Lenin and nationalism

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Thu Apr 6 22:21:17 MDT 1995


The debate on the "Irish question" within the Zimmerwald left was
part of a long-running debate on nationalism and national self-
determination on the left in eastern Europe in particular.  It's
important to put it into context in order to avoid drawing the
conclusion that Lenin was some sort of supporter of nationalism.
In fact, he bitterly opposed nationalism in all of its forms
(once succinctly stating that "all nationalism is bourgeois
nationalism"), and his support for the right of self-
determination was part of that opposition.

Karl Radek was a spokesman for the Social Democracy of the
Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, a group which deliberately named
itself after a long-dead multinational entity to indicate that it
was organized on a territorial rather than a national basis.  The
SDKPL was bitterly opposed to Polish nationalism and was not in
favor of an independent Polish state.  (Rosa Luxemburg, its best-
known theoretician, wrote her doctoral dissertation on the
industrialization of Poland, maintaining that Polish economic
development was a function of its role in the greater markets of
the Tsarist  and Austro-Hungarian empires.)

SDKPL leaders, in all-too-common political fashion, turned their
opposition to Polish nationalism into a generalized opposition to
national self-determination in general.  Lenin, in an article
directed at Luxemburg on this question, wrote:

"If we do not promote and advocate the slogan of the _right_ to
secession in our agitation, we shall play into the hands, not
only of the bourgeoisie, but also of the feudal landlords and the
absolutism of the _oppressor_ nation. ... When, in her anxiety
not to 'assist' the nationalist bourgeoisie of Poland, Rosa
Luxemburg rejects the _right_ to secession in the program of the
Russian Marxists, she is in _fact_ assisting the Great-Russian
Black Hundreds [proto-fascist gangs of thugs mobilized for
pogroms, etc.].  She is in fact assisting opportunist tolerance
of the privileges (and worse) of the Great Russians.

"Carried away by the struggle against nationalism in Poland, Rosa
Luxemburg has forgotten the nationalism of the Great Russians,
although _this_ is the nationalism that is most formidable at the
present time.

...

"This state of affairs confronts the proletariat of Russia with a
twofold, or rather, a two-sided task: to combat all nationalism
and, above all, Great Russian nationalism; to recognize not only
fully equal rights for all nations in general, but also equality
of rights as regards statehood, i.e., the right of nations to
self-determination, to secession.  And at the same time, it is
their task to promote a successful struggle against the
nationalism of all nations, whatever its form, and preserve the
unity of the proletarian struggle and of the proletarian
organizations, amalgamating these organizations into a closely-
knit international association despite bourgeois striving for
national exclusiveness.

"Complete equality of rights for all nations, the right of
nations to self-determination, the unity of the workers of all
nations--such is the national program that Marxism, the
experience of the whole world and the experience of Russia teach
the workers."

(The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1914.  In Lenin,
_Collected Works_, V. 20.)

Earlier, in an excellent 1913 article called "Critical Notes on
the National Question" (also in Vol. 20 of the C.W.), Lenin
wrote:

"Marxism is irreconcilable with nationalism, even if it is the
'fairest,' 'purest,' most refined and civilized nationalism. ...

"Fight against all national oppression--yes, certainly.  Fight
_for_ any kind of national development, _for_ "national culture"
in general--certainly not."

Somewhere else (I forget where), Lenin uses divorce as an analogy
for the right of national self-determination.  To demand that
divorce be legal and readily accessible is not the same as
demanding that all married couples immediately get divorced.  But
it's precisely the case that insofar as men play the dominant and
oppressive role within many or most marriages any questioning of
the right of divorce is in reality a questioning of women's
rights.  In the same manner, to question the right of secession
of oppressed nations is to question their equality in general.

I raise this because Lenin was debating against precisely the
kind of "go with the flow" style of adaptation to nationalist
movements which is so trendy on the left today, and which is also
reflected in the uncritical embrace of "queer nationalism" (as
distinct from the struggle for gay liberation), bourgeois
feminism (as overwhelming the class-based struggle for women's
equality), etc., typical of many "movementists".

The reason socialists have to clearly and unequivocally support
the rights of all the oppressed is precisely that we stand for
the rights of all and against special privileges for any.  It's
not so we can somehow assimilate ourselves into organizations
dominated by our class enemies and change them for the better.

Tom Condit


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