Understanding 1947 (part 1)

The formation of India and Pakistan in 1947 is a crucial question for the Indian left. Few historical questions are as pertinent, and at the same time few are as divisive. The formation of the Indian republic raises a number of questions which concern the very foundations of capitalism in India and in that context turn a searchlight on the true historical character of the transfer of power which took place on the 15th of August 1947.

Some questions central to our understanding of the events preceding and taking place at the point of the transfer of power on 15th of August 1947 are :

a) Was India’s independence in 1947 a revolutionary event?
b) Were the events of 1947 and the year immediately preceding it ‘peaceful’? And was the independence struggle as a whole ‘peaceful’?
c) How did the transfer of power affect the development of capitalism in India and Pakistan? Did they both subsequently fall to foreign imperialism? If so why so? If not why not?

I will tackle these questions in sequence.

a) Was India’s independence in 1947 a revolutionary event?

Let us first understand what we mean by ‘revolution’. Real socio-economic revolutions that change the face of history only take place when an old worldwide mode of production has outlived itself. That is to say a mode of production affecting human society as a whole – like slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. When the foundations of such a system become wholly rotten, and when the precursors of a new mode of production are emerging ever stronger, revolutions break out that sweep away the ruins of the old system and usher in new societies based on the new forces of production and new relations between the people working with them.

Revolutions are an outburst of social energy channelling the creative forces of the new system to break the chains of the old mode of production, like slavery or serfdom. They are opposed in a life-and-death struggle by the decaying, destructive forces of the old system which seek to prolong its life. In short, a true social-historical revolution can only be an epoch-making change in economy and society bringing with it the change of one mode of production into another. A deep historical revolution of this kind is not simply a regime change from one kind of government to another be it democratic or dictatorial. Even the bloodiest rebellions or coups d’état fall short of this historical significance if they produce no change in the underlying mode of production. Fascist regimes still operate on a bourgeois capitalist economic basis, so Nazi Germany was no revolutionary creation. A true revolution is a process which overthrows the economic and political dominance of the old ruling class and replaces it with the rule of the formerly oppressed class – as happened when the slave-owning rulers of the ancient Roman Empire were ousted during the rise of feudal Europe, and the feudal rulers of old Europe were thrown aside in bourgeois revolutions such as those in England in 1649 and France in 1789.

For instance, in bourgeois revolutions, the ruling class of feudal lords were overthrown by the political mobilization of the oppressed proto-bourgeois serfs and traders. In their place the bourgeois class seized power and wielded it through its political representatives, be it the New Model Army in England or the Jacobins in France. These revolutions were the midwives of history and opened the way for the capitalist transformation of European society. Frequently however, the aftershocks of these world-shaking revolutionary events only involved the transfer of power from one group of special interests to another in the new ruling class. This is most certainly evident if we compare the so-called Glorious Revolution of England in 1688 to Cromwell’s revolution some decades earlier. The Stuart monarchy restored by parliament in 1660 was turfed out unceremoniously for wanting its pre-Cromwellian power back, and was replaced by a new, tame bourgeois monarchy imported from Holland.

As the revolutionary Soviet economist Eugene Preobrazhensky wrote in The New Economics in 1926, the bourgeoisie did not come to be the ruling class without first creating the economic pre-conditions for its power. For centuries, the bourgeoisie were city traders and bankers subordinate to the feudal elite, but over time they grew stronger and began to undermine the economic independence of the aristocrats, who were ultimately unable to prevent the bourgeoisie from directly claiming power. Parliament was its preferred mechanism for rule in place of aristocratic or absolute despotism. This gradual piecemeal trajectory of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power influenced the character of its revolutions, which were essentially national and became more and more cowardly with time – looking over their shoulders in fear at their ostensible allies in the working class and poor peasantry. There were clear limits to the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity they were prepared to introduce, and compromise with the defeated aristocracy to hold down the workers and poor people of town and country became the norm. Thus we see even today that the UK which was the first country to undergo a bourgeois revolution continues to harbour a monarchy which is a relic of its pre-capitalist past and constantly reminds us of the limits of capitalism’s ability to effect profound social transformations.

The socialist revolution presents a striking contrast to the bourgeois revolutions of old. Where the bourgeois revolutions open the way for the transformation of society along capitalist lines, the socialist revolution opens the way for the transformation of society towards the communist mode of production, in which those who work and produce the wealth also own the means of producing it, and associate freely and equally to plan and distribute this production. The two kinds of revolution are similar in that a socialist revolution the current ruling class i.e the bourgeoisie in capitalist society, is overthrown by the oppressed class in capitalist society, i.e the proletariat.

The economic basis for the existence and organization of the proletariat is not created by the proletariat but by its class enemy, the bourgeoisie. Large scale mass production and monopoly capital lays the foundation for the unification and political organization of the proletariat on a national and international scale, as well as for a future socialist economy. What the proletariat does create of its own, is its own independent political organs and the organs of power with which to overthrow the bourgeois in power. Imperialism is clinging on to outworn and unmanageable social relations in an age of transition to socialism, making the imperialist epoch a period of crisis, war and revolution. The global contradiction of the instruments of socialism existing, yet not being in the hands of working people in power, gives the socialist revolution an unprecedented social explosivity and the economic stakes involved are unparalleled, and makes the political tasks of the proletariat that much more complex. All this gives our revolution a much clearer political and social character than the bourgeois revolutions preceding it. There can be no compromise between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie like there was a compromise between the monarchy and the republican bourgeoisie in England.

In the 20th century however, we have witnessed a peculiar development brought about by the historic twist of a bourgeoisie incapable of consummating the bourgeois-democratic transformation of society. In Russia these contradictions were resolved by the socialist revolution which carried out the bourgeois-democratic transformation of Russian society in its march to complete the socialist transformation. While we insist that this is the case, we must be very clear that much of the bourgeois-democratic transformation involved in this process was stopped or reversed by the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin and the Stalinist bureaucracy’s takeover of the state.

Since the emergence of imperialism in the late 1800s, however, we have witnessed a twist in this historical development of the forces of social production. Conditions in the world economy have contrasted so starkly with conditions in individual countries that bourgeoisies in backward countries have not been able to bring about a bourgeois-democratic transformation of their society at the national level. In Russia these contradictions were resolved by the socialist revolution which implemented historically necessary bourgeois-democratic reforms in Russian society as an integral part of its drive to carry out the socialist transformation. The extremely contradictory character of this process means that although this conclusion is inescapable if we are to understand the phenomenon of the Soviet Union, it is far from self-evident, and we must be very clear that much of the progressive bourgeois-democratic content of the transformation of society was stopped or reversed by the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin and the Stalinist bureaucracy’s takeover of the state.

The problem of understanding the challenges posed to the working class and its peasant allies by the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to bring about necessary democratic change was resolved by Leon Trotsky when he formulated the theory of Permanent Revolution in 1936. The theory makes it clear that the economic and political domination of the world by imperialism means that the bourgeoisie has lost its revolutionary potential and will never again be capable of leading let alone consummating a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The implications of this conclusion are huge. It means that fundamental political, economic and social change will never ever be achieved by any political force under the leadership of a bourgeois political formation. Any working class party claiming otherwise is deceiving the class and leading it to inevitable failure, as did Stalinist Communist parties backing the leadership of bourgeois forces in Popular Fronts. This was demonstrated to catastrophic effect in China in the 1920s, where the Chinese CP supported the leadership of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek, and by the similarly suicidal policies of the Communist party in Indonesia in the mid-1960s.

Since the second world war there has been almost universal left-wing backing for bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalist leaderships in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist liberation struggles, and in complete accordance with the theory of Permanent Revolution the vast majority of these movements have led to little more than career opportunities for these leaderships coupled with continued poverty and oppression for the working class and peasant masses. The degeneration of these non-proletarian leaderships and their opportunist and superficial socialist masks has been sometimes slow and gradual, but always complete and counter-revolutionary. Two powerful examples of disastrous betrayals lauded as successes by left-wing forces refusing to accept the perspective of the Permanent Revolution are Nicaragua and most particularly South Africa. Just how criminally betrayed the working masses in South Africa have been by the bourgeois leadership of the ANC, including the fake saint Nelson Mandela, was illustrated just last month on 16 August 2012 by the Marikana massacre. Over 34 demonstrating miners were shot dead in cold blood, most of them in the back. This slaughter continues the tradition of bloody class repression in South Africa, and is the black bourgeoisie’s own Sharpeville massacre.

In the light of these developments, the historical tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution clearly fall upon the working class and its peasant allies, who are compelled to embrace the bourgeois revolution as part of the socialist revolution. The two historical transformations thus move together in sync rather than as two distinct processes. At the same time, however, the specific tasks of the combined revolution in each country vary widely since the social and economic preconditions are different from context to context.

In the context of pre-independent India i.e the time of the Empire of India, the over arching
objective of the Indian struggle was to achieve independence from British rule. Along with this, the prime social objective would have to be the abolition of monarchism in the princely states and a radical redistribution of land under the slogan of land to the tiller. Furthermore, a bourgeois-democratic revolution would aim to abolish all social impediments to capitalist accumulation and development, such as caste divisions and landlordism. So the question of whether 1947 constituted a revolutionary transformation of Indian society basically boils down to the question of whether these necessary aims of the bourgeois revolution were achieved.

The transfer of power from the British Monarchy to the Indian parliament began on 15 August when the rule of the monarch ended and India came under the leadership of the governor general. This was accompanied by the partition of the Indian sub-continent between the Indian republic and the republic of Pakistan. Alongside these two large divisions there existed a series of princely states with six of the largest states asserting their independence from both Pakistan and India. These six states were Balochistan, Kashmir, Tripura, Junagadh, Travancore and Hyderabad. Four of these six states were annexed to India, while Balochistan was annexed to Pakistan and Kashmir is still being contested.

Abolition of Monarchy and self-rule

The transfer of power mandated that the princely states had the choice of either acceding to India or Pakistan — asserting their independence was not an alternative. The formal completion of the transfer of power occurred on 26 January 1950 with the abolition of the post of governor general and with it the complete withdrawal of the rule of the British Monarchy. In parallel with this development was the absorption of approximately 500 princely states into the Indian republic along with the abolition of their respective monarchies. In compensation for abdicating their powers to India however, they were granted privy purses. The princely states which sought to make a stand against either India or Pakistan were crushed, and Hyderabad, Kashmir and Balochistan were made an example of what would happen to monarchs trying to stake their independence. The privy purse concessions were eventually abolished by Indira Gandhi in the 70s.

Abolition of landlordism and land reform

The social changes effected after 1947 included the complete abolition of absentee landlordism and of zamindari in India, along with a distorted and incoherent effort at land reform. Although they were incoherent and distorted, however, the land reforms did pave the way for the penetration of bourgeois land laws into the countryside and the large-scale destruction of petty production there. In this way they initiated the present proletarianization-led development of Indian capitalism, in which tens of millions of small independent farmers are driven into debt and destitution, lose their property (i.e. become proletarianized, owning nothing but their power of labour), and are forced to migrate into the slums of the bloated cities and join the reserve army of the unemployed. This process is universally but falsely referred to as ‘urbanization’, a term that completely conceals the historical class dynamics of what is taking place.

Economic independence

Later on, the nationalization of leading banks under the pretext of ‘social control’ and the ‘Indianization’ of foreign owned companies ensured the security of nascent Indian capital against the forces of foreign capital and gave local capital a dominant role within the territories of the Indian republic. All of these changes took place in the first 3 decades after 1947 and under the political leadership of the Congress party which was the preferred political choice for the Indian bourgeoisie.

Given these changes, it seems that the Indian bourgeoisie through its foremost political representative the Indian Congress party was able to achieve most of its natural bourgeois goals. But such a view only scratches the surface of things without regard to the forces working under the surface.

Beneath the surface

Apologists of the Indian bourgeoisie argue for the ‘strength’ and ‘civility’ of these ‘gradual and peaceful’ changes, and put India on a pedestal as an inspiring example for other countries. Equally superficial apologists on the left try to use India’s historical successes, such as the successful eviction of the British and the social and political transformations that secured some basic bourgeois-democratic needs, to debunk the theory of Permanent Revolution. These views are not only unhistorical, but are outright reactionary and a million miles from the struggles of the oppressed masses, the working class and the poor peasantry against capitalism and imperialism.

All the progressive social transformations which have taken place in India from 1900 to the present have been achieved by the force of class struggle both within India and outside it. The Congress party for its part, was not formed with the aim of liberating India from colonial bondage but simply to act as a steam valve and mediator between the struggling Indian masses and the British imperialists. Up to the first world war their methods never moved beyond prayer and petition against the British. Only later do we see an economically burgeoning Indian bourgeoisie becoming bold enough to demand Tanganyika in East Africa as an exclusive colony under its administration. Along with this, we see the emergence of an organized proletariat in India along with large scale mass production, and the social impact of the Russian revolution which brought about profound changes in land relations and provided the inspiration for democratic struggles world wide.

The rising tide of class struggle forced the Indian Congress party to take a much more radical stance against the British, kicked forward by the actions of revolutionary communists like Bhagat Singh. The radicalization of peasant struggles and the emergence of a strong working class movement saw the growth of the Indian Communist party (CPI) and later on the emergence of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) which peaked in 1946. All of this compelled the British safety valve which was the Congress party to orient itself much more towards the masses so that the Indian bourgeoisie and its British patrons would not be harmed in their propertied interests. Simultaneously however, the strengthening Indian bourgeoisie also demanded their pound of flesh from the British. The British were willing to grant any concession to the Indian bourgeoisie and its political representative the Congress party because of its formidable ability to pacify the Indian working class and peasantry. For its own part the Congress party, which cared chiefly for landed interests in India, didn’t hesitate to hijack the power of the peasant and proletarian struggles emerging in India to pressurize the British. The unsurpassed pacifier Gandhi was the supreme manifestation of this parasitical politics (as the other saintly Congress hero, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, has been in our own period).

Despite their best efforts the Congress party could not hold back the rising tide of class struggle which at its core demanded the immediate and realization of the overarching objectives of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, namely:

1)national liberation from colonial rule,
2)comprehensive land reform,
3)the eradication of landlordism, and
4)the abolition of the princely states and their monarchies.

Three major upsurges helped pave the way for the accomplishment of these goals between 1940 and 1947. The first of these was the Quit India movement which mobilized the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie primarily in Northern and Eastern India, in which large tracts of land were forcibly appropriated by the landless and poor farmers from the clutches of the rural elite. Following this was the formation of the Indian National Army by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the student led mobilizations in Bengal, which attacked the militarist foundations of the British empire. Finally, the peak of class struggle saw the naval uprising in 1946 in all major ports of the Indian empire, with a mass mobilization of workers, students and peasants across the sub-continent.

By this time, the British had lost the loyalty of the Congress party and the Indian bourgeoisie it represented, which had grown bold enough to go on its own. The Congress party for its part was on the verge of losing the support it among the peasants and students that Gandhi and his protege Nehru had so painstakingly built up. Although practically all bourgeois political formations in India sided with the British against the mutiny, it was only the Congress party actively colluded with the British in crushing the uprising in Bombay. Of course this ‘service’ would not come free.

The Congress however, were more afraid of a prospect which worried the British imperialists as much as it did them. What if the Indian masses were to rise up and expropriate the capitalist system itself? What if a socialist revolution accompanied the inevitable democratic revolution? The entire Asian continent would become non-capitalist if expropriations in China were followed by the once-Imperial Indian subcontinent.

The theory of Permanent Revolution has been confirmed time and again when bourgeois democratic revolutions have gone hand in hand with the socialist revolution in the absence of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. However, in the post world war period we have witnessed the peculiar development of deformed and deflected revolutions. This in itself is not beyond the understanding of revolutionary Marxism. Lenin in Two tactics of Social Democracy had foreseen the possibility of such a deformed revolution occurring in Russia, should the forces of the revolutionary working class and peasantry be inadequate to secure a complete victory over capitalism. In context of the permanent revolution this would imply that a Socialist revolution though initiated in the mould of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, would be halted midway by a compromise with reactionary elements in society preventing its further transition from the democratic to the Socialist level. Either that or, a healthy socialist revolution would be deformed by absence of worker’s democracy and the whole revolutionary process would become subjected to the rigid control of a counter-revolutionary bureaucratic clique ruling from the top.

Thus, depending on the objective situation a Socialist revolution may take place and yet be deformed. The result of such a deformed revolution would be a compromise with reactionary elements which would leave important democratic needs of the bourgeois revolution unsatisfied. However, even a deformed revolution would achieve some progressive goals and blunt the edge of the socialist revolution. A similar kind of situation holds in China, where a successful yet deformed socialist revolution leaves many of the fundamental needs of the socialist revolution unsatisfied, but still presents a formidable obstacle to the full counter-revolutionary world programme of imperialism.

In India’s case, the indigenous bourgeoisie was faced with a working class on the cusp of a revolutionary mobilization and its erstwhile British Imperialist protectors in retreat, and had to compromise with reaction to both stifle the revolution and ensure the very survival of India as a capitalist state. Likewise, the forces of British imperialism felt directly threatened by the rising tide of revolution across Asia and were ready to defend the social system of capitalism in the world’s largest continent at any price. Having lost their political hold over India, the British were forced to salvage whatever they could to preserve the remnants of an imperialist economic presence in the continent. So the two leading forces of reaction, the British and the Congress, schemed with minor bourgeois leaders like Jinnah of the Muslim League to bring about a partition of the sub-continent. This would constituted a deep enough compromise with the objective of complete anti-colonial emancipation to destroy the revolutionary process unfolding in the sub-continent and in Asia and to preserve their respective positions. This despicably divisive compromise created the republic of India and the republic of Pakistan at an untold cost in human suffering and backwardness for more than half a century to come. And into the bargain they blessed 500 or so princely states and their rotten monarchies, like so many pieces of dung scattered over the marble floor of a shopping mall.

The Indian bourgeoisie was more adept at securing its interests than its less capable counterparts in the chopped up political botchery of Pakistan. Following the withdrawal of British rule, most of the princely states were absorbed into the Indian republic and their monarchies abolished. This was because the Indian bourgeoisie was feeling the strength of the masses and felt compelled to make a series of concessions to the working class and peasantry in the form of industrial welfare, the nationalization of core industries, and the abolition of landlordism and of the monarchies in the princely states.

However, the core demands of a democratic revolution either remained untouched or were implemented in a deformed manner. Thus, land reforms were implemented but in a zigzag and piecemeal way leaving most of the peasant population destitute and pauperized while encouraging the fragmentation of land holding, a development which created one of the principal sources of primitive capitalist accumulation in the Indian republic. At the same time, independent India gave rise to a new land-owning bourgeoisie who made the most of the penetration of capitalist land laws into the countryside to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor peasantry. For the same reason, caste divisions were allowed to persist, notwithstanding their formal abolition in the Constitution. Thus, the Indian bourgeoisie left pre-capitalist fetters in place where they served its political goal of keeping power, while it removed them where it felt they hobbled its own freedom of movement. As was the case with the annexation of Goa.

To sum up, we must emphasize very strongly once more that the social and political strength which enabled the Indian bourgeoisie to complete certain elementary tasks of the bourgeois revolution was not its own. The strength surging through modern India does not belong to the bourgeoisie, which falsely lays claim to it, but to the bourgeoisie’s bitterest enemy the working class and its ally the poor peasantry.

In Pakistan, deliberately truncated at birth, some partial concessions were made to the peasantry in East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan after 1947) in the form of the abolition of Zamindari. Bourgeois-democratic reform stopped here, however. A powerful and influential semi-feudal elite was alarmed at the rapid progress India made in abolishing feudal relics, and huddled around the military institution in that country. The anachronistic and medieval leadership of the country found shelter under the auspices of a rising US imperialism, just like Saudi Arabia, and joined CENTCOM after the Kashmir war. This empowered the pre-capitalist elite and stunted the development of the capitalists of Pakistan as they took over less capital from the British than their Indian counterparts, and were correspondingly less powerful. After partition most of the industrialized and resource-rich provinces lay in India as did most of Britain’s military industries and Imperial infrastructure. India inherited naval power, which Pakistan did not have. All of these factors worked to cripple Pakistan, whose semi-feudal elite were horrified by the class struggle taking place worldwide and did whatever they could get away with to remain in power. The Pakistani bourgeoisie tagged along as willing running dogs to this militarist class of rulers, while acting as a safety valve to vent out peasant and petty bourgeois frustration from time to time. India simply exacerbated Pakistan’s hopeless situation and sped its absorption into British and American imperialism. This is still the case today. The mechanism of Partition continues to operate, with all its devastating consequences for the working people of the subcontinent.

It is now clear what the dynamics of 1947 truly were. The revolutionary process in India was born and grew not because of the bourgeoisie but in spite of it. The bourgeoisie was forced to take up a radical position and come closer to the line of revolution simply to save its own skin. This was an act of betrayal in which they had the fullest connivance of British imperialism acting behind the scenes to destroy the Indian revolution, and in a larger context to stop the Asian revolution from reaching India. The Indian bourgeoisie usurped power from the poor peasants and workers it pretended to represent, and has since then been wielding power with their manufactured consent. But to manufacture and keep this consent they had to make concessions. These led to some of the major changes demanded by the bourgeois revolution, but also prevented a complete combined revolution. At the same time a huge portion of the Indian subcontinent in Pakistan was thrown open to foreign imperialism and left perennially hostage to semi-feudal relics from the past. In other words, Indian independence in 1947 appears in many ways to be a deformed Socialist revolution, stunted at the democratic level. It has allowed the Indian bourgeoisie to become obscenely rich, and to bask in wealth and power nationally and internationally, while the masses of South Asia who create all its wealth languish in desperate poverty and crushing backwardness.

Lenin on the national question

As a continuation of our series of documents on the question of national self determination we are publishing Three significant writings of Lenin on the national question.

The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.) APRIL 24–29, 1917

Resolution on the National Question

The policy of national oppression, inherited from the autocracy and monarchy; is maintained by the landowners, capitalists, and petty bourgeoisie in order to protect their class privileges and to cause disunity among the workers of the various nationalities. Modern imperialism, which increases the tendency to subjugate weaker nations, is a new factor intensifying national oppression.

The elimination of national oppression, if at all achievable in capitalist society, is possible only under a consistently democratic republican system and state administration that guarantee complete equality for all nations and languages.

The right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states must be recognised. To deny them this right, or to fail to take measures guaranteeing its practical realisation, is equivalent to supporting a policy of seizure or annexation. Only the recognition by the proletariat of the right of nations to secede can ensure complete solidarity among the workers of the various nations and help to bring the nations closer together on truly democratic lines.

The conflict which has arisen at the present time between Finland and the Russian Provisional Government strikingly demonstrates that denial of the right to free secession leads to a direct continuation of the policy of tsarism.

The right of nations freely to secede must not be confused with the advisability of secession by a given nation at a given moment. The party of the proletariat must decide the latter question quite independently in each particular case, having regard to the interests of social development as a whole and the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism.

The Party demands broad regional autonomy, the abolition of supervision from above, the abolition of a compulsory official language, and the fixing of the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions in accordance with the economic and social conditions, the national composition of the population, and so forth, as assessed by the local population itself.

The party of the proletariat emphatically rejects what is known as “national cultural autonomy”, under which education, etc., is removed from the control of the state and put in the control of some kind of national diets. National cultural autonomy artificially divides the workers living in one locality, and even working in the same industrial enterprise, according to their various “national cultures”; in other words, it strengthens the ties between the workers and the bourgeois culture of their nations, whereas the aim of the Social-Democrats is to develop the international culture of the world proletariat.

The party demands that a fundamental law be embodied in the constitution annulling all privileges enjoyed by any one nation and all infringements of the rights of national minorities.

The interests of the working class demand that the workers of all nationalities in Russia should have common proletarian organisations: political, trade union, co-operative educational institutions, and so forth. Only the merging of the workers of the various nationalities into such common organisations will make it possible for the proletariat to wage a successful struggle against international Capital and bourgeois nationalism.

The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.)

APRIL 24–29, 1917

Speech on the National Question April 29 (May 12)

Beginning from 1903, when our Party adopted its programme, we have been encountering violent opposition on the part of the Polish comrades. If you study the Minutes of the Second Congress you will see that they were using the same arguments then that they are using now, and that the Polish Social-Democrats walked out from that Congress because they held that recognition of the right of nations to self-determination was unacceptable to them. Ever since then we have been coming up against the same question. Though imperialism already existed in 1903, the Polish Social-Democrats made no mention of it in their arguments. They are making the same strange and monstrous error now as they were then. These people want to put our Party’s stand on a par with that of the chauvinists.

Owing to long oppression by Russia, Poland’s policy is a wholly nationalist one, and the whole Polish nation is obsessed with one idea—revenge on the Muscovites. No one has oppressed the Poles more than the Russian people, who served in the hands of the tsars as the executioner of Polish freedom. In no nation does hatred of Russia sit so deep as with the Poles; no nation dislikes Russia so intensely as the Poles. As a result we have a strange thing. Because of the Polish bourgeoisie, Poland has become an obstacle to the socialist movement. The whole world could go to the devil so long as Poland was free. Of course, this way of putting the question is a mockery of internationalism. Of course, Poland is now a victim of violence, but for the Polish nationalists to count on Russia liberating Poland—that would be treason to the International. The Polish nationalists have  so imbued the Polish people with their views that this is how the situation is regarded in Poland.

The Polish Social-Democratic comrades have rendered a great historic service by advancing the slogan of internationalism and declaring that the fraternal union of the proletariat of all countries is of supreme importance to them and that they will never go to war for the liberation of Poland. This is to their credit, and this is why we have always regarded only these Polish Social-Democrats as socialists. The others are patriots, Polish Plekhanovs. But this peculiar position, when, in order to safeguard socialism, people were forced to struggle against a rabid and morbid nationalism, has produced a strange state of affairs: comrades come to us saying that we must give up the idea of Poland’s freedom, her right to secession.

Why should we Great Russians, who have been oppressing more nations than any other people, deny the right to secession for Poland, Ukraine, or Finland? We are asked to become chauvinists, because by doing so we would make the position of Social-Democrats in Poland less difficult. We do not pretend to seek to liberate Poland, because the Polish people live between two states that are capable of fighting. Instead of telling the Polish workers that only those Social-Democrats are real democrats who maintain that the Polish people ought to be free, since there is no place for chauvinists in a socialist party, the Polish Social-Democrats argue that, just because they find the union with Russian workers advantageous, they are opposed to Poland’s secession. They have a perfect right to do so. But people don’t want to understand that to strengthen internationalism you do not have to repeat the same words. What you have to do is to stress, in Russia, the freedom of secession for oppressed nations and, in Poland, their freedom to unite. Freedom to unite implies freedom to secede. We Russians must emphasise freedom to secede, while the Poles must emphasise freedom to unite.

We notice here a number of sophisms involving a complete renunciation of Marxism. Comrade Pyatakov’s stand repeats that of Rosa Luxemburg….[1] (Holland is an example.)  This is how Comrade Pyatakov reasons, and this is how he refutes himself, for in theory he denies freedom of secession, but to the people he says that anyone opposingfreedom of secession is not a socialist. Comrade Pyatakov has been saying things here that are hopelessly muddled.In Western Europe most countries settled their national questions long ago. It is Western Europe that isreferred when it is said that the national question has been settled. Comrade Pyatakov, however, puts this where itdoes notbelong—to Eastern Europe, and we find ourselves in a ridiculous position.

Just think of the dreadful mess that results! Finland is right next door to us. Comrade Pyatakov has no definite answer for Finland and gets all mixed up. In yesterday’sRabochaya Gazeta you read that the movement for separation is growing in Finland. Finns arriving here tell us that separatism is growing there because the Cadets refuse to grant the country complete autonomy. A crisis is approaching there, dissatisfaction with Governor-General Rodichev is rife, but Rabochaya Gazeta writes that the Finns should wait for the Constituent Assembly, because an agreement will there be reached between Finland and Russia. What do they mean by agreement? The Finns must declare that they are entitled to decide their destiny in their own way, and any Great Russian who denies this right is a chauvinist. It would be another thing if we said to the Finnish worker: Decide what is best for yourself….

Comrade Pyatakov simply rejects our slogan, saying that it means giving no slogan for the socialist revolution, but he himself gives no appropriate slogan. The method of socialist revolution under the slogan “Down with frontiers” is all muddled up. We have not succeeded in publishing the article in which I called this view “Imperialist Economism”.[3] What does the “method” of socialist revolution under the slogan “Down with frontiers” mean? We maintain that the state is necessary, and a state presupposes frontiers. The state, of course, may hold a bourgeois government, but we need the Soviets. But even Soviets are confronted with the question of frontiers. What does “Down with frontiers”  mean? It is the beginning of anarchy….The “method” of socialist revolution under the slogan “Down with frontiers” is simply a mess. When the time is ripe for socialist revolution, when it finally occurs, it will spread to other countries. We shall help it along, but in what manner, we do not know. “The method of socialist revolution” is just a meaningless phrase. We stand for the settlement of problems which the bourgeois revolution has left unsolved. Our attitude to the separatist movement is indifferent, neutral. If Finland, Poland or Ukraine secede from Russia, there is nothing bad in that. What is wrong with it? Anyone who says that is a chauvinist. One must be mad to continue Tsar Nicholas’s policy. Didn’t Norway secede from Sweden? Alexander I and Napoleon once bartered nations, the tsars once traded Poland. Are we to continue this policy of the tsars? This is repudiation of the tactics of internationalism, this is chauvinism at its worst. What is wrong with Finland seceding? After the secession of Norway from Sweden mutual trust increased between the two peoples, between the proletariat of these countries. The Swedish landowners wanted to start a war, but the Swedish workers refused to be drawn into such a war.

All the Finns want now is autonomy. We are for Finland receiving complete freedom, because then there will be greater trust in Russian democracy and the Finns will not separate. While Mr. Rodichev goes to Finland to haggle over autonomy, our Finnish comrades come here and say, “We want autonomy.” But what they get is a broadside, and the answer: “Wait for the Constituent Assembly.” But we say: “Any Russian socialist who denies Finland freedom is a chauvinist.”

We say that frontiers are determined by the will of the [local] population. Russia, don’t you dare fight over Kurland! Germany, get your armies out of Kurland! That is how we solve the secession problem. The proletariat cannot use force, because it must not prevent the peoples from obtaining their freedom. Only when the socialist revolution has become a reality, and not a method, will the slogan “Down with frontiers” be a correct slogan. Then we shall say: Comrades, come to us….

War is a different matter entirely. If need be, we shall not draw the line at a revolutionary war. We are not pacifists….  When we have Milyukov sitting here and sending Rodichev to Finland to shamefully haggle with the Finnish people,we say to the Russian people: Don’t you dare coerce Finland; no nation can be free that oppresses other nations. In the resolution concerning Borgbjerg we say: Withdraw your troops and let the nation settle the question itself. But, if the Soviet takes over power tomorrow, that will not be a “method of socialist revolution”, and we shall then say: Germany, get your troops out of Poland, and Russia, get your troops out of Armenia. If we did otherwise we should be deceiving people.

Comrade Dzerzhinsky tells us that in his oppressed Poland everybody is a chauvinist. But not a single Pole has said a word about Finland or Ukraine. We have been arguing over this so much since 1903 that it is becoming difficult to talk about it. Do as you please….Anyone who does not accept this point of view is an annexationist and a chauvinist. We are for a fraternal union of all nations. If there is a Ukrainian republic and a Russian republic, there will be closer contact and greater trust between the two. If the Ukrainians see that we have a Soviet republic, they will not secede, but if we have a Milyukov republic, they will. When Comrade Pyatakov said in self-contradiction that he is against the forcible retention of nations within the frontiers, he actually recognised the right of nations to self-determination. We certainly do not want the peasant in Khiva to live under the Khan of Khiva. By developing our revolution we shall influence the oppressed people. Propaganda among the oppressed mass must follow only this line.

Any Russian socialist who does not recognise Finland’s and Ukraine’s right to freedom will degenerate into a chauvinist. And no sophisms or references to his “method” will ever help him to justify himself.

Critical Remarks on the National Question




When they discuss the national question, opportunists in Russia are given to citing the example of Austria. In my article in Severnaya Pravda which the opportunists have attacked (Mr. Semkovsky in Novaya Rabochaya Gazeta and Mr. Liebman in Zeit), I asserted that, insofar as that is at all possible under capitalism, there was only one solution of the national question, viz., through consistent democracy. In proof of this, I referred, among other things, to Switzerland.

This has not been to the liking of the two opportunists mentioned above, who are trying to refute it or belittle its significance. Kautsky, we are told, said that Switzerland is an exception; Switzerland, if you please, has a special kind of decentralisation, a special history, special geographical conditions, unique distribution of a population that speak different languages, etc., etc.

All these are nothing more than attempts to evade the issue. To be sure, Switzerland is an exception in that she is not a single-nation state. But Austria and Russia are also exceptions (or are backward, as Kautsky adds). To be sure, it was only her special, unique historical and social conditions that ensured Switzerland greater democracy than most of her European neighbours.

But where does all this come in, if we are speaking of the model to be adopted? In the whole world, under present-day conditions, countries in which any particular institution has been founded on consistent democratic principles are the exception. Does this prevent us, in our programme, from upholding consistent democracy in all institutions?

Switzerland’s special features lie in her history, her geographical and other conditions. Russia’s special features lie in the strength of her proletariat, which has no precedent in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions, and in her shocking general backwardness, which objectively necessitates an exceptionally rapid and resolute advance, under the threat of all sorts of drawbacks and reverses.

We are evolving a national programme from the proletarian standpoint; since when has it been recommended that the worst examples, rather than the best, be taken as a model?

At all events, does it not remain an indisputable and undisputed fact that national peace under capitalism has been achieved (insofar as it is achievable) exclusively in countries where consistent democracy prevails?

Since this is indisputable, the opportunists’ persistent references to Austria instead of Switzerland are nothing but a typical Cadet device, for the Cadets always copy the worst European constitutions rather than the best.

In Switzerland there are three official languages, but bills submitted to a referendum are printed in five languages, that is to say, in two Romansh dialects, in addition to the three official languages. According to the 1900 census, these two dialects are spoken by 38,651 out of the 3,315,443 inhabitants of Switzerland, i.e., by a little over one per cent. In the army, commissioned and non-commissioned officers “are given the fullest freedom to speak to the men in their native language”. In the cantons of Graub\”unden and Wallis (each with a population of a little over a hundred thousand) both dialects enjoy complete equality.

The question is: should we advocate and support this, the living experience of an advanced country, or borrow from the Austrians inventions like “extra-territorial autonomy”, which have not yet been tried out anywhere in the world (and not yet been adopted by the Austrians themselves)?

To advocate this invention is to advocate the division of school education according to nationality, and that is a downright harmful idea. The experience of Switzerland  proves, however, that the greatest (relative) degree of national peace can be, and has been, ensured in practice where you have, a consistent (again relative) democracy throughout the state.

In Switzerland,” say people who have studied this question, “there is no national question in the East-European sense of the term. The very phrase (national, question) is unknown there….” “Switzerland left the struggle between nationalities a long way behind, in 1797–1803.”[3]

This means that the epoch of the great French Revolution, which provided the most democratic solution of the current problems of the transition from feudalism to capitalism,succeeded incidentally, en passant, in “solving” the national question.

Let the Semkovskys, Liebmans, and other opportunists now fry to assert that this “exclusively Swiss” solution is inapplicable to any uyezd or even part of an uyezd in Russia, where out of a population of only 200,000 forty thousand speak two dialects and want to have complete equality of language in their area!

Advocacy of complete equality of nations and languages distinguishes only the consistently democratic elements in each nation (i. e., only the proletarians), and unites them, not according to nationality, but in a profound and earnest desire to improve the entire system of state. On the contrary, advocacy of “cultural-national autonomy”, despite the pious wishes of individuals and groups, divides the nations and in fact draws the workers and the bourgeoisie of any one nation closer together (the adoption of this “cultural-national autonomy” by all the Jewish bourgeois parties).

Guaranteeing the rights of a national minority is inseparably linked up with the principle of complete equality. In my article in Severnaya Pravda this principle was ex pressed in almost the same terms as in the later, official and more accurate decision of the conference of Marxists. That decision demands “the incorporation in the constitution of a fundamental law which shall declare null and void all privileges enjoyed by any one nation and all infringements of the rights of a national minority”.

Mr. Liebman tries to ridicule this formula and asks: “Who knows what the rights of a national minority are?” Do these rights, he wants to know, include the right of the minority to have “its own programme” for the national schools? How large must the national minority be to have the right to have its own judges, officials, and schools with instruction in its own language? Mr. Liebman wants it to be inferred from these questions that a “positive” national programme is essential.

Actually, these questions clearly show what reactionary ideas our Bundist tries to smuggle through under cover of a dispute on supposedly minor details and particulars.

Its own programme” in its national schools!… Marxists, my dear nationalist-socialist, have a general school programme which demands, for example, an absolutely secular school. As far as Marxists are concerned, no departure from this general programme is anywhere or at any time permissible in a democratic state (the question of introducing any “local” subjects, languages, and so forth into it being decided by the local inhabitants). However, from the principle of “taking educational affairs out of the hands of the state” and placing them under the control of the nations, it ensues that we, the workers, must allow the “nations” in our democratic state to spend the people’s money on clerical schools! Without being aware of the fact, Mr. Liebman has clearly demonstrated the reactionary nature of “cultural-national autonomy”!

How large must a national minority be?” This is not defined even in the Austrian programme, of which the Bundists are enamoured. It says (more briefly and less clearly than our programme does): “The rights of the national minorities are protected by a special law to he passed by the Imperial Parliament” (§4 of the Br\”unn programme).

Why has nobody asked the Austrian Social-Democrats the question: what exactly is that law, and exactly which rights and of which minority is it to protect?

That is because all sensible people understand that it is inappropriate and impossible to define particulars in a programme. A programme lays down only fundamental principles. In this case the fundamental principle is implied with the Austrians, and directly expressed in the decision of the  latest conference of Russian Marxists. That principle is: no national privileges and no national inequality.

Let us take a concrete example to make the point clear to the Bundist. According to the school census of January 18, 1911, St. Petersburg elementary schools under the Ministry of Public “Education” were attended by 48,076 pupils. Of these, 396, i. e., less than one per cent, were Jews. The other figures are: Rumanian pupils—2, Georgians—1, Armenians—3, etc.[6] Is it possible to draw up a “positive” national programme that will cover this diversity of relationships and conditions? (And St. Petersburg is, of course, far from being the city with the most mixed population in Russia.) Even such specialists in national “subtleties” as the Bundists would hardly be able to draw up such a programme.

And yet, if the constitution of the country contained a fundamental law rendering null and void every measure that infringed the rights of a minority, any citizen would be able to demand the rescinding of orders prohibiting, for example, the hiring, at state expense, of special teachers of Hebrew, Jewish history, and the like, or the provision of state-owned premises for lectures for Jewish, Armenian, or Rumanian children, or even for the one Georgian child. At all events, it is by no means impossible to meet, on the basis of equality, all the reasonable and just wishes of the national minorities, and nobody will say that advocacy of equality is harmful. On the other hand, it would certainly be harmful to advocate division of schools according to nationality, to advocate, for example, special schools for Jewish children in St. Petersburg, and it would be utterly impossible to set up national schools for every national minority, for one, two or three children.

Furthermore, it is impossible, in any country-wide law, to define how large a national minority must be to be entitled to special schools, or to special teachers for supplementary subjects, etc.

On the other hand, a country-wide law establishing equality can be worked out in detail and developed through special regulations and the decisions of regional Diets, and town, Zemstvo, village commune and other authorities.