Nation or Class?, ICC


A 2006 pamphlet outlining in detail the position of the Communist Left both historically and in the present day on national liberation and anti-imperialism.


It is not only in the answers, but in the questions themselves that we find the mystifications.

Marx and 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 particularexceptional 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 . . .

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

Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of 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

Rosa Luxemburg, These 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

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

Communists and the national question

The nation state has outgrown itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for class struggle, and especially as the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Leon Trotsky, Nashe Slovo, 4 February, 1916

The workers have no fatherland. Such is the basis for the communist analysis of the national question. Throughout this century millions of proletarians have been mystified, mobilised,’ and slaughtered under the banners of patriotism, national defence, national liberation. In world wars and local wars, in guerrilla clashes and confrontations between huge state armies, the workers of all countries have been called upon to lay down their lives in the service of their oppressors. Nothing has been more clearly demonstrated this century than the stark polarity between nationalism and the international interests of the working class.

But because the proletariat can only learn the lessons of history through its own experience in the historical process, communists can only analyse the national question in historical terms, in order to establish why it is that opposition to all nationalisms and national struggles has become one of the class lines separating proletarian from bourgeois organisations.

Communists and the national question in the 19th century

Despite certain contradictions and limitations in their analysis – limitations which were themselves a product of the period – the founders of scientific socialism understood a fundamental point that has been all but lost today in the immense welter of confusion coming from fifty years of counter-revolution. For Marx and Engels there was no doubt that the nation state and national ideology were purely and simply a product of capitalist development, that the nation state was the indispensable basis for the growth of capitalist relations of production out of and against feudal society. Whatever the contradictions in their writings about the possibility of socialist development within the boundaries of the nation state, the overall perspective of Marx and Engels was based on an analysis of the world market and on the understanding that the future socialist or communist society would be a worldwide association of producers, a global human community; and the 1st International was founded on the recognition that the working class was an international class which had to link its struggle on an international scale.

Nevertheless, as communists and proletarian internationalists, Marx and Engels often gave their support to movements of national liberation, and their writings on this question have often been used by self-proclaimed ‘marxists’ today to justify support for ‘national liberation struggles’ in the present historical epoch.

But it is the fact that we are living in a different historical epoch than Marx and Engels which enables communists today to make opposition to ‘national liberation’ struggles a key element in any revolutionary world view. Marx and Engels were writing in the period of capitalism’s historical ascendancy. In that period the bourgeoisie was still a progressive and revolutionary class struggling against the fetters of feudal domination. Inevitably the bourgeois revolution against feudalism took on a national form. In order to break down the barriers to trade imposed by feudal local autonomy, customs duties, manorial rights, guilds, etc., the bourgeoisie had to unify itself on a national scale. Lenin was well aware of this when he wrote:

Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose populations speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Unity and the unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism. Therefore the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which the requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied.

Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

From the formation of the citizen’s army in the French Revolution to the Italian Risorgimento, from the American War of Independence to the Civil War, the bourgeois revolution took the form of national liberation struggles against the reactionary kingdoms and classes left over from feudalism (the US slave owners were an exceptional case but still constituted a reactionary obstacle to capitalist development in America). These struggles had the essential aim of destroying the decaying political superstructures of feudalism and sweeping away the petty parochialism and self-sufficiency, which were holding back the unifying march of capitalism:

As scientific socialists, who based their opposition to capitalism on material and not moral grounds, Marx and Engels understood that socialism was an impossibility until capitalism had developed a real world market and the proletariat had become a truly international class. In their era, capitalist commodity relations were still the only basis for the progressive development of the productive forces. It is from this standpoint alone that revolutionaries of that time could give support to movements of national liberation. While there was not yet a fully developed world market, while a global industrial infrastructure had not yet been laid down, while the system was still expanding into the huge pre-capitalist regions of the world which existed then, and while the bourgeoisie was still capable of fighting feudalism and absolutism, it was necessary for the workers’ movement to play an active part in those national liberation struggles which were laying the material foundations for a future socialist revolution. And, indeed, in that epoch there was a genuine feeling of solidarity among the working class for a number of national liberation wars. The English textile workers, despite the hardships and unemployment caused by the American Civil War (the result of the blockade of cotton exports) gave their wholehearted support to the North and campaigned against the British ruling class’ tacit complicity with the Southern slave owners. In 1860, the dockers of Liverpool worked unpaid on Saturday afternoons to load supplies for Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily. Such attitudes contrast sharply with the workers’ present day indifference or hostility to the Left’s campaigns of support for nationalist movements.

But two things distinguished the revolutionary proletarian attitude to national wars in that period. First and foremost, communists did not recognize any abstract ‘right’ to national self-determination applying to all nations at all times.

National movements were supported only when they were seen to be contributing to a progressive development of world capitalism. For Marx and Engels one of the main criteria for judging whether or not a national movement was progressive was whether or not it challenged the power of Russian absolutism, which at that time was the bulwark of reaction on the whole continent of Europe – reaction not only against communism but also against bourgeois democracy, liberalism and national unification. Thus the German and Polish national movements were given support, while a number of Slavic nationalisms were opposed as reactionary because they were dominated by pre-capitalist classes and were being used by Tsarism to strengthen and extend Russian absolutism. Similarly in the capitalist colonies, while condemning colonial plunder and exploitation, communists did not rally to the support of every uprising by native lords and chieftains against the new imperialist masters. On the rising led by Ahmed Arabi Pasha against the British in Egypt, Engels wrote to Bernstein in 1882:

I think we can well be on the side of the oppressed fellahs without sharing their monetary illusions (a peasant people has to be cheated for centuries before it becomes aware of it through experience), and to be against the English brutalities without at the same time siding with their military adversaries of the moment.

Such movements were seen as attempts by native feudal or Asiatic despots to maintain their hold over ‘their’ peasants rather than as expressions of a revolutionary national bourgeoisie. On the other hand some popular colonial revolts – such as in China – were supported insofar as they seemed to provide a basis for an independent national capitalist development free of colonial domination, or as possible detonators to the class struggle in the oppressor country. This latter criterion was particularly applied to Ireland, where Marx considered that England’s domination of that nation was having the effect of retarding the class struggle in England and diverting class consciousness into national chauvinism.

We do not propose to enter into a discussion about whether or not Marx and Engels were right or wrong to give support to this or that national movement. In some cases, such as Ireland, the possibility for national liberation had already been crushed when Marx was still advocating it; in other cases, the support given to national movements has been ably vindicated by subsequent experience. What is important is to understand the framework according to which communists judged whether national movements were progressive or not. They did not base their judgements on the ‘feelings’ of oppressed peoples, nor on an eternal ‘right’ to national self-determination, nor even on the particular conditions obtaining in any given country. “Their taking up of such positions, correct or mistaken, were invariably determined in relation to an immovable axis: that which on a world scale favoured the maturation of the conditions for proletarian revolution was progressive and had to be supported by the workers.” (M. Berard, Rupture avec Lutte Ouvrière et le TrotskysmeRevolution Internationale, 1973) Secondly, communists understood the capitalist nature of national liberation struggles. They therefore understood the need for the proletariat to maintain a strict political independence from the bourgeoisie even when the workers were supporting the bourgeoisie’s struggles against absolutism. There were no confusions about nationalist struggles led by bourgeois factions having a capacity to establish ‘socialism’ or ‘workers’ states’ in however deformed a way, which is one of the great mystifications of Stalinism and Trotskyism (such theoretical monstrosities are based on the idea that Stalinist regimes in China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc, have a working class character). In the period of the bourgeois revolution, of ascendant capitalism, the proletariat was able to maintain its own permanent organizations and thus the strategy of ‘critical support’ by the proletariat for the progressive factions of the bourgeoisie was a possibility. Although there was always the danger – typified in the revolutions of 1848 – that the bourgeoisie would turn on the workers as soon as it felt able to do so, it was still the case that the bourgeoisie often relied on the working class to be the vanguard of national liberation wars, and that in that period the bourgeoisie was able to tolerate the independent existence of mass working class organisations within capitalism. The struggle of the working class for ‘democratic freedoms’ – right of assembly, press, trade unions, etc. – was not then the sham it is in the era of decadence when the bourgeoisie is unable to grant any real reforms to the proletariat. There was thus some possibility for the working class to engage in national wars for its own purposes and not as mere cannon fodder for the bourgeoisie.

The national question at the dawn of the period of imperialist decadence

In the ascendant epoch, then, given certain guiding principles, there could be a debate within the workers’ movement about which national struggles to support. After 1914, as capitalism decisively entered its period of decline, its permanent historic crisis, the inevitable disjunction between objective conditions and the proletariat’s subjective awareness of these conditions prolonged the debate within the revolutionary camp. Some fundamental class lines – such as the need to destroy the bourgeois state – had already been assimilated by the revolutionaries of the late nineteenth century (after the experience of the Paris Commune). But other such class lines could only be definitively laid down through the bitter experience of the first imperialist world war and the revolutionary wave that followed. The counterrevolutionary role of unions, parliamentarianism, and Social Democracy was firmly established during the course of these events. But even so, during that hectic time, it was possible for an organisation to have a fundamentally revolutionary character and still retain profound illusions as to the nature of these institutions. As long as the revolutionary impetus of the whole class still retained a spark of life, it was possible for the mistakes and confusions of the class’s political emanations to be continually rectified in the light of proletarian experience; it is only with the final disappearance of the revolutionary wave that the class lines between organizations become firmly established, and what were once mistakes become the normal policies of counter-revolutionary tendencies. In this way the Bolsheviks were able for a time to lead the world revolutionary movement despite their lack of clarity on a number of questions; but their inability to learn all the lessons of the new period was equally to contribute to their becoming instruments of counter-revolution. This was the case not only with the question of unions, parliament, and Social Democracy where the Bolsheviks under the pressure of mounting counterrevolution attempted to apply formulae suitable only to the previous era, but also on the national question.

In effect, the discussion on the national question was being reopened some time before the new period had been unambiguously inaugurated by the imperialist world war. After 1871 the bourgeoisie of the major capitals no longer engaged in national wars of the old kind; the imperialist thrust of the latter part of the nineteenth century represented the rapid movement of capitalism towards its pinnacle – but the nearer it hurtled towards that point, the nearer also it approached its decline. The accelerating imperialist scramble of the pre-war decades, the intensification of economic problems, the rising tide of class struggle, were all-important signs of the approach of a new era, signs that were noted and discussed in the workers’ movement in the 1890s and early l900s.

Thus, for example, Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to Polish national independence in that period was based on an understanding that the nature of Russia had changed since Marx’s day. Russia was now fast developing as a major capitalist nation, while the Polish bourgeoisie now had its interests linked to Russian capitalism. At the same time, the possibility of a class alliance between the Polish and Russian working class was opened up, and Luxemburg insisted that Social Democracy should do all in its power to cement this alliance, not campaign for the isolation of the Polish workers under the ‘independent’ exploitation of the Polish bourgeoisie. But still she held that the immediate task of the Polish and Russian working class was the establishment of a unified, democratic republic, not socialist revolution. Moreover she gave wholehearted support to the national rising of the Greeks against the Turks in 1896, and asserted in Reform or Revolution (1898) that the era of capitalism’s historic crisis had not yet opened up. Her differences with the rest of Social Democracy were still in the realm of strategy, a discussion about the best outcome of world events for the workers within capitalist society. The perspective of an immediate revolutionary unification of the world proletariat had not yet been realistically posed.

Nevertheless, the debates within Social Democracy at that time were an expression of changing historical conditions. On the one hand, Luxemburg’s ideas show a real understanding of the need to adapt to these changes. On the other hand, the sclerosis of the Social Democratic establishment not only showed an inability to understand new developments, but also showed signs of regressing in relation to the coherence of the 1st International. This regression was more or less inevitable given the context, of Social Democracy’s function in the workers’ movement. The main task of Social Democracy was to fight for reforms in the period of capitalist stability in the advanced countries; and the struggle for reforms took place on a specifically national terrain. Since the national bourgeoisie could concede reforms it became easy for the reformists to argue that the workers indeed had a plethora of mutual interests with their own nation. In 1896 the 2nd International began to adopt the fatal formula of a right of nations to self-determination, applicable to all peoples. The consequences of this were to become very clear in the ensuing decades.

The position of the Bolsheviks

Even though their de facto split from the Mensheviks in 1903 showed the Bolsheviks to be firmly within the revolutionary wing of the 2nd International, their position on the national question was that of the Social Democratic centre: the right of all nations to self-determination, enshrined in their 1903 programme. The tenaciousness with which the Bolsheviks clung to this position, despite opposition from without and from within, is best explained by the fact that Tsarist Russia was the perpetrator of national oppression par excellence (“the prison-house of nations”) and that as a mainly ‘Great Russian’ party in geographical terms the Bolsheviks considered that granting nations oppressed by Russia the right to secede as the best way of winning the confidence of the masses in these countries. This position, though it proved to be erroneous, was based on a working class perspective. In a period in which the Social Imperialists of Germany, Russia, and elsewhere were arguing against the right of peoples oppressed by German or Russian imperialism to struggle for national liberation, the slogan of national self-determination was put forward by the Bolsheviks as a way of undermining Russian and other imperialisms and of creating the conditions for a future unification of the workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations.

These positions find their clearest expression in the writings of Lenin in the period up to and including World War I. (The Leninist position was always the official Bolshevik policy on this question. But considerable opposition to it did come from the left of the party before and after 1917, from prominent Bolsheviks like Bukharin, Dzerzhinsky, and Piatakov. Bukharin in particular based his analysis on a concept of world economy and imperialism, which he said made national self-determination both utopian and incompatible with the proletarian dictatorship. With Marx and Engels, Lenin correctly saw that national liberation struggles had a bourgeois character. Moreover, he recognized the need for an historical approach to the problem. In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination he said that for revolutionary parties in the advanced western countries the demand for national self-determination had become a dead letter because there the bourgeoisie had already achieved the tasks of national unification and independence. But Lenin defended the Bolshevik retention of the slogan from Luxemburg’s criticisms on the grounds that in Russiaand the colonial countries the bourgeois tasks of overthrowing feudalism and of achieving national independence had not yet been completed. Thus, in these areas, Lenin attempted to apply the methodology which Marx applied to nineteenth century capitalism:

It is precisely and solely because Russia and the neighbouring countries are passing through this period that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of nations to self-determination.

Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination

According to Lenin, the national liberation movements which were proliferating throughout the colonial world at that time had a progressive content in that they were laying the basis for an independent capitalist development and thus for the formation of a proletariat. In these countries, the fight against pre-capitalist social structures was creating the conditions for ‘normal’ class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class, and therefore Lenin advocated the proletariat’s critical participation in these struggles:

The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression and it is this content that we unconditionally support. At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeoisie to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.


Such a formulation clearly implies that the bourgeoisie is still capable of struggling for democratic freedoms and that therefore the proletariat can participate in these struggles while defending its own political autonomy. In other words, the bourgeois revolution was still a possibility in these regions. The proletariat of the backward regions should support such movements because they could guarantee democratic freedoms essential to the waging of the class struggle, and because they helped the material growth of the proletariat. The workers in the advanced oppressor countries should for their part support such struggles because in that way they could help to both weaken their ‘own’ imperialism and to win the confidence of the masses in the oppressed countries. (A reciprocal strategy was envisaged here, whereby revolutionaries in the oppressor nations recognised the right to secession of the oppressed nation, while revolutionaries in the oppressed nation did not advocate secession and stressed the need to unite with the workers of the oppressor countries.)

In Lenin’s writings on the national question there is a curious lack of clarity about whether the bourgeois revolution in the backward regions would be conducted mainly against native ‘feudalism’ or foreign imperialism. In many cases, the two forces were both equally enemies of independent national capitalist development, and the imperialists sometimes deliberately maintained pre-capitalist structures at the expense of native capitalism (strictly speaking the majority of these pre-capitalist structures were not feudal at all, but varieties of Asiatic despotism). On the other hand, the interests of pre-capitalist ruling classes often clashed violently with western capitalism, which threatened them with extinction. But in any case, Lenin’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, expressed most succinctly in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) led him to conclude that bourgeois revolutions were still possible in the colonial regions.According to Lenin, imperialism was in essence a movement by the advanced capitalisms to offset the falling rate of profit, which had become intolerably aggravated by the high organic composition of capital in the metropoles. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin’s mainly descriptive approach to the phenomena of imperialism does not go to the heart of the question of the economic roots of imperialist expansion. But the idea that the high organic composition of capital in the metropoles forces them to expand towards the colonial regions is implicit in his concept of the “superabundance of capital” in the metropoles and the “super-profits” obtained by exporting capital to the colonial regions. The most important characteristic of imperialism was therefore the export of capital seeking a higher rate of profit in the colonies where cheap labour and raw materials were in plentiful supply. In thus prolonging their life through ‘super-profits’ obtained from colonial exploitation, the advanced capitals had become parasitic on the colonies and depended on them for their very survival – hence the world imperialist confrontation over the possession and acquisition of colonies.  Such a vision divided the world up into imperialist oppressor nations, and the oppressed nations of the colonial regions. Thus the world-wide struggle against imperialism required not only the revolutionary efforts of the proletariat in the imperialist metropoles but also national liberation movements in the colonies, which by seizing national independence and breaking up the colonial system could deliver a fatal blow to world imperialism. It should of course be pointed out that Lenin did not adhere to the ‘Third Worldism’ idiocies of some of his self-proclaimed epigones, according to which the national liberation struggles actually provoke the revolutionary upsurge of the metropolitan proletariat by ‘encircling’ the advanced nations (the national liberation movements themselves having a ‘socialist’ character according to the Maoists, Mandelite Trotskyists, et al). And yet within Lenin’s work on imperialism the seeds of such confusion were already sown: his idea that the ‘labour aristocracy’ represented a stratum of the metropolitan proletariat which had been ‘bribed’ by colonial ‘super-profits’ to betray the working class can be easily transmuted into the Third Worldist conception that the entire western working class had been integrated into capitalism by imperialist exploitation of the Third World. (This glorious theory has, of course, been dealt severe blows by the massive new waves of working class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries since 1968.) Moreover, the idea that national liberation struggles can fatally weaken imperialism has also been taken up with a vengeance by those who want to justify their support for nationalist and Stalinist movements in the Third World. More important than these monstrous offspring of Lenin’s theory, however, is the fact that they provided the framework for the practical policies carried out by the Bolsheviks after they had been brought to power in Russia; policies which as we shall see were to actively contribute to the world-wide defeat of the proletariat at that time.

Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks

Luxemburg’s critique of national liberation struggles in general and the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policy in particular was the most penetrating of any at the time because it was based on an analysis of world imperialism which went far deeper than the one developed by Lenin. In texts such as The Accumulation of Capital (1913) and The Junius Pamphlet (1915) she showed that imperialism was not merely a form of thievery perpetrated by the advanced capitals on the backward nations but was an expression of a totality of world capitalist relations:

Imperialism is not the creation of one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.

Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet

For Luxemburg the location of the historic crisis of capitalism was not to be found in the falling rate of profit alone, which taken by itself is being constantly offset by increasing the mass of commodities produced and sold. She argued that the specific roots of the historical crisis lay in the problem of realizing surplus value. In The Accumulation of Capital and Anti-Critique she demonstrated that the total surplus value extracted from the working class as a whole cannot be realised solely within the capitalist social relation, because the workers, not being repaid the full value created by their labour power, cannot buy back all the commodities they produce. At the same time the capitalist class (including in this case all those strata paid out of capitalist revenue) as a whole is unable to consume all the surplus because a portion of this must serve in the enlarged reproduction of capital and must therefore be exchanged. Consequently global capital is constantly forced to find consumers outside the capitalist social relation. In the initial stages of capitalism’s evolution there were still numerous non-capitalist strata inside the geographical areas of capitalist development (peasants, artisans, etc) who could serve as a basis for the healthy expansion of capital – although right from the beginning there was a constant tendency to seek markets in countries outside these enclaves: the industrial revolution in Britain was stimulated to a large extent by demand coming from British colonies. But as capitalist social relations became generalized throughout the original enclaves of capitalism the ‘push’ of capitalist production towards the rest of the world accelerated. Instead of competition between individual capitals for markets within the national framework, the emphasis was now on competition between nationalcapitals for the remaining non-capitalist areas of the globe. This was the essence of imperialism, which is simply the expression of ‘normal’ capitalist competition on an ‘international’ scale, backed up of course by the armed state power which is the distinguishing characteristic of competition at this level. As long as this imperialist development was restricted to a few advanced capitals expanding towards a still considerable non-capitalist sector of the world, competition remained relatively peaceful, except from the point of view of the pre-capitalist peoples who were being plundered wholesale by imperialist cartels (i.e. China and Africa). But as soon as imperialism integrated the whole world into capitalist relations, as soon as the world market became completely divided up, then global capitalist competition could only assume a violent and openly aggressive character from which no nation, advanced or backward, could ‘hold aloof’, since every nation had been irresistibly drawn into the rat-race of competition over a saturated world market.

Luxemburg was describing a global historical process, a unified process. Because she understood that everything was ultimately determined by the development of the world market, she was able to see that it was impossible to divide the world into different historical departments: a senile capitalism on the one hand and a youthful, dynamic capitalism on the other. Capitalism is a unified system that rises and goes into decline as a single interdependent entity. The fundamental mistake of the Leninists was to assert that in some areas of the world capitalism could still be ‘progressive’ and even revolutionary, while it was decomposing in other areas. Just as their conception of ‘different’ national tasks for the proletariat in each geographic region betrayed a framework that begins from the standpoint of each national state in isolation, their concept of imperialism showed the same mistaken framework.

Having as her starting point the development of the world market Luxemburg was able to see that national liberation struggles were no longer possible when the world market was divided up by the imperialist powers. The first imperialist world war was decisive proof of the saturation of the world market. Henceforward there could no longer be any real expansion of the world market, but only a violent redivision of existing markets by imperialist powers robbing each other of their spoils, a process which in the absence of social revolution would inevitably lead to the collapse of civilisation. In this context it was impossible for any new nation state to enter into the world market on an independent basis, or to undergo the process of primitive accumulation outside this barbaric global chessboard. Consequently, “In the contemporary imperialist milieu there can be no wars of national defence” (Junius Pamphlet).

The very attempt of nations large or small to ‘defend’ themselves from imperialist attack necessitated alliances with other imperialisms, imperialistic expansion against yet smaller nations, and so on. All those ‘socialists’ who in World War I called for national defence of any kind were, in fact, only serving as apologists and recruiting agents for the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Although Luxemburg appears to have had certain confusions regarding the possibility of national self-determination after the socialist revolution, and although she never had the chance to develop her position in all its aspects, the whole thrust of her analysis is towards demonstrating that the productive forces evolved by capitalism had entered into violent conflict with capitalist social relations, including of course the imprisonment of the productive forces within the confines of the nation state. Imperialist wars were a sure sign of this insurmountable conflict and thus of the irreversible decay of the capitalist mode of production. In this context, national liberation struggles, once an expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, have not only lost their progressive content, but have been actively transformed into the imperialistic, cannibalising struggles of a class whose existence has become a barrier to further human progress.

Luxemburg’s ability to see that the bourgeoisie of any nation could only operate within the imperialist world system led her to sharply criticize the national policies of the Bolsheviks after 1917. Acknowledging that the Bolsheviks’ granting of national independence to Finland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, etc. was carried out with the intention of winning the masses of those nations to the Soviet power, she pointed out that, in fact, exactly the opposite had occurred:

One after another, these ‘nations’ used the freshly granted freedoms 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.

Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution

The idea that in the epoch of proletarian revolution, indeed on the very borders of the bastion of the revolution, there could be a congruence of interest between proletariat and bourgeoisie, was sheer utopia. No longer could the two classes derive any mutual benefit from the ‘independence’ of the nation. Now it was a fight to the death. The great perniciousness of the slogan of national self-determination was that it gave the bourgeoisie an ideological cover to pursue its class interests, which in such a period could only be the crushing of the revolutionary working class. Under the slogan of national self-determination the bourgeoisie of the countries bordering Russia massacred communists, dissolved the soviets, and allowed their territories to be used as a beachhead for the armies of German imperialism and the White reaction. Even in bourgeois terms, national self-determination for these countries was a mockery, because as soon as they broke away from the Russian Empire, the small nations of Eastern Europe fell under the heel of German or other imperialisms (and since then have been tossed from one imperialism to another until settling down under the wing of ‘Soviet’ imperialism). Not only did the Bolsheviks’ national policies give a free rein to the counter-revolution in the border nations, but on a wider scale they were to add a great ideological weight to the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie of the League of Nations, to the Wilsonians and others, whose own version of national self-determination was at that time entering into decisive conflict with the demands of international communism. And indeed since that time the Bolsheviks’ assertion of a ‘right’ of national self-determination has been used by numerous Stalinist, neo-fascist, Zionist, and other charlatans to justify the existence of any number of petty imperialist regimes.

When Luxemburg was formulating this critique, she was writing as a revolutionary expressing her profound solidarity with the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution. And indeed so long as there was life in that revolution, so long as the Bolsheviks were attempting to act in the interests of the world revolution, their national policies (among other things) could be criticised as the mistakes of a revolutionary workers’ party. In 1918, when Luxemburg wrote her critique of their methods, the Bolsheviks were still pinning all their hopes on a proletarian revolution breaking out in the West. But by 1920, with the tide of revolution receding everywhere, the Bolsheviks were showing clear signs of losing confidence in the international working class. Henceforward, more and more emphasis was to be put on uniting the Russian revolution with the ‘national liberation movements’ in the East, movements that were seen to pose a dire threat to the imperialist world system. From the Baku Congress in 1920 to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 this emphasis steadily increased, while a growing amount of material aid was doled out to nationalist movements of many different complexions. The disastrous consequences of these policies barely penetrated the minds of the Bolshevik bureaucracy, which was becoming less and less able to distinguish the immediate national advantage of Russia from the interests of the world proletariat. Consider the case of Kemal Ataturk. Despite the fact that he had executed the leaders of the Turkish Communist Party in 1921, the Bolsheviks continued to see a ‘revolutionary’ potential in Ataturk’s nationalist movement. Only when the latter openly sought to compromise with the Entente imperialisms in 1923 did the Bolsheviks begin to reconsider their policy towards him, and by this time there was nothing revolutionary at all in the foreign policy of the Russian state. And Kemal was no accident but simply an expression of the new epoch, of the utter irreconcilability of nationalism and proletarian revolution, of the complete inability of any faction of the bourgeoisie to stand independently of imperialism. Similar Bolshevik policies ended in fiascos in Persia and the Far East. The ‘national revolution’ against imperialism was a dangerous myth that cost the lives of countless workers and communists. From then on it became more and more clear that national movements, far from challenging the hegemony of imperialism, could only become pawns in the imperialist chess game. If one imperialism was weakened by this or that national movement, then another imperialism would surely gain.

The next inevitable step was for ‘Soviet’ Russia herself to enter unambiguously into imperialist competition with the established capitalisms. With the world revolution in disarray, with the Russian proletariat decimated by civil war and famine, its last great attempts to regain political power crushed at Petrograd and Kronstadt, the Bolshevik Party had ended up as the managers and overseers of Russian national capital. And since in the epoch of capitalist decadence national capitals have no choice but to expand imperialistically, the foreign policies of the Russian state from the middle twenties, including support for ‘national liberation movements’ can no longer be seen as reflecting the mistakes of a proletarian party, but as the imperialist strategies of a great capitalist power. Thus when the Comintern’s policy of alliance with the ‘national democratic revolution’ in China led directly to the massacre of the Chinese workers after the Shanghai insurrection of 1927, it is incorrect to talk of ‘betrayals’ or ‘mistakes’ on the part of Stalin or the Comintern. By sabotaging the insurrection of the Chinese workers they were simply fulfilling their class function as a faction of world capital.

The national question from the 1920s to World War 2

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


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”.

The situation after World War 2

In the wake of World War II, the national movements in the colonies evolved in two ways, both of which continued within the dynamic established in the previous decades. In the first place, the years after World War II saw a massive trend towards a relatively peaceful decolonisation; despite the existence of powerful and sometimes violent national movements in India, Africa, and elsewhere, the majority of the old colonial powers readily acceded to the ‘national’ independence of most of their former colonies. In an article written in 1952, the French group Internationalisme (which had split from the Italian Left in 1944 over the question of the formation of a party in the midst of the deepening counter-revolution) analysed the situation thus:

It was once believed in the workers’ movement that the colonies could only be emancipated within the context of the socialist revolution. Certainly their character as ‘the weakest link in the chain of imperialism’ owing to the exacerbation of capitalist exploitation and repression in those areas, made them particularly vulnerable to social movements. Always their accession to independence was linked to the revolution in the metropoles.

These last years have seen, however, most of the colonies becoming independent: the colonial bourgeoisies have emancipated themselves, more or less, from the metropoles. This phenomenon, however limited it may be in reality, cannot be understood in the context of the old theory, which saw colonial capitalism as the lackey pure and simple of imperialism, a mere broker.

The truth is that the colonies have ceased to represent an extra—capitalist market for the metropoles; they have become new capitalist countries. They have thus lost their character as outlets, which makes the old imperialisms less resistant to the demands of the colonial bourgeoisie. To which it must be added that these imperialisms’ own problems have favoured – in the course of two world wars – the economic expansion of the colonies. Constant capital destroyed itself in Europe, while the productive capacity of the colonies or semi-colonies grew, leading to an explosion of indigenous nationalism (South Africa, Argentina, India, etc). It is noteworthy that these new capitalist countries, right from their creation as independent nations, pass to the stage of state capitalism, showing the same aspects of an economy geared to war as has been discerned elsewhere.

The theory of Lenin and Trotsky has fallen apart. The colonies have integrated themselves into the capitalist world, and have even propped it up. There is no longer a ‘weakest link’: the domination of capital is.equally distributed throughout the surface of the planet.”

‘The Evolution of Capitalism and the New Perspective’, Internationalisme, no.45, 1952.

The bourgeoisies of the former colonial empires, weakened by the world wars, found themselves unable to maintain the colonies as colonies. The ‘peaceful’ disintegration of the British Empire is the best example of this. But it was primarily because these colonies could no longer serve as the basis for the enlarged reproduction of global capital, having themselves become capitalist, that they lost their importance for the major imperialisms (in fact it was the more backward colonial powers like Portugal which clung most tenaciously to their colonies). Decolonisation was actually only a formalisation of an already extant state of affairs: capital no longer accumulated by expanding into pre-capitalist regions, but on the decadent basis of the cycle of crisis, war, and reconstruction, by waste production, and so on.

But the accession of the former colonies to political independence in no way represented their real independence vis a vis the main imperialist powers. After colonialism comes the phenomenon of ‘neo-colonialism’: the major imperialisms retain their effective domination of the backward countries by means of the economic stranglehold which they exert: the imposition of unequal rates of exchange, the export of capital by ‘multinational’ corporations or the state, and their general predominance on the world market which forces the Third World countries to gear their economies to the needs of the advanced capitals (via ‘monoculture’, establishment of cheap labour export industries by foreign capital, etc). And of course, backing all this up there is the armed might of the major imperialisms, their willingness to intervene politically and militarily to defend their economic interests. Vietnam, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Czechoslovakia – these and other countries have been the scene of direct intervention by a major imperialism out to protect its interests from unacceptable political or economic change.

In fact ‘peaceful’ decolonisation is more an appearance than a reality. It takes place within a world dominated by military imperialist blocs, and it is the balance of forces between these blocs that determines the possibilities of peaceful decolonisation. The advanced capitals have shown themselves willing to agree to national independence only in so far as their former colonies remain under the domination of the imperialist bloc to which they adhere. Because World War II was only a redivision of an already saturated world market, it could only lead to a new global confrontation between the powers which came out on top after the slaughter had abated: in this case, primarily America and Russia. Consequently the second major trend after World War II was a whole new proliferation of national wars through which the major imperialisms sought to defend or extend their spheres of influence only Provisionally agreed upon after the world war.

The wars in China, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and elsewhere, were all products of the balance of forces after World War II, as well as of the continuing inability of capitalism to provide for humanity’s most basic needs, and the extreme social decomposition of the former colonial regions. In these wars the main imperialisms rarely confronted each other directly: local conflicts served as mediations for the overriding conflict between the ‘Super Powers’. No less than during the world war itself, these wars demonstrated the continuing inability of the local bourgeoisies to combat the domination of one imperialist power without relying on another. If a national bourgeoisie escaped the tentacles of one bloc, it immediately fell into the maws of another.

To give a few examples:

  • In the Middle East the Zionists fight the British-backed Arab armies with Russian and Czech arms, but Stalin’s plans to draw Israel into Russia’s sphere of influence fail, and Israel is integrated into the US orbit. Since then, Palestinian resistance to Zionism, having previously relied on British and German imperialism, is forced into the hands of imperialist powers hostile to the US or to Israel: Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China;
  • In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh helps the French and British defeat the Japanese; then under the aegis of Russia and China he defeats the French, and inflicts wounding blows on the Americans;
  • In Cuba, Castro withdraws from the US orbit to fall unambiguously into the hands of Russian imperialism.

Undoubtedly individual imperialist powers are weakened here and there by these wars and realignments. But each time one imperialist power is weakened, another becomes stronger. Only those who see something ‘non-imperialist’ in the Stalinist regimes can find something progressive in the passing of a country from one imperialist bloc to another. But whatever the theoretical contortions and fantasies of Trotskyism, Maoism, et al, in the real world the chain of imperialism remains unbroken.

This is not to imply that the local bourgeoisies are always merely puppets of the ‘Super Powers’. The local bourgeoisies have distinct interests of their own and these are also imperialist. Israel’s expansion into the Arab territories, North Vietnam’s invasion of the South and expansion into parts of Cambodia, India and Pakistan’s rivalries over Kashmir and Bengal –  all these are necessitated by the iron laws of capitalist competition in the epoch of imperialist decay. In addition to acting as agents of the big imperialisms by accepting their aid, advice, and arms, local bourgeois factions themselves become imperialist pure and simple as soon as they grab control of the state. Because no nation can accumulate in absolute autarky they have no choice but to begin to expand at the expense of ether nations even more backward, and thus engage in policies of annexation, unequal exchange, etc. In the epoch of capitalist decadence, every nation state is an imperialist power. Nevertheless, it remains the case that all these local rivalries can only take place within the more global rivalries of the main imperialist blocs. The smaller countries have to follow the global demands of the major powers in order to win their help in furthering their own local interests. In certain exceptional cases, a previously minor power can accede to a place of considerable importance on the worldwide imperialist arena. China, because of its size and wealth of natural resources is one example, while a country like Saudia Arabia, was, for a strictly limited period, another. But the emergence of new major imperialisms hardly weakens the grip of imperialism as a whole. And even with these latter examples, the fundamental rivalry between the US and Russia continues to dictate world policy. China, for example, broke with Russia in the early sixties and attempted briefly to pursue an ‘autarkic’ policy. But the deepening of the world crisis, with its consequence of reinforcing the two main blocs, has increasingly forced China to integrate itself into the USbloc.

All the post-war developments have amply proved the falsity in this era of the tactic of giving support to national liberation movements in order to weaken imperialism. Far from weakening imperialism, these movements only serve to tighten its grip on the world, and to mobilise sections of the world proletariat into the service of one or another imperialist bloc.

The impossibility of national liberation

It is the objective development of the world market that has made genuine national liberation struggles an impossibility in this epoch. The capitalist system has reached an historic impasse. Having socialised the productive forces to an unprecedented degree, having unified the world economy more than any other historical mode of production, capital has reached a point where the contradictions inherent in its mode of production preclude the completion of that unification. The world human community has been made a potential reality by the movement of capital but the realisation of that community can only result from the destruction of capitalist social relations, and the inauguration of communist relations by the revolutionary working class. The perpetuation of capitalism, indeed, does not merely hold back the development of the productive forces, but actually threatens to drag humanity to ruin. The global saturation of markets since 1914 has meant that capitalism has only been able to survive by enacting a barbaric cycle of crisis, war, and reconstruction. And with the opening up of a new phase of the crisis since 1967 the only way forward for capitalism today is towards a new imperialist world war. Only the proletarian revolution, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat on a world scale, can prevent capital from perpetrating this final crime on humanity.

Capitalist social relations – generalised commodity relations centred on the commodity character of labour power – have entered into permanent conflict with the productive forces. The historic crisis of capitalism is precisely the imprisonment of the productive forces by their commodity form, which prevents the collective, associated character of capitalist production from serving as the basis for a truly socialised mode of production. Since humanity can advance through the establishment of such a socialised system, the only progressive project today is the liberation of the productive forces from their commodity form and the creation of communism, which is only possible on a world scale. As capitalist social relations become decadent, so the legal and property forms that are an expression of these relations become a direct factor in the ‘blocking’ of the productive forces. The nation state was once progressive because it provided an arena for the free play of commodity relations and thus for the growing unification of social reproduction, as against the atomisation imposed by feudal relations of production. But though today capitalism has more and more tended to eliminate direct economic competition within each nation state, the phenomena of state capitalism and of imperialism demonstrate that capitalism cannot go beyond the form of competing blocs of national capital.

Thus, far from serving to unite the process of social reproduction, the nation state today stands in the way of its genuine unification. In a world that cries out for the establishment of a rational, planned system of production and distribution on a world scale, the nation state has become an anachronism. Its absurdity becomes clearer and clearer, as the historic crisis of capitalism grows deeper. Each nation state attempts to draw in on itself; demanding its own industrial-agrarian infrastructure; its own currency; its own frontiers. The efforts of national capitals to become self-reliant, which lead to an insane duplication of productive activities, express the immense waste of productive capacity which characterises capitalism in decay: while the inevitable sharpening of competition between national capitals leads to the most terrible waste of human and economic resources ever known: imperialist wars.

All the events of this century prove that the bourgeoisie cannot act as a truly international class. Attempts at regulating capitalism on an international scale (which in any case are efforts towards the establishment of cartels to fight other more powerful capitalist blocs) are possible only for transient periods, as is shown by the collapse of international monetary agreements and of the European Economic Community in the face of the crisis today.

 It is because capital as a world social relation has entered into its epoch of decline that there can be nothing progressive in the establishment of new nation states anywhere. As a world class, the bourgeoisie has played out its historic role and has become a reactionary obstacle to human progress. And if the bourgeoisie of the powerful, highly industrialised capitals is unable to be a factor in the progressive development of the productive forces, this is even more impossible for the bourgeoisie in the backward countries whose economies remain firmly in the grip of the large imperialisms, and who lack any possibility of ‘catching up’ with the advanced capitals.

Even in the period of post-World War II reconstruction, in which the major capitalist blocs underwent an unprecedented phase of economic growth, one could always point out the misery and backwardness of the ‘Third World’ to contradict those who babbled about a ‘consumer society’ and a crisis-free capitalism. Throughout the period of reconstruction the vast majority of the Third World countries were falling further and further behind the economies of the advanced capitals. Economic stagnation; a ‘population boom’ which in the absence of sufficient industrial development produced millions of starving landless peasants all over Asia, Latin America, and Africa; official corruption and overproduction of intellectual strata which could not be integrated into the economy; the perpetuation of diseases long since vanished in the advanced countries; ruthless exploitation by native and foreign capitals; wars, coups, and general political instability: all these daily realities of life in the under-developed regions were doleful reminders of the fictional nature of the so-called ‘consumer society’. And today as the advanced capitals flounder in the onset of .a new generalised crisis, the backward countries can only fall further and further into decomposition. Because of their dependence on world imperialism, these countries can only go down with a crash when the big capitals totter. Already the crisis is hitting some Third World countries in a truly catastrophic way, especially those that have no vital raw materials with which to counter the pressures exerted by the efforts of the main imperialisms to save their own skins (the attempt to push the effects of the crisis onto weaker capitals has already begun and can only intensify as the crisis deepens). Countries like Ethiopia and Bangladesh have been hit by crop failures, famines, floods, inflation, war and recession all at once. Bangladesh is a particularly good example of the impossibility of national liberation today. The regime of Sheikh Mujib, established by a ‘national liberation war’ with the indispensable aid of Indian and Russian imperialism against their American, Pakistani, and Chinese rivals, was totally incapable of doing anything but adding to the general crisis of the Bangladesh economy. According to the official figures (Le Monde, 18 December 1974), 27,800 people died of starvation in the last two months of 1974. And the only response of a glaringly incompetent regime was to repress all its political rivals. After a bewildering series of coups and counter-coups, the regimes that followed Mujib’s have merely continued along this inexorable path.

The deepening of the world crisis has also silenced those who advertised the splendid ‘development’ that appeared to be taking place in isolated pockets of the Third World. Brazil, for example, was often described as an ‘economic miracle’ by bourgeois savants, while many ‘marxists’ who denied the saturation of the world market would point to Brazil as proof of the fact that capital could still find many outlets in the ‘development’ of the Third World. In fact, even during the time of its boom Brazilian expansion took place at the cost of ferocious repression of the working class by the ruling military junta, continued poverty of millions of peasants and lumpen-proletarians and the literal enslavement or massacre of Indian tribes. The Brazilian economy was regulated in the interests of the equally rapacious imperialisms of the USA, Japan, Germany, and others, whose main concern was to suck it dry as quickly as possible. Now that the crisis has dispelled the mirage of expansion the Brazilian finance minister has admitted that all the growth of the Brazilian economy in recent years has been fed by entirely fictitious capital. The economy will therefore stand up as long as other capitals continue to make-believe in the reality of that capital. (This situation is actually a microcosm of the world economy which depends to a great extent on faith in the dollar.)

Development in the Third World has, of course, taken place but only on the same decadent and wasteful basis as capital accumulation everywhere in this epoch. Small pockets of growth take place in each country (usually for the benefit of a foreign imperialism), while the traditional economic forms are driven to collapse with no replacement being offered for them or for the strata who lived by them. Thus, for every new factory and industrial worker in the backward countries there are many more slums, lumpen-proletarians, unemployed intellectuals, and landless peasants. Though the absolute number of proletarians has increased during the period of decadence, their proportional weight in the world population has decreased, and remains smallest of all in the Third World.

In his book, The Working Class is Permanently Expanding (published by Spartacus), Simon Rubak has shown convincingly that the industrial proletariat is growing in an absolute sense on a world scale. But by taking his own figures, we can draw up an approximate chart that will support what we are saying:


 Advanced Countries: +117,000,000
(Europe, USA, USSR, Japan)
 Backward Countries: +360,000,000
(Asia, Africa, Latin America)
* Refers to workers in industry and transport 

During this period, for each new employee created by capital in the advanced countries, three people are born; in the backward countries, the proportion is one to twenty eight!” (Quoted from M. Bdrard, Rupture avec Lutte Ouvrière et le Trotskysme)

In general, the Third World countries emerge as pitiful and second-rate copies of the decaying advanced capitals. Each one must have its own huge bureaucratic state apparatus, gigantic military and ‘prestige’ expenditure (statues of national heroes, national airlines, etc). Nigeria, for example, spends 220 million pounds a year on its army, which represents 22.4 per cent of the entire capital budget of the Federal Government. Other ‘blessings’ of capitalist accumulation in the advanced countries are also ‘enjoyed’ in the Third World: wholesale pillage of the natural environment, pollution, and the general dehumanisation of social life often intensified by the trauma of the collapse of traditional cultures. Indeed, many of the basic tendencies of decadent capitalism – such as state capitalism – are even more brutally ‘advanced’ in these countries than in the old metropoles. All these phenomena express the fact that far from being ‘rising’ or ‘young’ capitalisms, these countries are in fact the weakest sectors of a senile world capitalism.

Nationalism against the working class

The bourgeoisie has maintained its class rule in the last fifty years by engaging in a permanent counter-revolution, an unending attack on the working class. All the mass organizations of’ the class in the ascendant epoch (unions, parties, etc) have been integrated into capitalism and serve as obstacles to the proletarian struggle. The bourgeoisie has engaged in grandiose projects of mystification to hold back the development of class consciousness, from television and the tabloid press in the West, to mass rallies and propaganda campaigns in the East. When the working class has resisted these attacks, the bourgeoisie has flung at the class all the forms and forces of repression in its arsenal: riot police, bomber squads, specialists in’ torture, forced labour camps, etc. And whenever the permanent crisis of capital has appeared like an open wound at the heart of the system, the bourgeoisie has sacrificed millions of proletarians in imperialist wars.

The bourgeoisie’s attacks on the class become more and more vicious wherever the crisis is at its most intense. Then the capitalists have no choice except to increase exploitation at the point of production, physically repress the resistance of the class, and, if they can march it off to war. In the backward regions of capitalism the permanent crisis has, throughout this epoch, been less amenable to the palliatives which have allowed the bourgeoisie in the advanced capitals to moderate its attack on the working class. In these regions the proletariat has suffered almost without any let—up the kind of exploitation and brutalization which capital in the more industrialized countries dares to resort to only in moments of profound crisis. The reality of working class existence in the Third World has refuted Lenin’s idea that national liberation movements would provide a framework for the establishment of ‘bourgeois democratic’ regimes which would allow the working class to organize its own independent movement. Nowhere in this epoch can capital permit the working class to organize an independent movement, and least of all in the countries of the so—called ‘national democratic revolutions’.

The economic weakness of the backward countries gives the bourgeoisie there no choice but to attempt to extract the maximum of surplus value from the working class (and with the low organic composition of capital in such regions this usually takes its ‘absolute’ form). As soon as the ‘national liberation’ forces come to power, their energies are transferred from the battlefield to the ‘battle for production’. Almost invariably, the national liberation fronts extend the tendencies towards state capitalism which are already deeply entrenched in their economies. The instigation of wide— scale nationalizations has the dual purpose of shoring up a shaky national capital on the world market, and of serving as a basis for populist and ‘socialist’ rhetoric with which the new regime may hope to persuade the workers to work themselves ‘into the ground for ‘their’ national economy. In fact, these regimes can offer the working class little more than ideological consolations of this kind. As the leader of Frelimo cautioned the Mozambique working class shortly after Frelimo came to power: “Freedom means work and an end to laziness.” From the factories of North Korea to the sugar plantations of Cuba the message is the same. The ideology of ‘building socialism’ is used to mask the most ferocious, primitive forms of capitalist exploitation, forms pioneered decades ago in Stalinist Russia: piece work, obligatory overtime, militarization of production, the complete integration of the ‘workers’’ organizations into the state. As long as there are Third Worldists, liberals, and leftists, there will be those who enthuse about the ‘heroic spirit of self—sacrifice’ in the ‘socialist’ countries of the Third World. The admiration many bourgeois scribblers and politicians have for these regimes is essentially a class admiration for the ability of mystifications such as Maoism, Castroism, or Nyerere’s ‘African Socialism’ to help convince workers to identify with their exploiters. The bourgeoisie of the advanced countries is in desperate need of some equivalent ideology today.

But bourgeois admirers of these regimes are not able to see that, despite these mystifications, the working class is not integrated anywhere, and that the class struggle continues unabated in the most ‘progressive’ of Third World regimes. The recent waves of class struggle in China are eloquent testimony to this. Always behind the socialist verbiage of ‘voluntary’ sacrifice there lurks the ever—present threat of military—police repression. Thus to their definition of freedom Frelimo added that there would be no room for strikes in the new social order in Mozambique.

In the nineteenth century the bourgeois revolution almost invariably led to the setting up of more or less democratic regimes which gave the workers the right to organize themselves. There is no more decisive proof of the impossibility of bourgeois revolutions today than the political character of national liberation regimes. They are inevitably organized with the explicit purpose of preventing, and if necessary, smashing by brute force, any signs of autonomous working class struggle. Most of them are single party police states which proscribe the right to strike. Their prisons are full of dissenters. Many of them have a distinguished record of putting down working class uprisings in blood. We have mentioned Ho’s valuable contribution to the smashing of the Saigon workers’ Commune; we should also recall Mao’s dispatching of the’ Peoples’ Liberation Army to ‘restore order’ after workers’ strikes, semi—insurrections, and similar ‘ultra—left adventures’ provoked by the so— called Cultural Revolution. Then we should remember the striking miners shot by Allende in Chile, or by the ‘progressive’ military junta in Peru. The list is practically inexhaustible. Peasants have also fared poorly under the tender auspices of these regimes. Even before the cities have fallen to them, the ‘national liberation armies’ impose their rule on the peasants of the rural districts, terrorize them, tax them, mobilize them as cannon fodder. The panic— stricken flight of peasants in the face of the Vietcong advances in March 1975, long after the Americans had stopped bombing Vietcong controlled regions, shows how empty is the promise of the Third Worldists that ‘national liberation’ brings true happiness to the peasants,. After the seizure of the government by the national liberation forces, peasants have continued to suffer. The peasants who revolted against Ho Chi Minh’s collectivisations in 1956 were crushed by the regime; while in China, peasants who are mobilized for the construction of dams, bridges, etc, are subjected to the most acute intensification of exploitation by the state. (The enforced destruction of the peasantry in the Third Worldrecapitulates in a particularly violent fashion what has taken place more gradually in the metropoles.)

Most of these national liberation regimes also continue to perpetrate oppression against national minorities. In independent black African regimes, Asian minorities are oppressed. In Sudan, a leftist Arab regime oppresses the blacks. The Social Democratic/Stalinist/Trotskyist government in Ceylon deprives the Tamils of all civil rights while ruthlessly exploiting them on the tea estates. And the Polish bourgeoisie (despite Lenin’s prescriptions) continues to persecute those Jews whom the regime has not already kicked Out! Indeed, the programme of most national liberation fronts ‘often carries the intention of replacing one form of national oppression with another. The Zionist programme implicitly or explicitly provided for the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs; while the programme of the Palestinian national movement, by demanding a state where Muslims, Jews, and Christians can live in harmony as religious groups, indirectly announced its intention to suppress Israeli—Jewish nationality and replace it with a Palestinian Arab state. Similarly in Ireland, the programme of the IRA can only transform the Protestants into an oppressed national—religious minority.

It could not be otherwise. Since all national liberation programmes are capitalist, they cannot serve to eliminate the basis of national oppression, which is none other than capitalism itself.

But to return to the specific position of the workers under such regimes, we may say that the greatest assault that the national liberation fronts can mount on the working class is precisely the national liberation war itself. Because of global imperialist rivalries and the chronic nature of the historic crisis in the Third World, the bourgeoisie of these regions is continually pushed into imperialist squabbles with and adventures against their local rivals. Since 1914 there has hardly been a moment when at least one part of the under—developed world has not been plunged into war.

National liberation wars are a necessity for the minor imperialisms of the Third World if they are to survive on the world market. Competition is especially fierce in these areas because global domination by the advanced capitals forces the weaker capitals to try to scramble ahead of each other to carve out a niche in the world market. But for the working class, these wars bring even greater rates of exploitation, more explicit militarization, and above all, slaughter and destruction on a huge scale. Millions of workers have been killed in these wars in this century, gaining nothing except an exchange of one exploiter for another. As with all national wars, national liberation struggles have served to muzzle the class struggle, to divide the ranks of the proletariat, and to impede the maturation of communist consciousness. And since the only overall movement of capitalism in decay is towards world imperialist conflagrations on a bigger and bigger scale, local national struggles serve as testing—grounds for future world conflicts which could put an end to all possibilities of socialism.

In the decadent epoch of capitalism, communists must assert unambiguously that all forms of nationalism are reactionary to the core. While few would deny the reactionary nature of the traditional nationalism of the big imperialisms — Ku Klux Klan patriotism, Jingoism, Nazism, ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism, etc — the so—called ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ is no less pernicious for the working class. It is with this ‘progressive’ nationalism that the bourgeoisie of the former colonies attempts to integrate the working class and to persuade it to produce more and more surplus value for the fatherland. It is to the tune of national liberation and anti—imperialist rallying—cries that the workers of these countries are mobilized for inter—imperialist wars. The working class has one interest today: to unify itself on a world scale for the communist revolution. Any ideology that attempts to divide the working class along racial, sexual, or national lines is counter—revolutionary, no matter how much it talks of socialism, liberation, or revolution.

If capitalism in crisis succeeds in imposing its solution -of world war on the working class, it will undoubtedly march the workers off to a final round of barbarism under the banners of nationalism in one form or another. Nationalism thus appears today as the anti—thesis of the proletariat, as the negation of humanity, the potential ideological vehicle for its obliteration.

The tasks of the proletariat

Against all forms of nationalism, in the face of the deepening world crisis, communists must affirm the internationalist tasks of the revolutionary working class.

Autonomous Class Struggle

Whether in the advanced countries or the Third World, the only way forward for the working class today is to wage an intransigent, autonomous class struggle. This implies not only an independence from all those forces which attempt to divert the struggle of the class and to tie it to one capitalist faction – whether trade unions, leftist parties, or national liberation fronts – but also a fierce struggle against all these forces, against frontisms of all kinds. The workers must fight not simply against one imperialist bloc and its local agents, but against all imperialisms and all their agents. The only front open to the working class today is the international proletarian front against capital.

To those who try to terrorise the proletariat into allying itself with some ‘more progressive’ or ‘less evil’ bourgeois faction by advertising the extreme murderousness of another rival faction, communists can only reply by pointing out how little such alliances can in fact protect workers from bloodshed and massacre. Far from defending workers against a ‘greater evil’, such alliances have only served to disarm the class, leaving it helpless against the attacks of its erstwhile ‘allies’ when the latter attempted to ‘restore order’ and set up their own regime. This is the lesson of China in 1927, and the working class has paid heavily for not assimilating that lesson since then. The workers of Barcelona in May 1937 were shot down by the Popular Front, which was supposed to save them from the ‘greater evil’ of fascism. Likewise in 1943, the Allied bombers taught a salutary lesson to the Italian workers whose strikes and uprisings against the fascist administration threatened to get out of hand. For the proletariat there are no ‘lesser evils’ in capitalism. The working class cannot rely on its deadly enemy, the bourgeoisie, for protection. Even in the epoch of genuine bourgeois revolutions, Marx insisted that the workers should retain their arms and independent organs of struggle throughout the revolution, to defend themselves against the inevitable bourgeois backlash against the threat to capitalist order (the lesson of the Paris insurrections of 1848). In the era of capitalist decay, when the bourgeoisie in all its colours can only advance by attacking and massacring the working class, the only possible defence of the proletariat is its independent action against all bourgeois factions, leading to their eventual overthrow by the armed workers’ councils.

In the rising wave of class struggle since 1968, the workers of the Third World have shown a capacity for autonomous class struggle no smaller than that of their brothers in the more industrialised countries. In Argentina, Venezuela, India, Burma, Thailand, Angola, China, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere, massive strikes and even semi-insurrectional struggles have hurled the workers into direct confrontation with the police, the unions, the ‘workers parties’, and with governments of ‘national liberation’. As in the advanced capitals, workers in these countries have organized themselves in autonomous general assemblies and wildcat strike committees to direct their struggle. In Argentina in 1969 the workers defended their neighbourhoods against the army with Molotov cocktails and guns, organising committees to co-ordinate their fight, which can be seen to be the direct precursors of the workers’ councils.Just as the capitalist crisis is international, so the response of the working class is also international in scale. The deepening of the crisis opens up the possibility of a growing unification of workers’ struggles all over the world. It is in this process of deepening and ever-widening class struggle that the working class will develop the consciousness and capacity to mount a revolutionary offensive against the capitalist state in all countries.

The World Civil War

There are those who justify support for national liberation fronts by saying that any other policy must condemn the proletariat of the Third World to wait impotently until the proletariat in the advanced countries breaks the imperialist chain at its centre. Others, not wanting to sully their hands with supporting bourgeois factions, simply dismiss the revolutionary potential of the working class in the underdeveloped countries, and say that nothing can be done until there is a revolution in the advanced countries.

Both these viewpoints betray an inability to comprehend capital as a global social relation and the working class as one world class. By its own struggles the proletariat in the Third World has shown that it has no intention of passively enduring until the revolution breaks put in a major imperialist centre. While we have no intention of ‘predicting’ where the revolution will break out, there is no a priori reason why a revolutionary impetus might not begin in a Third World country or continent. Of course, the revolution could not maintain itself there for long, but, in the end, this is no less true for America than it is for Venezuela or Vietnam. It is the global nature of the crisis that opens up the possibility of the worldwide generalisation of the revolution, just as it was in 1917 when the revolutionary wave began in ‘backward’ Russia. (It is important to point out that many parts of the Third World  -Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, India, Egypt, South Korea, Taiwan, etc – are characterized by important industrial centres and a highly concentrated proletariat, as was Russia on the eve of the October revolution. Even in those countries that lack significant industrial centres there is a large agricultural proletariat as well as dockers, transportation workers, construction workers, etc. who could be the basis of the revolutionary thrust. However, it is undeniable that the chances of a revolutionary impetus beginning from this second category of Third World countries are somewhat remote.)

Unquestionably the problems faced by a proletarian dictatorship in the Third World would be immense. The proletariat in such a region would be faced with the need to feed thousands of lumpenproletarians and landless peasants; it would be confronted with a peasantry attached to the idea of its own property and to subsistence agriculture; it would be threatened with immediate attack by one of the large imperialisms and probably also by their local client states. Clearly in such a situation the only way forward would be to attempt to spread the revolution as quickly as possible towards the advanced capitals, whose material resources and proletarian concentration are absolutely indispensable for the success of the revolution and the creation of socialism. Only if this outward movement is maintained will it be possible for the proletariat to defend its power in a sea of peasants and other non-proletarian strata. In all probability the workers would be forced to make various concessions to the peasants and there would be all kinds of dangers inherent in such concessions. A great deal can be learned from the (negative) experience of the Bolsheviks in this respect. Thus the workers would have to encourage collectivisation rather than the dividing up of the land, and instead of proclaiming a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ the workers would have to prevent the peasants from attempting to ‘share power’ with the proletariat. (Political representation of strata such as the peasantry would be through territorial councils, which would represent the peasants as individuals, not as a whole social class with its own soviet power.) But in any case, any measures the workers took to counterbalance unavoidable concessions could only serve to maintain the balance of forces in favour of the working class if the revolution continued to spread. There can be no solution to the problem of other social strata within a single country. Only the worldwide proletarian dictatorship can really achieve the integration of all classes into the communist association of mankind.

It is vital to understand the problems that a Third World bastion would face and to recognise the central role of the proletariat of the advanced countries. But communists must be aware of the strengths of the proletariat as well as its weaknesses. In the underdeveloped countries the proletariat may constitute a small minority of the population, but as Lenin recognized in 1919:

The strength of the proletariat in any capitalist country is infinitely larger than its proportion in the total population. This is because the proletariat has economic command of the centre and the nervous system of the capitalist economy, and also because in the political and economic sphere, the proletariat expresses, under capitalist domination, the real interests of the vast majority of the toiling population.

Lenin, Works, vol.16

Moreover, the weakness and incompetence of the bourgeoisie in many backward countries may make the actual seizure of power by the working class easier than in the advanced capitalisms where the bourgeoisie is much more experienced and much better equipped to deal with civil disorder. On the global scale, the intervention of the major imperialisms against a revolution in the Third World may be delayed or obstructed by the depth of the crisis and the class struggle in the advanced capitals. The American or Russian bourgeoisie might simply be unable to mobilise ‘their’ workers against a workers’ bastion, even though the workers of the former countries had not yet taken power. In any case, the interdependent nature of the world economy makes the revolution itself no less interdependent. Workers of the advanced countries need the revolution in the backward countries just as the latter require the overthrow of the major powers. There is only one revolution.

Whether the proletarian revolution breaks out in the advanced countries or in the Third World, one thing is certain; the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship anywhere opens the phase of the worldwide civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

The world civil war does not mean that a single proletarian bastion has the ‘messianic’ task of spreading the revolution entirely on its own, of taking on the whole world bourgeoisie in a direct military confrontation. Apart from the fact that this is a strategic utopia, the impossibility of ‘exporting revolution’ by simply invading neighbouring capitalist countries was demonstrated in 1920, when the Red Army’s advance on Warsaw only succeeded in driving the Polish workers into the arms of their own bourgeoisie. A single proletarian bastion will undoubtedly have to conduct a holding operation in military terms; defending what territory it can while attempting to spread the revolution by other means.

The words ‘civil war’ mean that as soon as the question of power is concretely posed, the proletariat has begun a fight to the death with capital. And this is true not just for, the section of the proletariat that has seized power, but for the entire world class. For the proletariat of the workers’ bastion it means that their bastion cannot survive indefinitely within the world capitalist system. Either it remains an expression of the continuous revolutionary struggle of the working class, or it will, succumb at the hand of the counter-revolution, both from within and from without.

For this reason, all the efforts of the workers in their bastion must be geared to the extension of the revolution to the worldwide conquest of power by the working class. The necessary measures of socialisation that the proletariat in power in one area will take are, at this stage, fundamentally means to this end.

The principle vehicle for the extension of the revolution, the proletariat’s main weapon in the civil war, is the class consciousness of the world proletariat. It follows that the main strategy of the proletariat in power in one region is to generalise the political conditions for revolution. It must appeal to the workers of the whole world to come to its aid by making the revolution in their own countries. It must actively assist and arm revolutionary workers everywhere. It must help conduct a massive campaign of agitation and propaganda within the world class, and help provide the organisational means for communist intervention in all countries. (The greatest contribution of the Bolsheviks to the extension of the revolution was the foundation of the 3rd International.)

It is within an overall framework of political considerations that the proletariat must approach the question of the military extension of the revolution. There will certainly be military advances by the proletarian dictatorships, but these offensives will be subordinate to political criteria as well as purely military ones: the degree of revolutionary maturation in the proletariat of other countries, the strength of the bourgeoisie or of nationalist ideology, etc. Needless to say, such offensives will bear no resemblance to the barbaric methods of imperialist plunder. At all times the proletariat in arms will seek to win over the workers of other countries to the revolutionary fight; it cannot terrorize them into joining the revolution and can only reject with contempt all methods aimed at subjugating civilian populations by brute force – bombing and shelling of residential districts, mass reprisals, etc. Under no circumstances can it employ nuclear weapons or bacteriological warfare or any other nightmarish technique of mass murder concocted by decadent capitalism.

 But while the proletarian power cannot attempt to incorporate countries into its jurisdiction by sheer force of arms, it cannot for that reason refrain from sending its armed detachments into this or that region out of respect for any‘national rights’, if the situation demands such action. During the period of the civil war, of the extension of the revolution, there can be no concessions to nationalism or any pretended right to national self-determination. Instead of applying the disastrous Bolshevik policy of atomising the proletariat into enclaves at the mercy of the so-called ‘oppressed’ bourgeoisie, the proletarian power will have to make every effort to unify the class by calling for each fraction of the world proletariat to rise against its own bourgeoisie and to participate in the establishment of the international power of the workers’ councils. If this or that fraction of the proletariat retains nationalist illusions these must not be strengthened by promises of national independence but fought every inch of the way. The proletarian bastion will have to give the maximum aid and encouragement to those workers who have broken from nationalism, and will in general appeal to the class interests of all the workers. Nation or class? Capitalist slavery or communist revolution? These are the only alternatives the most resolute fractions of the working class can offer to their class brothers.

The Construction of the World Human Community

There can be no more talk in the workers’ movement of any right to national self-determination either before, during, or after the victory of the proletarian revolution. The extension of the revolution means the speediest possible destruction of national frontiers, the establishment of the power of the workers’ councils over wider and wider areas of the globe. The real creation of communist social relations can only take place on a world scale.

In the old workers’ movement it was possible to have the confused idea that socialism was to some extent realisable behind national frontiers, that the world community could be created by a process of gradual fusion of ‘socialist economies’. But the experience of Russia has shown that not only is the construction of socialism difficult in one country, it is actually impossible. As long as global capital exists, it will continue to dominate all the rhythms of production and consumption everywhere. No matter how far the workers in one country go towards the elimination of the forms of capitalist exploitation in one area, they continue to be exploited by world capital. Before communism can be definitively created, capitalism must be definitively destroyed everywhere. Communism cannot be built ‘within’ capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin could speak of national self-determination under socialism and still remain revolutionaries. Today those who use the same terms are advocates of the capitalist counter-revolution. This applies to the Stalinists with their socialism in one country; to the Trotskyists with their fantasy of ‘workers’ states’ happily co-existing on a near-eternal world market. It also applies to libertarians and anarchists who favour ‘self-management in one country’. The retention of the nation state means national frontiers, international exchange, international competition – in short, capitalism. The construction of socialism/communism is nothing less than the construction of the world human community. It is the liberation of the productive forces from the fetters imposed by national divisions and commodity exchange. It is the worldwide, socialisation of production and consumption. It is the proletariat’s abolition of itself as an exploited class and the integration of all classes into a real social humanity that will appear for the first time.

In the transition period between capitalism and the classless society, the immense social dislocation and suffering bequeathed to the working class by capitalism can only begin to be abolished through the worldwide generalization of communist relations of production. On this basis alone can the problems that ravage the Third World and humanity as a whole be resolved. Unemployment, starvation, destruction and pillage of the natural environment, imbalance of the international industrial infrastructure – these fundamental problems are integral to the capitalist mode of production and can only be eliminated through the conscious planning of the world’s productive activity by the producers themselves.

In the reconstruction and transformation of a world ravaged by decades of capitalist decay, the proletariat will inevitably confront problems of national, racial, and cultural divisions within its own ranks and within humanity as a whole. All these divisions will have to be faced, and discussed freely and openly within the workers’ councils and the territorial councils through which the proletarian power will deal with the rest of the population. But the final liquidation of these divisions can only be achieved by the continuous revolutionizing of the social fabric, which will undermine the material basis of such divisions and render them obsolete. As it moves towards the human community, the proletariat will initiate the fusion of all existing cultures into a truly universal culture, a higher synthesis of every previous human cultural achievement into the new culture of communism. With the emergence of this universal culture, the ‘tribal’ phase of human prehistory ends, and the real history of humanity begins.

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