The right of nations to self-determination

Feb 19, 2019

"Africa is fighting, Africa will win!"

Lenin wrote The Right of Nations to Self-Determination in early 1914 to address the relationship between socialist struggle and national liberation, a key debate among Marxists in Russia at the time. Czarist Russia was a country composed over around 200 nationalities and languages, but was dominated by the “Great Russian” nation. It’s framed primarily as a polemic against Rosa Luxemburg’s 1908-9 article, “The National Question and Autonomy,” as Lenin’s opponents relied primarily on the arguments she developed there.

This work of Lenin’s would not only guide the Soviet Union as it worked to address the Czarist legacy of national oppression by building a multinational workers’ state, but would more broadly make a significant impact on the communist movement’s approach to national liberation. It remains a key text for communists in the US–today’s “great prison house of nations”–to study closely.

In this study and discussion guide, we hope to help comrades and friends make their way through the text, distilling its key points, drawing out its historical context, and opening up ways to utilize the text in the struggle today.

If you want some additional context before digging in (or after), check out this primer.

What is Meant by the Self-Determination of Nations?

  1. What connections does Lenin make between economic factors and the right to self-determination?
  2. Discuss why Lenin insists the right of nations to self determination, first and foremost, is the right to exist as an independent national state.
  3. What is Lenin’s response to Rosa Luxemburg’s position that small nations economically dependent on larger ones are unable to attain independence?

The Historically Concrete Presentation of the Question

  1. Lenin begins this section by nothing that it is incorrect to dogmatically advance abstract theoretical statements like “all nations have a right to self-determination.” Instead, we have to examine the question “within definite historical limits.” What does this mean and how does it impact our understanding of the question?
  2. What two periods of capitalist development does Lenin identify, and how do they relate to selt-determination?
  3. Lenin insists that these two periods are connected. Why is this significant? Can you think of other relevant Marxist concepts?
  4. How would you characterize Lenin’s critique of Luxemburg at this point?

The Concrete Features of the National Question in Russia, and Russia’s Bourgeois-Democratic Reformation

  1. Why is it absurd to compare the programs of Western European socialists to Russian socialists?
  2. Lenin’s answer points to the way any relevant socialist program must be grounded in historical concreteness. That is, Lenin argues that because Western European countries had already gone through the period of bourgeois revolutions by the end of the nineteenth century and had established themselves as nation states, socialists in those countries had no need to declare their right to self-determination. Russia, China, Turkey, etc. were going through this period in the beginning of the twentieth century and therefore declared their right as nations to self-determination. How might this insight inform our analysis and activity in the US at this particular historical juncture?

“Practicality in the National Question

  1. Responding to Rosa Luxemburg’s insistence that the Russian Marxist program contains nothing “practical,” Lenin asks what the demand for practicality in the national question means. How does he answer his own question here?
  2. In his answer Lenin points to 3 possible interpretations of practicality in the national question. Identify and discuss each one. What are the differences between them?
  3. Why is the demand for practicality connected to bourgeois interests?
  4. What does Lenin offer in terms of advice for ensuring the proletariat does not subordinate its own national liberation to the bourgeoisie’s national liberation?
  5. What role does Lenin afford education in this process?
  6. Lenin raises an important critique of practicality by highlighting the class context of practicality. How does Lenin explain that what is practical for proletarian self-determination is impractical for the bourgeoisie and vise-versa?
  7. Why does Lenin argue that it is fundamental for the proletariat in their struggle continuously demand the right to secession to avoid being subverted by bourgeois practicality?
  8. Why is combating all nationalism and national privileges central to oppressed nations’ right to self-determination?
  9. What is the difference between internationalism and nationalism? How do these competing orientations approach the question of self-determination differently?
  10. How can we bring Lenin’s critique of practicality to bear on contemporary national liberation struggles?

The Liberal Bourgeoisie and the Socialist Opportunists in the National Question

  1. In this section, Lenin takes aim at Luxemburg’s insistence that advocating for the right of self-determination is actually to support the bourgeois nationalism of oppressed nations. How does Lenin respond to this assertion? How is it relevant today in countries such as Syria, Iran, and Russia for example?
  2. Lenin then argues that to assess the importance of oppressed nations advocating for their right to self-determination and secession it is necessary to review the orientations of all relevant social classes. What conclusion does Lenin come to? How does he come to this conclusion? What evidence does he draw on?
  3. What is the attitude of the capitalist class toward the rights of the multinational working class in the US? What does this mean for communist organizing in the US?
  4. What is the crucial difference between secession and separatism? Why does Lenin focus on this?
  5. Why do liberals hold such a hostile view of oppressed nations’ right to self-determination? What parallels can we draw with liberal tendencies and their orientation toward communists in the US?

Norway’s Secession from Sweden

  1. Lenin argues that Rosa Luxemburg takes up the issue of Norway’s secession from Sweden but winds up completely avoiding the issue. How does Lenin explain this?
  2. What conclusions does Lenin come to in regards to Norway’s secession from Sweden?
  3. What lessons might we take from Lenin here for our own time and context?
  4. What can be learned from the Swedish workers’ attitude toward Norwegian workers’ right to secession?

The Resolution of the London International Congress, 1896

  1. In this section, Lenin challenge’s Rosa Luxemburg’s avoidance of the first part of the 1896 Resolution of the International proclaiming the right of nations to self-determination. Why is he doing this? What does this add to his argument?
  2. Discuss the issue and significance of the independence of Poland as discussed by Lenin.

The Utopian Karl Marx and the Practical Rosa Luxemburg

  1. Discuss the significance of the following passage where Lenin summarizes Marx and Engels’ position on the national question: “The conclusion that follows from all these critical remarks of Marx’s is clear: the working class should be the last to make a fetish of the national question, since the development of capitalism does, not necessarily awaken all nations to independent life. But to brush aside the mass national movements once they have started, and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means, in effect, pandering to nationalistic prejudices, that is, recognising ‘one’s own nation’ as a model nation (or, we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state).”
  2. How does Lenin summarize Marx’s position on the national question in regards to Ireland. How does this provide evidence to refute Luxemburg?
  3. How and why does Marx’s position on Irish liberation develop? Why does Lenin use this? How does this discussion further reinforce the general need for the party’s positions to always be grounded in the constantly developing concrete situation rather than on decontextualized theoretical dogmas?
  4. How does Lenin then discuss the theoretical grounds of Marx’s position?
  5. Lenin ends this chapter by emphasizing the educational lessons Marx’s example offers the working class. How would you summarize this educational implication? How is Marx’s example here continuing to teach the communist movement in the contemporary context?

The 1903 Program and Its Liquidators

  1. Discuss how the Resolution of the 1903 Second Congress impacted Luxemburg’s 1908 Polish article, according to Lenin.
  2. How does Lenin answer his own question: “How was ‘self-determination’ understood by the delegates to the Second Congress?”
  3. What critique of Trotsky does Lenin make? What contemporary relevance might this have?
  4. What is “Liquidationism” and why does Lenin oppose it?


  1. How does Lenin summarize the issue of self-determination?
  2. What challenges does Lenin identify that lay ahead for the proletarian struggle, which includes workers from oppressed nations as well as from oppressor nations? Why is this such an important distinction when considering self-determination?
  3. Reviewing the document as a whole, what are 5 points of contemporary relevance can you identify in Lenin’s conclusion??
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