Communism is supposed to be an internationalist ideology.

The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. 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. National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Marx & Engels

However, in practice, communist regimes are nationalist (USSR, People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, etc.).

How is that? And how does this nationalism differ from ethno-nationalism?

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    You may want to look into the Stalinist doctrine of Socialism in One Country Jul 23, 2023 at 18:59
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    This question is based on a false premise. "Communism is supposed to be an internationalist ideology" - some varieties were but there's no central authority that says what communism is, and no requirement that it be internationalist. You should reformulate it to ask how specific communists who you can show believed in internationalist ideology nonetheless promoted nationalism. Or else it's as pointless as asking "Milk is made from cows so how can we have vegan milk?"
    – Stuart F
    Jul 25, 2023 at 10:19
  • No country perfectly adheres to every detail of its ideology's founding documents. If there really is anything surprising to be explained here, it needs elaboration.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 20, 2023 at 17:02
  • @StuartF I am a bit confused by the changes you are requesting in the Q - You are right that there are different streams of communism / marxism. This question clearly explains the premise from where it has drawn its conclusion and is asking a specific clarification on it (i.e. it is asking about one particular stream of thought). So the question is perfectly valid here, as it is, and I don't see why the Q needs to unnecessarily clarify that there are many different streams and explain all of it in the Q as you propose? You can however certainly explain that in an answer.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 20, 2023 at 17:51
  • Voting not to close as the Q satisfies all the minimum acceptable guidelines. (Note also that the Q has already accepted an answer too).
    – sfxedit
    Dec 20, 2023 at 17:55

7 Answers 7


Communism as Marx envisaged is explicitly international in that it calls for the building of international democratic (i.e. worker-centric) political structures.

In the earlier years of the USSR, it openly sought international ideological supremacy, the cascading of the Soviet revolution, the collapse of capitalism, and the integration of further territories into the Soviet system.

As time went on, these hopes and efforts were moderated by the fact that the capitalist world itself increasingly used the state to organise and develop the economy, to redistribute wealth to workers, and to provide security against unemployment and sickness - all reducing the attractiveness or advantage of any communist transition - whereas the USSR itself rowed back from the most radical economic experiments which failed.

Stalin it seems soon recognised that the primary task was to preserve the Soviet system as a model covering part of the world, rather than assuming the USSR was in a position to conquer the entire world.

The USSR was a nation insofar as it was a power in the world amongst others, rather than a single state that governed the entire world. And once it became obvious that this would be the indefinite status, it optimised itself largely along the logic that applies to other nations.

The PRC meanwhile was nationalist from the outset. There was never an ambition for global conquest under a single Chinese state, and unlike the USSR the current territory covered by the PRC has significantly more historical tradition of being governed as a single state called "China".

The PRC have also had relatively sympathetic land neighbours from the outset (at least from a perspective of economic ideology and attitudes towards Western liberalism), a gargantuan population that rivals that of all Europe and North America, and came into being after WW2 and the development of nuclear weapons, meaning that concern about a successful capitalist military attack never predominated as it did for the USSR.

Finally, "ethno-nationalism" is broadly the nationalism as would have been understood by the term before WW2 - in other words, it's a Hitlerian ideology which categorises the world into races (or "ethnicities") and seeks to align (and maintain the alignment of) the scope of states and political territories with these races.

Ethno-nationalism since WW2 is broadly associated with the politics in colonial outposts like Northern Ireland or the former Rhodesia. It typically provokes war in its locality (as it did frequently when it reigned in Europe), and can be sustained nowadays only by transfers from a larger patron with different and more stable politics.


In the "Manifest" by K. Marx and F. Engels it is written that "the working class has no home country" so theoretically it is not. USSR also theoretically was not. The dominance of the Russian language was explained by the need to have a shared language everyone understands. It was claimed that the existing nationalities will soon disappear, also the Russian one, just the language remaining.

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    Thx. You explained clearly the theoritical aspect, but not the practical aspect, which is the main part of my question: why in theory they are internationalist, while in practice they are nationalist?
    – Starckman
    Jul 22, 2023 at 8:31
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    USSR was continuation of a Russian Empire that existed for centuries, so it inherited most real life problems and issues from there regardless what they could say in Pravda newspaper. :) Jul 22, 2023 at 9:31
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    Also when speaking about USSR and its claims, what USSR do you mean? Of 1929 or 1979? Those were two very different countries. There was no a uniform coherent USSR, it changed a lot during 70 years, though keeping some symbols Jul 22, 2023 at 9:44
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    It was consistent over all history of the Soviet Union. This explains why there was no much hostility against ethnic Russians in Baltic states. "Russians are the ethnicity that suffered the most from Stalinism", used to be heard. Nobody ever called them the higher race.
    – Stančikas
    Jul 22, 2023 at 9:56
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    @Stančikas Maybe there was not much hostility against ethnic russians while the USSR existed, but requiring the local language (if not outrightly forbid russian language) was a very common first move by all the ex-soviet republics. Trying to join NATO was the second one.
    – Rekesoft
    Jul 24, 2023 at 10:49

Steve touched on this already, but I think it needs to be expanded.

From around 1920 to 1980, communist movements in most of the world were strongly anti-imperialist, often to the point they defined themselves more as fighting against the occupying power than against capitalism. This is largely because foreign domination was the status quo, whether through a puppet regime (e.g. Cuba), a colonial mandate (e.g. Angola), or annexation (e.g Vietnam, part of French 3rd and 4th republics).

Since the Enlightenment, the world has seen nation-states as the main alternative to empires. To change the form of government in one country would mean gaining independence, and so nationalism had to be a cornerstone of any revolutionary manifesto, whether the original motive was communist, conservative, religious, right-wing or simply opportunist.

Of course, there is a more ambitious goal, to change the character of the entire empire, and that is how the USSR and PRC came to be. Both states continued traditional imperial power politics, playing to Russian and Han nationalism while suppressing the national identities of the countries they occupied/occupy.

  • I think this is largely the answer. For a lot of colonized countries in particular, any revolution that merely gives the people votes, but continues to respect the colonizers' per-existing property rights to local resources, isn't going to ultimately do much to return full sovereignty to the locals. So a popular nationalist movement is going to be much more attracted to an ideology that lets them fully kick out the colonizers.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 25, 2023 at 14:13

There has historically been a consistent problem with Communists trying to foment revolution, and then run the resulting states. Communist leaders have been among the educated elites of their countries. As such they are almost always in the minority -- sometimes a tiny minority -- and unable to raise an army on their own. Almost all Communist revolutions have been carried out in coalitions with other parties who would normally be excluded from participating in the resulting government.

In 1919 Béla Kun, a Hungarian Communist, started a revolution which created the very short lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. Even though Kun was a friend of Lenin, and had funding from the CPSU, he couldn't raise a big enough army without enlisting the help of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, which was much larger and better integrated into Hungarian society.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed four months after its establishment, due primarily to partisan Romanian nationalists who wanted to sever ties from Hungarian influence. Previously, in WWI, Hungarian nationalists had worked to sever ties from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Although Béla Kun was a died-in-the-wool Communist and friend of Lenin's, his goal of transforming Hungarian society depended on help from "bourgeois Democratic Socialists" and had to focus on the struggle between Hungarian and Romanian nationalism.

This pattern has repeated itself across the world. Minority elite Communists needing to enlist or co-opt those with divergent political views and/or national liberation anti-colonial partisans. None of this was foretold in Marx's utopian writing, and as time progressed the ideals became, notably in China, "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Socialism With Chinese Characteristics", codifying the sometimes drastic changes to Marx's writing while still referring to themselves as the Communist Party.

  • Am I correct in understanding that your thesis here is that it's because nationalism acts a counter-force to imperialism and Communists align themselves with anti-imperialists? If that's the case, I think the answer could be improved a little by stating the thesis explicitly and then presenting your defense of it. I am not agreeing or disagreeing with you, btw. I just had to think for a bit to understand how you are actually answering the question.
    – wrod
    Jul 24, 2023 at 6:46

Nationalism comes from they believe they are in a weak position and must unite. While it's not something in the definition, the people among them with the strongest opinions tend to choose between things, politics or economy or culture, nuclear weapons or conventional weapons, honor or reason, now or future, with the cost of the other, instead of getting them all. If you are strong, choosing between them as in one mind would only cause redundant duplicated work, not even making the chosen option developed better.

China isn't weak. But as the current situation of the internet, it's difficult for everyone to share the same information and everyone to realize their situation, and people with strong opinions are more vocal. It's hardly near the official stance. And as everyone is attacking each other, I doubt anyone want to devote resources to solve the problem for now if it is one. Someone's personal dependency of a choice implies they are not the capable exact person to develop something new to make a change, after all.

It's irrelevant to communism, as the part about communism technically is they officially believe communism must come after capitalism everywhere in the world, even if not actively pursuing this, but nothing is said about they are more or less near the situation to make communism appropriate than the other countries.


According to Roman Rozdolsky, the author of The Making of Marx's Capital:

"When the Manifesto says that the workers 'have no country', this refers to the bourgeois national state, not to nationality in the ethnical sense. The workers 'have no country' because according to Marx and Engels, they must regard the bourgeois national state as a machinery for their oppression and after they have achieved power they will likewise have 'no country' in the political sense, inasmuch as the separate socialist national states will be only a transitional stage on the way to the classless and stateless society of the future, since the construction of such a society is possibly only on the international scale."

The theory was that the nation state was an idea that the rich used to exercise power and suppress the working class. So the communists / marxists had to first capture this power. And then dismantle it, and unite together as "one", to "forever end oppression". Ofcourse, in practice this idea hasn't worked (dare I say, yet?). This is why Soviet Russia supported nationalist movement against imperialism, while trying to ensure these revolutionary movements were based on communist marxist / ideology. This is evident in the freedom movement in many Asian and African colonies, and why these countries, now independent, still retain a certain goodwill for socialist ideas and Russia.

Mao's views (that ultimately evolved into own political philosophy) on this are interesting too:

"Can a Communist, who is an internationalist, at the same time be a patriot? We hold that he not only can be but also must be. The specific content of patriotism is determined by historical conditions. There is the "patriotism" of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler, and there is our patriotism. Communists must resolutely oppose the "patriotism" of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler. The Communists of Japan and Germany are defeatists with regard to the wars being waged by their countries. To bring about the defeat of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler by every possible means is in the interests of the Japanese and the German people, and the more complete the defeat the better.... For the wars launched by the Japanese aggressors and Hitler are harming the people at home as well as the people of the world. China's case, however, is different, because she is the victim of aggression. Chinese Communists must therefore combine patriotism with internationalism. We are at once internationalists and patriots, and our slogan is, "Fight to defend the motherland against the aggressors." For us defeatism is a crime and to strive for victory in the War of Resistance is an inescapable duty. For only by fighting in defense of the motherland can we defeat the aggressors and achieve national liberation. And only by achieving national liberation will it be possible for the proletariat and other working people to achieve their own emancipation. The victory of China and the defeat of the invading imperialists will help the people of other countries. Thus in wars of national liberation patriotism is applied internationalism." (This is from a social media site so I can't vouch for its reliability. Will update with a better source).

  • 1
    Might be worth noting that the "nation state" is different from just "the state". The state was an invention of the rich to exercise power (at least in Marxist theory afaik). As the state supplies the theoretical necessities of capitalism (protection of private property over the means of production) as well as the practical means (military&police) to uphold these policies. A national state is more of an insufficient remedy in that it makes claims of self-determination of that nation, but in the end is very likely still following that same pattern.
    – haxor789
    Dec 22, 2023 at 14:12

First of all there are different versions of nationalism. There is for example ethno-nationalism where a group argues that they are a group because of a shared culture, language, region of origin, history, ancestry or whatever. The elephant in the room is that it's also often just used as a euphemism for racist because "culture" and "ethnicity" is a lot more nebulous than race (features of a person that are treated as innate and unalterable and that are identified by the racist not the person having them or being perceived to have).

The other version is that the group isn't pre-existing but constitutes itself around a social contract and a mutually agreed set of values. The difference can usually be seen by the process by which you can become a citizen, like can you join a group, do you need to pass a test and assimilate or can you only become a member if you are born to parents that already are or do you have to be born in that country or whatnot.

So given that Marx both rejects and affirms nationalism in this quote it's likely that he's talking about different things and indeed he says he rejects that in the "bourgeois sense". Now apparently Marx bought the liberal narrative that the industries lower castes are in a struggle with the upper caste and through this struggle develop means to overcome their oppression and thus propel humanity forward. At least that was the narrative of the liberal revolutions how a middle class took over the rule from an aristocratic upper class and he projected that back in history and forward into the future and called that "historic materialism".

So given he placed so much value on the class struggle, it would seem weird if he would be too fond of the national narrative that "people within one country are part of one team". According to him, they are not, one is exploiting the other and he even developed theoretical tools to prove that. So the actual team of the worker is other workers.

Though why call it a nation to begin with? Likely because the concept was kinda fitting, but more likely because nationalism was an emerging phenomena that people were talking about and one probably needed to get a foot in the door with at least using the terminology...

I mean the question of nationalism apparently also broke the 2nd international when WWI started and suddenly the united workers found themselves different sides of the conflict involved in the struggles of their countries rather than in unison with the workers/soldiers of other countries, while a third faction that was largely ignored argued how stupid that is.

Also as soon as a revolution succeeds locally but not cause a global revolution, you kinda find yourself in a nationalist situation were you reproduce that exact contradiction mentioned earlier that a "communist" party made up of middle and upper class bureaucrats tells a working class majority that they are all in the same team. But as long as you don't have or don't think you have modernized the means of production enough to have a direct democracy after work, you are kinda forced to reproduce these conditions (at least according to Marx).

So as with most of these questions, it's not necessarily justified to call that communism just because it's led by a communist party, because it was inevitably not a classless, stateless society where the workers owned the means of production.

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