Marxists and the National Question

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The recent sharpening of national rivalries between Russia and Ukraine brings to the forefront the national question. This is certainly only an episode in the chain of national rivalries the capitalist globalization stimulates, by widening inequalities between nations and within each nation. It was preceded by national crises in Yugoslavia, in regions of the former USSR and also in many other parts of the globe.

Marxists became intensely interested in the national question in the late 19th and early 20th century, when capitalism was passing to its imperialist stage. Particularly Kautsky, Bauer, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky dealt extensively with it. Their analyses, which we will briefly summarize here, are quite interesting with regard to contemporary problems.

Kautsky, Bauer, Luxemburg, Trotsky

Kautsky, in a series of articles and in his work Nationality and Transnationality (Nationalität and Internationalität, 1908) analyzed in particular the establishment of European nation states after 1848. While Bauer was emphasizing the common traditions (language, national identity, customs, etc.) to explain ethnogenesis and support his idea of ??national – cultural autonomy, Kautsky stressed that the formation of modern nations and nation states had mainly economic reasons: the need to develop a unified capitalist market, which was certainly facilitated by the existence of common traditions. So the nation state was the norm in the period of free competition, while multi-ethnic states were remnants of feudalism or exceptions. This meant that the creation of new states that characterized European history during this period, through the wars for national independence and self-determination (the national revolutions of 1848, the struggles for national unification of Italy, national revolutions and wars in the Balkans, etc.) had a progressive and historically necessary character.

From this starting point, Kautsky developed a valid polemic against Bauer’s positions, held also by a number of other Austrian Marxists (Adler, Renner, et al). The latter envisioned a peaceful, reformist regulation of national contradictions within existing transnational feudal states such as the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, through the central power granting a genuine national autonomy (teaching of national language, freedom of national culture) to their constituent nationalities. In a letter to Victor Adler Kautsky declared such a prospect to be utopian:

“In Austria of all places, a gradual approach to some solution or other is unthinkable. The only cure lies in complete collapse. That Austria still exists is to me not proof of its viability, nor yet evidence that we now have the political basis for a slow and peaceful development; all it proves is that bourgeois society is no longer capable of doing away with even the most rotten structures: the Sultan, Tsarism, Austria”[1].

Rosa Luxemburg, in her main work on the subject, The National Question (1909), as well as in her Junius Pamphlet  (1916) and a series of other articles and essays (“Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey”, 1896; “Foreword to the Anthology, The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement”, 1909, etc.), took a peculiar position. Like Kautsky, she approved that the decomposition of old empires and their replacement by new nation states, was a historically necessary and progressive process. But she opposed to Poland’s independence from the Tsarist Russia, considering that as Poland was ahead in capitalist development, it would lead to a strengthening of its nationalist, petty bourgeois forces. Luxemburg even argued further that the application of the right of self-determination was impossible for countries that had been dragged into the web of imperialist relations, a false position particularly criticized by Lenin.

Trotsky also dealt extensively with national issues, especially in his Kievskaya Mysl articles on the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and then in his pamphlet The War and the International, written in response to the Second International’s bankruptcy  in 1914. In the last pamphlet he acknowledged that imperialist interventional policies and wars brought to the fore the issues of national existence with regard to backward countries. He argued, however, that in the modern period these issues were closely linked to the struggle for socialism, their solution requiring the establishment of broader state entities, such as the Balkan and Danubian Federation, able to effectively resist imperialist aggressions.

Lenin’s contribution

It was Lenin who captured in all its extent the enormous importance of the national question in the age of imperialism. He realized that the passage to imperialism, by intensifying all the contradictions of the capitalist system, inevitably led to an exacerbation of national rivalries, especially those between the oppressive and oppressed nations, the imperialist powers and their colonies. Opposing the chauvinism of the leaders of the Second International after 1914, he stressed that communists should support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, forecasting that national liberation, anti-colonial movements will play a key role in the awakening of the East. At the same time, he stressed that the struggle for national self-determination, a democratic issue in substance, must be subordinated to the broader tasks of the struggle for socialism.

Lenin devoted to the national question a series of important pamphlets and articles written mainly in the period immediately before and during the imperialist war: Critical Remarks on the National Question (1913), On the Right of Nations to Self-determination (1914), The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up (1916), A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (1916), etc. The first three works, through their polemics to Bauer’s views and to the errors of Rosa Luxemburg, develop a series of significant positive Marxist elaborations on the national question; in the last, Lenin criticized G. Pyatakov’s positions, who, taking to extreme Luxemburg’s errors, had offered a caricature of Marxism, denying completely any democratic struggle in the imperialist era[2].

In his criticism of Luxemburg and the other Polish Social Democrats, Lenin recognized the correctness of their position that a defense of the slogan of national liberation for Poland during the war would make them prey to one of the two imperialist coalitions, as the war required primarily the international coordination of actions of the proletariat. Yet he stressed though that the issue of Poland’s self-determination could come to the fore in the postwar period and it was wrong to generalize this position for all conditions[3].

In response to Pyatakov, who completely denied the progressive character and applicability of the right of self-determination in the era of imperialism, Lenin emphasized, with the practical example of Norway which had become independent in 1905, that national self-determination was difficult but still possible under imperialism. He further suggested that in the early 20th century there were in fact three types of countries in which the national question played a qualitatively different role. In Western Europe the national movement belonged to the past, since the formation of nation states had been completed there, so that nationalism had a basically reactionary character. In East European countries like Tsarist Russia and the Balkans, where the formation of nation states had not yet completed, the national movement was a matter of the present. Finally, in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the national movement belonged mainly to the future[4]. To deny the right of self-determination, including secession, especially to these latter countries and peoples, on the pretext that it was unattainable, as Pyatakov did, meant essentially to side with the chauvinists, supporting their continued direct enslavement as colonies.

On the other hand, Lenin, developing Kautsky’s views, criticized Bauer’s idea of cultural-national autonomy, exposing it as a reformist utopia. Just as Bernstein had embellished capitalism, promising to improve it with reforms, Bauer’s theory was embellishing nationalism. Against local democratism by nationality advocated by Bauer who invoked the example of Austria (transfer of education from the central government to local parliaments and bodies of the various ethnicities or minorities comprising a state), Lenin, citing the example of Switzerland, supported central democratism, i.e., the equivalence of languages ??and ethnic groups in the level of central government organization[5]. This critique of Lenin remains quite timely as modern schemas of multiculturalism in post-war Europe, which ultimately failed to solve minority problems despite the more democratic framework within which they were tested, borrowed many of Bauer’s ideas.

National questions and socialism

Lenin dealt with national issues in the course of socialist transition in one of his last articles, “On the Issue of Nationalities or “Autonomization””. He confirmed in it his position on the importance of establishing a full equivalence between the nations and nationalities of the USSR, which should pave its way against centuries of ethnic discrimination and Greer-Russian oppression on the part of Tsarist Russia. In this occasion, he stressed the need for the communists to distinguish between “the nationalism of the oppressor nation and the nationalism of the oppressed nation, the nationalism of the great nation and the nationalism of the small nation”[6].

Apart from the above general observations, Lenin recognized further that Great-Russian, chauvinist traditions had been strongly incorporated into the Soviet state apparatus. He described this apparatus as a “bourgeois and Tsarist mixture” that Soviet power did not have enough time to transform substantially. Lenin warned that under these conditions the freedom of secession granted by the USSR Constitution to its constitutive nationalities could become “a worthless paper” and branded Stalin’s and Dzerzhinsky’s Great-Russian practices that had been manifested in the Georgian crisis[7]. As a way out of the imminent dangers he suggested providing more substantive rights to the smaller nations of the Union, referring particularly to the possibility of maintaining in the future “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics only in the military and diplomatic area”[8].

Trotsky intervened in a similar way, in a speech he made in April 1923 at the 7th Conference of the Communist Party of Ukraine. He warned about the threat a future new upsurge of nationalism in Ukraine, if the party failed to implement a truly equitable and enlightened national policy. Referring to Petliura’s reactionary nationalist movement, which had played an important role during the years of the Ukrainian civil war, organizing, between other things, a major part of the anti-Jewish pogroms with tens of thousands of victims, Trotsky emphasized:

“If we prove unable to approach the farmer… we may push him to a second Petliura movement, and a second such movement would be more organic, deeper and more dangerous than the first… But if the Ukrainian farmer feels and sees that the Communist Party and the Soviet government act in the national question with full attention and understanding… then the farmer will understand and appreciate such an attitude”[9]. Trotsky proposed in this conference to create a Chamber of Nationalities, which would ensure the effective implementation of the principle of national equality in the USSR republics.

These formulations of the leaders of October Revolution proved highly predictive during the subsequent period. Of course, in the 1920s, in line with the Marxist national policy of the Bolsheviks, the USSR was built on a model of real national equality: freedom of language and national traditions were respected, setting the basis for the cultural rise even of quite primitive peoples and nationalities. After Stalin’s final victory and the beginning of the collectivization, however, the situation was reversed. The victims of collectivization belonged mainly to the repressed nationalities, reaching 4 or 5 million during the famine of 1931-1933 in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The general Stalinist oppression was combined with a strong revival of the odious Greet-Russian heritage, ethnic discrimination (whole national populations, like the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Circassians and Greeks were deported and forcibly relocated during the period of massive purges and after the war from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to various parts of Asia) and anti-Semitism, which subsided significantly only after the 20th Congress of 1956.

The lessons of Marxist classics still remain relevant today, as the current bourgeois-Bonapartist Putin regime continues the worst chauvinistic-nationalist practices and traditions of the Russian past. In such a situation, a principled Marxist policy as regards to emerging national conflicts can only be developed on the internationalist conception of common interests of the peoples and the distinction between the nationalism of the large and small nations.


*Christos Kefalis is a chemist and writer, member of the editorial board of the Greek journal Marxist Thought.


[1] Quoted in “The National Question in the Marxist Movement”,

[2] Pyatakov had published an article under the nickname P. Kievsky in August 1916, “The Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-determination in the Era of Financial Capital”, to which Lenin replied with this essay.

[3] Lenin, Collected Works, Sygchroni Epohi (Greek edition), vol. 30, pp. 48-50.

[4] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 30, pp. 99 ff, 88-89.

[5] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 136-141.

[6] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 45, p. 359.

[7] Ibid, pp. 357, 360.

[8] Ibid, p. 362.

[9] See “Trotsky’s Speech at the 7th Conference of the Counist Party of Ukraine” (April 5th, 1923), in L. Trotsky, Our Differences, Paraskinio, 2007, pp 51-104, esp. 91-92.


One Response

  1. paul sullivan

    May 6, 2014 3:55 pm

    This is a really good article (with applicability in relation to Irish self-determination yet), but the final paragraph is a spoonful of tar in a barrel of honey.

    Putin clearly wishes to avoid intervening in Ukraine (not Crimea, which historically is part of Russia and of strategic importance). But the reckless and aggressive actions of the US are increasing the level of violence against the Russian-aligned population in Odessa, Slavyansk, etc.

    Rather than a multinational second chamber and maximum autonomy within a defense union (a la Lenin/Trotsky), Stalin chose to deal with the national question within the Soviet Union by migration of the Russian population to neighbouring Soviet Republics. These now constitute national minorities within those states (and sometimes majorities in substantial parts of them). These can, and frequently do, have their minority national rights trampled upon.

    The new coup government in Kyiv immediately removed Russian’s status as one of the official languages and the takeover of TV stations has been accompanied by ending Russian-language broadcasts. A substantial part of the population speaks only Russian. Little wonder that many in the east and south want to join Russia, especially as the leader of the new coup government also promises to be the ‘worst ever PM of Ukraine’.

    This is somewhat inconvenient to Putin, but is a democratic right of self-determination even so. And it was the wish of the almost the entire Ukraine population (expressed through successive elections and their candidates’ platforms) to remain neutral, which the US has spent $5bn trying to overturn, according to Nuland. Not to mention this is more than a small oversight.