Cultural-National Autonomy: Marxism and the National Question

by Joseph Stalin

We spoke above of the formal aspect of the Austrian national programme and of the methodological grounds which make it impossible for the Russian Marxists simply to adopt the example of Austrian Social-Democracy and make the latter’s programme their own.

Let us now examine the essence of the programme itself

What then is the national programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats?

Nations and Nationalities of Austria-Hungary

It is expressed in two words: cultural-national autonomy.

This means, firstly, that autonomy would be granted, let us say, not to Bohemia or Poland, which are inhabited mainly by Czechs and Poles, but to Czechs and Poles generally, irrespective of territory, no matter what part of Austria they inhabit.

That is why this autonomy is called national and not territorial.

It means, secondly, that the Czechs, Poles, Germans, and so on, scattered over the various parts of Austria, taken personally, as individuals, are to be organized into integral nations, and are as such to form part of the Austrian state. In this way Austria would represent not a union of autonomous regions, but a union of autonomous nationalities, constituted irrespective of territory.

It means, thirdly, that the national institutions which are to be created for this purpose for the Poles, Czechs, and so forth, are to have jurisdiction only over “cultural,” not “political” questions. Specifically political questions would be reserved for the Austrian parliament (the Reichsrat).

That is why this autonomy is also called cultural, cultural-national autonomy.

And here is the text of the programme adopted by the Austrian Social-Democratic Party at the Brünn Congress in 1899.

Having referred to the fact that “national dissension in Austria is hindering political progress,” that “the final solution of the national question… is primarily a cultural necessity,” and that “the solution is possible only in a genuinely democratic society, constructed on the basis of universal, direct and equal suffrage,” the programme goes on to say:

“The preservation and development of the national peculiarities of the peoples of Austria is possible only on the basis of equal rights and by avoiding all oppression. Hence, all bureaucratic state centralism and the feudal privileges of individual provinces must first of all be rejected.

“Under these conditions, and only under these conditions, will it be possible to establish national order in Austria in place of national dissension, namely, on the following principles:

“1. Austria must be transformed into a democratic state federation of nationalities.

“2. The historical crown provinces must be replaced by nationally delimited self-governing corporations, in each of which legislation and administration shall be entrusted to national parliaments elected on the basis of universal, direct and equal suffrage.

“3. All the self-governing regions of one and the same nation must jointly form a single national union, which shall manage its national affairs on an absolutely autonomous basis.

“4. The rights of national minorities must be guaranteed by a special law passed by the Imperial Parliament.”

The programme ends with an appeal for the solidarity of all the nations of Austria.

It is not difficult to see that this programme retains certain traces of “territorialism,” but that in general it gives a formulation of national autonomy. It is not without good reason that Springer, the first agitator on behalf of cultural-national autonomy, greets it with enthusiasm; Bauer also supports this programme, calling it a “theoretical victory” for national autonomy; only, in the interests of greater clarity, he proposes that Point 4 be replaced by a more definite formulation, which would declare the necessity of “constituting the national minority within each self-governing region into a public corporation” for the management of educational and other cultural affairs.

Such is the national programme of Austrian Social-Democracy.

Let us examine its scientific foundations.

Let us see how the Austrian Social-Democratic Party justifies the cultural-national autonomy it advocates.

Let us turn to the theoreticians of cultural-national autonomy, Springer and Bauer.

The starting point of national autonomy is the conception of a nation as a union of individuals without regard to a definite territory.

“Nationality,” according to Springer, “is not essentially connected with territory”; nations are “autonomous unions of persons.”

Bauer also speaks of a nation as a “community of persons” which does not enjoy “exclusive sovereignty in any particular region.”

But the persons constituting a nation do not always live in one compact mass; they are frequently divided into groups, and in that form are interspersed among alien national organisms. It is capitalism which drives them into various regions and cities in search of a livelihood. But when they enter foreign national territories and there form minorities, these groups are made to suffer by the local national majorities in the way of restrictions on their language, schools, etc. Hence national conflicts. Hence the “unsuitability” of territorial autonomy. The only solution to such a situation, according to Springer and Bauer, is to organize the minorities of the given nationality dispersed over various parts of the state into a single, general, inter-class national union. Such a union alone, in their opinion, can protect the cultural interests of national minorities, and it alone is capable of putting an end to national discord.

“Hence the necessity,” says Springer, “to organize the nationalities, to invest them with rights and responsibilities….” Of course, “a law is easily drafted, but will it be effective? “… “If one wants to make a law for nations, one must first create the nations…” “Unless the nationalities are constituted it is impossible to create national rights and eliminate national dissension.”

Bauer expressed himself in the same spirit when he proposed, as “a demand of the working class,” that “the minorities should be constituted into public corporations based on the personal principle.”

But how is a nation to be organized? How is one to determine to what nation any given individual belongs?

“Nationality,” says Springer, “will be determined by certificates; every individual domiciled in a given region must declare his affiliation to one of the nationalities of that region.”

“The personal principle,” says Bauer, “presumes that the population will be divided into nationalities…. On the basis of the free declaration of the adult citizens national registers must be drawn up.”

Further.

“All the Germans in nationally homogeneous districts,” says Bauer, “and all the Germans entered in the national registers in the dual districts will constitute the German nation and elect a National Council.”

The same applies to the Czechs, Poles, and so on.

“The National Council,” according to Springer, “is the cultural parliament of the nation, empowered to establish the principles and to grant funds, thereby assuming guardianship over national education, national literature, art and science, the formation of academies, museums, galleries, theatres,” etc.

Such will be the organization of a nation and its central institution.

According to Bauer, the Austrian Social-Democratic Party is striving, by the creation of these inter-class institutions “to make national culture … the possession of the whole people and thereby unite all the members of the nation into a national-cultural community.” (our italics).

One might think that all this concerns Austria alone. But Bauer does not agree. He emphatically declares that national autonomy is essential also for other states which, like Austria, consist of several nationalities.

“In the multi-national state,” according to Bauer, “the working class of all the nations opposes the national power policy of the propertied classes with the demand for national autonomy.”

Then, imperceptibly substituting national autonomy for the self-determination of nations, he continues:

“Thus, national autonomy, the self-determination of nations, will necessarily become the constitutional programme of the proletariat of all the nations in a multi-national state.”

But he goes still further. He profoundly believes that the inter-class “national unions” “constituted” by him and Springer will serve as a sort of prototype of the future socialist society. For he knows that “the socialist system of society… will divide humanity into nationally delimited communities”; that under socialism there will take place “a grouping of humanity into autonomous national communities,” that thus, “socialist society will undoubtedly present a checkered picture of national unions of persons and territorial corporations, and that accordingly “the socialist principle of nationality is a higher synthesis of the national principle and national autonomy.”

Enough, it would seem..

These are the arguments for cultural-national autonomy as given in the works of Bauer and Springer.

The first thing that strikes the eye is the entirely inexplicable and absolutely unjustifiable substitution of national autonomy for self-determination of nations. One or the other: either Bauer failed to understand the meaning of self-determination, or he did understand it but for some reason or other deliberately narrowed its meaning. For there is no doubt

a) that cultural-national autonomy presupposes the integrity of the multi-national state, whereas self-determination goes outside the framework of this integrity, and

b) that self-determination endows a nation with complete rights, whereas national autonomy endows it only with “cultural” rights. That in the first place.

In the second place, a combination of internal and external conditions is fully possible at some future time by virtue of which one or another of the nationalities may decide to secede from a multi-national state, say from Austria. Did not the Ruthenian Social-Democrats at the Brünn Party Congress announce their readiness to unite the “two parts” of their people into one whole? What, in such a case, becomes of national autonomy, which is “inevitable for the proletariat of all the nations”? What sort of “solution” of the problem is it that mechanically squeezes nations into the Procrustean bed of an integral state?

Further: National autonomy is contrary to the whole course of development of nations. It calls for the organization of nations; but can they be artificially welded together if life, if economic development tears whole groups from them and disperses these groups over various regions? There is no doubt that in the early stages of capitalism nations become welded together. But there is also no doubt that in the higher stages of capitalism a process of dispersion of nations sets in, a process whereby a whole number of groups separate off from the nations, going off in search of a livelihood and subsequently settling permanently in other regions of the state; in the course of this these settlers lose their old connections and acquire new ones in their new domicile, and from generation to generation acquire new habits and new tastes, and possibly a new language. The question arises: is it possible to unite into a single national union groups that have grown so distinct? Where are the magic links to unite what cannot be united? Is it conceivable that, for instance, the Germans of the Baltic Provinces and the Germans of Transcaucasia can be “united into a single nation”? But if it is not conceivable and not possible, wherein does national autonomy differ from the utopia of the old nationalists, who endeavoured to turn back the wheel of history?

But the unity of a nation diminishes not only as a result of migration. It diminishes also from internal causes, owing to the growing acuteness of the class struggle. In the early stages of capitalism one can still speak of a “common culture” of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. But as large-scale industry develops and the class struggle becomes more and more acute, this “common culture” begins to melt away. One cannot seriously speak of the “common culture” of a nation when employers and workers of one and the same nation cease to understand each other. What “common destiny” can there be when the bourgeoisie thirsts for war, and the proletariat declares “war on war”? Can a single inter-class national union be formed from such opposed elements? And, after this, can one speak of the “union of all the members of the nation into a national-cultural community”? Is it not obvious that national autonomy is contrary to the whole course of the class struggle?

But let us assume for a moment that the slogan “organize the nation” is practicable. One might understand bourgeois-nationalist parliamentarians endeavouring to “organize” a nation for the purpose of securing additional votes. But since when have Social-Democrats begun to occupy themselves with “organizing” nations, “constituting” nations, “creating” nations?

What sort of Social-Democrats are they who in the epoch of extreme intensification of the class struggle organize inter-class national unions? Until now the Austrian, as well as every other, Social-Democratic party, had one task before it: namely, to organize the proletariat. That task has apparently become “antiquated.” Springer and Bauer are now setting a “new” task, a more absorbing task, namely, to “create,” to “organize” a nation.

However, logic has its obligations: he who adopts national autonomy must also adopt this “new” task;

but to adopt the latter means to abandon the class position and to take the path of nationalism.

Springer’s and Bauer’s cultural-national autonomy is a subtle form of nationalism.

And it is by no means fortuitous that the national programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats enjoins a concern for the “preservation and development of the national peculiarities of the peoples.” Just think: to “preserve” such “national peculiarities” of the Transcaucasian Tatars as self-flagellation at the festival of Shakhsei-Vakhsei; or to “develop” such “national peculiarities” of the Georgians as the vendetta! …

A demand of this character is in place in an outright bourgeois nationalist programme; and if it appears in the programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats it is because national autonomy tolerates such demands, it does not contradict them.

But if national autonomy is unsuitable now, it will be still more unsuitable in the future, socialist society.

Bauer’s prophecy regarding the “division of humanity into nationally delimited communities” is refuted by the whole course of development of modern human society. National barriers are being demolished and are falling, rather than becoming firmer. As early as the ‘forties Marx declared that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing” and that “the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.” The subsequent development of mankind, accompanied as it was by the colossal growth of capitalist production, the reshuffling of nationalities and the union of people within ever larger territories, emphatically confirms Marx’s thought.

Bauer’s desire to represent socialist society as a “checkered picture of national unions of persons and territorial corporations” is a timid attempt to substitute for Marx’s conception of socialism a revised version of Bakunin’s conception. The history of socialism proves that every such attempt contains the elements of inevitable failure.

There is no need to mention the kind of “socialist principle of nationality” glorified by Bauer, which, in our opinion, substitutes for the socialist principle of the class struggle the bourgeois “principle of nationality.” If national autonomy is based on such a dubious principle, it must be admitted that it can only cause harm to the working-class movement.

True, such nationalism is not so transparent, for it is skilfully masked by socialist phrases, but it is all the more harmful to the proletariat for that reason. We can always cope with open nationalism, for it can easily be discerned. It is much more difficult to combat nationalism when it is masked and unrecognizable beneath its mask. Protected by the armour of socialism, it is less vulnerable and more tenacious. Implanted among the workers, it poisons the atmosphere and spreads harmful ideas of mutual distrust and segregation among the workers of the different nationalities.

But this does not exhaust the harm caused by national autonomy. It prepares the ground not only for the segregation of nations, but also for breaking up the united labour movement. The idea of national autonomy creates the psychological conditions for the division of the united workers’ party into separate parties built on national lines. The breakup of the party is followed by the breakup of the trade unions, and complete segregation is the result. In this way the united class movement is broken up into separate national rivulets.

Austria, the home of “national autonomy,” provides the most deplorable examples of this. As early as 1897 (the Wimberg Party Congress) the once united Austrian Social-Democratic Party began to break up into separate parties. The breakup became still more marked after the Brünn Party Congress (1899), which adopted national autonomy. Matters have finally come to such a pass that in place of a united international party there are now six national parties, of which the Czech Social-Democratic Party will not even have anything to do with the German Social-Democratic Party.

But with the parties are associated the trade unions. In Austria, both in the parties and in the trade unions, the main brunt of the work is borne by the same Social-Democratic workers. There was therefore reason to fear that separatism in the party would lead to separatism in the trade unions and that the trade unions would also break up. That, in fact, is what happened: the trade unions have also divided according to nationality. Now things frequently go so far that the Czech workers will even break a strike of German workers, or will unite at municipal elections with the Czech bourgeois against the German workers.

It will be seen from the foregoing that cultural-national autonomy is no solution of the national question. Not only that, it serves to aggravate and confuse the question by creating a situation which favours the destruction of the unity of the labour movement, fosters the segregation of the workers according to nationality and intensifies friction among them.

Such is the harvest of national autonomy.

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