Vladimir Lenin and the National Question in Latin America


This year marked 150 years since the birth of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It is within this framework that we want to rescue the Leninist approach to understanding current social conflicts. We will also apply the Leninist approach to ongoing struggles in Latin America.

We highlight the Leninist vision, since it was this revolutionary, and not so much Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed the issue of ethnic-cultural plurality and nationalism the most. It is precisely because he sought the paths of socialist revolution in a highly complex ethnic reality such as that of Eastern Europe, that Lenin had interpretations superior to those of Marx, who came from a family that had sacrificed his Jewish background in order to ascend German society. From this point of view, we can understand why Marx and Engels did not develop these themes while living and thinking from the metropolises of Western Europe. Lenin, on the other hand, had the great task of thinking and organizing from the cultural and ethnic complexity of Eastern Europe.

These reflections are particularly relevant (even though they are already over 100 years old) because in the current context, the two tendencies of the national question described by Lenin continue to be seen. Today, we have the political advance of conservative ultra-nationalist sectors and, on the other hand, the advance of ethnic minorities. In the case of Latin America, we see how clearly Indigenous organizations are those that are challenging capitalist companies and national states, which reaffirm their conservative nationalism.

In this current context, it is useful to re-read Lenin’s work on the matter, which has become invisibilized.

The Two Tendencies of the ‘National Question’

Lenin clearly identifies two historical trends within the so-called “national question.” On the one hand, “bourgeois nationalism,” and on the other, the “right to self-determination of the peoples.” “Bourgeois nationalism” is denounced as a mask to divide the working class and to encourage more reactionaries, as well as imperialism. Lenin argues:

“… It follows that any bourgeois-liberal nationalism brings the greatest corruption to the workers’ media and causes enormous damage to the cause of freedom and to the proletarian class struggle. And this is all the more dangerous because the bourgeois (and feudal-bourgeois) tendency is covered up with the slogan of ‘national culture.’ The ultra reactionaries and clericals, and behind them the bourgeois of all nations, do their retrograde and dirty business in the name of national culture (Great Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, etc.).”

Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”

On the other hand, he says:

“Look at the capitalists: they are trying to fuel national hostility among the ‘townspeople,’ but they themselves settle their affairs perfectly. Russians, Ukrainians and Poles, Hebrews and Germans congregate in the same joint-stock company. The capitalists of all nations and religions are united against the workers, but the workers want to divide and weaken them through national hatred.”

Lenin, “Nationalization of the Hebrew School”

At the same time, it alerts the revolutionary organizations to the instrumentalization of a certain nationalism in order to prosecute the masses to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Lenin says:

“Social democracy must put on guard with all energy the proletariat and the working classes of all nationalities so that they are not deceived by the nationalist slogans of ‘their bourgeoisie,’ which, with mellifluous or fiery speeches about the ‘homeland,’ tries to divide the proletariat and divert its attention from the frauds of the bourgeoisie, which concludes an economic and political alliance with the bourgeoisie of the other nations and with the Tsarist monarchy.”

Lenin, “Theses on the National Question”

But his furious criticism of “bourgeois nationalism” and his call for the union of the proletariat do not hide his recognition of the “right to self-determination of the peoples.” Lenin recognized that the “national movements” were genuine mass movements and that the “national minorities” had rights that had to be defended by the revolutionary forces. He even pointed out that ethnic-national demands were extremely necessary weapons to weaken the “bourgeois nationalism” of the imperial states. Hence, the need for the revolutionary forces to challenge the bourgeoisie for hegemony in the “national movements.” Lenin clearly tells us:

“Marxist theory absolutely requires that, to analyze any social problem, it be framed within a certain historical framework, and then, if it is a single country (for example, the national program for a given country) to take into account the specific features that distinguish this country from others within the framework of one and the same historical epoch.”

Lenin, “On the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”

On the dispute within the national movement, he tells us:

“The liquidation of all feudal oppression, of all oppression of nations and of all privileges for one of the nations or for one of the languages ​​is an indisputable obligation of the proletariat as a democratic force. In this lie the indisputable interests of the class struggle of the proletariat, veiled and held back by national quarrels. But to support bourgeois nationalism beyond these limits, firmly established and framed in a certain historical framework, means betraying the proletariat and going over to the side of the bourgeoisie. There is a limit here, often very subtle, that the Ukrainian Social Democrats and those of the Bund completely forget about.”

Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”

But where he fully develops the task of the revolutionaries on the right to self-determination of peoples and the recognition of “national minorities” are in the following quotes:

“… The statement of our program (on the self-determination of nations) can only be interpreted in the sense of political self-determination, that is, the right of separation and the formation of an independent state.”

Lenin, “Theses on the National Question”

“… The recognition by social democracy of the right of all nationalities to self-determination requires that social democrats are absolutely hostile to the use of violence, in any form, by the dominant nation (or that constitutes the majority of the population) towards the nation that wishes to separate in the state terrain; Claim that the problem of this separation be solved exclusively on the basis of the universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage of the population of the corresponding territory; Fight relentlessly both against the OCT and ultra-reactionary parties and against the bourgeois liberals (‘progressive’ constitutional democrats, etc.) as many times as they defend or allow national oppression, in general, or deny the right of nations to self-determination, in particular.”

Lenin, “Theses on the National Question”

“… In defending the consistently democratic state regime, social democracy demands absolute equality of rights for nationalities and fights against all kinds of privileges of one or more nationalities.”

Lenin, “Theses on the National Question”

“… Social democracy requires the enactment of a general state law that protects the rights of every national minority anywhere in the country. Under this law, it must declare itself without force and prohibit under penalty of punishment any measure that the national majority tries to adopt to create national privileges or to undermine the rights of the national minority (in education, in the use of one language or another, in budgetary matters, etc).”

Lenin, “Theses on the National Question”

For Lenin, it was not only necessary to recognize and support the right of the dominated peoples to liberation and the construction of their own socialist state, but also the recognition of cultural plurality within the socialist state. Since the bourgeois state is governed by mono-nationality, the socialist state had to be plurinational. In his vision of the state, the Soviet leader proposed a “multinational” federal state (in the sense of cultural nationalities). For this task, he also emphasized the training of workers and revolutionary cadres in anti-racism, cultural diversity and the defense of the right to self-determination. In this regard, he writes:

“The center of gravity of internationalist workers’ education in oppressive countries must necessarily lie in preaching and defending the freedom of separation of oppressed countries. Otherwise, there is no internationalism. We have the right and the duty to treat all social democrats of an oppressive nation who do not carry out such propaganda as imperialists and scoundrels. This is an unconditional demand, although practically, the separation is not possible or ‘achievable’ before socialism in more than one in a thousand cases.”

Lenin, “The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up”

The key to why Lenin gave so much importance to the recognition of “national minorities” and their “right to self-determination” is because of the complexity of promoting a revolutionary mass movement in a highly ethnically diverse social context. It is also due to re-readings of Marx’s writings on the dire situation in Ireland. There, it was obvious that in order to hit the imperialist elites hard, the revolution of the colonized peoples was necessary. Only the liberation of the colonized peoples and their coordination with the revolutionary forces of the metropolises could bring down imperialism. In his geopolitical vision, he declares:

“First, the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States. Progressive bourgeois national movements have long since ended in them. Each of these ‘great’ nations oppress other nations in the colonies and within the country. The tasks of the proletariat of the dominant nations are exactly the same there as in England in the 19th Century in relation to Ireland.”

Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”

We must clarify that when he refers to Ireland, he refers to the approach of Marx, who argues that there is no harder blow to the English landowning bourgeoisie than the independence of Ireland and its carrying out of agrarian reform. In this sense, the Russian revolutionary proposes a pluralistic vision of the revolutionary forces that will destroy capitalism. In this regard, he says:

“The social revolution can only take place in the form of a time during a civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in advanced countries with a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, in underdeveloped, backward nations and oppressed. Why? Because capitalism develops unevenly, and objective reality shows us, along with highly developed capitalist nations, a whole series of nations that are very little developed or not developed at all in the economic aspect.”

Lenin, “On the Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism”

The Latin American Situation

In “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin makes no mention of Latin America. It is clear that the Russian thinker clearly knew very little about the reality of our countries (something very similar to that of Marx), hence he did not know how to characterize the region neither as an advanced capitalist society nor as a semi-colonial one. One person who did write important interpretations about the class struggle and the political dynamics of our region was Leon Trotsky, during his exile in Mexico. However, the exiled leader of the Red Army did not make interpretations of Latin American ethnic conflicts, which are clearly evident in Mexico. For this reason, we will not address their interpretations.

One person who did approach the ethnic-national dimension in his interpretations of Latin American reality was the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, who saw Indigenous peoples and their disputes as a central force in the Peruvian revolutionary process, in particular, and in the Latin American revolutionary process in general. Its legacy can be found to date in various currents and forces throughout the continent. However, mariateguismo, which we will not deal with in this article, was also highly subordinated and made invisible by the dominant narrative of Marxism in Latin America. Here, we are referring to the left intelligentsia that is fundamentally criollo (the dominant, white-descended ethnicity) and deeply Eurocentric.

It is interesting that Lenin, belonging to a dominant ethnicity (Russian), had more capacity to recognize the ethnic complexity of his reality and to value ethnic-national claims than others. However, the majority of criollo Latin American intellectuals and revolutionaries — whether they are Uruguayan, Argentine, Chilean, Mexican, Honduran, etc. — have been unable to recognize the Latin American ethnic complexity and value the claims of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

Many thought that with the construction of independent states, domination by the most powerful states (Russia, Austria, Serbia, etc.) would be eliminated. However, after the Soviet world disintegrated, many extremely violent ethnic conflicts have exploded in Eastern Europe. Latin American history and reality have also shown that after achieving political independence from Spain, the colonial chains have not been broken. Practically the entire history of the region is a succession of colonial domination.

While the relations between Latin American neo-colonies with Western powers must be examined, we must also examine the internal colonial relations within our countries. “The Law of Uneven and Combined Development and Latin America” by George Novack exposes intra-continental colonial relations. To this must be added the gigantic contribution of Pablo González Casanova and Rodolfo Stavenhagen with the concept of “internal colonialism.” This concept explains that the dominant national societies (the dominant cultural identity of our countries) exercise an absolutely colonial relationship, which has not changed anything in 500 years, with Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

As Latin Americans, we understand that political independence is not enough to free us from colonialism. That is where the important contributions of Leninism come in. The “national question” in our region cannot be solved without a true revolutionary process that not only fights the parasitism of the national elites with respect to the imperial centers, but also radically transforms the internal social relations of our societies. This is a process that the proletariat must face in conjunction with all the oppressed nations of the continent. And, yes, it is time that we recognize Indigenous communities as nations. The choice is clear: either we become plurinational states, or we do away with these current oligarchical states in general.

It is time to recognize the ethnic-national complexity of our society and the importance of “national minorities” in the Latin American revolutionary process. Lenin recognized it and was able to accomplish great things with the Soviet Union. If we do not recognize it, we will continue being dominated. We must also be cautious of those actors who, under a discourse of “the homeland,” continue to cover up their alliances with the international bourgeoisie and reinforce relations of domination towards “national minorities.” In other words, defenders of international colonialism and internal colonialism.

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