Trotsky: ‘The national principle’

An article written by LEON TROTSKY, exposing the hypocrisy of world powers towards national minorities and oppressed peoples, translated into English for the first time

Continuing our series to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war we are printing an article written by LEON TROTSKY, exposing the hypocrisy of world powers towards national minorities and oppressed peoples. It was first published in Nashe Slovo (Our Word), a Paris-based newspaper for Russian revolutionaries, on 13 July 1916. This is the first time it has been translated into English – by Pete Dickenson.

Almost no news has penetrated the French press about the recent Lausanne Congress of Small and Oppressed Nationalities. If you consider that the Allies are fighting for ‘the national principle’ – in case they had forgotten, Mr Sazonov (1) again reminded the Americans about it – at first sight such inattention to the Lausanne congress could get confusing. But actually… it is very clear.

Those, however, who still persist in their misunderstanding, should poke their noses in the new issue of L’Éclair [The Spark]. This strange newspaper, combining attention to the celestial dogma of Catholicism with the progressive aspirations of French industry – neither are platonic – gives space from time to time to reports and articles where, to a significant extent, an element of genuine truth sticks out.

First of all it turned out – what a surprise for Plekhanov (2) who lives near Lausanne! – that, at the congress of oppressed people, "among the 23 nationalities were representatives of almost all the national minorities of Russia: Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, etc, etc", (the author, obviously from Allied tact, breaks off the list here). There were also representatives of the Irish people, Albanians, Egyptians and Tunisians. There was even Mr Aberson, representing the Jews as a nationality.

Concerning the congress resolutions recognising each nation’s right to self-determination, L’Éclair candidly observes: "The difficulty in the practical implementation of this programme is that everyone readily acknowledges the freedom of their enemies’ national minorities, but not their own or those of their allies. In the Allied camp, for example, they demand the freedom of non-German nationalities, subjugated by Germany and Austria, and non-Turkish ethnic groups, subjugated by Turkey, but would like to give Russia the opportunity to exercise discretion regarding her minorities".

Even in the atmosphere of the obligatory lie we have been breathing for two years, these are not, God knows, new or daring thoughts, revealed in a ‘big’ French newspaper, in some way refreshing to the soul. And to think that there are Russian socialists, Russian revolutionaries, Russian migrants who, before the congress in Lausanne, where the Kyrgyz came to complain about the tsarist yoke, continue to join in the chorus of Mr Sazonov about the liberation objectives pursued in this war by Russia. No one demands of these people internationalism, but if they were just honest patriotic democrats, they would burn with shame!

To avoid embarrassment, however, they always have in reserve a reference to the Allies. Russia, of course, is an oppressive country, but with the help of the ‘western democracies’ it will, through victory, deliver all the internal and external miracles that Germany must come to through defeat.

How are things really with the Allies on this issue? Leave alone for now the Far East where Russia, in alliance with Japan, is going to implement in the coming decades ‘the national principle’ on the back of China. It will be time to think about the half-billion Chinese, when Plekhanov and Kuropatkin call for the freedom of Schleswig-Holstein! (3) Let us confine ourselves to the ‘western democracies’. But we will not raise the Irish question, because it is well known how magnanimously Britain is implementing home rule in Dublin. However, Connolly and the other rebels who have been hanged or shot will not be able to enjoy an Irish parliament, since they themselves are now being enjoyed by a parliament of worms underground. But let’s leave Ireland. Let’s leave Britain entirely. What is the situation in France?

For the colonial powers like France or England, says L’Éclair, the question of the ‘natives’, which was looked into at Lausanne, is of particular interest. The Lausanne congress resolution does not want to recognise the separation of the races into ‘lower’ and ‘higher’, since this is the philosophy of colonial domination that, in general, they rely on most. L’Éclair, on this account, calls for colonial ‘democracy’, justice and… caution, at the same time noting with satisfaction the moving of a bill during the Lausanne congress by deputy Doazi, by which Algerians would be given ‘serious’ representation in the institutions that discuss their interests. This is very comforting.

But the fact is that, at the same time – ie almost during the sessions of the Lausanne congress – in the Far East, in French Indochina, an event took place significantly less favourable from the point of view of ‘the national principle’. In Annam (4), which was set up in 1884 as a French protectorate, ie actually a French colony, an uprising took place under the banner of national independence. The French press was allowed to write about it for a few weeks after the event, but the patriotic and right-thinking papers did not avail themselves of the opportunity. Of course, L’Humanité (5) – this organ of bigotry, hypocrisy and lies – did not even hint at an event vitally linked to the destiny of five-and-a-half million Annamites. And if we have now a ‘censorship beating opportunity’ to give readers information, albeit scant, about the Annamite rebellion, then it is again thanks to the same reactionary organ L’Éclair.

The young emperor of Annam, Duy Tan, who was essentially only a native-royalist ornament fronting the colonial domination of the [French] republic, entered into communication with a national revolutionary organisation of his subjects. By agreement with them, he escaped from his palace to the country and addressed the nation with a revolutionary appeal, declaring the independence of Annam. But the government of the Third Republic turned out to be master of the situation. The rebel was caught, brought back to ‘their’ capital of Hué, deposed and locked up in a fortress, where he now has enough leisure time, not only to learn by heart the Declaration of Rights, but also to read the full set of L’Humanité for the duration of the war (if, of course, the deposed emperor is allowed to read newspapers in prison).

In these far-off countries – we take a sample quote from Revue Hebdomadaire (6) to show the distance between reality and official ideology – "in these distant countries, the soul of the people trembles as one with the soul of the French people; in the Far East, which seemed (!) almost hostile to us, we see a moving picture of how thousands of priests offer prayers to Buddha for the victory of our arms", etc, etc. This was written in the autumn of last year… But in approximately a month, when the Far Eastern ‘emperor’ – who was recently organising preparations for the day of the ‘75’ gun (7), which was written about with emotion as well – will be eating his prison rations for the 30th day; in France they will have forgotten about the rebellion and the few who know about it – the patriotic and social-patriotic scribblers – will again begin to write emotionally about the ‘trembling’ Annamite soul. Not only that. Every time the Indochinese soldiers who have been brought here catch the eye of Renaudel [editor of L’Humanité], he will remind the workers of France that the republic incorporates their lesser Annamite brothers in the great struggle for ‘the national principle’.

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December 2014