Marxists uphold the principles of internationalism. They say that only through emancipation of all of proletariat can our society finally be rid of the contradictions present in our time. This means that not only Russians, not only Americans, not only Chinese, but every single member of the working class must be freed from opression from other members of society. Precisely through analyzing contradictions Marxists decide on the best way to solve the problems they are facing. This method is otherwise known as dialectical materialism.
That said, we can't just say "nations don't matter". They do matter - there are many forms of oppression, not just class-based ones. Workers of America, Sweden, Norway, etc benefit from the cheap labor of workers of Africa through imperialism. This topic has been widely covered, see, for example, Hakim's video on this topic. However what I want to talk about is a topic not as widely discussed. I want to talk about nations in socialist states, and how socialists should see nations. Interestingly, this was the topic Stalin specialized in - before becoming the General Secretary, he was People's Commissar for Nationalities of the RSFSR. I will reference his works, as they are important both historically and theoretically.
First, I will give a brief overview of the Soviet ruling system. In Soviet democracy, the entire ruling system consists of soviets (meaning "councils"). At the bottom level, there are small soviets - for example, workers of a single factory, residents of a single house, etc. The low level soviets solve their local issues. They also put forward a delegate to represent their soviet in a higher soviet - for example, a district-wide soviet. Those soviets, in turn, manage wider scale issues, and they too put forward delegates that represent them. This chain continues all the way up until the highest soviet. In this sense, people's participation is encouraged, and if they have any issues, they can ask their soviet's representatives to raise those issues at a higher level. Everyone has a say in how the system is managed. If you live in a city, you can affect how it's run, if you're a worker you can affect how your workplace is managed. Indeed, workers of the USSR had the power to demote their boss. That's why one of the slogans of the Russian Socialist revolution was "All power to the soviets!", and that's where the Soviet Union takes its name.
I think most people will agree that's pretty based, much better than bourgeois "democracy". In the future, after the world socialist revolution is done, we will all hopefully have that system, or something even better. However, soviets are not what comes to mind to most people when they think of the USSR's government. Instead, most people remember the Party. Alright, where does the CPSU fit in?
As you probably know, communist states tend to only have one political party. Let's see why. For that, we need to delve into communist theory. In State and Revolution, Lenin showed that government doesn't act "for the people", it acts in the interests of a specific class. For example, we live under a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - where the capitalists rule, oppressing workers. The goal of every Marxist-Leninist revolutionary is to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat - where the workers rule, oppressing the bourgeoisie. If such a dictatorship is not established, the revolution will eventually regress back - if the proletariat doesn't assert its dominance, the bourgeoisie will. There can be no unity between bourgeoisie and workers, for one's entire existence depends on oppressing the other. Can soviets serve such a role? Can soviets suppress the capitalists, ensuring workers stay in power? Let's ask Lenin.
Without such a foundation as trade unions, you can't implement the dictatorship, you can't carry out the functions of the goverment. They have to be carried out through a variety of special institutions of some new kind, precisely through the soviet system... However you can't implement the dictatorship of the proletariat through its universal organization, because, not just in our case, in one of the most backwards capitalist countries, but also in all other capitalist countries the proletariat is so divided, so belittled, so bought out in some places (precisely through imperialism in certain countries), that universal organization of the proletariat can't possibly implement its dictatorship. The dictatorship can only be implemented by a vanguard that absorbed in itself all of the revolutionary energy of its class.
The party has to lead the proletariat, but not "rule" the proletariat. It must consist of the workers that are most devoted to the revolutionary cause. At the same time, as the proletariat culturally advances, as more workers gain class consciousness, more and more people can join the Party to help lead the revolution.
In Better Fewer, but Better, one of Lenin's last works, he asks:
How can a Party institution be amalgamated with a Soviet institution? Is there not something improper in this suggestion? [...] why, indeed, should we not amalgamate the two if this is in the interests of our work?
He calls for a merge of a Party control institution and a soviet control institution, so the Party can be better controlled by the masses. As we all know, that didn't happen, in fact Khruschev publicly abandoned the dictatorship of the proletariat, showing his ideological bankruptcy, and the 1977 constitution proclaimed the USSR is ruled by the Party, not the people, but that doesn't mean we can't in good faith recognize that while the Party lacked popular control, the soviet democratic system remained a very real part of people's daily lives, and the Party, while lacking theoretical training, at least tried to act in the interests of the proletariat. It was never under a one-man dictatorship, instead it was an organization that tried, but failed to stop the counter-revolution.
Just like in case of economic classes, the socialist policy is to solve contradictions between nationalities. This time I will heavily quote Stalin rather than Lenin. And just for those people that like Lenin but dislike Stalin, I will mostly only quote "Marxism and the National Question", a work published in Lenin's time, a work that's indisputably important for Marxist understanding of nationalitities.
Actually, I'll just write a short summary of it.
A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. Some idealists say a common culture, or "national spirit" is enough to form a nation, but Marxists reject such definitions. All of the above characteristics are important for a nation, and a group of people isn't a nation if some of them are missing.
National movements are a feature of capitalism. Before capitalism, there were fragmented feudal countries. Capitalism united people economically, forming nations. Some of the states that were created as a result were national states (France, Germany, etc), while other were multi-national (Russia, Austria-Hungary, etc). Why did this happen, why were some states formed around a single nation, but other around multiple nations?
The reason is the states that ended up multinational formed during the time feudalism wasn't entirely eliminated, and capitalism was only somewhat developed. When capitalism developed well in those states, some nations ended up being pushed into the background - for example, Ukraine was part of Russia, which had Russians as the dominant nationality.
The ruling classes of those nations that were pushed aside had to respond with a national movement. The reason is the need to secure a "home market". The bourgeoisie of the dominant nation tried to hinder the ability of the bourgeoisie of the other nations to compete; while those in turn wanted it to be easier to compete. Of course, the suppression of the bourgeoisie of certain nations affects the workers as well, and the workers join the bourgeoisie in the national movement. If it affects the workers strongly (repression of language, closing of schools, etc), workers will be much more ready to fight.
If the workers are class conscious, they will only act together with the bourgeoisie for as long as it suits their goals, like it happened in the Russian and Cuban revolutions. However, if they aren't, national movements are very convenient for the bourgeoisie to incite hatred between workers and prevent them from uniting - "divide and conquer". Socialists oppose both national oppression and national division. They support the right of self-determination, but don't necessarily support what may come of such self-determination. Socialists won't coerce a nation to act in a particular way, but may agitate them to do it. At the same time, socialists seek to stop all national division, as opposed to the capitalists that seek to further divide the workers for their goals. Nonetheless, if a national government decides to regress its governing system, for example, by returning from socialism to capitalism, socialists are obliged to defend the interests of the proletariat, despite the nation having the right to perform such a regression. One is a right of a nation, one is a duty of a class, they can coexist; in the same way socialists support democracy, but wouldn't support a "democratically chosen" racist law.
So, a nation has the right to self-determination. That includes the right to secession. If a movement for secession starts, what should socialists do? Support it, oppose it, something in between? Should the nation be given complete autonomy, or should it be in a federation? Of course, it's impossible to create a general rule - it must be analyzed on a case by case basis.
So, how to organize nations in a socialist state?
National autonomy (dividing people by nations) creates more problems than it solves. It arbitrarily divides the people, even they are scattered across many different regions. Just because some Russians live in Latvia, doesn't mean they should be separated from the Latvians that live there. Far from helping the socialist cause, it instead encourages anti-proletarian nationalism. Some nations may not even be developed enough to organize independently!
A much better choice is territorial autonomy - each republic may consist of majority and minority nations, but it's fine, as long as national discrimination is de jure and de facto prohibited, as long as people of every nation have the right to use their native language, to study in their native language, to follow their traditions. The reasons for forming such regions may be purely pragmatic (to be able to manage the region better), or they may relate to the differences in culture of the nations residing there. To learn how it works in practice, we will have to look at specific cases.
Another short work worth mentioning is The National Question and Leninism.
It upholds that after the switch to socialism, new, proletarian nations emerge in place of bourgeois ones. In fact, socialism increases the amount of thriving ethnic groups; by stopping national oppression, previously unknown nationalities emerge. That said, for as long as imperialism exists, the fear of it will loom among the proletariat, and national distrust will stay. However, after the world revolution, after the consolidation of equality between nations, the mutual distrust will begin to lessen, and the people of the world will feel the need to have a common culture, to share a common language.
What must the USSR government do for these emerging nations? I will, once again, refer to Stalin's work.
The USSR must support the local cultures of all of its nations, it must help them develop their Soviet statehood, create institutions working in their national language, develop education and culture in their language. To suppress those cultures is to support Russian chauvinism, so it must be avoided.
On the other hand, there is the overt local nationalism that appears in the form of the desire for "national unity" (that is, for workers and capitalists to "unite"), and to step away from socialism "to protect from Russian chauvinism"; moving away from fellow workers instead of joining them in their pursuit of socialism. This plays into the hands of the national bourgeoisie, so it must be avoided as well.
In the future articles, I plan to cover the history of each Soviet republic and of their nationalist movements to find out whether the USSR acted consistently with the principles of Marxism-Leninism when it comes to nationalities.
Have any comments, questions, feedback? You can click here to leave it, publicly or privately!