V. I.   Lenin

The National Question in Our Programme

Published: Iskra, No. 44, July 15, 1903. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 6, pages 454-463.
Translated: ??? ???
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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In our draft Party programme we have advanced the demand for a republic with a democratic constitution that would guarantee, among other things, “recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the state.” Many did not find this demand in our programme sufficiently clear, and in issue No. 33, in speaking about the Manifesto of the Armenian Social-Democrats, we explained the meaning of this point in the following way. The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination. As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers i to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.[* See pp. 326-29 of this volume.—Ed.]

This explanation of our programme on the national question has evoked a strong protest from the Polish Socialist Party (P.S.P.).[1] In an article entitled “The Attitude of the Russian Social-Democrats Towards the National Question”   (Przedświt,[Dawn.—Ed.] March 1903), the P.S.P. expresses indignation at this “amazing” explanation and at the “vagueness” of this “mysterious” self-determination of ours; it accuses us both of doctrinairism and of holding the “anarchist” view that “the worker is concerned with nothing but the complete abolition of capitalism, since, we learn, language, nationality, culture, and the like are mere bourgeois inventions,” and so on. It is worth considering this argument in detail, for it reveals almost all the misconceptions in the national question so common and so widespread among socialists.

What makes our explanation so “amazing”? Why is it considered a departure from the “literal” meaning? Does recognition of the right of nations to self-determination really imply support of any demand of every nation for self-determination? After all, the fact that we recognise the right of all citizens to form free associations does not at all commit us, Social-Democrats, to supporting the formation of any new association; nor does it prevent us from opposing and campaigning against the formation of a given association as an inexpedient and unwise step. We even recognise the right of the Jesuits to carry on agitation freely, but we fight (not by police methods, of course) against an alliance between the Jesuits and the proletarians. Consequently, when the Przedświt says; “If t.his demand for the right to free self-determination is to be taken literally [and that is how we have taken it hitherto], then it would satisfy us”—it is quite obvious that it is precisely the P.S.P. that is departing from the literal meaning of the programme. Its conclusion is certainly illogical from the formal point of view.

We do not, however, wish to confine ourselves to a formal verification of our explanation. We shall go straight to the root of the matter: is Social-Democracy in duty bound to demand national independence always and unreservedly, or only under certain circumstances; if the latter is the case then under what circumstances? To this question the P.S.P. has always replied in favour of unreserved recognition; we are not in the least surprised, therefore, at the fondness it displays towards the Russian Socialist-Revolutionaries, who   demand a federal state system and speak in favour of “complete and unreserved recognition of the right to national self-determination” (Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, No. 18, the article entitled “National Enslavement and Revolutionary Socialism”). Unfortunately, this is nothing more than one of those bourgeois-democratic phrases which, for the hundredth and thousandth time, reveal the true nature of the so-called Party of so-called Socialist-Revolutionaries. By falling for the bait presented by these phrases and yielding to the allurement of this clamour, the P.S.P. in its turn proves how weak in theoretical background and political activities is its link with the class struggle of the proletariat. But it is to the interests of this struggle that we must subordinate the demand for national self-determination. It is this that makes all the difference between our approach to the national question and the bourgeois-democratic approach. The bourgeois democrat (and the present-day socialist opportunist who follows in his footsteps) imagines that democracy eliminates the class struggle, and that is why he presents all his political demands in an abstract way, lumped together, “without reservations,” from the standpoint of the interests of the “whole people,” or even from that of an eternal and absolute moral principle. Always and every where the Social-Democrat ruthlessly exposes this bourgeois illusion, whether it finds expression in an abstract idealist philosophy or in an absolute demand for national independence.

If there is still need to prove that a Marxist can recognise the demand for national independence only conditionally, namely, on the condition indicated above, let us quote a writer who defended from the Marxist viewpoint the Polish proletarians’ demand for an independent Poland. In 1896 Karl Kautsky wrote in an article entitled “Finis Poloniae?” [“The End of Poland?”—Ed.]: “Once the proletariat tackles the Polish question it cannot but take a stand in favour of Poland’s independence, and, consequently, it cannot but welcome each step that can be taken in this direction at the present time, insofar as this step is at all compatible with the class interests of the international militant proletariat ."

  “This reservation,” Kautsky goes on to say, “should be made in any case. National independence is not so inseparably linked with the class interests of the militant proletariat as to make it necessary to strive for it unconditionally, under any circumstances.[Italics ours.] Marx and Engels took a most deter mined stand in favour of the unification and liberation of Italy, but this did not prevent them from coming out in 1859 against an Italy allied with Napoleon.” (Neue Zeit, XIV, 2, 5. 520.)

As you see, Kautsky categorically rejects the unconditional· demand for the independence of nations, and categorically demands that the question be placed not merely on a historical basis in general, but specifically on a class basis. And if we examine how Marx and Engels treated the Polish question, we shall see that this was precisely their approach to it from the very outset. Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung[2] devoted much space to the Polish question, and emphatically demanded,not only the independence of Poland, but also that Germany go to war with Russia for Poland’s freedom. At the same time Marx, however, attacked Ruge, who had spoken in favour of Poland’s freedom in the Frankfort Parliament and had tried to settle the Polish question solely by means of bourgeois-democratic phrases about “shameful injustice,” without making any attempt to analyse it historically. Marx was not like those pedants and philistines of the revolution who dread nothing more than “polemics” at revolutionary moments in history. Marx poured pitiless scorn on the “humane” citizen Ruge, and showed him, from the example of the oppression of the south of France by the north of France, that it is not every kind of national oppression that invariably inspires a desire for independence which is justified from the viewpoint of democracy and the proletariat. Marx referred to special social circumstances as a result of which “Poland ... became the revolutionary part of Russia, Austria, and Prussia.... Even the Polish nobility, although their foundations were still partly feudal, adhered to the democratic agrarian revolution with unparalleled selflessness. Poland was already a seat of East-European democracy at a time when Ger   many was still groping her way through the most platitudinous constitutional and high-flown philosophical ideology... So long as we [Germans] ... help to oppress Poland, so long as we keep part of Poland fettered to Germany, we shall remain fettered to Russia and Russian policy, we shall be unable completely to smash patriarchal feudal absolutism at home. The creation of a democratic Poland is the primary prerequisite of the creation of a democratic Germany.”[3]

We have quoted these statements in such detail because they graphically show the historical background at a time when the attitude of international Social-Democracy to the Polish problem took shape in a way which held good almost throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. To ignore the changes which have taken place in that back ground and to continue advocating the old solutions given by Marxism, would mean being true to the letter but not to the spirit of the teaching, would mean repeating the old conclusions by rote, without being able to use the Marxist method of research to analyse the new political situation. Those times and today—the age of the last bourgeois revolutionary movements, and the age of desperate reaction, extreme tension of all forces on the eve of the proletarian revolution— differ in the most obvious way. In those times Poland as a whole, not only the peasantry, but even the bulk of the nobility, was revolutionary. The traditions of the struggle for national liberation were so strong and deep-rooted that, after their defeat at home, Poland’s best sons went wherever they could find a revolutionary class to support; the memory of Dąbrowski and of Wróblewski[4] is inseparably associated with the greatest movement of the proletariat in the nineteenth century, with the last—and let us hope the last unsuccessful—insurrection of the Paris workers. In those times complete victory for democracy in Europe was indeed impossible without the restoration of Poland. In those times Poland was indeed the bulwark of civilisation against tsarism, and the vanguard of democracy. To day the Polish ruling classes, the gentry in Germany and in Austria, and the industrial and financial magnates in Russia are supporting the ruling classes of the countries that oppress Poland, while the German and the Russian proletariat are fighting for freedom side by side with the Polish   proletariat, which has heroically taken over the great traditions of the old revolutionary Poland. Today the advanced representatives of Marxism in the neighbouring country, while attentively watching the political evolution of Europe and fully sympathising with the heroic struggle of the Poles, nevertheless frankly admit that “at present St. Petersburg has become a much more important revolutionary centre than Warsaw, and the Russian revolutionary movement is already of greater international significance than the Polish movement.” This is what Kautsky wrote as early as 1896, in defending the inclusion in the Polish Social-Democrats’ programme of the demand for Poland’s restoration. And in 1902 Mehring, who has been studying the evolution of the Polish question since 1848, arrived at the following conclusion: “Had the Polish proletariat desired to inscribe on its banner the restoration of a Polish class state, which the ruling classes themselves do not want to hear of, it would be playing a historical farce; this may well happen to the propertied classes (as, for instance, the Polish nobility in 1791), but it should never happen to the working class. If, on the other hand, this reactionary Utopia comes out to win over to proletarian agitation those sections of the intelligentsia and of the petty bourgeoisie which still respond in some measure to national agitation, then that Utopia is doubly untenable as an outgrowth of that unworthy opportunism which sacrifices the long-term interests of the working class to the cheap and paltry successes of the moment.

“Those interests dictate categorically that, in all three states that have partitioned Poland, the Polish workers should fight unreservedly side by side with their class comrades. The times are past when a bourgeois revolution could create a free Poland: today the renascence of Poland is possible only through a social revolution, in the course of which the modern proletariat will break its chains.”[5]

We fully subscribe to Mehring’s conclusion. We shall only remark that this conclusion remains unassailable even if we do not go as far as Mehring in our arguments. With out any doubt the present state of the Polish question differs radically from that which obtained fifty years ago. However, the present situation cannot be regarded as permanent. Class antagonism has now undoubtedly relegated national   questions far into the background, but, without the risk of lapsing into doctrinairism, it cannot be categorically asserted that some particular national question cannot appear temporarily in the foreground of the political drama. No doubt, the restoration of Poland prior to the fall of capitalism is highly improbable, but it cannot be asserted that it is absolutely impossible, or that circumstances may not arise under which the Polish bourgeoisie will take the side of independence, etc. And Russian Social-Democracy does not in the least intend to tie its own hands. In including in its programme recognition of the right of nations to self- determination, it takes into account all possible, and even all conceivable, combinations. That programme in no way 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. The programme merely demands that a genuinely socialist party shall not corrupt proletarian class-consciousness, or slur over the class struggle, or lure working class with bourgeois-democratic phrases, or break the unity of the proletariat’s present-day political struggle. This reservation is the crux of the matter, for only with this reservation do we recognise self-determination. It is useless for the P.S.P. to pretend that it differs from the German or Russian Social-Democrats in their rejection of the right to self-determination, the right to strive for a free and independent republic. It is not this, but the fact that it loses. sight of the class point of view, obscures it by chauvinism and disrupts the unity of the present-day political struggle, that prevents us from regarding the P.S.P. as a genuine Social-Democratic workers’ party. This, for instance, is how the P.S.P. usually presents the question: “...We can only weaken tsarism by wresting Poland from it; it is the task of the Russian comrades to overthrow it.” Or again: “... After the over throw of tsarism we would simply decide our fate by seceding from Russia.” See to what monstrous conclusions this monstrous logic leads, even from the viewpoint of the programme demand for Poland’s restoration. Because the restoration of Poland is one of the possible (but, whilst the bourgeoisie rules, by no means absolutely certain) consequences of democratic evolution, therefore the Polish   proletariat must not fight together with the Russian proletariat to overthrow tsarism, but “only” to weaken it by wresting Poland from it. Because Russian tsarism is concluding a closer and closer alliance with the bourgeoisie and the governments of Germany, Austria, etc., therefore the Polish proletariat must weaken its alliance with the proletariat of Russia, Germany, etc., together with whom it is now fighting against one and the same yoke. This is nothing more than sacrificing the most vital interests of the proletariat to the bourgeois-democratic conception of national independence. The disintegration of Russia which the P.S.P. desires, as distinct from our aim of overthrowing tsarism, is and will remain an empty phrase, as long as economic development continues to bring the different parts of a political whole more and more closely together, and as long as the bourgeoisie of all countries unite more and more closely against their common enemy, the proletariat, and in support of their common ally, the tsar. But the division of the forces of the proletariat, which is now suffering under the yoke of this autocracy, is the sad reality, the direct consequence of the error of the P.S.P., the direct outcome of its worship of bourgeois-democratic formulas. To turn a blind eye to this division of the proletariat, the P.S.P. has to stoop to chauvinism and present the views of the Russian Social-Democrats as follows: “We [the Poles] must wait for the social revolution, and until then we must patiently endure national oppression.” This is an utter falsehood. The Russian Social-Democrats have never advised anything of the sort; on the contrary, they themselves fight, and call upon the whole Russian proletariat to fight, against all manifestations of national oppression in Russia; they include in their programme not only complete equality of status for all languages, nationalities, etc., but also recognition of every nation’s right to determine its own destiny. Recognising this right, we subordinate to the interests of the proletarian struggle our support of the demand for national independence, and only a chauvinist can interpret our position as an expression of a Russian s mistrust of a non-Russian, for in reality this position necessarily follows from the class-conscious proletarian’s distrust of the bourgeoisie. The P.S.P. takes the view that the national question is exhausted by the contrast—“we” (Poles) and “they”   (Germans, Russians, etc.). The Social-Democrat, however, gives first place to the contrast— “we,” the proletarians, and “they,” the bourgeoisie. “We,” the proletarians, have seen dozens of times how the bourgeoisie betrays the interests of freedom, motherland, language, and nation, when it is con fronted with the revolutionary proletariat. We witnessed the French bourgeoisie’s surrender to the Prussians at the moment of the greatest humiliation and suppression of the French nation, the Government of National Defence becoming a Government of National Defection, the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation calling to its aid the troops of the oppressing nation so as to crush its proletarian fellow countrymen, who had dared to assume power. And that is why, undeterred by chauvinist and opportunist heckling, we shall always say to the Polish workers: only the most complete and intimate alliance with the Russian proletariat can meet the requirements of the present political struggle against the autocracy; only such an alliance can guarantee complete political and economic emancipation.

What we have said on the Polish question is wholly applicable to every other national question. The accursed history of autocracy has left us a legacy of tremendous estrangement between the working classes of the various nationalities oppressed by that autocracy. This estrangement is a very great evil, a very great obstacle in the struggle against the autocracy, and we must not legitimise this evil or sanctify this outrageous state of affairs by establishing any such “principles” as separate parties or a “federation” of parties. It is, of course, simpler and easier to follow the line of least resistance, and for everyone to make himself comfortable in his own corner following the rule, “it’s none of my business,” as the Bund now wants to do. The more we realise the need for unity and the more firmly we are convinced that a concerted offensive against the autocracy is impossible without complete unity, the more obvious becomes the necessity for a centralised organisation of the struggle in the conditions of our political system—the less inclined are we to be satisfied with a “simple,” but specious and, at bottom, profoundly false solution of the problem. So long as the injuriousness of estrangement is not realised, and so long as there is no desire to put an end radically and at all costs to this   estrangement in the camp of the proletarian party, there is no need for the fig-leaf of “federation,” and no use in under taking to solve a problem which one of the “sides” concerned has no real desire to solve. That being the case, it is better to let the lessons of experience and of the actual movement prove that centralism is essential for success in the struggle waged by the proletarians of all nationalities oppressed by autocracy against that autocracy and against the international bourgeoisie, which is becoming more and more united.


[1] The Polish Socialist Party (P.S.P.)—a petty-bourgeois nationalist party, founded in 1892.

[2] Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette) appeared in Cologne from June 1, 1848, until May 19, 1849. Marx and Engels were managers of this newspaper, Marx being editor-in-chief. As Lenin put it, the newspaper was “the best, the unsurpassed organ of the revolutionary proletariat” (see present edition, Vol. 21, “Karl Marx”). It educated the masses, roused them to fight the counter-revolution, and made its influence felt throughout Germany. Because of its resolute and irreconcilable position and its militant internationalism, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was from the first months of its existence persecuted by the feudal-monarchist and liberal-bourgeois press, and also by the government. Marx’s deportation by the Prussian Government and the repressive measures against its other editors led to the paper ceasing publication, About the Neue Rheinische Zeitung see the article by Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49)” (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 328-37).

[3] Lenin is quoting from the series of articles printed under the general title of “Debates on the Polish Question in Frankfort” in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in August-September 1848. See MEGA, Erste Abteilung, Band 7, S. 287-317. Engels was the author of these articles.

[4] Dąbrowski, Jaroslaw and Wróblewski, Walery—prominent leaders of the Polish revolutionary movement in 1863-64, who emigrated to France after the suppression of the Polish uprising. In 1871 they were generals of the Paris Commune.

[5] Lenin is quoting Franz Mehring’s introduction to the third volume of the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1841 to 1850, which he published in 1902. (Gesammelte Schriften von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels, 1841 bis 1850. Dritter Band, Stuttgart. Verlag von J. H. W. Dietz, Nachf., 1902.)

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