Lenin and the right of nations to self-determination

Apr 19, 2021

From "Man at the crossroads," by Diego Rivera. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 brought together more than 120 distinct peoples, each with their own language and culture, who had been oppressed under the former Russian Czarist empire. This great achievement grew out of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It would not have been possible without a profound struggle to overcome national oppression and a correct position on what was then referred to as “the national question.”

It was Karl Marx who first expressed the position of the communist movement on the national question. The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848. Bourgeois-democratic revolutions had exploded throughout Europe against autocratic, reactionary monarchies and empires like the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian empires. These revolutions were led by the rising bourgeoisie against feudalism.

Marx and his co-thinker, Frederick Engels, stood for fighting all forms of oppression. Their goal was to organize the workers to overthrow capitalism worldwide and establish socialism. Marx and Engels saw the national bourgeois-democratic struggles as progressive, because they were the inevitable and necessary step in the revolutionary development of capitalism over feudalism. Unification into nation-states laid the basis for the development of capitalism and the further development of the working class.

Marx and Ireland

Marx’s analysis of the Irish question was one of his most important contributions on the issue of self-determination for oppressed nations. Marx at first did not think the Irish nation could achieve independence alone, or that it should. He thought the Irish nation and workers would be liberated when English workers overthrew the English bourgeoisie.

The way he saw it, the English workers lived in an advanced capitalist country and were in a more advantageous position to overthrow capitalism in the colonizing country of Britain. That was how he envisioned the emancipation of the Irish at first.

But by the late 1860s, Marx recognized the virulent racism and chauvinism among the English workers themselves against Irish people. He came to support self-determination and independence for the Irish nation as the best means for the Irish workers to fight capitalism. He urged the English workers to stand up for Irish independence.

Furthermore, Marx argued that an English workers party, representing workers from an oppressor nation, had the duty to support an oppressed nation’s self-determination and independence. This attitude became a very key part of Lenin’s view on the national question as it relates to oppressed nations.

This view recognized that even when the English workers did not benefit materially from their bourgeoisie’s oppression of Ireland, they still had become infected with their ruling class’s chauvinism and racism. So it was the English workers party’s duty to fight colonialism.

English workers could never attain liberation as long as the Irish continued to be oppressed. It is similar to his view about the United States, when Marx said during the time of slavery, “Labor in white skin will never be free as long as labor in black skin is branded.”

Lenin was later to write, “The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its immense practical importance.” (“The Right of Nations to Self-determination,” 1914)

Lenin, continuing the Marxist approach, had to struggle over and over with other socialists who were opposed in principle to the right of national self-determination.

This was mainly because some of these Social-Democratic parties were petty-bourgeois and greatly influenced by the fact that they lived in empires like the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empire at that time. They didn’t see independence as viable for other smaller nations. Lenin more than once referred to these socialists as “Great Nation chauvinists,” that is, that they identified with the dominant nation’s oppression over other nations.

The Russian Empire: ‘prison house of nations’

Lenin’s profound understanding of the national question was aided by the fact that he was from Russia, the most multinational state of the time. Czarist Russia was not a nation; it was a state composed of 200 nationalities and languages. It was known as Russia because of the dominance of the “Great Russian” nation. The term “Great Russian” was used to distinguish the dominant nationality from the White Russians or from the Ukrainians.

These three Slavic nations were in fact very closely related. A person from the Great Russian nationality could understand the language of a White Russian or a Ukrainian. Great Russians made up about 45 percent of the population. The three main Slavic nations were 110 million out of the 140 million at the turn of the century. All the other nationalities made up about 30 million, compared to 60 million Great Russians.

The ethnic diversity of the empire and later the Soviet Union was truly amazing. But the experience of the minority nationalities before the revolution was common: institutionalized oppression. Their languages were often banned. Some peoples had no written language. Most people in the oppressed nations could not read or write.

Czarist Russia was known as the “prison house of nations” because of the very brutal and autocratic rule by the Czarist nobility over the many subject peoples. Russian workers and peasants were also oppressed as workers and peasants. But the other nationalities—Georgians, Azerbaijanis or Turkic peoples and the others—suffered extra oppression.

The state religion was Orthodox Christianity. Jews were denied all rights. Muslims were considered religious enemies.

Even when the czar was forced to concede a Parliament—the Duma—after the 1905 Revolution, Muslims were not allowed to vote.

Corliss Lamont, in his book “The Peoples of the Soviet Union,” quoted a Muslim cotton grower describing the relations before the 1917 Revolution in what later became Turkmenistan. “The past was a stairway of years carpeted with pain. The Uzbeks feared to go along the street of the Arabs; the Tajiks carried sticks when they walked through the Uzbek quarter.” Yet they were all Muslim.

Jews also suffered tremendous oppression. Under the czar, there were over 100 laws that denied Jews basic rights. They could not own land or work in agriculture, they could not be in government, work in the post office or on the railroads. They were victims of pogroms—large-scale massacres unleashed by the czar.

The biggest problem that many of the nations faced was extreme underdevelopment and feudal conditions. Among some of the Central Asian nationalities, women were treated as property who could be killed if they dared to read or write.

Is working class unity possible?

For Lenin, as leader of the Bolsheviks, the question was how to develop a party and lead a revolution in such a multinational state, with all the divisions among the nationalities and peoples, with all the oppression experienced at the hands of the Great Russian nation, with all the mistrust and understandable resentment toward the Great Russians of all classes. How could the Bolsheviks build the unity of all workers and oppressed peoples that was necessary in order to overthrow the czar and build socialism?

The formal view of many Marxists of that time was, “All workers are workers, all poor peasants are poor peasants, we should all unite!”

But the real situation required more than such formal and mechanical declarations. Simply saying “unite,” meant ignoring the national oppression and virulent racism faced by the oppressed nations.

The Great Russian nation denied language rights and culture and imposed greater taxes against others. This chauvinism by the nobility infected the Russian workers and peasants. In turn, all the oppressed peoples were deeply resentful of this racism and repression.

How, Lenin asked, could there be real unity under these circumstances between the workers of the oppressor nationality and the workers of the other nationalities?

The right of self-determination

For Lenin, the key was for the Great Russian working class and the revolutionary party to make clear their unequivocal opposition to every manifestation of Great Russian oppression, privilege and racism. The party had to be the leader in fighting for equality of language rights, equality of education and of cultural rights. He was confident that the unity would come about when the oppressed peoples, especially the workers and peasants, were confident that the Bolsheviks were committed to self-determination and equality.

Lenin said that the party must show that it fights to eliminate all the deeply embedded biases and privileges connected with being Great Russians. In notes dictated in December 1922, he noted that:

“[W]e nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it.”

“That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which it obtains in actual practice.” (“The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation,’” Collected Works v.36, Progress Publishers, 1971, p.607)

To make it completely clear that the revolutionary workers’ party was committed to ending national oppression, it must also support the right of the oppressed nation to separate to form its own state. That did not mean that socialists advocate for a separate state in every instance; in some cases, socialists might argue the inadvisability of an independent state or the benefits of union. But they must be uncompromising in their rejection of bourgeois “unity” as a cover for continued national oppression and subjugation by “great” nations.

Unity, if there was to be unity, must be on a completely voluntary basis, stated Lenin. Its most important prerequisite is the commitment of party members from the oppressor nationality to fight energetically against national oppression and racism.

At the same time, he called for party members from the oppressed nationalities to fight for working class internationalism. He warned against any concessions to bourgeois nationalism, which “joins the proletarians and bourgeoisie of one nation and keeps the proletarians of different nations apart.” (“Draft program for the fourth congress of social-democrats of the Latvian area,” May 1913)

“Workers who place political unity with ‘their own’ bourgeoisie above complete unity with the proletariat of all nations are acting against their own interests, against the interests of socialism and against the interests of democracy.” (“Theses on the national question,” June 1913)

World War I and the struggle against imperialism

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, clarity on the socialist perspective toward oppressed nationalities became more important than ever.

All of the major imperialist empires and powers joined in the war. All evoked national chauvinism to motivate their respective working classes to fight other workers so that the imperialists could re-divide the world. Lenin showed that the imperialists were not fighting to defend self-determination but to annex other countries, and that it was more important than ever to defend smaller countries’ right to independence.

Even as Lenin insisted on self-determination for all nations, he also saw that with the first imperialist world war, the contradictions of capitalism had brought the socialist revolution closer. He had to grapple with a further developing reality in the world: that some areas were far more advanced in the capitalist phase than others.

By 1914, the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America had been carved up and divided among the imperialist powers. Lenin wrote his monumental works on the implications of this period and the relationship between the struggle inside the imperialist countries and the anti-colonial struggles.

In April 1916, Lenin wrote “The Socialist Revolution and the Rights of Nations to Self-determination.” He said that society had reached a level of objective development where socialism was now possible and within reach. The victorious socialist countries’ first task would be to complete the extension of bourgeois democratic rights for the population, and would have to recognize the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

Lenin described three types of countries:

“First, the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States. The tasks of the proletariat of these ruling nations are the same as those of the proletariat in England in the nineteenth century in relation to Ireland.

“Secondly, Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans and particularly Russia. Here it was the 20th century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movements and intensified the national struggle. The most difficult and most important task in this is to unite the class struggle of the workers of the oppressor nations with that of the workers of the oppressed nations.

“Thirdly, the semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia and Turkey, and all the colonies which have a combined population of 1,000 million people. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation … they must also render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their uprising—or revolutionary war, in the event of one—against the imperialist powers that oppressed them.”

In Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet, “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” he wrote that the struggle of the semi-colonial and colonial countries was no longer in most cases against feudalism, but against imperialism.

The storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg led to real self-determination for many oppressed nationalities in Russia. Art by Ivan Vladimirov, "The Pogrom of the Winter Palace" (c. 1917)

The storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg led to real self-determination for many oppressed nationalities in Russia. Art by Ivan Vladimirov, “The Pogrom of the Winter Palace” (c. 1917)

The February 1917 revolution in Russia brought the capitalists to power under Kerensky. The first challenges that the new Provisional government faced dealt with national oppression. How would all the oppressed nations relate to the Russian government now that the czar’s centralizing terror was smashed?

Finland and Poland proclaimed their independence immediately. During czarist rule, the ruling classes of these nations had not pressed for independence. They were content to simply demand autonomy, because the bourgeois forces of both countries were fearful that such a move would spur on the revolutionary masses.

On Nov. 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power, overthrowing the capitalist Kerensky government. Not a week passed before the Bolsheviks laid out a whole new series of revolutionary decrees and institutions designed to bring about equality among nations and ending centuries of oppression.

The next three difficult years, characterized by civil war and imperialist intervention, provided many rich lessons in how the Bolshevik policy on national oppression would be put into practice. Only after these conflicts subsided was the new Soviet state able to fully carry out those vital tasks.

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