by Chris Kane
At The Commune’s successful day-school on the Russian Revolution some debate arose on the national question during the discussion on Ukraine and Hungary. A key point of reference on the national question for communists to this day is the debates which took place amongst Marxists within the Second International and the period of the First World War (1914-1918).
The national question took on a new importance after the outbreak of the war and the collapse of the Second International. Currents which had taken shape prior to 1914 were forced to reconsider their views and re-articulate positions in light of the crisis of international socialism.
A diverse trend of Social-Democrats, (as Marxists called themselves in this period) argued against the concept of the right of nations to self-determination, including the Polish Marxists Luxemburg and Radek. Today Lenin is seen as the principle defender of the right of national-self determination, and he was supported by the majority of the RSDRP(Bolsheviks) Central Committee. However he was challenged by a strong body of opinion in his own party, its foremost representative being Yuri Pyatakov, and Yevgenia Bosh, both leading Bolsheviks in Ukraine, who in exile in 1915 joined with Nikolai Bukharin to publish the Stockholm-based journal Kommunist.
Onewell known defence of self-determination was Lenin’s famous essay The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, part of a symposium in Vorbote, organ of the Zimmerwald left, and published in a special edition of the RSDRP journal Sotsial-Demokrata in October 1916. Another figure who crossed swords with Lenin was Lev (Yurkevych) Rybalka, the left-wing leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party. Also from Kyiv, he was a strong defender of national liberation. Yurkevych subjected Lenin’s theses to an extensive critique in The Russian Social Democrats and the National Question published in Russian and aimed chiefly at the Russian left itself in January 1917. Lenin never responded to Yurkevych’s pamphlet as he was already on is way to Petrograd with the outbreak of the February Revolution, but the journal of the anti-Leninist left of the RSDRP(B), Vperyod, did carry a review very favourable to the brochure. The theoretic divergences over the national question during the war anticipated the problems the ensuing revolution would face. They provide important lessons for our own generation.
Published below are two rare texts. The first is the Theses on the Right of Nations to Self-Determination by Yuri Pyatakov, Yevgeniya Bosh, and Nikolai Bukharin. Pyatakov led the Kyiv committee of the RSDRP and joined Bolsheviks in 1912 he held leading positions during the revolution in Ukraine. Bosh, an RSDRP member since 1900, was a Bolshevik leader in Kyiv and member of the first Soviet government in Ukraine. The second is the Russian Social Democrats and the National Question by Lev (Yurkevych) Rybalka, though rather unknown today Yurkevych was active since 1905 in the USDRP and well known in the Second International and the Zimmerwald anti-war movement. He fell ill at the outbreak of the revolution and died in Moscow.