Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Lenin’s development of the principle of national self-determination may have had the greatest theoretical and practical effect in history but it did not capture the field without dissent from within the Bolshevik Party in his lifetime, nor did it entirely in practice under socialism in the Soviet Union after his death in 1924 always prove equal to the exhortations of Lenin to adopt a more sensitive and nuanced approach to the less developed nations inherited from the Tsarist empire and now included in the Soviet state.
Stalin elaborated the policy of Leninism on the National Question in his article Marxism and the National Question, written in 1913 amidst the developing differences in the Second International on the issues of imperialism and the National (and later Colonial) Question. This work of Stalin’s came to be considered the definitive Marxist treatise on the National Question. He defined a nation as “a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture”.(1) Stalin assumed the position of the head of the Peoples Commissariat for Affairs of Nationalities in 1917. The National Question in the revolutionary socialist Soviet Union centred around the subject peoples in the border regions of the Tsarist empire, who constituted about half of the total population. The February 1917 democratic revolution not only overthrew Tsarism but also led to the emergence of national movements of subject peoples in many of these border areas. The National and Agrarian Questions merged in the border areas into resentment against Russian colonists settled by Tsarism and accorded privileges in land, status and power. These victims of internal Russian settler colonialism, particularly the Ural region, Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, expected that the new Provisional Government brought to power by the February 1917 revolution would remedy the injustices of the past by returning their lands and properties of which they had been forcibly deprived by Tsarism. However, Kerensky’s Provisional Government failed to live up to these hopes.
When the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Socialist Revolution of 1917, they were confronted with these nationalist aspirations and hopes in the periphery of the Soviet Union, which they had supported before October 1917. Apart from the regions listed above, they were faced with the independence of Finland and the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – and autonomy for the Siberian Republic and the Northern Caucasus, not to mention nationalist problems and issues in Belorussia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine, Kukand, Crimea, the Bashkir Republic, etc. While the Soviet Union was established on the basis of a free union of free nations as a federation of Soviet national republics according to Lenin’s resolution for the Third Congress of Soviets in 1918, the fading of hopes after 1920 of the world revolution, or at least in the developed western countries, combined with the military intervention by 22 imperialist countries in support of the Tsarist White counter-revolutionaries, particularly in the outlying border regions, impacted profoundly on the policy of national self-determination.
The argument presented in Stalin’s report on the National Question to the 1918 Congress mentioned above was that in a socialist state such as had been established in the Soviet Union, the interpretation of the principle of self-determination would no longer be the right of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations but of the working masses, i.e. self-determination in such a state would be subordinated to the interests of the working class as a whole. In 1919 at the Eighth Party Congress, Lenin’s resolution said that the question of who is to express the nation’s will to secede would rest on the class-historical viewpoint, taking into consideration the stage of historical development of the given nation, i.e. when the struggle was against feudalism, the national bourgeoisie’s role was progressive, but in the struggle for socialism (after the revolution) that role was assumed by the working class. This implied that the right to remain united would take precedence over the right of secession.
However, in the case of Ukraine, the Central Rada (Soviet) first shared power with the Bolshevik-majority city Soviets but later incrementally went over to the side of the counter-revolution in the shape of the Don Cossacks. German occupation of the Ukraine during World War I postponed the final showdown between the nationalists and communists until 1919, when the Red Army invaded Ukraine. It seems Lenin was not consulted before the invasion and this led him to attack Great Russian chauvinism at the Eighth Party Congress, despite or even because of a spate of criticism against him for ‘undue concessions’ to minority nationalists. Lenin was troubled by the manner in which the Ukrainian question had been handled. Apart from his long standing views on the National Question being handled with sensitivity, he argued that Ukrainian nationalists expressed genuine popular interests, in spite of their other serious political weaknesses. In contrast, the Ukrainian communists had not managed to significantly extend their political influence beyond the cities. The reliance therefore on military means was a sign of weakness, not strength. These internal differences on national grievances became a regular issue within the Bolshevik Party from then on.
An example of such differences and their outcome was the case of Sultan Galiev of the Tatar Communist Party, who was inducted into the Commissariat of Nationalities in 1918. By 1920, Sultan Galiev was considered the most influential Muslim in the Soviet structure. Theoretically, this placed him in a key position to reconcile socialism and Islam and the traditional culture of the eastern and Central Asian borderlands. However, Galiev took the position that the worldwide dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, even when replaced by that of the proletariat, would not bring about a major change in the oppressed segment of humanity (including the oppressed nations), and therefore the material premises for the social transformation of humanity could only be created by the establishment of the dictatorship of the colonies and semi-colonies over the metropolis. This ultra-nationalist deviation cost Galiev his arrest in 1923 and he was expelled despite his recanting his extreme nationalist views.
Another example is the handling of the National Question in Georgia. It too, like Ukraine, enjoyed a brief independence before being conquered and occupied in turn by the Germans, British, and finally Soviets. Lenin sided with the local Bolsheviks in his reluctance to overthrow the Georgian Menshevik government established in 1920. In 1921, however, the Red Army moved in. Lenin’s fear was that Ordzhonikidze, in charge of the Georgian campaign, may use the same authoritarian methods he employed earlier in Armenia, which alienated the local population. Lenin argued for a skilful and flexible approach based on large-scale concessions to all kinds of petty bourgeois elements, including Georgian intellectuals, petty traders, and the Mensheviks. The Georgian Bolsheviks too opposed Ordzhonikidze’s approach as they wished to maintain some element of national independence. Lenin noted that they were anxious to gain popular support in the Caucasus, where nationalistic sentiment was particularly deep-rooted, having been strengthened by the short-lived experience of independence under a Menshevik government that was subsequently crushed by force.
Ordzhonikidze failed to take account of these ground realities. By 1922 the situation in Georgia was exacerbated by his move to set up a Transcaucasian Federation including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Georgian Congress of Soviets rejected this through a declaration of the inviolability of their national independence. The entire Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party resigned. The national policy of the Soviet regime now became the centre of a full scale debate.
When the Constitution of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was being prepared in 1922, Lenin proposed a less centralist structure based on the caution that the Bolsheviks should not be too impatient in centralising the new state as he realized that the National Question was simply being suppressed rather than resolved and laid out a visionary alternative.
In his Letter to the Congress (or Testament, as it came to be known) in December 1922, despite ailing, Lenin delineated the National Question with considerable attention.(2) He began with a sustained attack on Great Russian chauvinism and the imperative to protect the national minorities from it, particularly the need to distinguish the nationalism of the oppressed nation from that of the oppressor. He accused the nationals of a big nation (the Great Russian) of being guilty in a number of cases of the use of violence instead of steady and sustained persuasion through the development of the consciousness and importance of proletarian unity. In fact he advocated a policy of reverse discrimination: “In one way or another, by one’s attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russians for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the ‘dominant’ nation subjected them in the past.”(3) Lenin realised that internationalism meant more than observing the formal equality of nations, given the deeply entrenched feelings of national injustice. It was better to give too much rather than too little to the minority nationalities. A merely formal treatment of the National Question could not remove the barriers to international solidarity erected by the offending and offended nationalities. He warned against a lapse into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, arguing that to overcome this legacy of the past, exceptional resourcefulness and sincerity would be required. Last but not least, Lenin advocated the strictest rules on the use of the national language (Russian) in the non-Russian republics, thereby defending the right of the minority nationalities to use and develop their own indigenous languages.
To what extent Lenin’s strictures were adhered to in practice in the Soviet Union and internationally after his passing away will be dealt with in the next instalment of this series.