From on the issue of Ukraine:…// “Lenin’s real position on the Ukrainian national question?”

With no outright endorsement here, we cite one useful historical clarification on the legacy of Ukraine, Lenin, Stalin, and the work at and the writings of Alan Woods.

Re: [marxmail] What was Lenin’s real position on the Ukranian national question?
From: Cort Greene
Date: Fri, Feb 25, 2022 2:32 pm
Both sections below are abstracted from Part 4 – Marxism and the National Question

Stalin, the creature of the Bureaucracy, became an equally rabid Great-Russian chauvinist, despite the fact that he spoke Russian poorly and with a thick Georgian accent. In 1921, despite Lenin’s objections, Stalin organised an invasion of Georgia, which was (theoretically) an independent state. Presented with a fait accompli, Lenin was obliged to accept the position. But he strongly advised caution and sensitivity when dealing with the Georgians, in order to avoid any hint of Russian bullying. At the time Georgia, a predominantly peasant and petty bourgeois country, was ruled by the Mensheviks. Lenin was in favour of a conciliatory policy, with a view to winning the confidence of the Georgians. He attached enormous importance to the maintenance of fraternal relations between the nationalities, and insisted on the voluntary character of any union or federation. Stalin, on the contrary, wished to push through at all costs the union of the Russian Socialist Federation (RSFSR) with the Transcaucasian Federation, the Ukrainian SSR and the Bielorussian SSR. When Stalin’s draft proposal was submitted to the Central Committee, Lenin subjected it to a serious criticism and proposed an alternative solution which was different in principle from Stalin’s draft. Lenin, typically, stressed the element of equality and the voluntary nature of the federation: “We recognise ourselves to be the equals of the Ukrainian SSR and others,” he wrote, “and together with them and on equal terms with them enter a new union, a new federation…” (Lenin, Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p. 223.)

Meanwhile, behind the backs of the Party leadership, Stalin, aided by his henchman Ordzhonikidze (a Russified Georgian, like himself) and Dzerzhinski (a Pole) staged what amounted to a coup in Georgia. They purged the Georgian Mensheviks, against Lenin’s specific advice, and when the Georgian Bolshevik leaders protested, they were ruthlessly pushed aside. Stalin and Ordzhonikidze trampled on all criticism. In other words, they carried out a policy that was precisely the opposite of what Lenin advocated for Georgia. They bullied the Georgian Bolsheviks and even went so far as to use physical violence, as when Ordzhonikidze struck one of the Georgian Bolsheviks—an unheard-of action. When Lenin, who was incapacitated by illness, finally found out he was horrified, and dictated a series of letters to his secretaries, denouncing Stalin’s conduct in the harshest possible terms and demanding the severest punishment for Ordzhonikidze.

In a text dictated on December 24-5 1922, Lenin branded Stalin “a real and true national-socialist”, and a vulgar “Great-Russian bully”. (See Buranov, Lenin’s Will, p. 46.) He wrote: “I also fear that Comrade Dzerzhinski, who went to the Caucasus to investigate the ‘crime’ of those ‘nationalist-socialists’, distinguished himself there by his truly Russian frame of mind (it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified overdo this Russian frame of mind) and that the impartiality of his whole commission was typified well enough by Ordzhonikidze’s ‘manhandling’.” (LCW, The Question of Nationalities or ‘autonomization’, 13 December 1922, vol. 36, p. 606.)

Lenin placed the blame for this incident firmly at Stalin’s door: “I think,” he wrote, “that Stalin’s haste and infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism’ played a fatal role here. In politics, spite generally plays the basest of roles.” (Ibid.)

Lenin linked Stalin’s behaviour in Georgia directly to the problem of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state apparatus under conditions of frightful backwardness. He particularly condemned Stalin’s haste in pushing through a Union of Soviet Republics, irrespective of the opinions of the peoples concerned, under the pretext of the need for a “united state apparatus”. Lenin firmly rejected this argument, and explained it as the expression of the rotten Great-Russian chauvinism emanating from the Bureaucracy which, to a large degree, the Revolution had inherited from tsarism:

“It is said that a united state apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from the same Russian apparatus, which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?

“There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed until we could say, that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; the state apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and Tsarist hotchpotch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.

“It is quite natural that in such circumstances the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk.” (Ibid., p. 605, our emphasis.)

After the Georgian affair, Lenin threw the whole weight of his authority behind the struggle to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary of the party which he occupied in 1922, after the death of Sverdlov. However, Lenin’s main fear now more than ever was that an open split in the leadership, under prevailing conditions, might lead to the break-up of the party along class lines. He therefore attempted to keep the struggle confined to the leadership, and the notes and other material were not made public. Lenin wrote secretly to the Georgian Bolshevik-Leninists (sending copies to Trotsky and Kamenev) taking up their cause against Stalin “with all my heart”. As he was unable to pursue the affair in person, he wrote to Trotsky requesting him to undertake the defence of the Georgians in the Central Committee.

The documentary evidence of Lenin’s last fight against Stalin and the bureaucracy was suppressed for decades by Moscow. Lenin’s last writings were hidden from the Communist Party rank-and-file in Russia and internationally. Lenin’s last letter to the Party Congress, despite the protests of his widow, was not read out at the Party Congress and remained under lock and key until 1956 when Khruschev and Co. published it, along with a few other items including the letters on Georgia and the national question. Thus, Lenin’s struggle to defend the real policies of Bolshevism and proletarian internationalism were consigned to oblivion.

Only one man explained in advance where the theory of Socialism in one Country would inevitably lead. As early as 1928, Leon Trotsky warned that if this theory was adopted by the Comintern, it would inevitably be the start of a process that could only end in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world, whether in or out of power. Three generations later, the USSR and the Communist International lie in ruins, and the Communist Parties have long since abandoned any pretence to stand for a real Leninist policy everywhere.

Trotsky and the Ukrainian question

For Trotsky, as for Lenin, the question as to whether one should support the demand for the right of self-determination was a concrete question, the answer to which was determined entirely by the interests of the proletariat and the world revolution. A good example of the method of Trotsky was his attitude to the Ukraine in the 1930s. The monstrous conduct of the Stalinist Bureaucracy towards the Ukraine seriously damaged the links of solidarity between Russia and the Ukraine established by the October Revolution.

Like Georgia, the Ukraine was a predominantly agricultural country with an overwhelmingly peasant population. A large country, with a size and population comparable to that of France, the Ukraine occupied a strategic importance for the Bolsheviks. The success of the revolution in the Ukraine was crucial for the extending of the revolution to Poland, the Balkans and, most important of all, Germany. In January 1919 Christian Rakovsky, the President of Commissars of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic stated that “The Ukraine is truly the strategic nodal point of socialism. To create a revolutionary Ukraine would mean triggering off revolution in the Balkans and giving the German proletariat the possibility of resisting famine and world imperialism. The Ukrainian revolution is the decisive factor in the world revolution.” (Christian Rakovsky, Selected Writings, p. 24.)

The Soviet power was established in the Ukraine with some difficulty. This was only partly the result of foreign intervention. The main difficulty was the overwhelming predominance of the peasantry. This was aggravated by the national question. Although the Ukrainian language is quite close to Russian, and the two peoples shared a common history for centuries (Kiev was originally the capital of ancient Rus’), nevertheless the Ukrainians form a separate people with their own language, culture and national identity—a fact not always recognised by the Great Russians who traditionally referred to the Ukrainians as “Little Russians”.

The national divide in the Ukraine coincided very largely with the class divisions in Ukrainian society. Whereas 80 per cent of the population were peasants who spoke Ukrainian, a large part of the urban population were Russians. Thus, the Bolsheviks had a strong base in the towns, but were extremely weak in the countryside. Upon the resolution of this problem hinged the fate of the Ukrainian revolution. The weakness of the Bolsheviks was that they appeared as a “Russian and Jewish” party. However, as the revolution took hold in the Ukraine, a class differentiation inevitably opened up within the peasantry and was reflected in splits in the old traditional Ukrainian national organisations. The most important development was the leftward evolution of the Borot’bists—who were really the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian Left Social Revolutionaries. During the Civil War, the Borot’bists joined forces with the Bolsheviks to fight the Whites (Petlyura). Despite the doubts of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Lenin insistently demanded that they unify with the Borot’bists. After many difficulties, the Borot’bists finally fused with the Communist Party, thus giving the party for the first time a mass base in the Ukrainian peasantry. This was decisive for the victory of the revolution in the Ukraine.

It is true that thereafter there were many problems with a “nationalist” deviation in the Ukrainian party. But these were overcome by the patience and tact which always characterised the policy of Lenin and Trotsky on the national question. However, the rise of Stalin and the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state enormously exacerbated the growth of discontent in the Ukraine. At the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923, Rakovsky led the struggle against the growing tendency towards bureaucracy and Great Russian chauvinism. In a courageous speech at the congress, Rakovsky clearly identified the roots of the problem in terms that closely echoed Lenin’s own: “Stalin has only remained on the threshold of the explanation,” he declared. “There is a second, more important explanation, namely the fundamental discrepancy between our party and our programme on the one hand and our state apparatus on the other. This is the central, the crucial question.” (Ibid., p. 33.)

And he went on: “Our central authorities begin to view the administration of the whole country from the point of view of convenience. Naturally, it is tiresome to administer twenty republics, and how convenient it would be if the whole lot were united. From the bureaucratic point of view, this would be simpler, easier, more pleasant.” (Ibid.)

The concentration of power in the hands of a privileged new aristocracy of bureaucrats had a disastrous effect on the national question in the USSR. The bureaucratic adventure of forced collectivisation had devastating consequences throughout the Soviet Union, but nowhere more than in the Ukraine. Stalin’s purges began earlier in the Ukraine than elsewhere because of the extent of resistance to this madness which drove the mass of Ukrainian peasants into opposition. This in turn was reflected in opposition in the ranks of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Between 1933 and 1936, the Ukrainian Party was decimated by Stalin. In one year alone, 1933, over half of all regional Party secretaries were purged. Many of those purged were supporters of Stalin, like Skrypnik, the Old Bolshevik and prominent Ukrainian Party leader who committed suicide in 1933 in protest at the purge. This was only the first blow. In 1938, at the height of the Moscow Purges, nearly half of all secretaries of Party organisations were purged yet again. This was a warning that only complete subservience to the Moscow bureaucracy would be tolerated.

From his foreign exile Trotsky followed these events with growing alarm. Noting that the Purges had hit the Ukraine far harder than any other Republic, he concluded that the oppressive measures of the Russian Bureaucracy would place an intolerable strain on the link between the Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union. The danger of a revival of counter-revolutionary bourgeois Ukrainian nationalism was clear to him. In the given circumstances, such a trend could get a powerful echo in the peasantry. Trotsky was already warning the world of the inevitability of a new world war in which Hitler would attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Under these circumstances, the Ukrainian question assumed a burning importance for the future of the world.

It was under these specific conditions that Trotsky advanced the slogan of an independent Soviet Socialist Ukraine. His intention was quite clear: to cut the ground from under the feet of the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists who were striving to split off the Ukraine from the USSR on a reactionary basis, which would inevitably mean handing the Ukraine, with its colossal agricultural and industrial potential, to Hitler. Trotsky understood that a political revolution in the Ukraine would inevitably place on the order of the day the national question. And he understood that matters had gone too far to prevent the Ukraine from separating from a forced union which was now associated in the minds of the masses with violence, suffering and national humiliation. The task of the Ukrainian Bolshevik-Leninists was therefore to give the Ukrainian national movement a socialist, not a bourgeois, content.

A successful revolution in the Ukraine would have had a tremendous impact in Russia and in the neighbouring states—above all in the Western Ukraine, which was languishing under the heel of Pilsudski’s Bonapartist dictatorship in Poland. The reunification of the Ukraine on the basis of an independent soviet socialist regime would have led to the downfall of Pilsudski and the beginnings of the socialist revolution in Poland. This in turn would have encouraged the German working class to turn against Hitler. As in 1919, the Ukraine was therefore “the key to the world revolution”. Had the Ukrainian working class come to power, even if that led to a separation from Russia, the door would have still been open for a federation with Russia later on. However, things worked out differently to what Trotsky expected. The Second World War cut across his perspectives.

When Stalin in 1939 signed the notorious Pact with Hitler and sent the Red Army to occupy part of Poland, including the Western Ukraine, Trotsky warned that Hitler would inevitably break his agreement and attack the USSR. In this situation, the national discontent in the Ukraine would pose a mortal threat to the Soviet Union: “Hitler’s policy is the following: the establishment of a definite order for his conquests, one after the other, and the creation by each new conquest of a new system of ‘friendships’. At the present stage Hitler concedes the Greater Ukraine to his friend Stalin as a temporary deposit. In the following stage he will pose the question of who is the owner of this Ukraine: Stalin or he, Hitler.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 90.)

He warned that the national oppression of the Ukraine by the Great Russian Stalinist Bureaucracy would drive the Ukrainians into the arms of Hitler. Precisely for this reason, and in a particular historical context, Trotsky advanced the slogan of an independent soviet Ukraine, as a means of combating reactionary Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism and winning over the Ukrainian workers and peasants to the idea of soviet power. On the eve of the Second World war he wrote:

“The pro-German orientation of a section of Ukrainian opinion will now simultaneously reveal both its reactionary character and its utopianism. Only the revolutionary orientation remains. The war will add a furious pace to the course of developments. In order not to be caught unprepared, it is necessary to take a timely and clear stand on the Ukrainian question.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 86.)

In 1941, exactly one year after Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin’s agent, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, just as Trotsky had predicted. And as he had feared, many Ukrainians, especially the peasants, initially looked to Germany with a degree of hope, or at least resignation. But this soon changed as a result of the foul racist policies of the Nazis, with their madness of “inferior races”. If the Soviet Union had been invaded by American troops with cheap commodities in their baggage train, the outcome may well have been different. But Hitler’s troops came not with cheap commodities but gas chambers. As a result, the mass of the population, not only in the Ukraine but throughout the USSR rallied to the fight against the Nazi invaders. In the end, the number of collaborators was relatively small, even in the Ukraine. Despite all the crimes of Stalinism, they saw it as the lesser evil.

It is important to see that Trotsky saw the Ukraine as a special case. He tentatively advanced the slogan of an “independent soviet Ukraine” for special reasons. He never advanced the same slogan for any other Republic of the USSR. Moreover, this slogan is no longer applicable to the Ukraine. After the collapse of the USSR the Ukraine—along with all the other former Republics—has gained independence. But after ten years’ experience of the blessings of both independence and capitalism, the masses in the Ukraine now want neither. They have drawn their conclusions from the frightful economic and cultural collapse that resulted from this. There is now a powerful and growing mood in favour of returning to the Soviet Union. Of course, the Ukrainians want democratic rights, including autonomy to run their own affairs and respect for their just national aspirations, language and culture. They want to be treated like equals, not second-class “Little Russians”. In other words, they want a genuine Socialist Federation, based upon Leninist principles. That is also our programme. To advance, under these concrete circumstances, the old slogan of an “independent soviet Ukraine” would be ridiculous. It would make us more backward than the average Ukrainian who understands that independence offers no solution.

Even more stupid was the attempt to apply Trotsky’s old slogan in a mechanical way to Kosovo, as one sect tried to do. Having stumbled across a phrase in Trotsky’s writings from the 1930s, they repeated it like parrots, without the slightest understanding of why Trotsky had put this slogan forward or what it meant. The dialectical method, used by both Lenin and Trotsky, sets out from the elementary proposition that “the truth is always concrete”. We have already explained the specific reasons why Trotsky in this particular instance (and only in this particular instance) tentatively advanced a particular slogan. But the case of Kosovo, over half a century later, bears absolutely no relation to this case.

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