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In this article, first published in 2004, Rob Sewell deals with the important contribution Lenin made on the national question and how such a correct stand on this issue guaranteed the success of the Bolshevik Party in October 1917. The national question remains a key issue for Marxists in the current epoch of capitalist crisis.

Lenin not only led the first successful socialist revolution, but also made an enormous contribution to Marxist theory. This article, first published in 2004, deals with the important contribution he made on the national question and how such a correct stand on this issue guaranteed the success of the Bolshevik Party in October 1917. The national question remains a key issue for Marxists in the current epoch of capitalist crisis. The attitude of some on the Left over the vote later this year on Scottish independence shows how easy it is to capitulate to nationalist pressures once a class approach is abandoned. An examination of the ideas of Lenin can serve to answer this with a clear explanation of Marxist theory and method.


The existence of nations, nation states, and national consciousness, is a characteristic feature of the capitalist epoch. Before the advent of capitalism, there was no genuine national consciousness in the modern sense. Feudal society was dominated by particularism, where peoples identified themselves as members of villages, towns, localities, regions, and principalities.

It took the development of capitalism, an economic revolution, to bring about the home market and the assimilation of peoples into nations. The gathering together of the productive forces into one nation state was a progressive historical task of the bourgeoisie.

On this material basis, in the period particularly from 1789 onwards in Europe, the epoch of bourgeois national-democratic revolution, we see the emergence of nations and national consciousness.

"For the complete victory of commodity production", stated Lenin, "the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language… Therein is the economic foundation of national movements…

"The tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied." (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, pp.8-9)

The nation state

Therefore, a nation is a historically evolved entity, which emerged under conditions of war, invasion, upheaval and the dissolution of old frontiers and the emergence of new ones. In the general sense, from the viewpoint of Marxism, the nation state arises from a developed stable community of language, territory, economy and culture. There are, however, given the laws of uneven and combined development, exceptions to the rule, where nation states are composed of different nationalities (as in Britain) and different languages (as in Belgium). Nations can be created where none existed before.

The last 100 years have been littered with such examples, most notably in the Balkans and the Middle East.
On the basis of capitalism and its drive for markets, power and spheres of influence stronger powers dominated weaker powers. In the epoch of imperialism, this tendency of national oppression took an extreme form, coupled with the oppression of national minorities within states.

As Lenin explained in his book 'Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism':

"Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of 'advanced' countries."

A fetter on the production forces

Capitalism, rather than resolving the national question, has in its decline exacerbated the problems worldwide. The productive forces created by capitalism have now outstripped national markets. Together with private property, the nation state has become a colossal brake on the further development of society.

As a consequence, nationalism has raised its head in the present epoch, with explosive repercussions, from Europe to the Balkans, from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East. The Colonial Revolution brought national liberation to the fore, bringing millions to their feet from the African continent to the continent of Asia.

The re-emergence of the national question reflects the profound impasse of capitalism on a world scale and the failure of the leaders of the workers' organisations to offer a way out. There can no longer be any solution of the national question on a capitalist basis.

Following on from Marx, Lenin took up the national question as a means of arming the revolutionary social democracy in Russia and uniting the oppressed nationalities under the banner of the working class. In answer to national oppression, the Russian Marxists (in the famous Clause 9 of the Russian Social Democratic Party) called for the right of nations to self-determination - that is, to complete separation as states.

This was particularly relevant to tsarist Russia, whose empire constituted a "prison house of nationalities". Such was the make-up of the empire that the Great Russians, the ruling nationality, only constituted 48% of the whole.

Those under Russian domination (Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Letts, Ukrainians, and so on), deprived of their rights, were systematically oppressed by tsarism. It was this that gave the national question in Russia such an explosive force.

To win over the oppressed nationalities, Lenin came out against the forcible incorporation of a nationality within the boundaries of a general state. In this, the Bolsheviks were not "evangels of separation". On the contrary, all this meant was that they were obliged to fight implacably against every form of national oppression.

"To accuse those who support freedom of self-determination, i.e., freedom to secede, of encouraging separation, is foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties", stated Lenin. (The Right of Nations... p.83)

The demand of the right to self-determination was however to give rise to a heated controversy within the Russian Party, with opposition from Rosa Luxemburg, Bukharin, Pyatakov, and others. The essence of their opposition was that under capitalism, self-determination was utopian, while under socialism it was reactionary. However, the argument is completely false as it ignores the epoch of the socialist revolution and its tasks.

Clearly, under the domination of imperialism, the existence of stable independent small states is impossible. Also under socialism, with the progressive withering away of the state, the question of national boundaries will fall away. However, in the intervening period, the forces have to be educated and mobilised to overthrow capitalism and a correct dialectical approach to the national question would facilitate this task.

Above all, the slogan of the right to self-determination was a powerful weapon in undermining bourgeois nationalism and winning the confidence of the workers of the oppressed nation. The possibility of separation facilitated a free unification of peoples.

In order to convince the more politically backward workers, who had nationalist prejudices, it was necessary to stress that the working class had no interest in coercing any national minority. At the same time, we must argue for the unity of the working class under one banner, with implacable hostility to the poison of the small nation mentality and the poison of chauvinism.

"The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle", stated Trotsky, "one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution." (Independence of the Ukraine... 1939)

Of course, the demand of the right of nations to self-determination cannot be used willy-nilly, but must proceed from the facts and not ideal norms. It could only apply to nationalities and not simply to groups, religious castes or other such minorities.

The right of self-determination

Above all, Lenin regarded the right of self-determination as subordinate to the interests of the working class. "The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle." (Ibid, p.21)

And again, "While recognising equality and equal rights to a national state, it values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers' class struggle." After all, the right to national self-determination is a bourgeois-democratic demand, not a socialist one.

Lenin also repeatedly explained that the Marxist programme on the national question is essentially a negative one: against national oppression, against the suppression of national culture, etc.

Today, various sectarians in confronting national problems proclaim self-determination at every turn, without any regard to the concrete situation or consequences. They see self-determination as a panacea, universally applicable under all circumstances.

Such "Leninists", who simply pay lip service to Lenin and have no idea of his method, invariably end up in a shameful mess. That is why it is necessary to develop the theory of Marxism and apply it to the concrete conditions, and not simply repeat like parrots some of the phrases of Lenin or Trotsky.

When it came to Yugoslavia, they were evangels of the break-up of the country, which prepared the way for reactionary wars and the nightmare that followed. They had no concern for the bloody consequences or the "interests of the class struggle".

Petit bourgeois nationalism

Their capitulation to petty bourgeois nationalism made them cheerleaders for ethnic cleansing and chauvinist madness. Rather than "independence" for Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo or Bosnia, and the Balkanisation of the region, the only way forward for the peoples of the Balkans was a socialist federation.

There was not an atom of progressive content in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Once again, the fate of small peoples was cynically exploited by the imperialist powers for its own ends.

This shows the fundamental difference between Leninism and petty bourgeois nationalism. Lenin supported the right of self-determination exclusively from the point of view of the class struggle, of the unity of the working class.

Even the old pre-war Social Democracy in the Balkans put forward the slogan of the democratic Balkan federation as a way out of the madhouse created by the separate national statelets. Even the word "Balkanisation" became synonymous with the patchwork of squabbling states.

Today, this federation cannot be realised on a capitalist basis and therefore we call for a Balkan socialist federation as a solution to the problems peoples of the peninsula. Such a federation, as with former Yugoslavia, would be made up of autonomous republics within a common frontier.

This would overcome the "Balkanisation" of the region. Those who advocate a Balkan "confederation" (socialist or otherwise) simply reinforce this reactionary "Balkanisation" through a loose alliance of separate independent Balkan states. In the disputes over this question prior to the First World War, the internationalists decisively came out against such a confederation and for a Balkan federation, later partially realised under Tito, when the Yugoslav Federation was formed.

In the Middle East, there can be no solution to the "Palestinian problem" on a capitalist basis. While the Marxists opposed the partition of Palestine in 1948 and the expulsion of the Palestinians, Israel now exists with a people living there.

The question now is how to guarantee a homeland to the Palestinians and put an end to their national oppression.

The national oppression of the Palestinian masses by the Israeli state expresses itself in the desire for their own homeland. How can this aspiration be realised? The policy and methods of the PLO, of individual terrorism and fawning towards the reactionary Arab regimes for a period of decades, have proved to be completely bankrupt.

Only a revolutionary programme can serve to appeal to the Israeli workers and the Arab masses. Only a socialist revolution in Israel and similarly in all the surrounding Arab states can bring about a socialist federal state of Israel/Palestine, with its capital in Jerusalem, linked to a socialist federation of the Middle East.

Truth is always concrete. There is no cookbook with a recipe for every national problem. In reality, it is the Marxist method, of dialectical materialism and a class analysis, which allow us to draw the correct conclusions, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917.

October Revolution

In Lenin's writings, there is a sharp difference between the national question before and after 1917. Prior to the October Revolution, Lenin envisaged that the national question could be resolved on a capitalist basis. However, on the basis of October, the resolution of the national question is tied to the fate of the working class and the overthrow of capitalism. Events since that time graphically confirm this prognosis.

The Russian Revolution gave an enormous impetus to the colonial revolution. This movement reached new heights following the Second World War and the victory of the Chinese revolution of 1944-9.

Lenin himself had recognised two stages in the national-democratic revolution; the first phase lasting from 1879 to 1871, where the modern European states were created, and the second from 1905 onwards, encompassing Eastern Europe and Asia.

In 1920, at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin explained that the only solution to the national question was through the proletarian revolution. The bourgeoisie was no longer capable of leading the struggle as it was tied hand and foot to imperialism, and was in the camp of counter-revolution.

"The cornerstone of the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial questions", stated Lenin, "must be closer union of the proletarians and working masses generally of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landlords and the bourgeoisie; for this alone will guarantee victory over capitalism, without which the abolition of national oppression and inequality is impossible." (Preliminary Draft of Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, 5th June 1920)

It was at this Congress that a decision was taken to substitute the term "national-revolutionary" for the term "bourgeois-democratic", to emphasis the Marxist support only for genuinely revolutionary liberation movements.

Lenin went on:

"In all the colonies and backward countries, not only should we build independent contingents of fighters, party organisations, not only should we launch immediate propaganda for the organisation of peasants' soviets and strive to adapt them to pre-capitalist conditions, but the Communist International should advance and theoretically substantiate the proposition that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, the backward countries can pass over to the Soviet system and, through definite stages of development, to communism, without going through the capitalist stage." (The Report of the Commission on The National and Colonial Questions, 26th July 1920)

Permanent Revolution

This is none other than the theory of the Permanent Revolution put forward by Leon Trotsky. Here Trotsky explains that the colonial bourgeoisie have come onto the historical scene too late. They could not play the same revolutionary role of carrying through the bourgeois-democratic revolution as did their counterparts of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The colonial bourgeoisie were tied to the landed interests and imperialism, which now placed them on the side of counterrevolution. Therefore the unfinished tasks now fell to the new revolutionary class, the proletariat.

However, the working class would come to power and not stop with the bourgeois tasks, including the national question, but would immediately proceed to the socialist tasks of expropriating the landlords and capitalists.

The revolution would transcend national boundaries, and lay claim to the world revolution.In other words, the national question, which is a leftover from the past, can only be solved by the coming to power of the working class. This is the case in relation to all the national-democratic tasks wherever these have not been accomplished.

The only way out for the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, or Europe is through the socialist federation of their region as part of a world federation of socialist states. In regard to Ireland, where the living body of the country was divided by British imperialism, only the coming to power of the working class in the 32 counties, can resolve the problem. On a capitalist basis, there can be no solution.

The re-emergence of nationalism in countries where the issue was regarded as long dead, is a product of the deepening crisis of capitalism on a world scale.

The national question is not confined to the former colonial countries, but has now affected the advanced countries. At bottom, this crisis reflects the fundamental contradiction of the constrictions imposed on the productive forces by the nation state and private property. The crisis has served to re-ignite all the old poisons of nationalism.

Epoch of capitalist decline

In the epoch of capitalist decline, of imperialist crisis, the national question is once again raising its head everywhere, with the most tragic and sanguine consequences. It rests with the working class to come to the head of the nation and offer the masses a way out of this nightmare. At bottom, explained Lenin, the national question is about bread.

Without a correct stance on the national question, the October Revolution would not have taken place. A component part of this outlook was, from 1903 onwards, the need to maintain the sacred unity of the working class and its organisations, free from distinctions of nationality, religion or language. "The policy of Bolshevism in the national sphere had also another side, apparently contradictory to the first but in reality supplementing it", explained Trotsky. "Within the framework of the party, and of the workers' organisations in general, Bolshevism insisted upon a rigid centralism, implacably warring against every taint of nationalism which might set the workers one against the other or disunite them.”

“While flatly refusing to the bourgeois states the right to impose compulsory citizenship, or even a state language, upon a national minority, Bolshevism at the same time made it a verily sacred task to unite as closely as possible, by means of voluntary class discipline, the workers of different nationalities”.

“Thus it flatly rejected the national-federation principle in building the party. A revolutionary organisation is not the prototype of the future state, but merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. Thus a centralised organisation can guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle - even where the task is to destroy the centralised oppression of nationalities." (History of the Russian Revolution, page 891 Wellred edition)

As can be seen, Lenin made a unique dialectical and dynamic contribution to the national question, which will find its place among the theoretical treasure houses of the workers' movement. The national borders created by capitalism have long ago become fetters on the development of society.

Our task remains the expropriation of the monopolies, the elimination of borders and the free association of peoples. In that way will the national question be finally resolved.

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