Socialist Worker

Support for national rights strengthened the 1917 Russian Revolution

The Bolsheviks backed national rights for oppressed groups as a way of overcoming ‘Greater Russian chauvinism’

Issue No. 2560

Anti-war marchers in Petrograd on 18 June 1917

Anti-war marchers in Petrograd on 18 June 1917


Socialist internationalism ran through the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party always argued that the revolution was part of a global working class movement and had to spread.

But they also understood the need to support national self-determination for oppressed peoples. 

They couldn’t afford to get this “national question” wrong. Before the Russian Revolution, the Tsarist empire was known as the “prison house of nations”.

Stretching across Europe and Asia, more than half of the people inside it were not actually Russian. To bind this together the Tsarist dictatorship used nationalist “Greater Russian chauvinism”.

The grip of this reactionary ideology on Russian workers and peasants posed a big problem for revolutionaries.

The 1903 congress of the revolutionary Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) backed the “right to self-determination for all nations included within the bounds of the state”. 

All citizens would have the “right to receive education in their native language”. 

At the same 1903 congress the RSDLP also split into two factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

It was the Bolsheviks who really understood the need to support national rights. They saw a difference between the nationalism of advanced capitalist countries and that of oppressed peoples and colonies.  

When workers and peasants rose up during the 1905 Revolution, there were also struggles by oppressed peoples in the far flung corners of the empire. 

The Polish German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg opposed Poland’s right to independence, fearing it would sow division in the working class.

Lenin responded, “In her anxiety not to assist the ‘nationalist’ bourgeoisie in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg is assisting the Russian Black Hundreds.” 

Squads

The Black Hundreds were nationalist murder squads that purged Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and many other peoples.

Lenin argued that winning Russian workers to supporting Poland’s rights would help break the hold of reactionary chauvinism. It would make the working class stronger.

The Bolsheviks also saw oppressed people in the colonies as allies in the fight against imperialism. 

In October 1917 the working class seized power through their workers’ councils (“soviets”).

One month later the new revolutionary government decreed the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia” and their right to self-determination and independence. 

It decreed that regions with minorities should have “autonomy”. The minority language would have full equality “in all spheres of social and political activity”.

Many critics of the party point to future dictator Joseph Stalin’s work on the national question in 1913.

He said a nation was formed “on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and a common culture”.

After Stalin’s counter revolution, this definition was used as an excuse to oppress some minorities.

Particularly in large areas of Russia that were less advanced, many people’s had not developed a “national” language or culture.

In contrast, the Bolsheviks’ approach was to fight for people’s national rights.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at tinyurl.com/sw1917

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