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Stalin, Affirmative Action and the Pentecost of Language

It has become increasingly clear that the Soviet Union was the first ‘affirmative action’ state in human history.[1] A basic plank in the program of the Bolsheviks was the right for every people and ethnic group to speak and be educated in its own language, to develop literature and culture in that language, and to exercise self-governance. Crucially, the cost of this affirmative action was to be borne by the state. Even more, the constitution of the USSR (both in 1924 and the revision of 1936) explicitly stipulated equality for women and men, as well as all citizens, irrespective of nationality or race. Failure to adhere to these principles and laws led to severe penalties.

It may be surprising to some, but Stalin was the preeminent theoretician of the ‘national question’ and architect of the affirmative action program. The development of this theory and practice is long and complex, but I would like to focus here on a core feature: language.

In response to tsarist repression of linguistic diversity in Russia, the communists were adamant that everyone be encouraged to speak, write and live his or her own language. For Stalin, this policy had an extra relevance, since the Caucasus (he was Georgian) has arguably one of the most diverse and mingled populations in the world. But what did this mean? I suggest at least two parts in answer. First, linguistic diversity determines the affirmative action policy, which seeks to unite; second, the totalising approach of the affirmative action actually produced a greater diversity of languages and cultures.

Let me begin with Clause 8 from the socialist program of 1903:

The right of the population to receive instruction in their native tongue, to be realised by the provision, at the expense of the state and the organs of self-government, of the necessary schools; the right of every citizen to use his native language at assemblies; the introduction of native languages on a par with the official language in all local social and state institutions.[2]

Let me exegete this text for a moment. The crux here is language, so much so that affirmative action is at heart a linguistic program. However, as soon as one begins to explore the ramifications of speaking one’s own language, then education appears, as does public assembly and government institutions, which must become bilingual or perhaps multilingual in their official functions. In other words, affirmative action involves language, education, assembly and government, although to list the items in such a way risks losing the linguistic dynamic of the list’s generation. Indeed, producing such a list threatens to turn the questions of language and education and so forth into the contents of the policy. That would be an egregious misreading of the role of language. Instead, I suggest language plays a formal role in determining the shape of the program. The very diversity of languages created the conditions for the policy and then shaped its nature and content. Indeed, language became more important than ethnic groups and regions (and the issues of secession and autonomy), precisely because so many peoples had been dispersed and become minorities. The purpose of the affirmative action program was, of course, to unite this incredibly diverse range of peoples as a union of soviet socialist republics.

Yet, the dialectical catch is that affirmative action requires a strong centre, a strong state that is able to legislate and enforce such a program. As others have argued, one of the unexpected achievements of the communists was to re-establish the state in Russia, especially since the country was well on the way to being a collapsed state by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century. However, the renewed state was not like any other that had hitherto been seen – hence the term ‘affirmative action state’.

So affirmative action both recognises diversity and requires a strong state. Now comes the crucial dialectical twist: the totalising program of affirmative action actually produces greater diversity. In a speech from 1925, given to the students of the University of the Peoples of the East,[3] Stalin notes the way socialism has given rise to more languages. He has little faith in the argument – common in some socialist circles – that the global working class needed a single universal language. Instead, experience indicates the opposite:

Until now what has happened has been that the socialist revolution has not diminished but rather increased the number of languages; for, by stirring up the lowest sections of humanity and pushing them on to the political arena, it awakens to new life a number of hitherto unknown or little-known nationalities. Who could have imagined that the old, tsarist Russia consisted of not less than fifty nations and national groups? The October Revolution, however, by breaking the old chains and bringing a number of forgotten peoples and nationalities on to the scene, gave them new life and a new development (p. 141).

He goes on to argue that the new languages and cultures so fostered will provide the specific forms for the universal content of proletarian socialist culture. But I am interested in the implicit invocation of Pentecost in the text I have quoted: the socialist revolution has increased the number of languages, giving them new life and a new development. But what does such a socialist Pentecost mean?

In many cases, it entailed creating literate languages, with scripts, grammars, schools, books, libraries and literatures where none had existed before. Across the Soviet Union, such programs cost millions and billions of roubles, leading to the wholesale creation and recreation of cultures (as well as leading to a whole new range of problems not experienced thus far). In some cases, the program led to states that had never existed before, such as Armenia. It might be said that the Bolsheviks sought to put their money where their tongues of fire were.


[1] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939  (Thaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[2] Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, “The Programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party,” in Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879-1906, ed. Neil Harding, 288-93 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983 [1903]), 290.

[3] J. V. Stalin, “The Political Tasks of the University of the Peoples of the East: Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Students of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, May 18, 1925,” in Works, vol. 7, 135-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1925 [1954]).

One thought on “Stalin, Affirmative Action and the Pentecost of Language

  1. 1.“….In some cases, the program led to states that had never existed before, such as Armenia.”
    I find your statement about Armenia as brave as it is ignorant.

    Here, some widely acknowledged historical data:

    “A Hellenistic Armenian state was founded in 190 BC.
    In 301, Arsacid Armenia was the FIRST SOVEREIGN NATION to accept Christianity as a STATE religion.

    The Armenians later fell under Byzantine, Persian, and Islamic hegemony, but reinstated their independence with the Bagratuni Dynasty kingdom of Armenia. After the fall of the kingdom in 1045, and the subsequent Seljuk conquest of Armenia in 1064, the Armenians established a kingdom in Cilicia, where they prolonged their sovereignty to 1375.
    Armenia was later divided between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Armenia, (or Eastern Armenia), regained independence in 1918, with the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia, and in 1991, the Republic of Armenia.”

    2. “…the socialist revolution has increased the number of languages, giving them new life and a new development.” Can you prove it?

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