the russian social democrats and the national question

by Lev Rybalka (Yurkevych)

The editors of the Geneva Sotsial democrat — the central organ of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party— have published a Sbornik devoted principally to the national question and the defence of the “right of nations to self-determination.”

The Russian social democrats, who formerly treated the national question with complete indifference, have begun to take an interest in it in recent years.

However, their right wing, which turned so sharply toward opportunism before the war and toward patriotism during it, has no concern whatever for the nations oppressed by its dear “fatherland,” which is “defending itself.” Accordingly, we shall not even speak of them.

The revolutionary wing of the Russian social democrats, on the contrary, is very actively engaged in the national question. Primarily involved is its foreign representation, w exploiting the general confusion, imperiously decrees its views, cursing those who disagree.

Our folk proverb says that “the devil is never really as black as he is painted.” And that is so. Therefore, casting aside superstitious prejudices, we proceed to the exposition of our subject.

The Sbornik commences with “Theses” bearing the resounding title Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.  There we read:

The right of nations to self-determination means the exclusive right to independence in the political sense, to free political secession from the oppressor nation. Concretely, this demand for political democracy means complete freedom of agitation for secession and the resolution of the question of secession by a referendum of the seceding nation. Accordingly, this demand is not at all equivalent to a demand for secession, fragmentation, or the creation of small states. It signifies only the consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression. The nearer a democratic system to complete freedom of secession, the less frequent and weaker will be strivings toward secession in practice, for the advantages of large states both from the point of view of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses are indubitable; moreover, they increase steadily with the growth of capitalism .

The goal of socialism is not only the elimination of the fragmentation of humanity into small states and of all segregation of nations, not only the drawing together of nations, but also their merging. And precisely in order to attain this goal, we must demand the liberation of nations not in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not in the form of ‘‘postponing” the question until the achievement of socialism, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political program, taking particular account of the hypocrisy and cowardice of socialists in the oppressor nations.

This quotation defines the basic views of the editors of the RSDRP’s central organ on the national question. What is astonishing and glaring, however, is the contradictoriness of these views.

Thus, for example, the recognition of the “right of nations to self- determination.” which is understood in the exclusive sense of the right “of secession from the oppressor nation,” is followed immediately by the assertion that “the advantages of large states from the point of view of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses are indubitable.”

These two propositions are mutually exclusive. For, if we grant that “with the development of capitalism” large states increasingly serve the interests of the masses and of progress, then our defence of “the right of nations to self-determination.” whose realization breaks up “large states,” would act as an obstacle to the development of “large states” and to capitalist progress in general. With this in mind and as if to confuse the issue once and for all, the authors of the “theses” note that in actual fact “the demand for free secession from the oppressor nation” “is not at all equivalent to a demand for secession, fragmentation or the creation of small states.”

It follows from this that the program of the central organ of the RSDRP on the national question, consisting in the recognition of the “right of nations to self-determination” and in its simultaneous denial— equals zero.

But, if in mathematics zeroes mean nothing, the zeroes contained in political programs are often exhibited as large political figures, and the defenders of such zeroes, as has happened, for example, in our case, come forward with the “demand for liberation of nations not in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not in the form of ‘postponing’ the question until the achievement of socialism, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political program, taking particular account of the hypocrisy and cowardice of socialists in the oppressor nations.”

However strange this “demand” may seem when proclaimed by people whose program on the national question equals zero, we nevertheless gladly admit the indispensability for socialists of a program on the national question that is “clearly and precisely formulated, taking particular account of the hypocrisy and cowardice of socialists in the oppressor nations.”

For it is only by taking this hypocrisy into account that we shall comprehend the “right of nations to self-determination” as it is defended by the Russian social democrats.

The principle of the “right of nations to self-determination” was recognized by them when they were not yet divided and were grouped about the newspaper Iskra [ Spark], published in Geneva. Thus, as early as 1903, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the last Polish insurrection of 1863, the Russian and Polish socialist press took up the discussion of the national question in connection with the question of the restoration of an independent Poland in issue 44 of Iskra there appeared, incidentally, a lead article by Lenin entitled “The National Question in Our Program.” This article is devoted to the question of the “right of nations to self-determination,” and in it, as in the Sbornik with which we are concerned, Lenin, while coming out in defence of the “right to self-determination,” hastens immediately to add that “the un conditional recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination in no way obliges us to support every demand for national self-determination.”

Going on to polemicise with the PPS, Lenin notes the difference between the former insurgent and democratic Poland and the present bourgeois Poland; that then (in Marx’s time) “the complete victory of democracy in Europe was indeed impossible without the restoration of Poland,” and that now “St. Petersburg has become a far more important revolutionary centre than Warsaw; the Russian revolutionary movement already has greater international significance that the Polish.” Proceeding to quote Mehring’s statement that the restoration of Poland is a “reactionary utopia” and that “at present the restoration of Poland is possible only through a resolution by means of which the modern proletariat will sunder its chains,” Lenin adds: We fully subscribe to this conclusion of Mehring’s.”

Proceeding from this, he comes out decisively against “the break-up of Russia, toward which the Polish Socialist Party is striving, as distinct from our goal of overthrowing autocracy,” and declares at the end of the article that “we shall always say to the Polish workers: only the fullest union with the Russian proletariat can satisfy the demands of the present, actual political struggle against autocracy; only such a union will provide a guarantee of political and economic emancipation.

What we have said concerning the Polish question may also be applied to every other national question.”

Thus, Lenin, having declared in 1903 that he recognized the right of secession of nations, came out with utter frankness in the same article against the “break-up of Russia” and, consequently, against the “self- determination” not only of the Poles, but of all the other oppressed nations of Russia, as is entirely clear from his final words, which we have underlined.

It is interesting that the Russian social democrats, pretending to defend the “right of nations to self-determination,” promise with utter seriousness that this right will be recognized by the state that will be achieved by “the union of the Polish and Russian proletariat in the name of the demand for a democratic republic, which will ensure all nations the right of free self-determination” (Iskra, no. 33, “In the Last Forty Years”). In the Theses of the Sbornik it is also stated that “the nearer the democratic system of a state to complete freedom of secession, the less frequent and weaker will be strivings toward secession in practice.”

A strange freedom is it not, which the oppressed nations will renounce the more nearly they approach its attainment! This reminds us of Rodichev’s speech in the Duma: “Give the Ukrainians schools so that they themselves may later renounce them.” But if such mockery of the demands of a people oppressed by Russia is understandable when it comes from a Russian liberal, the Russian social democrats’ interpretation of the “right of nations to self-determination” as a right that the oppressed nations will refrain from exercising once’ they have gained it—an interpretation derived, moreover, from internationalism and socialism——can arouse amazement and indignation.

No less astonishing is the Russian social democrats’ promise to ensure the democratic republic’s “guarantee” of the right of free secession. For if a democratic system is actually established in Russia, then, taking as an example the development of the West European states and also considering the reactionary and blatantly imperialist character of the policies of the Russian bourgeoisie, one can say with certainty that it will not only not oppose the weakening of tsarist centralism but will strengthen it, turning it from an exclusively bureaucratic system into a social system for the oppression of the nations of the Russian Empire.

It is quite ridiculous to speak of the possibility of the “guarantee” by those in power in a capitalist state of the “right of nations to self- determination.” Every state, even the most democratic, and especially now, in the age of imperialism, not only will never agree to allow the oppressed nations to separate, but will always strive to make new territorial acquisitions, to oppress even more nations. Capitalist governments have always regarded the “right of nations to self-determination” as a betrayal of the fatherland and punish the guilty with the death penalty.

We would be right to consider the Russian social democrats’ promise to “guarantee” the “right of secession” in a Russian republic a criminal and conscious deception of the democratic forces of the oppressed peoples if we did not recall, in their extenuation, their idealization of a democratic Russia, of the Russian “toiling masses,” and of political revolution, which they often identify with social revolution.

Lenin, for example, does not doubt that his party will manage to seize power in the present war, and that then “we would,” he promises,

offer peace to all belligerents on condition of the liberation of colonies and all dependent, oppressed and underprivileged peoples. Neither Germany nor England and France, under their present governments, would accept this condition. Then we would have to prepare and wage a revolutionary war, that is, not only carry out all of our minimum program completely with the most decisive measure, but also systematically rouse to revolt all the peoples now oppressed by the Russians, all the colonies and dependent countries of Asia (India, China, Persia, and so on), and—in the first place—we would rouse to revolt the socialist proletariat of Europe against its governments and in defiance of its social chauvinists. There can be no doubt whatever that the victory of the proletariat in Russia would present uncommonly auspicious conditions for the development of revolution in Asia and Europe (Sotsial demokrat, no. 17, 13 October 19i5).

To supplement this revolutionary nonsense, we shall cite another Russian socialist newspaper, Vpered (no. 2), representing the left wing of the Bolsheviks, which is convinced that if Russia should democratize herself during the war, “she would cease to be a spectre to the Balkan (!) and Austrian ( !) Slays (!) on the contrary, she would he such a powerful magnet for them that Austrian rnilitarism would immediately he shaken. By the very fact of her democratism Russia would disarm her enemies

This blind faith in the democratic and socialist virtues of Russia, from our point of view, is not at all an expression, as is generally believed, of the exceptional revolutionariness and internationalist impeccability of Russian socialism. On the contrary, if we take into account the development of Russian liberal ideas of the last century in their relation to the national question. We shall see that the national program of the revolutionary Russian social democrats is nothing but a reiteration of the Russian liberal patriotic program formulated in the age of the emancipation of the peasants.

The most prominent exponent and, one might say, the creator of that program was, as is well known, Herzen, the “ruler of men’s minds” during the l860’s.  At that time the Polish question was extremely acute in view of the Polish uprising, which coincided with the Russian liberation movement of the 1860s.

All attempts at effecting an agreement between the Russian liberals and the Polish insurgents did not lead to any positive result, and with the onset of reaction during the reign of Alexander II, Russian society, becoming rapidly permeated with patriotic sentiments, turned away from Poland, which Tsarism had taken in its iron fist. Among the ideas that served to justify it brutal abuse of the Polish nation were those of Slavophilism, which changed from a federalist program into a programme of Russian patriotism, and under its banner Tsarism “liberated” the “little Balkan brothers” in 1877.

It is significant that Herzen’s national federalist program, which al ready contained all the elements of insatiable Russian nationalism, was constructed on the principle of ….. “the right of nations to self-determination.”

Replying to a Polish writer in an open letter published in number 34 of Kolokol, ‘Russia and Poland’, Herzen wrote:

Poland, like Italy or Hungary, has the full, inalienable right to exist as a state independent of Russia. Whether we want a free Poland to break away from a free Russia is another question. No, we do not want this, and can one desire such a thing at a time when exclusive nationalities and international enmities constitute one of the main obstacles restraining free social development?……

We believe that Poland and Russia can go hand in hand down a single path to a new, free social life. It is our opinion that Poland and Russia are in an entirely different situation from that of Lombardy and Austria. Different paths lie before Lombardy and Austria. The downfall of Austria is the necessary condition for the life of the peoples welded together by her into a unit…..

in complete contrast, Russia is a living personality like England or France. The only difference is that these “old relics,” with their riches and their scars, with chevrons on their sleeves and with banners tattered by bullets over the last three centuries, covered in glory, are going off to their rest, while Russia is just stepping onto the square, the parade ground of history. The very name of Russia is beginning to be repeated throughout Europe together with that of America.

Except for her borderlands, Russia is a compact unit akin in blood, language, and spirit. Every Russian is aware of himself as part of the state as a whole. He recognizes his kinship with the entire population, which has been brought up in the same peasant way of life, with its communal order and division of land. Because of this, wherever a Russian may live in the vast expanses between the Baltic and the Pacific Ocean, he is vigilant whenever an enemy crosses the Russian border and is ready to go to the aid of Moscow, as he did in 1612 and 1812

Going on to discuss the question of the borders between Poland and Russia and following the words: “But tell me, what sort of heirs are we to the Congress of Vienna if we prescribe which zone of land belongs where without asking the people living on it?”, Herzen writes:

Well, and what if after all our argumentation, Ukraine, which remembers the oppression of the Russian soldiers and the institution of serfdom, the conscriptions, the deprivation of rights, the plundering and the knout on the one hand, and has not forgotten what it was like under the Polish Commonwealth with it soldiers, lords, and crown officials on the other, desires to be neither Polish nor Russian? In my Opinion the question is resolved very simply. Ukraine should be recognized as free and independent. . . – In Little Russia there dwell people, people oppressed by slavery, but not so broken by the government and the landowners that they have lost all feeling of national identity. Quite the contrary, their ethnic consciousness is highly developed. What sort of step will it be toward their liberation if, while taking off the Muscovite chains, they are told that they must belong to Poland?

Let us untie their hands, let us loosen their tongues, let their speech be absolutely free, and then let them speak for themselves and step across the knout to us, across the Pope to you, or if they are wise, extend a hand to each of us in fraternal unity arid independence of us both –

In order to say whether it is possible to go with Russia or not, it is necessary to see what will emerge from the general movement into which Russia has been plunged –

If Russia. faltering at her first step [the emancipation of the peasants with land — L.R.}, should remain under the rod of the landlord, under the baton of the police, without courts and without rights, administered by orderlies and clerks; if this whole movement should prove weak and we, without a murmur, were to return to the time of Nicholas; then not only should Poland or Ukraine riot remain with Russia, but they should unite, march on Moscow, and destroy this whole gigantic edifice of slavery.

This is our opinion in its entirety, and no matter what Russian patriots or yours say, we will not change it or betray it, for we are convinced in heart and mind of its truth.

We have purposely not begrudged the space for this long question in order to show the quite extraordinary resemblance between Herzen’s view on the national question and the current program of the “right of nations to self-determination” of the Russian social democrats, who call themselves internationalists.

In some respects Herzen is even more resolute and consistent than Lenin, but they are both national twins, and their views on the national question are generally identical.

They both recognize that nations have “the full, inalienable right to exist as states independent of Russia,” but if you ask them whether they actually want the secession of the nations oppressed by Russia, they will answer you cordially and with one voice: “No, we do not leant it!” They are opponents of the “break up of Russia,” and, recognizing the “right of self-determination” only for the sake of appearances, they are actually fervent defenders of her unity. Herzen, because he proceeds from the assumption that “exclusive nationalities and international enmities constitute one of the main obstacles restraining free human development,” and Lenin, because “the advantages of large states both from the point of view of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses are indubitable.”

Both these public men—the liberal and the socialist—are also united by their obeisance before Russia’s greatness, and both of them regard her with equal enthusiasm as the Messiah who will save humanity from social injustice. Herzen bases his hopes in this regard on the Russian “commune” and Lenin on the “Russian proletariat,” and they are both convinced that it is not Europe, “an old relic” and “going off to her rest,” but Russia that will be the first to achieve socialism, while Lenin even imagines that during the present war the Russian socialist proletariat, seizing power in its own hands and declaring war on Western Europe “will rouse to revolt the socialist proletariat of Europe against its governments and in defiance of its social chauvinists.”

Ostensibly, they both also take a highly extreme position on the national question. Herzen is prepared to turn to the oppressed nations, if Russia does not realize the “social idea with an appeal “to march on Moscow and destroy this gigantic edifice of slavery,” while Lenin promises that his party, after seizing power during the present war, “will rouse to revolt all the peoples now oppressed by the Russians.”

This unanimity on the national question between the father of Russian liberalism and the leader of contemporary Russian socialism is, of course, highly significant.

Herzen’s Slavophile federalist “internationalism,” to say nothing of its reactionary offshoot in the form of the contemporary neo Slav movement, has turned in the current Russian liberal movement into a political program of Russian aggressive imperialism, openly hostile to the national- liberation movements of the oppressed peoples of Russia.

Herzen was the theoretical creator of the idea of a great Russia, the creator of Russian bourgeois patriotism. But his epoch was the epoch of the idealistic, youthful stage of development of Russian liberalism, and accordingly his Russian patriotism assumed revolutionary form.

It was precisely in this revolutionary form that the Russian social democrats adopted the program of the Russian liberals on the national question and if they have replaced its old liberal revolutionary character with a newer, proletarian one, the content of the program has nevertheless remained for the most part unchanged.

What is the “right of nations to self-determination”? The bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation makes use of this “right” to arouse patriotic feelings of devotion to “large states” in its own and foreign oppressed nations. Like Herzen and Lenin, who promise to “guarantee” the “right to self-determination” in a free and democratic Russia, the bourgeoisie and its governments also usually promise liberation to oppressed nations after something, for example after a war.

Russian public opinion was highly sympathetic to the tsar’s promise of “self-determination” for the Polish people after the war. However, its attitude to the fate of other oppressed peoples was somewhat different highly characteristic in this regard is the position that the Russian right- wing and liberal press assumed on the question of the governing authorities’ conduct in those parts of Galicia and Bukovina that have now been conquered.

After the initial conquest of Austrian Ukraine, tile Russian troops and officials, both secular and ecclesiastical, distinguished themselves, as is we known by such barbarous conduct toward the Ukrainian population that, at the time of the second invasion by Russian armies the Ukrainian populace attempted, as was noted in the Russian press, to abandon their dwellings. The Russian press could not fail to pay attention to this, and the government was showered with reproaches from all sides for arousing the Galician population against itself and strengthening Austrophile sympathies within it.

Nevertheless, both the right-wing and liberal Russian press indicts the government not for its violence against the Ukrainian-Austrian population, but only because the government has already, in time of war, begun to oppress Austrian Ukraine. Kolokol ‘wrote openly that the solution to the problem of “Galician Ukrainophilism” “will come in its own time, when the conquest of this primordially Russian region is definitely and unalterably assured to the Russian Empire,” and in the mean time it advises “not to interfere in the internal affairs of Galicia.” Novoe vrernia expressed itself in the same spirit, declaring that the solution of the “civic problem” in Galicia “is still premature.” Russkie vedomosti’ indicts the government in its turn on the grounds that, “without waiting for the war to end,” it wanted to accomplish “tasks of internal policy” in the occupied land. Den also notes that “the civic national religious reconstruction of the region should be left until alter the end of the war.” Rech took much the same position; moreover, like all the Russian press that wrote about Austrian Ukraine, demanding respect on the part of the government for the national and religious particularities of the occupied land, it did not say a word about the extreme oppression to which the Ukrainian movement in Russia has been subjected since the beginning of the war.

Most characteristic, however, was the declaration on Austrian Ukraine made by Prince E. Trubetskoi’ in Russkoe slovo (no. 171 for 1906) “If we,” he wrote, “set ourselves the goal of merging the Galicians with the native Russian population, we should from the very beginning instil in them the conviction that to be Russian means for them not to renounce their religious beliefs and national particularities, hut to preserve them.”

These words testify to Lenin’s solidarity on the national question not only with Herzen, but also with Prince Trubetskoi, as both Prince Trubetskoi and Lenin promise the oppressed nations—the former—”preservation of their national particularities”—and Lenin—”the right to self determination,” but both for the purpose of merging these nations.

In general, the promise of the “right” to liberation on the part of an oppressor always amounts to “hypocrisy.” After all, this right is decidedly contrary to his interests, and therefore, if he promises it, he does so only to deceive the oppressed party and thereby continue his domination.

The slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination” may be considered as demagogic as the slogan of the “right to work,” which has long served the bourgeoisie as a means of deceiving the workers.

“In struggle you shall gain your rights,” and if we imagine with Herzen that Ukraine, remembering her great rebellion against Poland and victory over her, rises against Russia and wages war on her, of what “right” of Ukraine could one speak at such a moment?*[*] There is no doubt that the Russian government and bourgeoisie would use all the means at their disposal and even enlist the aid of allied states to defeat Ukraine to crush her, and to place her in subjection anew.

But how will the Russian proletariat act in such a case? Even if it is educated in the spirit of Lenin’s “right to self-determination and even if we assume that in the event of a Ukrainian insurrection Lenin comes out in favour of the ‘defeat of Russia,” the Russian proletariat will most likely not obey him and will go to war against Ukraine.

It will remember, after all, that for ten whole years Lenin has been coming out most energetically against “the break-up of Russia’’; that he has always been of the opinion that “the advantages of large states both from the point of view of economic progress and from that of the interests of the masses are indubitable; moreover, they increase steadily with the growth of capitalism,” and that it is necessary to enter into “the fullest union [ proletarians of the oppressed nations] with the Russian proletariat,” for “only such a union will provide a guarantee of complete political and economic emancipation.”

Besides, the Russian worker has learned from Lenin that contemporary wars are distinguished by their exclusively imperialist character. Taking this into account, the Russian workers will easily understand that the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, which will be at the head of the insurgent Ukrainian people should it prove victorious, will not limit itself, obviously, to the liberation of Ukrainian territory, but will attempt also to “liberate,” for example, Belorussia, of whose incorporation the partisans of an independent Ukraine are already dreaming. Nor will the Ukrainian bourgeoisie deny itself the annexation of a large slice of Russian territory.

The danger of a Ukrainian victory is bound to impel the Russian proletariat to come out against Ukraine’s “self-determination,” and as its justification it will say that “the right of nations to self-determination is not at all equivalent to a demand for secession, fragmentation, or the creation of small states.” If the Ukrainian workers, believing in the “right to self-determination,” join the rebellion, the Russian proletariat will call them traitors to the cause of “complete political and economic emancipation” and will combat them in the interests of “emancipation.”

Accordingly, both the Russian proletariat and the Ukrainian, if they proceed from the “right of nations to elf-determination” at the moment of their peoples’ struggle, the Russian for “unity” and the Ukrainian for ‘secession,” will inevitably come to the conclusion that “the defence of their fatherlands” is a necessity. One who upholds a particular right can not fail to defend that which the implementation of this right will bring him. If, for example, after long struggle we obtain the right of free speech, then at any attempt to take it away from us we shall defend ourselves. Unless demands, once achieved, are defended, there is no sense in fighting for them.

The achievement of the “right to self-determination” obliges us to “defend the fatherland.” Hence it appears to us illogical that the sup porters of the “right to self-determination” should refuse to defend con temporary states. States organized anew will not really differ in any way from already existing states. The Russian social democrats, in discussing the “right to self-determination,” have never broached the question whether the new boundaries should be historical or ethnic. If, for example, Poland were to be restored in her historical boundaries, it would be necessary to include within her the Lithuanians, the Belorussians, and half the Ukrainians. But if we should wish to accept the principle of ethnic boundaries, then we would not achieve any positive results either, because under capitalism, with its wars and annexations, boundaries are continually changing. Therefore there do not exist and cannot exist at the present time any states that are whole in the national sense, and in each of them the nation that is greatest in numbers rules.

But all these considerations do not, strictly speaking, pertain to the “right to self enunciated by the revolutionary Russian social democrats, as their “right to self-determination” represents nothing other than veritable “hypocrisy.”

The Russian Social Democrats’ obeisance before “large states” and before the centralism of these states destroys within them the capacity to consider the national question from a genuinely internationalist point of view.

Lenin, for example, resolves the problem of the relationship between “large” and “small” nations in exactly the same way as it is resolved in practice by the governments of the “large states.” In this case, moreover —as always—he passes off his views as the last word in Marxist perfection and speaks in Marx’s name with the same conviction as clerics speak in the name of the Lord God.

As long ago as 1896 Kautsky, in his introduction to Marx’s Revolution and Counterrevolution, noted with perfect justice that Marx had made a mistake iii denying the (Austrian) Slavic peoples, first and foremost the Czechs. All possibility of national existence.” Marx’s mistake consisted, in Kautsky’s opinion, in Marx’s failure to take into account the fact that

in 1848 the national movement of the Bohemians was a class struggle at whose head stood a single class, the petty bourgeoisie. Thanks to this the entire nation could appear temporarily as the enemy of revolution, and the national movement was characterized by unity and wholeness.  At the present time the Czech nation is torn asunder by the same profound class contradictions as every other contemporary nation. and it is therefore impossible that it should again come out as a whole against the revolutionary movement and betray it . . . The Austrian Slays, as a nationality, will never again play the same role as they did in 1848.

Condemning the Austrian Slays to national extinction, Marx turned all his sympathies toward Poland, considering that the restoration of its independence would ensure the complete victory of European democracy. But the situation has changed. Lenin now comes out against the slogan of an independent Poland because “St. Petersburg has become a far more important revolutionary centre than Warsaw.” Regardless of this, Lenin still makes use of Marx’s position after 1848 to justify his view on the necessity of discriminating between “revolutionary” and “reactionary” peoples and “subordinating the interests of democracy in one country to the interests of democracy in several or all countries.”

To prove the justice of such a view, Lenin gives the following example:

Let us imagine that between two large monarchies there is a small one whose kinglet is “related” by kinship or other ties to the monarchs of both neighbouring countries. Let us imagine further that the proclamation of a republic in the small country, the banishment of its monarch would mean in practice war between the two neigh boring large countries for the restoration of one monarch or the other in the small country. There is no doubt that international social democracy as a whole, including the truly internationalist section of social democracy in the small country, would be against the substitution of a republic for the monarchy in this case.

This is a striking example. First of all, the assumption of the possibility of war between two large states over the banishment of a “kinglet” in a “small country” is as naive as, for example, the explanation of the present world war by the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Serb. The banishment of the “kinglet” could serve only as a pretext for the large states to settle imperialist accounts between themselves, and therefore, it would seem, “international social democracy as a whole” should come out not against the republican aspirations of the “small country,” hut against war between the large states; moreover, one of its antiwar slogans ought to be the slogan of the defence of the republic of the “small country” and the aspiration of creating a republican order in the belligerent large states.

But it must not be forgotten that Lenin holds “small nations” in utter contempt, calls them “one of the sources of parasitism,” and usually identifies the concept “small” with the concept “oppressed.” He also finds that “the internationalist education of the working class ought not to be concretely identical in large, oppressor nations and small, oppressed nations.” For: “The path to a single goal—to complete equality of rights, to the closest drawing together and further merging of all nations passes here, of course, along concretely different roads.”

“The centre of gravity,” writes Lenin, “of the internationalist education of workers in oppressor nations must inevitably consist in the advocacy and defence by them of the freedom of secession of oppressed nations.” And having stated with his characteristic gentlemanliness that “we are entitled and obliged to treat every social democrat of an oppressor nation who does not conduct such propaganda as an imperialist, as a scoundrel,” Lenin immediately adds that “we are obliged to educate the workers in ‘indifference’ to national distinctions. This is indisputable.[†]

It would seem that the fostering of this “indifference” amounts in fact to the education of “scoundrels,” but Lenin explains that:

A member of an oppressor nation should he “indifferent” to the question whether small nations belong to his state or to a neighbouring one or to themselves, according to their sympathies: without such ‘ lie is not a social democrat. In order to he an inter nationalist social democrat, it is necessary to think not only of one’s own nation hut to place above it the interests of all nations, their universal liberty and equality of rights.

On the other hand, the social democrat of a small nation should place the centre of gravity of his agitation on the second word of our formula: the “voluntary unification” of nations. He may, without violating his responsibilities as an internationalist, favour both the political independence of his nation and its incorporation into a neighbouring state. But in all instances he should struggle against petty national narrowness, isolation, and exclusiveness, for the consideration of the whole and the universal, for the subordination of the interests of the particular to the interests of the general.

Thus socialists of oppressor nations should “indifferently” advocate and defend the “right of nations to self-determination,” while socialists of oppressed nations should, on the other hand, defend “in all instances” the “unification of nations’’ and ‘‘the subordination of the interests of the particular to the interests of the general.”

Both parties, socialists of the oppressed and the oppressor nations, are obliged, if they do not want to be “scoundrels,” to aspire toward “the closest drawing together and further merging of all nations.”

There is no doubt that this “further merging” is an expression not of internationalism but of the contemporary system of centralism of “large states” and the “further” assimilation and oppression of the nations subjected to them.

Faithful to this system, Lenin also transfers it to the socialist order and declares that “the goal of socialism is not only the elimination of the fragmentation of humanity into small states and of all exclusiveness of nations, not only the drawing together of nations, but also their merging.” As a convinced centralist, he shies away from the generally recognised fact that the capitalist order, while oppressing nations, simultaneously regenerates and organizes them. The rebirth of oppressed nations runs parallel with the democratization of culture, and hence it is impossible not to agree with Bauer2 that nations will fully develop only under socialism, when the broad masses take part in cultural life, which will inescapably assume a national character, accelerating social progress by means of its peaceful diversity.

In any case, it is clear that acknowledgement of the inevitability of “further merging of nations” can in no way be reconciled with the “thesis” of the right to self-determination, and we cannot therefore fail to relegate this “thesis” to the collection of other national-”liberation” slogans of contemporary belligerent imperialism. The last Zimmerwald Conference sincerely and honestly declared that it considers the proletariat obliged “to repel all efforts made under the standard of liberation of op pressed peoples to create seemingly independent but in fact unviable states.”

The Zimmerwald internationalist movement came out, as is well known, with an autonomist program on the national question, stating in a resolution at its second conference that “as long as socialism has not brought about liberty and equality of rights for all nations (compare with Lenin’s “further merging”!), the unalterable responsibility of the proletariat should be energetic resistance by means o class struggle against all oppression of weaker nations and a demand for the defence of national minorities and autonomy on the basis of full democracy.”

Class struggle against all national oppression—-this is the only principle on which a truly internationalist socialist program on the national question can be constructed.

The difference between the Zimmerwald “theses” on the national question and the “theses” of the central organ of the RSDRP consists precisely in the fact that the latter, while recognizing the “right of nations to self-determination,” actually supports a policy of hostility to the liberation struggle of nations, counter-posing to the Zimmerwald “liberty and equality of rights for all nations” its own “further merging.”

Supporting the struggle for national liberation, the Zimmerwalders display a concern deserving of every recognition for “national minorities” and demand democratic autonomy for oppressed nations.

The “central organ,” on the other hand, not only does not advance the demand for autonomy, but is even scornful of it, because, according to Lenin’s expression, “autonomy .as a reform is distinct in principle from freedom of secession as a revolutionary measure.”

All that Lenin defends is always, of course, very revolutionary. But if we take the example of Sweden and Norway, of which Lenin makes so much, these two nations exercised “self-determination” peacefully and by governmental means. On the other hand, the struggle for Irish autonomy expressed itself in a prolonged and stubborn revolutionary struggle.

In his defence of the “right to self-determination,” Lenin is obliged, in order to emerge as victor, to mix UI) concepts. In this case he identifies the forms of liberation of nations with the means of achieving their liberation.

The achievement of autonomy as well as of state sovereignty may be the result, in one case, of revolutionary struggle: in another, of a legal governmental or social act. Besides, the different classes of an oppressed nation, interpreting one and the same national-liberation slogan in different ways, fight for it differently. The bourgeoisie, in its striving for state sovereignty, as in its striving for autonomy, invariably pursues a policy of compromise with the government of the dominant state, for which its patriotic feelings are incomparably stronger than are its sympathies for the democratic goals of its people.

As for the proletariat and the democrats of the oppressed nation, their national-liberation strivings will be expressed at the decisive moments by barricade warfare with an autonomist democratic program, and by trench warfare with a program of secession.

We shall make no secret of the fact that we, for our part, prefer barricade warfare. That is, political revolution, to trench warfare, that is, war. The difference between the autonomist movement and the separatist movement consists precisely in the fact that the first leads democrats of all nations oppressed by a “large state” onto the path of struggle for political liberation, for only in a free political order is it possible to achieve democratic autonomy, while the second—the separatist, which is the concern of a single oppressed nation struggling not against the order that oppresses it but against the state that oppresses it—cannot fail, in the present strained atmosphere of antagonism between “large states,” to turn into an imperialist war combination.

It is also necessary to take into account that the capitalist states’ strivings for conquest serve as a kind of continuation of tile system of oppression of the nations within these states. The Muscovite state, for example, transformed itself into the modern Russian Empire only when it subjugated Poland and Ukraine, which stood above it in the cultural sphere but were disorganized by internecine wars, and subjected both to barbaric tsarist bureaucratic centralism. The greatness of the “Russian Empire, which has always sent the Russian opposition movement into such transports of enthusiasm, is built on the dominion of tile Russian people over a whole series of annexed peoples.

The oppression of nations within a state, like the oppression of a colonial population is conducive to the development of imperialist greed in the government of a ‘large state,” which, in order to realize its war plans makes use not only of its own people, but of the vast masses of oppressed peoples that, in Russia, as in Austria, comprise the majority of the population. From the nations that it oppresses the centre extracts great resources, which enrich the state treasury and allow the government to maintain the army and bureaucracy that protect its dominance.

Hence a democratic, autonomist decentralization of “large states,” by allowing the democrats of oppressed peoples also to play their part in political life, cannot fail to weaken the reactionary character and omnipotence of the central power. Hence also the national-liberation movements of the oppressed nations, particularly if the proletariat takes an active revolutionary part in them, combining its national liberation with its general class liberation, undoubtedly serve the cause of social progress.

On the question of old annexations, the central organ of the RSDRP holds to the view that “protest against annexations is nothing other than the acknowledgement of the right to self-determination,” that is, that if we come out against new annexations, we should by the same token come out against old ones and, accordingly, for the right to self-determination. Lenin maintained in view of this that I, “in coming out against the right to self-determination, thereby defend the old annexations of Tsarism (Finland et al,), “and in this connection called me “quite an undisguised servant of the bourgeoisie.”

As if to prove his “revolutionary” ebullience, Lenin greatly likes to abuse his opponent with a strong word. This manner of his arouses disgust, and it is often necessary to make a certain effort in order to force oneself to continue a discussion with him.

As proof that those who protest against annexations should recognize the right to self-determination, Lenin makes the following comparison:

Let us assume that I walk out onto the street of any European city and declare publicly (!), then repeat in the newspapers (!) a “protest” at not being allowed to buy someone as a slave. There is no doubt that I would properly be regarded as a slaveholder, a supporter of the principle or system, if you like, of slavery. That my sympathies toward slavery are expressed in negative and not positive form (“for slavery”) will deceive no one. A political “protest” is fully equivalent to a political program; this is so evident that it is somehow awkward even to feel obliged to explain it.

We greatly doubt whether the public of “any European city” could “regard” Lenin as a slaveholder. It would much sooner take him to be a man psychologically afflicted with a mania for domination. The news paper editors of “any European city” would probably throw his “protest” away in puzzlement into their editorial wastebaskets. After all, this “comparison” is as nonsensical as the affirmation that “a political ‘protest’ (Lenin’s quotation marks) is fully equivalent to a political program.”

The second Zimmerwald Conference declared with perfect justice that “the proletariat combats annexations not because it recognizes the world map as it was before the war as corresponding to the interests of the people and which, therefore, should not be changed! Socialism itself aspires to the elimination of all national oppression by means of the economic and political unification of peoples, which is unrealizable with the existence of capitalist boundaries.”

We protest against new annexations because they serve as a new form of coercion of nations arid as a new constraint on their liberation movements. As far as old annexations are concerned, it is not we who are their true defenders, but Lenin, because it is he, and not we, who stands for the “further merging of nations” in “large” and centralized states, and his “right to self-determination,” as he himself declares, will be renounced by the oppressed nations after its “guarantee.”

We, on the contrary, insist upon the necessity of struggle against the consequences of old annexations, against the oppression of annexed nations, and upon the conquest of democratic and autonomous rights for them as the only possible guarantee of their free national existence and development under a capitalist order. The shifting of boundaries is the task of imperialism our task is the struggle for the decentralization and democratization of “large states.” Moreover, the proletariat of the oppressor nation, at least that section whose attitude is truly internationalist, is obliged to help us in our struggle by its pressure on the central government.

We are against the Petrograd government’s and the Petrograd central committee’s centralizing in their hands, first, all political power over the Russian Empire, and second, all organized power over Russian social democracy.

We support time federalist principle both in the constitution of the Russian Empire and iii the organization of Russian social democracy.

When Ukrainian social democracy, which took definitive shape in programmatic and organizational respects at its constituent conference in 1905, declared itself in favour of unification with Russian social democracy on the basis of autonomy, the Russian social democrats, in the course of prolonged negotiations with us that were renewed several times, refused unification in the inst decisive fashion, offering us “fusion’’ which we of course, rejected and to which we will never agree.

In order to envisage most concretely what is meant by “the right of nations to self-determination,” it will suffice to quote Lenin’s letter to one of our editorial offices, which we print with the author’s permission:

“I must say,” he wrote to us, “that I am profoundly outraged by the advocacy of the segregation of Ukrainian workers into a separate s d organization.”

Throughout the whole nineteenth century and our own, Ukraine has been in the position of a Russian colony; moreover, repression of the Ukrainian movement by the tsarist government has always been merciless. The Ukrainian printed word was banned for thirty years before the revolution and has now been banned’ once again since the beginning of the present war, while the Russian army, upon the occupation of Galicia and Bukovina, has destroyed all the cultural achievements of the Ukrainian people in the relatively free political conditions of Austria.

Ukrainian social democracy has recognized the struggle for the liberation of its people as its responsibility. It has opposed to Ukrainian bourgeois politics, which consist in the exclusive effort to “make peace with the government” at the price of a few tiny concessions, a political program of democratic autonomy and a tactic of revolutionary class struggle, together with the proletariat of all the nations of Russia, against the tsarist order and for political and national freedom. Separate, but linked autonomously with Russian social democracy, the Ukrainian organization is indispensable for the realization of the distinct political demand of autonomy for Ukraine.

But Russian social democracy has received our movement with “profound outrage” from the first days of its appearance. As our movement grew, and regardless of the fact that our party took on a perfectly definite social-democratic character in 1905 and has held to a consistent revolutionary tactic, the antagonism between us and the Russian social democrats working in Ukraine not only has failed to weaken, but has grown continually stronger.

We have been treated as “chauvinists” and “separatists,” regardless of the fact that the Russian social democrats, following in the footsteps of governmental assimilation and utilizing its results, organized the proletariat in Ukrainian cities as a Russian proletariat and thus estranged it culturally from the rural proletariat, whereby, of course, they violated the unity of the workers’ movement in Ukraine and retarded its development.

In the whole course of their activity they have never come out on Ukrainian soil against national oppression and have utilized the results of this oppression as a means of extending their influence and their organizations across all of Ukraine’s large territory; this, of course, significantly strengthened their movement.

We can have no claims upon the Russian comrades who work among the Russian proletariat on Russian territory or among the proletarians who have emigrated to Ukrainian territory, but we are speaking of those Russian social democrats that work among our proletariat and, while recognizing our “right to self-determination,” nevertheless refuse us the right to struggle for our national liberation.

If they are sincere in saying that they wish to protest against old annexations, as a result of which Russia harshly oppresses Ukraine, then let them at least refrain from hindering the Ukrainian proletariat in its struggle for its own national liberation.

Russkie Sotsialdemokrat’i i Natsional’ii Vopros, editors of the Ukrainian Social Democratic paper Borotba, Geneva, 1917

* A propos of this let us note that the Shornik proposes in its “Theses” “the resolution of the question of secession by a referendum of the seceding nation,” No view could be more mistaken. A nation that has seceded unilaterally has no need for a referendum, Only a conqueror or a ruling power in general can have recourse to a referendum, and under such conditions a referendum can only be a manifestation of constraint, F or example, how fine a referendum organized by the Germans would look now in Poland. It is also being rumoured that Black Hundred reactionaries are insisting on the necessity of a referendum in Ukraine in order to decide the question of its national schools. It cannot be doubted that under present police conditions, when even the Ukrainian printed word is for bidden, such a referendum would yield a result favourable to the tsarist government.

[†] In the Sbornik there is a note on the “All-City SD [RSDRP] Conference in Kharkiv” that took place in November 1915. In the cited resolutions of this conference, notwithstanding the fact that Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city, there is not a word of mention of the national oppression of Ukraine and of her “right to self-determination.” It would seem that the moment for such a declaration was most appropriate. The question arises, therefore, whether Lenin regards the Kharkiv S -D Conference as a meeting of “scoundrels,” and if not, why not?

2 thoughts on “the russian social democrats and the national question

  1. Lenin was right, this fellow is an undisguised servant of the bourgeoisie.
    He uses formal logic, not dialectics.
    He says Lenin contradicts himself calling for the right to self-determination of oppressed nations and yet at the same time ‘unification’ of these nations.
    He completely fails to see that this ‘unification’ is made possible by the Leninist position on the national question, in the form of a ‘union of socialist republics’ (but with the existing right to self-determination even then).
    Since he fails to understand this the bourgeois apologist thinks Lenin is mimicking ‘great Russian chauvinism’.
    On the contrary this person is an apologist for the little nationalisms the national bourgeoisies of this or that little nation.


    There is no doubt Lenin made significant progress in his thought as regards dialectics during World War One but it did completely overcome his contradictions of his pre-war positions. As regards Rybalka (Yurkevych) Lenin was wrong, at a times abusive and distortive in his characterization of him.
    In response to an earlier article by Yurkevych in Dzvin Lenin wrote in Prosveshcheniye, in late 1913 accusing Yurkevych of betraying Ukraine by striving to divide the working class and the peasantry, that only with: “united action of the Great-Russian and Ukrainian proletarians, a free Ukraine is possible; without such unity, it is out of the question.” Noticeable by its absence is any acknowledgement of the fact Yurkevych and the Ukrainian Marxists made repeated efforts at organizational unity with the Russian Social Democracts who refused to recognise an autonomous Ukrainian section. Furthermore Yurkevych had never advocated separatism but federalism, the “energetic defence of the national-political and democratic rights of the Ukrainian people within the boundaries of the Russian state”.
    As regards Yurkevych acting like a servant of the bourgoesie this is regards a debate on Russification. Lenin considered Yurkevych of “reactionary nationalism” when he argued Ukrainian Marxists must challenge Russification. Lenin pointed to the existence of “two national cultures in every national culture.” Thus the ideas of “Great-Russian democracy and Social-Democracy operate parallel with the Great-Russian clerical and bourgeois culture.” These cultural benefits would be bestowed upon all through the development of capitalism. He wrote:
    “The ‘assimilation’ – within these limits – of the Great-Russian and Ukrainian proletariat is an indisputable fact. And this fact is undoubtedly progressive. Capitalism is replacing the ignorant, conservative muzhik of the Great-Russian or Ukrainian backwoods with a mobile proletarian whose conditions of life breakdown specifically national narrow-mindedness, both Great-Russian and Ukrainian…. the historically progressive nature of the ‘assimilation’ of the Great Russians and Ukrainians workers will be as undoubted as the progressive nature of the grinding down of nations in America”.
    For not accepting the benefits of assimilation Lenin accused Yurkevich of acting like “a real bourgeois”. In fact Yurkevych himself had made similar points as Lenin regarding two cultures within each nation with regard to the Ukrainian movement and the Jewish question, but this was not what was at issue. Yurkevych was talking about the dominance of “Russian culture” as the consequences of oppressive policies of Russification, the Great Russians and Ukrainians were not being equally assimilated, Ukraine was subjugated. Lenin himself had attacked the imposition of the Russian language saying; “you cannot drive people to heaven with an oak-wood club”. Tsarist assimilation was precisely the “oak wood club” he was condemning. The logic of this position of equating the unity of labour with the forms of capital domination is to actually defend the centralized state against self-determination. This was the Achilles heal in Lenin’s theory on the national question.
    Lenin misrepresented Yurkevych again during the First World War, Yurkevych was a supporter of Zimmerwald and staunch internationalist. Yet Lenin wrote in in Vorbote which stated:
    “We consider as definite servants of the bourgeoisie those who defend annexations because imperialism and political concentration are progressive, and reject the right of nations to independence. (Bolsheviks understand independence on a state level – Editor) This is utopian, illusory. petty bourgeois &c. Such are Cunow, Lensch, Parvus, the extreme German opportunists, some of the Fabians and trade onion leadership in England, in Russia the opportunists: Semkovskv, Libman, Rybalka and others, who come out against the right of nations to independence and thus defend previous annexations by Tsarism (Finland etc). “
    This was shamefull distortion – placing Yurkevych alongside people with sharply differing politics, especially contemptible. Lenin wrote his Verbote article in January 1916, he had personal discussions with Yurkevych but these were in March, and based on his report of this meeting to Zinoviev he did not posses a single copy of Borotba the paper published by Yurkevych yet he could write such rubbish.
    On the surface Yurkevych did share with Lenin’s left critics such as Pyatakov an opposition to his version of the slogan the “right to self-determination” however from a completely different standpoint and with polar opposite political conclusions. In Borotba he pointedly made clear that:
    “We are not opposed to the idea of an independent Ukraine. but the question of our state independence can only be decided when the chains of Tsardom and Russian state centralism are destroyed. …But now, while even the printed word in Ukrainian is forbidden, while Ukraine is deprived of the smallest civil freedoms and subjected to limitless russification. the only way out for the Ukrainian democracy is a joint struggle with the working masses of Russia against those evil tsarist and imperialist forces.”
    Yurkvych’s antagonism for the demand for independence was framed in the context of the contemporary situation; he felt that advocating it would most likely assist one or other competing imperial power in the war. Against any alliance with imperialism Yurkevych argued that the struggle of an “enslaved people for democratic rights of autonomy can only exist as a movement directly linked with the struggle of the workers against capitalism and its forms of state organization.” Yurkevych felt that Lenin’s one sided rejection of autonomy in favor the right to independence, albeit which should not be exercised by the oppressed Ukrainians, was simply a contradiction in terms and phrase mongering. As to Lenin’s accusation that Yurkevych defended annexations as “progressive”, he argued that “the struggle against annexations, and the very battle for the democratic rights of autonomy of enslaved nations has nothing in common with a defense of the borders of the existing capitalist states”.

    Yurkevych considered it hypocritical of Lenin to be proclaiming the right of Ukraine to independence when his “radicalism on the national question stands in sharp contrast to the activities of the Russian social-democrats:

    “Our Russian comrades will only showed themselves to be true internationalists when their organization and press in Ukraine recognize along with us the need for the struggle for the liberation of our people, and on every occasion along with us resist in a revolutionary way any manifestations of national enslavement. When this happens, we would speak to them as equals and brothers.

    Instead all RSDRP factions saw class unity as a mirroring the territorial integrity of the Tsarist state;. Similarly Lenin attacked autonomy as in contradiction to what he saw as the “world view of Social-Democracy”, calling for a unity only feasible “under the leadership” of the RSDRP. In allowing the lines of capitalist development to determine the organizational forms of social-democracy they dangerously embroiled the concept of the ‘one and indivisible’ Party with that of the ‘one and indivisible’ Russia.

    It is ironic when the USSR was eventually established it adopted in practice the model of national-cultural autonomy of the Austro-Marxists which Lenin etc so strongly opposed previously. Actual federalism was undermined by the one-party one-state model carried over into the All-Union Communist Party where local national sections were simply regional sub-units. not independent communist parties. A good question is why communists in former colonies of the Russian Empire were treated different from communists in every other colony in the world. The CP Ireland was not forced to remain in the CPGB? When cultural autonomy was crushed by Stalinism there was no mean to exercise self-determination no matter what the USSR constitution said.


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