Communism and the national question
"Prometeo" no.4, April 15, 1924
Presentation in “Comunismo” n.12, 1983
Communism and the national question
Action and Principles
Aversion to principles equals submission to bourgeois principles
The bourgeois principle of liberty and democracy
The "nationality principle"
The national question in the Communist International
The Marxist way - correctly defined
Application of the method to the national question
The error of "national bolshevism" in Germany
Presentation in “Comunismo” n.12, 1983
From the Archives of the Left
At the 5th Congress of the Communist International (June-July 1924) the national and colonial question was again placed on the agenda. The theses of the 2nd Congress and of Baku, despite their theoretical and practical clarity, had not proved adequate to prevent: 1/ the French and English Communist Parties from displaying serious resistance to promoting and adequately supporting the nationalist movements in India and Indonesia; 2/ the Egyptian and Turkish communist parties from lending their support in a way which was entirely subordinate to their bourgeoisies and governments; and 3/ above all, in Germany, and with the total complicity of the International itself, they had not managed to prevent serious confusion arising between the struggle for communism and that of bourgeois nationalism struggle against the Versailles Treaty. What is more, other questions overlapped with the re-emergence of Greater Russian chauvinism and nationalism, in the guise of the incipient Stalinism, against which the dying Lenin led his last battle from the terribly isolated position in which the Left of the CPSU already found itself. The necessity of taking up all the main questions of principle again, and deriving from these in the clearest way possible rules of practical action in the various geo-historical areas within which the Communist International was called upon to act, was clearly posed. But by now the official chairman of the Executive of the C.I. was already resorting to that infamous method which would later become the distinguishing mark of Stalinism: instead of clarifying the norms of practical action in the light of principles a hunt began for someone to blame for incompetence and ineptitude. A representative of the Italian left took part in the discussions and emphasised the two key cornerstones of the national question which risked getting forgotten in the rush to allocate blame: first of all, the theoretical basis for the resolution of national problems is already contained in the Manifesto and it consists in the victory of communism on a global scale; and, in the second place, the national and colonial question must be posed from the very instant the metropolitan proletariat embarks on its struggle against imperialism, since it is not a case of problems which belong to two successive phases, but of problems which are strictly interdependent.
The text we are republishing here was written precisely in view of the debate about to take place at the 5th Congress, and it was originally published in our journal of the time (Prometeo, April 1924). What stands out is the clear contrast between the method subscribed to in the text and the one in vogue in the International at this time. To deal with practical questions from the point of view of principle was considered within the C.I. to be totally pointless, and, in the best of cases, supporters of this method were ridiculed or pointed out as representatives of a tendency which favoured “inactivity”, a tendency which loved theoretical dissertations since it was hostile to practical action. Here we see expressed the particularly persistent notion of the inherent opposition of theory to practical action.
It was precisely in order to prevent such bad practices, whose dire consequences the Left had already accurately predicted, that the text we are republishing here was written. It is an admirable example of that unique method, unbounded by time and space, which is an identifying feature of the Communist Party.
The article begins with a powerful theoretical introduction in which it is recalled how the Marxist method is opposed to every type of opportunism precisely because its tactical norms are directly linked via the dialectical method to its theoretical principles: only thus, a feature of our tradition alone, do theory and action not stand in contradiction with one another. Opportunism on the other hand has always signified absence of principles, and you only arrive at such an absence by devaluing ends (“the end is nothing, the movement is everything”). Since opportunism is able to do without principles it ends up by theorising that the rules of practical action can be concocted on an ad hoc basis; which, with communist principles repudiated, is as good as theorising that one can only act on the basis of the ideological principles of the bourgeoisie in all their myriad manifestations. In response to the old and by now very predictable criticism that we oppose this method with a set of dogmas, and thus relapse into metaphysics and the condoning of a method which is anti-scientific, we respond today, as the article did back then, that we do not deny that the examination of the general historical situation is in continual development and that our conclusions can always be elaborated better, but we also say that we wouldn’t be able to exist as a Party (with no Party everything would be ruled out: no party, no Communism) if the historical experience incarnated in its Party which the proletariat already possesses didn’t allow us to construct a programme and a set of rules of practical conduct, which cannot be done without precise and pre-arranged schemes. To the inevitable accusations of schematism we reply that we are happy to leave the eclecticism, “manoeuvrism”, the oscillations to right and left and the political in-fighting to all the other so-called communist movements and parties. We have no hesitation in replying that it is precisely our schematic method which not only allows us to exist as a single, compact and unitary party, but allows the proletariat itself to exist as a historical class. The proof of this is the way in which this method was comprehensively applied in a historical situation which had got notably worse from the point of view of the class’s potentiality, that is, from the time of the meeting of the 5th Congress of the C.I. in Moscow already heading toward definitive degeneration. And when applied to the present class struggles in Palestine, it has allowed us not only to correctly interpret the historical evolution of this area, but also to represent the only truly revolutionary course open to the martyred proletariat of those countries, one which is opposed to all the nationalist pipe-dreams, all the more pernicious insofar as they claim to be revolutionary or even in the line of our own tradition of the Communist Left.
COMMUNISM AND THE NATIONAL QUESTION
[Action and Principles]
Debates about the proletarian, communist and revolutionary method often revolve around the issue of “principles” and of a so-called dualism between these principles and action, between theory and practice. It isn’t often that we manage to reach a clear understanding on this matter; and yet until we do, every critical and polemical development will turn into pointless confusion.
Opportunism, old and new, likes to shift the emphasis of the Marxist thesis which denies that innate eternal ideas underpin human conduct, and often talks about actions to be taken without considering the limiting factors which might hamper them, of policies without fixed principles. Bernstein’s classic revisionism, which cleverly superimposed itself onto the proletarian movement by claiming to have left Marx’s revolutionary doctrine intact, proclaimed “the end is nothing, the movement is everything”. To declare that the end is nothing, as we will soon see, implies you can do without principles because for Marxist communism principles are the ends, that is, points of arrival towards which action is directed… And the contraposition of the two terms shouldn’t seem paradoxical.
After setting aside the vision of a great final objective and consigning the movement’s doctrine to the attic, opportunist reformism only talks about existing problems which can be resolved empirically one at a time, in the immediate future.
However, regarding the new variations of this falsification, which certainly hasn’t stopped reinventing itself and reappearing under new guises, we were entitled to enquire, and are still entitled to enquire, what indicator should we then use, having done way with all standing rules and guidance, to guide our choice between the various forms of action? Who is the “subject” in whose interest the action is to be taken? And opportunism (embodiment and exponent of simple “labourism” as replacement for the doctrine and general praxis of proletarian revolution) replied that its day to day tasks were inspired by workers’ interests, meaning by that the interests, taken one by one, of particular groups and professional categories, considering the satisfaction of these easier, closer to hand and quicker.
The solutions to the questions of what action to take are thus no longer inspired by the proletarian movement and its historical journey, but are concocted one at a time and restricted to small sections of the working class, on very small sections of its journey. By acting this way revisionism frees itself from any link to principles, but, in its more or less extreme forms, still boasts nevertheless of operating in the true spirit of Marxism, which according to them equates with a movement which is extremely open-minded and eclectic.
The struggle against these deviations will continue to be a very important aspect of the proletarian movement as it continues to acquire further important experiences. There have been frequent warnings and criticisms of this revisionist way of presenting and resolving problems, and yet it will find new and more devious ways to try and influence proletarian action. We will not make a general rebuttal of it here, but just in regard to a particular problem, which will render our position more intelligible.
[Aversion to principles equals submission to bourgeois principles]
Several times we on the Marxist Left have unmasked the vulgar trickery of opportunism. Its alleged aversion to principles, stupidly referred to as dogmas, was simply reduced to a blind, obstinate observance of principles typical of the counter-revolutionary ideology of the bourgeoisie. The positive, practical, open-minded people within the proletarian movement revealed themselves at the supreme moment as the most enthusiastic supporters of bourgeois ideas, to which they tried to subordinate the proletarian movement, and the workers’ economic interests.
The theoretical critique which highlights this characteristic fact is one which proceeds side by side with the political unmasking of socialist opportunism as a form of bourgeois action, and of its leaders as agents of capitalism within the proletarian ranks.
At the start of the world war, the spectacular bankruptcy of the opportunist International defended itself theoretically with arguments which, in the realm of theory as well as in socialist propaganda, appeared as surprises, as unexpected revelations, as sensational “discoveries”. Those who had stated that socialism had no doctrinal or programmatic principles suddenly asserted that socialism no longer even retained that distinction, of being the movement without principles, but had to be subordinated to the unconditional acceptance of certain theses, up to then never explicitly stated, indeed always viewed as extraneous to socialist thought and which at the polemical level had been demolished by it once and for all. Socialism was reduced to being a “sub-school” of the bourgeois left movement, affiliated to the ideology of so-called democracy, which was presented all of a sudden not as Marxism considered it in its most elementary statements, that is, as the political doctrine appropriate to the interests of the bourgeois class, but as something advanced and progressive with respect to the dominant capitalist polity. The traitors in the International then tried to trip us up by “discovering” some principles, by which they claimed proletarian action was inevitably determined and doomed to follow; to which they said all immediate interests, including those of the individual groups so dear to their hearts, had to be inexorably sacrificed. Three of these principles in particular were especially touted: the principles of democratic liberty, the defensive war, and nationality.
Up to this time the opportunists had deliberately feigned a theoretical orthodoxy and were always talking to the masses about class struggle, socialisation of the means of production and abolition of the exploitation of labour: which is why the sudden discovery of the new principles was bound to take the proletariat by surprise and undermine its class consciousness and revolutionary ideology, sabotaging the possibility of mobilising it ideologically in a classist direction, just as, in a corresponding way, the passing of the leading officials of the great workers’ organisations into an alliance with the bourgeoisie was bound to result in the sudden removal of any platform of reorganisation of the world working class on the basis of socialist action.
Then we learnt (and only very few militant socialists knew how to articulate their indignation and protest, and less still were able to) that the socialist proletariat had to do without principles if they were principles derived from the classist doctrine, but bow to them, as though holy writ, if they were the principles of bourgeois ideology, namely, those fundamental ideas of religion into which the ruling classes tends to transform their prevailing interests. The betrayal of the substance of the Marxist critique could hardly have been more blatant.
To give a small idea of how far this brazen superimposition of irrelevant and antithetical elements onto the socialist doctrine’s most obvious formulations went, we will cite just one example. For our part we naturally invoked the well-known passage from the Communist Manifesto, according to which the proletariat has no country, and can only consider itself to have formed a nation, in a very different sense to that of the bourgeoisie, when it has seized political power. so, one of the socialist party’s best-known propagandists, the old party’s “technician” of propaganda himself, Paoloni, came back with this response: that conquering political power consisted in conquering … democratic suffrage; and wherever the proletariat enjoyed the right to vote it had a country and national rights! This proposition, which we won’t dignify with a reply, shows how those who were entrusted with the job of making Marxist propaganda in the Second International were either incredibly stupid or incredibly shameless.
[The bourgeois principle of liberty and democracy]
In the pages of this journal we have expressed the Marxist critique of the bourgeois “principles” of democracy and liberty and will continue to try and express even better. We do not take bourgeois liberal philosophy and its equality under the law seriously. Its theoretical demolition needs to be accompanied, according to the communist conception, by a proletarian political programme which liquidates any illusion that it is possible to apply liberal and libertarian methods to achieve the revolutionary aim: the suppression of society’s division into classes. The allegedly equal rights of all citizens under the bourgeois state is nothing but a translation of the economic principle of “free competition”, and the parity, in the market-place, of the buyers and sellers of commodities: a levelling which merely signifies the consolidation of the best conditions under which capitalist exploitation and oppression can be installed and maintained.
Directly related to this critique, an essential of socialist thinking, is the demonstration that in time of war it is wrong to invoke, as a guide to proletarian and socialist policy, the greater or lesser degrees of “democratic freedom” achieved by the countries in conflict as this would mean relying purely on bourgeois and anti-proletarian criteria. We will therefore dwell no further on the first of the aforementioned three principles.
The other two principles derive from the same theoretical distortion: all the talk of just and unjust wars, according to whether they are defensive or aggressive, or have the objective of giving a country’s inhabitants the government the majority allegedly wants, presupposes the belief that a principle of democracy has been established in relations between states, like those between individuals.
Such principles are the ones the bourgeoisie proclaims with the precise aim of creating among the masses an ideology favourable to its rule, since it can’t confess to the ruthless egotism which really lies behind it. Whereas in the internal life of the capitalist state elective democracy is in fact equivalent to a legal ratification or a constitutional ruling, although not constituting, from our point of view, any effective guarantee to the proletariat that in the decisive moments of the class struggle it won’t find itself up against the armed State machine; in international relations there are no sanctions or conventions which correspond with a formal application of the principles deriving from democratic theory.
For the capitalist regime the establishment of democracy at a State level was a necessity intrinsic to its development: but the same cannot be said of any of the formulas deduced from democratic for international relations, and banned by ideologists who support universal peace based on arbitration, on the settling of borders based on nationality and so on. The latter is an argument which seems to fit in with the game of the opportunists, who depict the capitalist classes as opposed to these political demands which they, after borrowing them from purely bourgeois theoreticians, wish to have accredited by the proletariat. But the argument is constantly blowing up in their faces.
Indeed it is absurd to think that a bourgeois State would modify its international policy just because the socialist proletariat, after having lain down its arms in the name of the “Holy Alliance” and abandoned its own struggle and independence, had left it an even freer hand to act in the interests of self-preservation. In the second place the criminal game of the social traitors is proving to be even more blatant: they have countered the so-called “utopianism” of the revolutionary programmes with the need to set immediate and tangible aims, of sticking to what is actually possible; all of a sudden they are coming up with objectives, with a view to subordinating the proletarian movement’s policy to them, which are not only not classist or socialist, but are proving to be entirely unrealistic and illusory; they lend credence to ideas which the bourgeoisie themselves would never apply but which it is in their interests to have the proletariat believe. The policy of the opportunists does not therefore aim to drive situations forward in their real practical development, albeit in small steps, but reveals itself as nothing less than the ideological mobilisation of the masses in the interests of the bourgeoisie and the counter-revolution.
[The "nationality principle"]
As regards the nationality principle, it isn’t difficult to show that it has never been other than a slogan to agitate the masses, and, in the best hypothesis, an illusion cherished by some petty bourgeois intellectual strata. If for capitalism to develop the formation large State units was necessary, none however were formed through the observance of the famous national principle, which besides is very difficult to define in practice. A writer called Vilfredo Pareto, who was certainly no revolutionary, wrote an article in 1918 (republished in the collection Men and Ideas, editore Vallecchi, Florence, 1920), in which he criticised the “so-called principle of nationality” and showed how impossible it is to find a satisfactory definition, and how of the many criteria which it appears can be used to specify it (Ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical, etc.) not one of them is exhaustive, and in fact all of them lead to conclusions which contradict one another. Pareto also makes the obvious observation, which we frequently made during our war-time polemics as well, that plebiscites are certainly no sure-fire way of resolving national problems, since one would have to establish beforehand the boundaries of the territory to which a majority vote would apply, and the nature of the powers which would organise and control it; thus ending up in a vicious circle…
There is no need to go back over all of the polemics of nine years ago here. Easy it was then for us internationalists to show how the famous principles invoked by the social-warmongers lent themselves to being applied in an entirely contradictory way. Every State at war can find some way of contriving a situation that is defensive: maybe the aggressor is the one whose territory ends up being “trampled underfoot by the foreign invader”; in any case a revolutionary attitude on the part of the socialist movement would lead to analogous consequences in the case of both offensive and defensive military action, since the one can simply be converted into the other. As to the nationalist questions and those of irredentism, they are so complex and there are so many of them that they could be used to justify the formation of alliances very different to the ones during the world war.
The famous list of principles when applied then contradicted each other. We asked the social patriots whether they recognised the right of a more democratic people to attack and subjugate a less democratic one; whether in order to liberate “unredeemed” regions they would countenance military aggression, and so on.
And these logical contradictions would translate into the possibility, once those fallacious theses were accepted, of justifying socialist support for any war, as indeed would happen, with the same arguments used to support the tactics of socialist betrayal in all countries, which were in the most desperate circumstances, with the workers on both sides dragged off to confront each other on the war front.
It was just as easy to predict that the victorious bourgeois governments, whichever of them happened to win, wouldn’t dream for one minute of applying, in peacetime, those policies which, according to the social nationalists, had not only provided a reason for the proletariat to support the war, but the guarantee that the war would lead to those outcomes, which the workers had been duped into believing by their unworthy leaders.
[The national question in the Communist International]
The critique and rebuttal of social-nationalist deviations is therefore nothing new: less obvious is the issue, which appeared particularly pressing at the time of the founding of the Third International, of the positive resolution of the national question from the communist point of view. It is a problem which cannot be said to have been entirely resolved by the theses of the 2nd Congress (1920) to the extent that the imminent 5th Congress will have to concern itself with it as well.
Obviously the Communist International is not about to borrow theories and slogans from the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie to help it resolve its own political and tactical problems. The Communist International has reinstated the revolutionary values of the Marxist doctrine and Marxist method and drawn inspiration from its programme and tactics.
How then do we arrive, on such a basis, at a solution to such problems as, for example, the national question? We would like to recall the latter’s most basic features here. The revisionists used to talk about examining contingent situations on a case by case basis, with no regard for principles or general aims. They therefore reached purely bourgeois conclusions, no longer sticking to Marxist criteria, which highlight the play of social-economic factors and conflicting class interests, in their evaluation of situations. It could be said that the correct communist line is to ensure that when analysing a situation one remains strictly faithful to the Marxist method of critique of the facts, arriving at conclusions naturally from there, without any need for preconceived ideas. But in our opinion such a response still harbours opportunist dangers, because of its indeterminacy. On the other hand it could be said instead that we, in order to conduct a more Marxist and classist examination of the contingent facts, should add the observance of principles and general formulas arrived at by an almost mechanical overturning of bourgeois formulas: we willingly admit that this would be to err on the side of oversimplification and a misjudged radicalism. Certain simple formulas are indispensable for the agitation and propaganda of our party, and they are, in any case, less dangerous than excessive elasticity and unscrupulousness. But these formulas are points of arrival, outcomes, not the points of departure from which to examine those questions which arise from time to time and have to be tackled by the party’s supreme critical and deliberative organs, in order that their conclusions can be placed at the disposal of the mass of militants in clear and explicit terms. Thus it could be said, for example, of the slogan “against all wars”, that during an important historical phase it served as a excellent way of distinguishing genuine revolutionaries from the opportunists quibbling over the differences between one war and another which lead to the justification of each bourgeoisie’s policy; but as a statement of doctrine the slogan is clearly inadequate, and this is because, for all its formal radicalism, which brusquely overturns the opportunist position, it could lend itself to being conflated with another bourgeois ideological position: that of Tolstoyan pacifism. And thus we would end up contradicting our fundamental postulate on the use of armed violence.
[The Marxist way - correctly defined]
The Marxistically exact way of answering such questions is neither of the two responses we briefly mentioned. It would be worth the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifying this more precisely, even if brilliant examples already exist, such as the admirable edifice of the Marxist-Leninist critique of the bourgeoisie’s democratic doctrines, and the definition of our programme with respect to the question of the State.
To give a brief idea of what we consider the best solution to be, we can say that we absolutely reject the following thesis: that Marxist politics should be content to simply examine one situation after another (using a very specific method, of course) without the need for other elements. Whenever we have studied the economic factors and growth of class conflicts as they appear in relation to any given problem, we have done something that is indispensable but we still haven’t taken everything into account. There are certain other criteria that need to be considered which may be referred to as revolutionary “principles”; although it needs to be made clear that such ideas do not consist of immanent or a priori ideas, “discovered” deeply inscribed on some stone tablet somewhere. We could if we wanted to dispense with the word “principles” and refer instead to programmatic postulates: it is always possible to put things better, and in fact we should also bear in mind the linguistic requirements of an international movement, our terminology.
To these criteria we add an additional consideration which sums up the revolutionary power of Marxism. We cannot, nor should we feel compelled to, resolve the question of, say, the English dockers or the workers in Finland, merely with the facts derived from studying, using the historical-determinist method, the situation of the former as a category of workers or the latter as a nation considered within the temporal and spatial limitations imposed by the immediate context of the problem. There is a higher interest guiding our revolutionary movement with which these partial interests cannot conflict, if the historical process as a whole is to be taken into consideration; but it is an interest which does not appear to be directly indicated by, or to directly arise from, the individual problems concerning proletarian groups in particular situations and at particular times. This general interest, in a word, is that of the Proletarian Revolution, i.e. the interest of the proletariat considered as a world class endowed with unity as to its historical task and aiming at a revolutionary objective: the overthrow of the bourgeois order. Subject to this supreme aim we can and must still resolve individual problems.
The manner of co-ordinating the separate solutions with this general aim is embodied in certain postulates accepted by the party which are presented as lynchpins of its programme and tactical methods. These postulates are not immutable revealed dogmas but are in their turn the outcome of a general and systematic examination of the situation of the whole of human society in the present historical period, in which an exact account is taken of all the facts that fall within our experience. We do not deny that this examination is continually developing and that the conclusions can always be elaborated better, but one thing is certain: we would not be able to exist as world party if the historical experience which the proletariat possesses already did not allow us to construct a programme and a set of rules of political conduct as the basis of our critique.
Without this we would not exist; neither us as a party, or the proletariat as a historical class in possession of a conscious doctrine and a fighting organisation. If gaps in our conclusions become apparent, or partial revisions are envisaged in the future, it would be a mistake to make up for it by failing to define our postulates and principles, which certainly appear as a “curb” on the actions which subsequent situations in the various different countries might suggest as possibilities. A much less serious mistake would be to attempt to set matters right by “completing” our definitive formulae even if a bit arbitrarily. This is because the clarity and the precision, as well as the maximum possible continuity, of such formulae for agitation and action are indispensable conditions for the strengthening of the revolutionary movement. To this declaration, which might seem a bit reckless, we add, without wishing to dwell further on a serious question which many might see as excessively abstract, that it seems to us that the facts which the history of the class struggle up to the Great War and the Russian Revolution have provided us with allow the world communist party to fill all the gaps with satisfactory solutions: which certainly doesn’t mean to say there is nothing left for us to learn in the future, or from the continuous confirmation of our conclusions in the political application of same. The refusal to make an urgent priority of the “codification” of the programme and the tactical and organisational rules of the International can mean for us today nothing other than a threat of an opportunist nature, due to which our action would run the risk tomorrow of taking refuge in bourgeois rules and principles, which are certainly completely wrong and catastrophic as far as our “freedom” of action is concerned.
We conclude that a Marxist solution to the problems our movement is facing consists of these elements: the set of conclusions which comprise our general vision of the historical process, which is directed toward the realisation of the final, general revolutionary victory; and the Marxist study of the facts that fall within the remit of its research.
This set of conclusions is the dialectical offspring of an examination of the facts, and specifically an examination of all of the socio-historical facts available to us up until now: it shouldn’t, as far as the revolutionary party is concerned, be characterised as dogmatic, but rather as having that enhanced degree of historical “permanence” which distinguishes us from all the opportunists, and which, in more banal terms, is also embodied in that doctrinal and tactical coherence of ours, even monotonously if you will, which serves to distinguish us from the traitors and renegades of the revolutionary cause.
[Application of the method to the national question]
We will now consider the national question, more than anything by way of exemplification of the method we have indicated. The examination of this question and the description of the facts in which it is summed up are contained in the theses of the 2nd Congress, which rightly refer back to the general evaluation of the situation of global capitalism, and the imperialist phase it is going through.
This combination of facts must be examined whilst bearing in mind the general balance sheet of the revolutionary struggle. One fundamental fact is that the global proletariat now possesses a stronghold in the first workers’ state, Russia, as well as its army in the communist parties of all countries; capitalism has its fortifications in the big states and above all in those which won the world war, a small group of which controls global policy. These states are struggling with the consequences of the general breakdown of the bourgeois economy produced by the great imperialist war, and against the revolutionary forces which aim to overthrow them and take power.
In their struggle against the general disequilibrium of the capitalist economy, one of the most important counter-revolutionary resources the great bourgeois states can count on is their influence over two groups of countries: on the one hand their overseas colonies, on the other the smaller countries of the white race with backward economies. The Great War, presented as the historical movement which would lead to the emancipation of the minor peoples and the liberation of national minorities, has spectacularly given the lie to this ideology, in which the socialists of the 2nd International believed in or pretended to believe, by subjugating all of the smaller countries to the great powers. The new states of central Europe are just vassals of England or France, while the United States and Japan are increasingly consolidating their hegemony on the weaker states of their respective continents.
Without a doubt the capacity to resist the proletarian revolution is concentrated in the power of the few large capitalist states; with these overthrown, the rest would collapse in the face of the victorious proletariat. If in the colonies and the backward countries there are social and political movements directed against the large states, and bourgeois and semi-bourgeois classes and parties take part in them, the success of these movements, from the point of view of the development of the world situation, is certainly a revolutionary factor since it contributes to the fall of the principal fortresses of capitalism, whereas if under the bourgeoisies of the great states there might still be a survival of bourgeois power in the small states, this would be swept away after the proletariat had taken power in the more advanced states, even if locally the proletarian and communist movements were still weak and in their formative stages.
A parallel and simultaneous development of proletarian power and of the relations of class and party in each country is not a revolutionary criterion but harks back to the opportunist conception of alleged simultaneity of the revolution, in the name of which even the Russian Revolution was denied a proletarian character. The communists do not believe at all that the struggle develops in each country according to a set pattern; they take account of the differences which become apparent through a study of the national and colonial problems, only they co-ordinate the solution with the interests of the one movement to overthrow global capitalism.
The Communist International’s political thesis on how the global communist proletariat, and its first state, should direct the rebellious movement of the colonies and of the lesser peoples against the metropolises of capitalism, appears, therefore, as the outcome of a vast examination of the situation, and of an evaluation of the revolutionary process which is totally in keeping with our Marxist programme. This serves to sharply distinguish it from the bourgeois-opportunist proposition according to which the resolution of national problems has to be “prioritised” before it is possible to talk of class struggle, the consequence of which is that the national principle can be used to justify class collaboration, both in the backward countries and those of advanced capitalism, whenever national integrity and liberty is reckoned to be in danger. The communist method is not so trivial as to say: communists must oppose the nationalist tendency everywhere and at all times. This would be meaningless and would be merely a “metaphysical” negation of the bourgeois criterion. The Communist method counters it “dialectically”, that is, in order to evaluate and resolve the national question it sets out from the class factors. Support for the colonial movements, for example, smacks much less of class collaboration, when – at the same time as recommending the autonomous and independent development of the communist party in the colonies, so it is to ready to surpass its momentary allies, with an independent work of ideological and organisational formation – support for the rebellious movements in the colonies is above all required from the communist parties of the metropolises. And such tactics smack so little of collaboration that they have been condemned by the bourgeoisie, as anti-national, defeatist and traitorous.
Thesis 9 (1) states that without these conditions in place, the fight against colonial and national oppression remains a deceitful pretence, as it was in the 2nd International; and thesis 11, section “e”, asserts that “a resolute struggle must be waged against the attempt to clothe the irredentist national revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries which are not genuinely communist in communist colours”. That is enough to corroborate the accuracy of our interpretation.
The need to destabilise the colonies derives from a strictly Marxist examination of capitalism’s situation, insofar as the oppression and exploitation of coloured workers becomes a means of exacerbating the oppression and exploitation of the proletariat in the metropolises. Here the radical difference between our criteria and those of the reformists is again very clear. The latter in fact attempt to show that the colonies are a source of wealth also for the workers in the metropolises, by offering an outlet for products, and draw from this other reasons for class collaboration often having the bare-faced cheek to maintain that their very principle of nationality could be violated by the ‘spread of bourgeois civilization’ and by accelerating the evolution of capitalism. And here we have a perfect example of reactionary distortion of Marxism, which comes down to granting capitalism ever longer postponements of the moment of its demise and the revolutionary attack, by attributing to it a longer and longer historical role, which is something we contest.
Communists utilise forces whose aim is to break the patronage of the great States over the backward and colonial countries, because they consider it possible to overturn these fortresses of the bourgeoisie and to entrust to the socialist proletariat of the more advanced countries the historical task of driving the process of modernisation of the economy of the backward countries forward at an accelerated pace; not by exploiting them, but by pressing for the emancipation of the local workers from both internal and foreign exploitation.
[The error of "national bolshevism" in Germany]
That, in broad strokes, is the correct position the C.I. has taken as regards the question under consideration. But it is very important to see how these conclusions were arrived at in order to avoid the temptation to get embroiled in outdated bourgeois sloganising about national liberty and national equality, soundly denounced in the first of the theses (2) we referred to as derived from the capitalist concept of the equality of citizens of all classes. Because in these new (in a way) conclusions of revolutionary Marxism, the danger of exaggerations and deviations can sometimes appear.
To give another example: we deny, on the grounds indicated, that any policy of rapprochement in Germany between the communist movement and the nationalist and patriotic movement is justifiable.
The pressure exerted on Germany by the States of the Entente, even in the acute and vexatious forms it has taken of late, does not mean that Germany can be seen in the same light as a small country with an undeveloped capitalism. Germany remains a very large country, extremely well equipped from a capitalist point of view, and one in which the proletariat is socially and politically extremely advanced. To confuse the conditions there with those mentioned earlier is therefore absurd. Without going into a more detailed examination of this serious question, which can be carried out in a less summary way some other time, for us that is enough.
But the fact that within the alignment of political forces in Germany the big bourgeoisie doesn’t have a marked nationalist stance, but, due to its counter-revolutionary actions, is inclined to ally with the bourgeoisies of the Entente to the detriment of the German proletariat; while the nationalist movement is fuelled by layers of the discontented petty bourgeoisie who are also being economically bled dry as this solution gathers pace, that isn’t enough to make us change our evaluation either. The problem a revolution installed in Berlin would face can only be understood by relating it on the one hand, and this is comforting, to Moscow, but on the other hand to Paris and London. The main forces on which we need to depend to counter the capitalist entente between German and the Allies are, not just the Soviet State, but also, in the front line, the alliance of the German proletariat with their counterparts in the Western countries. This is a factor which is so important for the global development of the revolution that it is a very serious mistake to compromise it, at a time when revolutionary activity in England and France is hitting problems, by turning the question of the German revolution, even in part, into a question of national liberation, even if on a level that excludes the collaboration of the big bourgeoisie. The very disproportion in the maturity of the German Communist Party when compared with those in France and England makes it inadvisable to adopt this mistaken position, which aims to counter the anti-patriotism of the German big bourgeoisie with a nationalist programme of proletarian revolution. The aid of the German petty bourgeoisie (which it is certainly better to utilise with other tactics than those of “national bolshevism” and by focussing on the ruinous economic situation of the intermediate classes) would be totally annulled in a situation in which Paris and London felt they had an entirely free hand to cross into Germany and intervene directly: which can only be prevented with an internationalist approach to the question of the German revolution. Maybe it is in France that we should be more worried about the attitude of the petty bourgeois strata, which would be at the mercy of the local bourgeoisie if German nationalism intensified: meanwhile something analogous might be said regarding England, where labourism, now in government, is so blatantly nationalist, on account of and in the interests of the British bourgeoisie.
This all goes to show how forgetting the original principles which lie behind communist political solutions can lead to them being applied when the conditions that prompted them are absent, under the pretext that any more complicated expedient can always be used if necessary. We cannot avoid considering as a phenomenon analogous to the actions of national-socialism the fact that comrade Radek, in support of the tactic he was advocating at an international meeting, “discovered” that the gesture of the nationalist who sacrificed himself in the struggle against the French in the Ruhr should be extolled by communists in the name of the principle (new to us and unprecedented), that above and beyond parties one should support anyone who sacrifices themselves for their ideals.
It is deplorable to reduce the task of the great proletariat of Germany to that of national emancipation when what we expect from this proletariat and its revolutionary party is that it manages to achieve victory not for itself, but to defend the existence of Soviet Russia and its socialist economic evolution, and to unleash against the fortresses of western capitalism the torrent of the world revolution, arousing the workers of other countries who have been temporarily immobilised by bourgeois reaction’s latest counter-revolutionary retchings.
The national disequilibria between the major advanced States are factors we have studied and examined as much as any other: in opposition to the social nationalists we flatly deny that these can be resolved by any other means than the class war against all the major bourgeois States: and the patriotic and nationalist survivals in this camp are considered by us as reactionary manifestations which must not be allowed to gain a foothold in the revolutionary parties of the proletariat; which are called upon, in these countries, to make the most of an inheritance rich in genuine and authentic communist possibilities, and to take on the task of most advanced vanguard in the world revolution.
(Prometeo, no4, April 15,1924)
1. Thesis 9 of the Theses on the National and Colonial Question: «In regard to relations within States, the Communist International’s national policy cannot confine itself to the bare and formal recognition of the equality of nations, expressed in words only and involving no practical obligations, to which bourgeois democracies – even if they call themselves “socialist” – restrict themselves. Offences against the equality of nations and violations of the guaranteed rights of national minorities, repeatedly committed by all capitalist States despite their “democratic” constitution, must be inflexibly exposed in all their propaganda and agitation carried on by the communist parties, both inside and outside parliament. But that is not enough. It is also necessary: first, to make clear all the time that only the Soviet system is able to ensure real equality for the nations because it unites first the proletarians and then all the masses of the working people, in the struggle against the bourgeoisie; secondly, communist parties must give direct support to the revolutionary movements among the dependent nations and those without equal rights (e.g. in Ireland, and among the American Negroes), and in the colonies. Without this last particularly important condition the struggle against the oppression of the dependent nations and colonies, and the recognition of their right to secede as separate States, remains a deceitful pretence, as it is in the parties of the Second International».
2. Thesis 1 of the Theses on the National and Colonial Question: «An abstract or formal conception of equality in general, and of national equality in particular, is characteristic of the very nature of bourgeois democracy. Under the show of the equality of the human personality in general, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal equality in law of property owners and proletarians, of exploiters and exploited, thereby deeply deceiving the oppressed classes. The idea of equality, which is itself a reflection of the conditions of commodity production, is turned by the bourgeoisie, using the pretext of the alleged absolute equality of the human personality, into the instrument for combating the abolition of classes. The true meaning of the demand for equality resides solely in the demand for the abolition of classes».