The right to self-determination

January 18, 2013

In this article written in January and February 1916, Vladimir Lenin outlined the approach that socialists should take to questions of national liberation, both as they arise within oppressed nations and in oppressor nations. "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination" was first published in April 1916 in the German magazine Vorbote No. 2, and then in Russian in October 1916 in Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 1. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

1. Imperialism, Socialism, and the Liberation of Oppressed Nations

Imperialism is the highest stage of development of capitalism. Capital in the advanced countries has outgrown the boundaries of national states. It has established monopoly in place of competition, thus creating all the objective prerequisites for the achievement of socialism. Hence, in Western Europe and in the United States of America, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for the overthrow of the capitalist governments, for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, is on the order of the day. Imperialism is forcing the masses into this struggle by sharpening class antagonisms to an immense degree, by worsening the conditions of the masses both economically--trusts and high cost of living, and politically--growth of militarism, frequent wars, increase of reaction, strengthening and extension of national oppression and colonial plunder. Victorious socialism must achieve complete democracy and, consequently, not only bring about the complete equality of nations, but also give effect to the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, i.e., the right to free political secession. Socialist Parties which fail to prove by all their activities now, as well as during the revolution and after its victory, that they will free the enslaved nations and establish relations with them on the basis of a free union and a free union is a lying phrase without right to secession--such parties would be committing treachery to socialism.

Marxist Classics

Of course, democracy is also a form of state which must disappear when the state disappears, but this will take place only in the process of transition from completely victorious and consolidated socialism to complete communism.

2. The Socialist Revolution and the Struggle for Democracy

The socialist revolution is not one single act, not one single battle on a single front; but a whole epoch of intensified class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., battles around all the problems of economics and politics, which can culminate only in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure, or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.

If would be no less mistaken to delete any of the points of the democratic program, for example, the point of self-determination of nations, on the ground that it is "infeasible," or that it is "illusory" under imperialism. The assertion that the right of nations to self-determination cannot be achieved within the framework of capitalism may be understood either in its absolute, economic sense, or in the conventional, political sense.

In the first case, the assertion is fundamentally wrong in theory. First, in this sense, it is impossible to achieve such things as labor money, or the abolition of crises, etc., under capitalism. But it is entirely incorrect to argue that the self-determination of nations is likewise infeasible. Secondly, even the one example of the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905 is sufficient to refute the argument that it is "infeasible" in this sense. Thirdly, it would be ridiculous to deny that, with a slight change in political and strategical relationships, for example, between Germany and England, the formation of new states, Polish, Indian, etc, would be quite "feasible" very soon. Fourthly, finance capital, in its striving towards expansion, will "freely" buy and bribe the freest, most democratic and republican government and the elected officials of any country, however "independent" it may be. The domination of finance capital, as of capital in general, cannot be abolished by any kind of reforms in the realm of political democracy, and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this realm. The domination of finance capital, however, does not in the least destroy the significance of political democracy as the freer, wider and more distinct form of class oppression and class struggle. Hence, all arguments about the "impossibility of achieving" economically one of the demands of political democracy under capitalism reduce themselves to a theoretically incorrect definition of the general and fundamental relations of capitalism and of political democracy in general.

In the second case, this assertion is incomplete and inaccurate, for not only the right of nations to self-determination, but all the fundamental demands of political democracy are "possible of achievement" under imperialism, only in an incomplete, in a mutilated form and as a rare exception (for example, the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905). The demand for the immediate liberation of the colonies, as advanced by all revolutionary Social Democrats, is also "impossible of achievement" under capitalism without a series of revolutions. This does not imply, however, that Social Democracy must refrain from conducting an immediate and most determined struggle for all these demands--to refrain would merely be to the advantage of the bourgeoisie and reaction. On the contrary, it implies that it is necessary to formulate and put forward all these demands, not in a reformist, but in a revolutionary way; not by keeping within the framework of bourgeois legality, but by breaking through it; not by confining oneself to parliamentary speeches and verbal protests, but by drawing the masses into real action, by widening and fomenting the struggle for every kind of fundamental, democratic demand, right up to and including the direct onslaught of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, i.e., to the socialist revolution, which will expropriate the bourgeoisie. The socialist revolution may break out not only in consequence of a great strike, a street demonstration, a hunger riot, a mutiny in the forces, or a colonial rebellion, but also in consequence of any political crisis, like the Dreyfus affair, the Zabern incident, or in connection with a referendum on the secession of an oppressed nation, etc.

The intensification of national oppression under imperialism makes it necessary for Social Democracy not to renounce what the bourgeoisie describes as the "utopian" struggle for the freedom of nations to secede, but, on the contrary, to take more advantage than ever before of conflicts arising also on this ground for the purpose of rousing mass action and revolutionary attacks upon the bourgeoisie.

3. The Meaning of the Right to Self-Determination and its Relation to Federation

The right of nations to self-determination means only the right to independence in a political sense, the right to free, political secession from the oppressing nation. Concretely, this political, democratic demand implies complete freedom to carry on agitation in favor of secession, and freedom to settle the question of secession by means of a referendum of the nation that desires to secede. Consequently, this demand is by no means identical with the demand for secession, for partition, for the formation of small states. It is merely the logical expression of the struggle against national oppression in every form. The more closely the democratic system of state approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice; for the advantages of large states, both from the point of view of economic progress and from the point of view of the interests of the masses, are beyond doubt, and these advantages increase with the growth of capitalism. The recognition of self-determination is not the same as making federation a principle. One may be a determined opponent of this principle and a partisan of democratic centralism and yet prefer federation to national inequality as the only path towards complete democratic centralism. It was precisely from this point of view that Marx, although a centralist, preferred even the federation of Ireland with England to the forcible subjection of Ireland to the English.

The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them. And in order to achieve this aim, we must, on the one hand, explain to the masses the reactionary nature of the ideas of Renner and Otto Bauer concerning so-called "cultural national autonomy" and, on the other hand, demand the liberation of the oppressed nations, not only in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not by "postponing" the question until socialism is established, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political program which shall particularly take into account the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Socialists in the oppressing nations. Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.

4. The Proletarian-Revolutionary Presentation of the Question of the Self-Determination of Nations

Not only the demand for the self-determination of nations but all the items of our democratic minimum program were advanced before us, as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, by the petty bourgeoisie. And the petty bourgeoisie, believing in "peaceful" capitalism, continues to this day to advance all these demands in a utopian way, without seeing the class struggle and the fact that it has become intensified under democracy. The idea of a peaceful union of equal nations under imperialism, which deceives the people, and which the Kautskyists advocate, is precisely of this nature. As against this philistine, opportunist utopia, the program of Social Democracy must point out that under imperialism the division of nations into oppressing and oppressed ones is a fundamental, most important and inevitable fact.

The proletariat of the oppressing nations cannot confine itself to the general hackneyed phrases against annexations and for the equal rights of nations in general, that may be repeated by any pacifist bourgeois. The proletariat cannot evade the question that is particularly "unpleasant" for the imperialist bourgeoisie, namely, the question of the frontiers of a state that is based on national oppression. The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that "its own" nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible; the hypocrisy of the reformist and Kautskyan advocates of self-determination who maintain silence about the nations which are oppressed by "their" nation and forcibly retained within "their" state will remain unexposed.

The Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must particularly fight for and maintain complete, absolute unity (also organizational) between the workers of the oppressed nation and the workers of the oppressing nation. Without such unity it will be impossible to maintain an independent proletarian policy and class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in the face of all the subterfuge, treachery and trickery of the bourgeoisie; for the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations always converts the slogan of national liberation into a means for deceiving the workers; in internal politics it utilizes these slogans as a means for concluding reactionary agreements with the bourgeoisie of the ruling nation (for instance, the Poles in Austria and Russia, who entered into pacts with reaction in order to oppress the Jews and the Ukrainians); in the realm of foreign politics it strives to enter into pacts with one of the rival imperialist powers for the purpose of achieving its own predatory aims (the policies of the small states in the Balkans, etc.).

The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain circumstances, be utilized by another "Great" Power in its equally imperialist interests should have no more weight in inducing Social Democracy to renounce its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination than the numerous case of the bourgeoisie utilizing republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial robbery, for example, in the Latin countries, have had in inducing them to renounce republicanism.

5. Marxism and Proudhonism on the National Question

In contrast to the petty-bourgeois democrats, Marx regarded all democratic demands without exception not as an absolute, but as a historical expression of the struggle of the masses of the people, led by the bourgeoisie, against feudalism. There is not a single democratic demand which could not serve, and has not served, under certain conditions, as an instrument of the bourgeoisie for deceiving the workers. To single out one of the demands of political democracy, namely, the self-determination of nations, and to oppose it to all the rest, is fundamentally wrong in theory. In practice, the proletariat will be able to retain its independence only if it subordinates its struggle for all the democratic demands, not excluding the demand for a republic, to its revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, in contrast to the Proudhonists, who "repudiated" the national problem "in the name of the social revolution," Marx, having in mind mainly the interests of the proletarian class struggle in the advanced countries, put into the forefront the fundamental principle of internationalism and socialism, viz., that no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations. It was precisely from the standpoint of the interests of the revolutionary movement of the German workers that Marx in 1898 demanded that victorious democracy in Germany should proclaim and grant freedom to the nations that the Germans were oppressing. It was precisely from the standpoint of the revolutionary struggle of the English workers that Marx in 1869 demanded the separation of Ireland from England, and added: "...although after the separation there may come federation." Only by putting forward this demand did Marx really educate the English workers in the spirit of internationalism. Only in this way was he able to oppose the revolutionary solution of a given historical problem to the opportunists and bourgeois reformism, which even now, half a century later, has failed to achieve the Irish "reform." Only in this way was Marx able--unlike the apologists of capital who shout about the right of small nations to secession being utopian and impossible, and about the progressive nature not only of economic but also of political concentration--to urge the progressive nature of this concentration in a non-imperialist manner, to urge the bringing together of the nations, not by force, but on the basis of a free union of the proletarians of all countries. Only in this way was Marx able, also in the sphere of the solution of national problems, to oppose the revolutionary action of the masses to verbal and often hypocritical recognition of the equality and the self-determination of nations. The imperialist war of 1914-16 and the Augean stables of hypocrisy of the opportunists and Kautskyists it exposed have strikingly confirmed the correctness of Marx's policy, which must serve as the model for all the advanced countries; for all of them now oppress other nations.

6. Three Types of Countries in Relation to Self-Determination of Nations

In this respect, countries must be divided into three main types:

First, the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States of America. In these countries the bourgeois, progressive, national movements came to an end long ago. Every one of these "great" nations oppresses other nations in the colonies and within its own country. The tasks of the proletariat of these ruling nations are the same as those of the proletariat in England in the 19th century in relation to Ireland.

Secondly, Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans and particularly Russia. Here it was the 10th century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movements and intensified the national struggle. The tasks of the proletariat in these countries--in regard to the consummation of their bourgeois-democratic reformation, as well as in regard to assisting the socialist revolution in other countries--cannot be achieved unless it champions the right of nations to self-determination. In this connection the most difficult but most important task is to merge the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations.

Thirdly, the semi-colonial countries, like China, Persia, Turkey, and all the colonies, which have a combined population amounting to a billion. In these countries the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun, or are far from having been completed. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation--and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing more nor less than the recognition of the right to self-determination--but must render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their rebellion--and if need be, their revolutionary war--against the imperialist powers that oppress them.

7. Social-Chauvinism and Self Determination of Nations

The imperialist epoch and the war of 1914-16 have particularly brought to the forefront the task of fighting against chauvinism and nationalism in the advanced countries. On the question of the self-determination of nations, there are two main shades of opinion among the social-chauvinists, i.e., the opportunists and the Kautskyists, who embellish the reactionary, imperialist war by declaring it to be a war in "defense of the fatherland."

On the one hand, we see the rather avowed servants of the bourgeoisie who defend annexations on the ground that imperialism and political concentration are progressive and who repudiate the right to self-determination on the ground that it is utopian, illusory, petty-bourgeois, etc. Among these may be included Cunow, Parvus and the extreme opportunists in Germany, a section of the Fabians and the trade union leaders in England, and the opportunists, Semkovsky, Liebman, Yurkevich, etc., in Russia.

On the other hand, we see the Kautskyists, including Vandervelde, Renaudel, and many of the pacifists in England, France, etc. These stand for unity with the first-mentioned group, and in practice their conduct is the same in that they advocate the right to self-determination in a purely verbal and hypocritical way. They regard the demand for the freedom of political secession as being "excessive" ("zu viel verlangt"--Kautsky, in the Neue Zeit, May 21, 1915); they do not advocate the need for revolutionary tactics, especially for the Socialists in the oppressing nations, but, on the contrary, they gloss over their revolutionary duties, they justify their opportunism, they make it easier to deceive the people, they evade precisely the question of the frontiers of a state which forcibly retains subject nations, etc.

Both groups are opportunists who prostitute Marxism and who have lost all capacity to understand the theoretical significance and the practical urgency of Marx's tactics, an example of which he gave in relation to Ireland.

The specific question of annexations has become a particularly urgent one owing to the war. But what is annexation! Clearly, to protest against annexations implies either the recognition of the right of self-determination of nations, or that the protest is based on a pacifist phrase which defends the status quo and opposes all violence including revolutionary violence. Such a phrase is radically wrong, and incompatible with Marxism.

8. The Concrete Tasks of the Proletariat in the Immediate Future

The socialist revolution may begin in the very near future. In that event the proletariat will be faced with the immediate task of capturing power, of expropriating the banks and of introducing other dictatorial measures. In such a situation, the bourgeoisie, and particularly intellectuals like the Fabians and the Kautskyists, will strive to disrupt and to hinder the revolution, to restrict it to limited democratic aims. While all purely democratic demands may--at a time when the proletarians have already begun to storm the bulwarks of bourgeois power--serve, in a certain sense, as a hindrance to the revolution, nevertheless, the necessity of proclaiming and granting freedom to all oppressed nations (i.e., their right to self-determination) will be as urgent in the socialist revolution as it was urgent for the victory of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, for example, in Germany in 1848, or in Russia in 1905.

However, five, ten and even more years may pass before the socialist revolution begins. In that case, the task will be to educate the masses in a revolutionary spirit so as to make it impossible for Socialist chauvinists and opportunists to belong to the workers' party and to achieve a victory similar to that of 1914-16. It will be the duty of the Socialists to explain to the masses that English Socialists who fail to demand the freedom of secession for the colonies and for Ireland; that German Socialists who fail to demand the freedom of secession for the colonies, for the Alsatians, for the Danes and for the Poles, and who fail to carry direct revolutionary propaganda and revolutionary mass action to the field of struggle against national oppression, who fail to take advantage of cases like the Zabern incident to conduct widespread underground propaganda among the proletariat of the oppressing nation, to organize street demonstrations and revolutionary mass actions; that Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.--are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.

9. The Attitude of Russian and Polish Social Democracy and of the Second International to Self-Determination

The difference between the revolutionary Social Democrats of Russia and the Polish Social Democrats on the question of self-determination came to the surface as early as 1903 at the congress which adopted the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and which, despite the protest of the Polish Social Democratic delegation, inserted in that program point 9, which recognizes the right of nations to self-determination. Since then the Polish Social Democrats have never repeated, in the name of their Party, the proposal to delete point 9 from our program, or to substitute some other formulation for it.

In Russia--where no less than 57 percent, i.e., over 100,000,000 of the population, belong to oppressed nations, where those nations mainly inhabit the border provinces, where some of those nations are more cultured than the Great Russians, where the political system is distinguished by its particularly barbarous and mediaeval character, where the bourgeois-democratic revolution has not yet been completed--the recognition of the right of the nations oppressed by tsarism to free secession from Russia is absolutely obligatory for Social Democracy in the interests of its democratic and socialist tasks. Our Party, which was re-established in January 1912, adopted a resolution in 1913 reiterating the right to self-determination and explaining it in the concrete sense outlined above. The orgy of Great Russian chauvinism raging in 1914-16 among the bourgeoisie and the opportunist Socialists (Rubanovich, Plekhanov, Nashe Dyelo, etc.) prompts us to insist on this demand more strongly than ever and to declare that those who reject it serve, in practice, as a bulwark of Great Russian chauvinism and tsarism. Our party declares that it emphatically repudiates all responsibility for such opposition to the right of self-determination.

The latest formulation of the position of Polish Social Democracy on the national question (the declaration made by Polish Social Democracy at the Zimmerwald Conference) contains the following ideas:

This declaration condemns the German and other governments which regard the "Polish provinces" as a hostage in the forthcoming game of compensations and thus "deprive the Polish people of the opportunity to decide its own fate." The declaration says: "Polish Social Democracy emphatically and solemnly protests against the recarving and partition of a whole country"...It condemns the Socialists who left to the Hohenzollerns "the task of liberating the oppressed nations." It expresses the conviction that only participation in the impending struggle of the revolutionary international proletariat, in the struggle for socialism, "will break the fetters of national oppression and abolish all forms of foreign domination, and secure for the Polish people the possibility of all-sided, free development as an equal member in a League of Nations." The declaration also recognizes the present war to be "doubly fratricidal" "for the Poles." (Bulletin of the International Socialist Committee, No. 2, September 27, 1915, p. 15.)

There is no difference in substance between these postulates and the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination except that their political formulation is still more diffuse and vague than the majority of the programs and resolutions of the Second International. Any attempt to express these ideas in precise political formulae and to determine whether they apply to the capitalist system or only to the socialist system will prove still more strikingly the error committed by the Polish Social Democrats in repudiating the self-determination of nations.

The decision of the International Socialist Congress held in London in 1896, which recognized the self-determination of nations, must, on the basis of the above-mentioned postulates, be supplemented by references to: (1) the particular urgency of this demand under imperialism; (2) the politically conditional nature and the class content of all the demands of political democracy, including this demand; (3) the necessity of drawing a distinction between the concrete tasks of the Social Democrats in the oppressing nations and those in oppressed nations; (4) the inconsistent, purely verbal, and, therefore, as far as its political significance is concerned, hypocritical recognition of self-determination by the opportunists and Kautskyists; (5) the actual identity of the chauvinists and those Social Democrats, particularly the Social Democrats of the Great Powers (Great Russians, Anglo-Americans, Germans, French, Italians, Japanese, etc.) who fail to champion the freedom of secession for the colonies and nations oppressed by "their own" nations; (6) the necessity of subordinating the struggle for this demand, as well as for all the fundamental demands of political democracy, to the immediate revolutionary mass struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeois governments and for the achievement of socialism.

To transplant to the International the point of view of some of the small nations--particularly the point of view of the Polish Social Democrats, who, in their struggle against the Polish bourgeoisie which is deceiving the people with nationalist slogans, were misled into repudiating self-determination--would be a theoretical error. It would be the substitution of Proudhonism for Marxism and, in practice, would result in rendering involuntary support to the most dangerous chauvinism and opportunism of the Great Power nations.

Editorial Board of Sotsial-Democrat, Central Organ of the RSDLP

Postscript. In Die Neue Zeit for March 3, 1916, which has just appeared, Kautsky openly holds out the hand of Christian reconciliation to Austerlitz, a representative of the foulest German chauvinism, rejecting freedom of separation for the oppressed nations of Hapsburg Austria but recognizing it for Russian Poland, as a menial service to Hindenburg and Wilhelm II. One could not have wished for a better self-exposure of Kautskyism!

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