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History of the Communist Movement:

Communist Mistakes About Nationalism, Part I

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Unlike kingdoms, empires or tribes, nations and nationalisms are products of capitalism. Nations only became important kinds of social organization in the 19th century. Nationalism was invented by capitalism.  It is essential to capitalist efforts to rule the working class and struggle against other capitalists.[Note 1]
Despite its capitalist nature, nationalism has often been seen in the communist movement as something useful and positive. Communists tried to use nationalism in colonies and less developed countries.  They refused to fight for communism or even for socialism.  Instead they fought for "national liberation" that meant a form of capitalism.
This fundamental mistake led to costly failures and wasted struggles. This article and the next one will analyze the main errors of past communists about nationalism, so that we can avoid them.
Communist positions about nationalism during the 20th century were set by the Bolsheviks, members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). That party ruled the USSR and was the main influence on the Communist International (CI), which eventually included most of the world's communist parties.
Thus the history of mistakes about nationalism—going all the way back to Lenin--is mainly the history of the CI's policies.
A fundamental error: Two nationalisms
The Bolsheviks condemned the nationalism that powerful capitalist countries used to mobilize their population for imperialism. They claimed, however, that nationalism of colonial or otherwise oppressed people can be "progressive" and ought to be supported.
The Bolsheviks were well aware that capitalists of weak or colonized nations used nationalism to oppress their own working class or to try to dominate other weak nations. [Note 2] They thought, however, that the right kinds of nationalist movements should be supported as a step toward working class defeat of capitalism some time in the future.
In his early proposals for the CI, Lenin said "You [peoples of the East] will have to base yourselves on the bourgeois nationalism which is awakening, and must awaken, among those peoples, and which has its historical justification."[Note 3] He said that all Communist parties must help the so-called "bourgeois-democratic liberation movement" in the "more backward states and nations.
By "bourgeois democracy," Lenin meant the way capitalists rule in the US and Europe, with voting and parliaments.  He wanted the CI to form a "temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries."[Note 4] What kind of reasoning could possibly lead communists to support capitalist movements like this?
The Bolshevik theory was that there is a fixed series of stages in the development of all societies. They believed that communism was only possible as the end point of this sequence:  (1) the rise of capitalism, (2) a revolution to establish "bourgeois democracy," (3) a second revolution to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism, and finally (4), a gradual transition to communism.
They assumed that if a country was partly ruled by feudal lords or foreign capitalists, then developing capitalism further was good ("progressive") and communists should fight for it. This is what Lenin meant by saying that bourgeois nationalism has a "historical justification."
The Bolsheviks even said that if the capitalists didn't carry out their "bourgeois democratic revolution," workers and peasants should do it for them.  They should set up a worker-peasant government that promoted capitalism. This became central in the CI's policy for colonies.
Today we can see that the history of the communist movement contradicts this theory of stages. Socialism never led to communism. It can’t.  Its wage system and hierarchies of power are actually capitalist institutions.
History also shows that it is entirely possible to fight for communism in regions that have a low level of industrialization and a small working class. These were the conditions in both Russia and China during their revolutions in 1917 and 1949.
Nevertheless the wrong analysis of the possibilities of fighting for communism within the struggle against imperialism led directly to missed opportunities and disastrous failures, as we will see in part II.

[Note 1] Development of nationalism is discussed in Red Flag articles "Only Communism Can End the Crimes of Nationalism," part I, 4/21/2016 and part II, 5/5/2016.

[Note 2] "The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations persistently utilize the slogans of national liberation to deceive the workers; in their internal policy they use these slogans for reactionary agreements with the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation…" V. I. Lenin, "The socialist revolution and the right of nations to self-determination: theses," April 1916, Collected Works, Moscow, 1964, vol. 22, p. 148.

[Note 3] V. I. Lenin, "Address to the 2nd Congress of the Communist Organizations of the Peoples of the East," November 22, 1919, Collected Works, Moscow, 1965, vol. 30, p. 162.

[Note 4] V. I. Lenin, "Draft theses on the national and colonial questions," June 1920, Collected Works, Moscow, 1966, vol. 31, pp. 149-50.

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