J. V. Stalin

Concerning the Presentation
of the National Question

May 2, 1921

Source : Works, Vol. 5, 1921 - 1923
Publisher : Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954
Transcription/Markup : Salil Sen for MIA, 2008
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

The presentation of the national question as given by the Communists differs essentially from the presentation adopted by the leaders of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals 1 and by all the various "Socialist," "Social-Democratic," Menshevik, Socialist-Revolutionary and other parties.

It is particularly important to note four principal points that are the most characteristic and distinguishing features of the new presentation of the national question, features which draw a line between the old and the new conceptions of the national question.

The first point is the merging of the national question, as a part, with the general question of the liberation of the colonies, as a whole. In the epoch of the Second International it was usual to confine the national question to a narrow circle of questions relating exclusively to the "civilised" nations. The Irish, the Czechs, the Poles, the Finns, the Serbs, the Armenians, the Jews and some other European nationalities—such was the circle of unequal nations in whose fate the Second International took an interest. The tens and hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa who are suffering from national oppression in its crudest and most brutal form did not, as a rule, come within the field of vision of the "socialists." They did not venture to place whites and blacks, "uncultured" Negroes and "civilised" Irish, "backward" Indians and "enlightened" Poles on the same footing. It was tacitly assumed that although it might be necessary to strive for the liberation of the European unequal nations, it was entirely unbecoming for "respectable socialists" to speak seriously of the liberation of the colonies, which were "necessary" for the "preservation" of "civilisation." These socialists, save the mark, did not even suspect that the abolition of national oppression in Europe is inconceivable without the liberation of the colonial peoples of Asia and Africa from imperialist oppression, that the former is organically bound up with the latter. It was the Communists who first revealed the connection between the national question and the question of the colonies, who proved it theoretically and made it the basis of their practical revolutionary activities. That broke down the wall between whites and blacks, between the "cultured" and the "uncultured" slaves of imperialism. This circumstance greatly facilitated the co-ordination of the struggle of the backward colonies with the struggle of the advanced proletariat against the common enemy, imperialism.

The second point is that the vague slogan of the right of nations to self-determination has been replaced by the clear revolutionary slogan of the right of nations and colonies to secede, to form independent states. When speaking of the right to self-determination, the leaders of the Second International did not as a rule even hint at the right to secede—the right to self-determination was at best interpreted to mean the right to autonomy in general. Springer and Bauer, the "experts" on the national question, even went so far as to convert the right to self-determination into the right of the oppressed nations of Europe to cultural autonomy, that is, the right to have their own cultural institutions, while all political (and economic) power was to remain in the hands of the dominant nation. In other words, the right of the unequal nations to self-determination was converted into the privilege of the dominant nations to wield political power, and the question of secession was excluded. Kautsky, the ideological leader of the Second International, associated himself in the main with this essentially imperialist interpretation of self-determination as given by Springer and Bauer. It is not surprising that the imperialists, realising how convenient this feature of the slogan of self-determination was for them, proclaimed the slogan their own. As we know, the imperialist war, the aim of which was to enslave peoples, was fought under the flag of self-determination. Thus the vague slogan of self-determination was converted from an instrument for the liberation of nations, for achieving equal rights for nations, into an instrument for taming nations, an instrument for keeping nations in subjection to imperialism. The course of events in recent years all over the world, the logic of revolution in Europe, and, lastly, the growth of the liberation movement in the colonies demanded that this, now reactionary slogan should be cast aside and replaced by another slogan, a revolutionary slogan, capable of dispelling the atmosphere of distrust of the labouring masses of the unequal nations towards the proletarians of the dominant nations and of clearing the way towards equal rights for nations and towards the unity of the toilers of these nations. Such a slogan is the one issued by the Communists proclaiming the right of nations and colonies to secede.

The merits of this slogan are that it :

1) removes all grounds for suspicion that the toilers of one nation entertain predatory designs against the toilers of another nation, and therefore creates a basis for mutual confidence and voluntary union;

2) tears the mask from the imperialists, who hypocritically prate about self-determination but who are striving to keep the unequal peoples and colonies in subjection, to retain them within the framework of their imperialist state, and thereby intensifies the struggle for liberation that these nations and colonies are waging against imperialism.

It scarcely needs proof that the Russian workers would not have gained the sympathy of their comrades of other nationalities in the West and the East if, having assumed power, they had not proclaimed the right of nations to secede, if they had not demonstrated in practice their readiness to give effect to this inalienable right of nations, if they had not renounced their "rights," let us say, to Finland (1917), if they had not withdrawn their troops from North Persia (1917), if they had not renounced all claims to certain parts of Mongolia, China, etc., etc.

It is equally beyond doubt that if the policy of the imperialists, skilfully concealed under the flag of self-determination, has nevertheless lately been meeting with defeat after defeat in the East, it is because, among other things, it has encountered there a growing liberation movement, which has developed on the basis of the agitation conducted in the spirit of the slogan of the right of nations to secede. This is not understood by the heroes of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, who roundly abuse the Baku "Council of Action and Propaganda" 2 for some slight mistakes it has committed; but it will be understood by everyone who takes the trouble to acquaint himself with the activities of that "Council" during the year it has been in existence, and with the liberation movement in the Asiatic and African colonies during the past two or three years.

The third point is the disclosure of the organic connection between the national and colonial question and the question of the rule of capital, of overthrowing capitalism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the epoch of the Second International, the national question, narrowed down to the extreme, was usually regarded as an isolated question, unrelated to the coming proletarian revolution. It was tacitly assumed that the national question would be settled "naturally," before the proletarian revolution, by means of a series of reforms within the framework of capitalism; that the proletarian revolution could be accomplished without a radical settlement of the national question, and that, on the contrary, the national question could be settled without overthrowing the rule of capital, without, and before, the victory of the proletarian revolution. That essentially imperialist view runs like a red thread through the wellknown works of Springer and Bauer on the national question. But the past decade has exposed the utter falsity and rottenness of this conception of the national question. The imperialist war has shown, and the revolutionary experience of recent years has again confirmed that :

1) the national and colonial questions are inseparable from the question of emancipation from the rule of capital;

2) imperialism (the highest form of capitalism) cannot exist without the political and economic enslavement of the unequal nations and colonies;

3) the unequal nations and colonies cannot be liberated without overthrowing the rule of capital;

4) the victory of the proletariat cannot be lasting without the liberation of the unequal nations and colonies from the yoke of imperialism.

If Europe and America may be called the front or the arena of the major battles between socialism and imperialism, the unequal nations and the colonies, with their raw materials, fuel, food and vast store of man-power, must be regarded as the rear, the reserve of imperialism. To win a war it is necessary not only to triumph at the front, but also to revolutionise the enemy's rear, his reserves. Hence, the victory of the world proletarian revolution may be regarded as assured only if the proletariat is able to combine its own revolutionary struggle with the liberation movement of the labouring masses of the unequal nations and the colonies against the rule of the imperialists and for the dictatorship of the proletariat. This "trifle" was overlooked by the leaders of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, who divorced the national and colonial question from the question of power in the epoch of growing proletarian revolution in the West.

The fourth point is that a new element has been introduced into the national question—the element of the actual (and not merely juridical) equalisation of nations (help and co-operation for the backward nations in raising themselves to the cultural and economic level of the more advanced nations), as one of the conditions necessary for securing fraternal co-operation between the labouring masses of the various nations. In the epoch of the Second International the matter was usually confined to proclaiming "national equality of rights"; at best, things went no further than the demand that such equality of rights should be put into effect. But national equality of rights, although a very important political gain in itself, runs the risk of remaining a mere phrase in the absence of adequate resources and opportunities for exercising this very important right. It is beyond doubt that the labouring masses of the backward peoples are not in a position to exercise the rights that are accorded them under "national equality of rights" to the same degree to which they can be exercised by the labouring masses of advanced nations. The backwardness (cultural and economic), which some nations have inherited from the past, and which cannot be abolished in one or two years, makes itself felt. This circumstance is also perceptible in Russia, where a number of peoples have not gone through, and some have not even entered, the phase of capitalism and have no proletariat, or hardly any, of their own; where, although complete national equality of rights has already been established, the labouring masses of these nationalities are not in a position to make adequate use of the rights they have won, owing to their cultural and economic backwardness. This circumstance will make itself felt still more "on the morrow" of the victory of the proletariat in the West, when numerous backward colonies and semi-colonies, standing at most diverse levels of development, will inevitably appear on the scene. For that very reason the victorious proletariat of the advanced nations must assist, must render assistance, real and prolonged assistance, to the labouring masses of the backward nations in their cultural and economic development, so as to help them to rise to a higher stage of development and to catch up with the more advanced nations. Unless such aid is forthcoming it will be impossible to bring about the peaceful co-existence and fraternal co-operation of the toilers of the various nations and nationalities within a single world economic system that are so essential for the final triumph of socialism.

But from this it follows that we cannot confine ourselves merely to "national equality of rights," that we must pass from "national equality of rights" to measures that will bring about real equality of nations, that we must proceed to work out and put into effect practical measures in relation to:

1) the study of the economic conditions, manner of life and culture of the backward nations and nationalities;

2) the development of their culture;

3) their political education;

4) their gradual and painless introduction to the higher forms of economy;

5) the organisation of economic co-operation between the toilers of the backward and of the advanced nations.

Such are the four principal points which distinguish the new presentation of the national question given by the Russian Communists.


Pravda, No. 98, May 8, 1921


1. The Two-and-a-Half International — the "International Association of Labour and Socialist Parties" — was formed in Vienna in February 1921 at an inaugural conference of Centrist parties and groups which, owing to the pressure of the revolutionary-minded workers, had temporarily seceded from the Second International. While criticising the Second International in words, the leaders of the Two-and-a-Half International (F. Adler, O. Bauer, L. Martov, and others) in fact pursued an opportunist policy on all the major questions of the proletarian movement, and strove to use the association to counteract the growing influence of the Communists among the masses of the workers. In 1923, the Two-and-a-Half International rejoined the Second International.

2. The "Council of Action and Propaganda of the Peoples of the East" was formed by decision of the First Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in Baku in September 1920. The object of the council was to support and unite the liberation movement of the East. It existed for about a year.