V. I.   Lenin

Critical Remarks on the National Question



When they discuss the national question, opportunists in Russia are given to citing the example of Austria. In my article in Severnaya Pravda[1] (No. 10, Prosveshcheniye, pp. 96–98), which the opportunists have attacked (Mr. Semkovsky in Novaya Rabochaya Gazeta,[4] and Mr. Liebman in Zeit), I asserted that, insofar as that is at all possible under capitalism, there was only one solution of the national question, viz., through consistent democracy. In proof of this, I referred, among other things, to Switzerland.

This has not been to the liking of the two opportunists mentioned above, who are trying to refute it or belittle its significance. Kautsky, we are told, said that Switzerland is an exception; Switzerland, if you please, has a special kind of decentralisation, a special history, special geographical conditions, unique distribution of a population that speak different languages, etc., etc.

All these are nothing more than attempts to evade the issue. To be sure, Switzerland is an exception in that she is not a single-nation state. But Austria and Russia are also exceptions (or are backward, as Kautsky adds). To be sure, it was only her special, unique historical and social conditions that ensured Switzerland greater democracy than most of her European neighbours.

But where does all this come in, if we are speaking of the model to be adopted? In the whole world, under present-day conditions, countries in which any particular institution has been founded on consistent democratic principles are the exception. Does this prevent us, in our programme, from upholding consistent democracy in all institutions?

Switzerland’s special features lie in her history, her geographical and other conditions. Russia’s special features lie in the strength of her proletariat, which has no precedent in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions, and in her shocking general backwardness, which objectively necessitates an exceptionally rapid and resolute advance, under the threat of all sorts of drawbacks and reverses.

We are evolving a national programme from the proletarian standpoint; since when has it been recommended that the worst examples, rather than the best, be taken as a model?

At all events, does it not remain an indisputable and undisputed fact that national peace under capitalism has been achieved (insofar as it is achievable) exclusively in countries where consistent democracy prevails?

Since this is indisputable, the opportunists’ persistent references to Austria instead of Switzerland are nothing but a typical Cadet device, for the Cadets[5] always copy the worst European constitutions rather than the best.

In Switzerland there are three official languages, but bills submitted to a referendum are printed in five languages, that is to say, in two Romansh dialects, in addition to the three official languages. According to the 1900 census, these two dialects are spoken by 38,651 out of the 3,315,443 inhabitants of Switzerland, i.e., by a little over one per cent. In the army, commissioned and non-commissioned officers “are given the fullest freedom to speak to the men in their native language”. In the cantons of Graub\"unden and Wallis (each with a population of a little over a hundred thousand) both dialects enjoy complete equality.[2]

The question is: should we advocate and support this, the living experience of an advanced country, or borrow from the Austrians inventions like “extra-territorial autonomy”, which have not yet been tried out anywhere in the world (and not yet been adopted by the Austrians themselves)?

To advocate this invention is to advocate the division of school education according to nationality, and that is a downright harmful idea. The experience of Switzerland   proves, however, that the greatest (relative) degree of national peace can be, and has been, ensured in practice where you have, a consistent (again relative) democracy throughout the state.

In Switzerland,” say people who have studied this question, “there is no national question in the East-European sense of the term. The very phrase (national, question) is unknown there....” “Switzerland left the struggle between nationalities a long way behind, in 1797–1803.”[3]

This means that the epoch of the great French Revolution, which provided the most democratic solution of the current problems of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, succeeded incidentally, en passant, in “solving” the national question.

Let the Semkovskys, Liebmans, and other opportunists now fry to assert that this “exclusively Swiss” solution is inapplicable to any uyezd or even part of an uyezd in Russia, where out of a population of only 200,000 forty thousand speak two dialects and want to have complete equality of language in their area!

Advocacy of complete equality of nations and languages distinguishes only the consistently democratic elements in each nation (i. e., only the proletarians), and unites them, not according to nationality, but in a profound and earnest desire to improve the entire system of state. On the contrary, advocacy of “cultural-national autonomy”, despite the pious wishes of individuals and groups, divides the nations and in fact draws the workers and the bourgeoisie of any one nation closer together (the adoption of this “cultural-national autonomy” by all the Jewish bourgeois parties).

Guaranteeing the rights of a national minority is inseparably linked up with the principle of complete equality. In my article in Severnaya Pravda this principle was ex pressed in almost the same terms as in the later, official and more accurate decision of the conference of Marxists. That decision demands “the incorporation in the constitution of a fundamental law which shall declare null and void all privileges enjoyed by any one nation and all infringements of the rights of a national minority”.

Mr. Liebman tries to ridicule this formula and asks: “Who knows what the rights of a national minority are?” Do these rights, he wants to know, include the right of the minority to have “its own programme” for the national schools? How large must the national minority be to have the right to have its own judges, officials, and schools with instruction in its own language? Mr. Liebman wants it to be inferred from these questions that a “positive” national programme is essential.

Actually, these questions clearly show what reactionary ideas our Bundist tries to smuggle through under cover of a dispute on supposedly minor details and particulars.

Its own programme” in its national schools!... Marxists, my dear nationalist-socialist, have a general school programme which demands, for example, an absolutely secular school. As far as Marxists are concerned, no departure from this general programme is anywhere or at any time permissible in a democratic state (the question of introducing any “local” subjects, languages, and so forth into it being decided by the local inhabitants). However, from the principle of “taking educational affairs out of the hands of the state” and placing them under the control of the nations, it ensues that we, the workers, must allow the “nations” in our democratic state to spend the people’s money on clerical schools! Without being aware of the fact, Mr. Liebman has clearly demonstrated the reactionary nature of “cultural-national autonomy”!

How large must a national minority be?” This is not defined even in the Austrian programme, of which the Bundists are enamoured. It says (more briefly and less clearly than our programme does): “The rights of the national minorities are protected by a special law to he passed by the Imperial Parliament” (§4 of the Br\"unn programme).

Why has nobody asked the Austrian Social-Democrats the question: what exactly is that law, and exactly which rights and of which minority is it to protect?

That is because all sensible people understand that it is inappropriate and impossible to define particulars in a programme. A programme lays down only fundamental principles. In this case the fundamental principle is implied with the Austrians, and directly expressed in the decision of the   latest conference of Russian Marxists. That principle is: no national privileges and no national inequality.

Let us take a concrete example to make the point clear to the Bundist. According to the school census of January 18, 1911, St. Petersburg elementary schools under the Ministry of Public “Education” were attended by 48,076 pupils. Of these, 396, i. e., less than one per cent, were Jews. The other figures are: Rumanian pupils—2, Georgians—1, Armenians—3, etc.[6] Is it possible to draw up a “positive” national programme that will cover this diversity of relationships and conditions? (And St. Petersburg is, of course, far from being the city with the most mixed population in Russia.) Even such specialists in national “subtleties” as the Bundists would hardly be able to draw up such a programme.

And yet, if the constitution of the country contained a fundamental law rendering null and void every measure that infringed the rights of a minority, any citizen would be able to demand the rescinding of orders prohibiting, for example, the hiring, at state expense, of special teachers of Hebrew, Jewish history, and the like, or the provision of state-owned premises for lectures for Jewish, Armenian, or Rumanian children, or even for the one Georgian child. At all events, it is by no means impossible to meet, on the basis of equality, all the reasonable and just wishes of the national minorities, and nobody will say that advocacy of equality is harmful. On the other hand, it would certainly be harmful to advocate division of schools according to nationality, to advocate, for example, special schools for Jewish children in St. Petersburg, and it would be utterly impossible to set up national schools for every national minority, for one, two or three children.

Furthermore, it is impossible, in any country-wide law, to define how large a national minority must be to be entitled to special schools, or to special teachers for supplementary subjects, etc.

On the other hand, a country-wide law establishing equality can be worked out in detail and developed through special regulations and the decisions of regional Diets, and town, Zemstvo, village commune and other authorities.



[1] See pp. 20–22 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] See René Henry: La Suisse et la question des langues, Berne, 1907. —Lenin

[3] See Ed. Blocher: Die Nationalit\"aten in der Schweiz, Berlin, 1910. —Lenin

[4] Novaya Rabochaya Gazeta (New Workers’ Paper)—a legal daily of the Menshevik liquidators, published in St. Petersburg from   August 1913. From January 30 (February 12), 1914 it was superceded by Severnaya Rabochaya Gazeta (Northern Workers’ Paper) and subsequently by Nasha Rabochaya Gazeta (Our Workers’ Paper). Lenin repeatedly referred to this newspaper as the Novaya Likvidatorskaya Gazeta (New Liquidationist Paper).

[5] Cadets—members of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, the principal party of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie in Russia. It was formed in October 1905 and consisted of representatives of the bourgeoisie, landlord members of the Zemstvos, and bourgeois intellectuals. Prominent leaders of the Cadets were: = P. N. Milyukov, S. A. Muromtsev, V. A. Maklakov, A. I. Shingaryov, P. B. Struve and F. I. Rodichev. To mislead the masses the Cadets called themselves the “party of people’s freedom”, but actually they went no further than the demand for a constitutional monarchy. They considered the fight against the revolutionary movement their chief aim, and strove to share power with the tsar and the feudalist landlords. During World War I the Cadets actively supported the tsarist government’s aggressive foreign policy, and during the February 1917 bourgeois-democratic revolution they tried to save the monarchy. Holding key posts in the bourgeois Provisional Government, the Cadets pursued an anti-popular and counter-revolutionary policy. After the victory of the October Socialist Revolution, the Cadets came out as the avowed enemies of Soviet rule, taking part in all armed counter-revolutionary acts and campaigns of the interventionists. Living abroad as émigrés after the defeat of the interventionists and whiteguards, the Cadets continued their anti-Soviet activities.

[6] Lenin obtained these figures from the statistical handbook One-Day Census of Elementary Schools In the Empire, Made on January 18, 1911. Issue I, Part 2, St. Petersburg Educational Area. Gubernias of Archangel, Vologda, Novgorod, Olonets, Pskov and St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, 1912, p. 72.


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