Jean van Heijenoort writing as Marc Loris

The National Question in Europe

National Question in Europe, Fourth International, September 1942, pp. 264–268, under the name “Marc Loris”.

With the American Civil War, the Italian wars of unification, Prussia’s wars against Austria and France, the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century marks the end of the epoch of the formation of the great bourgeois states. This does not mean that national questions ceased to preoccupy humanity. Far from it. The uneven development of capitalism appears in this realm as in others.

A Glance into the Past

The national problem was sharply posed then for a number of peoples in central and south-eastern Europe. Leaving aside the Irish struggle, the Alsatian problem of Germany, the Catalan and Basque questions in Spain, there were the oppressed nationalities of the two great semi-feudal empires, Austria-Hungary and Russia, as well as those that came out of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The national problem in Europe thus appeared essentially as a vestige of the great historical task of emancipation which had been created by the transition from feudalism to capitalism but which the latter had been unable to resolve completely.

The development of imperialism soon raised the national question in another group of countries, the colonial countries (or semi-colonial such as China and Persia). While liberals of all kinds were able to comfort themselves by thinking that the national problem in Europe was merely a historical lag which would catch up more or less quickly, the formation of the colonial empires soon demonstrated that the national question arose inevitably from the most modern phase of capitalism, finance imperialism. However, the colonial developments could also be interpreted as part of the historical lag, representing a historical rise toward the national state, evoked by the development of the productive forces in the colonies under the impact of capitalism.

Shaking the great multi-national empires, crushing the small nations between the large, the first imperialist world war revived the national problem in Europe, giving it a new acuteness in the countries where it had not been settled (Austria-Hungary, Russia), or reviving it in the countries where history had long ago disposed of it (occupied Belgium). Against those who, under various pretexts, denied or minimized the importance of the national questions in our epoch (Luxemburg, Radek, Bukharin, Piatakov), Lenin wrote many times during the last war: “Imperialism is the epoch of the oppression of nations on a new historical basis ... Imperialism renews the old slogan of self-determination.”

Lenin’s basic idea was that, contrary to the expectations of the liberals, capitalist development exacerbated national oppression. In the revolutionary ranks there were many people who tried to ignore the problems of national freedom, at least in Europe, under the pretext that imperialism made all national freedoms a Utopia and an illusion. To Bukharin, who denied the possibility of European national movements, Lenin replied that, as far as the national question is concerned, Bukharin “has not proved and will not prove the distinction between colonies and oppressed nations in Europe.” Of course, Lenin, better than anyone else, knew how to show the opposition between imperialist Europe and the oppressed colonial world. But he denied the absolute character of that opposition. He showed that the imperialist epoch not only revived the unresolved national problems in Europe, but was even able to give birth to new ones. For example, in a polemic against the Polish partisans of Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin mentioned hypothetically, in 1916, the possibility of occupied Belgium rising against Germany for its emancipation. At the same time Trotsky wrote: “The independence of the Belgians, Serbians, Poles, Armenians and others . . . belongs to the program of the fight of the international proletariat against imperialism.” He did not hesitate to place a crushed imperialist nation of western Europe on the same plane as the colonial peoples of the Orient.

For Lenin, the intensification of the national problem in Europe proper was not the fortuitous result of some military accident such as the superiority of the German armies. It had a much deeper cause. It sprang from the very nature of imperialism. Kautsky had attempted to explain imperialism by the need of industrial countries to combine with agrarian countries—a theory which obscured the violent and reactionary character of imperialism by presenting it as some sort of international division of labor. Lenin, refuting Kautsky, wrote in his book on Imperialism:

“The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agricultural regions, but even highly industrialized regions (German appetite for Belgium, French appetite for Lorraine), because (1) the fact that the world is already divided up obliges those contemplating a new division to reach out for any kind of territory, and (2) because an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between a number of great powers In the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony (Belgium is chiefly necessary to Germany as a base for operations against England; England needs Bagdad as a base for operations against Germany, etc.).” (Lenin’s italics.)

These lines are profoundly true, perhaps even more today than when they were written: 1. They explain the special features of colony-starved German imperialism: “The fact that the world is already divided up obliges those contemplating a new division to reach out for any kind of territory.” 2. They also show that at present all conquest has a strategical-military and economic character at the same time and that it is impossible to establish a clear distinction between the two. 3. Moreover, Lenin did not hesitate to place the occupation of a crushed small imperialist country (Belgium) and the conquest of a colony (Bagdad) on the same plane by showing that they both have the same deep cause, which is “the characteristic feature of imperialism.” These three points are all equally important for the understanding of the epoch through which we are passing.

The National Problem in Europe Today

To destroy the absolute character of the assertions of the sectarians, Lenin, in his polemics on the national question, often had to indicate possibilities of historical development. These possibilities have today become realities. If during the last war the national problem in Europe had a fragmentary character, today it embraces the whole continent. The second imperialist war is the continuation of the first, but on a much larger scale. Notwithstanding the participation of America and Japan on the side of the Allies, the war of 1914-18 remained essentially a European war. The present war is world-wide in the full sense of the word. Just as for the Kaiser the occupation of Belgium was merely a preparatory operation for the serious struggle against France, so for Hitler the occupation of the European continent was only the prelude to the struggle against the British Empire, against the USSR and especially against America. Now all Europe is an invaded Belgium. Germany’s sensational victories caused all land fronts in western or southeastern Europe to disappear. Not counting some of Germany’s allies whose situation is not very different from that of a conquered territory, nearly 250 million non-Germans are now under the Nazi boot. An enormous quantitative difference from the last war! But there is also a qualitative difference: In the last war occupied Belgium was emptied of the most active part of her population, who went to France. Few remained in the country but aged men, women and children. Today the entire population of a dozen countries must live, work and suffer under the Hitlerian satraps.

The Europe of 1939 was no longer the Europe of 1914. It had been considerably impoverished. In the impasse of bourgeois society, all the social and national antagonisms had become exacerbated to an unprecedented degree. On the other hand, the war is now conducted on a world-wide scale. The absence of a historical way out on a capitalist basis, the sharpness of a struggle whose stakes are all or nothing, the reactionary political nature of Nazism—all this has led German imperialism to subject the invaded countries to a brutal exploitation and a barbarous oppression never before seen in the history of modern Europe. And this has also driven the peoples onto the road of resistance and revolt.

It is no longer a question of theoretically deducing the possibility of a national problem in Europe which had re-solved the greater part of this problem long ago. One has only to open one’s eyes to ascertain the existence of national movements, moreover on a scale never before equalled in Europe. Fascism, “imperialism in its chemically pure form,” concentrates and combines all forms of national oppression which have been observed up to the present in the colonies: forced labor, huge transfers of workers and farmers, mass evictions, privileges for members of the dominating nation (special courts, more abundant food rations, etc.), villages razed by punitive expeditions, etc. In the face of this reality, only an incurable pedant could deny the possibility of the existence of a national movement in Europe under the pretense that we are now in the epoch of imperialism. Actually, such reasoning reveals only a total lack of comprehension of imperialism, of its violent, reactionary and self-destructive character. Under a mask of radicalism, this argument betrays an inertia of thought inherited from liberalism. Similar reasoning, current among all types of liberals, denied some years ago the possibility of fascism in Germany: A highly industrialized country, just imagine! Fascist reaction is only possible in peripheral countries, little developed, semi-agrarian, ... Such mentality betrays a complete lack of understanding of our epoch. In reality, we are no longer in the period of the rise, nor even at the apogee of the capitalist system, but in its decline. All bourgeois society is decomposing, putrefying, and this disintegration brings us many new things, “even in Europe.” Fascism came. Now it is the national oppression of 250 millions in countries where history had, for most of them, long ago solved this problem.

The problem raised today by German imperialism can tomorrow be raised by American imperialism. In case of a German defeat, and delay of the proletarian revolution, American domination over Europe, as it deepens, will take new forms. Instead of the previous method of financial preponderance, it will seek political supremacy supported by military means. The “second front” can become the prelude to the occupation of the continent by American troops. Blackmail by means of food and credits will be completed by the establishment of a Yankee police power. If the proletarian revolution does not conquer shortly, the national problem will be installed in a ruined Europe for many years to come.

Thus the national movement in Europe is not merely the product of an accidental military episode, but flows from the whole imperialist decline. And it assumes great historical significance. If Hitler had been able to unify Europe, the proletarian revolution would have appeared much more remote. The abolition of the frontiers would have opened the way, on the basis of capitalism, to a new development of the productive forces on the European continent. But Hitler could not accomplish for Europe what Bismarck once accomplished for Germany. It is precisely this present movement of resistance that clearly shows the historical impasse in which Nazism, the most advanced political form of imperialism, finds itself. Thus in a certain sense, the movement of resistance of the oppressed peoples represents the historical interests of the development of mankind. It is the harbinger and the guarantee of a new march forward.

To confirm the existence of a European national movement does not mean to identify in every respect this present national problem with the national questions of the past in Europe or even of the present in the colonies. Germany’s occupation of Europe has raised a national problem sui generis, it is the movement of resistance of the peoples in those imperialist nations crushed by a more powerful imperialism in the epoch of the death agony of capitalism.

We must note here, in order to try to understand what is going on in Europe, that the Nazi administration in the conquered countries greatly differs from a traditional military occupation (for example, the Prussians in France in 1871). Certain territories have been incorporated formally into Germany; others (General Gouvernement of Poland, Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia) have a colonial status, with no promise of future liberation. But even in the countries which are formally merely under military administration (Belgium, Occupied France), the Nazis have taken a great number of economic, political and social measures which surpass by far the requirements of a simple military occupation (for instance the measures against the Jews).

The Slogan of National Freedom

Any national struggle is also, to varying degrees, a social struggle. This is particularly true of the present movement of resistance in Europe. Under the weight of oppression, the hatred, the rage and the despair accumulated in the conquered countries have poured out in the most diverse forms of revolt, and representatives of the most varied social circles are swept along in the movement. But if one considers the whole, it appears clearly that the focus of the resistance is in the laboring masses, the workers and, in central and south-eastern Europe, the peasants. The Nazis have, in general, easily found a common language with the big industrial and financial bourgeoisie, which is terrorized by its fear of communism and is looking for a way to save what it can of its profits and privileges. The most typical case is France. With the middle and petty bourgeoisie of the towns the Nazis have had much less success; they have, however, found political collaborators, fascist adventurers and, above all, functionaries of the former regime who stay at the side of the representatives of “order.” Around the Nazis also have gravitated a certain number of go-betweens, profiteers, black market speculators and nouveaux riches. But the more deeply one penetrates the popular masses, the more one feels the fierce hatred for the invader, the more universal is the opposition to Nazism.

It is interesting to note, in this connection, the recent statement of AndrŽ Philip, former French Deputy who escaped from Lyons some weeks ago and who, upon his arrival in London, was appointed by De Gaulle a member of the Fighting French National Committee. Philip’s testimony is important first because he is a Gaullist, thus our political adversary, also because he just recently left France where he was in close contact with the resistance movement, and finally because he is, in general, an honest observer. On his arrival in London he declared:

“The great mass of resistance is constituted by the workers. The peasants are hostile to Vichy but they are still dispersed. Traitors and collaborators have been recruited only among big businessmen and the wealthier class. The middle class and the representatives of the small and medium industries are generally favorable to us: they do what they can, at grips with tremendous difficulties.”

The last sentence sounds like an excuse for the lack of activity on the part of these middle class circles. Are we witnessing a struggle of the bourgeoisie in the midst of the indifference of the masses? No, it is exactly the contrary. Even the workers’ opposition to the native bourgeoisie, which does not hesitate to collaborate when it sees some profit in it, is part of the national struggle. National sentiment, long monopolized by the ruling class to better assure its domination and extend its rapine, is now a revolutionary ferment which is stirring up the masses against the existing order.

The social character of the movement is also particularly clear in Poland. There, in the towns at least, resistance to the German oppression is led by socialist workers’ groups who have only hate for the pre-war regime and only contempt for the government-in-exile at London. This feature of the movement does not prevent it, however, from unfolding under the slogan of independence of the country. And with reason! In all the invaded countries all the political and even the economic questions gravitate around the central problem: the presence of a foreign master. All the democratic tasks, so important at the present moment, take on an abstract and unreal character if they are not crowned with the demand for national freedom. The economic struggles likewise raise the problem of the independence of the country even in unoccupied France the population well knows that the lack of food is due to German plundering.

The elementary duty of Marxists is to write into their program the demand for national freedom which, although it had long lost all content for most of the European countries, has now been given a new reality by the catastrophes of the death agony of capitalism. For us it is not merely a question of a “trick” in order to “take advantage” of the present aspirations of the masses, but of sincerely and honestly recognizing an elementary principle of democratic rights. The Marxist proposes to fight for its realization in the same way that he solves all tasks, by revolutionary methods, and not by allying himself with one of the imperialist camps. To have a negative attitude toward the independence of a country is to abandon the working masses and the laboring people in general to the dangers of reactionary nationalist demagogy.

Europe is not on the eve of a new wave of national bourgeois revolutions, but of socialist proletarian revolutions. But such is the dialectic of history that the capitalist system is revealing its bankruptcy to a number of peoples in the form of a new national oppression. Toward the present movement of resistance three attitudes are possible. The first is to see in it a sort of reactionary VendŽe, menacing the Nazi work of “unification” of Europe. Only Hitler’s lackeys take such a position which amounts to according fascism some progressive features. The second attitude is indifference—the present situation is “temporary” and besides, very complex; let’s wait for better times. Needless to say, this has nothing in common with Bolshevism. The third is to recognize the explosive character of a popular national movement in the present-day Europe. Independently of the present consciousness of the movement, objectively, it opens the way to the proletarian revolution. “The dialectics of history is such,” wrote Lenin in 1916, “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 help the real power against imperialism to come on the scene, namely, the socialist proletariat.”

And, certain people may object, the imperialist war? Can we support the demand for national freedom in Europe while the present war is going on? Doesn’t this mean adhering to one of the imperialist camps? If, after the conclusion of the peace, the state of oppression would continue for some European countries then, doubtless, we would have to inscribe on our flag national freedom for those peoples. But can we do it now without participating ipso facto in the imperialist war?

The situation certainly would be much more simple if there were national oppression in Europe without imperialist war. But unfortunately our epoch is far from being simple and it is precisely the imperialist war that revives national oppression. The reasoning that would make us wait for the end of the war suffers from a fatal formalism. This is clearly shown if we take the example of Czechoslovakia. The non-German territories of Bohemia and Moravia became a German “protectorate” before the present war broke out. We would then have had to stand for the national freedom, of the Czechs, to abandon this demand at the moment of the declaration of war and to take it up again at the conclusion of the peace. But that is not all. An imperialist peace would be hardly distinguishable from the war. We are in an epoch of convulsion where the line between war and peace will become more and more faint. The present war can be and doubtless will be succeeded by other military operations: intra-European, colonial, among the former allies, against new proletarian powers, etc. Exactly when will the formalists “authorize” us to take up again the demand for national freedom?

All this formalism comes from a lack of understanding of the nature of the present national movements and of our support. In spite of its great importance at this hour, national independence remains a democratic demand. As such, we fight for its realization, but with our own methods, and we integrate it into our program of socialist revolution. If tomorrow Hitler attacks Sweden or Switzerland, we would give no supported the Norwegian, Yugoslav or Greek governments, for such .support can gain absolutely nothing for socialism or even for democracy. But if, in case of military defeat, when the bourgeois state is crushed, a popular national movement of resistance to German oppression springs up, we would support it, for such a movement, objectively, clears the road to the revolution. Our support does not depend upon the formal question of the moment—during or after the imperialist war—but on the political and social nature of the movement. As long as it is a real movement of revolt of the masses against oppression, it is our elementary duty to support it and, of course, this support can in no way signify political participation in the imperialist war.

The “second front” may be adduced against our slogan. It is quite likely that some day or other the United Nations will land in Europe. In this case, as long as a country is divided by a military front, the slogan of national freedom loses all revolutionary content. But to confuse the reality of today with the possibility of tomorrow is a serious fault in revolutionary tactics.

But, after all, cannot the cry of national freedom be used as an instrument in the hands of Anglo-American imperialism and its satellites to chain the peoples to the imperialist war? Undoubtedly! But is there one democratic demand that has never been utilized by the bourgeoisie to camouflage its aims and deceive the masses? Not a single one! The task of Marxists is not to abandon the democratic demands because the bourgeoisie tries to hide its foul face behind them, but to defend them by revolutionary means and to integrate them into the socialist reconstruction of society, as long as these demands correspond to the aspirations and the revolutionary interests of the great mass of people.

To reveal the falsity of the argument, one merely has to turn it around if the demand for national freedom plays into the hands of Anglo-American imperialism, then, inversely, ignoring or underestimating the national problem in Europe plays into the hands of German imperialism. All across Europe the Nazis and their lackeys console the starved and terrorized people with the picture of a unified Europe. Hurry to integrate yourself into this unity in order to receive all its benefits! An end to these puerile reactions of reactionary nationalism, today outmoded by the necessities of modern economy! This propaganda has not been without effect on quite a large number of pacifists, socialists and communists, who now greet Nazism as the realization of the socialist unification of Europe.

But isn’t “national freedom” the return to the status quo ante, that is, to the bourgeois regime? Lenin long ago ridiculed this argument when he answered those partisans of Rosa Luxemburg who opposed, according to his own words, a “national rebellion in annexed Belgium, Serbia, Galicia, Armenia”:

“... our Polish comrades are opposed to such a rebellion on the ground that there is also a bourgeoisie in the annexed countries, and this bourgeoisie also oppresses other nations, or rather, it may oppress them, since the only point under discussion is ‘right to oppress.’ It appears, then, that the criterion of a given war, or a given rebellion, is not its real social content (the struggle of an oppressed nation against the oppressor for liberation), but the possibility of the now oppressed bourgeoisie exercising its ‘right’ to oppress.” (Lenin’s italics.)

But doesn’t the slogan of national liberation destroy proletarian internationalism? In particular, doesn’t it hinder all fraternization of workers in conquered territories with the German soldiers and workers, without whose action any revolution in Europe is unthinkable? The cry of freedom of the peoples has nothing in common with the thirst for imperialist revenge. How can a German soldier free himself from the ideological hold of Nazism if he has not recognized honestly and without equivocation the right of the oppressed peoples to their freedom? The most elementary duty, not only of a German socialist worker or soldier, but of a sincere democrat (if this variety still exists) is to desire, to hail and to help the revolt of the oppressed peoples.

National Freedom and Socialism

The slogan of national liberation in no way implies a program of restoration of a divided Europe. It means purely and simply that each people must be free to determine its own destiny and that the revolutionary party supports the struggle for this elementary freedom. The oppression of the peoples of Europe by German imperialism is a barbarous and reactionary undertaking. Resistance to the enslavement of the nations is at present a great progressive factor which, objectively, opens the way to the proletarian revolution. The revolutionary party must support and guide the painful efforts of the European peoples to tear themselves free from German domination. Such is the content of the slogan of national liberation. It is the simple expression of the struggle against oppression.

But, after the collapse of the Hitlerian empire, Europe must unite if it wishes to live. If this fundamental task is not accomplished, there will be new wars and new oppressions. Europe’s only hope is the economic unification of the continent, combined with freedom of national development for each people. And only the proletariat is capable of undertaking such a task. The proletariat will accomplish this by establishing the Socialist United States of Europe. However, only free peoples can unite. The first condition of a federation of European nations is their independence from the foreign yoke. If the national problems of Europe can only be resolved in a socialist federation, then inversely, this federation can only be achieved among free and equal nations. Far from being in opposition to each other, the two slogans, National Liberation and Socialist United States of Europe, are closely connected.

At the present time, when the Nazis are trying to justify their crimes in the name of “European unity,” it is especially important not to counterpose the federation against the nation, but to present it for what it really will be, a form of organization and of guarantee of national freedom. Those who oppose to the slogan of national liberation the “purely socialist” formula of United States of Europe fail to notice that this formula is itself a compromise, a compromise between the centralizing necessities of a planned economy and the centrifugal tendencies inherited from past centuries, which cannot be erased in a few months or a few years. The United States implies states. The complete economic and political unification of the continent will not be made in a day, but will be the product of a whole historical epoch and will largely depend, moreover, on what happens in the rest of the world. At what tempo and in what precise forms will this development be effected? Experience will tell. The slogan of Socialist United States of Europe merely gives the general algebraic formula. Moreover, let us note in passing, the disappearance of the borders between the different states will go hand in hand with the withering away of each state.

The clearest example of federation which led to an almost complete unity is the United States of America. But the building up of the federal power was a long process and it took a rather serious civil war to consolidate it definitively. Of course, socialism will have other methods than capitalism. However, the example of the United States shows us how artificial would have been any opposition between the slogans of the liberation of the thirteen colonies and the United States of America!

Whatever the transitional forms of organization, the realization of the socialist United States of Europe implies the freedom of each nation which enters the federation. But the only real guarantee of its freedom is the right to say yes or no. Any “guarantee” of free cultural development, etc., is an illusion if the nation does not have the right to withdraw from the union.

After the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, we do not wish to march to socialism by violence, but by patiently convincing the peoples of the superiority of centralization. Just as, in the agrarian problem, we are not partisans of “forced collectivization,” but we want to demonstrate to the peasant, by his own experience, the advantages of large collective enterprise over small property, so in the national question we are against any “forced unification” and the only real, not fictitious, guarantee is the right of secession.

Where is the assurance that the historical evolution will lead to complete unification? Not in violence, but in the development of the productive forces. Why was the rising bourgeoisie able to dissolve the feudal provinces in the unity of the great modern nations? Because its rise corresponded to a prodigious increase of the productive forces. Why cannot Hitler, who does not spare violence, unify the European “provinces"? Because he represents the decline of capitalism.

A socialist federation, European or worldwide, by no means excludes, but implies the right of each nationality to determine its own destiny. However, we are still far from the socialist federation. Today’s reality is the general oppression of the peoples of Europe by German imperialism. If under socialism it would be theoretically false to counterpose national freedom to the principle of federation, how absurd, pedantic and empty is such opposition in face of the present condition of Europe!

(In the next issue a second article will examine the question of our relations with the various underground groups, the nature of the war in Serbia, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, and the problems of terrorism and sabotage.)