How Lenin fought to defend Georgia’s self-determination
The Pathfinder book Lenin’s Final Fight contains valuable documentary material on the place of Georgia and the national question in the battle by V.I. Lenin to defend the communist course of the October 1917 Russian Revolution against challenges raised by a narrow, nationalist, petty-bourgeois layer that arose in the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin.
Printed below is an excerpt from a review of Lenin’s Final Fight that appeared in the June 5, 1995, Militant.
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
Readers will find it hard to put down this book as they follow Lenin’s struggle week by week, sometimes day by day, taking up political issues that remain vitally relevant today. Lenin discusses questions including the need to forge a union of workers and peasants republics, to defend the rights of oppressed nationalities and combat Great Russian chauvinism, and to strengthen the alliance between the working class and the peasantry. He takes up the New Economic Policy and its place in the world struggle for socialism, and defends the state monopoly of foreign trade.
These questions, as the book’s introduction notes, “deal with the most decisive piece of unfinished business in front of those who produce the wealth of the world and make possible culture: they deal with the worldwide struggle, opened by the Bolshevik-led revolution nearly eighty years ago, to replace the dictatorship of a tiny minority of exploiting capitalists families with the dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, a workers state.
The revolutionary government that came to power in October 1917 was based on councils of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ delegates called soviets, the Russian word for council.
It mobilized peasants to expropriate the big landlords’ estates and distribute the nationalized land to be worked by the tillers. It freed oppressed peoples who had been under the tsarist boot of Russian oppression from Ukraine to Mongolia, and guaranteed their right to national self-determination—the first government in the world to do so.
The Bolshevik leadership organized workers to expropriate capitalist property in industry, banking, and wholesale trade, and established a state monopoly of foreign trade.
In September 1922, just a few months before the stroke that finally debilitated him, Lenin launched a political fight around the question of the Georgian republic and of the voluntary union of Soviet republics.
In a letter to the party’s Political Bureau and addressed to Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev, Lenin criticizes the proposal by Joseph Stalin, the CP’s general secretary, to incorporate five independent Soviet republics—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, and Ukraine—into the Russian Federation as “autonomous republics.” The book reprints the text of Stalin’s initial plan.
Lenin proposes a completely different approach: that Russia join with the other republics “on an equal basis into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
This stance was crucial, given the strong proindependence sentiments of working people in Georgia and other Soviet republics in the Caucasus because of Russian tsarist domination in the past. The Georgian Communist Party had rejected Stalin’s “autonomization” plan and favored remaining independent as part of a Soviet federation.
Lenin’s Final Fight documents how Lenin waged a political debate to win other members of the Bolshevik leadership to a proletarian internationalist stance on this question. This fight was based on one of the major conquests of the October 1917 revolution: the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination.
‘War to the death’
Through the efforts of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded as a federation of equals at the end of 1922. But Lenin felt compelled to “declare war to the death on dominant nation chauvinism,” as he put it in an October 6 memo to the party’s Political Bureau.
In a series of notes addressed in December 1922 to the upcoming 12th party congress, Lenin makes some of his sharpest and most concise statements on the national question. Referring to the argument by some Russian Communist leaders that a single government is needed to rule over all the Soviet republics, he states, “Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?”
He adds that without a conscious approach of preferential treatment toward the historically oppressed nations—an affirmative action policy—all talk of a voluntary federation “will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”
Lenin condemns Stalin for his “spite against the notorious ‘nationalist socialism.’” Stalin had accused the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party of “nationalist deviations,” saying these should be “burned out with a red-hot iron.”
Lenin’s concern about Great Russian chauvinism was well-founded. Stalin and Grigory Ordzhonikidze, another Central Committee member, resorted to strong-arm tactics to try to ram through their policies on the national question. In protest, the Georgian CC resigned. The conflict flared up in late November when Ordzhonikidze struck one of the dissident Georgian communists during a verbal confrontation. This fact came to light through an investigation by a Political Bureau-appointed commission, headed by Russian CC member Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
Over the final months of 1922, Lenin’s doubts about the conduct of Stalin and his allies around the Georgian question mounted. Lenin organized three of his personal secretaries to carry out a separate investigation in February and March 1923 to verify the Dzerzhinsky commission’s account. They reported to Lenin that Dzerzhinsky had basically whitewashed the abusive policies of Ordzhonikidze and Stalin.
This report—kept secret by Moscow until the collapse of the Stalinist apparatus in the former USSR in 1991—appears in this volume for the first time in any language.