The 1960s were the heyday of third worldism and national liberation mythology. The bloody war in Vietnam which leftists and liberals described as the ‘heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against US imperialism’; China as the bastion of the oppressed peoples of the world, and the thoughts of Chairman Mao about the underdeveloped countries forming a huge revolutionary army and laying siege to the capitalist metropoles; the necrophiliac cult of Che; Castro, Ben Bella, Fanon, Marcuse, black power … a whole generation of student and even working class militants were nurtured on these myths and around sundry solidarity campaigns with the ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle. The industrial working class of the advanced capitalisms, went the myth, have been bought off by imperialism; they enjoy the benefits of capitalist prosperity built on the backs of the peoples of the third world. The proletariat is no longer the main revolutionary force in society. The impetus for revolution will come from the upsurge of the peasant and pauperized masses in the backward countries, led by well-trained guerrilla armies and allying themselves with the new revolutionary vanguard in the metropoles – not the workers, but students, ‘blacks’, ‘women’ …
In the 1970s, all these myths have been mercilessly exposed in the glaring light of the world crisis of capitalism.
The crisis of this historically bankrupt world order provokes two fundamental responses from the two main classes in society. The bourgeoisie, divided into competing nation states and imperialist blocs, is pushed towards world war. The working class, producer of social wealth, is pushed towards struggles in defence of its living standards – struggle with impedes the movement towards war and opens up the possibility of the communist revolution. The evolution of these two divergent tendencies over the last decade has served to shatter all the lies and illusions about so-called national liberation struggles.
As it lurches towards world war, the bourgeoisie is forced to strengthen the stranglehold of its imperialist system. Imperialism means precisely that the whole world is dominated, carved up, by the main capitalist powers. Throughout the imperialist epoch of world capital no new independent capitalisms have appeared nor can appear: national liberation is simply impossible. Ever country, ever fraction of capital is compelled to integrate itself into the military-economic complex imposed by the main powers – today that means the American and Russian imperialist blocs. Every war, every shift in international alignments, means only that the world market has been redivided, the spoils redistributed. This has been the case throughout the 20th Century but it is particularly apparent in periods of open crisis, such as we have been living through over the last ten years. In such periods, the imperialist blocs must reinforce their internal cohesion. They must bring all their vassal states to heel and intervene in any area threatened by the incursions of the other bloc. They can no longer afford to allow the rival bloc the slightest margin of manoeuvre in any corner of the globe. This grim reality of the two blocs strengthening themselves in preparation for a final showdown underlies all the significant events which have so dented the image of nationalist struggles over the past ten years:
- China, that alleged beacon of the oppressed peoples of the world, open and shamelessly integrates itself in the US bloc. It follows a foreign policy so transparently reactionary that the world of Maoism is thrown into turmoil. In 1970 Mao welcomes Nixon to Peking while US bombs rain down on China’s socialist allies in Hanoi. In 1971 China combines with the US, Britain, Ceylon, India, Pakistan and Russia to put down the uprising in Ceylon led by the Peoples Liberation Army (JVP). In the same year it supports Pakistan’s Yahya Kahn in his efforts to crush the movement for Bangladeshi independence. It establishes friendly relations with the ultra-reactionary regimes in Pinochet’s Chile and Vorster’s South Africa. It sides with the South Africa-backed FLNA in the Angolan war of 1976. In 1979, it invades its Stalinist neighbours in Vietnam. All this is accompanied by squalid faction fights within the ruling clique, by sudden and bewildering changes in the bureaucracy’s ideological lines, in order to kick out the more autarkic Gang of Four and install the pro-western Teng faction.
- In Angola in 1976, three rival national liberation fronts fight a murderous war to decide who will become the true, authentic spokesman of the Angolan masses. These internal rivalries no longer even veil the global rivalry which feeds these local bourgeois fronts and supplies them with arms. Behind the MPLA stands Russia, Cuba, East Germany; behind the FLNA and UNITA stands the US, Britain, France, South Africa, China …
- In the Horn of Africa, Russia and the US swap pawns almost at will; Somalia passes from Russian control to the US; Ethiopia from American to Russian; The secessionist Eritrean movement in Ethiopia, formerly backed by Russia, is now bombed and strafed by the ruling Dergue with the full support of Russian, Cuban and East German ‘advisers’. The Cuban troops, billed as examples of Castro regime’s selfless internationalism after their intervention in Angola, show their real role: as ghurkas of Russian imperialism, used to smash a local nationalist movement which doesn’t fit in with the Kremlin’s strategy.
- In Vietnam and Cambodia, the ‘liberated’ population is plunged into barbarism. Both counties become a vast forced labour camp. In Cambodia the urban population is evacuated at gun point to work at ferocious rates of exploitation in the countryside; thousands are butchered by the hysterically nationalist Pol Pot regime. Vietnam carries out the same policies with a little more caution, but not far as the ethnic Chinese are concerned. Thousands are booted out of the country in a racist assault reminiscent of Nazi Germany. To cap it all, the two fraternal neighbours get involved in a series of border skirmishes culminating in the outright Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the installation of a Vietnamese puppet regime. The ‘anti-capitalist’ forces of yesterday bare their own imperialist fangs. And once again, these local paroxysms, expressing the accelerating collapse of the backward countries in the face of the world crisis, are moulded into planet-wide strategies of the super-powers. Behind Cambodia stands China; behind Vietnam, Russia. The war between China and Vietnam conjures up the spectre of a third world war.
These are only the most spectacular examples of the way in which the crisis has exposed so-called wars of national liberation as nothing but inter-imperialist massacres, stepping stones to a global holocaust. On their own, however, such examples could lead merely to cynicism, to a purely negative rejection of national liberation ideology. But the counter-tendency to the move towards world war – the international class struggle – does more than expose the myth of national liberation. It offers a positive way out for the proletariat, for revolutionaries, and for the oppressed masses of the world.
The workers’ struggle in the supposedly liberated countries of the third world not only illustrates the viciously anti-working class character of the national liberation forces, who the greet the least sign of working class resistance with merciless repression and frenzied, chauvinist appeals to labour discipline and national unity. It shows that the working class exists and struggles in all countries, and has the same enemies in all countries – the police, the army, the unions, nationalism, and the fake ‘socialism’ of the bourgeois left. It shows that the conditions for a worldwide revolution are ripening everywhere today. It shows that workers and revolutionaries are not passive spectators of inter-imperialist conflicts: they have a camp to choose, the camp of the proletarian struggle against all the factions of the bourgeoisie and all imperialisms.
· In China in 1967, the workers of Shanghai and other major cities respond to Red Guard provocation with violent and widespread strikes, showing up the Cultural Revolution for what it is – a vast ideological campaign to justify the intensification of exploitation. Further waves of bitter struggles recur in 1974 – 76. Today China is one of the most strike-prone countries in the world, as can be gauged by the present government’s constant please for productivity and labour discipline.
· In South America, the Peruvian leftist military junta is faced again and again by huge outbreaks of proletarian revolt, repressing them with a brutality which easily matches that of the right. In Chile, the copper miners’ fight to defend their living standards leads them to confront both Allende and Pinochet. In Argentina the Cordoba uprising of 1969 and the June days of 1976, put pay to the lie that the revolution in South America will be the work of small bands of urban or rural guerrillas. The response of the guerrillas in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina is to offer themselves up as the praetorian guards of the bourgeoisie’s popular fronts.
· In Africa, the MPLA helps break the Luanda dockers’ wildcat in 1975; as soon as it comes to power it echoes its counterparts in FRELIMO (Mozambique) by denouncing labour unrest and ‘excessive’ wage demands. In South Africa, the miners’ strikes 1973 remind the world that the only real opposition to the apartheid regime, to South African capital as a whole, is the working class. In North Africa, the class struggle of the Algerian, Tunisian and Mauritanian workers mocks the bourgeoisie’s calls for national unity and impedes the mobilisation for a local imperialist war in the Sahara. The mass revolt in Egypt in 1977 and the waves of strikes in Israel make it equally difficult for their respective bourgeoisies to prepare another war.
· In Iran, the workers’ struggle brings down one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and continues after the creation of Khomeiny’s Islamic Republic. By giving an impetus and direction to the revolt of the poverty stricken urban masses, the workers’ struggle in Iran proves that only the proletariat can offer a perspective to these masses in the fight against capital. Without the intervention and leadership of the working class, the discontent of these strata is easily recuperated by the bourgeoisie and canalized into nationalist, imperialist faction fights.
If the only choice facing humanity today is between imperialist war and world revolution, we need only ask one question about the role of national liberation struggles. Are they part of the movement towards world revolution as the Trotskyists and Maoists claim, or are they laboratories for world imperialist war? Are they compatible with the workers’ struggle, a potential ally of the workers, or are they the direct negation of the class struggle, the mobilisation of the working class behind the banners of its most deadly enemies? There is no middle ground on this question. The events of the last sixty years, and in particular the events of the last decade, have made the choice clear:
“Either to accept the mystifications of national liberation, which means justifying the exploitation and repression of the workers of the backward regions, and which above all means joining in capital’s preparations for a third world war;
Or to take the side of the world proletariat against all its exploiters, against the massacre of workers and peasants on the altar of national liberation, against the austerity measures which accompany the preparation for war in the metropoles as well as in the third world, against the bourgeoisie’s monstrous solution to the crisis, for the transformation of all imperialist tensions and conflicts into the civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie!” (ICC text for the second international conference of revolutionary groups)
This pamphlet is part of the ICC’s contribution to the task of demystifying the pernicious ideology of national liberation. It contains the original text of the pamphlet Nation or Class?, first published in 1976, plus a translation of the introduction to the French edition of the pamphlet, which further clarifies the development of the Marxist position on nationalism and national wars.