Marxist Leninist Understanding on the Right of Self Determination and National Question

Posted on August 15, 2019


For us, Marxist Leninists, the brilliant theses of Stalin on nationality question remains the bedrock on understanding the nationality issue a barometer to formulate our policy and tactics. Along with Stalin’s theses, there are the extant text of writings by Marx, Engels, Lenin and of the Marxists of this country where the issue has been discussed and deliberated in detail. We have dedicated a section on the understanding of nationality question with respect to Kashmir, where some of the theses have been quoted, from that period after the transfer of power, before the entire movement degenrated into the abyss of revisionism and dogmatic-Marxism of the CPI(ML) era.   Apart from Stalin’s article Marxism and National Question, the Marxist-Leninist understanding on the subject is elaborated in two of Lenin’s articles dealing with the subject–  “Critical Remarks on the National Question” and “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”

Hence, it would not be out of place to review again the writings of Lenin and Stalin that still remain relevant to understand what should be our approach and line on the twin question of nationality and right of self-determination. Unfortunately it seems that the Communist activists from the various parties have all but forgotten these writing and hence a clear directionless and confusion is observed in their activity and writings. The writing of these parties and groups are but pari-materia with those of Liberal Bourgeoisie (NGO) activists, i.e. “unconditional support for Azaadi Movement” led by sections of Kashmiri bourgeois who have their interest sewn with imperialism.

Marx and Engels

 It was Marx and Engels who provided the theoretical foundation for understanding the national question. Both of them supported the national libration movement of the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples—the so-called “great historic nations”.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels, enumerated the coming into existence of nations, that they formulated was the outcome of class struggle, and specifically of the capitalist class’s attempts to overthrow all the previous institutions of the feudal ruling class and the forces based upon them. It aimed to establish the economic, social and political conditions most conducive to their class needs of bourgeoisie. Hence before capitalism, nations did not exist.

The famous wordings of these brilliant theoreticians needs to be once again read by the readers to understand the basic idea that went behind Marx and Engels, when they formulated the nation and national question. They wrote:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Engels further pointed out the character of these processes in an 1848  speech to commemorate the 1846 Krakov uprising:

Yes, the latest struggle of Poland against its foreign oppressors has been preceded by a hidden struggle, concealed but decisive within Poland itself, a struggle of oppressed Poles against Polish oppressors, a struggle of democracy against the Polish aristocracy…. (On the Polish Question)

the immense progress made within unhappy Poland itself, bleeding and torn; the Polish aristocracy completely separated from the Polish people and thrown into the arms of the oppressors of its country; the Polish people irrevocably committed to the democratic cause; and finally the class struggle, the motive force of all social progress, established in Poland as here, that is the victory of democracy proved by the Cracow revolution, that is the result which will bear fruit when the defeat of the insurgents has been avenged. (i.b.i.d)

Yes, gentlemen, by the Cracow insurrection the Polish cause, from being national, as it was, has become the cause of all peoples; from a question of sympathy, as it was, it has become a question of interest of all democrats. Until 1846 we had a crime to avenge; henceforth we have allies to support, and we shall do it.


The question of how to tackle the nationality issue and build unity of proletariats and other oppressed people was a profound challenge that was faced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The party could not develop without an understanding of the nationality question in multinational empire as the Czarist Russia. The other region of the Czarist Empire had a profound mistrust and resentment towards the Russian nation. For building of Socialism, it was necessary to cement unity of workers and peasants. Lenin’s genius like in several other departments was evident here also, he rubbished the theses propounded by those who had adopted a mechanical dogmatist view of working class unity. Lenin devoted considerable attention to the theory and practice of national question to enrich the ideology of Marxism. This is even not surprising given the fact that he was trying to forge a genuine unity in the “prison house of nations”. The task of unifying the workers and poor peasants of different nationalities against the autocratic Czarist regime and capitalist class in itself constituted a daunting task that could only be performed and analysed by Lenin. As in India today in the pre-revolutionary Russia the ruling class was actively pursuing the policy of dividing the working class on national lines and creating chasm between them, so that there could be no unity of them.

Lenin formulated the key formulations on the national question and the creation of nation. As early as in 1903, he declared; “It is the business of the proletariat to rally the greatest possible masses of workers of each and every nationality more closely, to rally them for struggle in the broadest possible arena for a democratic republic and for socialism… Thus, the general, basic and ever-binding programme of Russian Social-Democracy must consist only in the demand for equal rights for all citizens (irrespective of sex, language, creed, race, nationality, etc.) and for their right to free democratic self-determination. As to support of the demand for national autonomy, it is by no means a permanent and binding part of the programme of the proletariat. This support may become necessary for it only in isolated and exceptional cases.”(On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social-Democrats).

While advocating the right of nations Lenin was very clear and he opposed all forms of nationalism fostered by the bourgeoisie, which he had termed as reactionary or Black Hundred nationalism. Bourgeois and bourgeois-democratic nationalists, said Lenin, recognise the equality of nations, but in deeds they (often covertly, behind the backs of the people) stand for certain privileges for one of the nations, and always try to secure greater advantages for “their own” nation (i.e., for the bourgeoisie of their own nation); they strive to separate and segregate nations, to foster national exclusiveness, etc. By talking most of all about “national culture” and emphasising what separates one nation from the other, bourgeois nationalists divide the workers of the various nations and fool them with “nationalist slogans”. (Once More on the Segregation of the Schools According to Nationality)

He further said, “The class-conscious workers combat all national oppression and all national privileges, but they do not confine themselves to that. They combat all, even the most refined, nationalism, and advocate not only the unity, but also the amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in the struggle against reaction and against bourgeois nationalism in all its forms. Our task is not to segregate nations, but to unite the workers of all nations (emphasis ours). Our banner does not carry the slogan “national culture” but international culture, which unites all the nations in a higher, socialist unity, and the way to which is already being paved by the international amalgamation of capital.” (Once More on the Segregation …ibid.)

While opposing all forms of nationalism, Lenin was not against national consciousness, national identity and combating all national oppression, he was in full consonance to the fact of equality of nations including the nation’s right of self-determination i.e. to constitute itself in a fully sovereign nation state. He wrote “The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To   act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.” (Critical Remarks on the National Question)

How and when Nation took shape

So the nationality question and its democratic rights

On the creation of nation state, Lenin wrote:

Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies in the national question. The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the break-down of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.

Both tendencies are a universal law of capitalism. The former predominates in the beginning of its development, the latter characterises a mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society. The Marxists’ national programme takes both tendencies into account, and advocates, firstly, the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect (and also the right of nations to self—determination with which we shall deal separately later); secondly, the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind. (Critical Remarks on the National Question)

 He further says:

Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards this goal, and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period. (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination)

 After Lenin, this theory was further developed by Stalin, in his seminal work, Marxism and the National Question.

On the Question of Self-determination

 The proletariat demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any one of the nations within the bounds of the state.
–V. I. Lenin, “The National Programme of the RSDLP”

 In theory the concept of self-determination means the right of a nation or nationality to secede from the state that rules it, leading to the creation of either its own independent nation state or joining in other nation state. Though this right emanated as a bourgeoisie right, but something that has been denied by both the pre-capitalist rules and then later by the bourgeoisie in power.

Something that needs to be clarified is that wherever in the Marxist literature this question on the “right of nations to self-determination” has been dealt, it is unambiguously clear that this right has always been understood to mean the right to secession. When some section raised doubts on the meaning of the “right to self-determination”, Lenin candidly explained that it meant right to secession and nothing else.

 To quote Lenin again where he says;

“The Semkovskys, Liebmans and Yurkeviches who doubt this and declare that §9 is “vague”, etc., do so only because of their sheer ignorance or carelessness. As far back as 1902, Plekhanov, in Zarya, defended “the right to self-determination” in the draft programme, and wrote that this demand, while not obligatory upon bourgeois democrats, was “obligatory upon Social-Democrats”. “If we were to forgot it or hesitate, to advance it,” Plekhanov wrote, “for fear of offending the national prejudices of our fellow-countrymen of Great-Russian nationality, the call … ‘workers of all countries, unite!’ would be a shameful lie on our lips….”( The Right of Nations to Self-Determination)”

As a general rule Lenin and Stalin never advocated actual secession in general, but the question was to be answered on case to case basis. As Marxist both of them advocated and stressed the advantages of large and unified states having large economic wherewithal of industrial and finance. But in case where the proletariat was able to win over the masses and had a commanding power in oppressed nations, right to secede had to be supported and defended. But in such situation, where the power would go to bourgeoisie or the reactionary class, such movement was to be not only not supported but was to be opposed in totality


For Marxists the defence of the right to self-determination is a principled programmatic weapon. One that is designed to help achieve revolutionary consciousness and establishment of the dictatorship of proletariat and future socialist society. Lenin and Stalin not only discussed this as theoretical exercise but also practised it. This was evident in Lenin’s change of tactics while dealing with the colonial and Independence question. Initially Lenin’s stance was that the development of new bourgeois national states in colonies where independence movement was led by the bourgeoisie party (like Congress in India, Kuomintang in China) was progressive in comparison with pre-capitalist conditions. Later, he changed his stance as the new epoch developed, he stressed that nationalist consciousness in colonial countries was progressive in the passing sense in a way that it helped awakening the political awareness among the masses for a need to fight the common enemy of imperialism.

However, it would not be correct to understand that Lenin was a nationalist, this stance was similar to Marx supporting bourgeois national development versus feudalism, one that did not place Marx in unison with Liberal or nationalist thinkers. Marx and Lenin only gave conditional support to national movements, when they saw them as necessary and progressive. They were only a means to their real and explicit goal, proletarian internationalism.