Reply to the MLP: Proletarian Socialist Revolution Against the 'Right of Nations to Self-Determination'

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In previous issues of the International Review[1]we have published a considerable amount of correspondence with the Marxist Labour Party in Russia. The main focus of this exchange has been our disagreements about the problem of capitalism’s decadence and its implications for certain key questions, notably the class nature of the October revolution and the problem of “national liberation”.

Following an ICC trip to Moscow in October 2002, we encountered different elements claiming adherence to the MLP, and heard news of a split within the group. There are now two MLPs, one which refers to itself as the MLP (Bolshevik) and the other – the current with which we have conducted the debate so far – the MLP (Southern Bureau). In order to clarify a rather confusing situation, and to understand better the real position of the MLP concerning fundamental questions of proletarian internationalism, we wrote to the MLP (SB) with a series of questions (for the rest of this article, MLP refers to the MLP (SB) unless otherwise stated). These questions are reproduced (in italics) in the MLP’s reply, which we reprint below. There then follows our reply to the MLP’s letter, which again concentrates on our differences over the national question.

There has since been a further response by the MLP, which we will come back to in the next issue of the Review, as well as developing our response to other issues raised by the letter printed below, in particular anti-fascism and the nature of the Second World War.

Letter From the MLP


Though your letter was addressed to the “South Bureau of the MLP”, we have brought its contents to our fellows in the organisation who live not only in the south of Russia.

Our collective answer to you is such:

1) Do you consider the support of national liberation struggles possible in the 20th century?

We hold that before speaking for or against the support of national-liberation struggles in the 20th century, one should gain an understanding of what itself the national-liberation struggle on the whole is. But in its turn, it is difficult to be done, if a more or less clear determination to “nation” has not been previously given.

Besides, in our opinion, one should clarify, what was Marx and Engels’ attitude towards this question in their time, as well as what was the position of the Bolsheviks-Leninists in this connection - both before and after the October revolution 1917. Finally, one should consider the evolution of views of the Comintern on the given problems…

2) Do you recognise a “right of nations of self-determination” or do you reject such a formula?

The national-liberation movement is an objective thing. Having set a high standard, it indicates that one or another people has embarked on the path of its own capitalist development and that the corresponding ethnic group either is on the threshold of turning into the BOURGEOIS nation, or has already turned into it.

In contrast to what the Bolshevik-Comintern tradition orders, offering not only to support national-liberation movements as progressive-bourgeois ones, but even orientating to create communist(!) parties in backward countries, parties consisting of the peasantry under the leadership of the national progressive-revolutionary intelligentsia, and to fight for the establishment of Soviet power in the absence or minimum presence of the industrial proletariat there (the notorious theory of “non-capitalist development” or “socialist orientation in developing countries”), the MLP (not to be confused with the MLP(B)!) considers that the support for national-liberation movements creates only an illusion of solving the social problems in national borders. In particular, this illusion finds its expression in the “Marxist-Leninist” slogan: “From the national liberation to the social one!”

It is only the world social revolution that will be able to solve national problems among other ones.

The participation in whichever national-liberation movement, i.e. in the fight for the state separation of one more bourgeois nation, is not a special task for marxists.

At the same time we are not opponents of national-liberation movements. As, for instance, of the political movement coming out in favour of separating Chechnya from Russia, in which some members of the MLP (B) actively participate.

If the majority of the population of a certain nationality and on a determined historical territory has decided to use the “right of nations to self-determination” against the “imperialist expansion”, we shall not come out against such a position under two conditions:

a) if the territorial separation is able to stop the bloody slaughter with multiple victims amongst the working people from both sides;

b) if the state independence of a new bourgeois nation leads more quickly to the situation where inside this nation its own industrial proletariat will emerge and get stronger, which will then launch its class struggle against the local national bourgeoisie, no more digressing on the illusion of any “liberation” besides the social one. Before the proletarians of all countries can unite, proletarians in these countries must simply exist!

3) Do you consider all factions of the bourgeoisie equally reactionary in the 20th century – i.e. since the beginning of World War 1 – and if not – what are your criteria?

And here again it is necessary first to define what should be understood under “reaction(ism)”. The word “reactionary” in its primary sense means “counteracting progress” or, more exactly, “counteracting the advancement onward”. It is clear, however, that this definition is highly general.

Being marxists, we can and must speak of that sort of reactionism which prevents the longing to finish with both the bourgeois-capitalistic mode of production and the secondary (private-ownership and exploiting) formation as a whole, which prevents mankind from advancing to the “tertiary formation” - communism.

At the same time, the classics of marxism taught us to understand the progressiveness of the bourgeois-capitalistic mode of production with respect to the modes of production preceding it and to the more retarded social-economic structures co-existing with it within the framework of the secondary formation. They also taught us to distinguish the progressive stages of development of this mode of production itself. In our opinion, any other approach would be scholastic and dogmatic but not historical-dialectical!

In the 20th century petty bourgeois and peasant production was giving place to the large-scale capitalist one. From the marxist standpoint, the productive forces change the social structure of society in the course of their development. This is objectively progressive.

Hereinafter. In our opinion, with reference to the 20th century one should speak not of the decay of the capitalism as such, but only of the process by which the national-state form of capitalism outlives its necessity, i.e. a definite next-in-turn stage of its development becomes exhausted.

And we cannot say that with the beginning of WW1 the capitalism has unambiguously exhausted its progressiveness. In our opinion, this process gets under way only from the second half of the 20th century. The clear evidence of it being the present globalisation and economic unification of Europe, for example.

It is in our time that the capitalism has begun to exhaust its progressiveness.

There approaches the time to sweep it away on the international scale by means of the world social revolution.


ICC Reply

Communists and the National Question

Among the different questions posed in this correspondence we have chosen to answer first one question that to us is particularly important to clarify. It is also a question that is posed by the emerging elements and political groups in Russia. This is the national question and particularly the communist position in relation to national liberation struggles and the famous slogan of Lenin on the “rights of nations of self-determination”.

Although the MLP in their reply to our letter state that they do not support national liberation movements, because they “create only an illusion of solving the social problems in national borders”, they at the same time find certain occasions when they would not oppose them. This is when “the majority of the population of a certain nationality and on a determined historical territory has decided to use the ‘rights of nations for self determination’ against the ‘imperialist expansion’…”

These occasions are either when the separation would stop a bloody slaughter or if a new independent state would lead to the growth of the proletariat in that state and later lead to class struggle against the local national bourgeoisie.

What that means concretely for the MLP is that they are “not opponents of national-liberation movements. As for instance, of the political movement coming out in favour of separating Chechnya from Russia, in which some members of the MLP (B) actively participate”.

First of all we find it very strange when the MLP says they are not against national liberation movements but at the same time not in favour. Is the MLP indifferent or just only not actively fighting the ideology of national liberation, although according to them it can “create only illusions of solving the social problems in national borders”? What does the MLP mean when they write that participation in national liberation movements “is not a special task of marxists”? And yet the MLP do not oppose the activities of the membersof the MLP(B) who “actively participate” in a Chechyan separatist movement. What are we to make of this?

For us this expresses a highly opportunist position on the question of national liberation movements. We get the impression that this vagueness about taking position is only an opening for participation in these movements by certain members of the MLP. In fact the MLP’s position opens the door to support for any national liberation struggle, because it will always be possible to find a criterion that would apply.

It should be possible for the MLP to argue that national separation would stop a bloody slaughter on many occasions. For example, this position would logically have led the MLP in 1947 to have supported the separation of Pakistan from India to stop the massacres between Muslim and Hindu. The ensuing dispute over Jammu and Kashmir between Pakistan and India is perhaps also a good example how the “right of nations of self-determination” (now in the name of the British Independence Act) will only lead to further bloody slaughter. Today we see how the dangerous conflicts and constant tensions between Pakistan and India are threatening this highly populated area with millions of deaths through nuclear war between Pakistan and India – and this in addition to the all the deaths from the conflict over Kashmir.[2] This example shows just how absurd and completely un-marxist is the criterion that the MLP put forward as reasons for “not opposing” the separation of a new state.

The other criterion which the MLP uses is the hypothesis that a separation would lead to a development of industry and hence a development of the proletariat, and, in the end, the increase of the class struggle against the “local national bourgeoisie”.

As the MLP does not have the concept of a “decay of capitalism” (capitalism’s entrance into a phase of decadence from its progressive phase), at least not until the end of the 20th century, which for them was brought about by the globalisation of capitalism and the economic unification of Europe, they could logically apply it to a number of cases in the 20th century. For example there were several groups in the seventies in Europe which were close to proletarian positions in other respects, but on the question of national liberation during the 70s “critically” supported the NLF in Vietnam because, they argued, it would establish a new bourgeois state which would further industrialisation and develop the proletariat. As soon as the national bourgeoisie was victorious, they said, the proletariat should immediately turn itself against its own bourgeoisie. This false application of marxism was and is still today (at best) a cover for opportunist concessions to bourgeois ideology. This position is very close to Trotskyism which always find an excuse for supporting so-called national liberation struggles, when actually in this epoch these are nothing other than a cover for world wide imperialist conflicts.

These initial remarks oblige us to return to the question which we think is necessary to pose in a marxist framework (and which is also posed in the beginning of the MLP’s reply to our questions): what was the attitude of Marx and Engels in relation to national liberation struggles, and what was the position of communists on this question from within the Zimmerwald left up to the Comintern? Finally what must be the communist position on this today?

The Nation State

The MLP states correctly that before we take a position for or against national liberation struggles it is necessary to understand the nature of these struggles, and also to have a clear understanding what the concept of a nation means for marxists.

The concept of a nation is not an abstract and absolute concept but can only be understood within a historical context. Rosa Luxemburg gives one definition of this concept in her Junius Pamphlet:

“The national state, national unity and independence were the ideological shield under which the capitalist nations of central Europe constituted themselves in the past century. Capitalism is incompatible with economic and political divisions, with the accompanying splitting up into small states. It needs for its development large, united territories, and a state of mental and intellectual development in the nation that will lift the demands and the needs of society to the plane corresponding to the prevailing stage of capitalist production, and to the mechanism of modern state capitalist class rule. Before capitalism could develop, it sought to create for itself a territory sharply defined by national limitations.”

It was in this understanding that Marx and Engels on different occasions argued for support for certain national liberation struggles. But they never did that as a principle, only in cases where they thought the creation of new nation states could lead to a real development of capitalism against the feudal forces. The creation of new nation states could in Europe at that time only be accomplished by revolutionary measures and play a historically progressive role in the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the feudal power:

“The national programme could play a historic role only so long as it represented the ideological expression of a growing bourgeoisie, lusting for power, until it had fastened its class rule, in some way or other, upon the great nations of central Europe and had created within them the necessary tools and conditions of its growth” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet)

The method Marx and Engels used was not based on any abstract slogan but always on an analysis of each case, on an analysis of the political and economical development of the society. “Marx did not pay any attention to that abstract formula [of the “right of nations to self-determination”], and hurled thunderbolts at the heads of the Czechs and their aspiration for freedom, aspirations which he regarded as a harmful complication of the revolutionary situation, all the more deserving of severe condemnation, since, to Marx, the Czechs were a dying nationality, doomed to disappear soon.” (R. Luxemburg, The national question and autonomy)

Marx and Engels were not always right in their analysis, as Rosa Luxemburg was able to show for example with the case of Poland.

The definition of a nation is not based on some general abstract criterion like a common language and culture but on a precise historical context. In class society a nation is not something homogeneous but is divided into classes with antagonistic interests, views, cultures, ethics, etc. The abstract notion of “rights” of nations can only be “rights” of the bourgeoisie.

From this there can be no such thing as a uniform will of a nation, of a will to self-determination. Behind this slogan lies a concession to the idea that in order to reach socialism it is necessary to pass over the democratic stage. Behind this lies also the idea that there should be a way to determine the “will” of the people. The MLP uses the expression “The majority of the population of a certain nationality”. In this expression there are two abstract concepts. First the “will of the population” assumes that there is a peaceful way, over and above real class antagonisms, of deciding (maybe through a referendum – as was proposed by the Bolsheviks) the fate of nations. Secondly the use of the term “nationality” is very vague. If it denotes a specific ethnic or cultural group the relationship to national self-determination is very unclear.

The nation is a historical category and the creation of the nation state plays a certain role for the bourgeoisie historically. The nation state is not only a framework for the bourgeoisie to develop and defend its economy and system of exploitation, it is at the same time also an offensive against other nation states for political conquest and domination, for the suppression of other nations. So the “right of nations to self-determination” is in real life a “right”, like any other bourgeoisie, to suppress the “rights” of other nations, other ethnic groups, languages and cultures. The “rights of nations to self-determination” is nothing else than an abstract utopia, which can only let in by the back door the nationalism of the bourgeoisie.

Debate in the Zimmerwald Left

Within the Zimmerwald left - the internationalist current that most resolutely opposed the first world war - there arose a discussion on the question of the slogan “right of nations to self-determination”.

This slogan emanated from the Second International: “In the Second International it played a double role: on the one hand, it was supposed to express a protest against all national oppression, and on the other hand the readiness of Social Democracy to “defend the fatherland”. The slogan was applied to specific national questions only to avoid the necessity of investigating its concrete content and the tendencies of its development.” (‘Imperialism and National Oppression’[3])

The Dutch and Polish adherents of the Zimmerwald left rejected the slogan of the Bolsheviks. This was a position the Bolsheviks had inherited from social democracy. Rosa Luxemburg had very early - already in 1896 in relation to the congress in London of the Second International, and later together with Radek and others in the SDKPiL - criticised this slogan which they thought was an opportunist concession. Also within the Bolshevik party, represented by Pyatakov, Bosh and Bukharin, there was a critique of the slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination”. They based their critique on the fact that during the imperialist epoch:

“The answer to the bourgeoisies’ imperialist policy must be the socialist revolution of the proletariat; Social Democracy must not advance minimum demands in the fields of present-day foreign policy.

1. It is therefore impossible to struggle against the enslavement of nations other than through a struggle against imperialism. Ergo a struggle against imperialism; ergo a struggle against finance capital; ergo a struggle against capitalism in general. To turn aside from this path in any way and advance ‘partial’ tasks of the ‘liberation of nations’ within the limits of capitalist society diverts proletarian forces from the true solution of the problem and unites them with the forces of the bourgeoisie of the corresponding national groups.” (Theses on the Right of Nations to Self-determination, Pyatakov, Bosh, Bukharin, from the book Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary International, Pathfinder Press 1986).

Lenin had another answer to this question, which really underpinned the whole question of advancing minimum demands and the link between the national question and the question of democracy.

“It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practise full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.”[4]

There is in this passage a certain tendency to conflate “democracy” with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and more particularly, to see the forms of bourgeois democracy in the future proletarian dictatorship. This is false at many levels – not least because whereas proletarian rule can only maintain itself on a world scale, capitalist democracy is inevitably national in form, and inseparably connected to the nation state. Of even more immediate importance was the confusion between the struggle for democratic demands – including the “rights of nations” –and the struggle for proletarian power and the destruction of the bourgeois state. It was a mistake of Lenin to take up the old social democratic slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination” - which really expressed the opportunist view that socialism could only be achieved through democracy, through the peaceful gaining of power via parliament – and try to graft it on to a revolutionary programme. It also indirectly supported the arguments of the Mensheviks that the revolution in Russia had to pass over a period of bourgeois democracy before being ready for socialism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks drew completely different conclusions from this idea, in that they supported and worked for revolutionary struggle, while the Mensheviks opposed any struggle that according to their theory would surpass the “objective reality” of capitalism. This reformist idea had still a great influence among the Bolsheviks as revealed by the first reactions of the majority of “Old Bolsheviks” inside Russia to the revolution in February. This position – which was not supported by the most radical layers of the party – was the dominant position in the leading organs before Lenin arrived at the Finland station in Petrograd and immediately attacked this opportunism, which implied a support for the Kerensky government and its war effort. Lenin developed this later in his famous “April Theses”.

Now Lenin came to understand that the revolution in Russia was not merely a bourgeois revolution but the first step of the proletarian revolution. It was the real revolutionary practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that would disprove the Menshevik dogma of a necessary democratic stage before the socialist revolution was possible. In fact history shows (and quite contrary to Lenin’s beliefs in 1916 when he defended the “right to self-determination”) that not only in Russia were illusions in democracy the most dangerous poison against the revolution: in almost all the countries affected by the Russian revolution, the question of democracy was the main weapon put forward by the bourgeoisie to counter-act the revolutionary movement.

Against the idea that all countries had to pass over a certain stage in their mode of production to arrive at new mode of production Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

“Therefore historically speaking, the idea that the modern proletariat could do nothing as a separate and conscious class without first creating a new nation-state, is the same thing as saying that the bourgeoisie in any country should first of all establish a feudal system, if by some chance it did not come about normally by itself, or had taken on a particular form, as for instance in Russia. The historical mission of the bourgeoisie is the creation of the modern “national” state; but the historical task of the proletariat is the abolition of this state as a political form of capitalism, in which they themselves, as a conscious class, come into existence to establish the socialist system.” (The National Question and Autonomy, Rosa Luxemburg- our emphasis)

Rosa Luxemburg had this to say of the decision at the London congress of 1896 to adopt the slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination”: “the nationalist position is to be smuggled in under the international banner”.[5] Although Lenin’s position is not to be mixed up with the social chauvinism of the old social democratic parties when they came to “defend the fatherland”, Lenin’s effort to make it part of the revolutionary programme is still a mistake.

The National Question in the Russian Revolution

The revolution in Russia must be seen in a world historic framework, at the same time part of and signal to a world revolution. The February revolution was not the necessary bourgeois revolution before the socialist revolution could take place, but the first phase in the proletarian revolution in Russia, establishing a situation of dual power to prepare the next step of taking power in October. This is also more or less the view of Lenin in his April Theses, which de facto is an attack against the mechanical, national, opportunist view of the proletarian revolution. In Lenin’s preface to the first edition (August 1917) of his State and Revolution he clearly states his view on the Russian revolution when he writes:

“Lastly, we sum up the main results of the experience of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and particularly of 1917. Apparently, the latter is now (early August 1917) completing the first stage of its development; but this revolution as a whole can only be understood as a link in a chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war.”

It is also from within this view of the Russian revolution as expressing nothing else than the dynamic of a world wide proletarian revolution, that Rosa Luxemburg reiterated with even greater intransigence her critique of the “right of nations to self-determination” slogan, and its use by the Bolshevik party in power:

“Instead of acting in the same spirit of genuine international class policy which they represented in other matters, instead of working for the most compact union of the revolutionary forces throughout the area of the Empire, instead of defending tooth and nail the integrity of the Russian Empire as an area of revolution and opposing to all forms of separatism the solidarity and inseparability of the proletarians in all lands within the sphere of the Russian Revolution as the highest command of politics, the Bolsheviks, by their hollow nationalistic phraseology concerning the ‘right of self-determination to the point of separation,’ have accomplished quite the contrary and supplied the bourgeoisie in all border states with the finest, the most desirable pretext, the very banner of the counter-revolutionary efforts. Instead of warning the proletariat in the border countries against all forms of separatism as mere bourgeois traps, they did nothing but confuse the masses in all the border countries by their slogan and delivered them up to the demagogy of the bourgeois classes. By this nationalistic demand they brought on the disintegration of Russia itself, pressed into the enemy’s hand the knife which it was to thrust into the heart of the Russian Revolution.” (The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg).

In all the cases where the “right to self-determination” slogan of the Bolsheviks has been applied, it has opened up illusions in democracy and nationalism – sacred myths which the bourgeoisie itself has always trampled underfoot when it came to fighting for its life against the proletarian revolution. Faced with this danger, the national bourgeoisies have always turned away from the idea of national independence and quickly given up their national dreams to cry for support from antagonistic foreign bourgeoisie powers to help them crush “their own” proletarian class.

At the same time, and for precisely the same reason, the entire history of the “epoch of wars and revolutions” (the Communist International’s term for the epoch of capitalist decline) shows that whenever the proletariat had any illusions of conducting a common struggle with the bourgeoisie, this only led to massacres of the proletariat.

Finland and Georgia are striking examples of how the national bourgeoisie immediately asked, as soon as it got its “independence”, for help to crush the proletarian bastion in Russia - all under the banner of national independence. In Finland German troops were sent to crush the Finnish Red Guard and the Finnish revolution turned into a terrible defeat for the proletariat. The Red Army was forced to be “neutral” according to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and did not intervene officially (although many Bolsheviks in the Red Army aided the Finnish Red Guards). The Finnish bourgeoisie mobilised the poor peasants to fight against the “Russian enemy” – many of those recruited into the Finnish “White Guard” thought they were fighting Russian troops. In Georgia the Mensheviks (now part of the national bourgeoisie – defending the “right for national self-determination”) also turned for help from German imperialism.

There were certain changes by the Bolsheviks on the national question at the beginning of the Russian revolution, seeing the slogan as merely a tactical necessity rather than a political principle. This was expressed in the fact that the slogan for “self-determination” was not only watered down inside the Bolshevik party itself, but was approached with much greater clarity at the First Congress of the 3rd International, which focussed much more on the international struggle of the proletariat, on the independence of the proletariat in relation to all national movements, never letting it be subordinated to the national bourgeoisie.

But with the development of greater opportunism within the Communist International, which was linked to the growing confusion between the policy of the CI and the foreign policy of the degenerating Soviet state, there was a real falling back on the national question, a tendency to lose sight of the relative clarity of the First Congress. One expression of this was the policy of supporting alliances between Communist parties in Turkey and China and the nationalist bourgeoisies, which in both cases led to a massacre of the proletariat and the decimation of the Communists by their erstwhile “national revolutionary “ allies. In the end the mistakes of the Bolsheviks and Lenin on these issues have been turned into an ideology in defence of imperialist war, particularly by Trotskyism. What was once an opportunist mistake by the Bolsheviks has today enabled the left of capital to use the name of Lenin to defend imperialist wars. Instead of going back to these errors, communists must base their positions on the more consistently internationalist critique which was developed by the Marxist left, from Luxemburg to Pyatakov and from the KAPD to the Italian Left Fraction.

Olof 15/6/03


1 We refer the reader also to other articles on the MLP in the International Review, in particular nos. 101, 104 and 111. The comrades of the MLP have informed us that the correct translation of their group’s Russian name is in fact “Marxist Workers’ Party” rather than “Marxist Labour Party”. However, we have retained the name “Marxist Labour Party” for the sake of continuity with our previous issues.

2 Pakistan is demanding a referendum to decide which country this region should belong to, while India already thinks that the question is settled.

3 Imperialism and National Oppression, theses presented in 1916 by Radek, Stein-Krajewski and M. Bronski, which belonged to a fraction of SDKPiL and had similar positions as Rosa Luxemburg.

4 The discussion on self-determination summed up, Lenin, 1916, CW vol. 22

5The Polish Question at the International Congress in London, Rosa Luxemburg, 1896.