‘Report on the National and Colonial Question’ by V.I. Lenin from The Proceedings of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1921.

Lenin’s report introducing his ‘Thesis on the National and Colonial Question’ to the Second Comintern Congress on July 25, 1920. Anti-imperialism, national liberation, and self-determination would, in contrast to the Second International, become cornerstones of the Third.

‘Report on the National and Colonial Question’ by V.I. Lenin from The Proceedings of the Second Congress of the Communist International. Publishing Office of the Communist International, New York. 1921.

Comrades, I shall only give a short introduction and then Comrade Maring, the secretary of our Commission, will give an exact report on the changes that have been made in the Theses. After that Comrade Roy, who formulated the Supplementary Theses, will have the floor. Our Commission adopted both the former and the latter unanimously. You will see from the Theses that we have taken unanimous decisions on the most important questions, and I should like now just to make a few short remarks.

What is the most important, the fundamental idea of our Theses? It is the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor nations. We emphasise this difference – in contrast to the Second International and bourgeois democracy. It is especially important for the proletariat and the Communist International during the epoch of imperialism to establish concrete economic facts and to approach all colonial and national questions not from the abstract but from the concrete point of view.

Imperialism is characterised by the fact that the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense. The enormous mass, more than 1,000 million, most probably 1,250 million, and thus if we estimate the population of the world at 1,750 million some 70 per cent of the world population belong to the oppressed nations which are either in direct colonial dependence, or appear as semi-colonial states like, for example, Persia, Turkey and China, or which, defeated by a great imperialist army, have fallen into marked dependency after the peace treaties. This idea of the difference between nations, their division into the oppressed and the oppressors runs through all the Theses, not only the first ones that I signed and which have already been printed, but also through Comrade Roy’s Theses. These were written predominantly from the point of view of India and the other great Asian peoples who are oppressed by Britain, and are thus particularly important for us.

The second main idea of our Theses is that, in the current world situation, after the imperialist war, the mutual relations between states, the world system of states, is determined by the struggle of the smaller number of imperialist nations against the Soviet movement and the Soviet powers with Soviet Russia at their head. If we overlook this question, we cannot pose correctly a single national or colonial question even in the most distant part of the world. It is only from this standpoint that the political questions of the Communist Parties, not only in the civilised but also in the backward countries, can be posed and answered correctly. Thirdly, I would like to emphasise the question of the bourgeois-democratic movement in the backward countries. This was the point that gave rise to some differences of opinion. We debated whether it is correct in principle and theoretically to declare that the Communist International and the Communist Parties have a duty to support the bourgeois-democratic movements in the backward countries, and the outcome of this discussion was that we came to the unanimous decision to talk not about the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movement but only about the national-revolutionary movement. There can be no doubt of the fact that any nationalist movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, because the great mass of the population of the backward countries consists of the peasantry, which is the representative of bourgeois capitalist relations. It would be utopian to think that proletarian parties, insofar as it is at all possible for them to arise in these countries, will be able to carry out Communist tactics and Communist policies in the backward countries without having a definite relationship with the peasant movement, without supporting it in deeds. But objections were raised that, if we say ‘bourgeois-democratic’, we lose the distinction between the reformist and revolutionary movement which has become quite clear in the backward countries and the colonies recently, simply because the imperialist bourgeoisie has done everything in its power to create a reformist movement among the oppressed peoples too. A certain understanding has emerged between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often, even perhaps in most cases, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, although they also support national movements, nevertheless fight against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes with a certain degree of agreement with the imperialist bourgeoisie, that is to say together with it. This was completely proven in the Commission, and we believed that the only correct thing would be to take this difference into consideration and to replace the words ‘bourgeois-democratic’ almost everywhere with the expression ‘national-revolutionary’. The point about this is that as communists we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are really revolutionary and if their representatives are not opposed to us training and organising the peasantry in a revolutionary way. If that is no good, then the communists there also have a duty to fight against the reformist bourgeoisie, to which the heroes of the Second International also belong. There are already reformist parties in the colonial countries, and on occasion their representatives call themselves Social Democrats or Socialists. This distinction is now made in all the Theses, and I think that our point of view is thus formulated much more precisely.

The next comment I wish to make is about peasants’ councils. The practical work of the Russian Communists in the former Tsarist colonies, in backward countries such as Turkestan and others, has posed the question of how communist tactics and policies are to be applied to pre-capitalist conditions. The most important characteristic of these countries is that pre-capitalist conditions still prevail there, and therefore there can be no question of a purely proletarian movement there. Nevertheless we have taken over the leading role in them and must take it over. Our experience has shown us that the difficulties there are truly enormous, but the practical results of our work have also shown that despite these difficulties it is possible to awaken independent political thinking and independent political activity even where there is almost no proletariat at all. This activity was more difficult for us than for the comrades in Western European countries as the proletariat in Russia is overburdened with tasks of state.

Obviously the peasants, who live under conditions of semi-feudal dependency, can grasp the idea of soviets and also carry out practical work in this field. It is also clear that the exploited masses, who are exploited not only by merchant capital but also by the feudalists and the state on a feudal basis, can apply this weapon, this type of organisation, under these conditions too. The idea of soviet organisation is simple and can be applied not only under proletarian conditions but also under feudal and semi-feudal peasant conditions. Our experiences in this area are not yet very extensive. But the discussions in the Commission, at which several representatives of the colonial countries were present, proved to us quite decisively that in the Theses of the Communist International we must take up the question that peasants’ councils, the councils of the exploited, are not only appropriate for capitalist countries but are also suitable for pre-capitalist conditions, and that it is the unconditional duty of the Communist Parties and those elements that are prepared to build Communist Parties to propagate peasants’ councils, the councils of the toilers, everywhere, including the backward countries and the colonies, and to make the practical attempt to set up councils of the labouring people immediately wherever conditions permit it.

This opens up for us a very interesting and important field of activity. Our general experiences are not yet particularly extensive, but we will collect more and more material, and there can be no doubt that the proletariat in the advanced countries can and must help the backward labouring masses, and that the development of the backward countries would change its present level as soon as the victorious proletariat of the Soviet Republics can reach out a hand to these masses and give them help.

There was a somewhat lively discussion on this question in the Commission, not only in connection with the Theses I have signed, but even more with those of Comrade Roy, which he will defend here and in which a few amendments were unanimously made.

The question was this: can we accept as correct the idea that the capitalist development of the economy is necessary for those backward peoples who are now liberating themselves and among whom now, following the war, progressive movements have developed? We have come to the conclusion that we have to deny it. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat organises systematic propaganda, and the Soviet Government come to its assistance with every means at its disposal, it is incorrect to assume that the capitalist stage of development is necessary for such peoples. We must not only build cadres and parties in all colonies and backward countries, we must not only immediately propagate peasants’ councils and try to make soviet organisations fit pre-capitalist conditions, but theoretically the Communist International must also declare and explain that with the help of the proletariat of the advanced countries the backward countries can arrive at soviet organisation and, through a series of stages, and even avoiding the capitalist system, can arrive at Communism.

What means will be necessary for this we cannot say in advance. Practical experience will tell. But it is established that the idea of soviets is accessible to all the labouring masses, even among the most isolated peoples, that these organisations must be adapted to pre-capitalist conditions, and that the work of the Communist Parties all over the world in this direction must begin immediately.

The last remark I would like to make here is about the role of the revolutionary work of the Communist Parties not only in their own countries but also in the colonial countries, and particularly among the troops used by the exploiting nations to hold down the colonial peoples.

Comrade Quelch of the BSP spoke about this in our Commission. He said that the ordinary British worker would regard it as treachery if he was to help the dependent peoples to rebel against English domination. It is correct that the jingoist and chauvinist mood of the labour aristocracy in England and America forms the greatest danger for communism and the greatest support for the Second International, and is the greatest treachery on the part of the leaders and workers who belong to such a bourgeois international. There was talk about the colonial question in the Second International also. The Basle manifesto spoke very clearly about it. The parties of the Second International promised to act in a revolutionary manner. But in the parties of the Second International there was no question of doing real revolutionary work to help the exploited and dependent nations in their revolt against the oppressing nations, nor even, I think, in most of the parties that have left the Second International and seek entry into the Communist International. We must say this openly, it cannot be refuted. We shall see whether the attempt will be made to refute it.

Because of these considerations we arrived at resolutions that were, without doubt, too long. But I think that they will nevertheless be useful and contribute to encouraging and organising really revolutionary work on the national and colonial question, and that is our main task.

PDF of proceedings: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/1-Second%20Congress%20of%20CI-1920.pdf

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