National Question

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

National Question


the totality of political, economic, territorial, legal, ideological, and cultural relations among nations (natsii, nations in the historical sense), national groups, and nationalities (narodnosti) in various socioeconomic formations.

Marxist-Leninist theory. In exploitative class society the national question arises with the struggle of nations and peoples for national liberation and for the most favorable conditions possible for their social development. After the victory of the socialist revolution and under socialist society, the national question includes problems arising in the relations between nations and peoples and associated with the establishment of friendship and voluntary unification, consolidation of unity, and drawing together in every way on the basis of complete equality. According to Marxist-Leninist theory the national question is subordinate to the general question of the social and political advancement of society. Marxism-Leninism proceeds from the view that the most important aspect of the national question is the unification of the working people, regardless of their nationality, in the struggle against all forms of oppression and for a progressive social system.

The oppression and exploitation of some peoples by others and the struggle for liberation began in slaveholding society and continued under feudalism. The national question became fully developed in the period of the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, when nations were being formed. The question still exists and is manifested in the struggle against national oppression and in intrastate relations between nations and peoples. After the victory of communism throughout the world the national question will wither away completely with the merging and disappearance of all nations.

The ideologists of the bourgeoisie who led the national liberation movement in Europe and the American colonies from the 16th to 19th centuries regarded the “principle of nationality” (the “right to a nation”) as the key to the solution of the national question. According to this principle, the creation of one’s “own” national state was a necessity under any and all circumstances. “One nation—one state” was the slogan of the Italian Mancini, the Belgian Laurent, and the Russians A. Gradovskii and N. Danilevskii. The principle of nationality transformed the national element into an absolute. However, the principle was extended only to “civilized” peoples. The bourgeoisie used it to distract the proletariat from the class struggle and tried to divide the working class by fostering nationalistic prejudices and inciting national animosities and hatred. Nonetheless, during the bourgeois revolutions and the formation of bourgeois national states the principle of nationality played a positive role in the struggle against the legacy of feudal fragmentation and national oppression. Under the conditions of premonopoly capitalism the formation of national states alleviated the national question in some cases.

With the growth of capitalism into imperialism, the bourgeoisie in the major countries undertook more extensive colonial conquests, divided up the world, and abandoned the principle of nationality. The national question ceased to be only an internal issue and became an international one involving the emancipation of all peoples from imperialist enslavement. Having become an independent political force, the proletariat advanced its own program for solving the national question.

Marx and Engels elaborated the basic principles of a genuinely scientific theory for solving the national question. They showed that national relations have a concrete historical character and are determined by the social and state system, the relationship of class forces within a country and in the international arena, and the national policies of the ruling classes. At the same time, the relations between nations and peoples affect social relations and the class struggle. In different historical periods, different aspects of the national question may come to the fore—for example, the struggle for political or economic independence or the problems of language and culture. Having revealed the social essence of the national movement, Marx and Engels emphasized that the interests of the proletariat demanded the liberation of oppressed nations and peoples. They gave primacy to the principle of internationalism in the slogan “Workingmen of all countries, unite!” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 459). They also formulated the celebrated slogan, “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations” (Engels, ibid., vol. 18, p. 509). Marx and Engels championed and spread the call for national independence for colonial peoples, whom they considered the natural allies of the proletariat in the revolutionary struggle. They asserted that after the proletariat had taken power, it must “bring independence as soon as possible” to the colonies.

In 1896 the London Congress of the Second International passed a resolution in which the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination was first put forward as the political basis for solving the national question. However, the opportunistic leaders of the Second International ignored Marx’ and Engels’ directives demanding that the proletariat lead the struggle for the liberation of the colonial peoples. Thus, in practice, they opposed the principle of self-determination.

The theory of the national question was further developed in the works of V. I. Lenin and other Russian Marxists. Lenin wrote many articles on the national question, including “On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social Democrats” (1903), “The National Question in Our Program” (1903), “The Working Class and the National Question” (1913), “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (1913), “The Right of Nations to Self-determination” (1914), “The Junius Pamphlet” (1916), and “The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up” (1916). He criticized the views of a number of right-wing Social Democrats, including E. David and G. Cunow, who refused to recognize the right of nations to self-determination, and O. Bauer and K. Renner, who proposed the nationalistic theory of cultural-national autonomy. Lenin also opposed the views of leftists such as R. Luxemburg, who, in combating bourgeois nationalist concepts, claimed that the right of nations to self-determination is unattainable in the epoch of imperialism and superfluous under socialism.

Scientific principles for the national policy of the revolutionary Marxist party were elaborated by Lenin. In the Draft Program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (1902) he asserted that the right of nations to self-determination was the key to the national question. The main theses of his theory on the national question became the basis for the practical work and programmatic documents of the Comintern and the Communist parties.

Under capitalism there are two historical tendencies in the national question. The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all forms of national oppression, and the creation of national states. The second is the development and growing frequency of international relations in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, and the establishment of the international unity of capital, economic life, politics, science, and the world market. The first tendency prevails in the epoch of rising capitalism and the second in the epoch of imperialism (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 24, p. 124). Both tendencies are reflected in Marxist-Leninist theory on the national question, in its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, and in its defense of the principles of the voluntary unification of nations, proletarian internationalism, and solidarity among the workers of all countries in the struggle against imperialism.

In the bourgeois-democratic stage of development the national question is part of the general question of the bourgeois democratic revolution, and its solution is subordinate to the goals of that revolution (for example, the elimination of the vestiges of feudalism). When conditions are ripe for socialist transformations, the national question is part of the general question of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism. This does not imply any underestimation of the national question. The working class and its Marxist-Leninist parties are the most consistent fighters for the just resolution of the national question and are staunch defenders of the national sovereignty of all nations and peoples. The right of all nations and peoples to determine their own destinies independently is recognized.

The right of nations to self-determination means that each nation is free to establish any of various types of relations with other peoples, including voluntary union in a single state, autonomy, federation, and even secession and the formation of an independent state. It also implies independent decision-making on all questions of internal organization, such as choice of social system and type of government. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, the question of the secession of a nation should be decided on the basis of whether it is feasible and useful from the standpoint of social development in general and the struggle for world peace and socialism. If one bears in mind that there are 2,000 nations and peoples inhabiting almost 140 states, it becomes evident that most nations and nationalities can solve the national question only within the framework of multinational states.

In addition to the question of the formal (legal) equality of nations, Marxism-Leninism raises the question of their attaining actual economic and cultural equality. The cohesion, unification, and comprehensive drawing together of nations can be reached only by their total emancipation from national and social oppression and by the creation of the most favorable possible conditions for the development of each of them. This is the dialectics of the Marxist-Leninist view of the national question.

History of the national question. In the period of premonopoly capitalism the solution of the national question was associated with the national liberation movements, which originated with the formation of nations. The winning of independence by the British colonies in North America in 1775–83 hastened the formation of the North American nation, and the liberation of the South American colonies between 1810 and 1826 laid the foundation for the formation of the Latin American nations. Liberation from the Turkish yoke during the 19th century opened the way for the formation of the Greek, Serbian, Rumanian, and Bulgarian nations and national states. In Germany and Italy unification was the solution to the national question. Under imperialism, with the division of the entire world into a handful of dominant nations and a majority of oppressed nations, the striving for independence and national consolidation was suppressed by force.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution opened the era of the social and national emancipation of the peoples of the world. The liberation movement encompassed all of Asia, Africa, and South America. With the shift in the world balance of forces in favor of socialism after World War II (1939–45), there was an upsurge in the national liberation movement. In the three decades since World War II more than 70 new states have emerged. As a result of the efforts of the Soviet Union, which have been supported by the other socialist countries and by the developing countries, the principle of self-determination has become a principle in international law. It is written into the UN Charter, and it was included in the resolutions of the Bandung Conference of Asian and African states in 1955 and in the resolutions of the conferences of nonaligned countries in Belgrade (1961), Cairo (1964), Lusaka (1970), and Algiers (1973). For many oppressed peoples, the content of the national question changes after independence is won, when the national question becomes separate from the colonial question.

Owing to problems inherited from colonialism and to the intrigues of the neocolonialists, the national question became the source of sharp conflict after independence in many Asian and African countries, including Nigeria, Cyprus, and Pakistan. The boundaries of many new states inhabited by different nationalities and tribes were established without taking into account the ethnic factor. In many cases, the same ethnic group is found in two or in several different states, especially in Africa. Because self-determination proceeded not on a national basis but usually on a historic one (that is, within the former colonial administrative units) and because the nations were not fully formed, the processes of national consolidation in these countries are extremely complex. In a state made up of various ethnic groups, one or several nations may be taking shape.

In Latin America the national question involves the relations between the population of European origin and the native or non-European population, which consists of the Indians and some of the Negroes. The native Indian population is numerous in such countries as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru and speaks its own languages and dialects. The still unassimilated part of the Negroid population (in Brazil, for example) no longer has its own language. In some Latin American countries, including Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, the national question touches on relations between the population of African origin, which constitutes the majority in some countries, and other national groups, such as those of European or Indian origin. To some extent, the special historical characteristics of the formation of the Latin American nations, which are reflected particularly in the absence of rigid racial and ethnic barriers and a high degree of racial intermarriage, point toward the solution of the national question. Progressive forces in the Latin American countries believe that the solution of the national question lies in the establishment of national and racial equality, the granting of autonomy to the Indian groups prevailing in certain areas, the development of the languages and cultures of national minorities, and noncompulsory assimilation.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the national liberation movement entered a new stage. The struggle for national liberation in many countries began to grow into a struggle against exploitative relations, both feudal and capitalist. Many newly emancipated peoples have rejected capitalism and are grappling with the tasks of noncapitalist development, or development toward socialism, which will facilitate and accelerate the solution of the national question.

In the countries of advanced capitalism relations are growing worse between peoples who have lived in a single state for centuries (for example, the conflicts between the Walloons and the Flemings in Belgium and between French and English Canadians in Canada, the Irish question in Great Britain, and the Negro question in the USA). The question of the unequal status and oppression of millions of foreign migrant workers emerged between the 1950’s and the 1970’s in the developed capitalist countries, particularly in Western Europe. The intensification of national conflicts in the capitalist countries is connected with the aggravation of social antagonisms, the growth of national consciousness, and the impossibility of achieving a just, democratic solution to the national question under capitalism.

Under socialism each nation develops comprehensively toward convergence with all other nations and fraternal mutual assistance among nations. A vivid example of this is the way in which the national question has been solved in the USSR. In tsarist Russia, which was called a “prisonhouse of nations,” the national question was very acute and was expressed in many ways. Some peoples sought the restoration of their lost national statehood. For others the national question was bound up with the colonial question, and for still others it involved the struggle for national equality. The first official documents of the Soviet government—the Decree on Peace, the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, and the Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited Peoples—proclaimed a number of principles as the basis of the national policy of the socialist state: the right of peoples and nations to self-determination, equality, and sovereignty; the abolition of all national privileges and restrictions; the right of national minorities to develop freely; and socialist federation. The Soviet government recognized the independence of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Soviet republics of Transcaucasia, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, all of which had been part of the Russian Empire. The rights of the peoples who did not wish to secede were constitutionally guaranteed by Soviet power.

To combat imperialist intervention and domestic counterrevolution, the Soviet republics created a close political, military, and economic alliance. Somewhat later, considering the advantages of a large state, they raised the question of unification into a single multinational socialist state. A nationwide movement for unification led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. This outstanding event in the history of mankind confirmed the correctness of Leninist national policy. The party charted a course toward the accelerated economic, cultural, social, and political development of the national borderlands. The implementation of this policy was possible in practice because of the comprehensive assistance rendered to the formerly oppressed nations and nationalities by the more developed parts of the country, especially by the Russian people, and in particular by the Russian working class, which performed a truly heroic feat, making sacrifices in order to overcome the backwardness of the outlying national regions. The national republics received regular subsidies from the all-Union budget. Socially and economically, the national regions developed more rapidly than the center of the country. For a long time their inhabitants were exempt from taxation, and national cadres were given highly preferential treatment in admission to educational institutions. Enormous opportunities for developing science and the national culture were extended to all nations and peoples, and they experienced an unparalleled flowering.

Relations between the Soviet socialist republics are based on the principle of socialist federation, according to which each republic is a sovereign state. Thus, each republic is guaranteed both national statehood and membership in the union on the basis of the principles of democratic centralism, socialist federalism, and socialist democracy. If a nation or nationality cannot form its own union republic because it is too small or does not constitute the majority on the territory it occupies, the principle of socialist autonomy is applied. Under this principle, nations and nationalities may form republics, autonomous oblasts, or national okrugs.

Thus, all peoples are guaranteed self-government and protection of their national interests, including the development of the national culture, national schools, and respect for the national customs and religion. In all aspects of social and political life citizens are guaranteed the use of their native language. All nations and nationalities have freely chosen Russian as the common language for countrywide communication and cooperation. For millions of Soviet peoples, Russian has become a second native language.

Consistent adherence to the principles of the Marxist-Leninist national program has enabled the Soviet peoples to solve the national question inherited by them and to create a powerful multinational state that harmoniously blends the interests of the entire society with the interests of each nation and each people. The solution of the national question in the USSR is one of the most important achievements of socialism and has great international significance. A new historic community of peoples—the Soviet people—has emerged in the USSR under the impact of various powerful unifying factors that include a single socialist economy, an internationalist Marxist-Leninist ideology, the common historical destiny of all the peoples and nationalities, and the joint struggle against imperialism, aggression, and exploitation and for peace and communism. The further drawing together of nations is an objective historical process. It is harmful to force this process ahead and absolutely impermissible to hold it back. Either approach would slow down this progressive process and contradict the general line of development of Soviet society and the interests of communist construction.

The socialist countries that emerged after World War II have, in practice, confirmed and supplemented the experience of the USSR in solving the national question. Principles such as socialist federation, socialist autonomy, and the legal and real equality of nations and peoples are being successfully implemented in the socialist states. A new type of fraternal intergovernmental relations has arisen in the socialist countries. However, the socialist system only creates the objective preconditions for the resolution of the national question. Its actual solution depends chiefly on the subjective factor—that is, on the policies of the parties providing the leadership of society. If a party abandons the Marxist-Leninist line on the national question and relaxes the struggle against nationalism and chauvinism and the effort to educate the workers in the spirit of internationalism, national problems may grow more intense. By deviating from Marxism-Leninism and the principles of internationalism and pursuing a policy of Great Han chauvinism, the Communist Party of China has greatly exacerbated national problems, both inside China and among states of the socialist community.

The tasks of building a developed socialist society and a communist society unswervingly dictate the need for the socialist nations to continue to draw closer together in every way, to increase their cooperation, and to expand the socialist division of labor among themselves. The obliteration of class barriers and the development of socialist social relations strengthen social homogeneity among nations, promote the development of features common to all of them, and contribute to the further consolidation of mutual trust and friendship. However, the obliteration of national traits is a prolonged process. In socialist society, when there is a correct class line in national policy, national differences do not lead to estrangement between peoples. When national problems and contradictions arise, they do not have an antagonistic quality and can be solved in a spirit of fraternal cooperation in the interests of the country as a whole and of each republic and in the interests of socialist and communist construction.

The CPSU and the other fraternal parties in the socialist countries reject both the exaggeration and the dismissal of national characteristics. They consistently put into practice the principles of internationalism and resolutely combat survivals of nationalism, chauvinism, national particularism, and national nihilism, and they seek to promote the further cohesion of the fraternal peoples.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. “Otchet General’nogo Soveta IV ezhegodnomu kongressu Mezhdunarodnogo Tovarishchestva Rabochikh.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Marx, K. “General’nyi Sovet—Federal’nomu sovetu Romanskoi Shveitsarii.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Marx, K. Z. Meieru i A. Fogtu, 9 aprelia 1870. (Letter.) Ibid., vol. 32.
Engels, F. “Kakoe delo rabochemu klassu do Pol’shi?” Ibid., vol. 16.
Engels, F. “O razlozhenii feodalizma i vozniknovenii natsional’nykh gosudarstv.” Ibid., vol. 21.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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