The national question today: response to the CRI

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At the beginning of 2004, we had an exchange of e-mails with the CRI[1] which claims to be breaking from the logic of official Trotskyism in the name of a return to “authentic” Trotskyism. This group also sent us a collection of documents, which we studied along with the texts published on its web site. As a result, we sent the group a detailed reply, which we reproduce below. In it, we demonstrate on the basis of Lenin’s writing that there is no possibility of defending proletarian positions within Trotskyism today. Breaking with a particular Trotskyist organisation without making a complete break with the whole logic of Trotskyism, can only, as far as the question of war is concerned, lead to supporting one bourgeois faction against another.

We recognise the fact that you declare, both in your correspondence and in your texts as a whole, that your action aims to take part in the struggle of the working class, and that your “historical objective” is the communist revolution. However, the history of the workers' movement has, tragically, taught communists that there have been parties which claim to defend the working class and the victory of socialism or communism, yet whose real objective – whether or not their militants were conscious of the fact – was the defeat of the working class, the continuation of capitalist exploitation, and the sacrifice of millions of proletarians for the interests of their national bourgeoisies in the imperialist wars of the 20th century.

The history of the 20th century has amply demonstrated that there is one essential criterion which determines the real class nature of any organisation that claims to belong to the proletariat: that is, internationalism. It is no accident that we find the same currents which took clear positions against the imperialist war in 1914, and which pushed forward the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal (especially the Bolsheviks and the Spartakists), at the head of the revolution, while the social-chauvinist, or even the centrist currents (Ebert and Scheidemann, or the Mensheviks), formed the spearhead of the counter-revolution. Nor is it by chance that both the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the Inaugural Address of the First International in 1864, end with the words: “Workers of all countries, unite!”.

Today, war continues to lay waste the planet, and the defence of internationalism continues to be the decisive criterion for deciding whether or not an organisation belongs to the camp of the working class. In these wars, the only attitude true to the interests of the working class is to reject any participation in either of the warring camps, to denounce all those bourgeois forces which call on the workers, under any pretext whatsoever, to give their lives for any of the capitalist camps, and to put forward, as the Bolsheviks did in 1914, the only possible perspective: intransigent class struggle for the overthrow of capitalism.

Any attitude which leads to calling the workers to line up behind one or other armed camp comes down to adopting the role of recruiting sergeant for capitalist war, an accomplice of the bourgeoisie, and therefore a traitor. This was exactly how Lenin and the Bolsheviks considered the social democrats who, in the name of the struggle against “Prussian militarism” on one side, and against “Tsarist oppression” on the other, called the workers to mutual murder in 1914. And, unfortunately, whatever the CRI's good intentions may be, it has adopted in relation to Iraq precisely the same nationalist policy that Lenin denounced in 1914.

When, in its press, the CRI gives its “unconditional support to the Iraqi people's armed resistance to the invader”, in reality it is doing nothing other than calling on the Iraqi proletarians to become canon-fodder in the service of this or that fraction of the national bourgeoisie, which today considers its capitalist and imperialist interests outside or against an alliance with the United States (whereas other bourgeois fractions prefer to ally themselves with the US in defence of their interests). We should point out, moreover, that the dominant fractions of the Iraqi bourgeoisie (which lined up for decades behind Saddam Hussein) have been, depending on the circumstances of the moment, either the best allies of the USA (especially during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s), or members of the “axis of evil” supposedly devoted to the destruction of the same.

To justify this policy of support for certain fractions of the Iraqi bourgeoisie, the CRI (as it did in its forum at the Fête de Lutte ouvrière) invokes Lenin's position during World War I, when he wrote, for example in Socialism and War: “if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be 'just', 'defensive' wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every Socialist would sympathise with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory 'great' powers” (Chapter 1, “The Principles of Socialism and the War of 1914-1915”).

However, what the CRI forgets (or chooses to forget) is precisely that a major axis of this text (as indeed of all Lenin's writing in this period) is the ferocious denunciation of the pretexts put forward by the social-chauvinists to justify their support for imperialist war on the basis of this or that country or nationality's “national independence”.

Thus, on the one hand, Lenin can declare that: “In fact, the German bourgeoisie has launched a robber campaign against Serbia, with the object of subjugating her and throttling the national revolution of the Southern Slavs...” (War and Russian Social-Democracy) and he can also write that “In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria (...) It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people’, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation’. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war”. On the other hand, however he continues: “Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted. The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a ‘draw’, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is ‘liberating’ Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria. All this, which is common knowledge, has been unblushingly distorted by Kautsky to justify the opportunists” (The Collapse of the Second International, 1915, Chapter 6).

As far as Serbia is concerned, we should point out that in 1914 the Serb Socialist Party categorically rejected and denounced, “the resistance of the Serb people against the Austrian invader”, just as the latter was bombarding the civilian population of Belgrade and also that the internationalists of the time saluted it for doing so.

To return to the present day, it is “common knowledge” (and we could add that those who refuse to acknowledge the fact “unblushingly distort” reality) that the war waged by the United States and Britain against Iraq (just like the war launched in August 1914 by Austria and Germany against “little Serbia”) has imperialist implications which go far beyond Iraq itself. Concretely, in opposition to the countries of the “coalition”, there is a group of countries, such as France and Germany, with antagonistic imperialist interests. This is why France and Germany did everything they could to prevent the American invasion last year, and have since refused to send any troops to Iraq. And the fact that they have just voted in the United Nations for a resolution presented by Britain and the US means nothing other than that diplomatic agreements, are just as much part of the latent war between the great powers as their diplomatic disputes.

Despite all its declarations of friendship with the United States, trumpeted notably on the occasion of the ceremonies to commemorate the 1944 Normandy Landings,  French imperialism stands to gain from the USA's difficulties in Iraq. In the final analysis, what the CRI's support for the “resistance of the Iraqi people” boils down to, is to take the side of “its” own bourgeoisie. And there can be no question of calling on Lenin to justify such a policy, since Lenin himself called on socialists “primarily to strive against the chauvinism of their “own” bourgeoisie” (Position and Tasks of the Socialist International, 1st November 1914).

If the CRI really wants to follow Lenin's example in the defence of internationalism, then they must take account of reality and give up on fairy tales: support for the “resistance of the Iraqi people against the invader” is purely and simply a betrayal of internationalism, and therefore a chauvinist, anti-proletarian policy. It is against such policies that Lenin wrote: “The social-chauvinists repeat the bourgeois deception of the people that the war is being waged to protect the freedom and existence of nations, and thereby they go over to the side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat” (Socialism and war, Chapter 1).

That said, support for the “resistance of the Iraqi people”, in other words for the anti-American fractions of the Iraqi ruling class, is not merely a betrayal of internationalism from the standpoint of what is at stake in Iraq in terms of the antagonisms between the great imperialist powers; and it is not only a betrayal of internationalism from the standpoint of the proletariat of the great powers but it is equally a betrayal of internationalism from the standpoint of the Iraqi workers, who are being invited to buy a pig in a poke and get themselves killed in the defence of the imperialist interests of their own bourgeoisie. For there can be no question that the Iraqi state is anything other than imperialist. In fact, in today's world, all states are imperialist, from the most powerful right down to the smallest of them. Thus “little Serbia”, which historically has been a favourite prey for the imperialist appetites of greater powers such as Germany and Russia (and France), behaved during the 1990s as a model imperialist state, complete with massacres and “ethnic cleansing” in order to build a “Greater Serbia” at the expense of the other nationalities of ex-Yugoslavia. All that, of course, within a European context dominated by the antagonisms between the various powers which “defended” either Croatia (Germany and Austria), or Bosnia (the United States), or again Serbia (France and Britain).

The Iraqi state is in no way an exception to this general rule. On the contrary, it is one its most edifying examples.

Ever since its independence from the British sphere of influence following World War II, Iraq, thanks to its strategic location and its oil resources, has constantly been a stake in the rivalries between the great powers. After a period as a “client” of the USSR, it switched to the Western bloc (notably through a spectacular rapprochement with Germany, and especially France) during the 1970s, as Soviet influence in the Middle East declined. Between 1980 and 1988, in one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts since 1945 (1,200,000 dead), Iraq was the spearhead of the Western offensive against Khomeini's Iran, which had declared holy war on the American “Great Satan”. The Western powers, and especially the US, gave Iraq their unfailing support, notably through the despatch to the Persian Gulf, in 1987, of a large fleet which engaged the Iranian forces on a daily basis, and finally forced Iran to agree to a ceasefire in the summer of 1988, despite the heavy defeats that it had inflicted on Iraq.

Obviously, Saddam Hussein did not send hundreds of thousands of Iraqi workers and peasants in uniform to get killed on the Iranian front from 1980 onwards (and in passing massacre 5,000 Kurdish civilians at Halabja on 16th March 1988), just to give pleasure to the United States. In fact, the Iraqi bourgeoisie was pursuing its own war aims. Apart from subjugating by terror the Kurdish and Shi'ite populations, its objective was to seize the Shatt al-Arab waterway (the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates) from Iranian control. The war was also intended to allow Saddam Hussein, and Iraq, to pose as the leader of the Arab world. In short, this war was a perfectly imperialist one.

The war of 1990-91 was of the same nature. The imperialist objectives of the USA and its allies at the time, in “Operation Desert Storm”, have already been amply demonstrated and denounced. But the pretext for the crusade against Iraq was the latter’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. Obviously, marxists have no interest in the question of who was the “aggressor” and who was the “aggressed”, nor do they leap to the defence of Sheikh Jaber's bank account and oil reserves. That said, Iraq's military expedition against Kuwait in August 1990 was nothing other than the operation of one imperialist bandit (to use Lenin's expression) against another. The fact that these are little bandits makes no difference whatever to the fundamental nature of their policies, nor to the attitude the proletariat should take towards this kind of war.

One last remark on the imperialist nature of states today. An argument often given to support the idea that states like Iraq are not imperialist, is that they do not export capital. This argument claims to follow Lenin's analysis developed in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, which lays particular emphasis on this aspect of imperialist policy. But the use of this one-sided view of imperialism by self-styled “Leninists” in order to justify their betrayal of internationalism is of the same vein as the use made by the Stalinists of another of Lenin's articles during World War I (taken totally out of context moreover): “Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone. After expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world—the capitalist world—attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, stirring uprisings in those countries against the capitalists, and in case of need using even armed force against the exploiting classes and their states” (On the slogan for a United States of Europe).

For the Stalinists (who generally leave out the last sentence in this quotation), “This was the greatest discovery of our epoch. It became the guiding principle for all the action of the Communist Party in its struggle for the victory of the socialist revolution and the construction of socialism in our country. Lenin's theory on the possibility of the victory of socialism in a single country laid down a clear perspective for the proletariat's struggle, gave free rein to the energy and initiative of the proletarians in every country to march against their national bourgeoisie, and filled the communist party and the working class with a firm confidence in victory” (from the Preface to the selected works of Lenin published by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, Moscow, 1975).

This method is not new. It has always been used by the renegades, the falsifiers of marxism. The German Social Democrats used this or that incorrect or ambiguous formulation from the founders of marxism to justify their reformist politics and their betrayal of socialism. In particular, they completely wore out this quotation from Engels' 1895 preface to Marx's pamphlet The class struggles in France: “The war of 1870-71 and the defeat of the Commune transferred the centre of gravity of the European workers’ movement in the meantime from France to Germany, as Marx had foretold. In France it naturally took years to recover from the blood-letting of May 1871. In Germany, on the other hand, where industry – fostered, in addition, in positively hothouse fashion by the blessing of the French milliards  – developed at increasing speed, Social-Democracy experienced a still more rapid and enduring growth. Thanks to the intelligent use which the German workers made of the universal suffrage introduced in 1866, the astonishing growth of the party is made plain to all the world by incontestable figures (...) With this successful utilisation of universal suffrage, however, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly took on a more tangible form. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets, to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion”.

Rosa Luxemburg denounced the anti-proletarian use to which an incorrect idea of Engels had been put, at the founding congress of the KPD: “Engels [had] no chance to see the practical results of this application of his theory. I am certain that those who know the works of Marx and Engels, those who are familiar with the living, genuine revolutionary spirit that inspired all their teachings and their writings, will he convinced that Engels would have been the first to protest against the debauch of parliamentarism-only, against the corruption and degradation of the labour movement which was characteristic of Germany before the 4th of August. The 4th of August did not come like thunder out of a clear sky; what happened on the 4th of August was the logical outcome of all that we had been doing day after day for many years. I am certain that Engels and Marx, had he been alive – would have been the first to have protested with the utmost energy, and would have used all his forces to keep the vehicle from rolling into the swamp. But Engels died in the same year that he wrote the Preface” (Our programme and the political situation).

To return to the idea that the export of capital is the only expression of imperialist policy, we should point out that this is wholly foreign to what Lenin himself wrote in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Quite the contrary: “To the numerous "old" motives of colonial policy, finance capital [which according to Lenin was the major driving force behind imperialism] has added the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence, i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopoly profits and so on, economic territory in general” (Chapter X, “The place of imperialism in history”).

In reality, the one-sided deformation of Lenin's analysis of imperialism has much the same aim as the use made by the Stalinists of the short passage quoted above concerning the “construction of socialism in a single country”: to try to make us believe that the system set up in the USSR after the revolution of October 1917 and the defeat of the world wide revolutionary wave which followed it was neither capitalist nor imperialist. Since the USSR did not have the financial wherewithal to export capital (other than on a completely insignificant scale compared to the Western powers), then according to this view, its policies could not be imperialist. And this would supposedly remain true, even when these policies took the form of territorial conquest, the extension of the USSR's “spheres of influence”, the pillage of raw materials and agricultural resources, even the dismantling of the industrial capacity of occupied countries. Policies, in short, that are very similar to those carried out by Nazi Germany in occupied Europe (which involved very little exportation of capital, and much plain pillage). This analysis of the nature of imperialism was obviously put to good use by Stalinist propaganda, against all those who denounced the imperialist behaviour of the Soviet Union. But we should also remember that the Stalinists were not alone in refusing any idea that the USSR could be capitalist or imperialist. Their work of mystification received the loyal support of the Trotskyist movement, with Trotsky's analysis of the USSR as a “degenerated workers' state” where capitalist social relations had disappeared.

This article is not the place to demonstrate the incoherence of Trotsky's analysis of the relations of production in the USSR. We refer the reader to various articles already published in these pages (notably, to “The unidentified class: Soviet bureaucracy as seen by Leon Trotsky”, in International Review n°92). However, it is important to point out that it was in the name of the “defence of the USSR and the workers' victories” that the Trotskyist movement supported the Allied camp during World War II, notably by taking part in the “resistance” movements: in other words, it adopted the same policies as the social-chauvinists in 1914. In short, it betrayed the workers camp and joined that of the bourgeoisie.

The “arguments” used by the Trotskyist movement to justify its participation in imperialist war are not the same as those used by the social-chauvinists during World War I, but that makes not a jot of difference to the question. In reality, their nature is the same, since both come down to making a fundamental distinction between two forms of capitalism, and calling for the support of one against the other in the name of a choice of the “lesser” between two evils. During World War I, the avowed chauvinists called for the defence of the fatherland. The social chauvinists called for the defence of “German civilisation” against “Tsarist despotism” on the one hand, and for the defence of the “France of the great French Revolution” against “Prussian militarism” on the other. During World War II, De Gaulle defended “eternal France”, while the Stalinists (who also referred to “eternal France”) called for the defence of democracy against fascism and of the “socialist fatherland”. As for the Trotskyists, they came hot on the heels of the Stalinists and called for participation in the “Resistance” in the name of the “defence of the workers' victories in the USSR”. In doing so they became, like the Stalinists, recruiting sergeants for the Anglo-American camp in an imperialist war. By giving their support to National Unity governments during World War I, the socialist parties passed definitively into the bourgeois camp. By adopting the theory of “building socialism in one country”, the Stalinist parties made a decisive move towards the service of their national capitals during the 1930s, a move completed with their support for their respective bourgeoisies' rearmament programmes, and their active preparation for the coming war. The Trotskyist current passed into the capitalist camp by participating in World War II. This is why, to return to the proletariat's class terrain, there is no alternative to a definitive break with Trotskyism. There is certainly no future in any attempt to rediscover “real Trotskyism”. The currents within the 4th International who were determined to remain true to proletarian internationalism understood this: currents like those of Munis (Trotskyism's official representative in Spain), of Scheuer in Austria, of Stinas in Greece, or of the “Socialisme ou Barbarie” group in France. It was also true for Trotsky's own widow, Natalia Sedova, who broke with the 4th International at the end of World War II, on the question of the defence of the USSR and the latter's participation in imperialist war.

If you, yourselves, sincerely want to undertake the struggle for the working class, as you say you do, then there is no other alternative than to break clearly with the whole Trotskyist movement, and not just with this or that current within it.

You can turn the problem whichever way you like, you can invoke Trotsky, Lenin, or even Marx, you can recite by heart Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, you can close your eyes and block your eyes, you can put your head in the sand or anywhere, nothing can change this hard reality: a group which today, in France, gives its support to the “Iraqi resistance”, not only works as a recruiting sergeant to turn Iraqi workers into cannon-fodder in the service of the most retrograde fractions of the Iraqi bourgeoisie (whether they be Sunni or Shi'ite), but also offers its support to the imperialist interests of its own bourgeoisie, while at the same time encouraging the growth of anti-American feeling among the French workers. It is no different from those that Lenin described as social-chauvinists: socialist in words, bourgeois and chauvinist in action.

As for those arguments that seek to adopt a “marxist” air by using this or that phrase from Lenin or Marx to justify participation in imperialist war, Lenin has already answered them: “From the liberator of nations that capitalism was in the struggle against feudalism, imperialist capitalism has become the greatest oppressor of nations. Formerly progressive, capitalism has become reactionary; it has developed the forces of production to such a degree that mankind is faced with the alternative of going over to Socialism or of suffering years and even decades of armed struggle between the “great powers for the artificial preservation of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges and national oppression of every kind” (Lenin, Socialism and war, Chapter 1, “The present war is an imperialist war”).

The Russian social-chauvinists (headed by Plekhanov), refer to Marx’s tactics in the war of 1870; the German (of the type of Lensch, David and Co.) to Engels’ statement in 1891 that in the event of war against Russia and France together, it would be the duty of the German Socialists to defend their fatherland; and lastly, the social-chauvinists of the Kautsky type, who want to reconcile and legitimatise international chauvinism, refer to the fact that Marx and Engels, while condemning war, nevertheless, constantly, from to 1870-1871 and 1876-1877, took the side of one or another belligerent state once war had broken out. All these references are outrageous distortions of the views of Marx and Engels in the interest of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists (...) Whoever refers today to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Man’s statement that “the workers have no fatherland”, a statement that applies precisely to the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution. shamelessly distorts Marx and substitute, the bourgeois for the socialist point of view” (ibid, “False references to Marx and Engels”).

We hope that these arguments will help you to continue your reflection, and to make a complete break with Trotskyism in general and all the bourgeois conceptions that it brings with it, rather than merely breaking with a particular Trotskyist organisation.

Communist greetings, ICC (June 2004)

[1] Groupe Communiste révolutionnaire Internationaliste, which is a split from the French Trotskyist organisation Parti des Travailleurs.