1960s >> 1969 >> no-779-july-1969

The National Question

Marx held that society evolved from lower to higher forms along with technology and social productivity. Feudalism evolved into capitalism while capitalism should in the end evolve into Socialism. Marx did not mean ‘evolve’ in any passive sense since he knew that men made their own history as members of rival classes engaged in social and political struggles. The motive force for the change from feudalism to capitalism was the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the nobility. Socialism will be the outcome of the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class (as the bourgeoisie became).

This theory is not only a view of history. It is also a guide to political action which Marx himself used. He lived from 1818 to 1883 and was politically active from the 1840s onward. During this period capitalism on the Continent was just emerging from feudalism, and on the international as well as on the national plane, the rising capitalist class was in conflict with the powers of feudalism. The most powerful anti-capitalist force was the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and the dominant Russia. These powers agreed to join forces to crush risings all over Europe —in Italy, in Germany, in Poland and Hungary, and even in Austria. As a result of these activities Russia earned the title of ‘the gendarme of Europe’.

What, Marx asked, should socialists do in these circumstances? His answer was clear: support capitalist struggles to overcome feudal opposition to the economic and political development of capitalism. So Marx took an anti-Russia stand, even going so far as to support Britain, France, and Turkey in the Crimean War. He backed Polish nationalism as he felt an independent Poland would be a buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. He favoured German and Italian national unity on the grounds that such unity was a precondition for capitalist development in these countries. In the American Civil War he took the side of the North.

Marx only did these things because he wanted to help capitalism triumph over feudalism. Sooner or later, he would be faced with another problem: what should socialists do after capitalism had triumphed? Marx himself never dealt with this as a practical issue, since it was only around the time of his death that capitalism could be said to have firmly established itself as the dominant world system. His successors, the Social Democrats, did not recognise that, with this change of circumstances, this new problem had arisen. They continued to think that wars and nationalism could be progressive, with disastrous results. The first world war presented the absurd and tragic situation of the German Social Democrats arguing (with quotes from Marx) for Germany as it was more progressive than Tsarist Russia and of the French Social Democrats arguing (again from Marx) for Britain and France on the grounds that democracy was more progressive than Prussian militarism. If nothing else exploded the hollowness of the theory of progressive wars the first world slaughter should have done.

One Social Democrat stands out as an honourable exception: Rosa Luxemburg. She grasped why Marx in the 19th century had supported wars and some nationalisms, but she realised that the situation had since changed and urged opposition to all wars and to nationalism except, ‘oddly enough, in the Balkans. Unfortunately, her writings on the national question are not all that well known.

Straight fight

The Socialist Party of Great Britain, set up in 1904, has always argued that the struggle is now a straight fight between capitalism and Socialism. Since capitalism became the dominant world system towards the end of the last century Socialism (which of course can only exist only a world scale) has been an immediate possibility which could become a reality as soon as a majority of workers wanted and understood it. It follows that only Socialism is progressive (in the Marxist sense), that all wars should be opposed, and that nationalism has no progressive role left. We have in’ fact gone further than this and questioned the wisdom, from the point of view of the future development of the socialist movement, of Marx in going so far as he did in his support for wars and nationalism even in the conditions of his time.

The confused legacy of Social Democracy on the national question was inherited by the Bolsheviks (Lenin was an opponent of Luxemburg on this issue) and has been handed down by them to the Trotskyist and similar groups of today. In fact the national question throws these groups into utter confusion so that they argue, apparently in all seriousness, that socialists ought to support state capitalism in the less developed countries and even to support state capitalist countries in wars against others. A case in point is the group ironically called ‘International Socialism’. Arising out of a confused (to put it mildly) article in Socialist Worker on January 4 supporting ‘self-determination’ for Biafra, a discussion developed in the group’s internal IS Bulletin (No. 2, March 1969). One contributor from Glasgow started off well:

Marxists realise that Nationalism is the ideology of the capitalist class. The identification of people with the Nation State and the National Interest enables the bosses to present society as a struggle between nations in the interests of the people thus obscuring the real conflict in society between the working and capitalist classes.

But, he went on:

Yet they realise that nationalism can play a progressive role but only under certain conditions. Socialists support all struggles for National Liberation in underdeveloped countries on the grounds that industrialisation and the creation of a working class is only possible with a break from imperialism. If the new Nation does not extend the National idea to property it is stuck forever in a neo-colonialist position . . . without state capitalism these countries will never break through their poverty but will remain entirely dependent on imperialism.

On the same theme another contributor, from Leeds, justifying support for the Vietcong, wrote: ‘

  When Marx looked historically at the new classes and class forms of society, he took the side of the historically progressive new class society against the old;, for example the capitalist against the feudalist forms in Europe. He even took sides in the American Civil War supporting the North against the South

Both argue, then, like the Social Democrats, that nationalism and wars can still be progressive and deny, by implication, that looking at modern world society historically Socialism alone is progressive.

Let us analyse this view that only through national state capitalism can modem industry and a working class develop in the now backward countries. First, what do ‘neo-colonialist’ and ‘imperialism’ mean? These are not terms we would use ourselves because they are not precise enough. However, in the less developed countries, much of the capital comes from abroad so ‘imperialism’ means ‘foreign investors’. Naturally, such investors want their investments well-protected. At one time they favoured colonialism or their own direct political rule, but, now they have had to entrust local political leaders with this task (‘neo-colonialism’).

Now that we know what we are talking about let us proceed. Arguments about the quickest way to develop capitalist industry, run by wage-labour for profit, in the backward parts of the world should only be of academic interest to socialists. Even so it is by no means proved that state capitalism is the quickest. It has its drawback such as cutting off a country from markets and denying it investment from overseas. And does investment from other state capitalist countries like Russia count as ‘imperialism’ too?

Economic basis

The fact is that industrialisation under capitalist conditions (state or otherwise) is no longer necessary since the economic basis for Socialism has already been in existence for a long time now. World Socialism is possible on the basis of industry in Europe and North America and the workers of those places so that industrialisation within the quite different framework of Socialism can take place if desired.
Those who mistakenly think that socialists should support state capitalism and not Socialism in the less developed countries should consider what this means. If they have read Marx on Britain (or Cliff on Russia or Gluckstein on China) they will know that the coming of capitalism is a brutal process for the mass of the people involving the use of state power by a privileged minority to drive them off the land and into industry. As Marx put it, capital comes into the world dripping from head to foot in blood and dirt. How can socialists support this when it is not even economically necessary?

We can now see why theoretical clarity is needed so as to avoid ending up at the absurd position of saying socialists should support the coercion and oppression of workers in less developed countries by a state capitalist ruling class.

In Marx’s day the standard of historical progress suggested, at least to him, that socialists should help the capitalists overcome feudalism. Today, now that capitalism has long since done this, it shows that only Socialism is progressive. That is why Socialists everywhere should be struggling for Socialism and opposing capitalism in all its forms, including the national state capitalism favoured by Castro, Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and others.

Adam Buick