1 What did Lenin mean by self-determination of nations?

A recurring theme of those backing the Ukrainian state in the current war is reliance on  Lenin’s support for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is the purpose of this and the following posts set out what this policy was.

In 1903 Lenin wrote ‘The National Question in Our Programme’ in which he set out its meaning to those who ‘did not find this demand sufficiently clear’, something that needs to be attempted again over a century later.

He wrote that the demand to be clarified was the “recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the state.”  He explained it in this way:

‘The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.’

‘As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.’

The main points of this clarification of the responsibilities of the socialist party bear repeating:

  1. ‘its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations.’
  2. ‘We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.’ and
  3. ‘it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity.’

In relation to Ukraine, it is an independent state, it is not part of a separate state so the question of whether socialists ‘can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state’ does not arise.

So if this passage does not support application to it of the “recognition of the right to self-determination . . . ” in respect of Ukraine, this does not at all mean that the passage has no relevance.  For it advances the view that the ‘principal task [is] to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations’ and that this is to be done through seeking ‘the very closest unity of the proletariat’.

The role of this policy at the time Lenin wrote is explained in reference to the situation in Poland; that 

‘Class antagonism has now undoubtedly relegated national questions far into the background, but, without the risk of lapsing into doctrinairism, it cannot be categorically asserted that some particular national question cannot appear temporarily in the foreground of the political drama.’  

He goes on:

‘In including in its programme recognition of the right of nations to self- determination, it takes into account all possible, and even all conceivable, combinations. That programme in no way precludes the adoption by the Polish proletariat of the slogan of a free and independent Polish republic, even though the probability of its becoming a reality before socialism is introduced is infinitesimal.’

‘The programme merely demands that a genuinely socialist party shall not corrupt proletarian class-consciousness, or slur over the class struggle, or lure working class with bourgeois-democratic phrases, or break the unity of the proletariat’s present-day political struggle. This reservation is the crux of the matter, for only with this reservation do we recognise self-determination.’

Lenin may be criticised (in retrospect) for unjustified optimism on the prospects for socialism, and it is clear that the context of the class struggle affects the application of the policy, but neither of these considerations justify the widespread application of this policy today, which is used to advance the argument that Ukraine should be considered to avail of it like every other country.  Rather, the numbered priorities above renders its widespread application untenable and the particular circumstances of Ukraine, and its alliance with imperialism, render it least applicable to that country.

In general the increased economic development of previously economically backward countries; the consequent enormous development of the working class and therefore potential for class struggle, and the disappearance of nearly all colonial possessions, means that the above numbered priorities have even greater salience today.

In 1913 Lenin noted in ‘The Working Class and the National Question’ that ‘In our times the proletariat alone upholds the real freedom of nations and the unity of workers of all nations.  For different nations to live together in peace and freedom or to separate and form different states (if that is more convenient for them), a full democracy, upheld by the working class, is essential.’

This was written while Lenin believed that the coming revolution in the Tsarist Empire would create a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants and not a socialist revolution. 

In ‘Theses on the National Question’ written in 1913 Lenin explained specifically what the programme of the Party meant: ‘The article of our programme (on the self-determination of nations) cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.’ (emphasis added -SM)

He then went on to state its application, including considering ‘the fact that throughout Eastern Europe (Austria and the Balkans) and in Asia—i.e., in countries bordering on Russia—the bourgeois-democratic reform of the state that has everywhere else in the world led, in varying degree, to the creation of independent national states or states with the closest, interrelated national composition, has either not been consummated or has only just begun.’

This meant that socialists should ‘be unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically.’  Again, we can see that we are not speaking of socialists defending the prerogatives of an already independent capitalist state.

Instead Lenin warns ‘Social-Democracy, therefore, must give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations and with the tsarist monarchy.’

In the case of Ukraine, this quote reminds one of the ‘saccharine’ and ‘fiery’ speeches of Volodymyr Zelensky and that the working people of that country are paying for the intrigues of its current ruling class and its alliance with NATO and western imperialism.  This policy has historically been against the opposition of the majority of the Ukrainian people; but it is testament to the thoroughly reactionary character of the Russian invasion and previous Russian policy that these have driven many to now support NATO membership who previously did not.  However, as Lenin notes, it is not socialist policy to absolve the Ukrainian people’s bourgeois leadership of its criminal policy never mind rally behind it.

That Lenin supported self-determination, the right to secede and form a separate state, did not mean that he favoured it, quite the contrary.  In a letter in 1913, in relation to the right to federation and autonomy, he wrote:

“Right to autonomy?” Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding!). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession.’

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, also written in 1913 Lenin writes:

‘If a Ukrainian Marxist allows himself to be swayed by his quite legitimate and natural hatred of the Great-Russian oppressors to such a degree that he transfers even a particle of this hatred, even if it be only estrangement, to the proletarian culture and proletarian cause of the Great-Russian workers, then such a Marxist will get bogged down in bourgeois nationalism. Similarly, the Great-Russian Marxist will be bogged down, not only in bourgeois, but also in Black-Hundred nationalism, if he loses sight, even for a moment, of the demand for complete equality for the Ukrainians, or of their right to forum an independent state.’

Ukraine is already an independent state, but it is not in the interests of Russian workers that the Russian state invade Ukraine in the interests of its great power pretensions, however relatively strong or weak either state may be.  Neither can the invasion be justified by reference to claims to ensure geopolitical security.  For socialists, however much they can be referenced to explain the actions of the Russian state, they in no way justify it. Socialists are not beholden to the security claims of capitalist states.  Many ordinary Russians have courageously publically opposed the war and this has been welcomed by many Ukrainians.

But this is not enough, as Lenin implies.  It is not enough for Ukrainian workers to oppose Russian aggression as some brave Russians have done. Just as these Russians have opposed their own ruling class and its state so must Ukrainians do the same and oppose their own rulers.  These rulers have quite easily whipped up the most extreme nationalist poison against everything Russian so that in the West even Russian artists and athletes have been assigned responsibility for the invasion and sanctioned.  In Ukraine itself this nationalism has gone as far as mobilising the most reactionary armed forces, including outright fascists whose hatred of all things Russian can guarantee nothing but death.

to be continued

Forward to part 2

3 thoughts on “1 What did Lenin mean by self-determination of nations?

  1. Just been flicking through ‘National Liberation’ by Nigel Harris. He provides the genesis and history of the preoccupation with national self determination and its application by Bolshevik Party. It is useful to know that Lenin was opposed by some senior figures in his own organization like Bukharin and Stalin with their own arguments. Harris concludes that Lenin thought about the question under the jurisdiction of the term ‘tactic’. What is the difference between a tactic and a principle or even a guide is maybe answered by Aristotle, a principle is the work of the theoretical mind, a tactic is the work of the practical mind, what Lenin calls a tactic Aristotle called prudence.
    It maybe worth the reading of National Liberation at this moment.

  2. On February 21, Vladimir Putin gave a long speech on how he saw the historic situation of Ukraine, some of the material in the speech was drawn from his previous article published on 12 July 2021 ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.’ An important element in his speech and article is the blaming of Lenin and other Bolsheviks for the forced or artificial separation of Russians and Ukrainians making use of the Western derived doctrine of self- determination of nations. Putin denounces the ‘nationalist’ doctrine of self-dertimimatiom as being destructive of something that Russia is purporting to be. Is that other thing a doctrine about the unity of Russia and Ukraine as part of a Political Empire?

    I have long thought that Empire is the only legitimate modern doctrine about lasting States that stands as an alternative to the Nation State doctrine of States. In the modern period most nation States have their genesis as revolutions against Formal Empires, British, German, France, Russia, Austrian, all willingly called their own societies to be expansive Empires at least until the first world war and the peace conference that came in its wake. Recall how the right of self determination was the big idea brought to the conference by American President W. Wilson.

    The decline or breakup of the above Empires owes its due to the pressure applied by the United States that is in in ideology a sworn enemy of Formal Empire. When the declining British and French Empires combined to seize the Suez Canal, President Eisenhower was clear that this sort of Empire style politics had no part to play in the world the United States was shaping for a better future.

    There remains the tricky question of the Empire managed by the United States itself, some call it an informal Empire. Maybe informal Empire is the best political regime for a capitalist world economy, on the basis that capitalism works best when the laws are universal and hence under Political Empire. In the international arena we have these two broad alternations, A league of recognised small Nations or just one great informal Empire.

    I wonder if Lenin had a third alternative, since he stood on the ground of national self-determination of the Ukraine against the Russians Empire, as Putin says he did?

    • Lenin didn’t stand on the ground of self-determination of nations, but of the working-class. He opposed self-determination of nations, because it divides workers. What he supported was the right of free secession of nations, particularly those that had been imprisoned by the Tsarist Empire, as a means of appealing to the workers in those nations to see them as not being Great Russian chauvinists, simply continuing on from Tsarism. He did not force national self-determination on Ukraine or any other nation, but offered them autonomy within the Russian Federation as a half-way house, preventing separation, but not the centralised unitary state that he and all Marxists are committed to.

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