Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Right to self-determination

Marxist Dictionary

A right that would assist a bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie of a territory within a state to submit to a referendum among the whole population or the part considered “connational” of it, the formation of an independent state.

The slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination” was incorporated by the 2nd International as a way of addressing the national liberation of the bourgeoisies subjected under the last great feudal empires: Austria-Hungary, Russia, etc. Later it was also applied to the colonies and protectorates of the European states. However, this slogan soon found its critique among Marxists who were beginning to elaborate an understanding of imperialism.

The development towards the Great State which characterizes the modern epoch and which gains in importance with the progress of capitalism, condemns the set of mini- and micro-nationalities to political weakness from the outset. Alongside some very powerful nations, which are the real managers of capitalist development because they have the material and intellectual means indispensable to preserve their economic and political independence, “self-determination”, the autonomous existence of mini and micronations, is increasingly illusory. This return to the autonomous existence of all, or at least the great majority of currently oppressed nations, would only be possible if the existence of small states had possibilities and future prospects in the capitalist era. For the time being, the economic and political conditions of a large state are so necessary in the struggle for the existence of the capitalist nations that even the small, politically independent states, formally equal in rights, that exist in Europe, only play a symbolic role and are mostly puppets of other states. Can one speak formally of self-determination’ for the Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs or Greeks, formally independent, or even, in a certain way, for the Swiss? (…)

The second fundamental aspect of recent evolution, which makes this slogan utopian, is capitalist imperialism. (…) The result of this trend is the permanent liquidation of the independence of an increasing number of countries, peoples and entire continents. (…) Taking into account this evolution and the need of the big capitalist states for the struggle for existence in the international market, for universal politics and for colonial possessions, “the most adequate to carry out their functions in the present conditions”, that is, what best corresponds to the needs of capitalist exploitation, is not the “national state” -as Kautsky supposes- but the imperialist state. (…)

As socialists understand it, this right [self-determination] must, by its very nature, have a universal character, and the mere fact of recognizing it in this way is enough to show that the hope of realizing this “right” in the existing system is a utopia in direct contradiction with the trend of capitalist development, on the basis of which social democracy has been constituted. To return to the objective of dividing all existing states into national units and limiting them mutually according to the models of the states and the small national states is a desperate and, from a historical point of view, reactionary attempt.

Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908

Part of the Russian social democracy, led by Lenin, rejected Rosa Luxemburg’s early conclusions, changing the formula from “right of nations” to “right of peoples”. “People” is, fundamentally, the proletariat together with or under the leadership of the petty bourgeoisie. If it is the petty bourgeoisie that leads, it does not change the utopian and reactionary sense it gives to “self-determination”.

After the bankruptcy of the bourgeois parties, new social forces – the intelligentsia and the petty bourgeoisie, who seek refuge in the workers’ movement – tend to impose their unachievable desires on it. If the socialist parties had not had the possibility of objectively verifying what actually corresponds to the needs of the working class and had limited themselves to imagining the “good” and the “useful”, their programme would have turned out to be a set of utopias.

Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908

And if it is the proletariat that leads, what sense would it make to march backwards, towards the creation of a national state created to organize its exploitation?

The idea that the self-conscious proletariat can create a modern state is as absurd as proposing to the bourgeoisie a new establishment of feudalism.

Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908

But the fundamental question that Rosa Luxemburg is pointing out and that Lenin does not see, although he writes his answer to Luxemburg’s text a few months after the outbreak of the world war, is that once the world capitalist market has developed, there can be no independent development of national capitalism and therefore there is no room for true national independence. Within this framework, independence ceases to have a historically progressive meaning and with it “national self-determination” becomes a reactionary slogan.

Rosa Luxemburg’s final argument will assert that the same thing that makes defensism and its slogan of “defense without annexations” an impossible, reactionary and de facto imperialist slogan is what turns the slogan of “support to national self-determination” into a gift to imperialism and a shot in the foot for the revolutionary movement itself:

As long as the capitalist states exist, as long as the imperialist world policy determines and shapes the internal and external life of the states, the right to national self-determination will have nothing to do with its practice, neither in war nor in peace.

Moreover: in the present imperialist milieu, there can be no war of national defense whatsoever, and any socialist policy that disregards this particular historical milieu, that wants to be guided in the midst of this world turmoil only by the unilateral views of its country, will be nothing but a house of cards from the outset.

Rosa Luxemburg. The Crisis of Social Democracy, 1916

Rosa Luxemburg understood imperialism as a global phase of capitalism as a whole. Lenin, on the other hand, thought that imperialism was a phase in the development of every national capital. That is why Lenin’s slogan of “self-determination of peoples” and his emphasis on “national liberation movements” could only be for Rosa Luxemburg a manifestation of boundless optimism and had, as it did, dire consequences for the Russian revolution.

What is this right supposed to mean? That socialism is opposed to all forms of oppression, including that of one nation by another, constitutes the ABCs of socialist policy.

In spite of this, politicians as serious and critical as Lenin, Trotsky and their friends, who respond only with an ironic shrugging of their shoulders to any kind of utopian phraseology such as disarmament, League of Nations, etc., in this case made a hollow phrase of exactly the same kind their favorite hobby. This is due, it seems to me, to a policy manufactured for the occasion. Lenin and his comrades calculated that there was no surer method of winning over the foreign peoples of the Russian Empire to the cause of revolution, to the cause of the socialist proletariat, than to offer them, in the name of revolution and socialism, the most extreme and unlimited freedom to determine their own destinies. This is a policy analogous to that which the Bolsheviks pursued with the Russian peasantry, satisfying their hunger for land with the slogan of direct appropriation of noble property, on the assumption that this would win them over to the revolution and the proletarian government. In both cases, unfortunately, the calculation was completely wrong.

It is clear that Lenin and his friends hoped that by becoming champions of national freedom to the point of advocating “separation” they would make Finland, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc., faithful allies of the Russian Revolution.

But exactly the opposite happened. One after another, these “nations” used their newly acquired freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism as deadly enemies of the Russian Revolution and, under the protection of Germany, to carry within Russia itself the banner of counter-revolution. A perfect example is the little game played in Brest with the Ukraine, which caused a decisive turn in the negotiations and brought to light the political situation, both internal and external, that the Bolsheviks are facing today. The attitude of Finland, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the peoples of the Caucasus, convincingly shows us that this is not an exceptional case but a typical phenomenon.

Surely, in all these cases it was not really the “people” who promoted this reactionary policy but the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes. These, in total opposition to their own proletarian masses, perverted the “national right to self-determination”, transforming it into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary policy. But (and we arrive to the crux of the matter), here lies the utopian, petty-bourgeois character of this nationalist slogan: that in the midst of the crude realities of class society, when antagonisms are sharpened to the maximum, it simply becomes an instrument of bourgeois domination. The Bolsheviks learned, to their own detriment and to the detriment of the revolution, that under capitalist domination there is no self-determination of peoples, that in a class society each class in the nation struggles to “determine itself” in a different way, and that for the bourgeois classes the conception of national liberation is totally subordinated to that of class rule. The Finnish bourgeoisie, like the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, preferred the violent rule of Germany to national freedom if the latter linked it to Bolshevism.

The hope of transforming these real class relations into their opposite, of winning the majority vote for union with the Russian Revolution by making it dependent on the revolutionary masses, as Lenin and Trotsky seriously intended, reflects an incomprehensible degree of optimism.

And if this was only a tactical device in the duel with Germany’s policy of force, then it was a very dangerous game with fire. Even without the military occupation of Germany, the result of the famous “people’s plebiscite,” assuming that it had gone that far in the neighboring states, would have given the Bolsheviks little cause for rejoicing. We have to take into account the psychology of the peasant masses and large sections of the petty bourgeoisie, and the thousands of ways the bourgeoisie has to influence the vote. By the way, it must be considered an absolute law that in these matters of plebiscites on the national question the ruling class will always know how to avoid them when they do not serve its purposes, or, when they are held, will use all means to influence their results, the same means that make it impossible to introduce socialism through the popular vote.

The simple fact that the question of national aspirations and tendencies towards separation was introduced in the midst of the revolutionary struggle, even brought to the fore and made the hallmark of socialist and revolutionary policy as a result of the Brest-Litovsk peace, produced the greatest confusion in the socialist ranks and actually destroyed the positions won by the proletariat in the neighboring countries.

In Finland, where the proletariat fought as part of the narrow Russian socialist phalanx, it achieved a predominant position in power; it had the majority in parliament and the army, reduced its bourgeoisie to complete powerlessness and, within its borders, was master of the situation.

Or let us take Ukraine. At the beginning of the century, before the nonsense of “Ukrainian nationalism” with its silver roubles and “universals” was invented, or Lenin’s hobby of an independent Ukraine, Ukraine was the backbone of the Russian revolutionary movement. There, in Rostov, Odessa, the Donetsk region, the first lava rivers of the revolution burst forth, igniting the whole of southern Russia in a sea of flames (already in 1902-1904), thus preparing the 1905 uprising. The same thing happened in the present revolution, in which southern Russia provided the selected troops of the proletarian phalanx.

Poland and the Baltic lands were from 1905 the most powerful and important revolutionary nuclei, and in them the proletariat played a major role.

How can it be then that in all these countries the counterrevolution triumphs? The nationalist movement, precisely because it drove the proletariat away from Russia, mutilated it and handed it over to the bourgeoisie of the neighboring countries. They did not try to achieve the compact union of the revolutionary forces of the whole empire. They did not defend tooth and nail the integrity of the Russian Empire as a revolutionary area, opposing to all forms of separatism the solidarity and inseparability of the proletarians of all countries under the sphere of the Russian Revolution, making it function as the highest political command. Instead, the Bolsheviks, with their hollow nationalist phraseology of “the right to self-determination up to separation,” achieved the opposite, and gave the bourgeoisie of the neighboring countries the most refined, most desirable pretexts for their counter-revolutionary efforts.
Instead of warning the proletariat in the neighboring countries that all forms of separatism are simply bourgeois traps, they did nothing but confuse the masses in those countries with their slogan and hand them over to the demagoguery of the bourgeois classes.

With this nationalist demand they produced the disintegration of Russia itself and put in the hands of the enemy the knife that would sink into the heart of the Russian Revolution. Surely, without the help of German imperialism, without “German rifles in German fists,” as Kautsky’s Neue Zeit put it, the Lubinskis and other rascals in the Ukraine, the Erich and Mannerheims in Finland, the Baltic barons, would never have won over the best of the socialist working masses in their respective countries. But national separatism was the Trojan horse on which the German “comrades”, bayonet in hand, made their entry into all those lands.

The real class antagonisms and the real balance of power on the military plane provoked the German intervention. But the Bolsheviks provided the ideology with which this campaign of counterrevolution was disguised; they strengthened the position of the bourgeoisie and weakened that of the proletariat.
Rosa Luxemburg. The Russian Revolution, 1918