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Lenin and national liberation—the fight for revolution

The question of whether socialist should back national liberation fights is still a live issue. To mark 100 years after Vladimir Lenin’s death Isabel Ringrose explores his contributions to this question
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Lenin Rosa national liberation

Lenin speaking in Moscow in May 1920 (Picture: Wikicommons)

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyano, better know as Vladimir Lenin was born on 10 April 1870 in Simbirsk, Russia.  His ideas were born in a time of huge crisis in the system.

The Russian Revolution was a genuine socialist revolution where workers seized power and briefly ran society by themselves.  As leader of the Bolshevik Party Lenin wrote about war, imperialism and the state.

He was constast in pushing for a independent revolutionary party.  Lenin died on 21 January 1924 and so didn’t live to see the horrors that that Stalin’s bureaucracy would usher in.  

Some, even on the left, claim that fighting for national liberation is a diversion from “real” class struggle. That was not the position that Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin took.

Lenin stood by the right of those oppressed by imperialism to stand up against their imperialist masters to decide their own fate and demand equal rights.

He argued that the call for self-determination—to decide democratically whether or not you want to be part of a bigger state—was a central part of the struggle against imperialism.

In colonised countries, fighting to weaken the grip of imperialism could spark mass revolutionary change. But winning workers in imperialist nations to the cause of oppressed nations is also a crucial step towards revolutionary consciousness.

Workers have to assess any national demand from the angle of workers’ class struggle. Lenin said that being on the side of an oppressor was never an option.

But sometimes the fight within an oppressed country means temporarily being on the same side as the leaders of capitalist-led national movements.

Workers should be with them against imperialism while carrying out their independent class interests.

It’s the job of socialists to unite workers of oppressed nationalities and build an international struggle of workers.

Lenin engaged with the question of national liberation on the eve of the world’s deadliest war that began in 1914. 

At the time in Tsarist Russia, known as a “prison house of nations”, 57 percent of the population belonged to national minorities.

In the vast Habsburg Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Germans and Hungarians dominated alongside minorities of Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, Serbians, Croatians, and Romanians.

The Austrian Socialist Party’s line pledged for cultural and linguistic autonomy of each nationality.

It also called for federations of districts based on nationality and laws protecting minorities in non-defined territories. This would solve the issue of the national question within the existing empire.

Lenin looked at how to use the fight for national liberation to destroy empire entirely. He was for the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

Lenin argued for socialists to use the drive against imperialism among national minorities to build the revolutionary movement.

He said that while empires should be split apart, workers must stress their joint unity. At the heart of this was revolutionary organisation.

One of Lenin’s fiercest debates over national liberation was with Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

Both Lenin and Luxemburg looked to take the original writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on national liberation and applied them to their modern day.

In Marx’s time Tsarism was the main force suppressing revolutionary uprisings. Pre-World War One, Poland was becoming an economic ally of Russia, so the ruling class was not attempting to gain independence.

And the Polish working class, according to Luxemburg, also did not support separation from Russia.

Luxemburg concluded that under capitalism the fight for national independence had no value. And under socialism, there would be no need for slogans of national independence because workers and people would have achieved international unity.

Luxemburg was in conflict with the right-wing Polish Socialist Party, which pushed nationalist demands from above in a way that aligned them with the Polish capitalists.

As a result she believed that backing the Polish nationalist movement meant falling in line with the capitalist classes. To avoid this alliance, Luxemburg denied that the fight for Polish national liberation was progressive.

Lenin disagreed with Luxemburg on this question and wrote, “Why should we Great Russians, who have been oppressing more nations than any other people, deny the right to secession for Poland, Ukraine, or Finland?

“What you have to do is to stress, in Russia, the freedom of secession for oppressed nations, and, in Poland, their freedom to unite.”

And while Luxemburg saw national self-determination as incompatible with class struggle, Lenin crucially looked to channel it towards class struggle.

Even within the Bolsheviks, leading revolutionaries such as Nikolai Bukharin came out against the right of self-determination.

Lenin responded in 1914, “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support.

“Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.”

Fighting for self-determination helps to fight reactionary ideas within the working class of the oppressor and oppressed country. So supporting the right to self-determination did not always mean fighting for the secession of a particular nation from the imperialist state.

In the case of Poland, Lenin said workers could avoid demanding a national state. But in Russia socialists should fight for the right of Polish workers to have a separate state if they wished.

But the fight of the national movement of an oppressed nation has the ability to boost the international class struggle. That’s because it can weaken the dominant ruling classes.

Lenin saw this in the Irish uprising of 1916 against brutal British repression. He followed that in oppressor countries, the emphasis should be on weakening the home imperialist state by backing the national liberation moment.

“Without this there can be no internationalism,” Lenin wrote. He added that any socialist within an oppressor nation who fails to do such is “as a scoundrel and an imperialist”.

He was clear that without the right of national self-determination, there could be no socialism.

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, ­without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression—to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution,” he said.

Those in oppressor countries had to fight for oppressed countries to break from their oppressors.

“If we do not want to betray socialism we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class,” he said.

This struggle could then bring workers together. It was the job of revolutionaries to lead the struggles for national liberation, which would inevitably include reactionary forces, and direct it to socialism.

This, rather than encouraging a split among nationalist lines, would do the opposite. If workers in the oppressed nation could see no one in the oppressing nation defending their right to equality, they would fall behind nationalism led by the ruling class.

But if they found the workers in the oppressing nation standing for their right to self-determination, it would lead to unity.

Socialists in the oppressor country have the job of encouraging international unity among both their own working class and in the oppressed country against their rulers.

Lenin’s theory was put into practice in revolutionary Russia. Within days of the October Revolution, the new government published the Declaration on the Rights of the Peoples of Russia.

Within a few days, the Bolshevik-led government recognised Finland’s right to independence. Then followed support for the rights of Lithuania, Estonia, Transcaucasia, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, and Ukraine.

The process was not without problems, and there were sometimes hesitations from the Bolsheviks in some cases because the national movements were headed by reactionaries. 

But they respected the national rights of the subject peoples. And with this went support for the religious freedoms trampled on by the Tsars.

A declaration To all the Muslim workers of Russia and the East, issued by the fledgling Soviet government on 24 November 1917, stated, “Muslims of Russia, all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution.”

It was one of the hallmarks of Stalinist counter-revolution that it destroyed these rights and re-imposed “greater Russian chauvinism”. Socialists have to support the movement against imperialism, whatever means it uses.  

And they also have to at the same time build the international movement for working class power.

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