Why I’m a Marxist and a patriot

On Saint George's Day, Kate Woolford explores the communist movement's relationship with patriotism.
On Saint George's Day, Kate Woolford explores the communist movement's relationship with patriotism.
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Within the communist movement, there is a leftist trend of disdain for national sentiments, a disregard of symbols of national identity like the flag, a wilful ignorance of our nation’s working-class history, conditions, and sentiments, and sometimes even an outright contempt for our nation altogether.

Leftist ‘communists’ argue that those who uphold the synthesis of patriotism with socialism and communism are ‘chauvinistic’ and stand against the internationalist principles espoused by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Yet, a deeper examination of their writings reveals that patriotism is rooted in Marxist tradition.

The basis of communist patriotism:

Marxists-Leninists recognise that there are two antithetical forms of national pride, both with their own class characteristics.

The first is bourgeois nationalism, which seeks to channel national pride towards imperialist ends. For instance, exploiting the natural resources and markets of the Global South and adopting an aggressive foreign policy towards otherwise peaceful nations. At times, this has manifested itself in visions of an ‘ethnic nation’ centred around a racially designated ‘chosen people’, as was the case in Nazi Germany.

The second form of national pride is patriotism, which entails a genuine love for your country, a desire for it to fully flourish, and a sense of pride about its revolutionary history and traditions. Following the Marxist principle that “no nation can be free while it continues to oppress other nations”, patriotism, that is, the desire to see your country truly free, necessitates standing against the oppression of other nations. Patriots, unlike proponents of the ‘ethnic nation’, view the nation as a political project to nurture into successively higher stages of development. Marxists are unique in that we understand that this development can only be achieved through the struggle for socialism and a multipolar world.

Harry Pollitt made this point clear in 1935 when he stated that communists must “destroy the slanderous canard that ‘the Communists are friends of every nation but their own.’ […] We must prove that we love our country so well that our lives are dedicated to removing all the black spots on its name – to removing poverty, unemployment, and the bloody oppression of colonial peoples.

Therefore, the Marxist-Leninist position is to reject bourgeois nationalism and embrace patriotism. Many of those who criticise our position on this matter conflate these two terms and, in doing so, do not address Marxist-Leninism but the figments of their own imagination.

Lenin’s attitude towards patriotism:

Lenin, in one of his earliest writings claimed, “Capitalist domination is international. That is why the workers’ struggle in all countries for their emancipation is only successful if the workers fight jointly against international capital.”  However, this argument is often misrepresented by leftist ‘communists’ to mean that patriotism, therefore, has no place within the communist movement.

Much to the contrary, Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of patriotism is made evident through his 1914 speech ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’, from which we can derive four key points.

Firstly, Lenin believed that those who feel most connected to their nation are particularly aware of the need to uplift its working class and stand against oppression, “Is a sense of national pride alien to us, Great-Russian class-conscious proletarians? Certainly not! We love our language and our country, and we are doing our very utmost to raise her toiling masses (i.e., nine-tenths of her population) to the level of a democratic and socialist consciousness. To us, it is most painful to see and feel the outrages, the oppression, and the humiliation our fair country suffers at the hands of the tsar’s butchers, the nobles, and the capitalists.

Secondly, Lenin believed that a genuine sense of national pride entails pride in your nation’s revolutionary history, “We are full of national pride because the Great-Russian nation, too, has created a revolutionary class, because it, too, has proved capable of providing mankind with great models of the struggle for freedom and socialism, and not only with great pogroms, rows of gallows, dungeons, great famines, and great servility to priests, tsars, landowners, and capitalists.

Thirdly, Lenin believed that national pride meant opposing the oppression of other nations, demonstrating the link between patriotism and internationalism, “We are full of a sense of national pride, and for that very reason, we particularly hate our slavish past (when the landed nobility led the peasants into war to stifle the freedom of Hungary, Poland, Persia, and China), and our slavish present, when these self-same landed proprietors, aided by the capitalists, are loading us into a war to throttle Poland and the Ukraine, crush the democratic movement in Persia and China, and strengthen the gang of Romanovs, Bobrinskys, and Purishkeviches, who are a disgrace to our Great-Russian national dignity.

Fourthly, Lenin believed that internationalism is not tied up in superficial ‘humanitarianism’ but in national interests, “’No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,’ said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth-century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.

These passages make clear that the Leninist position is one of both patriotism and internationalism which, far from contradicting one another, are intrinsically connected, and actually complement one another.

Lenin’s position was proven correct by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) deviated from Lenin’s teachings on patriotism and adopted a nihilistic attitude towards the revolutionary history of their nation. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping posed the question “Why did the Soviet Union collapse?” to the Communist Party of China. After investigation, the leading cause was identified as historical nihilism; “They repudiated their history, repudiated Lenin and Stalin. They succumbed to historical nihilism. This caused ideological confusion. The Party lost effectiveness at all levels. The army was no longer under Party leadership. In the end, the CPSU and the USSR fell apart. Let this be a lesson for us all.

Dimitrov and the consequences of national nihilism:

Writing on the subject of ‘the ideological struggle against fascism’ and drawing on ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’, Georgi Dimitrov stressed the importance of embracing patriotism. Dimitrov warned that if communists were to disregard their nation’s revolutionary heritage, they would effectively be ceding the narrative of history to reactionary forces. This was particularly important with the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, when many Marxists advocated internationalism while opposing patriotism of any kind, creating a situation where the ‘nationalist’ elements of fascism could be played up against the ‘national nihilism’ of Marxists.

Dimitrov explained how such attitudes served the exclusive interests of fascism, “The fascists are rummaging through the entire history of every nation so as to be able to pose as the heirs and continuators of all that was exalted and heroic in its past. […] Communists who suppose that all this has nothing to do with the cause of the working class, who do nothing to enlighten the masses on the past of their people in a historically correct fashion, in a genuinely Marxist-Leninist spirit, who do nothing to link up the present struggle with the people’s revolutionary traditions and past –voluntarily hand over to the fascist falsifiers all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation, so that the fascists may fool the masses.

[…] We Communists are the irreconcilable opponents, in principle, of bourgeois nationalism in all its forms. But we are not supporters of national nihilism and should never act as such. The task of educating the workers and all working people in the spirit of proletarian internationalism is one of the fundamental tasks of every Communist Party. But anyone who thinks that this permits him, or even compels him, to sneer at all the national sentiments of the broad masses of working people is far from being a genuine Bolshevik and has understood nothing of the teaching of Lenin on the national question.

The correctness of this position was proved in practice by the triumph of fascism over the more national nihilistic German left in 1933, as opposed to the victory of the patriotic communists in China who drove out the Japanese invaders in 1945, later to defeat the Kuomintang and found the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Socialism in One Country:

One of the most prominent lines of the Communist Manifesto is: “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationalities. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.” However, this does not undermine the importance of national movements. The Manifesto also emphasises that the proletariat must first assert itself as a national force: “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” and “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.

When the theories of Marx and Engels were put into practice by the Bolsheviks, the question of building socialism in one country became paramount. In 1915, Lenin recognised that, “Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone.” In 1918, he wrote, “To wait until the toiling classes bring about a revolution on an international scale means that everybody should stand stock-still in expectation. That is nonsense.

As revolutions across the advanced capitalist world failed to materialise, Stalin began placing greater emphasis on “Socialism in One Country,” believing it possible to develop socialism within the Soviet Union with “the sympathy and support of the proletarians of other countries, but without the preliminary victory of the proletarian revolution in other countries.

During the Second World War, this correctness of Stalin’s approach was proved by the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialisation, which enabled the Red Army to defeat the Nazi forces on the Eastern Front. As British Communist Betty Reid explained, “Had the Soviet Government and the CPSU shared Trotsky’s panic, had they turned away from the colossal task of building socialism in a backward country, ravaged by war and imperialist invasion, encircled by enemies, the object of hatred and plotting by the capitalist world. Had they waited for the workers in other lands to save them, then indeed world fascism would not have been halted. The fascist armies would not have been destroyed, nor a great section of the world be removed from the orbit of imperialism, and a tremendously powerful socialist state created as the focal point of future struggle against imperialism.

Much to the contrary of ‘opposing internationalism,’ it is only through the process of building socialism in one country that the working class can set the stage for the eventual elimination of national hostilities altogether, where, as the Manifesto states, “the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

Relevance to Britain today:

Within the context of Britain today, Marxist-Leninists must show ourselves to be the genuine champions of the interests of our nation and our people. We must reclaim patriotism from the forces of reaction, exposing their hollow ‘nationalism’ which, in reality, considers our national interests as an afterthought. Instead of investing in our own domestic development, our ruling class opts to lavish billions on appeasing foreign warmongers like Zelensky and Netanyahu.

It is our duty to carry forward the revolutionary history of Britain. From the peasants’ revolt of 1381, when Wat Tyler, Robert Cave, and John Ball protested against the Poll Tax and royal tyranny, to Oliver Cromwell’s bourgeois revolution of 1649, which culminated in the execution of Charles I in Whitehall, and further to the Chartist movement of 1835, which championed universal suffrage, secret ballots, annual Parliaments, and the removal of property qualifications for voting – these are just a few of the revolutionary moments in British history, and there are many more to come.

Kate Woolford is an editor of Challenge

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