On the National Question

Underestimation of Democratic Demands

1- How general democratic demands concerning wide toiling masses and the proletariat’s goal of socialism should be linked is a problem that aroused many important debates and serious differences within Marxist movement.

While accepting that imperialist era is politically a period of reaction, Lenin did not conclude that the importance of democratic demands diminished. On the contrary, the fact that democracy has increasingly become a dream in the imperialist era increased the importance of democratic demands for the toiling masses. Proceeding from this fact Lenin called for an utmost interest towards developing a revolutionary policy and programme in relation to the question of linking the struggle of broad masses for democratic demands and proletariat’s goal of socialism in its struggle for power.

Lenin pointed out to “the problem of transition to proletarian revolution” and wanted communists to think over this problem seriously in the second congress of the Comintern (1920). He was pointing to the fact that the problem of revolution cannot be solved simply by winning over the vanguard of the proletariat to the idea of proletarian dictatorship and that ways, methods, programmatic formulations and demands which draw the mass of the proletariat and other toiling layers to revolutionary struggle under the hegemony of the proletariat must be found.

The chain broke at this point because of Lenin’s illness and death and the rise of Stalinism. “The problem of transition” could enter again the agenda of communists only with the 1938 Transition Programme that Trotsky wrote as part of his efforts to build the Fourth International.

Lenin put forward a general approach we find still relevant while he was criticising the tendency to underestimate the struggle for democracy in the imperialist era:

“Capitalism and imperialism can be overthrown only by economic revolution. They cannot be overthrown by democratic transformations, even the most “ideal”. But a proletariat not schooled in the struggle for democracy is incapable of performing an economic revolution.”[1]

“The Marxist solution of the problem of democracy is for the proletariat to utilise all democratic institutions and aspirations in its class struggle against the bourgeoisie in order to prepare for its overthrow and assure its own victory.”[2]

“We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form.”[3]

2- Polish Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, Radek (or Russian ones like Pyatakov Bukharin) legitimately opposed the conception of the Second International separating the minimum and maximum programmes. However they went too far to an erroneous point of completely underestimating the democratic demands that would serve as a lever for a transition to the proletarian revolution. Lenin named this political tendency as “imperialist economism” and criticised in a way that is still relevant today.

According to Lenin’s assessment the imperialist economism did not manage to link the struggle for reforms and democracy with the birth of imperialism just as “late” economism (that of early century) could not link the fight for democracy with the birth of capitalism.

Imperialism is the period in which the capital outgrows the borders of national states. Rosa Luxemburg etc. interpreted possible results of this economic development in a mechanical way. According to them since development was towards merging of nations it was unnecessary to defend the freedom of secession of nations and recognise this under proletariat’s power. Thus they argued against including the right of nations to self-determination in the party programme. Lenin on the contrary thought that revolutionary fight for socialism had to be combined with a revolutionary programme on the national question as in all other democratic tasks.

Lenin‘s criticisms against those Marxists who defend the thesis that “the right of nations to self-determination is impossible under capitalism and unnecessary under socialism” are important from two points of view. First is the stressing of the point that the right of nations to self-determination is a political right. Of course under capitalism these political rights have not been, and could not have been, granted automatically. Serious reforms have largely been by-products of revolutionary struggle of masses against bourgeoisie. It would be completely wrong for the revolutionary proletariat to approach the question of the right of nations to self-determination in a reasoning of “impossible under capitalism”. Second, the revolutionary proletariat would strive to gain hegemony in a political fight by including this type of demands which could turn into an important lever to mobilise broad masses into its programme.

Another important point in Lenin’s criticisms of imperialist economism is the following: To say that “the right of nations to self-determination is useless in socialism” (by “socialism” he means in a careless way the dictatorship of the proletariat) would be to fall into a lightminded way of thinking that the discrimination between oppressed and oppressor nations created through ages and its deep effects can simply be washed away with the proletarian revolution once and for all, spontaneously and without any effort. Any lack of attention to this question would result in nothing but helping to sustain and even deepen in practice the negative imprints of oppressor nation chauvinism.

3- Therefore Lenin considered it absolutely necessary for the proletariat in power to recognise the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership defended to implement this right immediately after the October Revolution and the resolution of the II. Congress of the Soviets to recognise the right of nations to self-determination were further clarified by the principles determined by the Committee of People’s Commissars (“Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” dated 15 November 1917):

“1. The equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia.

2. The right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, even to the point of secession and the formation of an independent state.

3. The abolition of any and all national and national-religious privileges and disabilities.

4. The free development of national minorities and ethnographic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.”[4]

Lenin defended that the principle “merging of nations is possible only through voluntary association” could be implemented by the proletarian power taking measures in favour of the oppressed nation and that real equality could only by this way be achieved. He expressed his view on this point in a sharp warning against the danger of “Great Russian chauvinism” which arose among Bolsheviks:

“In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.

“In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence…

“That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or "great" nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question, he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.”[5]

4- What lies beneath the mistake of some Marxists Lenin accused of being fallen into a tendency of imperialist economism was reducing political problems directly to economy and thinking that by removing the economic base problems it creates would automatically disappear. It is true that in the last analysis economic base determines everything. But to proceed from this fact to ignore the complexity of political problems and interpret the dialectical relationship between economic base and political effects in a mechanical way is a caricature of Marxism.

Those Marxists who fell into this mistake, starting from the impossibility of economic independence except the proletarian world revolution carried it as such to the political sphere. In short, on the question of the right of nations to self-determination they confuse the question of political independence of nation-states with the question of economic dependence. It is sure that a complete elimination of national oppression is possible only under proletarian power. But this in no way changes the meaning of the right of nations to self-determination which is the right of secession of an oppressed nation from the oppressor nation, i.e. the right of establishing its own nation-state achieving its political independence. It is known that imperialist countries, because they have the economic means of applying pressure on small countries, may stop resisting too much against the demand of independence on the part of small nations when they find it too costly, or find it useful to divide a region into tiny nation-states.

It is a clear fact that imperialist countries continue, through economic means, to keep under pressure nations that have achieved their own nation-states but are weak economically. But the right of nations to self-determination should not be considered in this context. The struggle in these countries cannot be described with reference to the national question unless there is an open imperialist annexation.

It is also a caricature of Marxism not to take the demand of the right of nations to self-determination in a clearest way as “political independence, the right to establish a separate state” and think that economic independence can also be achieved[6] by a national liberation struggle.

Imperialism is a world system that links all nation-states large or small to each other through diverse (and of course unequal) economic relations. For this reason, to defend that nation-states can even be fully independent in an economic sense despite the imperialist system is not overthrown by proletarian revolutions progressing on a world scale is a distortion of Marxism. In conclusion we have to point out once again that we must understand from national liberation nothing but achieving political independence. Economic liberation is a matter of social revolution.

[1] Reply to Kievsky, CW. 23, p. 25

[2] ibid. p. 26

[3] The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, CW 21. p. 408

[5] The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”, CW 36, p.607-8

[6] Such as the political views which, in Turkey, found their typical expression in the slogan of “a fully independent and really democratic Turkey”, which was part of the conception of national democratic revolution.