Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The Right of Nations to Self-Determination


We have seen that the following argument is one of Rosa Luxemburg’s “trump cards” in lies struggle against the programme of the Marxists in Russia: recognition of the right to self-determination is tantamount to supporting the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nations. On the other hand, she says, if we take this right to mean no more than combating all violence against other nations, there is no need for a special clause in the programme, for Social-Democrats are, in general, opposed to all national oppression and inequality.

The first argument, as Kautsky irrefutably proved nearly twenty years ago, is a case of blaming other people for one’s own nationalism; in her fear of the nationalism of the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations, Rosa Luxemburg is actually playing into the hands of the Black-Hundred nationalism of the Great Russians! Her second argument is actually a timid evasion of the question whether or not recognition of national equality includes recognition of the right to secession. If it does, then Rosa Luxemburg admits that, in principle, §9 of our Programme is correct. If it does not, then she does not recognise national equality. Shuffling and evasions will not help matters here!

However, the best way to test these and all similar arguments is to study the attitude of the various classes of society towards this question. For the Marxist this test is obligatory. We must proceed from what is objective; we must examine the relations between the classes on this point. In failing to do so, Rosa Luxemburg is guilty of those very sins of metaphysics, abstractions, platitudes, and sweeping statements, etc., of which she vainly tries to accuse her opponents.

We are discussing the Programme of the Marxists in Russia, i.e., of the Marxists of all the nationalities in Russia. Should we not examine the position of the ruling classes of Russia?

The position of the “bureaucracy” (we beg pardon for this inaccurate term) and of the feudal landlords of our united-nobility type is well known. They definitely reject both the equality of nationalities and the right to self determination. Theirs is the old motto of the days of serfdom: autocracy, orthodoxy, and the national essence—the last term applying only to the Great-Russian nation. Even the Ukrainians are declared to be an “alien” people and their very language is being suppressed.

Let us glance at the Russian bourgeoisie, which was “called upon” to take part—a very modest part, it is true, but nevertheless some part—in the government, under the “June Third” legislative and administrative system. It will not need many words to prove that the Octobrists are following the Rights in this question. Unfortunately, some Marxists pay much less attention to the stand of the Great-Russian liberal bourgeoisie, the Progressists and the Cadets. Yet he who fails to study that stand and give it careful thought will inevitably flounder in abstractions and groundless statements in discussing the question of the right of nations to self-determination.

Skilled though it is in the art of diplomatically evading direct answers to “unpleasant” questions, Rech, the principal organ of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, was compelled, in its controversy with Pravda last year, to make certain valuable admissions. The trouble started over the All-Ukraine Students’ Congress held in Lvov in the summer of 1913.[4] Mr. Mogilyansky, the “Ukrainian expert” or Ukrainian correspondent of Rech, wrote an article in which he poured vitriolic abuse (“ravings”, “adventurism”, etc.) on the idea that the Ukraine should secede, an idea which Dontsov, a nationalist-socialist, had advocated and the above-mentioned congress approved.

While in no way identifying itself with Mr. Dontsov, and declaring explicitly that he was a nationalist-socialist and that many Ukrainian Marxists did not agree with him, Rabochaya Pravda stated that the tone of Rech, or, rather, the way it formulated the question in principle, was improper and reprehensible for a Great-Russian democrat, or for anyone desiring to pass as a democrat.[1] Let Rech repudiate the Dontsovs if it likes, but, from the standpoint of principle, a Great-Russian organ of democracy, which it claims to be, cannot be oblivious of the freedom to secede, the right to secede.

A few months later, Rech, No. 331, published an “explanation” from Mr. Mogilyansky, who had learned from the Ukrainian newspaper Shlyakhi,[5] published in Lvov, of Mr. Dontsov’s reply, in which, incidentally, Dontsov stated that “the chauvinist attacks in Rech have been properly sullied [branded?] only in the Russian Social-Democratic press”. This “explanation” consisted of the thrice-repeated statement that “criticism of Mr. Dontsov’s recipes” “has nothing in common with the repudiation of the right of nations to self-determination”.

“It must be said,” wrote Mr. Mogilyansky, “that even ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ is not a fetish [mark this!] beyond criticism: unwholesome conditions in the life of nations may give rise to unwholesome tendencies in national self-determination, and the fact that these are brought to light does not mean that the right of nations to self-determination has been rejected.”

As you see, this liberal’s talk of a “fetish” was quite in keeping with Rosa Luxemburg’s. It was obvious that Mr. Mogilyansky was trying to evade a direct reply to the question whether or not he recognised the right to political self-determination, i. e., to secession.

The newspaper Proletarskaya Pravda, issue No. 4, for December 11, 1913, also put this question point-blank to Mr. Mogilyansky and to the Constitutional-Democratic Party.[2]

Thereupon Rech (No. 340) published an unsigned, i.e., official, editorial statement replying to this question. This reply boils down to the following three points:

1) §11 of the Constitutional-Democratic Party’s programme speaks bluntly, precisely and clearly of the “right of nations to free cultural self-determination”.

2) Rech affirms that Proletarskaya Pravda “hopelessly confuses” self-determination with separatism, with the secession of a given nation.

3) “Actually, the Cadets have never pledged themselves to advocate the right of ‘nations to secede’ from the Russian state.” (See the article “National-Liberalism and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, in Proletarskaya Pravda No. 12, December 20, 1913.[3] )

Let us first consider the second point in the Rech statement. How strikingly it shows to the Semkovskys, Liebmans, Yurkeviches and other opportunists that the hue and cry they have raised about the alleged “vagueness”, or “indefiniteness”, of the term “self-determination” is in fact, i. e., from the standpoint of objective class relationships and the class struggle in Russia, simply a rehash of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie’s utterances!

Proletarskaya Pravda put the following three questions to the enlightened “Constitutional-Democratic” gentlemen of Rech: (1) do they deny that, throughout the entire history of international democracy, and especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, self-determination of nations has been understood to mean precisely political self-determination, the right to form an independent national state? (2) do they deny that the well-known resolution adopted by the International Socialist Congress in London in 1896 has the same meaning? and (3) do they deny that Plekhanov, in writing about self-determination as far back as 1902, meant precisely political self-determination? When Proletarskaya Pravda posed these three questions, the Cadets fell silent!

Not a word did they utter in reply, for they had nothing to say. They had to admit tacitly that Proletarskaya Pravda was absolutely right.

The liberals’ outcries that the term “self-determination” is vague and that the Social-Democrats “hopelessly confuse” it with separatism are nothing more than attempts to confuse the issue, and evade recognition of a universally established democratic principle. If the Semkovskys, Liebmans and Yurkeviches were not so ignorant, they would be ashamed to address the Workers in a liberal vein.

But to proceed. Proletarskaya Pravda compelled Rech to admit that, in the programme of the Constitutional-Democrats, the term “cultural” self-determination means in effect the repudiation of political self-determination.

“Actually, the Cadets have never pledged themselves to advocate the right of ‘nations to secede’ from the Russian state”—it was not without reason that Proletarskaya Pravda recommended to Novoye Vremya and Zemshchina these words from Rech as an example of our Cadets’ “loyalty”. In its issue No. 13563, Novoye Vremya, which never, of course, misses an opportunity of mentioning “the Yids” and taking digs at the Cadets, nevertheless stated:

“What, to the Social-Democrats, is an axiom of political wisdom [i.e., recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, to secede], is today beginning to cause disagreement even among the Cadets.”

By declaring that they “have never pledged themselves to advocate the right of nations to secede from the Russian state”, the Cadets have, in principle, taken exactly the same stand as Novoye Vremya. This is precisely one of the fundamentals of Cadet national-liberalism, of their kinship with the Purishkeviches, and of their dependence, political, ideological and practical, on the latter. Proletarskaya Pravda wrote: “The Cadets have studied history and know only too well what—to put it mildly—pogrom-like actions the practice of the ancient right of the Purishkeviches to ‘grab ’em and hold ’em’ has often led to.” Although perfectly aware of the feudalist source and nature of the Purishkeviches’ omnipotence; the Cadets are, nevertheless, taking their stand on the basis of the relationships and frontiers created by that very class. Knowing full well that there is much in the relationships and frontiers created or fixed by this class that is un-European and anti-European (we would say Asiatic if this did not sound undeservedly slighting to the Japanese and Chinese), the Cadets, nevertheless, accept them as the utmost limit.

Thus, they are adjusting themselves to the Purishkeviches, cringing to them, fearing to jeopardise their position, protecting them from the people’s movement, from the democracy. As Proletarskaya Pravda wrote: “In effect, this means adapting oneself to the interests of the feudal-minded landlords and to the worst nationalist prejudices of the dominant nation, instead of systematically combating those prejudices.”

Being men who are familiar with history and claim to be democrats, the Cadets do not even attempt to assert that the democratic movement, which is today characteristic of both Eastern Europe and Asia and is striving to change both on the model of the civilised capitalist countries, is bound to leave intact the boundaries fixed by the feudal epoch, the epoch of the omnipotence of the Purishkeviches and the disfranchisement of wide strata of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

The fact that the question raised in the controversy between Proletarskaya Pravda and Rech was not merely a literary question, but one that involved a real political issue of the day, was proved, among other things, by the last conference of the Constitutional-Democratic Party held on March 23–25, 1914; in the official report of this conference in Rech (No. 83, of March 26, 1914) we read:

“A particularly lively discussion also took place on national problems. The Kiev deputies, who were supported by N. V. Nekrasov and A. M. Kolyubakin, pointed out that the national question was becoming a key issue, which would have to he faced up to more resolutely than hitherto. F. F. Kokoshkin pointed out, however [this “however” is like Shchedrin’s “but”—“the ears never grow higher than the forehead, never!”] that both the programme and past political experience demanded that ‘elastic formulas’ of ‘political self-determination of nationalities’ should be handled very carefully.”

This most remarkable line of reasoning at the Cadet conference deserves serious attention from all Marxists and all democrats. (We will note in parentheses that Kievskaya Mysl, which is evidently very well informed and no doubt presents Mr. Kokoshkin’s ideas correctly, added that, of course, as a warning to his opponents, he laid special stress on the danger of the “disintegration” of the state.)

The official report in Rech is composed with consummate diplomatic skill designed to lift the veil as little as possible and to conceal as much as possible. Yet, in the main, what took place at the Cadet conference is quite clear. The liberal-bourgeois delegates, who were familiar with the state of affairs in the Ukraine, and the “Left” Cadets raised the question precisely of the political self-determination of nations. Otherwise, there would have been no need for Mr. Kokoshkin to urge that this “formula” should be “handled carefully”.

The Cadet programme, which was of course known to the delegates at the Cadet conference, speaks of “cultural”, not of political self-determination. Hence, Mr. Kokoshkin was defending the programme against the Ukrainian delegates, and against the Left Cadets; he was defending “cultural” self-determination as opposed to “political” self-determination. It is perfectly clear that in opposing “political” self-determination, in playing up the danger of the “disintegration of the state”, and in calling the formula “political self-determination” an “elastic” one (quite in keeping with Rosa Luxemburg!), Mr. Kokoshkin was defending Great-Russian national-liberalism against the more “Left” or more democratic elements of the Constitutional-Democratic Party and also against the Ukrainian bourgeoisie.

Mr. Kokoshkin won the day at the Cadet conference, as is evident from the treacherous little word “however” in the Rech report; Great-Russian national-liberalism has triumphed among the Cadets. Will not this victory help to clear the minds of those misguided individuals among the Marxists in Russia who, like the Cadets, have also begun to fear the “elastic formulas of political self-determination of nationalities”?

Let us, “however”, examine the substance of Mr. Kokoshkin’s line of thought. By referring to “past political experience” (i.e., evidently, the experience of 1905, when the Great-Russian bourgeoisie took alarm for its national privileges and scared the Cadet Party with its fears), and also by playing up the danger of the “disintegration of the state”, Mr. Kokoshkin showed that he understood perfectly well that political self-determination can mean nothing else but the right to secede and form an independent national state. The question is—how should Mr. Kokoshkin’s fears be appraised in the light of democracy in general, and the proletarian class struggle in particular?

Mr. Kokoshkin would have us believe that recognition of the right to secession increases the danger of the “disintegration of the state”. This is the viewpoint of Constable Mymretsov, whose motto was “grab ’em and hold ’em”. From the viewpoint of democracy in general, the very opposite is the case: recognition of the right to secession reduces the danger of the “disintegration of the state”.

Mr. Kokoshkin argues exactly like the nationalists do. At their last congress they attacked the Ukrainian “Mazeppists”. The Ukrainian movement, Mr. Savenko and Co. exclaimed, threatens to weaken the ties between the Ukraine and Russia, since Austrian Ukrainophilism is strengthening the Ukrainians’ ties with Austria! It remains unexplained why Russia cannot try to “strengthen” her ties with the Ukrainians through the same method that the Savenkos blame Austria for using, i.e., by granting the Ukrainians freedom to use their own language, self-government and an autonomous Diet.

The arguments of the Savenkos and Kokoshkins are exactly alike, and from the purely logical point of view they are equally ridiculous and absurd. Is it not clear that the more liberty the Ukrainian nationality enjoys in any particular country, the stronger its ties with that country will be? One would think that this truism could not be disputed without totally abandoning all the premises of democracy. Can there be greater freedom of nationality, as such, than the freedom to secede, the freedom to form an independent national state?

To clear up this question, which has been so confused by the liberals (and by those who are so misguided, as to echo them), we shall cite a very simple example. Let us take the question of divorce. In her article Rosa Luxemburg writes that the centralised democratic state, while conceding autonomy to its constituent parts, should retain the most important branches of legislation, including legislation on divorce, under the jurisdiction of the central parliament. The concern that the central authority of the democratic state should retain the power to allow divorce can be readily understood. The reactionaries are opposed to freedom of divorce; they say that it must be “handled carefully”, and loudly declare that it means the “disintegration of the family”. The democrats, however, believe that the reactionaries are hypocrites, and that they are actually defending the omnipotence of the police and the bureaucracy, the privileges of one of the sexes, and the worst kind of oppression of women. They believe that in actual fact freedom of divorce will not cause the “disintegration” of family ties, but, on the contrary, will strengthen them on a democratic basis, which is the only possible and durable basis in civilised society.

To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i. e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism, is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties. Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i. e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods.

No doubt, the political chicanery arising from all the relationships existing in capitalist society sometimes leads members of parliament and journalists to indulge in frivolous and even nonsensical twaddle about one or another nation seceding. But only reactionaries can allow themselves to be frightened (or pretend to be frightened) by such talk. Those who stand by democratic principles, i.e., who insist that questions of state be decided by the mass of the population, know very well that there is a “tremendous distance”[6] between what the politicians prate about and what the people decide. From their daily experience the masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties and the advantages of a big market and a big state. They will, therefore, resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder any and all economic intercourse. In that case, the interests of capitalist development and of the freedom of the class struggle will be best served by secession.

Thus, from whatever angle we approach Mr. Kokoshkin’s arguments, they prove to be the height of absurdity and a mockery of the principles of democracy. And yet there is a modicum of logic in these arguments, the logic of the class interests of the Great-Russian bourgeoisie. Like most members of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, Mr. Kokoshkin is a lackey of the money-bags of that bourgeoisie. He defends its privileges in general, and its state privileges in particular. He defends them hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder with Purishkevich, the only difference being that Purishkevich puts more faith in the feudalist cudgel, while Kokoshkin and Co. realise that this cudgel was badly damaged in 1905, and rely more on bourgeois methods of fooling the masses, such as frightening the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants with the spectre of the “disintegration of the state”, and deluding them with phrases about blending “people’s freedom” with historical tradition, etc.

The liberals’ hostility to the principle of political self-determination of nations can have one, and only one, real class meaning: national-liberalism, defence of the state privileges of the Great-Russian bourgeoisie. And the opportunists among the Marxists in Russia, who today, under the Third of June regime, are against the right of nations to self-determination—the liquidator Semkovsky, the Bundist Liebman, the Ukrainian petty-bourgeois Yurkevich—are actually following in the wake of the national-liberals, and corrupting the working class with national-liberal ideas.

The interests of the working class and of its struggle against capitalism demand complete solidarity and the closest unity of the workers of all nations; they demand resistance to the nationalist policy of the bourgeoisie of every nationality. Hence, Social-Democrats would be deviating from proletarian policy and subordinating the workers to the policy of the bourgeoisie if they were to repudiate the right of nations to self-determination, i.e., the right of an oppressed nation to secede, or if they were to support all the national demands of the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations. It makes no difference to the hired worker whether he is exploited chiefly by the Great-Russian bourgeoisie rather than the non-Russian bourgeoisie, or by the Polish bourgeoisie rather than the Jewish bourgeoisie, etc. The hired worker who has come to understand his class interests is equally indifferent to the state privileges of the Great-Russian capitalists and to the promises of the Polish or Ukrainian capitalists to set up an earthly paradise when they obtain state privileges. Capitalism is developing and will continue to develop, anyway, both in integral states with a mixed population and in separate national states.

In any case the hired worker will be an object of exploitation. Successful struggle against exploitation requires that the proletariat be free of nationalism, and be absolutely neutral, so to speak, in the fight for supremacy that is going on among the bourgeoisie of the various nations. If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its “own” national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie. Repudiation of the right to self-determination or to secession inevitably means, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation.

We will get even more striking confirmation of this if we take the concrete case of Norway’s secession from Sweden.


[1] See present edition, Vol. 19, pp. 268–69.—Ed.

[2] See present edition, Vol. 19, pp. 525–27.—Ed.

[3] See pp. 56–58 of this volume.—Ed.

[4] This refers to the Second All-Ukraine Students’ Congress held in Lvov on June 19–22 (July 2–5), 1913, to coincide with anniversary celebrations in honour of Ivan Franko, the great Ukrainian writer, scholar, public figure, and revolutionary democrat. A report “The Ukrainian Youth and the Present Status of the Nations” was made at the Congress by the Ukrainian Social-Democrat Dontsov, who supported the slogan of an “independent” Ukraine.

[5] Shlyakhi (Paths)—organ of the Ukrainian Students’ Union (nationalistic trend), published in Lvov from April 1913 to March 1914.

[6] Lenin is quoting from Griboyedov’s comedy Wit Works Woe.


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