Brian Pearce

Stalin’s Works

(Winter 1953)

From Anglo-Soviet Journal, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1953.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

J.V. Stalin
Works, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4
FLPH and Lawrence and Wishart, 1953, 5/– each volume

The publication in English of the first four volumes of Stalin’s collected works, covering the years 1901–20, will greatly assist students of modern Russian history. Stalin’s writings throw much light upon many aspects of the public life of the period covered, illuminating especially the development of Bolshevik Party policy on a number of major questions.

Outstanding among these is the national question. The articles, speeches and letters gathered in these volumes (many of which have never previously been published in English) reflect fully and clearly both the formation of Bolshevik national policy and the factors which shaped it during the eventful years from the rise of the party in Tsarist times, through the revolutionary upheaval of 1917 to the ending of large-scale hostilities on Russian territory and the de facto triumph of the Soviet order. Together with the Bolsheviks’ fight against national oppression and for the right of all nations to self-determination, their struggle against separation and for the maximum voluntary unity of the peoples of the old Russian Empire before, during and after the revolution (an aspect of their activity which is, perhaps, less well known in the West) can be traced in the pages of these books. We see depicted here the rich experience, and the conclusions drawn from this experience, that went to the making of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which emerged in the immediately ensuing period (covered by Volume 5, not yet available in English).

In an article written in 1904, against Georgian and Armenian nationalists, Stalin explained the programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Party as it related to the national question and sounded the keynote of all his subsequent writings on this subject. Pointing out that the party called itself ‘Russian’ (Rossiiskaya, that is, covering the whole of the Russian Empire, not merely Russkaya), he showed that the programme assumed as the most likely and desirable line of development that a Russian democratic republic would come into being as a unitary, centralised state. At the same time, a clause in the programme allowed for secession by any particular nationally distinct region, should its inhabitants desire this. There could be no question of coercion of any nationality; Social Democrats had the duty, however, to try to ensure by persuasion that every nationality took the line which accorded best with the interests of the workers’ struggle (Volume 1, pp. 48–51). Repeatedly in his writings of the pre-revolutionary period Stalin stressed these two points: that besides the right of nations to decide their own fate there was also the duty of the Bolsheviks to endeavour to guide their decisions and not merely to await these as they might come, guided by other forces; and that the maximum unity of the nations of the Russian Empire was to be striven for as one of the conditions best favouring democracy and progress. By no means every national movement was progressive. As an example of a separatist movement which was reactionary, Stalin mentions the ‘feudal-monarchist “nationalism”’ of the Georgian nobles who wanted to recover ‘the old privileges and power they had enjoyed under the Georgian kings’. This was a nationalism ‘hounded by realities’ (Volume 1, pp. 31–32), the annexation of Georgia to Russia had had progressive results (Volume 2, p. 306), and there was no serious anti-Russian nationalism among the Georgian people (Volume 2, p. 317). Turning from history to possible future developments, should the Azerbaijanians, under the influence of their khans, beys and mullahs, decide to break away from Russia in order to restore ‘the old order of things’ (that is, as they were before the union with Russia), the Bolsheviks would agitate against this decision and try to persuade the Azerbaijanian people to take a different path (Volume 2, pp. 323–24, 369).

After the February Revolution of 1917, in his article Against Federalism, Stalin opposed schemes which were then current to transform Russia into a federation, a ‘Union of Regions’. While the right to secession must be recognised and a measure of political autonomy established in any case in the nationally distinct regions, it would be a retrograde step to break up the existing unity of Russia. ‘It is clear to everyone that the regions (border districts) of Russia are linked with Central Russia by economic and political ties and that the more democratic Russia becomes the stronger these ties will be.’ (Volume 3, pp. 25–33) At the April Conference of the Bolshevik Party, while noting that the Finns were asking for a separate state and that this should therefore be granted them, Stalin expressed the view that Finland was an exceptional case; nine-tenths of the nationalities would not wish to secede, but would be happy to remain within Russia on the basis of regional autonomy. He personally ‘would be opposed to the secession of Transcaucasia bearing in mind the common development in Transcaucasia and Russia, certain conditions of the struggle of the proletariat and so on’ (Volume 3, pp. 54, 56).

Meanwhile, however, the Provisional Government began to attack and suppress the autonomous institutions which had sprung up in Finland and the Ukraine, thus provoking national enmity and a mood among the peoples concerned of wishing to break their state connection with Russia. Stalin, as Bolshevik spokesman, protested vigorously against this policy. The unity of Russia was most desirable but could only be lasting if voluntary. On their part, the oppressed peoples must not lose sight of their own need to give support to this struggle of the Russian workers who alone were in a position to break the power of the Russian landlords and imperialists:

Either the peoples of Russia support the workers’ revolutionary struggle for power, and then they will secure their emancipation; or they do not support it, and then they will no more see their emancipation than the back of their heads. (Volume 3, pp. 222–25)

Already, sixteen years earlier, he had warned ‘the oppressed nations of Russia’ that they could ‘not even dream of liberating themselves by their own efforts so long as they are opposed not only by the Russian government but even by the Russian people ...’ (Volume 1, p. 21).

By its behaviour towards the non-Russian nationalities the Provisional Government created a situation for the Soviet Government to inherit after October 1917 in which it was much harder to maintain the unity of the country than could have been foreseen a few months earlier, a situation in which one of the first tasks of the new government must be to ‘restore fraternal confidence’. Its first step in this direction was to recognise the independence of Finland; although the Finnish government was a bourgeois one, its demand for independence was supported by the Finnish workers and therefore the Soviet Government had no alternative but to grant it (Volume 4, pp. 3–4, 23–25, 88). At the same time (December 1917) the Soviet Government, through Stalin, made it plain that the conflict in which it had become involved with the bourgeois government then ruling in the Ukraine did not arise from any desire on its part to interfere with Ukrainian national rights. The cause of its quarrel with the Kiev Rada was the help which the latter was rendering to the ‘white’ forces fighting against Soviet Russia by allowing reinforcements to pass across Ukrainian territory to General Kaledin on the Don, while obstructing the movement of Soviet forces against him. The Soviet Government was ready to recognise a national republic in any of the nationally distinct regions, should the people concerned desire it; and on this basis to agree, if need be, to ‘a federal structure for our country’. This marked an important departure, dictated by changed conditions, from the original Bolshevik opposition to federation (Volume 4, pp. 6–19; see also pp. 32–33; a hint that such a departure might be made had been first given by Lenin in his State and Revolution).

In April 1918 this new conception received formal expression in the draft constitution for the Russian (Rossiiskaya) Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. The nationally distinct regions within the RSFSR, such Kazakhstan, were to enjoy extensive self-government; military, economic, communications and foreign affairs, however, were to be reserved for the central government (Volume 4, pp. 68–75, 81–83). At this stage the RSFSR was conceived as the all-embracing framework within which all the peoples would find a place who had not, like the Finns, actually broken away; not, as it later became, merely one (though the largest and leading) member of a group of co-equal republics. There was, accordingly, no question of any two-chamber system in this first constitutional plan. A Soviet Republic had replaced the Rada in the Ukraine and Soviet Republics also arose in the Crimea, the Don, Kuban and Terek regions and the Tatar-Bashkir country, and all these became federated units of the RSFSR (Volume 4, pp. 50, 111–3).

This demonstration of Soviet Russia’s readiness to adopt a (modified) federal structure, together with their own bitter experience of what separation from Russia meant in terms of economic ruin and impotence to withstand foreign occupation and the restoration of the old regime, produced a strong gravitation by a number of the border peoples towards the RSFSR during the latter half of 1918, expressed in acute political and military crises in the petty states concerned (Volume 4, pp. 96–97, 234–35). In its desire for peace and unity, the Soviet Government modified its policy still further in order to meet the national aspirations of all the nationalities. In 1919 the independence of Soviet Byelorussia and that of the three short-lived Soviet republics in the Baltic region was recognised by Moscow, and in 1920 the same status was acknowledged in the case of Soviet Azerbaijan. The treaty of military and economic alliance signed between the RSFSR and Soviet Azerbaijan became the model for similar bilateral treaties with other Soviet republics. These provided for unified direction of the military, economic, communications and foreign affairs of the republics concerned, the existing central organs of the RSFSR taking on the performance of these functions with the aid of representatives of the other republic in each case.

A number of independent Soviet republics linked by treaties with the leading role taken by the RSFSR – this was something quite new and unforeseen before 1917. Writing in October 1920, Stalin was able to depict the variety and flexibility of ‘Soviet autonomy’, which now ranged from ‘narrow, administrative’ autonomy such as the Chuvashes enjoyed within the RSFSR, through the ‘wider, political autonomy’ of the Tatars (also within the RSFSR) to ‘contractual relations’ such as existed between the RSFSR and Soviet Azerbaijan (Volume 4, p. 367). The elements later organised into the USSR were already present in embryonic form – autonomous regions, autonomous republics, independent but allied republics. In the last pages of Volume 4 we see the application of one or other form of ‘Soviet autonomy’ in the cases of Daghestan (pp. 407–11), the North-Caucasian highlanders (pp. 412–20) and Armenia (pp. 423, 426–27). The essential means had been worked out whereby the great majority of the peoples of the former Russian Empire could group themselves around the Russian people and under its leadership. Fundamentally, the constitution of the USSR was a nationalisation and consolidation of these means.

The development of Bolshevik national policy as we see it unfolded in these books stands out as a striking example of that ‘creative Marxism’ (which, while firmly adhering to principle, does not hesitate to learn from life) of which Stalin was so determined and able an exponent throughout his life.

Running all through his writings on the national question in these volumes is Stalin’s insistence on the leading role of the Russian people. In 1907 he points out that the main basis of the Bolshevik Party lies among Russian workers (Volume 2, pp. 50–52). In April 1918 he notes that Soviet power has become consolidated in the Russian areas but not yet in the border regions ‘inhabited by culturally backward elements’ (Volume 4, pp. 77–78). One of the tactics adopted by the reactionaries in Transcaucasia at this time is ‘inciting armed detachments of unenlightened Moslems against the Russian soldiers’ who formed the strongest support of the revolutionary movement there (Volume 4, pp. 56–60). In the North Caucasus throughout the Civil War, the inogorodnie, the non-Cossack Russian inhabitants, act as ‘loyal sons of Soviet Russia’, in contrast to the waverings of both the Cossacks and the Moslem highlanders (Volume 4, p. 415). The course of military events in the Civil War shows again and again that it is ‘Inner Russia’, the home of the workers of Petrograd and Moscow and the peasants influenced by them, which is the impregnable fortress of Soviet rule which cannot be taken by the enemies of the revolution, in whatever other areas they may succeed for a time, and which is the base for the liberation of these other areas (Volume 4, pp. 297–301). Finally, in explaining to the North-Caucasian highlanders the significance of Soviet autonomy, Stalin says that its function is to ‘help you to become as enlightened as the workers and peasants of Russia’ (Volume 4, p. 420). When, at the end of the Second World War, Stalin praised the Russian people as the most outstanding of the Soviet peoples and the leading force among them he was speaking from an experience and a conviction fed by that experience which went back to the earliest years of the Soviet power, and beyond.

Last updated on 6 June 2015