The Soviet Union and Baltic nationalism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.100 April/May 1991

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A nationalist upsurge in Soviet republics threatens the break-up of the Soviet Union. In this discussion article, TED TALBOT assesses the communist position on movements for national independence as it applies to the Soviet Union today.

In December 1922 the First All-Union Congress of Soviets declared the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Such a Union was necessary both to combat the threat of internal counter-revolution and external intervention. They believed that it would have been hard to safe-guard Soviet power and the independence of the country, surrounded as it was by militarily strong capitalist powers. This would require uniting to the fullest extent the fraternal Republics’ military, political and diplomatic efforts. The vital interests of all the Soviet peoples and the struggle for socialism demanded the formation of a united multinational socialist state.

This illustrates a contradiction for Leninists with their theoretical commitment to self-determination. Revolutions which have created the conditions in which the secession of oppressed nations is possible are liable to be irretrievably weakened if this right is immediately exercised. Furthermore, it is precisely in the midst of revolutionary ferment that an impetus to independence is likely to be strongest. In fact, the Bolshevik party was clear that the right to self-determination was subordinate to the needs of socialist construction.

Let us follow up this notion of a discord between theory and practice. For example, the following retort addressed to Polish communists in a debate about the legitimacy of annexations is typical of Lenin’s vociferous support for national self-determination.

‘However you may twist and turn, annexation is violation of the self-determination of a nation, it is the establishment of state frontiers contrary to the will of the population.’ (Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’)

In March 1920 Pilsudski’s Polish army invaded Soviet territory and established a base in the raw-materials-rich Ukraine for a few months. They were driven out by the Red Army and the Politburo had to decide whether to pursue the retreating Poles into their own territory. Rejecting Trotsky’s advice, Lenin, along with the majority of the Politburo, decided to invade Poland for the following reasons:

  1. A tactical military reason – Pilsudski was unlikely to accept the territorial frontier demarcated by the Bolsheviks and was likely simply to use the time to regroup his forces.
  2. A political reason – they thought that the advance of the Red Army would promote revolutionary out-breaks in Poland.
  3. Poland was the bridge between Russia and Germany, and across it Lenin hoped to establish contact with Germany, imagining that Germany, too, was in intense revolutionary ferment.

It is pertinent to note that Trotsky’s reservations were based not on matters of principle, but rather on warnings of an upsurge of Polish patriotic sentiment following a Red Army invasion of Poland which he received from Polish socialists in Moscow.

The Polish experience was a watershed not just in Bolshevik practice but also in its contradiction of theoretical propositions. ‘It had been a canon of Marxist politics that revolution cannot and must not be carried out on the point of bayonets into foreign countries.’ (The Prophet Armed. Trotsky: 1879-1921, Isaac Deutscher) In short, in practice Lenin and the Bolsheviks were prepared to view national self-determination as secondary to the interests of socialism.

Today nationalist resurgence is threatening the integrity of the Soviet Union. Ten of the fifteen republics are claiming various degrees of autonomy with the Baltic states in the lead. The drive for national autonomy is inextricably intertwined with moves towards a market economy and greater ties with the West.

On Sunday 1 March two unofficial referendums in Estonia (83% turn-out, 78% pro-independence) and Latvia (88% turnout, 83% pro-independence) saw huge majorities in favour of independence. Rather surprisingly, around 40% of ethnic Russians are reported to have voted in favour of independence, despite the presence of sizeable pro-Moscow organisations in the two republics which have complained of ballot rigging and intimidation of voters. For instance in Daugavpils in Latvia only 13% of the population is ethnic Latvian, yet even here a 51% vote favouring independence was recorded. A previous straw ballot in Lithuania had produced an extraordinary result of a little over 90% in favour of independence.

It is unlikely that these results will be repeated in the national referendum currently taking place. This asks whether the present national boundaries of the USSR should be maintained. Six republics are refusing to take part in the vote. Gorbachev has warned that a ‘no’ vote, leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union, would be ‘a world disaster’.

The policy of glasnost has allowed a multitude of national grievances to enter the public arena. Some of these grievances may be legitimate but the secession of one republic would surely promote what Gorbachev’s adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, terms a ‘domino effect’ which would rapidly lead to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

It is fairly clear, as much as anything is clear from his contradictory statements, that Gorbachev, whether from personal disposition or due to pressure from the KGB/military etc, is prepared to allow substantial degrees of national autonomy but not to countenance the destruction of the USSR:

‘Disintegration and separation cannot happen in our country, simply under any circumstances . . . If we start splitting, there will be a dreadful war.’

What should be the attitude of Marxists in this situation? Can the conception that the interests of socialism are superior to the concern for independence apply here also? To accept such a qualification puts one in total opposition to the overwhelming majority of Trotskyist groups (with the exception of the Spartacists), who uncritically support independence moves.

Indeed, such uncritical support for nationalism blends with the desire of the Trotskyists to see capitalism restored in the Soviet Union. Outflanking even Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Party outlines explicitly the hidden agenda of the Trotskyist left,

‘Whatever the short-term cost of capitalist restoration in the Stalinist world, the destruction of Stalinism will remove an historic barrier to the self-emancipation of the international working class.’ (Frank Richards in Confrontation No 5.)

Fortunately for them, it is not the RCP who are having to pay the ‘short-term cost’ of capitalist restoration in, for example, the former GDR or Poland, in terms of mass unemployment, loss of housing and widespread poverty. ‘Short-term’, in these cases, means the ruination of many people’s lives. However, far from the ‘cost’ being ‘short-term’, the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe has given a tremendous boost to imperialism.

The RCP’s position does at least have the virtue of being honest – if stupid. The restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union would be a step forward for the international working class! Socialist Outlook, as befits these clandestine Labour Party entryists, are better at dissembling:

‘Some will argue that to advocate independence is in effect to advocate independent capitalist states given the nature of the Popular Fronts. Such positions reveal both a profound pessimism and a lack of clarity on how socialists should support national movements.’ (Dafydd Rhys in Socialist Outlook 1990)

To read this article one would not imagine that a whole series of counter-revolutionary setbacks has put imperialism on the offensive, and the line is put that a ‘clear space’ exists for ‘a common struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy and imperialism’.

How the independence movements are going to take on the world or what the consequences might be are, wisely, left implicit. Presumably the nationalist movements are going to promote a political revolution which will finally overthrow that icon of Trotskyist demonology, the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’. The Soviet Union can then become a real threat to imperialism. That would be logical, if so utterly abstract as to bear little relation to reality. However, earlier on Socialist Outlook gives the actual reason for supporting the independence movements: if we do not we will be isolated.

‘ . . . Socialists have to not only support but advocate independence for these countries. Any other position would leave us by-passed by events and completely isolated from a dialogue with the masses.’

This is the same argument which the Trotskyists use to justify their continuous perambulations in and around the Labour Party and just as opportunist. Marxist politics should be characterised by political independence rather than tailing popular ideological formations, and their organisational expressions. In fact, given that a dialogue between Socialist Outlook and the nationalists is somewhat remote, one can surmise that their real concern is to tailor their position to accommodate their Labour Party audience.

One argument against a denial of the right to independence to the Soviet republics is that it is pandering to Great Russian chauvinism. Lenin is quite clear that one’s position is relativist and is governed by the nature of the regime in question and the nation one is living in. The Polish debate again provides some useful guidelines. Lenin argues:

‘The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping . . . to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies . . . The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.’

There are no exact parallels here from which to derive tactics. But it is clear that communists in the republics are correct to oppose independence, as otherwise they would be in ‘humble servitude’ to reactionary independence movements which are completely orientated towards imperialism. Communists in the imperialist countries can take note of the socialist credentials of the Soviet Union, which are under heavy internal attack but are still substantially extant, and conclude that there is a legitimacy in defending the integrity of a socialist state which would not exist in the case of an ‘imperialist monarchy’. These tactical arguments do not transcend the strategic argument that the building of socialism takes precedence over the freedom to secede, but they do reinforce it.

Lenin stresses the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. This distinction is not, at least in economic terms, a characteristic of the USSR. In fact, in an ideal world (such as the Trotskyists inhabit) it would be a useful exercise to grant the fractious republics immediate independence but without access to Soviet aid which has been extremely favourable to them. Neither is it likely that the imperialists would be prepared to pump large amounts of finance into such fragile allies. Poland has made many requests for aid but remarkably little has been actually forthcoming. Possibly the salutary lessons embodied here would lead to a voluntary reunion in the long run which would certainly be preferable to the present hostile situation. Unfortunately, such a scenario is quickly revealed as naive when the weakness of the Soviet Union relative to imperialism is considered.

To advocate an absolutist position of ‘independence at any price’, as most of the Trotskyists do, is also to advocate the final break-up of the Soviet Union and the final destruction of the gains of 1917. No amount of mealy-mouthed talk should be allowed to suppress this fact. Such a result would be a mighty victory for imperialism, and all the more so as it would have been won at so little cost. In this situation the interests of the international working class and oppressed masses clearly take precedence over national aspirations in the Soviet republics.


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