Class, nation and the struggle for socialism

July 14, 2015

Marxism's attitude toward the imperial carve-up of the world and the struggles for national liberation against this system has valuable lessons. Lance Selfa explains.

ONE OF the standard criticisms of Marxism, both from the academy and from opposing political currents, centers on Marxism's supposed "Eurocentrism."

There are many components to this debate, but one line of attack in particular insists that Marxism, as a theory developed in Europe or "the West"--can't explain nor offer a way forward for the peoples colonized and oppressed by the Europeans in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

As I've written earlier, the charge that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were "Eurocentric" in their concerns, research and writings is baseless if you follow the trajectory of their thinking throughout their active political lives.

But what about the political tradition that their foundational work inspired? How did the Marxists who came after Marx and Engels address the real political questions posed by Europe's and North America's colonial domination of Asia, Africa and Latin America?

After all, the world inhabited by the large socialist parties of the late 19th and early 20th century was one in which, until the Second World War, huge swathes of the globe were subjugated by a handful of the most powerful nations. How did Marxists respond to this reality?

Marching in the Chinese city of Shanghai in 1927
Marching in the Chinese city of Shanghai in 1927

BEFORE LOOKING at the history of Marxist practice on what came to be known as the national or colonial question, it's worth making a few obvious observations.

The first starts with another standard attack on Marxism that goes something like this: Marx and Engels said the modern working class would lead the socialist revolution. Therefore, they assumed that the socialist revolution would break out in industrialized Europe. Socialist revolution didn't happen in the most developed capitalist countries--in fact, Marxism found its greatest support in less developed countries, from Russia to China to Cuba. Therefore, Marx and Engels were wrong, and Marxism is invalidated.

There are many problems with this argument, but let's start with the indisputable fact of mass support for various forms of Marxist politics in what used to be called the "Third World."

That most of these Third World political forces were what Socialist Worker would designate as Stalinist or "socialism from above" is beside the point. The main issue is that "Marxism" had support of millions of workers and peasants in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Before the 1965 military coup that led to the murder of hundreds of thousands of communists in Indonesia, the Indonesian Communist Party was the largest non-ruling CP in the world, with more than a million members.

So is Marxism wrong because it is Eurocentric and ignored the "non-West"? Or is it wrong because it was a more popular mobilizing force in the "non-West" than in the West--that is, it wasn't Eurocentric enough?! At the very least, the critics of Marxism need to get on the same page.

A second observation, perhaps less obvious to people who aren't familiar with the whole history of Marxist politics and activism, is that important leaders of communist and socialist organizations in Asia, Latin America and Africa became socialists while living in Europe and North America, and they continued to have close connections to these societies throughout their political lives.

Sen Katayama, one of the main founders of the Japanese Communist Party, became a socialist while studying in the U.S., where he lived for long periods of his life before relocating to Japan.

Ho Chi Minh, the main leader of the Vietnamese independence struggle in the wars against France and the U.S., was a delegate to the fifth Communist International congress from the French Communist Party. Ho, from a relatively advantaged family in France's Vietnamese colony, was educated in France and became politically active there.

José Carlos Mariátegui, considered the main founder of Peru's Communist Party and acknowledged by many as an original theorist of "Latin American Marxism," became a Marxist in Italy during the "Biennio Rosso"--the period of workers' upheaval immediately after the First World War.

These revolutionary biographies illustrate a couple key points.

First, they show that Marxism is an internationalist political current. It was common for revolutionaries to join the socialist movement in one country and build socialist organizations and social movements wherever else they found themselves during the course of the rest of their lives.

Second, even though figures like Ho and Mariátegui became Marxists in Europe, it would be laughable to characterize them as "Eurocentrist."

When Mariátegui returned to Peru, he delivered an important 1923 lecture to an audience of working-class activists, in which he said he wanted to impart the revolutionary experience of Europe and the rest of the world to the vanguard of Peruvian workers because "the proletariat is not a spectator, but an actor." He continued: "Perú, like the other peoples of the Americas, is not, then, outside the crisis, it is inside it."

Mariátegui's 1923 lecture illustrated a constant theme of his: that although socialism in Latin America must be based on Latin American realities, it was not exceptionalist. He conceived of socialism in Latin America as part of a world socialist and working-class movement.

THE NOTION that Marxism paid little attention to the underdeveloped world or the "non-West" is even less true about Marxists after Marx than it was about Marx himself. As Vivek Chibber has written in his critique of anti-Marxist "postcolonial" theories:

The history of Marxian analysis in the 20th century is the history of doing just this-- understanding the specificity of the East. There is probably no project to which Marxist theorists have devoted more energy and time since the first Russian Revolution of 1905 than to understand the peculiar effects of capitalist development in the non-West. Perhaps this seems shocking at first blush, especially in light of the unceasing claims from postcolonial theory to the contrary...

To offer just one example: Trotsky's theory of uneven and combined development was an explicit rejection of the argument that later developers would simply replicate the developmental path of the early ones.

Trotsky's theory of "combined and uneven development" was a brilliant application of Marxist method to show how even in colonized or peasant-dominated countries, capitalist development could import the most modern productive techniques. This would create a working class with a social weight that could make it capable of achieving socialism, even with smaller numbers, because world economic development put socialism on the agenda.

Another major contribution to Marxism of the period after 1900 was Lenin's writings--and subsequent political leadership--on the question of the right of nations to self-determination. "The interests of the working class and of its struggle against capitalism demand complete solidarity and the closest unity of the workers of all nations," Lenin wrote.

To Lenin, the national question was essential for building a united socialist movement in the midst of the Tsarist empire of Russia, where an estimated 57 percent of the population was non-Russian as a result of previous conquests by the empire. This meant that socialists in the metropole--i.e., in Russia--had to recognize the right of non-Russian nations in the empire to self-determination, up to and including their right to secede and declare their own independent nations.

For Lenin, the key was building real international unity, not merely proclaiming it, as Paul D'Amato explained:

In order for there to be not the slightest mistrust between workers of oppressed and oppressor nations, Lenin argued, socialists must stand for the complete equality of nations, and against any national privileges of one nation over another. One cannot support the full equality of nations unless one vigorously supports the right of oppressed nations to self-determination--that is, their right to secede from the imperial power that oppresses them...

Lenin sometimes used the example of the right to divorce to explain his argument about the national question. Supporting the right of divorce was not the same as advocating that all married couples should divorce.

In no case, however, would it be possible for socialists to oppose the right of women to divorce. Without this right, there could be no possibility of a marriage based on equality. Likewise, the freedom for nations to unite on the basis of equality implies, necessarily, their freedom to secede, to separate.

THE PERIOD of the First World War was one of "wars and revolutions." Not only did a workers' revolution triumph in Russia, along with short-lived soviet governments in other countries from 1917 to 1920, but it was an era of awakening of oppressed peoples and nations around the world.

In Lenin's 1913 article "Backward Europe and Advanced Asia," he responded to pro-democracy uprisings in China, writing: "Everywhere in Asia...hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom," while "advanced" Europe is "plundering China and helping the foes of democracy."

For millions of oppressed people challenging the colonial domination of the empires that had plunged the world into war, the Russian Revolution represented a beacon of hope and an expression of solidarity with their struggles. As John Riddell has written, "It was not until the Russian revolution of 1917 that an alliance was forged between revolutionary socialism and the colonial freedom movement."

After the workers' councils took power at the end of 1917, the new revolutionary government's policy, reflecting the Bolshevik position for self-determination of oppressed nations, repudiated all Tsarist claims to the domination of nations in the former empire. The Russian workers state actively assisted movements against colonialism and imperialism.

In forming the Third International--known as the Communist International, or the shortened Comintern--in 1919, the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary socialists made championing freedom for colonies a condition of membership for any party that applied to join.

The Third International's position on the "national and colonial question" represented a marked advance over the position of the older Second International, dominated by Western European parties.

Although the Second International congresses passed several anti-colonial resolutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s, its constituent parties had a wide mix of views on the question--ranging from open pro-colonial racism, to an idea that the colonies under socialism could become a force for "civilization," to the revolutionary rejection of the empires of powerful nations. At the 1907 Congress in Stuttgart, a resolution affirming the reform of the colonial system, rather than abolition of colonies, nearly achieved enough votes to pass.

Compare that history to the 1919 declaration of the Comintern, which read, in part: "Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia: the hour of proletarian dictatorship will also be the hour of your liberation."

DURING THE first four congresses of the Communist International--the ones where Lenin was able to play an active role, before his death in 1924--the national and colonial questions were the subject to a major debate and a series of resolutions at the Second and Fourth Congresses. At the Second, but more fully at the Fourth, the conference debate and theses were shaped by participation from communists of the "East."

The Second Congress, in which representatives from soviet Central Asia and six Asian countries outside of the former Tsarist empire participated, ended up adopting a resolution that changed the slogan of the international from "Workers of the world unite"--adopted from the last line of the Communist Manifesto--to "Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite."

Lenin's views on the national question were not simply accepted. In fact, Lenin and the Indian delegate M.N. Roy clashed over the analysis of society in colonized countries and the attitude to take to movements fighting for national independence in those countries.

Lenin argued that Communists should support the "bourgeois democratic national liberation movements." Roy opposed Lenin's formulation, urging support for a peasant- and worker-led movement for socialism. In the end, both Lenin and Roy modified their positions, with the final resolutions calling for communists to support "revolutionary national liberation movements" and to struggle against the influence of religious ideology and "pan-Islamism" in the liberation movements of the Muslim-majority countries.

Perhaps more important than the Second Congress were subsequent meetings, held in 1920 and 1921, in Baku, Azerbaijan and in Moscow.

The first, called the Congress of the Peoples of the East, brought more than 2,000 delegates, primarily from central Asia. Famously, it issued a call for "jihad" against British imperialism that was trying to impose control over sections of the Balkans, Iran, Turkey and central Asia.

The follow-up Congress of the Toilers of the Far East in 1922, had fewer delegates than Baku, but it included groups from China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, representing the embryos of the worker, peasant and communist movements in those countries. The congress resolved to "support every national-revolutionary movement, but support it in so far as it is not directed against the proletarian movement."

At the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, held later in 1922, a fuller debate was held--though many delegates felt still more discussion was needed. The transcripts of the debate on the "Eastern Question" cover more than 100 pages of the 1,500-page-long collection of the Fourth Congress' debates. Among the highlights was the proclamation from an Egyptian delegate that red flags would soon fly over the pyramids, as they flew over the Kremlin in Moscow.

The Congress made a number of important decisions, including support for Roy's call for an "anti-imperialist united front" of communists and other anti-imperialists in the colonies; a reversal of earlier opposition to pan-Islamism, at the urging of Indonesian and Algerian communists; and resolutions in support of Black liberation in the U.S., based on the reports of Black communists Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood.

The Congress also called on the French Communist Party to repudiate a section of Algerian members who opposed the liberation of Algeria from France. In a less positive development, the Congress avoided a sharp condemnation of South African strikes that were provoked, in part, by opposition to the employment of Blacks in the country's mines.

And the Congress didn't discuss at all--and heard only a positive report about--the recently formed Chinese Communist Party's decision, at the urging of the Comintern, to enter the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang (GMD) Party. Several years later, this policy would end in disaster, with GMD leader Chiang Kai-Shek launching a military coup and massacring the communists. But that history is tied up with the isolation of the Russian Revolution, the Stalinization of the Comintern, and its conversion into an instrument for Stalin's counterrevolutionary policies.

THIS BRIEF history should demonstrate that, both theoretically and as a matter of practice, revolutionary Marxism is neither Eurocentric nor unconcerned with issues of underdevelopment, agrarian struggles or even cultural questions of colonized and oppressed peoples. The Comintern debates show that while the socialists of that tumultuous period didn't get everything right, they certainly tried to breathe life into the slogan of "Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite."

Mariátegui, who contemporary commentators have championed as a critic of "orthodox" Marxism and defender of an "indigenous" socialism, considered himself nothing more or less than a "tried and true" Marxist. He used the tools of Marxism to produce an analysis that was both thoroughly Marxist and attuned to the particular circumstances of early 20th century Latin America. As he wrote in 1928:

The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a phase of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution...We certainly do not want socialism in Latin America to be a copy or imitation. It should be a heroic creation. We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language. Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.

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