Leon Trotsky

Independence of the Ukraine
and Sectarian Muddleheads

(July 1939)

Written: July 30, 1939.
First Published: Socialist Appeal, September 15 & 17, 1939.
Source: Fourth International [New York], Vol.10 No.11, December 1949, pp.346-350.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Original 1949 introduction by Fourth International

Leon Trotsky’s article, The Problem of the Ukraine, which we re-published in the November Fourth International, aroused widespread interest and discussion in revolutionary circles at the time of its appearance in May 1939. However, the only open opposition to Trotsky’s slogan of independence for the Ukraine came from the small sectarian Oehler group. Despite the political insignificance of this group, Trotsky seized the opportunity to further clarify his position His reply, first published in the Socialist Appeal, September 15th and 17th, 1939, proved to be a permanent contribution to the Marxist analysis of the national question. It sheds considerable light on the present-day relationship between the Great-Russian Soviet bureaucracy and the countries of Eastern Europe.

In one of the tiny, sectarian publications which appear in America and which thrive upon the crumbs from the table of the Fourth International, and repay with blackest ingratitude, I chanced across an article devoted to the Ukrainian problem. What confusion! The author sectarian is, of course, opposed to the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine. He is for the world revolution and for socialism—“root and branch.” He accuses us of ignoring the interests of the USSR and of retreating from the concept of the permanent revolution. He indicts us as centrists. The critic is very severe, almost implacable. Unfortunately—he understands nothing at all (the name of this tiny publication, The Marxist, rings rather ironically). But his incapacity to understand assumes such finished, almost classical forms as can enable us better and more fully to clarify the question.

Our critic takes as his point of departure the following position “If the workers in the Soviet Ukraine overthrow Stalinism and re-establish a genuine workers’ state, shall they separate from the rest of the Soviet Union? No.” And so forth and so on. “If the workers overthrow Stalinism” ... then we shall be able to see more clearly what to do. But Stalinism must first be overthrown. And in order to achieve this, one must not shut one’s eyes to the growth of separatist tendencies in the Ukraine, but rather give them a correct political expression.

Pat Formulas Don’t Solve Concrete Tasks

“Not turning our backs on the Soviet Union,’’, continues the author, “but its regeneration and re-establishment as a mighty citadel of world revolution—that is the road of Marxism.” The actual trend of the development of the masses, in this instance, of the nationally oppressed masses, is replaced by our sage with speculations as to the ’best possible roads of development. With this method, but with far greater logic, one might say, “Not defending a degenerated Soviet Union is our task, but the victorious world revolution which will transform the whole world into a World Soviet Union,” etc. Such aphorisms come cheap.

The critic repeats several times my statement to the effect that the fate of an independent Ukraine is indissolubly bound up with the world proletarian revolution. From this general perspective, ABC for a Marxist, he contrives however to make a recipe of temporizing passivity and national nihilism. The triumph of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is the end-product of multiple movements, campaigns and battles, and not at all a ready-made precondition for solving all questions automatically. Only a direct and bold posing of the Ukrainian question in the given concrete circumstances will facilitate the rallying of petty-bourgeois and peasant masses around the proletariat, just as in Russia in 1917.

True enough, our author might object that in Russia prior to October it was the bourgeois revolution that unfolded, whereas today we have the socialist revolution already behind us. A demand which might have been progressive in 1917 is nowadays reactionary. Such reasoning, wholly in the spirit of bureaucrats and sectarians, is false from beginning to end.

Democratic Tasks Tied to Socialist Aims

The right of national self-determination is, of course, a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are supported and realized in our era only by the revolutionary proletariat; it is for this very reason that they interlace with socialist tasks. The resolute struggle of the Bolshevik party for the right of self-determination of oppressed nationalities in Russia facilitated in the extreme the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was as if the proletarian revolution had sucked in the democratic problems, above all, the agrarian and national problems, giving to the Russian Revolution a combined character. The proletariat was already undertaking socialist tasks but it could not immediately raise to this level the peasantry and the oppressed nations (themselves predominantly peasant) who were absorbed with solving their democratic tasks.

Hence flowed the historically inescapable compromises the agrarian as well as the national sphere. Despite the economic advantages of large-scale agriculture, the Soviet government was compelled to divide up large estates. Only several years later was the government able to pass to collective farming and then it immediately leaped too far ahead and found itself compelled, a few years later, to make concessions to the peasants in the shape of private landholdings which in many places tend to devour the collective farms. The next stages of this contradictory process have not yet been resolved.

Has Stalin Convinced the Ukrainian Masses?

The need for compromise, or rather for a number of compromises, similarly arises in the field of the national question, whose paths are no more rectilinear than the paths of the agrarian revolution. The federated structure of the Soviet-Republic represents a compromise between the centralist requirements of planned economy and the de~ centralist requirements of the development of nations oppressed in the past. Having constructed a workers’ state on the compromise principle of a federation, the Bolshevik party wrote into the constitution the right of nations to complete separation, indicating thereby that the party did not at all consider the national question as solved once and for all.

The author of the critical article argues that the party leaders hoped “to convince the masses to stay within the framework of the Federated Soviet Republic.” This is correct, if the word “convince” is taken not in the sense of logical arguments but in the sense of passing through the experiences of economic, political and cultural collaboration. Abstract agitation in favor of centralism does not of itself’ carry great weight. As has already been said, the federation was a necessary, departure from centralism. It must also be added that the very composition of the federation is by no means given beforehand once and for all. Depending on objective conditions, a federation may develop toward greater centralism, or on the contrary, toward greater independence of its national component parts. Politically it is not at all a question of whether it is advantageous ’in general” for various nationalities to live together within the framework of a single state, but rather it is a question of whether or not a particular nationality has, on the basis of her own experience, found it advantageous to adhere to a given state.

In other words: Which of the two tendencies in the given circumstances gains the ascendancy in the compromise regime of a federation—the centrifugal or the centripetal? Or to put it even more concretely: Have Stalin and his Ukrainian satraps succeeded in convincing the Ukrainian masses of the superiority of Moscow’s centralism over Ukrainian independence or have they failed? This question is of decisive importance. Yet our author does not even suspect its existence.

Do the Ukrainians Desire Separation?

Do the broad masses of the Ukrainian people wish to separate from the USSR? It might at first sight appear difficult to answer this question, inasmuch as the Ukrainian people, like all other peoples of the USSR, are deprived of any opportunity to express their will. But the very genesis of the totalitarian regime and its ever more brutal intensification, especially in the Ukraine, are proof that the real will of the Ukrainian masses is irreconcilably hostile to the Soviet bureaucracy. There is no lack of evidence that one of the primary sources of this hostility is the suppression of Ukrainian independence. The nationalist tendencies in the Ukraine erupted violently in 1917-19. The Borotba party expressed these tendencies in the left wing. The most important indication of the success of the Leninist policy in the Ukraine was the fusion of the Ukrainian Bolshevik party with the organization of the Borotbists.

In the course of the next decade, however, an actual break occurred with the Borotba group, whose leaders were subjected to persecution. The old Bolshevik, Skrypnik, a pure-blooded Stalinist, was driven to suicide in 1933 for his allegedly, excessive patronage of nationalist tendencies. The actual “organizer” of this suicide was the Stalinist emissary, Postyshev, who thereupon remained in the Ukraine as the representative of the centralist policy. Presently, however, Postyshev himself fell in disgrace. These facts are profoundly symptomatic, for they reveal how much force there is behind the pressure of the nationalist opposition on the bureaucracy. Nowhere did the purges and repressions assume such a savage and mass character as they did in the Ukraine.

Significant Attitudes of Ukrainians Abroad

Of enormous political importance is the sharp turn away from the Soviet Union of Ukrainian democratic elements outside the Soviet Union. When the Ukrainian problem became aggravated early this year, communist voices were not heard at all; but the voices of the Ukrainian clericals and National-Socialists were loud enough. This means that the proletarian vanguard has let the Ukrainian national movement slip out of its hands and that this movement has progressed far on the road of separatism. Lastly, very indicative also are the moods among the Ukrainian émigrés in the North American continent. In Canada, for instance, where the Ukrainians compose the bulk of the Communist Party, there began in 1933, as I am informed by a prominent participant in the movement, a marked exodus of Ukrainian workers and farmers from communism, falling either into passivity or nationalism of various hues. In their totality, these symptoms and facts incontestably testify, to the growing strength of separatist tendencies among the Ukrainian masses.

This is the basic fact underlying the whole problem. It shows that despite the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very, essence, international in character . The Thermidorian reaction, crowned by the Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and wish to change it drastically. ii is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.

Sectarian Arguments Like Those of Stalinists

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without much difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: “It negates the position of the defense of the Soviet Union”; “disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses”; “serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism.” In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all the three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly do so on the morrow.

The Kremlin bureaucracy, tells the Soviet woman: Inasmuch as there is socialism our country, you must be happy and you must give up abortions (or suffer the penalty). To the Ukrainian they say: Inasmuch as the socialist revolution has solved the national question, it is your duty to be happy in the USSR and to renounce all thought of separation (or face the firing squad).

What does a revolutionist say to the woman? “You will decide yourself whether you want a child: I will defend your right to abortion against the Kremlin police.” To the Ukrainian people he says: “Of importance to me is your attitude toward your national destiny and not the ‘socialistic’ sophistries of the Kremlin police; I will support your struggle for independence with all my might!”

The sectarian, as so often happens, finds himself siding with the police, covering up the status quo, that is, police violence, by sterile speculation on the superiority of the socialist unification of nations as against their remaining divided. Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and equalitarian socialist federation; but it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people. In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate. Lenin often used to cite the fact that the relations between the Norwegian and Swedish workers improved and became closer after the disruption of the compulsory unification of Sweden and Norway.

Ukraine Independence Revolutionary Slogan

We must proceed from facts and not ideal norms. The Thermidorian reaction in the USSR, the defeat of a number of revolutions, the victories of fascism – which is carving the map of Europe in its own fashion – must be paid for in genuine currency in all spheres, including that of the Ukrainian question. Were we to ignore the new situation created as a result of defeats, were we to pretend that nothing extraordinary has occurred, and were we to counterpose to unpleasant facts familiar abstractions, then we could very well surrender to reaction the remaining chances for vengeance in the more or less immediate future.

Our author interprets the slogan of an independent Ukraine as follows: “First the Soviet Ukraine must be freed from the rest of the Soviet Union, then we will have the proletarian revolution and unification of the rest of the Ukraine.” But how can there be a separation without first a revolution? The author is caught in a vicious circle, and the slogan of an independent Ukraine together with Trotsky’s “faulty logic” is hopelessly discredited. In point of fact this peculiar logic – “first” and “then” – is only a striking example of scholastic thinking. Our hapless critic has no inkling of the fact that historical processes may occur not “first” and “then” but run parallel to each other, exert influence upon each other, speed or retard each other; and that the task of revolutionary politics consists precisely in speeding up the mutual action and reaction of progressive processes. The barb of the slogan of an independent Ukraine is aimed directly against the Moscow bureaucracy and enables the proletarian vanguard to rally the peasant masses. On the other hand, the same slogan opens up for the proletarian party the opportunity of playing a leading role in the national Ukrainian movement in Poland, Rumania and Hungary. Both of these political processes will drive the revolutionary movement forward and increase the specific weight of the proletarian vanguard.

My statement to the effect that workers and peasants of Western Ukraine (Poland) do not want to join the Soviet Union, as it is now constituted, and that this fact is an additional argument in favor of an independent Ukraine, is parried by our sage with the assertion that even if they desired, they could not join the Soviet Union because they could do so only “after the proletarian revolution in Western Ukraine” (obviously Poland). In other words: Today the separation of the Ukraine is impossible, and after the revolution triumphs, it would be reactionary. An old and familiar refrain!

Luxemburg, Bukharin, Piatakov and many others used this very same argument against the program of national self-determination: Under capitalism it is utopian; under socialism, reactionary. The argument is false to the core because it ignores the epoch of the social revolution and its tasks. To be sure, under the domination of imperialism a genuine stable and reliable independence of the small and intermediate nations is impossible. It is equally true that under fully developed socialism, that is to say, with the progressive withering away of the state, the question of national boundaries will fall away. But between these two moments – the present day and complete socialism – intervene those decades in the course of which we are preparing to realize our program. The slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine is of paramount importance for mobilizing the masses and for educating them in the transitional period.

What the Sectarian Ignores

The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution. With their eyes turned away from the USSR, and failing to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat, the petty-bourgeois and even working-class masses of Western Ukraine are falling victim to reactionary demagogy. Similar processes are undoubtedly also taking place in the Soviet Ukraine, only it is more difficult to lay them bare. The slogan of an independent Ukraine advanced in time by the proletarian vanguard will lead to the unavoidable stratification of the petty bourgeoisie and render it easier for its lower tiers to ally themselves with the proletariat. Only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution.

How to Clear the Road

“If the workers carry, through a succesful revolution in Western Ukraine ...,” persists our author, “should our strategy, then he to demand that the Soviet Ukraine separate and join its western section? Just the opposite.” This assertion plumbs to the bottom the depth of “our strategy.” Again we hear the same melody: “If the workers carry through The sectarian is satisfied with logical deduction from a victorious revolution supposedly already, achieved. But for a revolutionist the nub of the question lies precisely in how to clear a road to the revolution, how to render an approach to revolution easier for the masses, how to draw the revolution closer, how, to assure its triumph. “If the workers carry through ...” a victorious revolution, everything will of course be fine. But just now there is no victorious revolution; instead there is victorious reaction.

To find the bridge from reaction to revolution—that is the task. This is the import, by the way, of our entire program of transitional demands (The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International). Small wonder that the sectarians of all shadings fail to understand its meaning. They, operate by means of abstractions—an abstraction of imperialism and an abstraction of the socialist revolution. The question of the transition from real imperialism to real revolution; the question of how to mobilize the masses in the given historical situation for the conquest of power remains for these sterile wiseacres a book sealed with seven seals.

Superficial Reasoning

Piling one dire accusation indiscriminately on top of another, our critic declares that the slogan of an independent Ukraine serves the interests of the imperialists (!) and the Stalinists (!!) because it “completely negates the position of the defense of the Soviet Union.” It is impossible to understand just why, the “interests of the Stalinists” are dragged in. But let its confine ourselves to the question of the defense of the USSR. This defense could he menaced by an independent Ukraine only if the latter were hostile not only to the bureaucracy but also to the USSR. However, given such a premise (obviously false), how can a socialist demand that a hostile Ukraine be retained within the framework of the USSR? Or does the question involve only the period of the national revolution?

Yet our critic apparently recognized the inevitability of a political revolution against the Bonapartist bureaucracy. Meanwhile this revolution; like every revolution, will undoubtedly present a certain danger from the standpoint of defense. What to do? Had our critic really thought out the problem, he would have replied that such a danger is an inescapable historical risk which cannot be evaded, for under the rule of the Bonapartist bureaucracy the USSR is doomed. The very same reasoning equally and wholly applies to the revolutionary national uprising which represents nothing else but a single segment of the political revolution.

Independence and the Plan

It is noteworthy that the most serious argument against independence does not even enter the mind of our critic. The economy of the Soviet Ukraine enters integrally into this plan. The separation of the Ukraine threatens to break down the plan and to lower the productive forces. But this argument, too, is not decisive. An economic plan is not the holy of holies. If national sections within the federation, despite the unified plan, are pulling in opposite directions, it means that the plan does not satisfy them. A plan is the handiwork of men. It can be reconstructed in accordance with new boundaries. In so far as the plan is advantageous for the Ukraine she will herself desire and know how to reach the necessary economic agreement with the Soviet Union, just as she will be able to conclude the necessary military alliance.

Moreover, it is impermissible to forget that the plunder and arbitrary rule of the bureaucracy constitute an important integral part of the current economic plan, and exact a heavy toll from the Ukraine. The plan must he drastically revised first and foremost from this standpoint. The outlived ruling caste is systematically destroying the country’s economy, the army and its culture; it is annihilating the flower of the population and preparing the ground for a catastrophe. The heritage of the revolution can be saved only by an overturn. The bolder and more resolute is the policy of the proletarian vanguard on the national question among others, all the more successful will be the revolutionary overturn, all the lower its overhead expenses.

The Critic’s Ideal Variant

The slogan of an independent Ukraine does not signify that the Ukraine will remain forever isolated, but only this, that she will again determine for herself and of her own free will the question of her interrelations with other sections of the Soviet Union and her western neighbors. Let us take an ideal variant most favorable for our critic. The revolution occurs simultaneously in all parts of the Soviet Union. The bureaucratic octopus is strangled and swept aside. The Constituent Congress of the Soviets is on the order of the day.

The Ukraine expresses a desire to determine anew her relations with the USSR. Even our critic, let us hope, will be ready to extend her this right. But in order freely to determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right of saying yes or no, the Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this Constituent period. There is no other name for this than state independence.

Now let us further suppose that the revolution simultaneously embraces also Poland. Rumania and Hungary. All sections of the Ukrainian people become free and enter into negotiations to join the Soviet Ukraine. At the same time they all express the desire to have their say on the question of the interrelations between a unified Ukraine and the Soviet Union, with Soviet Poland, etc. It is self-evident that to decide all these questions it will be necessary to convene the Constituent Congress of Unified Ukraine. But a “Constituent” Congress signifies nothing else but the Congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.

The Road to Unity

There is every reason to assume that in the event of the triumph of the world revolution the tendencies toward unity will immediately acquire enormous force, and that all Soviet republics will find the suitable forms of ties and collaboration. This goal will be achieved only provided the old compulsory ties, and in consequence old boundaries, are completely destroyed; only provided each of the contracting parties is completely independent. To speed and facilitate this process, to make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes for Ukrainian separatism, as well as the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint struggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.

The petty-bourgeois Ukrainian nationalists consider correct the slogan of an independent Ukraine. But they object to the correlation of this slogan with the proletarian revolution. They want an independent democratic Ukraine and not a Soviet Ukraine. It is unnecessary to enter here into a detailed analysis of this question because it touches not Ukraine alone but rather the general evaluation of our epoch, which we have analyzed many times. We shall outline only the most important aspects.

Democracy is degenerating and perishing even in its metropolitan centers. Only the wealthiest colonial empires or especially privileged bourgeois countries are still able to maintain nowadays a regime of democracy, and even there it is obviously on the downgrade. There is not the slightest basis for hoping that the comparatively impoverished and backward Ukraine will be able to establish and maintain a regime of democracy. Indeed the very independence of the Ukraine would not be long-lived in an imperialist environment. The example of Czechoslovakia is eloquent enough. As long as the laws of imperialism prevail, the fate of small and intermediate nations will remain unstable and unreliable. Imperialism can be overthrown only by the proletarian revolution.

The main section of the Ukrainian nation is represented by present-day Soviet Ukraine. A powerful and purely Ukrainian proletariat has been created there by the development of industry. It is they who are destined to be the leaders of the Ukrainian people in all their future struggles. The Ukrainian proletariat wishes to free itself from the clutches of the bureaucracy. The slogan of a democratic Ukraine is historically belated. The only thing it is good for is perhaps to console bourgeois intellectuals. It will not unite the masses. And without the masses, the emancipation and unification of the Ukraine is impossible.

The Charge of Centrism

Our severe critic flings at us the term “centrism” at every opportunity. According to him, the entire article was written so as to expose the glaring example of our “centrism.” But he does not make even a single attempt to demonstrate wherein precisely consists the “centrism” of the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine. Assuredly, that is no easy task.

Centrism is the name applied to that policy which is opportunist in substance and which seeks to appear as revolutionary in form. Opportunism consists in a passive adaptation to the ruling class and its regime, to that which already exists, including, of course, the state boundaries. Centrism shares completely this fundamental trait of opportunism, but in adapting itself to the dissatisfied workers, centrism veils it by means of radical commentaries.

If we proceed from this scientific definition, it will appear that the position, of our hapless critic is in part and in whole centrist. He takes as a starting point the specific (accidental—from the standpoint of rational and revolutionary politics) boundaries which cut nations into segments, as if this were something immutable. The world revolution, which is for him not living reality but the incantation of a witch-doctor, must unequivocally accept these boundaries as its point of departure.

He is not at all concerned with the centrifugal nationalist tendencies which may flow either into the channels of reaction or the channel of revolution. They violate his lazy administrative blueprint constructed on the model of “first” and “then.” He shies away from the struggle for national independence against bureaucratic strangulation and takes refuge in speculations on the superiorities of socialist unity. In other words, his politics—if scholastic commentaries on other people’s politics may be called politics—bear the worst traits of centrism.

The sectarian is an opportunist who stands in fear of himself. In sectarianism, opportunism (centrism) remains unfolded in its initial stages, like a delicate bud. Presently the bud unfolds, one-third, one-half, and sometimes more. Then we have the peculiar combination of sectarianism and centrism (Vereecken); of sectarianism and low-grade opportunism (Sneevliet). But on occasion the bud shrivels away, without unfolding (Oehler). If I am not mistaken, Oehler is the editor of The Marxist.

July 30, 1939

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Last updated on: 22.4.2007