The Self-Determination of Nations: The Theory and Practice (Ukraine and Georgia)

Annette Franz and Dave Hollis

Theoretical Approaches to the National Question According to Marx and Engels
To understand the events that took place in the first years after the Russian Revolution that were decisive for the national question, it is necessary to look at the Marxist theories of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

To start with, one will look in vain for a coherent theory of the national question. This goes not only for Marx and Engels but also for the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg and Kautsky. One exception is certainly represented by Otto Bauer.

Already in 1848 Marx recognised that the productive forces would deeply influence the national state. However, very early on, he claimed that within the working class nationality was already dead, and that it represented the disintegration of classes and nationalities.

The attitude of Marx and Engels can be subdivided into roughly three aspects:

• There was the difference between "the large and well defined European nations" (Italy, Poland, Germany and Hungary were named), which were to be supported by all European Democrats, and "the numerous small relics of peoples", which after they appeared for a shorter or longer time on the stage of history were to be finally absorbed as an entirety in one or other of these more powerful nations. Further these smaller "nationalities" were either inventions or tools of Russian Pan-Slavism and their demands and claims earned no support.

• Marx and Engels supported demands whose realisation would push forward World Revolution. The only exception to this was Poland. Every other peasant nationalism was classified as reactionary.

• It was an axiom of progressive nineteenth century thought that Russia was by definition reactionary.

This dividing up of the world into progressive and reactionary nations was linked to a fairly racist attitude to the latter. Rosdolsky quotes in his book on Engels’ attitude to the "historyless" peoples his articles "Hungary" and "The Democratic Pan-Slavism". In the final part of the second article he quotes among other things:

"At that time the fate of the East European Revolution depended where the Czechs and Southern Slavs stood; we will always remember that at the decisive moment they betrayed the revolution to Petersburg and Olmütz for the sake of their petty national hopes ... ! We will some day take bloody revenge on the Slavs for their cowardly and despicable betrayal of the revolution."

And in the final part of the article entitled "Hungary": "At the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat … the Austro-Germans and Magyar will be freed and will take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war which will subsequently break out will blow apart this Slavic special alliance, and will exterminate all these small stubborn nations right down to their names. The next war will not only make reactionary classes and dynasties disappear from the face of the earth but also whole reactionary peoples. And that is also progress."

The attitude of Marx and Engels changed over time. Before 1850 they did not develop a recognisable theory of national self-determination. Through the Polish uprising of 1863 the right of self-determination was taken up in the programme of the International. Engels revised his attitude to the Danish claim of Schleswig and Marx later spoke in favour of Ireland’s separation from England.

The National Question from 1899 to 1917 in the Russian Social Democracy
The right to self-determination was taken up in 1898 in the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democracy. In 1903 this right was also to be found in the party programme. From this time on the right to self-determination was disputed. Above all by the Polish SDKPiL and its most famous representative Rosa Luxemburg.

As with Marx and Engels, Lenin’s attitude also went through certain developments. His original attitude to the question was of self-determination for the working class. On the position of the Armenian Social Democracy for Armenian self-determination he wrote: "We on our part concern ourselves with the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than for the self-determination of peoples."

Moreover Lenin was against the concept of the Austrian Social Democracy, which was for a scheme of national cultural autonomy. These ideas were taken up in Russia by the Bund, the oldest Social Democratic organisation in Russia. They saw themselves as the only representative of the Jewish proletariat. At the foundation of the RSDLP the Bund was admitted as an autonomous organisation in all questions concerning the Jewish proletariat. At the second congress this unique representation was denied and it drew back from the congress and the party. At the fourth congress of the RSDLP it was taken up again.

Lenin’s position on the national question can be found directly in Stalin’s essay "Marxism and the National Question", written in 1913. It is generally accepted that this essay was inspired by Lenin. This work can be considered as the standard work in the party literature on this topic. In it Stalin defines the nation thus: "A nation is an historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, a common area, territory, economic life and psychological make up manifested in a common culture. If one of these factors is missing it is not a nation."

It is immediately noticeable that according to these criteria Switzerland would not be a nation. Furthermore the requirement that the people see themselves as a nation is missing. In the essay the concepts nation and nationality are interchangeable. The examples of nationalism which Stalin names at the beginning of the essay are problematical. As examples he speaks of the spread of Zionism among the Jews although they were not to be regarded as a nation; the increase in chauvinism in Poland, certainly a disapproving use of the term "nationalism"; Pan-Slavism among the Tartars; the spread of nationalism among the Armenians, Georgians and Ukrainians, although at the time they were nationalities; the general tendency of the average person towards anti-Semitism.

The essay contains a polemic against the Austrian definition of a nation. Stalin has a two-sided view. Firstly, a nation is viewed as a historically proven form of state organisation at the time of the bourgeois revolution, and as such it enjoys a right to self-determination in the form of breaking away from an existing multinational state and this right cannot be denied it. Secondly the ultimate goal of socialism would be to replace the division of the world in "national bordered communities" by the principle of an "international solidarity of workers".

In 1913 the basic principles of the Bolshevik Party written by Lenin were adopted. They describe in a condensed form the position of the Bolsheviks and Lenin:

• In capitalist conditions the main desiderata are equality of rights for all nations and languages; the absence of an obligatory state language, school instruction in the local language, and a wide measure of provincial autonomy and local self-government.

• The principal of cultural-national autonomy and of separate national school administrations within a given state is rejected as inimical to democracy in general and to the interests of the class struggle in particular.

• The interests of the working class demand the union of all workers of a given state in proletarian organisations not divided on national lines.

• The party supports "the rights of the oppressed nations of the Tsarist monarchy to self-determination, i.e. to secession and the formation of an independent state".

• The desirability of the exercise of this right in any particular case will be judged by the party "from the point of view of the whole social development and of the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism".

In the same year Lenin mentioned two stages which he saw in the national question: Firstly the awakening of national life and national movements; the struggle against national oppression and the creation of national states. Secondly, the development of relationships between nations; the dissolving of national barriers; the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life, of politics, of science, etc. For him these two tendencies were the universal law of capitalism.

However, Lenin did not view the demands for national self-determination as something absolute: "The worker who places the political unity with the bourgeois of "his own" nation higher than full unity with the proletarians of all nations, acts against his own interest and against the interests of socialism and the interests of democracy."

With the start of the First World War, Lenin maintained that the contradictions of the capitalist system were so far advanced that the second stage, i.e. the social revolution, was imminent. Accordingly there was a change in the theory of self-determination of nations. In the theses of April 1916 the world was divide into three parts:

• The leading capitalist countries – Western Europe, the USA, in which bourgeois-progressive national movements were long since over.

• Eastern Europe, and in particular Russia where particularly developed bourgeois democratic movements had developed.

• Semi-colonial countries like China, Persia, Turkey, and all colonies where bourgeois democratic movements were just starting or were not completely developed.

From a bourgeois struggle for national freedom and against feudalism and autocracy now grew a struggle against bourgeois imperialism. From this the concept developed of an alliance between the movements of the third category, which had fought against imperialism, and the working class of the leading capitalist countries struggling against capitalism.

Critical Comments
With this portrayal we have not paid any attention to the disagreement between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. To do so here would be beyond the scope of the article. Due to the fact that the Polish writings in Germany are only incompletely published, it is generally only Lenin’s side of the argument is known What stands out on reading the English translation of Rosa Luxemburg’s article on the National Question is that Lenin avoided several very applicable criticisms. A portrayal of this disagreement still awaits further research.

As far as it is possible to speak of a theory of the National Question , Lenin’s standpoint was problematic. If actions are based on apparently "objective" interests of the working class, then almost anything goes. Because the principle of national self-determination is valued less than "the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat", any behaviour towards other nations can always be justified. For example Lenin wrote in the theses on Brest-Litovsk: "No Marxist, without renouncing the principles of Marxism and of socialism generally, can deny that the interests of socialism are higher than the interests of the right of nations to self-determination."

If one, however, follows Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments, the right to self-determination says nothing about how it is to be put into practice. It "gives no practical guidelines for the day to day politics of the politics of the proletariat, nor any practical solution of nationality problems".

The praxis of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine illustrates how they handled self-determination. Although the Bolsheviks already in 1917 recognised the right to self-determination, this right practically never existed.

What made the situation in the Ukraine more complicated was the fact that the proletariat, upon which the Bolsheviks were based, was mainly of Russian origin. The proletarians came predominantly from the north as migrants. For example Kharkov, the largest industrial and Russian town in the Ukraine, had no indigenous proletariat.

Because of the cultivation of wheat the Ukraine was very important for Russia before the revolution and also afterwards. Already at the beginning of 1918, when in Petrograd and Moscow hunger set in, Radek wrote in Pravda: "If you want food, cry ’Death to the Rada’."

Not until the 26 January/8 February 1918 could the Russian government take firm hold in the Ukraine, as Rada was overthrown by the Soviet army and a soviet government was installed. However, this government did not last long. The Rada called Germany to its aid. In March 1918 the Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. In April the Rada was once again ousted, and an amenable government installed.

The effects of these occurrences were reflected in the setting up of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of the Ukraine in April 1918. The conference decided to form an independent Communist Party. This party was split into centralists who were loyal to Moscow, and autonomists, who wanted an autonomous party. Later when the CP(B)U held its first congress, this resolution was thrown out. In its place a motion was passed in which the Ukrainian party was subordinated to the central committee of the RCP.

There was active resistance of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine to the Hetmanat government, which led to the left elements of the Ukrainian Social Democrats and the Left Social Revolutionaries supporting the Bolsheviks. The latter founded a separate party, the Borotbists. The Borotbists, who later joined the Bolsheviks, led to the Bolsheviks getting support in the country.

After the November 1918 revolution in Germany the power of the Germans in the Ukraine broke down. In January 1919 Rakovsky was named by Lenin as leader of the temporary government. In the spring of 1919 the Bolsheviks controlled the whole of East Ukraine. Soon afterwards the same measures of impounding wheat, etc., which had already taken place in Russia in 1918 started. The consequences were catastrophic. The rural population became estranged from the regime.

In March 1919 the third party congress of the CPU took place in Kharkov. At the elections for a new central committee the left won a majority. In the same month the eighth party congress of the RCP also took place. The party congress reacted to the elections by deciding: "It is necessary to have a unified communist party with a unified central committee ... All decisions of the RCP and its leading organs are absolutely binding for all parts of the party, independent of their national composition. The central committees of the Ukrainian, Lettish and Lithuanian communists are conferred the rights of regional committees of the party; they are to be unreservedly subordinate to the central committee of the RCP."

After the Russian Party had without any consideration disregarded the national feelings, the following was decided on the national question in direct contradiction to this:

"1. The cornerstone is the policy of drawing together the proletarians and semi-proletarians of the various nationalities for the purpose of waging a joint revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landlords and bourgeoisie.

"2. In order to overcome the distrust felt by the toiling masses of oppressed countries towards the proletariat of states which oppress these countries, it is necessary to abolish all privileges enjoyed by any national group whatsoever, to establish complete equality of rights for all nationalities, to recognise the right of colonies and non-sovereign nations to secession.

"3. With the same aim in view the party proposes, as one of the transitional forms to complete unity, a federal union of states organised on the Soviet model.

"4. On the question who is to express the nation’s will to secede, the Russian Communist Party adopts the class-historical viewpoint, taking into consideration the stage of historical development of the given nation: whether it is evolving from medievalism to bourgeois democracy or from bourgeois democracy to Soviet or proletarian democracy, etc.

"In any case, the proletariat of the nations which have been oppressing nations must exercise special caution and pay special attention to the survivals of national sentiment among the toiling masses of oppressed or non-sovereign nations. Only by pursuing such a policy will it be possible to create conditions for really lasting, voluntary unity among nationally differentiated elements of the international proletariat, as has been shown by the experience of the union of a number of national Soviet republics around Soviet Russia."

The regime in the Ukraine collapsed when the White troops with support of the British and the French carried out a successful offensive in the middle of 1919. Thereupon the CPU was dissolved. Many of the members were transferred to party positions in Russia and the CPU brought under the control of the RCP.

It took until December 1919 before the Ukraine could again be brought under Soviet-Russian control. A new provisional government of the Ukraine was formed consisting at the top of Rakovsky, Petrovsky and Manuilsky. The central committee of the RCP recognised the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as an independent state linked federally to the USSR.

At the fourth party conference of the CPU, March 1920, the policy of the former central committee was severely attacked by several delegates. The dissolution of the CP likewise. "The third All-Ukrainian Party Conference chose it. It was accountable to it and no-one else could send it away." Rakovsky tried to defend the actions of the RCP when he said that in the face of the weakness of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine a central committee of one’s own would be a luxury. The animosity towards the RCP and the prominent party leaders in the Ukraine led to Rakovsky as well Manuilsky, Kossior and Jakovlev not being elected to the central committee.

Rakovsky was defended by Lenin at the Ninth Party Congress of the RCP: "The majority with Sapronov at the top have spoken out against comrade Rakovsky and started a hounding which absolutely cannot be tolerated. We state that we will not recognise this decision of a regional congress. That is the decision of the central committee … we say that we will not recognise this conference of Comrade Sapronov."

The central committee chosen at the Fourth Party Congress in the presence of Stalin was dissolved in April by the RCP and a "temporary" central committee set up, to which Rakovsky, Manuilsky and Kossior belonged. The reason given for this was that the CPU was internally divided, and thereby incapable of choosing a central committee.

In the order from Moscow was: "Under these circumstances the central committee of the RCP considers it necessary to create a provisional central committee of the CPU whose composition reflects the will of the overwhelming majority of the RCP as was revealed at the last Party congress, and which is capable of taking on the leadership of all truly communist elements of the Ukrainian working class in rebuilding the Ukraine." And later: "The basic requirement for a healthy party and Soviet work in the Ukraine is a strong purging of the Party ranks of the CPU. The CPU is full of unprincipled opportunists, fellow-travellers … demagogic elements, semi-Makhnoists and splitters who must be eliminated or punished."

It was also instructed to transfer those responsible to Greater Russia, i.e. the CPU was purged with the aim of carrying through the "will of the RCP" as the guiding principle for action. The result of this purging could be seen three years later when Rakovsky led an open struggle against the centralisation from Moscow. Stalin was easily able to remove him.

On the 26 May 1918, Georgia declared its independence. In the same month Georgia sealed a treaty with Germany on the recognition of the borders of Brest Litovsk. At the same time thereby Georgia was given recognition by Germany (first of all only England took this step). In February the first elections took place in Georgia in which the Mensheviks were the clear victors. Although the working class in Georgia was very small it was very active. Additionally, the Mensheviks had managed to also create a firm foundation in the countryside. The first measures taken by the Menshevik Government were the creation of a Georgian school system; the foundation of a Georgian University in Tiflis; a land reform and the creation of a social legislature. On the 7 May 1920, a friendship treaty was sealed with Soviet Russia, which contained recognition of the young state and a renunciation of territorial claims.

Less than a year later, on the 11-12 February 1921 a military intervention by Soviet Russia began and the month ended with the seizure of Tiflis. A Bolshevik government was installed by Soviet Russia. This intevention was viewed quite differently by two contemporaries, Karl Kautsky and Leon Trotsky.

Kautsky, who had visited Georgia in September 1920 with a Social Democratic delegation wrote in a report about this visit, which was subsequently expanded with a second foreword and two more chapters: "Whatever may become the fate of such a kind and enthusiastic people at the hands of the Bolshevik terror, the one thing that cannot be extinguished is the historical importance of the methods of Georgian socialism." He continues: "Only the replacement of Bolshevik methods by Menshevik methods, as were so happily employed in Georgia, would be capable of preventing the flight of the hitherto revolutionary peasantry, led by the proletariat, into the camp of the enemies of the proletariat."

Leon Trotsky’s view of the situation and his understanding of self-determination of other people differ completely at this point in time: "We do not only recognise, but we also give full support to the principle of self-determination, wherever it is directed against feudal, capitalist and imperialist states. But wherever the fiction of self-determination, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, becomes a weapon against the proletarian revolution, we have no occasion to treat this fiction differently from other “principles” of democracy perverted by capitalism."

Elsewhere he tries to protest against the criticisms of the leading Social Democrats among whom Kautsky is mentioned by name. He writes: "We know not only that the Georgian Mensheviks participated in all intrigues against the Soviet Republic, but also that independent Georgia was established to serve as a weapon in the imperialist and civil wars against the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic."

The integration of Georgia into the later USSR occurred from 1921 in the following steps: In 1921 Lenin suggested the federation of the three Caucasian Republics mainly with regard to economic union (particularly in the areas of communication, post, and foreigntrade). This was completed through the founding of the Trans-Caucasian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic with Armenia and Azerbaijan in spring 1922. A further decisive point became apparent in the summer/autumn of 1922 when Stalin (The Peoples’ Commissar for Nationalities) submitted his draft "On the mutual relationships of RSFSR and the independent republics". The Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party refused its approval of this autonomisation project. In October, after internal disputes, Lenin authorised the draft on the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. In Georgia this led to large demonstrations for maintaining independence in which also the Georgian Communist Party took part. The central committee of the Georgian Communist Party was shortly thereafter forced by Moscow to resign. In the summer of 1923 the communist opposition was completely crushed and the Georgian CP purged.

From the point of view of the theory, what happened in the Ukraine and Georgia, for all their differences, was understandable. Lenin was of the opinion that it was important not to divide organisations at a national level, whereby the independent development of parties was not accepted in the non-Russian areas. The building up of the Communist International was based on similar considerations.

However, there is in this construction the problem that minorities, be they nationalities, nations or political factions, are dependent on the "goodwill" of the majority. The degrading of the Ukrainian CP and the other national parties to a regional party could in the face of earlier Russian history only do damage. What one later called Stalinism already had its origins in the first years of the revolution. The national question was thereby in no way solved in the Soviet Union. As we can see today in the former Soviet Union, more likely it was only aggravated.

Translated by Kathryn Pickford and transcribed by Joe Rassool.