V. I.   Lenin

Critical Remarks on the National Question



In his rejoinder, Mr. Liebman writes:

Take our Lithuania, the Baltic province, Poland, Volhynia, South Russia, etc—everywhere you will find a mixed population; there is not a single city that does not have a large national minority. However far decentralisation is carried out, different nationalities will always be found living together in different places (chiefly in urban communities); and it is democratism that surrenders a national minority to the national majority. But, as we know, V. I. is opposed to the federal state structure and the boundless decentralisation that exist in the Swiss Federation. The question is: what was his point in citing the example of Switzerland?”

My object in citing the example of Switzerland has already been explained above. I have also explained that the problem of protecting the rights of a national minority can be solved only by a country-wide law promulgated in a consistently democratic state that does not depart from the principle of equality. But in the passage quoted above, Mr. Liebman repeats still another of the most common (and most fallacious) arguments (or sceptical remarks) which are usually made against the Marxist national programme, and which, therefore, deserve examination.

Marxists are, of course, opposed to federation and decentralisation, for the simple reason that capitalism requires for its development the largest and most centralised possible states. Other conditions being equal, the class-conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger state. It will always fight against medieval particularism, and will always welcome the closest possible economic amalgamation of large territories in which the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie can develop on a broad basis.

Capitalism’s broad and rapid development of the productive forces calls for large, politically compact and united territories, since only here can the bourgeois class—together with its inevitable antipode, the proletarian class—unite and sweep away all the old, medieval, caste, parochial, petty-national, religious and other barriers.

The right of nations to self-determination, i. e., the right to secede and form independent national states, will be dealt with elsewhere.[1] But while, and insofar as, different   nations constitute a single state, Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralisation. The great centralised state is a tremendous historical step forward from medieval disunity to the future socialist unity of the whole world, and only via such a state (inseparably connected with capitalism), can there be any road to socialism.

It would, however, be inexcusable to forget that in advocating centralism we advocate exclusively democratic centralism. On this point all the philistines in general, and the nationalist philistines in particular (including the late Dragomanov[7]), have so confused the issue that we are obliged again and again to spend time clarifying it.

Far from precluding local self-government, with autonomy for regions having special economic and social conditions, a distinct national composition of the population, and so forth, democratic centralism necessarily demands both. In Russia centralism is constantly confused with tyranny and bureaucracy. This confusion has naturally arisen from the history of Russia, but even so it is quite inexcusable for a Marxist to yield to it.

This can best be explained by a concrete example.

In her lengthy article “The National Question and Autonomy”,[2] Rosa Luxemburg, among many other curious errors (which we shall deal with below), commits the exceptionally curious one of trying to restrict the demand for autonomy to Poland alone.

But first let us see how she defines autonomy.

Rosa Luxemburg admits—and being a Marxist she is of course bound to admit—that all the major and important economic and political questions of capitalist, society must be dealt with exclusively by the central parliament of the whole country concerned, not by the autonomous Diets of the individual regions. These questions include tariff policy, laws governing commerce and industry, transport and means of communication (railways, post, telegraph, telephone, etc.), the army, the taxation system, civil[3] and criminal   law, the general principles of education (for example, the law on purely secular schools, on universal education, on the minimum programme, on democratic school management, etc.), the labour protection laws, and political liberties (right of association), etc., etc.

The autonomous Diets—on the basis of the general laws of the country—should deal with questions of purely local, regional, or national significance. Amplifying this idea in great—not to say excessive—detail, Rosa Luxemburg mentions, for example, the construction of local railways (No. 12, p. 149) and local highways (No. 14–15, p. 376), etc.

Obviously, one cannot conceive of a modern, truly democratic state that did not grant such autonomy to every region having any appreciably distinct economic and social features, populations of a specific national composition, etc. The principle of centralism, which is essential for the development of capitalism, is not violated by this (local and regional) autonomy, but on the contrary is applied by it democratically, not bureaucratically. The broad, free and rapid development of capitalism would be impossible, or at least greatly impeded, by the absence of such autonomy, which facilitates the concentration of capital, the development of the productive forces, the unity of the bourgeoisie and the unity of the proletariat on a country-wide scale; for bureaucratic interference in purely local (regional, national, and other) questions is one of the greatest obstacles to economic and political development in general, and an obstacle to centralism in serious, important and fundamental matters in particular.

One cannot help smiling, therefore, when reading how our magnificent Rosa Luxemburg tries to prove, with a very serious air and “purely Marxist” phrases, that the demand for autonomy is applicable only to Poland and only by way of exception! Of course, there is not a grain of “parochial” patriotism in this; we have here only “practical” considerations ... in the case of Lithuania, for example.

Rosa Luxemburg takes four gubernias—Vilna, Kovno, Grodno and Suvalki—assuring her readers (and herself) that these are inhabited “mainly” by Lithuanians; and by adding the inhabitants of these gubernias together she finds   that Lithuanians constitute 23 per cent of the total population, and if Zhmuds are added, they constitute 31 per cent—less than a third. The natural inference is that the idea of autonomy for Lithuania is “arbitrary and artificial” (No. 10, p. 807).

The reader who is familiar with the commonly known defects of our Russian official statistics will quickly see Rosa Luxemburg’s mistake. Why take Grodno Gubernia where the Lithuanians constitute only 0.2 per cent, one-fifth of one per cent, of the population? Why take the whole Vilna Gubernia and not its Troki Uyezd alone, where the Lithuanians constitute the majority of the population? Why take the whole Suvalki Gubernia and put the number of Lithuanians at 52 per cent of the population, and not the Lithuanian uyezds of that gubernia, i. e., five out of the seven, in which Lithuanians constitute 72 per cent of the population?

It is ridiculous to talk about the conditions and demands of modern capitalism while at the same time taking not the “modern”, not the “capitalist”, but the medieval, feudal and official-bureaucratic administrative divisions of Russia, and in their crudest form at that (gubernias instead of uyezds). Plainly, there can be no question of any serious local reform in Russia until these divisions are abolished and superseded by a really “modern” division that really meets the requirements, not of the Treasury, not of the bureaucracy, not of routine, not of the landlords, not of the priests, but of capitalism; and one of the modern requirements of capitalism is undoubtedly the greatest possible national uniformity of the population, for nationality and language identity are an important factor making for the complete conquest of the home market and for complete freedom of economic intercourse.

Oddly enough, this obvious mistake of Rosa Luxemburg’s is repeated by the Bundist Medem, who sets out to prove, not that Poland’s specific features are “exceptional”, but that the principle of national-territorial autonomy is unsuitable (the Bundists stand for national extra-territorial autonomy!). Our Bundists and liquidators collect from all over the world all the errors and all the opportunist vacillations of Social-Democrats of different countries and different   nations and appropriate to themselves the worst they can find in world Social-Democracy. A scrap-book of Bundist and liquidator writings could, taken together, serve as a model Social-Democratic museum of bad taste.

Regional autonomy, Medem tells us didactically, is good for a region or a “territory”, but not for Lettish, Estonian, or other areas (okrugs), which have populations ranging from half a million to two million and areas equal to a gubernia. “That would not be autonomy, but simply a Zemstvo.... Over this Zemstvo it would be necessary to establish real autonomy” ... and the author goes on to condemn the “break-up” of the old gubernias and uyezds.[4]

As a matter of fact, the preservation of the medieval, feudal, official administrative divisions means the “break up” and mutilation of the conditions of modern capitalism. Only people imbued with the spirit of these divisions can, with the learned air of the expert, speculate on the contra-position of “Zemstvo” and “autonomy”, calling for the stereotyped application of “autonomy” to large regions and of the Zemstvo to small ones. Modern capitalism does not demand these bureaucratic stereotypes at all. Why national areas with populations, not only of half a million, but even of 50,000, should not be able to enjoy autonomy; why such areas should not be able to unite in the most diverse ways with neighbouring areas of different dimensions into a single autonomous “territory” if that is convenient or necessary for economic intercourse—these things remain the secret of the Bundist Medem.

We would mention that the Br\"unn Social-Democratic national programme is based entirely on national-territorial autonomy; it proposes that Austria should be divided into “nationally distinct” areas “instead of the historical crown lands” (Clause 2 of the Br\"unn programme). We would not go as far as that. A uniform national population is undoubtedly one of the most reliable factors making for free, broad and really modern commercial intercourse. It is beyond doubt that not a single Marxist, and not even a single firm democrat, will stand up for the Austrian crown lands   and the Russian gubernias and uyezds (the latter are not as bad as the Austrian crown lands, but they are very bad nevertheless), or challenge the necessity of replacing these obsolete divisions by others that will conform as far as possible with the national composition of the population, Lastly, it is beyond doubt that in order to eliminate all national oppression it is very important to create autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations, towards which members of the respective nationalities scattered all over the country, or even all over the world, could gravitate, and with which they could enter into relations and free associations of every kind. All this is indisputable, and can be argued against only from the hidebound, bureaucratic point of view.

The national composition of the population, however, is one of the very important economic factors, but not the sole and not the most important factor. Towns, for example, play an extremely important economic role under capitalism, and everywhere, in Poland, in Lithuania, in the Ukraine, in Great Russia, and elsewhere, the towns are marked by mixed populations To cut the towns off from the villages and areas that economically gravitate towards them, for the sake of the “national” factor, would be absurd and impossible. That is why Marxists must not take their stand entirely and exclusively on the “national-territorial” principle.

The solution of the problem proposed by the last conference of Russian Marxists is far more correct than the Austrian. On this question, the conference advanced the following proposition:

“...must provide for wide regional autonomy (not for Poland alone, of course, but for all the regions of Russia][5] and fully democratic local self-government, and the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions must he determined [not by the boundaries of the present gubernias, uyezds, etc., but] by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.” [6]

Here the national composition of the population is placed on the same level as the other conditions (economic first,   then social, etc.) which must serve as a basis for determining the new boundaries that will meet the needs of modern capitalism, not of bureaucracy and Asiatic barbarism. The local population alone can “assess” those conditions with full precision, and on that basis the central parliament of the country will determine the boundaries of the autonomous regions and the powers of autonomous Diets.

*     *

We have still to examine the question of the right of nations to self-determination. On this question a whole collection of opportunists of all nationalities—the liquidator Semkovsky, the Bundist Liebman and the Ukrainian nationalist-socialist Lev Yurkevich—have set to work to “popularise” the errors of Rosa Luxemburg. This question, which has been so utterly confused by this whole “collection”, will be dealt with in our next article.[8]


[1] See pp. 393–454 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] Przegl&awhatthe;d Socjaldemokratyczny,[9] Krak&owhatthe;w, 1908 and 1909. —Lenin

[3] In elaborating her ideas Rosa Luxemburg goes into details, mentioning, for example—and quite rightly—divorce laws (No. 12, p. 162 of the above-mentioned journal). —Lenin

[4] V. Medem: “A Contribution to the Presentation of the National Question in Russia”, Vestnik Yevropy,[10] 1912, Nos. 8 and 9. —Lenin

[5] Interpolations in square brackets (within passages quoted by Lenin) are by Lenin, unless otherwise indicated—Ed.

[6] See present edition, Vol. 19, pp. 427–28.—Ed.

[7] Dragomanov, M. P. (1841–1895)—Ukrainian historian, ethnographer and publicist. Exponent of Ukrainian bourgeois national-liberalism.

[9] Przegl&awhatthe;d Socjaldemokratyczny (Social-Democratic Review)—a journal published by the Polish Social-Democrats in close co-operation with Rosa Luxemburg in Cracow from 1902 to 1904 and from 1908 to 1910.

[10] Vestnik Yevropy (European Messenger)—a monthly historico-political end literary magazine of a bourgeois-liberal trend. Appeared in St. Petersburg from 1866 to 1918. The magazine published articles against the revolutionary Marxists.

[8] Lenin is referring to an article he was planning on “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”. The article was written in   February-May 1914 and published in April-June in the journal Prosveshcheniye Nos. 4, 5 and 6. (See pp. 393–454 of this volume.)


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