"It is the bounden duty", wrote Lenin, "of class-conscious workers to conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the 'Russian way', but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.
"This is exactly what is meant by the demand in the program for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination".
The "Russian way" meant the way national conflicts were settled under the Tsar (and would be settled again under Stalin). Oppressed nations were told to shut up and submit.
Lenin argued that capitalism simultaneously generated democratic impulses and openings, and tended to undermine them, empty them out, block them. Socialists could and should take up battles for democracy even within capitalism; we could win them; that would be of value even within capitalism.
This was the Norway-Sweden model which Lenin cited:
"Norway [had been] ceded to Sweden by the monarchs during the Napoleonic wars, against the will of the Norwegians; and the Swedes had to bring troops into Norway to subdue her.
"Despite the very extensive autonomy which Norway enjoyed (she had her own parliament, etc.), there was constant friction between Norway and Sweden for many decades after the union, and the Norwegians strove hard to throw off the yoke of the Swedish aristocracy. At last, in August 1905, they succeeded: the Norwegian parliament resolved that the Swedish king was no longer king of Norway, and in the referendum held later among the Norwegian people, the overwhelming majority voted for complete separation from Sweden [it was in fact a genuine 99.95% majority, and though Norwegian women were then denied the right to vote, Norwegian feminists were able to get signatures from the majority of Norwegian women for independence]. After a short period of indecision, the Swedes resigned themselves to the fact of secession.
"What position did the Norwegian and Swedish proletariat take, and indeed had to take, in the conflict over secession [of Norway from Sweden]?
"After Norway seceded, the class-conscious workers of Norway would naturally have voted for a republic [Norway had a second referendum in 1905, after the one on independence, and voted for a monarchy rather than a republic, offering the post to a Danish prince married to an English princess]. There can be no two opinions about that...
"We do not know whether the Norwegian socialist programme made it obligatory for Norwegian Social-Democrats to hold particular views on the question of secession. We will assume that it did not, and that the Norwegian socialists left it an open question as to what extent the autonomy of Norway gave sufficient scope to wage the class struggle freely, or to what extent the eternal friction and conflicts with the Swedish aristocracy hindered freedom of economic life. But it cannot be disputed that the Norwegian proletariat had to oppose this aristocracy and support Norwegian peasant democracy (with all its philistine limitations) [Norway was then mostly a country of small farmers and fisher-people].
"And the Swedish proletariat? It is common knowledge that the Swedish landed proprietors, abetted by the Swedish clergy, advocated war against Norway. Inasmuch as Norway was much weaker than Sweden, had already experienced a Swedish invasion, and the Swedish aristocracy carries enormous weight in its own country, this advocacy of war presented a grave danger.
"There cannot be the slightest doubt that the Swedish Social-Democrats would have betrayed the cause of socialism and democracy if they had not fought with all their might... to demand, not only equality of nations in general... but also the right of nations to self-determination, Norway’s freedom to secede.
"The close alliance between the Norwegian and Swedish workers, their complete fraternal class solidarity, gained from the Swedish workers' recognition of the right of the Norwegians to secede. This convinced the Norwegian workers that the Swedish workers were not infected with Swedish nationalism, and that they placed fraternity with the Norwegian proletarians above the privileges of the Swedish bourgeoisie and aristocracy...
"The Swedish workers have proved that in spite of all the vicissitudes of bourgeois policy... they will be able to preserve and defend the complete equality and class solidarity of the workers of both nations in the struggle against both the Swedish and the Norwegian bourgeoisie".
In a later article, he summed it up like this: "People who have not gone into the question thoroughly think that it is 'contradictory' for the Social-Democrats [meaning, in the usage of the time, the Marxists] of oppressor nations to insist on the 'freedom to secede', while Social-Democrats of oppressed nations insist on the 'freedom to integrate'. However, a little reflection will show that there is not, and cannot be, any other road to internationalism and the amalgamation of nations, any other road from the given situation to this goal".
The indispensable base for developing workers' unity through all the "vicissitudes of bourgeois policy" over Catalonia is that workers in Spain, and across Europe, support the right of the people of Catalonia to decide freely whether to remain with Spain, or to secede.
Lenin's argument instructs us equally that this indispensable base does not require socialists in Catalonia positively to support secession. The question is "to what extent the autonomy [gives] sufficient scope to wage the class struggle freely, or to what extent the eternal friction and conflicts with [Madrid] hinder freedom of economic life".
A great number of socialists in Catalonia believe that autonomy within the Spanish state - maybe expanded from the current status - does give sufficient scope. To our mind it is intelligent and reasonable also for them to consider whether the advantages of independence (even if they reckon there are some, in general) outweigh destructive side-effects of a drive for independence now.
In 1916, Lenin responded to critics who said "But we cannot be in favour of a war between great nations, in favour of the slaughter of twenty million people for the sake of the problematical liberation of a small nation with a population of perhaps ten or twenty millions!"
"Of course not! And it does not mean that we throw complete national equality out of our Program; it means that the democratic interests of one country must he subordinated to the democratic interests of several and all countries.
"Let us assume that between two great monarchies there is a little monarchy whose kinglet is 'bound' by blood and other ties to the monarchs of both neighbouring countries. Let us further assume that the declaration of a republic in the little country and the expulsion of its monarch would in practice lead to a war between the two neighbouring big countries for the restoration of that or another monarch in the little country.
“There is no doubt that all international Social-Democracy, as well as the really internationalist section of Social-Democracy in the little country, would be against substituting a republic for the monarchy in this case. The substitution of a republic for a monarchy is not an absolute, but one of the democratic demands, subordinate to the interests of democracy (and still more, of course, to those of the socialist proletariat) as a whole.
"But if any Social-Democrat were to propose on these grounds that the demand for a republic be deleted altogether from the programme of international Social-Democracy, he would certainly be regarded as quite mad". (The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up)
The position of some on the British left, that the most militant Catalan secessionism must be supported solely on the negative grounds that their militancy will hurt Madrid and cause disruption and conflict, is far from Lenin's socialist view that our guiding principles must be positive ones of consistent democracy. And so is any failure to combat and denounce Madrid's impositions.