Berlin’s Marx-Engels Forum in 1986

Distrust your government

What should the communist position be on defence of existing states, national self-determination and war? Marc Mulholland based his talk to Communist University Spring 2024 on this study

We know that Marx and Engels paid a great deal of attention to international relations. Engels in particular took a great interest in military affairs and was nicknamed ‘The General’ by his mates. His technical knowledge was quite impressive, though he usually predicted the wrong victor.

Marx and Engels tended to see international relations as a terrain for the democratic and proletarian movements. As such, they took sides: they favoured war against Russia (and possibly England) in 1848‑49; they favoured Anglo-French victory in the Crimean War of 1853-56 (although would have preferred the theatre of operations to be in Poland); they favoured the defeat of French forces by Austria in the 1859 war, though, when this devolved into the semi-revolutionary war of Italian unification, they applauded Giuseppe Garibaldi and his ‘Redshirts’; they certainly favoured Northern victory in the American Civil War (1861‑65). In 1870 they backed Prussia against France and short-sightedly lambasted August Bebel for abstaining on Prussian war credits as a member of parliament; they switched to support of France after the fall of Napoleon III, counselling against radical republican revolution in the face of the enemy; they supported the Commune levying war, once it was clear that the only alternative was non-resistance.

As a general rule, Marx and Engels favoured any international complication that might weaken the bastions of reaction: sometimes Britain or France, always Russia. In all of this, they never adduced a general right to national self-determination - always to be preferred in any clash of arms. The apparent exceptions prove the rule. They always backed the liberation of Poland, but the dismemberment of Poland in the 18th century was a standing outrage for the entire European liberal-left, not just the radicals, and Polish independence was favoured as a blow to tsarist power. They gradually evolved a position in favour of Irish independence (perhaps followed by federalisation with Great Britain) - partly to get the divisive Irish question off the agenda of the British workers’ movement, partly out of a personal sympathy with the beleaguered, yet indomitable, Irish nationalists. Ireland and Poland were sui generis rather than instances of a ‘right of national self-determination’ in their thinking. Marx and particularly Engels were notoriously unsympathetic to other nationalities they considered resources for counterrevolution, especially the South Slavs.

Existing states

In the period of the Second International, dating from 1889, the affiliated socialist parties generally took existing state boundaries as their framework for operations. They were not, as a rule, pro-secession or pro-revanchist. In Peter Nettl’s famous formulation, although amending its sense somewhat, they were ‘inheritor parties’. Their aim was for the working class to take over the state territory as it was, rather than seek to expand or contract it. This, in turn, can be related to the socialist ‘strategy of patience’. This strategy of attrition rejected a reliance on explosively growing forces for revolution out of social breakdown in favour of steadily building proletarian organisation, concentrated on a party.

The ‘strategy of patience’ generally meant an acceptance of multi-nationalism as a basis of state boundaries. It is worth remembering that the nation-state was fairly unusual at this stage: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Habsburg dual monarchy (Cisleithania and Hungary) and the tsarist empire were all obviously multi-national. Germany was not really a nation-state: it excluded the Germans of Austria (Bismarck did not want to have any more Catholics) and included a good number of Poles. Belgium combined Francophones and Walloons. Switzerland was a Franco-German-Italian lash-up. Ethno-nationalism was generally seen as impractical or fruitlessly divisive.

The position of the International was that a right of ‘national’ self-defence (really state self-defence) did exist. During the Millerand controversy, an allowance was even discreetly made for an emergency coalition with bourgeois parties in circumstance of foreign invasion.1 Generally, national self-defence was played down, however, because it was recognised any war would be catastrophic. The famous 1907 Stuttgart Resolution against ‘War and militarism’ did not oppose any war - only ‘aggressive war’ (Angriffskrieg). Its famous last paragraph threatening to parlay war into revolution is probably best understood as a ‘cease and desist’ to the great powers.

It was only really the anarchistic left (notably Domela Nieuwenhuis) who pointed out that mass armaments and the shading of diplomatic manoeuvre into questions of force made the differentiation of illegitimate aggressive war from legitimate defensive war (Verteidigungskrieg) an impossible judgement call. This ‘fog of war’ problem was not actually new. Marx, after all, had been conned by the ‘Ems Telegram’ - Bismarck’s ingenious ruse to depict France as the aggressor in 1870. But the development of military technology meant that it was now even more difficult to differentiate defence from attack. With mass armies of unprecedented magnitude, congested lines of march and sprawling front lines, any effective defence required pre-emptive attack if it was to have any hope of rapid advance.2 With armies probing or driving across enemy borders in the opening moves of the war, every belligerent could - and did - claim self-defence in 1914, with varying degrees of plausibility.

Historiography now blames the Germans for the outbreak of war. But really it was a war of mutual aggression in a race to protect tottering allies. Germany would not allow its ally, Austria, to be knocked out in a regional war by Russia. France would not allow Russia to be flattened by Germany. Britain would not allow France to be overcome as a barrier between it and Germany. Each great power was prepared to escalate into a European-wide conflagration in pursuit of ‘security’, with ideology (‘Democracy’ versus ‘Kultur’) little more than window-dressing.

When the war broke out, Lenin in effect adopted the anarchistic position: that it was meaningless in a general war to distinguish between Angriffskrieg and Verteidigungskrieg. But he did so by theorising 1914 as a break with traditional statecraft, rather than a disastrous concatenation of its long-established logic. Building on pre-war theorising in the International, he posited imperialism as a new stage of capitalism, with the consequence that both ‘national self-defence’ and the civil space for the socialist ‘strategy of patience’ were radically outdated.

Imperialism - in socialist parlance primarily a description of statised finance capitalism and only secondarily related to colonialism - meant the collapse of bourgeois preference for orderly inter-state relations. As Hilferding had put it in 1910,

The old free traders believed in free trade not only as the best economic policy, but also as the beginning of an era of peace. Finance capital abandoned this belief long ago. It has no faith in the harmony of capitalist interests, and knows well that competition is becoming increasingly a political power struggle. The ideal of peace has lost its lustre, and in place of the idea of humanity there emerges a glorification of the greatness and power of the state.3

In Lenin’s view, the consummated imperialist stage of capitalism meant that the only choice now available was imperialist war or revolutionary overthrow. (Kautsky had seen the implication of Hilferding’s Finance capital, which is why he developed the ultra-imperialism theory of great-power cooperation, as a new basis for the ‘strategy of patience’.)


But there was an odd contradiction in Lenin’s position: while ‘national defence’ was out, ‘national self-determination’ was in. The Bukharin-Piatakov group within the Bolshevik tendency pointed out that Lenin’s support for national self-determination made nonsense of arguments against national self-defence. Lenin’s response was, first, to differentiate between oppressor nations and oppressed nations. This was a cop-out, really, as any country denied a right of self-determination, if such a right exists, can obviously claim to be oppressed. Second, he made the right of self-determination conditional. As he wrote later in the Theses on Brest Litovsk, “no Marxist, without renouncing the principles of Marxism and of socialism generally, can deny that the interests of socialism are higher than the interest of nations to self-determination”.4 The Red Army duly invaded Poland in 1920 and socialist Georgia in 1921. The logic of this argument, of course, is that there is no right of national self-determination at all.

Despite Lenin’s grounding of all his political positioning in terms of grand theory, it is better, I think, to see his position as evolving out of the exigencies of political tasks. While the ‘strategy of patience’ was the general approach of the International, in Russia this had always combined with the ‘strategy of overthrow’: ie, overthrowing the tsarist regime. The ‘strategy of patience’ was a perspective of building up proletarian capacities for assumption as a ruling class through its institutions (press, trade unions, cooperatives, party). The ‘strategy of overthrow’ was a class-collaborationist perspective, because it assumed either an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie (Mensheviks) or the peasantry (Bolsheviks). Lenin explicitly folded this into collaboration with (predominantly petty bourgeois) nationalist movements, as when he famously remarked that “whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”5

The development of the Leninist slogan of ‘the right to national self-determination, up to and including the right of secession’ was within this context. It was an explicit appeal to the nationalist petty bourgeoisie to overthrow, in the first instance, tsarism. It needs to be remembered that the Finns and even more the Poles were in the vanguard of revolution in 1905; they were not a reserve. This slogan carried over to 1917, because, in part, the Leninist schema envisaged it as a kind of bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie. This would create a state based upon a worker-peasantry class alliance, able to force-march capitalism as fast as possible in the direction of socialism. In 1917‑18, Lenin called this regime ‘state capitalism’. This collapsed into ‘war communism’, but was restored from 1921 as the New Economic Policy. Within this complex, class-collaboration strategy, alliance with nationalists operated as a kind of revolutionary auxiliary. Once it could no longer be instrumentalised in this way, the ‘right of self-determination’ was abandoned.

We should stress that Lenin’s position positively favouring a ‘right of national self-determination’ was unusual in pre-1914 socialist circles. More typical of the ‘strategy of patience’ era was the Austro-Marxist position. They were certainly confronted by the national question in their own state terrain, but unlike tsarist Russia there was not the sense that the state was a Behemoth that needed to be disaggregated. If anything, dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian state threatened a de facto partition of the region into German and Russian spheres of control. Indeed, while the nationalist movements were noisy and loud (and petty-bourgeois), even they were not, pre-1914, separatist.

The Austro-Marxist position of cultural autonomy within the state, developed by Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, was ultimately about charting a democratic process of negotiating national claims, so as to clear space for class politics. As Otto Bauer put it in 1907,

… national autonomy is not a programme devised by clever men in order to rescue the state in its hour of need, but the demand that the proletariat necessarily voices in the multinational state … National autonomy is a necessary goal for the proletarian class struggle, because it is a necessary means of its class politics.6

It was reasonably successful at clearing space for class politics, with the socialists becoming the largest single party in the Reichsrat (upper house) in 1911. The multi-national party, however, found it difficult to contain a slippage of its constituents shifting towards a prioritisation of ‘national liberation’, and the Czech socialists broke away from the state-wide socialist body in 1911.

‘Sliding towards unhyphenated nationalism’ probably describes James Connolly’s trajectory in Ireland and certainly Józef Piłsudski’s in Poland. Rosa Luxemburg shocked the International by tilting at its sacred cow - the independence of Poland. Her argument that internationalised capitalism means that sovereign independence for Poland was an economic impossibility was thin, but she did make the valid prediction that conceding an unalienable ‘right of national self-determination’ in effect gives it absolute priority over merely ‘sectional’ class demands.

Lenin’s position vis-à-vis the tsarist empire, as we have seen, was ‘overthrow’ rather than patiently waiting as an inheritor party. In Russian circumstances, his position was not so unique. When it came to calling for the ‘overthrow’ of tsarism, even liberals were in general agreement. ‘Revolutionary defeatism’ was really a liberal-left common sense. Almost everyone wanted to see Russia lose the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 (what did they care for the Far East?) and hoped that it would trigger the overthrow of the regime, which it nearly did.

The Great War was somewhat more complicated, but, again, by about 1916, liberals and even some of the right, as well as the left, wanted to see even military setbacks for Russia if it meant the overthrow of decrepit tsarism. It becomes more complicated after February; then the liberal-left wanted victories for the army at the front, but the Bolsheviks understood, reasonably enough, that this would simply strengthen the forces of military counterrevolution. But they argued for soviet power, in part because this would best allow military resistance to Germany if it continued in its aggression.

The expectation was revolutionary war against Germany if it did not desist from advancing. This is why the peace with Germany signed at Brest Litovsk was so problematic. Lenin was prepared to give up vast swathes of territory to gain a breathing space - which was a mistake. Lenin later admitted as much:

The revolution of October 1917 at one stroke achieved such successes that it seemed to us in the spring of 1918 that the war had drawn to a close - actually, it had only just started in its worst form: the form of civil war; actually, peace with the Germans meant that they assisted the worst elements in the civil war; actually, the peace treaty we then signed with the Germans, and which collapsed in the autumn, in many cases meant that assistance was given to these worst elements by the Allied Powers, who blamed us for concluding peace with the Germans.7

He did not go on to say, but might well have done, that a revolutionary war against Germany would have been preferable.


A combination of Leninism and president Wilson’s tendentious ‘Fourteen Points’ has tended to fetishise ‘the right of national self-determination’. But the difficulties remain.

First there is the difficulty of coming up with a set of ‘rules’. To whom should the right apply? Stalin famously proposed a definition: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”8 This could have perhaps unexpected results once applied. As the Irish post-Maoist organisation, the British and Irish Communist Organisation, argued in One island, two nations, published in June 1973, “The partition of Ireland was the outcome of the growth of two distinct Irish nations, each with its own economic life, and culture, its own religion and view of history, and each with its own closely-knit identity.” This echo of Stalin in defence of the partition of Ireland was deliberate and pointed.

Second, the right to self-determination certainly enables foreign subversion against sovereign states (it was a primary point of pressure applied by America during the cold war) and often involves elite rebellion in favoured regions wishing to break away from the demands of social solidarity across the state terrain. Regionalism is usually stronger in areas of relative wealth or resource rather than areas of social disadvantage (consider ‘King Cotton’ in the southern states of America, ‘Scottish Oil’ from the 1960s, the prosperous economies of northern Italy, Catalonia, the Basque country and southern Germany). To recognise a non-negotiable right of self-determination in such cases is a standing invitation to rebellion in the capitalist interest.

It is worth reflecting on the arguments made at the time of the American Civil War.9 The South insisted that they had a legal and unconditional right to secede from a union they had joined voluntarily. The North denied this. Legally and constitutionally, they said, the union had been a one-way compact. There was no exit clause. While there was no constitutional right to secede, there remained, however, as an inalienable freedom deriving from natural law (or human nature): a right to revolution. The right to revolution is a moral rather than a legal right, and requires a moral cause. The confederacy attachment to slavery meant, therefore, that there was no moral right to southern revolution in pursuit of self-determination.

This is a useful way to think about the question. In essence, the national question is a distributional question at the level of culture. Like all distributional questions, the socialist or communist perspective is dual:

Unlike material resources, which can be grown, cultural rights tend towards zero-sum: if Northern Ireland becomes more Irish, for example, it becomes less British, and vice-versa. The communist position is for a radically democratic process to manage this difficult problem, not laagered community rights. Democratic processes can certainly involve agreed secession, but within a democratic polity a majority cannot be duty-bound to acknowledge a minority right to secession a priori. A sovereign state, after all, retains the right to suppress insurrection.

There remains unimpaired, however, a moral right to revolutionary secession. This right derives not from identity, but from natural law (in other words, the prerequisites for human flourishing). It attaches to a national group denied any meaningful democratic process or simply unable, for embedded historical reasons, to defer to the state majority. This is not something that can be defined by Stalin’s rules, or any other pro-forma, but by politics.

Much of this is already implicit in international law. State boundaries may be changed by agreement, but not by external aggression or foreign subversion, even if foreign interference can credibly appeal to self-determination arguments. Dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, after all, was connived at by Germany and Britain largely on the justification of allowing for the national self-determination of the Sudeten-Germans. Even the German invasion of Poland in 1939 was predicated on the long-run suppression of Germans in the Polish Corridor and, once war broke out, the massacres visited on this national group, which were real enough (if, of course, immediately dwarfed by the violence of German imperialism).

Socialists oppose the violent violation of state sovereignty by foreign state actors, whether directly by invasion or indirectly by sponsoring ‘colour revolution’, because it short-circuits democratic process. Socialists, for example, accept the legal position that the occupied territories in Palestine are illegitimate Israeli entities, regardless of how much time has passed and regardless of ethnic change since they were seized. Let us say the north of the Gaza Strip is shortly to be denuded of Palestinians by massacre, starvation and expulsion, and settled by Israelis: this will not create a new ‘right of national self-determination’ for the now dominant community in the area.

Similarly, socialists do not disassociate from the position of most states in the world, which still includes the US and the UK, just about, that Taiwan does not have a ‘right to national self-determination’ as a sovereign state. Taiwan was, in practice, a secession by an elite defeated on the Chinese mainland with the support of external actors seeking to reverse the revolution.

This is not to say that ‘facts on the ground’ are never subject to democratic negotiation. Socialists, in particular, will be extremely cautious about violent revanchism to reverse conquest or foreign-sponsored secession, because such actions, in turn, will themselves be instrumentalised by other foreign state actors or domestic authoritarians. So communists should certainly oppose any attempt by China to invade Taiwan and would see the current dispensation - one country, two governments - as a tolerable instalment of the long-term (if currently stalled) democratic process. Similarly, the Israeli nation subsists and its destruction as a ‘settler colony’ would involve atrocities incommensurable to any concept of ‘historic justice’ for the Palestinians. (Overthrow of the regime in Israel, however, if it were possible, would be a moral imperative at this point, given its military campaign of obliteration).

Regarding Ukraine, I do not have the expertise to pronounce, but certain things can be said. Ukrainian nationalism is of relatively recent growth, but is now real enough. The borders of the Ukrainian state were fairly arbitrary: quite glaringly in the case of the Crimea, credibly in the Russian-speaking Donbass region. However, it is doubtful that the moral case for secessionist national revolution in the Russian-speaking regions has ever been sufficiently established, and certainly no such revolution took place. Instead, the Putin regime sponsored subversion and then violently redrew borders. This was and is naked aggression.

This is not to say that socialists take an absolutist position of backing overwhelming force to restore the status quo ante. While they do not recognise the legitimacy of Russian conquests, they favour a democratic resolution of the conflict - democracy as a process, which might well result in an agreed border shift at some point in the future. They expose and warn against the US and its outriders instrumentalising the conflict to prepare for a war of encirclement against China as a geopolitical rival.


To take my own country, there was no question that Ireland, with its long history of conquest, brutal misgovernance and resistance, had the ‘moral right to revolution’. This was all but recognised in the 19th century by such a legal eminence as AV Dicey, even as he opposed concessions to Irish nationalism on British-state prudential grounds.10

What, however, of partition? It is difficult to see how the substantial Protestant majority in the Six Counties has lacked a ‘right of self-determination’, if that derives from “historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”. A right of revolution, however, is a different matter. The ‘self-determination’ of Ulster was first raised as an attempt to frustrate democratic negotiation between the Irish and the British. It was supported by the Tory establishment in Great Britain as a revolt against the partial democratisation of the British constitution. It was motivated in large part by an ethno-religious supremacism. It lacked, therefore, an essential moral grounding.

At a certain point, Irish partition became baked in as an inevitability, short of civil war. This represented a forced short-circuiting of the democratic process, but, given the devastation its reversal would have involved, not a casus belli. A socialist approach would have been to favour maximisation of all-Ireland dimensions in opposition to the state-builders on both sides of the border (the Northern Ireland and Free State governments agreed to the abandonment of the integrative ‘Council of Ireland’ in 1925).

A low-level war did erupt in Northern Ireland from c1971, though an Irish Republican Army victory was impossible, given the balance and forces, and would have been disastrous if it had somehow come to pass. The significance of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is that it establishes an imperfect, but tolerable, democratic-process arrangement for evolving the national question, and it rejects the possibility of repartition around a right of Ulster self-determination. The communist stake in all of this, and its primary critique of the politics of communal stasis, is an iterated democratic approach to the national question and a clearing of the ground for class politics.

Military budgets

The question remains of what socialists are to do in regard to budgets for war-making (I will dispense with the tedious euphemism of ‘defence’). Clearly, voting for war credits and offering support to the belligerency of one’s own state shattered the basis of the Second International.

But the question is not entirely straightforward: provision of war materiel is not, in itself, any more an instrument of foreign intervention than its denial, and both can be equally predatory. Anglo ‘non-interventionism’ during the Spanish civil war was meaningfully pro-fascist. Socialists, moreover, should not be pacifistic non-resisters to foreign aggression, and lectures addressed to those resisting conquest on accepting foreign arms are not likely to win much favour.11 Some wars are easy to oppose, some are not. Ukraine certainly has a right to defend itself regardless of Nato shenanigans, though I would have thought that a workers’ party in situ would be less than happy-clappy about forever war.

We are all glad that Germany lost World War II, and it would have been a good thing if Hitler had been stopped well in advance. But that does not resolve the issue of voting for war credits. We should look upon the military budget in the same light as the Mutiny Bill that used to be presented to parliament. This was an important outcome of the Glorious Revolution: it prevented the executive maintaining a standing army without parliamentary oversight. This did not amount, however, to parliamentary control of army and navy deployments in detail. Voting in favour of the Mutiny Bill was always recognised as a matter of confidence in the government to exercise its powers. If it was not passed, government was deemed impossible, and the ministers would have to resign.

If we think of military credits as a matter of confidence, the issue clarifies. The military can do good, of course - think of disaster relief at one end of the spectrum, liberating Belsen at the other. But military affairs are veiled in a great deal of secrecy by their very nature. This is unavoidable, as surprise and deception is a strategic and tactical resource. As a matter of principle (and often self-preservation) communists cannot trust the ruling-class state, configured as it is by a substantial oligarchy in even the most democratic arrangements we have seen. It cannot be trusted to spend money and resource without democratic oversight - and the absence of close democratic oversight is precisely what the military budget requires.

Even taking World War II, consider what happened in its fog: the British decision for war was taken by a government that had appeased fascism and betrayed Czechoslovakia; death camps were known, but not bombed to protect intelligence; three million were starved in Bengal to maintain supplies for the war on Japan; area bombing ‘dehoused’ (ie, killed) huge numbers of non-combatants; atom bombing was in arrant violation of civilian protection; war was very nearly waged against the Soviet Union in 1940 and again, if not quite so nearly, in the immediate aftermath of VE and VJ Day. And this was the good war.

This is not to argue that wars can always be fought by Queensbury Rules. Often they cannot. But voting for a military budget is never voting for (or against) any particular operation. Always and everywhere, by necessity, it means placing blind trust in the state and government. This is not an accidental feature of a military budget, but its absolute requirement. Such would be the case even if there existed a communist government of a state beleaguered by capitalist encirclement and foreign subversion. A parliamentary vote for a military (and espionage) budget in these circumstances would precisely be an expression of confidence in the executive - in its ‘dictatorship’, to use Marx’s frank word - rather than a meaningful democratic control of its military decision-making.

Communists naturally cannot place such trust in a regular bourgeois government, which is defined by oligarchy, corruption and systematic deception in the capitalist interest. The correct position remains, therefore, Wilhelm’s Liebknecht’s slogan of 1871: “Diesem System keinen Mann und keinen Groschen!” - ‘Not one recruit, not one penny will we approve for this ruling-class state!’

  1. K Kautsky Sozialisten und Krieg Prague 1937, p315.↩︎

  2. Little regarded these days, and not even mentioned in Christopher Clark’s account of the origins of World War I. AJP Taylor’s ‘War by [railway] timetable’ thesis remains compelling. Taylor made the point that mobilisation had to be massive and total if it was to be effective at all. As a consequence, all potential belligerents were on an escalatory hair-trigger.↩︎

  3. R Hilferding Finance capital: a study in the latest phase of capitalist development (1910), London 1981, p335.↩︎

  4. D McLellan Marxism after Marx London 1979, p109.↩︎

  5. www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol08/no07/lenin.htm.↩︎

  6. O Bauer The question of nationalities and social democracy (1907), translated by E Nimni, Minneapolis 2000, p258.↩︎

  7. VI Lenin, October 31 1922 - in Collected Works vol 33, London 1970, pp393-94.↩︎

  8. www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03a.htm#s1.↩︎

  9. See, for example, J Lothrop Motley The causes of the American Civil War Washington DC 1861, pp14-15.↩︎

  10. See M Mulholland, ‘Revolution and the rule of law: Dicey on Irish home rule’ in A Dickinson, T Endicott, W Ernst (eds) Dicey - 100 Albert Venn Dicey: a centennial commemoration Cambridge 2024.↩︎

  11. For the Vietnamese, small arms and artillery came from China, MiGs and air defence from the Soviet Union. They put them to mostly good use.↩︎