V. I.   Lenin

The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up

Written: Written in July 1916
Published: Published in October 1916 in Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 1. Signed: N. Lenin. Published according to the Sbornik text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, UNKNOWN, [19xx], Moscow, Volume 22, pages 320-360.
Transcription\Markup: D. Walters
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive 2000 (2005). 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

Issue No. 2 of tile Herald (Vorbote No. 2, April1916), the Marxist journal of the Zimmerwald Left, published theses for and against the self-determination of nations, signed by the Editorial Board of our Central Organ, Sotsial-Demokrat, and by the Editorial Board of the organ of the Polish Social-Democratic opposition, Gazeta Robotnicza. Above the reader will find a reprint of the former[1] and a translation of the latter theses.[15] This is practically the first time that the question has been presented so extensively in the international field: it was raised only in respect of Poland in the discussion carried on in the German Marxist journal Neue Zeit twenty years ago, 1895–96, before the London International Socialist Congress of 1896, by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and the Polish “independents” (champions of the independence of Poland, the Polish Socialist Party), who represented three different views.[16] [see The Rights of Nations to Self-Determination] Since then, as far as we know, the question of self-determination has been discussed at all systematically only by the Dutch and the Poles. Let us hope that the Herald will succeed in promoting the discussion of this question, so urgent today, among the British, Americans, French, Germans and Italians. Official socialism, represented both by direct supporters of “their own” governments, the Plekhanovs, Davids and Co., and the undercover defenders of opportunism, the Kautskyites (among them Axelrod, Martov, Chkheidze and others), has told so many lies on this question that for a long time there will inevitably be efforts, on the one hand, to maintain   silence and evade the issue, and, on the other, workers’ demands for “direct answers” to these “accursed questions”. We shall try to keep our readers informed of the struggle between the trends: among socialists abroad.

This question is of specific importance to us Russian Social-Democrats; the present discussion is a continuation of the one that took place in 1903 and 1913[17]; during the war this question has been the cause of some wavering in the thinking of Party members: it has been made more acute by the trickery of such prominent leaders of the Gvozdyov or chauvinist workers’ party as Martov and Chkheidze, in their efforts to evade the substance of the problem. It is essential, therefore, to sum up at least the initial results of the discussion that has been started in the international field.

It will he seen from the theses that our Polish comrades provide us with a direct answer to some of our arguments, for example, on Marxism and Proudhonism. In most cases, however, they do not answer us directly but indirectly, by opposing their assertions to ours. Let us examine both their direct and indirect answers.

1. Socialism and the Self-Determination of Nations

We have affirmed that it would be a betrayal of socialism to refuse to implement the self-determination of nations under socialism. We are told in reply that “the right of self-determination is not applicable to a socialist society”. The difference is a radical one. Where does it stem from?

We know,” runs our opponents’ reasoning, “that socialism will abolish every kind of national oppression since it abolishes the class interests that lead to it....” What has this argument about the economic prerequisites for the abolition of national oppression, which are very well known and undisputed, to do with a discussion of one of the forms of political oppression, namely, the forcible retention of one nation within the state frontiers of another? This is nothing hut an attempt to evade political questions! And   subsequent arguments further convince us that our judgement is right: “We have no reason to believe that in a socialist society, the nation will exist as an economic and political unit. It will in all probability assume the character of a cultural and linguistic unit only, because the territorial division of a socialist cultural zone, if practised at all, can be made only according to the needs of production and, furthermore, the question of such a division will naturally not be decided by individual nations alone and in possession of full sovereignty [as is required by “the right to self-determination”], but will be determined jointly by all the citizens concerned....”

Our Polish comrades like this last argument, on joint determination instead of self-determination, so much that they repeat it three times in their theses! Frequency of repetition, however, does not turn this Octobrist and reactionary argument into a Social-Democratic argument. All reactionaries and bourgeois grant to nations forcibly retained within the frontiers of a given state the right to “determine jointly” their fate in a common parliament. Wilhelm II also gives the Belgians the right to “determine jointly” the fate of the German Empire in a common German parliament.

Our opponents try to evade precisely the point at issue. the only one that is up for discussion—the right to secede. This would be funny if it were not so tragic!

Our very first thesis said that the liberation of oppressed nations implies a dual transformation in the political sphere: (1) the full equality of nations. This is not disputed and applies only to what takes place within the state; (2) freedom of political separation.[2] This refers to the demarcation of state frontiers. This only is disputed. But it is precisely this that our opponents remain silent about. They do not want to think either about state frontiers or even about the stabs as such. This is a sort of “imperialist Economism” like the old Economism of 1894–1902, which argued in this way: capitalism is victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time. Imperialism is   victorious, therefore political questions are a waste of time! Such an apolitical theory is extremely harmful to Marxism.

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx wrote: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”[18] Up to now this truth has been indisputable for socialists and it includes the recognition of the fact that the slate will exist until victorious socialism develops into full communism. Engels’s dictum about the withering away of the state is well known. We deliberately stressed, in the first thesis, that democracy is a form of state that will also wither away when the state withers away. And until our opponents replace Marxism by some sort of “non-state” viewpoint their arguments will constitute one big mistake.

Instead of speaking about the state (which means, about the demarcation of its frontiers!), they speak of a “socialist cultural zone”, i.e., they deliberately choose an expression that is indefinite in the sense that all state questions are obliterated! Thus we get a ridiculous tautology: if there is no state there can, of course, be no question of frontiers. In that case tile whole democratic-political programme is unnecessary. Nor will there be any republic, when the state “withers away”.

The German chauvinist Lensch, in the articles we mentioned in Thesis 5 (footnote),[3] quoted an interesting passage from Engels’s article “The Po and the Rhine”. Amongst other things, Engels says in this article that in the course of historical development, which swallowed up a number of small and non-viable nations, the “frontiers of great and viable European nations” were being increasingly determined by the “language and sympathies” of the population. Engels calls these frontiers “natural”.[19] Such was the case in the period of progressive capitalism in Europe, roughly from 1848 to 1871. Today, these democratically determined   frontiers are more and more often being broken down by reactionary, imperialist capitalism. There is every sign that imperialism will leave its successor, socialism, a heritage of less democratic frontiers, a number: of annexations in Europe and ill other parts of the world. Is it to he supposed that victorious socialism, restoring and implementing full democracy all along the line, will refrain from democratically demarcating state frontiers and ignore the “sympathies” of the population? Those questions need only be stated to make it quite clear that our Polish colleagues are sliding down from Marxism towards imperialist Economism.

The old Economists, who made a caricature of Marxism, told the workers that “only the economic” was of importance to Marxists. The new Economists seem to think either that the democratic state of victorious socialism will exist without frontiers (like a “complex of sensations” without matter) or that frontiers will be delineated “only” in accordance with the needs of production. In actual fact its frontiers will be delineated democratically, i.e., in accordance with the will and “sympathies” of the population. Capitalism rides roughshod over these sympathies, adding more obstacles to the rapprochement of nations. Socialism, by oiganising production without class oppression, by ensuring the well-being of all members of the state, gives full play to the “sympathies” of the population, thereby promoting and greatly accelerating the drawing together and fusion of the nations.

To give the reader a rest from the heavy and clumsy Economism let us quote the reasoning of a socialist writer who is outside our dispute. That writer is Otto Bauer, who also has his own “pet little point”—“cultural and national autonomy”—but who argues quite correctly on a large number of most important questions. For example, in Chapter 29 of his book The National Question and Social-Democracy, be was doubly right in noting the use of national ideology to cover up imperialist policies. In Chapter 30, “Socialism and the Principle of Nationality”, he says:

The socialist community will never be able to include whole nations within its make-up by the use of force. Imagine the masses of the people, enjoying the blessings of national culture, baking a full and active part in legislation   and government, and, finally, supplied with arms—would it be possible to subordinate such a nation to the rule of an alien social organism by force? All state power rests on the force of arms. The present-day people’s army, thanks to an ingenious mechanism, still constitutes a tool in the hands of a definite person, family or class exactly like the knightly and mercenary armies of the past. The army of the democratic community of a socialist society is nothing but the people armed, since it consists of highly cultured persons, working without compulsion in socialised workshops and taking full part in all spheres of political life. In such conditions any possibility of alien rule disappears.”

This is true. It is impossible to abolish national (or any other political) oppression under capitalism, since this requires the abolition of classes, i.e., the introduction of socialism. But while being based on economics, socialism cannot be reduced to economics alone. A foundation—socialist production—is essential for the abolition of national oppression, but this foundation must also carry a democratically organised state, a democratic army, etc. By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality “only”—“only”!—with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the “sympathies” of the population, including complete freedom to secede. And this, in turn, will serve as a basis for developing the practical elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations that will be completed when the state withers away. This is the Marxist theory, the theory from which our Polish colleagues have mistakenly departed.

2.Is Democracy “Practicable” Under Imperialism

The old polemic conducted by Polish Social-Democrats against the self-determination of nations is based entirely on the argument that it is “impracticable” under capitalism. As long ago as 1903 we, the Iskra supporters, laughed at this argument in the Programme Commission of the Second   Congress of the R.S.D:L.P.. and said that it way repetition of the distortion of Marxism preached by the (late lamented) Economists. In our theses we dealt with this error in particular detail and it is precisely on this point, which contains the theoretical kernel of the whole dispute, that the Polish comrades did not wish to (or could not?) answer any of our arguments.

To prove the economic impossibility of self-determination would require an economic analysis such as that used to prove the impracticability of prohibiting machines or introducing labour-money, etc. No one has even attempted to make such an analysis. No one will maintain that it has been possible to introduce “labour-money” under capitalism “by way of exception” in even one country, in the way it was possible for one small country to realise this impracticable self-determination, even without war or revolution, “by way of exception”, in the era of the most rabid imperialism (Norway, 1905).

In general, political democracy is merely one of the possible forms of superstructure above capitalism (although it is theoretically the normal one for “pure” capitalism). The facts show that both capitalism and imperialism develop within the framework of any political form and subordinate them all. It is, therefore, a basic theoretical error to speak of the “impracticability” of one of the farms and of one of the demands of democracy.

The absence of an answer to these arguments from our Polish colleagues compels us to consider the discussion closed on this point. To make it graphic, so to say, we made the very concrete assertion that it would be “ridiculous” to deny the “practicability” of the restoration of Poland today, making it dependent on the strategic and other aspects of the present war. No reply was forthcoming!

The Polish comrades simply repeated an obviously incorrect assertion (S. II, 1), saying that “in questions of the annexation of foreign territories, forms of political democracy are pushed aside; sheer force is decisive.... Capital will never allow the people to decide the question of their state frontiers...” As though “capital” could “allow the people” to select its civil servants, the servants of imperialism! Or as though weighty decisions on important democratic   questions, such as the establishment of a republic in place of a monarchy, or a militia in place of a regular army, were, in general, conceivable without “sheer force”. Subjectively, the Polish comrades want to make Marxism “more profound” but they are doing it altogether unsuccessfully. Objectively, their phrases about impracticability are opportunism, because their tacit assumption is: this is “impracticable” without a series of revolutions, in the same way as democracy as a whole, all its demands taken together. is impracticable under imperialism.

Once only, at the very end of S. II,1, in the discussion on Alsace, our Polish colleagues abandoned the position of imperialist Economism and approached the question of one of the forms of democracy with a concrete answer and not with general references to the “economic”. And it was precisely this approach that was wrong! It would, they wrote, he “particularist, undemocratic” if some Algatians, without asking the French, were to “impose” on them a union with Alsace, although part of Alsace was German-oriented and this threatened war!!! The confusion is amusing: self-determination presumes (this is in itself clear, and we have given it special emphasis in our theses) freedom to separate from the oppressor state; hut the fact that union with a state presumes the consent of that state is something that is “not customarily” mentioned in polities ally more than the “consent” of a capitalist to receive profit or of a worker to receive wages is mentioned in economics! It is ridiculous even to speak of Such a thing.

If one wants to be a Marxist politician, one should, in speaking of Alsace, attack the German socialist scoundrels for not fighting for Alsace’s freedom to secede and attack the French socialist scoundrels for making their peace with the French bourgeoisie who want to annex the whole of Alsace by force—and both of them for serving the imperialism of “their own” country and for fearing a separate state, even if only a little one—the thing is to show how the socialists who recognize self-determination would solve the problem ill a few weeks without going against the will of the Alsatians. To argue, instead, about the horrible danger of the French Alsatians “forcing” themselves on France is a real pearl.


3. What Is Annexation?

We raised this question in a most definite manner in our theses (Section 7).[4] The Polish comrades did not reply to it: they evaded it, insisting (1) that they are against annexations and explaining (2) why they are against them. It is true that these are very important questions. But they are questions of another kind. If we want our principles to be theoretically sound at all, if we want them to he clearly and precisely formulated, we cannot evade the question of what an annexation is, since this concept is used in our political propaganda and agitation The evasion of the question in a discussion between colleagues cannot be interpreted as anything but desertion of one’s position.

Why have we raised this question? We explained this when we raised it. It is because “a protest against annexations is nothing but recognition of the right to Self-determination”. The concept of annexation usually includes: (1) the concept of force (joining by means of force); (2) the concept of oppression by another nation (the joining of “alien” regions, etc.), and, sometimes (3) the concept of violation of the status quo. We pointed this out in the theses and this did not meet with any criticism.

Can Social-Democrats be against the use of force in general, it may be asked? Obviously not. This means that we are against annexations not because they constitute force, but for some other reason. Nor can the Social-Democrats be for the status quo. However you may twist and turn, annexation is violation of the self-determination of a nation, it is the establishment of state frontiers contrary to the will of the population.

To be against annexations means to be in favor of the right to self-determination. To be “against the forcible retention of any nation within the frontiers of a given state” (we deliberately employed this slightly changed formulation of the same idea in Section 4 of our theses,[5] and the Polish comrades answered us with complete clarity at the beginning of their S. I, 4, that they “are against the forcible retention of oppressed nations within the frontiers of the annexing state”)—is the same as being in favour of the self-determination of nations.

We do not want to haggle over words. If there is a party that says in its programme (or in a resolution binding on all the form does not matter) that it is against annexations,[6] against the forcible retention of oppressed nations within tile frontiers of its state, we declare our complete agreement in principle with that party. It would be absurd to insist on the word “self-determination”. And if there are people in our Party who want to change words in this spirit, who want to amend Clause 9 of our Party Programme, we should consider our differences with such comrades to he anything but a matter of principle!

The only thing that matter is political clarity and theoretical soundness of our slogans.

In verbal discussions on this question—the importance of which nobody will deny, especially now, in view of the war—we have met the following argument (we have not come across it in the press): a protest against a known evil does not necessarily mean recognition of a positive concept that precludes the evil. This is obviously an unfounded argument and, apparently, as such has not been reproduced in the press. If a socialist party declares that it is “against the forcible retention of an oppressed nation within the frontiers of the annexing state”, it is thereby committed to renounce retention by force when it comes to power.

We do not for one moment doubt that if Hindenburg were to accomplish the semi-conquest of Russia tomorrow and this semi-conquest were to be expressed by the appearance of a now Polish state (in connection with the desire of Britain and France to weaken tsarism somewhat), something that is quite “practicable” from the standpoint of the economic laws of capitalism and imperialism, and if, the day after tomorrow, the socialist revolution were to be victorious in Petrograd, Berlin and Warsaw, the Polish socialist government, like the Russian and German socialist governments, would renounce tile “forcible retention” of, say, the   Ukrainians, “within the frontiers of the Polish state”. If there were members of the Gazeta Robotnicza Editorial Board in that government they would no doubt sacrifice their “theses”, thereby disproving the “theory” that “the right of self-determination is not applicable to a socialist society”. If we thought otherwise we should not put a comradely discussion with the Polish Social-Democrats on the agenda but would rather conduct a ruthless struggle against them as chauvinists.

Suppose I were to go out into the streets of any European city and make a public “protest”, which I then published in the press, against my not being permitted to purchase a man as a slave. There is no doubt that people would have the right to regard me as a slave-owner, a champion of the principle, or system, if you like of slavery. No one would be fooled by the fact that my sympathies with slavery were expressed in the negative form of a protest and not in a positive form (“I am for slavery”). A political “protest” is quite the equivalent of a political programme; this is so obvious that one feels rather awkward at having to explain it. In any case, we are Firmly convinced that on the part of the Zimmerwald Left, at any rate—we do not speak of the Zimmerwald group as a whole since it contains Martov and other Kautskyites—we shall not meet with any “protest” if we say that in the Third International there will be no place for people capable of separating a political protest from a political programme, of counterpoising the one to the other, etc.

Not wishing to haggle over words, we take the liberty of expressing the sincere hope that the Polish Social-Democrats will try soon to formulate, officially, their proposal to delete Clause 9 from our Party Programme (which is also theirs) and also from the Programme of the International (the resolution of the 1896 London Congress), as well as their own definition of the relevant political concepts of “old and new annexations” and of “the forcible retention of an oppressed nation within the frontiers of the annexing state”.

Let us now turn to the next question.


4. For or Against Annexations?

In S. 3 of Part One of their theses the Polish comrades declare very definitely that they are against any kind of annexation. Unfortunately, in S. 4 of the same part we find an assertion that must he considered annexationist. It opens with the following ... how can it he put more delicately?... the following strange phrase:

The starting-point of Social-Democracy’s struggle against annexations, against the forcible retention of oppressed nations within the frontiers of the annexing state is renunciation of any defence of the fatherland [the authors’ italics], which, in the era of imperialism, is defence of the rights Of one’s own bourgeoisie to oppress and plunder foreign peoples....”

What’s this? How is it put?

The starting-point of the struggle against annexations is renunciation of any defence of the fatherland....” But ally national war and any national revolt can be called “defence of the fatherland” and, until now, has been generally recognised as such! We are against annotations, but... we mean by this that we are against the annexed waging a war for their liberation from those who have annexed them, that we are against the annexed revolting to liberate themselves from those who have annexed them! Isn’t that an annexationist declaration?

The authors of the theses motivate their... strange assertion by saying that “in the era of imperialism” defence of the fatherland amounts to defence of the right of one’s own bourgeoisie to oppress foreign peoples. This, however, is true only in respect of all imperialist war, i.e., in respect of a war between imperialist powers or groups of powers, when both belligerents not only oppress “foreign peoples” but are fighting a war to decide who shall have a greater share in oppressing foreign peoples!

The authors seem to present the question of “defence of the fatherland” very differently from the way it is presented by our Party. We renounce “defence of the fatherland” in an imperialist war. This is said as clearly as it can be in the Manifesto of our Party’s Central Committee and in   the Berne resolutions[7] reprinted in the pamphlet Socialism and War, which has been published both in German and French. We stressed this twice in our theses (footnotes to Sections 4 and 6).[8] The authors of the Polish theses seem to renounce defence of the fatherland in general, i.e., for a national war as well, believing, perhaps, that in the “era of imperialism” national wars are impossible. We say “perhaps” because the Polish comrades have not expressed this view in their theses.

Such a view is clearly expressed in the theses of the German internationale group and in the Junius pamphlet which is dealt with ill a special article.[9] In addition to what is said there, let us note that the national revolt of an annexed region or country against the annexing country may he called precisely a revolt and not a war (we have heard this objection made and, therefore, cite it here, although we do not think this terminological dispute a serious one). in any case, hardly anybody would risk denying that annexed Belgium. Serbia, Galicia and Armenia would call their “revolt” against those who annexed them “defence of the fatherland” and would do so in all justice. It looks as if the Polish comrades are against this type of revolt on the grounds that there is also a bourgeoisie in these annexed countries which also oppresses foreign peoples or, more exactly, could oppress them, since the question is one of the “right to oppress”. Consequently, the given war or revolt is not assessed on the strength of its real social content (the struggle of an oppressed nation for its liberation from the oppressor nation) but the possible exercise of the “right to oppress” by a bourgeoisie which is at present itself oppressed. If Belgium, let us say, is annexed by Germany in 1917, and in 1918 revolts to secure her liberation, the Polish comrades will be against her revolt on the grounds that the Belgian bourgeoisie possess “the right to oppress foreign peoples”!

There is nothing Marxist or even revolutionary in this argument. If we do not want to betray socialism we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class. By refusing to support the revolt of annexed regions we become, objectively, annexationists. It is precisely in the “era of imperialism”, which is the era of nascent social revolution, that the proletariat will today give especially vigorous support to any revolt of the annexed regions so that tomorrow, or simultaneously, it may attack the bourgeoisie of the “great” power that is weakened by the revolt.

The Polish comrades, however, go further in their annexationism. They are not only against any revolt by the annexed regions; they are against any restoration of their independence, even a peaceful one! Listen to this:

Social-Democracy, rejecting all responsibility for the consequences of the policy of oppression pursued by imperialism, and conducting the sharpest struggle against them, does not by any means favour the erection of new frontier posts in Europe or the re-erection of those swept away by imperialism” (the authors’ italics).

Today “imperialism has swept away the frontier posts” between Germany and Belgium and between Russia and Galicia. International Social-Democracy, if you please, ought to be against their re-erection in general, whatever the means. In 1905, “in the era of imperialism”, when Norway’s autonomous Diet proclaimed her secession from Sweden, and Sweden’s war against Norway, as preached by the Swedish reactionaries, did not take place, what with the resistance of the Swedish workers and tile international imperialist situation—Social-Democracy ought to have been against Norway’s secession, since it undoubtedly meant “the erection of now frontier posts in Europe”!!

This is downright annexationism. There is no need to refute it because it refutes itself. No socialist party would risk taking this stand: “We oppose annexations in general but we sanction annexations for Europe or tolerate them once they have been made”....

We need deal only with the theoretical sources of the error that has led our Polish comrades to such a patent...   “impossibility”. We shall say further on why there is no reason to make exceptions for “Europe”. The following two phrases from the theses will explain the other sources of the error:

Wherever the wheel of imperialism has rolled over and crushed an already formed capitalist state, the political and economic concentration of the capitalist world, paving the way for socialism, takes place in the brutal form of imperialist oppression....”

This justification of annexations is not Marxism but Struveism. Russian Social-Democrats who remember the 1890s in Russia have a good knowledge of this manner of distorting Marxism, which is common to Struve, Cunow, Legien and Co. In another of the theses (II, 3) of the Polish comrades we read the following, specifically about the German Struveists, the so-called “social-imperialists”:

(The slogan of self-determination) “provides the social-imperialists with an opportunity, by demonstrating the illusory nature of that slogan, to represent our struggle against national oppression as historically unfounded sentimentality, thereby undermining the faith of the proletariat in the scientific validity of the Social-Democratic programme....”

This means that the authors consider the position of the German Struveists “scientific”! Our congratulations.

One “trifle”, however, brings down this amazing argument which threatens to show that the Lensches, Cunows and Parvuses are right in comparison to us: it is that the Lensches are consistent people in their own way and in issue No. 8-9 of the chauvinist German Glocke--we deliberately quoted it in our theses—Lensch demonstrates simultaneously both the “scientific invalidity” of the self-determination slogan (the Polish Social-Democrats apparently believe that this argument of Lensch’s is irrefutable, as can be seen from their arguments in the theses we have quoted) and the “scientific invalidity” of the slogan against annexations!!

For Lensch had an excellent understanding of that simple truth which we pointed out to those Polish colleagues who showed no desire to reply to our statement: there is no difference “either political or economic”, or even logical, between the “recognition” of self-determination and the   “protest” against annexations. If the Polish comrades regard the arguments of the Lensches against self-determination to he irrefutable, there is one fact that has to be accepted: the Lensches also use all these arguments to oppose the struggle against annexations.

The theoretical error that underlies all the arguments of our Polish colleagues has led them to the point of becoming inconsistent annexationists.

5. Why Are Social-Democrats Against Annexations?

In our view the answer is obvious: because annexation violates the self-determination of nations, or, in other words, is a form of national oppression.

In the view of the Polish Social-Democrats there have to be special explanations of why we are against annexations, and it is these (I, 3 in the theses) that inevitably enmesh the authors in a further series of contradictions.

They produce two reasons to “justify” our opposition to annexations (the “scientifically valid” arguments of the Lensches notwithstanding):

First: “To the assertion that annexations in Europe are essential for the military security of a victorious imperialist state, the Social-Democrats counterpose the fact that annexations only serve to sharpen antagonisms, thereby increasing the danger of war....”

This is an inadequate reply to the Lensches because their chief argument is not that annexations are a military necessity but that they are economically progressive and under imperialism mean concentration. Where is the logic if the Polish Social-Democrats in the same breath recognise the progressive nature of such a concentration, refusing to re-erect frontier posts in Europe that have been swept away by imperialism, and protest against annexations?

Furthermore, the danger of what wars is increased by annexations? Not imperialist wars, because they have other causes: the chief antagonisms in the present imperialist war are undoubtedly those between Germany and Britain, and between Germany and Russia. These antagonisms have nothing to do with annexations. It is the danger of national   wars and national revolts that is increased. But how can one declare national wars to be impossible in “the era of imperialism”, on the one hand, and then speak of the “danger” of national wars, on the other? This is not logical.

The second argument: Annexations “create a gulf between the proletariat of the ruling nation and that of the oppressed nation... the proletariat of the oppressed nation would unite with its bourgeoisie and regard the proletariat of the ruling nation as its enemy. Instead of the proletariat waging an international class struggle against the international bourgeoisie it would be split and ideologically corrupted...”

We fully agree with these arguments. But is it logical to put forward simultaneously two arguments on the same question which cancel each other out. In S. 3 of the first part of the theses we find the above arguments that regard annexations as causing a split in the proletariat, and next to it, in S. 4, we are told that we must oppose the annulment of annexations already effected in Europe and favour “the education of tire working masses of the oppressed and the oppressor nations in a spirit of solidarity in struggle”. If the annulment of annexations is reactionary “sentimentality”, annexations must not he said to create a “gulf” between sections of the “proletariat” and cause a “split”, but should, on the contrary, he regarded as a condition for the bringing together of the proletariat of different nations.

We say: In order that we may have the strength to accomplish the socialist revolution and overthrow the bourgeoisie, the workers must unite more closely and this close union is promoted by the struggle for self-determination, i.e., the struggle against annexations. We are consistent. But the Polish comrades who say that European annexations are “non-annullable” and national wars, “impossible”, defeat themselves by contending “against” annexations with the use of arguments about national wars! These arguments are to the effect that annexations hamper the drawing together and fusion of workers of different nations!

In other words, the Polish Social-Democrats, in order to contend against annexations, have to draw for arguments on the theoretical stock they themselves reject in principle.

The question of colonies makes this even more obvious.


6. Is it Right to Contrast “Europe” With the Colonies in the Present Question?

Our theses say that the demand for the immediate liberation of the colonies is as “impracticable” (that is, it cannot be effected without a number of revolutions and is not stable without socialism) under capitalism as the self-determination of nations, the election of civil servants by the people, the democratic republic, and so on—and, furthermore, that the demand for the liberation of the colonies is nothing more than “the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination”.

The Polish comrades have not answered a single one of these arguments. They have tried to differentiate between “Europe” and the colonies. For Europe alone they become inconsistent annexationists by refusing to annul any annexations once these have been made. As for the Colonies, they demand unconditionally: “Get out of the colonies!”

Russian socialists must put forward the demand: “Get out of Turkestan, Khiva, Bukhara, etc.”, hut, it is alleged, they would be guilty of “utopianism”, “unscientific sentimentality” and so on if they demanded a similar freedom of secession for Poland, Finland, the Ukraine, etc. British socialists must demand: “Get out of Africa, India, Australia”, but not out of Ireland. What are the theoretical grounds for a distinction that is so patently false? This question cannot be evaded.

The chief “ground” of those opposed to self-determination is its “impracticability”. The same idea, with a nuance, is expressed in the reference to “economic and political concentration”.

Obviously, concentration also comes about with the annexation of colonies. There was formerly an economic distinction between the colonies and the European peoples—at least, the majority of the latter—the colonies having been drawn into commodity exchange but not into capitalist production. imperialism changed this. Imperialism is, among other things, the export of capital. Capitalist production is being transplanted to the colonies at an ever increasing rate. They cannot he extricated from dependence on European finance capital. From the military standpoint,   as well as from the standpoint of expansion, tile separation of tile colonies is practicable, as a general rule, only under socialism; under capitalism it is practicable only by way of exception or at the cost of a series of revolts and revolutions both in the colonies and the metropolitan countries.

The greater part of the dependent nations in Europe are capitalistically more developed than the colonies (though not all, the exceptions being the Albanians and many non-Russian peoples in Russia) But it is just this that generates greater resistance to national oppression and annexations! Precisely because of this, the development of capitalism is more secure in Europe under any political conditions, including those of separation, than in the colonies.... “There,” the Polish comrades say about the colonies (I, 4), “capitalism is still confronted with the task of developing tile productive forces independently....” This is even more noticeable in Europe: capitalism is undoubtedly developing the productive forces more vigorously, rapidly and independently in Poland, Finland, the Ukraine and Alsace than in India, Turkestan, Egypt and other straightforward colonies. In a commodity producing society, no independent development, or development of any sort whatsoever, is possible without capital. In Europe the dependent nations have both their own capital and easy access to it on a wide range of terms. The colonies have no capital of their own, or none to speak of, and under finance capital no colony can obtain any except on terms of political submission. What then, in face of all this, is the significance of the demand to liberate the colonies immediately and unconditionally? Is it not clear that it is more “utopian” in the vulgar, caricature-“Marxist” sense of the word, “utopian”, in the sense in which it is used by the Struves, Lenches, Cunows, with tile Polish comrades unfortunately following in their footsteps? Any deviation from the ordinary, the commonplace, as well as everything that is revolutionary, is here labeled “utopianism”. But revolutionary movements of all kinds—including national movements—are more possible, more practicable, more stubborn, more conscious and more difficult to defeat in Europe than they are in the colonies.

Socialism, say the Polish comrades (I, 3), “will be able to give the underdeveloped peoples of tile colonies unselfish, cultural aid without ruling over them”. This is perfectly true. But what grounds are there for supposing that a great nation, a great state that goes over to socialism, will not he able to attract a small, oppressed European nation by means of “unselfish cultural aid”? It is the freedom to secede “granted” to the colonies by the Polish Social-Democrats that will attract the small but cultured and politically exacting oppressed nations of Europe to union with great socialist states, because under socialism a great state will mean so many hours less work a day and so much more pay a day. The masses of working people, as they liberate themselves from the bourgeois yoke, will gravitate irresistibly towards union and integration with the great, advanced socialist nations for the sake of that “cultural aid”, provided yesterday’s oppressors do not infringe on the long-oppressed nations’ highly developed democratic feeling of self-respect, and provided they are granted equality in everything, including state construction, that of, experience in organising “their own” state. Under capitalism this “experience” means war, isolation, seclusion, and the narrow egoism of the small privileged nations (Holland, Switzerland). Under socialism the working people themselves will nowhere consent to seclusion merely for the above-mentioned purely economic motives, while the variety of political forms, freedom to secede, and experience in state organisation—there will he all this until the state in all its forms withers away—will be the basis of a prosperous cultured life and an earnest that the nations will draw closer together and integrate at an ever faster pace.

By setting the colonies aside and contrasting them to Europe the Polish comrades step into a contradiction which immediately brings down the whole of their fallacious argument.

7. Marxism or Proudhonism?

By way of an exception, our Polish comrades parry our reference to Marx’s attitude towards the separation of Ireland directly and not indirectly. What is their objection?   References to Marx’s position from 1848 to 1871, they say, are “not of the slightest value”. The argument advanced in support of this unusually irate and peremptory assertion is that “at one and the same time” Marx opposed the strivings far independence of the “Czechs, South Slavs. etc.”^^(105)^^

The argument is so very irate because it is so very unsound. According to the Polish Marxists, Marx was simply a muddlehead who “in one breath” said contradictory things! This is altogether untrue, and it is certainly not Marxism. It is precisely the demand for “concrete” analysis, which our Polish comrades insist on, but do not themselves apply, that makes it necessary for us to investigate whether Marx’s different attitudes towards different concrete “national” movements did not spring from one and the same socialist outlook.

Marx is known to have favoured Polish independence in the interests of European democracy in its struggle against the power and influence—or, it might he said, against the omnipotence and predominating reactionary influence—of tsarism. That this attitude was correct wits most clearly and practically demonstrated in 1849, when the Russian serf army crushed the national liberation and revolutionary-democratic rebellion in Hungary. From that time until Man’s death, and even later, until 1890,when there was a danger that tsarism, allied with France, would wage a reactionary war against a non-imperialist and nationally independent Germany, Engels stood first and foremost for a struggle against tsarism. It was for this reason, and exclusively for this reason, that Marx and Engels were opposed to the national movement of the Czechs and South Slavs. A simple reference to what Marx and Engels wrote in 1848 and 1841) will prove to anyone who is interested in Marxism in real earnest and not merely for the purpose of brushing Marxism aside, that Marx and Engels at that time drew a clear and definite distinction between “whole reactionary nations” serving as “Russian outposts” in Europe, and “revolutionary nations” namely, the Germans, Poles and Magyars. This is a fact. And it was indicated at the time with incontrovertible truth: in 1848 revolutionary nations fought for liberty, whose principal enemy was tsarism,   whereas the Czechs, etc., were in fact reactionary nations, and outposts of tsarism.

What is the lesson to be drawn from this concrete example which must he analysed concretely if there is any desire to be true to Marxism? Only this: (1) that the interests of the liberation of a number of big and very big nations in Europe rate higher than the interests of the movement for liberation of small nations; (2) that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.

That is all there is to it. There is no hint of any repudiation of that elementary socialist principle which the Poles forget but to which Marx was always faithful—that no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations. If tile concrete situation which confronted Marx when tsarism dominated international politics were to repeat itself, for instance, in the form of a few nations starting a socialist revolution (as a bourgeois-democratic revolution was started in Europe in 1848), and other nations serving as the chief bulwarks of bourgeois reaction—then me too would have to be in favour of a revolutionary war against the latter, in favour of “crushing” them, in favour of destroying all their outposts, no matter what small-nation movements arose in them. Consequently, instead of rejecting any examples of Marx’s tactics—this would mean professing Marxism while abandoning it in practice—we must analyse them concretely and draw invaluable lessons for the future. The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete casts, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement, but it would be ridiculous to delete the demand for a republic from the programme of international Social-Democracy on these grounds.

In what way has the concrete situation changed between the periods of 1848–71 and 1898–1916 (I take the most important landmarks of imperialism as a period: from the   Spanish-American imperialist war to the European imperialist war)? Tsarism has manifestly and indisputably ceased to be the chief mainstay of reaction, first, because it is supported by international finance capital, particularly French, and, secondly, because of 1905. At that time the system of big national states—the democracies of Europe—was bringing democracy and socialism to tile world in spite of tsarism.[10] Marx and Engels did not live to see the period of imperialism. The system now is a handful of imperialist “Great” Powers (five or six in number), each oppressing other nations: and this oppression is a source for artificially retarding the collapse of capitalism, and artificially supporting opportunism and social-chauvinism in the imperialist nations which dominate the world. At that time, West-European democracy, liberating the big nations, was opposed to tsarism, which used certain small-nation movements for reactionary ends. Today, the socialist proletariat, split into chauvinists, “social-imperialists”, on the one hand, and revolutionaries, on the other, is confronted by an alliance of tsarist imperialism and advanced capitalist, European, imperialism, which is based on their common oppression of a number of nations.

Such are the concrete changes that have taken place in the situation, and it is just these that; the Polish Social-Democrats ignore, in spite of their promise to he concrete! Hence the concrete change in the application of the same socialist principles: formerly the main thing was to fight “against tsarism” (and against certain small-nation movements   that it was using for undemocratic ends), and for the greater revolutionary peoples of the West; the main thing today is to stand against the united, aligned front of the imperialist powers, the imperialist bourgeoisie and the social-imperialists, and for the utilisation of all national movements against imperialism for the purposes of the socialist revolution. The more purely proletarian the struggle against the general imperialist front now is, the more vital, obviously, is the internationalist principle: “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations”.

In the name of their doctrinaire concept of social revolution, the Proudhonists ignored the international role of Poland and brushed aside the national movements. Equally doctrinaire is the attitude of the Polish Social-Democrats, who break up the international front of struggle against the social-imperialists, and (objectively) help the latter by their vacillations on the question of annexations. For it is precisely the international front of proletarian struggle that has changed in relation to the concrete position of the small nations: at that time (1848–71) the small nations were important as the potential allies either of “Western democracy” and the revolutionary nations, or of tsarism; now (1898–1914) that is no longer so; today they are important as one of the nutritive media of the parasitism and, consequently, the social-imperialism of the “dominant nations”. The important thing is not whether one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of the small nations are liberated before the socialist revolution, but the fact that in the epoch of imperialism, owing to objective causes, the proletariat has been split into two international camps, one of which has been corrupted by the crumbs that fall from the table of the dominant-nation bourgeoisie—obtained, among other things, from the double or triple exploitation of small nations—while the other cannot liberate itself without liberating the small nations. without educating the masses in an anti-chauvinist, i.e., anti-annexationist, i.e., “self-determinationist”, spirit.

This, the most important aspect of the question, is ignored by our Polish comrades, who do not view things from the key position in the epoch of imperialism, the standpoint of the division of the international proletariat into two camps.

Here are some other concrete examples of their Proudhonism: (1) their attitude to the Irish rebellion of 1916, of which later: (2) the declaration in the theses (11, 3, end of S. 3) that the slogan of socialist revolution “must not be overshadowed by anything”. The idea that the slogan of socialist revolution can he “overshadowed” by linking it up with a consistently revolutionary position on all questions, including the national question, is certainly profoundly anti-Marxist.

The Polish Social-Democrats consider our programme “national-reformist”. Compare these two practical proposals: (1) for autonomy (Polish theses, III, 4), and (2) for freedom to secede. It is in this, and in this alone, that our programmes differ! And is it not clear that it is precisely the first programme that is reformist and not the second’ A reformist change is one which leaves intact the foundations of the power of the ruling class and is merely a concession leaving its power unimpaired. A revolutionary change undermines the foundations of power. A reformist national programme does not abolish all the privileges of the ruling nation; it does ,lot establish complete equality; it does not abolish national oppression in all its forms. An “autonomous” nation does not enjoy rights equal to those of the “ruling” nation; our Polish comrades could not have failed to notice this had they not (like our old Economists) obstinately avoided making an analysis of political concepts and categories. Until 1905 autonomous Norway, as a part of Sweden, enjoyed tile widest autonomy, hut she was not Sweden’s equal. Only by her free secession was her equality manifested in practice and proved (and let us add in parenthesis that: it was this free secession that created the basis for a more intimate and more democratic association, founded on equality of rights). As long as Norway was merely autonomous, the Swedish aristocracy had one additional privileges; and secession did not “mitigate” this privilege (the essence of reformism lies in mitigating an evil and not in destroying it), but eliminated it altogether (the principal criterion of the revolutionary character of a programme).

Incidentally, autonomy, as a reform, differs in principle from freedom to Recede, as a revolutionary measure. This is unquestionable. Bat as everyone knows, in practice a reform   is often merely a step towards revolution. It is autonomy that enables a nation forcibly retained within the boundaries of a given state to crystallise into a nation, to gather, assess and organise its forces, and to select the most opportune moment for a declaration ... in the “Norwegian” spirit: We, the autonomous diet of such-and-such a nation, or of such-and-such a territory, declare that the Emperor of all the Russias has ceased to be King of Poland, etc. The usual “objection” to this is that such questions are decided by wars and not by declarations. True: in the vast majority of cases they are decided by wars (just as questions of the form of government of big states are decided, in the vast majority of cases, only by was and revolutions). However, it would do no harm to reflect whether such an “objection” to the political programme of a revolutionary party is logical. Are we opposed to wars and revolutions for what is just and beneficial to the proletariat, for democracy and socialism?

But we cannot be in favour of a war between great nations, in favour of the slaughter of twenty million people for the sake of the problematical liberation of a small nation with a population of perhaps ten or twenty millions!” Of course not! And it does not mean that we throw complete national equality out of our Programme; it means that the democratic interests of one country must he subordinated to the democratic interests of several and all countries. Let us assume that between two great monarchies there is a little monarchy whose kinglet is “hound” by blood and other ties to the monarchs of both neighbouring countries. Let us further assume that the declaration of a republic in the little country and the expulsion of its monarch would in practice lead to a war between the two neighbouring big countries for the restoration of that or another monarch in the little country. There is no doubt that all international Social-Democracy, as well as the really internationalist section of Social-Democracy in the little country, would be against substituting a republic for the monarchy in this case. The substitution of a republic for a monarchy is not an absolute, but one of the democratic demands, subordinate to the interests of democracy (and still more, of course, to those of the socialist proletariat) as a whole. A case like this would in all probability not give rise to the slightest   disagreement among Social-Democrats in any country. But if any Social-Democrat were to propose on these grounds that the demand for a republic be deleted altogether from the programme of international Social-Democracy, he would certainly be regarded as quite mad. He would be told that after all one must not forget the elementary logical difference between the general and the particular.

This example brings us, from a somewhat different angle, to the question of the internationalist education of the working class. Can such education—on the necessity and urgent importance of which differences of opinion among the Zimmerwald Left are inconceivable—be concretely identical in great, oppressor nations and in small, oppressed nations, in annexing nations and in annexed nations?

Obviously not. The way to the common goal-complete equality, the closest association and tile eventual amalgamation of all nations—obviously runs along different routes in each concrete case, as, let us say, the way to a paint in the centre of this page runs left from one edge and right, from the opposite edge. If a Social-Democrat from a great, oppressing, annexing nation, while advocating the amalgamation of nations in general, were for one moment to forget that “his” Nicholas II, “his” Wilhelm, George, Poincare, etc., also stand for amalgamation with small nations (by means of annexations)—Nicholas II for “amalgamation” with Galicia, Wilhelm II for “amalgamation” with Belgium, etc.—such a Social-Democrat would he a ridiculous doctrinaire in theory and an abettor of imperialism in practice.

In the internationalist education of the workers of the oppressor countries, emphasis must necessarily he laid on their advocating freedom for the oppressed countries to secede and their fighting for it. Without this there can be no internationalism. It is our right and duty to treat every Social-Democrat of an oppressor nation who fails to conduct such propaganda as a scoundrel and an imperialist. This is an absolute demand, even where the chance of secession being possible and “practicable” before the introduction of socialism is only one in a thousand.

It is our duty to teach the workers to be “indifferent” to national distinctions. There is no doubt about that. But it must not be the indifference of the annexationists.   A member of an oppressor nation must be “indifferent” to whether small nations belong to his state or to a neighboring state, or to themselves, according to where their sympathies lie: without such “indifference” he is not a Social-Democrat. To be an internationalist Social-Democrat one must not think only of one’s own nation, but place above it the interests of all nations, their common liberty and equality. Everyone accepts this in “theory” hut displays an annexationist indifference in practice. There is the root of the evil.

On the other hand, a Social-Democrat from a small nation must emphasise in his agitation the second word of our general formula: “voluntary integration” of nations. He may, without failing in his duties as an internationalist, he in favour of both the political independence of his nation and its integration with the neighboring state of X, Y, Z, etc. But in all cases he must fight against small-nation narrow-mindedness, seclusion and isolation, consider the whole and the general, subordinate the particular to the general interest.

People who have not gone into the question thoroughly think that it is “contradictory” for the Social-Democrats of oppressor nations to insist on the “freedom to secede”, while Social-Democrats of oppressed nations insist on the “freedom to integrate”. However, a little reflection will show that there is not, and cannot be, any other road to internationalism and the amalgamation of nations, any other road from the given situation to this goal.

And now we come to the specific position of Dutch and Polish Social-Democrats.

8. The Specific and the General in the Position of the Dutch and Polish Social-Democrat Internationalists

There is not the slightest doubt that the Dutch and Polish Marxists who oppose self-determination are among the best revolutionary and internationalist elements in international Social-Democracy. How can it be then that their theoretical arguments as we have seen, are a mass of errors? There is not a single correct general argument, nothing but imperialist Economism!

It is not at all due to the especially bad subjective qualities of the Dutch and Polish comrades but to the specific objective conditions in their countries. Both countries are: (1) small and helpless in the present-day “system” of great powers; (2) both are geographically situated between tremendously powerful imperialist plunderers engaged in the most bitter rivalry with each other (Britain and Germany; Germany and Russia); (3) in both there are terribly strong memories and traditions of the times when they themselves were great powers: Holland was once a colonial power greater than England, Poland was more cultured and was a stronger great power than Russia and Prussia; (4) to this day both retain their privileges consisting in the oppression of other peoples: the Dutch bourgeois owns the very wealthy Dutch East Indies; the Polish landed proprietor oppresses the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasant; the Polish bourgeois, the Jew, etc.

The particularity comprised in the combination of these four points is not to be found in Ireland, Portugal (she was at one time annexed to Spain), Alsace, Norway, Finland, the Ukraine, the Lettish and Byelorussian territories or many others. And it is this very peculiarity that is the real essence of the matter! When the Dutch and Polish Social-Democrats reason against self-determination, using general arguments, i.e., those that concern imperialism in general, socialism in general, democracy in general, national oppression in general, we may truly say that they wallow in mistakes. But one has only to discard this obviously erroneous shell of general arguments and examine the essence of the question from the standpoint of the specific conditions obtaining in Holland and Poland for their particular position to become comprehensible and quite legitimate. It may be said, without any fear of sounding paradoxical, that when the Dutch and Polish Marxists battle against self-determination they do not say quite what they mean, or, to put it another way, mean quite what they say.[11]

We have already quoted one example in our theses.[12] Gorter is against the self-determination of his own country but in favour of self-determination for the Dutch East Indies, oppressed as they are by “his” nation! Is it any wonder that we see in him a more sincere internationalist and a fellow-thinker who is closer to us than those who recognise self-determination as verbally and hypocritically as Kautsky in Germany, and Trotsky and Martov in Russia? The general and fundamental principles of Marxism undoubtedly imply the duty to struggle for the freedom to secede for nations that are oppressed by “one’s own” nation, but they certainty do not require the independence specifically of Holland to he made a matter of paramount importance—Holland, which suffers most from her narrow, callous, selfish and stultifying seclusion: let the whole world burn, we stand aside from it all, “we” are satisfied with our old spoils and the rich “left-overs”, the Indies, “we” are not concerned with anything else!

Here is another example. Karl Radek, a Polish Social-Democrat, who has done particularly great service by his determined struggle for internationalism in German Social-Democracy since the outbreak of war, made a Furious attack on self-determination in an article entitled “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (Lichtstrahlen[20]—Left Radical monthly prohibited by the Prussian censor, edited by J. Borchardt—1915, December 5, Third Year of Publication, No. 3). Ha quotes, incidentally, only Dutch and Polish authorities in his support and propounds, amongst others, the argument that self-determination fosters the idea that “it is allegedly the duty of Social-Democrats to support any struggle for independence”.

From the standpoint of general theory this argument is outrageous, because it is clearly illogical: first, no democratic demand can fail to give rise to abuses, unless the specific is subordinated to the general; we are not obliged to support either “any” struggle for independence or “any” republican or anti-clerical movement. Secondly, no formula for the struggle against national oppression can fail to suffer from   the same “shortcoming”. Radek himself in Berner Tagwacht used the formula (1915, Issue 253): “Against old and new annexations.” Any Polish nationalist will legitimately “deduce” from this formula: “Poland is an annexment, I am against annexations, i.e., I am for the independence of Poland.” Or I recall Rosa Luxemburg saying in an article written in 1908,[21] that the formula: “against national oppression” was quite adequate. But any Polish nationalist would say—and quite justly—that annexation is one of the forms of national oppression, consequently, etc.

However, bake Poland’s specific conditions in place of these general arguments: her independence today is “impracticable” without wars or revolutions. To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war. Such, indeed, are the “Fracy” (the Right wing of the P.S.P.)[22] who are socialists only in word, and compared with whom the Polish Social-Democrats are a thousand times right. To raise the question of Poland’s independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighbouring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o’-the-wisp, plunge into narrow-minded nationalism and forget the necessary premise of an all-European or at least a Russian and a German revolution. To have put forward in 1908–14 freedom of coalition in Russia as an independent slogan would also have meant running after a will-o’-the-wisp, and would, objectively, have helped the Stolypin labour party (now the Potresov-Gvozdyov party, which, incidentally, is the same thing). But it would be madness to remove freedom of coalition in general from the programme of Social-Democracy!

A third and, perhaps, the most important example. We read in the Polish theses (III, end of 82) that the idea of an independent Polish buffer state is opposed on the grounds that it is an “inane utopia of small impotent groups. Put into effect, it would mean the creation of a tiny fragment of a Polish state that would be a military colony of one or another group of Great Powers, a plaything of their military or economic interests, an area exploited by foreign capital, and a battlefield in future war”. This is all very true   when used as an argument against the slogan of Polish independence today, because even a revolution in Poland alone would change nothing and would only divert the attention of the masses in Poland from the main thing—the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such call help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighbouring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists. Tile great historical service rendered by the Polish Social-Democrats in the struggle against the nationalists cannot possibly be denied.

But these same arguments, which are true from the standpoint of Poland’s specific conditions in the present epoch, are manifestly untrue in the general form in which they are presented. So long as there are wars, Poland will always remain a battlefield in wars between Germany and Russia, hut this is no argument against greater political liberty (and, therefore, against political independence) in the periods between wars. The same applies to the arguments about exploitation by foreign capital and Poland’s role as a plaything of foreign interests. The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the “Fracy”, to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, they take part in annexing her (and that would mean educating the Russian and German workers and peasants in the basest turpitude and their consent to play the part of executioner of other peoples).

The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.


8. Engels Letter to Kautsky

In his pamphlet Socialism and Colonial Politics (Berlin, 1907), Kautsky, who was then still a Marxist, published a letter written to him by Engels, dated September 12, 1882, which is extremely interesting in relation to the question under discussion. Here is the principal part of the letter.

In my opinion the colonies proper, i.e., the countries occupied by a European population-Canada, the Cape, Australia—will all become independent; on the other hand, the countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated-India, Algeria, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions-must be taken over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, make a revolution, and as a proletariat in process of self-emancipation cannot conduct any colonial wars, it would have to be allowed to run its course; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, hut that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algeria and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will of themselves follow in their wake; economic needs, if anything, will see to that. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, I think we today can advance only rather idle hypotheses. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing. Which of course by no means excludes defensive wars of various kinds....”[23]

Engels does not at all suppose that the “economic” alone will directly remove all difficulties. An economic revolution will be a stimulus to all peoples to strive for socialism; but at the same time revolutions—against the socialist state—and wars are possible. Politics will inevitably adapt themselves to the economy, but not immediately   or smoothly, not simply, not directly. Engels mentions as “certain” only one, absolutely internationalist, principle, and this he applies to all “foreign nations”, i.e., not to colonial nations only: to force blessings upon them would mean to undermine the victory of the proletariat.

Just because the proletariat has carried out a social revolution it will not become holy and immune from errors and weaknesses. But it will be inevitably led to realise this truth by possible errors (and selfish interest—attempts to saddle others).

We Of the Zimmerwald Left all hold the same conviction as Kautsky, for example, held before his desertion of Marxism for the defence of chauvinism in 1914, namely, that the socialist revolution is quite possible in the very near future—“any day”, as Kautsky himself once put it. National antipathies will not disappear so quickly: the hatred—and perfectly legitimate hatred—of an oppressed nation for its oppressor will last for a while; it will evaporate only after the victory of socialism and after the final establishment of completely democratic relations between nations. If we are to be faithful to socialism we must even now educate the masses in the spirit of internationalism, which is impossible in oppressor nations without advocating freedom of secession for oppressed nations.

10. The Irish Rebellion of 1916

Our theses were written before the outbreak of this rebellion, which must be the touchstone of our theoretical views.

The views of the opponents of self-determination lead to the conclusion that the vitality of small nations oppressed by imperialism has already been sapped, that they cannot play any role against imperialism, that support of their purely national aspirations will lead to nothing, etc. The imperialist war of 1914–16 has provided facts which refute such conclusions.

The war proved to be an epoch of crisis for the West-European nations, and for imperialism as a whole. Every crisis discards the conventionalities, tears away the outer   wrappings, sweeps away the obsolete and reveals the underlying springs and forces. What has it revealed from the standpoint of the movement of oppressed nations! In the colonies there have been a number of attempts at rebellion, which the oppressor nations, naturally did all they could to hide by means of a military censorship. Nevertheless, it is known that in Singapore the British brutally suppressed a mutiny Among their Indian troops; that there were attempts at rebellion in French Annam (see Nashe Slovo) and in the German Cameroons (see the Junius pamphlet[13] ); that in Europe, on the one hand, there was a rebellion in Ireland, which the “freedom-loving” English, who did not dare to extend conscription to Ireland, suppressed by executions, and, on the other, the Austrian Government passed the death sentence on the deputies of the Czech Diet “for treason”, and shot whole Czech regiments for the same “crime”.

This list is, of course, far from complete. Nevertheless, it proves that, owing to the crisis of imperialism, the flames of national revolt have flared up both in the colonies and in Europe, and that national sympathies and antipathies have manifested themselves in spite of the Draconian threats and measures of repression. All this before the crisis of imperialism hit its peak; the power of the imperialist bourgeoisie was yet to be undermined (this may he brought about by a war of “attrition” but has not yet happened) and the proletarian movements in the imperialist countries were still very feeble. What will happen when the war has caused complete exhaustion, or when, in one state at least, the power of the bourgeoisie has been shaken under the blows of proletarian struggle, as that of tsarism in 1905?

On May 9, 1916, there appeared in Berner Tagwacht the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song Is Over” and signed with the initials K. R.[24] It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained   only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing”.

It is not surprising that this monstrously doctrinaire and pedantic assessment coincided with that of a Russian national-liberal Cadet, Mr. A. Kulisher (Rech[25] No. 102, April 15, 1916), who also labeled the rebellion “the Dublin putsch”.

It is to be hoped that, in accordance with the adage, “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, many comrades, who were not aware of the morass they were sinking into by repudiating “self-determination” and by treating the national movements of small nations with disdain, will have their eyes opened by the “accidental” coincidence of opinion held by a Social-Democrat and a representative of the imperialist bourgeoisie!!

The term “putsch”, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses. The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interest, manifested itself, in particular, in a mass Irish National Congress in America Vorworts, March 20, 1916) which called for Irish independence; it also manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a “putsch” is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are   for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will he a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest slid most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the hack of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of tile petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses slid errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will he able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for difficult reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.

Social-Democracy, we road in the Polish theses (I, 4), “must utilise the struggle of the young colonial bourgeoisie against European imperialism in order to sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe”. (Authors’ italics.)

Is it not clear that it is least of all permissible to contrast Europe to the colonies in this respect? The struggle of the   oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going all the way to insurrection and street fighting, capable of breaking down tile iron discipline of the army and martial law, will “sharpen the revolutionary crisis ill Europe” to an infinitely greater degree than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. A blow delivered against tile power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force delivered in Asia or in Africa.

The French chauvinist press recently reported the publication in Belgium of the eightieth issue of an illegal journal, Free Belgium.[26] Of course, the chauvinist press of France very often lies, but this piece of news seems to he true. Whereas chauvinist and Kautskyite German Social-Democracy has failed to establish a free press for itself during the two years of war, and has meekly borne the yoke of military censorship (only the Left Radical elements, to their credit be it said, have published pamphlets and manifestos, in spite of the censorship)—an oppressed civilised nation has reacted to a military oppression unparalleled in ferocity by establishing an organ of revolutionary protest! The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.

The general staffs in the current war are doing their utmost to utilise any national and revolutionary movement in the enemy camp: the Germans utilise the Irish rebellion, tire French—the Czech movement, etc. They are acting quite correctly from their own point of view. A serious war would not be treated seriously if advantage were not taken of the enemy’s slightest weakness and if every opportunity that presented itself were not seized upon, the more, so since it is impossible to know beforehand at what moment, whore, and with what force some powder magazine will “explode”. We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of Liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilise every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis. If we were, on the one   hand, to repeat in a thousand keys the declaration that we are “opposed” to all national oppression and, on the other, to describe the heroic revolt of the most mobile and enlightened section of certain classes in an oppressed nation against its oppressors as a “putsch”, we should be sinking to the same level of stupidity as the Kautskyites.

It is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely, before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature. Capitalism is not so harmoniously built that the various sources of rebellion can immediately merge of their own accord, without reverses and defeats. On the other hand, the very fact that revolts do break out at different times, in different places, and are of different kinds, guarantees wide scope and depth to the general movement; but it is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful, revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength, and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught, just as certain strikes, demonstrations, local and national, mutinies in the army, outbreaks among the peasantry, etc., prepared the way for the general onslaught in 1905.

11. Conclusion

Contrary to the erroneous assertions of the Polish Social-Democrats, the demand for the self-determination of nations has played no less a role in our Party agitation than, for example, the arming of the people, the separation of the church from the state, the election of civil servants by the gene pie and other points the philistines have called “utopian”. the contrary, the strengthening of the national movements after 1905 naturally prompted more vigorous agitation by our Party, including a number of articles in 1912–13, and the resolution of our Party in 1913 giving a precise “anti-Kautskian” definition (i.e., one that does not tolerate purely verbal “recognition”) of the content of the point.[14]

It will not do to overlook a fact which was revealed at that early date: opportunists of various nationalities, the Ukrainian Yorkevich, the Bundist Liebman, Scrnkovsky, the Russian myrmidon of Potresov and Co., all spoke in favour of Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments against self-determination! What for Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish Social-Democrat, had been merely an incorrect theoretical generalisation of tile specific conditions of the movement in Poland, became objective opportunist support for Great-Russian imperialism when actually’ applied to more extensive circumstances, to conditions obtaining in a big state instead of a small one, when applied on an international scale instead of tile narrow Polish scale. The history of trends in political thought (as distinct from the views of individuals) has proved the correctness of our programme.

Outspoken social-imperialists, such as Lensch still rail both against self-determination and the renunciation of annexations. As for tile Kautskyites, they hypocritically recognise self-determination—Trotsky and Martov are going the same way here in Russia. Both of them, like Kautsky, say they favour self-determination. What happens in practice? Take Trotsky’s articles “The Nation and the Economy” in Nashe Slovo, and you will find his usual eclecticism: on the one hand, the economy unites nations and, on the other, national oppression divides them. The conclusion? The conclusion is that the prevailing hypocrisy remains unexposed, agitation is dull and does not touch upon what is most important, basic, significant and closely connected with practice—one’s attitude to the nation that is oppressed by “one’s own” nation. Martov and other secretaries abroad simply preferred to forgot—a profitable lapse of memory!—the struggle of their colleague and fellow-member Semkovsky against self-determination, In the legal press of the Gvozdyovites (Nash Golos) Martov spoke in favour of self-determination, pointing out the indisputable truth that during the imperialist war it does not yet imply participation, etc., but evading the main thing—he also evades it in the illegal, free press!—which is that even in peace time Russia set a world record for the oppression of nations with an imperialism that is much more crude, medieval, Economically backward and militarily bureaucratic. The Russian Social-Democrat   who “recognises” tile self-determination of nations more or less as it is recognised by Messrs. Plekhanov, Potresov and Co., that is, without bothering to fight for the freedom of secession for nations oppressed by tsarism, is in fact an imperialist and a lackey of tsarism.

No matter what the subjective “good” intentions of Trotsky and Martov may be, their evasiveness objectively supports Russian social-imperialism. The epoch of imperialism has turned all the “great” powers into the oppressors of a number of nations, and the development of imperialism will inevitably lead to a more definite division of trends in this question in international Social-Democracy as well.


[1] See The Socialist Revolution and the Rights of Nations to Self DeterminationLenin

[2] See ibidLenin




[6] Karl Radek formulated this as “against old and new annexations” in one of his articles in Berner Tagwacht.Lenin

[7] See “The War and Russian Social-Democracy,” “The Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. Groups Abroad”—Volume 21 of the Collected WorksLenin



[10] Ryazanov has published in Grunberg’ Archives of the History of Socialism (1916. I) a very intersting article by Engels on the Polish question, written in 1866. Engels emphasises that the proletariat must recognize the political independence and “self-determination” (“right to dispose itself” [These words are in English in the original.]) of the great, major nations of Europe, and points to the absurdity of the “principle of nationalities” (particularly in its Bonapartist application), i.e., of placing any small nation on the same level as these big ones “And as is to Russia,” says Engels, “she could only be mentioned as the detainer of an immense amount of stolen property [i.e., oppressed nations] which would have been disgorged on the day of reckoning.”[27] Both Bonapartism and tsarism utilise the small-nation movements for their own benefit, against European democracy. —Lenin

[11] Let us recall that all the Polish Social-Democrats recognised self-determination in general in their Zimmerwald declaration, although their formulation was slightly different. —Lenin

















< backward   forward >
Works Index   |   Volume 22 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index