Why workers’ governments and socialist internationalism are the only guarantor of self-determination

The war in Ukraine has revisited the ‘national question’ in Europe, ie the language, culture, and democratic rights of populations to territory, in a bloody manner, not seen since the Balkans wars in the 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Niall Mulholland of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) explains how capitalism cannot peacefully solve the national question in a lasting and equitable way. Only a democratic socialist society can create the material conditions for the realisation of a country’s right to self-determination.

Ahead of Russia recognising the ‘People’s Republics of the Donetsk and Luhansk’ and invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a televised address where he attacked the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian oligarchs as tools of the West. He went on to blame the revolutionary socialist leader Vladimir Lenin for having unnecessarily ‘created’ Ukraine.

Putin argued that after the 1917 socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks’ “main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs. They did everything for this purpose”, including satisfying “any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country… Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.”

According to Putin, Lenin’s artificial creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the subsequent breakup of the USSR in 1991, led to the “historical mistake” of Ukraine becoming an independent state.

Putin’s invective against Lenin and the Bolsheviks, denouncing the October Revolution and the existence of the Soviet Union as a federation of states, is thoroughly reactionary. His views reflect those of much of the oligarchic capitalist ruling elite in Moscow. Putin’s tirade is reminiscent of oppressive Tsarist rule and its denial of national rights, and under Stalinism, which revived some of the worst features of ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism.

Challenging issue

The ‘national question’ is one of the most challenging and complex issues facing socialists and the workers’ movement today. As capitalism enters a new phase of deepening crisis, national tensions and national oppression will worsen.

Conflicts and wars can break out, as we see in Ukraine, where the rights of nations and national sovereignty, and self-determination for oppressed nationalities, are invoked by all sides. 

To analyse these processes, and to formulate a programme for the workers’ movement on the national question, we need to start by looking at the ideas and programme of the great Marxist thinkers on this question, not least Lenin.

“Whatever may be the further destiny of the Soviet Union,” Lenin’s co-leader during the October 1917 revolution, Leon Trotsky, wrote in 1930, “the national policy of Lenin will find its place among the treasures of mankind.”

Lenin argued that to oppose the right of self-determination under the rule of the Tsar was to give succour and support to the Great Russian landlords and capitalists. A new socialist world could not be built with the slightest taint of national oppression of the 57% non-Great Russians – a majority in the Tsarist empire.

Lenin argued that only by standing for the right of self-determination could the confidence of the oppressed nationalities be won. Liberated nations could then voluntarily remain within a socialist federation after the overthrow of Tsarism, landlordism and capitalism.

This principled programme cut across national chauvinism and divisions. It allowed for the Bolsheviks to achieve maximum unity of the working class, and was essential for the victory of October 1917.

Lenin’s principled position on the right of nations to secede, should they so desire, was realised in the case of Finland, where the wish of the Finnish people for independence was granted by the Bolshevik government in December 1918.

The situation facing the Bolsheviks in Ukraine after the October Revolution was more complicated. The Tsarist Empire was, as Lenin put it, “the prison house of nations.” Tsarist Russia built an empire which consisted of territory occupied by Russians and many other groups.

During the course of the 19th century, as part of the process of the development of the modern capitalist nation-state in Europe and elsewhere, national consciousness had awoken in varying degrees among these groups.

The Great Russian chauvinism of Tsarist rule tended to regard Ukrainians and Belarusians as also being Russian because they were also Slavic, spoke languages similar to Russian, and were mainly Orthodox Christian. The Tsarist empire labelled Ukrainians as “Little Russians”. Today’s western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many of its inhabitants were and still are Catholics, and were referred to as ‘Ruthenians’. However, many Ukrainians came to see themselves as a separate, distinct nation.

The Bolsheviks’ support in Ukraine after 1917 was complicated by the fact that the Ukrainian population was mainly in the rural areas. Other national and ethnic groups, such as Russians, Poles and Jewish workers, tended to be in towns and cities.

The Kiev Rada ‘provisional government’, formed after the February 1917 revolution, was dominated by forces hostile to the Bolshevik’s socialist programme, and claimed to be the spokesperson for the Ukraine nation.

Following the coming to the power of the Bolsheviks in the October socialist revolution, a civil war broke out when the Tsarist White armies, backed up by the capitalist western powers, attempted to crush the young workers’ state. The counter revolutionary forces found some support among the petty-bourgeois in Ukraine by exploiting the national question.

Political sensitivity

Given this situation, Lenin argued that it was essential that the young workers’ state adopted a sensitive approach on the national and land questions to win over Ukrainians.

Lenin argued “only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.”

From 1917-1921, Ukraine was overrun by various forces, including the Polish and German armies (the Rada tried to find favour with the occupying German forces, which dissolved it), until the Bolsheviks won control. In 1922, Soviet Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, the Soviet state supported Ukrainian education, culture and language.

Great sensitivity towards nationalities was required by the Bolsheviks when drawing up a federal structure for the new Soviet Union.

Lenin and Trotsky strongly criticised Stalin’s original draft constitution for the young workers’ state, which asserted that the Caucasian republics must adhere to Soviet Russia. This revealed a disregard for a genuine equality of rights for all the nationalities of the Soviet Union, including the right to separate, which was enshrined in the early Soviet Union’s constitution.

On the eve of the twelfth congress of the Communist Party, held in 1923, Stalin also proposed a tripartite division of the nations of the Soviet Union based on their economic development. Again, this trampled on the principles of equality among nations and ethnic groups.

Stalin was rebuffed on these positions by Lenin and Trotsky. However, as the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union set-in, due to the isolation and economic underdevelopment of the young workers’ state, bureaucratic Great Russian chauvinism and over-centralisation overturned the sensitive and principled approach of Lenin.

For example, Lenin’s call for a rotating presidency of the Soviet Union, to involve figures from a Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian background, was ignored, and a Russian (Mikhail Kalinin) held the post. 

After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union gathered pace, with workers’ democracy extinguished. The ruling bureaucracy’s insane policy of forced collectivisation in agriculture in Ukraine led to mass famine. Stalin’s policy of ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism saw Ukrainian cultural and language rights rolled back.

These conditions led to Trotsky’s Left Opposition gaining a strong base of support in Ukraine. But widespread Stalinist purges were carried out, eliminating the most class conscious and self-sacrificing working-class Marxists.

After their invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis then had a territory under their control with a Ukrainian-speaking population. The Nazis had managed to gain support in Ukraine because of the deep hatred of the Stalinist dictatorship. Famine, mass deportations and national oppression fuelled opposition to Stalin’s rule. Trotsky pointed out that October revolution drew the working masses of the Soviet Union together, while Stalinism caused division and separatist tendencies.

Forced into exile by Stalin, Trotsky put forward the slogan of an ‘independent Soviet Ukraine’ as a way to appeal to peasants and to cut across Ukrainian nationalist collaboration with Hitler.

The call for an independent Ukrainian workers’ state would also give a huge boost to a political revolution that could see the working class overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy across the Soviet Union and restore workers’ rule: “Naturally, an independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine might subsequently join the Soviet Federation; but voluntarily, on conditions which it itself considers acceptable, which in turn presupposes a revolutionary regeneration of the USSR.

“The genuine emancipation of the Ukrainian people is inconceivable without a revolution or a series of revolutions in the West, which must lead in the end to the creation of the Soviet United States of Europe.

“An independent Ukraine could and undoubtedly will join this federation as an equal member.” (The Ukrainian Question, April 1939)

World War Two saw collaboration between ultra-right-wing Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis that led to horrific pogroms and mass killings of the Jewish population in occupied Ukraine. But many Ukrainians joined with their working-class Russian comrades and other peoples of the former Soviet Union, heroically resisting and eventually defeating Nazi barbarism.

The post-World War Two situation saw a growth of living standards, for a period, under the planned economy in Ukraine and throughout the Soviet Union. But years of economic stagnation, due to the dead hand of the ruling bureaucratic elite, saw inflamed national and ethnic tensions.

Dissolution of USSR

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian republic, agreeing with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to formally dissolve the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union entailed the looting of state assets by gangster-oligarchs and a dramatic fall in the living standards of working-class people. To consolidate their unpopular rule, the new capitalist forces whipped up and exploited national and ethnic divisions in Ukraine, Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has vacillated under the rule of right-wing, pro-Russian presidents, and right-wing, pro-Western presidents. Mass discontent at grinding poverty, and a corrupt, brutal pro-Moscow Victor Yanukovich regime, erupted into a revolt in 2014.

But the lack of a working-class alternative allowed reactionary forces, with Western imperialist backing, to dominate the protest movement. As a new pro-Western regime was consolidated, ethnic divisions dangerously deepened. Democratic rights were curtailed, the fascistic Right Sector paramilitaries were incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces, and discriminatory language laws introduced against Russian speakers and other minorities.

During the events of 2014, the CWI stood for the right to independence of Ukraine, but totally opposed the Kyiv regime and its policy of leaning on neo-fascists and right-wing Ukrainian nationalists in its suppression of the rights of ethnic Russians and other minorities.

The CWI firmly opposed the cynical and hypocritical meddling by western imperialist powers and the bosses’ EU in the affairs of Ukraine.

Equally, we opposed the Great Russian chauvinism of Vladimir Putin. We called for class independence in the struggle for a socialist confederation of the region.

It is vital to support the genuine democratic and national aspirations of the different people of Ukraine and the region. Marxists oppose the forcible incorporation of distinct nationalities into one state against their will.

In relation to Crimea, the CWI gave support to the right of self-determination – including secession from Ukraine – which appeared to be the wish of the overwhelming majority of its population.

At the same time, the CWI defended the rights of all minorities in Crimea, including the Tatars and others, and opposed the reactionary nationalism of Putin and the oligarchs in Russia. 

With ‘disguised’ Russian troops on the streets of Crimea, it is clear that the 2014 referendum on independence was not conducted in a fair and free manner. Yet it seemed there was little doubt that a majority of the population favoured returning to Russia.

All doubts, however, the CWI argued at the time, could be removed either through the election of a revolutionary constituent assembly convened through mass committees to establish the will of the people, or a genuinely democratic referendum.

The bloody struggle between Ukrainian nationalist forces and ethnic Russian forces, particularly in eastern Ukraine, led to fragmentation and a process of cantonisation of the region.

The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region declared their independence from Ukraine. These impoverished breakaway areas soon came under the domination of Putin’s regime and served the interests of Russian imperialism.

Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with a landslide in 2019 on a wave of mass opposition to the corrupt elite, poverty, and endless conflict in the east of Ukraine.

The new president said he would “reboot” peace talks with the separatists fighting Ukrainian forces in the east, but he soon acquiesced to the agenda of the Western powers.

Ukrainian governments have subjected Donetsk and Luhansk to military attacks since 2014. In fighting between the two sides, over 14,000 people have died. Putin invoked the shelling of Donetsk and Luhansk by the Ukrainian army and Nato’s eastward expansion as the reasons for his ordering the Russian army to “liberate” the enclaves and to “demilitarise” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

The CWI supports the right of the people of these areas to be free of Ukrainian domination and, for that matter, from the domination of Putin’s regime. They should be allowed to decide their own future.

But genuine self-determination, to be independent or to join Russia, cannot be expressed in a free and fair manner under the shadow of Russian tanks and guns. All that Putin can offer the mass of ethnic Russians in Donbas is a continuation of impoverishment and endlessly facing off hostile military forces.

The invasion of Ukraine will serve only to further divide the Russian and Ukrainian working class.

Clearly, the people of Ukraine cannot determine their future while Russian forces invade and occupy. The international workers’ movement must demand the immediate end to the invasion and for the removal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.

But ‘self-determination’ for Ukraine under the auspices of the Western capitalist powers, of the Nato armed imperialist alliance, and the bosses’ EU, is illusory.

Thirty years after the independence of Ukraine, all the promises from capitalist politicians of prosperity and peace have turned into their opposite on the basis of the profit system. Ukrainian people are pawns in the rivalry and conflict between the big imperialist powers of Nato and the regional imperialist ambitions of Russia.

Way forward

It is up to the working people of Ukraine and Russia to end the rule of the oligarchs and reactionary governments in their countries, and to draw the poison of far-right nationalist and fascistic elements.

The war in Ukraine underlines that only the removal of capitalism and setting up a socialist confederation of Ukraine and the region can end the ethnic and national clashes.

Putin traduces Lenin’s record, and the Western capitalist powers detest the leader of the first workers’ state, but for the working class only a revival of the socialist internationalism of Lenin can show a way forward.

Marxists call for the unity of the working class across all ethnic and national lines, and for the building of mass workers’ parties, which must inscribe on their banner the guaranteed rights of minorities and the right to self-determination of nations.