From the National Question to the International Question: The Soviet contribution to the anti-colonial struggle

I love this stuff, with its sheer euphoria at a world-historical breakthrough. This is Stalin on the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. It is about this time that he consciously claims his own breakthrough from the ‘national question’ to the international anti-colonial struggle. He probably gets a little carried away with the world-historical importance of the October Revolution, but who can blame him?

Having overthrown the landlords and the capitalists, the October Revolution broke the chains of national and colonial oppression and freed from it, without exception, all the oppressed peoples of a vast state. The proletariat cannot emancipate itself unless it emancipates the oppressed peoples. It is a characteristic feature of the October Revolution that it accomplished these national-colonial revolutions in the U.S.S.R. not under the flag of national enmity and conflicts among nations, but under the flag of mutual confidence and fraternal rapprochement of the workers and peasants of the various peoples in the U.S.S.R., not in the name of nationalism, but in the name of internationalism.

It is precisely because the national-colonial revolutions took place in our country under the leadership of the proletariat and under the banner of internationalism that pariah peoples, slave peoples, have for the first time in the history of mankind risen to the position of peoples that are really free and really equal, thereby setting a contagious example to the oppressed nations of the whole world.

This means that the October Revolution has ushered in new era, the era of colonial revolutions which are being carried out in the oppressed countries of the world in alliance with the proletariat and under the leadership of the proletariat.

It was formerly the “accepted” idea that the world has been divided from time immemorial into inferior and superior races, into blacks and whites, of whom the former are unfit for civilisation and are doomed to be objects of exploitation, while the latter are the only bearers of civilisation, whose mission it is to exploit the former. (Works, vol. 10, pp. 248-49).

That legend must now be regarded as shattered and discarded. One of the most important results of the October Revolution is that it dealt that legend a mortal blow, by demonstrating in practice that the liberated non-European peoples, drawn into the channel of Soviet development, are not one whit less capable of promoting a really progressive culture and a really progressive civilisation than are the European peoples.


Stalin and the origins of post-colonialism

The pleasure increases with age: the discovery of unexpected ideas by means of disciplined and sustained reading. In this case I refer to Joseph Stalin and the origins of the connection between Marxism, anti-colonialism and thereby post-colonialism. Here I can spell out only the outlines of what will become a much longer argument.

As a preliminary note, we need to dispel the image popularised by the Trotskyites. The sneering dismissal of a ‘mediocre provincial’ says more about Trotsky’s own vanity than it does about Stalin[1] Even preliminary investigation reveals that Stalin was a very bright student, at both the church school he attended and the ‘Spiritual Seminary’ in Tiflis where he studied theology for six years. At the seminary he also wrote poetry, which has entered the anthologies of great Georgian literature. Anyone who studies the poems is struck by the delicate balance and linguistic purity of the writing[2] – features that also show up in his later written work.

However, it was the experience of crude Russification in Georgia that influenced Stalin most deeply on the national question. At the seminary, Georgian was forbidden even in everyday talk among the students. All texts, literature, and instruction were in Russian with a national imperialist focus. These experiences led to one of his early pieces on the ‘national question’, with the position outlined in full some years later in ‘Marxism and the National Question’.[3] Here he outlined what would become the basic position of the Bolsheviks: recognition and fostering of ethnic minorities, in terms of language, culture, literature, government, and religion. By this stage, he had already made clear his position on treatment of the Jews, among other groups, under the tsarist regime: ‘Groaning under the yoke are the eternally persecuted and humiliated Jews who lack even the miserably few rights enjoyed by other Russian subjects – the right to live in any part of the country they choose, the right to attend school, the right to be employed in government service, and so forth’.

All this is easy enough when one is involved in an underground, revolutionary group. What happens when you achieve power? After the October Revolution, Stalin was made People’s Commissar, with a specific focus on the ‘national question’. Now he had to deal with the complexities of the various situations. As the new government began enacting its policy, he found that bourgeois-aristocratic governments began to claim autonomy. So he stipulated that any claim to autonomy and self-determination had to come from a government established by workers and peasants – in Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and so on. In the process of thinking through such matters, he formulated the dialectical position: ‘Thus, from the breakdown of the old imperialist unity, through independent Soviet republics, the peoples of Russia are coming to a new, voluntary and fraternal unity’.[4]

Soon enough he was struck by a crucial insight: this position on the national question also applies to anti-colonial movements throughout the world. So he wrote in 1918 that the October Revolution ‘has widened the scope of the national question and converted it from the particular question of combating national oppression in Europe into the general question of emancipating the oppressed peoples, colonies and semi-colonies from imperialism’.[5] If one supports the emancipation of ethnic minorities within the USSR, then the same should apply to any colonised place on the globe. This insight lay behind USSR’s policy, already from this time, of supporting anti-colonial struggles around the world.

I cannot go into the detail and complexity of these issues here, such as the relationship with the international solidarity of the working class, the way socialism and nationalism come together in a new way in such formulations, the realities of a massive war effort, and so on. But I do need to ask how these insights have a bearing on post-colonialism. As any self-respecting account of the origins of post-colonialism shows, what we now call ‘post-colonialism’ has a longer history in the anti-colonial articulations of Marxism and the struggles it fostered. The names usually listed in such histories include Marx, Lenin, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James, among others. Missing from this account is of course Stalin. Yet, it was Stalin who developed most fully and in the context of the actual experience of constructing socialism the deeper logic of Marxist anti-colonialism. The sensitivity to such issues may have arisen from his own intimate experiences in Georgia as a young man. But he worked through the complexities of the issue as he dealt with the realities of ethnic minorities in what would soon be called the USSR.

[1] As Lunacharsky observes, Trotsky never did anything without a careful look in the mirror of history. Anatoly Vasil’evich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes  (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).

[2] Donald Rayfield, “Stalin the Poet,” PN Review 11, no. 3 (1985).

[3] J. V. Stalin, “The Social-Democratic View on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 1, 31-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1904 [1954]); J. V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 3, 300-81 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1913 [1953]).

[4] J. V. Stalin, “The Government’s Policy on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 233-37 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1919 [1953]), 237.

[5] J. V. Stalin, “The October Revolution and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 158-70 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1918 [1953]), 169-70.

Freedom of religion, according to Stalin

In a subtle and complex piece, ‘Marxism and the National Question’ (1913), Stalin explicitly links the policy of the RSDLP on national self-determination with religion. Here he writes of both freedom of religion and the need to agitate against the harmful, reactionary elements of religion:

The programme of the Social-Democrats contains a clause on freedom of religion. According to this clause any group of persons have the right to profess any religion they please: Catholicism, the religion of the Orthodox Church, etc. Social-Democrats will combat all forms of religious persecution, be it of members of the Orthodox Church, Catholics or Protestants. Does this mean that Catholicism, Protestantism, etc., “do not contradict the precise meaning” of the programme? No, it does not. Social-Democrats will always protest against persecution of Catholicism or Protestantism; they will always defend the right of nations to profess any religion they please; but at the same time, on the basis of a correct understanding of the interests of the proletariat, they will carry on agitation against Catholicism, Protestantism and the religion of the Orthodox Church in order to achieve the triumph of the socialist world outlook.

The same logic applies to the national question:

The same must be said of self-determination. Nations have a right to arrange their affairs as they please; they have a right to preserve any of their national institutions, whether beneficial or harmful – nobody can (nobody has a right to!) forcibly interfere in the life of a nation. But that does not mean that Social-Democracy will not combat and agitate against the harmful institutions of nations and against the inexpedient demands of nations. On the contrary, it is the duty of Social-Democracy to conduct such agitation and to endeavour to influence the will of nations so that the nations may arrange their affairs in the way that will best correspond to the interests of the proletariat.

‘Marxism and the National Question’, in Works, vol. 2, pp. 368-69.