Stalin and the National Question

Pierre Vilar

The following analysis was presented by one of the most distinguished historians of the twentieth century while releasing the Spanish language edition of the Works of Stalin at the International Press Club, Madrid on  December 17, 1984.

                I would first like to say that the word ‘introduction’ is a poor choice for the few words that I am going to say.
                I cannot speak of the particulars of this edition, since those responsible for that edition are the most qualified to do so.
                And if it was a matter of making an ‘introduction’ in a few minutes of Stalin’s work as a whole and his method of thought, as testimony and introduction to his role in history, I would frankly not feel that presumptuous.
                I would like simply to say why I have accepted the invitation to be with you tonight, as I had accepted being there on the centennial year of his birth, in 1979, in order to make some observations on the part of Stalin’s work that I think I know a little better: the definition and history of the national question. Other points, other areas, in which I feel less qualified, I will naturally not fail to point them out, but in a quicker way.
                In 1962, I devoted three thick volumes, too thick, to certain aspects of the history of Catalonia. In the preface, summing up the theories and analyses that had been made throughout history, on nations and nationalities, I pointed out that the works of Stalin in this area were both the clearest and the deepest to describe the importance of these words and the facts that could be pointed out. Since that time, many people have interpreted my position as if I had applied Stalin’s words to the case of Catalonia as if they were a dogma; as if I had quoted them because, when I was preparing my book, the reference to Stalin was ‘fashionable’. This was an absurd interpretation. Could I, dealing with the question of ‘nationality’, ignore the works of the one whom Lenin, in 1917, had appointed as ‘Commissar of Nationalities’, and from that office had created an absolutely new type of federation of nationalities? How could I not have been interested in the thinking that had allowed him to build such a federation? And as I found fundamental theoretical positions in the expression of this thinking, I quoted them. It was a simple demonstration of intellectual honesty.
                Very recently, I finished reading a most superficial pamphlet that one would dare to write on the question of Catalonia:

‘In 1913 the Georgian Bolshevik made only a little brilliant abstraction of the common elements of the large European nation-states, formed in the 18th and 19th centuries under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie’.

                This is just as if the author of a third rate manual for beginners in physics had written that Newton or Einstein had only made a ‘little brilliant abstraction’ of the knowledge of physics at their time. Besides, the statement that Stalin has only considered the bourgeois nation is not correct, for Stalin, analysing the Georgian question in 1904, states that there was a ‘national question’ of the feudals, a ‘national question’ of the clergy, a ‘national question’ of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie of the ‘Sakartvelo’ period with which he polemicised, adding that one could foresee in the future a ‘national question’ of the proletariat, and finally the fundamental statement:

‘In different periods the “national question” serves different interests and assumes different shades, according to which class raises it, and when’.

                I repeat that a statement of such deep content is in the same category, in the field of historical analysis, as the fundamental equations in the field of physics. If one does not always keep this in mind, then one does not understand anything either of the national question, or even of the whole history of the 20th century, the century of national liberation, of decolonisation.
                Many works of great intellectual poverty, which are considered ‘brilliant’, often forget the greatest events in history. I always remember, and I often quote, a series on French television in which Bernard Henry Levi, a ‘young philosopher’ who went from an absurd Maoism to the most backward reaction, took that attitude of superiority, of contempt, of condescension toward the Bolshevik thought of the first half of the 20th century. Alejandro Sanguinetti, a Gaullist deputy but a good historian trained in the resistance of the 1940s, stood up and said: ‘Young man, these people made a revolution, and not a little one; they won a war, and not a little one, and they have kept their colonial empire, which is why they are not forgiven’. Now – I would add – if they kept this colonial empire, it is because they did not consider it one. It is because they had a policy of nationalities. After the first clashes determined by the bourgeois or feudal elements within the Euro-Asian borders, they established a new type of relation among the revolutionary peoples and powers, and they assured a level of development completely different from what bourgeois imperialism permitted its colonies. If this is the way things were, it was Stalin’s thinking in this area that permitted it. And if there were changes, they were after his death. The whole history of the century is linked to the knowledge of his theses. Therefore, it is not a matter of being ‘in fashion’ or of ‘brilliance’.
                But it is precisely because the Georgian Stalin was the recognised specialist on the national question in Leninist and Bolshevik thinking that the historiography specialised in anti-Bolshevism wants to deny his importance and undoubtedly thus to distort reality.
                Thus Dr. Pipes, considered a great expert in Sovietology in the United States (an adviser to President Reagan, and that disturbs me), stated very calmly, in a very well-known book from 1954, that if Stalin was entrusted by Lenin in 1913 to write an article on the national question, it was ‘by chance’, because the Georgian specialist, Shamian, was not available: that Stalin had not published anything on that subject, and that he was completely unknown, in particular to Lenin. And this although, in the first pages of the collected works of Stalin, there is an article from 1904, from which I quoted the fundamental formulas on the national question. Besides, Stalin had met Lenin in Tammerfors in 1905, in Stockholm in 1906, in London in 1907. And it is known that, Lenin, in a letter to Gorky in 1912, spoke of the ‘marvelous Georgian’ who is writing an article on the national question. It is true that, as Garaudy told me when he was responsible for the French edition of Lenin’s works, the Khrushchevite authorities had suppressed this letter in the Russian edition, and they wanted to exclude it from the French edition. Thus is history written.
                As for the article of 1913, anti-Stalinism has a habit of contradicting itself. Trotsky, too intelligent to find it ‘bad’, claims that Lenin himself had corrected it, almost wrote it, line by line. But usually it is said today that Lenin did not like the article. That is probably why he chose Stalin as ‘Commissar of Nationalities’.
                Regarding the content of the article, it is often said that the definition of the nation is vulgar, pedagogical, empirical, etc. What is not said is that it is not a definition but a programme of investigation for each concrete case.
                A nation is a stable, historically constituted human community (gemeinschaft, not gesellschaft): it is a problem of group consciousness, in the long term – one of the dimensions of historic time: moreover, it is a product of history – not of divinity or of nature – nor is it ‘trans-historic’ as Poulantzas claims.
                Language, territory, economic life, psychological and cultural formation: all these elements should be reconstituted and studied, with various shades in concrete cases. But if this fact, which is of long duration and psychologically efficient, can be utilised successively by different classes, it is because it exists. But Luxemburg, who also considered the national question as a class instrument, wrote that it was an ‘empty case’ in which each class could put its own visions.
                Stalin – just as Lenin – did not believe that empty cases can be utilised. The national fact is historically usable because it exists. The whole 20th century verifies the Stalinist vision of the nation.
                One must read seriously the whole texts. In the article from 1913, some fabricators of ‘selected works’ generally suppress the best synthesised study of the national question in the 19th century that has ever been written. It is true that in the West, besides the nations-states of the French or German type, in 1913 Stalin ignored the Spanish case. He worked on the cases of Central Europe. But he establishes perfectly the hierarchy of factors and actors.
                It is very often said that Stalin reduces the national question to that of the market. But let us read the text and see if it is ‘dogmatic’ and one-sided.
                For every problem one has to read Stalin, a work to be consulted, as that of Marx. It is not a matter of reading it in a burst. It is a matter of seeing, every time one confronts a real question, what Stalin, confronted with a reality of the same type, had written about it. It is clear that one will not draw mechanical conclusions from this reading. It is often said that Stalin imposed his article of 1913 as a catechism. But, in 1925, in a controversy on the national question, he himself reproached a speaker who took the article from 1913 as a reference. It is easy to accuse without having read.
                Finally: Stalin’s last work, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. It is a basic work: young technocrats began to state that all problems of the USSR would be resolved by technical progress. Stalin, who was an enthusiast of technical progress, warned the country against the idea that the productive forces are the only factor for the transformation of society. If the relations of production, the social structures and the collective psychology do not change resolutely, the technical progress will cease. And he explained that communism still demanded many changes, particularly the narrowing of the gap between agricultural labour and industrial labour, between physical labour and intellectual labour. He suggested polytechnic education and outlined a future where all men would have numerous possibilities, to change jobs to enjoy various kinds of labour, and to once again, with more time, freed by technology, make labour a joy, as Marx stated.
Translated from the Spanish.