Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, April 1946


The National Question in Europe

Statement of the European Executive Committee in Quatrième Internationale, December-January 1946


From Fourth International, April 1946, Vol.7 No.4, pp.121-124.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The second imperialist world war and its consequences have revived discussions on the national question in Europe. In this issue of Quatrième International we publish some of the principal documents representing the views both of sections of the International and of individual comrades.

Today our movement is the only one which fulfills the duties of a genuine revolutionary vanguard; the only one which poses and discusses the fundamental problems of the proletarian movement.

The discussions which took place during the war on the national question were especially heated, leading to deep divergences which are far from eliminated today. In fact, the objective causes at the bottom of this controversy, namely, the occupation of Europe by the German imperialist armies, actually persist today in a different form – the joint occupation of Europe by American, English and French imperialists and by the USSR.

In the following lines, in order to arrive at a correct understanding of the whole problem, we have tried to throw light on three aspects:

  1. the national question in Europe during the imperialist epoch;
  2. the national question during the last imperialist war;
  3. the national question today.

1.The National Question in Europe During the Imperialist Epoch

The position of revolutionary Marxism on the national question in the imperialist epoch has been best formulated by Lenin.

Lenin returned to the two great principles already established by Marx and Engels on the national question, namely: 1) the proletariat of an oppressor state must recognize the right of self-determination of all peoples; and 2) the proletariat of an oppressed nation should approach this demand in its relative and not its absolute sense, i.e., the interests of the socialist movement as a whole must be taken into account. Lenin also indicated the principal modifications in applying these principles to the imperialist epoch.

In the time of Marx and Engels, socialists were for the liberation of big nationalities, the great revolutionary peoples of the west (Germans, Poles, Magyars) and against Czarism which in that epoch constituted the principal reactionary force, and also against certain small nationalist movements (such as the Czech) “which Czarism utilized for anti-democratic ends” (Lenin). In the imperialist epoch, on the contrary, socialists proclaim themselves “against the united, straightened-out front of the imperialist powers, of the imperialist bourgeoisie, of the social-imperialists, and /or utilizing all nationalist movements against imperialism for the purposes of the socialist revolution” (Lenin).

The colonial and semi-colonial countries are not the only countries in which nationalist movements are possible and inevitable. Lenin admitted the possibility of nationalist movements and nationalist wars even in Europe, on the part of annexed or oppressed “small states” against the great imperialist powers, and cited in this connection the examples of Belgium, Serbia, Galicia and Albania.

The tactic advocated by him toward these movements was to come to their aid, to the extent that they aggravated and deepened the crisis of imperialism, without compromising the general interests of the socialist movement. The “indisputably extremely complex position,” to use Lenin’s own words, was formulated by him in the following way:

It is our duty to educate the workers to be “indifferent” to national distinctions. Nobody will dispute that. But not to be indifferent in the spirit of annexationism. A member of an oppressing nation must be “indifferent” to whether small nations belong to his state or to a neighboring state or to themselves, according to where their sympathies lie: if he is not “indifferent” in this way he is not a social democrat. To be an internationalist social-democrat, one must not think only of one’s own nation, but must place the interests of all nations, their general liberty and equality, above one’s own nation. In “theory” everyone agrees with this, but in practice an annexationist indifference is displayed. Herein lies the root of the evil.

On the contrary, a social-democrat belonging to a small nation must place the weight of his agitation on the second word in our general formula: “voluntary amalgamation” of nations. He may, without violating his duties as an internationalist, be in favor either of the political independence of his nation or of its inclusion in neighboring state X, Y, Z, etc. But in all cases he must fight against small-nation narrow-mindedness, insularity and aloofness, he must fight for the recognition of the whole and the general, and for the subordination of the particular to the interests of the general.

People who have not gone thoroughly into the question think that there is a “contradiction” in social-democrats of oppressing nations insisting on “freedom of secession” while social-democrats of oppressed nations insist on “freedom of amalgamation. However, a little reflection will show that there is not, nor can there be, any other road leading from the given situation to internationalism and the amalgamation of nations, that there is not, nor can there be, any other road leading to this goal.

But Lenin never called into question the imperialist character of the war of 1914-18 nor the duty of socialists in England, in France, in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary to carry out a consistent internationalist policy in the sense outlined above. He never called into question the policy of revolutionary defeatism despite the prospect that the war would bring the invasion and temporary occupation of one of these countries by another.

He was particularly opposed to Rosa Luxembourg’s project to put in the forefront in Germany a “nationalist program” in defense of the “fatherland” against “the invasion” by “class struggle methods.”

To this Lenin replied:

In France, in Germany, and in the whole of Europe it was a bourgeois-democratic revolution that objectively was on the order of the day in 1793 and 1848. Corresponding to this objective historical situation was the “truly objective,” i.e., the national bourgeois program of the then existing democracy; in 1793 this program was carried out by the most revolutionary elements of the bourgeoisie and the plebeians and in 1848 it was proclaimed by Marx in the name of the whole progressive democracy. Objectively, the feudal and dynastic wars were then opposed with revolutionary democratic wars, with wars for national liberation. This was the content of the historical tasks of that epoch.

At the present time the objective situation in the biggest advanced states of Europe is different. Progress, if we leave out the possibility of temporary steps backward, is possible only towards socialist society, only towards the socialist revolution. Objectively, the imperialist bourgeois war, the war of highly developed capitalism, can, from the standpoint of progress, from the standpoint of the progressive class, be opposed only with a war against the bourgeoisie, i.e., primarily civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie for power; for unless such a war is waged serious progress is impossible; and after that – only under certain conditions – a war to defend the socialist state against bourgeois states is possible. That is why those Bolsheviks (fortunately, very few ...) who were ready to adopt the point of view of conditional defense, i.e., of defending the fatherland on the condition that there was a victorious revolution and the victory of a republic in Russia, were true to the letter of Bolshevism, but betrayed its spirit; for being drawn into the imperialist war of the advanced European powers, Russia, even under a republican form of government, would also be waging an imperialist war!

2. The National Question During the Second Imperialist War

On the eve of the Second World War, Trotsky took a position on the national question, analogous to Lenin’s position during the First World War. This should serve us a general guide in our attitude towards the problems raised by the German occupation of Europe.

In 1916, Lenin wrote:

It is highly improbable that this imperialist war of 1914-16 will be transformed into a national war, because the class that represents progress is the proletariat, which, objectively, is striving to transform this war into civil war against the bourgeoisie; and also because the strength of both coalitions is almost equally balanced, while international finance capital has everywhere created a reactionary bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that such a transformation is impossible: if the present war were to end in victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon, in the subjugation of a number of viable national states; if imperialism outside of Europe (primarily American and Japanese) were to remain in power for another twenty years without a transition to socialism, say, as a result of a Japanese-American war, then a great national war in Europe would be possible. This means that Europe would be thrown back for several decades. This is improbable. But it is not impossible, for to picture history as advancing smoothly and steadily without sometimes taking gigantic strides backward, is undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong.

The position adopted by Trotsky in 1938 has the same general line:

An imperialist war, no matter from what corner it begins, will be carried on not for “national independence” but for the division of the world in the interests of separate cliques of finance capital. This does not exclude that in passing the imperialist war could improve or worsen the condition of this or that “nation,” or, more exactly, of one nation at the expense of another. Thus, the Versailles peace treaty dismembered Germany. A new peace treaty may dismember France. Social-patriots utilize precisely this possible “national” danger of the future in order to support “their” imperialist bandits of the present. Czechoslovakia does not represent any exception from this rule.

In reality all speculative arguments of this kind and the frightening of people over future national calamities for the sake of the support of this or that imperialist bourgeoisie flow from tacit rejection of revolutionary perspective and revolutionary policy. Naturally if a new war ends in the military victory of this or that imperialist camp; if a war calls forth neither a revolutionary uprising nor a victory of the proletariat; if a new imperialist peace more terrible than the Versailles treaty places new chains for decades upon the people; if unfortunate humanity bears all this in silence and submission – not only Czechoslovakia or Belgium but also France can be hurled back into the position of an oppressed nation (the same supposition may be made in regard to Germany). In this eventuality the further frightful decomposition of capitalism will cast all humanity back for many decades. Of course in the realization of this perspective, that is, a perspective of passivity, capitulation, defeat, and decline, oppressed classes and entire peoples must then climb on all fours in sweat and in blood over the historic road already once traversed. Is such an outlook excluded? if the proletariat suffers without end the leadership of social-imperialists and communist-chauvinists; if the Fourth International is unable to find a road to the masses; if the terrors of war do not push the workers and soldiers on the road to rebellion; if the colonial peoples bleed patiently in the interests of the slaveholders, under these conditions the level of civilization will inevitably be lowered and the general retrogression and decomposition may again place national wars on the order of the day for Europe. Even then we, or rather our sons, will have to determine the policy in regard to future wars on the basis of the new situation. But today we proceed not from the perspective of decline but from the perspective of revolution; we are defeatists at the expense of imperialists and not at the expense of the proletariat. We do not link the question of the fate of the Czechs, Belgians, French, and Germans as nations with conjunctural shifts of military fronts during a new brawl of the imperialists but with the uprising of the proletariat and its victory over all the imperialists. The program of the Fourth International states that the freedom of all European nations, both large and small, can be secured only within the frame of the Socialist United States of Europe. We look ahead and not backward!

Thus, according to Trotsky, there can be no question of the second imperialist war becoming transformed into a national war; there can be no question of considering the great capitalist and imperialist nations of Europe, after their defeat and occupation by their adversaries, as having been reduced to the level of oppressed nations and, in this way justifying the struggle of their respective bourgeoisie as a “nationalist” struggle; there can be no question of a “national and democratic revolution” as distinct from the socialist revolution.

Despite this clear and precise warning, two diametrically opposed and equally erroneous positions arose on the national question in our ranks, after the German occupation. One of them is represented by the IKD, the leadership of our German section and is formulated in the Three Theses which constitute an opportunist and revisionist deviation; the other position is represented by minority tendencies in certain sections and constitutes an ultra-left, sectarian tendency. In between these two, there are a number of other opinions which to a greater or lesser extent tend toward one of the extremes.

What then is the correct position?

In the first place, it is necessary to recognize that the war was imperialist in character on both sides – on the side of Germany as well as on the side of the Allied nations; and that the only “progressive war” was the struggle waged by the USSR during the non-annexationist phase.

Next, it is necessary to draw a primary distinction between the large imperialist countries which suffered defeat and occupation (in particular, France) and the “little states,” annexed or oppressed, taking into account the evolution undergone by these small nations in the interval between the two wars. Many of them not only possess the theoretical possibility of themselves oppressing other nationalities, as was the case in Lenin’s time, but have actually developed into capitalist and imperialist countries oppressing other peoples (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia).

In all occupied countries, both large and small, the bourgeoisie must be considered as reactionary and incapable of carrying through a struggle for national independence, being divided into two factions attached to one of the belligerent imperialist camps.

In line with these considerations it is possible to adopt a revolutionary Marxist tactic towards the so-called “new national question in Europe.”

Revolutionary Tactic

The revolutionary proletariat takes cognizance of the fact that the German occupation led to a certain national oppression and inscribes into its program the demand of the right of self-determination of all nations.

Without placing the slightest confidence in its own bourgeoisie, and recognizing that, in the imperialist epoch, the struggle for national independence is inseparable from the struggle against imperialism and for socialism, the revolutionary proletariat wages this struggle with its own class methods, namely: Inside Germany it fights for the revolutionary overthrow of Nazism and demands the withdrawal of German troops from occupied areas of Europe; in the occupied countries, it conducts the struggle against German occupation in the spirit of internationalism and class struggle, placing the emphasis on fraternization with the German workers in uniform and on the necessity of a free federation of peoples in the Socialist United States of Europe.

It therefore rejects the idea of “a national democratic revolution,” through which its struggle must necessarily pass before unfolding on the basis of its own socialist program and terminating in the proletarian revolution.

The demand for the right of self-determination nowise constitutes, even for a limited period, an end in itself, rendering null and void the rest of the revolutionary internationalist and socialist program; but is simply an integral part of the latter, and subordinated to the whole.

Among the touchiest problems raised by the occupation was that of adopting an attitude toward the “national movements” and the “national resistance organizations.” These movements were not the artificial products of the chauvinist propaganda of the “Allied” bourgeoisie and the Stalinist parties.

Above all, they represented, especially in those cases where they acquired a mass character, the form assumed by the spontaneous reaction of workers and urban and rural petty bourgeoisie to the oppressive rule of occupying imperialism and the national bourgeoisie. Channeled into the “resistance” organizations, these masses fell automatically under the leader. ship of the “resisting” bourgeoisie and of the Stalinist parties which fought on the basis of extremely chauvinistic programs.

In its relations with these “national unity” formations which distorted the imperialist character of the war and dealt mortal wounds to proletarian internationalism, the party of the revolutionary proletariat could be guided only by safeguarding its organizational and political independence from them, and by waging an intransigent struggle against the social-patriotic and chauvinist programs and practices. But, on the other hand it was necessary to carry on patient, systematic work in these organizations in order to free the revolutionary elements within them from the ideological vise of chauvinism and to regroup them on a class basis.

It was in this sense that the European Conference of February 1944 tried to pose and solve the problem of our attitude toward the “national” movements and “resistance organizations.” The precise policy followed by each of our European sections still remained unknown at the time. It is quite possible and even probable that blunders were committed and that there were fairly marked deviations to the right and to the left. It is necessary to consider as ultra-left all those tendencies which denied the existence of national oppression; which did not come out clearly for the right of self-determination; which neglected to organize under our own banner (the banner of the revolutionary party) the struggle against the German occupation (conducted of course in the internationalist and class spirit); and which minimized the importance of working inside the popular organizations (French FTP, Yugoslav and Greek Partisans, etc.).

It is necessary to consider as rightist and opportunist all those tendencies which made the demand for self-determination an end in itself, severing it from the rest of the socialist, revolutionary internationalist program; which favored in one form or another our participating or collaborating – as a political movement – with the organizations of the “resistance”; and which placed on the same plane “national resistance” in a large defeated imperialist country like France, and in oppressed “small states” like Yugoslavia and Greece.

3. The National Question in Europe Today

The termination of the war has not removed the problems raised by the German occupation. Europe is no freer today than she was yesterday, notwithstanding the difference in methods of occupation.

The struggle of the oppressed peoples of Europe did not lead to their “national liberation” but to the replacement of German occupation by separate or joint occupation of American, English, French and Soviet forces. This proves once again that the equality of nations and the right of self-determination cannot be realized under the rule of imperialism, and that the real struggle for “national independence” is inseparable from the struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

Moreover, the new occupation of Europe poses far more important problems than did the German occupation. In the latter case it was a question of occupying certain European territories, owing to the vicissitudes of war and in the course of the war. Today it is a question of a much more durable occupation which in the long run threatens to transform the structure of viable nations, in particular, Germany. In case of prolonged apathy and impotence on the part of the revolutionary proletariat, the 1916 perspective of Lenin and of Trotsky in 1938 might be realized, that is to say, Europe may be thrown back for many decades and hence may arise the possibility of new national wars.

But at the present time there is no reason for taking as our point of departure this perspective, which is one of the decisive defeat of the revolution. Today, as during the war, we base our policy on the revolutionary perspective which still remains open. Today, as yesterday, we inscribe in our socialist, revolutionary internationalist program the demand for the self-determination of all peoples; and we declare that the struggle for genuine national independence is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism and for the Socialist United States of Europe and of the World.

With respect to European countries now occupied by American, English and French imperialist armies, our attitude is as follows: Our co-thinkers in America, in England, in France must place the emphasis on the right of the oppressed masses in the occupied countries to self-determination and they must conduct an active struggle for the withdrawal from these countries of American, English and French troops.

Within the occupied countries, our parties, while organizing the struggle of the popular masses under their own banner and while waging this struggle in the internationalist and class spirit, must place emphasis above all on the necessity for a federation of free nations in the Socialist United States of Europe.

In particular, with respect to Germany, the June 1945 resolution of the European Executive Committee concretized our attitude as follows:

  1. Self-determination of all peoples; immediate withdrawal of all occupation troops.
  2. Against military rule! Against occupation! Against the dismemberment and pillage of Germany! Against deportations of German workers! Against forced labor! For the fraternization of troops of occupation with the German toiling masses!
  3. For the fraternization of workers of other countries with the deported German workers! Let them be enrolled into the trade unions of these countries! For the same working and living conditions and equal rights with the workers of these countries!
  4. Let the Nazis in Germany be purged and punished by the German workers themselves! For the complete freedom of the labor movement in Germany!

This position is restated as follows in the latest Manifesto of European Executive Committee addressed to the German proletariat:

We protest against the dismemberment of Germany, against the indemnities and requisitions and billions in reparations. We salute all acts of fraternization between the soldiers of occupying armies and the German proletariat. We demand of these soldiers that they do not permit themselves to be used for imperialist and reactionary ends against the German proletariat. We stand for the right of self-determination. We, international Communist, will struggle for this right wherever we are; we will do our utmost to regroup the proletariat of the entire world ...

On the other hand, a large part of Europe is occupied or effectively controlled by the USSR.

Forgetting the words of Robespierre that “no people loves armed missionaries,” forgetting the words of Engels, repeated by Lenin, that “the victorious proletariat cannot impose well-being upon any other people without thereby compromising its own victory,” the Soviet bureaucracy has proceeded to violate brutally and bureaucratically the national and democratic rights of the peoples of Central and Southern Europe.

The Fourth International declares that there is nothing in common between Marxist-Leninist politics on the national question and the acts of annexation, the extortion of reparations, the transfer of populations, the enslavement of peoples to which the Soviet bureaucracy has resorted in order to expand its economic base and its strategic zone in Europe and Asia, instead of furthering the revolutionary movement of the masses and promoting the socialist federation of free nations. These methods are some of the manifestations of barbarism into which mankind is being plunged as a consequence of the retardation of the European and world socialist revolution, the prolongation of capitalist decay, and the degeneration of the workers state in the USSR.

The Fourth International upholds the right of self-determination in countries occupied or controlled by the USSR.

It recognizes the same right for the Soviet republics such as the Ukraine, White Russia, Karelia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, who, if their peoples so desire, have the right to secede from the other federated republics of the USSR. This demand is necessary in view of the policy of oppression and forced assimilation practised by the Soviet bureaucracy.

In adopting this policy, the Fourth International remains faithful to the revolutionary teachings of Marx and Lenin and to the general interests of the international socialist movement.

The domination of the world by the “Big Three,” as a result of World War II, continues, despite their differences and internal friction, to rest on authoritarian anti-democratic and despotic methods and the enslavement of a whole number of nations.

Reactionary capitalism, imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy are more and more extensively violating the democratically-determined frontiers of nations – that is to say, those frontiers which are determined by “the language and sympathies of the population” which Engels considered to be the “natural” frontiers.

Only the proletarian and socialist revolution will, by bringing about a new democratic determination of the state frontiers, restore liberty to these nations.

The old “Economists” [wrote Lenin] distorting Marxism into a caricature taught the workers that “only” “economics” is important for Marxists. The new “Economists” either assume that the democratic state of victorious socialism will exist without boundaries (like a “complex of sensations” without matter), or that the boundaries will be drawn “only” in accordance with the requirements of production. As a matter of fact, those boundaries will be drawn democratically, i.e., in accordance with the wishes and “sympathies” of the population. Capitalism violates these sympathies and thus creates fresh obstacles to the establishment of intimacy between nations. Socialism, by organizing production without class-oppression and by ensuring the well-being of all members of the state, gives full scope to the “sympathies” of the population, and precisely by virtue of this facilitates and enormously accelerates the establishment of intimacy among and amalgamation of nations.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 9.2.2009