Communists and the National Question, Part 3: The Debate during the Revolutionary Wave and the Lessons for Today

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In these articles we have looked at the debates among communists on the relationship between the proletarian revolution and the national question:

  • on the eve of capitalism’s decadence over the issue of whether revolutionaries should support ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ (see IR 34);
  • during the first imperialist world war within the Zimmerwald Left on the implications of the new conditions of decadence for the old ‘minimum programme’ of social democracy and the class nature of national wars (see IR 37).

In this third and last articles we want to examine the most crucial testing time for the revolutionary movement: the historic events between the seizure of power by the Russian workers in 1917 and the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920; from the first optimistic step towards the destruction of capitalism to the first signs of defeat of the workers’ struggles and the degeneration of the movement in Russia.

In these years the errors of the Bolsheviks on the issue of self-determination were put into practice and in the search for allies the young Communist International embarked on an opportunist course towards support for national liberation struggles in the colonies. If the CI was still a revolutionary force in this period, it had already taken the first fatal steps towards its capitulation to the bourgeoisie’s counter-revolution. This only underlines the necessity today to make a critique of this proletarian experience in order to avoid a repetition of its mistakes; a point many in the revolutionary milieu still fail to understand (see article on the IBRP in IR 41).

THE ERROR OF ‘SELF-DETERMINATION’ IN PRACTICE

The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia in 1917 concretely posed the question: which class rules? In the face of the threat of worldwide soviet power, the bourgeoisie, whatever its national aspirations, was confronted with its own struggle for survival as a class. Even in the most remote corners of the old Tsarist empire, the issue posed by history was the confrontation between the classes – not ‘democratic rights’ or the ‘completion of the bourgeois revolution’. Nationalist movements became the pawns of the imperialist powers in their struggle to destroy the proletarian threat:

In the midst of this class war, the Bolsheviks were soon forced to accept that the blanket recognition of self-determination could only lead to the counter-revolution: as early as 1917 the Ukraine had been granted independence only to ally with French imperialism and turn against the proletariat. Within the Bolshevik Party there was a strong opposition to this policy, as we have seen, led by Bukharin and Piatakov and including Dzerzhinsky, Lunacharsky and others. In 1917 Piatakov had almost carried the debate in the Party, putting forward the slogan “Away with all frontiers!” The outcome, under Lenin’s influence, was a compromise: self-determination for the working class of each country. This still left all the contradictions of the policy intact.

The group around Piatakov, which held a majority in the Party in the Ukraine, opposed this compromise and called instead for the centralization of all proletarian forces in the Communist International as a way to maintain class unity against national fragmentation. This argument of the Left Bolsheviks was ridiculed by Lenin at the time, but from the perspective of the later degeneration of the Russian revolution, their emphasis on proletarian internationalism appears doubly valid. When Lenin denounced their position as ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ he was betraying a national vision of the role of revolutionaries, who take their starting point from the interests of the world revolution.

It was in the most developed capitalist parts of the Tsarist empire that the disastrous results of the Bolsheviks’ policy were clearest and it was here that Rosa Luxemburg concentrated her attack on self-determination in practice (published after her murder). Both Poland and Finland contained well-developed nationalist bourgeoisies who feared above all a proletarian revolution. Both were granted independence, only to rely for their existence on the backing of the imperialist powers. Under the slogan of self-determination the bourgeoisies of these countries massacred workers and communists, dissolved the soviets and allowed their territory to be used as a springboard for the armies of imperialism and the white reaction.

Luxemburg saw all this as a bitter confirmation of her own pre-war polemic against Lenin:

“The Bolsheviks are in part responsible for the fact the military defeat was transformed into the collapse and a breakdown of Russia. Moreover, the Bolsheviks themselves have, to a great extent, sharpened the objective difficulties of this situation by a slogan which they placed in the foreground of their policies: the so-called right of self-determination of peoples, or – something which was really implicit in this slogan – the disintegration of Russia.... While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom even to the extent of ‘separation’, they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc., into so many faithful allies of the Russian revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used their freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself.” (The Russian Revolution)

Putting self-determination into practice after 1917 exposed the contradiction between the original intention of Lenin to help weaken imperialism and the resulting constitution of bulwarks against the proletarian revolution, where the bourgeoisie was able to channel working class struggles into national wars and massacres. The balance sheet of this experience therefore is strictly negative.

THE FIRST CONGRESS OF THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL

The Third (Communist) International, in the invitation to its First Congress in 1919, proclaimed the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase, “...the epoch of the disintegration and collapse of the entire capitalist world system.”

The CI put forward a clear international perspective for the working class: the entire capitalist system was no longer progressive and must be destroyed by the mass action of the workers organised in workers’ councils or soviets. The world revolution which had begun with the seizure of political power by the soviets in Russia showed concretely that the destruction of the capitalist state was on the immediate agenda.

In the first year of its work, the CI made no specific reference to support for national liberation struggles, or to the ‘right of nations to self-determination’. Instead, it clearly posed the need for international class struggle. The CI was born at the height of the revolutionary wave which had brought the imperialist war to a shuddering halt and forced the warring bourgeoisies to unite in their efforts to destroy this proletarian threat. The class struggle in the capitalist heartlands – in Germany, France, Italy, Britain and America – gave an enormous impulse to the efforts of the International to clarify the needs of the world revolution which then appeared on the brink of victory, and for this reason the major texts of the First Congress in many ways represent a zenith in the CI’s clarity.

The Manifesto of the CI “to the proletariat of the entire world” gave a very broad, historical perspective to the national question, beginning from the recognition that “The national state, which imparted a mighty impulse to capitalist development, has become too narrow for the further development of the productive forces.” Within this perspective it dealt with two specific questions:

- the small, oppressed nations of Europe which possessed only an illusory independence and before the war had relied on the uninterrupted antagonisms between the imperialist powers. These nations had their own imperialist presentations and now relied for guarantees on Allied imperialism, which under the slogan of ‘national self-determination’ oppressed and coerced them: “The small peoples can be assured the opportunity of a free existence only by the proletarian revolution, which will liberate the productive forces of all countries from the constraint of the national state...

- the colonies which had also been drawn into the war to fight for imperialism. This posed sharply their role as suppliers of cannon fodder to the major powers, and had led to a series of open insurrections and revolutionary ferment in India, Madagascar, Indo-China, etc. Again, the Manifesto emphasised that:

The emancipation of the colonies is possible only in conjunction with the emancipation of the metropolitan working class. The workers and peasants not only of Annam, Algiers and Bengal, but also of Persia and Armenia, will gain their opportunity of independent existence only when the workers of England and France have overthrown Lloyd George and Clemenceau and taken state power into their own hands... Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia! The hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will also be the hour of your own liberation!"

The message of the CI was clear. The liberation of the masses throughout the world would only come through the victory of the proletarian revolution, whose key was to be found in the capitalist heartlands of western Europe with the struggles of the strongest and most experienced concentrations of workers. The way forward for the masses in the underdeveloped countries lay in uniting “under the banner of workers’ soviets, of revolutionary struggle for power and the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the banner of the Third International...

These brief statements, based as they were on recognition of the decadence of capitalism, still shine out today as beacons of clarity. But they hardly represent a coherent strategy to be followed by the proletariat and its party in a revolutionary period; it was still necessary to clarify the vital question of the class nature of national liberation struggles, as well as to define the attitude of the working class to the oppressed masses and non-exploiting strata in the underdeveloped countries, who had to be won over to the side of the proletariat in its struggle against the world bourgeoisie.

These questions were taken up by the Second Congress of the CI in 1920. But if this Congress, with its much greater participation and deeper debate, saw many advances on the level of concretising the lessons of the Russian revolution and the need for a centralised, disciplined organisation of revolutionaries, we also saw here the first major signs of a regression from the clarity reached by the First Congress – the beginnings of tendencies towards opportunism and centrism within the young Communist International. Any attempt to draw up a balance sheet of the work of the Second Congress must begin from these weaknesses which were to prove fatal when the revolutionary wave subsided.

Opportunism was able to take root in the conditions of isolation and exhaustion in the Russian bastion. Even by the time of the First Congress the revolution in Germany had suffered a serious blow with the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg and over 20,000 workers, but Europe was ablaze with revolutionary struggles which still threatened to topple the bourgeoisie. By the time the delegates gathered for the Second Congress the balance of forces had already begun to tip substantially in the bourgeoisie’s favour and the Bolsheviks in Russia were forced to think more in terms of a long drawn-out siege than a swift defeat of world capitalism. So whereas the emphasis at the First Congress had been on the imminence of the revolution in western Europe and the spontaneous energies of the working class, the Second Congress stressed:

  • the problem of organising the soviet movement throughout the world;
  • the need to build up the defence of the bastion in Russia.

Weighed down by the harsh necessities of famine and civil war, the Bolsheviks began to compromise the original clarity of the Communist International in favour of expedient alliances with dubious and even outright bourgeois elements among the debris of the bankrupt Second International, in order to build ‘mass parties’ in Europe which would give maximum aid to the bastion. The search for possible support among the national liberation struggles in the underdeveloped countries must be seen in this same light.

The cover for this opportunist course was the war against the left-wing in the International, announced by Lenin in his famous pamphlet ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In fact, in his opening speech to the Second Congress, Lenin still stressed that “Opportunism is our main enemy... In comparison with this task the correction of the mistakes of the ‘left’ trend in Communism will be an easy one.” (The Second Congress, vol.1, p.28). However, in a situation of reflux in the class struggle, the effect of this tactic could only open the door further to opportunism whilst weakening its most intransigent opponents, the left-wing. As Pannekoek wrote afterwards to the anarchist Muhsam:

“We regard the Congress as guilty of showing itself to be, not intolerant, but much too tolerant. We do not reproach the leaders of the Third International for excluding us; we censure them for seeking to include as many opportunists as possible. In our criticism, we are not concerned about ourselves, but about the tactics of communism; we do not criticise the secondary fact that we ourselves were excluded from the community of communists, but rather the primary fact that the Third International is following in western Europe a tactic both false and disastrous for the proletariat.” (Die Aktion, 19 March 1921)

This was to prove equally correct in the case of the CI’s position on national liberation struggles.

THE SECOND CONGRESS: “OPPORTUNISM IS OUR MAIN ENEMY”

The Theses on the National Colonial Question adopted at the Second Congress reveal above all an uneasy attempt to reconcile a principled internationalist position and denunciation of the bourgeoisie with direct support for what were termed ‘national-revolutionary’ movements in the backward countries and the colonies:

As the conscious express of the proletarian class struggle to throw off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, and in accordance with its main task, which is the fight against bourgeois democracy and the unmasking of its lies and hypocrisy, the Communist Party should not place the main emphasis in the national question on abstract and formal principles, but in the first place on an exact evaluation of the historically given and above all economic milieu. Secondly it should emphasise the explicit separation of the interests of the oppressed classes, of the toilers, of the exploited, from the general concept of the national interest, which means the interests of the ruling class. Thirdly it must emphasise the equally clear division of the oppressed, dependent nations which do not enjoy equal rights from the oppressing, privileged nations, as a counter to the bourgeois democratic lie which covers over the colonial and financial enslavement of the vast majority of the world’s total population, by a tiny minority of the richest and most advanced capitalist countries, that is characteristic of the epoch of finance capital and imperialism.(Second Thesis)

This established the primary task of the Communist Party as the struggle against bourgeois democracy, a point reiterated in many other texts of the CI. This was crucial to a marxist approach. The second emphasis was on the rejection of the 'national interest’ which belonged only to the bourgeoisie. As the Communist Manifesto had proclaimed with profound clarity over seventy years before, the workers have no fatherland to defend. The most fundamental antagonism in capitalist society is the struggle  between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which alone offers a revolutionary dynamic towards the destruction of capitalism and the creation of communism, and any attempt to blur this separation of historic interests consciously or unconsciously defends the interests of the ruling class.

It is in this sense that we must understand the third emphasis in the Second Thesis, which is much more vague, and remains a simple description of the situation of world imperialism, in which the majority of the underdeveloped countries was ruthlessly pillaged by a minority of the more highly developed capitalist countries. Even in the ‘oppressed countries’ there was no ‘national interest’ for the proletariat to defend. The struggle against patriotism was a basic principle of the workers’ movement which could not be broken, and further on, the Theses emphasised the primordial importance of the class struggle:

From the principles set forth it follows that the whole policy of the Communist International must be based mainly on the union of the workers and toiling masses of all nations and countries in the common revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landlords and of the bourgeoisie.(Fourth Thesis, our emphasis)

There was, however, an ambiguity in this emphasis on the division between oppressed and oppressor nations, an ambiguity which was subsequently exploited to help to justify a policy of the proletariat giving direct support to national liberation struggles in the underdeveloped countries with the aim of ‘weakening’ imperialism. Thus, while it was necessary for the Communist Parties “to clarify constantly that only the soviet order is capable of assuring nations true equality by uniting first the proletariat and then the whole mass of toilers in the fight against the bourgeoisie,” in the same breath it was stated that it was necessary “to give direct support to the revolutionary movements in dependent nations and those deprived of their rights, through the Communist Parties of the countries in question.” (Ninth Thesis)

There is a further ambiguity introduced here: What is the exact class nature of this ‘revolutionary movement’? It is not a reference to the political milieu of the embryonic proletariat in the backward countries. The same uneasiness of terminology runs throughout the Theses, which sometimes talk of ‘revolutionary liberation’ movements, sometimes ‘national liberation’ movements. In addition, the actual form that this direct support should take was left to each individual Communist Party, where one existed.

There was at least a recognition in the Eleventh Thesis of the potential dangers in such support, for it warned that: “A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the backward countries. The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only for the purpose of gathering the components of the future proletarian parties... and training them to be conscious of their special tasks.... of fighting against the bourgeois democratic tendencies within their own nation. The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and the backward countries for part of the way should even make an alliance with it; it may not, however, fuse with it, but most unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo.

The material issue here was whether national liberation struggles in the colonies still had a progressive character. It was not yet unequivocally clear that the epoch of bourgeois democratic revolutions was definitely over in Africa, Asia and the Far East. Even those communists in western Europe who during the war had opposed the slogan of ‘self-determination’ made an exception in the case of the colonies. It had not yet been settled by the experience of the proletariat that even in the farthest corners of the globe capitalist ascendancy had ended and that even the bourgeoisie in the colonies could only survive by turning against its ‘own’ proletariat.

But the most serious failure of the Second Congress was not to thrash out this question in open debate, especially when the thrust of many contributions from communists in the underdeveloped countries pointed towards a rejection of any support for the bourgeoisie, even in the colonies.

Within the Commission on the National and Colonial Question there was a debate around the ‘Supplementary Theses’ put forward by the Indian communist MN Roy who, while sharing many of the views of Lenin and the majority of the CI, high lighted a growing contradiction between bourgeois nationalist movements which pursued political independence while preserving capitalist order and the interests of the poor peasantry. Roy saw the most important task of the Communist International as the creation of: “communist organisations of peasants and workers in order to lead them to the revolution and the setting up of soviet power. In this way the masses of the people in the backward countries will be brought to communism not by capitalist development but by the development of class consciousness under the leadership of the proletariat of the advanced countries.  (Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question).

This would involve a fight against the domination of bourgeois nationalist movements.

In support of his Theses, Roy pointed to the rapid industrialisation of colonies like India, Egypt, the Dutch East Indies and China, with a consequent growth of the proletariat; in India there had been enormous strike waves with the development of an independent movement among the exploited masses outside the control of the nationalists.

The debate in the Commission was about whether it was correct in principle for the Communist International to support bourgeois nationalist movements in the backward countries. There was a tentative understanding that the imperialist bourgeoisie was actively encouraging such movements for its own reactionary purposes, as Lenin acknowledged in his introductory speech to the Congress:

A certain understanding has emerged between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often even perhaps in most cases, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, although they support national movements, nevertheless fight against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes with a certain degree of agreement with the imperialist bourgeoisie, that is to say together with it.” (The Second Congress, vol. 1, p. 111 our emphasis)

But the ‘solution’ to the divergence in the Commission, agreed by Roy, was to adopt both sets of Theses, replacing the words ‘bourgeois-democratic’ with ‘national-revolutionary’:

“The point about this is that as communists we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are really revolutionary and if their representatives are not opposed to us training and organising the peasantry in a revolutionary way. If that is no good, then the communists there also have a duty to fight against the reformist bourgeoisie...” (Ibid, our emphasis)

Given the great amount of uneasiness on the part of the CI in giving any support to nationalist movements, this was a clear case of fudging the issue; i.e. of centrism. The change in terminology had no substance in reality and only obscured the historic alternative posed by the entry of capitalism into its decadent epoch: either the international class struggle against the national interest of the bourgeoisie, or the subordination of the class struggle to the bourgeoisie and its counter-revolutionary nationalist movements. The acceptance of the possibility of support for national liberation struggles in the underdeveloped countries by centrist majority of the CI paved the way for more overt forms of opportunism.

THE BAKU CONGRESS AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF OPPORTUNISM

This opportunist tendency hardened after the Second Congress. Immediately afterwards a Congress of the Peoples of the East was held at Baku, at which the leaders of the Communist International re-affirmed their support for bourgeois nationalist movements and even took the step of issuing a call for a ‘holy war’ against British imperialism.

The policies pursued by the world party of the proletariat were more and more being dictated by the contingent needs of the defence of the Soviet Republic rather than by the interests of the world revolution. The Second Congress had established this as a major axis of the CI. The Baku Congress followed this axis, addressing itself particularly to those national minorities in countries adjacent to the besieged Soviet Republic where British imperialism was threatening to strengthen its influence and thus create new springboards for armed intervention against the Russian bastion.

The fine speeches at the Congress and the declaration of solidarity between the European proletariat and the peasants of the East, with many formally correct statements on the need for soviets and for revolution, were not enough to hide the opportunist course towards the indiscriminate backing of nationalist movements:

We appeal, comrades, to the warlike feelings which once inspired the peoples of the East when these peoples, led by their great conquerors, advanced upon Europe. We know, comrades, that our enemies will say that we are appealing to the memory of the great conquering Caliphs of Islam. But we are convinced that yesterday (i.e. in the Congress – ICC) you drew your daggers and your revolvers not for aims of conquest, not to turn Europe into a graveyard – you lifted them in order, together with the workers of the whole world, to create a new civilisation, that of the free worker.” (Radek, quoted in Congress of the Peoples of the East, New Park, 1977, pp. 51-52)

The Manifesto issued by the Congress concluded with a summons to the peoples of the East to join “the first real holy war, under the red banner of the Communist International”; more specifically, a jihad against “the common enemy, imperialist Britain”.

Even at the time there was a reaction against these blatant attempts to reconcile reactionary nationalism with proletarian internationalism. Lenin himself warned against ‘painting nationalism red’. Significantly, Roy criticised the Congress before it was held, and refused to attend what he dubbed as “Zinoviev’s Circus”, while John Reed, the American left-wing communist, also objected bitterly to its “demagogy and display”.

However, such responses failed to address the roots of the opportunist course being followed, remaining instead on a centrist terrain of conciliation with more open expression of opportunism, and hiding behind the Theses of the Second Congress, which, to say the least covered a multitude of sins in the revolutionary movement.

Already in 1920 this opportunist course involved direct support to the bourgeois nationalist movement of Kemal Pasha in Turkey, even though at the time Kemal had given his support to the religious power of the Sultan. This was hardly the policy of the Communist International, as Zinoviev noted, but: “...at the same time we say that we are ready to help any revolutionary struggle against the British government.” (Congress, p.33). The very next year the leader of this ‘revolutionary struggle’ had the leaders of the Turkish Communist Party executed. Despite this, the Bolsheviks and the CI continued to see a ‘revolutionary potential’ in this nationalist movement until Kemal’s alliance with the Entente in 1923, choosing to ignore the massacre of workers and communists in favour of seeking an ally in a strategically important country on Russia’s borders.

The CI’s policies in Persia and the Far East had similarly disastrous results, proving that Kemal was no accident but simply an expression of the new epoch of capitalist decadence, in which nationalism and the proletarian revolution were utterly irreconcilable.

The results of all this opportunism were fatal for the workers’ movement. With the world revolution sinking into deeper and deeper defeat, and the proletariat in Russia exhausted and decimated by famine and civil war, the Communist International more and more became the foreign policy instrument of the Bolsheviks, who found themselves in the role of managers of Russian capital. From being a serious error within the workers’ movement, the policy of support for national liberation struggles was transformed by the late 1920s into the imperialist strategy of a capitalist power. A decisive moment in this involution was the CI’s policy of support for the viciously anti-working class nationalists of the Kuoming-tang in China, which led in 1927 to the betrayal and massacre of the Shanghai workers’ uprising. Such overt acts of treason demonstrated that the Stalinist faction, which had by then won almost complete dominion over the CI and its parties, was no longer an opportunist current within the workers’ movement but a direct expression of the capitalist counter-revolution.

But it is nevertheless a fact that the roots of this policy lay in errors and weaknesses within the workers’ movement, and it is the duty of communists to explore these roots today in order to better arm themselves against the process of degeneration, because:

Stalinism did not fall from the sky, nor did it arise from a void. And if it is absurd to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so it is absurd to condemn the Communist International because Stalinism developed and triumphed from within it... But it is no less absurd to pretend that the dirty bathwater was always absolutely pure and limpidity clear and to present the history of the Communist International as divided into two neat periods, the first when it was pure, revolutionary, spotless, without weakness, until sharply interrupted by the explosion of the counter-revolution. These images of a happy paradise and a horrible hell, with no link between them, have nothing to do with a real movement, such as the history of the communist movement, where continuity flows through profound splits and where future ruptures have their seeds in the process of the continuity.” (Introduction to texts of the Mexican Left 1938, in International Review no. 20)

The Second Congress highlighted the dangers for the workers’ movement of opportunism and centrism within its own ranks; and if opportunism was only able to finally triumph in conditions of profound reflux in the international class struggle, and the isolation of the Russian workers, it could take root in the first place in all the existing vacillations and hesitations of the revolutionary movement, exploiting all the ‘well-meaning’ efforts to smooth over differences with a finely turned word instead of honestly confronting serious divergences.

These are the typical characteristics of centrism, demonstrated clearly in the example of the Dutch communist Sneevliet (‘Maring’), who in the Second Congress was apparently responsible for ‘resolving’ the problem of the divergence between the Theses of Lenin and Roy by proposing, as secretary of the Commission on the National and Colonial Question, that the Congress adopt both sets of Theses. Sneevliet in fact agreed with Lenin that it was necessary to make temporary alliances with bourgeois nationalist movements. In practice, it was this view which was to dominate the policy of the CI and not Roy’s rejection of such alliances.

Sneevliet was appointed to the Executive Committee of the CI and was sent to China as its Far East representative. He became convinced that the Chinese nationalist Kuomingtang had a ‘revolutionary potential’, and wrote in the official organ of the CI:

If we communists, who are actively trying to establish links with the workers of north China are to work successfully, we must take care to maintain friendly relations with the nationalists. The Thesis of the Second Congress can only be applied in China by offering active support to the nationalist elements of the south (i.e. the KMT – ICC). We have as our task to keep the revolutionary nationalist elements with us and to drive the whole movement to the left.  (Kommunistische Internationale 13 September 1922)

Five years later these same ‘revolutionary elements’ beheaded communists and workers in the streets of Shanghai in an orgy of mass murder.

It’s important to stress that Sneevliet was only one individual example of the danger of centrism and opportunism facing the revolutionary movement. His views were shared by the majority of the CI.

They were shared to a greater or lesser extent even by the left-wing communists, who failed to clearly present their positions. Those like Bukharin and Radek who had opposed the slogan of self-determination now appeared to accept the majority view, while the Italian Left around Bordiga and the Communist Abstentionist Fraction, although against the opportunist tactic of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’, fully supported Lenin’s Theses. The German Left, basing its position on the work of Rosa Luxemburg, was of all the left fractions in the best position to make a determined, principled stand against support for national liberation struggles in the CI, but the delegates of the KAPD, who included Otto Ruhle, failed to participate, at least in part due to councilist prejudices.

The theoretical gains made by the western European lefts in the debates within the Zimmerwald Left during the war were not concretised in the Second Congress. It was only with the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the late 1920s that the few surviving left fractions, and especially the Italian Left around the journal Bilan, were able to conclude that the proletariat could give no support to nationalist movements even in the colonies. For Bilan, the massacre in China in 1927 proved that “The Theses of Lenin at the Second Congress must be completed by radically changing their content... the indigenous proletariat can... become the protagonist of an anti-imperialist struggle only if it links itself to the international proletariat...” (Bilan no. 16, February 1935, quoted in Nation or Class?, p. 32). It was the Italian Left, and later the Mexican and French Lefts, who were finally able to make a higher synthesis of the work of Rosa Luxemburg on imperialism and the experience of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

LESSONS FOR TODAY

The mistakes of the CI are clearly no excuse for the same errors by revolutionaries today. The Stalinists long ago passed over to the counter-revolution, taking the Communist International with them. For the Trotskyists, the ‘possibility’ of support for nationalist struggles in the colonies was transformed into unconditional support, and in this way they ended up participating in the second imperialist world war.

Within  the proletarian camp, the Bordigists of the degenerated Italian Left devised a theory of geographical areas where, for the vast majority of the world’s population in the underdeveloped countries, the ‘anti-imperialist bourgeois-democratic revolution’ was still on the agenda. The Bordigists, by freezing the last dot and comma of the Theses of the Second Congress, took over the centrism and opportunism of the CI, lock, stock and barrel. The dangers of trying to apply its unworkable policies in the decadence of capitalism were finally proved by the disintegration of the International Communist Party (Communist Program) in 1981 after becoming thoroughly corroded with opportunism towards various nationalist movements (see IR 32).

Which finally brings us to the ‘embarrassed’ Bordigists of the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista, now partially regrouped with the Communist Workers’ Organisation – see articles on the IBRP in IRs 40 and 41). Battaglia defends a position against national liberation struggles in decadence, as a group within the proletarian political milieu. But shows a singular difficulty in breaking definitively with the opportunism and centrism of the early CI on this and other vital questions. For example, in its preparatory text for the Second Conference of Groups of the Communist Left in 1978, BC fails to make any critique of the positions of the Second Congress, or of the practice of the early CI, preferring instead to support polemic against Rosa Luxemburg! BC’s vision of a future party “turning movements of national liberation into proletarian revolutions” introduces the danger of opportunism through the back door, and has already led it, together with the CWO, into a filtration with the Iranian nationalist group, the UCM (now the ‘Communist Party of Iran’ – a Maoist grouping). Theses relations have been justified by the need to “help orientated new militants” coming from a country “that has no communist history or tradition, a backward country...” (from a document presented by Battaglia at an ICC public meeting in Naples in July 1983).

This patronising attitude is not only an excuse for the worst kind of opportunism, it is an insult to the communist movement in the underdeveloped countries, a movement which despite the cringing excuses of Battaglia  has a rich and proud history of principled opposition to bourgeois nationalist straggles. It is an insult to the militants of the Persian Communist Party who at the Second Congress warned that: “If one were to proceed according to the Theses in countries which already have ten or more years of experience, or in those where the movement has already had power, it would mean driving the masses into the arms of the counter-revolution. The task is to create and maintain a purely communist movement in opposition to the bourgeois-democratic one.” (Sultan Zadeh, quoted in The Second Congress, vol. 1, p.135).

It is an insult to the position of the Indian Communist Roy (who was actually a delegate of the Mexican CP). It is an insult to those in the young Chinese Communist Party like Chang Kuo-Tao who opposed the official CI policy of centrism into the nationalist KMT.

Gorter once talked about the communist programme being “hard as steel, clear as glass.” With the infinitely malleable, opaque pronouncements of Battaglia Communista we are back on the same terrain as the Second Congress of the CI over fifty years ago: the terrain of opportunism and centrism, with an added dash of patronising chauvinism. It is a terrain revolutionaries today must fight constantly to avoid. This is the most enduring lesson of the past debates among communists on the national questions.

S. Ray

Part 1: The debate on the national question at the dawn of decadence

Part 2: The debate during the years of imperialist war