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New Left Review I/184, November-December 1990


Ronald Suny

The Revenge of the Past: Socialism and Ethnic Conflict in Transcaucasia

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Social Democrats agonized over the emerging ‘national question’, Russian Marxists sought at one and the same time to win allies among the non-Russian nationalities and to combat the project of the nationalists to splinter the unitary state. [1] I am grateful to my colleagues at the University of Michigan, Geoff Eley and Roman Szporluk, who read an earlier version of this essay and made very helpful suggestions. Secure in their faith that ‘national differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day’, and that ‘the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster’, Bolshevik theorists were opposed to political solutions that would divert the flow of history and promote ethnic identity. Lenin, Stalin, the Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shahumian, and others were adamant in their opposition to federalism, and to both the Austro-Marxist principle of ‘extraterritorial national cultural autonomy’ (each nationality represented in parliament no matter where its members live) and the moderate nationalist principle of ‘territorial national cultural autonomy’ (ethnicity defining autonomous territorial political units). Leninists preferred ‘regional autonomy’, in which political units would not have ethnic designations. The ‘proletarian solution’ to the nationality question was to preserve the unitary state while allowing for local self-government. Within the socialist state complete cultural and linguistic freedom was to be guaranteed. While for Lenin national self-determination meant that a nationality could choose to become fully independent, those nationalities that stayed within the socialist state would have neither the right to an autonomous political territory nor to a federative relationship to the centre.

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