Lenin vs. Luxemburg on the National Question
A review of The National Question by Rosa Luxemburg (edited by Horace B. Davis)
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard, No.150, 25 March 1977
The absence of sustained proletarian revolutionary struggles in the advanced capitalist countries and the continued hegemony in them of the reformist parties have led to widespread support for petty-bourgeois nationalism within the left. Groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Angolan MPLA, Irish Republican Army and Basque ETA are viewed by many leftists, including would-be Marxists, as among the vanguard of the revolutionary forces of our day.
As part of the international Spartacist tendency’s struggle against the nationalist deviations rampant in the contemporary left, we published last year a two-part article analyzing the evolution of the Marxist position on the national question, from the 1848 concept of “progressive nations” to the Leninist principle of the “right of self-determination” (“The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848–1914,” WV Nos. 123 & 125, 3 & 17 September 1976).
This survey article dealt, in a necessarily brief and sketchy way, with the views of Rosa Luxemburg and their relation to Leninism. Shortly after our article appeared, Monthly Review Press published a collection of Luxemburg’s writings entitled The National Question, edited by Horace B. Davis, who is somewhat sympathetic to her views. Most of the material is made available in English for the first time, including Luxemburg’s major work on the subject, “The National Question and Autonomy” (1908-09). While publication of The National Question does not cause us to revise our fundamental assessment of Luxemburg’s position, it does require of serious Marxists a careful consideration of her arguments.
Davis observes that in general there has been a vulgarized notion of Luxemurg’s position on the national question. No doubt among Stalinists, who for years dismissed this great revolutionary as a centrist, such a simplistic evaluation does exist; the publication of this book therefore provides an opportunity to review the premises underlying the Leninist position. However, we disagree with Davis’ contention that it was previously impossible for an English-speaking Marxist to really comprehend Luxemburg’s position. A careful reading of Lenin’s counterpolemics combined with J. P. Nettl’s biography (Rosa Luxemburg,1966) provides an accurate account of her views on the national question.
Some readers may be disappointed by the narrow focus of The National Question. While containing many general statements, Luxemburg’s writings concentrate on the issue of Polish independence. In part, this historical specificity reflects the fact that Luxemburg’s position was essentially negative. She rejected the right of self-determination and any other general principle, maintaining that each national situation had to be judged from the interests of the proletariat at the given conjuncture.
In part, the Polish-centered nature of her work on the national question impinges on the broader issue of Leninism and “Luxemburgism.” Before 1914 both Luxemburg and Lenin were leaders of the revolutionary current in the Second International and were in agreement on basic programmatic and theoretical premises. Luxemburg never succeeded in going beyond that oppositional stance to become a leader of an international revolutionary party.
Lenin did. In creating the Communist International Lenin was forced to develop and present his positions in a positive, world-historic programmatic form. Leninism is codified in the documents and resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International. It is only because we know the Leninism of the Communist International that we can discern its rudiments in his earlier works. In contrast, Luxemburg’s writings remain oppositional, partial and lacking programmatic generality.
“Luxemburgism,” therefore, is an artificial creation first developed by right-wingers in the German Communist Party, like Paul Levi, who were breaking from the Third back to the Second International. Since then various centrists have appealed to “Luxemburgism” as a credible revolutionary alternative to Lenin’s Bolshevism and its contemporary continuation, Trotskyism. Conversely, Stalin denounced “Luxemburgism” in order to build up the cult of Lenin and retrospectively isolate Russian Bolshevism from the broader traditions of revolutionary Marxism.
The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin were important and sometimes sharp, particularly in 1912-14 when Luxemburg advocated the unity of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. However, their differences were in large part episodic and contained within the framework of revolutionary socialist principle.
Polish Independence and the Russian Revolution
Although best known as a left oppositionist in the German social democracy and as a martyr in the January 1919 “Spartacus uprising,” in the years before 1914, the period from which her writings on the national question stem, Luxemburg’s primary organizational loyalty was as a leader of a revolutionary party in Russian Poland, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and of Lithuania (SDKPiL). This organization originated in 1893 as a split from the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), the then inclusive organization of Polish socialists, which strongly emphasized national independence. From its inception until World War I, the struggle of Luxemburg’s SDKPiL against the PPS centered on the national question, although the situation was greatly complicated by a left-right split in the latter party in 1906.
Much of Luxemburg’s writings on the Polish question is a justification for rejecting the traditional Marxist position. Marx and Engels not only advocated Poland’s restoration as an independent state, but considered that this would be an important contribution to the cause of European socialism. In 1848 and the following decades, tsarist Russia was the bastion of European-wide reaction. Marx and Engels considered Russia, unlike Poland, economically too backward to undergo a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Therefore, until the late 1870’s they considered the Polish national liberation movement the only serious internal force against tsarist absolutism and looked forward to an independent bourgeois-democratic Poland as a buffer against counter-revolutionary Russian intervention in the West.
Luxemburg argued that Marx/Engels’ strategic support for Polish independence had become outdated. By the 1880’s Great Russia was pregnant with social revolution. And by the mid-1890’s it was evident that a Russian revolution would have a large proletarian component. Furthermore, the Polish industrial bourgeoisie benefited from access to the protected Russian market. Support for national independence had therefore disappeared among the Polish ruling classes. For Luxemburg, the task of the Polish proletariat was to put national independence behind it and unite with its Russian class brothers in revolutionary struggle.
Luxemburg’s position that Polish national liberation was no longer the principal internal revolutionary force in tsarist Russia was correct. This fact was also recognized by Lenin, who cited it in his own polemic against the national liberationist PPS (“The National Question in Our Program” ).
However, as early as 1882 Engels already had shifted the main argument for Polish independence from the strategic weakening of tsarist Russia to its impetus to the development of socialist consciousness among the Polish workers. Engels was responding to the emergence of a group of Polish socialists, led by Ludwik Waryński, who rejected independence in favor of a unified social revolution throughout the Russian empire. (Luxemburg joined Waryński’s Proletariat party in its dying days.)
In a letter to Kautsky (7 February 1882), Engels asserted that national independence was a precondition for socialist class consciousness among “great peoples” (i.e., nations too large and important to be assimilated into others):
“It is historically impossible for a great people even to discuss internal problems of any kind seriously, as long as it lacks national independence. Before 1859 there was no question of socialism in Italy; even the number of Republicans was small.… Only after 1861 the Republicans increased in influence and later transferred their best elements to the Socialists. The same was true in Germany.”
Engels applied the same principles to Poland:
“So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore, neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself, nor can there arise real international intercourse between the proletarian parties in Germany, etc., with other than emigré Poles. Every Polish peasant or worker who wakes up from the general gloom and participates in the common interests, encounters first the fact of national subjugation. This fact is in his way everywhere as the first barrier. To remove it is the basic condition of every healthy and free development.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Engels overstated his case. Unlike the Italians and Germans. the Polish working class achieved socialist consciousness (in part through the activities of revolutionaries who opposed independence, like Waryński) while its nation remained divided among tsarist Russia, Habsburg Austro-Hungary and Wilhelmian Germany. Furthermore, the Polish working class engaged in common struggles with the proletariat of its oppressor nations.
This demonstrates that national subjugation is not an absolute barrier to socialist consciousness and trans-national proletarian unity. However, Engels, having witnessed the antagonism between Irish and English workers in Britain, understood that national oppression is definitely an obstacle to a unified labor movement within a multinational state.
Polish Socialism and the Independence Question
The predominance of the national-liberationist PPS over the anti-independence SDKPiL argues for Engels (and Lenin) and against Luxemburg. The PPS was the hegemonic organization of the class-conscious Polish proletariat, with several thousand active members on the eve of the revolution of 1905. In marked contrast, the SDKPiL remained a tiny propaganda group until 1905.
Since she claimed that the Polish working class was indifferent to national independence, Luxemburg was hard-put to explain the predominance of the PPS. Her explanation is, to say the least, unconvincing. She attributes the widespread acceptance of the PPS’ pro-independence line to the authority of the Marxist tradition:
“… the restoration of Poland lost its stigma as the betrayal of socialism – after all, the most accomplished theoreticians and practitioners of the European movement had come out in support of this slogan – and the Polish Socialist Party’s program had obtained the direct sanction of Marxism – hadn’t ‘Marx himself’ attested to its correctness?”
—“Foreword to the Anthology The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement” (1905)
It is not credible that the overwhelming majority of Poland’s socialist working-class organizers and intellectuals was committed to carrying out Marx’s program with doctrinaire literalness. Rather, the popularity of the PPS indicated that the Polish workers, while having attained a certain socialist consciousness, still felt themselves to be members of an oppressed nationality and looked forward to an independent state.
As coherent worldviews, proletarian socialism and nationalism are absolutely counterposed and mutually exclusive. However, among the working masses, both the impulse toward internationalist solidarity with their class brothers and a sense of national loyalty invariably coexist. Now class loyalty prevails, now national affiliation. A Polish worker who contributed to support a strike in St. Petersburg one day could contribute to Pilsudski’s nationalist fighting squads on the morrow.
Luxemburg’s views on the national question tended to idealize working-class socialist consciousness, a tendency also reflected in her differences with Lenin on the party question. Outside of the communist vanguard, proletarian internationalism is always uneven, inconsistent and reversible. The revolutionary party in a multinational state must continually compete with the petty-bourgeois nationalists for the loyality of the proletariat of the national minorities. Lenin understood that only by championing the equality of the Polish nation, including its right to a separate state, could he politically defeat the Pilsudskis.
The revolution of 1905 vindicated Luxemburg’s faith in the Great Russian working class and demonstrated a tendency toward organic unity between the Russian and Polish labor movements. It was to be expected that the wing of Polish socialism which stood for a unified social revolution against tsarism should be the main beneficiary of 1905. The SDKPiL grew very rapidly to become a small mass party, claiming 25,000 members in 1907 (M. K. Dziewanowski, The Communist Party of Poland ). However, it still remained a minority tendency within the Polish workers movement.
Another important change in the Polish workers movement demonstrated how harmful Luxemburg’s ultra-left position on the national question was in developing a mass revolutionary party. The revolution of 1905 split the PPS between the nationalist, terroristic Pilsudskiites and a left-wing majority. Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Fraction was essentially a petty-bourgeois nationalist party, outside the workers movement.
The PPS-Left rejected the old program of a national uprising in favor of a social revolution throughout the tsarist empire. It also dropped independence from its immediate, “minimum” program and put a question mark over its ultimate desirability.
The split in the PPS refuted Luxemburg’s contention that its leaders were simply nationalists masquerading as socialists. The SDKPiL should have won over and fused with the best elements of the larger, centrist PPS-Left. However, the SDKPiL’s ultra-left position on the national question formed an absolute barrier for the cadre of the PPS-Left.
When World War I broke out, Pilsudski predictably supported Germany against Russia. The PPS-Left adopted a defeatist position and participated in the Zimmerwald movement. This laid the basis for the fusion of the PPS-Left with the SDPKiL to create the Polish Communist Workers Party in late 1918 after Poland had been restored as an independent state. Luxemburg’s sectarian failure to win over the PPS-Left before the war seriously arrested the development of revolutionary workers parties in Central and East Europe.
Was an Independent Poland Utopian?
In the same article previously quoted, Luxemburg wrote:
“Any analysis of objective social developments in Poland requires the conclusion that a campaign for the restoration of Poland at this juncture is a petit bourgeois utopian fantasy, and, as such, is capable only of interfering with the class struggle of the proletariat and diverting it from its path.”
One might be inclined to dismiss such an argument with the simple observation that in 1918 an independent, bourgeois Poland was, in fact, restored. This is not an irrefutable counterargument: certainly Rosa Luxemburg would not have considered it so. Luxemburg’s position was that an independent Poland could not be restored through an internal national-liberation struggle. That a European-wide war and a proletarian revolution in Russia might result in the restoration of a Polish state Luxemburg would not have rejected as inconceivable, however undesirable.
Luxemburg’s contention that restoration of Poland was a utopian project was based on two interrelated arguments: the one economic, the other political-military. The core of her position is that the high protective tariff imposed by tsarist Russia gave the Polish industrial bourgeoisie privileged access to the Russian market and, therefore, a material interest in a common state. This thesis was developed at length in her 1898 work, The Industrial Development of Poland. Empirically it is true that in the last quarter of the 19th century Polish industry, geared to the Russian market, grew very rapidly. However, Russian tariff policy was reversible, even under tsarism. Particularly after 1900 the tsarist policy of high protective tariffs on raw materials combined with discriminatory railroad rates tended to benefit Russian industry at the expense of its established, more efficient Polish competitors. Thus, Luxemburg’s analysis of the relationship of the Polish industrial bourgeoisie to the Russian state became dated not long after she developed it.
The capacity to establish an independent political economy is one of the necessary characteristics of a nation. Certain nationalist projects are indeed utopian because they are economically unviable under capitalism. American “black nationalism” is a case in point. It is the inability to establish a separate political economy, with its own class structure, that centrally defines American blacks as a caste, rather than any kind of national group. The establishment of a separate American black state would require massive population transfers and a total restructuring of the economy which is inconceivable under capitalism, except as a reaction to fascist genocide. That indisputable fact is why the real program of American “black nationalism” is not for an independent state, but for various forms of pseudo-separatism within the presently constituted USA.
A separate political economy does not mean self-sufficiency or even freedom from dependence on a more powerful neighboring country. The Irish republic is certainly economically dependent on Britain. If the British government excluded Irish labor from England, prohibited the repatriatization of their income to Ireland or imposed impenetrable tariffs against Irish imports, then the economy of the independent Irish republic would collapse. The right of self-determination is a bourgeois-democratic answer to the direct oppression of a nation by a foreign state power. There is no bourgeois-democratic solution to the imperialist exploitation of weaker national economies.
Since Luxemburg maintained that neither the Polish masses nor ruling class had a material interest in a separate state, she naturally argued that they would not make the great sacrifices needed for a war of independence against the overwhelming might of the Central and East European powers. This political-military argument was important to her contention that Polish independence was utopian:
“Any rebellion would be bloodily suppressed. But if no rebellion is attempted, nothing can be done, since armed rebellion is the only way that Polish independence can be achieved.… If one ‘demands’ something, one must do something to achieve that demand. If one can do nothing, the empty ‘demand’ may well make the air tremble, but it will certainly not shake the states ruling over Poland.“
—“The Polish Question at the International Congress” (1896)
A demand is not “empty” simply because it cannot be realized given the existing international balance of forces. The international balance of forces can and sometimes does change in a favorable way. Even Pilsudski never attempted an uprising when tsarist Russia could concentrate all its forces against Poland. In the Russo-Japanese War, he attempted (unsuccessfully) an alliance with Japan and in World War I he attempted (successfully) an alliance with Germany. Pilsudski’s policy of a national uprising was adventurist; it was not perforce utopian.
For revolutionaries to consider a program utopian because it cannot be realized given the existing international situation is a false and potentially dangerous method. Such a method would lead one to exclude the possibility of proletarian revolutions in small countries surrounded by great powers.
The life of a Belgian workers state, for example, would be measured in months, if not weeks, if France and West Germany remained capitalist. However, it is certainly possible that the class struggle in Belgium could escalate (as in the 1960-61 general strike) to a point where the seizure of power is posed, in advance of any European-wide revolutionary crisis. To reject the seizure of power if the internal situation is favorable for fear of foreign counterrevolutionary intervention would be an act of cowardly reformism, not of communist realism. A communist leadership would take power in Belgium and do everything possible to spread the revolution to the neighboring countries.
Are Multinational States Inevitable or Progressive?
Insofar as Luxemburg’s opposition to Polish independence has a general theoretical justification it is that multinational states are an inevitable product of capitalist development and, in that sense, progressive. She takes issue with Kautsky who considered the national state as the normal political-territorial form of bourgeois society:
“That ‘best’ national state is only an abstraction which can be easily described and defined theoretically, but which doesn’t correspond to reality. Historical development toward a universal community of civilization will take place in the midst of contradiction, but this contradiction… lies in another area than where Kautsky seeks it, not in the tendency toward the idea of a ‘national state,’ but rather where Marx indicates it to be, in the deadly struggle among nations, in the tendency to create – alongside the great areas of civilization and despite them – great capitalist states.
“The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very onset condemns all small nations to political impotence.” [emphasis in original]
—“The National Question and Autonomy” (1908-09)
Luxemburg’s equation of Britain, Russia and the Dutch empire as all examples of the inevitability of multinational states is not only ahistorical (as both Kautsky and Lenin pointed out), it is downright confusionist. First, it confuses the creation of multinational states (e.g., Britain) through the rise of bourgeois society in West Europe with the preservation of pre-bourgeois absolutist empires in the East – tsarist Russia, Habsburg Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey. Second, it confuses genuine multinational states with integrated political economies and the far-flung colonial empires of the advanced bourgeois countries.
The absorption of smaller, more backward nationalities by their more dynamic bourgeois neighboring states (e.g., the Scots and Welsh by England) was, despite nationalist atrocities, historically progressive in the context of capitalism in its ascendancy. It raised the economic and cultural level of these peoples. Particularly important from the Marxist standpoint, the expansion of the “progressive nations” spread bourgeois democracy to the more backward neighboring peoples.
The absolutist multinational states of the East were not the product of the absorption of smaller, backward peoples by a developing bourgeois nation. The majority of the population in the tsarist empire was not Russian, in the Ottoman empire not Turkish and in the Habsburg empire not German. Even more important from the Marxist standpoint, Poland was more advanced economically and culturally than Russia, and Serbia than Turkey. That is why Marx/Engels strongly supported the Polish and Serbian national liberation struggles.
Since Marx/Engels advocated outright independence for Poland, not merely recognizing the principle of national self-determination, Luxemburg concludes that they had no general policy on the national question. This is a miscomprehension of the classic Marxist position. Marx and Engels divided Europe into the “great nations,” for which they advocated independence, and the minor peoples or “relics of nations,” which they considered must assimilate into one or another of the former. Whatever their empirical misjudgments about particular nations, this national program was integral to their general policy of supporting those developments of capitalism which laid the basis for socialism.
A clear, succinct statement of the classic Marist position on the national question is found in a little-known 1866 article by Engels on the Polish question:
“Here, then, we perceive the difference between the `principle of nationalities’ and the old democratic and working-class tenet to the right of the great European nations to separate and independent existence.… The principle of nationalities raises two sorts of questions; first of all, questions of boundary between these great historic peoples; and secondly, as to the right to independent national existence of these numerous small relics of peoples which, after having figured for longer or shorter on the stage of history, were absorbed as integral portions into one or the other of these more powerful nations whose greater vitality enabled them to overcome greater obstacles.” [our emphasis]—“What Have the Working classes to Do with Poland?” in Marx and Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe, edited by Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F. Hoselitz (1952)
In contrast to Luxemburg, Marx and Engels did not regard the multinational state as a normal, inevitable or progressive development. Rather they considered certain bourgeois multinational states as a stage leading to the more or less rapid assimilation of the minority nationalities.
However, the objective conditions for proletarian revolution, including a mass labor movement, developed before the organic assimilation of the various nations in the European multinational states. Antagonism between the different nationalities (e.g., Germans and Czechs in Austria) became a major barrier to proletarian unity. The difference between the early and later Marxist position on the national question can be summarized as follows: with the development in Europe of a mass labor movement (around the 1880’s) the negative effect on socialist consciousness and organization of national antagonisms within a multinational state can offset the advantages of a higher level of economic development. That is why the subjective attitude of the working masses of the minority nationality is of decisive importance.
Proletarian Party and Nationalist Petty Bourgeoisie
The root of Luxemburg’s position on the national question is often attributed to the economic determinism characteristic of the Second International. She certainly uses arguments based on economic determinism (the Polish bourgeoisie has no interest in independence, an independent national economy is not possible). But a careful reading of The National Question reveals that Luxemburg’s primary motivation is partly opposition to nationalist ideology and partly unwillingness to allow the policies of the proletarian party, on any issue, to be governed by the attitude of the petty bourgeoisie.
Luxemburg maintained that any concept of the rights of nations or nationalities necessarily embodies nationalist ideology. Often she seems more opposed to the slogan, “the right of nations to self-determination,” than to the underlying policy which it expresses:
“If we recognize the right of each nation to self-determination it is obviously a logical conclusion that we must condemn every attempt to place one nation over another, or for one nation to force upon another any form of national existence. However, the duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nation’.… This duty arises solely from the general opposition to the class regime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism.”
—“The National Question and Autonomy”
Reading passages like this, one wonders to what extent Luxemburg’s differences with the Leninist position are terminological rather than substantive. Even Lenin, who knew her personally, was sometimes unsure whether their disputes were not primarily over words.
But the difference between Luxemburg and Lenin on the national question is real and important. Luxemburg was unwilling to accept the democratic will of the oppressed national group on this question. She would refuse to give military support to independence struggles in Europe. Karl Radek, an ex-SDKPiL member who shared Luxemburg’s views on the question, dismissed the 1916 Irish Easter uprising as a petty-bourgeois “putsch” and refused to support it against the British army.
It is highly significant that Luxemburg criticized the Bolshevik revolution not only for granting the minority nations independence, but also for allowing the peasants to divide up the land. She herself makes a connection between the two policies:
“Lenin and his comrades clearly calculated that there was no surer method of binding the many foreign peoples within the Russian Empire to the cause of the revolution, to the cause of the socialist proletariat, than that of offering them, in the name of the revolution and of socialism, the most extreme and unlimited freedom to determine their own fate. This was analogous on the policy of the Bolsheviks toward the Russian peasants, whose land hunger was satisfied by the slogan of direct seizure of noble estates.… In both cases, unfortunately, the calculation was entirely wrong.”
—The Russian Revolution (1918)
In opposing the right of self-determination, Luxemburg projects a situation in which the petty-bourgeois majority supports independence, while the majority of the proletariat opposes it. This view of the world is at the heart of her position.
As a general proposition, this is an unreal world. To be sure, the most aggressive, militant nationalists will be concentrated among the petty bourgeoisie. However, a situation where the petty-bourgeois masses in an oppressed nation are strongly nationalistic while the proletariat is solidly assimilationist rarely occurs. For it to come about the proletariat would have to be won not to bourgeois assimilationism but to communist internationalism, in which case socialist revolution would be the burning issue of the day.
Such a class polarization was not present in the major independence struggles of Luxemburg’s day – Norway, Ireland, the Czechs. Even in Poland, the SDK PiL remained a minority current within the workers movement. Nor do we see a nationalist petty-bourgeois vs. assimilationist proletariat polarization in comparable situations today – e.g., Quebec, the Basques and Catalans in Spain.
However, let us accept Luxemburg’s hypothetical case and see where it leads. A plebiscite is held in which the majority of the population votes for independence, while a majority of the working class votes against. If a majority of the population supports independence it is only the military force of the dominant nation which preserves the state tie, whether force is actually employed or merely threatened being immaterial. For the proletarian party to oppose granting independence under such conditions is to condone, if not indirectly support, bourgeois state violence against the oppressed nationality. National self-determination is a genuine bourgeois-democratic right. To reject it necessarily leads to acceptance of bourgeois state oppression.
Proletarian Revolution in a Multinational State
In a bourgeois multinational state, a polarization between a nationalist petty bourgeoisie and an assimilationist proletariat seldom, if ever, occurs. However, the class polarization supposed by Luxemburg may well happen if a proletarian revolution breaks out in the dominant nation. The Russian Revolution experienced this phenomenon.
Lenin’s acceptance of self-determination for Finland, Poland, the Baltic nations and the Ukraine was a powerful lever for the Bolsheviks during the civil war which followed the October Revolution in 1917. However, after achieving independent state power, the bourgeois nationalists like Pilsudski and Mannerheim mobilized the petty-bourgeois masses, against the pro-Bolshevik working class, which wanted unity with Soviet Russia. A certain conflict arose between national self-determination and the defense of proletarian revolution. This was shown in the case of Finland where the Soviets recognized its national independence in December 1917; but following a Communist uprising against the bourgeois Mannerheim government the next month, Russian troops still in Finland aided the revolutionary forces in the ensuing civil war.
The history of the Ukraine during 1917-20 clearly illuminates this conflict. In October, local Bolsheviks, in alliance with the nationalist-dominated Ukrainian Central Rada, overthrew the pro-Kerensky provisional government in Kiev, the capital. However, the Ukrainian nationalist parties had their social base among the peasantry and naturally opposed the rule of soviets, which represented centrally the urban working classes. In late November the Central Rada suppressed the Kiev soviet and arrested its Bolshevik leaders. Further, it prohibited the Red Army from crossing Ukrainian territory to smash the counterrevolutionary mobilization of the Don Cossacks.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks did not permit the principle of national self-determination, or any other bourgeois-democratic right, to prevent defense of the October Revolution against counterrevolution. This was well illustrated in a December 1917 Soviet ultimatum to the Rada which simultaneously recognized the independence of the latter’s Ukrainian People’s Republic, refused to recognize the Rada as its government and gave it 48 hours to agree to stop aiding the Whites and repressing the soviets. When the Rada continued its provocations, Lenin’s government declared war.
The Red Army conquered Kiev in early 1918, shortly after the Ukrainian nationalists had massacred their Bolshevik prisoners. At that point, the Rada allied itself with the German imperialists, who occupied the Ukraine, shoved aside the nationalists and set up a puppet government.
When Germany was defeated on the Western Front in late 1918, it was forced by the victorious Allies to withdraw from the Ukraine. This set the stage for a bloody and complex three-cornered civil war between Ukrainian nationalists led by Simon Petliura, the White army of Denikin and the Bolsheviks. Petliura’s military forces consisted of anarchistic peasant partisans, given to anti-Jewish massacres, and Ukrainian units of the dissolved Austro-Hungarian army. By early 1920 the Bolshevik government finally established its rule in the Ukraine.
The experience of bourgeois nationalists mobilizing the petty-bourgeois masses against the revolutionary proletariat led to increasing dissatisfaction within the Bolshevik Party to the traditional formula of national self-determination. The left-communist (e.g., Bukharin, Piatakov) and Luxemburgist formulation, “self-determination for the working people of the oppressed nations,” gained support, including from the Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin.
Lenin, too, realized that the old bourgeois-democratic formulation was insufficient to answer the problems facing a proletarian revolution centered in the dominant nation. It was necessary to decide who represented the will of the nation. However, he rejected any formulation which absolutely denied the democratic will of the petty bourgeoisie on this question. In Soviet Central Asia, for example, the proletariat was a small minority and largely of Russian nationality.
The issue was decided at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, which adopted a new program (formally the party was still bound to the old 1903 program). Lenin rejected Bukharin’s position as not providing the necessary flexibility vis-à-vis the nationalistic petty bourgeoisie:
“To reject the self-determination of nations and insert the self-determination of the working people would be absolutely wrong, because this manner of settling the question does not reckon with the difficulties, with the zigzag course taken by differentiation within nations:“
—-“Report on the Party Program,” Collected Works, Vol. 29
Instead Lenin proposed an algebraic formulation as to which class expresses the will of the nation for separation. This formulation was adopted and incorporated into the new party program:
“Article 9.4: The All-Russian Communist Party regards the question as to who expresses the desire of a nation for separation, from a historical-class point of view, taking into consideration the level of historical development of any given nation: whether the nation is passing from medievalism toward bourgeois democracy or from bourgeois democracy toward soviet or proletarian democracy, etc.“
—Robert H. Neal, ed., Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)
This programmatic statement expresses a general principle of Leninism. The right of nations to self-determination, as any other bourgeois-democratic right, can only be superseded when proletarian class rule and its democracy supersede bourgeois democracy.