Lenin’s writings on the national question — the struggle against national inequality and national oppression  — are vast. The problem was acute in Tsarist Russia, a notorious prison house of nations. The piece referred to here, Theses on the National Question, is only one small part of  the corpus. His writing on the national question deserves  much more study by the US left today which faces the national question in many forms – for example, new questions in the Black freedom struggle, Native American liberation, questions posed by migration and immigration, the colonial  status of the nation of Puerto Rico,  the question of Hawaii, the struggle against white racism and “white nationalism,” even  the development of  a sound view of the class nature of the European Union and “Brexit.”  Where there is national inequality in  multinational states,  such states are under stress.  The Editors


Theses on the National Question

July 1913


1. The article of our programme (on the self-determination of nations) cannot be interpreted to mean anything but political self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state.

2. This article in the Social-Democratic programme is absolutely essential to the Social-Democrats of Russia =

a) for the sake of the basic principles of democracy in general;

b) also because there are, within the frontiers of Russia and, what is more, in her frontier areas, a number of nations with sharply distinctive economic, social and other conditions; furthermore, these nations (like all the nations of Russia except the Great Russians) are unbelievably oppressed by the tsarist monarchy;

c) lastly, also in view of the fact that throughout Eastern Europe (Austria and the Balkans) and in Asia—i.e., in countries bordering on Russia—the bourgeois-democratic re form of the state that has everywhere else in the world led, in varying degree, to the creation of independent national states or states with the closest, interrelated national composition, has either not been consummated or has only just begun;

d) at the present moment Russia is a country whose state system is more backward and reactionary than that of any of the contiguous countries, beginning—in the West—with Austria where the fundamentals of political liberty and a constitutional regime were consolidated in 1867, and where universal franchise has now been introduced, and ending—in the East—with republican China. In all their propaganda, therefore, the Social-Democrats of Russia must   insist on the right of all nationalities to form separate states or to choose freely the state of which they wish to form part.

3. The Social-Democratic Party’s recognition of the right of all nationalities to self-determination requires of Social-Democrats that they should.

a) be unconditionally hostile to the use of force in any form whatsoever by the dominant nation (or the nation which constitutes the majority of the population) in respect of a nation that wishes to secede politically;

b) demand the settlement of the question of such secession only on the basis of a universal, direct and equal vote of the population of the given territory by secret ballot;

c) conduct an implacable struggle against both the Black Hundred-Octobrist and the liberal-bourgeois (Progressist, Cadet, etc.) parties on every occasion when they defend or sanction national oppression in general or the denial of the right of nations to self-determination in particular.

4. The Social-Democratic Party’s recognition of the right of all nationalities to self-determination most certainly does not mean that Social-Democrats reject an independent appraisal of the advisability of the state secession of any nation in each separate case. Social-Democracy should, on the contrary, give its independent appraisal, taking into consideration the conditions of capitalist development and the oppression of the proletarians of various nations by the united bourgeoisie of all nationalities, as well as the general tasks of democracy, first of all and most of all the interests of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.

From this point of view the following circumstance must be given special attention. There are two nations in Russia that are more civilised and more isolated by virtue of a number of historical and social conditions and that could most easily and most “naturally” put into effect their right to secession. They are the peoples of Finland and Poland. The experience of the Revolution of 1905 has shown that even in these two nations the ruling classes, the landowners and bourgeoisie, reject the revolutionary struggle for liberty and seek a rapprochement with the ruling classes of Russia and with the tsarist monarchy because of their fear of the revolutionary proletariat of Finland and Poland.

Social-Democracy, therefore, must give most emphatic warning to the proletariat and other working people of all nationalities against direct deception by the nationalistic slogans of “their own” bourgeoisie, who with their saccharine or fiery speeches about “our native land” try to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from their bourgeois intrigues while they enter into an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of other nations and with the tsarist monarchy.

The proletariat cannot pursue its struggle for socialism and defend its everyday economic interests without the closest and fullest alliance of the workers of all nations in all working-class organisations without exception.

The proletariat cannot achieve freedom other than by revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy and its replacement by a democratic republic. The tsarist monarchy precludes liberty and equal rights for nationalities, and is, furthermore, the bulwark of barbarity, brutality and reaction in both Europe and Asia. This monarchy can be overthrown only by the united proletariat of all the nations of Russia, which is giving the lead to consistently democratic elements capable of revolutionary struggle from among the working masses of all nations.

It follows, therefore, that workers who place political unity with “their own” bourgeoisie above complete unity with the proletariat of all nations, are acting against their own interests, against the interests of socialism and against the interests of democracy.

5. Social-Democrats, in upholding a consistently democratic state system, demand unconditional equality for all nationalities and struggle against absolutely all privileges for one or several nationalities.

In particular, Social-Democrats reject a “state” language. It is particularly superfluous in Russia because more than seven-tenths of the population of Russia belong to related Slav nationalities who, given a free school and a free state, could easily achieve intercourse by virtue of the demands of the economic turnover without any “state” privileges for any one language.

Social-Democrats demand the abolition of the old administrative divisions of Russia established by the feudal   landowners and the civil servants of the autocratic feudal state and their replacement by divisions based on the requirements of present-day economic life and in accordance, as far as possible, with the national composition of the population.

All areas of the state that are distinguished by social peculiarities or by the national composition of the population, must enjoy wide self-government and autonomy, with institutions organised on the basis of universal, equal and secret voting.

6. Social-Democrats demand the promulgation of a law, operative throughout the state, protecting the rights of every national minority in no matter what part of the state. This law should declare inoperative any measure by means of which the national majority might attempt to establish privileges for itself or restrict the rights of a national minority (in the sphere of education, in the use of any specific language, in budget affairs, etc.), and forbid the implementation of any such measure by making it a punishable offence.

7. The Social-Democratic attitude to the slogan of “cultural-national” (or simply “national”) “autonomy” or to plans for its implementation is a negative one, since this slogan (1) undoubtedly contradicts the internationalism of the class struggle of the proletariat, (2) makes it easier for the proletariat and the masses of working people to be drawn into the sphere of influence of bourgeois nationalism, and (3) is capable of distracting attention from the task of the consistent democratic transformation of the state as a whole, which transformation alone can ensure (to the extent that this can, in general, be ensured under capitalism) peace between nationalities.

In view of the special acuteness of the question of cultural-national autonomy among Social-Democrats, we give some explanation of the situation.

a) It is impermissible, from the standpoint of Social-Democracy, to issue the slogan of national culture either directly or indirectly. The slogan is incorrect because already under capitalism, all economic, political and spiritual life is becoming more and more international. Socialism will make it completely international. International culture,   which is now already being systematically created by the proletariat of all countries, does not absorb “national culture” (no matter of what national group) as a whole, but accepts from each national culture exclusively those of its elements that are consistently democratic and socialist.

b) Probably the one example of an approximation, even though it is a timid one, to the slogan of national culture in Social-Democratic programmes is Article 3 of the Br\”unn Programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats. This Article 3 reads: “All self-governing regions of one and the same nation form a single-national alliance that has complete autonomy in deciding its national affairs.”

This is a compromise slogan since it does not contain a shadow of extra-territorial (personal) national autonomy. But this slogan, too, is erroneous and harmful, for it is no business of the Social-Democrats of Russia to unite into one nation the Germans in Lodz, Riga, St. Petersburg and Saratov. Our business is to struggle for full democracy and the annulment of all national privileges and, to unite the German workers in Russia with the workers of all other nations in upholding and developing the international culture of socialism.

Still more erroneous is the slogan of extra-territorial (personal) national autonomy with the setting up (according to a plan drawn up by the consistent supporters of this slogan) of national parliaments and national state secretaries (Otto Bauer and Karl Renner). Such institutions contradict the economic conditions of the capitalist countries, they have not been tested in any of the world’s democratic states and are the opportunist dream of people who despair of setting up consistent democratic institutions and are seeking salvation from the national squabbles of the bourgeoisie in the artificial isolation of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of each nation on a number of (“cultural”) questions.

Circumstances occasionally compel Social-Democrats to submit for a time to some sort of compromise decisions, but from other countries we must borrow not compromise decisions, but consistently Social-Democratic decisions. It would be particularly unwise to adopt the unhappy Austrian compromise decision today, when it has been a complete failure   in Austria and has led to the separatism and secession of the Czech Social-Democrats.

c) The history of the “cultural-national autonomy” slogan in Russia shows that it has been adopted by all Jewish bourgeois parties and only by Jewish bourgeois parties; and that they have been uncritically followed by the Bund, which has inconsistently rejected the national-Jewish parliament (sejm) and national-Jewish state secretaries. Incidentally, even those European Social-Democrats who accede to or defend the compromise slogan of cultural-national autonomy, admit that the slogan is quite unrealisable for the Jews (Otto Bauer and Karl Kautsky). “The Jews in Galicia and Russia are more of a caste than a nation, and attempts to constitute Jewry as a nation are attempts at preserving a caste” (Karl Kautsky).

d) In civilised countries we observe a fairly full (relatively) approximation to national peace under capitalism only in conditions of the maximum implementation of democracy throughout the state system and administration (Switzerland). The slogans of consistent democracy (the re public, a militia, civil servants elected by the people, etc.) unite the proletariat and the working people, and, in general, all progressive elements in each nation in the name of the struggle for conditions that preclude even the slightest national privilege—while the slogan of “cultural-national autonomy” preaches the isolation of nations in educational affairs (or “cultural” affairs, in general), an isolation that is quite compatible with the retention of the grounds for all (including national) privileges.

The slogans of consistent democracy unite in a single whole the proletariat and the advanced democrats of all nations (elements that demand not isolation but the uniting of democratic elements of the nations in all matters, including educational affairs), while the slogan of cultural-national autonomy divides the proletariat of the different nations and links it up with the reactionary and bourgeois elements of the separate nations.

The slogans of consistent democracy are implacably hostile to the reactionaries and to the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie of all nations, while the slogan of cultural-national autonomy is quite acceptable to the reactionaries   and counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie of some nations.

8. The sum-total of economic and political conditions in Russia therefore demands that Social-Democracy should unite unconditionally workers of all nationalities in all proletarian organisations without exception (political, trade union, co-operative, educational, etc., etc.). The Party should not be federative in structure and should not form national Social-Democratic groups but should unite the proletarians of all nations in the given locality, conduct propaganda and agitation in all the languages of the local proletariat, promote the common struggle of the workers of all nations against every kind of national privilege and should recognise the autonomy of local and regional Party organisations.

9. More than ten years’ experience gained by the R.S.D.L.P. confirms the correctness of the above thesis. The Party was founded in 1898 as a party of all Russia, that is, a party of the proletariat of all the nationalities of Russia. The Party remained “Russian” when the Bund seceded in 1903, after the Party Congress had rejected the demand to consider the Bund the only representative of the Jewish proletariat. In 1906 and 1907 events showed convincingly that there were no grounds for this demand, a large number of Jewish proletarians continued to co-operate in the common Social-Democratic work in many local organisations, and the Bund re-entered the Party. The Stockholm Congress (1906) brought into the Party the Polish and Latvian Social-Democrats, who favoured territorial autonomy, and the Congress, furthermore, did not accept the principle of federation and demanded unity of Social-Democrats of all nationalities in each locality. This principle has been in operation in the Caucasus for many years, it is in operation in Warsaw (Polish workers and Russian soldiers), in Vilna (Polish, Lettish, Jewish and Lithuanian workers) and in Riga, and in the three last-named places it has been implemented against the separatist Bund. In December 1908, the R.S.D.L.P., through its conference, adopted a special resolution confirming the demand for the unity of workers of all nationalities, on a principle other than federation. The splitting activities of the Bund separatists in not fulfilling   the Party decision led to the collapse of all that “federation of the worst type”[2] and brought about the rapprochement of the Bund and the Czech separatists and vice versa (see Kosovsky in Nasha Zarya and the organ of the Czech separatists, Der &chat;echoslavische Sozialdemokrat No. 3, 1913, on Kosovsky), and, lastly, at the August (1912) Conference of the liquidators it led to an undercover attempt by the Bund separatists and liquidators and some of the Caucasian liquidators to insert “cultural-national autonomy” into the Party programme without any defence of its substance!

Revolutionary worker Social-Democrats in Poland, in the Latvian Area and in the Caucasus still stand for territorial autonomy and the unity of worker Social-Democrats of all nations. The Bund-liquidator secession and the alliance of the Bund with non-Social-Democrats in Warsaw place the entire national question, both in its theoretical aspect and in the matter of Party structure, on the order of the day for all Social-Democrats.

Compromise decisions have been broken by the very people who introduced them against the will of the Party, and the demand for the unity of worker Social-Democrats of all nationalities is being made more loudly than ever.

10. The crudely militant and Black-Hundred-type nationalism of the tsarist monarchy, and also the revival of bourgeois nationalism—Great-Russian (Mr. Struve, Russkaya Molva,[3] the Progressists, etc.), the Ukrainian, and Polish (the anti-Semitism of Narodowa “Demokracja”[4]), and Georgian and Armenian, etc.—all this makes it particularly urgent for Social-Democratic organisations in all parts of Russia to devote greater attention than before to the national question and to work out consistently Marxist decisions on this subject in the spirit of consistent internationalism and unity of proletarians of all nations.

α) The slogan of national culture is incorrect and expresses only the limited bourgeois understanding of the national question. International culture.

β) The perpetuating of national divisions and the promoting of refined nationalism—unification, rapprochement, the   mingling of nations and the expression of the principles of a different, international culture.

γ) The despair of the petty bourgeois (hopeless struggle against national bickering) and the fear of radical-democratic reforms and the socialist movement—only radical-democratic reforms can establish national peace in capitalist states and only socialism is able to terminate national bickering.

δ) National curias in educational affairs.[5]

ε) The Jews.


[1] These theses were written by Lenin for his lectures on the national question delivered on July 9, 10, 11 and 13 (N. 5.), 1913 in the Swiss towns of Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Berne.

[2] The decisions of the Prague Conference (1912) called the relations that the national Social-Democratic organisations had with the R.S.D.L.P. from 1907 to 1911 “federation of the worst type”. Although the Social-Democratic organisations of Poland, Lithuania and the Latvian Area, and also the Bund, belonged to the R.S.D.L.P., they actually held themselves aloof. Their representatives did not take part in guiding all-Russian Party work; directly or indirectly they promoted the anti-Party activities of the liquidators. (See Vol. 17, pp. 464–65 and Vol. 18, pp. 411–12.)

[3] Russkaya Molva (Russian Tidings)—a bourgeois daily, organ of the Progressists, founded in 1912. Lenin called the Progressists a mixture of Octobrists and Cadets. The paper appeared in St. Petersburg in 1912 and 1913.

[4] Narodowa Demokracja (National Democracy)—a reactionary, chauvinist party of the Polish bourgeoisie, founded in 1897. Afraid   of the growing revolutionary movement, the party changed its original demand for Polish independence to one for limited autonomy within the framework of the autocracy. During the 1905–07 Revolution, Narodowa Demokracja was the main party of Polish counter-revolution, the Polish Black Hundreds, to use Lenin’s expression. They supported the Octobrists in the State Duma.

In 1919 the party changed its name to Zwiazek Ludowo-Narodowy (National-Popular Union) and from 1928 it became the Stronnictwo Narodowe (National Party). After the Second World War, individuals from this party, having no longer any party of their own, attached themselves to Mikolajczyk’s reactionary party, the Polske Stronnictwo Ludowo (Polish Popular Party).

[5] This refers to the segregation of the schools according to nationality, one of the basic demands of the bourgeois-nationalist programme for “cultural-national autonomy”