In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination Lenin stated that
‘The categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits, and, if it refers to a particular country (e. g., the national programme for a given country), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.’
In The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up he says that
‘What is the lesson to be drawn from this concrete example which must he analysed concretely if there is any desire to be true to Marxism? Only this: (1) that the interests of the liberation of a number of big and very big nations in Europe rate higher than the interests of the movement for liberation of small nations; (2) that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’
The globalisation of the war in Ukraine is evident not just from the antagonism between Russia and US (plus other NATO countries) but the determination of the latter to get every other country to impose its sanctions on Russia. In other words, the demand that every other country join the war on its side. This is echoed on the left where some make the smallness of a nation, contra Lenin, a reason to support its demands!
Evaluation of the war obviously requires Lenin’s recommendation – ‘that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’
Lenin gives an example of what this might mean:
‘When the Dutch and Polish Social-Democrats reason against self-determination, using general arguments, i.e., those that concern imperialism in general, socialism in general, democracy in general, national oppression in general, we may truly say that they wallow in mistakes. But one has only to discard this obviously erroneous shell of general arguments and examine the essence of the question from the standpoint of the specific conditions obtaining in Holland and Poland for their particular position to become comprehensible and quite legitimate . . .’
After addressing the Dutch example, he turns to the case of Poland:
‘Karl Radek, a Polish Social-Democrat, who has done particularly great service by his determined struggle for internationalism in German Social-Democracy since the outbreak of war, made a furious attack on self-determination in an article entitled “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” . . . and propounds, amongst others, the argument that self-determination fosters the idea that “it is allegedly the duty of Social-Democrats to support any struggle for independence.”
Lenin’s response is that ‘From the standpoint of general theory this argument is outrageous, because it is clearly illogical . . .’ He then notes that ‘I recall Rosa Luxemburg saying in an article written in 1908, that the formula: “against national oppression” was quite adequate. But any Polish nationalist would say—and quite justly—that annexation is one of the forms of national oppression, consequently, etc.’
In other words, if you say you are ‘against national oppression,’ and Poland is nationally oppressed, then you should support Poland’s struggle for independence. But Lenin doesn’t agree to this, and examines the specific conditions applying from the viewpoint of the interests of the struggles of the working class:
‘However, bake Poland’s specific conditions in place of these general arguments: her independence today is “impracticable” without wars or revolutions. To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war. . . . . To raise the question of Poland’s independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighbouring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o’-the-wisp, plunge into narrow-minded nationalism and forget the necessary premise of an all-European or at least a Russian and a German revolution.’
‘A third and, perhaps, the most important example. We read in the Polish theses (III, end of 82) that the idea of an independent Polish buffer state is opposed on the grounds that it is an “inane utopia of small impotent groups. Put into effect, it would mean the creation of a tiny fragment of a Polish state that would be a military colony of one or another group of Great Powers, a plaything of their military or economic interests, an area exploited by foreign capital, and a battlefield in future war”.’
‘This is all very true when used as an argument against the slogan of Polish independence today, because even a revolution in Poland alone would change nothing and would only divert the attention of the masses in Poland from the main thing—the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such can help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighbouring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists. Tile great historical service rendered by the Polish Social-Democrats in the struggle against the nationalists cannot possibly be denied.’
The parallel with Ukraine is obvious, but this is not even the point. The point is that the specific conditions of each national struggle should be considered from the viewpoint of the working class and its class struggle and this can lead us very far from support for bourgeois nationalism, even in the case of a country dismembered by empires. Often this nationalism is painted red although generally this has not been attempted on behalf of the nationalism of Ukraine notwithstanding attempts on the left to now soften its far-right complexion.
Does this mean there is nothing left of the policy of self-determination of nations? Lenin goes on:
‘But these same arguments, which are true from the standpoint of Poland’s specific conditions in the present epoch, are manifestly untrue in the general form in which they are presented. So long as there are wars, Poland will always remain a battlefield in wars between Germany and Russia, but this is no argument against greater political liberty (and, therefore, against political independence) in the periods between wars. The same applies to the arguments about exploitation by foreign capital and Poland’s role as a plaything of foreign interests.’
‘The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the “Fracy” [Polish Socialist Party], to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, they take part in annexing her (and that would mean educating the Russian and German workers and peasants in the basest turpitude and their consent to play the part of executioner of other peoples).’
‘The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working 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.’
Such are the considerations that must be taken into account when seeking to apply the demand for self-determination for any particular nationality. Only in extremis has this been done in the case of the war in Ukraine – when it comes to opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine by NATO, which risks a direct war with Russia and nuclear oblivion. In this the pro-war left has had cause to pause, a pragmatic concession without theoretical support, their whole policy being otherwise based on bourgeois morality. As we have seen, expressed by Lenin:
‘To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.’ (The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up)
But apart from this glaringly obvious acceptance of limits to its defence of the Ukrainian capitalist state the pro-war left has demonstrated itself content with the effects of its policy.
These effects include the proposed massive militarisation of Germany and the incorporation of Sweden and Finland into NATO, not to mention the enrichment of the US military industrial complex and its consequent increased political influence. They also involve the effects of supporting imperialist sanctions and their contribution to the reduction in living standards for workers and the poor across the globe. The working class is thereby enrolled on the side of their own ruling class in the conflict with Russia, on behalf of another corrupt capitalist state that resembles no country so much as the one uniquely damned by ‘the international community.’
The pro-war left demands supply of all the weapons required to achieve Ukraine’s war objectives, which requires that Ukraine be able to finance the war; imperialism does not come free. So, for example, the requirement to address the ‘food catastrophe’ caused by the war, as headlined by ‘The Economist’, which notes that Ukraine’s food exports alone provide the calories to feed 400m people. In true fashion the newspaper raises the prospect of NATO convoys in the Black sea to remedy this, although this too risks direct conflict between the armed forces of NATO and Russia.
Facing escalating war or threat of famine the pro-war left finds that their ‘practical’, ‘something must be done’, approach of supporting imperialism supporting Ukraine leaves them with an unenviable ‘practical’ choice.
In this regard there is nothing new, Lenin excoriated it – ‘The bourgeoisie, which naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement, says that support for all national aspirations is practical . . . The whole task of the proletarians in the national question is “unpractical” from the standpoint of the nationalist bourgeoisie of every nation . . . This call for practicality is in fact merely a call for uncritical acceptance of bourgeois aspirations.’
How far all this support for imperialism is from the policy of Lenin is obvious, but then equally obvious is that this left is not really interested in this policy.
back to part 4