[Marxism] Stalin's 1913 Bolshevik pamphlet on the national question
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Dec 29 22:15:30 MST 2006
"Stalinism" --which arose in the 1920's-- undoubtedly had a great deal to do
with it being looked up to by some currents, but on the other hand, that
should have doomed it with others, and it did not. In fact, the pamphlet was
recommended and studied in the Trotskyist SWP as it was in Maoist groups and
Others may want to propose their own explanations for why this would have
been the case, but I think the reasons for the pamphlet's continuing
acceptance is its relentless class reductionism, its trenchant hostility to
"all nationalism" but in reality the nationalism of the oppressed, since it
is blind to the nationalism of the oppressor, and its reassuring line that
simply by fighting prejudice and discrimination and adding a pro-forma
"defend the right to self-determination" line to the party program, the
national question can be rendered harmless. Thus it corresponds to the
outlook of oppressor nationality workers who are radical minded but
nevertheless mostly blind to their own nationalism -- not flag waving cheap
patriotism but the subtler kind that finds its expression in unspoken and
even unconscious assumptions of superiority and a blindness to that social
The failure of this theory of the national question is shown by how
completely the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, and other revolutionary minded
social democrats were blind-sided by the collapse of the Second
International in August 1914, so much so that Lenin initially suspected that
the newspaper reports of the German social democracy's capitulation to the
war hysteria were police fabrications.
Let me add a few observations that may help to take this discussion out of
the realm of original sin and marks of Cain concerning the development of
Marxism and the working class movement on the national question.
Role of Stalin's pamphlet in the Bolshevik current
Was the main consequence of Stalin's Bolshevik pamphlet, written by Lenin's
"splendid Georgian" under his close supervision, to strengthen a kind of
working-class white nationalist reaffirmation of "relentless class
reductionism,. blind to the nationalism of the oppressor'?
If the document is completely blind to the "nationalism of the oppressor,"
then why does the question of prejudice and discrimination, not to mention
self-determination, even come up? Does the historical evidence indicate
that the pamphlet was an attempt to "render the national question harmless"
to the oppressor nations, or at least to the working class of the oppressor
nations? Does it justify the suggestion that it sought although perhaps
unconsciously, to defend "unspoken and even unconscious assumptions of
superiority" against the nationalism of the oppressed, as Joaquin clearly
seems to me to suggest?
I think the available evidence points to a desire not to render national
struggles "harmless" but to begin reaching out more aggressively to make
connections with them and take advantage of their power to do harm to the
colonial rulers and the Tsarist monarchy. I see no reason to dismiss the
talk about fighting discrimination and prejudice as simply a cover story.
I think the pamphlet has more to do with the growing weight and
revolutionary opportunities presented by national struggles particularly in
the Asia, and more local problems such as Poland and Finland. Lenin's
writings on Persia and China after 1906 indicate a shift of attention toward
anti-colonial resistance in the colonies.
The pamphlet marked a change of line in a pro-nationalist-struggles, not
primarily anti-nationalist direction.
It represented a QUALITATIVE advance for the Bolsheviks from the 1903
position which Lenin and the other Iskraists appear to have derived from
Karl Kautsky, in opposition to the Jewish Bund (which had its own problems,
to put it mildly), that minority nationalities must have the perspective of
assimilation or face inevitable oppression by the majority which will not
tolerate such differences. (Lenin based this line of argument on extensive
quotes from Kautsky on the need for national minorities to become one with
the majority German nation.)
As Dave Walters has pointed out, Stalin's pamphlet marked the opening of a
discussion that brought the Bolsheviks into further conflict with figures
who considered themselves to his left (Bogdanov, Trotsky, Radek, not to
mention Luxemburg), who opposed (Luxemburg and I believe Bogdanov) or took
distance from the self-determination position. It also opened a gap between
the views of the Bolsheviks and those of the general run of European Social
Democrats of all stripes (right and left) that only grew from that time. In
the real world, rather than one in which positions are simply measured by
their literary similarity to what a revolutionary like Joaquin says today,
the role of the pamphlet, with all its limitations, was the opposite of what
It is hard to see why it was necessary to produce this pamphlet at all if
Lenin and Stalin primarily wanted to de-fang the nationalism of the
oppressed. The best contribution they could have made to that was to say
nothing at all.
LENIN'S LATER ARTICLES EMBODIED IMPORTANT CHANGES
Lenin's articles from 1914-16 changed the point of view from that in the
Stalin pamphlet in several important ways. They gradually placed national
questions in the framework of the class struggle under imperialism. They
raised the issue of self-determination as a legitimate and important theme
of propaganda and agitation for the party.. They moved away from the rigid
definition of nations in Stalin's pamphlet, which has indeed been a rod and
a staff for sectarians ever since
(My own view has moved steadily toward a more existential view - that
nations are determined by what they do and how they behave, not by their
abiding by geographical and other regulations imposed on them by outside
observers, who not only change what they observe - to tip my hat to
Heisenberg - but even more often distort them because of what they bring to
the act of observation.)
The distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism
of the oppressed was made explicit and radically sharpened.
CONDEMNATION OF ALL NATIONALISM SHOULD BE OBSOLETE FOR REVOLUTIONISTS
It has taken time for this to play out, but this materialist approach as the
imperialist era proceeded pretty much rendered characterizations, let alone
condemnation, of "all nationalism" about as useful as condemnation of "all
classes." Of course, communists aim towards a world without classes or
national borders, but the road to that lies through the struggle of
exploited against exploiter and oppressed against oppressor, where both
nations and classes are concerned.
Above all, Lenin modified the opposition to "all nationalism" in the
programmatic, ideological sense. He explained that "the nationalism of the
oppressed has a general democratic content that communists SUPPORT" (my
emphasis). This sentence marked a real watershed in the history of this
Over time, "internationalist" moralizing against "ll nationalism"
increasingly became the specialty of hardened sectarians - as well as
bourgeois pacifists, liberal "internationalists," and the f'lat-world
enthusiasts of neoliberalism. The real struggle, it became more and more
important to take sides in conflicts between oppressed and oppressor
nations, including such conflicts in the imperialist countries (the Black
struggle in the US, Quebec in "Canada", the Muslims in France, the Turks in
Germany, the Basques in Spain, and so on), including defending and
participating in the progressive, democratic, and revolutionary content of
the nationalism of the oppressed masses..
The ability to do this has historically definitively trumped critiques of
all nationalism as a test of revolutionary internationalism.
Overall, the most revolutionary currents of the Marxist movement -
culminating for now in the contributions of Fidel Castro and his co-thinkers
-- advanced from then, in my opinion, even in spite of the shattering
effects of Stalinism, toward integrating the national question as a central
component of class struggle in the imperialist-dominated world.
NATIONAL QUESTION SUBORDINATE TO CLASS STRUGGLE? A TRUISM THAT ISN'T TRUE.
This process was far from complete, and on the sectarian left (really the
only one in the United States (even to a significant degree among the
oppressed nationalities) there have been more steps backward and
falling-offs than advances in recent decades.
Cloudy generalities with rigidly sectarian implications or uses have
continued to obstruct clear revolutionary thought. And some of these
actually are reflections of hierarchies in political groups with
conservative interests of which they are, at most, only dimly aware.
However, I am convinced that reducing the debate over the national question
into the question of antiracists on one side (supporting the correct theory
and related tactic or strategy), and racists (soft and MAYBE unconscious)on
the other side who advocate wrong ideas, is not going to get us very far..
Many examples could be found from the last several decades of the US SWP,
when the sectarianization of the group radically accelerated and
characteristics and people who tended to run counter to the trend were
firmly lopped off. All in the name of the much-abused proletariat.
The SWP had taken some significant steps forward, including in theoretical
and programmatic aspects of the national question from the late '40s through
the mid-70s. In the late 1970s, in the wake of the turn toward industry,
the leadership attempted to justify the turn by acting in practice as though
the party's turn itself had transformed social and political relations in
the United States and the world from what they had been before the party
went into industry.
Even the basic characteristics of classes were transformed by the mere fact
that the party had entered industry (and some economic changes, which,
leaving aside systematic exaggeration, had actually begun in the mid-1960s -
that is, as the ";petty-bourgeois radicalization" was approaching its high
point). In line with the duty of all classes to make the turn their axis,
the leadership, with a wave of the wand, transformed the petty-bourgeoisie
from a wavering or unreliable allies or foes with a variety of distinct
interests into fiends incarnate, all uniformly slavering with hatred,
contempt, and fear of the working class - and well over the halfway mark on
the road to fascism.. and the world from what they had been before the party
went into industry.
A transvaluation of all values was undertaken, with every question requiring
a new "turn" position, which basically amounted to adopting old workerist
and sectarian positions that had been lying around largely unemployed (at
least by the party) for decades.
I recall two statements, which attempted to dissolve the national question
into the class struggle or rule it out of the class struggle entirely
through the magic of "line," that I want to take up briefly. Both were
pressed on us as sure-fire answers to the "old-fashioned" pre-turn
attitudes that still infected cadre such as myself, but more importantly the
constantly stamp out traces of "nationalist deviation" among the Black
comrades in particular.and positions in the party.which no longer had
validity in the new epoch marked by some economic shifts that actually began
in the mid-60s and, above all, the party's toward industry.
One: "Affirmative action is a class question, not a national question." Why
isn't the issue not "Is affirmative action a class question or a national
question," but "what kind of class question is affirmative action." To
which the answer could only be: "In large part and in actual origin, a
national question." The leadership tried to handle the problem of origin by
declaring that Marx had invented affirmative action in the Critique of the
Gotha Programme. Marx's insight deserves legitimate praise, but facts are
stubborn things and the civil rights movement created affirmative action as
a social reality, and not based on readings of Marx (even though some
fighters were influenced by reading Marx, though there is no evidence that
this question was part of that influence.
The choice of question to which they give the final (as always, including
when they change) is final, and all are judged by their agreement,
disagreement, or wavering. The chosen form of the question rules out of
order the possibility that the national question is a class question, thus
(incidentally) barring the right answer in advance from consideration. The
formulation decrees, in defiance of reality, that affirmative action cannot
be both a class and a national question, and suggests clearly that national
questions are alien to and outside of and counterposed to the class
struggle. Amazing what you can do if you imagine that words can decree facts
other than themselves.
Another - this time striking a sharp administrative note that became
increasingly the heart of party thinking and life in the years of sharp
decline and decay: "The national question is subordinate to the class
struggle." If the national question is part of the class struggle then its
subordination to the class struggle cannot be absolute. There can be
circumstances -- and there are many in fact - where other manifestations of
the class struggle can be subordinated to the national question. But the
formulation makes the national question subordinate to any and all
manifestations of the "real" class struggle which is conceived - at least
for the purpose of subordination - as excluding the national question.
The national question was actually not subordinated to the class struggle
through the use of such winged formulas, and the world from what they had
been before the party went into industry.
It couldn't be, you see, because contrary to hopes of centralizers and
disciplinarians, "line" has neither voice nor vote in the actual class
struggle, including the national struggle. Those who issued these commands
for "subordination" merely cut themselves off from the processes they
opposed, partly to their own relief, of course. In the SWP, the formulas
served the need of a small caste of professional "leaders" to resist "alien
pressures" to function in other than an administrative and ultimately
bureaucratic manner in politics..
WAS STALIN'S PAMPHLET AUTHORITATIVE IN THE US SWP?
Joaquin goes off the track in seeming to suggest in attempting to include
the Socialist Workers Partty as an example of the the pamphlet's
"continuing acceptance" as a central theoretical document on the national
question for our time. Urging someone to read something or even including
it in a class series syllabus is not the same as endorsing it
unconditionally, as he suggests.
Trotsky was increasingly critical of this pamphlet in his later years,
including in his flawed (and never completed or edited and translated by
reliable people) biography of Stalin. No one in the party ever urged me to
read Stalin's pamphlet or suggested it was authoritative for today, and it
was never the subject of classes in any branch I belonged to. And I was
pretty close to the party from 1961 (around the Robert Williams case and the
civil rights movement -- like the party, though on my own initiative, I
supported both the civil rights movement and the Black nationalist trend)..
I finally read Stalin's pamphlet because I realized, because of my interest
in the Black question in the United States, that I was duty bound to do so.
And I had some of the same criticisms as Joaquin, based on both my
experiences and the material produced by revolutionary Marxists of the
Leninist persuasion (including Trotsky) since then.
I also admit to the offense, if I recall correctly, of including it once in
a class syllabus on the national question when I was in the National
Education Department in the 1975-78 period. However, I made certain to
place it in a framework which made it clear that it had been supplanted as
an analysis by Lenin's later writings and other developments.
It is true that from the time I read it, I always opposed the view - and
there was a tendency to look at it that way in the party in those days -
that it was a "sort-of" Stalinist document. And I also never argued that
it was essentially a chauvinist or racist document (even of the soft or
possibly "unconscious" variety) as Joaquin seems to me to be suggesting. I
certainly did not think it was adequate to the national question in Russia
in 1917, let alone the United States in the 1970s (and still less today) and
I made that clear in the "questions" I suggested and the totality of the
class series, which was very, very far from suggesting that Marxist
thinking on this issue had reached a peak in 1913.
Absolutely no one in the party majority to my knowledge ever cited Stalin's
pamphlet as a fundamental, much less the basic Marxist document relating to
present-day problems regarding national struggles, and it was occasionally
criticized quite openly and contrasted to later Lenin writings in answer to
anti-nationalist oppositionists like Wohlforth, who relied on Stalin's
definition of nations quite heavily, as did (to a lesser extent) the
incipient Spartacist League and the Kirk-Kaye tendency.
Further, it was never suggested by the party or branch leaderships, to my
recollection, that Stalin's pamphlet was the programmatic last word, and
noone IN THE MAJORITY, denied that Lenin's later articles on
self-determination, for example, represented a more advanced and accurate
analysis that changed some fundamental aspects of the Stalin pamphlet. In
particular, there was a recognition that Lenin-Stalin's narrow, rigid (and,
in retrospect, rather administratively convenient) definition of nations had
been proven inadequate in the actual class struggle. In which, after all, it
is worth pointing out that a lot has happened since 1913.
Trotsky's later writings on permanent revolution, the Ukraine, and other
related questions; the discussions with Trotsky on the Black struggle in
1932 and 1939; and also party resolutions, reports, and debate articles by
CLR James, George Breitman, and, yes, the speeches of the non-Marxist
Malcolm X were presented in the party as vital contributions that added
to, corrected, and strengthened our approach. I certainly never viewed
Stalin's pamphlet as anything but part of the historical background and
evolution to the way we were thinking.
All of these had MORE authority in the party than Stalin's pamphlet, and
none echoed any of its incorrect arguments.
I find Joaquin's de facto amalgam between the SWP and groups that did treat
Stalin's Bolshevik pamphlet as authoritative for today a bit alarming
because it suggests to me that Joaquin is really stretching like Plastic Man
to tar all Marxists, or at least all Marxists associated with revolutionary
groups that have a sectarian character, with the same brush as far as the
national question or at least this pamphlet is concerned. The clear
evidence of over-reaching and what seems like willful blindness to some
very sharp and obvious distinctions that I assumed were well known to him is
a worrisome sign, in my opinion.
Hostility to the SWP is common on this list, and I share it in some
important ways, but facts are stubborn things and I think the facts need to
be recognized on this matter. On the SWP as on other matters, it is worth
the trouble it takes to get things right.
PROOF OF LENIN'S 'COMPLETE FAILURE'
Joaquin argues that the complete failure of Lenin's line on the national
question is proven by his suspicion that the issue of the German SDP paper
that announced their support of German imperialism in the war was a police
forgery. I find his assertion and not Lenin's, very odd. Apparently,
Lenin should have known exactly what was going to happen if he had only had
the correct theory on the national question.
After all, it's perfectly clear to Joaquin what the German Social Democrats
were going to do about war credits -- and only 90-odd years after they did
it. This is because he has the Correct Position, and not at all because he
happens to already knows what the outcome was to be. Only Lenin's incorrect
program can explain why Lenin was not as certain as to what was going to
happen before the fact as Joaquin is today in that what actually happened
was what was going to happen. QE - well, not D but whatever.
I think noone in the international Social Democratic left would have been
surprised if the SDP had come out with a half-pacifist, half chauvinist,
"internationalist" "peace" stand - although Lenin may have HOPED for
something better. But the complete political collapse as a socialist party
(I believe even Liebknecht voted for the war credits, under discipline) was
a terrible shock, and I think there was good reason for it to be a shock.
Just because the whole thing seems set in concrete to Joaquin in 2007 does
not mean that there was no legitimate room for doubt about what would happen
in 1914. No theory of the national question would have answered the
question until it was answered in reality. Any other approach begins to
turn a revolutionary approach to the national question into a sectarian
shibboleth that provides the key to the solution of all problems and answers
to all questions for the key-holders.
If a basically correct approach to the national question solves all problems
.I would frankly expect that I - not to mention Joaquin - would have a
rather less flawed political track record than either of us can present..
>From this article, it appears as though Joaquin has begun to think that his
understanding of the national question, developed entirely since the 1960s,
should be treated as an eternal verity, against which everyone from past
generations - going back at least to the early twentieth century, and
perhaps even back to the US Civil War -- should be measured. He seems to be
arguing that only racial prejudice and a desire to render national
struggles "harmless" to the oppressors can explain why Lenin and Stalin in
1913 and others today did not or do not hold all aspects of his view. Of
course, in 1913, just about no Marxist on earth held anything of the kind at
the time. The article marked a rather substantial step forward IN FACT and
Stalin's pamphlet represented a step out in front of the general trend on
the left and right of the movement..
There is, I might add, no evidence that Lenin, however shocked, was at all
politically paralyzed or cripplingly mind-blown by the Social Democratic
betrayal with the opening of World War I.. Within a very short time he was
presenting a quite full counter line, and rebuilding the international
workers' movement as best he knew how, and uniting the Bolshevik Party
around this course. Joaquin's criticism here seems unrealistic to say the
If Joaquin knows of a current that responded better to the crisis because of
its position on the national question, he should let us know. If he
doesn't, as I suspect (because I respect Joaquin's judgement), that fact in
itself demonstrates the emptiness in real politics or Joaquin's stern
Even more than his presentation of the failings of Stalin's Bolshevik
pamphlet, which definitely has some validity, Joaquin's interpretation of
Lenin's reaction to the German Socialist betrayal is completely ahistorical.
DO OPPRESSED NATIONS REALLY JUST 'COME TOGETHER'
To approach the question more generally, I want to take up one more of
Joaquin's points: "But Stalin's 'materialist' criteria of what is or is not
a nation leaves out the two most important factors in nation-formation in
the modern epoch, number 1, imperialist national oppression and number two,
the reaction against it by the oppressed by coming together as a people."
I've made this point and points like it many times, and I do not disagree
with it. But quite recent experiences and the "race trumps class"
generality that Joaquin seems to be relying on more and more generally as a
guide in the United States particularly but internationally as well (as his
interpretation of the Stalin pamphlet as basically racist in its
consequences indicates), are changing the scope of what needs to be seen. I
think it is important to note that oppressed nations "coming together" is
not the only result of a national struggle
Because the national question is more and more becoming the expression of
the drive of the poor and oppressed for profound transformations, I think we
have to look at the tendency, really quite pronounced, of oppressed nations
to come apart as well as "come together" in seeking solutions..
Doesn't a deep-going progressive national struggle tend to socially polarize
oppressed nations, not just bring them together as undifferentiated peoples?
And doesn't that polarization tend to take place along broadly and
politically flexible CLASS lines? The national question doesn't just unite
oppressed nations, but also often splits them along lines that are shaped by
class conflicts that go on within them all the time, and cannot simply and
purely be "trumped."
Wasn't that Castro's Cuban-nationalist and Marxist analysis of the Cuban
situation, and isn't that the way things played out? The oppressed and
exploited masses of Cuba "came together" but the old Cuban pseudo-republic
blew apart along class as well as national alignments. And about a million
Cubans not only didn't "come together" but ended up ensconced in the enemy
nation (leaving aside here the political evolution of the Cuban-Americans).
Hasn't that tended also be true in Venezuela and Bolivia, if not in such an
extreme way so far? Wasn't that also true in Iran and South Africa, in the
fights against monarchy and apartheid, which had very progressive
consequences even though they ended, for the time being, far from
Wasn't that highlighted in the fight for Obrador's presidency and the
ongoing fight in Oaxaca in Mexico?
Isn't that what the base of Peron represented in Argentina. Isn't the
national struggle fundamentally a struggle of the most oppressed and
exploited in the oppressed nations.
Wasn't an element of social polarization the key even to a significant but
comparatively minor development like Lula's re-election in Brazil?
SOCIAL POLARIZATION AMONG OPPRESSED PEOPLES IN US
Is there any reason to believe that when the struggle of the Black nation in
the US begins again to move in a revolutionary direction, that the
Congressional Black Caucus will be the driving force? (I don't doubt that
some are likely to angle their way into leadership.) Certainly, Malcolm X
never doubted that a revolutionary Black struggle for power in the United
States would polarize the Black nationality as well as unite it. That it
would be united for anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle in part
through resistance to conservative trends within the nationality that would
have a social (prominently including cllass) as well as national character.
Don't the recent wave of demonstrations for the rights of undocumented
immigrants or "illegals" point to the fact that the great revolutionary
national movements in the modern era have always been movements of the poor
and most exploited.
Joaquin was right to point out that the middle-class layers and even
bourgeois forces played a big role in opening up more opportunities and
broader support for the Latino-pride demonstrations against racist
persecution of illegal and other immigrants. But wasn't the class
difference between the masses' itch to take to the streets and stand up
proud, and the top, and mostly not illegal, strata's fundamental
orientation toward the Democrats rather significant. (They don't "trust"
the Democrats anymore than Joaquin does. NOBODY "trusts" Democratic
politicians any more. But their strategic orientation toward the Democrats
still reflects fundamental differences in social position and interests from
those of the rightless, including VOTELESS, masses who filled the streets.)
When the masses of immigrant Latino workers and their supporters move back
into action, the social conflict within the oppressed people will develop
further, not dissolve in a great "coming together."..
Isn't that the idea expressed by Sandino when he said that only the workers
and peasants will go all the way.
CLASS DIVISION IN THE WHITE BLOC
And what about the white oppressor group in the United States, are they
simply coming together as a people just now?. Did the working class with
white skins "vote white" in the last election? And Joaquin is right to
point out that the Republicans have been building themselves in effect as
the "white party" and attempting to bait the Democrats as the "un-American"
(and by implication nonwhite, pro-immigrant "surrender monkeys"), although
the Democrats continue to move to the right to prove otherwise and keep pace
with their capitalist owners and bankrollers.
No, the white workers voted by a big majority with the Blacks, Latinos, and
others against an administration that has, in fact, been further
immiserating them (though not necessarily the middle-class layers that have
grown in recent decades as a percentage of the white population) Shouldn't
we probe this opening (not an opening into capitalist party politics but a
slight but significant move by a rather important sector of the working
class)? Or should we simply assume that this is America where race always
trumps class, and patiently count on their inevitable drift back to their
rightful place in the white-solidarity camp?
Social polarization is also affecting the oppressor nationality - which
Joaquin, in my opinion, tends to portray as much more monolithic than it is
I disagree with Joaquin about voting and advocating voting Democratic as a
tactic for revolutionaries in this situation. While I think that in a given
instance, voting for a capitalist party in an imperialist country can mark
an attempt by sections of the masses to grope their way forward, advocacy of
this by revolutionists is a step backward and a serious mistake.
But I appreciate the significance of how working people (across although not
disregarding racial lines) voted in the last election. Shouldn't we take
that as positive, and as potentially strengthening the revolutionary hand a
bit including in the centrally important struggles of oppressed nations? Or
must race always trump class, no matter what, in the good old USA?
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