Marxism and the national question

by Alan Woods and Ted Grant

Part Three: Lenin on the national question


"Whereas in nationally homogeneous states the bourgeois revolutionaries developed powerful centripetal tendencies, rallying to the idea of overcoming particularism, as in France, or overcoming national disunion, as in Italy and Germany—in nationally heterogeneous states on the contrary, such as Turkey, Russia, and Austro-Hungary, the belated bourgeois revolution released centrifugal forces." (L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 890.)

Pre-revolutionary Russia was an extremely backward, semi-feudal country, heavily dependent on foreign imperialism. Thus, it was very similar to many Third World countries today. Moreover, the problem of nationalities occupied a central place in Russian political life. Although tsarist Russia liked to disguise its expansionist policy under the cloak of protecting small oppressed nations on the Balkans, it was a prison-house of the nationalities. Forty three per cent of the population of tsarist Russia consisted of the dominant Great Russian nationality, whereas 57 per cent were made up of Ukrainians, Georgians, Poles, Finns and other oppressed nationalities.

Seventy million Great Russians dominated about ninety million non-Russians and all were dominated and oppressed by the bureaucratic-caste tsarist state. To make matters worse, at least in Russia's western territories, the economic and cultural level of the subjugated peoples was generally higher than in Russia proper. Whereas it can be argued that Russia's eastward expansion into the Caucasus and particularly Central Asia played a certain progressive role, this was emphatically not the case in Poland, Finland and the Baltic states. As old Engels commented: "Finland is Finnish and Swedish, Bessarabia Roumanian, the kingdom of Poland Polish. Here there is no longer any question of the union of scattered and kindred races, all bearing the name of Russians; here we see nothing but barefaced conquest of alien territory by brute force, nothing but simple theft." (MECW, vol. 27, p. 28.)

The Bolshevik party from the very beginning had a scrupulous position on the national question. This was essential in order to win over the masses, particularly the peasantry. The national question normally affects not so much the working class, but the mass of the petty bourgeoisie, especially the peasantry, and historically speaking the national question and the agrarian question were linked very closely. Sometimes even quite educated Marxists fail to grasp this question. In order to gain the ear of the petty bourgeois masses and win them for the cause of the revolution, the use of democratic and other partial demands, such as the demand for the right of self-determination, was absolutely necessary. But the use of such slogans only made sense as part of the struggle for the proletariat and its party to win the leadership of the masses in direct struggle against the bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties and trends. The prior condition for the success of the revolutionary wing is therefore an implacable struggle against the nationalist petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. And in order to conduct such a struggle, a clear position on the national question is necessary.

Like Lenin, Trotsky also wrote extensively on the national question. Of particular interest is the marvellous chapter on the national question in The History of the Russian Revolution which, better than anything else, sums up the position of the Bolshevik Party on this subject. But it was above all Lenin who developed and extended the Marxist position on the national question. Summing up the Bolshevik position, Trotsky wrote:

"Lenin early learned the inevitability of this development of centrifugal national movements in Russia, and for many years stubbornly fought—most particularly against Rosa Luxemburg—for that famous paragraph 9 of the old party programme which formulated the right of nations to self-determination—that is, to complete separation as states. In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality between the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.

"But that was only one side of the matter. The policy of Bolshevism in the national sphere had also another side, apparently contradictory to the first but in reality supplementing it. Within the framework of the party, and of the workers' organisations in general, Bolshevism insisted upon a rigid centralism, implacably warring against every taint of nationalism which might set the workers one against the other or disunite them. While flatly refusing to the bourgeois states the right to impose compulsory citizenship, or even a state language, upon a national minority, Bolshevism at the same time made it a verily sacred task to unite as closely as possible, by means of voluntary class discipline, the workers of different nationalities. thus it flatly rejected the national-federation principle in building the party. A revolutionary organisation is not the prototype of the future state, but merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. Thus a centralised organisation can guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle—even when the task is to destroy the centralised oppression of nationalities." (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 890-1.)

What is a nation?

In the period before the First World War Lenin devoted a great deal of time to the national question, and in particular to answering the revisionist theories of Otto Bauer. In the period 1908-10, Lenin was in exile and almost entirely isolated. Given the lack of contact with Russia and the scarcity of collaborators, he greeted the arrival of Stalin, a young Georgian virtually unknown to him, with enthusiasm. As usual, Lenin spent a lot of time encouraging the newcomer, as he always did with young comrades. As an additional bonus, Stalin was a Georgian, that is a member of an oppressed nationality. Lenin seized the opportunity to lecture his pupil—who proved extremely diligent—on the fundamental lines of his policy on the national question. The result was a lengthy article which appeared at the end of 1912 in the pages of the magazine Prosveshcheniye ("Enlightenment") under the title The National Question and Marxism.

In 1914 the article appeared in the form of a pamphlet entitled The National Question and Marxism. It was published in volume two of Stalin's works. For years it was regarded as the standard Party work on the national question, and in fact, in spite of a somewhat formalistic presentation, it is not a bad article. This, however, was not a result of Stalin's theoretical genius. In fact, this article was not Stalin's work at all. As E.H. Carr points out: "External and internal evidence shows it to have been written under Lenin's inspiration." (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol., 1, pp. 425-6.) The ideas in this article are entirely those of Lenin.

The introduction to this article, written at the height of the anti-Semitic agitation around the notorious Beyliss case, warns of "the wave of nationalism swept onward with increasing force and threatening to engulf the working-class masses". And it adds: "These crucial times laid a high mission upon the Social-Democratic Party—to resist nationalism and to protect the masses from the general 'epidemic'. For the Social Democrats, and they alone could do this, by bringing against nationalism the tried weapon of internationalism, the unity and indivisibility of the class struggle." (J.V. Stalin, Marxism on the National and Colonial Question, p. 8.)

The central issue was how a nation could be defined. This question is not at all as easy as it might appear. It is rather like defining time. Saint Augustine said that he knew what time was, but if anyone asked him to define it, he was unable to do so. It is just the same with a nation. Everyone thinks they know what it is, but if asked to define it, they would soon find themselves in difficulties. The pamphlet published with Stalin's signature attempts to provide such a definition. The result is probably the nearest one can get to a satisfactory formulation. As against Bauer's subjective definition, a nation is here defined in the scientific Marxist sense: "A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture." (Ibid.)

Thus, a nation must have a common language and territory, a shared history and culture, and also be united by powerful economic ties. So much for the general definition, which is undoubtedly correct and in any case infinitely superior to the "psychological" approach of Otto Bauer and the supporters of "national-cultural autonomy". Nevertheless, as with all general definitions, this by no means exhausts the question. In real life one always finds concrete variants which may contradict the definition in one or more particulars. The question of what is a nation is notoriously slippery and has led more than one analysis to grief.

Take language, for instance. The importance of language for a nation is clear. It seems to be the most evident distinguishing mark of nationality. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky expresses the importance of language thus: "Language," Trotsky wrote, "is a most important instrument of human communication, and consequently of industry. It becomes national together with the triumph of commodity exchange which integrates nations. Upon this foundation the national state is erected as the most convenient, profitable and normal arena for the play of capitalist relations." (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 889.)

Yet there can be exceptions even to this most important rule. Few people, for example, would deny that the Swiss are a nation. The Swiss national identity has been forged during centuries of struggle to retain an individual national identity, mainly against Austria. Yet the Swiss do not have a common language, as Lenin himself points out:

"In Switzerland there are three state languages, but laws that are submitted to a referendum are printed in five languages, that is to say, in two 'Romance' dialects in addition to the three state languages. According to the 1900 census, these two dialects are spoken by 38,651 out of the 3,315,443 inhabitants of Switzerland, i.e., by a little over one per cent. In the army, officers and non-commissioned officers 'are allowed the widest freedom to speak to their men in their native language'. In the cantons of Graubünden and Wallis (each with a population of a little over a hundred thousand) both dialects enjoy complete equality." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

The key to the understanding of the question lies in the initial proposition that a nation is a "historically evolved" entity. Dialectics does not proceed from abstract formal definitions but from a concrete appraisal of living processes, of things as they develop, change and evolve. A nation is not something fixed and static. It can and does change and evolve. Nations can be created where none existed before. This is precisely how the modern nation states came into being. This was the case in France, Italy and Germany. Later, the Indian national consciousness was created—inadvertently, of course—by British imperialism. Now, with the decay of capitalism and the inability of the Indian bourgeoisie to offer a way out, there are clear signs of the weakening and fragmentation of this national consciousness which poses immense dangers for the future of India.

Historically, nations can be formed out of the available raw material under conditions of wars, invasions and revolutions which dissolve old connections and frontiers and create new ones. This historical re-shuffling can turn things into their opposite. What was yesterday an oppressed nation or an enslaved colony can become transformed into the most monstrously oppressive and imperialist state. The best example is the USA itself, which was originally a colony of Britain and is now the mightiest and most reactionary imperialist state in the world. Similarly, bourgeois states that have only recently freed themselves from foreign domination and remain in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the big imperialist powers on a world scale nevertheless play the role of local imperialist powers, oppressing and exploiting weaker countries near to them. Thus, India plays an imperialist role in relation to Nepal, Assam and Kashmir. Tsarist Russia was one of the main imperialist powers before 1917, although it did not export capital and was a backward, semi-feudal country that stood in a semi-colonial relation to Britain, France and the other developed capitalist countries.

A class question

The national question, like all other social questions, is at bottom a class issue. This was Lenin's standpoint—and the standpoint of any genuine Marxist. In his work Critical Remarks on the National Question, Lenin explains this elementary proposition of Marxism with admirable clarity:

"Every national culture contains elements, even if not developed, of democratic and socialist culture, for in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose living conditions inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also has a bourgeois culture (and most nations also have a Black Hundred and clerical culture, too) that takes the form, not merely of "elements", but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general 'national culture' is the culture of the landed proprietors, the clergy and the bourgeoisie." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

It is ABC for a Marxist that the ruling ideas of every nation are the ideas of the ruling class. Lenin insists that the acceptance of a "national culture" is neither more nor less than the acceptance of the domination of the bourgeoisie of every nation. The national question is a class question. Marxists must not gloss over the class contradictions, but on the contrary, bring them to the fore. This is no less obligatory in the case of an oppressed nationality as in that of an oppressor nation. As Lenin explains in Critical Remarks on the National Question "On the boards of the joint-stock companies capitalists of different nations sit together, completely amalgamated with each other. In factories workers of different nations work side by side. On all really serious and profound political issues sides are taken according to classes and not according to nations." (Ibid.)

In another work he writes: "The interests of the working class and of its struggle against capitalism demand complete solidarity and the closest unity of the workers of all nations; they demand resistance to the nationalist policy of the bourgeoisie of every nationality."

And again: "It makes no difference to the hired hand whether he is exploited chiefly by the Great Russian bourgeoisie, or by the Polish bourgeoisie rather than the Jewish bourgeoisie, etc. The hired worker who has come to understand his class interests is equally indifferent to the state privileges of the Great Russian capitalists and to the promises of the Polish or Ukrainian capitalists to set up an earthly paradise when they obtain state privileges…

"In any case the hired worker will be an object of exploitation. Any successful struggle against exploitation requires that the proletariat be free of nationalism, and be absolutely neutral, so to speak, in the fight for supremacy that is going on among the bourgeoisie of the various nations. If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of 'its' national bourgeoisie, this will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of the other nations; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie. And repudiation of the right of self-determination, or secession, inevitably means, in practice, support of the dominant nation." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20.)

At all times the main element in Lenin's argument was the need to unite the workers and the oppressed masses against the bourgeoisie. Lenin points out that: "The national culture of the bourgeoisie is a fact (and, I repeat, the bourgeoisie everywhere enters into deals with the landed proprietors and the clergy). Bellicose bourgeois nationalism, which stultifies, fools and disunites the workers in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter—such is the fundamental fact of the present day.

"Whoever wants to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations and fight bourgeois nationalism, 'home' and foreign, unswervingly." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

On this question Lenin was always implacable. Similar quotes could be reproduced from dozens of his articles and speeches.

Class independence

National demands have a democratic, not a socialist, character. National oppression does not only affect the working class, although the workers suffer most from it, as from all other kinds of oppression. The national question affects the whole people the whole of the masses and particularly the petty bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, as we have shown, Lenin always approached this from a class point of view, and we approach it in exactly the same way.

What strikes one forcibly when reading Lenin's writings is how profoundly and clearly the national question is expressed by Lenin. Of course, this question had a long history in the Russian workers' movement, starting with the debates with the Jewish Bund at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903. How did Lenin deal with the national question? In effect, he held a negative position on this question. The Russian Bolsheviks, he explained a hundred times, were against all forms of national oppression. It is not a question of what you are for but what you are against. It is sufficient that we say what we are opposed to. We are opposed to all forms of national, linguistic and racial oppression and we will fight against all forms of national oppression. And that is quite sufficient for a proletarian tendency which wishes to stand for a policy of consistent democracy, while maintaining its class independence.

What Lenin never said is that Marxists must support the national bourgeoisie or the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the fundamental premise of Lenin's position on the national question was of absolute class independence. The first principle of Leninism was always the need to fight against the bourgeoisie—the bourgeoisie of both the oppressor and of the oppressed nations. In all of Lenin's writings on the national question there is an implacable criticism not just of the nationalist bourgeoisie, but that of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie also. This is no accident. The whole idea of Lenin was that the working class must put itself at the head of the nation in order to lead the masses to the revolutionary transformation of society. Thus in Critical Remarks on the National Question he writes:

"The awakening of the masses from feudal slumber, their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people and the sovereignty of nations is progressive. Hence, it is the bounded duty of a Marxist to uphold the most resolute and consistent democracy on all points of the national question. The task is mainly a negative one. But the proletariat cannot go beyond this in supporting nationalism, for beyond it begins the 'positive' activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism." (Our emphasis.)

A little later he adds, for the sake of greater emphasis: "Fight against all national oppression—yes, certainly. Fight for any kind of national development, for 'national culture' in general—certainly not." (Ibid.)

Again, in The Right of Nations to Self-determination, Lenin wrote: "That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving any guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20.)

In another work Lenin writes of the harmful influence of nationalism in the workers' movement: "The conclusion is that all liberal-bourgeois nationalism causes the greatest corruption among the workers and does immense harm to the cause of freedom and the proletarian class struggle. It is all the more dangerous because the bourgeois (and bourgeois-serf-owning) tendency is hidden by the 'national culture' slogan. In the name of national culture—Great Russian, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and others—the Black Hundreds reactionaries and clericals, and also the bourgeoisie of all nations, do their dirty work.

"Such are the facts of present-day national life, if it is examined from the standpoint of the class struggle, and if the slogans are tested according to the interests and policies of classes and not from the viewpoint of vapid 'general principles', declamations and phrases." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

Is this not clear? The workers are duty bound to oppose all forms of national discrimination and oppression. But they are also duty bound to refuse to support nationalism in any shape or form. What a contrast with those self-styled Marxists who lose no opportunity to act as flag wavers for the IRA, ETA, or the KLA, in the mistaken belief that they are pursuing a Leninist policy! To blur the line of division between Marxism and nationalism is a violation of everything Lenin ever stood for.

In order to combat the pernicious illusions peddled by the nationalists, Lenin warned that: "The proletariat cannot support any consolidation of nationalism, on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers, supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer or leads to the amalgamation of nations. To act differently means taking the side of reactionary nationalist philistinism." (Ibid.)

This is the real position of Leninism in relation to nationalism. How different from the vulgar distortion that seeks to reduce everything to one "simple" slogan "for self-determination"! That is precisely to fall into reactionary nationalist philistinism and abandon the Marxist—that is to say, the proletarian—standpoint. Far from glorifying nationalism and the creation of new barriers through separatism, Lenin, like Marx, had a very poor opinion of "small nation narrow-mindedness". Both were always in favour of the largest possible states—all other considerations being equal. He stood for the abolition of frontiers, not the erection of new ones. He stood for the mingling of populations and even assimilation (as long as it was voluntary) and not at all the glorification of the language and culture of one nation as opposed to another. Let him speak for himself:

"The proletariat, however, not only does not undertake to uphold the national development of every nation, but, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, upholds the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation except forcible assimilation, or such that is built on privilege."

And again: "Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism—such are the two irreconcilably hostile slogans that correspond to the two great class camps throughout the capitalist world and express two policies (more than that—two world outlooks) in the national question." (Ibid., our emphasis.)

There is no doubt whatever about this. Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism are two utterly incompatible policies, reflecting the incompatible world outlook of two hostile classes. It is useless to twist and turn and try to disguise this obvious truth. Lenin stood firmly for proletarian internationalism and against nationalism in whatever form it masqueraded under. The fact that he opposed all forms of national oppression, and showed sympathy for oppressed peoples, should not be used to disguise this indisputable fact. Lenin was the enemy of nationalism.

Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg

Like Marx, Lenin had to wage a struggle on the national question on two fronts. It was necessary to fight against the influence of opportunist and revisionist ideas like those of Otto Bauer, which reflected the pressure of the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie on the proletarian vanguard. But at the same time it was necessary to fight against those who denied the importance of the national question. Lenin conducted a sharp polemic against Rosa Luxembourg for many years on this question, in order to get the Party to adopt the correct position. Later, during the First World War he had to wage a struggle against Bukharin and Pyatakov who also claimed that the national question was no longer relevant and opposed the demand for self-determination. Rosa Luxemburg, it goes without saying, was a great revolutionary and a committed internationalist, but unfortunately her internationalism had a rather abstract character. Thus, she denied the right of the Polish people to self-determination and described the idea of a Ukrainian nationality as the invention of intellectuals.

Although the Polish Social Democrats had the wrong position, an abstract position, they were genuine internationalists and were motivated by the need to combat the reactionary petty bourgeois nationalism of Pilsudski's so-called Polish Socialist Party. The PPS (Polska Partija Socialistyczna) was really not a socialist party at all but a petty-bourgeois nationalist party founded in 1892. It stood for separatism and consciously strove to split the Polish workers from the Russian workers. Like all mass petty-bourgeois nationalist movements, there was a right and left wing in the PPS. In 1906, the two wings split apart. Later, during the First World War, the Left moved away from nationalism and ended up fusing with the Polish Social Democrats in December 1918 to found the Polish Communist Workers' Party. However, the right wing remained on the basis of chauvinism. During the First World War they organised the Polish Legion which fought on the side of Austro-German imperialism.

Lenin himself was a Russian, that is, a member of the oppressor nation, the Great Russians. Rosa Luxembourg was a Pole (and also Jewish). Lenin understood the need for extreme sensitivity towards the peoples oppressed by Russian tsarism. He addressed himself to the Polish comrades approximately in the following terms: "Look, we understand your position. You are Polish Social Democrats. It is your first duty to struggle against the Polish nationalists. Of course, you must do this. But please do not tell us, the Russian comrades, that we must remove from our programme the slogan of the right of the Polish people to self-determination. Because, as Russian social democrats, our first duty is to fight against our own bourgeoisie, the Russian bourgeoisie and tsarism. For only in this way can we Russian Social Democrats, prove to the Poles that we have no desire to oppress them, and thus lay the basis for the unity of both peoples in the revolutionary struggle."

In a brilliant, dialectical way, Lenin's position of the right of nations to self-determination was not meant to divide Russian and Polish workers, peoples, but on the contrary to bring them together.

Unity of workers' organisations

Why did Lenin support the right of nations to self-determination? He did so exclusively from the point of view of furthering the class struggle, of uniting the working class. For the Bolsheviks, the national question represented not only a problem and an obstacle but also a revolutionary potential. Without a correct position on the national question, the October Revolution would never have taken place. But an integral part of Lenin's policy on the national question was his insistence, from 1903 onwards, on the need to maintain the sacred unity of the working class and its organisations above all distinctions of nationality, language, race or religion. Thus, he implacably opposed the attempts of the Jewish Bund to organise the Jewish workers separately and apart from the Russian workers. On this point he was most emphatic:

"In contrast to the nationalist bickering of the different bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc.," he wrote, "workers' democracy puts forward the demand: absolute unity and complete amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in all workers' organisations, trade union, co-operative, consumers', educational and every other, to counter-balance bourgeois nationalism of all kinds. Only such unity can safeguard democracy, safeguard the interests of the workers against capital—which has already become and is growing more and more international—safeguard the interests of mankind's development towards a new way of life to which all privileges and all exploitation will be alien." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

As Trotsky correctly points out, the right of self-determination was only half of Lenin's position on the national question. The other side of the coin was an implacable opposition to any division of the workers movement along national lines. We must clearly distinguish between these two elements. The right of self-determination is a democratic demand—or, more correctly, a bourgeois democratic demand. That half of the programme pertains to the nation as a whole. But as far as the proletariat is concerned, there was absolutely no question of dividing workers' organisations on national lines. Although Lenin was perfectly clear and ambiguous about this, today every single one of the miserable sects, calling themselves "Trotskyists" have not only supported, but actually advocated and carried out the criminal policy of splitting the workers' organisations on national lines, one way or another.

It is an absolute monstrosity that has nothing in common with Leninism to divide the trade unions on racial or national lines. Yet the sects in Britain, have actively participating in the setting up of black sections in the unions and Labour Party. In Scotland, they supported setting up a separate Scottish union for the oil workers, which is a crude violation of the most elementary principles of Marxism. Similar examples can be cited in every other country. Let us be clear: the establishment of separate organisations for different national and racial groups is a criminal act that can only result in splintering and weakening the workers' movement. It is one thing to combat racism and chauvinism in the majority nationality. It is quite another thing to split the working class on national, linguistic, religious or racial lines.

This was never the position of the Bolshevik Party, or the RSDLP before it. Not one of the tendencies of the Russian Social Democracy (if we exclude the leaders of the Jewish Bund) agreed with splitting the movement on national lines. The Mensheviks had the same position on this question as the Bolsheviks. The question was thoroughly debated from the earliest period, when the demand was raised of giving the Jewish Social Democrats a separate organisation within the RSDLP. The Bund (the Jewish Social Democratic organisation) which was very strong in the West of Russia and Lithuania, where there was a large Jewish population, demanded that it alone should have the right to speak in the name of Jewish workers and should also have the right to set up a separate Jewish Social Democratic organisation. This demand was resolutely rejected by Lenin and the Russian Marxists who insisted that there must be one party of the workers and one trade union. This remains our position today. The most important weapon in the hands of the working class is unity. This must be upheld at all costs. We are radically opposed to the division of the working class on lines of nationality, race, language, religion or anything else. In other words we take a class position.

The Jewish question

With tedious frequency, those who are in favour of splitting the workers' movement on lines of nationality, race or sex attempt to justify their position by resorting to blatant demagogy or tearful sentimentality, appealing to the plight of the oppressed and the monstrous injustices they suffer, as "proof" of the "impossibility" of uniting in common organisations Blacks and Whites, men and women, Protestants and Catholics, and so on and so forth. This spurious argument is refuted by the history of Bolshevism itself, as shown by Lenin's attitude to the Jewish Bund. The Jews in Russia were monstrously oppressed by systematic discrimination, forced to live apart in the Pale of Settlement, and subject to periodic bloody pogroms. Only a limited percentage of Jews was accepted into state service, and the middle and higher schools belonging to the state. By 1917 the number of laws restricting the rights of Jews was 650. Here was an example of national oppression in its crudest and most brutal form.

Lenin always explained that it was the workers' duty to fight against their own bourgeoisie. That means all workers—even the most oppressed. For this reason the Russian Social Democrats always rejected the demands of the Bund. The fact that the Jews suffered from the most terrible oppression was no argument. The Bund put forward the slogan of national-cultural autonomy, filched from the programme of Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists. But this slogan made even less sense in the case of the Russian Jews than in Austro-Hungary. With their scattered population, the predominantly city-dwelling Jews could not point to a clearly-defined territory—one of the first conditions for a nation. The idea of national-cultural autonomy was to unite the scattered Jewish population around schools and other exclusively Jewish institutions. This demand, which Trotsky characterised as a reactionary Utopia, would have had the effect of deepening the alienation of the Jews from the rest of the population and increasing racial tension and frictions.

The Jews did not possess either a common territory or a common language. Although many Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, many did not. In the advanced capitalist countries the Jews spoke the language of the country where they lived. Indeed, the Sephardic Jews who originated in Spain retained Spanish as their native tongue for centuries After they had been expelled from Spain and were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean. Wherever the Jews had the chance to do so, they were assimilated into the population of the country where they resided. But the fanaticism and obscurantism of the medieval Catholic Church prevented this. The Jews were forcibly excluded and alienated from society. Forbidden from holding land, they were compelled to resort to other livelihoods on the margins of feudal society, including trade and money-lending. The enforced alienation of the Jews was even more blatant in backward tsarist Russia.

Even Lenin found it difficult to classify the Jews. The nearest he could come to a definition was a special oppressed caste, as the following passage shows: "The same applies," he wrote, "to the most oppressed and persecuted nation, the Jews. Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie, a slogan of our enemies. But there are other elements in Jewish culture and throughout the history of the Jews. Of the ten and a half million Jews throughout the world, a little over half live in Galicia and Russia, backward and semi-barbarous countries, which forcibly keep the Jews in the position of a caste. The other half live in the civilised world, and there the Jews are not segregated as a caste. There, the great world-progressive features of Jewish culture have clearly made themselves felt: its internationalism, its responsiveness to the advanced movements of the epoch (the percentage of Jews in the democratic and proletarian movement is everywhere higher than the percentage of Jews in the population as a whole)." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)

Although the Jews lacked the attributes of a nation, and Lenin did not consider them as such, nevertheless after the October revolution, the Bolsheviks offered self-determination to the Jews, granting them a homeland to which they could emigrate if they so wished (Biribaidjan) although few chose to do so. This was infinitely preferable to the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine, on land that had been occupied by Arabs for over a thousand years, thus causing endless bloodshed and wars in the Middle East. The establishment of the state of Israel was a reactionary act which was opposed by the Marxist at the time. Trotsky warned in advance that it would be a cruel trap for the Jewish people. And the history of the past half century has shown this to be true. Nevertheless, Israel now exists as a state, and the clock of history cannot be turned back. Israel is a nation and we cannot call for its abolition. The solution of the Palestinian national problem (which we deal with later) can only be achieved through the establishment of a socialist federation of the Middle east in which Arabs and Israelis can co-exist with their own autonomous homelands and full respect for all national rights.

The supporters of Zionism in Russia were always a tiny minority. A considerable number of the cadres of the revolutionary movement in Russia were of Jewish origin, because the most advanced Jewish intellectuals and workers understood that their future depended on a revolutionary reconstruction of society. This was shown to be correct. In Russia after the October Revolution, the Jewish people achieved full civil emancipation and complete equality. They were satisfied with this and for this reason very few took up the offer of a homeland within the borders of the Soviet state.


The demand for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination is central to Lenin's position on the national question. This is generally known. But as Hegel once observed, what is known is not necessarily understood. Lenin wrote extensively on the national question, and his writings set forth the basic Marxist position on this subject which he develops in a very rich, all-sided and dialectical manner. Yet even the slightest glance at the literature of groups that today lay claim to the heritage of Lenin is enough to convince one that nobody reads Lenin any more, and if they do read his articles, they do not understand a single word. In particular, the demand for the right of self-determination—without doubt one of the important elements in Lenin's thinking on the national question—has been wrenched from its proper context and presented in a mechanical and one-sided way, as if it were the only thing that Lenin was concerned with.

That Lenin defended the right of nations to self-determination is an ABC proposition for a Marxist. But after ABC there are more letters in the alphabet, and a schoolchild who constantly repeated "ABC" would not be thought to be particularly intelligent. Dialectics, as Lenin explained many times, deals with phenomena in an all-sided way. To abstract a single element in a complex equation, and to counterpose it to all the other elements, is a childish misuse of dialectics, known to the history of philosophy as sophism. Such abuses lead to errors of the crassest type in logic. In politics, and particularly the politics of the national question, they lead directly to the defence of reactionary nationalism and the abandonment of socialism. The national question is a minefield, the crossing of which demands a reliable compass. The moment you depart just one centimetre from a class position, you are lost. Thus, many of those who today try to cite Lenin's defence of the right to self-determination fall into the trap of capitulating to the insistent pressure of petty bourgeois nationalism which is just the opposite of Lenin's position. Let him speak for himself:

"We are not in favour of preserving small nations at all costs;" he wrote, "other conditions being equal, we positively favour centralisation and oppose the philistine ideal of federal relationships." (LCW, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination, January-February 1916, vol. 22.) Lenin did not in every case support the right of small nations to self-determination. As he carefully explains, other things being equal, we always support larger national units against smaller, and centralisation, on a democratic basis, against decentralisation. But all other conditions are not necessarily equal. The fact of national oppression of one nation by another obliges the proletariat and its organisations to fight against national oppression and defend the right of nations to self-determination.

The right of nations to self-determination is a democratic demand and Marxists support it, as we support any other democratic demand. But the support for democratic demands in general has never been considered by Marxists as some kind of Categorical Imperative. Such demands are always subordinate to the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism, as Lenin clearly explains: "In practice, the proletariat can retain its political independence only by subordinating its struggle for all democratic demands, not excluding the demand for a republic, to its revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie." (Ibid.)

This is nothing particularly new or startling. It is in line with the general Marxist position on democratic demands. For example, the right to divorce is a democratic demand, which we also support. What does this right consist of? It means that a man and a woman can live together as long as they get on and both are happy. But if the relation between two people breaks down, then they have the right to separate. Nobody can force them to live together. Or let us consider the right to abortion. What does that consist of? A woman has a right to decide whether she has a child or not, for it is clear that a woman has the right to dispose of her body as she sees fit. We defend these democratic rights, but do we say that divorce or abortion is a good thing in itself? Do we say that everyone must have an abortion, or that every married couple must have a divorce? That would be absurd. Divorce and abortion are not good things, but under certain circumstances may be a lesser evil. What we defend is neither divorce nor abortion, but only the right to divorce and abortion. It is the same with the right to self-determination. There is a huge difference between supporting the right to self-determination and supporting self-determination as such. It is the difference between a Marxist policy and petty bourgeois nationalism. Lenin was very clear on this point: "'In order not to infringe on our right to self-determination', therefore, we are duty bound not to 'vote for separation', as the wily Mr. Semkovsky assumes, but to vote for the right of the separating region to decide that question itself." (LCW, The National Programme of the RSDLP, 15 December 1913, vol. 19.)

This is the crux of the matter. For Lenin, the right to self-determination did not mean that workers were "duty bound to vote for separation", but exclusively to oppose all forms of national oppression and to oppose the forcible retention of any nation within the boundaries of another state—that is, to let the people decide freely on the matter. That is an elementary democratic right, which the Bolsheviks defended. But even then, the right was never considered as something absolute, but was always subordinate to the interests of the class struggle and the world revolution. Lenin's policy was not separation, but voluntary union. The slogan of the right of self-determination, far from implying support for separation, was an integral part of the struggle against separation. Lenin continues: "The recognition of the right to self-determination is, Mr. Semkovsky assures us, 'playing into the hands of the most thorough-paces bourgeois nationalism'. This is childish nonsense since the recognition of the right does not exclude either propaganda and agitation against separation or the exposure of bourgeois nationalism. But it is absolutely indisputable that the denial of the right to secede is playing into the hands of the most thorough-paced Great-Russian Black Hundred nationals!" (Ibid.)

Let us take a modern example. The French-speaking population of Quebec feel nationally oppressed by Canada. The Quebecois nationalists are pressing for separation. A Marxist would say to the Quebecois: yes, you have the right to self-determination. We will defend that right. But we consider that separation will be to the detriment of the Quebecois and all the people of Canada. If there is a referendum we will certainly agitate and vote against separation. We stand for a socialist Quebec in a socialist Canada with full respect for national right as the only solution to our problems. This was approximately Lenin's position on the national question.

Lenin by no means regarded the right of self-determinations as a panacea, universally applicable under all circumstances. This idiocy was later taken up by groups who pay lip service to Marxism and Leninism without possessing the slightest notion of what this is. Lenin did not regard the right of self-determination as an absolute right, outside time and space, but only as part of the struggle of the proletariat for power, and strictly subordinate to that struggle. In Stalin's article The National Question and Marxism, which was virtually dictated by Lenin, and which without any doubt expresses his views on the question, this idea is clearly expressed:

"A nation has the right to arrange its life on autonomous lines. It even has the right to secede. But this does not mean that it should do so under all circumstances, that autonomy, or separation, will everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation, i.e., for the majority of the population, i.e., for the toiling strata." (Stalin, op. cit., p. 20.) And it continues:

"But what solution would be the most compatible with the interests of the toiling masses? Autonomy, federation or separation?

"All these are problems the solution to which will depend on the concrete historical conditions in which the given nation finds itself.

"Nay, more. Conditions, like everything else, change, and a decision which is correct at one particular time may prove to be entirely unsuitable at another." (Ibid., pp. 20-21, our emphasis.)

This is absolutely correct. The position which Marxists will take in relation to the demand for the right of self-determination cannot be established in advance. It depends on the concrete circumstances of each case and its implications for the cause of the proletariat and the world socialist revolution. That was always Lenin's position. Thus, in The Right of Nations to Self-determination, he writes: "There can be no question of the Marxists of any country drawing up their national programme without taking into account all these general historical and concrete state conditions." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20, p. 401.)

Arguing against the Polish Social Democrats who had an ultra-left position on the national question and denied the right of self-determination in principle, Lenin explains, amongst other things, that it is not the duty of social democracy to support each and every struggle for self-determination. Lenin says the following: "From the stand-point of general theory this argument is abominable, because it is obviously illogical, firstly there is not and cannot be any single democratic demand that does not give rise to abuses unless the specific is subordinated to the general. We are not obliged to support either any struggle for independence or any republican or anti-clerical movement." (LCW, The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, vol. 22, p. 349, our emphasis.)

There is one case where Lenin makes it clear that you do not support the right of nations to self-determination: when it means that it would drag the workers into a war. He regarded the demand to support self-determination (even if it was justified in and of itself), if it meant dragging the big powers into a war as a monstrous suggestion. Whether the Bolsheviks supported the national struggle in a given case depended upon the concrete circumstances, and in every case Lenin approached the question, not from the standpoint of narrow nationalism, from the standpoint of the world revolution. In July 1916 Lenin warned the Poles not to launch a struggle for national independence. He explained that the fate of the struggle of the Polish people was inseparably linked to the perspective of the revolution in Russia and Germany: "To raise the question of Poland's independence today," he wrote, "under the existing relations of the neighbouring imperialist powers, it is really to chase after a utopia, to descend to narrow-minded nationalism and forget that a necessary premise is an all-European or at least the Russian and German revolutions." (LCW, The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, vol. 22, p. 350, our emphasis.)

In the given situation, he recommended to the Poles that they subordinate their struggle for self-determination to the perspective of revolution in Russia and Germany. In the event, Lenin was shown to be correct. It was only the Russian revolution that created the conditions for the establishment of an independent Polish state, whereas every other attempt had ended in disaster. This is what Lenin meant when he warned against "chasing after utopias" and "descending into narrow-minded nationalism". What good advice Lenin gave the Polish people! And what a monstrous caricature of Lenin's position was it to advocate the break-up of Yugoslavia on the spurious grounds of self-determination! That was precisely to chase after utopias (and reactionary ones, at that) and to descend into narrow-minded nationalism of the worst kind.

Lenin and 'practicality'

One of the tricks frequently used by those petty bourgeois critics of Marxism who have capitulated to nationalism is to accuse the Marxists of utopianism. "Your talk of uniting the workers is utopianism"; "The idea of a socialist federation is not practical"; "We must do something now!" and so on and so forth. How did Lenin answer this line of argument, which was well known to him?

"What does the demand for 'practicality' in the national question imply?" asked Lenin, and he replied:

"Either support for all national aspirations or the answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question of secession in the case of every nation, or that national demands are in general immediately 'practicable'."

And he continues: "Let us examine all three possible meanings of the demand for 'practicability'.

"The bourgeoisie, which naturally comes out as the hegemon (leader) at the start of every national movement, says that the support of all national aspirations is practical. But the policy of the proletariat in the national question (as in other questions) supports the bourgeoisie only in a definite direction; it never coincides with the policy of the bourgeoisie. The working class supports the bourgeoisie only in order to secure national peace (which the bourgeoisie cannot bring about completely and which can be achieved only with complete democracy), in order to secure equal rights and to create the best conditions for the class struggle. Therefore, it is against the practicality of the bourgeoisie that the proletarians advance their principles in the national question. They always give the bourgeoisie only conditional support. In national affairs the bourgeoisie always strives either for privileges for its own nation or exceptional advantages for it; and this is called being 'practical'. The proletariat is opposed to all privileges, to all exceptionalism. To demand that it should be 'practical' is to trail in the wake of the bourgeoisie, to fall into opportunism." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20, p. 409-10.)

When Lenin wrote these lines in 1914, he still had the perspective of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks were fighting as the extreme left wing of the bourgeois democratic camp. Their aim was to mobilise the masses under the leadership of the proletariat, not for the transfer of power to the working class (Lenin only reached this conclusion in 1917) but to carry out the most radical type of bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia and thus create the most favourable conditions for the development of capitalism and the class struggle. Of course, Lenin's perspective did not end there. He envisaged that a victorious bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia would provide a mighty impetus to the socialist revolution in western Europe, and that this, in turn, would enable the Russian workers—together with the workers of Europe—to turn the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one. But the immediate tasks of the revolution were bourgeois-democratic, and central to this was the agrarian revolution and the national question.

Even when Lenin still had the perspective of the bourgeois-democratic revolution he insisted on the need for the complete independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. In the national question the workers must be independent of the nationalist bourgeoisie. They must fight against national oppression, but they must fight under their own banner, with their own policies and methods. Insofar as the national bourgeoisie took a step forward in the fight against the oppressor nation, the working class was bound to support them, of course. But, in the first place, this support was highly conditional, and by no means supposed that the workers were bound to support the national bourgeoisie in all cases. Lenin warned of the treachery of the national bourgeoisie, its selfish greed and reactionary tendencies, and urged the workers not to subordinate themselves to its nationalist demagogy for "unity".

The argument of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists against the Marxist position on the national question is always the same: "This talk of socialism and the class struggle is utopian. We are suffering national oppression right now, and must take practical measures to solve our problems." Lenin answered this demagogy in advance:

"The demand for an answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question of secession in the case of every nation seems to be a very 'practical' one. In reality it is absurd; it is metaphysical in theory, and in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the interests of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront. It advances them categorically. For the proletariat, however, theses demands are subordinate to the interests of the class struggle." (Ibid., our emphasis.)

Again: "The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations will call upon the proletariat to support its aspirations unconditionally on the plea that its demands are 'practical'. The most practical procedure is to say a plain 'yes' in favour of the secession of a particular nation rather than in favour of all nations to secede!

"The proletariat is opposed to such practicality. While recognising equality and equal rights to a national state, it values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations and assesses every national demand, every national separation, from the angle of the class struggle of the workers. This call for uncritical acceptance of bourgeois aspirations." (Ibid., our emphasis.)

From these lines it is absolutely clear that Lenin did not consider that the proletariat was duty bound to support each and every demand for self-determination; that he called on the workers to resist the attempts of the bourgeois (and, we might add, petty bourgeois) nationalists to force them to support nationalism by appealing to their natural sympathies with a nationally oppressed people; that the national question is always subordinate to the general interests of the proletariat and the class struggle; and that it is necessary to take up a stand on self-determination exclusively on the basis that it furthers the cause of the proletariat and the struggle for socialism in the given case. In any other case, the proletariat, far from being obliged to support it, must decisively reject it.

In any event, Lenin's position on the national question evolved with time, just as his general view of the nature of the Russian revolution changed. After the February revolution Lenin abandoned his earlier view that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois-democratic in character ("the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry") and went over to the position defended by Trotsky since 1904-5. Trotsky explained that, although objectively the tasks of the Russian revolution were bourgeois-democratic in character, the revolution could only be led by the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasants. The Russian bourgeoisie had come too late on the scene of history to play a progressive role. Under the circumstances, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried out by the working class once it had taken power into its hands. But this was not the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" but the dictatorship of the proletariat. This perspective was brilliantly confirmed in October 1917.

Even before this, as we have seen, Lenin at no time advocated support for the national bourgeoisie—or, at least, only envisaged the most limited and conditional support under certain conditions, while always stressing the need of the proletariat to maintain its independence from the machinations of the so-called progressive bourgeoisie. But after 1917 he understood that the so-called national bourgeoisie in backward semi-colonial countries like tsarist Russia was completely incapable of playing any progressive role. At the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin demonstratively altered his attitude to the national bourgeoisie. From this point on he considered that the national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries was incapable of playing a progressive role. All of subsequent history has proved him correct on this question.

[Back to Index] [Part Four: The national question after October]

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