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The constituent assembly and the national question: Response to Eric Blanc

May 25, 2014

The following contribution was written in reply to “National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands” published on this website.

By Richard Fidler. A stimulating and insightful essay. Along with the promised monograph, it will inspire and inform reconsideration of questions long thought settled by some of us.

Blanc focuses on the pre-1914 positions and makes a compelling argument. But he adds that Lenin and his comrades “lagged behind the non-Russian Marxists on this crucial issue [anti-colonial Marxism] well into the Civil War….” One question worth reconsideration, perhaps, is the Bolshevik decision in 1918 to dissolve the elected Constituent Assembly.

Kautsky, in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, premised his argument against soviet rule on that decision and the rejection of universal suffrage. But the national question does not figure significantly in either his argument or Lenin’s rebuttal to “the renegade Kautsky.” However, I wonder: Did that move help to trigger the civil war that erupted soon afterward, in which the counter-revolutionaries won their initial victories in the old empire’s borderlands?

A decade later, Trotsky was clear in his History of the Russian Revolution that the demand for the Constituent Assembly, directed at the Provisional government in 1917, was part and parcel of the Bolshevik response to the “problem of nationalities” (vol. 3, ch. 2). However, while he notes that “For the oppressed nations of Russia the overthrow of the monarchy inevitably meant also their national revolution,” he tends to conflate the national question with socialist revolution.

Calling on the provisional government in 1917 to convene a Constituent Assembly, he says later, meant postponing satisfaction of the national cultural and linguistic demands, a view he attributes without evidence to the oppressed nations and nationalities in the Czarist empire: “their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”; “In the national sphere… the uprooting of mediaeval remnants falls to the lot of the proletariat”; and furthermore, “This subordination of belated national revolutions to the revolution of the proletariat follows a law which is valid throughout the world.”

At the same time, Trotsky endorses the Bolshevik position that “flatly rejected the national- federation principle in building the party,” an approach his Canadian followers adopted in the 1960s when we rejected a demand by some of our Quebec comrades for creation of a separate Quebec section of our “party.” That section effectively took shape in the early 1970s when a majority of our members in Quebec split to form their own group, the GMR; its successor is still active today as the Gauche socialiste collective in Québec solidaire.

Trotsky’s interpretation follows Lenin in his reply to Kautsky: “the interests of the revolution are higher than the formal rights of the Constituent Assembly.” The dictatorship of the proletariat, a small minority in Russia, albeit in alliance with the peasant majority, was to resolve all residual democratic issues, including the national question.

That is certainly not the approach adopted in some major contemporary struggles, as in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador where the constitutional recognition of oppressed indigenous nationalities has helped to draw new layers into mass political struggles that can and sometimes do explicitly target capitalism. Quebec’s left party Québec solidaire likewise poses the need for a constituent assembly to address the national question through a mass democratic consultation of the entire population. The constituent assembly in itself does not solve the national question. But it can help to empower those political and social forces that do offer the solution to these important issues.

In the 1980s, the Sandinistas’ lack of attention to the national question posed by Nicaragua’s indigenous population gave the counter-revolution an initial base on that country’s Atlantic Coast, although the Sandinistas later sought with some success to correct this misunderstanding.

Trotsky, of course, later revised his own approach, calling for an independent, socialist Ukraine in the late 1930s, and even admitting “the existence of a Jewish nation, culturally living and modern, that had to be defended against the Nazi menace,” an attitude that neither Kautsky nor Otto Bauer (the exponent of Austrian social democracy’s support of “cultural national autonomy”) would adopt. See Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and the Jewish Question; The History of a Debate 1843-1943.

Eric Blanc’s essay is a major encouragement to a reconsideration of these and related issues. I look forward to reading his forthcoming monograph on the topic.

  1. Jim Brash permalink

    John, you’ve seen some of the postings by the left on the situation in the Ukraine? Anyway of understanding what’s going on via the analysis provided by Trotsky? Or what not to be projecting from reviewing the positions of the Bolsheviks and later the executive of the Comintern.?

    • I do not find it easy to apply the positions of the Bolsheviks, the Comintern, and Trotsky on self-determination to the present crisis in Ukraine without a close analysis of the forces at work in that country, which is hard to carry out at this distance.
      As a socialist in Canada, I think the place to start is the fact that the Canadian government responded to the crisis there by sending troops to Estonia, whose border is only slightly over 100 kilometers from St. Petersburg.
      This provocative action has no precedent since the attempt to seize Wrangel Island from the Soviet state for Canada in the early 1920s.

  2. prianikoff permalink

    The history of the various Ukrainian Socialist movements is a very complex subject.
    Those socialists who didn’t side with the Bolsheviks, tended to become pawns of the Imperialist powers; Germany and France.

    Victor Serge described those who ended up fighting against the Bolsheviks , such as Simon Petliura, as “Nationalist-Socialists”, others like Vynnychenko and Hrushevsky, tried at various times to work with the Bolsheviks.

    When Germany pulled out of the War, Petliura’s forces were temporarily stronger than the Reds and the Makhnovites. But as soon as he was threatened, he formed an alliance with French Imperialism.

    The Directorate agreed to place itself:-

    “under the protection of France and requests the French authorities to guide it on all diplomatic, military political, economic and judicial questions until the conclusion of the struggle against Bolshevism”

    This involved a secret agreement to turn parts of Ukraine into a French Protectorate and give France concessions on the railways. French forces then entered Odessa and Kherson before being kicked out by an unholy alliance between the turncoat adventurer Nikifor Grigoriev, Alexandra Kollantai’s Cossack husband Pavel Dybenko and Nestor Makhno’s anarchist forces.
    Needless to say, this alliance soon fell apart, but it highlights the complex situation during the Civil War.

    Ukrainian nationalists have often faced this dilemma and still do.

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