Even though their de facto split from the Mensheviks in 1903 showed the Bolsheviks to be firmly within the revolutionary wing of the 2nd International, their position on the national question was that of the Social Democratic centre: the right of all nations to self-determination, enshrined in their 1903 programme. The tenaciousness with which the Bolsheviks clung to this position, despite opposition from without and from within, is best explained by the fact that Tsarist Russia was the perpetrator of national oppression par excellence (“the prison-house of nations”) and that as a mainly ‘Great Russian’ party in geographical terms the Bolsheviks considered that granting nations oppressed by Russia the right to secede as the best way of winning the confidence of the masses in these countries. This position, though it proved to be erroneous, was based on a working class perspective. In a period in which the Social Imperialists of Germany, Russia, and elsewhere were arguing against the right of peoples oppressed by German or Russian imperialism to struggle for national liberation, the slogan of national self-determination was put forward by the Bolsheviks as a way of undermining Russian and other imperialisms and of creating the conditions for a future unification of the workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations.
These positions find their clearest expression in the writings of Lenin in the period up to and including World War I. (The Leninist position was always the official Bolshevik policy on this question. But considerable opposition to it did come from the left of the party before and after 1917, from prominent Bolsheviks like Bukharin, Dzerzhinsky, and Piatakov. Bukharin in particular based his analysis on a concept of world economy and imperialism, which he said made national self-determination both utopian and incompatible with the proletarian dictatorship. With Marx and Engels, Lenin correctly saw that national liberation struggles had a bourgeois character. Moreover, he recognized the need for an historical approach to the problem. In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination he said that for revolutionary parties in the advanced western countries the demand for national self-determination had become a dead letter because there the bourgeoisie had already achieved the tasks of national unification and independence. But Lenin defended the Bolshevik retention of the slogan from Luxemburg’s criticisms on the grounds that in Russia and the colonial countries the bourgeois tasks of overthrowing feudalism and of achieving national independence had not yet been completed. Thus, in these areas, Lenin attempted to apply the methodology which Marx applied to nineteenth century capitalism:
“It is precisely and solely because Russia and the neighbouring countries are passing through this period that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of nations to self-determination.” (Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination)
According to Lenin, the national liberation movements which were proliferating throughout the colonial world at that time had a progressive content in that they were laying the basis for an independent capitalist development and thus for the formation of a proletariat. In these countries, the fight against pre-capitalist social structures was creating the conditions for ‘normal’ class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class, and therefore Lenin advocated the proletariat’s critical participation in these struggles:
“The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression and it is this content that we unconditionally support. At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeoisie to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.” (Ibid.)
Such a formulation clearly implies that the bourgeoisie is still capable of struggling for democratic freedoms and that therefore the proletariat can participate in these struggles while defending its own political autonomy. In other words, the bourgeois revolution was still a possibility in these regions. The proletariat of the backward regions should support such movements because they could guarantee democratic freedoms essential to the waging of the class struggle, and because they helped the material growth of the proletariat. The workers in the advanced oppressor countries should for their part support such struggles because in that way they could help to both weaken their ‘own’ imperialism and to win the confidence of the masses in the oppressed countries. (A reciprocal strategy was envisaged here, whereby revolutionaries in the oppressor nations recognised the right to secession of the oppressed nation, while revolutionaries in the oppressed nation did not advocate secession and stressed the need to unite with the workers of the oppressor countries.)
In Lenin’s writings on the national question there is a curious lack of clarity about whether the bourgeois revolution in the backward regions would be conducted mainly against native ‘feudalism’ or foreign imperialism. In many cases, the two forces were both equally enemies of independent national capitalist development, and the imperialists sometimes deliberately maintained pre-capitalist structures at the expense of native capitalism (strictly speaking the majority of these pre-capitalist structures were not feudal at all, but varieties of Asiatic despotism). On the other hand, the interests of pre-capitalist ruling classes often clashed violently with western capitalism, which threatened them with extinction. But in any case, Lenin’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, expressed most succinctly in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) led him to conclude that bourgeois revolutions were still possible in the colonial regions.According to Lenin, imperialism was in essence a movement by the advanced capitalisms to offset the falling rate of profit, which had become intolerably aggravated by the high organic composition of capital in the metropoles. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin’s mainly descriptive approach to the phenomena of imperialism does not go to the heart of the question of the economic roots of imperialist expansion. But the idea that the high organic composition of capital in the metropoles forces them to expand towards the colonial regions is implicit in his concept of the “superabundance of capital” in the metropoles and the “super-profits” obtained by exporting capital to the colonial regions. The most important characteristic of imperialism was therefore the export of capital seeking a higher rate of profit in the colonies where cheap labour and raw materials were in plentiful supply. In thus prolonging their life through ‘super-profits’ obtained from colonial exploitation, the advanced capitals had become parasitic on the colonies and depended on them for their very survival – hence the world imperialist confrontation over the possession and acquisition of colonies. Such a vision divided the world up into imperialist oppressor nations, and the oppressed nations of the colonial regions. Thus the world-wide struggle against imperialism required not only the revolutionary efforts of the proletariat in the imperialist metropoles but also national liberation movements in the colonies, which by seizing national independence and breaking up the colonial system could deliver a fatal blow to world imperialism. It should of course be pointed out that Lenin did not adhere to the ‘Third Worldism’ idiocies of some of his self-proclaimed epigones, according to which the national liberation struggles actually provoke the revolutionary upsurge of the metropolitan proletariat by ‘encircling’ the advanced nations (the national liberation movements themselves having a ‘socialist’ character according to the Maoists, Mandelite Trotskyists, et al). And yet within Lenin’s work on imperialism the seeds of such confusion were already sown: his idea that the ‘labour aristocracy’ represented a stratum of the metropolitan proletariat which had been ‘bribed’ by colonial ‘super-profits’ to betray the working class can be easily transmuted into the Third Worldist conception that the entire western working class had been integrated into capitalism by imperialist exploitation of the Third World. (This glorious theory has, of course, been dealt severe blows by the massive new waves of working class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries since 1968.) Moreover, the idea that national liberation struggles can fatally weaken imperialism has also been taken up with a vengeance by those who want to justify their support for nationalist and Stalinist movements in the Third World. More important than these monstrous offspring of Lenin’s theory, however, is the fact that they provided the framework for the practical policies carried out by the Bolsheviks after they had been brought to power in Russia; policies which as we shall see were to actively contribute to the world-wide defeat of the proletariat at that time.