Bourgeois nationalism stands in stark contradiction to the international solidarity and unity of struggle of the working class, especially in imperialist countries. But the communists would make a grave mistake if we for that reason scoff at the popular national sentiments of the people and the progressive national cultural heritage, even in an imperialist country like ours.
All Marxists recognize that the struggle waged by oppressed peoples for national liberation from imperialism is a progressive phenomenon. We Marxist-Leninists also uphold the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed peoples and nations of the world as one of the four fundamental contradictions of our time.
But how should we regard the national sovereignty and national democracy of small or medium-sized imperialist countries, where the establishment of the sovereign nation-state is long since concluded?
The nation and the creation of the nation-state is a historical phenomenon closely linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalism in struggle against dying feudalism.
Communists are internationalists. The working class has common interests across borders. The antagonistic contradiction between labour and capital knows no boundaries, although the class struggle usually takes place within a national framework. Conversely, the imperialist bourgeoisie utilizes the nation-state as a base for their rivalry with other imperialist powers and monopolies. They only unite when it is in their common interest to suppress the revolution.
From these correct observations, communists can fall into some sectarian traps.
The first one is to say that capitalism has conquered the whole world, and that the national question and national self-determination is either uninteresting, irrelevant, or reactionary. This is the basic position of Trotskyism.
The second mistake is to say that the national question today is only applicable to imperialistically oppressed peoples and nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that is, people who rise up against imperialist oppression through national liberation struggle.
The Trotskyist position is obviously erroneous. The second position narrows down the national question and contributes objectively to weakening and undermining the revolutionary movement, including in a number of imperialist countries.
How can this be so?
One important reason is that popular traditions, customs and national feelings are some of the most persistent things there are, as Lenin pointed out. Another reason is that national self-determination is related to other requirements for political democracy. And as we know, Lenin emphasized political democracy as a clearer, more free and more open form of class struggle. This was not because he was under illusions that such a democracy was in any respect sufficient to remove the supremacy of finance capital.
In the following, we will briefly describe the national development process in Europe by way of some examples. Next, we will discuss how nationalism and national feelings are expressed, and how the communists must deal with this phenomenon in order not to give a free pass to reactionaries and fascists. Finally, we examine why a correct understanding of the national question in an imperialist country like ours, is essential for a revolutionary strategy and tactics.
The national question in Europe
“The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got”, said Marx and Engels in the Manifesto. But they also added: “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”
Marx lived in the midst of the period of establishment of European nation-states. In the 1700s and 1800s, the young bourgeoisie in Europe raised the people to revolution behind the national banner and under slogans of equality, freedom and fraternity. With the creation of nation-states, the national question found its solution in many countries. But by far from in all. The different nations had different histories and were exposed to national oppression to varying degrees.
Norway realized itself as a nation in 1814 in a relatively peaceful manner and completed the process by establishing itself as a sovereign nation-state in 1905. Sweden and Denmark were longstanding great powers that to a greater or lesser extent oppressed other nations, such as Finland, Norway and the Baltics. In 1814, Denmark became a more ‘authentic’ nation-state, now without Norway, but still with colonies such as Greenland and islands in the West Indies (colonies which Norway, as part of the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway, had participated in the plunder of, including shipment of slaves from Africa).
Let us very briefly look at some other historical examples:
The French Revolution of 1789 is known to everyone. It was a democratic and an anti-German revolution. And it was a role model for the men at Eidsvold and Marcus Thrane. This is, by the way, the only revolution hailed by the bourgeoisie, even though it was far bloodier than the Russian October revolution.
Germany came into being as a unification of a number of principalities after the Franco-German War, a war that triggered the world's first socialist revolutionary attempt, the Paris Commune in 1871. After WW2, the German nation was split into three nation-states, which are now reduced to two, Germany and Austria.
Switzerland, on the other hand, is a multinational state, with four languages and nationalities on an equal footing.
Revanchists would claim that Germany still has an unresolved national question. They are not content with the Anschluss of the GDR in 1989, but look hungrily towards Austria and parts of Poland and the Czech republic. Conversely, most inhabitants of Switzerland will refute that they have an unresolved national question, despite the fact that the country is not a nation-state. This could indicate that Switzerland has solved its national question democratically by not establishing a nation-state, but rather as a federation with a high degree of autonomy for the cantons. In multinational and federal Belgium, however, many people in Flanders and Wallonia might probably give a very different answer.
The most obvious unresolved national question in Europe is Ireland, where the northernmost counties are still subject to the United Kingdom and London rule. In Scotland, too, there is a strong nationalist movement for secession. The SNP has been the largest party there for a number of years. The paradox in Ireland and Scotland is that Sinn Fein and the SNP agree to hand over sovereignty to a European Union under Brussels, in order to escape from a union with the United Kingdom. In earlier times, both parties strongly opposed the EU.
Spain, with the regions of Euskadi and Cataluña opposing Madrid rule, is yet another example.
These brief examples from different imperialist countries indicate that to the extent that the national question has been resolved in Europe, it has happened in very different ways and often in an imperfect manner. In many places the question is still unresolved, or at best incompletely.
Some believe that a federal European Union is the optimal solution to the national contradictions that still exist and are increasingly coming to the surface. But as Lenin put it: A United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary.
The European Union is proving his words more and more by the day. The EU is full of contradictions between the member states. At the same time the EU is developing towards a multi-state Euronationalist and Eurocentrist project, with its own commissioner to defend “European values and the European way of life”. It was to this European ‘garden’ that Vice-president Borrell referred in 2022, boasting of it as a counterpart to the 'jungle', i.e. the rest of the world. He was later compelled to withdraw his statements.
Nationalism and national sentiments
National sentiment is not necessarily the same as (bourgeois) nationalism. Neither do national feelings automatically disappear when a nation achieves self-government or autonomy. Not even in countries that have been part of the EU for decades. It is suffice to observe football stadiums where eager supporters cheer their respective national teams.
No countries or people are indifferent to their national history, their cultural heritage and linguistic identity. If they were, they would in reality be devoid of culture. Everywhere, in imperialist countries as well as in countries oppressed by imperialism, national consciousness is more or less alive, but in very different ways and with greater or lesser elements of national chauvinism.
In the Balkans, several states are characterized by strong national chauvinism. This is especially true in Serbia, but also in Croatia, Greece and Turkey. This has specific historical reasons. From 1945 on, Yugoslavia made some attempts to overcome this nationalism. But the Titoites allowed the Serbs to retain a special position and never let the third largest nation in the federation, the Albanians, obtain the same national status as Croats, Montenegrins, Slovenes and so on. Kosova was never even granted the status of a Yugoslav republic.
But let us go north, to France, the cradle of bourgeois revolution; today an old European colonial power and imperialist state. Most French people are not chauvinistic, we believe many of them tend to consider themselves more as Europeans than as Frenchmen. But they do have a conscious relationship to the French language and culture, which they strictly adhere to in contrast and opposition to the Anglo-American cultural influence.
This can of course be explained in two ways; as progressive or as national chauvinist. The national-chauvinist bourgeoisie links this with the greatness and colonial rule of French imperialism. But the French masses perceive the national consciousness more as a safeguard against Anglo-American cultural imperialism and often have an internationalist attitude, especially towards the peoples of the former French colonies. French workers are justifiably proud to be Europe's most rebellious and revolutionary people, with a long tradition of defying those in power and authority.
In Germany, revanchist national chauvinism has long lain beneath the surface. It is now coming forward through the rise of the fascists in the AfD; this party is not lagging far behind the Social Democratic SPD among the electorate, and has strongholds in Eastern Germany.
Since the defeat of Hitlerite fascism, most Germans have felt shameful for expressing national feelings at all. But it is obvious that Germans love their language and the great artists, philosophers and thinkers the country has fostered. They're right to do so. Just think of Beethoven, Hegel, Kant, Marx and Engels. Depriving Germans of their national dignity leads to nothing but strengthening revanchism and nationalism. Which we now see unfolding.
No one would dare to claim that Lenin was a nationalist. But he too maintained that he was proud to be a Russian, even in a reactionary Russia that was the prison of nations. This was of course not because of, but in spite of, the oppression of a number of nations in the Tsarist Empire. It was the progressive Russian heritage and culture Lenin was proud of, while he completely denounced the reactionary aspects of this heritage.
Even in the United States, a state that is a conglomerate of nationalities and built on the expulsion of the Native American peoples, a strong national consciousness has been formed around the American Constitution and the revolution against the British. This awareness of constitutional democratic rights has reactionary and progressive aspects. Today we clearly see how the Republican party and Trump exploit these so-called patriotic sentiments to their reactionary and semi-fascist ends. On the other hand, progressive Americans proudly point to the civil rights movement and how U.S. units fought alongside Mexicans in the Mexican Revolution.
In every nation there are two cultures, that of the bourgeoisie and that of the working class.
All nations have progressive and reactionary elements and chapters in their history. Both antagonistic classes relate to the nation, but to different aspects of the nation's cultural heritage and traditions.
The question for revolutionaries and democrats is this: Which parts of this legacy should be highlighted and caressed, and what must be overcome and repressed?
National symbols are understood differently in different countries. For progressives in Germany, Turkey or Britain, waving the state flag or the Union Jack on May 1st is unthinkable or even ludicrous. In Norway, there is a long tradition of the Norwegian flag flying side by side with the red flag. This is a debatable tradition that has its own specific history in a relatively young nation. However, progressive and socialist Germans, Turks and even Danes understandably find it strange and somewhat weird.
The issue we are discussing here concerns imperialist countries. But bourgeois nationalism is not necessarily progressive among all oppressed peoples and nations, either. The Kurdish nationalism represented by the KDP in northern Iraq, for example, has nothing progressive about it. They ally themselves with Israel, Iran and the United States in order to keep a reactionary Kurdish bourgeoisie in power. The same could be said about various forms of reactionary nationalism in several African and other countries.
The bourgeoisie will always seek to impose their bourgeois nationalism on the working masses and encourage chauvinism and reactionary national sentiment. The purpose is to rally the masses behind their own bourgeoisie in the rivalry with the capitalists of other countries. The aim is to make them forget about the class struggle and internationalist solidarity with fellow workers of other nationalities.
National pride and the working class
The communists cannot turn their backs on the national sentiments and national pride rooted in the working class. There are two reasons for that. In part because it is impossible to ignore these feelings, partly because it is political stupidity that makes working people easy prey for bourgeois and fascist national demagogy. The low level of class consciousness among the workers in many imperialist countries today, makes it even more important to emphasize this.
Today's populism, especially the right-wing variant, serves the bourgeoisie in subduing the class struggle when it seeks to rally the “nation” against what is called the elite. Populism in various forms is a tool for derailing the class struggle and replacing it with anti-globalism and national chauvinism. If the communists allow these reactionary forces to monopolize national symbols and national rhetoric, we are digging our own grave.
This was something that Georgi Dimitrov warned against in his report to the 7th Congress of the Comintern.
“We Communists are the irreconcilable opponents, in principle, of bourgeois nationalism in all its forms. But we are not supporters of national nihilism, and should never act as such”, he added and continued: “The task of educating the workers and all working people in the spirit of proletarian internationalism is one of the fundamental tasks of every Communist Party. But anyone who thinks that this permits him, or even compels him, to sneer at all the national sentiments of the broad masses of working people is far from being a genuine Bolshevik, and has understood nothing of the teaching of Lenin on the national question.”
He then goes on to refer to Lenin’s example of the correct approach to the problem of national sentiments in his article "On the National Pride of the Great Russians" written in 1914.
“Are we class-conscious Great-Russian proletarians impervious to the feeling of national pride? Certainly not. We love our language and our motherland; we, more than any other group, are working to raise its laboring masses (i.e., nine-tenths of its population) to the level of intelligent democrats and socialists. We, more than anybody are grieved to see and feel to what violence, oppression and mockery our beautiful motherland is being subjected by the tsarist hangmen, the nobles and the capitalists. […]
We are filled with national pride because of the knowledge that the Great-Russian nation, too, has created a revolutionary class, that it, too, has proved capable of giving humanity great examples of struggle for freedom and for socialism; that its contribution is not confined solely to great pogroms, numerous scaffolds, torture chambers, severe famines and abject servility before the priests, the tsars, the landowners and the capitalists.” [V. I. Lenin, Collected Works 21:103-4]
In his report, Dimitrov reminded us of how the fascists try to exploit even the progressive and revolutionary national sentiments of the people.
“Mussolini does his utmost to make capital for himself out of the heroic figure of Garibaldi. The French fascists bring to the fore as their heroine Joan of Arc. The American fascists appeal to the traditions of the American War of Independence, the traditions of Washington and Lincoln. The Bulgarian fascists make use of the national-liberation movement of the seventies and its heroes beloved by the people, Vassil Levsky, Stephan Karaj and others.
Communists who suppose that all this has nothing to do with the cause of the working class, who do nothing to enlighten the masses on the past of their people in a historically correct fashion, in a genuinely Marxist-Leninist spirit, who do nothing to link up the present struggle with the people's revolutionary traditions and past -- voluntarily hand over to the fascist falsifiers all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation, so that the fascists may fool the masses.”
Georgi Dimitrov: The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class against Fascism.
Main Report delivered at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International.
In the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, culture was national in form, but socialist in content. The national form was not opposed to, but on the contrary was a prerequisite for national fraternity and internationalism. Ukrainians and Kazakhs nurtured their national culture, while embodying it a socialist content. The Soviet man was first and foremost a Soviet citizen, but without denying his or her national cultural heritage.
The expression of the national question in Norwegian history
Historically, the national question was thus solved for Norwegians when the bourgeoisie gained independence and acquired a national base for capital accumulation. In 1814, and even more so in 1905, the young Norwegian bourgeoisie took the lead as the nation's advocate and defender. The working class, the peasantry and other sectors of the population rallied behind the national-democratic banner of the bourgeoisie.
Here it must be added that the Sami, Kven and other national minorities were oppressed and overrun in this Norwegian nation-building process. For them, the national question is still partially resolved, at best. The repression they endured is documented, among other places, in the huge report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the summer of 2023 on the consequences of the policy of forced assimilation.
The unresolved nations and the question of the national minorities in Norway require a separate examination that is too extensive to delve into here.
For the Norwegian working class, the matter at stake was primarily to gain bourgeois-democratic rights, like universal suffrage. The class was in most of the 19th century still too weak to take on the fight against the bourgeoisie and to put socialism on the agenda.
The progressive aspects of Norwegian nation-building lie in the fact that it has strong anti-authoritarian tendencies. It helped that Norway never had a mighty feudal aristocracy like countries on the continent, or Sweden for that matter. The nobility tended to be as much Danish as it was Norwegian. Mainly in the western parts of the country, a movement to create a Norwegian language based on dialects, not on Danish, gathered support among many peasants and some intellectuals.
The layman's movement, especially represented by Hans Nilsen Hauge, was by its very nature a petty-bourgeois religious rebellion against civil servants and parts of the clergy. It was a popular movement against the privileged classes and proprietors; it was therefore considered a serious threat by those in power. The equal right to the commons is deeply rooted in the national consciousness of the people.
In parallel with this movement, the labour movement emerged, initially through the Marcus Thrane-inspired workers' associations; later on with the foundation of the Labour Party (1887) and thereafter the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. Together, these movements gave the national struggle in Norway a popular and anti-authoritarian character.
The informal style seen in Norwegian workplaces today, where no one bows to the boss or director, has its roots in this popular and “egalitarian” tradition. This does not change class relations, in many ways it serves to obscure them, but this apparent equality distinguishes Norwegian workplaces from the forced labour discipline and submission that can be observed in many other capitalist countries.
Apparently, the bourgeoisie safeguarded the nation's interests in the economic development and state-building from 1905 onwards. There was still a great deal of correspondence between the interests of the bourgeoisie and the interests of the nation. The struggle over licensing laws securing long-term public ownership to waterfalls built by foreign private investors in the early 1900s, is one example of how the bourgeoisie wanted to ensure that natural resources remained on local hands.
This changed as the capitalist development of industrial and banking capital put the state into the service of the most powerful groups of capital. Ship owners, fisheries and whaling capital and the forestry industry turned their attention to foreign markets and access to new resources. The Norwegian state was directly involved in the struggle for resources in the Arctic, especially in the dispute with Denmark in the 1930s over who should be the “owners” of Greenland. Norway manoeuvred in the international situation after World War 1 and the October Revolution to acquire sovereignty over parts of Antarctica and Spitzbergen in the early 1920s. This period was named that of Norwegian Arctic imperialism.
During the Nazi-German occupation of Norway (1940–45), the communists waged armed struggle and sabotage against the occupiers, while the “national” bourgeoisie opposed all kinds of armed resistance following the capitulation of the Norwegian armed forces in the spring of 1940. Only in 1943–44, when it was clear that Nazi Germany would lose the war and the Red Army prepared to liberate eastern parts of Northern Norway, did they change their attitude. The bourgeoisie “adapted” to the Nazi occupiers, hoping to be liberated by British allied forces. It was the communist saboteurs and the Communist party who boldly raised the national flag against the occupiers.
The Communist party of Norway (NKP) thereby gained broad support among the workers and people. However, on the eve of liberation the party lost the initiative because it chose to subordinate the class struggle to the fight for national independence. Instead of advancing on the road for revolutionary change, the party insisted that the pre-war parliamentary system must be restored. This was, among other things, expressed through attempts at merging with Social Democratic Labour party immediately after the war. Nevertheless, the communists had proved themselves as the boldest and most consistent force for national liberation, thereby exposing the collaborationist bourgeoisie.
Especially since the conclusion of World War 2, it has become abundantly clear that the once national bourgeoisie is selling the nation's interests for dollars, as Stalin put it at the 19th Congress of the CPSUb. Today, he would probably have added euros as well.
“Earlier, the bourgeoisie presented themselves as liberal, they were for bourgeois democratic freedom and in that way gained popularity with the people. Now there is not one remaining trace of liberalism. There is no such thing as ‘freedom of personality’ any more, - personal rights are now only acknowledged by them, the owners of capital, - all the other citizens are regarded as raw materials, that are only for exploitation. The principle of equal rights for people and nations is trodden in the dust and it is replaced by the principle of full rights for the exploiting minority and the lack of rights of the exploited majority of the citizens. The banner of bourgeois democratic freedom has been flung overboard. I think that you, the representatives of communist and democratic parties must pick up this banner and carry it forward if you want to gain the majority of the people. There is nobody else to raise it.
Earlier, the bourgeoisie, as the heads of nations, were for the rights and independence of nations and put that ‘above all’. Now there is no trace left of this ‘national principle.’ Now the bourgeoisie sell the rights and independence of their nations for dollars. The banner of national independence and national sovereignty has been thrown overboard. Without doubt, you, the representatives of the communist and democratic parties must raise this banner and carry it forward if you want to be patriots of your countries, if you want to be the leading force of the nations. There is nobody else to raise it.»
Today's Norwegian imperialist bourgeoisie does not take five cents to scrap its own constitution. The Constitution's explicit prohibition on conceding sovereignty of the country in parts or in whole, has been violated and circumvented on an increasing scale since Norway joined NATO in 1949. Later, the willingness to transfer authority and legal powers to Brussels, and not least to allow US bases on Norwegian soil subject to US jurisdiction, speak for themselves.
The strong opposition to Norwegian EU membership is, generally speaking, a popular expression of healthy national feelings, more specifically as a defence of common ownership to national resources, self-government and bourgeois-democratic rights. This does not exclude the fact that some reactionary forces try to infuse national chauvinism in the movement, but these forces have always been foiled.
Here too, the national question is a political question and frequently reflects the ongoing class struggle.
The struggle against the EU and the EEA is also class struggle and defence of trade union rights. But if the communists were to disregard the national side of the resistance to the EU, it would be an erroneous act of foolishness and an effective way of isolating the communists from the broad masses. This would lead to a situation similar to that in large parts of Europe, where opposition to the EU often has a clearly reactionary and national chauvinist character. Marine Le Pen in France is just one example. In contrast, the Norwegian and the Danish opposition to the EU, distinguish themselves with demands for sovereignty and democracy while at the same time calling for international solidarity; often expressed in the slogan “The world is larger than the EU”.
We must expose how the imperialist bourgeoisie willingly sacrifices national interests in favour of imperialist interests and alliances. The billionaires who move to Switzerland to save a few million in taxes, demonstrate their contempt for their own people and nation – regardless of whether they return home on the national day to wave Norwegian flags.
This behaviour speaks everything about the class morality of our imperialist bourgeoisie. Their glaring national hypocrisy combined with greed is clear as the day to the working class.
The national question in the light of revolutionary strategy
For revolutionaries, the question of national sovereignty has even greater implications from a strategic perspective. It is progressive that Norwegian laws state that natural resources such as oil and fish are the collective property of the Norwegian people. An entirely different matter is the fact that the bourgeoisie consistently violate and disregard their own laws.
Politically, this is an argument the masses embrace, rightly linking the question of national control over industry and resources to the class struggle and who should inherit the values created by earlier generations. The demand for national sovereignty is also fundamental to the opposition to NATO and against US imperialism's air and army forces being allowed to establish bases on Norwegian soil.
All historical experience shows how the imperialists resort to any means to crush a workers' revolution. The bases and facilities of US imperialism are a deadly threat to the working class and revolutionary uprisings. One cannot speak of true national sovereignty when foreign armies from the world's largest military power establish themselves in the country.
Furthermore, national control over infrastructure, and especially the supply of energy, is a matter of utmost importance for the working class. Not only today, but also in a new-born socialist Norway.
Most likely, the revolution will break out in a single country or a group of countries, but hardly in all of Europe at once. The United States and our imperialist neighbours (like Britain or Germany) may resort to direct military intervention. In the first instance, they might block trade routes and food supplies in order to provoke counterrevolutionary uprisings and crush the new workers’ state. Leaving fish aside, Norway is far from self-supplied when it comes to staple food production; the country has little farmland and hardly any granaries. This alone is a reason for the workers to fight for better food preparedness today for times of crisis. In turn, this forges an alliance with farmers and fishermen, thus securing a strategic reserve for the revolution, in a double sense.
In a modern society, nothing works without energy. That is, electricity, oil and gas. Given that Norway has relinquished control over electricity and gas supply by allowing it to be integrated and overridden through the power exchange in the EU's Energy Union, the odds of revolution are worsened.
Not only could the EU shut off power exports to Norway on which we might have become dependent (although this by no means is the current situation). Even more likely is that the EU or the UK can claim that it is a violation of international law if a socialist Norway shuts off power exports because we need the electricity; or when we shut down the commercial power exchange entirely. This, in turn, could be used as a pretext for military intervention, blockades or other punitive measures.
We expect and hope for solidarity from the European working class. But it is obvious that with full national control over infrastructure such as electricity, railways and other key areas of the economy, a socialist Norway would be in a far better position to resist imperialist blackmail. This is also why popular and trade union opposition to the EU and ACER is so important.
Several examples could have been mentioned, such as ensuring that as much as possible of the metal and process industries and workshops remain in Norway, and do not move abroad. It is of little use to nationalize if a factory has shut down and re-established in Vietnam or elsewhere.
Such battles are about more than saving jobs. They also have to do with providing a socialist Norway with the best possible industrial base along with our other national advantage; energy resources.
The revolution is an immense task for the working class and its allies. But the revolution itself is not the hardest part. The most difficult task will be to consolidate a victorious revolution and to embark on the road of socialist construction.
These are aspects we must bear in mind when we consider the importance of national democracy and self-determination in an imperialist country like ours, and especially if we are serious about mobilizing the working class to carry out a socialist revolution.
Contribution by KPML to a seminar discussion on imperialism today, Norway, September 2023.
 The Manifesto, Part 2: Proletarians and Communists.
 Eidsvold in Eastern Norway was where the founding fathers approved a Norwegian Constitution in 1814, in the aftermath of the defeat of Napoleon, with whom Denmark was an ally.
 Marcus Thrane was the organisor of the first labour movement in Norway, in the middle of the 19th century.
 In several Norwegian laws regarding fisheries, waterfalls and hydro power, oil etc. the wording states clearly that these natural resources are the common property of the people of Norway, and are to be exploited to the benefit of the people and society. Of course, the bourgeoisie is constantly stealing from and attempts to privatize these commons.
 Due to topography and climate, as well as capitalist competition, agriculture is limited to only small parts of the country.