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The New International, July 1944

N. Lenin

Bolshevism and Self-Determination



From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, pp. 205–208. [A]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Lenin’s speech was published for the first time in English in The Liberator (New York) in 1919, but in abbreviated form and unsatisfactory translation. The full text in English is to be found in the American edition of Lenin’s Selected Works, Volume VIII, pp. 335 et seq. The text includes his introductory report on the party program delivered at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) on March 19, 1919, and his concluding remarks on the question the same day. We print from these two speeches those parts of it which Lenin devoted to the national question and the slogan of the right of self-determination. As may be seen, Lenin’s remarks were directly mainly against N.I. Bukharin, who opposed Lenin’s position on the disputed question as early as the first days of the World War, and continued his opposition in the first years of the Bolshevik Revolution, abandoning it later. Obviously, Lenin’s speech is of particularly topical interest today. We reprint it here not only in the interests of the general theoretical education of the Marxian movement, but because of the special need today of emphasizing Lenin’s position on the national question in the Fourth International, where so much confusion, if not downright ignorance, prevails on this score. – Ed.

The old “economism” of the years 1894–1902 argued thus: The Narodniki [Populists] are refuted. Capitalism has triumphed in Russia. Therefore there is no point in thinking of political revolutions. The practical conclusion was: either “the economic struggle for the workers, the political struggle for the liberals.” This was a curvet to the right. Or – instead of the political revolution, a general strike for the socialist overturn. This was a curvet to the left, as represented in a – now forgotten – brochure of a Russian “Economist” at the end of the Nineties.

A new “economism” is now arising, which argues with two analogous curvets: “To the right” – we are against the liberation of the oppressed peoples, against the struggle against annexations – although this is not yet thought out to the end or expressed to the end. “To the left” – we are against the minimum program (i.e., against the struggle for reforms and democracy), because it “contradicts” the socialist revolution.

More than a year has already elapsed since this incipient tendency made its appearance before some comrades, at the Berne Conference in 1915. Fortunately, only one single comrade, who encountered general disapproval, insisted upon these ideas of “imperialist economism” to the very end of the conference, and formulated them in writing in the form of special “Theses.” Nobody adhered to these Theses.

Later two other comrades associated themselves with the theses of this comrade against self-determination (without recognizing the inseparable connection of this question with the general position of the “Theses” mentioned above). And the appearance of the Dutch Program [1] in February, 1916, which was published in No. 3 of the Bulletin of the International Socialist Commission, revealed this “misunderstanding” immediately and prompted the author of the original “Theses” once more to resurrect his whole “imperialist economism” all over again in its entirety and not as applied to one single, allegedly “partial” point.

It seems absolutely necessary again and again to call the attention of the comrades in question to the fact that they have fallen into a swamp, that their “ideas” have nothing whatever in common either with Marxism or with revolutionary social democracy. To leave the matter “in secret” any longer is inadmissible: that would mean to aid and abet ideological confusion and to turn it in the worst direction, namely, of muteness, of “partial” conflicts, of endless “friction,” etc. On the contrary, it is our duty to insist absolutely and quite categorically that the questions raised must be thought out and finally brought to a close.

A Fundamental Question

The editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat, in the theses on self-determination (which appeared in German as a reprint from No. 2 of Vorbote), purposely brought the matter out in the press in an impersonal form, yet very amply, emphasizing especially the connection of the question of self-determination with the general question of the struggle for reforms, for democracy, the inadmissibility of ignoring the political side, etc. In his comments on the theses of the editorial board on self-determination, the author of the original Theses (of “imperialist economism”) solidarities himself with the Dutch program and shows with particular clearness by this very fact that the question of self-determination, as it is put by the founders of the incipient tendency, is not at all a “partial” but rather a general and fundamental question.

The representatives of the Zimmerwald Left received the program of the Dutch some time between February 5 and 8, 1916, at the Berne session of the ISC. No member of this Left, Radek also not excepted, expressed himself in favor of this program, for it unites promiscuously points like “expropriation of the banks” and “abolition of customs duties,” “dissolution of the upper chamber (Senate)” and more of the same. All the representatives of the Zimmerwald Left, with hardly a word being uttered – yes, almost without a word, with only a shrug of the shoulders – unanimously turned a cold shoulder to the Dutch program as being, taken altogether, notoriously unsuitable.

The author of the original Theses written early in 1915, on the other hand, liked this program so much that he declared: “In essence, I said no more than this myself” (early in 1915), “the Dutch thought it out to the end”: “They have the economic side – expropriation of the banks and the big factories, the political – the republic, etc. Quite right!”

In actuality the Dutch thought nothing “out to the end,” but supplied a very much un-thought-out program. It is the sad fate of Russia that many people among us snatch up precisely the un-thought-out, if only it is the latest thing ...

The author of the Theses of 1915 believes that the editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat has fallen into a contradiction when it “itself” raised in § 8 (Concrete Tasks) the “expropriation of the banks” and even added the word “immediate” (plus “dictatorial measures”). “And how they ran me down in Berne because of this!” exclaims the author of the Theses of 1915 indignantly, thinking back upon the discussions in Berne early in 1915.

This author has forgotten and overlooked a “trifle”: the editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat analyzes clearly two cases in § 8: first case – the socialist revolution has begun. Then, it says there, “immediate expropriation of the banks,” etc. Second case: the socialist revolution does not begin – then the talk about these fine things must be set aside.

Inasmuch as presently the socialist revolution in the sense mentioned has admittedly not yet begun, the program of the Dutch is absurd. The author of the Theses, however, “deepens” the matter when he returns (each time at the same spot) to his old mistake: to convert political demands (like “dissolution of the upper chamber”?) into a “political formulation of the social revolution.”

After the author has moved around in a circle for a full year, he reaches his old mistake. Here is the “salient point” of his misfortune: he cannot get clear on the question of how intervening imperialism should be linked with the struggle for reforms and with the struggle for democracy – just the same way that “economism” of blessed memory did not understand how to link intervening capitalism with the struggle for democracy.

Hence the complete confusion in the question of the “unrealizability” of democratic demands under imperialism.

Hence the ignoring of the political struggle now, today, immediately, as at all times, which is inadmissible for a Marxist (and it fitting only on the lips of an “Economist,” a supporter of Rabochaya Mysl).

Hence the stiff-necked characteristic of “falling” from the recognition of imperialism into an apology of imperialism (as the “Economists” of blessed memory fell from the recognition of capitalism into the apology of capitalism).

And so forth and so on.

To analyze in all detail the mistakes of the author of the Theses of 1915 in his comments on the theses of the editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat on self-determination, is quite impossible, for every sentence is wrong! After all, you cannot

write brochures or books in refutation of “comments” when the initiators of “imperialist economism” move around in a circle for a whole year and pertinaciously refuse to concern themselves with what ought to be their downright party duty if they wanted to take a serious attitude toward political questions, namely, with a thought-out, rounded-out presentation of what they describe as “our differences of opinion.”

Bukharin’s Basic Error

I am compelled to confine myself to brief indications of how the author applies his basic error or how he “supplements” it.

The author believes I contradict myself: In 1914 I wrote (Prozveshchenye) [2] that it is absurd to seek self-determination “in the programs of the Western European socialists,” and in 1916 I declare that self-determination is especially urgent.

The author did not think of the fact (!!) that these “programs” were written in 1875, 1880 and 1890!

Further, according to the paragraphs (of the theses of the editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat on self-determination):

§ 1. The same “economistic” refusal to see and to pose political questions. Inasmuch as socialism will create the economic foundation for the abolition of national oppression in politics, therefore our author refuses to formulate our political tasks in this field! This is simply funny!

Inasmuch as the victorious proletariat does not reject wars against the bourgeoisie of other countries, therefore the author refuses to formulate our political tasks in the field of national oppression!! All examples of continual violations of Marxism and of logic: or, if you will, the expression of the logic of the basic mistakes of “imperialist economism.”

§ 2. The opponents of self-determination have fallen into frightful confusion with their references to “unrealizability.”

The editorial board of the Sotsialdemokrat explains to them two possible meanings of unrealizability and their mistake in both cases.

The author of the Theses of 1915, however, who does not even attempt to give his conception of “unrealizability,” that is, accepts our explanation that two different things are being mixed up here, continues this confusion!

He ties up crises with “imperialist politics”; our political economist has forgotten that there were crises before imperialism! ...

To speak of the economic unrealizability of self-determination means to create confusion – the editorial board explained. The author does not reply, does not explain, that he deems self-determination economically unrealizable; he evacuates the disputed position by shifting to politics (”nevertheless” unrealizable), although he was told quite clearly that under imperialism the republic is politically just exactly as “unrealizable” as self-determination.

Driven into a corner here, the author makes a “leap” again: he acknowledges the republic as well as the entire minimum program only as a “political formulation of the social revolution”!!!

The author abandons the defense of the “economic” unrealizability of self-determination by shifting over to politics. He transfers the political unrealizability to the question of the entire minimum program. Here again there is not an iota of Marxism, not an iota of logic, apart from the logic of “imperialist economism.”

The author wants (without having reflected and without offering anything coherent, without making the effort to work out a program of his own) imperceptibly to expunge the minimum program of the Social Democratic Party! No wonder he has not budged an inch for a whole year!!

Kautskyanism and Democratic Demands

The question of the struggle against Kaukskyanism is again not a partial but a general and fundamental question of the present day. The author has not understood this struggle. Just as the “Economists” transformed the struggle against the Narodniks into an apology for capitalism, the author transforms the struggle against Kautskyanism into an apology for imperialism (this applies also to § 3).

The mistake of Kautskyanism consists in this, that it poses in a reformist way such demands and in such a moment as cannot be posed otherwise than in a revolutionary way (the author, however, has the notion, that the mistake of Kautskyanism consists in putting up these demands in general, just as the “Economists” “conceived” the struggle against Narodnikism in the sense that “down with absolutism” was Narodnikism).

The mistake of Kautskyanism consists in this, that it directs correct democratic demands backward, to peaceful capitalism, instead of forward, to the social revolution (the author, however, has the notion that these demands are incorrect).

§ 3. See above. The question of “Federation” is likewise evaded by the author. The same basic mistake of the same “economism”: the inability to pose political questions. [3]

§ 4. “From self-determination flows the defense of the fatherland,” stubbornly repeats the author. His mistake here consists in this, that he wants to convert the rejection of defense of the fatherland into a stereotype, wants to derive it not from the historico-concrete peculiarity of the given war, but “in general.” This is not Marxism.

The author was told long ago, and he has not refuted it: Just you try to discover such a formulation of the struggle against national oppression or civil inequality, a formulation as would not justify “defense of the fatherland.” You will not be able to.

Does this then mean that we are opponents of the struggle against national oppression because defense of the fatherland can be derived from it?

No, for we are not against “defense of the fatherland” “in general” (see the resolutions of our party), but against the glossing over of .the given imperialist war by means of this deceitful slogan.

The author wants (but he cannot; here too nothing but spasms for a whole year ...) to put the question of the “defense of the fatherland” falsely down to the very ground, un-historically.

Monism and Dualism

The chatter about “dualism” shows that the author does not understand what monism is and what dualism is.

If I “unite” a shoebrush and a mammal, will that be “monism”?

If I say that to reach goal A you must


go left from point B and right from point C, will that be “dualism”?

Is the position of the proletariat of the oppressor and the oppressed nations toward national oppression the same? No, it is not the same, neither economically nor politically and ideologically, spiritually, etc.


Therefore to reach one goal (amalgamation of the nations) some will proceed so and others otherwise from different points of departure. To deny this is a “monism” that unites a shoebrush with a mammal.

“The proletarians of the oppressed nation must not say that” (come out for self-determination) – that is how the author of the Theses “understood” the editorial board.

That’s a curious thing! Nothing of the kind is said in the theses. The author either did not read to the end, or else he did not reflect at all.

§ 5. See above on Kautskyanism.

§ 6. The author was told of three types of countries in the world as a whole. The author “replies” by snatching at a “case.” This is – casuistry, but not politics.

You want to know a “case”: “and Belgium”?

See the brochure of Lenin and Zinoviev: it says there that we would be for the defense of Belgium (even by means of war) if the concrete war were different.

Do you not agree with this?

Then say so!

You have not reflected on the question of why the Social-Democracy is against the “defense of the fatherland.”

We are not against it for the reason you think we are, for your way of putting the question (spasm, but not putting) is unhistorical. That is .my answer to the author.

To call it “sophistry” when we who justify a war for shaking off the national yoke, do not justify the given imperialist war which is carried on by both sides for the sake of strengthening national oppression, means to employ a “strong” word, but not to reflect in the slightest.

The author would like to pose the question of “defense of the fatherland” in a “more left” manner, and what emerges (after a whole year) is – one single confusion!

§ 7. The author criticizes: “not touched on at all is the question of ‘peace conditions’ in general.”

That is called criticism: a question is not touched on that we do not even pose!!

But the question of annexations, in which the “imperialist economists” have landed in confusion, this time together with the Dutch and with Radek, is “touched on” here and posed.

Either you reject the immediate slogan, Against the Old and New Annexations – (which is not less “unrealizable” under imperialism than self-determination; in Europe as in the colonies) – and then your apology for imperialism becomes open instead of concealed.

Or you acknowledge this slogan (as Radek did in the press) – and then you have acknowledged the self-determination of nations under another name!!

“Western European Bolshevism”

§ 8. The author proclaims a “Bolshevism on a Western European scale” (“not its position,” he adds).

I attach no importance to the desire to cling to the word “Bolshevism,” because some of the “old Bolsheviks” I know – may God have mercy! I can only say that the “Bolshevism on a Western European scale” which the author proclaims is,

I am profoundly convinced, no Bolshevism and no Marxism, but only a small variant of the same very old “economism.”

In my opinion, it is in the highest degree inadmissible and unserious, not in the spirit of the party – to proclaim a new Bolshevism for a whole year and to let the matter rest there. Is it not high time to reflect and to provide the comrades with a coherent and systematic presentation of this “Bolshevism on a Western European scale”?

The author has not demonstrated the difference between the colonies and the oppressed nations in Europe, nor will he be able (as applied to the given question) to demonstrate it.

* * *

With the Dutch and the PSD [4], the denial of self-determination is not only, and even not so much, a matter of confusion, for Gorter has acknowledged it in fact, just as did the Zimmerwald Declaration of the Poles [5], but much rather the result of the special position of their nations (small nations with century-old traditions and Great Power pretensions).

It is the height of thoughtlessness and naiveté to take over mechanically and uncritically and to repeat what has risen among others in decades of struggle against the nationalist bourgeoisie which has been duping the people. These people have taken over precisely that which should not be taken over!


1. This was the draft program of the Dutch Revolutionary-Socialist Union (chairman, Roland-Hoist) and the Social-Democratic Party of Holland (SDP – Wynkoop, etc.), distributed at the enlarged Conference of the International Socialist Commission in February in Berne and reprinted in No. 3 of the Bulletin of the ISC of February 29, 1916, under the title, A Draft of the RSV and the SDAP (SDP?) of Holland. (Note of the Lenin Institute)

2. The article referred to was written by Lenin in the Bolshevik periodical, Prozveshchenye (Enlightenment), Nos. 4, 5 and 6, April, May and June 1914: On the Right of Self-Determination of Nations. English translation in Selected Works, Vol. IV. – Trans.

3. “We do not fear dissolution,” writes the author, “we do not defend state frontiers.” Just try to give an exact political formulation on this point! That’s the salient point, that you cannot do it: you are prevented from doing it by “economistic” blindness toward the questions of political democracy. (Note by Lenin)

4. The former were the left-wing: Dutch social-democrats (Wijnkoop, Pannekoek, Gorter; Roland-Holst) who split from the official Social-Democratic Party (SDAP) in 1909 and formed the Social-Democratic Party of Holland (SDP). The latter was the Social-Democratic Party of Poland whose outstanding spokesman, particularly on the national question, was Rosa Luxemburg.

5. A declaration signed at the First International Socialist Conference in Zimmerwald in 1915 by the representatives of the Polish Social-Democracy and the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), protesting against the German and Austrian governments for robbing the Polish people of the “possibility of determining its destiny.”

Note by ETOL

A. In the following issue of New International (Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, p. 269) the following correction appeared:

The article, Bolshevism and Self-Determination – Two Speeches by Lenin, in the July 1944 issue of this magazine was meant to include only the two pieces by Lenin which appeared under the title, On the Program of the Party. Lenin’s polemic against Bukharin (written in 1915), which appears directly under the head, Bolshevism and Self-Determination, is an entirely separate piece, and should not have appeared under this head.

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