two rare texts on the national question

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).

Russian Social Democrats

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.

Theses on the right of nations to self-determination

The Russian Social Democrats and the national question

5 thoughts on “two rare texts on the national question

  1. Its is noteworthy that in the years since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and after the experience of barbarous chauvinism such as Yugoslavia, ideas such as Pyatakov and Bukharin on the national question have become vogue in some quarters. This understandable repugnance of national chauvinism however generally ignores the actual concrete experience of these ideas in practice. By doing so it fails to see their complete failure if not disastrous consequences for communism.

    Pyatakov was leader of the RSDRP (Bolsheviks) in Kyiv during the revolution. The Bolsheviks as with the whole of the Russian Social Democracy was an overwhelmingly Great Russian or Russified Jewish in origin. For most of them Ukraine did not exist at all, they never published in the Ukrainian language and made no effort to appeal to the Ukrainian masses. There was no Ukrainian territorial organisation or perspective.
    The views of the Kyiv Bolsheviks, as of many of the Russophile East Ukrainian Bolsheviks on the led to self-isolation and contributed in no small measure of the division of the workers from the peasantry, and fragmentation within the working class itself. As the Ukrainian revolution raged around them, Pyatakov and co stood apart, seeing themselves as part of a Russian Revolution not a Ukrainian Revolution.

    Indeed these local Bolsheviks took more negative po¬sition on the Ukrainian question and a more aggressive posture than did the Bolsheviks in Great Russia who strongly attacked the Provisional Government and its imperialist policy.
    Pyatakov, regarded Ukraine as an inseparable part of the Russian empire and Kyiv “as one of Russia’s large cities and not as the centre of Ukraine.” He felt that Russia’s economic existence would be impossible without Ukrainian coal, sugar, and grain. He defended this position at the meeting of the Kyiv committee of the RSDRP(B) on 17 June 1917:

    “We support the Ukrainians in their protests against all kinds of bureaucratic prohibitions by the government, such as the prohibition of the Ukrainian military congress. But generally we should not support the Ukrainians, for this movement is not advantageous to the proletariat. Russia cannot exist without the Ukrainian sugar industry, the same can be said about coal (the Donets basin), grain (the black earth belt), etc. These branches of industry are closely connected with all the rest of Russia’s indus¬try. Moreover, Ukraine does not form a distinct economic region, for it does not possess banking centres, as Finland does. If Ukraine separates itself by a customs barrier from the rest of Russia, then the industry of the Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Poltava, and other districts, which still bears a handicraft charac¬ter, will successfully compete with the backward local factory industry … which represents a retrograde step and is extremely undesirable for the proletariat.”

    For Pyatakov, the Ukrainian movement was counter-revolutionary, because it “tries to bind the revolutionary movement with national fetters and turn backwards the wheel of history.” The experience of such policies in practice was of tragic failure of fragmentation of the pro-soviet forces, with a damaging a division between the Russian and Ukrainian revolutions.

    Pyatakov and his Kyiv comrades came to ally with pro-independence Bolsheviks in Ukraine from a curious route. As opponents of Lenin over the Brest Litovsk treaty and to Leninist centralism, to assert themselves the Kyiv lefts came to support an independent Bolshevik party in Ukraine. Whilst still disregarding national liberation Pyatakov considered a specific strategy was necessary towards the peasantry harnessing their insurrectionary potential.

    The real disaster in Ukraine was in 1919 when there was a real possibility of convergence between the Ukrainian and Russian social revolutions. Pyatakov was initially head of a provisional Bolshevik created Provisional Worker-Peasant Government of Ukraine he was then replaced by Rakovsky. But Pyatakov remained in the government charge of the National Economy of Ukraine.

    When head of the government he blocked an agreement with the pro-soviet a communist left of the Ukrainian parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats. Once the government was installed on the back of the red militias allied to the Ukrainian parties, the other pro-soviet forces were excluded from the running of the republic. Rakovsky denied the very existence of the Ukrainian nation. The government proceeded to introduce 200 decrees against the use of the Ukrainian language, the government of Rakovsky which was on paper independent, considered itself a region of Moscow. Soviet were reduced to an advisory capacity and appointed revolutionary committees ruled, in the countryside similarly via so-called ‘committees of poor peasants.’ Russian chauvinists wrapped themselves in the red flag, running the country like colonial administrators. The consequence was rebellion; the Soviet Republic was torn apart, leading to the isolation of Soviet Hungary.
    In this period Pyatakov still did not see the relevance of the national question to these matters.

    At the Eight Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1919 he argued self-determination of any kind was false-doctrine, even Bukharin’s formula of self-determination of the working class of the oppressed nation! In Pyatkovs opinion, no revolutionary proletariat was capable of working out its own state order alone the Russian Communists he said had to “stand firmly on the road of strict proletarian centralisation and proletarian unity”. He argued that “during a sufficiently large and torturous experience in the borderlands, the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination has shown itself in practice, during the social revolution, as a slogan uniting all counter-revolutionary forces”. In his view once the proletariat has seized power self-determination became irrelevant.

    Pyatakov was tragic figure; many of the more libertarian views of the left communists in Ukraine were sheared by Ukrainian Marxists, but the position on the national question divided and weakened the Russian communists in Ukraine and the Ukrainian communists in the face of centralist bullying and repression. But much worse the views on the national question of Pyatakov and especially Rakovsky contributed to the defeat of the revolution in Ukraine and Hungary in 1919.


  2. Really interesting post.

    The formation of the European Union, is an admission of the obsolete nature of the nation-state. The bounty has been split up, and there is no room for new small states.


  3. Doesnt that follow from the logic of a union formed by the imperialist great powers. They denied self-determination before the EU also i.e Basques.


  4. Hi Chris. I understand that you’re against the ideas expressed in the first article – but what is your take on the second one? I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I’m trying to get a bit of perspective.


  5. I essentially agree with the criticism of Lenin made by Yurkevych on Lenin’s The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Lenin had broken a lot of new ground by way of his Hegel studies. He had had changed his ideas significantly during the war. Imperialism he pointed out held also its dialectical opposite – new subjective forces of revolution such as national liberation struggles. Lenin now considering that the socialist revolution may begin in the near future “the proletariat will be faced with the immediate task of capturing power,” in that situation “the necessity of proclaiming and granting freedom to all oppressed nations”. Nevertheless despite having argued that old positions “should be supplemented” he never openly expressed criticism with regard to his previous views. The result was an amalgam of new ideas and the baggage of centralism, which retarded the emancipatory strength of his ideas. Lenin and Yurkevych discussed issues face to face in 1916 although they made little progress from their previous divergences.
    Yurkevych was still able to identify the presence of the old centralist views of Lenin within the new arguments. The RSDRP held to two mutually exclusive propositions, the “right of nations to self-determination,” understood exclusively as the right “of secession from the oppressor nation,” combined with the asserted “advantages of large states”. This ended up with the view that revolutionaries in the oppressed nation should argue for unity and those in the oppressor for their right to self-determination. This amounted to not advocating any positive programme to resolve the national question. This was particularly dangerous for a party of the dominant nation in the Russian Empire. Another problem with Lenin and the RSDRP was their strict adherence to the concept of single-party per state, meaning their own. This equated the unity of workers organisation with the boundaries formed by the capitalist state, this also vitiated the more emancipatory ideas of Lenin that were developed during the First World War.
    The Ukrainian Marxists did not take such an abstentionist view but advocated federalism, but the draw back they faced was that to succeed it required support in Russia also, which was not forthcoming. Elsewhere Yurkevych outlined the role of the Ukrainian socialist movement as:
    “This movement has connected the question of national liberation to all the problems of the liberation of the proletariat; it has raised this question to the level of those political problems which can be solved by no other means than democratic struggle, by the development of class antagonism in Ukrainian society……the working class appears as the sole revolutionary and democratic power. This in effect is what is happening in the Ukrainian socialist movement which is developing in struggle shoulder to shoulder with the workers’ movement in all Russia.” (Ukraine and the War).
    As oppose to standing aside and letting other class forces taking the lead in the anti-colonial revolution Yurkevych and other posed the necessity of an independent working class role which establishes its hegemony on the question of social emancipation and national liberation.


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