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The New International, July 1944

Notes of the Month

Lenin’s Solution of the Problem


From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, pp. 199–202.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Czar was not only the despotic overlord of the Russians, but of a score of other nationalities. The empire was a Russian prison for Poles, Letts, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Turkish, Tartar and Iranian peoples, and a dozen others (after the revolution it was revealed that the Czar had ruled over many dozens of more or less distinctive peoples whose very existence had been obliterated by Rusian chauvinism). The upper-class minority ruled and exploited the lower-class majority; the Russian minority ruled and exploited the non-Russian majority – class exploitation was joined with national oppression.

From the very beginning, as an obscure political minority with no immediate prospects for power, Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks who, like all Marxists, were fundamentally federalists (in the American and not the European sense, i.e., centralists), incorporated into their program the militant demand for the right of national self-determination including the right of secession. Lenin’s writings in defense of this position alone would make up several fat volumes. In supporting this right, Lenin did not at all put forth the condition that the separatist struggle of an oppressed nation had to be led by the socialist proletariat. As in China, so in Poland, Lenin was prepared to support a popular struggle to overthrow the foreign yoke even if this struggle were headed by the proletariat’s class enemy, the national bourgeoisie. No people, no nation, has the right to oppress another, to annex or rule it against its will, he repeated, and it is the socialist working class, especially of the ruling and oppressing country, that must inscribe this principle upon its banner.

But perhaps this was merely a demagogic trick, aimed at creating difficulties for Lenin’s main enemy, the Russian Czar, something on the order of Hitler’s call for freedom of the Arabs ... from English rule, or Hull’s call for freedom of peoples ruled ... by others? Perhaps this was meant merely to aid Lenin to power, after which the right of national self-determination was discarded as a superfluous political device?

No, Lenin fought for it under the Czar, fought for it under the Provisional Government of Kerensky, and carried it out in fact under the Government of the Soviets.

The February Revolution gave a tremendous impulsion to the national movements all around the periphery of Russia proper. The non-Russian peoples demanded of the “democratic” regime that succeeded the autocracy: “If you are not Russians of the Czarist stripe, if you are democratic Russians, if you are not oppressors, then grant us the right of national freedom denied us by the Romanovs. Then we will be able to and we shall live side by side with you not as slaves but as comrades and friends, in peaceful cohabitation.”

Kerensky, and the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionists supporting him, rejected the demand, either with a blunt No! or with stalling promises never meant to be kept. The Bolsheviks stuck to their principles. To the peasants they said: “You want the land? Take it! We will support you in the taking of it!” To the non-Russian peoples they said: “You want national freedom, the right to determine your own constitution? Take it! We are not Russians like the Czarists or the spurious democrats. We do not aim to oppress you in a new guise. We will support you by word and deed. You will learn from this concrete experience that the proletarian Russians are not like the Russian magnates, that they do not aim to rule and oppress you but to live in brotherly peace with you. We would prefer as revolutionary socialists, to see your struggle for freedom led by those who hold our political views. But we will support your struggle even if it is led by your own landlords or bourgeois politicians or priests and mullahs.”

The Bolsheviks In Power

But once in power? Let us see. A week after the Bolshevik uprising, the new Soviet of People’s Commisars proclaimed “1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia. 2. Their free right of self-determination including secession and the formation of an independent state. 3. Abolition of any and every national-religious privilege and limitation. 4. Free development of the national minorities and ethnographic groups populating the territory of Russia.” The words became deeds. On December 3, 1917, the Soviet of People’s Commissars recognized the Ukrainian People’s (not yet Soviet!) Republic and “its right to separate completely from Russia or to enter into negotiations with the Republic of Russia on federative reciprocal relations ... Everything relating to the national rights and the national independence of the Ukrainian people is immediately recognized by us, the Soviet of People’s Commissars, without limitations and unconditionally.” In January, 1920, despite the fact that eight months earlier the Polish bourgeoisie and landlords had overthrown the Soviet power in Lithuania and White Russia and was dreaming of an annexationist campaign to extend its territories “to the frontiers of 1772,” the All-Russian Central Executive Committee reiterated its recognition of the independence of the (reactionary!) Polish Republic, “proceeding not from accidental, episodic, military or diplomatic considerations, but from the unshakeable principle of national self-determination.”

The Case of Finland

The case of Finland was particularly interesting. A personal account of what happened in the Council of People’s Commissars as early as December 1917 is given us in the memoirs, not of a Bolshevik, but of the Social-Revolutionary Commissar of Justice, Steinberg (the Left SR’s were then in a coalition government with the Bolsheviks). The narrative is faithful and most illuminating, especially from the pen of an adversary whose memoirs are filled with vigorous criticism of the Bolsheviks and Bolshevism.

... Upon the table was laid a big, thick document decorated with emblems and ribbons. Eyes opened wide. What was that? – It was the decree on the emancipation of Finland! For centuries Finland had fought for its independence; both the Czarist and the Kerensky governments had thrown rocks in the road. The scholars of political science declared that only the National Assembly of Russia could proclaim this independence. The Finns based themselves on their own national right. Now their revolutionary [bourgeois] government came to us and asked if they were to receive their right of self-determination. What a question! – “Certainly! Right on the spot! – Here, read the decree adopted by the ZIK [Central Executive of the Soviets]: ‘In reply to the request of the Finnish government for recognition of the independence of the Finnish Republic, the Council of Commissars decides in complete accord with the principle of the right of self-determination of nations, the following: State independence for the Finnish Republic.’”

Brief and clear words! Now the decree was to be undersigned. We stood up one after the other and wrote our signatures with special satisfaction. We were fully aware that the present hero of Finland, Svinhufvud, who was once banished by the Czar, was our open social foe and that he would spare none of us in the future. Nevertheless, we emancipate the Finnish people from Russian oppression, and there is one historic injustice less in the world.

But as Lenin was putting the decree aside, the Secretary [of the Council] Bontch-Bruyevich came in and said in some embarrassment: “They want to thank you for the decree ... we must go out to them ...”

It was Svinhufvud himself who had come to Petrograd with a small delegation to negotiate the affair, and who now, on leaving the city, wanted to greet the government personally. But who should go out to see him? Lenin shrugged his shoulders, laughed a little embarrassedly, and declined. “What should I say to this bourgeois?”

We looked around: Trotsky was asked to welcome the dear guest. He too refused with an energetic shake of the head. An idea occurred: “The Commissar of Justice ought to go. He signed the decree formally.” – “What shall I say to him?” I evaded laughingly. “In my official capacity all I can do is arrest them!” – “Yes,” said Trotsky, with a wry smile, “all the arresting you’re going to do ...” “But this will not do,” said Bontch-Bruyevich excitedly, “they’re waiting for you.” And in his shabby clothes, with head bent forward, Lenin finally did walk out. We laughed and cracked jokes, and after a while he came back bashfully: “Now you see. I said right away I can’t do it ... The first word out of my mouth was ‘Comrade!’” – “Doesn’t matter,” Trotsky reassured him laughingly, “if we ever fall into their hands, they’ll count it in your favor.” – (I. Steinberg, Als ich Volkskommissar war, Munich 1929, pp. 181)

An utterly unprecedented story! Search high and low through the history of any bourgeois government in the world and you will not find a story like it! Right of self-determination? Secession? Independence? “What a question! Certainly! Right on the spot!” How could such an action fail to make the deepest and most lasting impression: upon the Russian people, as part of their education in the spirit of true internationalism, socialist democracy; upon the Finnish people, who were shown that the Bolsheviks were not like “the Russians” (i.e., the Czar or Kerensky) but were revolutionary socialists in Russia to whom all forms of oppression are repugnant, with whom another people can live in peace and harmony despite political differences; upon all people, who were shown that if any conflict thereafter arose between Russia and Finland, the responsibility would lie exclusively with the rulers of the Finns.

Results of Bolshevik Policy

At one stroke almost, the Bolsheviks accumulated a tremendous capital, not only for the Russian people, but for world socialism. The capital yielded great dividends, so to speak. Lenin pointed this out more than a year later at the first Congress of Toiling Cossacks, when he recalled how the Entente powers sought to drive all the nations bordering on Russia into armed intervention against the Soviets with the cry that they, Finland included, would thereby save freedom, civilization and culture throughout the world!

In this manner they tried to drive all these small states to the struggle against the Bolsheviks. But this also failed twice, because the peace policy of the Bolsheviks was seriously meant and was deemed more sincere even by their enemies than the peace policy of all the other countries; because a whole series of states said to themselves: no matter how much we hate the Great Russia that oppressed us, we nevertheless know that it was Yudenich, Koltchak and Deni-kin who oppressed us, but. not the Bolsheviks. The former head of the White Guardist Finnish government did not forget that he personally received from my hands in November 1917 a document in which we unhesitatingly declared that we recognize unconditionally the independence of Finland.

At that time it seemed to be a mere gesture. It was thought that the uprising of the Finnish workers would wipe it out. No, such things are not forgotten, especially when they are confirmed by the entire policy of a given party. And even the Finnish bourgeois government said to itself: “Let us think it over. We have learned a good deal in the 150 years of oppression by the Russian Czars. If we fight against the Bolsheviks, we will thereby bring Yudenich, Koltchak and Denikin to the helm. But who are these gentlemen? Don’t we know them? Aren’t they the same Czarist generals who oppressed Finland, Latvia, Poland and a whole series of other peoples? So, shall we stand by our enemies against the Bolsheviks? No, we will wait!”

They did not dare to refuse directly; for they are dependent upon England. They did not support us directly, they dallied, they tergiversated, wrote notes, sent delegations, set up commissions, took part in conferences and – conferred so long till Yudenich, Koltchak and Denikin were beaten and the second campaign of the Entente had failed. We remained the victors.

If all these little states had marched against us – they would have been given hundreds of millions of dollars, the best cannons, the best equipment, English instructors who have experience in war – if they had marched against us, we would undoubtedly have suffered defeat. Everybody can see this perfectly. But they did not march against us, because they had to acknowledge that the Bolsheviks were more honest than the others. When the Bolsheviks declare that they recognize the independence of all peoples, that the policy of Czarist Russia was built upon the oppression of other peoples and that they never supported this policy, nor will they ever support it, that they will never conduct a war for the oppression of a people – when they say this, they are believed. We have found this out not from the Lettish or Polish Bolsheviks, but from the Polish, Lettish and Ukrainian bourgeoisie. (Collected Works [German edition), Vol. xxv, pp. 61f.)

How far Lenin was from the idea that the right of national self-determination was a “mere gesture” or demogoguery for the “public,” may be. judged from his remarkable speech at the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March, 1919, where, in the privacy of the closed sessions of his comrades, he once more defended the principle with the greatest resoluteness, not only for small colonial lands, but even for such countries as Poland and Germany. The Stalinist regime has squandered all the capital accumulated in this field by Lenin and the Bolsheviks – every last cent of it – and the Finnish,

Polish or German people who regard its advance as the herald of enslavement, and not of emancipation, are entirely right.

The unhesitating accordance of national fredeom, the right of secession, to all the peoples and nationalities who formerly made up the Czarist Empire, may seem at first to be in harmony with the “abstract prinicples of democracy,” but to harmonize badly with the basic need of economic and political union of peoples. But only at first blush. Lenin understood that the first prerequisite, under the concrete circumstances, of union was – separation! The Russian Bolsheviks had to demonstrate in practise to all these peoples, firstly, that they were Bolsheviks and not “Russians like the Czar”; and secondly, that they had no intention of “imposing Communism by force” upon other peoples. They took into account the terrible national suspicions, prejudices and hatreds that national oppression under the Czars had generated among the non-Russian peoples, both inside and outside the old Empire. They knew that it did not suffice to prove on paper, by mere wordy argument, the advantages and superiority of union over self-enclosure within a large number of weak, helpless, un-viable little states. The only way to prove it was by deeds. The deeds began with the acknowledgment in practise of the right of national self-determination. Only thereby would the non-Russian peoples come to the conclusion that with “these Russians,” that is, with the socialist state of Russia, it is both possible and desirable to live in peace and harmony and prosperity; and finally, that even if they moved under one roof with “these Russians” their national feelings, traditions and culture would not be offended, that they would enjoy exactly the same rights, benefits and privileges as the Russians themselves, and that the benefits would be great by virtue of the pooling, under joint and planned direction, of the resources and labors of all.

That is how the Soviet Union came into existence, and it was the socialist proletariat, that is, the working class led by the Bolsheviks who achieved it.

The Formation of the Soviet Union

At first, it should be recalled, there was only the Russian Socialist Federated Republic. Even within this republic there were established as many as eight Autonomous Republics and thirteen Autonomous Regions. Then came the Ukrainian and White Russian Soviet Republics, and the Transcaucasian Federation of Socialist Soviet Republics (Georgia, Azerbaidjan, Armenia). How intimately all these Soviet republics cooperated from their inception, is common knowledge. Yet, as each new one was established, it did not automatically enter into a single union with those already in existence. The Ukrainian, White Russian and Transcaucasian republics were allied with the Russian republic by numerous pacts and treaties, but they were formally independent from it.

Sheer formality! it may be said. Even if that were to be granted for a moment, it would still leave the “formality” unexplained. The Bolsheviks, who controlled all four republics, had all the “physical” strength they needed to decree a single union from the very first day. From a bureaucratic standpoint, all that was needed was the adoption of such a decision by the Communist Party, after which its adoption by the (equally communist) Councils of People’s Commissars of the four republics would have required no more than five minutes. Yet the Bolsheviks refrained. Even after the victory of the Bolsheviks in all four territories, after the establishment of Bolshevik-controlled Soviet regimes, they still took the old national hatreds and suspicions against “Russians” into account. They still waited for a considerable time, during which living experience would demonstrate to Ukrainian, White Russian, Georgian and Armenian that incorporation into a single union would not mean for them, as it meant in the past, the oppressive rule of the Great Russians.

The Bolsheviks took power in Russia in November 1917. The congress at which the four republics formally decided to establish the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics took place in December 1922 – more than five years later!

When we speak of the triumph of Lenin’s policy, we do not mean to imply that it was always carried through faultlessly or even consistently, and certainly not that Lenin’s policy toward the national question was the sum and substance of revolutionary bolshevism. After all, it was the first time in history that anyone had the opportunity to practice so revolutionary an idea, and that in a backward country which had difficulties enough as it was without the extremely complex and difficult national problem. That it succeeded to the extent that it did will go down in history as one of our mundane miracles, not less. Nothing like it, nothing that can be mentioned in the same breath, is to be found anywhere else.

Lenin’s policy saved the lands and the peoples of the old Czarist Empire from dismemberment, particularism and disintegration. It made possible a strong union, without violating the right of peoples and nations, no matter how small or weak, to self-determination and freedom. It confirmed in life the theory that the road to genuine freedom – national freedom included – lies only in the leadership of the working class fighting for the socialist society. It confirmed also the old Marxian theory that the road to socialist freedom lies in the proletarian class struggle for democracy.

What Russia alone learned, all Europe has to learn now. It is not accidental that the fight of the European working class, the fight of socialism in Europe today, is more tightly linked up than ever before with the fight for democracy and democratic rights, of which the right of national self-determination is outstanding. It is not accidental, it is a direct result of the decay of capitalist-imperialist society which can maintain itself at all only by denying its own revolutionary part (”eighteenth century concepts”), wiping out the remaining vestiges of political democracy, and replacing them with the new barbarism into which it is plunging humanity. The revolutionary proletariat only emphasizes more heavily the liberating role the class struggle and socialism play for all the oppressed – not the workers alone – by proclaiming itself the most consistent champion of the fight for democracy. It relentlessly unmasks the “democratic” pretensions of all the imperialists and all their apologists. It shows the genuineness of its own claim by word and deed.

A Variant of Reformism

The idea that one fine day fifty-one per cent of the working class will decide that proletarian dictatorship or socialism is superior to capitalism and then rise in insurrection for these two ideas, is a howling absurdity. It is only an “insurrectionary” variation of the old reformist idea that socialism will be assured when fifty-one per cent of the electors drop the right vote into the ballot box.

The rule of the working class becomes possible only when the masses of the people, fighting not for abstractions like “socialism,” but for what they need immediately to make life possible, find that they can obtain these things only by establishing a regime of their own in place of the regime that will not or cannot satisfy them.

In Europe today, those sections of the people who think and act in revolutionary terms – that is, in violent and even armed struggle against the ruling class and the ruling state-are fighting for democratic rights, above all the right of national freedom. It is not for imperialist democracy they are fighting, but, if tautology may be permitted, for democracy for the people. They are fighting for democratic rights which neither the Axis nor the Allied imperialists can or will grant, as Hitler and Mr. Reves, among others, have testified.

In Italy, for example, the masses want a national constituent assembly not in order to have a talking-shop for windy parliamentarians. They want it in order to decide their own rule by themselves, without imperialist coercion. They want the right to vote. They want the right to a free press, to free assembly, to free speech, so that they may speak their minds to each other without having to get unobtainable permission from an Anglo-American martinet, without having to hide in a cellar or in the woods from the Gestapo and the Ovra. They want the right to organize as they see fit. With these rights they can not only submit the bourgeois politicians to their control, but they can begin enforcing their demands for such urgent necessities as fair distribution of food and lodgings, as better wages and working conditions, as control of the factories. The revolutionists who become the most vigorous champions of these aspirations will gain the ear of the masses, and will be able in the end, as were the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917, to prove to the masses that these aspirations are to be realized effectively only if they set up their own class power.

To counterpose against such a struggle for democracy (not only in Italy, but almost everywhere in Europe) such an abstraction as a “United Europe,” or the “Socialist United States of Europe,” as the self-sterilized “radicals” of the Socialist Workers Party do, is to have learned nothing and to have forgotten everything. Without unity, Europe will die. Without socialist power, there will be no fruitful unity. But the road to the Socialist United States of Europe lies through the victory of the socialist proletariat in the countries of Europe (which, we note once more, is not the same thing at all as the victory of the “Red” Army). And the road to the victory of the socialist proletariat lies through the struggle, abandoned or resisted by all the enemies of the people, for democratic rights, the outstanding of which today is the right of national self-determination.

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