In his letter to Weekly Worker, no. 812, Alan Johnstone attacks my claim that Marx and Engels would have been supporters of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy from the time of the First International.

On Alan’s first point, that what socialists should do in 2010 does not depend on what Marx and Engels may or may not have done in the nineteenth century, I am in agreement. I had already made the case for socialists/communists adopting an of an ‘internationalism from below’ approach in these islands on the basis of an analysis of the current political situation.

Nevertheless, I still think there is something to be gained by learning from historical experience. Of course, you have to be aware of the different contexts. Yet, I think a very strong case can be made for Marx and Engels’ adoption of an ‘internationalism from below’ stance. Alan maintains that Marx’s support for certain independence movements stemmed from Marx’s opposition to the three great feudal powers – Russia, Austria and Prussia. Certainly Marx and Engels’ support for the Polish and Hungarian national democratic movements in 1848 can be attributed to such strategic thinking.

However, the founding conference of the First International in 1864 declared that, It is imperative to annihilate the invading influence of Russia in Europe by applying to Poland, ‘the right of every people to dispose of itself’ and re-establishing that country on a social and democratic basis. Quite clearly, Marx and Engels were already beginning to move towards a more general democratic principle, in giving their support to Poland.

Furthermore, if Alan reads Marx and Engels’ quite substantial writings on Ireland, particularly from the period of the First International, he would realise that their support for Irish self-determination – sometimes advocating a confederal relationship with Britain, other times complete independence – amounted to much more than a desire to weaken the position of the English landed aristocracy, although this was certainly a consideration. Alan’s attempt to equate this landed aristocracy with the remnants of feudalism, to justify his own interpretation, is frankly wrong. The landlord class in Ireland may have been a strong supporter of Tory reaction (by the end of the century, the same could be said of the industrialists of north east Ulster), but they were very definitely capitalist landlords, as was demonstrated by their actions during the Great Famine.

If Alan’s argument is sound, then by the 1880s, when Marx and Engels no longer saw Tsarist Russia as the ‘reactionary strong man of Europe’, they should have abandoned even their tactical support for Polish independence. Instead, in a letter to Kautsky, in 1882, Engels wrote that,

So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself… Polish socialists who do not place the liberation of their country at the head of their programme appear to me as would German socialists who do not demand first and foremost repeal of the {anti-} socialist law, freedom of the press, association and assembly. In order to be able to fight one needs first a soil to stand on, air, light and space. Otherwise all is idle chatter.

Furthermore, Alan highlights the fact that Marx and Engels denounced many other nationalist movements such as the Slavs. This was certainly their earlier attitude, accentuated by the defeat of the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave. However, in 1888, Engels wrote to the Romanian Social Democrat, Ion Nadejde, that, Once Tsarism is overthrown… Austria will disintegrate… Poland will come to life again… the Romanians, Hungarians and Southern Slavs will be able to regulate their affairs and their border questions free from foreign interference.

So, far from Marx and Engels’ support for national democratic movements being confined to a select few countries for particular strategic reasons (undoubtedly their earlier stance), from the 1860s onwards, they gave their support to he right of every people to dispose of itself. Furthermore, as I showed in Engels’ response to Hales, a British Left unionist, Marx and Engels fought for the organisational principle of ‘internationalism from below’ within the First International.

I too like Eugene Debs quote, but I note that after 106 years of the SPGB’s existence, the World Socialist Movement, of which it forms a part, seems confined to the richer English-speaking countries of the world. How can this be explained?

A Letter from Alan Johnston (SPGB) to Weekly Worker no 812

How disappointed I was when I read the article title Misusing Marx and Engels (April 1) and learned how its author, Allan Armstrong, himself misuses Marx and Engels by declaring that they would have somehow supported the slogan ‘Internationalism from below’.

That Marx and Engels supported certain independence movements (yet also denounced many other nationalist movements such as that of the Slavs) is sometimes used to try to justify socialists today supporting the demands for independence.

Two points can be made. Firstly, what socialists should do in 2010 does not depend on what Marx or Engels may or may not have done in the 19th century. But, secondly and more importantly, the circumstances which led Marx to support some independence movements of his time no longer exist in today’s world.

After the failures of 1848, Marx pretty much dropped out of active politics and devoted more of his time to his studies. However, he later began actively to participate in political struggle within the First International. His strategy was the long-term one of preparing the working class to win political power for socialism. This involved Marx advocating various democratic and social reforms. This process was continually threatened by the three great feudal powers – Russia, Austria and Prussia. The bourgeois democratic victory over feudalism was far from complete, even in a rapidly industrialising Britain.

In these circumstances, Marx considered it necessary to support not only direct moves to extend political democracy, but also moves which he felt would weaken the feudal powers of Europe. He supported Polish independence as a means of weakening tsarist Russia. His support for Irish independence was for a similar reason. It would, he thought, weaken the position of the English landed aristocracy.

World War I destroyed the three great European feudal powers, making it no longer necessary for socialists to support moves to weaken them. Once industrial capitalist powers had come to dominate the world, and once a workable political democracy had been established in those states, then the task of socialists was to advocate socialism rather than democratic and social reforms. That is the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Marx’s strategy was concerned with furthering the establishment of political democracy. It was not, as some think, an anticipation of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, according to which independence for colonies will help precipitate a socialist revolution in the imperialist countries. Nor was it, as Allan Armstrong would like us to believe, an early endorsement of ‘internationalism from below’. Marx clearly wrote of the independence movements helping to overthrow the remnants of feudalism, but not capitalism itself.

With regard to all nationalisms generally, I suggest that socialists heed Eugene Debs when he said: I have no country to fight for; my country is the Earth, and I am a citizen of the world.


  • Marxism explains how workers are exploited and unfree, not as particular nationalities, but as members of a class. To be in an ‘oppressed minority’ at all it is to first belong to the working class. From this perspective, identifying with the working class provides a rational basis for political action. The objective is a stateless world community of free access. Given that nationalism does nothing to further this understanding, however, it is an obstruction to world socialism.Luxemburg understood that a campaign to establish an independent Poland would unleash nationalist passions which would divert the working class in Russian Poland not just from the struggle to establish socialism but even from the struggle to win elementary democratic freedoms. She was proved right on this point when Poland got independence in 1919 an authoritarian nationalist dictatorship under former PPS-leader Pilsudski soon came to power.

    The world of nationalism is full of contradictions, odd ideas and illogical notions. Marx’s and Engel’s earlier (and i claim tactical) position should not be viewed as a permanent blessing for nationalism.

    Engels agrees that after the fall of the tsar it would be all right for the small Slavic peoples to have their independence – AFTER NOT BEFORE.

    We can , of course , banter Marx and Engels quotes but in regards attitudes towards Slavic independence , writing to Kautsky in 1882 , Engels says “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.” He adds, “I am certain that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Hungarian Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted.”

  • Although Alan Johnstone’s reply is brief, and ignores many points I have made, he does advance discussion by further outlining his party’s own position. So, let us look the first sentence of Alan’s reply. “Marxism explains how workers are exploited and unfree, not as particular nationalities, but as members of a class.” Marx certainly emphasised the centrality of workers’ exploitation as wage slaves under capitalism. This reality is disguised whenever the bourgeois class appeals to workers as ‘free labour’, exercising ‘our’ political freedom within parliamentary democracy. Marx, however, maintained that workers remain oppressed (“unfree”) and the state remains the instrument of bourgeois rule as long as capitalism remains in control.

    Marx would not have agreed with Alan’s statement that “to be in an ‘oppressed minority’ at all it is first to belong to the working class”. Marx’s many writings, for example, on black chattel slaves, particularly in the USA; and also on the position of Irish tenant farmers in the UK, show that he had a much wider understanding of political oppression than Alan maintains. It is not only the working class who face national oppression.

    Alan maintains that “nationalism does nothing to further “this understanding” of “identifying with the working class {as} a rational basis for political action”. I would maintain that a ‘Marxism’ which fails to examine the particular mechanisms of oppression used by the various ruling classes of the world – e.g. sexual, national, religious – provides the ideal opportunity for hostile class forces to provide their own diversionary ‘solutions’ to its victims.

    This is why Alan draws the wrong conclusions from the triumph of the social patriotic Pilsudski in Poland in 1919. It was precisely because socialists like Luxemburg and the SDKPL failed to champion Polish independence as part of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy (as advocated by Kazimierz Kelles-Kreuz) that Pilsudski was given so much leeway. I have already pointed that the relative weakness of post-First World War socialism in Poland, compared even with socialism in Finland (despite facing an even worse defeat in a bloody White counter-revolution), can be largely explained by their different attitudes to the issue of national democracy.

    Alan is right to argue that Marx and Engels’ attitudes can not be resolved by seizing isolated quotes out of context. However, I maintain that their developing position on the National Question can best be explained by seeing three main phases in the development of their thought in response to the changed circumstances they faced.

    1. A cosmopolitan approach up to the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave.
    2. Support for ‘historical’ nations (coupled to fervent opposition to Tasrist Russia) from 1847 to the mid 1860’s.
    3. A switch to ‘internationalism from below’. The first hints can be seen in their attitude towards the anti-colonial wars in India and China in the late 1850’s, further developed in their approach to Poland and Ireland in the First International from the mid-1860’s, and accelerated from 1875 when they began to acknowledge the possibility of internal political opposition to Tsarist Russia.

    However, Alan’s 1882 quote from Engels letter to Kautsky, does highlight one feature of Marx and Engels’ thinking. Reactionary Tsarist Russia always loomed large in their considerations. However, Marx, in 1853, had already entertained the possibility that an independent Southern Slavonian federation could emerge from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, which would be a challenge to Tsarist Russia (just as Engels had initially viewed the activities of Czech democrats favourably in the 1848 revolution).

    However, whenever, domestic opposition in Tsarist Russia (either as a consequence of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, or the formation of the Narodniks) failed to deliver; or whenever, the local Southern Slavonians and Greeks appeared to look to Tsarist Russia for support, then Marx and Engels quickly turned instead to virtually any opponent – whether it be the reactionary Tory, David Urquhart, or Ottoman Turkey – for support against Tsarist Russia.

    The political context of Engel’s 1882 letter to Kautsky was Tsarist Russia’s recent defeat of the Ottoman Empire (and its expanding influence in the Balkans and Caucasus) in the 1877-8 war, and the crushing of the Populist, Narodnaya Volya after the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II, in 1881. The exasperated tone of Engels letter is highlighted by his claim, “that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted”!

    This letter of Kautsky (and a similar one to Bernstein) were examples of private correspondence, in which both Marx and Engels were often very ‘non-p.c.’. Certainly, even towards the end of his life in 1896, Engels could remain disparaging of particular nationalities, which challenged the Ottoman Empire, such as the Armenians and Cretan Greeks, because he still saw them as catspaws for Tsarist Russia. However, in this attitude, he was opposed by Kautsky, Parvus, and even by Luxemburg.

    It was really only after Engels’ death that significant new Social Democratic forces would emerge in the Balkans, championing the notion of an independent Balkan Federation, in open opposition to the Ottoman, Hapsburg and the Tsarist Empires. I have little doubt that Engels would have welcomed such a development.

    However, the Engels 1888 letter to Ion Nadedje, which I quoted (designed for publication in the Romanian Social Democrat journal), shows that he could envisage a progressive national democratic outcome, in the Balkans. Along with all the other evidence I have provided from the days of the First International to the end of Engels’ life, I think Marx and Engels’ increased adherence to an ‘internationalism from below’ approach can be demonstrated.

    As both Alan and I have stated, none of this provides automatic guidance about how to approach the National Question today. However, the initial contribution I made to the Republican Socialist Convention in London consisted of a concrete analysis of the current role of the UK state and British imperialism in a world dominated by imperial capitalism. In my reply to Nick Rogers, I demonstrated the application of ‘internationalism from below’ approach in the context of a particular trade union struggle and the victorious anti-poll tax movement, in which I took part.

    However, I notice Alan has not answered the one question I asked him. “After 106 years of the SPGB’s existence, the World Socialist Movement, of which it forms a part, seems confined to the richer English-speaking countries of the world. How can this be explained?” So, I will now also add another question. What is the political balance sheet of SPGB’s existence over the same period for the working class of ‘Great Britain’ it has sought to win to its politics?

    Allan Armstrong, 3.5.10