Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Capitalism and the origins of the nation-state

The Spartacists advance a militaristic and ultimately subjectivist view of the nation-state. According to their conception, the nation-state is not the political expression of a definite stage in the historical development of the productive forces, but merely a political-military apparatus developed by the bourgeoisie to maintain its economic domination.

The capitalist nation-state was by no means simply the product of military conflicts It arose out of profound economic changes, bound up with trade and the increasing use of money, which undermined the feudal regimes. Military force was not the primary factor. As Engels explained: “Long before the new field-pieces shot breaches into the knightly castle walls, these had already been undermined by money; indeed, gunpowder was, so to say, only an executor in the service of money. Money was the great political leveller in the hands of the burgherdom.”[1]

The principal driving force behind the formation of the nation-state was economic. The growth of capitalist production and the accumulation of capital required the development of a national market and the breaking down of guild privileges, political restrictions, local customs barriers and tariffs, which hemmed in production on all sides.

The development of capitalist production drew together backward villages and provinces; it linked the provinces with the cities and created a national market, bound together with a common language, laws and a common currency.

However, the development of the productive forces did not cease with the formation of the national state and national markets. In its further development, capitalist production began to transcend the nation-state framework. The whole history of the 20th century, beginning with the intensification of imperialist rivalries and the outbreak of world war in 1914, is bound up with this developing contradiction. World War I, as all the Marxists of the time explained, signified that the productive forces had outgrown the limits of the nation state.

“The present war,” Trotsky wrote in 1915, “ is at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state. It means the collapse of the national state as an independent economic unit. ... the real, objective significance of the War is the breakdown of the present national economic centers, and the substitution of a world economy in its stead.”[2]

This contradiction has been raised to a new peak of intensity by the development of globalized production. The national state continues to play a political and military role, just as did the feudal-absolutist state at the dawn of capitalist development. But, like its forerunner, its economic significance has been undermined and it is precisely this economic decline that creates the conditions for its overthrow.

In their apotheosis of the nation-state, the Spartacists base their politics not on Lenin, but rather harken back to an earlier figure the petty-bourgeois radical Eugen Duhring, who likewise insisted on the primacy of political and military force over economic conditions.

Engels’ remarks directed against the petty-bourgeois conceptions of Duhring, and his fascination with the military apparatus of the bourgeoisie, apply with no less force to the Spartacists: “And if the bourgeoisie now make their appeal to force in order to save the collapsing ‘economic situation’ from the final crash, this only shows that they are laboring under the same delusion as Herr Duhring: the delusion that the ‘political conditions are the decisive cause of the economic situation’; this only shows that they imagine, just as Herr Duhring does, that by making use of ‘the primary’, ‘the direct political force,’ they can remodel those ‘facts of the second order,’ the economic situation and its inevitable development; and that therefore the economic consequences of the steam-engine and modern industry driven by it, of world trade and the banking and credit developments of the present day, can be blown out of existence by them with Krupp guns and Mauser rifles.”[3]

In their insistence on the historical viability of the nation-state, the Spartacists undertake a rewriting of the history of capitalist development. “North’s view of the capitalists as an international class,” they write, “flies in the face of the Marxist understanding that the bourgeoisie cannot transcend national interests.”[4]

Behind this proposition lies a total falsification of the history of capitalism. The Spartacists’ mechanical conception is that the bourgeoisie was a product of the national state, while the world market was developed through the aggregation of various national markets, like a set of building blocks.

The real course of historical development bears no resemblance to this. The bourgeoisie arose in Europe before the formation of the nation-state and in its trade, banking and other commercial activities, including manufacturing, functioned as an international class, within a framework of the absolutist-feudal regimes. Historically, the international market arose prior to the development of national markets, and indeed, was one of the factors leading to the breakdown of localized production based on feudal relations, and the development of commodity production for the market.

The capitalist nation-state arose out of a complex historical process in which the bourgeoisie sought to develop the political structures necessary to defend its property and economic interests wealth which in turn was a product of the growth of the world market. In other words, the bourgeoisie is, at the same time, the creator of the world market and the creator of the nation-state system.

The logic of capital is universal. Its inherent drive to accumulate brings it into conflict with all previous forms of production. Capital strives to break down every barrier and cross every border in the relentless drive for accumulation.

The nation-state form, however, is based on the erection of borders and barriers, for they define its authority and jurisdiction. The capitalist system is founded on this objective contradiction between the striving of capital to expand globally on the one hand, and the limitations imposed by the nation-state on the other. This contradiction, which has been inherent in capitalism since its birth, has reached explosive proportions in the 20th century, giving rise to two world wars.

The bourgeoisie cannot resolve this contradiction. It cannot do away with the nation-state system in which its property is rooted. Neither can it confine the productive forces to the limits imposed by national boundaries. The bourgeoisie is driven by the objective logic of capital itself. Therefore, in its economic activity, it has to continuously transcend the nation-state framework and undermine it.

It is not the analysis of the International Committee, but rather the drivel produced by the Spartacists which “flies in the face of the Marxist understanding.” Those not unknown Marxists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, wrote the following in the Communist Manifesto:

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All the old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw materials, but raw materials drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. As in material, so in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness becomes more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”[5]


Engels, “Decay of Feudalism and the Rise of National States” in The Peasant War in Germany, p. 178


Trotsky, The War and the International, p. vii


Engels, Anti-Duhring, Moscow, Progress, p. 198


Workers Vanguard, February 21, 1997


Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, Moscow, Progress, pp. 487-88