V. I.   Lenin

Liberals and Democrats on the Language Question

Published: Severnaya Pravda No. 29, September 5, 1913; Nash Put No. 12, September 7, 1913. Signed: V. I.. Published according to the Severnaya Pravda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 354-357.
Translated: The Late George Hanna
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

On several occasions the newspapers have mentioned the report of the Governor of the Caucasus, a report that is noteworthy, not for its Black-Hundred spirit but for its timid “liberalism”. Among other things, the Governor objects to artificial Russification of non-Russian nationalities. Representatives of non-Russian nationalities in the Caucasus are themselves striving to teach their children Russian, as, for example, in the Armenian church schools, in which the teaching of Russian is not obligatory.

Russkoye Slovo (No. 198), one of the most widely circulating liberal newspapers in Russia, points to this fact and draws the correct conclusion that the hostility towards the Russian language in Russia “stems exclusively” from the “artificial” (the right word would have been “forced”) implanting of that language.

There is no reason to worry about the fate of the Russian language. It will itself win recognition throughout Russia,” says the newspaper. This is perfectly true, be cause the requirements of economic exchange will always compel the nationalities living in one state (as long as they wish to live together) to study the language of the majority. The more democratic the political system in Russia becomes, the more powerfully, rapidly and extensively capitalism will develop, the more urgently will the requirements of economic exchange impel various nationalities to study the language most convenient for general commercial relations.

The liberal newspaper, however, hastens to slap itself in the face and demonstrate its liberal inconsistency.

Even those who oppose Russification,” it says, “would hardly be likely to deny that in a country as huge as Russia there must be one single official language, and that this language can be only Russian.”

Logic turned inside out! Tiny Switzerland has not lost anything, but has gained from having not one single official language, but three—German, French and Italian. In Switzerland 70 per cent of the population are Germans (in Russia 43 per cent are Great Russians), 22 per cent French (in Russia 17 per cent are Ukrainians) and 7 per cent Italians (in Russia 6 per cent are Poles and 4.5 per cent Byelorussians). If Italians in Switzerland often speak French in the common parliament they do not do so because they are compelled by some savage police law (there are none such in Switzerland), but because the civilised citizens of a democratic state themselves prefer a language that is under stood by a majority. The French language does not excite hatred in Italians because it is the language of a free civilised nation, a language that is not imposed by disgusting police measures.

Why should “huge” Russia, a much more varied and terribly backward country, inhibit her development by the retention of any kind of privilege for any one language? Should not the contrary be true, liberal gentlemen? Should not Russia, if she wants to overtake Europe, put an end to every kind of privilege as quickly as possible, as completely as possible and as vigorously as possible?

If all privileges disappear, if the imposition of any one language ceases, all Slays will easily and rapidly learn to understand each other and will not be frightened, by the “horrible” thought that speeches in different languages will be heard in the common parliament. The requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country it is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interests of commercial relations. This decision will be all the firmer because it will be adopted voluntarily by a population of various nationalities, and its adoption will be the more rapid and extensive the more consistent the democracy and, as a consequence of this, the more rapid will be the development of capitalism.

The liberals approach the language question in the same way as they approach all political questions—like   hypocritical hucksters, holding out one hand (openly) to democracy and the other (behind their backs) to the serf-owners and police. We are against privileges, shout the liberals, and under cover they haggle with the serf-owners for first one, then another, privilege.

Such is the nature of all liberal-bourgeois nationalism—not only Great-Russian (it is the worst of them all because of its violent character and its kinship with the Purishkeviches) but Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian and every other nationalism. Under the slogan of “national culture” the bourgeoisie of all nations, both in Austria and in Russia, are in fact pursuing the policy of splitting the workers, emasculating democracy and haggling with the serf-owners over the sale of the people’s rights and the people’s liberty.

The slogan of working-class democracy is not “national culture” but the international culture of democracy and the world-wide working-class movement. Let the bourgeoisie deceive the people with various “positive” national programmes. The class-conscious worker will answer the bourgeoisie—there is only one solution to the national problem (insofar as it can, in general, be solved in the capitalist world, the world of profit, squabbling and exploitation), and that solution is consistent democracy.

The proof—Switzerland in Western Europe, a country with an old culture, and Finland in Eastern Europe a country with a young culture.

The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privilege for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods; the promulgation of a law for the whole state by virtue of which any measure (Zemstvo, urban or communal, etc., etc.) introducing any privilege of any kind for one of the nations and militating against the equality of nations or the rights of a national minority, shall be declared illegal and ineffective, and any citizen of the state shall have the right to demand that such a measure be annulled as unconstitutional, and that those who attempt to put it into effect be punished.

Working-class democracy counterposes to the nationalist wrangling of the various bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., the demand for the unconditional unity and complete solidarity of workers of all nationalities in all working-class organisations—trade union, co-operative, consumers’, educational and all others—in contradistinction to any kind of bourgeois nationalism. Only this type of unity and solidarity can uphold democracy and defend the interests of the workers against capital—which is already international and is becoming more so—and promote the development of mankind towards a new way of life that is alien to all privileges and all exploitation.


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