Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The Right to Self-determination is Our Revolutionary Policy

First Published: The Call, Vol. 3, No. 4, January 1975.
Republished: Class Struggle, No. 1, Spring 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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One of the guiding principles of the October League has always been its support for the right of self-determination for all oppressed nations.

In its founding statement of political unity, the OL states: “The U.S. is a multi-national state. That is, within the borders of the U.S. there exist several oppressed nations and national minorities. It is the resolute duty of the proletariat to support and unite with the struggles of these nations and national minorities, to resolutely uphold in practice the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination (including the right to secede and establish its own independent state), and to defend all other democratic rights.”

The term, “the right to self-determination” has been used by different groups and individuals to mean many different things, often spreading confusion about this revolutionary principle. “Self-determination” has been used by the revisionists in the Communist Party U.S.A. for example, to mean everything from certain groups “doing their own thing” to Black people getting liberal politicians elected.

What is the real view of communists on the right of self-determination? How is the right of self-determination carried out in practice? This article will attempt to examine these questions.

The right of self-determination has always been put forth by communists in a very concrete way in the interests of building unity among the working people of different nations as well as between the working class as a whole and the movements for national liberation. To understand its full meaning, we must first look at the historical development of nations as we know them today.

Nations in the modern sense, developed with the rise of capitalism and its victory over feudalism. With capitalism came commodity production and the need of the capitalists to capture the home market. In order to carry out commodity production in place of the outmoded, backward feudal production, the old organization of society into feudal kingdoms had to be broken up and replaced with politically united, independent territories, whose people spoke the same language. Without a common language, no extensive commerce on the massive scale necessary for large-scale commodity production would be possible. No broad grouping of the population into all its various classes could take place and the necessary close connection between the seller of the commodities and the market would be impossible without the organization of society into nations.

Therefore, if we want to talk scientifically about the meaning of the right of self-determination of nations, we must see it as an expression of the development of national movements trying to form themselves into independent separate states separate from alien national bodies.


As capitalism has developed and moved to its highest stage, imperialism, the nations that had developed capitalism first completely carved up and dominated the entire world. Domination of the colonies in order to plunder their raw materials and cheap labor, is a characteristic feature of the system of imperialism. As Lenin wrote: “Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against ail contingencies in the struggle against competitors...” He added, “The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies.” (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism)

By the time World War I took place, the entire world had been divided between a handful of big imperialist powers on the one hand and the great masses of people in the oppressed nations on the other. War became the only way for imperialism to redivide the world among the great powers. Imperialism brought about a change in the national question and a change in the meaning of the right of self-determination.

Whereas previously, the national question primarily involved the formation of newly developing capitalist nations in place of the old feudal forms of organization, under imperialism, the national question developed into a question of liberating the oppressed peoples in the colonies from the yoke of imperialism. From simply being a particular and internal question of inequality within each country, the national question became a world problem and a worldwide struggle linked to the rise of socialism and socialist revolution, rather than capitalism.

As J.V. Stalin wrote: “Leninism broadened the conception of self-determination, interpreting it as the right of the oppressed peoples of the dependent countries and colonies to complete secession, as the right of nations to independent existence as states.” (Foundations of Leninism)

In viewing the national question within the borders of the U.S. and particularly the struggle against national oppression of the Afro-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian-American, Native American Indian and other peoples in its various forms, it is important to see that these struggles are all component parts of the world-wide struggle against imperialism and colonialism. Some of these questions, for example the Afro-American question, are examples of oppressed nations right within the borders of the U.S. Others, including the Puerto Rican question and Afro-Americans outside the deep South, are questions of oppressed national minorities. The Indian question is a special national question due to the fact thai the Native American peoples developed as peoples, before the rise of capitalism, into pre-national forms. But all these questions are a part of the general national and colonial question in the world and are questions of anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle. In his “Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question” Lenin listed the question of the “Negroes in America” along with the other major national liberation struggles in the world, as part of the National and Colonial Questions.


By upholding the right of self-determination for the Afro-American and other oppressed nations, we are not necessarily advocating separation of these nations from the oppressor nation. While defending the RIGHT of these nations to separate and form their own independent political states, we at the same time examine each case in particular to find the solution to the national question that will link it most closely with the overall struggle for socialism. As Lenin said: “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation. This demand therefore, is not the equivalent of a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states.”

Lenin also pointed out that the demand for the right of self-determination “implies only a consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression.” (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination) In each case, he explained, the question of secession vs. federation would have to be dealt with on the basis of which choice would unite the working class and further the cause of socialism, which in the final analysis is the only system that can fully emancipate the oppressed nations.

He compared the right of self-determination with the right of divorce, showing that equality in marriage necessitated the right of divorce, while equality among nations necessitated the right of self-determination. “To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separatism,” Lenin said, “is as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties.” (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination)

With the development of the U.S. into an advanced capitalist (imperialist) country and the conclusion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, the emancipation of the oppressed nations and nationalities within the borders of the U.S. became completely bound up with the working class struggle for socialism. Despite the illusions being spread by the revisionists of the CPUSA and various petty bourgeois ’nationalists, that national oppression can be ended under capitalism, the truth is that capitalism is the basis for national oppression. As Mao Tsetung wrote: ”The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the Black people.” (Statement in Support of Afro-Americans in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism)

The concrete question of secession or federation of an oppressed nation can only be examined in the context of which will push the class struggle for socialism forward. Sometimes a national movement within a country can objectively hinder or weaken the overall revolutionary struggle, or be used by reactionaries to break the unity of the revolutionary movement. In such cases, the working class and its leadership is under no obligation to support such a separatist movement. Speaking of such a possibility, Lenin said: “The several demands of democracy, including self-determination are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement...” (Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up) Lenin pointed out however, that even with this possibility, it would be “ridiculous to delete the demand” for self-determination from the party’s program. An example of a national movement being used by the imperialists for their own gains was the Bangla Desh secessionist movement which was inspired by the Soviet social-imperialists and the Indian expansionists in order to dismember Pakistan, further oppress the Bengali people and surround China. It is for these reasons that communists around the world refused to support such a movement.

Whether or not the people of the oppressed nation favor secession or federation at any given period, it is still the duty of the working class of the oppressor nation to raise the slogan of the right of self-determination. This serves as a guarantee to the oppressed nation that the working class will not take the same chauvinist stand as the capitalists and it furthers the cause of anti-imperialist unity. Lenin pointed out that: “It is our right and duty to treat every Social-Democrat (Communist – ed.) of an oppressor nation who fails to conduct such propaganda as a scoundrel and an imperialist. This is an absolute demand, even where the chance of secession being possible and ’practicable’ before the introduction of socialism is only one in a thousand.” (The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up)

The right of self-determination can not be put off until “after socialism.” This view of “waiting for socialism” is put forth by the Trotskyites of various stripes in order to liquidate the national question. The right of self-determination is raised now in order to build unity and to rally the people in the liberation struggle. The movement against national oppression is the closest ally of the working class and objectively is directed against imperialism. By consistently upholding the right of self-determination in practice, the working class shows the people of the oppressed nation that its program of struggle NOW and under socialism starts with the fight for an end to all national oppression.

Of course socialism is the only system that creates the conditions for an end to national oppression but socialist revolution alone is no guarantee that this oppression will end. Rather, power in the hands of the working class means, only that no class can profit from national oppression and that the basic conditions for that oppression are being eliminated. Lenin said that, “Just because the proletariat has carried but a social revolution it will not become holy and immune from errors and weaknesses. But it will be inevitably led to realize this truth by possible errors (and selfish interest–attempts to saddle others).” Lenin further pointed out that nationalism of the oppressed nation will not immediately disappear either. He said: “National antipathies will not disappear so quickly: the hatred–and perfectly legitimate hatred–of an oppressed nation for its oppressor will last for a while; it will evaporate only after the victory of socialism and after the final establishment of completely democratic relations between nations. If we are to be faithful to socialism, we must even now educate the masses in the spirit of internationalism, which is impossible in the oppressor nations without advocating freedom of secession for oppressed nations.” (Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up)

While upholding the right of self-determination and the right of an oppressed nation to secede (separate^ and establish its own government in its historic homeland, we must also deal with the question of the people of the oppressed nation who have been dispersed from their homeland and scattered through the oppressor nation. An example of this dispersal can be seen with the history of the Afro-American people of whom millions were forced off the land and driven into the industrial centers of the U.S. Outside the Black Belt South, their area of historic development as a nation, these Afro-Americans constitute an oppressed national minority along with many others. Concentrated in ghettoes and barrios, these oppressed national minorities are the victims of intense discrimination and sometimes even worse national oppression than those members of the oppressed nations remaining in the Black Belt, Mexico or Puerto Rico. Here some form of autonomy and self-rule must be fought for as well as an overall struggle for full democratic rights as part of the general class demands of the working class.

The fight for the right of self-determination is closely linked to the struggle for democratic rights in general. While the fight for democratic rights is for equality and democratization of society in general, the right of self-determination is the crowning point of that struggle and the highest expression of democracy between nations. Whereas the struggle for democratic rights is basically a fight for reforms, the struggle for self-determination is one that cannot be won without the revolutionary winning of state power. In raising the demand for democratic rights, for example the right of Black students to attend integrated schools in Boston, we also link this demand to the right of self-determination in order to show that the roots of national oppression in Boston lie in the oppression of the Afro-American people as a nation, with full rights to self-determination in the Black Belt. We link this struggle in much the same way that the economic struggle of the workers must be linked to the fight for socialism. In this sense, the right of self-determination is the highest form of democratic rights of an oppressed nation. Stalin pointed out: “But the persons constituting a nation do not always live in one compact mass; they are frequently divided into groups, and in that form are interspersed among alien national organisms. It is capitalism which drives them into various regions and cities in search of a livelihood. But when they enter foreign national territories and there form minorities these groups are made to suffer by the local national majorities in the way of restrictions on their language, schools, etc. Hence national conflicts.” (Marxism and the National Question)

At the time Stalin wrote these words, there were some, like the Jewish Bundists who were putting forth the idea of “cultural autonomy” or the cultural separation of the different nationalities in separate schools, social organizations, and political parties, etc. Stalin pointed out that in such cases as this, some form of regional autonomy, based on territory must be carried out as well as the general fight for democratic rights in all spheres of society. At times when self-determination is not applicable (i.e. where full national development never took place) or where the people of the oppressed nation reject secession, regional autonomy can be implemented as the basis to bring about unity and equality.

To show the difference between cultural autonomy and regional autonomy, Stalin said, “The advantage of regional autonomy consists, first of all, in the fact that it does not deal with a fiction bereft of territory, but with a definite population inhabiting a definite territory. Next it does not strengthen national barriers; on the contrary, it breaks down these barriers and unites the population in such a manner as to open the way for division of a different kind, division according to classes.”

In the People’s Republic of China such a program has been instituted and the more than 50 formerly oppressed nationalities (some numbering less than 1,000 people) all received some form of regional autonomy. While remaining part of the People’s Republic of China, they have the power of local self-government and the development of their national language, culture and schools in these areas. In the U.S. this is one part of the communist program on the national question and the right of self-determination. In areas like Harlem, South Side of Chicago, Watts, etc.. Afro-Americans must have some form of regional, district or community autonomy. This also applies to other nationalities facing similar conditions of oppression, for example, Native Americans.

In conclusion, the right of self-determination is a basic component part of the communist program of the October League on the national question. It must also become a component part of the program of the new communist party when it is formed. We cannot accept those who call for ”unity” in a new party, but who refuse to uphold in practice, the right of self-determination of Afro-American people and all other oppressed nations.

The right of self-determination, while not an abstract call for separation of nations or the breaking up of big countries into small ones, is put forth as a guarantee of democracy and political power for the long oppressed peoples of the oppressed nations and national minorities. When raised by the workers of the oppressor nation, it represents an act of solidarity with the national liberation movements and a sign that they have made a clean break with their own capitalist class. When raised by the people of the oppressed nation, it serves as a rallying cry for revolution against imperialism and its reactionary policies.

The right of self-determination must be applied to the concrete conditions in each country with the unity of the class struggle and the fight against imperialism and the need for working-class leadership in the forefront. It is only on these revolutionary Marxist-Leninist principles that a genuine multi-national communist party can be built and that the alliance between the workers’ movement and the national liberation struggles can be firmly cemented.