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Rosa Luxemburg and the National Problem:
The Similarity of Luxemburgfs Theory
to gAustrian Marxismh

Writen by Hiroyoshi Hayashi (1993)
Translated by Roy West


  1. Introduction
  2. The Abstract Denial of Nationalism
  3. Are the National Tasks Bourgeois Tasks?
  4. The Theory of the gNation-Stateh and the Class Interests of the Workers
  5. The gNational Self-Determinationh of Poland
  6. Centralized Power and Regional Autonomy
  7. Luxemburgfs Concept of Nation
  8. Luxemburg Begins to gSelecth or Screen Nations
  9. National Cultural Autonomy and National Self-Determination

1. Introduction

Lenin criticized Rosa Luxemburgfs nation theory for being abstract and not dealing with the problem concretely and historically. This has become a sort of gaxiomh that has spread throughout the socialist movement. This is the idea that Luxemburg, from a standpoint of abstract internationalism, denied national self-determination, which she thought could only have reactionary meaning because imperialism had broken through national boundaries and the nation. In this way she is said to have gforgottenh about the nationalism and imperialism of the great powers and cut herself off from the working class in the nationally oppressed nations. Of course this is perfectly true, and this weak point is clearly one essential aspect of Luxemburgfs theory-and therefore her political standpoint. However, here we are interested in another aspect of Luxemburgfs theory, which has basically been neglected: the aspect of her theory that resembles, or caters to, the theory of gnational cultural autonomy.h This aspect has a close, internal connection to the standpoint of abstract internationalism that Lenin criticized, but at the same time has its own independent content that needs to be critically examined. We are interested in this aspect of her theory because it is essentially the same tendency that was appeared within our party a year ago in the form of Sakaifs theories on the nation and the question of Korean residents in Japan. Luxemburgfs theory of the nation is presented in her essay, gThe National Question and Autonomy,h which Lenin also quoted from and criticized in his essay, gOn the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.h In Luxemburgfs essay, it is not so much her internationalist standpoint, but her similarity to the gcultural and national autonomyh theories of the gAustrian Marxistsh that is exhibited-i.e., in a sense she expresses not internationalism, but a very nationalistic viewpoint. Of course the details are different, but we can easily confirm that Luxemburgfs dogmatic standpoint is ultimately similar to the opportunistic standpoint of the Austrian Marxists. In this sense, Luxemburgfs nation theory is extremely opportunistic and nationalistic. This is what we intend to demonstrate in this essay. This will also reconfirm the ridiculousness of the criticism of Sakai that we are gsimilar to the nationalism theory of Luxemburg and that the SWP also adopts her standpoint of abstract internationalist.h In fact, Luxemburgfs nation theory has essentially the same opportunistic content as Sakaifs theory, and this will become clear as we develop our criticism here. Therefore, here we will see the nature of Luxemburgfs theory, and in what sense it is reactionary or nonsensical. [Quotations are taken from The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976)].

2. The Abstract Denial of Nationalism

Leninfs criticism of Luxemburgfs theory mainly focuses on the first part of her work. We will begin by looking at this aspect of her theory. Here, one fundamental defect in her theory was exposed. For example, in the following passage Luxemburg argues that the slogan or program of gnational self-determinationh is totally useless for the correct development of workersf daily class struggles or political activities:

The formula, gthe right of nations to self-determination,h of course doesnft have such a character at all. It gives no practical guidelines for the day-to-day politics of the proletariat, not any practical solution of nationality problems. For example, this formula does not indicate to the Russian proletariat in what way it should demand a solution of the Polish national problem, the Finnish question, the Caucasian question, the Jewish, etc. It offers instead only an unlimited authorization to all interested gnationsh to settle their national problems in any way they like. (p. 109)

Of course, Luxemburg is not denying the national oppression of Poles, Caucasians, or Jews. She was aware that this existed. However, she emphasizes that this should be opposed not on the basis of some particular right, such as the gright to self-determination,h but rather: g[t]his duty arises solely from the general opposition to the class regime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism.h (p. 110) Therefore, she concludes that the gthe formula of ethe right of nations to self-determination,f is essentially not a political and problematic guideline in the nationality question, but only a means of avoiding that question.h (Ibid)

In order to verify her own theory, Luxemburg says that Marx and others, when approaching the national problem, started not from the abstract formula of gnational self-determination,h but from the concrete situation. For example, Marx compared the 14th century revolt of Canton in Switzerland (a province which had particularly strong autonomy) to the 19th century Magyar movement, and evaluated the former as reactionary, while gfervently supportingh the latter. For Luxemburg, this different attitude towards the same struggle for the gright of national self-determinationh shows that the abstract defense of the right of self-determination has nothing in common with Marx.

Luxemburg then ridicules national self-determination under capitalism as a similarly utopian idea as gthe right to workh under capitalism:

Actually, even if as socialists we recognized the immediate right of nations to independence, the fates of nations would not change an iota because of this. The grighth of a nation to freedom as well as the grighth of the worker to economic independence are, under existing social conditions, only worth as much as the grighth of each man to eat off gold plates, which, as Nicolaus Chernyshevski wrote, he would be ready to sell at any moment for a ruble. (pp. 122-3)

Here, Luxemburgfs theoretical defect of being unable to distinguish between bourgeois liberation and socialist liberation is perfectly clear. She declares that gnational self-determinationh will make no difference in the fate of a country. However, bourgeois emancipation is no minor gchangeh for the people involved?including the working class as one element of the people?and to deny this only reveals an ignorance of the historical meaning and limitations of bourgeois emancipation, and an actual abandonment of the task of Marxists to correctly determine the workers struggles on the basis of a correct understanding of this. It is not certain what Luxemburg means by gthe right of the worker to economic independenceh?she also speaks of the gright of workh?but if this is understood as a socialistic right, it is needless to say that this cannot be realized within the framework of capitalism. However, what is the point in comparing gnational self-determinationh to socialist rights? If it were a question of whether this could be realized within the framework of capitalism, then gnational self-determinationh should be compared to other democratic rights rather than socialistic rights. In that case, the theoretical confusion and utopian nature of her view that this right cannot in any sense be realized under capitalism would be clear. Luxemburg writes the following:

Hopes of solving all nationality questions within the capitalist framework by insuring all nations, races, and ethnic groups the possibility of eself-determinationf is a complete utopia. (p. 123)

For her, this is different from the demand for the eight-hour day?even if it is the same in terms of not being immediately realizable?and is rather a utopia from the viewpoint of gthe trend of historical development of contemporary societiesh (p. 124) because in the course of history all of the nationalities are already gextremely mixed.h

According to Luxemburg, the eight-hour workday can be said to be realizable under capitalist society by means of bourgeois reforms under certain conditions. However, she says that national self-determination is different, and in this way it is certainly not a bourgeois right. This can be realized under socialism, but under capitalism it is totally impossible. Luxemburgfs opinion was the polar opposite of Lenin, who viewed national self-determination as one of the bourgeois tasks?i.e. possible under capitalism through bourgeois reforms. Here is a fundamental difference between the Marxist Lenin and the utopian, romantic Luxemburg. In the following passage, Luxemburg explains why national self-determination is impossible:

Today, in each state, ethnic relics bear witness to the upheavals and intermixtures which characterized the march of historical development in the past. Even in his time, Marx maintained that these national survivals had no other function but to serve as bastions of counter-revolution, until they should be completely swept from the face of the earth by the great hurricane of revolution or war. (p. 124)

Luxemburg then criticizes Kautskyfs concept of the national state?the idea that capitalistic development strengthens national consciousness, and that the national state is the form of the state gbest corresponding to modern conditions, the form in which it can most easily fulfill its tasks.h (Kautskyfs Nationality and Internationalism quoted by Luxemburg on page 129.) Luxemburg argues that a gebestf national state is only an abstraction which can easily be described and defined theoretically, but which doesnft correspond to reality.h (p. 129) Against Kautskyfs gbest national formh, Luxemburg posits the general tendency of development towards ga universal community of civilizationh (why is this introduced here?) which involves gthe deadly struggle among nationsh in gthe tendency to create great capitalist states.h (Ibid) The universal tendency of capitalism, according to Luxemburg, lies within this gdeadly struggle among nationsh and gtendency to create great capitalist states,h not in the trend of the right of national self-determination. She thinks that ultimately, the small nations can ultimately only be gpolitically impotent,h and that it is gan illusionh to think that they can be gpoliticallyh independent.

The return of all, or even the majority of the nations which are today oppressed, to independence would only be possible if the existence of small states in the era of capitalism had any chances or hopes for the future. Besides, the big-power economy and politics?a condition of survival for the capitalist states?turn the politically independent, formally equal, small European states into mutes on the European stage and more often into scapegoats. Can one speak with any seriousness of the gself-determinationh of peoples which are formally independent, such as Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Rumanians, the Serbs, the Greeks, and, as far as that goes, even the Swiss, whose very independence is the product of the political struggles and diplomatic game of the gConcert of Europeh? From this point of view, the idea of insuring all gnationsh the possibility of self-determination is equivalent to reverting from Great-Capitalist development to the small medieval states, far earlier than the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (pp. 129-130)

No matter how justified Luxemburgfs view may be?i.e. no matter how true it might be that small nations, not only in Europe but generally, have been unable to play a major determining role in world politics, already only exist in a state of gpolitical impotenceh or in a supporting role, or are in the wretched situation of being tools of large states that brandish them about?the question of the rights of smaller, weak states is a separate issue. That is, she fails to understand the essence and nature of gbourgeois rights.h The issue of bourgeois rights is not limited to whether it is beneficial to those employ them or to society in general, and for this very reason they are bourgeois rights. (Incidentally, this is also why Marxists do not absolutize or abstractly prettify these grights,h and ridicule the opportunistic confusion of those Stalinists who fix them in place as the foundation of their political practice, i.e. Miyamoto Kenji and Fuwa Tetsuzo.) It is perfectly irrelevant to bourgeois rights whether the gnational self-determinationh of a small country is in the interest of that nation and has progressive significance for humankind and history, or whether it only satisfies the self-conceit of a nation. Lenin accused Luxemburg of being unable to conceptually understand the question of bourgeois rights correctly, by confusing it with the question of whether a small state could truly be economically independent. For Lenin, the question of national self-determination is a question of political independence and the freedom of nations to organize a state under their own will, whereas the question of whether this state could be economically independent belongs to another dimension of the problem. Luxemburg was unable to understand this fundamentally important question, and was thus criticized by Lenin for being gabstract rather than dialectical.h

As a result of this, Luxemburg went so far as to deny the national self-determination of colonial people, and thus in fact inescapably fell into the position of actually defending or justifying capitalistic imperialism. The following passage is characteristic:

Apparent exceptions only confirm on closer analysis the conclusion that the modern development of capitalism cannot be reconciled with the true independence of all nationalities.

It is true the problem appears much simpler if, when discussing nationality, we exclude the question of colonial partitions. Such a technique is often applied, consciously or unconsciously, by the defenders of the grights of nationsh; it also corresponds to the position with respect to colonial politics taken, for example, by Eduard David in the German Social Democracy or van Kol in the Dutch. This point of view considers colonialism in general as the expression of the civilizing mission of European peoples, inevitable even in a socialist regime. This view can be briefly described as the gEuropeanh application of the philosophical principle of Fichte in the well known paraphrase of Ludwig Brone: gIch bin ich?was ausser mir ist Levensmittelh [gI am myself?what is outside of me is the means of lifeh]. If only the European peoples are regarded as nations proper, while colonial peoples are looked on as gsupply depots,h then we may use the term gnation-stateh in Europe for countries like France, Denmark, or Italy, and the problem of nationality can be limited to intra-European dimensions. But in this case, gthe right of nations to self-determinationh becomes a theory of the ruling races and betrays clearly its origin in the ideologies of bourgeois liberalism together with its gEuropeanh cretinism. In the approach of socialists, such a right must, by the nature of things, have a universal character. The awareness of this necessity is enough to indicate that the hope of realizing this grighth on the basis of the existing setup is a utopia; it is in direct contradiction to the tendency of capitalist development on which Social Democracy has based its existence. A general attempt to divide all existing states into national units and to re-tailor them on the model of national states and statelets is a completely hopeless and historically speaking, reactionary undertaking. (pp. 133-4)

There are several problems with this argument. First of all, why does Luxemburg speak of the independence of gall nationsh? The self-determination of nations is completely different from the gindependence of all of the nationsh of the world (of course, there is the question here of what the word gnationh refers to, but even if this were to mean all gracesh the problem would be the same). Recognizing the gright of self-determinationh of all nations is completely different from working for their self-determination or saying that this is always desirable. Luxemburg is unable to consistently understand this, and thus ends up speaking of gthe self-determination of all nations.h

Moreover, Luxemburg brings up the problem of imperialism and colonies. Of course, it is perfectly fine to bring up this problem here, but this does not justify her position. What she is saying here is confused, and it is not clear why she refers to the problem of imperialism and colonies. She says that because it is the European bourgeoisie who insist on gnational self-determination,h it must be nonsense. However, even though the gnational self-determinationh of the bourgeoisie in the imperialist states is deceptive and deceitful, this does not mean that the gnational self-determinationh of the exploited nations is the same thing. Luxemburg is perfectly justified to notice that the goriginh of the slogan of national self-determination comes form bourgeois liberalism?at least Rosa Luxemburg is free from the stupidity of the Communist Party which fails to realize the bourgeois goriginh of this slogan, and instead raise it as the essence of gscientific socialismh!?but she denies the fact that this bourgeois slogan has historically progressive meaning in the colonial areas since they are in a different historical and social situation and developmental stage than the economically advanced capitalist countries. The abstract and idealistic standpoint of Luxemburg is clear. On the basis of her idea that the slogan of gnational self-determinationh had already become reactionary in Europe, she concludes that it is also reactionary in the colonial areas.

Since Luxemburg emphasizes that the terrible exploitation of the colonial states by the imperialist European states, one would think that she would naturally emphasize the task of natural liberation in these colonies. In fact, however, she says the opposite. Luxemburg attacks opportunists for defending the policy of imperialism by calling it a gcivilizing mission,h but on the other hand, she abstracts the aspect of the inevitable capitalistic development of the colonial areas from the colonial rule of the imperialist states, and thus emphasizes that it would be reactionary for the colonies to separate into gnational units.h In other words, Luxemburgfs position is not so different from the opportunistic wing of the Social Democratic Party. Therefore, her criticism of imperialism (and struggle against it) was inevitably incomplete.

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