Saturday, September 8, 2018

The irony of history

"Lenin on National Liberation and Social Emancipation" is a collection of articles by the Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin on the right of nations to self-determination. The book was published in Moscow by Progress, the foreign language publishing house of the Soviet regime. The most important articles included are probably "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination. Theses", "The Junius Pamphlet" and "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism". All three were written before the October revolution. Very few articles on the *actual* nationality policy of the Bolshevik regime after the revolution have been included, presumably because this was a hot button issue in the Soviet Union. The collection also includes one of Lenin's most curious articles, "On the National Pride of the Great Russians".

Lenin promoted the right of nations to self-determination, despite not being a nationalist of any kind. His main argument is that this will promote *internationalism* and make it easier for the working classes of the oppressor nations to cooperate with the working classes of the oppressed nations. Thus, the recognition of the right of oppressed nations to secede from their oppressors will strengthen the bonds between workers of different nationalities. Lenin's real goal is a (ostensibly) voluntary federation of different nationalities, and ultimately a unitary state. In this sense, the right of nations to self-determination is a tactical slogan. Secession is seen as a transitional period to federation and unity. It should also be noted that Lenin *opposed* the idea of separate working-class organizations for different nationalities. This notion was promoted within the Russian socialist movement by the Jewish Bund. Lenin wanted a united Social Democratic Party (later to become an even more centralized Bolshevik Party), united labour unions, etc. Lenin also opposed the proposals for "cultural autonomy" put forward by the Austro-Marxists, since he believed they would split the working class. Of course, another reason might have been that "cultural autonomy" wasn't as radical as national self-determination, since it left the borders of the existing European states intact.

Another reason for Lenin's support for national self-determination is the slogan's democratic character. Lenin and the Bolsheviks supported democratic demands, not because they were liberal democrats (they most certainly were not!), but because they believed that the revolution in Russia and other backward nations would inevitably be democratic as a first step. One of Lenin's main targets was Czarism. Czarist Russia was known as "the prison house of nations", with a Russian or Russified aristocracy ruling over dissatisfied Finns, Ukrainians, Poles, Muslims, etc. The demand for national self-determination would therefore undermine the Czarist regime. Lenin also used it against the Provisional Government of Kerensky. Other obvious targets are the Western colonial empires. At several points, Lenin also mentions Norway's secession from Sweden!

The articles in "Lenin on National Liberation" are to a large extent polemical. On the one hand, Lenin attacks socialists that support World War I in the name of "national self-determination" or "defence of the fatherland". The Bolsheviks opposed both sides during the war. On the other hand, Lenin also rebukes Marxists who believe that the world war or "imperialism" has voided the demand for national self-determination. He criticizes Karl Radek, Rosa Luxemburg (Junius) and one Kievsky. Often, Lenin is surprisingly flexible and says things that might shock his more dogmatic admirers: imperialist wars can be turned into national wars (almost a premonition of World War II), national wars can be turned into imperialist wars, Engels was right when he supported Germany against Russia, "we don't support the rebellion of the reactionary classes against imperialism", etc. Indeed, Lenin's writings in this volume have often been quote-mined by later Communist regimes who wished to give their latest foreign policy U-turns a "Marxist" gloss!

Of course, talking is cheap. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. After the October revolution, a number of non-Russian regions declared their independence from Russia. All of them had "bourgeois" regimes opposed to Bolshevism. With the exception of Finland, the Bolsheviks didn't respect their national self-determination, rather attempting to re-conquer all areas previously controlled by the Czars, with varying degrees of success. Of course, this was part of the many-sided Civil War, during which respect for fluid and often self-proclaimed national borders was non-existent. What is more interesting, is that Lenin did attempt to introduce *some* kind of national self-determination for non-Russians after the Civil War had been won. The policy was known as "indigenization" and was implemented with particular vigour in the Ukraine, where local language and literature was promoted at the expense of Russian ditto. Lenin opposed a scheme backed by Stalin, which would have made all non-Russian Soviet republics strictly subordinate to the Russian Soviet republic. In one of his last articles, Lenin even proposed to turn the Soviet Union into a somewhat looser federation (albeit still with the Communist Party in command). This turn of events is mentioned only in passing in "Lenin on National Liberation". The reason is simple: indigenization was later discarded by Stalin in favour of Great Russian nationalism, turning the Soviet Union into a new "prison house of nations".

In the end, even Lenin's moderate version of national self-determination under Soviet power became too threatening to the Soviet leaders. Perhaps they feared that Lenin was right: national wars are still possible in the era of imperialism. National wars...against the Kremlin.

Such is the irony of history.

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