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John G. Wright

Lenin on the Problem of Nationalities

(January 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.1, January 1943, pp.15-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume XIX
International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. $2.50

This volume of Lenin’s Collected Works contains his speeches and writings for the year 1916 and the first three months of 1917. It was on the eve of the Russian revolution that Lenin made some of his most important contributions to Marxism. He wrote his classic analysis of imperialism which has long been translated into English. But a great deal of his writings during the war years, especially his pieces pertaining to the problem of nationalities in the imperialist epoch, have not been so readily available. By publishing this volume the Stalinists, who betrayed all the teachings of Lenin, have made an involuntary gift to the revolutionary movement.

Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, died before the entry of capitalism into its highest stage, that of imperialism, which is at the same time its stage of decay and death agony. They outlined the general tendencies of capitalist development. They forecast its decay and doom. What they did not and could not foresee were the specific characteristics of this stage and the shifts to the right and to the left that the actual course of events would introduce during this epoch. This work was done primarily by Lenin, and after him by Trotsky.

Marx and Engels thus left unsolved several problems arising from the extraordinary peculiarities of capitalism in its imperialist stage. Among these unsolved problems was the struggle of colonial and semi-colonial peoples for independence.

The Communist Manifesto contains no reference to this struggle. The omission was not an oversight on their part. Here is how Trotsky explained it in his article, The Ninetieth Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto:

“Inasmuch as Marx and Engels considered the socialist revolution in the leading civilized countries at least to be a matter of the next few years, the colonial question was resolved automatically for them, not in consequence of an independent movement of oppressed nationalities but in consequence of the victory of the proletariat in the metropolitan centers of capitalism.”

“The questions of revolutionary strategy,” continues Trotsky, “in colonial and semi-colonial countries are therefore not touched upon at all by the Manifesto. Yet these questions demand an independent solution. For example, it is quite self-evident that while the ‘national fatherland’ has become the baneful historical brake in advanced capitalist countries, it still remains a relatively progressive factor in backward countries compelled to struggle for an independent existence. ‘The Communists,’ declares the Manifesto, ‘everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.’ The movement of the colored races against their imperialist oppressors is one of the most important and powerful movements against the existing order and therefore calls for the complete, unconditional and unlimited support on the part of the proletariat of the white race.” (New International, Feb. 1938.)

Marx and Engels left this problem unsolved but they also left behind them the indispensable method for its solution, namely, the Marxist dialectic. In the above-quoted article Trotsky stated: “The credit for developing revolutionary strategy for the oppressed nationalities belongs primarily to Lenin.”

Lenin’s teachings on imperialism and on the national and colonial question are the product of years of study of developing events and the application of the Marxist method toward their analysis and clarification. Although considerable work had been accomplished — especially under Ryazanov, the former head of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute who was purged by Stalin—in studying the background of Lenin’s work in this period, the present volume is issued without any introduction or notes to speak of. Least known is the background of Lenin’s work on the problem of nationalities.

The Iskra Period

Lenin began working on the national question in the period of the Iskra, that is, in 1900-03, even before the appearance of Bolshevism as an independent political tendency within the Russian labor movement. His writings for this period comprise five articles. Three of them are devoted to a polemic against the Bundists who demanded “complete autonomy” for the Bund on all questions relating to the Jewish people in the empire of the Czars. The dispute between Lenin and the Bundists centered at that time around the building of the proletarian party in Russia. Concessions to the Bund’s position would have made impossible the existence of a party based on democratic centralism. Lenin’s attitude is clearly revealed by the titles of his articles: Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an Independent Political Party?, The Position of the Bund in the Party; and (a speech delivered at the Second Party Congress in 1903) On the Place of the Bund in the Party. Of the remaining two articles, the more important one is entitled, The National Question in Our Program. Lenin’s attention was first attracted to the problem of nationalities because it confronted him on a national scale and as an internal party problem.

Lenin began to work systematically in this sphere only after the 1905 revolution, or more precisely, seven years later in 1912.

There were three main reasons for this.

First, as a consequence of the triumph of Czarist reaction following the 1905 defeat, all national issues in Russia were gravely sharpened. This in turn led to a resurgence of nationalist movements among the oppressed peoples under Czarism.

Second, flowing directly from the preparations for the impending imperialist dog-fight, there was an extreme aggravation of all national relations in Europe.

Third, the awakening of Asiatic peoples prior to the First World War. The liberationist movement of the East is just as new as the twentieth century itself. It was not until the turn of our century that countries like China and India—these classic examples of centuries-old stagnation—began to emerge on the world arena as independent political forces and revolutionary factors. The Russian revolution of 1905 was the most important single event which set the Eastern peoples in motion. The years immediately following 1905 witnessed revolutionary ferment in countries like Turkey and Persia. In September 1911 the Manchu Dynasty was overthrown in China and more than 450 million workers, coolies and peasants entered for the first time into the revolutionary flood. In the same period we find the beginnings of ferment in India, of which the current events are a direct continuation. Similarly, a nationalist movement under the banner of Islam was under way in the Dutch East Indies. Something no one had foreseen was taking place: colonial peoples were launching a revolutionary struggle for national independence before the proletariat in advanced countries of Europe had succeeded in solving their socialist tasks.

The problem which had at the outset confronted Lenin on a national scale and as an internal party problem now appeared before him as a world political problem. The dialectic, it will be observed, was at work both in Lenin’s mind and in living reality.

Lenin grasped before anyone else the crucial meaning of the liberationist movement of the Eastern peoples. In May 1913 he wrote these prophetic words:

“A new zone of world history has been opened at the beginning of the twentieth century by the awakening of Asia and by the beginnings of the struggle for power on the part of the advanced proletariat of Europe.”

Six years later in 1919, the newly-founded Communist International will inscribe on its banner this immortal formula in its most finished form: “We live in the epoch of imperialist wars, proletarian revolutions and colonial uprisings.”

The Gist of Lenin’s Position

In elaborating his position on the national question in the pre-1914 years, Lenin had to conduct a struggle on two fronts: on one side, against the opportunism and chauvinism of the Mensheviks (chiefly the Bundists and Georgian Mensheviks); and, on the other, against the deviation of the Polish party which, under Rosa Luxemburg’s influence, adopted an entirely false position. The Polish party began by underestimating the importance of the national problem in Poland and ended by denying altogether the very possibility of national struggles under imperialism. From this flowed their rejection of the slogan of the right of self-determination. After the outbreak of the war in 1914 this standpoint found its expression even within the ranks of the Bolsheviks themselves (Bukharin, Pyatakov and others). The most striking thing about Lenin’s polemics of 1912-14 is that they anticipate all the fundamental questions of revolutionary strategy which were posed in their full scope only by the war itself.

The First World War revealed completely the importance of the problem of nationalities from the proletarian standpoint by speeding up those processes which everywhere tend to merge national problems more and more closely with the social. It is only natural that we find Lenin writing so extensively on this question during the war. In 1916 Lenin developed in full programmatic form his views on the problem of nationalities in the imperialist epoch. This programmatic document bears the title, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.

The title itself is ample proof that Lenin never approached the national question separate and apart from the proletarian struggle for socialism. He always subordinated the former to the latter. Today the Stalinists have not only severed the two but have betrayed completely the socialist struggle. They lie to the workers that only the Axis powers are waging imperialist war whereas the “democratic” imperialists are conducting wars of “national liberation.” They have finally published volume XIX only to dupe the workers into believing that they still speak in Lenin’s name. But Lenin in these writings said just the opposite of what the Stalinists are now saying about the kind .of epoch we are living in, and, in particular, about the national question.

We single out Lenin’s 1916 theses because of their historical and theoretical importance. In Marxist literature they are commonly referred to as the Sotsial Demokrat Theses, because they were first published as the position of the Sotsial Demokrat, then the central organ of the Bolsheviks. They were adopted by the majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee and therefore represent the official position of Bolshevism. This position was defended throughout the war by Lenin against the ultra-lefts in the various countries as well as against the social patriots. The social patriots were at that time also “in favor” of self-determination and supported the imperialists essentially under the same pretext as do the Stalinists today, namely, that the imperialist war was being waged to defend the “national fatherland” or effect “national liberation.”

To understand Lenin’s approach to the problem of nationalities it is above all necessary to bear in mind that Lenin’s method, the Marxist dialectic, prohibits the assertion that national problems are combined with the social in the same way in every country in the world. “The truth is always concrete.”

Lenin had to explain this time and again. Even after the October revolution there was a conflict on the national question in the Bolshevik Party. Bukharin, supported behind the scenes by Stalin, opposed the recognition of the right of self-determination for the nationalities within the young Soviet Republic. Bukharin and Stalin wanted to limit the right of self-determination to the workers among these nationalities. Pyatakov, taking the most extreme position, opposed self-determination on principle. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, Lenin delivered a speech in which he explained to Stalin-Bukharin-Pyatakov the gist of the Marxist approach to the national question.

“While the different nations are marching along the same historical route, they traverse it with many zigzags and detours which are varied in the extreme, and, furthermore, the more cultured nations traverse this route in an obviously different manner from those on a lower cultural level.”

Any other position brushes aside the unevenness of the historical process and disregards the specific stage of development through which a given country is passing. All these factors have a direct and decisive bearing both upon the manner in which the national and social problems combine in each given case, as well as upon the immediate tasks of workers in the given country.

Lenin taught us to differentiate between no less than three types of countries in relation to the problem of nationalities. Thesis 6 of his 1916 document reads as follows:

“In this respect, countries must be divided into three main types:

“First, the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States of America. In these countries the bourgeois, progressive national movements came to an end long ago. Every one of these ‘great’ nations oppresses other nations in the colonies and within its own country. 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 twentieth century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movements and intensified the national struggle. The tasks of the proletariat in these countries in regard to the consummation of their bourgeois-democratic transformation as well as in regards to assisting the socialist revolution in other countries—cannot be achieved unless it champions the right of nations to self-determination. In this connection the most difficult but most important task is to merge the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations.

“Thirdly, the semi-colonial countries, like China, Persia, Turkey and all the colonies, which have a combined population amounting to a billion. In these countries the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun, or are far from having been completed. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation without compensation—and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing more nor lese than the recognition of the right to self-determination—but must render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their rebellion—and if need be, their revolutionary war against the imperialist powers that oppress them.” (Works, English edition, Vol.XX, pp.64-56.)

Every serious article or statement concerning the national and colonial question made in the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky or subsequently in the Fourth International never failed to restate the fundamental ideas contained in the Sotsial Demokrat Theses.

At first glance it might appear that in 1916 Lenin still left unsolved what he referred to as the task of merging “the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations.” This is true only in the sense that the credit for the full solution of this particular task belongs to Trotsky, who advanced in September1914 the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe. This slogan was included originally in the Sotsial Demokrat Theses but was later rejected by Lenin for purely tactical considerations. It was formally adopted in 1923 by the Communist International and was rejected by Stalin and his clique only after Lenin’s death.

Why is it necessary to differentiate between the oppressed European countries and the Eastern peoples? Because in Europe the irreconcilable contradiction between imperialism and the needs of all European peoples must be resolved on an entirely different and a far higher stage of development from that in colonies and semi-colonies. In Europe, unlike the Eastern countries, imperialism has developed productive forces to such a point that they are strangled within he respective national boundaries. In Europe not only imperialism but also the national state itself acts as a brake upon further progress.

“Europe,” as Trotsky explained long ago, “is not only a geographical term but constitutes a certain economic and cultural- historic unit.” (The Program of Peace, Works, Russian Edition, Vol.II, p.478.)

In this same programmatic document written by Trotsky in May 1917 and circulated as a text book in the Communist International in Lenin’s lifetime, it is stated: “The prerequisite for the self determination of the large and small European nations is the state unification of Europe itself.” (Idem, p.472). That is why, following Lenin and Trotsky, we advance today the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe as the only genuine solution for the national problem there.

In his 1916 theses Lenin insisted that correct revolutionary strategy sets immediate historic tasks for workers in Eastern countries which differ profoundly from the tasks of the European workers. This difference in revolutionary tasks derives from the belated appearance of the Eastern peoples on the historical arena. The progressive character of the struggle of such countries for national independence, even under the leadership of the native bourgeoisie, flows from the irreconcilable contradiction between imperialist rule and the material and cultural needs of these Eastern peoples. Imperialism acts as a monstrous brake upon their economic and cultural development. That is why, following Lenin and Trotsky, we advance the slogan of national liberation for the Eastern peoples. That is why we support the struggles of China and India unconditionally.

The period of the Third International, or to be more precise, the period of the first four Congresses (1919-22) is the period of Lenin’s final work on the national and colonial question. His theses on this question were adopted by the Second World Congress in 1920. While reporting at this Congress on The Tactic of the Russian Communist Party, Lenin declared that he wished “once again at this point to emphasize the importance of colonial movements.”

“It is quite clear,” he continued, “that in the impending decisive battles of the world revolution, the movement of the majority of the population on our planet, which is initially directed toward national liberation, will turn against capitalism and imperialism and it will perhaps play a much mom revolutionary role than we all expect. It is important to underscore that we in our International have for the first time begun to prepare for this struggle. Naturally, there are a great many difficulties in this enormous sphere, but in any case the movement is advancing and the masses of toilers and peasants in the colonial countries, notwithstanding he fact that they are still very backward, will play a very great revolutionary role in the next phases of the world revolution.” (Works, First Russian Edition, Vol.XVIII, part I, p.299.)

Prophetic words!

Lenin died before the first of these great revolutionary struggles erupted in China. The Chinese revolution of 1925-27 was defeated. For this defeat Stalinism bears the responsibility. But a defeated revolution is still a revolution. It left neither China nor the rest of the Orient as they were before. The repercussions of this world-historic event, the first in the series predicted by Lenin, are today unfolding before our eyes in the Orient under the impact of the Second World War.

Trotsky’s work on the problem of nationalities parallels that of Lenin from 1903 to 1917. It merges with the latter in the first period of the Russian revolution and the first four Congresses of the Communist International. It represents a direct continuation and extension of it after Lenin’s death. The Stalinists are the only ones who ever claimed that there were fundamental disagreements in this respect between Trotsky and Lenin. Trotsky remained to his death a consistent orthodox Leninist on the national and colonial question. This is not difficult to prove even from the standpoint of formulations.

For example, in 1934, our movement adopted theses entitled The War and the Fourth International.

In this basic and programmatic document written by Trotsky it is stated:

A special and important place is occupied by the question of colonial and semi-colonial countries of the East which are even BOW fighting for the independent national state. Their struggle is doubly progressive: tearing backward peoples from Asiatism, sectionalism and foreign bondage, they strike powerful blows at the imperialist states.” (Thesis 16—Our emphasis.)

Trotsky’s formulation of 1934 differs from that of Lenin in 1916 in phraseology but not in essential ideas. Our document assigns a “special place” to colonies and semi-colonies. Lenin referred to them as a type, expressing the self-same idea in other words.

In assigning a special role to the Eastern peoples or referring to them as a type, we thereby take cognizance of the fact that they are backward peoples, still remaining, like China and India, in conditions of pre-capitalist societies. In this way we also recognize that imperialism retards their economic and cultural development. In this way we express in most general form the peculiarities of their historical development, and draw the same conclusions that Lenin did in 1916.

“The national policy of Lenin,” wrote Trotsky, “will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind.”

Last updated: 24.6.2005