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The Internationalist Lenin. Self-determination and anti-colonialism.

In 1913, Lenin published an article in Pravda with a curious title, ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’.(1) The opening of the article accepts the paradoxical nature of the title, for it is Europe–after all–that has advanced it forces of production and it is Asia that has had its forces of production stifled. The character of advancement and backwardness for Lenin does not only rest on the question of technological and economic development; it rests, essentially, on the nature of the mass struggle.

In Europe, Lenin wrote, the bourgeoisie was exhausted. It no longer had any of the revolutionary capacity with which it once fought off the feudal order; although even here, the bourgeoisie was pushed along reluctantly by the rising of the masses–as in the French Revolution of 1789–and it was the bourgeoisie that betrayed the mass struggle and opted for the return of authoritarian power as long as its class interests were upheld. By 1913, the European bourgeoisie had been corrupted by the gains of imperialism; the rule of the European bourgeoisie had to be overthrown by the workers.

In Asia, meanwhile, Lenin identified the dynamism of the national liberation movements. ‘Everywhere in Asia’, he wrote, ‘a mighty democratic movement is growing, spreading, and gaining in strength…Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light, and freedom’. Until this period, Lenin had focused his attention on the revolutionary developments in Russia, with a detailed study of agrarian conditions and capitalism in his country and with debates over the nature of organisation in the revolutionary camp. The breakthroughs in 1911 that took place in China, Iran, and Mexico with their variegated and complex revolutionary processes, nonetheless struck him. In 1912, Lenin would write on numerous occasions of the peoples of Asia–such as Persia and Mongolia–who ‘are waging a revolutionary struggle for freedom’, and he would push his party to condemn Tsarist imperialist attacks on Persia and the ‘revolutionary struggle of the Chinese people, which is bringing emancipation to Asia and is undermining the rule of the European bourgeoisie’.(2)

Lenin had tracked developed in eastern Asia ever since the Tsarist empire opened hostilities against China by invading Manchuria in 1900 and then against Japan in 1904-05 in Manchuria and Korea. In 1900, Lenin took a strong anti-war position, arguing that even though the Tsar had not declared war in 1900, ‘war is being waged nonetheless’.(3) ‘The autocratic tsarist government’, Lenin wrote, ‘has proved itself to be a government of irresponsible bureaucrats serviley cringing before the capitalist magnates and nobles’; meanwhile, the war resulted in ‘thousands of ruined families, whose breadwinners have been sent to war; an enormous increase in the national debt and the national expenditure; mounting taxation; greater power for the capitalists, the exploiters of the workers; worse conditions for the workers; still greater mortality among the peasantry; famine in Siberia’. ‘The Chinese people suffer from the same evils as those from which the Russian people suffer’, argued Lenin in an early demonstration of his internationalism.

The Tsarist empire, along with the European imperialists, had developed a ‘counterrevolutionary coalition’, Lenin wrote in 1908 in his reflection on the Balkans, Turkey, and Persia. How should the socialists react to this policy of imperialism? ‘The very essence of proletarian policy at this stage’, he wrote in Proletary, ‘should be to tear the mask from these bourgeois hypocrites and to reveal to the broadest masses of the people the reactionary character of the European governments who, out of fear of the proletarian struggle at home, are playing, and helping others play, the part of gendarme in relation to the revolution in Asia’.(4)
Within Europe, the oppressed nationalities–such as the Polish and the Irish–demonstrated the important spirit of democracy that Lenin had detected from Mexico to China. Unlike many other Marxists–such as Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky–Lenin fully supported the Easter Rising in English-occupied Ireland in 1916. It was in this context that Lenin wrote in July 1916, ‘The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.’(5) As he studied these movements with more care, the national liberation struggles no longer were seen as mere ‘bacilli’ and not ‘real’, but these movements were themselves partners in a global struggle. Lenin began to conceptualise a strategic unity between the nationalism of the oppressed and the proletariat in the imperialist states. ‘The social revolution’, he wrote in October 1916, ‘can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including the national liberation movements in the underdeveloped, backward, oppressed nations’.(6)

Lenin’s great advance over Second International Marxism is clarified by the centrality he placed of anti-colonial national liberation, of the struggles of oppressed nationalities by the jackboot of imperialism. For Lenin, the democratic struggles of anti-colonialism were lifted to parity with the proletariat struggles inside the advanced industrial states; it was the international cognate of his theory of the worker-peasant alliance.(7)

In 1914, Lenin published a long series of articles on the theme of ‘national self-determination’ in the journal Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment).(8)> These were his longest statements on the topic, even though Lenin was to return to the idea over the next decade. Like much of Lenin’s work, this essay was not written to elaborate on the idea of national self-determination in itself; Lenin wrote the article to answer a position initially taken by the Rosa Luxemburg in 1908-09. In that article, ‘The National Question and Autonomy’, published in Przeglad Sozialdemokratyczny (Panorama Social Democracy), Luxemburg argued against the right of self-determination for the Polish people.(9) Initially, Stalin responded to Luxemburg (in Prosveshcheniye, March-May 1913), but Stalin’s essay did not directly confront Luxemburg’s theses (he was more content to take on Karl Renner and Otto Bauer).(10) It was left to Lenin, the following year, to offer a full critique of Luxemburg.

Lenin argued that an oppressed nation must be allowed its freedom to secede from an oppressor state. Tsarism and colonialism not only crushed the ability of the people of its peripheral states and its colonial dominions to live full lives, but it also contorted the lives of those who seemed to benefit from colonial rule (including workers at the core of the empire). Secession, for Lenin, was a democratic right. If later, because of economic pressures, the proletariat of an independent state would like to freely unite with the proletariat of their previous colonial state that would be acceptable; their unity would now be premised upon freedom not oppression. Over the course of the next decade, Lenin would develop this argument in a series of short essays. Most of the essays, written in German, were translated into Russian in the 1920s by N. K. Krupskaya and published in the Lenin Miscellany volumes, later in the Collected Works. In 1967, Moscow’s Progress Publishers put these essays into a small book under the title, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (it is available in volume 20 of Lenin’s Collected Works). Their appearance in a book, then, was not intentional since Lenin had never written a book on the subject. This was a collection of interventions and articles that had the gist of his analysis on the question.(11) It is these interventions, however, that allow us to see the richness of Lenin’s argument about anti-colonialism and self-determination.(12)

Bourgeois Nationalism

The question of self-determination came to the fore because of the social forces unleashed by the 1905 Russian Revolution and because of Tsarist expansion into Manchuria and Korea. Different social groups within the Tsarist Empire began to make their own claims for freedom, which had to be represented in the new political parties that emerged on the partly freed up civil arena. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) had to, therefore, address the question of national self-determination frontally: how should the various people within the Tsarist empire struggle for their freedom? Must they remain under the yoke of the State, even as this State would be at some point be free from Tsarism? Luxemburg was specially involved in this debate because of her roots in the Polish Social Democratic movement, which had since the 19th century been involved in questions of freedom for Poland from the tentacles of Tsarist power. In the world of international socialism, it was often the Polish parties that made the strongest application of the idea of the right to self-determination. That was the case in 1896, when it was the Polish Socialist Party that called for the independence of Poland at the International Socialist Congress in London. At that Congress, the delegates passed a resolution in favor of ‘the complete right of all nations to self-determination and expresses its sympathy for the workers of every country now suffering under the yoke of military, national, or other despotism’.(13)

Polish social democrats at their own Congress (1903) and at the Congress of the RSDLP (1906) agitated to sharpen Social Democracy’s view on self-determination. Little seemed to divide the position of Luxemburg from Lenin at this time, except that in the hallways of the meetings the Poles did express their reservations against the idea of a right to self-determination. It was the working-class that had rights, Luxemburg wrote in her 1908 pamphlet, not nations. The nub of Luxemburg’s unease with the theory of the ‘right to self-determination’ is captured in a long quotation from her 1908 pamphlet,

The formula of the ‘right of nations’ is inadequate to justify the position of socialists on the nationality question, not only because it fails to take into account the wide range of historical conditions (place and time) existing in each given case and does not reckon with the general current of the development of global conditions, but also because it ignores completely the fundamental theory of modern socialists – the theory of social classes.

When we speak of the ‘right of nations to self-determination,’ we are using the concept of the ‘nation’ as a homogeneous social and political entity. But actually, such a concept of the ‘nation’ is one of those categories of bourgeois ideology which Marxist theory submitted to a radical re-vision, showing how that misty veil, like the concepts of the ‘freedom of citizens,’ ‘equality before the law,’ etc., conceals in every case a definite historical content.

In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights.’ There literally is not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the most subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity. In the sphere of economic relations, the bourgeois classes represent the interests of exploitation–the proletariat the interests of work. In the sphere of legal relations, the cornerstone of bourgeois society is private property; the interest of the proletariat demands the emancipation of the propertyless man from the domination of property. In the area of the judiciary, bourgeois society represents class ‘justice,’ the justice of the well fed and the rulers; the proletariat defends the principle of taking into account social influences on the individual, of humaneness. In international relations, the bourgeoisie represent the politics of war and partition, and at the present stage, a system of trade war; the proletariat demands a politics of universal peace and free trade. In the sphere of the social sciences and philosophy, bourgeois schools of thought and the school representing the proletariat stand in diametric opposition to each other.

The possessing classes have their worldview; it is represented by idealism, metaphysics, mysticism, eclecticism; the modern proletariat has its theory–dialectic materialism. Even in the sphere of so-called ‘universal’ conditions–in ethics, views on art, on behavior–the interests, world view, and ideals of the bourgeoisie and those of the enlightened proletariat represent two camps, separated from each other by an abyss. And whenever the formal strivings and the interests of the proletariat and those of the bourgeoisie (as a whole or in its most progressive part) seem identical–for example, in the field of democratic aspirations – there, under the identity of forms and slogans, is hidden the most complete divergence of contents and essential politics.

There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner. If we find in the history of modern societies ‘national’ movements, and struggles for ‘national interests,’ these are usually class movements of the ruling strata of the bourgeoisie, which can in any given case represent the interest of the other strata of the population only insofar as under the form of ‘national interests’ it defends progressive forms of historical development, and insofar as the working class has not yet distinguished itself from the mass of the ‘nation’ (led by the bourgeoisie) into an independent, enlightened political class.(14)

For Luxemburg, the idea of the nation is an ideological smokescreen utilised by the bourgeoisie to create horizontal linkages against the vertical hierarchies of social life. It is a useful mechanism to build national economies and national polities that benefit the class rule of the bourgeoisie. That is the reason why the idea of the right to national self-determination had to be defeated.

Lenin did not disagree with the spirit of Luxemburg’s analysis. He agreed with her that the bourgeoisie’s own class power is most efficiently wielded through the national container. ‘The economic basis of [nationalist] movements’, he wrote in his 1914 reply, ‘is the fact that in order to achieve complete victory for commodity production the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, must have politically united territories with a population speaking the same language, and all obstacles to the development of this language and to its consolidation in literature must be removed’.(15) Therefore, Lenin notes, ‘the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The profoundest economic factors drive towards this goal, and therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the typical, normal state for the capitalist period is the national state’. Here there is no difference between Lenin and Luxemburg, with both in agreement that national movements are along the grain of capitalist development, and that the advantages of nationalism in the European experience are first garnered by the bourgeoisie.

Equal Rights of Nations and International Solidarity of Workers

If this analysis is all that there is to it, and if it is correct, then Luxemburg’s antipathy to nationalism seems more coherent than Lenin’s ambivalence. But this is not all there is to it, at least as far as Lenin is concerned. Luxemburg’s approach to the idea of nationalism, Lenin suggested, reduced the national question to economics and to economic independence. It was not interested in the political question, in the hunger for freedom among people who had been colonised. Capitalism’s tendency to expansion out of the national container contained the seeds of imperialism; at a certain stage of its economic development, the national bourgeoisie sought the advantages of the nation-state; but as its dynamism pushed outwards, this bourgeoisie’s ambitions mimicked the imperial exertions of its aristocratic ancestors. It is to this end that Lenin made a distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors (the Great Russians and the English) and the nationalism of the oppressed (the Poles and the Irish). This distinction, Lenin wrote in 1915, ‘is the essence of imperialism’.(16) The nationalism of the oppressor, of the Great Russians and the English for example, is always to be fought against. There is nothing in the character of its nationalism that is worthy of support. Its chauvinism leads it to world conquest, a dynamic that not only shatters the well being of the oppressed but also corrupts its own citizenry.

On December 10, 1869, Marx wrote to Engels on the Irish question. ‘The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland’, he wrote. ‘English reaction in England has its roots in the subjugation of Ireland’ (Lenin quotes part of this in his 1914 pamphlet).(17) Drawing from Marx, Lenin wrote in his 1915 essay on self-determination, ‘The freedom of [the English] was cramped and mutilated by the fact that it oppressed another nation. The internationalism of the English proletariat would have remained a hypothetical phrase were it not to demand the separation of Ireland’.(18) Much the same kind of logic applied to Russia, whose Social Democrats were urged by Lenin to demand freedom for its oppressed nations. ‘Carried away by the struggle against nationalism in Poland’, Lenin wrote, ‘Rosa Luxemburg has forgotten the nationalism of the Great Russians, although this nationalism is the most formidable at the present time, it is the nationalism that is less bourgeois and more feudal, and it is the principle obstacle to democracy and to the proletarian struggle’.(19) It had to be confronted. Neither Lenin nor Luxemburg thought otherwise.

Their difference was sharp in the second half of Lenin’s distinction. The Great powers not only annex the economies of their subjects, but they also drain their political power. National self-determination of the oppressed contains both the oppressed bourgeoisie’s plans to suborn the economic to their own ends, but also that of the oppressed proletariat’s hope to fight their bourgeoisie over how to organize their nation. ‘The bourgeois nationalism of every oppressed nation’, Lenin argued, ‘has a general democratic content which is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we support unconditionally, while strictly distinguishing it from the tendency towards national exceptionalism, while fighting against the tendency of the Polish bourgeoisie to oppress the Jews, etc., etc’. Lenin carefully worked out the formula for this unconditional support. If the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation ‘fights against the oppressing one’, then the Social Democrats would support them wholeheartedly. If, however, ‘the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism’, then the Social Democrats stand opposed to them. ‘We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nation, but we do not condone the strivings for the privileges on the part of the oppressed nation’.(20)

To ‘not condone the strivings’ of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations sets the Social Democrats and their class allies the crucial task that separates them from the liberals and their class allies. The Social Democrats both stand against the nationalism of the oppressed nation and against the strivings of the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation to supplant that of the oppressor nation. Workers in the oppressed nation are not to submit to the rule of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, but to confront it with as much determination as they would fight against the imperial bourgeoisie. The fight for national self-determination must not divide workers in the imperial core and in the imperial periphery. Those in the core must fight against imperial nationalism, and those in the periphery must fight against both imperial nationalism and the nationalism of their bourgeoisie. The latter have a double task, formidable for the complexity of strategy and tactics demanded of them. They are to fight both for ‘the absolutely direct, unequivocal recognition of the full right of all nations to self-determination’, and for ‘the equally unambiguous appeal to the workers for international unity in their class struggle’.(21) In other words, Social Democrats are not invested in nationalism as an end in itself. The final goal is internationalism of the proletariat, but it must go through the nationalism of the oppressed. The twin tasks of Social Democracy are then to fight for ‘the equal rights of nations and international solidarity of the workers’.(22)

A Free Union

What are the practical means by which this nationalism of the oppressed manifests itself? Lenin argued that the oppressed regions should secede from the oppressor nations, or, in other words, they need to win their independence. If Social Democracy does not call for the right to secession, its politics would ‘empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy’.(23) Plainly, the ‘self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, the formation of an independent national state’. But an independent national state is not the end of the process. It is here that Lenin carved out new terrain in the Marxist theory of nationalities and self-determination (although once more drawing from insights in Marx’s letters to Engels on the Irish question). Marxists and Social Democracy recognize the economic and political advantages of bigger geographical entities: they are both able to command more resources and larger markets, and they are less vulnerable to military conquest. The end goal is to form vibrant and genuine unions of large, non-homogenous areas,

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.(24)

In his March 1916, Nine Theses on Self-Determination, Lenin wrote, ‘a free union is a false phrase without right to secession’.(25) Drawing from Marx on Ireland, Lenin wrote, ‘the demand for the right of secession for the sake of splitting and isolated countries’ is not an end in itself; it is towards a process ‘to create more durable and democratic ties’.(26) Further, Lenin wrote, ‘only in this way could Marx maintain—in contradiction to the apologists of capital who shout that the freedom of small nations to secede is utopian and impracticable and that not only economic but also political concentration is progressive—that this concentration is progressive when it is non-imperialist, and that nations should not be brought together by force, but by a free union of the proletarians of all countries.’(27)

To defend this right to secession, Lenin wrote in August 1915, ‘does in no way mean to encourage the formation of small states, but on the contrary it leads to a freer, more fearless and therefore wider and more universal formation of larger governments and unions of governments–a phenomenon more advantageous for the masses and more in accord with economic development’.(28) Capitalism dynamically grew to encompass the planet, and it sought out larger and larger areas of operation. This is the tendency not only for firms to agglomerate toward monopoly control over markets, but also for states to enlarge through imperial or colonial policies (this is the general dynamic identified by Lenin in his 1916 pamphlet Imperialism). ‘Imperialism means that capital has outgrown the framework of national states’, Lenin wrote in 1915; ‘it means that national oppression has been extended and heightened on a new historical foundation’.(29) Monopoly capital flourished in large, imperial states. Imperialism was rooted in the political economy of the time. It had to be confronted not by morality but by the growth of political movements that undermined its power, in other words, by a combination of proletarian movements and movements of the oppressed nationalities. ‘It follows from this’, Lenin argued, ‘that we must connect the revolutionary struggle for socialism with a revolutionary program on the national question’.

Luxemburg fought for the ‘freedom from national oppression’ and not for ‘the right of self-determination of nations’. For her, national oppression was just another form of oppression, and it should be confronted as just another oppressive force. For Lenin, national oppression played a specific role in the operation of imperialism, and it had to be confronted in a specific way, by encouragement of secession of the oppressed nationalities in order not to petrify their national culture as separate from that of other cultures, but to work toward a proletarian internationalist unity of the future. Lenin’s approach was not a moral approach, therefore, but one that emerged out of his analysis of imperialism and the national movements that had emerged in opposition to it. His endorsement of nationalism was not premised on the assumption that the small states would somehow undermine imperialism; it was understood that democratic states, with the proletariat in each making links with each other, would be able to take advantage of the new economic scale to forge a genuine unity.

Nationalism would not, as Luxemburg acidly put it, mean ‘the right to eat off gold plates’.(30) But it would mean, as Lenin noted, part of a three-point agenda:

  • Complete equality for all nations.
  • The right of nations to self-determination.
  • The amalgamation of the workers of all nations.

This is ‘the national program that Marxism…teaches the workers’.

Karl Radek, the Austrian Marxist, waded into the debate in 1915 to argue that the struggle for national self-determination is ‘illusionary’ (‘Annexations and Social Democracy’, Berner Tagwacht, October 28-29).(31) One of Radek’s objections that rankled Lenin was that a truly class project would abjure democratic political demands that do not threaten capitalism. There are some democratic demands that can be won in the era of capitalism and there are others that must be struggled with even in a socialist society, Lenin argued. ‘We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and revolutionary tactics relative to all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, official elected by the people, equal rights for women, self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, all these demands are realizable only as an exception, and in an incomplete, distorted form’.(32) Social Democracy has to ‘formulate in a consistently revolutionary manner every one of our democratic demands’ because the proletariat must be ‘educated in the spirit of the most consistent and determined revolutionary democracy’. To contest the right of national self-determination for oppressed nations is to deny them their democratic rights and to undermined revolutionary democracy.

In the USSR and in the Comintern

Lenin’s formulation from 1914-1916 enabled a clear position in practice after the Soviet revolution (1917). Two tasks presented themselves along the grain of national self-determination.

  • How should the new Soviet state deal with the question of its own nationalities?
  • How should the newly created Communist International (1919) confront the nationalist movements in the colonies?

On January 3, 1918, Lenin, as part of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee drafted the Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People. It was subsequently adopted by the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets as the 1918 Constitution (the essence remained in the 1924 Constitution). The second article establishes that the Soviet Republic is based ‘on the principle of a free union of free nations, as a federation of Soviet national republics’. The Council of People’s Commissars had already proclaimed the independence of Finland, removed Russian troops from Persia and committed itself to self-determination for Armenia. On paper, this was unassailable. The problem is that counter-revolutionary forces in its border states, the very states that had been promised the right to secession, attacked the new Soviet state. The Soviets hastily sought alliances with these states (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia for instance), in which pro-Bolshevik forces were supported by the Soviets and counterrevolutionaries were defeated. Self-determination of the nation was a formula by which the states were afforded nominal independence if they were not hostile to the Soviets. When Bolsheviks (such as Georgy Pyatakov) in these states did argue for full dissolution into Russia, Lenin called them Great Russians and opposed them. The principle of self-determination was sacrosanct, even when the counter-revolution threatened the new Soviet state (Luxemburg, in her essay on the Russian Revolution identified this weakness, ‘While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom even to the extent of ‘separation’, they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc., into so many faithful allies of the Russian revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used their freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself’).(33) In 1922, Stalin wished to curtail the rights of the new border-states through a policy called ‘autonomisation’, namely that these states would dissolve themselves into the USSR by gaining nominal autonomy. Lenin was adamantly opposed to this policy. ‘We consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR and others, equal, and enter with them, on an equal basis, into a new union, a new federation’.(34) This federation was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR. This principle was already there in the 1918 draft, and in the first Soviet Constitution,

At the same time, endeavoring to create a really free and voluntary, and therefore all the more firm and stable, union of the working classes of all the nations of Russia, the Constituent Assembly confines its own task to setting up the fundamental principles of a federation of Soviet Republics of Russia, while leaving it to the workers and peasants of each nation to decide independently at their own authoritative Congress of Soviets whether they wish to participate in the federal government and in the other federal Soviet institutions, and on what terms.(35)

The logic of the federation within the USSR applied similarly to the colonial question. In the 1918 declaration, Lenin had written that the new state must have a ‘complete break with the barbarous policy of bourgeois civilization, which has built the prosperity of the exploiters belonging to a few chosen nations on the enslavement of hundreds of millions of working people in Asia, in the colonies in general, and in the small countries’.(36)

When the Communist International (Comintern) met for its first meeting in 1919, the jubilation of the Soviet experience combined with the potential revolution in Europe (particularly Germany) and the emergence of working-class and peasant movements in Asia defined its outcome. The Comintern addressed the ‘proletariat of the entire world’, telling them, ‘The emancipation of the colonies is possible only in conjunction with the emancipation of the metropolitan working class. The workers and peasants not only of Annam, Algiers and Bengal, but also of Persia and Armenia, will gain their opportunity of independent existence only when the workers of England and France have overthrown Lloyd George and Clemenceau and taken state power into their own hands’.(37) Nationalism of the oppressed nations barely earned a mention. The defeat of the German revolution and the setbacks in the colonies provoked a more sober tone at the second Comintern meeting (1920). Lenin’s views on the colonial (Eastern) question drew from his more capacious attitude toward nationalisms of the oppressed. It was the presence of the Indian Marxist M. N. Roy that stayed Lenin’s hand and curtailed his more ebullient support for anti-colonial nationalism. The second thesis of the Comintern emerged out of a compromise formulation between Lenin’s own draft and Roy’s emendations (with the Dutch Marxist Henk Sneevliet holding their hands to the same pen),

As the conscious express of the proletarian class struggle to throw off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, and in accordance with its main task, which is the fight against bourgeois democracy and the unmasking of its lies and hypocrisy, the Communist Party should not place the main emphasis in the national question on abstract and formal principles, but in the first place on an exact evaluation of the historically given and above all economic milieu. Secondly it should emphasize the explicit separation of the interests of the oppressed classes, of the toilers, of the exploited, from the general concept of the national interest, which means the interests of the ruling class. Thirdly it must emphasize the equally clear division of the oppressed, dependent nations which do not enjoy equal rights from the oppressing, privileged nations, as a counter to the bourgeois democratic lie which covers over the colonial and financial enslavement of the vast majority of the world’s total population, by a tiny minority of the richest and most advanced capitalist countries, that is characteristic of the epoch of finance capital and imperialism.(38)

Nothing in this thesis contradictions the spirit of Lenin’s own view on self-determination, expect in so far as this makes explicit Lenin’s hesitancy over the character of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations. The 9th thesis said that the Comintern ‘must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Blacks in America, and so forth) and in the colonies’.(39) At the same time, the Comintern, in the 11th Thesis noted that it must engaged in a ‘resolute struggle’ against the attempt to ‘portray as communist the revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries that are not truly communist’.(40) The Comintern supports the revolutionary movements in the colonies ‘only on condition that the components are gathered in all backward countries for future proletarian parties–communist in fact and not only in name–and that they are educated to be conscious of their particular tasks, that is, the tasks of struggling against the bourgeois-democratic movement in their own nation’. What the Comintern ‘must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo’.(41) Lenin’s general principles articulated in his essays from 1914 onwards were enshrined in the Soviet Constitution and in the Comintern, with some alterations to fit the new situations and the new class configurations.

No surprise that radicals from the colonised world–such as Ho Chi Minh and José Carlos Mariategui–found Leninism to be the heart and soul of their political outlook. It was this anti-colonial Marxism that drew radical nationalists from the Dutch colonies of Indonesia to the French colonies of West Africa, and it was this strong theory of anti-colonial national self-determination that forged ties for the Marxist left across these worlds.(42) Little wonder then that the tradition of ‘Western Marxism’ tends to ignore Lenin, to jump from Marx to Lukacs and Gramsci, evading the fact that Lukacs wrote a book on Lenin and that Gramsci developed his own thought with Lenin in mind; the leap over Lenin is a leap not only over the experience of the October Revolution but it is a leap past the Marxism that then develops in the Third World, a leap into abstract philosophy with little engagement with praxis and with the socialism that develops–not in the advanced industrial states–but in the realm of necessity, in the former colonised world from China to Cuba. In those outer reaches, where revolutions have been successful, it is the anti-colonial Lenin that guides the way.


  1. Lenin, ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’, Pravda, 18 May 1913, Collected Works, vol. 19, pp. 99-100.
  2. Lenin, ‘Draft Resolution of the Tasks of the Party in the Present Situation’, January 1912, Collected Works, vol. 17, p. 456 and ‘Resolutions of the Conference. The Russian Organising Commission for Convening the Conference’, January 1912, Collected Works, vol. 17, p. 485.
  3. Lenin, ‘The War on China’, Iskra, no. 1, December 1900, Collected Works, vol. 4, pp. 372-77.
  4. Lenin, ‘Events in the Balkans and in Persia’, Proletary, no. 37, 16 October 1908, Collected Works, vol. 15, p. 221.
  5. Lenin, ‘The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up’, July 1916, Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 357.
  6. Lenin, ‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’, Zvezda, October 1916, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 60.
  7. Vijay Prashad, ‘For Comrade Lenin on his 150th Birth Anniversary’, Lenin 150, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2020.
  8. All these articles are in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 20.
  9. Horace B. Davis collected the five articles by Luxemburg from her Kraków journal Przeglad Sozialdemokratyczny in The National Question. Selected Writings, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976.
  10. J. V. Stalin, ‘Marxism and the National Question’, Collected Works, vol. 2, Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1953.
  11. V. I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967.
  12. Vijay Prashad, ‘Vladimir Ílyiç Lenin/Uluslarin Kaderlerini Tayin Hakki’, Marksist Klasikleri Okuma Kilavuzu, Istanbul: Yordam Kitap, 2013.
  13. Luxemburg, The National Question, p. 107. For a critical appraisal of Polish Social Democracy, see Eric Blanc, ‘The Rosa Luxemburg Myth: A Critique of Luxemburg’s Politics in Poland (1893–1919)’, Historical Materialism, vol. 25, issue 4, 2017.
  14. Luxemburg, The National Question, pp. 133-135.
  15. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 20, p. 396.
  16. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 409.
  17. On 24 October 1869, Engels wrote to Marx, ‘Irish history shows what a misfortune it is for one nation to subjugate another. All English abominations have their origin in the Irish pale. I still have to bone up on the Cromwellian period, but it appears clear to me that things in England would have taken another turn but for the necessity of military rule in Ireland and creating a new aristocracy’. Marx/Engels, Collected Works, vol. 43, p. 362.
  18. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 410.
  19. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 20, p. 412.
  20. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 20, p. 412.
  21. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 20, p. 432.
  22. In an early formulation, Lenin argued not for the ‘self-determination of nations’ but for the ‘self-determination of the proletariat’. ‘We on our part concern ourselves with the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than with the self-determination of peoples or nations’. (‘On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social Democrats’, Iskra, 1 February 1903, Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 327). It appears that this position is close to that of Luxemburg, that nationalism of the bourgeoisie had to be opposed in all respects, and that the Social Democrats must take a class view over a national view. Over the course of the decade, Lenin changed his position–no longer was there the emphasis on the ‘self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality’. Lenin now saw the difference between the oppressor nationality and the oppressed nationality, which nuanced his stand a great deal.
  23. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 409.
  24. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, pp. 412-413.
  25. Lenin, ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination: Theses’, Collected Works, January-February 1916, vol. 22, p. 143.
  26. Lenin, ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination: Theses’, Collected Works, January-February 1916, vol. 22, p. 165.
  27. Lenin, ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination: Theses’, Collected Works, January-February 1916, vol. 22, p. 150.
  28. Lenin, ‘Socialism and War. The Attitude of the RSDLP Towards the War’, Sotsial-Demokrat, 1 November 1914, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 316.
  29. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 408.
  30. Luxemburg, The National Question, p. 123.
  31. Warren Lerner, Karl Radek, the last internationalist, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1970.
  32. Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 408.
  33. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, and Leninism or Marxism?, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961, pp. 49-50.
  34. Lenin, ‘On the Establishment of the USSR’, 26 September 1922, Collected Works, vol. 42, pp. 421-422.
  35. Lenin, ‘Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People’, 3 January 1918, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 425.
  36. Lenin, ‘Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People’, 3 January 1918, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 424.
  37. ‘Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World’, 6 March 1919, Liberate the Colonies. Communism and Colonial Freedom, 1917-1924, ed. John Riddell, Vijay Prashad, and Nazeef Mollah, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2019, p. 33.
  38. ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’, 1920, Liberate the Colonies, p. 94.
  39. ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’, 1920, Liberate the Colonies, p. 97.
  40. ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’, 1920, Liberate the Colonies, p. 98.
  41. ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’, 1920, Liberate the Colonies, p. 98.
  42. Vijay Prashad, Red Star Over the Third World, New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2017.