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Leon Trotsky: For a United, Free and Independent Workers’ Ukraine!

In this article from 1939, Leon Trotsky presents a socialist answer to the oppression of the Ukrainian people. “Not the slightest compromise with imperialism, either fascist or democratic! Not the slightest concession to the Ukrainian nationalists, either clerical-reactionary or liberal-pacifist! … The complete independence of the proletarian party as the vanguard of the toilers!”

Leon Trotsky

March 1, 2022
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Leon Trotsky published this article in Socialist Appeal on May 9, 1939. This was just a few months before the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, which followed the German invasion of Western Poland, was justified with concern for ethnic Ukrainians in Polish territory. Yet the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union had been increasing national oppression against Ukraine. As a result, the Ukrainian masses had been increasingly demanded national independence.

In this context, Trotsky reiterated the Bolshevik program which defended the right of self-determination for all oppressed nations. It is particularly interesting to read this article in the context of Vladminir Putin’s bizarre anticommunist speech that launched his war against Ukraine. Putin criticized Lenin’s government for granting any oppressed nation the right to secede. As Putin pointed out, Stalin reversed this policy, returning to Great Russian chauvinism, even as Lenin’s policy remained inscribed in the constitution.

This brilliant Marxist analysis, by an internationalist originally from Ukraine, offers insight in how the “problem of Ukraine” can be resolved today. As Trotsky wrote more than 80 years ago, the imperialist powers might promise to liberate and protect Ukraine, but their only intention is to plunder the country and exploit its people. The only real independence can be won via socialism: “The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution.”

Trotsky’s article generated debate at the time, and he published a second piece on the question several months later, which we also recommend. All explanatory footnotes have been added by Left Voice.  — Nathaniel Flakin

***

The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force. The latest aggravation of the Ukrainian question is most intimately bound up with the degeneration of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, the successes of fascism and the approach of the next imperialist war. Crucified by four states, the Ukraine now occupies in the fate of Europe the same position that was once occupied by Poland; with this difference – that world relations are now infinitely more tense and the tempos of development accelerated. The Ukrainian question is destined in the immediate future to play an enormous, role in the life of Europe. It was not for nothing that Hitler so noisily raised the question of creating a “Greater Ukraine,” and likewise it was not for nothing that he dropped this question with such stealthy haste.

A Question That Must Not Be Ignored

The Second International, expressing the interests of the labor bureaucracy and aristocracy of the imperialist states, completely ignored the Ukrainian question. Even its left wing did not pay the necessary attention to it. Suffice it to recall that Rosa Luxemburg, for all her brilliant intellect and genuinely revolutionary spirit, found it possible to declare that the Ukrainian question was the invention of a handful of intellectuals.1Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “Ukrainian nationalism in Russia was something quite different from, let us say, Czechish, Polish or Finnish nationalism in that the former was a mere whim, a folly of a few dozen petty-bourgeois intellectuals without the slightest roots in the economic, political or psychological relationships of the country; it was without any historical tradition, since the Ukraine never formed a nation or government, was without any national culture, except for the reactionary-romantic poems of Shevschenko.” Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution. This position left a deep imprint even upon the Polish Communist Party. The Ukrainian question was looked upon by the official leaders of the Polish section of the Comintern as an obstacle rather than a revolutionary problem. Hence the constant opportunist attempts to shy away from this question, to suppress it, to pass over it in silence, or to postpone it to an indefinite future.

The Bolshevik party, not without difficulty and only gradually under the constant pressure of Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians. He did not recognize aristocratic nations. Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism.2Lenin wrote, for example: “No democrat can deny the Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia. Only unqualified recognition of this right makes it possible to advocate a free union of the Ukrainians and the Great Russians, a voluntary association of the two peoples in one state. Only unqualified recognition of this right can actually break completely and irrevocably with the accursed tsarist past, when everything was done to bring about a mutual estrangement of the two peoples so close to each other in language, territory, character and history. Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue. Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession. We do not favour the existence of small states. We stand for the closest union of the workers of the world against “their own” capitalists and those of all other countries. But for this union to be voluntary, the Russian worker, who does not for a moment trust The Russian or the Ukrainian bourgeoisie in anything, now stands for the right of the Ukrainians to secede, without imposing his friendship upon them, but striving to win their friendship by treating them as an equal, as an ally and brother in the struggle for socialism.” V.I. Lenin, “The Ukraine.”​​

After the conquest of power, a serious struggle took place in the party over the solving of the numerous national problems inherited from old Czarist Russia. In his capacity as People’s Commissar of Nationalities, Stalin invariably represented the most centralist and bureaucratic tendency. This evinced itself especially on the question of Georgia and on the question of the Ukraine. The correspondence dealing with these matters has remained unpublished to this day. We hope to publish a section of it – the very small section which is at our disposal. Every line of Lenin’s letters and proposals vibrates with an urge to accede as far as possible to those nationalities that have been oppressed in the past. In the proposals and declarations of Stalin, on the contrary, the tendency toward bureaucratic centralism was invariably pronounced. In order to guarantee “administrative needs,” i.e., the interests of the bureaucracy, the most legitimate claims of the oppressed nationalities were declared a manifestation of petty-bourgeois nationalism. All these symptoms could be observed as early as 1922-23. Since that time they have developed monstrously and have led to outright strangulation of any kind of independent national development of the peoples of the USSR.

The Bolshevik Conception of Soviet Ukraine

In the conception of the old Bolshevik party Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland. But during the years of Thermidorian reaction, the position of Soviet Ukraine and together with it the posing of the Ukrainian question as a whole changed sharply. The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence. To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight and to force it to chant paeans in the language of Kobzar to the rapist clique in the Kremlin.

Toward the sections of the Ukraine now outside its frontiers, the Kremlin’s attitude today is the same as it is toward all oppressed nationalities, all colonies, and semi-colonies, i.e., small change in its international combinations with imperialist governments. At the recent 18th Congress of the “Communist Party,” Manuilsky3Dmitry Manuilsky, a Stalinist of Ukrainian origin., one of the most revolting renegades of Ukrainian communism, quite openly explained that not only the USSR but also the Comintern (the “gyp-joint,” according to Stalin’s formulation) refused to demand the emancipation of oppressed peoples whenever their oppressors are not the enemies of the ruling Moscow clique. India is nowadays being defended by Stalin, Dimitrov and Manuilsky against – Japan, but not against England.4In the mid-1930s, the Communist International under Stalin abandoned all of its anti-colonial demands in order to form alliances with “democratic” colonial powers such as England and France. Western Ukraine they are ready to cede forever to Poland in exchange for a diplomatic agreement which appears profitable at the present time to the bureaucrats of the Kremlin. It is a far cry from the days when they went no further than episodic combinations in their politics.

Stalin, Hitler and the Ukraine

Not a trace remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the Western Ukrainian masses for the Kremlin. Since the latest murderous “purge” in the Ukraine no one in the West wants to become part of the Kremlin satrapy which continues to bear the name of Soviet Ukraine. The worker and peasant masses in the Western Ukraine, in Bukovina, in the Carpatho-Ukraine are in a state of confusion: Where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence. Upon this tragic confusion Hitler bases his policy in the Ukrainian question. At one time we said: but for Stalin (i.e., but for the fatal policy of the Comintern in Germany) there would have been no Hitler. To this can now be added: but for the rape of Soviet Ukraine by the Stalinist bureaucracy there would be no Hitlerite Ukrainian policy.

We shall not pause here to analyze the motives that impelled Hitler to discard, for the time being at least, the slogan of a Greater Ukraine. These motives must be sought in the fraudulent combinations of German imperialism on the one hand and on the other in the fear of conjuring up an evil spirit whom it might be difficult to exorcise. Hitler gave Carpatho-Ukraine as a gift to the Hungarian butchers. This was done, if not with Moscow’s open approval then in any case with confidence that approval would be forthcoming. It is as if Hitler had said to Stalin: “If I were preparing to attack Soviet Ukraine tomorrow I should have kept Carpatho-Ukraine in my own hands.” In reply, Stalin at the 18th Party Congress openly came to Hitler’s defense against the slanders of the “Western Democracies.” Hitler intends to attack the Ukraine? Nothing of the sort! Fight with Hitler? Not the slightest reason for it. Stalin is obviously interpreting the handing over of Carpatho-Ukraine to Hungary as an act of peace.5Capartho-Ukraine was an independent state that emerged from Hitler’s destruction of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Within a few months, it was annexed by Hungary. Stalin said: “The hullabaloo raised by the British, French and American press over the Soviet Ukraine is characteristic. The gentlemen of the press there shouted until they were hoarse that the Germans were marching on Soviet Ukraine…” J.V. Stalin, “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.).”

For a Free, Independent Soviet Ukraine!

This means that sections of the Ukrainian people have become so much small change for the Kremlin in its international calculations. The Fourth International must clearly understand the enormous importance of the Ukrainian question in the fate not only of Southeastern and Eastern Europe but also of Europe as a whole. We are dealing with a people that has proved its viability, that is numerically equal to the population of France and occupies an exceptionally rich territory which, moreover, is of the highest strategical importance. The question of the fate of the Ukraine has been posed in its full scope. A clear and definite slogan is necessary that corresponds to the new situation. In my opinion there can be at the present time only one such slogan: A united, free and independent workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine.

This program is in irreconcilable contradiction first of all with the interests of the three imperialist powers, Poland, Rumania, and Hungary. Only hopeless pacifist blockheads are capable of thinking that the emancipation and unification of the Ukraine can be achieved by peaceful diplomatic means, by referendums, by decisions of the League of Nations, etc. In no way superior to them of course are those “nationalists” who propose to solve the Ukrainian question by entering the service of one imperialism against another. Hitler gave an invaluable lesson to those adventurers by tossing (for how long?) Carpatho-Ukraine to the Hungarians who immediately slaughtered not a few trusting Ukrainians. Insofar as the issue depends upon the military strength of the imperialist states, the victory of one grouping or another can signify only a new dismemberment and a still more brutal subjugation of the Ukrainian people, The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution. It would be criminal to entertain any illusions on this score.

Soviet Constitution Admits Right of Self-Determination

But the independence of a United Ukraine would mean the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR, the “friends” of the Kremlin will exclaim in chorus. What is so terrible about that? – we reply. The fervid worship of state boundaries is alien to us. We do not hold the position of a “united and indivisible” whole. After all, even the constitution of the USSR acknowledges the right of its component federated peoples to self-determination, that is, to separation. Thus, not even the incumbent Kremlin oligarchy dares to deny this principle. To be sure it remains only on paper. The slightest attempt to raise the question of an independent Ukraine openly would mean immediate execution on the charge of treason. But it is precisely this despicable equivocation, it is precisely this ruthless hounding of all free national thought that has led the toiling masses of the Ukraine, to an even greater degree than the masses of Great Russia, to look upon the rule of the Kremlin as monstrously oppressive. In the face of such an internal situation it is naturally impossible even to talk of Western Ukraine Voluntarily joining the USSR as it is at present constituted. Consequently, the unification of the Ukraine presupposes freeing the so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist boot. In this matter, too, the Bonapartist clique will reap what it has sown.

But wouldn’t this mean the military weakening of the USSR? – the “friends” of the Kremlin will howl in horror. We reply that the weakening of the USSR is caused by those ever-growing centrifugal tendencies generated by the Bonapartist dictatorship. In the event of war the hatred of the masses for the ruling clique can lead to the collapse of all the social conquests of October. The source of defeatist moods is in the Kremlin. An independent Soviet Ukraine, on the other hand, would become, if only by virtue of its own interests, a mighty southwestern bulwark of the USSR. The sooner the present Bonapartist caste is undermined, upset, crushed and swept away, the firmer the defense of the Soviet Republic will become and the more certain its socialist future.

Against Imperialism and Moscow Bonapartism

Naturally an independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine might subsequently join the Soviet Federation; but voluntarily, on conditions which it itself considers acceptable, which in turn presupposes a revolutionary regeneration of the USSR. The genuine emancipation of the Ukrainian people is inconceivable without a revolution or a series of revolutions in the West which must lead in the end to the creation of the Soviet United States of Europe. An independent Ukraine could and “undoubtedly will join this federation as an equal member. The proletarian revolution in Europe, in turn, would not leave one stone standing of the revolting structure of Stalinist Bonapartism. In that case the closest union of the Soviet United States of Europe and the regenerated USSR would be inevitable and would present infinite advantages for the European and Asiatic continents, including of course the Ukraine too. But here we are shifting to questions of second and third order. The question of first order is the revolutionary guarantee of the unity and independence of a workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine in the struggle against imperialism on the one hand, and against Moscow Bonapartism on the other.

The Ukraine is especially rich and experienced in false paths of struggle for national emancipation. Here everything has been tried: the petty-bourgeois Rada, and Skoropadski, and Petlura, and “alliance” with the Hohenzollerns and combinations with the Entente. After all these experiments, only political cadavers can continue to place hope in party one of the fractions of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie as the leader of the national struggle for emancipation. The Ukrainian proletariat alone is capable not only of solving the task – which is revolutionary in its very essence – but also of taking the initiative for its solution. The proletariat and only the proletariat can rally around itself the peasant masses and the genuinely revolutionary national intelligentsia.

At the beginning of the last imperialist war the Ukrainians, Melenevski (“Basok”) and Skoropis-Yeltukhovski, attempted to place the Ukrainian liberation movement under the wing of the Hohenzollern general, Ludendorff.6In 1918, Ukrainian nationalists attempted to form an “independent” state under the tutelage of German imperialism. Erich Luddendorf was the chief strategist of Germany’s Supreme Command. They covered themselves in so doing with left phrases. With one kick the revolutionary Marxists booted these people out. That is how revolutionists must continue to behave in the future. The impending war will create a favorable atmosphere for all sorts of adventurers, miracle-hunters and seekers of the golden fleece. These gentlemen, who especially love to warm their hands in the vicinity of the national question, must not be allowed within artillery range of the labor movement. Not the slightest compromise with imperialism, either fascist or democratic! Not the slightest concession to the Ukrainian nationalists, either clerical-reactionary or liberal-pacifist! No “People’s Fronts”! The complete independence of the proletarian party as the vanguard of the toilers!

For an International Discussion

This appears to me the correct policy in the Ukrainian question. I speak here personally and in my own name. The question must be opened up to international discussion. The foremost place in this discussion must belong to the Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists. We shall listen with the greatest attention to their voices. But they had better make haste. There is little time left for preparation!

April 22, 1939

Source: Socialist Appeal (New York), Vol. III, No. 31, May 9, 1939 / Fourth International (New York), Vol. 10, No. 10, November 1949 / Marxists Internet Archive 

Notes

Notes
1 Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “Ukrainian nationalism in Russia was something quite different from, let us say, Czechish, Polish or Finnish nationalism in that the former was a mere whim, a folly of a few dozen petty-bourgeois intellectuals without the slightest roots in the economic, political or psychological relationships of the country; it was without any historical tradition, since the Ukraine never formed a nation or government, was without any national culture, except for the reactionary-romantic poems of Shevschenko.” Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution.
2 Lenin wrote, for example: “No democrat can deny the Ukraine’s right to freely secede from Russia. Only unqualified recognition of this right makes it possible to advocate a free union of the Ukrainians and the Great Russians, a voluntary association of the two peoples in one state. Only unqualified recognition of this right can actually break completely and irrevocably with the accursed tsarist past, when everything was done to bring about a mutual estrangement of the two peoples so close to each other in language, territory, character and history. Accursed tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue. Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession. We do not favour the existence of small states. We stand for the closest union of the workers of the world against “their own” capitalists and those of all other countries. But for this union to be voluntary, the Russian worker, who does not for a moment trust The Russian or the Ukrainian bourgeoisie in anything, now stands for the right of the Ukrainians to secede, without imposing his friendship upon them, but striving to win their friendship by treating them as an equal, as an ally and brother in the struggle for socialism.” V.I. Lenin, “The Ukraine.”​​
3 Dmitry Manuilsky, a Stalinist of Ukrainian origin.
4 In the mid-1930s, the Communist International under Stalin abandoned all of its anti-colonial demands in order to form alliances with “democratic” colonial powers such as England and France.
5 Capartho-Ukraine was an independent state that emerged from Hitler’s destruction of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Within a few months, it was annexed by Hungary. Stalin said: “The hullabaloo raised by the British, French and American press over the Soviet Ukraine is characteristic. The gentlemen of the press there shouted until they were hoarse that the Germans were marching on Soviet Ukraine…” J.V. Stalin, “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.).”
6 In 1918, Ukrainian nationalists attempted to form an “independent” state under the tutelage of German imperialism. Erich Luddendorf was the chief strategist of Germany’s Supreme Command.
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Leon Trotsky

Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940) was a leader of the October Revolution in 1917 and the founder of the Fourth International in 1938.

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