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Lenin, V. I.  (1915 ) The Revolutionary Proletariat and The Right Of Nations To Self-Determination.  Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965,  Volume 21, :  407-414 .


V. I. Lenin

The Revolutionary Proletariat and

The Right Of Nations To Self-Determination

Like most programmes or tactical resolutions of the Social-Democratic parties, the Zimmerwald Manifesto proclaims the “right of nations to self-determination”. In Nos. 252 and 253 of Berner Tagwacht, Parabellum[1] has called “illusory”“the struggle for the non-existent right to self-determination”, and has contraposed to it “the proletariat’s revolutionary mass struggle against capitalism”, while at the same time assuring us that “we are against annexations”(an assurance is repeated five times in Parabellum’s article), and against all violence against nations.

The arguments advanced by Parabellum in support of his position boil down to an assertion that today all national problems, like those of Alsace-Lorraine, Armenia, etc., are problems of imperialism; that capital has outgrown the framework of national states; that it is impossible to turn the clock of history back to the obsolete ideal of national states, etc.

Let us see whether Parabellum’s reasoning is correct.

First of all, it is Parabellum who is looking backward, not forward, when, in opposing working-class acceptance “of the ideal of the national state”, he looks towards Britain, France, Italy, Germany, i. e., countries where the movement for nalional liberation is a thing of the past, and not towards the East, towards Asia, Africa, and the colonies, where this movement is a thing of the present and the future. Mention of India, China, Persia, and Egypt will be sufficient.

Furthermore, imperialism means that capital has outgrown the framework of national states; it means that national oppression has been extended and heightened on a new historical foundation. Hence, it follows that, despite Parabellum, we must link the revolutionary struggle for socialism with a revolutionary programme on the national question.

From what Parabellum says, it appears that, in the name of the socialist revolution, he scornfully rejects a consistently revolutionary programme in the sphere of democracy. He is wrong to do so. The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. It is absurd to contrapose the socialist revolutlon and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism to a single problem of democracy, in this case, the national question. We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determillation of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.

Imperialism means the progressively mounting oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of Great Powers; it means a period of wars between the latter to extend and consolidate the oppression of nations; it means a period in which the masses of the people are deceived by hypocritical social-patriots, i.e., individuals who, under the pretext of the “freedom of nations”, “the right of nations to self-determination”, and “defence of the fatherland”, justify and defend the oppression of the majority of the world’s nations by the Great Powers.

That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It is from this division that our definition of the “right of nations to self-determination”must follow, a definition that is consistently democratic, revolutionary, and in accord with the general task of the immediate struggle for socialism. It is for that right, and in a struggle to achieve sincere recognition for it, that the Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy. On the other hand, the Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.

The way in which the national question was posed at the end of the sixties of the past century may serve as an instructive example. The petty-bourgeois democrats, to whom any thought of the class struggle and of the socialist revolution was wholly alien, pictured to themselves a Utopia of peaceful competition among free and equal nations, under capitalism. In examining the immediate tasks of the social revolution, the Proudhonists totally “negated”the national question and the right of nations to self-determination. Marx ridiculed French Proudhonism and showed the affinity between it and French chauvinism. (“All Europe must and will sit quietly on their hindquarters until the gentlemen in France abolish ’poverty’. . . . By the negation of nationalities they appeared, quite unconsciously, to understand their absorption by the model French nation.”) Marx demanded the separation of Ireland from Britain “although after the separation there may come federation”, demanding it, not from the standpoint of the petty-bourgeois Utopia of a peaceful capitalism, or from considerations of “justice for Ireland’’,[2] but from the standpoint of the interests of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of the oppressor, i.e., British, nation against capitalism. The freedom of that nation has been cramped and mutilated by the fact that it has oppressed another nation. The British proletariat’s internationalism would remain a hypocritical phrase if they did not demand the separation of Ireland. Never in favour of petty states, or the splitting up of states in general, or the principle of federation, Marx considered the separation of an oppressed nation to be a step towards federation, and consequently, not towards a split, but towards concentration, both political and economic, but concentration on the basis of democracy. As Parabellum sees it, Marx was probably waging an “illusory struggle”in demanding separation for Ireland. Actually, however, this demand alone presented a consistently revolutionary programme; it alone was in accord with internationalism; it alone advocated concentration along non-imperialist lines.

The imperialism of our days has led to a situation in which the Great-Power oppression of nations hss become gengral. The view that a struggle must be conducted against the social-chauvinism of the dominant nations, who are now engaged in an imperialist war to enhance the oppression of nations, and are oppressing most of the world’s nations and most of the earth’s population—this view must be decisive, cardinal and basic in the national programme of Social-Democracy.

Take a glance at the present trends in Social-Democratic thinking on this subject. The petty-bourgeois Utopians, who dreamt of equality and peace among nations under capitalism, have been succeeded by the social-imperialists. In combating the former, Parabellum is tilting at windmills, thereby unwittingly playing in the hands of the social-imperialists. What is the social-chauvinists’ programme on the national question?

They either entirely deny the right to self-determination, using arguments like those advanced by Parabellum (Cunow, Parvus, the Russian opportunists Semkovsky, Liebman, and others), or they recognise that right in a patently hypocritical fashion, namely, without applying it to those very nations that are oppressed by their own nation or by her military allies (Plekhanov, Hyndman, all the pro-French patriots, then Scheidemann, etc., etc.). The most plausible formulation of the social-chauvinist lie, one that is therefore most dangerous to the proletariat, is provided by Kautsky. In word, he is in favour of the self-determination of nations; in word, he is for the Social-Democratic Party “die Selbstandigkeit der Nationen allseitig [!] und rückhaltlos [?] achtet und fordert”[3] (Die Neue Zeit No. 33, II, S. 241, May 21, 1915). In deed, however, he has adapted the national programme to the prevailing social-chauvinism, distorted and docked it; he gives no precise definition of the duties of the socialists in the oppressor nations, and patently falsifies the democratic principle itself when he says that to demand “state independence”(staatliche Selb standigkeit ) for every nation would mean demanding “too much”(“zu viel”, Die Neue Zeit No. 33, II, S. 77, April 16, 1915). “National autonomy”, if you please, is enough! The principal question, the one the imperialist bourgeoisie will not permit discussion of, namely, the question of the boundaries of a state that is built upon the oppression of nations, is evaded by Kautsky, who, to please that bourgeoisie, has thrown out of the programme what is most essential. The bourgeoisie are ready to promise all the “national equality”and “national autonomy”you please, so long as the proletariat remain within the framework of legality and “peacefully”submit to them on the question of the state boundaries! Kautsky has formulated the national programme of Social-Democracy in a reformist, not a revolutionary manner.

Parabellum’s national programme, or, to be more precise, his assurances that “we are against annexations”, has the wholehearted backing of the Parteivorstand,[4] Kautsky, Plekhanov and Co., for the very reason that the programme does not expose the dominant social-patriots. Bourgeois pacifists would also endorse that programme. Parabellum’s splendid general programme (“a revolutionary mass struggle against capitalism”) serves him—as it did the Proudhonists of the sixties—not for the drawing up, in conformity with it and in its spirit, of a programme on the national question that is uncompromising and equally revolutionary, but in order to leave the way open to the social-patriots. In our imperialist times most socialists throughout the world are memhers of nations that oppress other nations and strive to extend that oppression. That is why our “struggle against annexations”will be meaningless and will not scare the social-patriots in the least, unless we declare that a socialist of an oppressor nation who does not conduct both peacetinue and wartime propaganda in favour of freedom of secession for oppressed nations, is no socialist and no internationalist, but a chauvinist! The socialist of an oppressor nation who fails to conduct such propaganda in defiance of government bans, i.e., in the free, i.e., in the illegal press, is a hypocritical advocate of equal rights for nations!

Parabellum has only a single sentence on Russia, which has not yet completed its bourgeois-democratic revolution:

“Selbst das wirtschaftlich sehr zuruckgebliebene Russland hat in der Haltung der Polnischen, Lettischen, Armeni”schen Bourgeoisie gezeigt, dass nicht nur die militärische Bewachung es ist, die die Völker in diesem ’Zuchthaus der Völker’ zusammenhält, sondern Bedürfnisse der kapitalistischen Expansion, für die das ungeheure Territorium ein glänzender Boden der Entwicklung ist.”[5]

That is not a “Social-Democratic standpoint”but a liberal-bourgeois one, not an internationalist, but a Great-Russian chauvinist standpoint. Parabellum, who is such a fine fighter against the German social-patriots, seems to have little knowledge of Russian chauvinism. For Parabellum’s wording to be converted into a Social-Democratic postulate and for Social-Democratic conclusions to be drawn from it, it should be modified and supplemented as follows:

Russia is a prison of peoples, not only because of the military-feudal character of tsarism and not only because the Great-Russian bourgeoisie support tsarism, but also because the Polish, etc., bourgeoisie have sacrificed the freedom of nations and democracy in general for the interests of capitalist expansion. The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and “rückhaltlos”,[6] for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question. We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede. Just as Marx, in 1869, demanded the separation of Ireland, not for a split between Ireland and Britain, but for a subsequent free union between them, not so as to secure “justice for Ireland”, but in the interests of the revolutionary struggle of the British proletariat, we in the same way consider the refusal of Russian socialists to demand freedom of self-determination for nations, in the sense we have indicated above, to be a direct betrayal of democracy, internationalism and socialism.


[1] Parabellum—K. Radek.

[2] See Marx’s letters to Engels of June 7 and 20, 1866 and of November 2, 1867.

[3] “comprehensively[!] and unreservedly [?] respecting and demanding the independence of nations”—Editor

[4] The Executive of the German Social-Democratic Party—Editor

[5] “Even economically very backward Russia has proved, in the stand taken by the Polish, Lettish and Armenian bourgeoisie that it is not only the military guard that keeps together the peoples in that ’prison of peoples’, but also the need for capitalist expansion, for which the vast territory is a splendid ground for development.”—Editor

[6] “Unreservedly”—Editor

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