On Queer Internationalism

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Rafael Bernabe

LENIN WROTE SEVERAL works on the “national question.” Two, I would argue, are particularly significant: “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (1913) and “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914). In them he formulated the approach which informs his other texts on this issue. Their destinies have been markedly different: The second work has been widely read around the world, the first is almost unknown.

This is unfortunate. What we have lost is an aspect of the marxist tradition from which the struggle against national oppression (and, perhaps, not only national oppression) can still benefit. Indeed, Lenin’s work on this question–as I hope to demonstrate–is quite compatible with some recent approaches, such as queer theory, with which–to say the least–his views are not commonly associated.

In recent decades, the work of marxist and non-marxist researchers has considerably (if insufficiently) advanced our understanding of nationalism. This fact does not diminish the importance of Lenin’s contribution. It does force us to begin our discussion with a few general remarks on marxism and the “national question.”

An Historically Specific Phenomenon

For marxism, the nation is not an anthropological constant. It does not arise automatically from the existence of cultural differences or from the cultural diversity of humanity. The latter are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the emergence of the nation and of nationalism: It is only within certain historical conditions that those differences become moments of specifically national cultures or projects.(1)

Nationalist thought typically presents the emergence of nations as the ripening, maturing or flowering (these are favorite metaphors) of long-standing cultural identities. It emphasizes the continuity linking the nation to past cultural formations: The nation is conceived as the necessary and highest fruit of a specific cultural matrix.(2)

Nevertheless, how inadequate mere cultural diversity is as an explanation of the birth of nations is clearly evidenced by the fact that considerable–sometimes deep–cultural differences run through many, perhaps most, national cultures, just as there are numerous instances of appreciable similarities between the cultural expressions claimed by different nations. Cultural diversity and differentiation, as such, cannot explain why certain differences present themselves as variations, as different components of a single national culture or identity, while others (or the same, at another time or place) act as frontiers, limits or markers between national cultures or identities.

Cultural differences do not explain why most Mexicans and Guatemalans think of Mexico and Guatemala as different nations. For one thing, deep cultural differences exist within each of those entities, just as there are significant similarities between them. Culturally one could easily envisage Guatemala being a region within Mexico, or Chiapas being a third nation distinct from both Mexico and Guatemala, or to take another example, the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua being a separate nation (not unlike Belize in the Atlantic coast of Guatemala).

For marxism, then, I would insist, the birth of the modern nation cannot be explained by pointing to the cultural heterogeneity of humanity or to certain cultural particularities or differences, as nationalists would normally argue, confident that national identities spontaneously and unproblematically arise from that heterogeneity or such cultural differences.(3)

Precisely what must be explained is why and how, at specific historical moments and contexts and for certain groups, that heterogeneity becomes a national heterogeneity, why certain differences or particularities at a distinct time and place acquire a national coloring.

Thus, most marxist attempts to explain the birth and spread of nations and of nationalism have underlined as decisive the discontinuity provoked by the crystallization of new social relations capable, among other things, of transforming the extremely varied cultural patrimony of humanity into the raw material for the construction of national identities or national projects.

For marxism, the nationalization of human culture corresponds, in a complex fashion to be sure, to the emergence, unequal extension, and contradictory political and economic dynamic of a definite set of social relations–capitalist relations of production–and not to the alleged continuity or the organic evolution of (one or several) preexisting cultural units or identities.

Before the emergence of the nation-state it was of course commonplace for states to rule over different cultures, indeed for communities within them (as well as rulers and ruled) to even speak different languages. The nation, furthermore, in its first, universalist, “political,” bourgeois-democratic, incarnation referred to a body of citizens. As it evolved through the nineteenth century, nationalism retained the idea of the state as representative (or, even more vaguely, “expression”) of the nation, while it redefined the latter as a cultural entity.(4)

Nationalism thus emerged, as Gellner has argued, as a new “theory of political legitimacy” through which states legitimize themselves as representatives of nations (conceived as a cultural units), while cultures that successfully claim the status of nations can (at least) legitimately claim their own state.(5)

The emergence of that new type of relationship between state and culture –the process through which emergent capitalist states legitimized themselves as representatives of culturally defined units–since the 1700s brought about not so much the “awakening” of “dormant” nations (as nationalist thought would argue), but a constant pressure to remake human cultural diversity as a constellation of national cultures.(6)

Nationalism and the nation-state thus bring with them the recuperation (real or apparent), invention, cultivation, mobilization, exhibition and veneration of those differential traits (linguistic, ethnic, religious, geographical, etc.) which national cultures claim as embodiments of their distinct identities, as well as a constant pressure toward the homogenization and negation of whichever cultural differences may be perceived as threats to those identities.(7)

To the extent that the modern state is a territorial state and that nationalism identifies the nation as a cultural unit, the nation–state as a norm, as a program, implies and legitimizes an ongoing, conflictive, often violent pressure to define and redefine, draw and redraw the relation and correspondence between state-territorial frontiers, national identities and cultural differences. This pressure may imply both a readjustment of existing state–territorial frontiers, and the exercise of diverse degrees of violence on the cultural heterogeneity of humankind (to recast its subtle and complex shades and tonalities along the lines of a far more discontinuous map of national identities).

Adjusting state/national/cultural frontiers, as nationalism demands, has thus legitimized–among other things–anticolonial struggles, wars of national liberation, the breakup of multi-national states into separate states, the unification of several states into a single state, irredentist movements, the imposition of dominant national cultures on subordinate cultures, the invasion of neighboring states, as well as the removal or elimination (expulsions, the Auschwitz death camps, “ethnic cleansing”) of cultural or national minorities from the “national territory.”(8)

There is, of course, another aspect of the marxist approach to this question: Capitalism, while creating the conditions appropriate for the birth of the nation-state, simultaneously generates economic trends (growing mobility, concentration and centralization of capital, processes of production, divisions of labor, population displacements, labor migrations) which transcend national markets or states.

From its birth capitalism moves toward the creation of a world economy, within which nation-states emerge as differentiated, relatively discontinuous jurisdictions. The growing importance of international economic processes eventually poses the need for supra-national political structures.

Nation-states are thus threatened by (at least) two opposing forces: (1) new nationalisms (advanced or underdeveloped regions or provinces, linguistic, ethnic, religious or otherwise differentiated communities, etc.) that may defy existing national frontiers, identities or definitions; but (2) a growing need for international political arrangements, nurtured by an increasingly international economic dynamic.

To both nationalist “from within” and “globalizing” threats–which may feed on each other(9)–existing state structures may respond with their own nationalist justifications. It is not difficult to detect the clash of these trends and counter-trends in the world around us.

The Right to Self-Determination

The logic of Lenin’s texts on the national question–as opposed to Stalin’s well-known book–did not hinge on a general or fixed definition of nation. Rather, Lenin’s thesis links the rise of the nation-state to the economic, political and technological dynamics of bourgeois society and, furthermore, recognizes the existence of relations of domination between different peoples and nations.

Regarding the first point, he would have agreed with the description of the nation as a “historical formation linked to the rise of the capitalist mode of production.”(10) Regarding the second, he categorically insisted that marxism is opposed to all forms of national oppression, inequality or privilege.

But democratic as a state may be, he warned, there can be no equality between two (or more) nations within it if their union is not a free union. There can be no free union without the right of separation, just as the possibility of divorce is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a free union between individuals.

Thus, he argued, in the struggle against national oppression socialists sought to abolish all linguistic, national, ethnic, cultural privileges within multi-national states, while furthermore recognizing the right of nations to self-determination, including their right to create separate states.

But Lenin, as a marxist, was not committed to the struggle against national oppression exclusively. His goal was the abolition of all forms of oppression, including class oppression. Such a goal, nevertheless, is not attainable within one country. For him, as for all of classical marxism, the growing international solidarity of the dispossessed was a necessary condition for the consolidation of a viable socialist commonwealth.

How could socialists struggle against national oppression while also contributing both to the “self-determination of the proletariat” within each nation and to the growing international unity of the working class?(11) For Lenin the recognition of the right of nations to selfdetermination was an indispensable aspect of any project oriented to that triple objective.

A defense of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, he argued, contributed to the growth of an internationalist attitude–an attitude of solidarity and identification with other peoples’ aspirations, distinct from the loyalties invoked by bourgeois nationalism–within the labor movement and progressive-democratic forces of the oppressing nations.

Furthermore, to the extent that the latter translated their commitment to self-determination into effective and visible actions, policies or practices, it would be easier for workers in the oppressed nations to see them as class allies, instead of national enemies. This, in turn, would tend to create an atmosphere favorable to the separation of the labor movement of the oppressed nation from the nationalism of its own bourgeoisie.

Luxemburg’s Criticism

Of the criticisms aimed at Lenin’s position, Rosa Luxemburg’s is probably the best known, at least within the revolutionary left. If capitalism creates an increasingly international economic structure, she argued, and if socialism is only viable as an international project, it made little sense–was it not, in fact, reactionary?–for marxists to promote further national fragmentation or the creation of ever smaller and economically unviable states.

Lenin did not reject any of this, but drew different conclusions from it. If only the working class is capable of rebuilding society on a non-capitalist basis, and if such a project is only viable on an international scale, he asked, how could marxists contribute to the international unity of the working class? How did they propose to replace existing national hatreds and resentments with international identifications and solidarities?

Furthermore: how are those national hatreds and resentments to be explained? Are they not a product of the means through which capitalism creates a world economy: through the conquest, colonization, subordination, exploitation of some regions or nations by others? How, then, he added, could that international unity, created by capitalism through diverse forms of exploitation and subordination–the only available starting point for the socialist project–be transformed into the freely chosen unity which corresponds to the socialist agenda?

In other words, Luxemburg had failed to pose what Lenin saw as the key problem: If socialism must unavoidably take the international unity created by capitalism and imperialism as a premise, it must also seek to radically transform that, and to transform it, furthermore, through the conscious activity of millions of human beings from different nations. For him, the importance of the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination resided in its role as one aspect, as a key lever, of that transformation.(12)

For Lenin, therefore, to recognize the right of nations to self-determination was not an invitation to create new, smaller, separate states, but rather the means, the only means, of creating the conditions for a freely chosen union of different nations.(13) To recognize the right of nations to secede and create independent states, he insisted, strengthened the international unity of the working class, even if in some cases it led to the creation of new states.(14)

Marxism, he argued, actively favors international unity and integration, but not any type of international unity or integration, not unity and integration by any means: “Other conditions being equal, the class conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger state.” “Other conditions being equal” meant that faced with equally democratic options, marxists would normally support whichever implied the creation of the largest state (unitary, federation, confederation, etc.). They could not, nevertheless, defend a larger state at the expense of the democratic rights of any nation. To retain a people within certain frontiers against their will was to nurture national hatreds, not unity: “In advocating centralism we advocate exclusively democratic centralism.”(15)

This conception included both the complete equality of all nations and cultures within multi-national states as well as the recognition of the right of nations to secede.  Furthermore, it also included the possibility of installing diverse forms of regional autonomy, based on the “economic features” or the “national composition” of specific areas. According to him, one could not conceive of a “modern, truly democratic state that did not grant such autonomy.”(16)

It is sometimes claimed that Lenin opposed autonomy and that he saw independence as the only legitimate vehicle for a national struggle or project. In fact, as we just saw, he considered autonomy to be a perfectly viable, and in some cases desirable, option. What he emphatically rejected was Luxemburg’s conception of autonomy as a substitute for the recognition of the right of nations to secede: Only the recognition of that right could turn autonomy itself into a freely chosen option.

Furthermore, his position did not commit marxists to support all independence movements at all times. In any specific case their position, while recognizing the right to independence, could range from active advocacy to resolute opposition, with several intermediate positions being possible.

Take, for example, the case of two nations, in a culturally mixed region, which claim the same territory as their homeland. The commitment of marxists with the rights of all nations would force them to argue that in such a situation, even in the short run, only a compromise solution (from the point of view of the nationalisms involved), such as a fully democratic multi-national state, or, if that proves to be immediately impossible, two fully democratic states, respectful of their national minorities, etc., could be, or approximate being, a democratic solution.

Lenin’s views should not then be seen as a ready-made all-purpose formula, which replaces the need for a concrete analysis of each national conflict. On the contrary, its commitment to the elimination of all forms of national oppression and discrimination necessarily implied, not the automatic support of all the demands of all independence movements, but a search for institutional arrangements adequate to each context or conjuncture.(17)

Lenin and “Defense of National Cultures”

Regarding socialists in the oppressed nations, Lenin felt that the struggle against national oppression was evidently among their tasks–while nevertheless also struggling against all forms of oppression (including the oppression of other nations). Therefore, their struggle must to also differentiate them, and contribute to separating those they influenced, from the nationalism of their own bourgeoisie.

He thus rejected the “defense of national culture” as an adequate framework for a socialist struggle against national oppression. This is the least understood–in fact, almost completely forgotten–aspect of his position.

In the struggle for democracy and socialism, marxists, argued Lenin, had to struggle against all forms of national oppression, but they could not, strictly speaking, become defenders of their own or of any national culture (a defining ingredient of all nationalisms) since all national cultures contain abundant elements which are neither democratic, egalitarian or emancipatory (elements which, in fact, may even imply the oppression of other nations).(18)

Lenin clearly differentiated between oppressing and oppressed nations. He argued that the national struggle of oppressed peoples was a progressive struggle against colonialism and other forms of oppression, which marxists had to support.

He also argued, however, that in doing so as marxists, they had to articulate a point of view clearly differentiated from and critical of all nationalisms and national cultures, including the nationalisms and cultures of oppressed nations. Even such nationalisms and cultures, he insisted, contain reactionary (chauvinist, anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, racist, etc.) elements which are not compatible with the democratic and egalitarian goals which inspire marxism’s opposition to national oppression.

Nor was nationalism a sort of “stage” to be followed by internationalism. For Lenin nationalism and internationalism were “two irreconcilably hostile slogans”, “policies” and “world outlooks” in the national question.(19)

Should we struggle against national oppression? Should we defend national culture? Lenin did not only consider these to be different questions, he explicitly gave them opposite answers.(20) In that sense, his objective in recognizing the right of nations to self-determination–and this should be emphasized–was not the consolidation of national cultures or identities, but the establishment of democratic relations among (and within) them.

To the extent that such relations emerged, he further argued, the tendency that would increasingly prevail would not be toward the consolidation of national cultures but toward their growing interpenetration, a trend already observable under capitalism. Marxism seeks not to stop that process, much less reverse it, but on the contrary to free it from the many forms of oppression, violence, subordination and imposition through which capitalism and imperialism, by their very nature, inevitably structure it.

Marxism, he argued, “welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privileges.”(21) In other words, Lenin placed himself on the side of the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination not in order to protect or isolate national cultures from foreign influences or to place obstacles in the path of the growing internationalization of human culture, but on the contrary, to deepen the latter tendency by making it a freer, truly democratic, participatory, voluntary “amalgamation of nations.”(22)

(The free amalgamation of different cultures–I would add–would require not only the removal of oppressive political/legal structures and barriers as well as the cultivation of evermore porous state or cultural frontiers, but also a radical redistribution of the material means of cultural production–radio, TV, film, recording studios and distribution networks, for example–now controlled by multinationals.)

A “Transcendence of Difference”?

In his noteworthy work The Marxists and the Jewish Question (reviewed by Peter Drucker in our previous issue, ATC 65–ed.), Enzo Traverso has recently argued that “Russian Marxists…proposed a rigid alternative to the national minorities–self-determination (state separation) or assimilation–which often transformed the struggle for equality into the search for the transcendence of difference.”(23) (“Transcendence” here means essentially “dissolution” or “elimination,” as if the differences themselves were expected to disappear–ed.)

This may have been true of some Russian marxists, but it cannot be taken as an accurate description of Lenin’s position. Lenin’s perspective implied two options for an oppressed nation. One choice was to constitute a separate, independent state (which would also have to recognize the democratic rights of its national minorities–inasmuch as states created through the break-up of multi-national empires or states are more often than not multi-national states themselves).

The alternative was to remain voluntarily within the framework of a multi-national state which fully recognized its right to freely live its national culture or difference (through diverse flexible arrangements, including autonomy, the abolition of “official” languages, anti-discrimination laws, “affirmative action”-type measures, etc.).

In so far as they helped to create freely chosen, closer relations between all cultures, both options, Lenin hoped, would contribute to the emergence of conditions favoring a growing combination of different national (and non-national) cultures and traditions into a lushly varied, deeply differentiated fusion, many of whose concrete products would progressively escape national definitions or identities. This–I would argue–is why Lenin was so adamantly against Otto Bauer’s and other Austro-marxists’ “cultural autonomy” schemes, which would deny nations the right to secede while fixing them as legally sanctioned cultural entities.(24)

Some of Lenin’s views have also been interpreted as the symptom of a negative attitude toward Jewish culture.(25) There is a grain of truth in this, but only in the sense that Lenin had a negativecritical attitude toward all cultures: He did not aspire to the consolidation, hardening or preservation of any of them but rather to their growing combination, crossfertilization and mutual contamination(26)

Lenin and the “Recognized Categories” of the “Modern Imagination”

Ernest Gellner has noted how “modern man…is capable, with relatively little effort” of “visualizing” a person without a state. But he adds: “a man without a nation seems to impose a far greater strain in the modern imagination… A man without a nation defies the recognized categories and provokes revulsion.”(27)

In a world deeply marked by the legitimacy of the nation as the basic, necessary, natural, unit of human culture, Lenin’s perspective cannot but be problematical, if not scandalous.(28) Horace B. Davis, for example, reminds us that Lenin argued that under socialism “…the wealth and variety in spiritual life, ideological trends, tendencies and shades will increase…” From this, undoubtedly correct, appreciation he goes on to conclude that Lenin also felt that within socialism “nationalism considered as a cultural phenomenon will survive and increase.”(29)

Similarly, early this century, a leader of the Jewish Bund had already argued against Lenin that “non-national culture, which must not be Russian, Jewish, or Polish, but only pure culture is nonsense.”(30)

This comment, as well as Davis’ unwarranted conclusion regarding Lenin’s views on the future of nationalism under socialism, are examples of the limitation of the “modern imagination” mentioned by Gellner. Their unstated assumption, I would argue, is a reduction of all significant cultural differences, forms, identities, particularities to national differences, national identities or national particularities.

Hence the inability of imagining a weakening of national identifications as anything but the emergence of an impoverished, undifferentiated, rarified, “pure” culture. From this point of view, Lenin’s attempt to think and act beyond the “recognized categories” could only seem an absurd, hopelessly voluntaristic, meaningless enterprise.

Queer Lenin

Lenin’s perspective bears an interesting comparison with the work of some recent critics of both imperialism and nationalism. One certainly could not say about Lenin’s approach what marxist-deconstructionist critic Paul Gilroy has recently argued about nationalism: that for it “creoilisation, metissage, mestizaje and hybridity,” cultural syncretism, intermixture or “cross-fertilization” constitute a “litany of pollution and impurity.”

In fact, Lenin’s position is far closer to Gilroy’s own call for an “explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective” which would oppose racism, for example, without “reifying the concept of race,” thus providing an alternative to the “tragic popularity of ideas about the integrity and purity of cultures” as well as to the “nationalist focus which dominates cultural criticism.”(31) The parallel to this perspective, in the articles by Lenin that concern us here, would oppose national oppression without “reifying the concept” of nation.

Similarly, regarding the struggle against different forms of oppression, Nancy Fraser has recently contrasted what she calls affirmative and transformative approaches. Affirmative approaches attempt to remedy injustices without seeking to transform the underlying structures which generate and reproduce them.

In the struggle against the consequences of class oppression these approaches seek to improve the lot of the exploited without striving to abolish the existing relations of production. In the struggle against racial or gender oppression they act to “revalue unjustly devalued group identities, while leaving intact both the contents of those identities and the group differentiations that underlie them.”(32)

In the specific case of the struggle against the oppression of “despised sexualities”, for example, “affirmative remedies”, argues Fraser, “are currently associated with gay identity politics, which aims to revalue gay and lesbian identity.”

A transformative approach, on the other hand, seeks to remedy injustices by altering their “underlying generative framework”. In the struggle against class injustice it corresponds to socialism; in the struggle against racial or other oppression to a deconstructionist perspective which attempts to undermine oppression, not through the fixing of “existing group identities and differentiations” but through their destabilization, thus changing “everyone’s sense of belonging, affiliation, and self.”

As a transformative approach, it is the latter, deconstructionist perspective, which according to Fraser is the cultural analogue of socialism. In the specific case of the struggle against the oppression of “despised sexualities,” “transformative remedies,” according to Fraser, “include the approach of ‘queer theory,’ which would deconstruct the homo-hetero dichotomy…so as to destabilize all fixed sexual identities.”(33)

In the light of Fraser’s categories, I would argue that nationalism would be seen as an affirmative strategy similar to “gay identity politics,” seeking to “enhance existing… group differentiation.” On the contrary, Lenin’s unequivocal support of the right of nations to self-determination, combined with his equally emphatic refusal to embrace the defense of national culture, would thus present itself as an attempt to combine a socialist (transformative) approach to the fight against class injustice with an equally transformative (deconstructionist) approach to the cultural aspect of the struggle against national oppression.

The combination of socialist economics and deconstructive cultural politics, which Fraser advocates,(34) would thus have a significant if perhaps unexpected forebear in Lenin’s approach to the national question. While nationalism as an “affirmative remedy” would “tend to promote existing group differentiation,” Lenin’s approach, as a “transformative” orientation, would “in the long run destabilize them so as to make room for future regroupments.”(35)

Nor did Lenin think that this process would unfold in a gradual, spontaneous fashion, as an automatic product of capitalist civilization, or of the growing international links it generates: Under capitalism those links nurture national hatreds and conflicts at least as much as international solidarities.

According to him consolidating the latter would require recasting international relations through a complex revolutionary transformation, the course of which was far from being settled in advance, and which for him necessarily included a struggle for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination.

A Radical Formalism

It is true that Marxism cannot provide a clear description of the culture that would emerge from such a process. It does not have a positive program in this area. It limits itself to a negative program, opposed to all forms of national oppression, and to the assessment that their disappearance would create an atmosphere favorable to the emergence of new cultural formations within which national identity would tend to become a less significant determination.

Regarding the struggle against different forms of oppression Terry Eagleton has argued that: “A radical politics can prescribe what must be done for this to occur [abolish oppression–RB]; but it cannot prescribe the content of what will then be lived,… All radical politics are thus in a profound sense formalistic…”(36)

Lenin’s refusal to embrace the defense of national cultures, his refusal to formulate anything but a negative program against all forms of national oppression (besides a broad positive attitude toward the combination of diverse cultures), can and–I would argue–should be seen as an instance of the radical formalism mentioned by Eagleton.

On the other hand, all of this could mean that Lenin may have been right (as an uncompromising critic of nationalism), but only at a very abstract level: Perhaps, in a world of nations and national identities, no effective politics could be derived from such an absolute refusal to defend national culture. Fraser’s comment on deconstructive feminist and anti-racist cultural politics would also apply to it: its “drawback” would be that for most people its categories would seem to be too “far removed” from their “immediate interests and identities …, as these are currently constituted.”(37)

In that sense, Lenin’s wellknown essay on the “national pride” of Great Russians may be read as an example of a concrete intervention oriented by his general approach. In it, Lenin explains that Russian marxists are indeed proud of being Russian, while simultaneously deconstructing Russian nationalism.

His argument here is not a defense of Russian culture, but only some aspects of it–its progressive, democratic traditions–which he felt could and should make Russians proud but which, he also emphasized, did not demonstrate that they, or Russia, were unique or special but rather that they too, like other peoples, were capable of struggling for equality, freedom, and democracy.

Furthermore, while only justifying pride in certain aspects of Russian culture, those principles and objectives also implied a criticism and rejection of the many undemocratic and oppressive aspects of it, as well as a welcoming attitude toward the progressive influences of other cultures. Thus, as a first step, Lenin did not ask his readers to renounce their Russian pride but to reground it on principles other than a commitment to “Russianness,” Russian identity, or the prevalence of national affiliations over other loyalties.

Subordinating the latter to universal principles such as democracy, equality, and anti-imperialism, Lenin was able to conclude that a proud defense of Russia’s democratic traditions logically implied a support of Russia’s defeat in World War I.


In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said has recently touched on some points relevant to this discussion. According to him, imperialism has had a contradictory effect on human culture: It has promoted growing contacts between different cultures while also hardening the opposition of different identities.

“Imperialism,” Said argues, “consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, White, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.”(38)

This is the logic that, according to Said, has largely structured both the imperialist perspective and the resistance to it: “Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their ‘others’…,” he argues, “the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, each quite settled, clear, unassailably selfevident… This kind of identity thought, by the nineteenth century… had become the hallmark of imperialist cultures as well as those cultures trying to resist the encroachment of Europe.”

Said concludes: “We are still the inheritors of that style by which one is defined by the nation, which in turn derives its authority from a supposedly unbroken tradition.”(39) Lenin’s perspective rebelled against that “style.” He thought of the struggle against colonialism and national oppression not as a defense of national cultures or identities, but as a struggle for truly democratic relations among and within them; for the defense of everything that is democratic and the criticism of all that is oppressive in all of them; and for the strengthening of attitudes and of cultural trends clearly differentiated and divergent from the dominant obsessions with national definitions–even in the understandable case of the nationalisms of progressive anticolonial or anti-imperialist movements of oppressed peoples and nations.

Writing in 1993, Said argues that: “…we begin to sense that… new alignments made across borders, types, nations and essences are rapidly coming into view, and it is those alignments that now provoke and challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the epoch of imperialism.”(40)

Said identifies Franz Fanon as a pioneer of this perspective. According to him, Fanon’s work contains an implicit “antiidentitarian” “counter narrative of great deconstructive power” opposed to nationalist discourse.(41) But a similar logic–a deconstructionist approach to the cultural aspect of the struggle against national oppression–is already far more explicitly present in Lenin’s work.

This fact certainly defies the presentation of marxism (by Said and others) as yet another strand of orientalist thought, as well as the notion that only postmarxist/post-modernist approaches can provide radical alternatives to nationalist discourse. Furthermore, Lenin’s perspective, if heeded, would lead us to rethink some of the ways in which we articulate our struggle against U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.(42)


  1. See, for example: Miroslav Hroch, “From National Movement to Fully-Fledged Nation,” New Left Review 198, March-April 1993. For a critique of Hroch see Ernest Gellner, Encuentros con el nacionalismo, Madrid: Alianza, 1995, 195-212.
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  2. Anthony Smith, National Identity, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991, 19; Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983, 49; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983, 14. Also: Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, 5.
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  3. Or that, as Gilroy has argued, “cultures flow into patterns congruent with the borders of essentially homogenous nation states.” See Gilroy, 5. There are, of course, a far greater number of cultural units or communities than nations or national movements. For example, there are in the world 3-7000 languages (depending on how “dialects” are classified). See, Andrés Blas de Guerrero, Nacionalismo y naciones en Europa, Madrid: Alianza, 1995, 101-109.
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  4. This is what Paul Gilroy has called “the fatal junction of the concept of nationality with the concept of culture”–Gilroy, 2; Gellner, Encuentros, 43, 46.
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  5. Gellner, Nations…, 1.
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  6. On the transformation of modern “consolidated states” into nation-states see Charles Tilly, European Revolutions, 1492-1992, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 29-35.
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  7. On this point see Eric Hobsbawn, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
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  8. Ernest Gellner, Encuentros, 42-43.
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  9. A developed region, northern Italy for example, may feel it would fare better in the “global” economy if unburdened of its links with less developed areas within its state.
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  10. Michael Lowy, Enzo Traverso, “The Marxist Approach to the National Question: A Critique of Nimni’s Interpretation”, Science and Society, Vol. 54, no. 2 (Summer 1990), 135.
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  11. “In the question of the self-determination of nations, as in every question, we are interested, first and foremost, in the self-determination of the proletariat within a given nation.” Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-determination”, Collected Works, Vol. 20, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964, 428.
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  12. In that sense Lenin’s views should not be confused with the Wilsonian or United Nations versions of self-determination. The UN doctrine, for example, in practice limits itself to the rights of colonial territories to self-determination. It does not include oppressed nations in non-colonial contexts or secessionist national movements within the former colonial territories. According to Hobsbawn Lenin and Wilson (at least regarding Europe) did share the rejection of the “threshold principle” which informed XIX century liberal and nationalist (Mazzini) thought as well as Engels himself. See: Blas de Guerrero, 139; Hobsbawn, 102.
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  13. “This demand therefore, is not the equivalent of a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states. It implies only a consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression.” Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination. Theses.”, CW, Vol. 22, 146.
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  14. This was the logic of his wellknown comments on what he considered to be the exemplary defense by the Swedish labor movement of Norway’s right to secede from Sweden.
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  15. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”, CW, Vol. 20, 45-46.
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  16. Lenin, “Critical Remarks…”, CW, Vol. 20; 47. See also, “Theses on the National Question”(1913).
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  17. It is thus quite possible to adopt Lenin’s general approach while critically or negatively evaluating some, or many, of his concrete judgements or proposals.
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  18. In that sense at least, Tom Nairn, in his influential work on Great Britain, did not go beyond Lenin’s positions when he argued that all nationalisms have a double character (rational and irrational, democratic and reactionary, etc.), and that therefore one cannot oppose rational, democratic to irrational, chauvinist nationalisms. (Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, London: Verso, 1977, 180, 347-48.)
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  19. Lenin, “Critical Remarks…”, CW, Vol. 20; 24, 26.
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  20. “Combat national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? Of course not.” Lenin, “Critical Remarks…;” CW, Vol. 20; 35.
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  21. Lenin, “Critical Remarks…,” CW, Vol. 20; 35. In that sense, as Rosdolsky has pointed out, he was guilty of the sin that Stalinism would later denounce as “cosmopolitanism.” See Roman Rosdolsky, “Stalin y la fusión de los pueblos en el socialismo” in Friedrich Engels y el problema de los pueblos sin historia, Mexico, D.F.: Pasado y Presente, 1980.
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  22. “The aim of socialism is not only to end the division of mankind into tiny states and the isolation of nations in any form, it is not only to bring the nations closer together, but to integrate them.” Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution…”, CW, Vol. 22, 146. According to him: “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilized brand. In place of nationalism, marxists advance internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations…” Lenin, “Critical Remarks…,” CW, Vol, 20; 34.
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  23. Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and the Jewish Question, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994, 236.
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  24. Bauer’s cultural autonomy represented: the very opposite of Lenin’s perspective, which recognized the right to secede (among other measures), not to fix, but to create freer, closer relations between national cultures and thus–through such democratic means– open the path to a growing process of cultural hybridization. Bauer sought to consolidate national cultures, while not recognizing the right to secede (and in the process seeking to preserve the decaying Austrian empire). Lenin recognized the right to secede, as one of the means for democratically destabilizing national identities and affiliations.
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  25. Traverso, 134.
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  26. Since Lenin favored the fusion of different national cultures, it mattered little, regarding this point, whether he thought Jews were a nation or not (a question he seems to have answered differently at different moments). Compare, for example, “The Position of the Bund in the Party” (1903) in which the notion of a Jewish nation is dismissed as a Zionist idea and “To the Jewish Workers” (1905), which refers to the Jews as a “disenfranchised nationality.”
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  27. Gellner, Nations…, 19.
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  28. “Today national identity is the main form of collective identification.” Anthony Smith, National Identity (op. cit.), 170.
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  29. Horace B. Davis, Toward a Marxist Theory of Nationalism, New York: Monthly Review, 1978, 79.
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  30. Quoted by Lenin in “Critical Remarks…”, CW, Vol. 20; 23.
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  31. Gilroy, 6-7, 15, 223.
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  32. Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition. Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age”, New Left Review 212, July-August 1995, 82.
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  33. Fraser, 82-83.
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  34. That combination, according to her, “appears to be the one over-arching programmatic orientation capable of doing justice to all current struggles against injustice.” Fraser, 93.
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  35. The language quoted here is from Fraser, 84.
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  36. Terry Eagleton, “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment”, in Seamus Deane, ed. Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, 29.
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  37. Fraser, 90.
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  38. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Knopf, 1993, 336.
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  39. Said, xxv.
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  40. Ibid.
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  41. Said, 274.
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  42. I have attempted to re-examine some moments of Puerto Rico’s political history from this perspective in Respuestas al colonialismo en la política puertorriqueña 1899-1929, Rio Piedras: Huracán/DEGI-UPR, 1996. For a critique of Said see: Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory. Classes, Nations, Literatures, London: Verso, 1994.
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This article is dedicated to the memory of Ernest Mandel.

ATC 66, January-February 1997