Concerning the National Question
Speech Delivered in the Yugoslav Commission of the E.C.C.I.,
March 30, 1925
Stalin, Works, Vol. 7, 1925
I think that Semich has not fully understood the main essence of the Bolshevik presentation of the national question. The Bolsheviks never separated the national question from the general question of revolution, either before October or after October. The main essence of the Bolshevik approach to the national question is that the Bolsheviks always examined the national question in inseparable connection with the revolutionary perspective.
Semich quoted Lenin, saying that Lenin was in favour of embodying the solution of the national question in the constitution. By this he, Semich, evidently wanted to say that Lenin regarded the national question as a constitutional one, that is, not as a question of revolution but as a question of reform. That is quite wrong. Lenin never had, nor could he have had, constitutional illusions. It is enough to consult his works to be convinced of that. If Lenin spoke of a constitution, he had in mind not the constitutional, but the revolutionary way of settling the national question, that is to say, he regarded a constitution as something that would result from the victory of the revolution. We in the U.S.S.R. also have a Constitution, and it reflects a definite solution of the national question. This Constitution, however, came into being not as the result of a deal with the bourgeoisie, but as the result of a victorious revolution.
Semich further referred to Stalin's pamphlet on the national question written in 1912, and tried to find in it at least indirect corroboration of his point of view. But this reference was fruitless, because he did not and could not find even a remote hint, let alone a quotation, that would in the least justify his "constitutional" approach to the national question. In confirmation of this, I might remind Semich of the passage in Stalin's pamphlet where a contrast is drawn between the Austrian (constitutional) method of settling the national question and the Russian Marxists' (revolutionary) method. Here it is:
"The Austrians hope to achieve the ‘freedom of nationalities' by means of petty reforms, by slow steps. While they propose cultural-national autonomy as a practical measure, they do not count on any radical change, on a democratic movement for liberation, which they do not even contemplate. The Russian Marxists, on the other hand, associate the ‘freedom of nationalities' with a probable radical change, with a democratic movement for liberation, having no grounds for counting on reforms. And this essentially alters matters in regard to the probable fate of the nations of Russia."
Clear, one would think.
And this is not Stalin's personal view, but the general view of the Russian Marxists, who examined, and continue to examine, the national question in inseparable connection with the general question of revolution.
It can be said without stretching a point that in the history of Russian Marxism there were two stages in the presentation of the national question: the first, or pre-October stage; and the second, or October stage. In the first stage, the national question was regarded as part of the general question of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, that is to say, as part of the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In the second stage, when the national question assumed wider scope and became a question of the colonies, when it became transformed from an intra-state question into a world question, it came to be regarded as part of the general question of the proletarian revolution, as part of the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In both stages, as you see, the approach was strictly revolutionary.
I think that Semich has not yet fully grasped all this. Hence his attempts to reduce the national question to a constitutional issue, i.e., to regard it as a question of reform.
That mistake leads him to another, namely, his refusal to regard the national question as being, in essence, a peasant question. Not an agrarian but a peasant question, for these are two different things. It is quite true that the national question must not be identified with the peasant question, for, in addition to peasant questions, the national question includes such questions as national culture, national statehood, etc. But it is also beyond doubt that, after all, the peasant question is the basis, the quintessence, of the national question. That explains the fact that the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national movement, that there is no powerful national movement without the peasant army, nor can there be. That is what is meant when it is said that, in essence, the national question is a peasant question. I think that Semich's reluctance to accept this formula is due to an under-estimation of the inherent strength of the national movement and a failure to understand the profoundly popular and profoundly revolutionary character of the national movement. This lack of understanding and this under-estimation constitute a grave danger, for, in practice, they imply an under-estimation of the potential might latent, for instance, in the movement of the Croats for national emancipation. This under-estimation is fraught with serious complications for the entire Yugoslav Communist Party.
That is Semich's second mistake.
Undoubtedly, Semich's attempt to treat the national question in Yugoslavia in isolation from the international situation and the probable prospects in Europe must also be regarded as a mistake. Proceeding from the fact that there is no serious popular movement for independence among the Croats and the Slovenes at the present moment, Semich arrives at the conclusion that the question of the right of nations to secede is an academic question, at any rate, not an urgent one. That is wrong, of course. Even if we admit that this question is not urgent at the present moment, it might definitely become very urgent if war begins, or when war begins, if a revolution breaks out in Europe, or when it breaks out. That war will inevitably begin, and that they, over there, are bound to come to blows there can be no doubt, bearing in mind the nature and development of imperialism.
In 1912, when we Russian Marxists were outlining the first draft of the national programme, no serious movement for independence yet existed in any of the border regions of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, we deemed it necessary to include in our programme the point on the right of nations to self-determination, i.e., the right of every nationality to secede and exist as an independent state. Why? Because we based ourselves not only on what existed then, but also on what was developing and impending in the general system of international relations; that is, we took into account not only the present, but also the future. We knew that if any nationality were to demand secession, the Russian Marxists would fight to ensure the right to secede for every such nationality. In the course of his speech Semich repeatedly referred to Stalin's pamphlet on the national question. But here is what Stalin's pamphlet says about self-determination and independence:
"The growth of imperialism in Europe is not fortuitous. In Europe, capital is beginning to feel cramped, and it is reaching out towards foreign countries in search of new markets, cheap labour and new fields of investment But this leads to external complications and to war. . . . It is quite possible that a combination of internal and external conditions may arise in which one or another nationality in Russia may find it necessary to raise and settle the question of its independence. And, of course, it is not for Marxists to create obstacles in such cases."
That was written as far back as 1912. You know that subsequently this view was fully confirmed both during the war and afterwards, and especially after the victory of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.
All the more reason, therefore, why we must reckon with such possibilities in Europe in general, and in Yugoslavia in particular, especially now, when the national revolutionary movement in the oppressed countries has become more profound, and after the victory of the revolution in Russia. It must also be borne in mind that Yugoslavia is not a fully independent country, that she is tied up with certain imperialist groups, and that, consequently, she cannot escape the great play of forces that is going on outside Yugoslavia. If you are drawing up a national programme for the Yugoslav Party — and that is precisely what we are dealing with now — you must remember that this programme must proceed not only from what exists at present, but also from what is developing and what will inevitably occur by virtue of international relations. That is why I think that the question of the right of nations to self-determination must be regarded as an immediate and vital question.
Now about the national programme. The starting point of the national programme must be the thesis of a Soviet revolution in Yugoslavia, the thesis that the national question cannot be solved at all satisfactorily unless the bourgeoisie is overthrown and the revolution is victorious. Of course, there may be exceptions; there was such an exception, for instance, before the war, when Norway separated from Sweden — of which Lenin treats in detail in one of his articles. But that was before the war, and under an exceptional combination of favourable circumstances. Since the war, and especially since the victory of the Soviet revolution in Russia, such cases are hardly possible. At any rate, the chances of their being possible are now so slight that they can be put as nil. But if that is so, it is obvious that we cannot construct our programme from elements whose significance is nil. That is why the thesis of a revolution must be the starting point of the national programme.
Further, it is imperatively necessary to include in the national programme a special point on the right of nations to self-determination, including the right to secede. I have already said why such a point cannot be omitted under present internal and international conditions.
Finally, the programme must also include a special point providing for national territorial autonomy for those nationalities in Yugoslavia which may not deem it necessary to secede from that country. Those who think that such a contingency must be excluded are incorrect. That is wrong. Under certain circumstances, as a result of the victory of a Soviet revolution in Yugoslavia, it may well be that some nationalities will not wish to secede, just as happened here in Russia. It is clear that to meet such a contingency it is necessary to have in the programme a point on autonomy, envisaging the transformation of the state of Yugoslavia into a federation of autonomous national states based on the Soviet system.
Thus, the right to secede must be provided for those nationalities that may wish to secede, and the right to autonomy must be provided for those nationalities that may prefer to remain within the framework of the Yugoslav state.
To avoid misunderstanding, I must say that the right to secede must not be understood as an obligation, as a duty to secede. A nation may take advantage of this right and secede, but it may also forgo the right, and if it does not wish to exercise it, that is its business and we cannot but reckon with the fact. Some comrades turn this right to secede into an obligation and demand from the Croats, for instance, that they secede whatever happens. That position is wrong and must be rejected. We must not confuse a right with an obligation.
The magazine Bolshevik, No. 7, April 15, 1925