Sotsial-Demokrat No. 32, December 15 (28), 1918.
Published according to the Sotsial-Demokrat text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 539-545.
Translated: The Late George Hanna
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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The Conference of the Central Committee has adopted a resolution on the national question, which has been printed in the “Notification”, and has placed the question of a national programme on the agenda of the Congress.
Why and how the national question has, at the present time, been brought to the fore—in the entire policy of the counter-revolution, in the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie and in the proletarian Social-Democratic Party of Russia—is shown in detail in the resolution itself. There is hardly any need to dwell on this in view of the clarity of the situation. This situation and the fundamentals of a national programme for Social-Democracy have recently been dealt with in Marxist theoretical literature (the most prominent place being taken by Stalin’s article ). We there fore consider that it will be to the point if, in this article, we confine ourselves to the presentation of the problem from a purely Party standpoint and to explanations that cannot be made in the legal press, crushed as it is by the Stolypin-Maklakov oppression.
Social-Democracy in Russia is taking shape by drawing exclusively on the experience of older countries, i.e., of Europe, and on the theoretical expression of that experience, Marxism. The specific feature of our country and the specific features of the historical period of the establishment of Social-Democracy in our country are: first, in our country, as distinct from Europe, Social-Democracy began to take shape before the bourgeois revolution and continued taking shape during that revolution. Secondly, in our country the inevitable struggle to separate proletarian from general bourgeois and petty-bourgeois democracy—a struggle that is fundamentally the same as that experienced by every country—is being conducted under the conditions of a complete theoretical victory of Marxism in the West and in our country. The form taken by this struggle, therefore, is not so much that of a struggle for Marxism as a struggle for or against petty-bourgeois theories that are hidden behind “almost Marxist” phrases.
That is how the matter stands, beginning with Economism (1895–1901) and “legal Marxism” (1895–1901, 1902). Only those who shrink from historical truth can forget the close, intimate connection and relationship between these trends and Menshevism (1903–07) and liquidationism (1908–13).
In the national question the old Iskra, which in 1901–03 worked on and completed a programme for the R.S.D.L.P. as well as laying the first and fundamental basis of Marxism in the theory and practice of the Russian working-class movement, had to struggle, in the same way as on other questions, against petty-bourgeois opportunism. This opportunism was expressed, first and foremost, in the nationalist tendencies and waverings of the Bund. The old Iskra conducted a stubborn struggle against Bund nationalism, and to forget this is tantamount to becoming a Forgetful John again, and cutting oneself off from the historical and ideological roots of the whole Social-Democratic workers’ movement in Russia.
On the other hand, when the Programme of the R.S.D.L.P. was finally adopted at the Second Congress in August 1903, there was a struggle, unrecorded in the Minutes of the Congress because it took place in the Programme Commission, which was visited by almost the entire Congress—a struggle against the clumsy attempts of several Polish Social-Democrats to cast doubts on “the right, of nations to self-determination”, i.e., attempts to deviate towards opportunism and nationalism from a quite different angle.
And today, ten years later, the struggle goes on along those same two basic lines, which shows equally that there is a profound connection between this struggle and all the objective conditions affecting the national question in Russia.
At the Br\"unn Congress in Austria (1899) the programme of “cultural-national autonomy” (defended by Kristan, Ellenbogen and others and expressed in the draft of the Southern Slavs) was rejected. Territorial national autonomy was adopted, and Social-Democratic propaganda for the obligatory union of all national regions was only a compromise with the idea of “cultural-national autonomy”. The chief theoreticians of this unfortunate idea themselves lay particular emphasis on its inapplicability to Jewry.
In Russia—as usual—people have been found who have made it their business to enlarge on a little opportunist error and develop it into a system of opportunist policy. In the same way as Bernstein in Germany brought into being the Right Constitutional-Democrats in Russia—Struve, Bulgakov, Tugan & Co.—so Otto Bauer’s “forgetfulness of internationalism” (as the supercautious Kautsky calls it!) gave rise in Russia to the complete acceptance of “cultural national autonomy” by all the Jewish bourgeois parties and a large number of petty-bourgeois trends (the Bund and a conference of Socialist-Revolutionary national parties in 1907). Backward Russia serves, one might say, as an example of how the microbes of West-European opportunism pro duce whole epidemics on our savage soil.
In Russia people are fond of saying that Bernstein is “tolerated” in Europe, but they forget to add that nowhere in the world, with the exception of “holy” Mother Russia, has Bernsteinism engendered Struvism, or has “Bauerism” led to the justification, by Social-Democrats, of the re fined nationalism of the Jewish bourgeoisie.
“Cultural-national autonomy” implies precisely the most refined and, therefore, the most harmful nationalism, it implies the corruption of the workers by means of the slogan of national culture and the propaganda of the profoundly harmful and even anti-democratic segregating of schools according to nationality. In short, this programme undoubtedly contradicts the internationalism of the proletariat and is in accordance only with the ideals of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie.
But there is one case in which the Marxists are duty bound, if they do not want to betray democracy and the proletariat, to defend one special demand in the national question; that is, the right of nations to self-determination (§ 9 of the R.S.D.L.P. Programme), i.e., the right to political secession. The Conference resolution explains and motivates this demand in such detail that there is no place left for misunderstanding.
We shall, therefore, give only a brief description of those amazingly ignorant and opportunist objections that have been raised against this section of the Programme. In connection with this let us mention that in the course of the ten years’ existence of the Programme not one single unit of the R.S.D.L.P., not one single national organisation, not one single regional conference, not one local committee and not one delegate to a congress or conference, has attempted to raise the question of changing or annulling § 9!
It is necessary to bear this in mind. It shows us at once whether there is a grain of seriousness or Party spirit in the objections raised to this point.
Take Mr. Semkovsky of the liquidators’ newspaper. With the casual air of a man who has liquidated a party, he announces: “For certain reasons we do not share Rosa Luxemburg’s proposal to remove § 9 from the Programme altogether” (Novaya Rabochaya Gazeta No. 71).
So the reasons are a secret! But then, how can secrecy be avoided in face of such ignorance of the history of our Programme? Or when that same Mr. Semkovsky, incomparably casual (what do the Party and the Programme matter!) makes an exception for Finland?
“What are we to do ... if the Polish proletariat wants to carry on a joint struggle together with the whole proletariat of Russia within the framework of one state, and the reactionary classes of Polish society, on the contrary, want to separate Poland from Russia and, through a referendum, obtain a majority of votes in favour of separation; are we, Russian Social-Democrats, to vote in a central parliament together with our Polish comrades against secession, or, in order not to infringe on the ‘right to self-determination’, vote in favour of secession?”
What, indeed, are we to do when such na\"ive and so hopelessly confused questions are raised?
The right to self-determination, my dear Mr. Liquidator, certainly does not imply the solution of the problem by a central parliament, but by a parliament, a diet, or a referendum of the seceding minority. When Norway seceded from Sweden (1905) it was decided by Norway alone (a country half the size of Sweden).
Even a child could see that Mr. Semkovsky is hopelessly mixed up.
“The right to self-determination” implies a democratic system of a type in which there is not only democracy in general, but specifically one in which there could not be an undemocratic solution of the question of secession. Democracy, speaking generally, is compatible with militant and tyrannical nationalism. The proletariat demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any one of the nations within the bounds of the state. “In order not to infringe on the right to self-determination”, therefore, we are duty bound not “to vote for secession”, as the wily Mr. Semkovsky assumes, but to vote for the right of the seceding region to decide the question itself.
It would seem that even with Mr. Semkovsky’s mental abilities it is not difficult to deduce that “the right to divorce” does not require that one should vote for divorce! But such is the fate of those who criticise § 9—they forget the ABC of logic.
At the time of Norway’s secession from Sweden, the Swedish proletariat, if they did not want to follow the nationalist petty bourgeoisie, were duty bound to vote and agitate against the annexation of Norway by force, as the Swedish priesthood and landed proprietors desired. This is obvious and not too difficult to understand. Swedish nationalist democrats could refrain from a type of agitation that the principle of the right to self-determination demands of the proletariat of ruling, oppressor nations.
“What are we to do if the reactionaries are in the majority?” asks Mr. Semkovsky. This is a question worthy of a third-form schoolboy. What is to be done about the Russian constitution if democratic voting gives the reactionaries a majority? Mr. Semkovsky asks idle, empty questions that have nothing to do with the matter in hand—they are the kind of questions that, as it is said, seven fools can ask more of than seventy wise men can answer.
When a democratic vote gives the reactionaries a majority, one of two things may, and usually does occur: either the decision of the reactionaries is implemented and its harmful consequences send the masses more or less speedily over to the side of democracy and against the reactionaries; or the conflict between democracy and reaction is decided by a civil or other war, which is also quite possible (and no doubt even the Semkovskys have heard of this) under a democracy.
The recognition of the right to self-determination is, Mr. Semkovsky assures us, “playing into the hands of the most thorough-paced bourgeois nationalism”. This is childish nonsense since the recognition of the right does not exclude either propaganda and agitation against separation or the exposure of bourgeois nationalism. But it is absolutely indisputable that the denial of the right to secede is “playing into the hands” of the most thorough-paced reactionary Great-Russian nationalism!
This is the essence of Rosa Luxemburg’s amusing error for which she was ridiculed a long time ago by German and Russian (August 1903) Social-Democrats; in their fear of playing into the hands of the bourgeois nationalism of oppressed nations, people play into the hands not merely of the bourgeois but of the reactionary nationalism of the oppressor nation.
If Mr. Semkovsky had not been so virginally innocent in matters concerning Party history and the Party Programme he would have understood that it was his duty to refute Plekhanov, who, eleven years ago, in defending the draft programme (which became the Programme in 1903) of the R.S.D.L.P. in Zarya, made a special point (page 38) of the recognition of the right to self-determination and wrote the following about it:
“This demand, which is not obligatory for bourgeois democrats, even in theory, is obligatory for us as Social-Democrats. If we were to forget about it or were afraid to put it forward for fear of impinging on the national prejudices of our compatriots of Great-Russian origin, the battle-cry of world Social-Democracy, ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’ would be a shameful lie upon our lips.”
As long ago as the Zarya days, Plekhanov put forward the basic argument which was developed in detail in the conference resolution, an argument to which the Semkovskys have not attempted to draw attention for eleven years. In Russia there are 43 per cent Great Russians, but Great-Russian nationalism rules over the other 57 per cent of the population and oppresses all nations. The National-Liberals (Struve & Co., the Progressists, etc.) have already joined forces with our national-reactionaries and the “first swallows” of national democracy have appeared (remember Mr. Peshekhonov’s appeal in August 1906 to be cautious in our attitude to the nationalist prejudices of the muzhik).
In Russia only the liquidators consider the bourgeois-democratic revolution to be over, and the concomitant of such a revolution all over the world always has been and still is national movements. In Russia in particular there are oppressed nations in many of the border regions, which in neighbouring states enjoy greater liberty. Tsarism is more reactionary than the neighbouring states, constitutes the greatest barrier to free economic development, and does its utmost to foster Great-Russian nationalism. For a Marxist, of course, all other conditions being equal, big states are always preferable to small ones. But it would be ridiculous and reactionary even to suppose that conditions under the tsarist monarchy might be equal to those in any European country or any but a minority of Asian countries.
The denial of the right of nations to self-determination in present-day Russia is, therefore, undoubted opportunism and a refusal to fight against the reactionary Great-Russian nationalism that is still all-powerful.
 See pp. 427–29 of this volume.—Ed.
 The work referred to is Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question.
 Struvism—a variety of the bourgeois distortion of Marxism.
Struve, P. B.—Russian bourgeois liberal, exponent of legal Marxism in the nineties. He later became one of the leaders of the Cadet Party and after the October Revolution, as a white émigré, was an inveterate enemy of the Soviet Union.
 Lenin here refers to Plekhanov’s article “Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Party” published in Zarya No. 4, in August 1902.
Zarya (Dawn)—a Marxist scientific and political journal published in Stuttgart in 1901–02 by the editors of Iskra. Four numbers appeared in three issues. The Lenin writings published in Zarya were: “Casual Notes” (Vol. 4), “The Persecutors of the Zemstvo and the Hannibals of Liberalism” (Vol. 5), the first four chapters of “The Agrarian Question and the ‘Critics of Marx’\thinspace” (published under the title “The ‘Critics’ on the Agrarian Question” [ibid.]), “Review of Home Affairs” (ibid.) and “The Agrarian Programme of Russian Social-Democracy” (Vol. 6).