The national question from the 1920s to World War 2

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In the early twenties the proletarian reaction against the degeneration of the 3rd International was expressed politically through the groups of the so-called ‘ultra-left’. The Left Communists denounced the Comintern’s attempts to use the tactics of the old era when the necessity for the immediate conquest of power by the proletariat had rendered such tactics obsolete and reactionary. With the revolution still on the immediate agenda in the advanced capitals of the West, the most important disputes between the 3rd International and its left wing were those concerning the problem of setting up the proletarian dictatorship in these countries. The question of trade unionism, of the relation between the party and the class, of parliamentarianism, and of the united front were therefore the most burning issues of the day. On many of these questions the Left Communists defended an intransigent coherence that has been hardly surpassed by the communist movement since that time.

In comparison to these issues the national and colonial questions seemed to be of less immediate importance, and in general the Left Communists were not at all as clear on this problem as they were on others. Bordiga, in particular, continued to promulgate the Leninist thesis of a ‘progressive’ colonial revolt linking itself to the proletarian revolution in the advanced countries, an idea myopically defended by most of the ‘Bordigist’ epigones today. The German Left was certainly clearer than Bordiga. Many of the militants of the KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany) continued to defend the Luxemburgist position on the impossibility of national liberation wars. Gorter, in a series of articles called ‘The World Revolution’, published in the English Left Communist paper, The Workers’ Dreadnought (February 9, 16, 23; March 1, 15, 29; May 10, 1924), attacked the Bolshevik slogan of national self-determination and accused the 3rd International thus:

You ... support the rising capitalisms of Asia: you urge the subjection of the Asiatic proletariat to their native capitalism.”

But at the same time Gorter spoke of the inevitability of bourgeois democratic revolutions in the backward countries and put all his emphasis on the proletarian seizure of power in Germany, England, and North America. As with many of the KAPD’s stands in defence of class positions, the rejection of national liberation wars was based more on a lively class instinct than on a profound theoretical analysis of the development of capital as a social relation which had entered its epoch of decline on a world scale. The truth was that the turbulence of the revolutionary period prevented revolutionaries from grasping all the implications of the new epoch; it was unfortunately the case that many of these implications were not clearly understood until the counterrevolution was firmly in the saddle in all countries.

With the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 and the movement of capital towards a new imperialist redivision of the world market, revolutionaries were forced to reflect more deeply than ever before on the reasons for that defeat and on the new developments in capitalism. This work of reflection was carried on by the fractions that survived the disintegration of the Left Communist movement in the middle and late twenties.

The remnants of the Italian Left in exile around the review Bilan made the most important contribution to the understanding of the decadence of the capitalist system, applying Luxemburg’s analysis of the saturation of the world market to the concrete reality of the new epoch and recognising the inevitability of a new imperialist world war unless halted by the intercession of the proletarian revolution.

It was the defeat of the Chinese proletariat, which for Bilan most sharply demonstrated the necessity for a revision of the old colonial tactics. In Shanghai in 1927 the workers staged a successful insurrection that gave them control of the entire city in the midst of a situation of ferment all over China. But the Chinese Communist Party, faithfully following the Comintern line of support for ‘national democratic revolutions’ against imperialism, led the workers to hand the city on a plate to the advancing army of Chiang Kai-Chek, then hailed by Moscow as a hero of Chinese national liberation. With the aid of local capitalists and criminal bands (and warmly applauded by all the imperialist powers), Chiang crushed the Shanghai workers in an orgy of mass murder. For Bilan these events conclusively proved that:

The Theses of Lenin at the Second Congress (of the 3rd International) must be completed by radically changing their content. These Theses admitted the possibility of the proletariat giving its support to anti—imperialist movements, in so far as it created the conditions for an independent proletarian movement. From now on it has to be recognised, after these experiences, that the indigenous proletariat can give no support to these movements: it can become the protagonist of an anti-imperialist struggle if it links itself to the international proletariat to make, in the colonies, a jump analogous to that made by the Bolsheviks who were able to lead the proletariat from a feudal regime to the proletarian dictatorship.” (‘Resolution on the International Situation’, Bilan, no.16, February/March, 1935)

Bilan thus realised that the capitalist counter-revolution was world-wide and that in the colonies as everywhere else capital could only advance by “corruption, violence and war to prevent the victory of the enemy it has itself engendered: the proletariat of the colonial countries” (‘Problems of the Far East”, Bilan, no.11, September 1934).

But even more important than this was Bilan’s overall understanding that, in the context of a world dominated by imperialist rivalries and moving inexorably towards a new world war, the struggles of the colonies could only serve as testing grounds for new global conflagrations. Thus Bilan consistently refused to support either side in the local inter-imperialist struggles that succeeded each other in the 1930s: in China, Ethiopia, and Spain. In the face of the bourgeoisie’s preparation for a new world war, Bilan asserted that:

the position of the proletariat of each country must consist of a merciless struggle against all the political positions which attempt to tie it to the cause of one or another imperialist constellation, or to the cause of this or that colonial nation, a cause which has the function of masking from the proletariat the real character of the new world carnage” (‘Resolution on the International Situation’, Bilan, no.16).

Almost alone with the Italian Left in refusing to become entangled in the imperialist death traps of the thirties were the Council Communists of Holland, America, and elsewhere. In 1935-6, Paul Mattick wrote a long article entitled ‘Luxemburg vs. Lenin’ (the first part of this appeared in The Modern Monthly September 1935, the second in International Council Correspondence, vol.11, no.8, July 1936). Here Mattick supported Lenin’s economics against the economic theories of Luxemburg, but nevertheless strongly defended Luxemburg’s political position on the national question as against Lenin’s.

Luxemburg’s criticisms of the national policies of the Bolsheviks, he wrote, appeared superficially to have been proved wrong. At the time of Luxemburg’s polemic against Bolshevik national policy, the main threat to the Soviet power seemed to come from military attack by the imperialist powers: Luxemburg had argued that the Bolsheviks’ national policy was giving a direct military opening for the imperialists to physically crush the revolution. In fact, the Bolsheviks had resisted imperialist intervention and the Russian Communist Party’s continued policy of giving support to national movements had helped to greatly strengthen the Russian state, but, as Mattick said, the price paid for this was so high that Luxemburg’s criticisms had been vindicated in the end:

Bolshevist Russia still exists, to be sure; but not as what it was at the beginning, not as the starting point of the world revolution, but as a bulwark against it” (Paul Mattick, The Modern Monthly).

The Russian state survived, but only on the basis of state capitalism; the counter-revolution had emerged from within not from without. For the international revolutionary movement the ‘tactic’ of support, for national liberation wars utilised by the 3rd International had become a bloody weapon against the working class:

The ‘liberated’ nations form a fascist ring around Russia. ‘Liberated’ Turkey shoots down the communists with arms supplied to her by Russia. China, supported in its national struggle for freedom by Russia and the Third International, throttles its labour movement in a manner reminiscent of the Paris Commune. Thousands and thousands of workers’ corpses are testimony of the correctness of Rosa Luxemburg’s view that the phrase about the right of self-determination of nations is nothing but petty bourgeois humbug”. The extent to which the “struggle for national liberation is a struggle for democracy” (Lenin) is surely revealed by the nationalistic adventures of the 3rd International in Germany, adventures which contributed their share to the preconditions for the victory of fascism. Ten years of competition with Hitler for the title to real nationalism turned the workers themselves into fascists. And Litvinov celebrated in the League of Nations the victory of the Leninist idea of the self-determination of peoples on the occasion of the Saar plebiscite. Truly, in view of this development, one must indeed wonder at people like Max Shachtman who still today are capable of saying: ‘Despite the sharp criticism levelled by Rosa at the Bolsheviks for their national policy after the revolution, the latter was nevertheless confirmed by results’.” (Mattick, The Modern Monthly. The quote by Shachtman appeared in The New International, March 1935.)

The only thing ‘confirmed by results’ was the correctness of the Luxemburgists and Left Communists in opposing the old Leninist position. As both Bilan and Mattick predicted, the national struggles of the thirties did indeed prove themselves to be preparations for another global imperialist war; a war in which Russia, as they also predicted, participated as an ‘equal partner’ in the slaughter. Those who had called upon the proletariat to take sides in the various national confrontations in the thirties now unhesitatingly participated in the second imperialist world war. The Trotskyists, having called the workers to support Chiang against Japan, the Republic against Franco, etc, continued with their anti-fascist and pro-national liberation verbiage all through the imperialist carnage, and added a new form of national defencism by demanding support for the ‘degenerated workers’ state’. Of course all these ‘defencisms’ could only be pursued by giving support, however ‘critical’, to the ‘democratic’ imperialisms.

World War II demonstrated with painful clarity how impossible it was for movements of ‘national liberation’ to fight against one imperialism without allying themselves to another. The ‘heroic anti-fascist resistance’ in Italy and France and elsewhere, Tito’s partisans, Ho Chi Minh’s and Mao Tse Tung’s ‘popular’ armies – all of these and many others functioned as useful appendages of the major Allied imperialisms against German, Italian, and Japanese imperialisms. And all of them during the war and immediately afterwards revealed their vicious anti-working class nature by calling on workers to slaughter each other, by helping to crush strikes and workers’ uprisings, by persecuting communist militants. In Vietnam, Ho aided the ‘foreign imperialists’ to crush the Saigon workers’ commune of 1945. In 1948, Mao marched into the cities of China, decreed that work must go on as normal, and forbade strikes. In France, the Stalinist Maquis denounced as ‘fascist collaborators’ the handful of internationalist communists who had been active throughout the occupation and the ‘Liberation’ in calling for the working class to fight against both blocs. And immediately after the war, the same Maquis underground ‘revolutionaries’ joined the De Gaulle government and denounced strikes as “weapons of the trusts”.