Karl Marx – Irish self-determination

Writing when all of Ireland was under British rule, Karl Marx underlined that the fight for Irish independence could deal a heavy blow to the British capitalist order. Based on the understanding that the Irish struggle could act as a motor force to unlocking proletarian struggle in England, Marx stressed that the English proletariat must champion the cause of Irish self-determination as part of fighting for its own interests.

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All industrial and commercial centres in England now have a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who forces down the standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker, he feels himself to be a member of the ruling nation and, therefore, makes himself a tool of his aristocrats and capitalists   against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself….

England, as the metropolis of capital, as the power that has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the present the most important country for the workers’ revolution and, in addition, the only country where the material conditions for this revolution have developed to a certain state of maturity.

Thus, to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association. The sole means of doing so is to make Ireland independent.

It is, therefore, the task of the “International” to bring the conflict between England and Ireland to the forefront everywhere, and to side with Ireland publicly everywhere. The special task of the Central Council in London is to awaken the consciousness of the English working class that, for them, the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation.

—Karl Marx, “Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt” (April 1870)

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Socialism and the Self-Determination of Nations

We have affirmed that it would be a betrayal of socialism to refuse to implement the self-determination of nations under socialism. We are told in reply that “the right of self-determination is not applicable to a socialist society”. The difference is a radical one. Where does it stem from?

We know,” runs our opponents’ reasoning, “that socialism will abolish every kind of national oppression since it abolishes the class interests that lead to it….”

What has this argument about the economic prerequisites for the abolition of national oppression, which are very well known and undisputed, to do with a discussion of one of the forms of political oppression, namely, the forcible retention of one nation within the state frontiers of another?

This is nothing hut an attempt to evade political questions! And subsequent arguments further convince us that our judgement is right:

“We have no reason to believe that in a socialist society, the nation will exist as an economic and political unit. It will in all probability assume the character of a cultural and linguistic unit only, because the territorial division of a socialist cultural zone, if practised at all, can be made only according to the needs of production and, furthermore, the question of such a division will naturally not be decided by individual nations alone and in possession of full sovereignty [as is required by “the right to self-determination”], but will be determined jointly by all the citizens concerned….

Our Polish comrades like this last argument, on joint determination instead of self-determination, so much that they repeat it three times in their theses! Frequency of repetition, however, does not turn this Octobrist and reactionary argument into a Social-Democratic argument. All reactionaries and bourgeois grant to nations forcibly retained within the frontiers of a given state the right to “determine jointly” their fate in a common parliament. Wilhelm II also gives the Belgians the right to “determine jointly” the fate of the German Empire in a common German parliament.


We explained this when we raised it. It is because “a protest against annexations is nothing but recognition of the right to Self-determination”. The concept of annexation usually includes: (1) the concept of force (joining by means of force); (2) the concept of oppression by another nation (the joining of “alien” regions, etc.), and, sometimes (3) the concept of violation of the status quo. We pointed this out in the theses and this did not meet with any criticism.

Can Social-Democrats be against the use of force in general, it may be asked? Obviously not. This means that we are against annexations not because they constitute force, but for some other reason. Nor can the Social-Democrats be for the status quo. However you may twist and turn, annexation is violation of the self-determination of a nation, it is the establishment of state frontiers contrary to the will of the population.

To be against annexations means to be in favor of the right to self-determination. To be “against the forcible retention of any nation within the frontiers of a given state” (we deliberately employed this slightly changed formulation of the same idea in Section 4 of our theses,  and the Polish comrades answered us with complete clarity at the beginning of their S. I, 4, that they “are against the forcible retention of oppressed nations   within  the frontiers of the annexing state”)—is the same as being in favour of the self-determination of nations.

We do not want to haggle over words. If there is a party that says in its programme (or in a resolution binding on all the form does not matter) that it is against annexations ,    against the forcible retention of oppressed nations within tile frontiers of its state, we declare our complete agreement in principle with that party. It would be absurd to insist on the word “self-determination”. And if there are people in our Party who want to change words in this spirit, who want to amend Clause 9 of our Party Programme, we should consider our differences with such comrades to he anything but a matter of principle!

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Brexit – UK and Northern Island

Statebond – Commonwealth

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