Reformatted post from Jim Monaghan
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Jan 26 10:05:16 MST 2000
[I reformatted this piece to make it more readable. Comrades should make
efforts to use paragraph breaks, especially in longer posts. You have to
think of your posts as leaflets. If you stuck something in somebody's hand
that had 8 point type on both sides with tiny margins and no paragraph
breaks, it would end up directly in the garbage pail.]
>From the Summer 1958 issue of the "International Socialist Review"
On the National Question
How should Russia act toward other Soviet nations? An early discussion
illustrates a crucial issue of Today
by Leon Trotsky
"A" is a member of the Young Communist League. A capable and devoted young
revolutionary, he fought as a volunteer in the Red Army. However, his
Marxist education and political experience are to some extent inadequate.
"B" is a better grounded comrade.
"A" Of course nobody can object to the resolution of the Twelfth Congress
on the national question All the same though, this question was brought up
artificially. For us Communists, the national question is not of acute
"B" Why do you say that? After all you've just declared that you agree with
the resolution, haven't you? Yet the main idea of this resolution is that
the national question does not exist for the benefit of Communists but that
Communists exist to solve the national question, as a constituent part of
the more general question of the organization of man's life on earth. If,
in your self-education study group, with the aid of the methods of Marxism,
you have freed yourself from various national prejudices, that is, of
course a very good thing and a very big step forward in your personal
development. But the task confronting the ruling party in this sphere is a
more far reaching one: we have to make it possible for the many millions of
our people who belong to different nationalities to find through the medium
of the State and other institutions led by the Party, practical living
satisfaction for their national interests and requirements, and thereby
enable them to get rid of national antagonisms and prejudices -all this not
at the level of a Marxist study group but at the level of historical
experience of entire peoples. Therefore there is an irreconcilable
contradiction between your formal acknowledgment of the resolution and your
statement that for us Communists the national question is not of great
importance. Thereby you testify that you do not acknowledge the resolution,
or, to put it bluntly-in a purely comradely spirit and without meaning any
offense-you do not grasp the meaning of the resolution.
"A" You misunderstand me.
"B" Hm, hm.
"A" All I meant to say was that the class question is for us Communists
incomparably more important than the national question. Consequently, we
must keep a sense of proportion. I am afraid, however, that the national
question has recently been very much exaggerated by us to the detriment of
the class question.
"B" Perhaps I have again misunderstood you, but in this statement you have
just made, it seems to me that you have committed another and even bigger
mistake in principle. The whole of your policy-in the economic sphere, in
the building of the State, in the national question and in the diplomatic
sphere-is a class policy. It is dictated by the his which is fighting for
the complete liberation of mankind from all forms of oppression. Our
attitude to the national problem, the measures we have taken to solve it,
form an important part of our class position, and not something accessory
or in contrast to it. You say that the class criterion is supreme for us.
That is perfectly true, but only insofar as it is really a class criterion,
i.e., insofar as it includes answers to all the basic questions of
historical development, including the national question. A class criterion
minus the national question is not a class criterion but only the trunk of
such as criterion, inevitably approximating to the narrow craft or
"A" According to you, then, concern about solving the national question,
i.e.., about forms of coexistence of national groups and national
minorities, is just as important for us as the retention of power by the
working class or of the dictatorship of the Communist Party! From such a
position, it would be easy to slide into complete opportunism, i.e., to
subordinating revolutionary tasks to the interests of agreements among
"B" I feel I have a presentiment that I'm going to find myself among the
"deviators"....Nevertheless, I'll try, my young friend, to stick up for my
point of view. The whole of the problem, as it faces us today, if we
formulate it politically, has this significance for us-how, i.e., by what
measures and methods of action, by what approach, can we maintain and
consolidate the power of the working class in a territory where many
nationalities live side by side, with the central Great Russian nucleus,
which formerly played the role of a Great Power among these nationalities,
constituting less than half of the entire population of the Union? It is
precisely in the process of developing the proletarian dictatorship, in the
course of our entire State-building activity and our daily struggle to
retain and strengthen the workers power that we are at this moment being
faced more urgently than ever before with the national question in all its
living...tions in State, economic, cultural and everyday life.
And just now, when the Party as a whole is beginning to present the
question in this way-and it cannot be presented in any other way- you (and
unfortunately not you alone, declare with naive doctrinairism that the
question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is more important than the
national question. Yet it is precisely for the sake of the dictatorship of
the proletariat that we are now in practice going more deeply (and shall in
the future go still more deeply) into the national question. What is the
;meaning of the contrast that you make? Only people who do not understand
the significance of the "National Factors in State and Party"* can present
the question in this way. And in any case, all those who adopt a nihilistic
or contemptuous attitude to the national question will eagerly seize upon
such a formulation as yours. To turn one's back on the demands and
interests of the formerly oppressed small nationalities, especially those
which are backward and consist mainly of peasants, is a very simple and
perfectly easy thing to do, especially if this sort of lazy indifference
can be covered up with general phrases about internationalism, about the
dictatorship of the Communist Party being ;more important than any and
every national question.
"A" As you please, but presenting the question in this way seems to me to
be bending over backwards to an impermissible extent in the direction of
the backward peasant borderlands and thereby incurring the risk of doing
very great harm to the proletarian center upon which our Party and Soviet
power rely. Either I have understood nothing of what you have said, or you
really are deviating toward the backward predominantly peasant nationalities.
"B" Here it is, we've reached it at least-my peasant deviation, and I
expected as much, for everything under the sun, including political
mistakes, has its own logic...."A deviation in favor the backward peasant
masses-but did you hear what the Fourth Congress had to say about that?
"A" About what.
"B" About the mutual relations between the proletariat and the
peasantry-about the "link"?*
"A" The "link?" What's that go to do with it? I'm absolutely in agreement
with the Twelfth Congress. The link between the proletariat and the
peasantry is he basis of everything. The question of the link is the
question of the fate of our revolution. Whoever is against the link is...
"B" "Yes, yes. But don't you think that the dictatorship of the working
class and of our party is more important for us than the peasant question
and, consequently, than the question of the link?
"A" How so?
"B" It's very simple. We, the Communist Party, the vanguard of the
proletariat, cannot subordinate our social-revolutionary aims to the
prejudices, or even to the interests of the peasantry, which is a petty
bourgeois class in its entirely tendency. Isn't that so, my left-wing friend?
"A" But, pardon me, that sophistry-that is quite a different matter and has
nothing to do with the question. The link is our basis, our foundation.
Lenin wrote that without the l ink with the peasantry we should not attain
socialism; more than that, without the achievements due to the economic
link that Soviet power will inevitably be overthrown.
"B" That's it, precisely. Therefore-you'll agree, I think?- it is absurd,
politically illiterate, to counterpose the link with the peasantry to the
dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course the dictatorship of the
proletariat is the basic idea of our program, the basic criterion of our
State and economic constructive work. But the whole point is that the very
dictatorship is unthinkable without certain definite mutual relations with
the peasantry. If you separate the link with the peasantry from the
question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, you are left, so far as a
given historical period is concerned. with an empty form, a meaningless
"A" I don't disagree with you but what has this got to do with our subject?
"B" It is very directly and closely connected. In our Soviet Union the link
with the peasantry naturally presumes not merely a link with the Great
Russian peasantry. We have a large non-Great Russian peasantry, and it is
distribute among numerous national groups. For these national groups each
national, political and economic question is refracted through the prism of
their native language, their national-economic and folk peculiarities,
their national mistrust which has its roots in the past. Language is the
most basic, most broadly embracing and deeply penetrating instrument of the
link between man and man and between class and class. While in our
conditions the question of the proletarian revolution is, as you
acknowledge, above all question of the relations between the proletariat
and peasantry, this latter question amounts more than fifty percent to the
question of relations between the ;more advanced and influential Great
Russian proletariat and the peasant masses of the other nationalities,
which were mercilessly oppressed in former times and still remember very
well all that they suffered. What's wrong with you friend, is that all your
would-be-radical, but essentially half-baked, nihilistic arguments strike
not only at the national question but also at the fundamental question of
the link between the workers and the peasants.
"A" But, look here, there was a time when our army went into Georgia to
drive out the Menshevik agents of the imperialists without waiting to be
asked first by the people concerned, which meant a plain breach of the
principle of self-determination, and there was a time when our army
advanced on Warsaw...
"B" Yes, of course, there were those times, and I remember them very
clearly and don't disavow them in the least. But there was also, not just
times, but a whole period when we confiscated from the peasants all their
surplus and sometimes even what they needed themselves, by means of armed
force, not shrinking from the most extreme methods.
"A" What do you mean by that?
"B" What I say. The revolution not only seized the peasants' surplus, arms
in hand, but also introduced a military regime in the factories and
militarily if we had not done his in a certainly acute and grave period we
would have perished. But if we were to wish to apply these measures in
conditions when they are not called for by iron, inexorable necessity, we
should perish still more surely.
This applies also, of course, to our policy on the national question.
Revolutionary self-defense required at certain moments a blow at Tiflis, a
march on Warsaw. We should have been pitiful cowards and traitors to the
revolution (which includes both the peasant question and the national
question) if we had balked at the empty fetish of the national "principle,"
for it is perfectly obvious that there was no real national
self-determination in Georgia under the Mensheviks: Anglo-French
imperialism held unrestricted sway there, and was gradually subjecting trhe
whole Caucasis and menacing us from the south. In the national, question,
as in all others, what matters to us is not juridical abstractions but real
interests and relations.
Our military invasion of Transcaucasis can be justified and has justified
itself in the eyes of the working people insofar as it dealt a blow a
imperialism and established the conditions for real, actual
self-determination for the Caucasian nationalities. If through our fault
the masses of the people in Transcaucasia should come to look upon our
military interference as an act of conquest, then this interference would
thereby be transformed into a very great crime-not against the abstract
"principle" of nationalities but against the interests of the revolution.
Here we have a complete analogy with our peasant policy. The confiscation
of the peasants' surplus produce was a very harsh thing. But the peasantry
accepted it as just, even though after the event, insofar as they were
convinced that, as soon as conditions permitted, the Soviet power would go
over to the fulfillment of its basic task-all-around easing of the lives of
the working people, including the peasants.
"A" But still, you can't deny that the class principle ranks higher for us
than the principle of self-determination. After all, that's ABC.
"B" This realm of abstract "principles" is always, my dear friend, the last
refuge of those who have lost their way on this earth. I've already told
you that the class principle, if you understand it not idealistically but
in a Marxist way, does not exclude but only the contrary, embraces national
self-determination. But this latter we also understand not as some
supra-historical principle (on the model of Kant's categorical imperative)
but as the aggregate of real, material conditions of life that make it
possible for the masses of the oppressed nationalities to straighten their
backs, to advance, to learn and to develop, getting access to world
culture. For us, for all Marxists, it must be beyond dispute that only a
consistent,: i.e., a revolutionary application of the class "principle" can
ensure the maximum realization of the "principle" of national
"A" But didn't you yourself say, in explaining our Transcaucasian
intervention, that revolutionary defense takes priority with us over the
"B" Possibly I did, even probably. But in what conditions and in what
sense? In the fight against the imperialists and Mensheviks, who transform
national self-determination into a metaphysical absolute, insofar as it is
directed against the revolution-while they themselves, of course, trample
upon national self-termination. We answered the sorry heroes of the Second
International that the interests of the defense of the revolution mattered
more to us than juridical fetishes; the real interests of the oppressed
weak nationalities are dearer to us than anything else whatever.
"A" But what about the keeping of Red forces in Transcaucasia, in
Turkestan, in the Ukraine?...Isn't that a breach of national
self-determination? Isn't there a contradiction....explained by the fact
that the revolution is for us higher than the national question.
"B" When the working people of those countries understand (and when we do
everything we can to help them to understand) that these forces are on
their territory only to ensure their security against imperialism there is
no contraction here. When these forces indulge in no insult to the national
feelings of the native masses, but on the contrary, display purely
fraternal care for them, there is no contradiction here. Finally, when the
Great Russian proletariat does everything it can to help the more backward
national elements of the Union to take a conscious and independent part in
the building of the Red Army, o that they may defend themselves first and
foremost with their own forces, then that must mean the disappearance of
even the shadow of a contradiction between our national program and what we
do in practice.
All these questions will be solved, of course, not only as a function of
our good will, but it is necessary that we display the maximum good will
for their genuine solution in a proletarian way...I recall that I read two
years ago some reports by a certain former Czarist general in the service
of the Soviet power, about how the Georgians were frightful chauvinists,
how little they understood Moscow's internationalism, and what a lot of Red
regiments were needed to counteract Georgian, Azerbaijanian and every other
sort of Transcaucasian nationalism. It was quite obvious that in the case
of this general the old-time forceful Great Power attitude was barely
disguised under the new terminology. and there is no point in hiding this:
this general is not exception. In the soviet administrative machine,
including also the military machine, tendencies of this kind are powerful
to an extreme degree-and not only among former generals. If they were to
get the upper hand, the contradiction between our program and our actual
policy would inevitably lead to a catastrophe. That is why we have raised
the national question sharply, so far by concentrating the Party's efforts
to eliminate this danger.
"A" Al right. But nevertheless how do you explain the fact that these very
comrades who fully grasp the significance of the link with the peasantry,
take up at the same time as I do myself, a much more reserve position where
the national question is concerned, regarding this question as exaggerated
and pregnant with the danger of distortions in favor of the backward
"B" How do I explain such a contradiction? Logically it is to be explained
by the fact that not everybody thinks things out properly. But a logical
explanation is not sufficient for our purpose. the political explanation is
that the leading role in our Party here is played-and in he immediate
period cannot but be played- by its Great Russian kernel, which through
the experience of these last five years has fully taken to heart and
thoroughly throughout out the question of the relations between the Great
Russian proletariat and the Great Russian peasantry. B y simply analogy we
extend these relations to the whole of our Soviet Union, forgetting, or
insufficiently taking into account, that on the periphery of Russia there
live other national groups, with a different history, a defiant level of
development, and-what is most important-with a mass of injuries they have
The Great Russian kernel of the party is, sin the main, as yet inadequately
aware of the national side of the question of the link, and still more
inadequately aware of the national question in its entire scope. From this
there also derive the contradictions of which you speak-sometimes naive,
sometimes stupid, sometimes of a flagrant character. And that is why there
is no exaggeration in the decisions of the Twelfth Party Congress on the
national question. ON the contrary they answer to the most profound needs
of our life, and we must not only adopt them but develop them further.
"A" While the Communists of the Great Russian center carry out a correct
policy in Great Russia, surely there are in the other parts of our Union
local Communists who are carrying on the same work in different national
circumstances? This is merely a natural and inevitable division of labor.
the Great Russian Communists must and will fight against Greek Power
chauvinism, while he Communists of the other nationalities fight against
their own local nationalism, which is directed, in the main, against the
"B" What you say contains only part of the truth, and half-truths sometimes
lead us to completely false conclusions. Our party is not at all a
federation of national Communist groups with a division of labor according
to their respective national features. If the Party were so constructed,
that would be extremely dangerous.
"A" I am not proposing any such thing...
"B" Of course you aren't But your idea could be developed towards such a
conclusion. You insist that the Great Russian Communists must fight against
Great Power nationalism and the Ukrainian Communists against Ukrainian
This recalls the formula of the Spartacists at the beginning of the
war-"The ;main enemy is in your own country." But there it is a matter of a
struggle by the proletarian vanguard against its own imperialist
bourgeoisie, its own militarist state. There this slogan had a profound
revolutionary content. Of course, the task of he German revolutionaries was
to fight against Hohenzollen imperialism, not to expose French militarism,
It would, however, be a complete distortion of perspective to transfer this
principle to the constituent parts of the Soviet union-state, for we have a
single army, a unified diplomacy and, what is most important of all, one
centralized party. It is perfectly correct that those best fitted to combat
Georgian nationalism are the Georgian Communists. But this is a question of
tact, not of principle. the root of the mater is the need clearly to grasp
the historical origins of the Great Power, aggressive nationalism of the
Great Russians and of the defensive nationalism of the small peoples. It is
necessary to appreciate the true proportions between these historical
factors, and this appreciation must the same in the mind of the Great
Russian and of the Georgian and Ukrainian. for these proportions do not
depend upon he subjective approach-local or national-but correspond (and
must correspond) to the real balance of historical forces. The
Azerbaijanian Communist working in Baku or in the Muslim countryside, the
Great Russian Communist working in Ivano-Voznesensk, must have one and he
same conception where the national question is concerned.
And this uniform conception must consist in a non-uniform attitude to Great
Russian and to Muslim nationalism: in relation to the former, ruthless
struggle, stern rebuff, especially in all those cases when it is displayed
in the administrative and governmental sphere; in relation to the
latter-patient, attentive, painstaking, educational work.
If a Communist on the spot shuts his eyes to the national question in its
full scope and begins to fight against nationalism (or, often, what seems
to him to be nationalism) by summary and oversimplified methods, intolerant
negation, persecution, denunciation, etc., then he will perhaps gather
around him active, revolutionary "left" young people, subjectively devoted
to internationalism, but he will never furnish us with a lasting and
reliable link with the native peasant masses.
"A" But it is just the "lefts" in the border republics who call for a more
revolutionary, more vigorous solutions to the agrarian question. And, after
all, isn't this our main bridge to the peasantry?
"B" Undoubtedly the agrarian question above all in the sense of the
abolition of all remnants of feudal relations must be settled everywhere.
As we now have an already firmly established union-state, we can carry
through this settlement of the land question with all the resoluteness that
it calls for; of course the settlement of the land question is a most
important task of the revolution...But the abolition of landlordism is an
act that is carried out in one blow, once and for all, whereas what we call
the national quesiton is a very lengthy porches. After the land revolution
has been completed, the national question will not disappear. On the
contrary it will only then come into the foreground. and responsibility
for all shortages and shortcomings, all injustices and cases of lack of
attention or harshness in relation to the native masses will not be
attributed in their minds-and not without reason-to Moscow. It is necessary
therefore that Moscow, as the center of our Union, should be the invariable
initiator and promoter of an active policy permeated through and through
with fraternal attention to all the nationalities that make up the Soviet
Union. To speak of exaggeration in this connection is truly to show
complete lack of understanding.
"A" There is a good deal of truth in what you say, but...
"B" Do you know what? Just you read over again the resolution of the
Twelfth Congress now that we've had this talk, and then perhaps, one of
these days, we'll discuss these maters again.
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