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Red Theory: Socialism and the national question

Analysis by J. Sykes |
November 27, 2022
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Harry Haywood.
Harry Haywood.

The Russian Empire under the Tsar was rightly called a “prisonhouse of nations,” because it oppressed, within its borders, whole nations of people. The Bolsheviks saw that it was a principal task of the socialist revolution to dismantle national oppression and support self-determination for the oppressed nations. 

The United States is likewise a prisonhouse of nations, where the African American nation in the Black Belt South, the Chicano nation in the Southwest and the Hawaiian nation are all oppressed within the borders of the imperialist U.S. It will be a principal task of the socialist revolution in the U.S. to answer the national question, and we can draw on the experience of the Bolsheviks and others to understand how to do that.

The great African American communist leader and Marxist-Leninist theorist Harry Haywood lived in the Soviet Union, from 1925 to 1930, where he witnessed firsthand how the national question was handled there. In his autobiography Black Bolshevik, Haywood explained his experience there and the theory that guided the USSR on the national question. He writes, 

“...the formation of peoples into nations is an objective law of social development around which the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Stalin, had developed a whole body of theory. According to this theory, a nation is a historically constituted stable community of people, based on four main characteristics: a common territory, a common economic life, a common language and common psychological makeup (national character) manifest in common features in a national culture. Since the development of imperialism, the liberation of oppressed nations has become a question whose final resolution would only come through proletarian revolution.” 

Haywood goes on to explain that the overthrow of the tsar and the construction of socialism required the unity of nationalities, and that this unity had to be based on “equality before the law for all nationalities – with no special privileges for any one people – and the right of the colonies and subject nations to separate.” 

Thus, after the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution, these principles were turned into the law of the land. Socialism set out to remove the effects of national oppression within the liberated nations of the former Russian Empire. Resources were diverted to them to raise their standards of living, education, health, and so on, while respecting and developing their cultural and political institutions. For example, Haywood writes of witnessing this policy in action in Crimea and the Caucasus in 1927 and 1928:

“The languages and culture which had been stifled under the czarist regime were now being developed. The language of the Crimean people was a Turko-Tartar language, but before the Revolution, almost all education, such as there was, was in the Russian language. Now there were schools established which used the native language.” 

Abolishing national oppression is the first step, since it is the material basis of racism and prejudice. But as Haywood explains, after the Bolshevik revolution, 

“…remnants of national and racial prejudice from the old society were attacked by education and law. It was a crime to give or receive direct or indirect privileges, or to exercise discrimination because of race or nationality. Any manifestation of racial or national superiority was punishable by law and was regarded as a serious political offense, a social crime.” 

Haywood explains that in all of his five years in the Soviet Union, he only experienced a single instance of racism, which was met with outrage from bystanders, leading to an impromptu mass meeting and the arrest of the perpetrator. It may be hard to imagine in the U.S. today, where the police murder Black, Chicano, and other oppressed people with impunity every day, but in the USSR in the 1920s, a racial slur led to a night in jail for the offender. Creating a just society free of racism and national oppression was taken seriously.

It isn’t possible to predict exactly how the national question will be resolved in the course of socialist revolution. What we can say is that the U.S. colonies, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, must be granted their independence – if they have not already achieved by their own efforts. The full sovereignty of native peoples must be respected as must the right to national development. And the Black, Chicano and Hawaiian oppressed nations must have the right to self-determination, to choose whether or not to separate their historically constituted national territory. 

The national question in the United States will be solved in practice by the working and oppressed people themselves in the course of socialist revolution. But we can draw many lessons from the experiences of others. In the Soviet Union this played out through the formation of Soviet republics of the formerly oppressed nations. In China it led to national autonomous regions. 

In any case, the national question must be answered correctly both before and after the revolution, for its purpose is twofold. First, it is necessary to right the past wrongs of U.S. imperialism and see that they are not perpetuated. As Lenin said, the right of national self-determination, like the right to divorce, can be the only basis for a true, voluntary unity. Second, that unity is the only way we can defeat the oppressors. Only the strategic alliance of the multinational working class and the movements for national liberation can form the core of the united front necessary to topple monopoly capitalism, and only by freeing all peoples can the working class itself ever hope to be free.