The right of self-determination of peoples and nations

By: Gilberto López y Rivas /Part 2

In the First World War there is an identification between the principle of nationalities and the right of peoples to align themselves, fundamentally through the Bolsheviks’ theory of political action, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the theory of US president Woodrow Wilson, who interprets this principle within the variant of self-government; that is, as the right of the governed to have a government that has their consent. Self-determination for Wilson is a synonym for popular sovereignty, which in the context of US tradition had a totally different meaning from the one that millions of people would give it in those years of war, for whom self-determination meant, more than anything, national independence. Wilson’s involuntary contribution to the history of self-determination, as an ideological resource of international relations in conflict, takes place in the context of the First World War, which represents the entry of the United States into the European political arena and the start of its preeminence in the international arena, without this preventing him from intervening militarily in Mexico, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Lenin elaborates theoretically and politically around self-determination as the right of peoples and nations to independence, to state separation, to the formation of their own states. For Lenin, self-determination was a democratic vindication that emerges precisely from the liberal principles of bourgeois democracy, although in his theoretical analysis he went beyond the liberal interpretation. In reality, the Russian Revolution was the decisive event that influenced the elaboration and radicality of this principio. In March 1917, the provisional government of revolutionary Russia announces that it wished to establish peace unilaterally, on the basis of the “right of nations to decide on their destinies.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood the value that national sentiment had to their goals of social transformation. Lenin achieved linking the socialist paradigm of proletarian internationalism with the bourgeois-democratic paradigm of the right to national self-determination. Starting with the same theoretical presupposition of Marx on world revolution, Lenin envisions –however– the importance of the national question as an element that would strengthen the struggle for socialism. In his “balance of the discussion on self-determination,” Lenin pointed out that socialists: “Must be in favor of taking advantage for purposes of the socialist revolution of all the national movements directed against imperialism. The purer the struggles of the proletariat against the imperialist common front are today, the more essential, obviously, will be the internationalist principle that ‘the people who oppress other people cannot be free.’” In a heated debate with Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin advocated for the recognition of the right to self-determination as the right to found an independent State of their own. Lenin, from his optic as a Russian revolutionary, sees allies in all the enemies of tsarism, including the nationalisms of oppressed countries, like Poland, thereby reaffirming the principle of national self-determination of peoples and nations. The great Leninist contribution was to theoretically and politically base the right to self-determination as one of the basic principles of co-existence between peoples and nations.

Against all wars!

Despite the subsequent involution of the revolution under Stalin, which in fact denies this principle, Lenin made it clear that he was concerned about the national question. The last document dictated by Lenin refers precisely to the problems caused by Stalin in Georgia, his homeland: “It’s necessary to distinguish between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and the nationalism of an oppressed nation, between the nationalism of a large nation and the nationalism of a small nation… Regarding the second nationalism, the members of a large nation are almost always to blame for committing infinite acts of violence in the practical terrain of history; and even more: we commit endless acts of violence and offenses without taking into account… and I believe that in this case, regard to the Georgian nation, we witness a typical example of how the truly proletarian attitude demands extreme caution, delicacy and compromise on our part. The Georgian [referring to Stalin] who treats this aspect of the problem with disdain, who makes disparaging accusations of ‘social nationalism’ (when he himself is not only an authentic and true social nationalist, but also a crude Russia henchman), that Georgian violates, the basic interests of proletarian class solidarity.” Ukraine today?

The Zapatistas march against all wars in San Cristóbal on March 13, 2022.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, May27, 2022,, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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