In Democracy and Revolution, author George Novack (1905-1992), a longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party, traces the evolution of democracy from ancient Greece to its decline under modern capitalism. The chapter “Socialism and Bureaucracy” recounts the social advances of workers and peasants under the leadership of V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in the early years of the 1917 Russian Revolution, as well as the historical circumstances that enabled a privileged bureaucratic caste led by Joseph Stalin to organize a bloody counterrevolution and reverse that course. The excerpt reprinted here focuses on the fight advanced by Lenin for self-determination and for national liberation of peoples oppressed under the czarist empire. Copyright © 1971 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.BY GEORGE NOVACK
The Russian people had to go through three years of imperialist bloodletting, two revolutions in one year and three years of civil war. After having given so much, they sank back in a collective exhaustion of their energies. The decimation of the revolutionary cadres, the weariness of the Soviet masses, the overwhelming preponderance of the peasantry over a small, fragmented proletariat involved in a shattered industry, led to a loss of faith in immediate relief from outside and in the original perspectives of international revolution.
These objective conditions facilitated the bureaucratization of the Soviet state apparatus and the gradual conservatizing of the Communist cadres at its head. The decline and destruction of Soviet and party democracy, the crushing of the Leninist wing of the party and the replacement of socialist internationalism by nationalist considerations and conceptions, formulated in the theory of building socialism in a single country, further promoted the arbitrary rule of a new aristocracy of functionaries.
Stalin’s tyranny was the outgrowth of special economic as well as historical conditions. Soviet democracy was laid low by the meager productivity of Russian industry and agriculture and the terrible poverty and misery it engendered. It has been pointed out that, even under capitalism, a flourishing democracy has largely been the privilege of wealthy nations and that, even where poor countries have set up democratic institutions, as in the colonial and semicolonial world, they are not very sturdy and stable. …
The attitude of the workers’ state toward weak, poor, oppressed and underdeveloped nationalities has turned out to be no less important for the world socialist revolution than it was for the bourgeois state in its democratic forms. There are two main sides to this problem. The first concerns national minorities situated within the boundaries of the given state.
In view of the deprivations and indignities they have suffered from chauvinist governing powers in the past and their apprehensions that the new regime may perpetuate such mistreatment, these sections of the population are entitled to special consideration and concessions. Discrimination or abuse against any grouping or person because of their ethnic origin, race or color will be a serious crime in a workers’ state. Such acts will meet with especially severe penalties if committed by official sources or government jobholders. One of the functions of education and culture in the new society will be the creation of a public opinion designed to forestall and quarantine such manifestations.
The second aspect involves the relations between independent workers’ states. Socialist policy and morality demands more than formal acknowledgment of respect for the rights and integrity of all nations and peoples. Even capitalist states profess to abide by that rule of equality, however much they disregard it in actuality.
A big, rich and powerful workers’ state has special obligations. It must lean over backwards in all dealings with small nations and weaker peoples to give them complete assurance that it is not misusing its superiority and authority to their detriment. The Stalinized Soviet Union has had an abominable record in both respects. Moscow’s maltreatment of its own national minorities, such as the Volga Germans, the Crimean Tartars and the Jews, its vilification of the Yugoslavs after the Stalin-Tito split, its vassalization and attempted Russification of the East European peoples, the withdrawal of economic aid from the People’s Republic of China, the suppression of the Hungarians in 1956 and the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 have been criminal transgressions of the spirit of Leninist policy on the national question. The haughty attitudes and infamous actions of the Soviet rulers in this domain befit oriental potentates rather than socialists or democrats.
The right of a people to self-determination is hollow unless it can separate from its oppressor and form its own sovereign state. Though this democratic right was guaranteed by the Bolsheviks and is still acknowledged in the Soviet constitution, the slightest hint of it from any abused nationality under the Kremlin’s jurisdiction is treated as treason. Revolutionary Marxists support the demand of any nationality to be free and independent of both the Soviet bureaucracy and imperialism.
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