Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Lenin’s conditional attitude toward self-determination

The extremely conditional form in which Lenin invoked the right to self-determination was spelled out in his 1913 work on the subject. The fact that he did not endow this right with some eternal or universal significance was made clear by the way in which he distinguished between three different categories of countries.

“First,” he wrote, were: “the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States. In these countries progressive bourgeois national movements came to an end long ago.” [1]

When Lenin wrote “long ago”, he was referring to the period, less than half a century since the unification of Germany and the defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, that had brought an end to the era of bourgeois revolution, and consequently to the applicability of the right of nations to self-determination, in these areas of the globe.

Nearly twice as many years divide our own period from that of Lenin, and the changes relating to the national question have been even more sweeping and worldwide in their scope. One only has to consider the second and third categories of nations, those in which Lenin said that the slogan of self-determination still had validity in 1913.

The second category, Lenin wrote, consisted of “Eastern Europe: Austria, the Balkans and particularly Russia. Here it was the twentieth century that particularly developed the bourgeois-democratic national movements and intensified the national struggle. The task of the proletariat in these countries, both in completing their bourgeois-democratic reforms, and rendering assistance to the socialist revolution in other countries, cannot be carried out without championing the right of nations to self-determination.” [2]

This area of the globe has seen perhaps the greatest revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century, including the October Revolution in Russia. The rise of new national separatist movements in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and Eastern Europe is bound up with the drive to restore capitalism throughout the region.

It cannot be claimed that the ethno-nationalist movements that have arisen in these countries are “bourgeois-democratic national movements”. or are somehow related to the task of completing “bourgeois-democratic reforms.” Promoted and led in large part by former Stalinist bureaucrats, these movements seek to carve out ethnically homogeneous territories by means of persecution, mass expulsions and slaughter. They express the social interests of unscrupulous cliques of aspiring native capitalists who desire their own direct link with world finance capital.

In a third category Lenin placed “the semi-colonial countries, such as China, Persia and Turkey, and all the colonies, which have a combined population of 1,000 million.” In these areas, he stated, “the bourgeois-democratic movements either have hardly begun, or have still a long way to go.” He stressed the obligation of socialists to demand “the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation”, a demand which he said, “signifies nothing else than the right to self-determination.” [3]

Especially in this third category, the post-World War II period has seen vast changes. Africa, Asia and the Middle East, which in Lenin’s day were under colonial rule, have, with the exception of a handful of territories, long since gained political independence. Nationalist movements have ruled in many of these countries for up to half a century. Indeed, it is the disintegration of the original nationalist projects which has spawned the new separatist movements seeking to divide up existing states in the former colonial countries.

It has often been the case in the history of the Marxist movement that formulations and slogans which had a progressive and revolutionary content in one period take on an entirely different meaning in another. National self-determination presents just such a case.

The right to self-determination has come to mean something very different from the way in which Lenin defined it more than eighty years ago. It is not only the Marxists who have advanced the right to self-determination, but the national bourgeoisie in the backward countries and the imperialists themselves. From the end of World War I on, this “right” has been invoked by one or another imperialist power to justify schemes aimed at the partition of existing territories.

Invoking the “right to self-determination” today is universally understood as the advocacy of national separation and the creation of a new state. The “negative” sense given to this right by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who opposed bourgeois separatism, has been obscured by the widespread utilization of this slogan by imperialism, the bourgeois nationalists and their advocates within the middle class left. As we shall see, Spartacist itself equates this “right” with support for national separatism.


V.I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Moscow, Progess Publishers, p.105


Ibid, p. 106


Ibid, p. 106