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The New International, July 1944

Frederic Engels

The Working Class of Poland

Engels Comments on a Modern Problem



From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, pp. 211-214.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The interest of Marx and Engels in the Polish question goes back to the earliest days of their political activity. They never swerved from a passionate insistence on the establishment of Poland’s independence, believing, as Marx once said, that “without Poland’s independence, no liberty can be established in Europe.” We print here the uncompleted series of articles on Poland written by Engels for The Commonwealth, beginning with the issue of Saturday, March 24, 1868. The paper, successor to the Workman’s Advocate, served for a time as the official organ of the First International, and many of the members of its editorial board were likewise members of the International Engels contributes here not only an important page of the history of his time, and a model of the views he shared with Marx on the struggle in Europe for revolutionary democracy and national freedom, but also a penetrating criticism of the Napoleonic “principle of nationality,” on one side, and of Czarist foreign policy, on the other. The reader will recognize the kinship between the Court of Catherine II which “was made the headquarters of the enlightened men of the day” and where “the most enlightened principles was professed by the Empress and her Court,” and the “court” of the present Kremlin autocrats. He will also note Engels’ ironical remarks about the old Russia which need few modifications to apply to the present: “Talk about a war of class against class as something extremely revolutionary; – why, Russia set such a war on foot in Poland nearly 100 years ago, and a fine specimen of a class war it was, when Russian soldiers and Little Russian serfs went in company to burn down the castles of Polish lords, merely to prepare Russian annexation, which being once accomplished the same Russian soldiers put the serfs back again under the yoke of their lords.” The Stalin regime is certainly in the grand tradition! Engels wrote The Commonwealth articles in English. We print them here from the collection, Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels über die Polenfrage, which the late Bolshevik scholar, Ryazanov, published in 1915 in Volume VII, Part 1, of Dr. Carl Grünberg’s Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, issued in Leipzig. – Ed.

I. What Have the Working Classes to Do with Poland?

To the Editor of The Commonwealth:

Wherever the working classes have taken a part of their own in political movements, there, from the very beginning, their foreign policy was expressed in the few words – restoration of Poland. This was the case with the Chartist movement so long as it existed; that was the case with the French working men long before 1848, as well as during that memorable year, when, on the 15th of May, they marched on to the National Assembly to the cry of “Vive la Pologne!” – Poland forever! This was the case in Germany, when, in 1848 and ’49, the organs of the working class demanded war with Russia for the restoration of Poland. It is the case even now; – with one exception – of which more anon – the working men of Europe unanimously proclaim the restoration of Poland as a part and parcel of their political programme, as the most comprehensive expression of their foreign policy. The middle class, too, have had, have still, “sympathies” with the Poles; which sympathies have not prevented them from leaving the Poles in the lurch in 1831, in 1846, in 1863, hay, have not even prevented them from leaving the worst enemies of Poland, such as Lord Palmerston, to manage matters so as actually to assist Russia while they talked in favor of Poland. But with the working classes it is different. They mean intervention, not non-intervention; they mean war with Russia while Russia meddles with Poland; and they have proved it every time the

Poles rose against their oppressors. And recently, the International Workingmen’s Association has given a fuller expression to this universal instinctive feeling of the body it claims to represent, by inscribing on its banner, “Resistance to Russian encroachments upon Europe – Restoration of Poland.”

This programme of the foreign”policy of the working men of Western and Central Europe has found a unanimous consent among the class to whom it was addressed, with one exception, as we said before. There are among the working men of France a small minority who belong to the school of the late P.J. Proudhon. This school differs in toto from the generality of the advanced and thinking working men; it declares them to be ignorant fools, and maintains, on most points, opinions quite contrary to theirs. This holds good in their foreign policy also. The Proudhonists, sitting in judgment on oppressed Poland, find the verdict of the Staleybridge Jury, “Serves her right.” They admire Russia as the great land of the future, as the most progressive nation upon the face of the earth, at the side of which such a paltry country as the United States is not worthy of being named. They have charged the Council of the International Association with setting up the Bonapartist principle of nationalities, and with declaring that magnanimous Russian people without the pale of civilized Europe, such being a grievous sin against the principles of universal democracy and the fraternity of all nations. These are the charges. Barring the democratic phraseology at the wind-up, they coincide, it will be seen at once, verbally and literally with what the extreme Tories of all countries have to say about Poland and Russia. Such charges are not worth refuting; but, as they come from a fraction of the working class, be it ever so small a one, they may render it desirable to state again the case of Poland and Russia, and to vindicate what we may henceforth call the foreign policy of the united working men of Europe.

But why do we always name Russia alone in connection with Poland? Have not two German powers, Austria and Prussia, shared in the plunder? Do not they, too, hold parts of Poland in bondage, and, in connection with Russia, do they not work to keep down every national Polish movement?

It is well known how hard Austria has struggled to keep out of the Polish business; how long she resisted the plans of Russia and Prussia for partition. Poland was a natural ally of Austria against Russia. When Russia once became formidable, nothing could be more in the interest of Austria than to keep Poland alive between herself and the newly-rising Empire. It was only when Austria saw that Poland’s fate was settled, that with or without her, the other two powers were determined to annihilate her, it was only then that in self-protection she went in for a share of the territory. But as early as 1815 she held out for the restoration of an independent Poland; in 1831 and in 1863 she was ready to go to war for that object, and give up her own share of Poland, provided England and France were prepared to join her. The same during the Crimean war. This is not said in justification of the general policy of the Austrian government. Austria has shown often enough that to oppress a weaker nation is congenial work to her rulers. But in the case of Poland the instinct of self-preservation was stronger than the desire for new territory or the habits of government. And this puts Austria out of court for the present.

As to Prussia, her share of Poland is too trifling to weigh much on the scale. Her friend and ally, Russia, has managed to ease her of nine-tenths of what she got during the three partitions. But what little is left to her weighs as an incubus upon her. It has chained her to the triumphal car of Russia, it has been the means of enabling her government, even in 1863 and ’64, to practice unchallenged, in Prussian Poland, those breaches of the law, those infractions of individual liberty, of the right of meeting, of the liberty of the press, which were so soon afterward to be applied to the rest of the country; it has falsified the whole middle-class Liberal movement which, from fear of risking the loss of a few square miles of land on the eastern frontier, allowed the government to set all law aside with regard to the Poles. The working men, not only of Prussia, but of all Germany, have a greater interest than those of any other country in the restoration of Poland, and they have shown in every revolutionary movement that they know it. Restoration of Poland, to them, is emancipation of their own country from Russian vassalage. And this, we think, puts Prussia out of court, too. Whenever the working classes of Russia (if there is such a thing in that country, in the sense it is understood in Western Europe) form a political programme, and that programme contains the liberation of Poland – then, but not till then, Russia as a nation will be out of court, too, and the government of the Czar will remain alone under indictment.

Frederic Engels

II. The “Principle of Nationalities”


It is said that to claim independence for Poland is to acknowledge the “principle of nationalities,” and that the principle of nationalities is a Bonapartist invention concocted to prop up the Napoleonic despotism in France. Now what is this “principle of nationalities”?

By the treaties of 1815 the boundaries of the various states of Europe were drawn merely to suit diplomatic convenience, and especially to suit the convenience of the then strongest continental power – Russia. No account was taken either of the wishes, the interests, or the national diversities of the populations. Thus, Poland was divided, Germany was divided, Italy was divided, not to speak of the many smaller nationalities inhabiting Southeastern Europe, and of which few people at that time knew anything. The consequence was that for Poland, Germany and Italy, the very first step in every political movement was to attempt the restoration of that national unity without which national life was but a shadow. And when, after the suppression of the revolutionary attempts in Italy and Spain, 1821–33, and again, after the revolution of July 1830 in France, the extreme politicians of the greater part of civilized Europe came into contact with each other, and attempted to mark out a kind of common programme, the liberation and unification of the oppressed and subdivided nations became a watchword common to all of them. So it was again in 1848, when the number of oppressed nations was increased by a fresh one, viz., Hungary. There could, indeed, be no two opinions as to the right of every one of the great national subdivisions of Europe to dispose of itself, independently of its neighbors, in all internal matters, so long as it did not encroach upon the liberty of the others. This right was, in fact, one of the fundamental conditions of the internal liberty of all. How could, for instance, Germany aspire to liberty and unity, if at the same time she assisted Austria to keep Italy in bondage, either directly or by her vassals? Why, the total breaking-up of the Austrian monarchy is the very first condition of the unification of Germany!

This right of the great national subdivisions of Europe to political independence, acknowledged as it was by the European democracy, could not but find the same acknowledgement with the working classes especially. It was, in fact, nothing more than to recognize in other large national bodies of undoubted vitality the same right of individual national existence which the working men of each separate country claimed for themselves. But this recognition, and the sympathy with these national aspirations, were restricted to the large and well defined historical nations of Europe; there was Italy, Poland, Germany, Hungary. France, Spain, England, Scandinavia, were neither subdivided nor under foreign control, and therefore but indirectly interested in the matter; and as to Russia, she could only be mentioned as the retainer of an immense amount of stolen property, which would have to be disgorged on the day of reckoning.

After the coup d’etat of 1851, Louis Napoleon, the Emperor “by the grace of God and the national will,” had to find a democratized and popular sounding name for his foreign policy. What could be better than to inscribe upon his banners the “principle of nationalities”? Every nationality to be the arbiter of its own fate – every detached fraction of any nationality to be allowed to annex itself to its great mother-country – what could be more liberal? Only, mark, there was not, now, any more question of nations, but of nationalities.

There is no country in Europe where there are not different nationalities under the same government. The Highland Gaels and the Welsh are undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody will give to these remnants of peoples long gone by the title of nations, any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany in France. Moreover, no state boundary coincides with the natural boundary of nationality, that of language. There are plenty of people outside of France whose mother tongue is French, the same as there are many people of German language outside of Germany; and very likely it will ever remain so. It is a natural consequence of the confused and slow-working historical development through which Europe has passed during the last thousand years, that almost every great nation has parted with some outlying portions of its own body, which have become separated from the national life, and in most cases participated in the national life of some other people; so much so, that they do not wish to rejoin their own main stock. The Germans in Switzerland and Alsace do not desire to be reunited to Germany, any more than the French in Belgium and Switzerland wish to become attached politically to France. And after all, it is no slight advantage that various nations, as politically constituted, have most of them some foreign elements within themselves, which form connecting links with their neighbors, and vary the otherwise too monotonous uniformity of the national character.

Here, then, we perceive the difference between the “principle of nationalities” and the old democratic and working-class tenet as to the right of the great European nations to separate and independent existence. The “principle of nationalities” leaves entirely untouched the great question of the right of national existence for the historic peoples of Europe, nay, if it touches it, it is merely to disturb it. The principle of nationalities raises two sorts of questions; first of all, questions of boundary between these great historic peoples; and secondly, questions as to the right to independent national existence of those numerous small relics of peoples which, after having figured for a longer or shorter period on the stage of history, were finally absorbed as integral portions into one or the other of those more powerful nations whose greater vitality enabled them to overcome greater obstacles. The European importance, the vitality of a people, is as nothing in the eyes of the principle of nationalities; before it, the Roumans of Wallachia, who never had a history, nor the energy required to have one, are of equal importance to the Italians who have a history of 2,000 years, and an unimpaired national vitality; the Welsh and Manxmen, if they desired it, would have an equal right to independent political existence, absurd though it would be, with the English. The whole thing is an absurdity, got up in a popular dress in order to throw dust in shallow people’s eyes, and to be used as a convenient phrase, or to be laid aside if the occasion requires it.

Shallow as the thing is, it required cleverer brains than Louis Napoleon’s invention to favour a resurrection of Poland; it is nothing but a Russian invention concocted to destroy Poland. Russia has absorbed the greater part of ancient Poland on the plea of the principle of nationalities, as we shall see hereafter. The idea is more than a hundred years old, and Russia uses it now every day. What is Panslavism but the application, by Russia, and Russian interest, of the principle of nationalities to the Serbians, Croats, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Czechs, and other remnants of bygone Slavonian peoples in Turkey, Hungary and Germany? Even at this present moment the Russian government have agents traveling among the Lapponians in Northern Norway and Sweden, trying to agitate among these nomadic savages the idea of a “great Finnic nationality,” which is to be restored in the extreme North of Europe, under Russian protection, of course. The “cry of anguish” of the oppressed Laplanders is raised very loud in the Russian papers – not by those same oppressed nomads, but by the Russian agents – and indeed it is a frightful oppression, to induce these poor Laplanders to learn the civilized Norwegian or Swedish language, instead of confining themselves to their own barbaric, half-Esquimaux idiom! The principle of nationalities, indeed, could be invented in Eastern Europe alone, where the tide of Asiatic invasion, for a thousand years, recurred again and again, and left on the shore those heaps of intermingled ruins of nations which even now the ethnologist can scarcely disentangle, and where the Turk, the Finnic Magyar, the Rouman, the Jews, and about a dozen Slavonic tribes, live intermixed in interminable confusion. That was the ground to work the principle of nationalities, and how Russia has worked it there, we shall see by-and-by in the example of Poland.

Frederic Engels

III. The Doctrine of Nationality Applied to Poland

Poland, like almost all other European countries, is inhabited by people of different nationalities. The mass of the population, the nucleus of its strength, is no doubt formed by the Poles proper, who speak the Polish language. But ever since 1390 Poland proper has been united to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which has formed, up to the last partition in 1794, an integral portion of the Polish Republic. This Grand Duchy of Lithuania was inhabited by a great variety of races. The northern provinces, on the Baltic, were in possession of Lithuanians proper, people speaking a language distinct from that of their Slavonic neighbours; these Lithuanians had been, to a great extent, conquered by German immigrants, who, again, found it hard to hold their own against the Lithuanian Grand Dukes. Further south, and east of the present kingdom of Poland, were the White Russians, speaking a language betwixt Polish and Russian, but nearer the latter; and finally the southern provinces were inhabited by the so-called Little Russians, whose language is now by the best authorities considered as perfectly distinct from the great Russian (the language we commonly call Russian). Therefore, if people say that, to demand the restoration of Poland is to appeal to the principle of nationalities, they merely prove that they do not know what they are talking about, for the restoration of Poland means the re-establishment of a state composed of at least four different nationalities.

When the old Polish state was thus being formed by the union with Lithuania, where then was Russia? Under the heel of the Mongolian conqueror, whom the Poles and Germans combined, one hundred and fifty years before, had driven back east of the Dnieper. It took a long struggle until the Grand Dukes of Moscow finally shook off the Mongol yoke and set about combining the many different principalities of Great Russia into one state. But this success seems only to have increased their ambitions. No sooner had Constantinople fallen to the Turk, than the Moscovite Grand Duke placed in his coat-of-arms the double-headed eagle of the Byzantine Emperors, thereby setting up his claim as successor and future avenger, and ever since, it is well known, the Russians worked to conquer Czaregrad, the town of the Czar, as they call Constantinople in their language. Then, the rich plains of Little Russia excited their lust of annexation; but the Poles were then a strong, and always a brave people, and not only knew how to fight for their own, but also how to retaliate; in the beginning of the seventeenth century they even held Moscow for a few years.

The gradual demoralization of the ruling aristocracy, the want of power to develop a middle class, and the constant wars devastating the country, at last broke the strength of Poland. A country which persisted in maintaining unimpaired the feudal system of society, while all its neighbours progressed, formed a middle class, developed commerce and industry, and created large towns – such a country was doomed to ruin. No doubt the aristocracy did ruin Poland, and ruin her thoroughly; and after ruining her, they upbraided each other for having done so, and sold themselves and their country to the foreigner. Polish history, from 1700 to 1772, is nothing but a record of Russian usurpation of dominion in Poland, rendered possible by the corruptibility of the nobles. Russian soldiers were almost constantly occupying the country, and the kings of Poland, if not willing traitors themselves, were placed more and more under the thumb of the Russian Ambassador. So well had this game succeeded, and so long had it been played, that, when Poland at last was annihilated, there was no outcry at all in Europe, and, indeed, people were astonished at this only, that Russia should have the generosity of giving such a large slice of the territory to Austria and Prussia.

The way in which this partition was brought about is particularly interesting. There was, at that time, already an enlightened “public opinion” in Europe. Although the Times newspaper had not yet begun to manufacture that article, there was that kind of public opinion which had been created by the immense influence of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the other French writers of the eighteenth century. Russia always knew that it is important to have public opinion on one’s side, if possible, and Russia took care to have it, too. The court of Catherine II was made the headquarters of the enlightened men of the day, especially Frenchmen; the most enlightened principles were professed by the Empress and her court, and so well did she succeed in deceiving them that Voltaire and many others sang the praise of the “Semiramis of the North” and proclaimed Russia the most progressive country in the world, the home of liberal principles, the champion of religious toleration.

Religious toleration – that was the word wanted to put down Poland. Poland had always been extremely liberal in religious matters; witness the asylum the Jews found there while they were persecuted in all other parts of Europe. The greater portion of the people in the Eastern provinces belonged to the Greek faith, while the Poles proper were Roman Catholics. A considerable portion of these Greek Catholics had been induced, during the sixteenth century, to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, and were called United Greeks, but a great many continued true to their old Greek religion in all respects. They were principally the serfs, their noble masters being almost all Roman Catholics; they were Little Russians by nationality. Now, this Russian government, which did not tolerate at home any other religion but the Greek, and punished apostasy as a crime; which was conquering foreign nations and annexing foreign provinces right and left; and which was at that time engaged in riveting still firmer the fetters of the Russia serf – this same Russian government came soon upon Poland in the name of religious toleration, because Poland was said to oppress the Greek Catholics; in the name of the principle of nationalities, because the inhabitants of these Eastern provinces were Little Russians, and ought, therefore, to be annexed to Great Russia; and in the name of the right of revolution arming the serfs against their masters. Russia is not at all scrupulous in the selection of her means. Talk about a war of class against class as something extremely revolutionary; – why, Russia set such a war on foot in Poland nearly a hundred years ago, and a fine specimen of a class war it was, when Russian soldiers and Little Russian serfs went in company to burn down the castles of Polish lords, merely to prepare Russian annexation, which being once accomplished the same Russian soldiers put the serfs beck again under the yoke of their lords.

All this was done in the cause of religious toleration, because the principle of nationalities was not then fashionable in Western Europe. But it was held up before the eyes of the Little Russian peasants at the time, and has played an important part since in Polish affairs. The first and foremost ambition of Russia is the union of all Russian tribes under the Czar, who calls himself the Autocrat of all Russias (Samodergetz vsekh Rossyiskikh), and among these she includes White and Little Russia. And in order to prove that her ambition went no further, she took very good care, during the three partitions, to annex none but White and Little Russian provinces; leaving the country inhabited by Poles, and even a portion of Little Russia (Eastern Galicia) to her accomplices. But how do matters stand now? The greater portion of the provinces annexed in 1793 and 1794 by Austria and Prussia are now under Russian dominion, under the name of the kingdom of Poland, and from time to time hopes are raised among the Poles, that if they will only submit to Russian supremacy, and renounce all claims to the ancient Lithuanian provinces, they may expect a reunion of all other Polish provinces and a restoration of Poland, with the Russian Emperor for a king. And if at the present juncture Prussia and Austria came to blows, it is more than probable that the war will not be, ultimately, for the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, or of Venice to Italy, but rather ot Austrian, and at least a portion of Prussian, Poland to Russia.

So much for the principle of nationalities in Polish affairs.

IV. The Polish Question

a) Why do the workmen of Europe take up this question? In the first instance, because the middle class writers and agitators conspire to suppress it, although they patronize all sorts of nationalities on the continent, even Ireland. Whence this reticence? Because both, aristocrats and bourgeois, look upon the dark Asiatic power in the background as a last resource against the advancing tide of working class ascendancy. That power can only be effectually put down by the restoration of Poland upon a democratic basis.

b) In the present changed state of central Europe and especially Germany, it is more than ever necessary to have a democratic Poland. Without it, Germany will become the outwork of the Holy Alliance, with it, the co-operator with republican France. The working class movement will continuously be interrupted, checked and restarted, until this great European question be set at rest.

c) It is especially the duty of the German working class to take the initiative in this matter, because Germany is one of the partitioners of Poland.

Frederic Engels

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