonialism at the very end of the road, comes the drastic retrenchment and rationalisation The old functions of these regions, as they are fashionably called, have come to an end, and imperialism has nothing to put in their place, except tourist caravans and a few oil depots.

In the case of Scotland the Act of Union of 1707 came but a few years after the Scottish merchants had failed in the unsavoury adventure of trying to establish a Scottish colony at Darien in Central America. From then on access to the colonies, and thus the prospect of primitive accumulation for Scottish capitalism, depended on the consent of England. A recent English writer said that when imperialism was able to distribute its largesse to all its supporters far and wide, Scotland and Wales were glad to be on the English bandwagon. Now they were anxious to dis-mount. That may be true. But while it was the bourgeoisie who got on the bandwagon it’s the popular masses who are anxious to get off it, now that they see where it is taking them!

There is little doubt that as soon as political events catch up with economic – and of course economic evils have not by a long way fully worked themselves out – the English people will show a distinct political turn to the Left. What should be the attitude of the Left to these independent movements in the north and west?

If the national revolution is indeed a part of the socialist revolution, may it not be that these movements have something to contribute to the achievement of socialism in Britain? But can the leadership of such important movements be left to the petty-bourgeoisie? Should not the working-class movement put itself at the head, and combine the struggle for national independence with the general struggle against imperialism and for socialism? May it not be that the regeneration of Scotland and Wales, millions of acres of whose territory is all but desert, can only be carried out by the Welsh and Scottish peoples themselves, with fraternal assistance from England? May this road not possibly be the only way to a real and a lasting union of the people of Britain? I put these points as questions. Perhaps there are those present who can supply the answers.

At this point one can refer to another of the phenomena of the crisis of neo-colonialism – the propaganda of race hatred. The Tory racists are trying to play on the “blind spot of the English working class”, by which is meant their long-standing failure to understand the colonial determination of British internal politics. Anger is being diverted from the monopoly capitalists to the colonial workers who refuse meekly to stay at home and be exploited any more. But not a one of these would not prefer to live in his own country if the Tory non-colonialists did not make it impossible for him to get a living there. To raise this cry at this time serves not only to distract, divert and divide, but also to provide the ideological justification for present and future wars of attempted colonial reconquest, such as that being carried on at the moment in Vietnam.


I have by no means begun to exhaust the possibilities of the subject we have chosen today. I have not dealt with the role of various classes in the national struggle of our own times. I have not dealt with the question of socialist nations or the future of nations as such; or the future of international relations under earlier and later stages of socialism, when an immense back-log of problems will remain left over from the imperialist epoch. It may well be that the final merging or amalgamation of nations may be postponed generations by the necessity that the oppressed should forget the days of their oppression, and the oppressors forget that they ever oppressed. The fullest and freest development of every people is essential for the future.

I have not discussed either the question of relations between socialist States, whether there are any contradictions between them, and what these may consist of. This falls only on the edge of our subject, and I merely mention it in closing. Or the future of language – do we expect to see the fairly early emergence of a world language, or the rapid development of translation by computer, or maybe progress in both directions?

I suggest that while we are not oblivious of the future, we should stick to the present. In our day the supreme task is the elimination of monopoly capitalism, the basis of all modern imperialism. This is a task that masses of people, not only of the oppressed nationalities, are rapidly becoming conscious of. Why should countless millions of people take orders for the sake of a figure in an account book – for that is all it is to them? Why should we be ruled by people who, however smart, self-confident and superficially knowing, get every single thing they have by the purchase of labour-power, including that of scientists, accountants, aye, and Labour politicians, as well as of engineers, plantation workers and copper miners sweating in Africa? National independence is one of the most important forms of democracy. It is playing, and will play, a decisive role in the dethronement of the parasitic class which had no more interest in the British or French workers than an economic army of occupation. The freedom of all nations to develop without external interference but in growing mutual collaboration by which the national divisions that separate humanity can be transformed from elements of misunderstanding and antagonism into components of a world culture that preserves all that is valuable from the past.