The Bolsheviks, the National Question and the Civil War

The policy of Bolshevism on the national question, having ensured the victory of the October revolution, also helped the Soviet Union to hold out afterward notwithstanding inner centrifugal forces and a hostile environment.

–– Leon Trotsky

During a debate on the national question in an internet forum, I was challenged on a comment I had made to the effect that ‘the Russian Revolution would not have taken place if it had not been for the positions of the Bolsheviks on the national question.’ The objections that were raised were these:

  • ‘Between the February and October revolutions national governments were formed in many of the nations within the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks did nothing to either encourage or dissuade this process as they could do nothing about it.’
  • ‘With the exception of the Ukraine and Byelorussia all the nations peripheral to the Empire were lost to counter-revolutionary forces regardless of the position the Bolsheviks held on self-determination.’
  • ‘In the Ukraine the argument that self-determination won the masses to the revolution simply will not wash given that more than once Lenin had to intervene their to rebuke the local representatives of the party for Great Russian chauvinism. When a stable regime was finally established in the Ukraine it was to be headed not by a Ukrainian or a Great Russian but by a man whose very nationality was more than a little in flux. I refer to Christian Rakovsky.’

And finally, that the national question ‘was a very secondary ideological weapon in this struggle.’

Given that my interlocutor saw fit to cast doubt on my capacity to engage with the ‘historical process’ and suggested that I really knew nothing about the events under consideration, the historical ignorance he displayed was staggering. To keep this discussion at least some way manageable I am going to concentrate my comments on the Ukraine, since it was here not only that the most important phase of the civil war was played out but where the national question was posed most sharply. But it is not true that the national question only emerged in the Ukraine: in the east, in Turkestan, the Bolshevik’s position was also a vital factor in winning over the most militant fighters for national liberation, a point admitted by the region’s bourgeois nationalist leaders themselves.

More (pdf: 115KB): The Bolsheviks, the National Question and the Civil War

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