Trotsky on the national question

Submitted by Anon on 21 June, 2007 - 6:45

By Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky was murdered by an agent of the Stalinist USSR in August 1940. Leon Trotsky was a great defender of the traditions pursued by the Bolshevik Party when they made a revolution in Russia in 1917. One of the Bolshevik’s great contributions to socialist ideas was their approach to the national question.

In many parts of the world today nation peoples and fragments of nations continue to fight for what they conceived of as their rights. What political do socialist need for these issues? The world has changed a lot since the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless aspects of the Bolshevik policy remain extremely relevant.

The Bolsheviks preached consistent democracy — no nation should fight for its rights only in order to oppress another nation. The fight against any national oppression was necessary first and foremost because it eased the way to working class unity. Working-class unity was always the most important principle at stake.

Here Leon Trotsky makes a concise outline of the Bolshevik policies on the national question.

In two countries of pre-war Europe the national question was of exceptional political significance: in Tsarist Russia and in Hapsburg Austria-Hungary. In each of these the workers' party, created its own school. In the sphere of theory, the Austrian Social-Democracy, in the persons of Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, considered nationality independent of territory, economy and class, transforming it into a species of abstraction limited by so-called “national character.”

In the field of national policy, as for that matter in all other fields, it did not venture beyond a corrective status quo. Fearing the very thought of dismembering the monarchy, the Austrian Social-Democracy strove to adapt its national programme to the borders of the patchwork state.

The programme of so-called “national cultural autonomy” required that the citizens of one and the same nationality, irrespective of their dispersal over the territory of Austria-Hungary and irrespective of the administrative divisions of the state should be united, on the basis of purely personal attributes, into one community for the solution of their “cultural” tasks (the theatre, the church, the school, and the like). That programme was artificial and utopian, in so far as it attempted to separate culture from territory and economy in a society torn apart by social contradictions; it was at the same time reactionary, in so far as it led to a forced disunion into various nationalities of the workers of one and the same state, undermining their class strength.

Lenin’s position was the direct opposite. Regarding nationality as unseverably connected with territory, economy and class structure, he refused at the same time to regard the historical state, the borders of which cut across the living body of the nations, as a sacrosanct and inviolate category.

He demanded recognition of the right to secession and independent existence for each national portion of the state.

In so far as the various nationalities, voluntarily or through force of necessity, coexist within the borders of one state, their cultural interests must find the highest possible satisfaction within the framework of the broadest regional (and consequently, territorial) autonomy, including statutory guarantees of the rights of each minority. At the same time, Lenin deemed it the incontrovertible duty of all the workers of a given state, irrespective of nationality, to unite in one and the same class organisations.

The national problem was particularly acute in Poland, aggravated by the historical fate of that country. The so-called PPS (Polish Socialist Party), headed by Josef Pilsudski, came out ardently for Polish independence; the “socialism” of the PPS was no more than a vague appendage of its militant nationalism. On the other hand, the Polish Social-Democracy, whose leader was Rosa Luxemburg, counterposed to the slogan of Polish independence the demand for the autonomy of the Polish region as a constituent part of democratic Russia. Luxemburg proceeded from the consideration that in the epoch of imperialism the separation of Poland from Russia was economically infeasible and in the epoch of socialism — unnecessary.


She looked upon “the right of self-determination” as an empty abstraction. The polemic on that question lasted for years. Lenin insisted that imperialism did not reign similarly or equably in all countries, regions and spheres of life; that the heritage of the past represented an accumulation and interpenetration of various historical epochs; that although monopolistic capitalism towers above everything, it does not supersede everything; that, notwithstanding the domination of imperialism, the numerous national problems retained their full force and that, contingent upon the internal and world conjunctures, Poland might become independent even in the epoch of imperialism.

It was Lenin’s view that the right of self-determination was merely an application of the principles of bourgeois democracy in the sphere of national relations. A real, full-bodied, all-sided democracy under capitalism was unrealisable; in that sense the national independence of small and weak peoples was likewise “unrealisable”. However, even under imperialism, the working class did not refuse to fight for democratic rights, including among them the right of each nation to its independent existence.

Moreover, in certain portions of our planet it was imperialism itself that invested the slogan of national self-determination with extraordinary significance. Although Western and Central Europe have somehow managed to solve their national problems in the course of the nineteenth century, in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America the epoch of national democratic movements had not really begun to unfold until the twentieth century. To deny the right of nations to self-determination is tantamount in effect to offering aid and comfort to the imperialists against their colonies and generally against all oppress, ed nationalities.

The problem of nationalities was considerably aggravated in Russia during the period of reaction. “The wave of militant nationalism,” wrote Stalin, “called attention from above to numerous acts of repressions by those in power, who wreaked their vengeance upon the border states for their love of freedom, calling forth in response a wave of nationalism from below, which at times passed into crude chauvinism.”

This was the time of the ritual murder trial of the Kiev Jew Bayliss. Retrospectively, in the light of civilisation’s latest achievements, especially in Germany and in the USSR, that trial today seems almost a humanitarian experiment. But in 1913 it shocked the whole world. The poison of nationalism began to affect many sections of the working class as well. Alarmed, Gorky wrote to Lenin about the need for counteracting this chauvinistic rabidness. “As for nationalism, I quite agree with you, “ replied Lenin, “that we must cope with it more earnestly than ever. We have a splendid Georgian staying with us here who is writing a long article for Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment), after garnerning all the Austrian and other material. We will bear down on it.”

The reference was to Stalin. Gorky, long connected with the party, knew all its leading cadres well. But Stalin evidently was utterly unknown to him since Lenin had to resort to such an impersonal, although flattering, expression as “a splendid Georgian”. This is, by the way, the only occasion when Lenin characterised a prominent Russian revoluionist by the token of his nationality. He had in mind, of course, not a Georgian, but a Caucasian: the element of primitiveness undoubtedly attracted Lenin; small wonder that he treated Kamo with such tenderness.

During his two months’ sojourn abroad Stalin wrote a brief but very trenchant piece of research entitled “Marxism and the National Problem”. Since it was intended for a lawful magazine, the article resorted to discreet vocabulary. Its revolutionary tendencies were nonetheless distinctly apparent.


The author set out by counterposing the historico-materialistic defition of nation to the abstracto-psychological, in the spirit of the Austrian school. “The nation,” he wrote, “is a historically-formed enduring community of language, territory, economic life and psychological composition, asserting itself in the community of culture.” This combined definition, compounding the psychological attributes of a nation with the geographic and economic conditions of its development, is not only correct theoretically but practically fruitful, for then the solution to the problem of each nation’s fate must perforce be sought along the lines of changing the material conditions of its existence, beginning with territory.

Bolshevism was never addicted to the fetishistic worship of a state’s borders. Politically the point was to reconstruct the Tsarist empire, that prison of nations, territorially, politically, and administratively in line with needs and wishes of the nations themselves.

The party of the proletariat does not enjoin the various nationalities either to remain within the bounds of a given state or separate from it: that is their own affair. But it does obligate itself to help each of them to realise its actual national will. As for the possibility of separating from a state, that is a matter of concrete historical circumstances and the relation of forces. “No one can say,” wrote Stalin, “that the Balkan War is the end of internal and external circumstances that one or another nationality in Russia will deem it necessary to postulate and to solve the problem of its own independence. And, of course, it is no business of the Marxists to place barriers in such cases. But for that very reason Russian Marxists cannot get along without the right of nations to self-determination.”

The interests of the nations which voluntarily remain within the bounds of democratic Russia would be fenced off by means of “the autonomies of such sBy elf-determined units as Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the like. Regional autonomy is conducive to a better utilisation of the natural wealth of the region; it does not divide citizens along national lines and makes it possible for them to group themselves in class parties.” The territorial self-administration of regions in all spheres of social life is counterposed to the extra-territorial — that is, platonic—self-administration of nationalities in matters of “culture” only.

However, most directly and acutely significant, from the point of view of the proletariat’s struggle, was the problem of the relations between workers of various nationalities inside the same state. Bolshevism stood for a compact and indivisible unification of workers of all nationalities in the party and in the trade unions on the basis of democratic centralism.

“The type of organisation does not exert its influence on practical work alone. It places an indelible stamp on the worker’s whole spiritual life. The worker lives the life of his organisation, within which he develops spiritually and is educated...The international type of organisation is a school of comradely feelings, of the greatest agitation in favour of internationalism.“

One of the aims of the Austrian programme- of “cultural autonomy” was “the preservation and development of the national idiosyncrasies of peoples.” Why and for what purpose? asked Bolshevism in amazement. Segregating the various nationalistic portions of mankind was never our concern. True, Bolshevism insisted that each nation should have the right to secede—the right, but not the duty—as the ultimate, most effective guarantee against oppression. But the thought of artificially preserving national idiosyncrasies was profoundly alien to Bolshevism.

The removal of any, even disguised, even the most refined and practically “imponderable” national oppression or indignity, must be used for the revolutionary unification rather than the segregation of the workers of various nationalities.Wherever national privileges and injuries exist, nations must have the possibility to separate from each other, that thus they may facilitate the free unification of the workers, in the name of a close rapprochement of nations, with the distinct perspective of the eventual complete fusion of all. Such was the basic tendency of Bolshevism, which revealed the full measure of its force in the October Revolution.

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