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Self-Determination and Military Defense: The Marxist Method

Proletarian Revolution59, (Summer 1999)
Transcribed, Edited and Formatted by Damon Maxwell and David Walters in 2008 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

In the United States and several other countries, racism is the scourge of the working class. In many other places, like the Balkans, national oppression plays a similar role: it is used by demagogues to set working people at each others’ throats, to prevent a united working class from confronting the capitalists in a powerful class struggle that could put and end to oppression and exploitation once and for all.

In this epoch of imperialism, capitalism only survives because of its ability to oppress, divide and superexploit. That is why understanding the communist strategy to end national oppression is a vital necessity for every working-class person.


The key Marxist theory on the national question was developed by Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and leader of the Russian revolution of 1917. Lenin fought both political opponents and even his own comrades to establish that defense of the right of national self-determination was a central plank in the communist platform.

Self-determination means the right of an oppressed nationality to secede from the state that rules over it and either create its own independent nation-state or join another nation-state. It is a bourgeois-democratic right, but it is denied by pre-capitalist rulers and by the imperialist powers in capitalism’s epoch of decay. Lenin’s major aim was unity of the working class within national boundaries and between advanced and colonized countries. As a general rule, he didn’t advocate actual secession: that depended on the concrete situation. A Marxist centralist to the core, he stressed the advantages of large states with integrated industrial and financial ties. Nevertheless, if the proletariat was to win the colonial masses to its side, oppressed nations’ right to secede had to be defended.

Lenin also stressed that revolutionary consciousness and national chauvinism are incompatible. Defense by communists of the rights of oppressed peoples was also a vital element in fighting chauvinism in the working classes of the imperialist countries.

Thus, in the course of their struggle, the workers and peasants in the oppressed countries would see that workers in the imperialist country were their allies, and that their nationalist bourgeoisie—not just the imperialists—was their enemy. Advancing the right of self-determination could open up the class struggle within the oppressed country, so that the indigenous capitalists could no longer hide their own exploitative role behind the obvious exploitation and political domination by the imperialists.

After the Bolshevik revolution and the wider horizon it created for anti-colonial struggles across the world, Lenin looked more favorably on independence as the way forward in Asia and Africa; it was a path to internationalist unity of the toilers in the struggle against imperialism. Like Marx, Lenin saw the nation as a historically necessary and progressive step in the development of capitalism. Prior to the First World War, he emphasized the need for oppressed nations to overcome pre-capitalist barriers. Consolidation of bourgeois nation-states would allow the widest possible range and the greatest stability for accumulation of capital and the further development of the forces of production, including the working class itself. A stage was necessary in which the proletariat would fight for self-determination as part of a struggle for consistent democracy.

However, such a stage was never an end in itself. The class struggle remained the dominant issue, determining whether defense of self-determination was appropriate in a given situation. Lenin urged an alliance of the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries with the masses in the colonies and semi-colonies initially led by bourgeois nationalists. Proletarian revolution in the developed countries, which were potentially capable of producing abundance sooner than the underdeveloped lands, was the key aim. But the brewing revolutions in the colonial world could prove decisive in smashing the global grip of the reactionary bourgeois system which had spread everywhere.


With the outbreak of World War I, Lenin concluded that capitalism had entered into its epoch of decay—an epoch of revolution and the transition to socialism, but also of counterrevolution and imperialist wars for re-dividing the world. The chief barrier facing the working class was no longer pre-capitalist feudalism but capitalist imperialism. The productive forces in the advanced countries—above all, the proletariat—were now mature enough so that capitalism was fully ripe for socialist revolution; potential abundance could be spread across the world.

Lenin continued to stress the importance of the struggle for bourgeois-democratic rights as a means by which, over time, the whole bourgeois era in human development could be transcended by socialist revolution. However, the idea of the democratic struggle as a separate stage gave way more and more to the primacy of the socialist revolution as a means to carry out the democratic demands, thus laying the basis for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. For example, in 1915 he wrote a passage that comes close to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution:

We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete or distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. (The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Collected Works , Vol. 21.)

The fight for the right to self-determination, as for other democratic demands, was meant to free, educate and politically unify the proletariat—outside of the oppressed nation as well as within. In the course of the struggle, and with the guidance of Marxists, the limits of capitalism would become apparent. The proletariat developing within the colonial and semi-colonial lands, led by the already mature working classes of the advanced capitalist countries, could choose the road to socialist revolution. The fight for democracy and equality was also a means to win the support of the peasantry, a critical factor especially in the colonies and semi-colonies.

Since socialism was now on the international agenda, the national development of capitalism in the colonized world through anti-colonial struggles was now only relatively progressive. No longer was it necessary for human progress that nascent capitalists have a sheltering nation-state to enable them to grab a larger share in the exploitation of the workers and peasants at home.

In contrast to the national bourgeoisies, for the masses nationalism meant achieving the better conditions they saw the imperialist nationals enjoy. But economically unviable nations produced by imperialist domination could not possibly create such equality. Therefore communists had to stress their opposition to the trap of nationalism itself. They had to expose the contradiction between the nationalism of the bourgeoisie and the transient nationalism of the masses, so that its opposite, internationalist consciousness, could grow.

The anti-colonial revolutions could link up with socialist working classes in the West through a joint struggle against the common enemy, imperialism. Lenin saw national independence as a political goal that could be achieved by colonial peoples. That was one of his disagreements with Rosa Luxemburg on the national question. He agreed with her that genuine economic independence was impossible in the epoch of imperialism; new bourgeois nation-states were not viable as means toward real independence. For Lenin, any fleetingly progressive significance retained by nationalist sentiment among the colonial masses was due to the fact that this was the form of their political awakening.

The right of an oppressed people to self-determination is a principle. But for Marxists, all bourgeois-democratic rights are subordinate to the overriding principle of the international working-class revolutionary struggle. Principles are of course not transhistorical or immutable; but when they are subordinated, that can only be for a moment in time and with due preparation for the fact that the step will have consequences to guard against.


To sum up, Lenin saw the defense of the right to self-determination as a principled programmatic weapon, designed to help achieve revolutionary socialist consciousness. In situations where independence was desirable, Lenin initially thought that the development of new bourgeois national states was progressive in comparison with pre-capitalist conditions. Later, as the new epoch developed, he stressed that nationalist consciousness in colonial countries was progressive in the passing sense that it awakened political awareness among the masses of the need to fight the common enemy of imperialism.

These views never made Lenin a nationalist, no more than supporting bourgeois national development versus feudalism made Marx a capitalist or a nationalist. Marx and Lenin only gave transient support to national movements, even when they saw them as necessary and progressive. They were only a means to their real and explicit goal, proletarian internationalism.

For Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, defense of the right to self-determination was ultimately a means to strip away and expose every alien class force and every pro-bourgeois answer to the yearning of the masses for equality and a decent life. Only the proletarian-led socialist revolution could solve the desperate problems which beset humanity.

In the broadest but most basic sense, therefore, the Bolsheviks wielded the weapon of national self-determination to achieve a fundamentally anti-nationalist goal. It was a means to convince masses that nationalism and nation-building fundamentally were dead-ends, and that the proletarian socialist revolution was the true answer. The line between the democratic aspirations of the masses and the nationalist goals of the bourgeois misleaders was sometimes difficult to draw in actual struggles, yet it was absolutely vital to do so.

Lenin and Trotsky at the dawn of the 20th century were assimilationists (integrationists), like Marx and Engels before them. (Marx, for example, had urged the Czechs to abandon the vestiges of their separate language and culture and become German.) In East Europe and elsewhere, new nationalities were being formed within the borders of various states. As centralists, they hoped that the new states would be as large and inclusive as possible, congealing the myriads of infinitely sub-divided minuscule groupings of people that existed throughout the Balkans and Slavic East Europe. The process of bourgeois revolutionary development demanded that national states homogenize these dispersed peoples into more uniform nations, as had been done in Western Europe.

The Marxists’ centralist goal remained in the new epoch of imperialism, even when detours to get there had to be taken. Advocating the right to national self-determination was not meant to create a multitude of nation-states but rather to prove to the oppressed masses that the proletariat of the dominant countries defended their rights. Only that defense made internationalist working-class unity possible.


Self-determination is the right of an oppressed nationality to secede; other democratic rights pertain to oppressed non-national groups. But what is a nation?

The terms we use today to describe various peoples have altered over time. Race, nation, nationality and caste had certain separate meanings but were also used interchangeably by ordinary people along with scholars and Marxists. Marx even referred to the proletariat as a race upon occasion. Lenin and Trotsky both pointed, as another example, to the German nation, meaning the nationality, and to the German race, meaning the same thing. In one essay on self-determination, Lenin refers to the Jewish people in Poland as a caste—and a few pages later as a nation. Yet he was opposed to the right of self-determination for Jews because they were not a separate nation from either the Polish or the Russian nation.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the interchangeability of the terms our forebears used as a simple matter of confusion or imprecision—although that element existed. Reality itself was imprecise. Race/racism and nation/national chauvinism were creations of early capitalism. (See our pamphlet Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle .) The congealing of various groups of people under those rubrics was far from complete in most of the world—in the minds both of the people concerned and of observers. Marxists did not decide in advance that such groups would inevitably harden into the specific nations, races, castes, ethnicities and nationalities that we know today. The relative hardening coincided with the unfolding of imperialism as the new epoch developed.

Under Lenin’s tutelage, Stalin gave what later became regarded as the classic Marxist definition of a nation: a historically evolved stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.&& Trotsky also subscribed to this definition. But such a definition must be taken as a model, an abstraction; it was a vital norm if the reality of the process of nation-building was to be understood. The historically unfolding process could not be frozen in time by a definition. The most important concrete question was the developing consciousness of the particular people. Did an oppressed people see the territory that they lived on as their national homeland? For example, Jews living in the Pale did not regard that territory as their specific homeland but as part of Poland where they had lived since the 13th century.

In the late 1930’s Trotsky advanced the idea of historically developed consciousness as the basis for determining whether Blacks in the American South were to become a nation. He expected a national consciousness to emerge when the massive struggle that he predicted broke out. His method, rooted in the Russian experience, was correct, even though his actual understanding of the consciousness and the future direction of Black people in the Black Belt was wrong.


In sum, 1) to determine that applicability of self-determination rights, a concrete understanding of a group’s territorial consciousness and the likely direction of political events is necessary; 2) we cannot fatalistically assume that an oppressed group will or should develop national consciousness.

To further illustrate these points, we can look at the colonial revolutions after World War II, which raised the question of self-determination for several emerging African states where national identification was weak. In many African countries, as in India, there was no common language or culture. Yet the divisions imperialism had created were real. A degree of economic and political integration existed within the specific countries; coupled to the broad historical trends, this led to a certain national consciousness. That, plus a Marxist assessment of the overall direction of the international class struggle, dictated our defense of the right to self-determination for the national liberation struggles.

Within these post-colonial nations, of course, there were many ethnic differences. It would have been wrong, however (with certain limited exceptions), to accept these differences as a legitimate basis for separate nations; that would have played directly into the hands of the imperialists. Imperialism attempted, often successfully, to divide and conquer the oppressed by playing on differences that existed but were not fatalistically determined to fulfill themselves in the minds of the peoples themselves.


Coming late to capitalism with a severely deformed bourgeois revolutionary development, the Balkan region, like Africa and India, is far more atomized linguistically and culturally than the West. In the absence of revolutionary internationalism, the atomization process has now re-emerged—and in Western Europe as well. In the Balkans too, while it is necessary to defend the rights of oppressed peoples, a carte-blanche policy of self-determination for every tiny group could only exacerbate unnecessary splits in the proletariat. Worse, if such a policy were extended to a non-oppressed people, its effects would be devastating.

We stand firmly for the right of self-determination for oppressed nations—where that nationhood is determined by history and the development of the people’s conscious attachment to a given nationally-understood territory. For example, the national consciousness of the Kosovars is clear, whether or not they prefer an independent Kosovo or unity with Albania. For most of the period since the Great Powers awarded Kosovo, with its Albanian majority, to the Serbian kingdom rather than to Albania in the diplomatic haggling during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Serbia has ruled oppressively over the Albanian Kosovars. As an illustration, Leon Trotsky, then a war correspondent, wrote in 1913:

The Bulgars in Macedonia, the Serbs in Old Serbia, in their national endeavor to correct data in the ethnographical statistics that are not quite favorable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population ... . (The Balkan Wars , p. 286.)

National self-determination for the Kosovo Serbs, on the other hand, does not apply, for they are not an oppressed people but rather part of the Serbian nation as a whole. Marxists, of course, defend the democratic and human rights of the Serbian minority within an independent or Albanian Kosovo. But arguments that Kosovo is traditionally Serbian&& are both false historically and irrelevant to the consciousness of the vast majority of the population. And they feed into imperialism’s divisive manipulation.

During the Kosovo war, some on the left argued that the Albanians’ capitulation to NATO had invalidated Kosovo’s right to national self-determination. The Spartacist League is most explicit. They declared that they had defended the Kosovars’ right to form an independent state—until the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army ... became nothing but a pawn of NATO imperialism’s war aims. (Workers Vanguard , April 2.) While this would be a legitimate reason to deny military support to the KLA, denying the right of the people to self-determination is something entirely different.

Trying to give its rejection of self-determination a Marxist pedigree, the Spartacists claimed that Lenin had denied Poland’s right to secede from Tsarist Russia during the First World War: In the context of inter-imperialist war, Lenin rightly argued that calls for Poland’s independence only served as a democratic cover for German imperialism. (Workers Vanguard , May 28.)

This is a typical Spartacist distortion. Lenin in fact warned that Polish nationalist calls for independence during the war served imperialism, both German and Russian. He urged Polish socialists to work for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period. But he added that Russian and German socialists would remain internationalists ... by demanding for Poland unconditional freedom to secede (The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up , July 1916.)

The Spartacists believe that in order to defend a people’s right to self-determination, Marxists must also agree with their choice of independence. Lenin’s effort to separate the mass base from the nationalist misleaders thus becomes simply a means to tail those misleaders. And when the Spartacists don’t agree, they abandon defense of the democratic right, which inevitably leads to tailing the oppressors. Indeed, that was Lenin’s point when he vehemently argued during the war for the Poles’ (and others’) right to self-determination. Here is one of several examples:

If the socialists of Britain do not recognize and uphold Ireland’s right to secession, if the French do not do the same for Italian Nice, the Germans for Alsace-Lorraine, Danish Schleswig and Poland, the Russians for Poland, Finland, the Ukraine, etc., and the Poles for the Ukraine—if all the socialists of the Great Powers, i.e., the great robber powers, do not uphold that right in respect of the colonies, it is solely because they are in fact imperialists, not socialists. (The Question of Peace, July-August 1915.)

The same can be said of American socialists who do not uphold Kosovo’s right to independence, especially since that right is denied today by U.S. imperialism.


Self-determination is rarely granted by imperialism without the threat of a fierce struggle, political and military. When the national struggle is controlled by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leaderships, precise tactics are necessary. Leninists use the tactic of military-technical support in defense of a non-communist leadership fighting the same oppressor. This can involve enabling that leadership to get arms and other tactical aid from any source it can. That is, for a moment in time, each for their own reasons, communists and non-communists aim their guns (literally or figuratively) not at each other but at a common enemy.

Military support to a non-working-class leadership means that we have no political agreement with it. Leninists have given military support over the century to the Russian counterrevolutionary socialist Kerensky against the Tsarist General Kornilov, to the reactionary Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie against Italian imperialism, to the murderous Chiang Kaishek in China against Japanese imperialism, to the bloodthirsty General Galtieri of Argentina against the British imperialists, and to the criminal Saddam Hussein against U.S./U.N. imperialism—to name only a handful of enemies of the working class who for a historical moment were forced to fight on the right side. Likewise, we can, at appropriate times, give military support to the KLA or to Milosevic’s regime against the momentarily dominant oppressor. They are nothing more than the masses’ unwilling and very temporary allies.

Since military support in the sense described implies no political agreement, we sometimes refer to our policy as military but no political support.&& For that reason, in general we do not call for a military victory&& by non-proletarian elements if that would imply support for their taking state power or for their war aims. The importance of this distinction may be seen again in the example of the Spartacists, who called for the military victory of the FMLN in El Salvador, advocating state power for a class-collaborationist front; we advocated only military support , for the defeat of imperialism. (See PR 14.) The tailist Spartacists effectively endorsed a popular front coalition trying to win state power from the pro-imperialist regime. Genuine Marxists reject class collaboration and give no political support to any capitalist government.

In some other situations, like the war between NATO and Serbia, we did call for military victory over the imperialists—because here the term implied only defeat of the imperialists and not the raising of a new bourgeois contender to state power. Victory might result in keeping Milosevic in power, but especially given the political divisions in Serbia, that was not guaranteed nor was it our intention. (Our support for Kosovar self-determination was clearly in opposition to Milosevic’s war aims.)

It may be that for lack of resources we can offer no actual military or technical support. Then the slogan becomes a propaganda statement, a means to begin to convince enough workers of our method so that in the future more tangible offers of military assistance will be possible.

We emphasize that we give military support when the treacherous misleadership in question is actually fighting the oppressors. We support only those military blows which are struck against the common enemy. As Trotsky pointed out in advocating military support for the bourgeois Republic against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, we know that many of the weapons sent may be used against us and the masses. But in the acute situation which demands our aid, we have no choice but to take a very real risk.

There are specific circumstances, like those in which the Bolsheviks gave military defense to Kerensky’s Provisional Government, where the misleaders are not actually fighting the enemy but where we give such support. A crucial feature of the military support tactic, as with the defense of self-determination, is to expose false leaderships to their base in the masses. The Bolsheviks’ military defense actually served to show the workers of Petrograd that they and not the Provisional Government defended the masses and their soviets.

Use of military support has become more frequent in the post-World War II period. The world proletariat suffered mass defeats because of social democratic and Stalinist betrayals, including the suppression of the post-war working-class revolts. Therefore workers have had to face revolutions of the oppressed generally led by pro-capitalist misleaderships; military support has been one important tactical means of intervening in self-determination struggles.


Given the nature of the leaderships of national struggles, they may make deals with imperialism. It is then necessary to assess whether it is the imperialists who determine the results of the struggle. For example, although Cuba received aid from Russia and was economically tied to its imperialism, the balance of concrete relations between the two on the world scene did not allow the USSR to treat Cuba as a semi-colonial pawn. Therefore, when U.S. imperialism attempted to invade Cuba in 1961 (and in all its subsequent attacks), we stood for the defense of Cuba and the defeat of the U.S. The same was true in the U.S. war against Vietnam. Likewise, although the ANC in South Africa received concrete support from a number of European imperialist powers, we did not drop our military support for the struggle against apartheid.


Still, some situations do demand the withdrawal of military support—when the leadership has effectively subordinated its struggle to the goals of an imperialist bloc. That was the case with the Bosnian leadership in 1995 (see PR 50), and with the Kosovo Albanian leadership (both Rugova and the KLA) against the Serbian regime. Our organization originally gave military support to the KLA in the fight against national oppression by the Serb regime. (PR 57.) We withdrew support at the point when the KLA effectively became NATO’s auxiliaries.

It remained necessary, however, to support the military defense of the Kosovar people against Serbian ethnic cleansing. We also allowed for military support to KLA forces that were specifically defending civilians from Serb attacks. Not to do so would have meant joining the side of oppression. But since there were no anti-Serb armed forces not subordinated to NATO and imperialism, we stood for the general military defense of the Serb forces against the KLA while the KLA was fighting on NATO’s side. Sometimes in battle the distinction is far from clear, but Marxists must learn how to make such concrete determinations.

In some situations, there are different organizations claiming the leadership of the masses. If there is more than one leadership which could be given concrete military or technical aid, naturally our aid would go to working-class organizations if they exist. In the Nicaraguan struggle against the U.S.-backed contras , we advocated sending aid to Nicaragua’s trade unions rather than to the bourgeois Sandinista government. (PR 25.) If such organizations do not exist, we favor aiding groups whose struggle is objectively the most concretely hurtful to imperialism. In the Angolan revolt against Portuguese imperialism in 1975, we militarily supported the MPLA rather than to UNITA (see Socialist Voice No. 1). This choice was not based on any political agreement but an estimate that the MPLA was moving toward real struggles against imperialism at the time.

Military support is a limited tactic; defense of the right of self-determination is both a tactic on a grand scale—and a principle. Tactics on the battlefield of class warfare are generally variable and flexible. Principles are guides to action, not abstract moralisms hewn in stone for eternity. Nevertheless, history has shown that they should only be violated rarely—and that even then, with great caution and open warnings that the consequences are highly risky. In broad outline, what governs our willingness to extend military support in self-determination struggles is the state and direction of the overall international class struggle against imperialism. Above all, we determine our tactics and principles—and when and if to apply them—with reference to our fundamental strategic aim of socialist revolution. Does the act enhance our ability to defend our class and to raise its consciousness in the oppressed and oppressor nations, in the region and throughout the world? In sum, does it help re-create the vanguard of proletarian consciousness, the authentic Fourth International?

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