85) Revolutionary Upswing

The elections to the Fourth Duma unfolded in the midst of a tremendous revolutionary upswing. That was the real reason for the success of the Bolsheviks. Throughout the whole of 1912 there were more than 3,000 strikes, with the participation of 1,463,000 workers, out of which 1,100,000 were involved in political strikes. In 1913, about two million workers struck, of whom 1,272,000 were involved in political strikes, in which Bolsheviks often played a leading role. There were new mutinies among the sailors and soldiers. The tactics of the Bolsheviks were firmly rooted in the perspective of a new revolutionary upswing. We get a glimpse of the tactics of the Social Democrats, who intervened in every strike and lockout, in the following extract:

It was decided that all workers locked out should keep in touch, that an appeal for help should be made to all St. Petersburg workers, a determined struggle waged against the use of alcohol during the lockout, and that workers’ educational societies should be requested to organize free lectures, etc. No man or woman was to approach the gates of the factory, and to plead for him or herself, or on behalf of groups of workers. When the factory was reopened, no worker was to return unless all were reinstated.489

It is impossible to understand the organizational side of Lenin’s position in isolation to the political questions. The irresistible movement in the direction of a split was dictated by the whole logic of the situation. The time for diplomacy and futile attempts to unite tendencies that had been shown to be completely incompatible was long past. Hence Lenin’s intransigent opposition to all talk of unity with the Mensheviks at this time. It was absolutely imperative that the revolutionary party should be “well shod on all fours” before the critical point was reached. There was not a moment to lose. In the course of the election campaign to the Duma, before mass meetings of workers the Bolsheviks had the opportunity to put forward their political line and test the response. It was overwhelmingly favorable. The instructions to the Social Democratic Duma group, signed by thousands of workers, were on clearly Bolshevik lines:

The demands of the Russian people advanced by the movement of 1905 remain unrealized.

The growth of reaction and the “renovation of the regime” have not only not satisfied these demands, but, on the contrary, have made them still more pressing.

Not only are the workers deprived of the right to strike—there is no guarantee that they will not be discharged for doing so; not only have they no right to organize unions and meetings—there is no guarantee that they will not be arrested for doing so; they have not even the right to elect to the Duma, for they will be “disqualified” or exiled if they do, as the workers from the Putilov works and the Nevsky shipyards were “disqualified” a few days ago.

All this is quite apart from the starving tens of millions of peasants, who are left at the mercy of the landlords and the rural police chiefs.

All this points to the necessity of realizing the demands of 1905. The state of economic life in Russia, the signs already appearing of the approaching industrial crisis and the growing pauperization of broad strata of the peasantry make the necessity of realizing the objects of 1905 more urgent than ever.

We think, therefore, that Russia is on the eve of mass movements, perhaps more profound than those of 1905. This is testified by the Lena events, by the strikes in protest against the “disqualifications,” etc.

As was the case in 1905, the Russian proletariat, the most advanced class of Russian society, will again act as the vanguard of the movement.

The only allies it can have are the long-suffering peasantry, who are vitally interested in the emancipation of Russia from feudalism.

A fight on two fronts—against the feudal order and the Liberal bourgeoisie which is seeking a union with the old powers—such is the form the next actions of the people must assume.

But in order that the working class may honorably discharge its role as the leader of the movement of the people, it must be armed with the consciousness of its interests and with a greater degree of organization.

The Duma tribune is, under the present conditions, one of the best means for enlightening and organizing the broad masses of the proletariat.490

Needless to say, Lenin was in constant contact with Russia. Party leaders and activists came out to Cracow to discuss with Lenin who maintained an energetic correspondence with the interior, with the aid of the ever efficient and indefatigable Krupskaya. Occasionally formal meetings were held, where the tactics and program of the party were reviewed. Such a meeting was the Cracow conference which met from December 28, 1912 to January 1, 1913. For purposes of camouflage it was called the February conference, and figured as such in the press and in party literature. Lenin was in the chair and in addition to the deputies the following were present: Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, G. Zinoviev, A. Troyanovsky, Valentina Nikolayevna Lobova, E. Rozmirovich, and a few other comrades, delegates from big working-class centers. Of the deputies, Petrovsky, Malinovksy, Shagov, and Badayev were present.

The year which had passed since the Prague conference had witnessed a powerful development of the revolutionary movement, of political and economic strikes, mass demonstrations, and the creation and consolidation of the workers’ press. The split between the revolutionary and reformist wings of the Social Democracy was now total. The domination of the Liquidationist tendency among the Mensheviks rendered this inevitable. The division between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was spreading throughout the whole labor movement and everywhere the revolutionary tendency was gaining ground—a fact that was underlined by the decisive victory of the Bolsheviks in the workers’ electoral colleges during the elections to the State Duma. These advances were duly noted:

1. The conference notes that, in spite of unparalleled persecutions and governmental interference in the elections, in spite of the Black-Hundred-Liberal bloc against the Social Democrats, which was definitely formed in many districts, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party achieved great victories in the elections to the Fourth Duma. Nearly everywhere there was an increase in the number of votes received by the Social Democrats in the second city electoral colleges, which are being wrested from the hands of the Liberals. In the workers’ electoral colleges, which are the most important for our party, the RSDLP enjoys undivided rule. By electing only Bolsheviks as deputies from the workers’ electoral colleges, the working class has unanimously declared its unswerving loyalty to the old Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and its revolutionary traditions.

2. The conference welcomes the energetic work of the Social Democratic deputies in the Fourth Duma as expressed in the introduction of interpellations and in the declaration which, in the main, defined correctly the basic principles of Social Democracy.

3. Recognizing, in accordance with party tradition, that the only correct policy is for the Duma Social Democratic fraction to be subordinated to the party as a whole, as represented by its central organizations, the conference considers that, in the interests of the political education of the working class and to ensure the maintenance of a correct party policy, it is necessary to follow every step of the fraction and thus establish party control over its work.491

In his book, for fairly obvious reasons, Badayev skates over the real significance of this resolution, which is contained in the final sentence. The main purpose of the meeting at Cracow was, in effect, to call the Bolshevik Duma deputies to order, and to put an end to their conciliationism and vacillations. The Duma deputies’ activities were placed firmly under the control of the party’s leading bodies. They were instructed to terminate their collaboration with the editorial board of the Liquidators’ newspaper, Luch, by the end of January 1913. In an attempt to get the Bolshevik deputies to distance themselves from the Mensheviks, the conference passed a resolution stating that:

The only true type of organization in the present period is an illegal party composed of nuclei each surrounded by a network of legal and semilegal societies. The illegal nuclei must be organizationally adapted to the local everyday conditions.

The chief task was stated to be the setting up at factories and works of illegal party committees with one leading organization at each center. Badayev writes:

The conference recognized that the best type of organization was that which prevailed at St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg committee was composed of delegates elected by the districts and of co-opted members, which resulted in a very flexible organization, in close touch with the nuclei, and at the same time well concealed from the secret police. It was also recommended that regional centers should be organized and contact maintained with the local groups on the one hand and the central committee on the other by a system of delegates. The resolution on organization established a harmonious system firmly welded from the bottom to the top.492

But despite all Lenin’s urgings, the majority of the Bolshevik faction stubbornly refused to break with the Menshevik parliamentary group, with whom they continued to maintain friendly relations, much to Lenin’s chagrin, throughout the first half of 1913. As a means of ensuring that the Duma deputies did not become divorced from the workers, Lenin insisted that they participate personally in the work of Pravda. “On the recommendation of comrade Lenin himself,” recalls Badayev,

I was charged with the duty of publishing Pravda. Lenin told me that being the deputy for St. Petersburg, the representative of the St. Petersburg workers, I must take on that task. Pravda pursued not only educational and propagandist aims, but it was also the most important center for organization. He emphasized the point that my duty was to work there.493

It is also clear that some sharp exchanges occurred between Lenin and Stalin in relation to the behavior of the editorial board of Pravda. Krupskaya, whose book about Lenin was published in the USSR under Stalin, was compelled to express herself cautiously about this, but nevertheless reveals that relations between the two men were very strained. At this meeting Sverdlov was appointed editor of Pravda and co-opted onto the CC. This step represented a demotion for Stalin. However, the arrest of Sverdlov on February 10, 1913 removed him from the picture. Stalin was once again placed in charge of Pravda, but was also arrested. But not before showing his defiance of Lenin and the other exiled leaders. Despite all that had been said at the Cracow meeting, Pravda continued to oppose a break with the Mensheviks in the Duma. In November 1912, it bluntly declared that “the fraction must be united.” In February, shortly before his arrest, Stalin wrote an article in the pages of Pravda, exhorting workers to speak out against attempts to split the fraction “from wherever they come”—a phrase, despite its oblique character, that is clearly directed against Lenin.494


489 Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 88.

490 Quoted in Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 36–37.

491 Ibid., 76.

492 Ibid., 76.

493 Ibid., 77.

494 Pravda, No. 167, February 26, 1913, quoted in McKean, op. cit., 141.

86) ‘The Masses Have Now Grown Up’

Meanwhile, events were moving rapidly. The class struggle was proceeding at an ever accelerating pace. In the whole of Russia during 1913 about one million workers had participated in strikes; of these over half a million were involved in political strikes. By the summer of 1913 Russia was in the throes of a political crisis. At a Party meeting in Polish Galicia (then under Austrian rule), the perspective of a new revolution was placed on the order of the day. “The question of a new revolution is uppermost in the political life of the country.”495 In the context of general radicalization, the Menshevik influence was in steep decline. The Bolsheviks were rapidly becoming the dominant force in the organized working class in Russia. Badayev reports that: “Party work had been strengthened, extended and consolidated, new groups had been formed and the old ones had grown larger and more effective.”496 Given the way in which Party membership was now calculated, it is difficult to say exactly how many members the Bolsheviks had at this time. Even Lenin didn’t know, as the following extract, written in September 1913, shows:

The party was 150,000 in 1907 (according to the estimate approved by the London Congress). Right now, you can’t say how many . . . Probably a lot fewer, but 30 or 50,000. It’s impossible to be exact . . . The Party is the conscious and advanced layer of the class, its advance guard. The strength of this vanguard is ten or a hundred times greater than its numerical strength. Can the strength of hundreds be greater than that of thousands? Yes, it can be greater, when that hundred is organized. Organization increases your strength tenfold.497

It was now urgent that all the disputed questions be resolved as quickly as possible. A new conference was held, this time at Poronino, a village not far from Cracow, where Lenin and a few members of the central committee were staying. In order to mislead the police, the Poronino conference was always referred to as the August conference, although it actually took place at the end of September 1913. Twenty-five to thirty representatives from the larger party organizations were present. In addition to Lenin, Zinoviev, and Krupskaya, who were living in Galicia, Kamenev, Shotman, Inessa Armand, Troyanovsky, Rozmirovich, Hanyecki, and other party workers also attended, as well as all the Duma Bolsheviks except Samoilov, who was ill. At the Poronino conference, a resolution was passed on the party press which marked a new departure:

1. The conference recognizes the enormous importance of a legal press for the cause of Social Democratic agitation and organization and therefore calls on all party organizations and class-conscious workers to lend their wholehearted support by distributing papers as widely as possible, by organizing mass collective subscriptions and by the payment of regular dues. The conference once more emphasizes that the said dues are membership dues to the party.

2. Special attention should be paid to the strengthening of the legal workers’ paper in Moscow and to the speedy establishment of a paper in the south.

3. The conference desires to bring about the closest cooperation between the existing legal papers by means of mutual exchange of information, the holding of conferences, etc.

4. Recognizing the importance and the necessity of a theoretical Marxist organ, the conference desires party and trade union papers to call the attention of the workers to the journal Prosveshtchenye (Enlightenment), and to appeal to them to subscribe regularly and support it in a systematic fashion.

5. The conference calls the attention of party publishing organizations to the necessity for a wider circulation of popular pamphlets for agitation and propaganda.

6. In view of the recent development of the revolutionary movement and of the importance of analyzing it thoroughly, in the complete manner which is impossible in the legal press, the conference draws special attention to the necessity of extending our illegal publishing work and recommends that, in addition to illegal pamphlets and leaflets, a central illegal party paper should be issued regularly at short intervals.498

The influence of the Bolsheviks was growing far faster than the Party’s actual membership. Krupskaya says in a letter that:

At the conference the reports from the locals were very interesting. Everybody was saying that the masses have now grown up . . . During the elections it had become apparent that there were self-made workers’ organizations everywhere . . . For the most part they are not connected with the Party, but they are of the Party in spirit.499

In the new conditions, with large numbers of fresh workers coming into the Party’s orbit, it was necessary to introduce drastic changes in the approach to recruitment, to open the doors to the workers. Here once more we see how flexible Lenin was on organizational questions. The Party is, after all, a living organism which will change and adapt itself to changing conditions. Thus, the very same Lenin who in 1903 argued against Martov’s attempt to dilute the Party by blurring the distinction between a member and a sympathizer, now advocated an entirely different approach, whereby any regular reader of Pravda should be regarded as a member (money paid regularly to Pravda should be considered as equivalent to “membership dues to the party”). There is, in reality, no contradiction between the two positions. They merely reflect a change in the objective situation, from a relatively small, embryonic party, which, of necessity must have the character of a cadre party, and a mass workers’ party.


495 See KPSS v. rezolyutsiakh, vol. 1, 302.

496 Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 116.

497 Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 24, 34.

498 Quoted in Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 120 (my emphasis).

499 Quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, 149.

87) Split in the Duma Group

The whole situation exposed the crying contradiction of the Duma fraction, where the Mensheviks were using their formal majority of one to dominate its activities and hamper the intervention of the Bolshevik deputies, a situation which the latter were prepared to accept in the name of unity. Lenin was highly critical of the Bolshevik Duma fraction for dragging its feet on the question of a break from the Menshevik seven: “The campaign against the seven began excellently,” he wrote, “but is now being carried on with insufficient determination.”500 As the Cracow meeting had failed to produce a definitive solution, this time the need for a split in the Duma fraction was spelled out in no uncertain terms. At a meeting of the Central Committee held in July, the “six” were, in effect, censured, although only Malinovsky was present from the Duma fraction. This time, no excuses would be accepted. However, the way that this question was handled was important. It was absolutely necessary that the workers should understand the reasons for the split, and that the full responsibility be placed at the door of the Mensheviks. Badayev tries to present the conduct of the Bolshevik deputies in the best possible light, but it is clear that they only took the decision to break with the Mensheviks very reluctantly and under pressure:

Of course, it was obvious to all of us already at that period, that the time was drawing near for a complete rupture with the Mensheviks. But the desire to preserve unity within the Social Democratic Party by some means or other was still strong among the broad masses of the workers. Naturally the wide public did not know what was taking place inside the party organization, in our underground committees or nuclei, owing to the police regime then prevailing in Russia. But the Duma fraction operated in the sight of all; every worker, not only in St. Petersburg, but even in the most remote corners of Russia, knew of its existence and activities. When the broad masses referred to party unity, they mainly had our fraction in mind.501

The Bolsheviks organized a campaign of collecting signatures to mobilize the maximum amount of support behind their Duma deputies. The result was an outstanding success.

By November 1, in just two weeks, Pravda and the Bolshevik fraction received over eight resolutions of support bearing over 5,000 signatures. During the same period, the Mensheviks could only muster 3,500 signatures. And even this proportion was not maintained, since the Mensheviks had exhausted all their efforts in the first weeks, and every day saw a falling off in the number of Menshevik resolutions while the number of resolutions in favor of the “six” continued to increase. In the course of the next month the Bolsheviks’ lead was still more pronounced; the flow of pro-Menshevik resolutions from the provinces virtually dried up, whereas that of the Bolsheviks was only just beginning. By December 1, it was clear that the Bolsheviks could count at least two and a half times as many supporters among the Russian workers as the Mensheviks. The same conclusion was evident from the amount of money collected by each group among the workers. The Mensheviks were able to raise only about 150 rubles for every 1,000 obtained by the Bolsheviks.

Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks by this time had united behind them the decisive sections of the working class, conciliationist moods still persisted, as Badayev himself admits:

Some Social Democratic circles abroad too did not grasp the nature and meaning of the split in the fraction, but hovered between the two camps, passing from Bolshevism to Menshevism and vice versa. One of the largest of these two groups, Vperyod (Forward), thought that the split was the result of the “absence of a single leading party center, enjoying the confidence of the majority of party members.” The Vperiodists recognized that the demands of the “six” were just, but they thought that the whole question only amounted to minor organizational clashes within the fraction. Thus they entirely missed the significance of the split and the fundamental differences which had led to it.

The Mensheviks naturally seized upon the split in the Duma group to make a fuss abroad, taking advantage of the ignorance of Russian affairs among foreign Social Democratic parties and their natural reluctance to countenance a split. In this, they were helped by the fact that it was their nominee who represented the fraction on the International Socialist Bureau (of the Second International). The Mensheviks decided to raise the question at the next meeting of the Bureau on December 1, and Chkheidze and Skobelev duly set out for London. Hoping to enlist the considerable authority of Plekhanov for the Menshevik cause, Chkheidze telegraphed him in Italy asking him to come to London to state his views on the split at the Bureau meeting.

Plekhanov, however, not only declined to come to London, but sent a letter to the International Socialist Bureau stating that he supported the “six” and considered that the Mensheviks were to blame for the split. At the same time, since he believed that this matter finally clinched the question of a split in the Social Democratic Party, Plekhanov decided to resign from the Bureau, on which he was the representative of the whole party. The following extract from his letter is quoted from Badayev’s book:

The differences of opinion which have existed within the Russian Social Democratic Party during the last few years have now led to the division of our Duma fraction into two competing groups. This split occurred as the result of certain regrettable decisions taken by our Liquidationist comrades, who chanced to be in a majority (seven against six). Since a decisive blow has been dealt at the unity of our party, I, who represent among you the whole party, have no other choice but to resign. This I am doing by the present letter.502

The approach of a new revolution by no means signified that the party could abandon the struggle for partial demands. On the contrary, it invested this struggle with a new urgency. There was a need to fight for every partial demand, no matter how small, which tended to improve the working class’s living standards, conditions, and rights, in order to fuse the Party ever closer to the masses. The reality of the Bolshevik Party bears not the slightest resemblance to the caricature of Bolshevism advanced by Martov who spitefully defined it as “maximalism, the striving for immediate maximum results, indeed the realization of social improvements, without taking into account objective conditions.”503 Had this really been the case, the Bolsheviks could never have succeeded in winning a majority of the working class, as it did, both in 1912–14, and once again in September-November 1917.

Writing as an exile after the October Revolution had already furnished the ultimate proof of the correctness of Lenin’s perspectives, policy, and methods, Martov’s spite is clearly the product of embittered envy and not just a defective memory. As we have already had occasion to observe, the difference between revolutionary Marxism and so-called reformism is not at all that the latter accepts the need to fight for reforms while the former denies it. In any event, the revolutionaries are distinguished from the reformists by being the most consistent and determined fighters for reforms, while the latter, especially in periods of capitalist crisis, always pass from reforms to counterreforms and “austerity” under the pressure of big business, while all serious reforms have historically been the byproduct of the revolutionary struggle to change society. Unfortunately for the Liquidators, under Russia’s conditions even the fight for the most partial demands, if conducted seriously, led inexorably to the demand for the overthrow of tsarism.


500 LCW, To the Editorial Board of Za Pravdu, vol. 34, 118.

501 Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 112 (my emphasis).

502 See Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 131, 132, and 133.

503 Martov, Mirovoy Bol’shevism.

88) The National Question

The attitude of the Bolsheviks to democratic demands is shown by their stance on the national question. Without a clear and principled stand on the national question, they could never have led the working class to the conquest of power. The national question was of decisive importance for Russia, where 57 percent of the population consisted of non-Russian national minorities who suffered oppression and discrimination at the hands of the 43 percent who were Great Russians. The onset of reaction in the period 1907–10 intensified the national antagonisms to an unbearable degree. Rampant reaction immediately trampled underfoot all the gains made by the oppressed nationalities in the previous period. Finnish autonomy was abolished. Millions of people were deprived of voting rights on grounds of their “citizenship.”

Anti-Semitism revealed its ugly face again in the notorious Beylis case in Kiev, when Black Hundred elements blamed the Jews for the alleged ritual murder of a Christian boy. The vilest racist prejudices were deliberately used by the regime to divide and enslave the people. The right-wing press published sensationalist articles claiming that the ritual murder of Christian boys by Jews was part of the Jewish faith. The case was so scandalous that a wave of indignation swept through Russian society. Liberal public opinion expressed its moral outrage. But the fact was that the origin of this racist poison was the regime itself and the social system upon which it rested. It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism was rife at the court of Nicholas and was shared by the tsar and his entourage who deliberately encouraged it.

The only way to fight racism is by uniting the workers in struggle against all forms of oppression and discrimination, as part of the general revolutionary struggle to change society. This does not preclude, but presupposes that action is taken by the labor movement to deal with fascists and racists who attack members of oppressed minorities. But it is imperative that the defense of the oppressed minority be undertaken by the working class united as a whole, without distinction of race, language, or color. At the time of the Beylis trial, the Social Democrats organized a protest campaign against the anti-Semites. In September and October the Bolsheviks put out a series of leaflets. One of them said:

Comrades: We workers, do not need the enslavement of one nation by another. Finn, Pole, Jew, German, Armenian are all brothers to us. We must not fight against them, but against the autocracy and capitalism.504

The leaflets called for protest strikes, which actually took place in Petersburg, Kiev, Revel, Gomel, Bielostok, Brest-Litovsk, and other areas. In other words the Party responded to racist poison with a class appeal.

The workers of Russia and the Ukraine responded with strikes in defense of the oppressed Jewish people. Finally, under pressure from the mass protest movement, Beylis was declared innocent. The way to combat racism is precisely by strengthening the unity of all working people in struggle, cutting across all differences of nationality, race, religion, color, or language. By contrast, the kind of petty-bourgeois nationalism that emphasizes national differences merely acts as grist to the mill of the racists. Thus, in the context of tsarist Russia, the separatist line of the Bund was extremely harmful. They pursued a policy which amounted to splitting the workers on national lines, demanding the right to act as the sole representative of the Jewish workers, demanding Saturday rest for Jews, rights for the Jewish language, and other demands in line with “cultural-national autonomy.”

Members of the oppressed nationalities (Estonian workers, Ukrainian peasants, etc.) frequently wrote asking for support to the Social Democratic Duma fraction. The Bolshevik Party itself was a model of how to unite workers from different nationalities in common class organizations, even where there was a history of racial conflict between them, as was the case in tsarist Russia, where the regime not only incited the Russians and Ukrainians against the Jews, but also turned Azeris and Georgians against Armenians. The pogroms against Armenians in Baku are now less well remembered than those against the Jews, but they were every bit as horrific. And yet in Bolshevik organizations Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Latvian, Armenian workers worked together. Lenin was always radically opposed to separate national organizations of the working class:

In our party in the Caucasian Social Democracy, Georgians, Armenians, Tartars, Russians have been working together in united social democratic organizations for more than ten years. This is not a phrase, but a proletarian solution of the national question. The only solution. The same thing in Riga: there are Russians, Latvians, and Lithuanians; the only ones to organize apart are the separatists—the Bund. This is also the case in Vilna.505

This is a crushing answer to all attempts to split the workers organizations on national lines.

Great-Russian chauvinism was always one of the most powerful weapons of reaction. On the issue of the national question, too, Lenin, denounced not only the open Black Hundred reaction, but also the liberal bourgeoisie:

The liberal bourgeoisie of all nations—and the Great Russian above all—fights for the privileges of “its” nation . . . for national particularity, for national exclusiveness and through this, assists the policy of our ministry of internal affairs.506

And again:

Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism are two implacably opposed slogans, corresponding to two great class camps throughout the entire capitalist world and expressing two policies (rather, two world outlooks) on the national question.507

Confusion over the national question would have been a catastrophe for the Russian Revolution. That is why it occupied a central place in all the debates from 1903 onwards. There were serious problems not only with the Jewish nationalists of the Bund, but also with the Polish and Lithuanian Social Democrats who were influenced by Rosa Luxemburg who denied the rights of nations to self-determination. Rosa Luxemburg was undoubtedly a resolute defender of internationalism. In her stubborn resistance to the prejudices of the petty-bourgeois Polish nationalists of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP), she had right on her side. But her understanding of internationalism was rather abstract and one-sided. In effect, she denied the right of the Polish people to self-determination. For the RSDLP to have accepted this position, as she demanded, would have been an unmitigated disaster and a gift to the Polish nationalists. So serious were the differences that it led to a split in the Polish Social Democracy in which an opposition group, which sympathized with Lenin’s position, and led by J.S. Hanyecki and A.M. Malecki, broke away. Lenin’s position was far more profound and dialectical. In the years immediately before and during the First World War, he wrote a large number of articles and documents on the national question which to this day retain all their vitality and relevance. As was his wont, Lenin discussed his ideas on this with younger cadres and encouraged them to go into print: The result was, among others, Shaumyan’s pamphlet On National-Cultural Autonomy and Stalin’s article in Prosveshcheniye, The National Question and the Social Democracy, which was, in effect, dictated by Lenin.


504 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 431.

505 Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 48, p.162.

506 Ibid., vol. 25, 71.

507 Ibid., vol. 24, 123.

89) Lenin on the National Question

What was Lenin’s attitude to the national question?

Marxists will fight against even the smallest manifestation of inequality and discrimination. For example, we are against any privileged status for a particular language. There is no particular reason why there should be an “official” language with a monopoly over other languages. That was Lenin’s position. But it did not mean that he allied himself with the reactionary exclusiveness of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of the oppressed nationalities with their demand for “national-cultural autonomy,” the glorification of their “own” language and culture, which conceals their striving to oppress other peoples. “The slogan of workers’ democracy is not ‘national culture’ but the international culture of democracy and the working-class movement.”

Behind the appeals to “national culture” lie the class interest of the exploiters of every nation—the landlords and capitalists. The ruling ideas of every nation are the ideas of the ruling class. That is an elementary proposition for Marxists. Here too, Lenin maintained a class position:

The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of “elements,” but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie. This fundamental and, for a Marxist, elementary truth, was kept in the background by the Bundist, who “drowned” it in his jumble of words, i.e., instead of revealing and clarifying the class gulf to the reader, he in fact obscured it. In fact, the Bundist acted like a bourgeois, whose every interest requires the spreading of a belief in a non-class national culture.

He explains that:

The national culture of the bourgeoisie is a fact (and, I repeat, the bourgeoisie everywhere enters into deals with the landed proprietors and the clergy). Bellicose bourgeois nationalism which stultifies, fools, and disunites the workers in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter—such is the fundamental fact of the present day. Those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic, and foreign.508

Lenin was opposed to the setting up of separate schools on national lines which have the effect of dividing the population and reinforcing racial and national prejudices. Lenin exposed the reactionary nature of this and other demands flowing from the so-called policy of “Cultural Autonomy” advocated by the Austrian Social Democracy:

“Cultural-national autonomy” implies precisely the most refined and, therefore, the most harmful nationalism, it implies the corruption of the workers by means of the slogan of national culture and the propaganda of the profoundly harmful and even anti-democratic segregating of schools according to nationality. In short, this program undoubtedly contradicts the internationalism of the proletariat and is in accordance only with the ideals of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie.

Instead of the demand for “national cultural autonomy,” Lenin advanced the demand for the right to self-determination. This is a democratic demand which sets out from the assumption that no nation should be obliged to remain within the frontiers of another nation, contrary to its will. The right of every people to determine its own affairs, free from the coercion of a more powerful people, is an elementary right which must be defended. But this does not mean that Marxists are under an obligation to defend separatism. As a matter of fact, Lenin pointed out that “For a Marxist, of course, all other conditions being equal, big states are always preferable to small ones.”509 The nation state, like private property, is an obsolete and reactionary institution that hampers the free development of the productive forces. The domination of the world market, long ago predicted by Marx and Engels, is now a fact. No country, no matter how big and powerful, can escape from the irresistible pull of the world market. That is why the so-called independence of those countries which succeeded in throwing off the yoke of direct foreign oppression since 1945 has turned into a mere fiction. They are more exploited and oppressed than before—except that the exploitation takes place indirectly, through the mechanism of world trade.

“The proletariat,” Lenin wrote in October-December 1913, “far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse, and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.”510

Marxists do not stand for the erection of new frontiers, but for the elimination of all frontiers, in the socialist united states of the world. But this statement does not exhaust the question. Yes, we are in favor of large units, all other things being equal. But all other things are not equal. Marx once said that there was no greater calamity for a people than to oppress another people. Where this occurs, it is the duty of Marxists to defend the oppressed minority. We are opposed to all forms of discrimination, oppression, and the denial of national rights, and will fight against it. But that is insufficient. The working class must have its own, independent position on the national question, as on any other question. And as on any other question, this must serve the general cause of the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. There is no question of setting aside the struggle for socialism or the fight between wage labor and capital in the interests of some kind of “national unity.” In the fight against national oppression too, the revolutionary class struggle must be put to the fore.

Lenin explained a thousand times that the Russian Marxists, as members of an oppressor nation (the Great Russians), had to fight against the oppressive policies and conduct of its own bourgeoisie, and defend the rights of those nations oppressed by the Great Russians. This was necessary to show to the workers and peasants of the other, non-Russian nations that the Russian workers had no interest in oppressing them, but were the most consistent defenders of their rights. As final proof of this, Lenin insisted that the Russian party inscribe on its banner the right of nations to self-determination. In effect, the Russian workers were saying to the Poles, the Finns, the Georgians, Ukrainians, and the rest: “We have no interest in keeping you in chains. Let us combine to overthrow the exploiters, and then we will give you the freedom to decide what your relations will be with us. We hope to show you that you will be treated with absolute equality, and that you will choose to remain with us. But if you decide something else, that is your own affair, and we will fight to defend your right, even if it means setting up your own state.”

Lenin never made the slightest concession to nationalism, including to the nationalism of the oppressed. His whole line of argument on the national question was motivated by a burning belief in internationalism and the revolutionary mission of the proletariat.

If a Ukrainian Marxist allows himself to be swayed by his quite legitimate and natural hatred of the Great-Russian oppressors to such a degree that he transfers even a particle of this hatred, even if it be only estrangement, to the proletarian culture and proletarian cause of the Great-Russian workers, then such a Marxist will get bogged down in bourgeois nationalism. Similarly, the Great-Russian Marxist will be bogged down, not only in bourgeois, but also in Black-Hundred nationalism, if he loses sight, even for a moment, of the demand for complete equality for the Ukrainians, or of their right to form an independent state.511

The main purpose of the slogan of the right to self-determination was precisely to guarantee the unity of the working class. The other side of the coin was that the Marxists of the oppressed nationalities should concentrate on fighting their own bourgeoisie, on combating the nationalist poison of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of the oppressed nationality, of waging a remorseless struggle to combat the influence of nationalism in the working class. Moreover, Lenin was always implacably opposed to setting up separate organizations for the workers of oppressed nationalities. The Russian Marxists stood for the unity of the working class and its organizations, not just the party, but the trade unions also:

Working-class democracy counterposes to the nationalist wrangling of the various bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., the demand for the unconditional unity and complete amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in all working class organizations—trade-union, cooperative, consumers’, educational, and all others—in contradistinction to any kind of bourgeois nationalism. Only this type of unity and amalgamation can uphold democracy and defend the interests of the workers against capital—which is already international and is becoming more so—and promote the development of mankind towards a new way of life that is alien to all privileges and all exploitation.512

Self-determination was thus only one part of a program aimed at securing the unity of the workers of both oppressed and oppressor nations. It did not at all signify support for nationalism and separatism, as Lenin explains, when he says that

the recognition of the right [to self-determination] does not exclude either propaganda and agitation against separation or the exposure of bourgeois nationalism.513


508 LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, vol. 20, 22, 24, and 25 (my emphasis).

509 LCW, The National Program of the RSDLP, vol. 19, 541 and 545.

510 LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, vol. 20, 35.

511 Ibid., 33.

512 Ibid., 22.

513 LCW, The National Program of the RSDLP, vol. 19, 544.