Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 3
Lenin and the National Question

The imperialist war, a war for the division and re-division of the world among the great powers, conferred a central importance on the national question, the question of relations between the oppressed nations and their oppressors. Lenin, the theoretician-practitioner, therefore found it necessary to devote much time and effort to his study of this question.

The national question was of exceptional significance in two countries of pre-war Europe – in Tsarist Russia, where 57 percent of the population belonged to national minorities, and in the Hapsburg Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The latter had within its borders several large minority groups – Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, Serbians, Croatians, Rumanians, besides the dominant Germans and Hungarians. The Austrian socialists were more concerned than socialists elsewhere with discussions of the national question, and to elaborate a program on it. This they started doing after their conference in Brünn, held in 1899.

In March 1912, Lenin moved to Polish Kracow. This sharpened his sensitivity to the national question. He plunged into a new and extensive study of the problem of nationalities. Another factor also served to increase his interest: the Balkan war and the general intensification of nationalism that presaged the coming world war. Kracow itself was an area where one of the most bitter struggles was waged over the policy regarding the national question, between the Polish Socialist Party of Joseph Pilsudski and the Polish Social Democratic Party of Rosa Luxemburg.

Austrian Socialists and the National Question

Lenin’s move to Austria also shocked him into a clearer realization of the fundamental difference between the accepted policies on the national question of the Austrian socialists and his Russian colleagues. And now, on the eve of the war, the Austrian policy was gaining new adherents in Russia.

Without exception, the delegates to the Brünn Congress had agreed on the basic principle that the equality of all nationalities within the empire constituted “primarily a cultural demand.” The only point on which disagreement existed regarded the ways of satisfying this cultural demand. Two were possible. One consisted in fighting for the territorial autonomy of all Austro-Hungarian peoples in cultural and linguistic matters. The other was to seek to establish national-cultural equality and autonomy on a purely personal, non-territorial basis. The former alternative was put forward by the national executive committee of the Austrian Socialist Party. The committee put a resolution to the congress, proposing that the Austrian Empire should be transformed into a democratic federation of nationalities along the following lines: (1) cultural and linguistic autonomy of each nationality within the empire, on a regional basis; (2) federation of all districts of a given nationality into a higher national-cultural body; (3) special laws for the protection of minorities that could not be territorially defined. [1]

The South Slav section of the Social Democratic Party of Austria, on the other hand, proposed that national-cultural autonomy should not be bound by any territorial considerations, but that every citizen should be part of a culturally and linguistically autonomous nation, even if lacking a common territory with fellow nationals. [2] This proposal was intended to forestall any rivalries and hostilities that might arise during an attempt to delimit the various regions, in areas where dozens of different nationalities lived closely together, in small enclaves. After some discussion, however, the congress adopted the resolution of the Central Committee. The latter’s rapporteur, Seliger, stated hopefully that the decentralization of Austria would put an end to all national discord within the empire, just as the national-federal organization of the Socialist Party was eliminating all division between workers of different origins. [3]

In reality, the relations between the national sections inside Austrian Social Democracy left much to be desired. Bitter quarrels took place between Czech and German-Austrian workers a few years after the Brünn Congress. [4] National enmity was also fanned by the reorganization of the Austrian party along national lines.

The ideas of the Austrian socialists on the national question did find a response in Russia, first of all among the Jewish socialists organized in the Bund. The Fourth Congress of the Bund, held in 1901, adopted a general statement in favor of the ideas advanced by the South Slav delegation at Brünn: “The concept of nationality is also applicable to the Jewish people. Russia ... must in the future be transformed into a federation of nationalities, with full national autonomy for each, regardless of the territory which it inhabits.”

Carrying this thesis further, the Bund demanded that Russian Social Democracy, with which it was affiliated, recognize the Bund as the organization representing the Jewish proletariat in Russia, and consequently grant it the status of a “federal” unit within the party. This request was turned down at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (1903), and, in protest, the Bund left the congress and the Russian party. [5]

From the Bund, the idea of extraterritorial autonomy spread to the Armenian Dashnaktsutiun, the Belorussian Socialist Hromada, and the Georgian Socialist Federalist Party, Sakartvelo, all of which adopted it as supplementary to territorial national autonomy. In 1907, those minority socialist parties met at a special conference at which the majority of the delegates expressed strong support for the Austrian proposal. [6]

At the August 1912 Menshevik conference held in Vienna, which formed the so-called August Bloc, the national question was discussed. A number of the Russian leaders participated – Martov, Axelrod, Trotsky, and others. But the majority of the delegates came from the ranks of the non-Russian Social Democratic parties: the Jewish Bund, the Latvian Social Democratic Party, the Caucasian parties, and representatives of the Polish Socialist Party and the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party. The conference asserted in its resolution that national-cultural autonomy was not contrary to the party’s program. (As a matter of fact, the Menshevik Party incorporated national-cultural autonomy into its program in 1917.)

Until Lenin moved to Austrian Poland in 1912, his polemics on the national question had been almost exclusively with the Bund. Now he had to spread his attack much wider.

Lenin Opposes the Policy on National-Cultural Autonomy

The central theme of the Austrian Marxists’ position on the national question was adaptation to the status quo: how to solve the national question within the framework of the existing Hapsburg Empire, rather than how to use the rebellion of the oppressed nations to destroy the empire.

The main Austrian theoretician on the national question was Otto Bauer.

Lenin, like Bauer, came from a multinational empire. However, Lenin did not look for a peaceful and reformist solution to the national problem. The Bolsheviks based their program on the complete destruction of Tsarism through a violent revolution. Therefore they refused to regard the national question as something that could be settled by constitutional means. Lenin was conscious of the fact that the nationalist stirrings among the minorities in Russia constituted a very potent revolutionary force, which the socialists should try to harness to their cause.

The doctrine of national cultural autonomy was particularly offensive to Lenin because it implied a federalist and decentralized reorganization of the socialist party. Multinational empires should indeed be split apart, he argued, but the proletariat must nevertheless preserve the tightest, most centralized international unity. To smash a centralized Tsarist empire, a centralized revolutionary organization was needed.

It is clear as daylight [Lenin wrote] that the advocacy of such a plan [of “cultural national autonomy”] means, in fact, pursuing or supporting the ideas of bourgeois nationalism, chauvinism and clericalism. The interests of democracy in general, and the interests of the working class in particular, demand the very opposite. We must strive to secure the mixing of the children of all nationalities in uniform schools in each locality ... We must most emphatically oppose segregating the schools according to nationality, no matter what form it may take.

It is not our business to segregate the nations in matters of education in any way; on the contrary, we must strive to create the fundamental democratic conditions for the peaceful coexistence of the nations on the basis of equal rights. We must not champion “national culture,” but expose the clerical and bourgeois character of this slogan in the name of the international culture of the world working-class movement.

To preach the establishment of special national schools for every “national culture” is reactionary. But under real democracy it is quite possible to ensure instruction in the native language, in native history, and so forth, without splitting up the schools according to nationality ...

Advocacy of impracticable cultural-national autonomy is an absurdity, which now already is only disuniting the workers ideologically. To advocate the amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities means facilitating the success of proletarian class solidarity, which will guarantee equal rights for, and maximum peaceful coexistence of, all nationalities. [7]

The Austrian Socialist leaders were both destroying the unity of the proletariat and preserving the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire because they did not uphold the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

Lenin, however, had to contend not only with the ideas on the national question of the Austrian leaders who stood on his right, but also with Marxists on the extreme left. First and foremost among these was Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the National Question

Quite early in her political life, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that the situation in Europe in general, and in Russia in particular, had changed so much towards the end of the nineteenth century that the attitude of Marx and Engels towards national movements in Europe had become untenable. For them, Tsarism was the citadel of reaction, in opposition to which the national movements played a progressive role.

In Western and Central Europe, the period of bourgeois democratic revolutions had passed. The Prussian Junkers had managed to establish their rule so firmly that they no longer needed aid from the Tsar. At the same time Tsarist rule had ceased to be the impregnable bastion of reaction; deep cracks were beginning to appear in its walls: the mass strikes of workers in Warsaw, Lodz, Petrograd, Moscow, and elsewhere in the Russian Empire; the rebellious awakening of the peasants. In fact, whereas at the time of Marx and Engels the center of revolution was in Western and Central Europe, now, towards the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, it had passed east to Russia. Whereas at the time of Marx, Tsarism was the main force employed to suppress revolutionary uprisings elsewhere, it now itself needed the help (mainly financial) of the Western capitalist powers. Instead of Russian bullets and rubles traveling westwards, now German, French, British, and Belgian munitions and money flowed in a growing stream to Russia. Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, further, that basic changes had taken place as regards the national aspirations of her motherland, Poland. Whereas at the time of Marx and Engels, the Polish nobles were leaders of the national movement, now, with increasing capitalist developments in the country, they were losing ground socially, and turning to Tsarism as an ally in the suppression of progressive movements in Poland. The result was that the Polish nobility had cooled towards aspirations for national independence. The bourgeoisie also became antagonistic to the desire for national independence, as it found the main markets for its industry in Russia: “Poland is bound to Russia with chains of gold,” Rosa Luxemburg said. “Not the national state but the state of rapine, corresponds to capitalist development.” [8]

The Polish working class, too, according to Rosa Luxemburg, did not support the separation of Poland from Russia, as they saw in Moscow and Petrograd the allies of Warsaw and Lodz. Hence there were no social forces of any weight in Poland interested in fighting for national independence. Only the intelligentsia still cherished the idea, but by themselves they represented a minor influence. Rosa Luxemburg concluded her analysis of the social forces in Poland and their attitude to the national question with the following words: “The recognizable direction of social development has made it clear to me that there is no social class in Poland that has at one and the same time both an interest in and ability to achieve the restoration of Poland.” [9]

From this analysis, she came to the conclusion that under capitalism the slogan of national independence had no progressive value and could not be realized by the internal forces of the Polish nation; only the intervention of an imperialist power could bring it into being. Under socialism, argued Rosa Luxemburg, there would be no place for the slogan of national independence, as national oppression would no longer exist, and the international unity of humanity would have been realized. Thus under capitalism, the real independence of Poland could not be realized, and steps in that direction would not have any progressive value, while under socialism, such a slogan would be superfluous. Hence the working class had no need to struggle for the national self-determination of Poland, and this struggle was in fact reactionary. The national slogans of the working class should be limited to the demand for national autonomy in cultural life.

In taking this position, Rosa Luxemburg and her party, the SDKPL, came into bitter conflict with the right-wing members of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) led by Pilsudski (the future military dictator of Poland). These were nationalists who paid lip service to socialism. Lacking a mass basis for their nationalism, they contrived adventures, plotting with foreign powers even to the extent of relying on a future world war as the midwife of national independence. In Galicia, the stronghold of the right-wing PPS, the Poles, under Austrian rule, received better treatment than those in the Russian Empire, mainly because the rulers of the Hapsburg Empire, a medley of nationalities, had to rely on the Polish ruling class to fortify their imperial rule. The PPS leaders were therefore inclined to prefer the Hapsburg Empire to the Russian, and during the First World War acted as recruiting agents for Vienna and Berlin. Earlier, during the 1905 Revolution, Daszynski, the leader of the PPS in Galicia, had gone so far as to condemn the mass strikes of Polish workers, because, according to him, they tended to identify the struggle of the Polish workers with that of the Russian, and thus to undermine Polish national unity. It is only with a clear view of Rosa Luxemburg’s opponents in the Polish labor movement that one can properly understand her position on the Polish national question.

The struggle that she had to wage against the chauvinistic PPS colored her entire attitude to the national question in general. In opposing the nationalism of the PPS she bent so far backwards that she opposed all reference to the right of self-determination in the program of the party. It was for this reason that her party, the SDKPL, split as early as 1903 from the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Bukharin, Piatakov and Radek

In 1915, the Bolshevik leaders N.I. Bukharin and G.L. Piatakov and the Polish fellow-traveler of the Bolsheviks, Karl Radek, also came out against “the right of nations to self-determination.” To quote from the Theses and Program of the Bukharin-Piatakov Group, November 1915 (Theses on the Right of Self-Determination):

The slogan of “self-determination of nations” is first of all Utopian (it cannot be realized within the limits of capitalism) and harmful as a slogan which disseminates illusions. In this respect it does not differ at all from the slogans of the courts of arbitration, of disarmament, etc., which presuppose the possibility of so-called “peaceful capitalism” ... If we advance the slogan of “self-determination” for struggle against “the chauvinism of the working masses,” then we act in the same way as when we (like Kautsky) advance the slogan of “disarmament” as a method of struggle against militarism. In both cases the error consists in a one-sided examination of the question, in an omission of the specific gravity of a given “social evil”; in other words, it is a purely rational-Utopian and not revolutionary-dialectical examination of the question ...

To struggle against the chauvinism of the working masses of a great power by means of the recognition of the right of nations for self-determination, is equivalent to struggling against this chauvinism by means of the recognition of the right of the oppressed “fatherland” to defend itself. [10]

Lenin was thus forced to fight not only against the right – the Austrian socialist leaders’ policies on the national question – but also against the left, against Rosa Luxemburg and the left communists.

Lenin Polemicizes with Luxemburg, Bukharin, Piatakov and Radek

Lenin spent much of the two years preceding the outbreak of the war engaging in sharp polemics against the followers of Otto Bauer. Thereafter, during the first two years of the war itself, he turned his fire against his Bolshevik colleagues who, following in Rosa Luxemburg’s footsteps, opposed the right of self-determination from an ultra-left standpoint.

Lenin agreed with Rosa Luxemburg in her opposition to the PPS, and, like her, argued that the duty of the Polish socialists was not to fight for national independence or secession from Russia, but for the international unity of Polish and Russian workers. However, as a member of an oppressing nation, Lenin rightly was wary in case a nihilistic attitude to the national question should provide grist for the mill of Great Russian chauvinism.

The Polish Social-Democratic comrades have rendered a great historic service by advancing the slogan of internationalism and declaring that the fraternal union of the proletariat of all countries is of supreme importance to them and that they will never go to war for the liberation of Poland. This is to their credit, and this is why we have always regarded only these Polish Social Democrats as socialists. The others are patriots, Polish Plekhanovs. But this peculiar position, when, in order to safeguard socialism, people were forced to struggle against a rabid and morbid nationalism, has produced a strange state of affairs: comrades come to us saying that we must give up the idea of Poland’s freedom, her right to secession.

Why should we Great Russians, who have been oppressing more nations than any other people, deny the right to secession for Poland, Ukraine, or Finland? ... [P]eople don’t want to understand that to strengthen internationalism you do not have to repeat the same words. What you have to do is to stress, in Russia, the freedom of secession for oppressed nations, and, in Poland, their freedom to unite. Freedom to unite implies freedom to secede. We Russians must emphasize freedom to secede, while the Poles must emphasize freedom to unite. [11]

The differences between Lenin and Luxemburg on the national question may be summarized as follows: while Rosa Luxemburg, influenced by the struggle against Polish nationalism, inclined towards a nihilistic attitude to the national question, Lenin saw realistically that, the positions of oppressed and oppressor nations being different, their attitude to the same question must be different. Thus, starting from different and opposing situations, they moved in opposite directions but reached the same position on international workers’ unity. Secondly, while Rosa Luxemburg disposed of the question of national self-determination as incompatible with the class struggle, Lenin subordinated it to the class struggle (in the same way as he took advantage of all other democratic strivings as weapons in the general revolutionary struggle). Thus, dialectically, Lenin combined the struggle of the oppressed nations with the international unity of the proletariat in the struggle for socialism.

When it came to polemicizing with his own colleagues, Lenin was much less charitable than in his polemics with Luxemburg. After all, she belonged to an oppressed nation. She was a leader of Polish socialists; they were members of a Russian party, a party of the oppressing nation.

In his massive essay The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, written in February-May 1914, Lenin wrote:

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. [12]

To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism, is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties. Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defense of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods. [13]

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot. The interests of the freedom of the Great Russian population require a struggle against such oppression. The long, centuries-old history of the suppression of the movements of the oppressed nations, and the systematic propaganda in favor of such suppression coming from the “upper” classes have created enormous obstacles to the cause of freedom of the Great Russian people itself, in the form of prejudices etc. [14]

These sentiments are reiterated in The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed up, written in July 1916:

In the internationalist 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. It is our right and duty to treat every Social Democrat of an oppressor nation who fails to conduct such propaganda as a scoundrel and an imperialist. This is an absolute demand, even where the chance of secession being possible and “practicable” before the introduction of socialism is only one in a thousand. [15]

Lenin made it clear that the right of national self-determination was part and parcel of a democratic program, that there could be no socialism without democracy. “No Social Democrat will deny – unless he would profess indifference to questions of political freedom and democracy (in which case he is naturally no longer a Social Democrat)” [16] – the need for oppressing nations to support freedom of secession to oppressed nations. “If we do not want to betray socialism we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class.” [17]

It was precisely the struggle against national oppression, and the struggle for free secession, that eliminated the barriers of national antagonism between the workers of different countries and made their close and fraternal cooperation possible. The struggle for the right of secession of oppressed nations was identical in Lenin’s mind with the struggle for international proletarian solidarity.

He was well aware of the tremendous revolutionary potential of the rebellion of the oppressed nations.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else, and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! ... Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is. The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it – without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible – and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power ... The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene. [18]

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including the national liberation movement, in the undeveloped, backward and oppressed nations. [19] [1*]

For many years Lenin argued that the national movement was an untapped source of revolutionary potential to weaken and destroy Tsarist autocracy. During the world war, he drew the conclusion that it had enormous power to weaken world imperialism. The development of his attitude to the national question in the years 1912 to 1916 was a bridge between his break with Narodism in his youth [21] and his formation of the Communist International with its anti-imperialist policy after the war.

Given Lenin’s belief in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and the need of the proletariat to win the peasants as its allies, it followed naturally to emphasize the revolutionary potential of the national movements in oppressed nations, where the overwhelming majority of the population were peasants.

His thinking in the early 1890s already contained in embryo the central themes of his further theoretical development: the relentless opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie, the hegemony of the proletariat over the peasantry, and the alliance of the proletariat of the industrial countries with the national liberation movements in the colonies. His position on the national question on the eve of the world war and during it were only a step removed from the development of this position and that of the Comintern at its Second and Third Congresses (1920, 1921). But this reflection takes the story too far ahead.

In recognition of the importance of the national struggle, Lenin even sanctioned the modification of the Communist Manifesto’s central exhortation to read “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!” [22]




1*. It seems that many of the leading comrades in Russia did not understand why Lenin was so vehement in his opposition to Bukharin and his associates, as can be seen clearly from what Anna, Lenin’s sister, wrote to him about the support she received for her position from Shliapnikov. [20] Both Anna and Shliapnikov insisted that Lenin should build links with Bukharin and Co. around the magazine Kommunist, of which they thought very highly.




1. Verhandlungen des Gesamtparteitages der Sozialdemokratie in Österreich, Vienna 1899, p.xiv.

2. Verhandlungen des Gesamtparteitages, p.15.

3. Verhandlungen des Gesamtparteitages, p.107.

4. O. Bauer, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie, Vienna 1907.

5. R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union, Harvard University Press 1954, p.28.

6. Pipes, p.28.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.19, pp.532-33.

8. Przeglad Socjaldemokratyczny (theoretical organ of the SDKPL), 1908, no.6.

9. Neue Zeit, 1895-96, p.466.

10. Gankin and Fisher, pp.219-20.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.29 8.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.20, p.412.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.20, pp.422-23.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.20, p.413.

15. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.22, p.346.

16. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.20, p.427.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.22, p.333.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.22, pp.355-57.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.23, p.60.

20. From the correspondence of the Bureau of the CC with abroad in the years of the war (1915-1916), Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, nos.7-8 (102-3), 1930.

21. See T. Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, London 1975, pp.34-40.

22. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, p.453.


Last updated on 25.10.2007