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Lenin's reformulation of Marxism:the colonial question as a national question

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There are two observations about the history of Marxism as a theory, and of the movements informed by that theory, which command wide assent. The first is an indisputable empirical observation: socialist movements proved more successful in the relatively ‘backward’ parts of the world than in the heartlands of capitalism, where Marx expected his ideas to take root and his prophecies to be fulfilled. Marxist ideas and Marxist inspired movements once registered important successes in Eastern and Central Europe (distant as that now seems!), but not in Western Europe and North America. They also -- what concerns us in this essay -- occasionally triumphed, and frequently achieved some measure of influence even where they did not triumph, in ‘Third World’ countries.

The second observation is that the phenomena of nationhood and of nationalism were never adequately theorized within Marxism; nor, in most cases, were they dealt with satisfactorily in ‘practical’ terms. This theoretical shortcoming was frequently pointed out by non-Marxists. In more recent times Marxists have been at the forefront in pointing to this lacunae or limitation. Nicos Poulantzas urges an imputedly reluctant audience, ‘we have to recognize that there is no Marxist theory of the nation’. Similarly Tom Nairn adjudges, in portentious tones: ‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's great historical failure.’

Both these observations are indisputably true, but a paradox becomes apparent when they are juxtaposed. It would appear that Marxism proved more influential and successful in the former colonial and semi-colonial countries of the ‘East’ than in the bourgeois societies of Western Europe, despite the fact that in the former region the national question, one of Marxism's great theoretical failings, was an issue of pressing political importance. How can one explain this paradox?

This essay argues that a major part of the answer lies in the manner in which Lenin developed and reformulated Marx's theory. It suggests that the seeds both of the successful extension of Marxism to the underdeveloped parts of the world, and of its failure to develop a theory of the nation, lay in the reformulation of Marx's thought undertaken with the theory of imperialism. In order fully to understand how Lenin developed Marx's thought, it is first necessary to consider Marx's writings on the non-Western world and what would later come to be known as the ‘colonial question’
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Sydney.

Publication date: 1992-01-01

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