Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

Clause 9 of the Russian Marxists’ Programme, which deals with the right of nations to self-determination, has (as we have already pointed out in Prosveshcheniye)[1] given rise lately to a crusade on the part of the opportunists. The Russian liquidator Semkovsky, in the St. Petersburg liquidationist newspaper, and the Bundist Liebman and the Ukrainian nationalist-socialist Yurkevich in their respective periodicals have violently attacked this clause and treated it with supreme contempt. There is no doubt that this campaign of a motley array of opportunists against our Marxist Programme is closely connected with present-day nationalist vacillations in general. Hence we consider a detailed examination of this question timely. We would mention, in passing, that none of the opportunists named above has offered a single argument of his own; they all merely repeat what Rosa Luxemburg said in her lengthy Polish article of 1908–09, “The National Question and Autonomy”. In our exposition we shall deal mainly with the “original” arguments of this last-named author.


Naturally, this is the first question that arises when any attempt is made at a Marxist examination of what is known as self-determination. What should be understood by that term? Should the answer be sought in legal definitions deduced from all sorts of “general concepts” of law? Or is it rather to be sought in a historico-economic study of the national movements?

It is not surprising that the Semkovskys, Liebmans and Yurkeviches did not even think of raising this question, and shrugged it off by scoffing at the “obscurity” of the Marxist Programme, apparently unaware, in their simplicity, that the self-determination of nations is dealt with, not only in the Russian Programme of 1903, but in the resolution of the London International Congress of 1896 (with which I shall deal in detail in the proper place). Far more surprising is the fact that Rosa Luxemburg, who declaims a great deal about the supposedly abstract and metaphysical nature of the clause in question, should herself succumb to the sin of abstraction and metaphysics. It is Rosa Luxemburg herself who is continually lapsing into generalities about self-determination (to the extent even of philosophising amusingly on the question of how the will of the nation is to be ascertained), without any where clearly and precisely asking herself whether the gist of the matter lies in legal definitions or in the experience of the national movements throughout the world.

A precise formulation of this question, which no Marxist can avoid, would at once destroy nine-tenths of Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments. This is not the first time that national movements have arisen in Russia, nor are they peculiar to that country alone. Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards this goal, and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period.

Consequently, if we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations, not by juggling with legal definitions, or “inventing” abstract definitions, but by examining the historico-economic conditions of the national movements, we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.

Later on we shall see still other reasons why it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning-anything but the right to existence as a separate state. At present, we must deal with Rosa Luxemburg’s efforts to “dismiss” the inescapable conclusion that profound economic factors underlie the urge towards a national state.

Rosa Luxemburg is quite familiar with Kautsky’s pamphlet Nationality and Internationality. (Supplement to Die Neue Zeit[2] No.11, 1907–08; Russian translation in the journal Nauchnaya Mysl,[3] Riga, 1908.) She is aware that, after carefully analysing the question of the national state in §4 of that pamphlet, Kautsky arrived at the conclusion that Otto Bauer “underestimates the strength of the urge towards a national state” (p. 23 of the pamphlet). Rosa Luxemburg herself quotes the following words of Kautsky’s:

“The national state is the form most suited to present-day conditions, [i. e., capitalist, civilised, economically progressive conditions, as distinguished from medieval, pre-capitalist, etc.]; it is the form in which the state can best fulfil its tasks” (i. e., the tasks of securing the freest, widest and speediest development of capitalism). To this we must add Kautsky’s still more precise concluding remark that states of mixed national composition (known as multi national states, as distinct from national states) are “always those whose internal constitution has for some reason or other remained abnormal or underdeveloped” (backward). Needless to say, Kautsky speaks of abnormality exclusively in the sense of lack of conformity with what is best adapted to the requirements of a developing capitalism.

The question now is: How did Rosa Luxemburg treat these historico-economic conclusions of Kautsky’s? Are they right or wrong? Is Kautsky right in his historico-economic theory, or is Bauer, whose theory is basically psychological? What is the connection between Bauer’s undoubted “national opportunism”, his defence of cultural-national autonomy, his nationalistic infatuation (“an occasional emphasis on the national aspect”, as Kautsky put it), his “enormous exaggeration of the national aspect and complete neglect of the international aspect” (Kautsky)—and his underestimation of the strength of the urge to create a national state?

Rosa Luxemburg has not even raised this question. She has not noticed the connection. She has not considered the sum total of Bauer’s theoretical views. She has not even drawn a line between the historico-economic and the psychological theories of the national question. She confines herself to the following remarks in criticism of Kautsky:

“This ‘best’ national state is only an abstraction, which can easily be developed and defended theoretically, but which does not correspond to reality.” (Przeglad Socjaldemokratyczny, 1908, No. 6, p. 499.)

And in corroboration of this emphatic statement there follow arguments to the effect that the “right to self-determination” of small nations is made illusory by the development of the great capitalist powers and by imperialism. “Can one seriously speak,” Rosa Luxemburg exclaims, “about the ‘self-determination’ of the formally independent Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbs, Greeks, partly even the Swiss, whose independence is itself a result of the political struggle and the diplomatic game of the ‘concert of Europe’?!” (P. 500.) The state that best suits these conditions is “not a national state, as Kautsky believes, but a predatory one”. Some dozens of figures are quoted relating to the size of British, French and other colonial possessions.

After reading such arguments, one cannot help marvelling at the author’s ability to misunderstand the how and the why of things. To teach Kautsky, with a serious mien, that small states are economically dependent on big ones, that a struggle is raging among the bourgeois states for the predatory suppression of other nations, and that imperialism and colonies exist—all this is a ridiculous and puerile attempt to be clever, for none of this has the slightest bearing on the subject. Not only small states, but even Russia, for example, is entirely dependent, economically, on the power of the imperialist finance capital of the “rich” bourgeois countries. Not only the miniature Balkan states, but even nineteenth-century America was, economically, a colony of Europe, as Marx pointed out in Capital.[4] Kautsky, like any Marxist, is, of course, well aware of this, but that has nothing whatever to do with the question of national movements and the national state.

For the question of the political self-determination of nations and their independence as states in bourgeois society, Rosa Luxemburg has substituted the question of their economic independence. This is just as intelligent as if someone, in discussing the programmatic demand for the supremacy of parliament, i. e., the assembly of people’s representatives, in a bourgeois state, were to expound the perfectly correct conviction that big capital dominates in a bourgeois country, whatever the regime in it.

There is no doubt that the greater part of Asia, the most densely populated continent, consists either of colonies of the “Great Powers”, or of states that are extremely dependent and oppressed as nations. But does this commonly-known circumstance in any way shake the undoubted fact that in Asia itself the conditions for the most complete development of commodity production and the freest, widest and speediest growth of capitalism have been created only in Japan, i. e., only in an independent national state? The latter is a bourgeois state, and for that reason has itself begun to oppress other nations and to enslave colonies. We cannot say whether Asia will have had time to develop into a system of independent national states, like Europe, before the collapse of capitalism, but it remains an undisputed fact that capitalism, having awakened Asia, has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent, too; that the tendency of these movements is towards the creation of national states in Asia; that it is such states that ensure, the best conditions for the development of capitalism. The example of Asia speaks in favour of Kautsky and against Rosa Luxemburg.

The example of the Balkan states likewise contradicts her, for anyone can now see that the best conditions for the development of capitalism in the Balkans are created precisely in proportion to the creation of independent national states in that peninsula.

Therefore, Rosa Luxemburg notwithstanding, the example of the whole of progressive and civilised mankind, the example of the Balkans and that of Asia prove that Kautsky’s proposition is absolutely correct: the national state is the rule and the “norm” of capitalism; the multi-national state represents backwardness, or is an exception. From the standpoint of national relations, the best conditions for the development of capitalism are undoubtedly provided by the national state. This does not mean, of course, that such a state, which is based on bourgeois relations, can eliminate the exploitation and oppression of nations. It only means that Marxists cannot lose sight of the powerful economic factors that give rise to the urge to create national states. It means that “self-determination of nations” in the Marxists’ Programme cannot, from a historico-economic point of view, have any other meaning than political self-determination, state independence, and the formation of a national state.

The conditions under which the bourgeois-democratic demand for a “national state” should be supported from a Marxist, i. e., class-proletarian, point of view will be dealt with in detail below. For the present, we shall confine ourselves to the definition of the concept of “self-determination”, and only note that Rosa Luxemburg knows what this concept means (“national state”), whereas her opportunist partisans, the Liebmans, the Semkovskys, the Yurkeviches, do not even know that!


[1] See pp. 17–51 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] Die Neue Zeit—theoretical journal of the German Social-Democratic Party, published in Stuttgart from 1883 to 1923. It was edited by K. Kautsky until October 1917, and then by H. Cunow. Some the writings of the founders of Marxism were first published in this journal, among them K. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and Engels’s “Criticism of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”. Engels often gave pointers to the editors of Die Neue Zeit and criticised their deviations from Marxism. Other prominent leaders of the German and international labour movement who contributed to the journal at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries were A. Bebel, W. Liebknecht R. Luxemburg, F. Mehring, Clara Zetkin, G. V. Plekhanov and P. Lafargue. Beginning with the late nineties, after the death of Engels, the journal regularly published articles by revisionists, including a series of articles by E. Bernstein “Problems of Socialism”, which launched a revisionists’ campaign against Marxism. During World War I the journal took a centrist stand and supported the social-chauvinists.

[3] Nauchnaya Mysl (Scientific Thought)—a journal of a Menshevik trend, published in Riga in 1908.

[4] See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Moscow, 1959, p. 765. p. 399


< backward     Contents     forward >
Works Index   |   Volume 20 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index