V. I.   Lenin

Critical Remarks on the National Question



The question of the “national culture” slogan is of enormous importance to Marxists, not only because it determines the ideological content of all our propaganda and agitation on the national question, as distinct from bourgeois propaganda, but also because the entire programme of the much-discussed cultural-national autonomy is based on this slogan.

The main and fundamental flaw in this programme is that it aims at introducing the most refined, most absolute and most extreme nationalism. The gist of this programme is that every citizen registers as belonging to a particular nation, and every nation constitutes a legal entity with the right to impose compulsory taxation on its members,   with national parliaments (Diets) and national secretaries of state (ministers).

Such an idea, applied to the national question, resembles Proudhon’s idea, as applied to capitalism. Not abolishing capitalism and its basis—commodity production—but purging that basis of abuses, of excrescences, and so forth; not abolishing exchange and exchange value, but, on the contrary, making it “constitutional”, universal, absolute, “fair”, and free of fluctuations, crises and abuses—such was Proudhon’s idea.

Just as Proudhon was petty-bourgeois, and his theory converted exchange and commodity production into an absolute category and exalted them as the acme of perfection, so is the theory and programme of “cultural-national autonomy” petty bourgeois, for it converts bourgeois nationalism into an absolute category, exalts it as the acme of perfection, and purges it of violence, injustice, etc.

Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers’ association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims).

The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.

The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism,   for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.

To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limit ed and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.

Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general?—Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations. The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.

Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false. The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To   act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.

When, at their Congress in Br\"unn[2] (in 1899), the Austrian Social-Democrats discussed the plan for cultural-national autonomy, practically no attention was paid to a theoretical appraisal of that plan. It is, however, note worthy that the following two arguments were levelled against this programme: (1) it would tend to strengthen clericalism; (2) “its result would be the perpetuation of chauvinism, its introduction into every small community, into every small group” (p. 92 of the official report of the Br\"unn Congress, in German. A Russian translation was published by the Jewish nationalist party, the J.S.L.P.[3]).

There can be no doubt that “national culture”, in the ordinary sense of the term, i. e., schools, etc., is at present under the predominant influence of the clergy and the bourgeois chauvinists in all countries in the world. When the Bundists, in advocating “cultural-national” autonomy, say that the constituting of nations will keep the class struggle within them clean of all extraneous considerations, then that is manifest and ridiculous sophistry. It is primarily in the economic and political sphere that a serious class struggle is waged in any capitalist society. To separate the sphere of education from this is, firstly, absurdly utopian, because schools (like “national culture” in general) cannot be separated from economics and politics; secondly, it is the economic and political life of a capitalist country that necessitates at every step the smashing of the absurd and outmoded national barriers and prejudices, whereas separation of the school system and the like, would only perpetuate, intensify and strengthen “pure” clericalism and “pure” bourgeois chauvinism.

On the boards of joint-stock companies we find capitalists of different nations sitting together in complete harmony. At the factories workers of different nations work side by side. In any really serious and profound political issue sides are taken according to classes, not nations. With drawing school education and the like from state control and placing it under the control of the nations is in effect an attempt to separate from economics, which unites the nations, the most highly, so to speak, ideological sphere of social   life, the sphere in which “pure” national culture or the national cultivation of clericalism and chauvinism has the freest play.

In practice, the plan for “extra-territorial” or “cultural national” autonomy could mean only one thing: the division of educational affairs according to nationality, i.e., the introduction of national curias in school affairs. Sufficient thought to the real significance of the famous Bund plan will enable one to realise how utterly reactionary it is even from the standpoint of democracy, let alone from that of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.

A single instance and a single scheme for the “nationalisation” of the school system will make this point abundantly clear. In the United States of America the division of the States into Northern and Southern holds to this day in all departments of life; the former possess the greatest traditions of freedom and of struggle against the slave-owners; the latter possess the greatest traditions of slave ownership, survivals of persecution of the Negroes, who are economically oppressed and culturally backward (44 per cent of Negroes are illiterate, and 6 per cent of whites), and so forth. In the Northern States Negro children attend the same schools as white children do. In the South there are separate “national”, or racial, whichever you please, schools for Negro children. I think that this is the sole instance of actual “nationalisation” of schools.

In Eastern Europe there exists a country where things like the Beilis case[4] are still possible, and Jews are condemned by the Purishkeviches to a condition worse than that of the Negroes. In that country a scheme for nationalising Jewish schools was recently mooted in the Ministry. Happily, this reactionary utopia is no more likely to be realised than the utopia of the Austrian petty bourgeoisie, who have despaired of achieving consistent democracy or of putting an end to national bickering, and have invented for the nations school-education compartments to keep them from bickering over the distribution of schools ... but have “constituted” themselves for an eternal bickering of one “national culture” with another.

In Austria, the idea of cultural-national autonomy has remained largely a flight of literary fancy, which the Austrian   Social-Democrats themselves have not taken seriously. In Russia, however, it has been incorporated in the programmes of all the Jewish bourgeois parties, and of several petty-bourgeois, opportunist elements in the different nations—for example, the Bundists, the liquidators in the Caucasus, and the conference of Russian national parties of the Left-Narodnik trend. (This conference, we Will mention parenthetically, took place in 1907, its decision being adopted with abstention on the part of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionaries[5] and the P.S.P.,[6] the Polish social-patriots. Abstention from voting is a method surprisingly characteristic of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and P.S.P., when they want to show their attitude towards a most important question of principle in the sphere of the national programme!)

In Austria it was Otto Bauer, the principal theoretician of “cultural-national autonomy”, who devoted a special chapter of his book to prove that such a programme cannot possibly be proposed for the Jews. In Russia, however, it is precisely among the Jews that all the bourgeois parties—and the Bund which echoes them—have adopted this programme.[1] What does this go to show? It goes to show that history, through the political practice of another state, has exposed the absurdity of Bauer’s invention, in exactly the same way as the Russian Bernsteinians (Struve, Tugan-Baranovsky, Berdayev and Co.), through their rapid evolution   from Marxism to liberalism, have exposed the real ideological content of the German Bernsteinism.[7]

Neither the Austrian nor the Russian Social-Democrats have incorporated “cultural-national” autonomy in their programme. However, the Jewish bourgeois parties in a most backward country, and a number of petty-bourgeois, so-called socialist groups have adopted it in order to spread ideas of bourgeois nationalism among the working class in a refined form. This fact speaks for itself.

Since we have bad to touch upon the Austrian programme on the national question, we must reassert a truth which is often distorted by the Bundists. At the Br\"unn Congress a pure programme of “cultural-national autonomy” was presented. This was the programme of the South-Slav Social Democrats, § 2 of which reads: “Every nation living in Austria, irrespective of the territory occupied by its members, constitutes an autonomous group which manages all its national (language and cultural) affairs quite independently.” This programme was supported, not only by Kristan but by the influential Ellenbogen. But it was withdrawn; not a single vote was cast for it. A territorialist programme was adopted, i. e., one that did not create any national groups “irrespective of the territory occupied by the members of the nation”.

Clause 3 of the adopted programme reads: “The self governing regions of one and the same nation shall jointly form a nationally united association, which shall manage its national affairs on an absolutely autonomous basis” (cf. Prosveshcheniye, 1913, No. 4, p. 28[8]). Clearly, this compromise programme is wrong too. An example will illustrate this. The German colonists’ community in Saratov Gubernia, plus the German working-class suburb of Riga or Lodz, plus the German housing estate near St. Petersburg, etc., would constitute a “nationally united association” of Germans in Russia. Obviously the Social-Democrats cannot demand such a thing or enforce such an association, although of course they do not in the least deny freedom of every kind of association, including associations of any communities of any nationality in a given state. The   segregation, by a law of the state, of Germans, etc., in different localities and of different classes in Russia into a single German-national association may be practised by anybody—priests, bourgeois or philistines, but not by Social-Democrats.


[1] That the Bundists often vehemently deny that all the Jewish bourgeois parties have accepted “cultural-national autonomy” is understandable. This fact only too glaringly exposes the actual role being played by the Bund. When Mr. Manin, a Bundist, tried, in Luch[9] to repeat his denial, he was fully exposed by N. Skop (see Prosveshcheniye No. 3[10]). But when Mr. Lev Yurkevich, in Dzvin (1913, Nos. 7–8, p. 92), quotes from Prosveshcheniye (No. 3, p. 78) N. Sk’s statement that “the Bundists together with all the Jewish bourgeois parties and groups have long been advocating cultural-national autonomy” and distorts this statement by dropping the word “Bundists”, and substituting the words “national rights” for the words “cultural national autonomy”, one can only raise one’s hands in amazement! Mr. Lev Yurkevich is not only a nationalist, not only an astonishing ignoramus in matters concerning the history of the Social-Democrats and their programme, but a downright falsifier of quotations for the benefit of the Bund. The affairs of the Bund and the Yurkeviches must be in a bad way indeed! —Lenin

[2] This refers to the Congress of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party held in Br\"unn (Austria) from September 24 to 29, 1899 (new style). The national question was the chief item on the agenda. Two resolutions expressing different points of view were submitted to the Congress: = (1) the resolution of the Party’s Central Committee supporting the idea of the territorial autonomy of nations, and = (2) the resolution of the Committee of the South-Slav Social-Democratic Party supporting the idea of extra-territorial cultural-national autonomy.

The Congress unanimously rejected the programme of cultural-national autonomy, and adopted a compromise resolution recognising national autonomy within the boundaries of the Austrian state. (See Lenin’s article “A Contribution to the History of the National Program me in Austria and in Russia”, pp. 36 of this volume.)

[3] J.S.L.P. (Jewish Socialist Labour Party)—a petty-bourgeois nationalist organisation, founded in 1906. Its programme was based on the demand for national autonomy for the Jews—the creation of extra-territorial Jewish parliaments authorised to settle questions concerning the political organisation of Jews in Russia. The J.S.L.P. stood close to the Socialist-Revolutionaries, with whom it waged a struggle against the R.S.D.L.P.

[4] The Beilis case—a provocative trial engineered by the tsarist government in 1913 in Kiev. Beilis, a Jew, was falsely accused of having murdered a Christian boy named Yushchinsky for ritual purposes (actually, the murder was organised by the Black Hundreds). The aim of this frame-up was to fan anti-Semitism and incite pogroms so as to divert the masses from the mounting revolutionary movement. The trial excited great public feeling. Workers’ protest demonstrations were held in a number of cities. Beilis was acquitted.

[5] Socialist-Revolutionaries—a petty-bourgeois party in Russia, which came into being at the end of 1901 and beginning of 4902 as a result of a merger of various Narodnik groups and circles. The S.R.s saw no class distinctions between the proletarian and the petty proprietor, played down the class differentiation and antagonisms within the peasantry, and refused to recognise the proletariat’s leading role in the revolution. Their views were an eclectic mixture of the ideas of Narodism and revisionism. In Lenin’s words, they tried, to mend “the rents in the Narodnik Ideas with bits of fashionable opportunist ‘criticism’ of Marxism.” (See present edition, Vol. 9, p. 310.)

The Socialist-Revolutionaries’ agrarian programme envisaged the abolition of private ownership of the land, which was to be transferred to the village commune on the basis of the “labour principle” and “equalised land tenure” and also the development of co-operatives. This programme, which the S.R.s called “socialisation of the land”, had nothing socialist about it. In his analysis of this programme, Lenin showed that the preservation of commodity production and private farming on communal land would not do away with the domination of capital or free the toiling peasantry from exploitation and impoverishment. Neither could the co-operatives be a remedy for the small farmers under capitalism, as they served only to enrich the rural bourgeoisie. At the same time, as Lenin pointed out, the demand for equalised land tenure, though not socialistic, was of a progressive, revolutionary-democratic character, inasmuch as it was directed against reactionary landlordism.

The Bolshevik Party exposed the attempts of the S.R.s to pass themselves off as socialists. It waged a stubborn fight against them for influence over the peasantry, and revealed the damage their tactic of individual terrorism was causing the working-class movement. At the same time, the Bolsheviks, on definite terms, entered into temporary agreements with the Socialist-Revolutionaries to combat tsarism.

The Socialist-Revolutionary Party’s political and ideological instability and organisational incohesion, as well as its constant vacillation between the liberal bourgeoisie and the proletariat, were due to the absence of class homogeneity among the peasantry. During the first Russian revolution, the Right wing of the S.R.s broke away from the party and formed the legal Labour Popular Socialist Party, whose views were close to those of the Constitutional-Democrats   (Cadets), while the Left wing split away and formed a semi-anarchist league of “Maximalists”. During the period of the Stolypin reaction, the Socialist-Revolutionary Party suffered a complete break-down ideologically and organisationally. During the First World War most of its members took a social-chauvinist stand.

After the February bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1917 the Socialist-Revolutionaries, together with the Mensheviks and the Cadets, were the mainstay of the counter-revolutionary Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie and landlords. The leaders of the S.R. Party—Kerensky, Avksentyev and Chernov—were members of this Cabinet. The S.R. Party refused to support the peasants’ demand for the abolition of landlordism, and stood for the preservation of landlord ownership. The S.R. members of the Provisional Government authorised punitive action against peasants who had seized landed estates.

At the end of November 1917 the Left win of the S.R. Party formed an independent party of Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who, in an endeavour to preserve their influence among the peas ant masses, formally recognised Soviet rule and entered into an agreement with the Bolsheviks. Shortly, however, they began a struggle against the Soviets.

During the years of foreign intervention and the Civil War the S.R.s carried on counter-revolutionary subversive activities. They actively supported the interventionists and whiteguards, took part in counter-revolutionary plots, and organised terroristic acts against leaders of the Soviet state and the Communist Party. After the Civil War, the S.R.s continued their anti-Soviet activities within the country and in the camp of the White émigrés.

[6] The Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna)—a reformist nationalist organisation founded in 1892. Adopting the slogan of struggle for an independent Poland, the P.S.P., under Pilsudski and his adherents, carried on separatist nationalist propaganda among the Polish workers, whom they tried to divert from the joint struggle with the Russian workers against the autocracy and capitalism. Throughout the history of the P.S.P. Left-wing groups kept springing up within the party, as a result of the activities of the rank-and-file workers. Some of these groups eventually joined the revolutionary wing of the Polish working-class movement.

In 1906 the party split up into the P.S.P. Left wing and the Right, chauvinist wing (the so-called “revolutionary faction”). Under the influence of the Bolsheviks and the Social-Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania, the Left wing gradually adopted a consistent revolutionary stand.

During the First World War some of the P.S.P. Left-wing adopted an internationalist stand. In December 1918 it united with the Social-Democrats of Poland and Lithuania to form the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland (as the Communist Party of Poland was known up to 1925).

During the First World War, the P.S.P. flight wing continued its policy of national chauvinism, organising Polish legions on the territory of Galicia to fight on the side of Austin-German imperialism. With the formation of the Polish bourgeois state, the Right P.S.P. in 1919 united with the P.S.P. organisations existing on Polish territories formerly seized by Germany and Austria, and resumed the name of the P.S.P. At the head of the government, it arranged for the transfer of power to the Polish bourgeoisie, systematically carried on anti-communist propaganda, and supported a policy of aggression against the Soviet Union, a policy of conquest and oppression against Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia. Various groups in the P.S.P. who disagreed with this policy joined the Communist Party of Poland.

After Pilsudski’s fascist coup d’état (May 1926), the P.S.P. was nominally a parliamentary opposition, but actually it did not carry on any active fight against the fascist regime, and continued its anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda. During that period the Left-wing elements of the P.S.P. collaborated with the Polish Communists and supported united-front tactics in a number of campaigns.

During the Second World War the P.S.P. again split up. Its reactionary and chauvinist faction, which assumed the name “Wolno&swhatthe;&cwhatthe;, Równosc, Niepod&lwhatthe;eglo&swhatthe;&cwhatthe;” (Liberty, Equality, Independence), took part in the reactionary Polish émigré “government” in London. The Left faction, which called itself the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists, under the influence of the Polish Workers’ Party, which was founded in 1942, joined the popular front against the Nazi invaders, fought for Poland’s liberation, and pursued a policy of friendly relations with the U.S.S.R.

In 1944, after the liberation of Poland’s eastern territories and the formation of a Polish Committee of National Liberation, the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists resumed the name of P.S.P. and together with the P.W.P. participated in the building up of a people’s democratic Poland. In December 1948 the P.W.P. and the P.S.P. amalgamated and formed the Polish United Workers’ Party.

[9] Luch (Ray)—a legal daily of the Menshevik liquidators, published in St. Petersburg from September 16(29), 1912 to July 5(18), 1913. Put out 237 issues. The newspaper was maintained chiefly by contributions from the liberals. Ideological leadership was in the bands of P. B. Axelrod, F. I. Dan, L. Martov, and A. S. Martynov. The liquidators used the columns of this newspaper to oppose the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks, advocate the opportunist slogan of an “open party”, attack the revolutionary mass strikes of the workers, and attempt to revise the most important points of the Party Programme. Lenin wrote that Luch was “enslaved by a liberal policy” and called the paper a mouthpiece of the renegades.

[10] Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment)—a Bolshevik, legal theoretical monthly, published in St. Petersburg from December 1911 to June 1914, with a circulation of up to five thousand copies.

The journal was founded on Lenin’s initiative to replace the Moscow-published Mysl, a Bolshevik journal which was closed down by the tsarist government. Other workers on the new journal were V. V. Vorovsky, A. I. Ulyanova-Yelizarova, N. K. Krupskaya and others. Lenin enlisted the services of Maxim Gorky to run the journal’s literary section. Lenin directed Prosveshcheniye from Paris and subsequently from Cracow and Poronin. He edited articles and regularly corresponded with the editorial staff. The journal published the following articles by Lenin: “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, “Disruption of Unity Under Cover of Outcries for Unity” and others.

The journal exposed the opportunists—the liquidators, otzovists, and Trotskyists, as well as the bourgeois nationalists. It highlighted the struggle of the working class under conditions of a new revolutionary upsurge, propagandised Bolshevik slogans in the Fourth Duma election campaign, and came out against revisionism and centrism in the parties of the Second International. The journal played an important role in the Marxist inter nationalist education of the advanced workers of Russia.

On the eve of World War I, Prosveshcheniye was closed down by the tsarist government. It resumed publication in the autumn of 1917, but only one issue (a double one) appeared, containing Lenin’s “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” and “A Review of the Party Programme”.

[7] Bernsteinism—an anti-Marxist trend in international Social-Democracy. It arose towards the close of the nineteenth century in Germany and bore the name of the German opportunist Social-Democrat Eduard Bernstein. After the death of F. Engels, Bernstein publicly advocated revision of Marx’s revolutionary theory in the spirit of bourgeois liberalism (see his article “Problems of Socialism” and his book The Premises of Socialism and the Tasks of Social-Democracy) in an attempt to convert the Social-Democratic Party into a petty-bourgeois party of social reforms. In Russia this trend was represented by the “legal Marxists”, the Economists, the Bundists; and the Mensheviks.

[8] Lenin refers to Stalin’s article “Marxism and the National Question” published in the legal Bolshevik journal Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3, 4 and 5 for 1913 under the title “The National Question and Social-Democracy”. Chapter 4 of Stalin’s article quotes the text of the national programme adopted at the Br\"unn Congress of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party.


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