Educational: National Question

Date: 06 September 2023

Author: Indescribled, Comrade Duck


Tags: Internationalism, Philosophy

Important Terms

Common Misconceptions

A country is the same as a nation—Governments and borders do not determine what a nation is.

Israel is a nation—Settlers that came to form the country were from different territories, spoke different languages, had different cultures, and had different economic lives; these missing characteristics show that Israel is not a nation.


As feudalism was eliminated and capitalism developed, the world was divided according to the new profit-driven desires of the emerging capitalist class, often ignoring existing living situations, re-drawing imaginary borders, and forcing workers into cities. When imperialism, the age of monopoly capitalism, rose in the early 20th century, these practices further increased on the world stage, and fully divided the world into either oppressor or oppressed countries. The imperialist powers sought to place as much of the world under their control as possible through military force, financial restrictions, political sabotage, and more. Meanwhile, the oppressed people of the world fought back against imperialism’s expansion.

The oppressed people of the world were, and are, inspired to fight back against imperialism for the ability to make decisions without intervention, to enter into alliances with who they please, and to develop their countries and economies for themselves. They needed to first define who and what they fought for to gain freedom from their oppressors. The national question is an age-old question, but the Marxist-Leninist approach is invaluable to correctly analyze conditions and chart courses of action. 

Characteristics of a Nation

The first step to having a concrete analysis of the national question is to define exactly what constitutes a nation. Five characteristics, as best summarized by Josef Stalin, are core to defining a nation, and thus understanding the national question in the Marxist framework. These five characteristics must all be present to constitute a nation:

It is the responsibility of Marxists to always be aware of the ongoing changes and developments in the world. The characteristics of a nation may stay constant, but the real world, where these characteristics are applied to analysis, is in constant change. Each analysis of the national question must consider these ever-changing conditions and be prepared to shift accordingly. Nations can end—even a singular characteristic missing or falling out can mean the integration of an old nation into a new or different one. Likewise, nations can be birthed—communities exhibiting all five characteristics constitute a nation.


Self-Determination means only the nation itself has the right to determine its own future—political voluntary association and voluntary separation for all nations. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an example of a modern-day imperialist organization that violates political autonomy by giving out loans with strings attached in order to force foreign nations to conform to imperialist demands.  China’s MFA recently noted that the 1,550 debt relief programs offered by the IMF between 1985 and 2014 were accompanied with 55,465 political demands. 

"Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory.  Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system" 

Thomas Sankara

When analyzing questions, especially those of self-determination, Marxists must be all-considering and account for the historical and material conditions which formed or will form any given situation. Every nation has a unique path to self-determination—including different forms of voluntary associations or voluntary separations for different nations. The time and conditions in which nations exist must be considered to best determine which action is correct going forward; any particular decision could change in the future based on the emergence of new conditions.

Support for a nation’s right to self-determination is unwavering, but every decision made by a nation should be analyzed and criticized by communists. A nation’s existence does not automatically take the form of working-class democracy. Under capitalism, nations are controlled by the capitalist class. When the capitalists are deciding the direction of a nation, they almost always harm the working class and violate other nations' self-determination.

Violations of self-determination can be seen in numerous examples across the world. One of these many examples is the treatment of various indigenous nations by the United States. The passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, removing all land rights of any indigenous peoples in the Southeast U.S., led to the Trail of Tears, where the Cherokee, Creek, Chicksaw, Choctaw, and Seminole nations were forcefully relocated by the U.S. About 100,000 people across the five tribes were forced to travel over 5,000 miles across 9 states to newly designated Indian Territory—15,000 did not survive the journey.

The National Question and Socialism

Capitalism inherently expands in search of profits, superseding borders, and enslaving nations to the capitalist class; ultimately ushering in the era of imperialism. To achieve equality of nations, and the right of all nations to self-determination, capitalism must be eradicated.

The world today is divided into two spheres: on one side, the imperialist sphere, made up of “the West” and led by the U.S.; and on the other, the developing Global South, typically viewed as being led by China. The imperialist sphere aims for complete hegemony over the world; maximizing profits through exploitation and stomping on the right of nations to self-determination in order to enforce imperialist demands. The Global South represents the historically imperialized and colonized nations who seek equality and cooperation, pursuing either national liberation or socialist construction.

The imperial sphere has both strong and weak points. At its core it is strongest, i.e., the West; at its periphery it is weakest, i.e., its colonies and satellites. The victory of national liberation struggles in imperialized and colonized countries weakens the imperial core by cutting off its access to cheap and free resources; continued socialist construction across the world provides material support to these national liberation struggles and forces the imperialists to deal with a superior alternative and anti-imperialist coalition; citizens inside the imperial core may further aide the anti-imperialist struggle and create instability by opposing the aggression of their government, fighting for cooperation instead of oppression. Each of these blows in tandem are necessary to fully topple imperialism. 

Recommended Reading

Marxism and the National Question by Josef Stalin

Right of Nations to Self-Determination by V.I. Lenin

Internationalism and Nationalism by Liu Shaoqi

Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions by V.I. Lenin

The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up by V.I. Lenin