Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The Right of Nations to Self-Determination


The Minutes of the 1903 Congress, at which the Programme of the Russian Marxists was adopted, have become a great rarity, and the vast majority of the active members of the working-class movement today are unacquainted with the motives underlying the various points (the more so since not all the literature relating to it enjoys the blessings of legality...). It is therefore necessary to analyse the debate that took place at the 1903 Congress on the question under discussion.

Let us state first of all that however meagre the Russian Social-Democratic literature on the “right of nations to self-determination” may be, it nevertheless shows clearly that this right has always been understood to mean the right to secession. The Semkovskys, Liebmans and Yurkeviches who doubt this and declare that §9 is “vague”, etc., do so only because of their sheer ignorance or carelessness. As far back as 1902, Plekhanov, in Zarya, defended “the right to self-determination” in the draft programme, and wrote that this demand, while not obligatory upon bourgeois democrats, was “obligatory upon Social-Democrats”. “If we were to for got it or hesitate, to advance it,” Plekhanov wrote, “for fear of offending the national prejudices of our fellow-countrymen of Great-Russian nationality, the call ... ‘workers of all countries, unite!’ would be a shameful lie on our lips....”[3]

This is a very apt description of the fundamental argument in favour of the point under consideration; so apt that it is not surprising that the “anythingarian” critics of our programme have been timidly avoiding it. The abandonment of this point, no matter for what motives, is actually a “shameful” concession to Great-Russian nationalism. But why Great-Russian, when it is a question of the right of all nations to self-determination? Because it refers to secession from the Great Russians. The interests of the unity of the proletarians, the interests of their class solidarity call for recognition of the right of nations to secede—that is what Plekhanov admitted twelve years ago in the words quoted above. Had our opportunists given thought to this they would probably not have talked so much nonsense about self-determination.

At the 1903 Congress, which adopted the draft programme that Plekhanov advocated, the main work was done by the Programme Commission. Unfortunately no Minutes of its proceedings were kept; they would have been particularly interesting on this point, for it was only in the Commission that the representatives of the Polish Social-Democrats, Warszawski and Hanecki, tried to defend their views and to dispute “recognition of the right to self-determination”. Any reader who goes to the trouble of comparing their arguments (set forth in the speech by Warszawski and the statement by him and Hanecki, pp. 134–36 and 388–90 of the Congress Minutes) with those which Rosa Luxemburg advanced in her Polish article, which we have analysed, will find them identical.

How were these arguments treated by the Programme Commission of the Second Congress, where Plekhanov, more than anyone else, spoke against the Polish Marxists? They were mercilessly ridiculed! The absurdity of proposing to the Marxists of Russia that they should reject the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination was demonstrated so plainly and clearly that the Polish Marxists did not even venture to repeat their arguments at the plenary meeting of the Congress! They left the Congress, convinced of the hopelessness of their case at the supreme assembly of Marxists—Great-Russian, Jewish, Georgian, and Armenian.

Needless to say, this historic episode is of very great importance to everyone seriously interested in his own programme. The fact that the Polish Marxists’ arguments were completely defeated at the Programme Commission of the Congress, and that the Polish Marxists gave up the attempt to defend their views at the plenary meeting of the Congress is very significant. No wonder Rosa Luxemburg maintained a “modest” silence about it in her article in 1908—the recollection of the Congress must have been too unpleasant! She also kept quiet about the ridiculously inept proposal made by Warszawski and Hanecki in 1903, on behalf of all Polish Marxists, to “amend” §9 of the Programme, a proposal which neither Rosa Luxemburg nor the other Polish Social-Democrats have ventured (or will ever venture) to repeat.

But although Rosa Luxemburg, concealing her defeat in 1903, has maintained silence over these facts, those who take an interest in the history of their Party will make it their business to ascertain them and give thought to their significance.

On leaving the 1903 Congress, Rosa Luxemburg’s friends submitted the following statement:

“We propose that Clause 7 [now Clause 9] of the draft programme read as follows: § 7. Institutions guaranteeing full freedom of cultural development to all nations incorporated in the state.” (P. 390 of the Minutes.)

Thus, the Polish Marxists at that time put forward views on the national question that were so vague that instead of self-determination they practically proposed the notorious “cultural-national autonomy”, only under another name!

This sounds almost incredible, but unfortunately it is a fact. At the Congress itself, attended though it was by five Bundists with five votes and three Caucasians with six votes, without counting Kostrov’s cousultative voice, not a single vote was cast for the rejection of the clause about self-determination. Three votes were cast for the proposal to add “cultural-national autonomy” to this clause (in favour of Goldblatt’s formula: “the establishment of institutions guaranteeing the nations full freedom of cultural development”) and four votes for Lieber’s formula (“the right of nations to freedom in their cultural development”).

Now that a Russian liberal party—the Constitutional-Democratic Party—has appeared on the scene, we know that in its programme the political self-determination of nations has been replaced by “cultural self-determination”. Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish friends, therefore, were “combating” the nationalism of the P.S.P., and, did it so successfully that they proposed the substitution of a liberal programme for the Marxist programme! And in the same breath they accused our programme of being opportunist; no wonder this accusation was received with laughter by the Programme Commission of the Second Congress!

How was “self-determination” understood by the delegates to the Second Congress, of whom, as we have seen, not one was opposed to “self-determination of nations”?

The following three extracts from the Minutes provide the answer:

Martynov is of the opinion that the term ‘self-determination’ should not be given a broad interpretation; it merely means the right of a nation to establish itself as a separate polity, not regional self-government” (p. 171). Martynov was a member of the Programme Commission, in which the arguments of Rosa Luxemburg’s friends were repudiated and ridiculed. Martynov was then an Economist in his views, and a violent opponent of Iskra; had he expressed an opinion that was not shared by the majority of the Programme Commission he would certainly have been repudiated.

Bundist Goldblatt was the first to speak when the Congress, after the Commission had finished its work, discussed §8 (the present Clause 9) of the Programme.

He said:

“No objections can he raised to the ‘right to self-determination’. When a nation is fighting for independence, that should not he opposed. If Poland refuses to enter into lawful marriage with Russia, she should not be interfered with, as Plekhanov put it. I agree with this opinion within these limits” (pp. 175–76).

Plekhanov had not spoken on this subject at all at the plenary meeting of the Congress. Goldblatt was referring to what Plekhanov had said at the Programme Commission, where the “right to self-determination” had been explained in a simple yet detailed manner to mean the right to secession. Lieber, who spoke after Goldblatt, remarked:

“Of course, if any nationality finds that it cannot live within the frontiers of Russia, the Party will not place any obstacles in its way” (p. 176).

The reader will see that at the Second Congress of the Party, which adopted the programme, it was unanimously understood that self-determination meant “only” the right to secession. Even the Bundists grasped this truth at the time, and it is only in our own deplorable times of continued counter-revolution and all sorts of “apostasy” that we can find people who, bold in their ignorance, declare that the programme is “vague”. But before devoting time to these sorry would-be Social-Democrats, let us first finish with the attitude of the Poles to the programme.

They came to the Second Congress (1903) declaring that unity was necessary and imperative. But they left the Congress after their “reverses” in the Programme Commission, and their last word was a written statement, printed in the Minutes of the Congress, containing the above-mentioned proposal to substitute cultural-national autonomy for self-determination.

In 1906 the Polish Marxists joined the Party; neither upon joining nor afterwards (at the Congress of 1907, the conferences of 1907 and 1908, or the plenum of 1910) did they introduce a single proposal to amend §9 of the Russian Programme!

That is a fact.

And, despite all utterances and assurances, this fact definitely proves that Rosa Luxemburg’s friends regarded the question as having been settled by the debate at the Programme Commission of the Second Congress, as well as by the decision of that Congress, and that they tacitly acknowledged their mistake and corrected it by joining the Party in 1906, after they had left the Congress in 1903, without a single attempt to raise the question of amending §9 of the Programme through Party channels.

Rosa Luxemburg’s article appeared over her signature in 1908—of course, it never entered anyone’s head to deny Party publicists the right to criticise the programme—and, since the Writing of this article, not a single official body of the Polish Marxists has raised the question of revising §9.

Trotsky was therefore: rendering a great disservice to certain admirers of Rosa Luxemburg when he wrote, on behalf of the editors of Borba, in issue No. 2 of that publication (March 1914):

“The Polish Marxists consider that ‘the right to national self-determination’ is entirely devoid of political content and should be deleted from the programme” (p. 25).

The obliging Trotsky is more dangerous than an enemy! Trotsky could produce no proof, except “private conversations” (i. e., simply gossip, on which Trotsky always subsists), for classifying “Polish Marxists” in general as supporters of every article by Rosa Luxemburg. Trotsky presented the “Polish Marxists” as people devoid of honour and conscience, incapable of respecting even their own convictions and the programme of their Party. How obliging Trotsky is!

When, in 1903, the representatives of the Polish Marxists walked out of the Second Congress over the right to self-determination, Trotsky could have said at the time that they regarded this right as devoid of content and subject to deletion from the programme.

But after that the Polish Marxists joined the Party whose programme this was, and they have never introduced a motion to amend it.[1]

Why did Trotsky withhold these facts from the readers of his journal? Only because it pays him to speculate on fomenting differences between the Polish and the Russian opponents of liquidationism and to deceive the Russian workers on the question of the programme.

Trotsky has never yet held a firm opinion on any important question of Marxism. He always contrives to worm his way into the cracks of any given difference of opinion, and desert one side for the other. At the present moment he is in the company of the Bundists and the liquidators. And these gentlemen do not stand on ceremony where the Party is concerned.

Listen to the Bundist Liebman.

“When, fifteen years ago,” this gentleman writes, “the Russian Social-Democrats included the point about the right of every nationality to ‘self-determination’ in their programme, everyone [!] asked himself: What does this fashionable [!] term really mean? No answer was forthcoming [!]. This word was left [!] wrapped in mist. And indeed, at the time, it was difficult to dispel that mist. The moment had not come when this point could be made concrete—it was said—so let it remain wrapped in mist [!] for the time being and practice will show what content should he put into it.”

Isn’t it magnificent, the way this “ragamuffin”[4] mocks at the Party programme?

And why does he mock at it?

Because he is an absolute ignoramus, who has never learnt anything or even read any Party history, but merely happened to land in liquidationist circles where going about in the nude is considered the “right” thing to do as far as knowledge of the Party and everything it stands for is concerned.

Pomyalovsky’s seminary student boasts of having “spat into a barrel of sauerkraut”.[5] The Bundist gentlemen have gone one better. They let the Liebmans loose to spit publicly into their own barrel. What do the Liebmans care about the fact that the International Congress has passed a decision, that at the Congress of their own Party the representatives of their own Bund proved that they were quite able (and what “severe” critics and determined enemies of Iskra they were!) to understand the meaning of “self-determination” and were even in agreement with it? And will it not be easier to liquidate the Party if the “Party publicists” (no jokes, please!) treat its history and programme after the fashion of the seminary student?

Here is a second “ragamuffin”, Mr. Yurkevich of Dzvin. Mr. Yurkevich must have had the Minutes of the Second Congress before him, because he quotes Plekhanov, as repeated by Goldblatt, and shows that he is aware of the fact that self-determination can only mean the right to secession. This, however, does not prevent him from spreading slander about the Russian Marxists among the Ukrainian petty bourgeoisie, alleging that they stand for the “state integrity” of Russia. (No. 7–8, 1913, p. 83, etc.) Of course, the Yurkeviches could not have invented a better method than such slander to alienate the Ukrainian democrats from the Great-Russian democrats. And such alienation is in line with the entire policy of the group of Dzvin publicists who advocate the separation of the Ukrainian workers in a special national organisation![2]

It is quite appropriate, of course, that a group of nationalist philistines, who are engaged in splitting the ranks of the proletariat—and objectively this is the role of Dzvin— should disseminate such hopeless confusion on the national question. Needless to say, the Yurkeviches and Liebmans, who are “terribly” offended when they are called “near Party men”, do not say a word, not a single word, as to how they would like the problem of the right to secede to be settled in the programme.

But here is the third and principal “ragamuffin”, Mr. Semkovsky, who, addressing a Great-Russian audience through the columns of a liquidationist newspaper, lashes at §9 of the Programme and at the same time declares that “for certain reasons he does not approve of the proposal” to delete this clause!

This is incredible, but it is a fact.

In August 1912, the liquidators’ conference raised the national question officially. For eighteen months not a single article has appeared on the question of §9, except the one written by Mr. Semkovsky. And in this article the author repudiates the programme, “without approving”, however, “for certain reasons” (is this a secrecy disease?) the proposal to amend it! We may be sure that it would be difficult to find anywhere in the world similar examples of opportunism, or even worse—renunciation of the Party, and a desire to liquidate it.

A single example will suffice to show what Semkovsky’s arguments are like:

“What are we to do,” he writes, “if the Polish proletariat wants to fight side by side with the proletariat of all Russia within the framework of a single state, while the reactionary classes of Polish society, on the contrary, want to separate Poland from Russia and obtain a majority of votes in favour of secession by referendum? Should we, Russian Social-Democrats in the central parliament, vote together with our Polish comrades against secession, or—in order not to violate the ‘right to self-determination’—vote for secession?” (Novaya Rabochaya Gazeta No. 71.)

From this it is evident that Mr. Semkovsky does not even understand the point at issue! It did not occur to him that the right to secession presupposes the settlement of the question by a parliament (Diet, referendum, etc.) of the seceding region, not by a central parliament.

The childish perplexity over the question “What are we to do”, if under democracy the majority are for reaction, serves to screen the real and live issue when both the Purishkeviches and the Kokoshkins consider the very idea of secession criminal! Perhaps the proletarians of all Russia ought not to fight the Purishkeviches and the Kokoshkins today, but should by-pass them and fight the reactionary classes of Poland!

Such is the sheer rubbish published in the liquidators’ organ of which Mr. L. Martov is one of the ideological leaders, the selfsame L. Martov who drafted the programme and spoke in favour of its adoption in 1903, and even subsequently wrote in favour of the right to secede. Apparently L. Martov is now arguing according to the rule:

No clever man is needed there;
Better send Read,
And I shall wait and see

He sends Read-Semkovsky along and allows our programme to be distorted, and endlessly muddled up in a daily paper whose new readers are unacquainted with it!

Yes. Liquidationism has gone a long way—there are even very many prominent ex-Social-Democrats who have not a trace of Party spirit left in them.

Rosa Luxemburg cannot, of course, be classed with the Liebmans, Yurkeviches and Semkovskys, but the fact that it was this kind of people who seized upon her error shows with particular clarity the opportunism she has lapsed into.


[1] We are informed that the Polish Marxists attended the Summer Conference of the Russian Marxists in 1913 with only a consultative voice and did not vote at all on the right to self-determination (secession), declaring their opposition to this right in general. Of course, they had a perfect right to act the way they did, and, as hitherto, to agitate in Poland against secession. But this is not quite what Trotsky said; for the Polish Marxists did not demand the “deletion” of §9 “from the programme”. —Lenin

[2] See particularly Mr. Yurkevich’s preface to Mr. Levinsky’s book (written in Ukrainian) Outline of the Development of the Ukrainian Working-Class Movement in Galicia, Kiev, 1914. —Lenin

[3] Lenin is quoting from G. V. Plekhanov’s article “The Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Party” published in Zarya No. 4, 1902.

Zarya —a Marxist scientific and political journal published legally in Stuttgart in 1901–02 by the Editorial Board of Iskra. Altogether four numbers (three issues) of Zarya appeared: No. 1 in April 1901 (actually on March 23, new style); No. 2–3 in December 1901, and No. 4 in August 1902. The aims of the publication were set forth in the “Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya” written by Lenin in Russia. (See present edition, Vol. 4.) In 1902, during the disagreement and conflicts that arose on the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya, Plekhanov proposed a plan for separating the newspaper from the journal (with Zarya remaining under his editorship), but this proposal was not accepted, and the two publications continued under a single editorial board.

Zarya criticised international and Russian revisionism, and defended the theoretical principles of Marxism. The following articles by Lenin were published in this journal: = “Casual Notes”, “The Persecutors of the Zemstvo and the Hannibals of Liberalism”, “The ‘Critics’ on the Agrarian Question” (the first four chapters of “The Agrarian Question and the ‘Critics of Marx’\thinspace”), “Review of Home Affairs”, and “The Agrarian Programme of Russian Social-Democracy”, as well as Plekhanov’s articles “Criticism of Our Critics. Part I. Mr. P. Struve in the Role of Critic of the Marxian Theory of Social Development”, “Cant versus Kant, or the Testament of Mr. Bernstein” and others.

[4] A quotation from the sketch “Abroad” by the Russian satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin.

[5] Lenin quotes an expression from Seminary Sketches by the Russian writer N. G. Pomyalovsky.

[6] Lenin quotes the words of a Sevastopol soldiers’ song written by Leo Tolstoy. The song is about the unsuccessful operation of the Russian troops at the river Chornaya on August 4, 1855, during the Crimean War. In that action General Read commanded two divisions.


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