The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, March 6, 2014

How Lenin viewed oppressed nations

Lenin's Fight For Self-Determination Of Oppressed Nations  

Reprinted below are several excerpts from Lenin's Final Fight: Speeches and Writings, 1922-23, a new title published by Pathfinder Press.

In the final months of his life, Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin waged a political fight to maintain the communist course that had led the workers and peasants to power over the landlords and capitalists. A central part of that course was defending the rights of the historically oppressed nationalities in the old tsarist "prisonhouse of nations."

The right to self-determination was asserted by one of the first decrees of the newly established Soviet government in November 1917 and codified by the third Soviet congress in January of the following year. That congress passed a resolution "leaving it to the workers and peasants of each nation to decide independently at their own authoritative congress of soviets whether they wish to participate in the federal government and in the other federal Soviet institutions, and on what terms."

In September 1922, Joseph Stalin drafted a resolution on relations between the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the various independent republics. Lenin sharply criticized the draft document, which called for the "formal entry" of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, into the Russian Soviet Federation.

"We consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR, and others equal and enter with them on an equal basis into a new union, a new federation, the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia," Lenin explained.

The final resolution, also drafted by Stalin and approved by the Communist party's Central Committee, incorporated many of Lenin's proposals. It also called for three of the republics-Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan-to be admitted to the new union not as full members, but as components of the Transcaucasian Federation.

When Georgian Communist leaders argued that the republic should be admitted as an independent entity, Grigory Ordzhonikidze, the Central Committee's representative in Georgia reacted by disciplining the Georgian leaders, ordering a number of them to leave Georgia and place themselves at the disposal of the Central Committee of the party in Russia.

At the end of October, nine of the 11 members of the Georgian Central Committee resigned in protest. Ordzhonikidze quickly replaced them with his supporters, who agreed to the proposed terms for the new federation. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed on Dec. 30, 1922.

The following month, at a private party in his apartment in Tiflis, Georgia, Ordzhonikidze flew into a rage and struck one of the dissenting Georgian Communists. This fact came to light during the investigation by a Political Bureau- appointed commission of inquiry proposed by Stalin and headed by Feliks Dzerzhinsky. The commission's report, which Dzerzhinsky summarized to Lenin on December 12, sustained Ordzhonikidze.

Lenin, however, was not satisfied with the commission report and charged his secretaries with thoroughly reviewing it. Their report, which challenged many of the conclusions of the Dzerzhinsky commission, was suppressed by the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union headed by Joseph Stalin and his political heirs. It is printed for the first time in Lenin's Final Fight.

The excerpts reprinted below were dictated by Lenin to his secretaries in December 1922 as part of his "Letter to the Party Congress," directed to the 12th congress of the Russian Communist Party, which was scheduled for March 1923.

Lenin's Final Fight is ©1995 by Pathfinder. Reprinted by permission.


In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.

In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. It is sufficient to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated; how the Poles are not called by any other name than Polyachishka, how the Tatar is nicknamed Prince, how the Ukrainians are always Khokhols and the Georgians and other Caucasian nationals always Kapkasians.

That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or "great" nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality, through which the oppressor nation, the great nation, would compensate for the inequality which obtains in real life. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question; he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.

What is important for the proletarian? For the proletarian it is not only important, it is absolutely essential that he should be assured that the non-Russians place the greatest possible trust in the proletarian class struggle. What is needed to ensure this? Not merely formal equality. In one way or another, by one's attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russians for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the "dominant" nation subjected them in the past.

I think it is unnecessary to explain this to Bolsheviks, to Communists, in greater detail. And I think that in the present instance, as far as the Georgian nation is concerned, we have a typical case in which a genuinely proletarian attitude makes profound caution, thoughtfulness, and a readiness to compromise a matter of necessity for us. The Georgian who is disdainful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of "nationalist socialism" (whereas he himself is a real and true "nationalist socialist" and even a vulgar Great Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice.

"Offended" nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades. That is why in this case it is better to overdo rather than underdo the concessions and leniency towards the national minorities. That is why, in this case, the fundamental interest of proletarian solidarity and consequently of the proletarian class struggle requires that we never adopt a formal attitude to the national question, but always take into account the specific attitude of the proletarian of the oppressed (or small) nation towards the oppressor (or great) nation.

December 31, 1922

What practical measures must be taken in the present situation?

First, we must maintain and strengthen the union of socialist republics. Of this there can be no doubt. This measure is necessary for us and it is necessary for the world communist proletariat in its struggle against the world bourgeoisie and its defense against bourgeois intrigues.

Second, the union of socialist republics must be retained for its diplomatic apparatus. By the way, this apparatus is an exceptional component of our state apparatus. We have not allowed a single influential person from the old tsarist apparatus into it. All sections with any authority are composed of Communists. That is why it has already won for itself (this may be said boldly) the name of a reliable communist apparatus purged to an incomparably greater extent of the old tsarist, bourgeois, and petty-bourgeois elements than that which we have had to make do with in other people's commissariats.

Third, exemplary punishment must be inflicted on Comrade Ordzhonikidze (I say this all the more regretfully as I am one of his personal friends and have worked with him abroad), and the investigation of all the material which Dzerzhinsky's commission has collected must be supplemented or started over again to correct the enormous mass of wrongs and biased judgments which it doubtlessly contains. The political responsibility for all this truly Great Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.

Fourth, the strictest rules must be introduced on the use of the national language in the non-Russian republics of our union, and these rules must be checked with special care. There is no doubt that our apparatus being what it is, there is bound to be, on the pretext of unity in the railway service, unity in the fiscal service and so on, a mass of truly Russian abuses. Special ingenuity is necessary for the struggle against these abuses, not to mention special sincerity on the part of those who undertake this struggle. A detailed code will be required and only the nationals living in the republic in question can draw it up at all successfully.

Moreover we must not in any way reject in advance that as a result of all this work we may well take a step backward at our next Congress of Soviets, namely, retaining the union of Soviet socialist republics only for military and diplomatic affairs and in all other respects restoring full independence to the individual people's commissariats.

It must be borne in mind that the decentralization of the people's commissariats and the lack of coordination in their work as far as Moscow and other centers are concerned can be compensated sufficiently by party authority if it is exercised with sufficient prudence and impartiality. The harm that can result to our state from a lack of unification between the national apparatuses and the Russian apparatus is infinitely less than that which will be done not only to us but to the whole International and to the hundreds of millions of the peoples of Asia, which are destined to follow us onto the stage of history in the near future.

It would be unpardonable opportunism if, on the eve of the debut of the East, just as it is awakening, we undermined our prestige with its peoples, even if only by the slightest crudity or injustice towards our own non-Russian nationalities. The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it.

It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defense of the struggle against imperialism. But the morrow of world history will be a day when the awakening peoples oppressed by imperialism are finally aroused and the decisive long and hard struggle for their liberation begins.

December 31, 1922 

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