By Joseph Seymour. The following two-part article is the text of a talk given at the July 1976 European summer camp of the international Spartacist tendency, reprinted from Workers Vanguard No.123, 3 September 1976, and No.125, 17 September 1976.
As you are aware, our views on the national question, particularly concerning the near East, are one of the most distinctive and controversial aspects of “Spartacism.” Very often this question is the most obvious and sharpest difference when we first encounter tendencies that appear to be close to us.
This talk is designed as a contribution to understanding the theoretical underpinning of our current positions. In polemics against the Spartacist tendency and within the ostensibly Trotskyist movement, there are often references to the position Marx or Lenin took on this or that aspect of the national question. Without a thorough knowledge of the evolution of the Marxist position, in its historical context, it is impossible to determine whether or not, and how, these references are relevant.
I believe that an understanding of the evolution of the Marxist position on the national question from 1848 to 1914 – i.e., from the origins of Marxism to the collapse of the Second International – bears on the Spartacist position in two significant ways. First, there is no Marxist program for the national question as such. The Marxist position has always had a predominantly strategic character, aimed at creating the conditions for a successful proletarian revolution. In this sense, I think that one can draw a contrast with the Marxist position on the woman question. The position in favor of abolition of the family and for the equality of women is a fundamental element of a communist society, and therefore is not subordinate to changing political conjunctures.
The Marxist position on the national question has a much more conjunctural character historically, and is much more determined by changing empirical circumstances. Thus, it is not only legitimate, but very often obligatory, to change a specific position on a specific national question in a very short period of time. Today we are opposed to the independence of Quebec, while of course recognizing the right of self-determination. But it is certainly possible that in a couple of years, if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence. Such determinations have a conjunctural and a strategic character.
The second reason I believe a knowledge of pre-Leninist Marxism is important in this question is that our position involves opposition to the notion (which is a resurrection of the earliest Marxist position) that there exist progressive nations and reactionary nations within the colonial world. We do not regard the Palestinians or the Lebanese Muslims as inherently progressive, or the Hebrews and Lebanese Maronite Christians as inherently reactionary, as outposts of imperialism. Many of our disputes with various ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies – for example, over the India-Pakistan war in 1972, over Angola and over Lebanon – involve our rejection of the notion of progressive nationalities and progressive bourgeois state-building in this epoch.
Marxism as a political tendency begins in early 1846 with the organization of the Communist Corresponding Society in Brussels. What distinguished Marx from other German communists was his belief that it was necessary to have an alliance with the bourgeois democrats, and that the road to socialism in Germany ran through an imminent bourgeois-democratic revolution. As such, he became committed to the program of the unification of Germany as an inherent and important component of that revolution.
The unification of Germany was organically linked to the radical redrawing of boundaries throughout Eastern Europe. Marx was committed to the restoration of an independent Poland, which would serve as a democratic buffer against tsarist Russia. Russia was the strongest military power in Europe, and was considered by Marx as the bulwark of reaction in which a bourgeois-democratic revolution was not possible – a position he maintained until the late 1870’s. One cannot understand the Marxist position on the national question unless one realizes that for a Central European revolutionary in the mid-19th century, Russia was analogous to the United States for a South American revolutionary today. Radical democracy in Central Europe was linked to the liberation of Poland and a revolutionary war against tsarist Russia.
A more complex aspect of the unification of Germany arose from the fact that part of the German nation was in the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian empire. The majority population of that empire consisted of the various Slavic nations, who were mainly peasant peoples. The most important and advanced of these Slavic nations were the Czechs, and Bohemia was about 40 percent German (concentrated among the urban population) and 60 percent Czech, with virtually all of the peasants being Czech.
Marx and Engels maintained that, with the exception of Poland, the Slavic peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire were too backward to have a bourgeois-democratic revolution. From that premise, they drew the program of dividing Central and East Europe into three great states – Greater Poland, Greater Germany and Greater Hungary – in which the western and southern Slavs would be expected to assimilate to the higher national cultures.
When the revolution of 1848 broke out, the Slavs – not unnaturally – did not go along with this program. The Czech liberals, led by Ferdinand Palacky, proposed instead a federated Austro-Hungarian state allied to a democratic Germany. Thus there was a genuine conflict between the national-democratic movement in Germany and Hungary on the one hand, and the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who in part looked to Russia to preserve the Austro-Hungarian status quo.
This situation came to a head in early 1849, when the Russian army crushed the Hungarian national movement of Lajos Kossuth and the Croat national minority maintained a neutral position at best. At that point, Marx and Engels developed a program which amounted to the national, if not physical, genocide of the western and southern Slavs in the interests of the democratic or progressive peoples.
In “Hungary and Panslavism” (1849) Engels writes:
“Everywhere the forward-looking class, the carrier of progress, the bourgeoisie, was German or Magyar. The Slavs found it difficult to develop a bourgeoisie, the South Slavs were only very partially able to do so. Along with the bourgeoisie, industrial strength, capital, was in German or Magyar hands. As German education developed. the Slavs also came under the intellectual tutelage of the Germans, even deep in Croatia. The same thing took place, only later and therefore on a smaller scale in Hungary, where the Magyars together with the Germans assumed intellectual and commercial leadership.…”
And in another article, “Democratic Panslavism” (1849), he concluded:
“We repeat: Except for the Poles, the Russians and at best the Slavs in Turkev. no Slavic people has a future, for the simple reason that all other Slavs lack the most basic historic, geographic, political and industrial prerequisites for independence and vitality.”
Referring to the Russian-Slav counterrevolutionary movement, he wrote:
“Then for a moment the Slavic, counterrevolution with all its barbarism will engulf the Austrian monarchy and the camarilla will find out what kind of allies it has. But with the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat the Germans and Magyars in Austria will become free and will take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war which will then break out will explode this Slavic league and these petty, bull-headed nations will be destroyed so that nothing is left of them but their names.
“The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties but also entire reactionary. peoples to disappear from the earth. And that too would be progress.”
There was, in the Revolution of 1848, a prominent leftist who did adhere to the doctrine of national self-determination as a principle. This was Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote in his 1848 “Appeal to the Slavs”:
“Down with the artificial boundaries which have been forcibly erected by despotic congresses according to so-called historical, geographical, strategic necessities! There should no longer be any other barriers between the nations but those corresponding to nature, to justice and those drawn in a democratic sense which the sovereign will of the people themselves denotes on the basis of their national qualities.… The welfare of nations is never assured as long as anywhere in Europe one single people is living in oppression.”
—translated in Horace B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism
At the general theoretical level, Marx and Engels denounced Bakunin for utopian egalitarianism applied to nations, which anticipates their later conflict with Bakuninite anarchism where the same principles are applied to individuals. Thus, Engels polemicized against Bakunin in February 1849:
“There is no mention of the very real obstacles in the way of such universal liberation, of the completely different levels of civilization of the various peoples, of their equally different political needs conditioned by them. The word ‘freedom’ takes the place of everything. There is no mention of reality, or insofar as it is considered at all, it is represented as something entirely reprehensible, something arbitrarily produced by ‘congresses of despots’ and by ‘diplomats’.”
On a more concrete level, Marx and Engels regarded so-called democratic pan-Slavism as utopian, which in practice would only serve tsarist Russian expansionism.
Marx’s position on the Slav question in 1848 has drawn very considerable criticism, not least from within the later Marxist movement itself. The purpose of this talk is not to second-guess Marx and Engels’ empirical judgments,but rather to focus on their methodology. I will, however, indicate the two criticisms of their position on the Slav question which I consider to be the strongest.
First, there is a too-close identification of political dominance with cultural development. The Czechs of Bohemia certainly had the economic and cultural level equal, if not greater, to the Hungarians and the Poles. Secondly, there is an overestimation of the attractiveness of pan-Slavism, and therefore the alliance of all Slavic peoples under Russian dominance. Consequently, there was a corresponding underestimation of the nationalism of the particular Slav nations.
As a result of the defeat of radical democracy in the revolutions of 1848, Marx substantially modified his program. He blamed the defeat of radical democracy and the proletarian vanguard on objective economic backwardness, not only in Germany and Austria, but also in France. Therefore, classic post-1848 Marxism placed a heavy programmatic emphasis on creating the objective conditions which would enable the proletariat to take power.
This consisted in furthering economic development, in which the unification of Germany and of Italy was considered extremely important. Only economic development would lay the basis for the organization of the proletariat and the expansion of democratic rights to provide the conditions for proletarian power.
An important component of the post-1848 program continued to be the advocacy of the destruction of tsarist Russia’s military power … by anybody. Marx supported the British and French in the Crimean War and always supported Turkey against Russia on the grounds that Russia was the great reactionary power in Europe.
The next major historical event after 1848 that bears on the national question was the Austro-Italian war of 1859. Here, Marx reaffirmed his fundamental commitment to the unification of Germany as the most progressive national development in continental Europe. He did not support the Italians even though he favored Italian unification because the anti-German Napoleon III of France was an ally of Italy. Marx believed that a victory for the Italian-Napoleonic alliance would threaten the unification of Germany. Believing he had to choose which was more progressive – the unification of Italy or of Germany – he chose that of Germany.
From 1848 onward, Marx and Engels were often accused by their opponents within the left of being German chauvinists. They denied that, arguing that their position on the unification of Germany was objective, and that it did not reflect subjective nationalist prejudice. A united Germany would give an enormous impetus to the economic development of Europe, and would produce the most advanced workers movement in Europe. They were proved objectively correct in that sense. However, it was only in 1870 that they got a chance to prove demonstrably that they were not German chauvinists.
In the 1850’s and 1860’s, Marx and Engels had the following model of what Europe should look like: it was a Europe of multi-national states grouped around the great progressive nations. Greater Poland, Greater Hungary, Greater Germany, Greater France and Great Britain (Greater England). The other peoples, which they called the ruins of peoples die Völkertrümmer – were expected to assimilate. Among these ruined peoples they counted the Scots, the Welsh, the Basques and the Czechs.
In his 1859 pamphlet on the Austro-Italian war, “Rhine and Po,” Engels spells out this conception:
“No one will assert that the map of Europe is definitely settled. All changes, however, if they are to be lasting, must be of such a nature as to bring the great and vital nations ever closer to their true natural borders as determined by speech and sympathies, while at the same time the ruins of peoples, which are still to be found here and there, and are no longer capable of leading an independent national existence, must be incorporated into the larger nations, and either dissolve in them or else remain as ethnographic monuments of no political significance.” [emphasis in original]
The first major change in this schema occurred in the late 1860’s in Britain, where Marx changed his position on the Irish question from the assimilation of the Irish, who were certainly not a great historic people, to independence for Ireland.
The failure of organized Marxism in England obscures the fact that classical Marxism regarded the English revolution as central. Marx devoted much of his energy to the English workers movement. If in the 1850’s Marx considered Germany and Italy underripe for proletarian revolution, he considered Britain overripe. All of the things that Marx was fighting for in Germany were realized in Britain – a large, well-organized industrial proletariat, a stable bourgeois legality and freedom from Russian invasion.
Yet politically, the British working class in this period moved backward; they were less advanced in 1865 than in 1845. So the English question was important for Marx, not only because the English revolution was strategically important, but because the contradiction between the advanced character of English society and the political backwardness of the proletariat put a question mark over Marx’s entire world view.
In the late 1860’s Marx believed he had found a partial key to this problem in an unresolved national question – namely, the Irish question. In England, Marx ran up against the problem of a divided working class in a multi-national state. In 1870, he wrote to two of his American followers:
“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland.… The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.…
“England, being the metropolis of capital, the power which has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover, the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have developed up to a certain degree of maturity. Therefore to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Workingmen’s Association. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent.” [emphasis in original]
—Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 April 1870
It was precisely the advanced nature of English society that caused Marx to anticipate the later problems of the workers movement in a multi-national state. I should point out that Marx’s position on the Irish question anticipated, but was not identical with, the orthodox Leninist position. Marx expected that an independent Ireland would draw the Irish out of England – that the economic development of Ireland would lead to the repatriation of the Irish working class from England. He looked for the physical separation of the English and Irish working classes as a precondition to political unity. It was not simply the advocacy of independence that was important, but its realization in fact. As we shall see, it is with Lenin that the advocacy of the right of self-determination becomes key.
The next major change which rendered what could be called the 1848 program obsolete was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Marx initially supported the Prussians on the grounds that the war was for the defense of the precarious unity of Germany. When the Prussians defeated Napoleon III and determined to conquer Alsace-Lorraine and crush the Paris proletariat, Marx shifted sides, supporting the French. And in fact, Engels, who was a capable military critic, apparently produced a plan for the French army to defeat the Prussians. Eduard Bernstein, who was Engels’ literary executor, destroyed this plan so that it wouldn’t embarrass the German Social Democracy should it fall into the government’s hands.
Marx and Engels’ defensism of the French against Bismark’s expansionism was extremely important in terms of enhancing their moral authority as socialist leaders. After 1870, the accusation that Marx and Engels were really German chauvinists, hiding behind pseudo-scientific doctrines, was obviously untenable. The hegemony which Marxism attained in the international workers movement by the 1890’s was a direct product of Marx and Engels’ absolutely indisputable internationalism.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 rendered Marx’s Grossdeutsche [Greater Germany] position – the inclusion of German-speaking Austria – obsolete. It was now a fantastical program. Marx didn’t like it but he had to accept that – except for Alsace-Lorraine – Germany had acquired its boundaries. This, of course, reopened the question of what to do with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Marx died before he tried to figure out a solution to that insoluble problem. Engels, who lived longer, was stuck with it.
By the time he died in 1894, Engels had moved very far away from the 1848 position on what was called the Eastern question – the East European question – but had not entirely abandoned it. By the late 1870’s, Marx and Engels had come to expect a radical democratic revolution in tsarist Russia. This made the question of Polish independence much less important strategically. Nonetheless, Engels still regarded Russia as in some sense the gendarme of Europe, even in the 1880’s. He was, therefore, very reluctant to accept the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire, believing that it would primarily benefit tsarist expansionism. Engels’ movement from the notion of “progressive nations” to advocating the right of self-determination can be seen in a letter written in 1882 and an article written in 1890.
In the early 1880’s, Engels faced “Luxemburgism” on the national question even before Rosa Luxemburg. For well-motivated reasons, some Polish socialists did not want to fight for the independence of Poland, but rather looked forward to participating in the greater Russian revolution. Engels opposed this position, but he opposed it with-a new argument. No longer was an independent Poland seen as a kind of democratic bastion against reactionary Russia – that was not the primary argument. Rather an independent Poland was necessary to sharpen the class antagonisms within Polish society. He wrote to Kautsky (7 February 1882):
“It is historically impossible for a great people even to discuss internal problems of any kind seriously, as long as it lacks national independence. Before 1859 there was no question of socialism in Italy: even the number of Republicans was small.… Only after 1861 the Republicans increased in influence and later transferred their best elements to the Socialists.…
“So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore, neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself, nor can there arise real international intercourse between the proletarian parties in Germany, etc., with other than emigre Poles.…
“An international movement of the proletariat is possible only among independent nations.” [emphasis in original]
There is still the empirical qualification of “great nations,” not all nations. In the same letter, Engels still doesn’t think much of independence for the Czechs, Croats, Rumanians, etc.:
“Now you may ask me [this to Kautsky, who, incidentally, was half Czech] whether I have no sympathy whatever for the small Slavic peoples, and remnants of peoples, which have been severed asunder by the three wedges driven in the flesh of Slavdom: the Germans, Magyars and Turks? In fact I have damned little sympathy for them.”
However, Engels agrees that after the fall of the tsar it would be all right for the small Slavic peoples to have their independence: after, not before. Then he adds, “I am certain that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Hungarian Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted.” So Engels still considered the smaller peoples of East Europe as economically unviable units, and the Austro-Hungarian state as in some sense progressive.
By 1890 his position had undergone considerable evolution toward the classic Second International position in favor of the right of self-determination. During the 1880’s, which was the beginning of the imperialist epoch, the alliances were formed which would result in World War I: tsarist Russia and bourgeois-democratic France against Wilhelmian Germany and Austro-Hungary. Engels foresaw that such a war would have a completely reactionary character. Furthermore, he was aware that changes in military technology meant that the war would be incredibly destructive, and that it would be impossible to predict who would win such a war.
In the 1880’s, one begins to notice in Engels’ writings and in social-democratic propaganda a strong anti-war and anti-militarist thrust which was absent from the pre-1870 period. As a result there is a much more sympathetic attitude toward self-determination in East Europe. Discussing what will happen the day after tsarism is overthrown, Engels writes in 1890:
“On the same day Austria will lose its single, historical justification for existence – that of a barrier against the Russian drive toward Constantinople.… Magyars, Rumanians, Serbs, Bulgars, Arnauts, Greeks and Turks will then finally be in a position to settle their own mutual disputes without the intervention of foreign powers, to settle among themselves the boundaries of their individual national territories, to manage their affairs according to their own judgments.”
—“The Foreign Policy of Russian Czarism”
After Engels’ death, in the period of the Second International, one can distinguish four characteristic poles on the national question: the German social-democratic center, whose theoretical spokesman was Karl Kautsky; the German-dominated Austro-Hungarian social democracy, whose theoretical spokesmen were Karl Renner and Otto Bauer; Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish group; and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
The differences and similarities between these tendencies are extremely complex and defy a simple schema. For example, on the question of the right of self-determination one would find Kautsky and Lenin in favor, and Bauer/Renner and Luxemburg against. On the question of whether to have a centralized rather than a nationally federated party one would find Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin for, and Bauer/Renner against. However, in certain aspects of methodology, I would argue that Kautsky and Luxemburg tended to emphasize the objective economic factor in determining the configuration of nation-states, although they drew diametrically opposite programmatic conclusions. On the other hand, Bauer/Renner and Lenin tended to emphasize the subjective factor, and the question of how to achieve the unity of the workers movement within a multinational state. Finally, I will argue that Lenin’s position is unique in his heavy emphasis on the question of the right of self-determination, rather than on any particular configuration of nation-states.
Under Kautsky’s guidance, the Marxist movement finally liquidated the outdated notion that tsarist Russia was somehow more reactionary than Wilhelmian Germany. Consequently, the Second International in its 1896 convention in London was now able to assert the general principle of the right of self-determination.
Kautsky’s position was that the Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires were essentially feudal remnants – that they were cases of arrested development. He maintained that a normal, healthy bourgeois development in East Europe required the break-up of these multinational units into their constituent nations. In other words, Kautsky regarded the national liberation of the smaller Slavic peoples as a task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe.
Because the Austrian social democracy did not agree with this position, Kautsky never fought for it publicly. However, his real position was for the dissolution of the multinational states in East Europe. This comes through clearly in a letter (5 June 1901) from Kautsky to Victor Adler, head of the Austrian party:
“Most of our people suffer from the delusion that one can find a solution to every problem, if only one is clever enough. But there are insoluble problems, and the establishment of a viable Austria is one of them. National autonomy would not be a remedy either. It is essential for us in our propaganda and organisation, but under the given conditions, and with the present relation of forces, it is not conducive to a solution.
“In Austria of all places, a gradual approach to some solution or other is unthinkable. The only cure lies in complete collapse. That Austria still exists is to me not proof of its viability, nor yet evidence that we now have the political basis for a slow and peaceful development; all it proves is that bourgeois society is no longer capable of doing away with even the most rotten structures: the Sultan, Tsarism, Austria.”
—quoted in George Lichtheim, Marxism, 1961
The national program of Austrian social democracy, codified at the Brunn (Brno in present-day Czechoslovakia) Congress in 1898 called for a federated, democratic Austro-Hungarian state, and did not call for the right of self-determination. The national program of the Russian social democracy, codified in 1903 before the split, called for a unitary state with local autonomy, and did call for the right of self-determination. This significant difference cannot be explained simply on the basis of left versus right. The Russian Mensheviks also supported the right of self-determination, while even radicals in the Austrian party, like Friedrich Adler, did not advocate it.
Why was the simple solution of breaking the empire up into its constituent nations unpopular among Austrian social democrats of all shades? The problem – and this is why Kautsky was right to call it insoluble – was that everyone knew the break-up of Austro-Hungary would precipitate a war between Russia and Germany over the spoils. The various nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian empire hated one another, but they feared tsarist Russia and Wilhelmian Germany more. In contrast to all shades of Polish nationalism, the program of mainstream Czech nationalism was not independence. Rather, it was extreme federalism – creating a state-within-a-state – combined with some kind of extra-territorial control over all Czechs in the empire.
(I have the impression that present-day French Canadian nationalism is rather similar to pre-World War I Czech nationalism. The goal is not outright independence, but rather virtually unlimited autonomy for Quebec plus some kind of union of all French-Canadians throughout Canada.)
So the Austrian Socialist Party sought to devise a program that would preserve Austro-Hungary in the face of violent national antagonisms. The heart of this program was so-called “cultural-national autonomy,” according to which nations were no longer associated with territories, but were embodied in individuals. In practice this meant that a Czech in Vienna could attend an exclusively Czech school and a German in Prague an exclusively German school. In fact, Karl Renner likened nationality to religion and argued that national organization should be modeled on churches. He writes in 1908:
“We must draw on the map a double network, the one economical, the other political. We must cut in two the sum of the activities of the state, separating national and political matters. We must organize the population twice; once along the lines of nationality, the second time, in relation to the state, and each time in administrative units of different form.”
—quoted in Arthur G. Kogan, “The Social Democrats in the Hapsburg Monarchy” in Journal of Modern History, 1949
From the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, the worst thing about the Bauer/Renner position was that it regarded nationality as a positive value. They actually presented their scheme to save the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire as an anticipation of communist society. Bauer writes in his 1907 opus, The National Question and Social Democracy:
“The organization of mankind into autonomous national communities enjoying, organizing, and developing their cultural goals is the final national aim of international Social-Democracy.”
—translated in Robert A. Kann, The Multi-National Empire
For Bauer, the state may whither away, but national affiliation goes on forever.
Now we come to the anti-Bauer, Rosa Luxemburg. It is important to emphasize that Luxemburg’s position on the national question is very much Polish-centered which in a sense is a paradox. There were, however, rather plausible reasons for a Polish revolutionary Marxist to oppose the independence of Poland. Luxemburg inherited that tradition, she didn’t invent it. One must realize that Poland was the most advanced, most industrialized part of the Russian empire with privileged access to a relatively large market. From the 1880’s on, Polish nationalism was a petty-bourgeois, not a big-bourgeois, phenomenon. Luxemburg was convinced that the economic integration of Poland with Russia had gone so far that there was no possibility of an independent, viable Poland. So she considered Polish nationalism a form of petty-bourgeois reactionary utopianism analogous to Proudhonism in France or Bakuninite anarchism in Spain.
Rosa Luxemburg’s position on Polish independence is also closely linked with her revolutionary optimism concerning the possibility of a socialist revolution breaking out in the Russian empire and then spreading west. She more or less accepted Trotsky’s position on the permanent revolution in Russia. In fact, Trotsky’s seminal articles on the subject were first published in Luxemburg’s Polish-language journal. Thus, Luxemburg developed an attitude toward the Russian empire that was analogous to Marx’s attitude toward the German nation on the eve of 1848: for her the Russian empire became progressive as a powerful material basis for the coming proletarian revolution.
Luxemburg did not recognize what Lenin did: that the antagonisms between the Polish, Ukrainian and Great Russian working classes were an obstacle to a successful revolution in the tsarist empire. Her method of countering nationalist attitudes exclusively through internationalist propaganda was not enough. A positive programmatic opposition to tsarist Russia as “the prison house of nations” was necessary.
The Leninist position on the national question was only developed in its final form during World War I, around 1917, but I believe it is basically relevant to the pre-1914 period.
Superficially, the Bolshevik position appears to be orthodox Kautskyan. However, I believe that the formal similarities obscure significant differences. Kautsky advocated self-determination because he was really in favor of independence as a means of pushing the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe forward. Insofar as Lenin recognized that national emancipation for Poland, for the Ukraine, for the Czechs was an uncompleted bourgeois-democratic task there was a similarity of position.
But Lenin’s position was not essentially a two-stage revolution which looked forward to a relatively lengthy period of development of a bourgeois-democratic Polish, Ukrainian or Czech state. Rather, what Lenin emphasized – and he was the first Marxist to do so – was advocacy of the right of self-determination as a necessary means of unifying the working class in a multi-national state.
Lenin maintained that Luxemburg’s abstract propaganda in favor of internationalism was not adequate to convince the Poles and the Ukrainians that the Great Russian socialists were not chauvinist. The workers movement in the oppressor nation must demonstrate in practice and in immediate programmatic form that it supports the right to independence of the oppressed nation. For Lenin, the question of whether independence would be realized or not was not a fundamental question, it was secondary. Before the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks did not take a position for or against independence for Poland, the Ukraine or Finland. The core of Lenin’s position comes through in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914):
“Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle ‘guesses’, we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state. We respect this right; we do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation.” [emphasis in original]
In New Left and “Third World” Stalinist circles, Lenin’s position is systematically misinterpreted so that he appears as a supporter of any demand put forward by an oppressed national minority. The anti-Luxemburgist Lenin wrongly overshadows the anti-nationalist Lenin. Lenin was violently hostile to “cultural-national autonomy” because it directly and immediately furthered nationalist ideology. He was opposed to federalism, and favored limited regional autonomy for minority nations in a unitary state. On this latter point, he was in basic agreement with Luxemburg. Some bourgeois commentators have noted that Lenin seems to have an all-or-nothing position on the national question. This is in contrast to the Austrian social democrats who offered the population an infinite gradation of steps between independence and assimilation. Richard Pipes in his The Formation of the Soviet Union writes:
“Lenin’s theory of national self-determination, viewed as a solution of the national problem in Russia, was entirely inadequate. By offering the minorities virtually no choice between assimilation and complete independence, it ignored the fact that they desired neither.”
However, Lenin’s program was not designed to be popular with Russia’s minorities at any given time. It was designed to foster the fighting unity of the working class within the Russian state. If the working masses of the various nations are so hostile to one another that it makes unified class struggle virtually impossible, then separation into independent states is called for. Where national minorities choose to coexist within the same state framework, the task of Leninists is to break down all the barriers separating the working masses of the different nationalities. While championing the equality of languages and related democratic rights, we work for the gradual, organic assimilation of the various nationalities making up the working class.