Leon Trotsky

Between Red and White

Self-Determination and the Revolution

The Allied powers do not intend to recede from the great principle of the self-determination of small nations. They will only repudiate this principle when they are faced with the fact that some of the temporarily independent nations prove themselves to be a peril to universal peace by their incapacity to maintain order, by their bellicose and aggressive acts, and even by constant, childish and unnecessary insistence on their own dignity. The Great Powers will not tolerate such nations, as they are determined to preserve universal peace.

With these energetic words the British General Walker impressed on the Georgian Mensheviks’ minds the conception of the relativity of national right to self-determination. Politically, Henderson stood, and still stands, behind his general. But ‘on principle’, he is willing to turn national self-determination into an absolute principle, and to direct it against the Soviet Republic.

National self-determination is the fundamental democratic formula for oppressed nations. Wherever class oppression is complicated by national subjection, democratic demands take first of all the form of demands for national equality of rights – for autonomy or for independence.

The programme of bourgeois democracy included the right of national self-determination, but this democratic principle came into violent and open conflict with the interests of the bourgeoisie of the most powerful nations. The Republican form of government seemed to be quite compatible with the domination of the Stock Exchange. Capitalism with the greatest ease established a dictatorship over the machinery of universal suffrage. However, the right of national self-determination has assumed and is still assuming in many instances the character of an acute and immediate peril of the dismemberment of the bourgeois states, or of the secession of their colonies.

The most powerful democracies have been transferred into imperialist autocracies. The financial oligarchy, the City, reigns supreme over the disfranchised human ocean of Asia and Africa through the medium of the ‘democratically’ enslaved people of the home country.

The French Republic, with a population of 38 millions, is only a part of the colonial empire, which at the present time numbers 60 million coloured slaves. The black population of the French colonies will have to supplement, to an ever increasing degree, the army which is serving for the maintenance of the capitalist rule over the workers in France itself. The tendency to extend the markets at the expense of neighbouring nations, the struggle for colonial expansion and for sea power – imperialism – has come more and more into irreconcilable conflict with the separatist national tendencies of the oppressed peoples. And as the middle-class democrats, including the social-democrats, became completely subject to the imperialists, the programme of national self-determination was reduced practically to nothing.

The great imperialist slaughter brought acute changes into this question: all the bourgeois and social-patriotic parties seized hold of national self-determination, but at the wrong end. The warring governments were doing their utmost to adopt this watchword, first in the war with each other, and afterwards in the war against Soviet Russia. German imperialism flirted with the national independence of the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Letts, Estonians, Finns, and the Caucasian peoples and used the watchwords at first against Tsarism, and subsequently, on a wider scale, against us. At first the Entente, in conjunction with Tsarism, claimed the ‘liberation’ of the peoples of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey. Subsequently, having been deprived of the co-operation of Tsarism, they took up the line of the ‘liberation’ of the border states of Russia.

The Soviet Republic, having inherited the Tsarist Empire, which had been created by violence and oppression, quite openly proclaimed the right of national self-determination and of national independence. Though realizing the enormous significance of this watchword during the transition period to socialism, our party did not for a minute turn the democratic principle of self-determination into a dominating factor over all other historic requirements and tasks.

The economic development of present-day society has a strongly centralist character. Capitalism has laid down the preliminary foundations for a well-regulated economy on a world scale. Imperialism is only the predatory capitalist expression of this desire to have the leading role in the management of the world’s economy. All the powerful imperialist countries find that they have not enough scope within the narrow limits of national economy, and they are all seeking for wider markets. Their aim (to give it the most idealistic interpretation), is – the monopoly of the world’s economy. In the phraseology of capitalist greed and piracy, the fundamental task of our epoch consists in the establishment of close relationships between the economic systems of the various parts of the world, and in the building up, in the interests of the whole of humanity, of co-ordinated world production, based on the most economic use of all forces and resources. This is precisely the task of socialism.

It is self-evident that the principle of self-determination does not in any case supersede the unifying tendencies of socialist economic construction. In this respect, self-determination occupies, in the process of historic development, the subordinate position allotted to democracy in general. Socialist-centralism, however, cannot replace imperialist centralism without a transition, and oppressed nationalities must be given the opportunity to stretch out their limbs – which have become stiff under the chains of capitalist coercion. The period necessary for the satisfactory settlement of the national independence of Finland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc., will be determined by the general trend of the social revolution. The economic dependence of the various small nationalities, which were parts of the former Russian Empire, made itself felt very acutely almost immediately after their inception as independent entities, owing to their isolation from each other.

The task and the methods of the proletarian revolution do not by any means consist in the mechanical elimination of national characteristics or in the introduction of forcible amalgamation. Interference with the language, the education, the literature and the culture of various nationalities, is certainly alien to the proletarian revolution. That is concerned with other things than the professional interests of the intellectuals and the ‘national’ interests of the working class. The victorious social revolution will give full freedom to all the national groups to settle for themselves all the questions of national culture, while bringing under one head (for the common good and with the consent of the workers) the economic tasks, which require handling in a manner well-considered and commensurate with natural, historical and technical conditions; not by any means with national groupings. The Soviet Federation represents the most adaptable and flexible state form for the co-ordination of national and economic requirements.

The Soviet Government has taken up its position between the West and the East, armed with two watchwords: ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ and ‘National Self-determination’. In some cases these two phases might be separated from each other by only a few years, or even a few months. In the case of the great empires of the east, this interval might probably last decades.

Under the then existing revolutionary conditions, the nine months of the democratic Kerensky-Tseretelli regime, proved sufficient for creating the conditions for a proletarian victory. Compared with the regime of Nicholas and Rasputin, the Kerensky-Tseretelli regime was a step forward, which we were always ready to acknowledge. This acknowledgement puts a revolutionary, historic, and materialistic valuation upon the real meaning of democracy, in the place of the valuation put on it by the professors, the priests and the MacDonalds. Nine months of revolution were sufficient to show the extent of its independent progressive significance. This does not mean, of course, that it was possible in October, 1917, to receive by means of a referendum, a definite answer from the majority of the workers and peasants to the question as to whether they considered the preparatory democratic course sufficient for them. But it certainly means that, after nine months of the democratic regime, the conquest of power by the proletarian vanguard ran no risk of opposition from the workers, based on ignorance and prejudices. It was at once enabled to extend and fortify its positions, awakening the consciousness and the adherence of the ever growing masses of workers. In this, then, consists the great significance of the Soviet system, which fact is even admitted by the dull pedants of democracy.

The national separation of the former border countries of the Tsarist Empire, and their transformation into independent, petty bourgeois republics, had approximately the same progressive significance as democracy on the whole. It is only imperialists and semiimperialists who can refuse the right of self-determination to the oppressed peoples. It is only fanatics and charlatans of nationalism who can see in it self-seeking designs. To us, national self-determination has always appeared and will always appear as in many cases an inevitable step towards the dictatorship of the working class – which, in accordance with the rules of revolutionary strategy, and in the process of civil war, develops strong centralist tendencies, acting as a counterpoise to national separation; thus completely conforming to the requirements of a well regulated socialist economic system.

How soon resistance (beginning on a small scale) to the illusions of ‘independent’ state existence will render possible the conquest of power by the working class, depends upon the trend of revolutionary development (as already stated), as well as upon the particular internal and external conditions of the given country. In Georgia a fictitious national independence was maintained for three years.

It is impossible to give an academic answer to the questions – did the working masses of Georgia really require three years to wear down their national illusions: or, were more than three years required for this process? The referendum and the plebiscite, amidst fierce imperialist and revolutionary struggles in every part of the world, are nothing but fiction. How these can be engineered may be easily ascertained from Messrs. Korfanty and Zeligovsky, or from the corresponding Entente commissions. For us this question can be settled, not by the methods of formal democratic statics, but by the methods of revolutionary dynamics. The crux of the matter consists in the fact that the Soviet revolution in Georgia (which was indeed brought about with the active participation of the Red Army, for we would have betrayed the workers and peasants of Georgia, if we had not assisted them by our armed forces, since we had such), took place after the political experiment of three years of Georgian ‘independence’ and under conditions which guaranteed not merely a temporary military success, but also further political development for the revolution – that is, the extension and strengthening of the Soviet system in Georgia itself. And in this (if the thick-headed pedants of democracy will allow me to say so), our revolutionary task consists.

The politicians of the Second International, in unison with their mentors from their bourgeois diplomatic chancelleries, smile sardonically at our recognition of the rights of national self-determination. This they designate as a trap for simpletons – a bait held out by Russian imperialism. In reality, it is history itself which is holding out these baits, instead of settling the questions in a straightforward way. In any case, we cannot be accused of turning the zig-zags of historical development into traps, for, while actually recognizing the right of national self-determination, we take care to explain to the masses its limited historic significance, and we never put it above the interests of the proletarian revolution.

A workers’ state, in recognizing the right of self-determination, thereby recognizes that revolutionary coercion is not an all-powerful historical factor. Soviet Russia does not by any means intend to make its military power take the place of the revolutionary efforts of the proletariats of other countries. The conquest of proletarian power must be an outcome of proletarian political experience. This does not mean that the revolutionary efforts of the workers of Georgia or any other country, must not receive any military support from outside. It is only essential that this support should come at a moment when the need for it has been created by the political development of the workers, and recognised by the class-conscious revolutionary vanguard, who have won the sympathy of the majority of the workers. These are questions of revolutionary strategy, and not a formal democratic ritual.

The ‘Realpolitik’ of today necessitates the conformity of the interests of the workers’ state with the conditions created by the fact of its being surrounded by large and small bourgeois nationalist-democratic states. We were actuated by such considerations based on an accurate valuation of existing facts, when we maintained our attitude of patience and toleration towards Georgia. But when this attitude, after a long period of trial, did not give us even the most elementary guarantees of safety – when the principle of self-determination became, in the hands of General Walker and Admiral Dumesnil, a juridical guarantee for counter-revolution which was preparing a new attack upon us – we did not and could not see any moral obstacle in introducing, at the call of the revolutionary vanguard of Georgia, our Red Army, in order to help the workers and poorest peasants with the least possible delay and sacrifice to overthrow that pitiful democracy which had destroyed itself by its own policy.

We do not only recognize, but we also give full support to the principle of self-determination, wherever it is directed against feudal, capitalist and imperialist states. But wherever the fiction of self-determination, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, becomes a weapon directed against the proletarian revolution, we have no occasion to treat this fiction differently from the other ‘principles’ of democracy perverted by capitalism.

That the Soviet policy in the Caucasus has also been correct from the point of view of nationalism, is best proved by the relations existing today between the Trans-Caucasian peoples.

The epoch of Tsarism was characterized by barbarous nationalist pogroms in the Caucasus, where the Armenian-Tartar butcheries were periodical events. Those sanguinary outbursts under the iron rule of Tsarism were the expression of centuries of internecine struggles of the Trans-Caucasian peoples.

The epoch of so-called democracy gave to the nationalist struggle a much more pronounced and organized character. In the beginning nationalist armies were formed, which were hostile to each other, and which often attacked each other. The attempt to create a bourgeois federal democratic Trans-Caucasian Republic proved a dismal failure. The Federation fell to pieces five weeks after its inception. A few months later the ‘democratic’ neighbours were quite openly at war with each other. This fact alone settles the question: for if democracy was as incapable as Tsarism of creating conditions for a peaceful cohabitation of the Trans-Caucasian peoples, it was evidently imperative to adopt other methods.

The Soviet power alone has established peace and national intercourse between them. At the elections to the Soviets, the Baku and Tbilisi workers elect a Tartar, an Armenian, or a Georgian, irrespective of their nationality. In Trans-Caucasia, the Moslem, Armenian, Georgian, and Russian Red regiments live side by side. They are imbued with the conviction that they are one army, and no power on earth will make them move against one another. On the other hand, they will defend Soviet Trans-Caucasia against any and every external foe.

The national pacification of Trans-Caucasia, which has been achieved by the Soviet revolution, is in itself a fact of enormous political and cultural significance. In it is expressed a real live internationalism, which we can safely put against the empty pacifist discourses of the heroes of the Second International, which are but a supplement to the chauvinist practices of its national sections.

* * *

The demand for the withdrawal of the Soviet armies from Georgia and for a referendum ‘under the control of mixed commissions of Socialists and Communists’, constitutes a most despicable imperialist trap masquerading as national self-determination.

Let us put aside a number of cardinal questions, such as: – On what plea do the democrats want to impose upon us the democratic form of referendum in lieu of the Soviet form, which in our opinion is far superior? Why is the referendum to be applied only to Georgia? Why is such a demand only put to the Soviet Republic? Why do the social-democrats want to apply the referendum to our country, while they do nothing of the kind at home?

Let us put ourselves in the position of our opponents (that is to say, if they have any position). Let us single out the question of Georgia and let us consider it carefully. It is proposed to create conditions for a free (democratic and not Soviet) expression of the opinion of the Georgian population.

  1. Who are the negotiating parties? Who is to guarantee the actual fulfilment of the conditions, fixed by the negotiators? On the one side, evidently the allied Soviet Republics, but what about the other side? Is this to be – the Second International? If so, where is its material strength which would guarantee the carrying out of the conditions?
  2. Even if we assume that the workers’ republic is to negotiate with Henderson and Vandervelde, and that, in accordance with this, the controlling commissions will consist of communists and social-democrats, what about the ‘third’ party – the imperialist governments? Will they not interfere? Or will the social-democratic servants be guarantors for their masters, and if so, where are the material guarantees?
  3. It has been said that the Soviet forces must evacuate Georgia, but the Georgian coasts are washed by the Black Sea, in which the Entente warships reign supreme. The invasions of the White Guard troops which were disembarked from the British and French ships are well remembered by the population of the Caucasus. The Soviet troops are to go, but the imperialist fleet will remain. This means that the people of Georgia will have to come to an agreement at any price with the real master of the situation – the Entente. The Georgian peasant will have to say to himself that, although he prefers the Soviet power, he will have to look for some mediator between himself and imperialism, because the former is obliged for some reason (probably because of some weakness), to evacuate the territory, notwithstanding the continuous peril from that very imperialism. Is not this your plan for violating the right of self-determination of the Georgian people and for forcing the Mensheviks on them?
  4. Or are we to be offered the withdrawal of the Entente ships from the Black Sea? Who will propose this – the Entente government, or Mrs. Snowden? This question (see point 2), is rather important, and we ask for an explanation!
  5. And where are the warships to be taken? Is it to the Red Sea or the Mediterranean? If so this distance is insignificant in view of the British domination over the Straits. Which then is the way out?
  6. Maybe the Straits could be locked up, and the keys handed over to Turkey? For, after all, the principle of self-determination does not imply Great Britain’s domination over the Turkish Straits, over Constantinople and the Black Sea, and consequently over the coasts of Turkey. This is all the more important because our Black Sea Fleet has been carried off by the White Guard bandits, and is in the hands of the Entente.

We have consented to put the question as our opponents are endeavouring to put it, viz., on the basis of democratic principles and guarantees. But it appears that endeavours are being made to cheat us in the most unceremonious way, for we are asked to consent to the material disarmament of Soviet territory, while we are offered as guarantees against imperialist and White Guard annexations and revolutions -~ a resolution of the Second International.

Or are we to assume that there is no imperialist menace to Caucasia? Because Mrs. Snowden never heard anything about Baku oil? Perhaps she has not. May we inform her (with reference to this question) that the road to Baku is via Batumi-Tbilisi? This last point is a strategical Trans-Caucasian fact, of which the British and French generals cannot plead ignorance. There are even now secret White Guard organizations under the high-sounding tide of ‘Liberation Committees’ (a tide which does not prevent them from receiving money subsidies from British and Russian oil magnates, Italian manganese magnates, etc.). The White Guard bands are supplied with arms by sea. All this struggle is for oil and manganese. It is all the same to the oil magnates if they get at the oil via Denikin, the Moslem Musavat Party, or via the gate of national self-determination with its doorkeepers from the Second International. If Denikin has not succeeded in defeating the Red Army, perhaps MacDonald will succeed in removing it by peaceful means. Anyhow, the result will be the same.

But MacDonald will not succeed. Such questions cannot be settled by resolutions of the Second International, even if those resolutions were not as paltry, contradictory, dishonest and indefinite as is the resolution on Georgia.

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Last updated on: 3.1.2007