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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A great experiment

Towards the history of national communism in Ukraine
18 November, 2008 - 00:00
Photo by Maksym DONDIUK


An outstanding son of America, a person who devoted all his lifetime to the hard work of restoring the historical truth and the national dignity of Ukraini­ans, a prominent historian, political writer and public figure, Professor James Mace went down forever in the history of Ukrain­ian intellectual thought as a researcher of the 1932-1933 Holodomor in Ukraine, of its preconditions, course and consequences for our nation. It is this part of Mace’s scholarly legacy that The Day readers will know best of all. But the circle of Mace’s academic interests also included another, no less important and topical (and still little researched to boot) theme: the tragedy of Ukrainian national communism. This is the subject of the study ”A Great Experiment. Towards the History of National Communism in Ukraine,” the first part of which we are offering to The Day readers. This article is part of the book James Mace: ”Your Dead Chose Me” which was published in the Day Library series in early September. This is the first time it is being published in the newspaper. Could Ukrainian society have been successfully developing under the leadership of national communists? How would it have affected the further course of national history? If Ukrainian national communism was, in Mace’s view, a great experiment of history, what was the essence of this experiment? Why did it suffer a fiasco? Finally, to what extent right is the deep-rooted stereotype of the past two decades that a true Ukrainian patriot is always a person of right-wing (conservative, right liberal) views and that the farther right s/he is the brighter his/her patriotism is? A serious-minded reader (for whom James Mace’s study is intended) will find in it well-grounded answers to these questions and, undoubtedly, very rich factual material to reflect on.

National communism, as a universal phenomenon of the international communist movement, is a marriage of Leninism and national desires in the establishment of national values alongside other priorities of ”socialist construction.” As it was later in the Central and Eastern European countries of the so-called people’s democracy, national communism in Ukraine was the product of a specific situation, where the power of national aspirations made Moscow’s direct rule extremely problematic and conflict-prone. If the social development of Ukraine had gone under the leadership of Uk­rainian national communists, the social system could have been democratic and non-communist. The national communists could have occupied a place between Moscow and Ukraine - quite loyal to Moscow and quite patriotic for the nation they were leading. Incidentally, national communism was rather deeply rooted in Ukraine because the Ukrainian national movement in tsarist Russia was chiefly of a socialist nature and non-socialist nationalists had never had mass-scale support. And although Soviet power was imposed on Ukraine by means of Russian bayonets, it became very soon clear to the Bolsheviks themselves that a stable Soviet Ukraine was impossible without the support of some Ukrainian radicals.


A lot of studies on this topic have emerged in the last while. It should be noted that the communist regime completely closed and strictly banned the very subject of national communism. It was V. Malanchuk, the notorious secretary of the KPU Central Com­mittee, who spelled out in the most clear terms the official attitude to this trend in the communist movement in his memorandum on activating the struggle against national communism, which was discussed at the CC Secretariat meeting on April 13, 1973. ”In the past few years,” the memo says, ”ideological centers of imperialism have been attaching more and more importance to the so-called national communism aimed against the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, friendship of peoples, and proletarian internationalism. The root cause of this is that nationalism is today the common denominator of all varieties of ‘left’ and ‘right’ opportunism and various modifications of anti-communism, with national communism occupying a prominent place among them.”

In pre-Gorbachev times, national communism was the No. 1 enemy of Soviet official ideologists. As the so-called glasnost was gaining pace, when the general public came to know about the communist system’s crimes against some nations and ethnoses and it became clear that it was impossible to stem the national liberation tide in the non-Russian Soviet regions and republics by strong-arm methods, a lot of Soviet historians took a closer look at national communist movements. More often than not, such research was blessed by the top party bodies, including those of Ukraine. Obviously, this pursued an important strategic ideological goal - to prove that communist ideology is not alien or brought in from the outside, that it is deeply rooted in the history of various peoples. This was an ideological attempt to bail out the communist system with the hands of historians and other scholars. It is both paradoxical and natural that the officially allowed research of this subject dealt a crushing blow to the ideology and system which it was supposed to rehabilitate. The reason is that, when asked if a symbiosis is possible between the Marxist-Leninist ideology and national strivings, the vast majority of researchers passed an unambiguous verdict: no, it is impossible! Incidentally, the research of documents and materials or the collection of eyewitness evidence on the history of the 1920s-1930s Ukrainian tragedy, of which national communists were the protagonists, triggered a fast and irreversible evolution of views among the researchers themselves, reorientation of their scholarly and life-philosophy system from dogmatic communist scholasticism to common humane values, rejection of the so-called class racism, the core of the communist party doctrine, and acceptance of a broader range of ideas, views and scholarly systems about the world history, the role of a nation and the place of a human being on the Earth. The well-known researchers M. Pan­chuk, Stanislav Kul­chytsky and Yurii Shapoval turn out a string of new publications, then comes a sizable group of young academics who begin to conduct special studies in the diverse directions of this complex phenomenon. It is possible now, on the basis of the already published sources, to give quite a correct account of the course of events in Ukraine from the beginning of the century until 1937, when the last bloody tin lid was put on the activities of all kinds of ”deviants.” We know quite a lot today about the Ukrainian national communism, but still this subject continues to be in the focus of not only scholarly but also political debates and, undoubtedly, will remain topical for a long time to come.

The reason is an all-pervading economic and political crisis of today’s Ukrainian society. The point is that the 70 years of Soviet power failed to resolve none of the problems which history posed at the turn of the century but only froze and pushed them deep inside, like a boil under the skin. Now, as it was at the turn of the century, Ukraine is facing a difficult choice: to become a direct member of the worldwide family of nations or a second-rate country which will be taking part in the world civilization via the Russia-centered CIS. Politicians are seeking answers to these questions in the lessons of history. Adherents to the former option (to which, incidentally, this writers also belongs) assert that the 20th century’s mainstream trend is disintegration of empires and emergence of independent states. The defenders of the latter choice our century is one of total integration and that the history of Ukraine was and will be linked to Russia alone and that democratic Russia will never encroach on the cultural, spiritual and economic values of the Ukrainian people. In this debate, the research of the history of national communism in Ukraine can and will play an important, if not the decisive, role.

Ukrainian national communism is a great experiment which aimed to show that Ukraine - even in complete harmony with Russia, sharing the same ideology with its northern neighbor and the same political system, the same party, ideological and political principles - could live as a full-fledged state and nation. The reasons why this experiment failed are profoundly instructive and by no means accidental.


The specter of communism broke loose onto the expanses of Europe in the early 20th century. Freedom, equality, fraternity, and happiness of all nations were the postulates of a new doctrine that embraced human minds.

There was something magical for all peoples in this categorical sameness. Here is the long-awaited answer to all the world’s questions, problems, searches, and sacrificial quests!

Now, as time went by, we deny some figures of the international communist movement even elementary human dignity and virtues. We are bitterly condemning them because we know only too well that the slogans they trusted were in fact deceptive and false, that the attractive verbal facade disguised a bloody paradigm of the System which considered human life, cultural values and national gains totally worthless.

They were unaware of this.

They called themselves Bolsheviks and were devout communists indeed. They would accept any resolution of higher-level organizations as Christ’s commandments, but still, for most of them, these slogans were not a dead letter (the period of the dogmatic ossification of ideology was still to come) - they were the alpha and omega, the essence of their life-philosophy system, in which science was only represented by scientific-sounding phraseology. Tellingly, Marxism in Bolshevik application very soon transformed into a ”teaching” and then into a ”faith doctrine” quite in the spirit of the new church which first demanded a blind faith and only them allowed adjusting arguments and proofs to its postulates. Logic was raped by the servant, not the queen, of the brand new ”science,” a new teaching (omnipotent because it was right). Theory was confirmed by practice, and in practice ”the end justified the means.” Such things as conscience, morality, and ethic principles were ignored and declared bourgeois vestiges in the name of ghostly ideals which were not in fact ideals. They were just political instruments in the struggle for absolute and unlimited domination over a human being, a family, a clan, or a nation.

The half-educated founders of Russian social democracy, obsessed by the idea of ”happiness for all peoples,” regarded the word as a ”material force,” when, after their sermons, ”the entire world of the wretched and slaves” would put up barricades, burn landlords’ estates, blow up factories, and derail trains.

The inebriating word ”freedom” drugged the brain and the flesh.

But even in the madness of a revolution, one could clearly hear the voices of not ”the entire world” but of specific peoples, nationalities and nations, which regarded the new doctrine’s postulates in the light of the proposed specifics rather than in their phantasmagorical illusoriness. Most of the intellectuals and national liberation leaders in the countries of Eastern Europe accepted the doctrine of communism as an all-purpose key to the solution of international problems as well as well as those typical of their peoples alone. There was a big temptation to solve them by one stroke, one assault. Marxism provided them with a powerful weapon to strike this blow.

Georg Lukacs, one of the most interesting Marxist thinkers, showed in his book History and Class Consciousness how Marx put the proletariat in place of the Hegelian world spirit - in other words, the proletariat was a class that could liberate itself in none other way than through the liberation of the entire humankind, dissolution of all classes, and establishment of a classless society.

Marx saw the global process as follows: the entire humankind breaks down into capitalists and proletarians. All the other classes are doomed to being assimilated with one of the two emerging class Leviathans.

The national theory was even simpler: tell the nations about equality and the right to national self-identification - and they will understand themselves the progressiveness of being assimilated by a more progressive ”fraternal” culture.

Marx, Engels and Lenin were representatives of the so-called great nations (German and Great Russian) and, professing proletarian internationalism, were still looking down their noses at the less developed nations and states. Engels believed that ”non-historical” peoples were inevtably doomed to assimilation by ”great” peoples and cultures. Marx and Engels just could not fathom why it occurred to Frantisek Palacky to throw out German culture and develop a far simper Czech one. They easily convinced themselves that the Czechs were ”a reactionary ruin of peoples” whose aspirations were to be opposed in the interests of a worldwide revolution and the overall development of humankind.

Leninism was in fact a special Russian variety of Marxism based on the 19th-century ”nihilism” represented by Ne­cha­yev and Tka­chov, a hero of Cher­ny­shevsky’s What Is to Be Done? Leninism is a product of the dark undercurrent of Russian history, and Western Marxism was only an ideological cover for it. And, although Lenin himself was not subjectively a follower of traditional Russian messianism, it was he who, with a feeling of absolute unmistakableness, adopted the traditions of Russian revolutionary radicalism and combined them with a classical Marxist formula that the proletariat has no fatherland and that such things as nation, its culture and language are totally worthless for it. Lenin believed that nationalism was a product of false bourgeois consciousness produced by capitalism, while socialism would see the rapprochement and merger of nations. So, in a narrow sense, Leninism was the first ever national communism which, by force of the inertia of Russian history, almost inevitably evol­ved into the overt pan-Slavism of Stalin, and in a broader and basic sense, Lenin was a representative of classical Marxism’s national nihilism. It is self-understood that when any ideology, doctrine or dogma evolves into a mass-scale movement, it unavoidably develops some variations. One unsuccessful variety is national communism which played a leading role in Ukraine to stabilize the Soviet system. This is the national communism which the Stalin-led VKP (b) resolutely rejected and against which the official KPU fought until the collapse of the USSR. In Ukraine, the roots of national communism are older than Leninism which was created as an official doctrine and a pretension to science only after the death of Lenin by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev as an ideological weapon in the struggle for power against Trotsky. National communism was born and raised in Ukraine when there was no Leninism as such and there were different trends within the Leninist party - from the national nihilism of Rosa Luxemburg to the Russophilia of Emanuel Kwiring.

Before the revolution, one of the central ideas of Ukrainian political figures in a Russian-controlled Ukraine was that of a ”non-bourgeois nature” of the Ukrainian nation, from which it followed that only socialism could solve the social and national problems of a predominantly rural nation which still bore the marks of feudal and national oppression. In 1917, all the parties represented in the Central Rada were socialist: the Uk­rai­nian Party of Socilist Re­vo­lutionaries, the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party, the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Federalists, and, after the 4th Universal, a more nationalist Ukrainian Party of Independent Socialists.

Like many other Russian radical groups, the Bolsheviks comprised a lot of Ukrainian-born members who had abandoned the Ukrainian liberation movement for the sake of more universal and socially more radical revolutionary trends in the imperial parent country. A considerable part of young radical Ukrainians dropped their national aspirations and began to work within the framework of the empirewide (Russian) movement because they sincerely believed that socialism would surely solve their social and national problems. Lenin strengthened this tendency in 1913 by putting up the slogan of ”the right of nations to self-determination or even secession.” This was done in a very crafty form. Lenin maintained that, although the socialists of a dominating nation were obliged to campaign for the right to secession and establishment of independent states, the internationalist socialists of an enslaved nation should campaign against the use of this right in practice. The Ukrainian social democrat Lev Yurkevych (Rybalka) said wittily as long ago as 1915 that, according to Lenin, the right of nations to self-determination or even secession is a right to which no one has a right. He wrote: ”Interestingly, Russian social democrats, pretending that they uphold ‘the right to the national self-determination,’ are very seriously promising that the state will recognize this right and will promote ‘a union of the Polish and Russian proletariat in the name of a democratic republic, which will provide all nations with the right to free self-determination” (Iskra, No. 33, ”In Forty Years”). The Theses of the Collected Works also say that ”the closer the democratic system of a state is to the full freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will be aspirations for secession in practice.

”A strange freedom indeed if the enslaved nations will be refusing it when it is approaching. This resembles a speech of Rodichev in the Duma, when he said: ”Give the Ukrainians a school so they themselves refuse it.” But while this mockery of a Russian liberal at the demands of a people enslaved by Russia is quite natural, the interpretation of Russian social democrats of ”the right to national self-determination” as a right that the enslaved nations will forsake as soon as they achieve it, moreover, an interpretation from the Marxists and socialist viewpoint, is stunning and shameful.

”No less strange is the promise of Russian social democrats to achieve the ‘provision’ of the right to free secession via a democratic republic. For when a democratic order is really installed in Russia, then, taking into account the example of the development of West European states and the utterly reactionary nature of the Russian bourgeoisie’s policy, we will be able to say firmly that it not only will not oppose the tsarist centralism but will in fact strengthen it by turning this exclusively bureaucratic thing into a social system for oppressing the Russian Empire’s nations.”

Yurkevych saw through the hypocritical nature of Lenin’s nationalities theory. The Ukrainian social democrat, who was in a Geneva exile together with Lenin, studied very well the Bolshevik leader’s attitude to national problems. It was absolutely clear to him that neither Lenin nor his entourage could see even in the wildest dreams such a horror as, for example, disintegration of the empire into separate states.

Lenin made short work of Yurkevych’s arguments. In the brochure Russian Social Democrats and the National Question, Lenin labels him as a ”nationalist philistine,” a ”representative of the most low-grade, stupid and reactionary nationalism.” ”Mr. Yurkevych is acting like a true bourgeois, a shortsighted, narrow-minded and stupid bourgeois, i.e., a philistine, when he flatly rejects the interests of unity, merger and assimilation of the two nations’ proletariat for the sake of an immediate success of the Ukrainian national cause,” Lenin says.

(To be continued)

By James MACE