April 2016
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Month April 2016

On Lenin and the Right to National Self-Determination

A short while ago, I published a very favorable review of Red Rosa by Kate Evans. That review is now being re-published in the new issue of Insurgent Notes. In the meantime, a longtime comrade and friend, Noel Ignatiev, posted a comment that challenged my apparent endorsement of Luxemburg’s views on national liberation.

This is a partial response.

I am mostly sympathetic to Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the national question. I don’t think that those views are adequate—in large part because they do not fully acknowledge the ways in which, and the reasons why, workers in imperialist nations fail to meet the obligations of proletarian internationalism with workers and peasants in oppressed nations. She was, in retrospect, I think too persuaded by what she saw as the inevitability of the growth of social democracy (mostly evident in the growing number of voters for social democratic parties, especially the German one) and its developing powers to defeat all obstacles to the international solidarity of the working class. She never quite acknowledged the ways in which the workers of the imperialist nations could become complicit in the deeds that their nations engaged in across the globe and, more likely than not, lose a bit of their revolutionary edge. At the same time, however, she was remarkably aware of the ways in which the victories of national liberation movements would lead to dismal outcomes—over and over again. I don’t think we can name one national liberation movement (by way of examples—not Algeria, not Vietnam, not Mozambique) in the last half of the twentieth century that did not end horribly.

For the moment, I’m more interested in challenging the fundamental bases of the Leninist alternative to Luxemburg’s anti-nationalist position. It often appears to me that the revolutionary pedigrees of Leninist orthodoxy have largely been assumed rather than confirmed. I’d suggest that the Leninist formulations of policy on the national question do not deserve to be taken seriously as poles of debate on the matter. More precisely, they should be viewed as all but completely hypocritical. As one author recently described them, they are an example of revolutionary “give and take-away.”[1]

To support this claim, I rely a great deal on a pamphlet, “The Russian Social Democrats and the National Question,” by Lev Yurkevych (writing under the pseudonym of Lev Rybalka) published in January 1917.[2] Yurkevych was a left-wing leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party. Somewhat paradoxically, as will become clear below, he was a strong defender of Ukrainian national liberation.

Yurkevych began by citing the formal views of the Russian Social Democrats, as expressed in theses titled Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (October 1916):

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.

Yurkevych comments: “This quotation defines the basic views of the editors of the RSDRP’s (Russian Social Democratic Workers Party) central organ on the national question. What is astonishing and glaring, however, is the contradictoriness of these views.” He goes on:

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.”

Yurkevych is unsparing in his critique:

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.

Yurkevych knew that Lenin was the architect of the policy that he hated:

[I]n 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…Lenin, while coming out in defence of the “right to self-determination,” hastens immediately to add that “the unconditional 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 [Polish Socialist Party], 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 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.”

And still more, Lenin concluded, “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.

Yurkevych considered the Bolshevik position to be “a criminal and conscious deception”—except that he acknowledged that they might not really know what they were doing because of their “idealization of democratic Russia”:

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 measures, 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 1915).

Yurkevych considered this to be nothing more than “revolutionary nonsense.” He invokes the influence of Alexander Herzen on Lenin:

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 l860s. 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.

In an open letter titled “Russia and Poland,” Herzen had written:

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?

Yurkevych insists that Herzen and Lenin are “national twins, and their views on the national question are generally identical.” He goes on:

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 want 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.”

He concluded: “Class struggle against all national oppression” is “the only principle on which a truly internationalist socialist program on the national question can be constructed.” He made clear what the implications of a class struggle perspective were:

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 the state that oppresses it—cannot fail, in the present strained atmosphere of antagonism between “large states,” to turn into an imperialist war combination.

Yurkevych aligned his views with those of the second Zimmerwald Conference (held in Kienthal, Switzerland in April 1916):

“[T]he 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, 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.

Yurkevych then turned to an examination of the actual practice of the Russian Social Democrats in Ukraine:

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 decisive fashion, offering us “fusion’’ which we of course, rejected and to which we will never agree.

Lenin wrote to us that, “I am profoundly outraged by the advocacy of the segregation of Ukrainian workers into a separate s d [social democratic] organization.”

After citing some of the cruelties imposed on Ukraine by Russia, Yyrkevych emphasized the difference between the approach of the socialists from that of more or less simple nationalists in the country:

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.

The Russian social democrats were apparently not impressed:

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.

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.

To return to Rosa Luxemburg, thus far I have found no evidence indicating that she and Yurkevych knew each other or each other’s views. Yurkevych died early in 1917 while Luxemburg was in prison. On the face of it, they appear to be attacking the Bolsheviks from the opposite sides of a shooting range. But, I’d suggest that there is something connecting the two.

Let’s look at a long excerpt from Luxemburg’s chapter on “The Nationalities Question” in her 1917 book on The Russian Revolution. The book was written in prison:

One is immediately struck with the obstinacy and rigid consistency with which Lenin and his comrades stuck to this slogan, a slogan which is in sharp contradiction to their otherwise outspoken centralism in politics as well as to the attitude they have assumed towards other democratic principles. While they showed a quite cool contempt for the Constituent Assembly, universal suffrage, freedom of press and assemblage, in short, for the whole apparatus of the basic democratic liberties of the people which, taken all together, constituted the “right of self-determination” inside Russia, they treated the right of self-determination of peoples as a jewel of democratic policy for the sake of which all practical considerations of real criticism had to be stilled. While they did not permit themselves to be imposed upon in the slightest by the plebiscite for the Constituent Assembly in Russia, a plebiscite on the basis of the most democratic suffrage in the world, carried out in the full freedom of a popular republic, and while they simply declared this plebiscite null and void on the basis of a very sober evaluation of its results, still they championed the “popular vote” of the foreign nationalities of Russia on the question of which land they wanted to belong to, as the true palladium of all freedom and democracy, the unadulterated quintessence of the will of the peoples and as the court of last resort in questions of the political fate of nations.

The contradiction that is so obvious here is all the harder to understand since the democratic forms of political life in each land, as we shall see, actually involve the most valuable and even indispensable foundations of socialist policy, whereas the famous “right of self-determination of nations” is nothing but hollow, petty-bourgeois phraseology and humbug.

Indeed, what is this right supposed to signify? It belongs to the ABC of socialist policy that socialism opposes every form of oppression, including also that of one nation by another.

If, despite all this, such generally sober and critical politicians as Lenin and Trotsky and their friends, who have nothing but an ironical shrug for every sort of utopian phrase such as disarmament, league of nations, etc., have in this case made a hollow phrase of exactly the same kind into their special hobby, this arose, it seems to us, as a result of some kind of policy made to order for the occasion. Lenin and his comrades clearly calculated that there was no surer method of binding the many foreign peoples within the Russian Empire to the cause of the revolution, to the cause of the socialist proletariat, than that of offering them, in the name of the revolution and of socialism, the most extreme and most unlimited freedom to determine their own fate.

While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom even to the extent of “separation,” they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc., into so many faithful allies of the Russian Revolution, we have instead witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these “nations” used the freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian Revolution as its mortal enemy, and, under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself. The little game with the Ukraine at Brest, which caused a decisive turn of affairs in those negotiations and brought about the entire inner and outer political situation at present prevailing for the Bolsheviks, is a perfect case in point. The conduct of Finland, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic lands, the peoples of the Caucasus, shows most convincingly that we are not dealing here with an exceptional case, but with a typical phenomenon.

To be sure, in all these cases, it was really not the “people” who engaged in these reactionary policies, but only the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes, who—in sharpest opposition to their own proletarian masses—perverted the “national right of self-determination” into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class politics. But—and here we come to the very heart of the question—it is in this that the utopian, petty-bourgeois character of this nationalistic slogan resides: that in the midst of the crude realities of class society and when class antagonisms are sharpened to the uttermost, it is simply converted into a means of bourgeois class rule. The Bolsheviks were to be taught to their own great hurt and that of the revolution, that under the rule of capitalism there is no self-determination of peoples, that in a class society each class of the nation strives to “determine itself” in a different fashion, and that, for the bourgeois classes, the standpoint of national freedom is fully subordinated to that of class rule. The Finnish bourgeoisie, like the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, were unanimous in preferring the violent rule of Germany to national freedom, if the latter should be bound up with Bolshevism.

The hope of transforming these actual class relationships somehow into their opposite and of getting a majority vote for union with the Russian Revolution by depending on the revolutionary masses—if it was seriously meant by Lenin and Trotsky—represented an incomprehensible degree of optimism. And if it was only meant as a tactical flourish in the duel with the German politics of force, then it represented dangerous playing with fire. Even without German military occupation, the famous “popular plebiscite,” supposing that it had come to that in the border states, would have yielded a result, in all probability, which would have given the Bolsheviks little cause for rejoicing; for we must take into consideration the psychology of the peasant masses and of great sections of the petty bourgeoisie, and the thousand ways in which the bourgeoisie could have influenced the vote. Indeed, it can be taken as an unbreakable rule in these matters of plebiscites on the national question that the ruling class will either know how to prevent them where it doesn’t suit their purpose, or where they somehow occur, will know how to influence their results by all sorts of means, big and little, the same means which make it impossible to introduce socialism by a popular vote.

The mere fact that the question of national aspirations and tendencies towards separation were injected at all into the midst of the revolutionary struggle, and were even pushed into the foreground and made into the shibboleth of socialist and revolutionary policy as a result of the Brest peace, has served to bring the greatest confusion into socialist ranks and has actually destroyed the position of the proletariat in the border countries.

In Finland, so long as the socialist proletariat fought as a part of the closed Russian revolutionary phalanx, it possessed a position of dominant power: it had the majority in the Finnish parliament, in the army; it had reduced its own bourgeoisie to complete impotence, and was master of the situation within its borders.

Or take the Ukraine. At the beginning of the century, before the tomfoolery of “Ukrainian nationalism” with its silver rubles and its “Universals” and Lenin’s hobby of an “independent Ukraine” had been invented, the Ukraine was the stronghold of the Russian revolutionary movement. From there, from Rostov, from Odessa, from the Donetz region, flowed out the first lava-streams of the revolution (as early as 1902–04) which kindled all South Russia into a sea of flame, thereby preparing the uprising of 1905. The same thing was repeated in the present revolution, in which the South Russian proletariat supplied the picked troops of the proletarian phalanx. Poland and the Baltic lands have been since 1905 the mightiest and most dependable hearths of revolution, and in them the socialist proletariat has played an outstanding role.

How does it happen then that in all these lands the counter-revolution suddenly triumphs? The nationalist movement, just because it tore the proletariat loose from Russia, crippled it thereby, and delivered it into the hands of the bourgeoisie of the border countries.

Instead of acting in the same spirit of genuine international class policy which they represented in other matters, instead of working for the most compact union of the revolutionary forces throughout the area of the Empire, instead of defending tooth and nail the integrity of the Russian Empire as an area of revolution and opposing to all forms of separatism the solidarity and inseparability of the proletarians in all lands within the sphere of the Russian Revolution as the highest command of politics, the Bolsheviks, by their hollow nationalistic phraseology concerning the “right of self-determination to the point of separation,” have accomplished quite the contrary and supplied the bourgeoisie in all border states with the finest, the most desirable pretext, the very banner of the counter-revolutionary efforts. Instead of warning the proletariat in the border countries against all forms of separatism as mere bourgeois traps, they did nothing but confuse the masses in all the border countries by their slogan and delivered them up to the demagogy of the bourgeois classes. By this nationalistic demand they brought on the disintegration of Russia itself, pressed into the enemy’s hand the knife which it was to thrust into the heart of the Russian Revolution.

It would be better, by far, for us to side with Yurkevych and Luxemburg and to work through their differences than to succumb to Leninism.

  1. [1]See Olga Bryukhovetska, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About (Ukrainian) Nationalism, But Were Afraid to Ask Lenin.”
  2. [2]The article was published in Russian and, according to Chris Kane, was aimed chiefly at the Russian left. Lenin never responded to Yurkevych’s pamphlet—because of the press of other events—either the furthering of the revolution or its suppression—depending on how you think about it.