From Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution
Language is the most important instrument of human communication, and consequently of industry. It becomes national together with the triumph of commodity exchange which integrates nations. Upon this foundation the national state is erected as the most convenient, profitable and normal arena for the play of capitalist relations. In Western Europe the epoch of the formation of bourgeois nations, if you leave out the struggle of the Netherlands for independence and the fate of the island country, England, began with the great French revolution, and was essentially completed approximately one hundred years later with the formation of the German Empire.
But during that period when in Europe the national state could no longer contain the productive forces and was overgrown into the imperialist state, in the East — in Persia, the Balkans, China, India — the era of national democratic revolutions, taking its impetus from the Russian revolution of 1905, was only just beginning. The Balkan war of 1912 marked the completion of the forming of national states in south-eastern Europe. The subsequent imperialist war completed incidentally the unfinished work of the national revolutions in Europe, leading as it did to the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary, the establishment of an independent Poland, and of independent border states cut from the empire of the czars.
Russia was formed not as a national state, but as a state made up of nationalities. This corresponded to its belated character. On a foundation of extensive agriculture and home industry, commercial capital developed not deeply, not by transforming production, but broadly, by increasing the radius of its operation. The trader, the landlord and the government official advanced from the centre toward the periphery, following the peasant settlers who, in search of fresh lands and freedom from imposts, were penetrating new territory inhabited by still more backward tribes. The expansion of the state was in its foundation an expansion of agriculture, which with all its primitiveness showed a certain superiority to that of the nomads in the south and east. The bureaucratic-caste state which formed itself upon this enormous and continually broadening basis became sufficiently strong to subjugate certain nations in the west, possessed of a higher culture but unable because of their small numbers or condition of inner crisis to defend their independence (Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic states, Finland).
To the seventy million Great Russians constituting the main mass of the country, there were gradually added about ninety million “outlanders” sharply divided into two groups: the western peoples excelling Russia in their culture, and the eastern standing on a lower level. Thus was created an empire of whose population the ruling nationality constituted only 43 per cent. The remaining 57 per cent, were nationalities of various degrees of culture and subjection, including Ukrainians 17 per cent, Poles 6 per cent, White Russians 4.5 per cent.
The greedy demands of the state and the meagreness of the peasant foundation under the ruling classes gave rise to the most bitter forms of exploitation. National oppression in Russia was incomparably rougher than in the neighbouring states not only on its western but even on its eastern borders. The vast numbers of these nationalities deprived of rights, and the sharpness of their deprivation, gave to the national problem in czarist Russia a gigantic explosive force.
Whereas in nationally homogeneous states the bourgeois revolutions developed powerful centripetal tendencies rallying to the idea of overcoming particularism, as in France, or overcoming national disunion as in Italy and Germany — in nationally heterogeneous states on the contrary, such as Turkey, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the belated bourgeois revolution released centrifugal forces. In spite of the apparent contrariness of these processes when expressed in mechanical terms, their historic function was the same. In both cases it was a question of using the national unity as a fundamental industrial reservoir. Germany had for this purpose to be united, Austria-Hungary to be divided.
Lenin early learned the inevitability of this development of centrifugal national movements in Russia, and for many years stubbornly fought — most particularly against Rosa Luxemburg — for that famous paragraph 9 of the old party program which formulated the right of nations to self-determination — that is, to complete separation as states. In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.
But that was only one side of the matter. The policy of Bolshevism in the national sphere had also another side, apparently contradictory to the first but in reality supplementing it. Within the framework of the party, and of the workers’ organisations in general, Bolshevism insisted upon a rigid centralism, implacably warring against every taint of nationalism which might set the workers one against the other or disunite them. While flatly refusing to the bourgeois states the right to impose compulsory citizenship, or even a state language, upon a national minority, Bolshevism at the same time made it a verily sacred task to unite as closely as possible, by means of voluntary class discipline, the workers of different nationalities. Thus it flatly rejected the national-federation principle in building the party. A revolutionary organisation is not the prototype of the future state, but merely the instrument for its creation. An instrument ought to be adapted to fashioning the product; it ought not to include the product. Thus a centralised organisation can guarantee the success of revolutionary struggle — even where the task is to destroy the centralised oppression of nationalities.
For the oppressed nations of Russia the overthrow of the monarchy inevitably meant also their own national revolution. In this matter, however, we observe the same thing as in all other departments of the February regime: the official democracy, held in leash by its political dependence upon an imperialist bourgeoisie, was totally incapable of breaking the old fetters. Holding inviolable its right to settle the fate of all other nations, it continued jealously to guard those sources of wealth, power and influence which had given the Great Russian bourgeoisie its dominant position. The compromisist democracy merely translated traditions of the czarist national policy into the language of libertarian rhetoric: it was now a question of defending the unity of the revolution. But the ruling coalition had also another more pointed argument: wartime expediency. This meant that the aspirations of individual nationalities towards freedom must be portrayed as the work of the Austro-German General Staff. Here too the Kadets played first violin and the Compromisers second.
The new government could not, of course, leave absolutely untouched that disgusting legal tangle, the complicated medieval mockeries of the outlanders. But it did hope and endeavour to stop at a mere annulment of the exceptional laws against individual nations — that is, to establish a bare equality of all parts of the population before the Great Russian state bureaucracy.
This formal equality gave most of all to the Jews, for the laws limiting their rights had reached the number of 650. Moreover, being city dwellers and the most scattered of all the nationalities, the Jews could make no claim either to state independence or even territorial autonomy. As to the project of a so-called “national-cultural autonomy” which should unite the Jews throughout the whole country around schools and other institutions, this reactionary Utopia, borrowed by various Jewish groups from the Austrian theoretician, Otto Bauer, melted in those first days of freedom like wax under the sun’s rays.
But a revolution is a revolution for the very reason that it is not satisfied either with doles or deferred payments. The abolition of the more shameful national limitations established a formal equality of citizens regardless of their nationality, but this revealed only the more sharply the unequal position of the nationalities as such, leaving the major part of them in the position of step-children or foster-children of the Great Russian state.
The proclamation of equal rights meant nothing to the Finns especially, for they did not desire equality with the Russians but independence of Russia. It gave nothing to the Ukrainians, for their rights had been equal before, they having been forcibly proclaimed to be Russian. It changed nothing in the situation of the Letts and Esthonians, oppressed by the German landlord’s manor and the Russo-German city. It did not lighten in the least the fate of the backward peoples and tribes of Central Asia, who had been held down to the rock bottom not by juridical limitations, but by economic and cultural ball and chain. All these questions the Liberal-Compromisist coalition refused even to bring up. The democratic state remained the same old state of the Great Russian functionary, who did not intend to yield his place to anybody.
The deeper the revolution sank among the masses in the borderlands, the more clear it became that the Russian state language was there the language of the possessing classes. The regime of formal democracy, with its freedom of press and assembly, made the backward and oppressed nationalities only the more painfully aware to what extent they were deprived of the most elementary means of cultural development: their own schools, their own courts, their own officials. References to a future Constituent Assembly only irritated them. They knew well enough that the same party would dominate that assembly which had created the Provisional Government, and was continuing to defend the tradition of Russification, making clear with its jealous greed that line beyond which the ruling classes would not go.
Finland became from the first a thorn in the flesh of the February regime . Thanks to the bitterness of the agrarian problem, in Finland a problem of “torpars” — that is, small enslaved tenants — the industrial workers, although comprising only 14 per cent, of the population, carried the rural population with them. The Finnish Seim was the only parliament in the world where the social-democrats got a majority: 103 seats out of 200. Having by their law of June 5 declared the Seim a sovereign power except on questions of war and foreign policy, the Finnish social-democrats appealed for support “to the comrade party of Russia.” But their appeal, as it turned out, was sent quite to the wrong address. The Provisional Government stepped aside at first, permitting the “comrade party” to act. An advisory delegation headed by Cheidze went to Helsingfors and returned empty-handed. Then the socialist ministers of Petrograd — Kerensky, Chenov, Skobelev, Tseretelli — decided to dissolve by force the socialist government at Helsingfors. The chief of the headquarters staff, the monarchist Lukomsky, gave warning to the civil authorities and the population of Finland that in case of any action against the Russian army “their cities, and Helsingfors, first of all, would be laid waste”. After this preparation, the government issued a solemn manifesto — a plagiarism from the monarchy even in its literary style — dissolving the Seim. And on the first day of the offensive they placed Russian soldiers withdrawn from the front at the doors of the Finnish parliament. Thus the revolutionary masses of Russia — making their way to October — got a good lesson on the qualified place occupied by the principles of democracy in a struggle of class forces.
Confronted by this unbridled nationalism of the ruling classes, the revolutionary troops in Finland adopted a worthy attitude. A regional congress of the soviets held in Helsingfors early in September announced: “If the Finnish democracy finds it advisable to renew the sessions of the Seim, any attempt to hinder this will be regarded by the Soviet congress as a counter-revolutionary act.” That was a direct offer of military help. But the Finnish democracy, in which compromisist tendencies predominated, was not ready to take the road of insurrection. New elections, held under the threat of a new dissolution, gave a majority of 180 out of 200 to those bourgeois parties in agreement with whom the government had dissolved the Seim.
But here domestic questions come to the front, questions which in this Switzerland of the North, a land of granite mountains and greedy proprietors, would lead inexorably to civil war. The Finnish bourgeoisie was half openly preparing its military cadres. Secret nuclei of the Red Guard were forming at the same time. The bourgeoisie turned to Sweden and Germany for weapons and instructors. The workers found support in the Russian troops. Meanwhile in bourgeois circles — yesterday still inclined to agreement with Petrograd — a movement was developing for complete separation from Russia. Their leading newspaper, Khuvudstatsbladet, wrote: “The Russian people are possessed by an anarchist frenzy … Ought we not in these circumstances … to separate ourselves as far as possible from that chaos?” The Provisional Government found itself obliged to make concessions without awaiting the Constituent Assembly. On the 23rd of October a decree was adopted recognising “in principle” the independence of Finland except in military and foreign affairs. But “independence” given by the hand of Kerensky was not worth much: it was now only two days before his fall.
A second and far more gigantic thorn in the flesh was the Ukraine. Early in June, Kerensky forbade the holding of a Ukrainian soldier-congress convoked by the Rada. The Ukrainians did not submit. In order to save the face of his government Kerensky legalised the congress ex post facto, sending a declamatory telegram which the assembled deputies greeted with disrespectful laughter. This bitter lesson did not prevent Kerensky from forbidding three weeks later a military congress of the Mussulmans in Moscow. The democratic government seemed anxious to make it plain to the discontented nations: you will get only what you grab.
In its first “universal” issued on June 10th, the Rada, accusing Petrograd of opposing national independence, declared: “Henceforth we will build our own life.”
The Kadets denounced the Ukrainian leaders as German agents; the Compromisers addressed them with sentimental admonitions; the Provisional Government sent a delegation to Kiev. In the heated atmosphere of the Ukraine, Kerensky, Tseretelli and Tereschenko felt obliged to take a few steps to meet the Rada. But after the July raids on workers and soldiers, the government veered right on the Ukrainian question also. On August 5, the Rada by an overwhelming majority accused the government, “imbued with the imperialist tendencies of the Russian bourgeoisie”, of having broken the agreement of July 3rd. “When the time came for the government to redeem its pledge,” declared the head of the Ukrainian government, Vinnichenko, “it turned out that the Provisional Government . . . is a petty cheat, who hopes to get rid of a great historic problem by swindling.”
This unequivocal language conveys an adequate idea of the authority of the government even in those circles which ought politically to be rather close to it. For in the long run the Ukrainian Compromiser, Vinnichenko, was distinguished from Kerensky only as a mediocre novelist from a mediocre lawyer.
It is true that in September the government did finally issue a decree recognising for all the nationalities of Russia — within limits to be designated by the Constituent Assembly — the “right of self-determination”. But this wholly unguaranteed and inwardly contradictory promise for the future — extremely vague in everything but its limitations — inspired no confidence In anybody. The doings of the Provisional Government were already crying out too loudly against it.
On September 2 the Senate — that same body which refused to admit new members without the old uniform — decided to deny publication to the instructions issued to the Ukrainian General Secretariat — that is, to the Ministerial Cabinet in Kiev — and confirmed by the government. Justification: no law provides for this secretariat, and it is impossible to issue instructions to an illegal institution. The lofty jurists did not conceal the fact, either, that the very agreement entered into between the government and the Rada was a usurpation of the rights of the Constituent Assembly — these czarist senators having now become the most inflexible partisans of pure democracy. In this show of courage the oppositionists from the right were risking nothing at all: they knew that their opposition was quite after the heart of the ruling classes. Although the Russian bourgeoisie had swallowed a certain amount of independence for Finland — united to Russia as she was by weak economic ties — it could not possibly agree to an “autonomy” of Ukrainian grain, Donetz coal, and the ores of Krivorog.
On October 19, Kerensky sent a telegraphic order to the General Secretary of the Ukraine “to come promptly to Petrograd for personal explanations” in regard to a criminal agitation started there in favour of a Ukrainian Constituent Assembly. At the same time the District Attorney of Kiev was directed to begin an investigation of the Rada. But these threats gave as little fright to the Ukraine as the acts of grace had given joy to Finland.
The Ukrainian Compromisers were at this time feeling infinitely more secure than their elder cousins in Petrograd. Aside from the auspicious atmosphere surrounding their struggle for national rights, the comparative stability of the petty bourgeois parties in the Ukraine — as also in a number of other oppressed nations — had economic and social roots describable in one word, backwardness. In spite of the swift industrial development of the Donetz and Krivorog basins, the Ukraine as a whole continued to lag behind Great Russia. The Ukrainian proletariat was less homogeneous, less tempered. The Bolshevik Party was weak both in numbers and quality, had been slow in breaking away from the Mensheviks, and was poorly versed in the political, and especially the national situation. Even in the industrial eastern parts of the Ukraine, a regional conference of the soviets as late as the middle of October showed a slight compromisist majority.
The Ukrainian bourgeoisie was comparatively still weaker. One of the causes of the social instability of the Russian bourgeoisie taken as a whole lay, we remember, in the fact that its more powerful section consisted of foreigners not even dwelling in Russia. In the borderlands this fact was supplemented by another no less significant: their own domestic bourgeoisie did not belong to the same nation as the principal mass of the people.
The population of the cities in these borderland Was completely different in its national ingredients from the population of the country. In the Ukraine and White Russia the landlord, capitalist, lawyer, journalist, was a Great Russian, a Pole, a Jew, a foreigner; the rural population was wholly Ukrainian and White Russian. In the Baltic states the cities were havens of the German, Russian and Jewish bourgeoisie; the country was altogether Lettish and Esthonian. In the cities of Georgia, a Russian and Armenian population predominated, as also in Turkish Azerbaidjan, being separated from the fundamental mass of the people not only by their level of life and culture, but also by language, as are the English in India. Being indebted for the protection of their possessions and income to the bureaucratic machine, and being closely bound up with the ruling classes of all other countries, the landlords, industrialists and merchants in these borderlands grouped around themselves a narrow circle of Russian functionaries, clerks, teachers, physicians, lawyers, journalists, and to some extent workers also, converting the cities into centres of Russification and colonisation.
It was possible to ignore the villages so long as they remained silent. When they began, however, more and more impatiently to lift their voices, the city resisted and stubbornly continued to resist, defending its privileged position. The functionary, the merchant, the lawyer, soon learned to disguise his struggle to retain the commanding heights of industry and culture under the form of a top-lofty condemnation of an increasing “chauvinism.” The desire of a ruling nation to maintain the status quo frequently dresses up as a superiority to “nationalism,” just as the desire of a victorious nation to hang on to its booty easily takes the form of pacifism. Thus MacDonald in the face of Gandhi feels as though he were an internationalist. Thus, too, the gravitation of the Austrians toward Germany appears to Poincar an offence against French pacifism.
“People living in the cities of the Ukraine” — so wrote a delegation of the Rada to the Provisional Government in May — “see before them the Russified streets of these cities … and completely forget that these cities are only little islets in the sea of the whole Ukrainian people.” When Rosa Luxemburg, in her posthumous polemic against the program of the October revolution, asserted that Ukrainian nationalism, having been formerly a mere “amusement” of the commonplace petty bourgeois intelligentsia, had been artificially raised up by the yeast of the Bolshevik formula of self-determination, she fell, notwithstanding her luminous mind, into a very serious historic error. The Ukrainian peasantry had not made national demands in the past for the reason that the Ukrainian peasantry had not in general risen to the height of political being. The chief service of the February revolution — perhaps its only service, but one amply sufficient — lay exactly in this, that it gave the oppressed classes and nations of Russia at last an opportunity to speak out. This political awakening of the peasantry could not have taken place otherwise, however, than through their own native language — with all the consequences ensuing in regard to schools, courts, self-administration. To oppose this would have been to try to drive the peasants back into non-existence.
The difference in nationality between the cities and the villages was painfully felt also in the soviets, they being predominantly city organisations. Under the leadership of the compromise parties the soviets would frequently ignore the national interests of the basic population. This was one cause of the weakness of the soviets in the Ukraine. The soviets of Riga and Reval forgot about the interests of the Letts and the Esthonians. The compromisist soviet in Baku scorned the interests of the basic Turcoman population. Under a false banner of internationalism the soviets would frequently wage a struggle against the defensive nationalism of the Ukrainians or Mussulmans, supplying a screen for the oppressive Russifying movement of the cities. A little time after, under the rule of the Bolsheviks, the soviets of these borderlands began to speak the language of the villages.
Their general economic and cultural primitiveness did not permit the Siberian outlanders — kept down as they were both by nature and exploitation — to rise even to that level where national aspirations begin. Vodka, taxes and compulsory orthodoxy were here from time immemorial the principal instruments of statehood. That disease which the Italians called the French evil, and the French, the Neapolitan, was called “Russian” by the Siberian peoples. That shows from what sources came the seeds of civilisation. The February revolution did not reach that far. The hunters and reindeer breeders of the polar wastes must still wait long for their dawn.
The peoples and tribes along the Volga, in the northern Caucasus, in Central Asia — awakened for the first time out of their prehistoric existence by the February revolution — had as yet neither national bourgeoisie nor national proletariat. Above the peasant or shepherd mass a thin layer had detached itself from among their upper strata, constituting an intelligentsia. Not yet rising to a program of national self-administration, the struggle here was about matters like having their own alphabet, their own teachers — even at times their own priests. In these ways the most oppressed were being compelled to learn in bitter experience that the educated masters of the state would not voluntarily permit them to rise in the world. The most backward of the backward were thus compelled to seek the most revolutionary class as an ally. Through the left elements of their young intelligentsia the Votiaks, the Chuvashes, the Zyrians, the tribes of Daghestan and Turkestan, began to find their way towards the Bolsheviks.
The fate of the colonial possessions, especially in central Asia, would change together with the industrial evolution of the centre, passing from direct and open robbery, including trade robbery, to those more disguised methods which converted the Asiatic peasants into suppliers of industrial raw material, chiefly cotton. Hierarchically organised exploitation, combining the barbarity of capitalism with the barbarity of patriarchal life, successfully held down the Asiatic peoples in extreme national abasement. And here the February regime left everything as it was.
The best lands, seized under czarism from the Bashkirs, Buriats, Kirghiz, and other nomadic tribes, had continued in the possession of the landlords and wealthy Russian peasants scattered about in colonising oases among the native population. The awakening of a national spirit of independence here meant first of all a struggle against these colonisers, who had created an artificial strip system of land-ownership and condemned the nomads to hunger and gradual extinction. The colonisers, on their side, furiously defended the unity of Russia — that is, the sanctity of their grabbings — against the “separatism” of the Asiatics. The hatred of the colonisers for the native movements assumed zoological forms in the Transbaikal. Pogroms of the Buriats were in full swing under the leadership of March Social Revolutionaries recruited from village clerks and non-commissioned officers returning from the front.
In their anxiety to preserve the old order as long as possible, all the exploiters and violaters in the colonised regions appealed henceforth to the sovereign rights of the Constituent Assembly. This phraseology was supplied them by the Provisional Government, which had found here its surest bulwark. On the other hand, the privileged upper circles of the oppressed peoples were also calling more and more often on the name of the Constituent Assembly. Even the Mussulman clergy who would lift above the awakening mountain peoples and the tribes of the northern Caucasus, the green banner of the Shariat whenever a pressure from below made their position difficult, were now postponing the question “until the Constituent Assembly”. This became the slogan of conservatism, of reaction, of special interest and privilege all over the country. To appeal to the Constituent Assembly meant to postpone and gain time. Postponement meant: assemble your forces and strangle the revolution.
The leadership fell into the hands of the clergy or feudal gentry, however, only at first, only among the backward peoples — almost only among the Mussulmans. In general, the national movement in the villages was headed as a matter of course by rural teachers, village clerks, functionaries and officers of low rank, and, to some extent, merchants. Alongside the Russian or Russianised intelligentsia, composed of the more respectable and well-provided elements, there was formed in the borderland cities another layer, a younger layer, closely bound up with its village origin and lacking access to the banquet of capital, and this layer naturally took upon itself the task of representing politically the national, and in part also the social interests of the basic peasant mass.
Although hostilely disposed to the Russian Compromisers along the line of this national aspiration, these borderland Compromisers belonged to the same fundamental type, and even for the most part went by the same name. The Ukrainian Social Revolutionaries and social democrats, the Georgian and Lettish Mensheviks, the Lithuanian “Trudoviks,” tried like their Great Russian namesakes to confine the revolution within the framework of the bourgeois regime. But the extreme weakness of the native bourgeoisie here compelled the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, instead of entering a coalition, to take the state power into their own hands. Compelled to go farther on agrarian and labour questions than the central government, these borderland Compromisers had also the great advantage of being able to appear before the army and the country as opponents of the coalition Provisional Government. All this was sufficient, if not to create different destinies for the Russian Compromisers and those of the borderlands, at least to give a different tempo to their rise and fall.
The Georgian social democrats not only led after them the pauper peasantry of Little Georgia, but also laid claim — and that not without success — to lead the movement of the “revolutionary democracy” for all Russia. During the first months of the revolution the heads of the Georgian intelligentsia regarded Georgia not as a national fatherland, but as a Gironde — a blessed southern province called to provide leaders for the whole country. At the Moscow State Conference one of the prominent Georgian Mensheviks, Chenkeli, boasted that the Georgians had always said even under czarism, in fair weather and foul: “A single fatherland, Russia.” “What shall we say of the Georgian nation?“ cried this same Chenkeli a month later at the Democratic Conference. “It is wholly at the service of the Great Russian revolution.” And it is quite true that the Georgian Compromisers, like the Jewish, were always “at the service” of the great Russian bureaucracy when it was necessary to moderate, or put brakes on, the national claims of individual regions.
This continued only so long, however, as the Georgian social democrats still hoped to confine their revolution within the framework of bourgeois democracy. In proportion as the danger appeared of a victory of the masses led by Bolshevism, the Georgian social democrats relaxed their ties with the Russian Compromisers and united closely with the reactionary elements of Georgia itself. The moment the soviets were victorious, these Georgian partisans of a single Russia became the trumpeters of separation, and showed to the other peoples of Transcaucasia the yellow fangs of their chauvinism.
This inevitable national disguise of social contradictions — less developed in the borderlands, anyway, as a general rule — adequately explains why the October revolution was destined to meet more opposition in most of the oppressed nations than in Central Russia. But, on the other hand, the conflict of nationalities by its very nature cruelly shook the February regime and created sufficient favourable surroundings for the revolution in the centre.
In these circumstances the national antagonisms whenever they coincided with class contradictions became especially hot. The age-old hostility between the Lettish peasants and the German barons impelled many thousands of labouring Letts to volunteer at the outbreak of the war. The sharp-shooting regiments of Lettish farm hands and peasants were among the best troops at the front. As early as May, however, they had already come out for a Soviet government. Their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism. A like process took place in Esthonia.
In White Russia, with its Polish or Polised landlords, its Jewish population in the cities and small towns, and its Russian officials, the twice and thrice oppressed peasantry had some time before October, under the influence of the nearby front, poured its national and social indignation into the channel of Bolshevism. In the elections for the Constituent Assembly the overwhelming mass of White Russians would cast its vote for the Bolsheviks.
All these processes in which an awakened national dignity was linked up with social indignation, now holding it back, now pushing it forward, found an extremely sharp expression in the army. Here there was a veritable fever for creating national regiments, and these were at one time patronised, at another tolerated, at still another persecuted by the central government, according to their attitude to the war and the Bolsheviks. But in general they kept growing more and more hostile to Petrograd.
Lenin kept a firm hand on the “national” pulse of the revolution. In a famous article, “The Crisis is Ripe,” written toward the end of September, he insistently pointed out that the National curia of the Democratic Conference “had stood second in the matter of radicalism yielding only to the trade unions, and standing higher than the Soviet curia in its percentage of votes against the Coalition (40 out of 55)”. This meant that the oppressed people were no longer hoping for any benefit from the Great Russian bourgeoisie. They were more and more trying to get their rights by independent action, a bite at a time and in the form of revolutionary seizures.
In an October congress of the Buriats in far off Verkhneyudinsk, a speaker declared that “the February revolution introduced nothing new” in the position of the outlander. His summing up of the situation made it seem necessary, if not yet to take the side of the Bolsheviks, at least to observe an attitude of more and more friendly neutrality toward them.
An all-Ukrainian soldier-congress which met during the very days of the Petrograd insurrection, adopted a resolution to struggle against the transfer of power to the Ukrainian Soviet, but at the same time refused to regard the insurrection of the Great Russian Bolsheviks as an “anti-democratic action,” and promised to take all measures to prevent the soldiers being sent to put down the insurrection. This equivocation, which perfectly characterises the petty bourgeois stage of the national struggle, facilitated that revolution of the proletariat which intended to put an end to all equivocations.
On the other hand the bourgeois circles in the borderlands, which had heretofore invariably and always gravitated toward the central power, now launched into a separatism which in many cases no longer had a shred of national foundation. The Baltic bourgeoisie, which only yesterday had been following in a state of hurrah-patriotism the German barons, the first bulwark of the Romanovs, took its stand in the struggle against Bolshevik Russia and its own masses, under the banner of separatism. Still more curious phenomena appeared along this road. On the 20th of October the foundations were laid for a new state formation, “The South-eastern Union of the Cossack Troops, Caucasian Mountaineers and Free Peoples of the Steppes.” Here the leaders of the Don, Kuban, Tyer and Astrakhan Cossacks, the chief bulwark of imperial centralism, were transformed in the course of a few months into passionate defenders of the federal principle, and united on this ground with the leaders of the Mussulman mountaineers and steppe-dwellers. The boundaries of the federative structure were to serve as a barrier against the Bolshevik danger coming from the north. However, before creating the principal drill ground for the civil war against the Bolsheviks, this counter-revolutionary separatism went directly against the ruling coalition, demoralising and weakening it.
Thus the national problem, along with all others, showed the Provisional Government a Medusa’s head on which every hair of the March and April hopes had changed into a snake of hate and indignation.
A Further Note on the Problem of Nationalities
The Bolshevik Party did not by any means immediately after the February revolution adopt that attitude on the national question which in the long run guaranteed its victory. This was true not only in the borderlands, with their weak and inexperienced party organisations, but also in the Petrograd centre. During the war the party had so weakened, the theoretical and political level of its cadres had become so lowered, that on the national question too its official leaders took an extremely confused and halfway position until the arrival of Lenin.
To be sure, following their tradition, the Bolsheviks defended the right of a nation to self-determination. But the Mensheviks also subscribed to this formula in words. The text of the two programmes remained identical. It was the question of power which was decisive. And the temporary leaders of the party proved wholly incapable of understanding the irreconcilable antagonism between the Bolshevik slogans on the national, as well as the agrarian, question, and the preservation of a bourgeois-imperialistic regime, even though disguised in democratic forms.
The democratic position found its most crass expression from the pen of Stalin. On March 25, in an article dealing with a government degree on the abolition of national limitations, Stalin tried to formulate the national question on a historic scale. “The social basis of national oppression,” he writes, “the power inspiring it, is a decaying landed aristocracy.” The fact that national oppression developed unprecedentedly during the epoch of capitalism, and found its most barbaric expression in colonial policies, seems to be beyond the ken of the democratic author. “In England,” he continues, “where the landed aristocracy shares the power with the bourgeoisie, where the unlimited power of this aristocracy long ago ceased to exist, national oppression is milder, less inhumane — leaving out of account, of course, the circumstance that during the course of the war, when the power had gone over into the hands of the landlords(!) national oppression was considerably strengthened (persecution of Ireland and India).” Those guilty of oppressing Ireland and India are the landlords, who — evidently in the person of Lloyd George — have seized the power thanks to the war. “ In Switzerland and North America,” continues Stalin, “where there is no landlordism and never has been, where the power is undivided in the hands of the bourgeoisie, nationalities have developed freely. National oppression, generally speaking, finds no place. The author completely forgets the Negro, Indian, immigrant and colonial problems in the United States.
From this hopelessly provincial analysis, which comes only to a confused contrasting of feudalism with democracy, purely liberal political inferences are drawn. “To remove the feudal aristocracy from the political scene, to snatch the power from it — that is exactly the same thing as to put an end to national oppression, to create the actual conditions necessary for national freedom.” “Insofar as the Russian revolution has conquered,” writes Stalin, “it has actually created these conditions.” We have here perhaps a more principled apology for the imperialistic “democracy” than all that has been written on this theme by the Mensheviks. Just as in foreign policy Stalin, along with Kamenev, hoped to achieve a democratic peace by means of a division of labour with the Provisional Government, so in domestic policy he found in the democracy of Prince Lvov the “actual conditions” of national freedom.
As a matter of fact the fall of the monarchy first fully exposed the fact that not only the reactionary landlords, but also the whole liberal bourgeoisie, and following after it the whole petty bourgeois democracy, along with the patriotic upper crust of the working class, was implacably hostile to a genuine equality of national rights — that is to say, an abolition of the privileges of the dominant nation. Their whole program came down to a business of mitigation, of cultural sugar-coating, of democratic concealment of the Great Russian ascendancy.
At the April conference, in defending Lenin’s resolution on the national question, Stalin formally starts from the thesis that “national oppression is that system . . . those measures which are adopted by the imperialistic circles”. But he straightway and inevitably gets off the track and goes back to his March position. “The more democratic a country, the weaker its national oppression and vice versa.” Such is the speaker’s own summary, and not the one he borrowed from Lenin. The fact that democratic England is oppressing feudal and caste-ridden India escapes, as before, from his limited field of vision. In distinction from Russia, where “an old land aristocracy” has dominated — continues Stalin — “in England and Austria-Hungary the national oppression has never taken the form of pogroms. As though a land aristocracy “never” dominated in England, and as though it does not dominate to this day in Hungary! The combined character of historic development which unites “democracy” with the strangling of weak nations, had remained for Stalin a sealed book.
That Russia took form as a state made up of nationalities is the result of her historic belatedness. But belatedness is a complex conception inevitably contradictory. The backward country does not follow in the tracks of the advanced, keeping the same distance. In an epoch of worldwide economy the backward nations, becoming involved under pressure from the advanced in the general chain of development, skip over whole series of intermediate stages. Moreover the absence of firmly established social forms and traditions makes the backward country — at least within certain limits extremely hospitable to the last word in international technique and international thought. Backwardness does not, however, for this reason cease to be backwardness. The whole development gets a contradictory and combined character. A predominance of historic extremes is proper to the social structure of a belated nation — predominance of the backward peasants and the advanced proletarians over the intermediate formations of the bourgeoisie. The tasks of one class are shouldered off upon another. In the national sphere also, the uprooting of medieval remnants — falls to the lot of the proletariat.
Nothing so clearly characterises the historic belatedness of Russia when considered as a European country, as the fact that in the twentieth century she had to liquidate compulsory land rent and the pale — those twin barbarisms, serfdom and the Ghetto. But in performing these tasks Russia, exactly because of her belated development, made use of new and utterly modern classes, parties, programs. To make an end of the idea and methods of Rasputin, she required the ideas and methods of Marx.
Political practice remained, of course, far more primitive than political theory. For things are harder to change than ideas. But theory nevertheless only carried the demands of practical action clear through. In order to achieve liberation and a cultural lift, the oppressed nationalities were compelled to link their fate with that of the working class. And for this they had to free themselves from the leadership of their own bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties — they had to make a long spurt forward, that is, on the road of historic development.
This subordination of the national movements to the fundamental process of the revolution, the struggle of the proletariat for power, was not accomplished at once, but in several stages — and moreover differently in different regions. The Ukrainian, White Russian and Tartar workers, peasants, and soldiers who were hostile to Kerensky, the war and the Russification, became thereby, in spite of their Compromisist leadership, allies of the proletarian insurrection. From being an objective support of the Bolsheviks, they became obliged at a further stage to go over consciously also to the Bolshevik road. In Finland, Latvia and Esthonia, and more weakly in the Ukraine, the stratification of the national movement had taken such sharp forms by October, that only the interference of foreign troops could prevent the success of the proletarian revolution. In the Asiatic East, where the national awakening was taking place in more primitive forms, it could only by degrees and with a considerable lag come under the leadership of the proletariat — only, indeed, after the proletariat had conquered the power. If you take this complicated and contradictory process as a whole the conclusion is obvious: the national current, like the agrarian, was pouring into the channel of the October revolution.
The irrevocable and irresistible going over of the masses from the most rudimentary tasks of political, agrarian and national emancipation and abolition of serfdom to the slogan of proletarian rulership, resulted not from “demagogic” agitation, not from preconceived schemes, not from the theory of permanent revolution as the Liberals and Compromisers thought, but from the social structure of Russia and the conditions of the worldwide situation. The theory of permanent revolution only formulated the combined process of this development.
It is a question here not of Russia alone. This subordination of belated national revolutions to the revolution of the proletariat follows a law which is valid throughout the world. Whereas in the nineteenth century the fundamental problem of wars and revolutions was still to guarantee a national market to the productive forces, the problem of our century is to free the productive forces from the national boundaries which have become iron fetters upon them. In the broad historic sense the national revolutions of the East are only stages of the world revolution of the proletariat, just as the national movements of Russia became stepping stones to the Soviet dictatorship.
Lenin appraised with admirable profundity the revolutionary force inherent in the development of the oppressed nationalities. both in czarist Russia and throughout the world. That hypocritical “pacifism,” which “condemns” in the same way the war of Japan against China aiming at her enslavement, and the war of China against Japan in the cause of her liberation, got nothing but scorn from Lenin. For him a war of national liberation, in contrast to wars of imperialistic oppression, was merely another form of the national revolution which in its turn enters as a necessary link in the liberating struggle of the international working class.
This appraisal of national wars and revolutions does not by any means imply, however, that the bourgeoisie of the colonial and semi-colonial nations have a revolutionary mission. On the contrary, this bourgeoisie of backward countries from the days of its milk teeth grows up as agents of foreign capital, and notwithstanding its envious hatred of foreign capital, always does and always will in every decisive situation turn up in the same camp with it. Chinese compradorism is the classic form of the colonial bourgeoisie, and the Kuomintang is the classic party of compradorism. The upper circles of the petty bourgeoisie, including the intelligentsia, may take an active and occasionally a very noisy part in the national struggles, but they are totally incapable of playing an independent role. Only the working class standing at the head of the nation can carry either a national or an agrarian revolution clear through.
The fatal mistake of the Epigones, and above all Stalin, lies in this, that from Lenin’s teaching about the progressive historic significance of the struggle of oppressed nations they have inferred a revolutionary mission of the bourgeoisie of the colonial countries. A failure to understand the permanent character of revolution in an imperialist epoch; a pedantic schematisation of the course of development; a chopping up of the living and combined process into dead stages imagined to be necessarily separated in time — all these errors have brought Stalin to a vulgar idealisation of democracy or a “democratic dictatorship”, a thing which can be nothing in reality but either an imperialist dictatorship or a dictatorship of the proletariat. Step by step Stalin’s groups have proceeded along this road to a complete break with the position of Lenin on the national question, and to their catastrophic policy in China.
In August 1927, in conflict with the Opposition (Trotsky, Rakovsky, and others) Stalin said at a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks: “A revolution in imperialist countries is one thing; there the bourgeoisie . . . is counter-revolutionary at all stages of the revolution. . . . A revolution in colonial and dependent countries is something else — there the national bourgeoisie can at a given stage and a given date support the revolutionary movement of their country against imperialism.”
With side remarks and softenings due only to his lack of confidence in himself, Stalin here transfers to the colonial bourgeoisie those same traits with which he was adorning the Russian bourgeoisie in March. Obedient to its deeply organic nature Stalin’s opportunism finds its way as though impelled by some law of gravitation, through whatever channels always in the same direction. The choice of theoretic arguments becomes here a purely accidental matter.
From this transfer of his March appraisal of the Provisional Government to the “national” government of China resulted Stalin’s three-year co-operation with the Kuomintang, a policy which led up to one of the most shocking facts of modem history. In the capacity of loyal armour-bearer, the Bolshevism of the Epigones accompanied the Chinese bourgeoisie right up to April 11, 1927, the day of its bloody massacre of the Shanghai proletariat. “The fundamental mistake of the Opposition” — thus Stalin tried to justify his comradeship in arms with Chang Kai Shek —“lies in the fact that it identifies the revolution of 1905 in Russia — in an imperialist country oppressing other peoples, with the revolution in China, an oppressed country. It is astonishing even in Stalin that he has never thought of viewing the revolution in Russia, not from the standpoint of the nation “oppressing other peoples,” but from the standpoint of the experience of these same “other peoples” of Russia who have suffered no less oppression than the Chinese.
In that gigantic field of experience represented by Russia in the course of her three revolutions, you can find every variant of national and class struggle except one: that in which the bourgeoisie of any oppressed nation played a liberating role in relation to its own people. At every stage of its development every borderland bourgeoisie, no matter in what colours it might dance, was invariably dependent upon the central banks, trusts, and commercial institutions which were in essence the agents of all Russian capital. They subjected the bourgeoisie to the Russifying movement, and subjected to the bourgeoisie broad circles of the liberal and democratic intelligentsia. The more “mature” a borderland bourgeoisie might be, the more closely was it bound up with the general state machine. Taken as a whole, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation played the same role in relation to the ruling bourgeoisie that the latter played in relation to international finance capital. The complex hierarchy of antagonisms and dependencies did not remove for one single day the fundamental solidarity of the three in the struggle against the insurrectionary masses.
In the period of counter-revolution (1907-1917), when the leadership of the national movements was in the hands of the native bourgeoisie, they were even more candid than the Russian liberals in seeking a working agreement with the Russian monarchy. The Polish, Baltic, Tartar, Ukrainian, Jewish bourgeois vied with each other in the display of imperialist patriotism. After the February revolution they hid behind the backs of the Kadets — or, like the Kadets, behind the backs of their own national Compromisers. The bourgeoisie of the border nations entered the road of separatism in the autumn of 1917, not in a struggle against national oppression, but in a struggle against the advancing proletarian revolution. In sum total the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations manifested no less hostility to the revolution than the Great Russian bourgeoisie.
This gigantic historic lesson of three revolutions has left not a trace, however, in the minds of many of those who took part in the events — notably in the mind of Stalin. The Compromisist — that is, petty bourgeois — conception of the correlation of classes within colonial nations, that conception which killed the Chinese revolution of 1925-1927, has even been introduced by the Epigones into the program of the Communist International, converting this program in that section into a mere trap for the oppressed peoples of the East.
In order to understand the real character of Lenin’s policy on the national question, it is a good idea — following the method of contrasts — to compare it with the policy of the Austrian social democrats. Bolshevism based itself upon the assumption of an outbreak of national revolutions continuing for decades to come, and instructed the advanced workers in this spirit. The Austrian social democracy, on the contrary, submissively accommodated itself to the policy of the ruling classes; it defended the compulsory co-citizenship of ten nations in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and at the same time, being absolutely incapable of achieving a revolutionary union of the workers of these different nationalities, fenced them off in the party and in the trade unions with vertical partitions. Karl Renner, an educated Hapsburg functionary, was never tired of probing the inkwells of Austro-Marxism in search of some means of rejuvenating the rule of the Hapsburgs — until one day he found himself the bereaved theoretician of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. When the Central Empires were crushed, the Hapsburg dynasty again tried to raise the banner of a federation of autonomous nations under its sceptre. The official program of the Austrian social democracy, based as it was upon the assumption of a peaceful development within the framework of the monarchy, now became in one second the program of the monarchy itself, covered with the bloody filth of its four years of war. But that rusty hoop which had bound ten nations together flew to pieces. Austria-Hungary fell apart as a result of internal centrifugal tendencies reinforced by the surgery of Versailles. New states were formed, and the old ones reconstructed. The Austrian Germans hung over an abyss. Their problem was no longer to preserve their dominance over other nations, but to avoid falling themselves under a foreign yoke. And Otto Bauer, representing the “left” wing of the Austrian social democracy, considered this a suitable moment to bring forward the formula of national self-determination. That program which during the preceding decades should have inspired the struggle of the proletariat against the Hapsburgs and the ruling bourgeoisie, was now brought in as an instrument of self-preservation for the nation which had dominated yesterday, but today was in danger from the side of the liberated Slavic peoples. Just as the reformist program of the Austrian social democracy had become in the wink of an eye the straw at which a drowning monarchy tried to grab, so the formula of self-determination, emasculated by these Austro-Marxists, was now to become the anchor of salvation for the German bourgeoisie.
On October 3, 1918, when the matter no longer depended on them in the slightest degree, the social democratic deputies of the Reichsrath magnanimously “recognised” the right of the peoples of the former empire to self-determination. On October 4th, the bourgeois parties also adopted the program of self-determination. Having thus outstripped the Austro-German imperialists by one day, the social democrats immediately resumed their waiting policy, it being still uncertain what turn things would take and what Wilson was going to say. Only on the 13th of October, when the conclusive collapse of the army and the monarchy had created — in the words of Otto Bauer — “the revolutionary situation for which our national program was designed”, did the Austro-Marxists raise the question of self-determination in a practical form. In very truth they had now nothing to lose. “With the collapse of its rulership over other nations,” explains Bauer quite frankly, “the German national bourgeoisie considered at an end that historic mission in whose cause it had voluntarily suffered a separation from the German fatherland.” Thus the new program was put in circulation not because it was needful to the oppressed, but because it had ceased to be dangerous to the oppressors. The possessing classes, driven into a tight place historically, had found themselves obliged to recognise the national revolution juridically, and Austro-Marxism found this an appropriate moment to legitimise it theoretically. This was a mature revolution, they said, timely, historically prepared — it is all over anyway. The spirit of the social democracy is here before us as though in the palm of the hand!
It was quite otherwise with the social revolution, which could not hope for any recognition from the possessing classes. This had to be postponed, compromised, robbed of glory. Since the empire had split up along the weakest, that is the national, seams, Otto Bauer drew the following conclusion as to the character of the revolution: “It was by no means a social, but a national revolution.” In reality the movement had had from the very beginning a deep social-revolutionary content. Its “purely national” character is fairly well illustrated by the fact that the possessing classes of Austria openly invited the Entente to take prisoner the whole army. The German bourgeoisie beseeched the Italian general to seize Vienna with Italian troops!
This vulgar and pedantic separation of national form from social content in the revolutionary process, as though they constituted two independent historic stages — we see here how closely Otto Bauer approaches Stalin! — had an extremely utilitarian destination. Its purpose was to justify the collaboration of the social democracy with the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the danger of social revolution.
If you adopt the formula of Marx that revolution is the locomotive of history, then Austro-Marxism occupies the position of the brake. Even after the actual collapse of the monarchy, the social democracy, called to participate in the government, was still unable to make up its mind to a rupture with the old Hapsburg ministry. The “national” revolution limited itself to reinforcing the old ministers with state secretaries. Only after October 9th, when the German revolution had thrown out the Hohenzollern, did the Austrian social democrats propose to the State Council that they proclaim a republic, frightening their bourgeois partners into it with the movement of the masses at which they were already themselves quaking to the marrow of their bones. “The Christian Socialists,” says Otto Bauer with imprudent irony, “who on the 9th and 10th of November were still on the side of the monarchy, decided on November 11 to cease their resistance. For two whole days the social democrats were in advance of this party of the Black Hundred Monarchy! All the heroic legends of humanity grow pale before this revolutionary audacity.
Against its will the Austrian social democracy took its place automatically from the beginning of the revolution at the head of the nation, just as had the Russian Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Like them too it feared above all things its own power. In the coalition government the social democrats tried to occupy just as small a place as possible. Otto Bauer explains this as follows:
“The fact that the social democrats at first demanded only a modest participation in the government corresponded primarily to the purely national character of the revolution.” The question of power was decided by those people not on a basis of the real correlation of forces, the might of the revolutionary movement, the bankruptcy of the ruling classes, the political influence of the party, but by a pedantic little label “purely national revolution” pasted by some wiseacre classifiers upon the actual course of events.
Karl Renner waited out the storm in the position of head secretary of the State Council. The other social democratic leaders converted themselves into assistants of the bourgeois ministers. In other words, the social democrats hid under the office tables. The masses, however, were not satisfied to feed on the national shell of that nut whose social meat the Austro-Marxists were saving up for the bourgeoisie. The workers and soldiers shoved out the bourgeois ministers and compelled the social democrats to come out of hiding. The irreplaceable theoretician, Otto Bauer, explains this also: “Only the events of the following days, driving the national revolution over to the side of social revolution, increased our weight in the government.” To translate this into intelligible language: under the assault of the masses, the social democrats were compelled to crawl out from under the tables.
But this did not change their function for a moment. They took the power, but only to start a war against romanticism and adventurism, with which titles these sycophants now designated that same social revolution which had “increased their weight in the government”. If these Austro-Marxists successfully fulfilled in 1918 their historic mission as guardian angels protecting the Vienna Kreditanstalt from the revolutionary romanticism of the proletariat, it is only because they met no obstacle from the side of a genuine revolutionary party.
The two states composed of nationalities, Russian and Austria-Hungary, have with their most recent fate set a seal upon the difference between Bolshevism and Austro-Marxism. Throughout a decade and a half Lenin, in implacable conflict with all shades of Great Russian chauvinism, preached the right of all oppressed nations to cut away from the empire of the czars. The Bolsheviks were accused of aspiring toward the dismemberment of Russia, but this bold revolutionary formulation of the national problem won for the Bolshevik party the indestructible confidence of the small and oppressed peoples of czarist Russia. In April 1917 Lenin said: “If the Ukranians see that we have a Soviet republic they will not cut away, but if we have a Miliukov republic they will.” In this he proved right. History has provided an incomparable check-up of the two policies on the national question. Whereas Austria-Hungary, whose proletariat was educated in the spirit of a cowardly halfway policy, went all to pieces under a formidable shake-up, and moreover the initiative in this process was taken in the main by the national sections of the social democratic party, in Russia on the ruins of czarism a new state composed of nationalities has been formed, and has been closely welded together both economically and politically by the Bolshevik Party.
Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union — and it is still far from a quiet haven — the national policy of Lenin will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind.