Part Four: The national question after October
"The various demands of democracy, including self-determination," wrote Lenin, "are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general democratic (now general-socialist) world movement, In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely the instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchical intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement. But it would be ridiculous to delete the demand for a republic from the programme of International Social-Democracy on these grounds." (LCW, The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, July 1916, vol. 22.)
This words show that the right-of self-determination is only a relative right. Whether the working class should support the demand for the right of self-determination depends on the specific circumstances in every separate case. It is a concrete question. It is not possible to take a general position, valid for all cases. Lenin certainly never took such a position. It is necessary to examine each concrete case and distinguish very carefully between what is reactionary and what is progressive. Otherwise you end up in a mess. And Lenin's position was shown to be correct in practice in 1917. The national question was solved in Russia, not by the bourgeoisie, but by the socialist revolution. That is a fact which all the slanderers of Bolshevism refuse to recognise. It is of fundamental importance from the standpoint of all those who really wish to understand the Marxist position on the national question.
As Lenin had predicted, the Poles only got independence as a result of revolution in Russia. The October revolution created the conditions for the breakaway of Poland. The PPS right wing was propelled to the head of the government, where they hastened to hand over power to the Polish bourgeoisie. The latter, egged on by Britain and France, declared war against Russia in 1920. The Bolsheviks not only defended themselves against the reactionary Polish bourgeoisie, but carried the war into Poland. Was this a denial of the right to Polish self-determination? Lenin answered the question in advance in his article The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, written in July 1916:
"If the concrete situation which confronted Marx in the period when tsarist influence was dominant in international politics were to repeat itself, for instance, in such form that a number of nations started a socialist revolution (as a bourgeois-democratic revolution was started in 1848), while other nations served as the chief bulwark of bourgeois reaction—then we too would have to be in favour of a revolutionary war against the latter, of 'crushing' them, in favour of destroying all their outposts, no matter what small-national movements arose in them." (LCW, The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up, vol. 22.)
These lines adequately convey Lenin's real attitude to self-determination. The national question (including self-determination) is always subordinate to the general interests of the proletariat and world revolution. The proletariat must support the national liberation struggles of oppressed nations, to the degree that the latter are directed against imperialism and tsarism. In this sense the national movement can be an ally of the proletariat, like the peasantry. But when such national movements are directed against the revolution, when small nations are used as the pawns of imperialism and reaction (as frequently occurs in history), then the attitude of the workers' movement must be one of outright hostility, even to the point of waging war against such movements. That is perfectly clear from Lenin's words.
The Bolshevik programme on the national question was intended as a means of uniting the workers and peasants of all the nationalities of tsarist Russia for the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism. Once the Russian workers took power, they offered the right of self-determination to the oppressed nationalities, but in the big majority of cases the people decided to stay together and to participate voluntarily in the Soviet Federation. It is true that Poland, and Finland split away, and both set up reactionary dictatorships, hostile to the Soviet power. The Ukraine fell under German control. The Bolsheviks did not intervene against Finland and Poland, not because of the right to self-determination, but because they were too weak to do so. Later they did in fact intervene in Poland, the Ukraine and Georgia.
After the October revolution, on more than one occasion the Bolshevik government was obliged to wage war on reactionary nationalist movements, for example the Armenian Dashnaks and the Ukrainian Rada, which was merely a cover for foreign imperialist intervention against the Soviet Republic. In 1920, Lenin was in favour of a revolutionary war against Poland. Trotsky was opposed to this war, not on principle, and certainly not on the grounds of Polish self-determination (the reactionary Pilsudski regime in Poland was merely acting as the stooge of French and British imperialism which encouraged it in its aggressive stance towards Soviet Russia), but only for practical reasons.
When the Finnish nationalist bourgeoisie, for its own reactionary reasons, broke away from Russia after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks made no attempt to intervene. But this was a reflection of the weakness of the Soviet state at the time. The workers' government was fighting a life-and-death struggle on many fronts. Trotsky had to improvise the Red Army from nothing. Inside Finland a bloody civil war broke out between the bourgeois nationalist White Guards and the workers. If the Bolsheviks had had the Red Army, they would certainly have intervened to support the Finnish workers against the counter revolutionary Finnish nationalist bourgeoisie. As it happens, intervention was materially impossible at the time, but this had absolutely nothing to do with the "right of self-determination" which, as Lenin explained time and again, was only a part—a relatively small part—of the general strategy of the world proletarian revolution. The former was always subordinate to the latter, in the same way that the part is always subordinate to the whole.
In 1922 in his book Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention (sometimes referred to as Between Red and White), Leon Trotsky wrote the following: "The economic development of present-day society has a strongly centralist character. Capitalism has laid down the preliminary foundations for a well-regulated economy on a world scale. Imperialism is only the predatory capitalist expression of this desire to have the leading role in the management of the world's economy. All the powerful imperialist countries find that they have not enough scope within the narrow limits of national economy, and they are all seeking for wider markets. Their aim is the monopoly of the world's economy…
"The fundamental task of our epoch consists in the establishment of close relationships between the economic systems of the various parts of the world, and in the building up in the interests of the whole of humanity, of co-ordinated world production, based on the most economic use of all forces and resources. This is precisely the task of socialism. It is self-evident that the principle of self-determination does not in any case supersede the unifying tendencies of socialist economic construction. In this respect, self-determination occupies, in the process of historic development, the subordinate position allotted to democracy in general. Socialist centralism, however cannot replace imperialist centralism, without a transition and oppressed nationalities must be given the opportunity to stretch out their limbs which have become stiff under the chains of capitalist coercion.
"The task and the methods of the proletarian revolution do not any means consist in the mechanical elimination of national characteristics or in the introduction of forcible amalgamation. Interference with the language, the education, the literature and the culture of various nationalities is certainly alien to the proletarian revolution. That is concerned with other things than the professional interests of the intellectuals and the 'national' interests of the working class. The victorious social revolution will give full freedom to all the national groups to settle for themselves all the questions of national culture, while bringing under one head (for the common good and with the consent of the workers) the economic tasks, which require handling in a manner well-considered and commensurate with natural, historical and technical conditions not by any means with national groupings. The Soviet Federation represents the most adaptable and flexible state form for the co-ordination of national and economic requirements.
"The politicians of the Second International, in unison with their mentors from the bourgeois diplomatic chancelleries, smile sardonically at our recognition of the rights of national self-determination, we take care to explain to the masses its limited historical significance, and we never put it above the interests of the proletarian revolution."
Lenin and Great Russian nationalism
Lenin knew and loved the national traditions, history, literature and culture of Russia. An internationalist to the core, he was nevertheless firmly grounded in Russian life and culture. Yet Lenin never made the slightest concessions to Great-Russian chauvinism, against which he waged a pitiless struggle all his life. The victory of the proletarian revolution, of course, did not mean the immediate disappearance of the age-old prejudices and habits of mind, or the liquidation of tradition, which, in the words of Marx, weighs on the human consciousness "like an Alp". One does not change the minds of men and women overnight merely by overthrowing the rule of the exploiters and nationalising the means of production. Society still bears the scars and deformations of the old order, not only on its back but also on its mind.
The establishment of real human relations between men and women, between formerly oppressed and oppressor nations can only change over a period, the length of which will be determined by the level of development of the productive forces, the length of the working day, and the cultural level of the masses. That is precisely the meaning of the transitional period between capitalism and socialism. In the case of Russia, where the revolution found itself isolated in conditions of the most frightful backwardness, the problems facing the Soviet power were immense. This has a direct bearing on the national question. On the eve of the First World War Lenin wrote:
"Even now, probably for a fairly long time, proletarian democracy must reckon with the nationalism of the Great-Russian peasants (not with the object of making concessions to it, but in order to combat it)." (LCW, The Right of Nations to Self-determination, February-May 1914, vol. 20, our emphasis.)
And he continues: "This state of affairs confronts the proletariat of Russia with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task; to combat all nationalism and, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognise not only equal rights for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards statehood, i.e., the right of nations to self-determination. And at the same time, it is their task to promote a successful struggle against nationalism of all nations, whatever its form, and preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle and of the proletarian organisations, amalgamating these organisations into a closely-knit international association despite bourgeois striving for national exclusiveness.
"Complete equality of rights for all nations, the right of nations to self-determination, the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world and the experience of Russia, teach the workers." (Ibid.)
Lenin always showed great sensitivity in his dealings with the nationalities of the Soviet state. The Bolsheviks met all their obligations to the oppressed nations of the former tsarist empire. In the beginning, the very name of Russia disappeared from all official documents. The Bolsheviks just referred to "The Workers' State". Later there was a move to set up a Union of Soviet Republics. While obviously in favour of a voluntary federation, which was formed immediately after the October Revolution, Lenin was anxious to avoid giving any impression to the non-Russian nationalities that the Bolsheviks merely wished to re-constitute the old tsarist empire under a new name. He urged caution and patience. However, Stalin, who was made Commissar for the Nationalities because he was a Georgian, had other ideas. It is a well-established fact that members of small nations who rise to leading positions in the government of an oppressive majority nation tend to become the worst great-power chauvinists. Thus, Napoleon Bonaparte, although a Corsican, became the most fanatical proponent of French centralism.
Stalin, the creature of the Bureaucracy, became an equally rabid Great-Russian chauvinist, despite the fact that he spoke Russian poorly and with a thick Georgian accent. In 1921, despite Lenin's objections, Stalin organised an invasion of Georgia, which was (theoretically) an independent state. Presented with a fait accompli, Lenin was obliged to accept the position. But he strongly advised caution and sensitivity when dealing with the Georgians, in order to avoid any hint of Russian bullying. At the time Georgia, a predominantly peasant and petty bourgeois country, was ruled by the Mensheviks. Lenin was in favour of a conciliatory policy, with a view to winning the confidence of the Georgians. He attached enormous importance to the maintenance of fraternal relations between the nationalities, and insisted on the voluntary character of any union or federation. Stalin, on the contrary, wished to push through at all costs the union of the Russian Socialist Federation (RSFSR) with the Transcaucasian Federation, the Ukrainian SSR and the Bielorussian SSR. When Stalin's draft proposal was submitted to the Central Committee, Lenin subjected it to a serious criticism and proposed an alternative solution which was different in principle from Stalin's draft. Lenin, typically, stressed the element of equality and the voluntary nature of the federation: "We recognise ourselves to be the equals of the Ukrainian SSR and others," he wrote, "and together with them and on equal terms with them enter a new union, a new federation…" (Lenin, Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p. 223.)
Meanwhile, behind the backs of the Party leadership, Stalin, aided by his henchman Ordzhonikidze (a Russified Georgian, like himself) and Dzerzhinski (a Pole) staged what amounted to a coup in Georgia. They purged the Georgian Mensheviks, against Lenin's specific advice, and when the Georgian Bolshevik leaders protested, they were ruthlessly pushed aside. Stalin and Ordzhonikidze trampled on all criticism. In other words, they carried out a policy that was precisely the opposite of what Lenin advocated for Georgia. They bullied the Georgian Bolsheviks and even went so far as to use physical violence, as when Ordzhonikidze struck one of the Georgian Bolsheviks—an unheard-of action. When Lenin, who was incapacitated by illness, finally found out he was horrified, and dictated a series of letters to his secretaries, denouncing Stalin's conduct in the harshest possible terms and demanding the severest punishment for Ordzhonikidze.
In a text dictated on December 24-5 1922, Lenin branded Stalin "a real and true national-socialist", and a vulgar "Great-Russian bully". (See Buranov, Lenin's Will, p. 46.) He wrote: "I also fear that Comrade Dzerzhinski, who went to the Caucasus to investigate the 'crime' of those 'nationalist-socialists', distinguished himself there by his truly Russian frame of mind (it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified overdo this Russian frame of mind) and that the impartiality of his whole commission was typified well enough by Ordzhonikidze's 'manhandling'." (LCW, The Question of Nationalities or 'autonomization', 13 December 1922, vol. 36, p. 606.)
Lenin placed the blame for this incident firmly at Stalin's door: "I think," he wrote, "that Stalin's haste and infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious 'nationalist-socialism' played a fatal role here. In politics, spite generally plays the basest of roles." (Ibid.)
Lenin linked Stalin's behaviour in Georgia directly to the problem of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state apparatus under conditions of frightful backwardness. He particularly condemned Stalin's haste in pushing through a Union of Soviet Republics, irrespective of the opinions of the peoples concerned, under the pretext of the need for a "united state apparatus". Lenin firmly rejected this argument, and explained it as the expression of the rotten Great-Russian chauvinism emanating from the Bureaucracy which, to a large degree, the Revolution had inherited from tsarism:
"It is said that a united state apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from the same Russian apparatus, which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?
"There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed until we could say, that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; the state apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and Tsarist hotchpotch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been "busy" most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.
"It is quite natural that in such circumstances the 'freedom to secede from the union' by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk." (Ibid., p. 605, our emphasis.)
After the Georgian affair, Lenin threw the whole weight of his authority behind the struggle to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary of the party which he occupied in 1922, after the death of Sverdlov. However, Lenin's main fear now more than ever was that an open split in the leadership, under prevailing conditions, might lead to the break-up of the party along class lines. He therefore attempted to keep the struggle confined to the leadership, and the notes and other material were not made public. Lenin wrote secretly to the Georgian Bolshevik-Leninists (sending copies to Trotsky and Kamenev) taking up their cause against Stalin "with all my heart". As he was unable to pursue the affair in person, he wrote to Trotsky requesting him to undertake the defence of the Georgians in the Central Committee.
The documentary evidence of Lenin's last fight against Stalin and the bureaucracy was suppressed for decades by Moscow. Lenin's last writings were hidden from the Communist Party rank-and-file in Russia and internationally. Lenin's last letter to the Party Congress, despite the protests of his widow, was not read out at the Party Congress and remained under lock and key until 1956 when Khruschev and Co. published it, along with a few other items including the letters on Georgia and the national question. Thus, Lenin's struggle to defend the real policies of Bolshevism and proletarian internationalism were consigned to oblivion.
'Socialism in one country'
Nationalism and Marxism are incompatible. But nationalism is the inseparable Siamese twin of Stalinism in all its varieties. At the heart of the ideology of Stalinism is the so-called theory of socialism in one country. This anti-Marxist notion could never have been countenanced by Marx or Lenin. As late as 1924, Stalin continued to support Lenin's internationalist position. In February of that year, in his Foundations of Leninism, Stalin summed up Lenin's views on the building of socialism thus:
"The overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a proletarian government in one country does not yet guarantee the complete victory of socialism. The main task of socialism—the organisation of socialist production—remains ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible. To overthrow the bourgeoisie the efforts of one country are sufficient—the history of our revolution bears this out. For the final victory of Socialism, for the organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary.
"Such, on the whole, are the characteristic features of the Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution."
That these were precisely the "characteristic features of the Leninist theory of proletarian revolution" was nowhere in dispute up to the first part of 1924. They had been repeated time and time again in hundreds of speeches, articles and documents by Lenin since 1905. Yet before the end of 1924, Stalin's book had been revised, and the exact opposite put in its place. By November 1926, Stalin could assert the exact opposite: "The party always took as its starting point the idea that the victory of socialism in that country, and that task can be accomplished with the forces of a single country."
These lines mark a complete break with Lenin's policy of proletarian internationalism. Stalin could never have expressed himself in this way while Lenin was still alive. Initially, the "theory" of socialism in one country reflected the mood of the rising caste of bureaucrats who had done well out of the October revolution and now wished to call a halt to the period of revolutionary storm and stress. It was the theoretical expression of a petty bourgeois reaction against October. Under the banner of Socialism in one Country, the Stalinist Bureaucracy waged a one-sided civil war against Bolshevism which ended in the physical destruction of Lenin's Party and the creation of a monstrous totalitarian regime.
The regime that was erected on the bones of the Bolshevik Party eventually destroyed every vestige of the October Revolution. But this was not evident in advance. After the Russian Revolution, the Communist International again defended a correct position on the national question. But with the development of Stalinism and the degeneration of the Third International all of the fundamental ideas were lost. Most of the leaders of the foreign Communist Parties blindly followed the line from Moscow. Those who tried to maintain an independent position were expelled. The Comintern was transformed from a vehicle of the world proletarian revolution into a passive instrument of Stalin's foreign policy. When it no longer suited him, Stalin contemptuously dissolved it in 1943, without even calling a congress.
Only one man explained in advance where the theory of Socialism in one Country would inevitably lead. As early as 1928, Leon Trotsky warned that if this theory was adopted by the Comintern, it would inevitably be the start of a process that could only end in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world, whether in or out of power. Three generations later, the USSR and the Communist International lie in ruins, and the Communist Parties have long since abandoned any pretence to stand for a real Leninist policy everywhere.
Trotsky and the Ukrainian question
For Trotsky, as for Lenin, the question as to whether one should support the demand for the right of self-determination was a concrete question, the answer to which was determined entirely by the interests of the proletariat and the world revolution. A good example of the method of Trotsky was his attitude to the Ukraine in the 1930s. The monstrous conduct of the Stalinist Bureaucracy towards the Ukraine seriously damaged the links of solidarity between Russia and the Ukraine established by the October Revolution.
Like Georgia, the Ukraine was a predominantly agricultural country with an overwhelmingly peasant population. A large country, with a size and population comparable to that of France, the Ukraine occupied a strategic importance for the Bolsheviks. The success of the revolution in the Ukraine was crucial for the extending of the revolution to Poland, the Balkans and, most important of all, Germany. In January 1919 Christian Rakovsky, the President of Commissars of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic stated that "The Ukraine is truly the strategic nodal point of socialism. To create a revolutionary Ukraine would mean triggering off revolution in the Balkans and giving the German proletariat the possibility of resisting famine and world imperialism. The Ukrainian revolution is the decisive factor in the world revolution." (Christian Rakovsky, Selected Writings, p. 24.)
The Soviet power was established in the Ukraine with some difficulty. This was only partly the result of foreign intervention. The main difficulty was the overwhelming predominance of the peasantry. This was aggravated by the national question. Although the Ukrainian language is quite close to Russian, and the two peoples shared a common history for centuries (Kiev was originally the capital of ancient Rus'), nevertheless the Ukrainians form a separate people with their own language, culture and national identity—a fact not always recognised by the Great Russians who traditionally referred to the Ukrainians as "Little Russians".
The national divide in the Ukraine coincided very largely with the class divisions in Ukrainian society. Whereas 80 per cent of the population were peasants who spoke Ukrainian, a large part of the urban population were Russians. Thus, the Bolsheviks had a strong base in the towns, but were extremely weak in the countryside. Upon the resolution of this problem hinged the fate of the Ukrainian revolution. The weakness of the Bolsheviks was that they appeared as a "Russian and Jewish" party. However, as the revolution took hold in the Ukraine, a class differentiation inevitably opened up within the peasantry and was reflected in splits in the old traditional Ukrainian national organisations. The most important development was the leftward evolution of the Borot'bists—who were really the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian Left Social Revolutionaries. During the Civil War, the Borot'bists joined forces with the Bolsheviks to fight the Whites (Petlyura). Despite the doubts of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Lenin insistently demanded that they unify with the Borot'bists. After many difficulties, the Borot'bists finally fused with the Communist Party, thus giving the party for the first time a mass base in the Ukrainian peasantry. This was decisive for the victory of the revolution in the Ukraine.
It is true that thereafter there were many problems with a "nationalist" deviation in the Ukrainian party. But these were overcome by the patience and tact which always characterised the policy of Lenin and Trotsky on the national question. However, the rise of Stalin and the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state enormously exacerbated the growth of discontent in the Ukraine. At the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923, Rakovsky led the struggle against the growing tendency towards bureaucracy and Great Russian chauvinism. In a courageous speech at the congress, Rakovsky clearly identified the roots of the problem in terms that closely echoed Lenin's own: "Stalin has only remained on the threshold of the explanation," he declared. "There is a second, more important explanation, namely the fundamental discrepancy between our party and our programme on the one hand and our state apparatus on the other. This is the central, the crucial question." (Ibid., p. 33.)
And he went on: "Our central authorities begin to view the administration of the whole country from the point of view of convenience. Naturally, it is tiresome to administer twenty republics, and how convenient it would be if the whole lot were united. From the bureaucratic point of view, this would be simpler, easier, more pleasant." (Ibid.)
The concentration of power in the hands of a privileged new aristocracy of bureaucrats had a disastrous effect on the national question in the USSR. The bureaucratic adventure of forced collectivisation had devastating consequences throughout the Soviet Union, but nowhere more than in the Ukraine. Stalin's purges began earlier in the Ukraine than elsewhere because of the extent of resistance to this madness which drove the mass of Ukrainian peasants into opposition. This in turn was reflected in opposition in the ranks of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Between 1933 and 1936, the Ukrainian Party was decimated by Stalin. In one year alone, 1933, over half of all regional Party secretaries were purged. Many of those purged were supporters of Stalin, like Skrypnik, the Old Bolshevik and prominent Ukrainian Party leader who committed suicide in 1933 in protest at the purge. This was only the first blow. In 1938, at the height of the Moscow Purges, nearly half of all secretaries of Party organisations were purged yet again. This was a warning that only complete subservience to the Moscow bureaucracy would be tolerated.
From his foreign exile Trotsky followed these events with growing alarm. Noting that the Purges had hit the Ukraine far harder than any other Republic, he concluded that the oppressive measures of the Russian Bureaucracy would place an intolerable strain on the link between the Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union. The danger of a revival of counter-revolutionary bourgeois Ukrainian nationalism was clear to him. In the given circumstances, such a trend could get a powerful echo in the peasantry. Trotsky was already warning the world of the inevitability of a new world war in which Hitler would attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Under these circumstances, the Ukrainian question assumed a burning importance for the future of the world.
It was under these specific conditions that Trotsky advanced the slogan of an independent Soviet Socialist Ukraine. His intention was quite clear: to cut the ground from under the feet of the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists who were striving to split off the Ukraine from the USSR on a reactionary basis, which would inevitably mean handing the Ukraine, with its colossal agricultural and industrial potential, to Hitler. Trotsky understood that a political revolution in the Ukraine would inevitably place on the order of the day the national question. And he understood that matters had gone too far to prevent the Ukraine from separating from a forced union which was now associated in the minds of the masses with violence, suffering and national humiliation. The task of the Ukrainian Bolshevik-Leninists was therefore to give the Ukrainian national movement a socialist, not a bourgeois, content.
A successful revolution in the Ukraine would have had a tremendous impact in Russia and in the neighbouring states—above all in the Western Ukraine, which was languishing under the heel of Pilsudski's Bonapartist dictatorship in Poland. The reunification of the Ukraine on the basis of an independent soviet socialist regime would have led to the downfall of Pilsudski and the beginnings of the socialist revolution in Poland. This in turn would have encouraged the German working class to turn against Hitler. As in 1919, the Ukraine was therefore "the key to the world revolution". Had the Ukrainian working class come to power, even if that led to a separation from Russia, the door would have still been open for a federation with Russia later on. However, things worked out differently to what Trotsky expected. The Second World War cut across his perspectives.
When Stalin in 1939 signed the notorious Pact with Hitler and sent the Red Army to occupy part of Poland, including the Western Ukraine, Trotsky warned that Hitler would inevitably break his agreement and attack the USSR. In this situation, the national discontent in the Ukraine would pose a mortal threat to the Soviet Union: "Hitler's policy is the following: the establishment of a definite order for his conquests, one after the other, and the creation by each new conquest of a new system of 'friendships'. At the present stage Hitler concedes the Greater Ukraine to his friend Stalin as a temporary deposit. In the following stage he will pose the question of who is the owner of this Ukraine: Stalin or he, Hitler." (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 90.)
He warned that the national oppression of the Ukraine by the Great Russian Stalinist Bureaucracy would drive the Ukrainians into the arms of Hitler. Precisely for this reason, and in a particular historical context, Trotsky advanced the slogan of an independent soviet Ukraine, as a means of combating reactionary Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism and winning over the Ukrainian workers and peasants to the idea of soviet power. On the eve of the Second World war he wrote:
"The pro-German orientation of a section of Ukrainian opinion will now simultaneously reveal both its reactionary character and its utopianism. Only the revolutionary orientation remains. The war will add a furious pace to the course of developments. In order not to be caught unprepared, it is necessary to take a timely and clear stand on the Ukrainian question." (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 86.)
In 1941, exactly one year after Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin's agent, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, just as Trotsky had predicted. And as he had feared, many Ukrainians, especially the peasants, initially looked to Germany with a degree of hope, or at least resignation. But this soon changed as a result of the foul racist policies of the Nazis, with their madness of "inferior races". If the Soviet Union had been invaded by American troops with cheap commodities in their baggage train, the outcome may well have been different. But Hitler's troops came not with cheap commodities but gas chambers. As a result, the mass of the population, not only in the Ukraine but throughout the USSR rallied to the fight against the Nazi invaders. In the end, the number of collaborators was relatively small, even in the Ukraine. Despite all the crimes of Stalinism, they saw it as the lesser evil.
It is important to see that Trotsky saw the Ukraine as a special case. He tentatively advanced the slogan of an "independent soviet Ukraine" for special reasons. He never advanced the same slogan for any other Republic of the USSR. Moreover, this slogan is no longer applicable to the Ukraine. After the collapse of the USSR the Ukraine—along with all the other former Republics—has gained independence. But after ten years' experience of the blessings of both independence and capitalism, the masses in the Ukraine now want neither. They have drawn their conclusions from the frightful economic and cultural collapse that resulted from this. There is now a powerful and growing mood in favour of returning to the Soviet Union. Of course, the Ukrainians want democratic rights, including autonomy to run their own affairs and respect for their just national aspirations, language and culture. They want to be treated like equals, not second-class "Little Russians". In other words, they want a genuine Socialist Federation, based upon Leninist principles. That is also our programme. To advance, under these concrete circumstances, the old slogan of an "independent soviet Ukraine" would be ridiculous. It would make us more backward than the average Ukrainian who understands that independence offers no solution.
Even more stupid was the attempt to apply Trotsky's old slogan in a mechanical way to Kosovo, as one sect tried to do. Having stumbled across a phrase in Trotsky's writings from the 1930s, they repeated it like parrots, without the slightest understanding of why Trotsky had put this slogan forward or what it meant. The dialectical method, used by both Lenin and Trotsky, sets out from the elementary proposition that "the truth is always concrete". We have already explained the specific reasons why Trotsky in this particular instance (and only in this particular instance) tentatively advanced a particular slogan. But the case of Kosovo, over half a century later, bears absolutely no relation to this case.
We will explain elsewhere our attitude to the Kosovo question (we have already explained it many times before). The dissolution of Yugoslavia—like the dissolution of the USSR—was an entirely reactionary development, which we cannot support. And as always in the Balkans, behind each national movement there is always some big power or another pulling the strings. For the big powers, small nations are just so much small change to be cynically used and discarded at will. The decisive element in the equation was the manoeuvres of US imperialism, masquerading under the NATO flag. The KLA is an entirely reactionary movement which, in this case, acted as the local agency of American imperialism. In the given circumstances, as we repeated tirelessly from the beginning, the war in Kosovo—allegedly fought under the banner of "self-determination" for Kosovo—could only end up in the establishment of an American Protectorate in Kosovo. And that is just what has happened. If there is still anyone so blind that they are incapable of seeing this, we are sorry for them.
What has this got to do with self-determination, we would like to know? In what way does the present abomination assist the cause of the working class and socialism? The KLA, which is an organisation mainly of gangsters, involved in drug-smuggling, protection rackets and the systematic murder of Serbs, gypsies and other national minorities, is trying to install itself in power in the hope of getting independence later on. But this is impossible. An independent Kosovo would mean war on the Balkans, involving not just Yugoslavia, but Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. For that reason the US imperialists are against it. But, as the saying goes, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread". What does it matter if this leads to all-out war on the Balkans? the sectarian shouts. All that matters is that Kosovo is independent! Such madness would be bad enough. But then other sectarians, who are a bit crazier still, add a new and most original twist: "Independence, yes, but it must be soviet and socialist!"
It is really a pity that the writings of these wiseacres were not available to the general staff of NATO, who are doubtless in need of a bit of light entertainment from time to time. It would have the American generals helpless with laughter. The KLA was and is nothing without the US army behind it. It is, in effect, an auxiliary arm of the US military. As such, it has no independent significance. Only on the backs of the US army did the "heroic" KLA re-enter Kosovo. And only on US sufferance is it allowed to operate. If—as is possible—the KLA gets out of line, it will soon be dealt with. The reality of the situation is that imperialism now rules the roost in Kosovo, and that will remain the case for a long time, because they cannot easily withdraw. That is the concrete reality in Kosovo. This is the "self-determination" that has been brought about by American bombs. To have expected anything different was sheer stupidity. Yet there were those who called themselves Marxists who supported this action, nay, demanded it. One of these gentlemen (a "Marxist theoretician" if one is to believe what they say) actually wrote to Robin Cook, the British Foreign Minister, demanding that NATO bomb Yugoslavia. Yes, they were all in favour of "self-determination" and "independence" and even an "independent socialist Kosovo". But now, when confronted with the concrete reality of a new imperialist enclave in the Balkans and the gruesome spectacle of a formerly oppressed nationality murdering and oppressing other nationalities, what can they say?
The national question is precisely a trap for those who do not think things out to the end. Unless you have a firm class position, you will always end up exchanging one oppression for another. Kosovo is yet another example of this.
The national question and Stalinism
Lenin explained that the national question, at bottom, is a question of bread. The rapid economic development of the USSR made possible by the nationalised planned economy, signified a dramatic increase in the living standards and cultural level of all the peoples of the Soviet Union. The biggest improvement was achieved in the most backward republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Between 1917 and 1956, overall industrial production in the USSR increased by more than 30 times. But that of Kazakhstan increased 37 times, Kirghizia, 42 times and Armenia, 45 times. Similar growth was recorded in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, etc. Yet despite these impressive achievements, national oppression still existed in the Soviet Union. The boasts of the Bureaucracy were unfounded. The following was typical:
"The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a type of multinational state never before known in history, is founded on the principles of fraternal co-operation and mutual trust. It is inhabited by socialist nations (?)—Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others. These are nations of a new type (?) that have no parallel in history. They are nations of working people free from any kind of oppression and exploitation. They are linked together by moral and political unity and by genuine friendship of peoples building a new society. These nations have a new moral and political make-up that is manifested in a common culture, socialist in content and national in form. They have been educated by the Communist Party in the spirit of Soviet patriotism, friendship between the peoples and respect for the rights of other peoples, in the spirit of internationalism." (Introduction to Lenin's Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p. 11.)
The sugary myths of the Bureaucracy that presented the relations between the peoples of the USSR in an idealised light bore little relation to the true state of affairs. This is not the place to deal in detail with the evolution of the Soviet Union after Lenin's death. We refer the reader to Ted Grant's book Russia—from Revolution to Counter-revolution, where the national question in the USSR is analysed at some length. Suffice it to say that the monstrous chauvinism of Stalin and the Bureaucracy served to undermine the solidarity that existed among the different peoples of the Soviet Union, and thus paved the way for the break-up of the USSR which has been to the detriment of all the peoples. It is impossible to explain the speed with which the Soviet Union collapsed if one accepts the Stalinist propaganda that everything was just perfect. The truth is very different.
Under Stalin, the most monstrous acts were committed against national minorities in the USSR. The Purges finished the job began by Stalin in 1922—the liquidation of what remained of the Bolshevik Party. About the middle of 1937 an all-out assault was launched against the Communist Parties in every national Republic. A number of leaders of national Parties were included in the notorious show trial of Bukharin in March 1938. The leaders were usually accused of "bourgeois nationalism" and executed. After this, the way was open for mass arrests and deportations. The exact number of the victims of Stalin's Purges will probably never be known, but they were certainly numbered in millions. It was no comfort to the Ukrainians, Armenians and Georgians that the Russian people suffered no less grievously. Stalin's extreme Russian nationalism was summed up in a speech that was reprinted in Pravda on 25 May 1945, where he stated that the Russian people were "the most outstanding nation of all the nations of the Soviet Union" and the "guiding force" of the USSR. By implication, all other nationalities were second-class peoples who must accept the "guidance" of Moscow. Such a conception violates the letter and spirit of the Leninist policy on the national question.
The most monstrous crime committed by Stalin was the mass deportation of nationalities that was carried out during the Second World War. In the course of the War, no fewer than seven whole peoples were deported to Siberia and Central Asia under the most inhumane conditions. This was the fate of the Crimean Tartars, the Volga Germans, the Kalmyks, the Karachai, the Balkars, the Ingushi—and the Chechens. The NKVD—Stalin's secret police—rounded up everyone—men, women, children, old and sick, Communists and trade unionists—and ordered them onto cattle-trucks at gunpoint with whatever possessions they could carry. A large number died in transit or upon arrival, from cold, hunger or exhaustion. Soldiers fighting at the front, even those who had been decorated for bravery, were likewise arrested and deported. The legacy of bitterness created by this act of cruel and arbitrary act of barbarity and national oppression has lasted till today. It is expressed in the break-up of the Soviet Union and the nightmare in Chechnya.
The drive to Russify the non-Russian peoples is shown by the composition of the leading bodies of the "Communist" Parties of the Republics. In 1952, only about half of all leading officials in the Central Asian and Baltic Republics were of local nationality. Elsewhere, the proportion was even lower. For example, in the Moldovian Party only 24.7 per cent were Moldovians, while only 38 per cent of recruits to the Tadjik Party in 1948 were said to be Tadjiks.
One of the most repulsive features of Stalinism was its anti-Semitism. The Bolshevik Party had always fought against anti-Semitism. Consequently, the Jews looked upon the October Revolution as their salvation. The Bolsheviks gave the Jews full liberty and equal rights. Their language and culture were encouraged. They even set up an autonomous republic, so that those Jews who wanted a separate homeland should have it. But under Stalin all the old racist filth revived. The Jews again became scapegoats. Already in the 1920s, Stalin was prepared to use anti-Semitism against Trotsky. Since Jews formed a large part of the Old Bolsheviks, they suffered disproportionately in the Purges. After the Second World War, there was an anti-Semitic campaign, only partially disguised by fig-leafs such as "Zionists" or "rootless cosmopolitans"—words which were merely code-words for "Jews". The notorious "Doctors' Plot" in which a number of Kremlin doctors were accused of trying to poison Stalin was the signal for a blatantly anti-Semitic campaign, since the doctors concerned were Jews. After the setting up of the state of Israel in 1948 (which was initially supported by Moscow), Jewish culture, hitherto tolerated, was severely repressed. All publications in Yiddish were closed down, as was the Yiddish theatre. In 1952, the year before Stalin died, virtually all the leaders of Jewish culture were shot, and a large number of Jews arrested. Only the death of Stalin prevented a new Purge from taking place. Even today, elements of anti-Semitism are present in the so-called "Communist" Party of Zyuganov. This, in itself, is sufficient to demonstrate the abyss that separates Stalinism (and neo-Stalinism) from genuine Leninism.
Now, finally, all the chickens have come home to roost. The USSR has collapsed in a welter of wars and conflicts. "Life itself teaches", as Lenin was fond of quoting. And life itself has taught the peoples of the Soviet Union some very harsh lessons. The failure of Socialism in one Country has been carved on the noses of the Bureaucracy which is now busy transforming itself into a new class of capitalist exploiters. No-one can ignore the fact that in the modern epoch the world economy is the determining factor. "Socialism in one country" has been exposed as the reactionary utopia it is.
The present nightmare of economic collapse, wars and ethnic conflict are the poisonous heritage of decades of totalitarian bureaucratic rule from Moscow. However, capitalism offers no way out for the former Republics of the USSR. Formal independence has solved nothing for them. On the contrary. The disruption of the links that connected all of them to a common plan of production has led to a collapse of trade and economic growth, with terrible results for the masses. Most of the people would undoubtedly prefer the previous situation to the present misery. The reconstitution of the USSR would be a progressive step—but a return to the old bureaucratic system would not be a lasting solution. All the old contradictions would return and the result would be a new crisis. What is required is a return to the original programme and ideas of Lenin and Trotsky: a democratic regime of workers' (soviet) power in which the working people of all the Republics could establish a Socialist Federation based upon genuine equality and fraternity and no one nation predominated over the others.
Despite everything, the perspective of the socialist transformation of society still remains. In spite of the dreadful collapse of the past period, Russia is no longer the backward illiterate peasant country of 1917. Once the working class take power into its hands, the prospect would exist of at least moving in the direction of socialism, although the final victory could only be achieved on a world scale. Nevertheless, Russia and the countries of the CIS have a gigantic productive potential, not least an enormous educated workforce—a key factor for the development of the new information-based technology. Capitalism has shown that it is unable to tap this potential. But a democratic nationalised planned economy could rapidly transform the whole situation.
On the basis of a modern economy, where the working class is now the overwhelming majority of society, a democratic socialist plan of production which would harness the immense natural, human and technological resources of such a huge territory would produce such abundance that in a relatively short time all the old national rivalries and suspicions would recede into insignificance, like a bad memory of the past. The road would be open for a free inter-mingling of the peoples in a free socialist Commonwealth, with all that would mean in terms of human cultural development. Such a vision of the future is infinitely more inspiring than the narrow and essentially misanthropic utopias of nationalism.