Nation or Class? - Introduction

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It is not only in the answers, but in the questions themselves that we find the mystifications” (Marx & Engels, The German Ideology).

If it is possible to pose one question from the communist point of view in regard to struggles for ‘national liberation’, that question is: “Why, and in what circumstances, could the proletariat support them?”

The question certainly is not to ask: “Why shouldn’t the proletariat participate in national struggles?”

It is Indisputable that internationalism constitutes one of the cornerstones of communism. It has been well established since 1848 within the workers’ movement that the “workers have no country”; the very last words of the Communist Manifesto proclaim: “Workers of all countries, unite!” The nation constitutes, par excellence, the framework within which capitalist society develops, and the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism often took the form of a national struggle. But if capitalism found in the nation the most appropriate framework for its own development, communism can only be established on a worldwide scale. The proletarian revolution will destroy all nations. That is why any support the proletariat gave to national struggles in the past appears at first sight to be an anomaly. Such support only makes sense if it is understood in the context of very particular circumstances affecting the workers’ movement, i.e. in those circumstances wherein the bourgeois revolution was still possible and the proletarian revolution wasn’t yet on the historical agenda.

The fact that today revolutionaries must repeatedly answer the second and not the first question illustrates only too well the stifling effect on the proletariat of the mystifications spread by the last half-century of terrible counterrevolution.

At the turn of the century, the ‘national question’ occupied first place in the hotly contested debates between revolutionaries within the 2nd International. Certain revolutionaries, such as Rosa Luxemburg and the whole of the Polish Social Democratic Party, were resolutely opposed to the proletariat giving its support to these struggles. They considered that such support acted as a fetter on the development of the proletariat’s own class consciousness and that these struggles had become moments in inter-imperialist conflicts. Others, such as Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks, favoured “the full right of all nations to self-determination” and called on the proletariat to support certain national struggles in the belief that these struggles acted as a means to weaken the most reactionary regimes, like Russia, and more generally the power of the imperialist metropoles. The political divergence on this point blocked the different attempts to integrate the Polish Social Democratic Party into Russian Social Democracy. But whatever the differences in their positions, all revolutionaries at that time admitted that support for national struggles was not a straightforward question for the proletariat, in the sense that the nation remained a bourgeois instrument which would have to be destroyed by the working class.

It was Lenin, behind whose reputation all the supporters of struggles for ‘national liberation’ hide today, who wrote in 1903:

The Social Democracy, as a party of the proletariat, gives itself the positive task and the principle of acting to secure not the free disposition of all peoples and nations, but the free disposition of the proletariat of each nationality. We must always and unconditionally support the most rigorous unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in particular, exceptional cases that we can expound and actively support demands for the creation of a new class state, or the replacement of the total, political unity of the state for a loose, federal union . . .‘ (from Iskra, no.44)

But what happened to Lenin is what generally happens to all great revolutionaries after their deaths. The bourgeoisie eagerly utilises every error in their analysis to blunt the overall clarity of their thought, thus transforming it into a new ideology, which can be used to delude and mystify the working masses.

For example, in order to justify its own reformist evolution, the German Social Democracy systematically made the most of the few passages in the writings of Marx and Engels where they suggested that socialism might be achieved peacefully through parliament, while ignoring completely the entire body of their work in which they insisted, time and again, on the necessity for the proletariat to destroy the bourgeois state. In the same fashion, in order to cover up their own nationalist politics and participation in imperialist wars, today’s ‘Leninists’ of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and Maoist stamp, entirely ‘forget’ the outstanding texts Lenin wrote in support of internationalism and against imperialist war and national defence, and speak only of his support for “the right of nations to self-determination”. In doing this, these bourgeois currents have turned Lenin into a vulgar apostle of the nation. Remember the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh? He was the man who declared: “I became a communist the day I understood that Lenin had been a great patriot!”

Communists today cannot limit themselves only to a denunciation of how the Left and the extreme Left of the bourgeoisie have falsified the positions of the great revolutionaries of the past. They must also criticise, mercilessly, the errors made by those revolutionaries in light of the experience accumulated by the proletariat in the intervening years.

This pamphlet on the ‘national question’ has been written with the following dual aim in mind:

  1. What is the classical position of marxism on national struggles, which the Stalinists and Trotskyists have falsified?
  2. What mistakes were made in the past revolutionary movement concerning this question and what should be the position of communists today?

A half-century of either open or covert inter-imperialist conflict in the form of ‘national liberation’ struggles has definitively proven the position defended by Lenin to be wrong. He thought that “national wars were not only probable, but inevitable in the epoch of imperialism”, and that “a national war could be transformed into an imperialist war and vice-versa” (On the Junius Pamphlet). Events in this century, instead, fully confirmed the analysis made by Rosa Luxemburg. She maintained that “the world has been divided among a handful of ‘great’ imperialist powers ... any war, even if it begins as a national war, will be transformed into an imperialist war, since such wars are bound to clash with the interests of one or other of the imperialist coalitions or great powers” (The Crisis of the Social Democracy). “In the epoch of unbridled imperialism, national wars are no longer possible. National interests are only a mystification which has as its goal the enrolment of the popular, labouring masses in the service of their mortal enemy - imperialism” (Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy).

This pamphlet gives a number of historical examples validating the position of Rosa Luxemburg. However, as a supplementary example, the situation in Africa today is strikingly important. After having been transformed into “a type of rabbit run for the hunting down of black skins” (Marx, Capital), the African continent has since become a virtually non-stop battlefield for the imperialist powers of today. In the name of the defence of the rights of the people of the Sahara, Russian imperialism has tried, through the intermediary of Algeria, to pierce the stranglehold that western imperialist interests exercise over the entire North Atlantic area of the continent. In the eastern part of Africa, the American bloc – by relying on the Arab countries it controls has put the squeeze on pro-Russian Ethiopia by supporting the Eritrean and Somalian ‘peoples’. An offensive by the American bloc is also underway on the other side of the Equator; South Africa and Rhodesia are being compelled to take account of the ‘national interests’ of their black populations. Is this a manifestation of remorse on the part of an imperialist bloc which has armed the racist regimes of these two countries for decades? No, it is simply a manoeuvre. The American bloc must try to control the activity of the guerrilla organizations operating in these regimes in order that the future ‘black states’ of Zimbabwe and South Africa don’t end up in the Russian camp, as Mozambique and Angola did a few years ago.

Angola represents a perfect example of the imperialist character of all ‘national struggles’ today. With the growing decomposition of Portuguese imperialism in that country, each of the big imperialist blocs demonstrated its ‘disinterested’ support for the Angolan people by supplying the various guerrilla organizations – UNITA, FLNA and the MPLA – with arms. In order to strengthen the fighting capacity of each of their respective client organizations, both blocs intervened directly by sending aid in the form of their staunchest supporters: Cuba looked after Russian interests while South Africa did the same for America.

That’s what the ‘just struggle for national emancipation in Africa’ means today! Nothing but the manoeuvrings at a world level between the imperialist blocs, where the ‘people’ play the role of cannon fodder, the pawns in the imperialist chess-game! Bourgeois currents such as the Stalinists, Maoists, and Trotskyists have already had difficulty in covering over this reality. Their classical argument, which maintains that there is one ‘imperialist camp’ and another ‘anti-imperialist camp’, more and more falls apart in light of the imperialist campaigns fought by Russia or China in this or that ‘national struggle’ (Eritrea and the Ogaden today, Biafra and Bengal a few years ago). But their long practice of distorting the truth in the service of capitalism allows them to find their feet even when reality exposes their lies. They pass over the objections which arise amongst those influenced by their politics: it’s enough for the Stalinists to say that when a national struggle runs counter to the interests of the ‘socialist camp’, then it ceases to be a ‘just’ struggle and becomes a toy in the bands of imperialism.

But those political currents which recognize that the so-called ‘socialist’ countries are in fact imperialist – just like the other capitalist countries in the world – must resort to a great deal of ‘dialectical’ juggling in order to continue to see something in national struggles which is indeed ‘national’ and ‘democratic’ that merits their support. But they surpass themselves when they accuse revolutionaries of being traitors to proletarian internationalism for not supporting ‘national struggles’ directed against the imperialism of their own country. For example, the International Communist Party (which publishes Communist Programme in English and Le Proletaire in French) maintains that the ICC has proven its ‘chauvinism’ because it did not lend its support to calls for the erstwhile Katanganese gendarmes to mount an expedition into their native province of Shaba against the Zairean regime of Mobutu. Because Mobutu is one of the pawns of French, Belgian, and American imperialism in this region, and in accordance with the old adage which states that the “enemies of my enemies are my friends”, the ICP considers that we should champion the cause of the one-time hatchet-men of Tshombe in order to be real ‘internationalists’.

To justify their positions, currents like the Bordigists hide behind the slogans put forward by revolutionaries in the first world war: “revolutionary defeatism”; “the main enemy is in our own country”.

In doing so they render absurd the meaning of these simple agitational slogans, which are not in themselves totally exempt from a certain ambiguity. It is for this reason that Lenin wrote:

The revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military, reverses must facilitate its overthrow” (Lenin, Socialism and War).

Lenin himself, upheld an irreproachable, internationalist position throughout World War I, owing to the fact that he condemned German imperialism as vigorously as he did that of Russia. But it is nonetheless true that the above slogans can be interpreted in a way that leads their exponents into adopting totally erroneous positions. To ’wish’ for the defeat of one’s own government in an imperialist war is to ‘wish’ for that defeat in definite circumstances. For example, revolutionaries cannot ‘wish’ for better conditions of struggle for the working class of their own country at the expense of the conditions of struggle facing workers in other countries. Before all else, communists must have in mind the global interests of the entire working class. The locality where decisive class confrontations break out first can be a crucial factor in determining the evolution of the world struggle of the proletariat thereafter. In such circumstances, revolutionaries could ‘wish’ for more favourable conditions of struggle in this or that country, rather than their ‘own’. This might even apply to an ‘enemy’ country.

The value of Lenin’s argument, quoted in the above passage, lies in its usefulness in combating the lies peddled by the so-called ‘workers’ parties’, which are now enlisted in the service of capitalism. These chauvinists argue that the proletariat should not struggle against its own national bourgeoisie in times of imperialist war, since the defeat of the country would be unfavourable to the future struggle of the working class. Hence, if the proletariat is to ensure favourable conditions in which to wage its struggle when the war is over, it must do nothing to weaken its own bourgeoisie during the course of the war. This is an old bourgeois argument which revolutionaries have fought for a tong time, by affirming that it is in the struggle today that the proletariat strengthens itself – acquires its own consciousness and self-organisation - with the aim of unleashing decisive confrontations with the bourgeoisie tomorrow. But to say this, it is not necessary to use the excessive or ambiguous slogans, which – even if they don’t call into question the perfectly correct internationalist positions of their author – risk being caught up in the confusions and manoeuvrings of his epigones. In fact, Lenin’s defeatist slogans can be translated into a type of ‘inverted’ patriotism that claims as its victims those revolutionaries who, in their zeal to take up positions exactly opposite to the vociferous chauvinism of their own bourgeoisie, fall into this trap. Thus, Rosa Luxemburg could write in The Crisis of the Social Democracy:

The first duty (of the Social Democratic faction in the Reichstag) to the fatherland in that hour was to show the fatherland what was really behind the present imperialist war; to sweep away the web of patriotic and diplomatic lies covering up this encroachment on the fatherland... to oppose the imperialist war programme with the old, truly national programme of the patriots and democrats of 1848, the programme of Marx, Engels and Lassalle – the slogan of the united Great German Republic. This is the banner which should have been unfurled before the country, which would have been a truly national banner of liberation, which would have been in accord with the best traditions of Germany and with the international class policy of the proletariat ... there is complete harmony between the interests of the country and the class interests of the proletarian International, both in time of war and in time of peace ... “

In his On the Junius Pamphlet, Lenin was perfectly right when he pointed out that “the fallacy of this argument is strikingly evident”. He denounced the fact that Junius “urges the advanced class to turn its face towards the past, and not towards the future”. But Lenin, the year before, had not been able either to avoid the same line of reasoning when he wrote:

We are full of a national pride because the Great Russian nation too, has created a revolutionary class, because it too has proved capable of providing mankind with great models of the struggle for freedom and socialism ... And full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a nation. Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible in the twentieth century, and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe) to ‘defend the fatherland’ otherwise than by using every means to combat the monarchy, the landowners, and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland (i.e. the worst enemies of our country) ... Our home-grown social-chauvinists, Plekhanov and others will prove traitors, not only to their own country — a free and democratic Great Russia, but also to the proletarian brotherhood of all the nations of Russia i.e. to the cause of socialism.” (Lenin, ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’, Collected Works, Vol 21, pps.102-lO6)

These extracts demonstrate that even the greatest of revolutionaries, the most intransigent of internationalists, could yield in their own way to the enormous pressure of nationalist ideology, brought to bear by the bourgeoisie just before and during the imperialist war. Consequently, it is necessary – even when one has been inspired by their example and their analyses – to criticise pitilessly all the mistakes they committed, and all the ambiguities which mar their slogans. Therefore, rather than the slogan of “revolutionary defeatism”, it is preferable to use the formulation advanced by Lenin alone in 1914: “The transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war”. The real internationalist defence of the slogan, “the main enemy is in our own country”, lies in acknowledging that the proletariat must – everywhere in the world – engage in struggle where it finds itself, against its own bourgeoisie. And the only correct interpretation possible of the “revolutionary defeatist” slogan is not contained in the proletariat ‘wishing for’ or being ‘in favour’ of the defeat of its own bourgeoisie. It means, instead, that the proletariat must struggle in a resolute manner against its own bourgeoisie, even (and especially) if that means the country’s defeat in imperialist war.

Despite certain dubious formulations, fundamentally correct political positions guided Lenin during World War I. But today, on the contrary, his epigones use these same formulations to justify utterly absurd political positions. Thus, in regard to the Biafran war for ‘independence’ – in which the US and France supported Biafra, while Nigeria received backing from the USSR and Great Britain – if one follows their political analysis, it would be necessary:

  • for members of a revolutionary organization living in Great Britain to support Biafra;
  • but members of the same organization residing in France would have to give their support to Nigeria.

Furthermore, in respect to the intervention of the Kataganese gendarmes in Shaba province, it would be necessary:

·   for the Belgian and French sections of a communist organization to support Tshombe’s old body-guard;

  • while any communists living in Russia would have to support Mobutu’s Zaire, since all evidence suggests that the expedition of the Kataganese – destined to ‘liberate’ Shaba province – was overseen by Russian imperialism through its Angolan intermediaries. 

These are the remarkable tactics we would have to advocate if we once forgot that to struggle on a proletarian terrain against the bourgeoisie has never meant supporting the bourgeoisie of an enemy country at war with one’s own nation. Equally, fraternising with the troops of the ‘enemy’ doesn’t mean enrolling in the army of that nation. To denounce imperialism and the chauvinist prejudices of the workers of one’s own country, from the outbreak of war, doesn’t mean supporting the imperialism of another country or flattering the chauvinism of its working class. In the end, those who would teach ‘internationalist’ lessons to other revolutionaries on the basis of such noisily ‘radical’ politics, end up doing nothing more than adding a little water to all the nationalist mystifications, rather than fighting to destroy them. Moreover, the overtures they make to ‘the oppressed peoples in struggle’ are fundamentally racist: what they would absolutely reject as not in the interest of the European proletariat – increasing exploitation, a greater degree of control by the capitalist state, concentration camps for forced labour – is good enough, for the time being, for the ‘coloured’ or ‘olive’ skinned peoples.

Internationalism can only mean an intransigent struggle against any ‘national movement’ and all who apologize for them, since today all such movements represent nothing other than particular sequences in inter-imperialist conflicts.

As Lenin said himself:

Anyone who today refers to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie, and forgets Marx’s statement that the ‘workingmen have no country’ – a statement that applies precisely to the period of the reactionary and outmoded bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution, is shamelessly distorting Marx, and is substituting the bourgeois point of view for the socialist.” (Lenin, Socialism and War)

Revolution Internationale

November 1977