Ukraine: Marxian Approaches to the National Question

March 13, 2022

The national question is studied in the context of Ukraine, with a focus on the period leading up to the 1917 revolution. Three pieces are presented, all by the Ukrainian Marxist scholar Marko Bojcun. The first is a transcription of a talk presented in  2021 and studies the national question during the 1917 revolution within contending tendencies of Marxism; the second is a selection from an article written in 2021 and theorizes the national question as a manifestation of the Marxian understanding of division of labor; the third studies Ukrainian social development at the crossroads of West European imperialism and the Russian state. – ed.


One can argue that labor in contemporary world society is divided not only along gender, menial, intellectual, and city country lines – but also along national lines. If one accepts such a view of the division of labor, it follows that national movements – that is movements which contest this division – are one of the expressions of class struggle, for class struggle, in its first instance, is nothing more than a struggle over the division of labor and the distribution of wealth coming from that labor. – The Workers’ Movement and the National Question  in Ukraine


1st piece (talk here)

Origins of Working Class  in Ukraine

The development of capitalism in the Ukraine was a slow and uneven process of gestation because of the long period of Russian feudalism which developed in the territory until the abolition of serfdom in 1861. 

The emergence of a working class came from three sources: (1) the peasantry of Ukrainian ethnicity who moved into the working class via employment in the big capitalist latifundia that the nobility started to build on the rich fertile lands; (2) Jewish artisans who where driven increasingly into overcrowded towns far away from the big industry of mining and metalworks in the south and who were increasingly impoverished (3) the third source were the migrants from overpopulated provinces of Russia just to the east of the coal mining and steel making areas of Ukraine who moved in early before the peasantry and before the artisan class because they had been liberated from serfdom. 

These groups acquired the skills and the habits of wage labor. The working class became the bedrock for the emergence of social democratic parties in the Russian Empire beginning with the Jewish Bund in 1897, followed by the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party and then the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party which came quite late in 1905. These parties inserted themselves into specific strata of the working class, by nationality of course, and they adapted their program, their modes of organization, and their strategies for building towards the social revolution in view of the specificities of the sections of the working class that they moved into.

Two Trends in Marxism

There is a very important determinant  in this historical process. Marxism originally had two quite distinct views about the future of nations under socialism. One was the Great Power assimilating view which was expressed by the early Marx and Engels, by Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and others. This view argued that socialism would adapt some of the features of advanced capitalism: some of the big advantages in the development of capitalism would be inherited by the socialist future – big states, big economies. In the process of the growth of the working class, out of the sources already mentioned, the smaller nations – those that were stateless, but nevertheless resided within multinational  states dominated by ruling nations such as the English, the Russian, the French and others – the small nations would be assimilated into the ruling nations of those states. That was the vision of the future that was pursued by one tendency of social democracy that came out of the Marxist tradition. 

The second view of the future of nations was what has come to be known as Austro-Marxism, which argued that as capitalism developed, nations, languages, and cultures would flower and that the future of socialism would see the diversification of the populations. There would be  growing insistence on the part of the smaller stateless nations for their independence. Austro-Marxism took the view that the flowering of nations was a positive vision – the pluralization of world society in cultural and linguistic terms was a positive thing. 

The Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party, the Bund before them, a whole number of Jewish Social Democratic parties, and the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, which was based in the peasantry – all took the Austro-Marxist view. On the other hand, the larger (Menshevik) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party took the assimilationist, big centralizing State view: the view that the future would see the world reduced to 5-7 major languages,  into which all other languages would assimilate, and the stateless nations would of course assimilate into these bigger entities.

These conflicting visions of the future profoundly influenced the way the Social Democratic Parties constructed their programs, and what they expected in terms of autonomy, independence, or federalism as the mode of relation between social democratic parties in the Russian empire. It also influenced their strategies for growth. 

The Ukrainian economy (the economy of the part of Ukraine in the Russian empire)  developed, under the last years of the Russian empire before the 1917 revolution, an advanced industrial nature with a fairly sophisticated capitalist agriculture. Much like Scotland was within the British State, or Manchuria in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s under Japanese occupation. Ukraine provinces represented one of the six centers of rapid capitalist development in the Russian empire and contributed the lion’s share of coal, steel, wheat, sugar – the major commodities – and a  significant part, roughly one-sixth, of industrial producer goods that the  whole Russian empire produced. It wasn’t a backward economy, it wasn’t  a colony of the overseas  type that the British, French, and Germans seized and developed. It was a fairly advanced industrial economy, but with significant distortions, disparities, and big social problems. Quite similar to what you see in countries such as  Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century, all the way until the decline of the late 1970’s.

Contending  Features of the 1917 Revolution

A close narrative of the course of the 1917 revolution from February 1917, when Tsarism  collapsed, to May of 1918 when  the central power Austro-Hungary and Germany invaded and occupied part of Ukraine and overthrew the government of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, reveals several things. 

Firstly, it  was no accident that the social revolution and the national liberation struggle in 1917 were simultaneous  processes. Analytically they are separated very often by historians –  by orthodox Marxist  historians and by nationalists  for example. But these were  social and national struggles that were being pursued by the same people. They were led by  the social democratic parties and the socialist revolutionaries. They  foresaw the future in very similar terms except on  the  national question. Where there was fairly wide basis for unity on a whole range of  questions: (1) to end the war, (2) to distribute land to the peasantry without compensation to the landlords or the Church, (3) to implement a system of popular democracy which  was  direct, accountable, and recallable on the basis of elected deputies (4) for workers  self-management – on all of these issues there was a wide basis  for  unity. But on the national question there were deep divisions and this is a significant question that has been ignored or downplayed, certainly by Stalinist historians, but also by a wider group of left-wing socialist historians of that period.

Secondly, while in Russia proper the struggle in 1917 was a dual power struggle between the Soviet movement within the working class in the cities in particular, and the provisional  government; in  Ukraine it was a treble power struggle: between the soviet movement of industrial workers, the Ukrainian central council which  was supported overwhelmingly by the peasantry and soldiers, and the provisional  government.


2nd piece


A Theory of the National Question

(selection from The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine

Throughout the study, I use the terms “national question”, “national movement”, “nation” and “nation state”. They refer respectively to the genesis, politicisation, mobilisation and unification of nations. Used in such a way, they are merely signposts, heuristic indicators of historical stages of national development. 

A viable theory of national development, however, should explain how and why the national question arises in the first place.

I have adopted and extended Karl Marx’s use of the concept of the division of labour in order to explain the origins of the national question. Marx observed in the development of capitalism an increasing separation and specialisation of human labour: agricultural and industrial, menial and intellectual, and male and female labour. These separations in social labour were not peculiar to capitalism, but were the product of a much longer evolution of human society. However, as the capitalist mode of production emerged, it incorporated the city-country, menial-intellectual and gender divisions of earlier modes of production and accentuated them in an even sharper way.

For Marx, the division of labour was the infrastructure of class society, while private property was but a juridical expression and defence of the division of labour peculiar to capitalism. The European social-democratic movement which inherited his ideas had a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class society to its juridical expression, as the relationship between the owners of labour and the owners of the means of production. This notion of ownership served as a general indicator or the “last word” on class under capitalism, but it was not of much use for understanding class struggles other than economic ones. Nor could it provide insight into the contradictions within the working class itself, divided as it was by occupational privileges based on location, education and gender.

How does all this apply to the national question? The division of labour did not stop evolving with the advent of capitalism. Since the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism as a global economic system has built an international division of labour. It is now characterised by the imposition of specific economic tasks by the economically powerful metropoles upon the ever more distant peripheral societies it draws onto the world market. Regions of the world and their inhabitants have taken different paths of social and economic evolution depending on the time they were linked to the world market, the resources most readily exploitable in them and the relative strength of the state power already in control of their territories.

For different historical reasons, the boundaries of states in peripheral societies seldom conform to the boundaries of compact ethno-linguistic groups. As a rule, they encompass several of them. Such groups within single states are drawn into the process of industrialisation and urbanisation at varying rates. These rates depend on the readily exploitable natural resources and human labour in their vicinity, the influence of these groups’ leaders in the central state institutions, the groups’ knowledge of the language of modern industry and government, their possession of industrial skills and work habits and their willingness to assimilate into a new urban-industrial culture. Because the resources available for industrialisation are limited, they are applied only in selected parts of the country. Invariably industrialisation will benefit the ethno-linguistic group or groups that control the state power. Even if new industries are not located on their own group’s traditional territory, they are in control of the state mechanisms for centralising and redistributing a major portion of the surplus product produced over the whole territory of the state.

Thus, the division of labour that has emerged on a global scale between the industrialised and industrialising regions is reproduced once again within the confines of the latter, the industrialising region. Here, the division of labour incorporates the potential attributes of a national identity (language, culture, attachment to territory, etc) that affect an ethno-linguistic group’s capacity for social mobility through the class structure of the industrialising region – that is, the capacity to secure urban, intellectual and “male” designated occupations in the modernising economy. Thus, it is the crystallisation of a division of labour between established and incipient nations within an existing state, a process that holds back the social mobility of the incipient nation and redistributes the surplus product of the whole society inequitably in favour of the established nation, which politicises these well-known attributes of national identity (language, culture, attachment to territory) and provokes national movements among the incipient nations.

One can, therefore, argue that labour in contemporary world society is divided not only along gender, menial-intellectual and city-country lines, but also along national lines. If one accepts such a view of the division of labour, it follows that national movements, that is movements which contest this division, are one of the expressions of class struggle. For class struggle is, in the first instance, nothing more than a struggle over the division of labour and the distribution of wealth stemming from that labour.

I have proposed above in a most general way a concept of the historical development of a division of labour between state-established and incipient nations at three distinct levels: in the globalising capitalist economy, in the industrialising region of the peripheral state and within the working class itself. In the chapters below, I have applied this concept to the case of Ukraine and examined how the workers movement and its social-democratic parties dealt with the national question from their inception in the late nineteenth century up to and including the first year of the Revolution.


3rd piece: 

Excerpt from Approaches to the Study of the Ukrainian Revolution [Journal of Ukrainian Studies, 1999]


Ukraine resided within a Russian state at the end of the nineteenth century that was both penetrated, and thus imperialized by the Western powers, and imperialist in its own right, on its own territory. The Russian Empire was in fact the weakest of the Great Powers, and this weakness gave it its dual identity. It consciously entered into a partnership in the late nineteenth century with French, Belgian, German, British, and American companies and banks to invest jointly in the rapid development of industry and communications on its own territory. The Western investors took their share of the proceeds in repatriated profits, and the Russian state took its share through taxes and the proceeds from its monopoly to trade abroad in grain.

From the peculiar way in which capitalism developed there up to the First World War, the Ukrainian gubernias of the Russian Empire acquired a powerful heavy industry based on coal, steel, and machine building, and a commercial agricultural sector based on grain and sugar exports. Together these sectors made it one of the six main regions of rapid capitalist development in the empire. Yet Ukraine’s manufacturing sector remained poorly developed, especially in the case of those industries that produced finished consumer durables and food products. The distorted nature of economic growth was directly attributable to the repatriation of profits by the foreign investing companies and banks and by the fiscal policies of the Russian state, which spent most of the taxes it collected in Ukraine in other parts of the empire. Moreover, the industrial and agricultural sectors of the Ukrainian economy were not linked to each other in mutually reinforcing cycles of investment and consumption because Ukraine did not have a state of its own and therefore had no national policies to promote such sectoral reinforcement. Rather, the earnings of capitalist agriculture and industry were realized largely on foreign markets and retained abroad or in the Russian treasury.

The social consequences of capitalist development under the leadership of foreign investors and the Russian state were similarly contradictory. Rather than pursue a land reform after the abolition of serfdom that could foster the growth of a class of middle-sized farmers, the Russian autocracy had imposed a settle- ment in 1861 that created a mass of indebted, increasingly landless peasants on the one hand, and a clutch of large capitalist farming enterprises on the other. Ukraine’s food-processing industries and the heavy industries of its southeast could not absorb the great labour surpluses of the countryside. They did not develop fast enough because rural poverty suppressed domestic demand, and because, as noted above, a considerable portion of the annual surplus product was removed from the domestic economic cycle.


Not having a state of its own, Ukraine could not impose or even advance its national interests as it became locked into the international division of labour at the end of the nineteenth century. It could not develop an all-round capitalist economy or social structure as long as it was subordinated to the interests of the metropolitan centres to its east and west. Western investors and the Russian state imposed upon the developing capitalist economy in the nine Ukrainian gubernias a particular role in the international division of labour as an exporter of raw materials, semi-processed goods, and heavy machinery and an importer of capital-intensive consumer and producer goods.

Quite apart from its partnership with Western capital, the Russian state applied taxes, imposed tariffs, and took investment decisions (on railway building, for example) that discriminated against the development of industry and communications in Ukraine and promoted the interests of the northern-based Russian bourgeoisie. It was only the superiority in capital resources of the Western investors that forced the Russian state to acquiesce to their priorities, made southeastern Ukraine one of the six centres of rapid industrialization in the empire and arguably the most dynamic of them.

The tsarist policy of Russification had denied the Ukrainian language a place in education, the media, the economy, government, and the military. Insofar as language is indispensable in a variety of ways to employment in every level of the economy, Ukrainians were unable to move upward through the social structure as rapidly as Russian speakers, unless, of course, they assimilated and adopted the Russian language and culture. The Jewish population was subjected to discriminatory laws that actually reinforced their caste status by denying them education, certain occupations, the right to own property, and mobility. Connected to these impediments, the denial of basic democratic rights—suffered by all subjects of the empire—prevented Ukrainians and other non-Russian peoples from openly expressing their collective national demands.