Leon Trotsky

On the National Question

(May 1923)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.99-103.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive (September 2008).
This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Trotsky Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

How should Russia act toward other Soviet nations? An early discussion illuminates a crucial issue of today

One of the most acute issues today in the Soviet bloc is the national question. Its explosiveness has been demonstrated in the 1953 uprising in East Germany, the 1956 revolution in Hungary, and Poland’s bid for independence. It lies at the heart of the continuous strain in relations between Yugoslavia and the Kremlin. Trotsky’s writings on this subject are consequently of the greatest timeliness, representing as they do the views of the pre-Stalinist regime. The student of Soviet affairs will not miss the reference in this article to the anti-Marxist attitude on the national question evident in sections of the government apparatus. This attitude was among the alarming signs of the growth of bureaucratic tendencies which led Lenin to form his famous bloc with Trotsky against Stalin.

From the viewpoint of Marxist methodology, Trotsky’s article is of considerable interest in its treatment of the relations between a particular and general concept and their connection with living social and political forces. The contradiction between the national question and the class struggle is shown to be only apparent. The concept of the class struggle, Trotsky demonstrates, is barren and abstract unless it includes a correct appreciation of the national problem.

Trotsky’s insight can be judged by his observation: “After the land revolution has been completed the national question will not disappear. On the contrary it will only then come into the foreground. And responsibility for all shortages and shortcomings, all injustices and cases of lack of attention or harshness in relation to the native masses will be attributed in their minds – and not without reason – to Moscow.” This has received most vivid confirmation in recent years in Eastern Europe.

Trotsky’s article appeared in Pravda May 1, 1923 under the title, Educating the Young and the National Question – A Commentary in Dialogue form on the Resolution of the Twelfth Party Congress. It was reprinted in Trotsky’s Works, Vol.XXI, Moscow, 1927, from which Leonard Hussey [1*] made the present translation for the International Socialist Review.

“A” is a member of the Young Communist League. A capable and devoted young revolutionary, he fought as a volunteer in the Red Army. However, his Marxist education and political experience are to some extent inadequate. “B” is a better grounded comrade.

* * *

“A” Of course, nobody can object to the resolution of the Twelfth Congress on the national question. [1] All the same though, this question was brought up artificially. For us Communists the national question is not of acute importance.

“B” Why do you say that? After all, you’ve just declared that you agree with the resolution, haven’t you? Yet the main idea of this resolution is that the national question does not exist for the benefit of the Communists but the Communists exist to solve the national problem as a constituent part of the more general question of the organization of man’s life on earth. If, in your self-education study group, with the aid of the methods of Marxism, you have freed yourself from various national prejudices, that is, of course, a very good thing and a very big step forward in your personal development. But the task confronting the ruling party in this sphere is a more far-reaching one: we have to make it possible for the many millions of our

people, who belong to different nationalities, to find through the medium of the State and other institutions led by the Party, practical living satisfaction for their national interests and requirements, and thereby enable them to get rid of national antagonisms and prejudices – all this not at the level of a Marxist study group but at the level of the historical experience of entire peoples. Therefore there is an irreconcilable contradiction between your formal acknowledgment of the resolution and your statement that for us Communists the national question is not of great importance. Thereby you testify that you do not acknowledge the resolution, or, to put it bluntly – in a purely comradely spirit and without meaning any offense – you do not grasp the political meaning of the resolution.

“A” You misunderstood me.

“B” Hm ... hm ...

“A” All I meant to say was that the class question is for us Communists incomparably more important than the national question. Consequently, we must keep a sense of proportion. I am afraid, however, that the national question has recently been very much exaggerated by us, to the detriment of the class question.

“B” Perhaps I have again misunderstood you, but in this statement you have just made it seems to me you have committed another and even bigger mistake in principle. The whole of our policy – in the economic sphere, in the building of the State, in the national question and in the diplomatic sphere – is a class policy. It is dictated by the his-orical interests of the proletariat which is fighting for the complete liberation of mankind from all forms of oppression. Our attitude to the national problem, the measures we have taken to solve it, form a constituent part of our class position, .and not something accessory or in contrast to it. You say that the class criterion is supreme for us. That is perfectly true. But only insofar as it is really a class criterion; i.e., insofar as it includes answers to all the basic questions of historical development, including the national question. A class criterion minus the national question is not a class criterion but only the trunk of such a criterion, inevitably approximating to a narrow craft or trade-union outlook.

“A” According to you, then, concern about solving the national question; i.e., about forms of coexistence of national groups and national minorities, is just as important for us as the retention of power by the working class or of the dictatorship of the Communist party! From such a position it would be easy to slide into complete opportunism; i.e., to subordinating revolutionary tasks to the interests of agreements between nationalities.

“B” I feel, I have a presentiment, that I’m going to find myself today among the “deviators” ... Nevertheless, I’ll try, my young friend, to stick up for my point of view. The whole of the problem, as it faces us today, if we formulate it politically, has this significance for us – how, i.e., by what measures and methods of action, by what approach, can we maintain and consolidate the power of the working class in a territory where many nationalities live side by side, with the central Great Russian nucleus, which formerly played the role of a Great Power amongst these nationalities, constituting less than half of the entire population of the Union? It is precisely in the process of developing the proletarian dictatorship, in the course of our entire State-building activity and our daily struggle to retain and strengthen the workers power that we are at this moment being faced more urgently than ever before with the national question in all its living reality, its daily concrete manifestations in State, economic, cultural and everyday life.

And just now, when the Party as a whole is beginning to present the question in this way – and it cannot be presented in any other way – you (and unfortunately not you alone) declare with naive doctri-nairism that the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is more important than the national question. Yet it is precisely for the sake of the dictatorship of the proletariat that we are now in practice going more deeply (and shall in the future go still more deeply) into the national question. What is the meaning of the contrast that you make? Only people who do not understand the significance of National Factors in State and Party [2] can present the question in this way. And, in any case, all those who adopt a nihilistic or contemptuous attitude to the national question will eagerly seize upon such a formulation as yours. To turn one’s back on the demands and interests of the formerly oppressed small nationalities, especially those which are backward and consist mainly of peasants, is a very simple and perfectly easy thing to do, especially if this sort of lazy indifference can be covered up with general phrases about internationalism, about the dictatorship of the Communist Party being more important than any and every national question ...

“A” As you please; but presenting the question in this way seems to me to be bending over backwards to an impermissible extent in the direction of the backward peasant borderlands and thereby incurring the risk of doing very great harm to the proletarian center upon which our Party and the Soviet power rely. Either I have understood nothing of what you have said, or you really are deviating towards the backward, predominantly peasant nationalities.

“B” Here it is, we’ve reached it at last – my peasant deviation; and I expected as much, for everything under the sun, including political mistakes, has its own logic ... “A deviation in favor of the backward, peasant masses” – but did you hear what the Twelfth Congress had to say about that?

“A” About what?

“B” About the mutual relations between the proletariat and the peasantry – about the “link?” [3]

“A” The “link?” What’s that got to do with it? I’m absolutely in agreement with the Twelfth Congress. The link between the proletariat and the peasantry is the basis of everything. The question of the link is the question of the fate of our revolution. Whoever is against the link is ...

“B” Yes, yes. But don’t you think that the dictatorship of the working class and of our party is more important for us than the peasant question and, consequently, than the question of the link?

“A” How so?

“B” It’s very simple. We, the Communist party, the vanguard of the proletariat, cannot subordinate our social-revolutionary aims to the prejudices, or even to the interests of the peasantry, which is a petty-bourgeois class in its entire tendency. Isn’t that so, my left-wing friend?

“A” But, pardon me, that sophistry – that is quite a different matter and has nothing to do with the question. The link is our basis, our foundation. Lenin wrote that without the link with the peasantry we should not attain socialism; more than that, without the achievements due to the economic link that Soviet power will inevitably be overthrown.

“B” That’s it, precisely. Therefore – you’ll agree, I think? – it is absurd, politically illiterate, to coun-terpose the link with the peasantry to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course the dictatorship of the proletariat is the basic idea of our program, the basic criterion of our State and economic constructive work. But the whole point is that this very dictatorship is unthinkable without certain definite mutual relations with the peasantry. If you separate the link with the peasantry from the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, you are left, so far as the given historical period is concerned, with an empty form, a meaningless abstraction.

“A” I don’t disagree with you but what has this got to do with our subject?

“B” It is very directly and closely connected. In our Soviet Union the link with the peasantry naturally presumes not merely a link with the Great Russian peasantry. We have a large non-Great Russian peasantry, and it is distributed among numerous national groups. For these national groups each national, political and economic question Is refracted through the prism of their native language, their national-economic and folk peculiarities, their national mistrust which has its roots in the past. Language is the most basic, most broadly embracing and deeply penetrating instrument of the link between man and man and so, between class and class. While in our conditions the question of the proletarian revolution is, as you acknowledge, above all a question of the relations between the proletariat and the peasantry, this latter question amounts, more than fifty percent, to the question of relations between the more advanced and influential Great Russian proletariat and the peasant masses of the other nationalities, which were mercilessly oppressed in former times and still remember very well all that they suffered. What’s wrong with you, friend, is that all your would-be-radical, but essentially half-baked, nihilistic arguments strike not only at the national question but also at the fundamental question of the link between the workers and the peasants.

“A” But, look here, there was the time when our army went into Georgia to drive out the Menshevik agents of the imperialists without waiting to be asked first by the people concerned, which meant a plain breach of the principle of self-determination. And there was the time when our army advanced on Warsaw ...

“B” Yes, of course, there were those times, and I remember them very clearly and don’t disavow them in the least. But there was also, not just times, but a whole period when we confiscated from the peasants all their surplus and sometimes even what they needed themselves, by means of armed force, not shrinking from the most extreme methods.

“A” What do you mean by that?

“B” What I say. The revolution not only seized the peasants’ surplus, arms in hand, but also introduced a military regime in the factories and mills. If we had not done this in a certain very acute and grave period we should have perished. But if we were to wish to apply these measures in conditions when they are not called for by iron, inexorable necessity, we should perish still more surely.

This applies also, of course, to our policy on the national question. Revolutionary self-defense required at certain moments a blow at Tiflis and a march on Warsaw. We should have been pitiful cowards and traitors to the revolution (which includes both the peasant question and the national question) if we had balked at the empty fetish of the national “principle,” for it is perfectly obvious that there was no real national self-determination in Georgia under the Mensheviks: Anglo-French imperialism held unrestricted sway there, and was gradually subjecting the whole of Caucasia and menacing us from the south. In the national question, as in all others, what matters to us is not juridical abstractions but real interests and relations. Our military invasion of Transcaucasia can be justified and has justified itself in the eyes of the working people insofar as it dealt a blow at imperialism and established the conditions for real, actual self-determination for the Caucasian nationalities.

If through our fault the masses of the people in Transcaucasia should come to look upon our military interference as an act of conquest, then this interference would thereby be transformed into a very great crime – not against the abstract “principle” of nationality but against the interests of the revolution. Here we have a complete analogy with our peasant policy. The confiscation of peasants’ surplus produce was a very harsh thing. But the peasantry accepted it as just, even though after the event, insofar as they were convinced that, as soon as conditions permitted, the Soviet power would go over to the fulfillment of its basic task – all-around easing of the lives of the working people, including the-peasants.

“A” But still, you can’t deny that the class principle ranks higher for us than the principle of national self-determination. After all, that’s A.B.C.

“B” The realm of abstract “principles” is always, my dear friend, the last refuge of those who have lost their way on this earth. I’ve already told you that the class principle, if you understand it not idealistically but in a Marxist way, does not exclude but, on the contrary, embraces national self-determination. But this latter we also understand not as some supra-historical principle (on the model of Kant’s categorical imperative) but as the aggregate of real, material conditions of life that make it possible for the masses of the oppressed nationalities to straighten their backs, to advance, to learn and to develop, getting access to world culture. For us, for all Marxists, it must be beyond dispute that only a consistent; i.e., a revolutionary application of the class “principle” can ensure the maximum, realization of the “principle” of national self-determination.

“A” But didn’t you yourself say, in explaining our Transcaucasian intervention, that revolutionary defense takes priority with us over the national principle?

“B” Possibly I did, even probably. But in what conditions and in what sense? In the fight against the imperialists and Mensheviks, who transform national self-determination into a metaphysical absolute, insofar as it is directed against the revolution – while they themselves, of course, trample upon national self-determination. We answered the sorry heroes of the Second International that the interests of the defense of the revolution mattered more to us than juridical fetishes; the real interests of the oppressed weak nationalities are dearer to us than anything else whatever.

“A” But what about the keeping of Red forces in Transcaucasia, in Turkestan, in the Ukraine? ... Isn’t that a breach of national self-determination? Isn’t there a contradiction there? And isn’t this to be explained by the fact that the revolution is for us higher than the national question?

“B” When the working people of those countries understand (and when we do everything we can to help them to understand) that these forces are on their territory only to ensure their security against imperialism there is no contradiction here. When these forces indulge in no insult to the national feelings of the native masses, but on the contrary, display purely fraternal care for them, there is no contradiction here. Finally, when the Great Russian proletariat does everything it can to help the more backward national elements of the Union to take a conscious and independent part in the building of the Red Army, so that they may defend themselves first and foremost with their own forces, then that must mean the disappearance of even the shadow of a contradiction between our national program and what we do in practise.

All these questions will be solved, of course, not only as a function of our good will, but it is necessary that we display the maximum good will for their genuine solution in a proletarian way ... I recall that I read two years ago some reports by a certain former Czarist general in the service of the Soviet power, about how the Georgians were frightful chauvinists, how little they understood Moscow’s internationalism, and what a lot of Red regiments were needed to counteract Georgian, Azerbaijanian and every other sort of Transcaucasian nationalism. It was quite obvious that in the case of this general the old-time forceful Great Power attitude was barely disguised under the new terminology.

And there is no point in hiding sin: this general is not exceptional. In the Soviet administrative machine, including also the military machine, tendencies of this kind are powerful to an extreme degree – and not only among former generals. If they were to get the upper hand, the contradiction between our program and our actual policy would inevitably lead to a catastrophe. That is why we have raised the national question sharply, so as by concentrating all the Party’s efforts to eliminate this danger.

“A” All right. But nevertheless how do you explain the fact that those very comrades who fully grasp the significance of the link with the peasantry, take up at the same time, as I do myself, a much more reserved position where the national question is concerned, regarding this question as exaggerated and pregnant with the danger of distortions in favor of the backward borderlands?

“B” How do I explain such a contradiction? Logically it is to be explained by the fact that not everybody thinks things out properly. But a logical explanation is not sufficient for our purpose. The political explanation is that the leading role in our Party here is played – and in the immediate period cannot but be played – by its Great Russian kernel, which through the experience of these last five years has fully taken to heart and thoroughly thought out the question of the relations between the Great Russian proletariat and the Great Russian peasantry. By simple analogy we extend these relations to the whole of our Soviet Union, forgetting, or insufficiently taking into account, that on the periphery of Russia there live other national groups, with a different history, a different level of development, and – what is most important – with a mass of injuries they have suffered.

The Great Russian kernel of the party is, in the main, as yet inadequately aware of the national side of the question of the link, and still more inadequately aware of the national question in its entire scope. From this there also derive the contradictions of which you speak – sometimes naive, sometimes stupid, sometimes of a flagrant character. And that is why there is no exaggeration in the decisions of the Twelfth Party Congress on the national question. On the contrary, they answer to the most profound needs of our life, and we must not only adopt them but develop them further.

“A” While the Communists of the Great Russian center carry out a correct policy in Great Russia, surely there are in the other parts of our Union local Communists who are carrying on the same work in different national circumstances? This is merely a natural and inevitable division of labor. The Great Russian Communists must and will fight against Great Power chauvinism, while the Communists of the other nationalities fight against their own local nationalism, which is directed, in the main, against the Russians.

“B” What you say contains only part of the truth, and half-truths sometimes lead us to completely false conclusions. Our Party is not at all a federation of national Communist groups with a division of labor according to their respective national features. If the Party were so constructed, that would be extremely dangerous.

“A” I am not proposing any such thing ...

“B” Of course you aren’t. But your idea could be developed towards such a conclusion. You insist that the Great Russian Communists must fight against Great Power nationalism and the Ukrainian Communists against Ukrainian nationalism.

This recalls the formula of the Spartacists at the beginning of the war – “The main enemy is in your own country.” But there it was a matter of a struggle by the proletarian vanguard against its own imperialist bourgeoisie, its own militarist state. There this slogan had a profound revolutionary content. Of course, the task of the German revolutionaries was to fight against Hohenzollern imperialism, not to expose French militarism, etc.

It would, however, be a complete distortion of perspective to transfer this principle to the constituent parts of the Soviet union-state, for we have a single army, a unified diplomacy and, what is most important of all, one centralized party. It is perfectly correct that those best fitted to combat Georgian nationalism are the Georgian Communists. But this is a question of tact, not of principle. The root of the matter is the need clearly to grasp the historical origins of the Great Power, aggressive nationalism of the Great Russians and of the defensive nationalism of the small peoples. It is necessary to appreciate the true proportions between these historical factors, and this appreciation must be the same in the mind of the Great Russian and of the Georgian and of the Ukrainian, for these very proportions do not depend upon the subjective approach – local or national – but correspond (and must correspond) to the real balance of historical forces. The Azerbaijanian Communist working in Baku or in the Moslem countryside, the Great Russian Communist working in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, must have one and the same conception where the national question is concerned.

And this uniform conception must consist in a non-uniform attitude to Great Russian and to Moslem nationalism: in relation to the former, ruthless struggle, stern rebuff, especially in all those cases when it is displayed in the administrative and governmental sphere; in relation to the latter – patient, attentive, painstaking, educational work.

If a Communist on the spot shuts his eyes to the national question in its full scope and begins to fight against nationalism (or, often, against what seems to him to be nationalism) by summary and oversimplified methods, intolerant negation, persecution, denunciation, etc., then he will perhaps gather round him active, revolutionary, “left” young people, subjectively devoted to internationalism, but he will never furnish us with a lasting and reliable link with the native peasant masses.

“A” But it is just the “lefts” in the border republics who call for a more revolutionary, more vigorous solution to the agrarian question. And, after all, isn’t this our main bridge to the peasantry?

“B” Undoubtedly the agrarian question, above all in the sense of the abolition of all remnants of feudal relations, must be settled everywhere. As we now have an already firmly established union-state, we can carry through this settlement of the land question with all the resoluteness that it calls for; of course the settlement of the land question is a most important task of the revolution ... But the abolition of landlordism is an act that is carried out in one blow, once and for all, whereas what we call the national question is a very lengthy process. After the land revolution has been completed the national question will not disappear. On the contrary it will only then come into the foreground. And responsibility for all shortages and shortcomings, all injustices and cases of lack of attention or harshness in relation to the native masses will be attributed in their minds – and not without reason – to Moscow. It is necessary therefore that Moscow, as the center of our Union, should be the invariable initiator and promoter of an active policy permeated through and through with fraternal attention to all the nationalities that make up the Soviet Union. To speak of exaggeration in this connection is truly to show complete lack of understanding.

“A” There is a good deal of truth in what you say, but ...

“B” Do you know what? Just you read over again the resolution of the Twelfth Congress now that we’ve had this talk, and then perhaps, one of these days, we’ll discuss these matters again.

Translator’s Footnotes

1. For the draft of this resolution, see J. V. Stalin, National Factors in Party and State Affairs.

2. The title of the Twelfth Congress resolution under discussion.

3. The alliance between the working class and the peasantry.

Note by TIA

1*. Leonard Hussey was a pseudonym of Brian Pearce.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 24.9.2008