The Karl Marx monument at Chemnitz. Photo: Pixabay The Karl Marx monument at Chemnitz. Photo: Pixabay

Marx’s understanding of the fight for self-determination at national level as a step on the road to socialism is useful for us today, argues Chris Bambery

The Communist Manifesto ends with the cry, “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” It was written by two active participants in the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848-1849, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, both rather better on the issue of women’s freedom than might be suggested by their battle cry. In it they suggest that “national differences and antagonisms among peoples” would be swept aside by working class revolution.

That of course was not to be the case. Critics of Marx delight in the fact that since the Manifesto was written, nationalism, rather than class, has mobilised the greatest numbers. Nation states were still new on the scene in 1848, Britain being one of the first effectively created in 1707. After that date, the number would grow and grow, a process far from complete today.

Yet Marx and Engels did not ignore the national question during the 1848 insurgency. In particular, they looked to the creation of a united Germany – a capitalist state – that would rise from the myriad feudal kingdoms, principalities and bishoprics, and of a united Italian state. But they also supported the fight of Poland and Hungary for independence, seeing that this would weaken the two autocratic gendarmes of Europe, the Russian Czarist and the Austrian Hapsburg Empires.

If those revolutions and rebellions had succeeded they envisaged a new capitalist Europe formed by a number of big nation states. A German Republic, for instance, would have encompassed Czech, Danish and other minorities.

The ability of the Hapsburgs to mobilise counter-revolutionary armies among their Croat and other Slav subjects to crush the revolution in Vienna and Milan earned those people the ire of Engels who using the terminology of the philosopher Hegel in describing them as “non-historic” nations, meaning peoples who were unable to raise themselves to the status of independent nationhood, who were playthings of absolutism, and deserved to be swept off the stage of history.

Engels was wrong in this projection and the defeat of the 1848 revolutions meant both men had to re-address their position regarding nationalism.

Following that defeat Marx had famously withdrawn into the British Library to research his key work, Capital. But in 1864 he was also in attendance at the London public meeting which launched the International Working Men’s association, the First International. International events had helped arouse working class activity in Britain, particularly the Polish uprising of 1863, the American Civil War and the Risorgimento, the fight for Italian unity.

Marx recognised something was shifting in Britain, noting the applause that greeted any mention of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery at the meeting. He understood revolution was off the agenda in Britain post-1848, which saw  the containment and dispersal of Chartism, the first mass working class movement post-1848, but believed the growth of international solidarity among British workers would undermine the alliance which had developed between the craft trade unions and the Liberal Party, the main party of the British capitalist class.

That was particularly the case regarding Poland’s fight for freedom. Marx saw autocratic Russia as the crucial danger to any revolutionary or progressive movement in Europe. If Poland, partitioned between the Russian, Austrian and Prussian Empires, won its independence, it would be a body blow against reaction. He also believed that the Liberal prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was effectively in alliance with the Czar. The Radicals, the left wing of the Liberals, who were the key link to the trade unions, also opposed Polish independence, so Marx saw support for the Poles as undermining that alliance.

Support for the North in the Civil War less so because, after some wavering, the dominant view among the elite favoured them. Italian unity even less so, because while popular forces took the field, Marx also saw Britain and France favouring this step to undermine their rivals in the great power game.

Working class radicals in Britain grasped Marx’s argument regarding Poland, seeing a blow for freedom in Warsaw as aiding the fight for freedom in London or Manchester.  This took on added importance regarding Britain’s first and nearest colony, Ireland.

Marx and Engels would champion support for the growing tide of resistance to British rule in Ireland which arose in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, and in particular defended the Republican Fenian Brotherhood.

This was for two reasons. The first was that Marx identified anti-Irish racism as key to holding the British working class in check. The Irish flocked into British industrial cities to find work in the wake of the Great Famine of 1845-1851. They were portrayed by the media as sub-human, with the same racist attitudes as towards Africans or indigenous people in Australia or the Americas. Sectarian violence was common in much of England, Scotland and South Wales.

In 1869 he wrote:

The English working class … will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801. And this must be done not out of sympathy with the Irish, but as a demand based on the interests of the English proletariat. If not the English proletariat will for ever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland…

A year later he famously wrote:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

His conclusion was that if Ireland won its independence, and the attitudes of British workers were challenged in that process, the road to revolution in Britain might re-open.

But Marx also believed that if Ireland broke free of British rule it would undermine Britain’s prosperity, such was the importance economically of the island to Britain.

Marx did not let matters rest on paper. In 1867, hot on the failed Fenian attempt to rescue their prisoners in Manchester with an attack on a prison van which left a police officer dead and would lead to three Fenians being executed, Marx succeeded in getting the IWMA to urge commutation of the death sentences and to this end, it organised a mass meeting at Clerkenwell Green of 20,000 people.

In 1869 an English Amnesty Committee was formed by Fenian supporters in support of Republican prisoners. A demonstration whose size the radical Reynold’s News put at 120,000 and The Times at “forty to fifty thousand” was held in London. Marx’s daughters marched with relish wearing green ribbons.

Within the IWMA this sparked a fierce debate with those British trade unionists who supported Gladstone’s Liberal government. A botched Fenian rescue attempt at Clerkenwell Jail, where a bomb aimed at destroying its walls instead demolished working class homes killing 12 people and injuring many, added spice to that debate. One of Marx’s supporters pointed out that the Italian Risorgimento hero, Garibaldi, was feted in Britain but he had used violence and “caused much bloodshed.” Marx defended the Fenians’ right to use violence in opposition to the far greater violence of British rule while being critical of their strategy and tactics.

What is interesting was that while it created a lively debate among those British craft trade unionists who supported the IWMA, a number took Marx’s side reinforcing his hopes that he could break their alliance with the Liberals. That was not to be. In 1871 the Paris Commune opened a fresh chapter of working class revolution, which Marx defended no holds barred. That was too much for those trade unionists who withdrew from the IWMA, ultimately sealing its fate. The break with liberalism would wait for another three decades.

Marx died before the onset of the new imperialism and Engels only saw its early years. But others, especially Lenin, would build on their analysis.

Marx and Engels’ support for German and Italian unification and for Polish freedom stemmed from their support for such democratic demands. Self-determination for the colonial and oppressed countries of the Global South was an obvious extension of that. So too was support for the rights of nations who felt trapped in, for instance, the multiracial Czarist Empire. 

Lenin took up the idea that British workers could only be free if they supported Irish freedom and applied it concretely to the Russian Empire.

What Marx and Engels did not see was that those people whom the latter had described as “non-historic” would be transformed.  One he described as such were the Basques. In the mid-19th century they were the mainstay of the reactionary Carlist movement engaged in two civil wars in Spain trying to impose greater autocracy and greater church control. Yet as industrialisation hit the Basque Country and resentment of a Spanish state which excluded them grew, the Basques would become central to the resistance to the Franco dictatorship. The Catalan peasantry too had supported the Carlists but a similar dynamic was at work there. Marx would have recognised the democratic impulse there today.

That is one reason that when faced with the national question, Marx remains a great starting point. His internationalist and class-based approach makes good sense in a world where the national question remains a crucial issue and where racism remains a key way the elite divides and rules.


Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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