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Source: Part One of this article was published in ISR issue 13, August-September 2000 / Part Two of this article was published in ISR issue 14, October-November, 2000

Marxism and Nationalism

Part One International Socialist Review Issue 13, August-September 2000

By Tom Lewis

In the international education of the workers of the oppressor countries, emphasis must necessarily be laid on their advocating freedom for the oppressed countries to secede and their fighting for it. Without this there can be no internationalism.

–V. I. Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”


Imperialism is the stage of capitalism in which a few economically advanced states dominate the rest of the world. Imperialism coalesces as a system during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but its cruel dynamic also drives the process known as “globalization” today. This means that we continue to live in a world in which a handful of strong nations use their economic and military power to subjugate and exploit weaker nations. It also means that our world is still one in which the strong nations regularly face off against each other–threatening, preparing, or unleashing wars whose basic aim is to secure a competitive advantage for one nation over its rivals in imperialist plunder.

One of the consequences of imperialism is nationalism. As capitalism spreads around the globe, it also gives rise to powerful movements of resistance. Initially, the revolt of workers and peasants in countries oppressed by imperialism almost invariably takes the form of nationalism. That is why it is crucial for socialists to understand how to approach nationalism and how to assess the various struggles for national liberation today.

Socialists are internationalists. Whereas nationalists believe that the world is divided primarily into different nationalities, socialists consider social class to be the primary divide. For socialists, class struggle–not national identity–is the motor of history. And capitalism creates an international working class that must fight back against an international capitalist class.

But imperialism also creates something else. In a world defined by the existence of richer and poorer nations, not only do “nationalisms of the oppressed” emerge as agents of struggle against global capitalism; “nationalisms of the oppressor” emerge as well and are used by bosses and politicians in the strong nations to justify the imperialist system. Moreover, a layer of workers in the dominant nations actually comes to think that workers, too, stand to gain from imperialism’s oppression of the weaker nations. These nationalisms of the oppressor represent formidable obstacles to building the international solidarity among workers that is needed in order to succeed in the fight against global capitalism.

How, then, should socialists relate as internationalists to a world that is nevertheless divided into oppressor and oppressed nations? Marxists have sometimes been criticized for allegedly failing to comprehend the politics of the national question. Yet the revolutionary Marxist tradition offers an invaluable framework within which to understand the complexity of a world that is simultaneously characterized by the existence of nations and the globalization of capital. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to explain the central pillar of the Marxist approach to national oppression: Lenin’s argument in favor of the right of nations to self-determination.

Marx and Engels on national oppression

No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.

–Frederick Engels, “Eine polnische Problamation”

The nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains.

–Karl Marx, “Konfidentielle Mitteilung”


In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great struggles for national liberation represented attempts to overthrow feudalism and absolutist monarchy in the interest of removing economic and political impediments to the full development of capitalism. Capitalism was in the process of changing from being a mere sector of the economy into becoming the dominant mode of social organization. To consolidate this transition and to secure the ongoing conditions for reproducing capitalist society, a new form of state was required–one based not on personal allegiance to a royal family but rather on a shared language, a common territory, and the perception of a group history and destiny.

The victory of capitalism over feudalism, first in Europe and later throughout the continents, thus entailed strong links with national movements: “For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speaks a single language,…[which establishes] a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.”1 Nationalism furnished the bourgeoisie of a specific territory with the ideological elements it needed to impose an official language and to lay down borders on the basis of a (usually invented) collective past. Moreover, there arose a tendency within the national movements themselves toward the formation of nation-states, precisely because nation-states could best satisfy the political requirements of modern–i.e., capitalist–society. For these reasons, all of the leading Marxist contributions to the debate on the national question have accepted that “the nation state is typical and normal for the capitalist period.”2

Marx and Engels supported many of the national liberation struggles of their day because they viewed capitalism as a historic advance over feudalism. They were not blind to the misery and devastation that capitalism brought as well, but they understood that capitalism could develop the productive capacities of human society to levels unimaginable under feudalism. They understood further that capitalism brought into existence a class of producers–the proletariat, the modern working class–that for the fir›t time in history was truly collective. This class thereby embodied the potential for democratic self-rule. In the eyes of Marx and Engels, every victory for capitalism over feudalism propelled humanity further toward the goal of freedom from material want and political subjugation.

The major oppressor nations during the lifetimes of Marx and Engels were Russia and Hapsburg Austria. Russia ruled by force over Poland and had crushed the democratic revolution in Hungary in 1849. Together, Russia and Austria interfered in the internal affairs of Germany and Italy to block the unification of these nations. Marx and Engels “supported all national movements which were directed against the Tsars and the Hapsburgs. At the same time,…they opposed national movements which objectively played into the hands of the Tsars or the Hapsburgs.”3 Marx and Engels went as far as to call for revolutionary wars in order to win independence for Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Italy. The aim was “to inflict a final defeat on the last remnants of feudalism in Europe” and to advance “the process of clearing the ground for the full development of bourgeois democracy and so for the struggle of the working class against the system.”4

The historically progressive nature of capitalism in relation to feudalism, however, did not mean that Marx and Engels automatically supported every national movement. They opposed the national movements of the South Slavs–Serbs, Croats, and Czechs–during the 1848 revolution, arguing that these movements objectively “aided the main enemy: Croatian troops, who hated the Magyars more than they did the Hapsburg Empire, helped the Tsar’s troops as they marched into Hungary; Czech troops helped to suppress revolutionary Vienna.”5 At the time of the Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, Marx and Engels welcomed the uprising as a “national revolt,” despite their belief that British imperialism was in the process of destroying feudalism in India.

Thus Marx and Engels did not allow economic criteria to dictate whether they would lend support to specific national movements. Rather, they gave or withheld support on the basis of a political assessment of each movement in the international context.

The case of Ireland provided the main stimulus to Marx and Engels’ later development of their ideas on national oppression. Initially, Marx and Engels considered that the expansion of capitalism, both in Europe and around the globe, was lessening the significance of the nation-state and therefore of the movements for national independence. “National differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”6 Thus they looked to socialist revolution as the means by which national oppression would be ended: “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”7

Considerable truth resides both in Marx and Engels’ notion that national differences diminish as a result of the globalization of capital and in their view that only with the advent of socialism can national oppression be eradicated once and for all. Yet Marx and Engels eventually realized that they had underestimated the possibility of sometimes achieving bourgeois democratic freedoms in the less economically developed nations short of socialist revolution. They also saw that they had overlooked the concrete difficulties of breaking the hold that nationalism exercises over workers in the more developed nations.

A renewal of the Irish national struggle in the 1860s led Marx and Engels to modify their views. In fact they began to approach the national question less from the angle of the struggle between capitalism and feudalism and more from the angle of the struggle between the imperialist powers and the colonized nations. Marx conveyed to Engels in early November 1867: “I used to think the separation of Ireland from England was impossible. Now I think it is inevitable, although after separation there may come federation.”8 At the end of the same month he explained, “What the Irish need is…self- government and independence from England…. Agrarian revolution…. Protective tariffs against England.”9 And two years later he wrote to Dr. Kugelmann:

The English working class…will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland definitively from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801. And this must be done not out of sympathy with the Irish, but as a demand on the interests of the English proletariat. If not the English proletariat will forever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland.10

Here Marx achieves a key insight that will serve as the bedrock of Lenin’s development of the socialist approach to national oppression. “The nationalism of the workers belonging to an oppressor nation binds them to their rulers and only does harm to themselves, while the nationalism of an oppressed nation can lead them to fight back against those rulers.”11

The 1903 Congress

Right of self-determination for all nations included within the bounds of the state.

–Article 9, Program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (1903)


The RSDLP–the party to which Lenin belonged–convened its Second Congress in the summer of 1903. Delegates met in secret, first in Brussels and then in London, where they had been forced to move because of pressure from the Belgian police. The 1903 Congress is justly famous as a turning point in the history of Marxism, for it was here that Bolshevism (the majority) was born out of a split with Menshevism (the minority).

But the 1903 Congress deserves its place in history for other reasons as well. In particular, it became the forum at which the most important debates on the national question were held prior to the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse of the Second International in 1914. Two debates unfolded at the congress, each with far-reaching implications. The first concerned the Jewish Labor Bund (“bund” means “league” in Yiddish) and party organization. The second concerned Polish self-determination.

The 1903 Congress took up as its first agenda item the Bund’s demand that it be recognized as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat living in Russia. Jews were horribly oppressed throughout the Russian Empire, living under harsh legal restrictions and terrorized by pogroms. The Bund was founded by Jewish socialists in 1897 and immediately began organizing among Jewish workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia (all areas falling within the Tsar’s empire). Bund members were genuine revolutionaries who adamantly rejected Zionism, also founded in 1897,12 which they correctly regarded as a form of reactionary Jewish nationalism.

At the First Congress of the RSDLP in 1898, the Bund entered the party on the basis of “autonomy.” Soon after the 1898 Congress, however, the RSDLP was declared illegal and driven underground. Hence, relations among its various sections remained informal, and different sections of the party often acted as independent organizations.

In 1903, the Bund sought clarification of its status in the RSDLP. Lieber, speaking on behalf of the Central Committee of the Bund, explained that the expression “autonomy” now seemed too vague. He argued instead that the Bund’s relations with the RSDLP should be based on the principle of “federation.” Under “autonomy,” the Bund enjoyed the right to form “subsidiary organizations and special groups and publish their own newspapers in their native tongue and so on.”13 They also had the right to direct their own activities free from petty interference from the RSDLP Central Committee. Under “federation,” however, neither the RSDLP Central Committee nor the RSDLP’s highest body–the elected Party Congress–would be able to overrule decisions taken by the Bund in matters pertaining to the Jewish proletariat. Organizationally, the Bund would function as an independent body.

“Federation” was designed to create special safeguards that would protect the interests of Jewish workers, as an oppressed group, from the RSDLP as a whole. Lieber justified the need for an independent organization of the Jewish proletariat on the grounds of a fundamental distrust: “The Jewish proletariat is very much more strongly interested in the struggle against the exceptional restrictions that are imposed on it than the rest of the proletariat is, and for this reason it is also a more active fighter against this oppression.”14

Trotsky, himself a Jew, responded forcefully to Lieber’s argument:

If the Bund, lacking confidence in the Party, is…demanding safeguards, that we can understand. But how can we put our signatures to this demand? It would restrict our freedom, and the freedom of our successors, to make decisions. And why? So as to prevent suppression of the legitimate interests of the Jewish proletariat by the Party, that is, in order to insure ourselves against committing an act of betrayal. To accept such conditions would mean that we acknowledged our own moral and political bankruptcy, it would mean committing moral and political suicide. The congress will not do that.15

In his contribution to the debate, Lenin offered a concrete assessment of the organizational implications of the Bund’s demand to be the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat. He believed that to accept the Bund’s proposal would amount to internalizing within the party the very divisions among workers that class society relentlessly seeks to impose.

Federation is harmful because it sanctions segregation and alienation, elevating them to the status of a principle, a law. Complete alienation does indeed exist among us, and we ought not to sanction it, or cover it with a fig leaf, but to combat it, and we ought resolutely to acknowledge and proclaim the need firmly and unswervingly to advance towards the closest unity…. We recognize no obligatory partitions, and that is why we reject federation in principle.16

Lenin went on to specify that different groupings will always form within the party, “groupings of comrades who are not wholly of one mind on questions of program, tactics or organization.”17 But, he argued, there should be only one party within which these differences arise: “Let all like-minded Party members join in a single group, instead of groups being formed in one section of the Party, separately from groups in another section, and then having a union not of groups holding different views, or with different shades of opinion, but of sections of the Party, each containing different groups.”18

Lenin’s final point addressed the question of the Bund’s distrust of the party’s central leadership. The RSDLP was organized on the basis of “democratic centralism.” In other words, it was a party which maximized opportunities for internal debate, but which acted as one after an issue had been decided by majority vote. Lenin emphasized that “centralism requires the absence of all partitions between the center and even the most remote and out-of-the-way sections of the Party[.] Our Party center will be given the absolute right to communicate directly with every single Party member.”19 While every party branch or committee should enjoy “autonomy in the sense of freedom from petty interference by the center,”20 Lenin insisted that the central leadership should aggressively challenge any manifestation of passivity or indifference within the party regarding national oppression:

Does the Bund really suppose that the Party would tolerate the existence of a center that interfered in a “petty” way in the affairs of any Party organization or group?…Is it not, in fact, the duty of our entire Party to fight, for example, for full equality of rights and even for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination? Consequently, if any section of our Party were to fail in this duty, it would undoubtedly be liable to censure, by virtue of our principles: it would undoubtedly be liable to correction by the central institutions of the Party. And if that duty was being neglected consciously and deliberately, despite full opportunity to perform it, then this neglect of duty would be treachery.21

After three days of discussion, the 1903 Congress voted to reject the Bund’s demand to be the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat and reaffirmed instead that the RSDLP “should unite unconditionally workers of all nationalities in all proletarian organizations without exception (political, trade union, co-operative, educational, etc., etc.).”22 The Bund then seceded from the party as it departed the congress. A large number of Jewish workers nevertheless remained active in RSDLP branches, and subsequent events in Russia showed that there had been no grounds for the Bund’s distrust. The Bund eventually reentered the party, though it never abandoned its nationalist attitude.

The second debate on the national question at the 1903 Congress revolved around what was to become Article 9 of the party platform: “Right of self-determination for all nations included within the bounds of a state.”23 Article 9 was a sticking point in the relation between revolutionary socialists in Poland–who were members of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and known as the Polish Social Democrats–and the RSDLP. The Polish party, including Rosa Luxemburg, opposed recognition of the right of self-determination for Poland.

The attitude of the Polish Social Democrats stemmed in part from the fact that the reform Polish socialists, who belonged to the Polish Socialist Party (PSP), considered that the struggle for Poland’s national independence from Russia took precedence over every other struggle, including the class struggle. According to the PSP, the struggle of Polish workers for their own emancipation needed to remain secondary because it threatened to disrupt the unity of the Polish people. Thus the Polish Social Democrats correctly maintained that the PSP had betrayed the interests of the international working class, notably, the unity of Polish and Russian workers.

But the Polish Social Democrats did not limit themselves to making this point–a point with which Lenin and the majority of delegates at the 1903 Congress wholeheartedly agreed. Rather, they went on to claim that the demand for Polish independence was historically outdated, even reactionary, because capitalist development had integrated the economies of Poland and Russia to the point of rendering the idea of a Polish nation-state completely obsolete. The political ideal of “a right of nations to self-determination” had thus become equally outmoded. In fact, all around the globe, it was now pointless for the nationalities to aspire to a state if they did not already have one. According to the Polish Social Democrats, all that remained of the national question in the imperialist epoch was the need to defend the “freedom of cultural development of each nationality, through democratization of the historically-given state institutions.”24

The Polish Social Democrats urged that Article 9 be changed to read, “Institutions guaranteeing freedom of cultural development to all nations included within the state.”25 The 1903 Congress, however, voted overwhelmingly to keep the article’s original wording, which clearly conceived of “self-determination” as a political–and not a cultural–right. As one delegate voting with the majority explained, “Where the question of nationality is concerned we can adopt only negative propositions–i.e., we are against any constraint being exercised upon a nationality. But, as Social-Democrats, it is of no concern to us whether a particular nationality develops as such. That is a matter for a spontaneous process.”26

The Bolsheviks and self-determination

The proletariat demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any one of the nations within the bounds of the state.

–V. I. Lenin, “The National Programme of the RSDLP”


The debate over the national question and the right of nations to self-determination did not end with the 1903 Congress. Rather, it intensified over the course of the following decade. Lenin undertook in a number of writings to clarify the reasoning behind Article 9. He emphasized throughout that, “however meager the Russian Social-Democratic literature on the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ may be, it nevertheless shows clearly that this right has always been understood as the right to secession.”27

The consistent core of Lenin’s arguments in defense of Article 9 is that recognition of the right to self-determination for oppressed nations remains “absolutely essential to the Social Democrats of Russia…for the sake of the basic principles of democracy in general.”28 In other words, “‘the right to self-determination’ implies a democratic system of a type in which there is not only democracy in general, but specifically one in which there could not be an undemocratic solution of the question of secession.”29 As we shall see, Lenin provides further reasons to uphold this right, but his overarching concern is with its role as a principle that commits socialists to the fullest extension of democratic freedoms and to the swiftest liberation of lives from the yoke of national oppression.

Lenin sharply details what upholding the right to self-determination requires of socialists. Socialists must be “unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.”30 Socialists must demand that the question of the secession of a given territory be settled only on the basis of a universal, direct, and equal vote of the population of that territory by secret ballot. Moreover, socialists are duty-bound to “conduct an implacable struggle against” all those who at any time “defend or sanction national oppression in general or the denial of the right of nations to self-determination.”31

As part of fighting for a consistently democratic state system, Lenin enjoins socialists to demand “unconditional equality for all nationalities” and to “struggle against absolutely all privileges for one or several nationalities.”32¸In particular, socialists must reject the establishment of an official state language and demand instead “the promulgation of a law, operative throughout the state, protecting the rights of every national minority in no matter what part of the state.”33 All administrative divisions of the state–such as today’s electoral and school districts–which fail to reflect the national composition of the population must be brought into line with democratic principles. Finally, “all areas of the state that are distinguished by…the national composition of the population must enjoy wide self-government and autonomy, with institutions organized on the basis of universal, equal and secret voting.”34

Assessing national movements

Although socialists must always uphold the right›of oppressed nations to self-determination, Lenin by no means considers that socialists should automatically support every movement toward secession and independence. Socialists “should, on the contrary, give [an] independent appraisal, taking into consideration the conditions of capitalist development and the oppression of the proletarians of various nations by the united bourgeoisie of all nationalities, as well as the general tasks of democracy, first of all and most of all the interests of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.”35 Socialists must be especially prepared

to give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations…. It follows, therefore, that workers who place political unity with “their own” bourgeoisie above complete unity with the proletariat of all nations, are acting against their own interests, against the interests of socialism and against the interests of democracy.36

Lenin considers that a clear distinction must be drawn between two periods of capitalism with respect to the national question. The formation of bourgeois-democratic society and its state characterizes a first period of waning feudalism and absolutism. National movements during this period are mass movements that draw all classes of the population into politics. In contrast, a second period of fully formed capitalist states is characterized by long-established constitutional regimes and a highly developed antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This period increasingly “brings the antagonism between internationally united capital and the international working-class movement into the forefront.”37

In this second period, socialists must ask and answer a series of key questions before lending support to specific national movements. Is a particular group really oppressed? Has a consciousness of being a nation formed among those who are oppressed, such that a national movement is developing or already exists? Lenin emphasizes that “our programme refers only to cases where such a movement is actually in existence.”38

The most important question socialists must answer is whether support of a specific national movement would advance the interests of the working class. The leadership of national movements is invariably bourgeois at the start. And what the bourgeoisie seeks through the national struggle is either privileges for “its own” already-constituted nation–that is, equal rights alongside the dominant nations in the international market–or, if it represents the struggle of a national minority, exceptional advantages for its own group. Now, it is true that “the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support.”39 It may simultaneously occur, however, that the “saccharine or fiery speeches” of a particular bourgeois leadership produce the effect of dividing workers rather than securing equal rights.

Any interest the working class may have in supporting a bourgeois-led national movement resides in the fact that, to one degree or another, a successful national struggle removes the oppressor nation from the picture and thereby creates conditions that bring the class struggle to the fore. In other words, workers and the national bourgeoisie no longer share a “common enemy”–the imperialist power–and it becomes easier to see the bourgeoisie as the “class enemy.” Should the national movement end up dividing workers, however, then this interest cannot be realized. Hence,

while recognizing equality and equal rights to a national state, the [proletariat] values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle…. Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights its oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favor, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against…. That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.40

On the eve of the First World War, Lenin encapsulated the Bolshevik position on the right of nations to self-determination as follows: “The recognition of the right of secession for all; the appraisal of each concrete question of secession from the point of view of removing all inequality, all privileges, and all exclusiveness.”41 In other words, socialists provide unconditional support for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, but they condition their support for the actual independence of a given nation on the interests of the international working class and the principles of democracy in general.

Against cultural-national autonomy

Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? Of course not!

–V. I. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”


Lenin’s idea that the notion of self-determination expresses a political right, as opposed to an economic or cultural right, led him into heated debates. Again and again, beginning with the 1903 Congress and continuing throughout the last year of his life, Lenin found himself insisting that “the article of our program on the self-determination of nations cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.”42›Lenin’s definition continued to be opposed from two different directions. From one side, Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists advocated a cultural interpretation of the right to self-determination. On the other, Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish Marxists argued that capitalist economic development had eliminated the very possibility of self-determination.

Bauer, the leading theoretician of the Austro-Marxists, proposed an elaborate program of “cultural-national autonomy” as the means for reconciling tensions between existing nationalisms and proletarian internationalism. Bauer was concerned to preserve the unity of the workers’ movement within the Austro-Hungarian empire, a multinational state under Hapsburg rule which included what are today Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and much of former Yugoslavia. Rivalries between the dominant nationalities–the Germans, the Magyars (Hungarians)–and the various Slavic nationalities threatened to tear the empire apart. The Austro-Marxists misguidedly sought to preserve the unity of the workers’ movement by preventing the disintegration of the Hapsburg state.

In The Nationalities Question and Social Democracy (1907), Bauer defined the nation as “the totality of men bound together through a common destiny into a community of character.”43 He viewed nationalist sentiments among workers as inevitable because, he claimed, the individual human being in the modern era is the product of the nation. According to Bauer, individuals belonging to one nation actually experience the world differently from individuals of another nation, because of the unique cultural environment that has determined their thought and behavior. Rather than repudiating nationalism, Bauer argued that “socialists should embrace the idea of the nation as an important social and historical factor in human existence, and tell the different nationalities that only under socialism would national culture reach its full development.”44

With the phrase “cultural-national autonomy” Bauer advocated an “extra-territorial” constitution of the nation. Autonomy would not be granted, say, to a Czech republic on the basis that Czechs comprise the majority nationality residing in a specific region of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Rather, autonomy would be granted to individual Czechs irrespective of territory, no matter which area of the Hapsburg state they might inhabit. This in turn would require that Czechs, Serbs, Germans, Magyars, etc., insofar as they were scattered throughout the empire, be administratively organized into separate “nations,” which would then form components of the Hapsburg state. Nationality for Bauer was not essentially connected with territory; it functioned as the essential component of an individual’s identity.

Lenin harshly denounced Bauer’s plan for redressing national inequalities as a contradictory and dangerous attempt to fight nationalism with nationalism. “‘Cultural-national autonomy,'” Lenin asserted, “implies precisely the most refined and, therefore, the most harmful nationalism.”45

Lenin believed that, in practice, cultural-national autonomy could only intensify the isolation and impoverishment of national minorities. He referred to the oppressive effects of Jim Crow laws on American Blacks and to the hypocrisy of “separate but equal” ideology in the U.S. as a way of illustrating the inadequacy of Bauer’s ideas. “At the present time we see that the different nations are unequal in the rights they possess and in their level of development. Under these circumstances, segregating the schools according to nationality would actually and inevitably worsen the conditions of the more backward nations.”46 Instead, “we must strive to create the fundamental democratic conditions for the peaceful coexistence of the nations on the basis of equal rights.”47

Thus Lenin challenged “the whole Bauerite approach, by making a sharp distinction between the fight against every element of discrimination against any group on the basis of their language or culture, and exhaltation of particular national cultures.”48 He insisted that the slogan of “cultural-national autonomy” actually conceals the existence of two cultures within every “national” culture.

The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of “elements,” but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy and the bourgeoisie.49

When the right of nations to self-determination shifts from the political realm to the cultural realm, oppressed nations are abandoned to the influence of an “aggressive bourgeois nationalism, which drugs the minds of workers, stultifies and disunites them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them around by the halter.”50 That is why Lenin stated repeatedly that socialists “take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them only and absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and the bourgeois nationalism of each nation.”51

“Our banner,” Lenin proclaimed, “does not carry the slogan ‘national culture’ but international culture, which unites all the nations in a higher, socialist unity, and the way to which is being paved by the international amalgamation of capital.”52

[Part Two of this article was published in ISR issue 14, October-November, 2000. Follow the link or read it below.]

1 V.I. Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Collected Works Vol. 20, (Moscow: International Publishers, 1964), p. 397.

2 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 396.

3 Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Bookmarks, 1980), p. 55

4 Chris Harman, “The Return of the National Question,” International Socialism 56, Autumn 1992: p. 18.

5 Cliff, p.56.

6 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York and London: Verso Press, 1998), p.58.

7 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 58.

8 Marx, “Letter of 2 November 1867,” Marx-Engels Collected Works , Vol. 42, (Moscow: International Publishers, 1987), pp. 460-61.

9 Marx, “Letter of 30 November 1867,” Collected Works, Vol. 42, pp. 486-87.

10 Marx, “Letter of 29 November 1869,” Collected Works, Vol. 43 (Moscow: International Publishers, 1987), pp. 390-91.

11 Harman, p. 19.

12 This is the date of the founding of Theodor Herzl’s new Zionist organization and is commonly accepted as the birthdate of modern political Zionism. There were, however, precursors. As Zachary Lockman points out: “The first organized political manifestation of this new nationalism [Zionism] was the small and loose knit Hibbat Tziyon (“Love of Zion”) movement, which crystallized after the pogroms of 1881 and took the form of a network of local associations established to promote Jewish immigration to and settlement in Palestine, and the reconstitution there of Jewish national life.” Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 24.

13 Grigorii Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party (London: New Park Publications, 1973), p. 88.

14 1903. Second Ordinary Congress of the RSDLP. Complete Text of the Minutes. Brian Pearce, trans. (London: New Park Publications, Ltd., 1978), p. 78.

15 1903, p. 98.

16 1903, p. 118.

17 1903, p. 118.

18 1903, p. 118.

19 1903, p. 118.

20 1903, p. 118.

21 1903, p. 119.

22 Lenin, “Theses on the National Question,” Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 249.

23 1903, p. 6.

24 1903, p. 506.

25 1903, p. 506.

26 1903, p. 230.

27 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 442.

28 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 243.

29 Lenin, “The National Programme of the RSDLP,” Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 543.

30 Lenin, “Theses,” p.244.

31 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 244.

32 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 245.

33 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 246.

34 Lenin, “Theses,” p.246.

35 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 244.

36 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 245.

37 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 401.

38 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 405.

39 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 412.

40 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” pp. 411-12, p. 410.

41 Lenin, “Right of Nations,” p. 412.

42 Lenin, “Theses,” p. 243.

43 Otto Bauer, “The Nationalities Question and Social Democracy,” The Nationalism Reader, Omar Dahbour and Micheline R. Ishay, eds. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995), p. 183.

44 Harman, p. 20.

45 Lenin, “The National Programme of the RSDLP,” p. 541.

46 Lenin, “Cultural-National Autonomy,” Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 504.

47 Lenin, “The Nationality of Pupils in Russian Schools,” Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 532.

48 Harman, p. 31.

49 Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 24.

50 Lenin, “Critical Remarks,” p. 25.

51 Lenin, “Critical Remarks,” p. 24.

52 Lenin, “Once More on the Segregation of the Schools According to Nationality,” Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 549.

Marxism and Nationalism

Part Two International Socialist Review Issue 14, October-November 2000

By Tom Lewis

The first part of this article appeared in ISR 13 (August-September 2000). The article discussed Marx’ and Engels’ approach to the national struggles of their day and summarized the important debates on nationalism that took place at the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Lenin’s position that socialists are duty-bound “to conduct an implacable struggle” against all those who at any time “defend or sanction national oppression or the denial of the right of nations to self-determination” was explained in detail. The Bolshevik Party understood self-determination as the right to secession. Yet the idea that self-determination expresses a political right, instead of an economic or cultural right, led Lenin into heated debates. From one side, Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists advocated a cultural interpretation of the right to self-determination. From the other, Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish Marxists argued that capitalist economic development had eliminated the very possibility of self-determination. Part One ended with Lenin’s criticisms of Bauer and cultural nationalism. Part Two begins with the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg.

Luxemburg and Imperialist Economism

The slogan of self-determination of nations should also be advanced in connection with the imperialist era of capitalism.

–V. I. Lenin, “The Question of Peace”


LENIN HAD argued against Otto Bauer’s cultural nationalism that the banner of socialism “does not carry the slogan ‘national culture’ but ‘international’ culture, which unites all the nations in a higher, socialist unity, and the way to which is being paved by the international amalgamation of capital.” Yet it was precisely the “international amalgamation of capital”–the spread of capitalism around the globe and the development of imperialism as capitalism’s highest stage–that prompted the great Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg to adopt a dramatically different position from Lenin’s on the national question. While recognizing that the nationalities issue was a crucial one for socialists, Luxemburg asserted that all talk of the right of nations to self-determination had become pure utopianism in the modern era. “A ‘right of nations’ which is valid for all countries and all times,” she wrote, “is nothing more than a metaphysical cliché.”1

In The National Question and Autonomy (1909), Luxemburg based her objections to Lenin on her perception that “the actual possibility of ‘self-determination’ for all ethnic groups or otherwise defined nationalities is a utopia precisely because of the trend of historical development of contemporary societies.”2 This trend possessed two key features, according to Luxemburg. First, the growth of a few powerful nations as the leaders in capitalist development meant that the independence of the smaller nations was increasingly an illusion. “Big-power economy and politics–a condition of survival for the capitalist states–turn the politically independent, formally equal, small European states into mutes on the European stage and more often into scapegoats.”3 From this perspective, “the idea of insuring all ‘nations’ the possibility of self-determination is equivalent to reverting from Great-Capitalist development to the small medieval states.”4

Second, the acquisition of colonies by the strongest capitalist countries–that is, the development of imperialism–had undermined not just the actuality of independence but even the possibility of self-determination. Luxemburg argued that “the very development of international trade in the capitalist period brings with it the inevitable, though at times slow ruin of all the more primitive societies, destroys their existing means of ‘self-determination,’ and makes them dependent on the crushing wheel of capitalist development and world politics.”5 In any event, “a general attempt to divide all existing states into national units and to re-tailor them on the model of national states and statelets is a completely hopeless, and historically speaking, reactionary undertaking.”6 To Lenin’s idea that the right of nations to self-determination is a democratic right which socialists should support along with the other democratic demands, Luxemburg therefore responded:

The above view completely overlooks the fact that these “rights,” which have a certain superficial similarity, lie on completely different historical levels. The rights of association and assembly, free speech, the free press, etc., are the legal forms of existence of a mature bourgeois society. But “the right of nations to self-determination” is only a metaphysical formulation of an idea that in bourgeois society is completely nonexistent and can be realized only on the basis of a socialist regime.7

Throughout a series of writings, Lenin vigorously disputed Luxemburg’s claim that the right of nations to self-determination had become irrelevant to the imperialist epoch. “The policy of national oppression,” Lenin stated, “inherited from the autocracy and the monarchy, is maintained by the landowners, capitalists, and petty bourgeoisie in order to protect their class privileges and to cause disunity among the workers of the various nationalities. Modern imperialism, which increases the tendency to subjugate weaker nations, is a new factor intensifying national oppression.”8

Because imperialism actually tightened the grip of the stronger nations on the weaker ones, Lenin argued that struggles for national liberation could be expected to play an even greater role in the imperialist epoch than in the past. This was especially true where subjugated peoples were the weakest: Africa and Asia. As capitalism spread across Asia, for example, it “has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent;…[T]he tendency of these movements is towards the creation of national states…[since] it is such states that ensure the best conditions for the development of capitalism.”9 The global march of capital–far from eliminating the need for socialists to uphold the right to self-determination–has in fact heightened the legitimacy of this demand, in Lenin’s view.

The semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia and Turkey, and all the colonies…have a combined population of 1,000 million. In these countries the bourgeois-democratic movements either have hardly begun, or have still a long way to go. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation–and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing else than the recognition of the right to self-determination. They must also render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their uprising–or revolutionary war, in the event of one–against the imperialist powers that oppress them.10

Because she failed to understand the continuing dynamic between capitalism and nationalism in the imperialist period, Luxemburg finally adopted a fundamentally “nihilistic attitude to the national question.”11 Lenin argued that her attitude misperceived reality despite the correctness, in abstract terms of her analysis of the difficulties of ending national oppression under capitalism.

It is impossible to abolish national (or any other political) oppression under capitalism, since this requires the abolition of classes. But while being based on economics, socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation–socialist production–is essential for the abolition of national oppression, but this foundation must also carry a democratically organized state, a democratic army, etc. By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality “only”–“only”!–with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the “sympathies” of the population, including complete freedom to secede.12

In other words, successful socialist revolution creates new economic conditions that remove the material cause of national oppression. But the realization of the democratic potential embodied in the new economy also depends on its expression and organization within a political state that is itself committed to and capable of abolishing national oppression. Lenin identified Luxemburg’s greatest error, therefore, as one of ignoring the importance of politics in the national question and of thereby falling into the trap of “imperialist [economism].”

“Economism” as a tendency among Russian Marxists arose in the 1890s and represented the view that “workers should by and large interest themselves in nothing other than mere narrow economic questions: everything else…did not concern workers, they did not understand other things and we must talk to them only about things which directly affect them, that is, only about their economic demands.”13 Now, the obvious weakness of economism was that it discouraged and disabled workers from participating in and leading struggles against any of the forms of political oppression, including national oppression. Economism made it difficult to demonstrate in practice both the need for and the advantages of unity throughout the working class. Economism stood in the way of acquiring the kinds of experiences that can spark and develop fully democratic, internationalist principles among workers.

In Lenin’s view, Luxemburg’s dismissal of the right of nations to self-determination thus involved “a sort of ‘imperialist Economism’ like the old Economism of 1894-1902, which argued in this way: capitalism is victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time. Imperialism is victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time!”14 In fact:

for the question of the political self-determination of nations and their independence as states in bourgeois society, Rosa Luxemburg has substituted the question of their economic independence. This is just as intelligent as if someone, in discussing the programmatic demand for the supremacy of parliament, i.e., the assembly of people’s representatives, in a bourgeois state, were to expound the perfectly correct conviction that big capital dominates in a bourgeois country, whatever the regime in it.15

Lenin here understood the imperialist epoch as actually increasing the importance of politics for the workers’ movement. His concern was that, in opposing the right of self-determination for Poland, Luxemburg and the Polish Socialist Democrats forgot that the “program of Social-Democracy…must postulate the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed as basic, significant and inevitable under imperialism.”16 That is why:

The important thing is not whether one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of the small nations are liberated before the socialist revolution, but the fact that in the epoch of imperialism, owing to objective causes, the proletariat has been split into two camps, one of which has been corrupted by the crumbs that fall from the table of the dominant-nation bourgeoisie–obtained, among other things, from the double or triple exploitation of small nations–while the other cannot liberate itself without liberating the small nations, without educating the masses in an anti-chauvinist, i.e., anti-annexationist, i.e., “self-determinationist,” spirit.17

In his debate with Luxemburg on the national question, Lenin emphasized at all times that the “self-determination of nations today hinges on the conduct of socialists in the oppressor nations. A socialist of any of the oppressor nations…who does not recognize and does not struggle for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination (i.e., the right to secession) is in reality a chauvinist, not a socialist.”18 This perspective alone, Lenin argued, leads to a consistent application of the principle of combating any form of the oppression of nations: “It removes mistrust among the proletarians of the oppressor and oppressed nations, [and] makes for a united international struggle for the socialist revolution (i.e., for the only accomplishable regime of complete national equality).”19

Poland and the First World War

This, the most important aspect of the question, is ignored by our Polish comrades, who do not view things from the key position in the epoch of imperialism, the standpoint of the division of the international proletariat into two camps.

–V. I. Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”


With imperialist rivalry reaching a new intensity during the first decade of the twentieth century, and in keeping with the closing words of the Communist Manifesto–“Workers of all countries unite!”–the 1907 Congress of the Second International passed the following resolution:

If the outbreak of war threatens, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, with the aid of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of coordinated action. If war nevertheless breaks out, it is their duty to work for its speedy end, and to exploit with all their forces the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule.20

These brave words turned out to be an illusion. In August 1914, the vast majority of the parties in the Second International–including its largest party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)–voted their support for the horrific conflict into which imperialism had dragged them. The Second International immediately collapsed under the impact of this betrayal.

The outbreak of the First World War thrust the national question quickly to the fore. German socialists who supported the war–the “opportunists”–justified their criminal collusion with the German bourgeoisie by claiming that a defeat for Russia would be progressive, since it would “liberate” Poland and the other nationalities oppressed by the Tsar. For their part, the Russian opportunists justified their support for imperialist war, either by invoking what Lenin sarcastically referred to as the “who-started-it?” theory, or by claiming that a victory for Russia would strengthen Russian capitalism and thereby hasten the day when socialist revolution would be possible in Russia.

Even the leading theoretician of the Second International, the SPD’s Karl Kautsky, failed the test of war. Labeled by Lenin as a “social-chauvinist,” Kautsky argued that every nation had the right to defend itself–a thesis known as “defense of the fatherland.” Kautsky’s thesis was related to his theory of “ultra-imperialism.” Rather than viewing imperialism as an era of wars and revolutions, as Lenin did, Kautsky believed that the carve-up of the globe among the imperialist powers, once complete, would act as a force for stability and peace. Kautsky considered that the war would be short-lived and that, after having relieved some pent-up pressures, imperialism would resume its steady march toward harmony and equilibrium.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks resolutely condemned the war. They called upon the working classes of all the belligerent nations to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary war against their capitalist rulers.

Lenin was scathing in his attack on socialists who supported the war. “Opportunism and social-chauvinism stand on a common economic basis–the interests of a thin crust of privileged workers and of the petty bourgeoisie, who are defending their privileged position, their ‘right’ to some modicum of the profits that their ‘own’ national bourgeoisie obtain from robbing other nations, from the advantages of their Great-Power status, etc.”21 The war in fact presented the leaders of the social democratic parties with a clear choice. “Maintain their political position, their internationalism, which meant opposing the war, and face a return to illegality, persecution, prison, and the seizure of their massive assets. Or abandon all they had stood for in principle, support ‘their own’ imperialist state and gain an honored and increasing role in capitalist society. They capitulated and became recruiting sergeants for the First World War.”22

The fortunes of Poland during the First World War provided the occasion for Lenin to further develop his theory on the right of nations to self-determination. In 1915, the German army captured Poland from Russia. Polish nationalists quickly allied themselves with Germany as a means of gaining independence from the Russian empire. Predictably, German opportunists welcomed their government’s victory, while Russian opportunists deplored it.

For their part, Luxemburg and the Polish Social-Democrats argued correctly that national independence for Poland would remain a mirage as long as either Germany or Russia dominated Poland. But the Polish Social-Democrats not only drew their familiar conclusion that the right to self-determination should therefore not apply to Poland. They also argued against “any revolt of the annexed regions,” and, “any restoration of their independence, even a peaceful one!”23 In practice this meant their willingness to accept German annexation of Belgium and Russian annexation of Galicia.

Lenin responded to the opportunists and social-chauvinists alike by declaring that “Russian democracy…has undoubtedly gained from the fact that at present Russia does not oppress Poland and hold it by force. The Russian proletariat has undoubtedly gained from the fact that it no longer oppresses a people it had helped to oppress yesterday. German democracy has undoubtedly lost, for as long as the German proletariat tolerates Germany’s oppression of Poland it will remain in a position which is worse than that of a slave.”24 True internationalism, Lenin observed, requires that socialists be “indifferent” to whether “small nations belong to [their] state or to a neighboring state.”25 What matters is that small nations have a democratic choice to be independent or to voluntarily integrate with a larger nation.

Regarding the views of the Polish Social-Democrats, Lenin agreed that Polish independence was impossible at the moment. “To raise the question of Poland’s independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighboring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o’-the-wisp [and] plunge into narrow-minded nationalism.”26 He emphasized that no socialist could be “in favor of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland”; such a position would place “the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.”27 Nevertheless, Lenin took pains to clarify that the inability of socialists to support Polish independence, in a situation in which Poland had become the “plaything” of imperialist rivals, emphatically did not mean that socialists should withhold support for Polish self-determination.

The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilized by another “great” power for its own, equally imperialist, aims, is just as unlikely to make [genuine] Social-Democrats refuse to recognize the right of nations to self-determination as the numerous cases of bourgeois utilization of republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial plunder…are unlikely to make the Social-Democrats reject their republicanism.28

Lenin formulated the theoretical problem posed by Poland during the First World War in these terms: “The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping…to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, or they take part in annexing her.”29

The immediate task for Polish workers was thus to stress “the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such can help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighboring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists.”30 At the same time, the question of Polish independence remained very much alive for Russian and German workers. On the one hand, if Russian or German workers were to consent to Poland’s annexation by “their” particular country, it would mean their political descent into the “basest turpitude” and their acceptance of the role of “executioner of other peoples.”31 On the other hand, if Russian or German workers were to demand Poland’s independence, they would objectively play into the hands of one or the other of the two imperialist powers battling over Poland.

Lenin’s solution to the apparent contradictions among the positions and interests of Polish, Russian, and German workers was to demonstrate that in order “to strengthen internationalism you do not have to repeat the same words”:32

The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.33

In sum, Lenin advised socialists in the oppressor nations to uphold Poland’s right to self-determination even as they withheld support for Polish independence in the context of the First World War. From the standpoint of the interests of the international working class and of democracy in general, Lenin showed that liberating Poland would unjustifiably require more war and that it could not be achieved without the national movement itself fatally becoming an instrument of one or the other imperialist power.

To socialists in Poland as the oppressed nation, Lenin similarly counseled that they not raise the demand for Polish independence in existing circumstances. By specifying that he was speaking in reference to “the given epoch or the given period,” however, Lenin implicitly reiterated his conviction that, in other circumstances, nothing “precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal.”34 Clearly, for Polish socialists to be able to consider the possibility of Polish independence or its voluntary integration with another state in the future, they needed to uphold Poland’s right to self-determination in the present.

Throughout his discussion of Poland during the First World War I, Lenin consistently argues that, even when the slogan of independence cannot be raised because of the alignment of a given national movement with one among a set of rival imperialist powers, revolutionary socialists in both the oppressor and oppressed countries must find a way to affirm the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.


Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations–such is the national program that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.

–V. I. Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”


Lenin’s theory of the right of nations to self-determination became the cornerstone of the international communist movement prior to Stalin’s rise to power. In presenting the commission report at the Second Congress of the Communist International in August 1920, Lenin added to Marx’ and Engels’ call for the workers of all countries to unite. Lenin put forward a new call for “the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial question [to] be based on the union of the workers and toiling masses of all nations and countries in the common revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landlords and the bourgeoisie.”35

This policy represented the putting into practice of the right to self-determination in connection with the imperialist epoch. It took the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed and made it a guide to action. There could, of course, be no question of painting the bourgeois-led national liberation movements in revolutionary socialist colors. But equally there was no doubt that the workers and peasant masses of the colonized lands were far from being the passive victims of imperialism. They were also the agents of their own liberation, historical actors from whose ranks would come the components of the future proletarian parties.

Lenin firmly believed that “it would be a betrayal of socialism to refuse to implement the self-determination of nations under socialism.”36 Between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, he thus supported Russia’s nationalities in the demands they made upon the Provisional Government. And on November 2, 1917, the new Bolshevik government, as one of its first acts, decreed the right of Russia’s oppressed nations to freedom. That right included self-determination up to secession and the formation of an independent state.

In the years between the October Revolution and his death in January 1924, Lenin battled on several occasions to defend the theory of self-determination he had elaborated prior to the revolution. Rival views developed among the Bolsheviks, some of whom claimed that the right to self-determination was no longer necessary under socialism, while others asserted that only the proletariat of an oppressed nationality, rather than the oppressed population in its entirety, should be allowed to vote on the question of forming an independent state. According to the historian E. H. Carr, “Lenin almost single-handed defended the old party position.”37

Debates over the question of self-determination under socialism often counterposed Lenin and Trotsky, on one side, to Bukharin and Stalin, who had become People’s Commissar for Affairs of Nationalities, on the other. In the middle of harsh disagreements over independence for regions such as Georgia and the Ukraine, Lenin’s ideas stood out for their honesty and clarity:

We want a voluntary union of nations–a union which precludes any coercion of one nation by another–a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly unity, on absolutely voluntary consent. Such a union cannot be effected at one stroke, we have to work toward it with the greatest patience and circumspection, so as not to spoil matters and not to arouse distrust, and so that the distrust inherited from centuries of landowner and capitalist oppression, centuries of private property and the enmity caused by its divisions and redivisions may have a chance to wear off.

We must, therefore, strive persistently for the unity of nations and ruthlessly suppress everything that tends to divide them, and in so doing we must be very cautious and patient, and make concessions to the survivals of national distrust….In this matter we can afford to wait, and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardize the cause of complete and ultimate unity.38

Lenin’s critics today accuse his ideas on self-determination of harboring a fundamental contradiction: “Lenin supported the ‘right’ to separation without actually advocating separation. He argued that it was like a divorce law, which allowed for separation but did not promote it.”39 But Lenin himself penned the appropriate response when he answered the critics of his own day:

People who have not gone into the question thoroughly think that it is “contradictory” for the Social-Democrats of oppressor nations to insist on the “freedom to secede,” while Social-Democrats of oppressed nations insist on the “freedom to integrate.” However, a little reflection will show that there is not, and cannot be any other road to internationalism and the amalgamation of nations, any other road from the given situation to this goal.40

Lenin’s theory of the right of nations to self-determination is one of the most outstanding achievements of Marxism. It is a beacon of workers’ democracy that can guide socialists in the anti-imperialist struggles of the twenty-first century as surely as it has in the past.

[Part One of this article was published in ISR issue 13, August-September 2000]


1 Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Question and Autonomy,” The Nationalism Reader, ed. Omar Dahbour and Micheline R. Ishay (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995), p. 199.

2 Luxemburg, p. 202.

3 Luxemburg, p. 202.

4 Luxemburg, p. 202.

5 Luxemburg, p. 203.

6 Luxemburg, p. 203.

7 Luxemburg, p. 204.

8 Lenin, “Resolution on the National Question,” Collected Works (Moscow: International Publishers, 1963), Vol. 24, p. 302.

9 Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 399.

10 Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Collected Works, Vol. 22, pp. 51-152.

11 Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Bookmarks, 1980), p. 60.

12 Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 325.

13 Grigorii Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party (London: New Park Publications, 1973), p. 56.

14 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 323.

15 Lenin “The Right of Nations,” p. 399.

16 Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations,” p. 147.

17 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 343.

18 Lenin, “The Question of Peace,” p. 293.

19 Lenin, “The Question of Peace,” p. 293.

20 Quoted in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985), p. 14.

21 Lenin, “Socialism and War,” Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 310.

22 Hallas, p. 16.

23 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 333. Lenin highlighted the absurdity of the position of the Polish Social-Democrats: “This is downright annexationism,” he wrote. “There is no need to refute it because it refutes itself. No socialist party would risk taking this stand: ‘We oppose annexations in general but we sanction annexations for Europe or tolerate them once they have been made.

24 Lenin, “Peace Without Annexations and the Independence of Poland as Slogans of the Day in Russia,” Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 139.

25 Lenin, “Summed Up,” pp. 346-347.

26 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 350.

27 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 350.

28 Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations,” p. 148.

29 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 351.

30 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 351.

31 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 351.

32 Lenin, “Speech on the National Question, April 29 [1917],” Collected Works, Vol. 24, p. 298.

33 Lenin, “Speech on the National Question,” p. 298.

34 Lenin, “The National Question in our Programme,” Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 460.

35 Lenin, “Theses on the National and Colonial Question,” in Alex Callinicos, Marxism and the National Question (London: Socialist Workers Party, 1989), p. 22.

36 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 321.

37 E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution (London: Macmillan & Co. 1950), p. 267.

38 Lenin, “Letter to the Workers and Peasants of the Ukraine Apropos of the Victories over Denikin,” Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 293.

39 Ronaldo Munck, The Difficult Dialogue: Marxism and Nationalism (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1986), p. 75.

40 Lenin, “Summed Up,” p. 347.