Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

April 20, 2014

Lenin’s party, Great Russian chauvinism, and the betrayal of Ukrainian national aspirations

Filed under: Lenin,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm


Nestor Makhno, anarchist leader of Ukrainian peasants
Lenin more than once considered the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

Thanks to Andrew Pollack, we were able to scan in and reproduce an article that appeared in the Autumn 1989 International Marxist Review by Zbigniew Kowalewski titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” that details the tragic failure of the Bolsheviks to understand the need for Ukrainian self-determination. To give you an idea of how Great Russian chauvinism persists in the Kremlin and among those self-proclaimed Marxists who repeat Putin’s talking points, the article states:

The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

That’s from 1919. Nothing has changed evidently. What is all the more difficult to understand is the tendency to view Ukrainian national aspirations as reactionary given the openly Romanovist inclinations of the Russian government today. At least when Christian Rakovsky, the Bolshevik colonial administrator of Ukraine, pushed for russification, he did so in the name of the socialist revolution. Those who now back Russian domination of an historically oppressed nation do so in the name of Gazprom and the pro-Russian oligarchy.

The article refers to the same kinds of stupidities committed in the name of Marxism against Poland, another country that had suffered from Czarist bullying. I strongly recommend a look at Paul Kellogg’s article titled Substitutionism versus Self-emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921 that covers the Kremlin’s bungling to the north of the Ukraine. It is an important contribution to the necessary critical re-examination of the early Comintern’s history.

For the independence of Soviet Ukraine

By Zbigniew Kowalewski

DESPITE the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very essence, international in character. The Thermidorean reaction, crowned by Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and with to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without much difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: ‘it negates the position of the defence of the Soviet Union’, ‘disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses.; ‘serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism’. In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all the three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly, do so on the morrow.

The sectarian as so often happens, finds himself siding with the police, covering up the status quo, that is, police violence, by sterile speculation on the superiority of the socialist unification of nations as against their remaining divided. Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and equalitarian socialist federation: tan it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people. In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate.’

The quoted article by Trotsky “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 1939), is, in a number of ways, much more important than the article of April the same year, “The Ukrainian Question”. First of all, it unmasks and disarms the pseudo-Marxist sectarians who, in the name of defending proletarian internationalism transform it into a sterile abstraction, and reject the slogan of national independence of a people oppressed by the Kremlin bureaucracy. In this article Trotsky places himself in the continuity of the ideological struggle waged by Lenin against the “tendency to imperialist economism”, a tendency which was active in the ranks of Bolshevik Party as well as in the faux left of international social democracy. It should be clear that the adjective “imperialist” that Lenin attributes to this form of economism in the revolutionary movement in relation to the national question is justified by the theoretical reasons evoked by the author of the term. A sociological examination would show that this tendency is mainly based among revolutionary socialists belonging to the dominant and imperialist nations. The sectarians denounced by Trotsky, are only a new version of the same tendency that Lenin fought against at the time of the discussion on the right of nations to self-determination in the context of an anti-capitalist revolution.

Second, Trotsky’s article contains theoretical and political considerations which are indispensable for understanding the correctness and the need for a slogan such as that of independence for the Soviet Ukraine as well as for a national revolution of an oppressed people as a factor and component of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. To fully appreciate the richness of this contribution, readers are invited to study the article themselves.

Third, Trotsky explains that in a case like that of the Ukraine, real internationalism and a real search for the international unity of the working class are impossible without clear and resolute support for national “separatism”.

To make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes of Ukrainian separatism as well as the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint straggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.

It goes without saying that this task is the responsibility of the vanguard of the international workers’ movement even before being that of the Russian proletariat. The defence of the slogan of Ukrainian independence adopted by the World Congresses of the Fourth International in 1957 and 1979 is a task of enormous political importance today. The rise of national mass movements of the oppressed peoples of the USSR demands that the slogan of national independence should be a part of our general propaganda and agitation. if this is not done, the socialist opposition in the USSR will leave the field open to the bureaucracy, which hopes to isolate the anti-bureaucratic struggles waged in the non-Russian republics from the fight of the workers in Great Russia. They thus omit one of the basic transitional tasks of the anti-bureaucratic struggle.

Fourthly, Trotsky contributes an essential clarification to the historical dis-cussion on the right of nations to self-determination while eliminating from this Leninist slogan its abstract and politically redundant features. Trotsky explains that, if the oppression of a people is an objective fact, we do not need this people to be in struggle and to demand independence in order to advance the slogan of independence. At the time when Trotsky raised this slogan, nobody in the Soviet Ukraine could demand such a thing without having to face execution or becoming a prisoner in the Gulag. A wait-and-see policy would only lead to the political and programmatic disarming of revolutionaries. An oppressed people needs independence because it is oppressed. Independence, states Trotsky, is the indispensable democratic framework in which an oppressed people becomes free to determine itself. in other words, there is no self-determination outside the context of national independence.

In order to freely determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right to say yes or no, the Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this constituent period. There is no other name for this than state independence.

In order to exercise self-determination — and every oppressed people needs and must have the greatest freedom of action in this field — there has to be a constituent congress of the nation.

But a “constituent” congress signifies nothing else but the congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.

Faced with the implacable rigour of this explanation any other discourse on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination can only be sustained by sleight-of-hand. This right cannot be defended without fighting for the oppressed people to have the means of exercising it that is to say without demanding the state independence necessary for the convocation of a free constituent assembly or congress.

Finally, and this is a question of signal importance, Trotsky recognized that the October revolution did not resolve the national question inherited from the Russian empire. Isolated in a backward country, it could only bring it to resolution with great difficulty. But was it equipped for that? In the perspective of a new, anti-bureaucratic, revolution we have to decide whether the same means can be reused or if a totally new approach is necessary. I think that Trotsky was convinced that the second option was correct. This is a question of the first importance that seems never to have been taken up by the Trotskyist movement, although it is a necessary starting point for any discussion on the relevance of Trotsky’s slogan of 1939.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — formally (and fictively like Byelorussia) a member of the United Nations — is the most important of the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. It is also the biggest country in Europe after Russia in surface (603,700 square kilometres), and one of the biggest in population (more than 50 million, 74% of whom are Ukrainian). The Ukrainian people form the largest oppressed nation in the USSR and Europe. The urban working class constitutes more than 50% of the total population and more than 75% of the Ukrainian population of the republic. The liberation of the enormous potential that this class represents from the dual burden of bureaucratic dictatorship and national oppression is a fundamental task and a condition for the development of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as for the social revolution on the entire continent it is impossible to imagine any advance in building socialism in the USSR and in Europe without the victory of the Ukrainian national revolution which has, as Trotsky explained, an international strategic dimension. What the sectarians ignore in taking up this question is the fact that the national revolution, one of the most important and most complex forms of the class struggle, cannot be avoided by simple references to the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR as a whole or the future European and world revolution.

Bolshevism faced with an unexpected national revolution.

Considered by many people — including Marx and Engels at one time — as a “people without history”, the Ukrainian people constituted itself as a nation in a “historical” manner par excellence, that is heroically. In 1648, the community of freemen and of military democracy, known as the Cossacks, formed a people’s liberation army, and launched a huge peasant uprising against the Polish state, its ruling class and its church. The nation state established during this rising did not manage to stabilize but the Cossack and peasant revolution crystallized a historical nation even before the shaping of the modern nations through the expansion of capitalism. Since the end of the 18th century, the bulk of Ukrainian territory had been transformed into a province of the Tsarist empire, known as “Little Russia”. On the eve of the Russian revolution, it was a “European”-type colony? Compared to the general level of socio-economic development in this empire this region was one of the most industrialized and characterized by a strong penetration of capitalism in agriculture. Ukrainian was synonymous with peasant because around 90% of the population lived in the countryside. Among the 3.6 million proletarians (12% of the population), 0.9 million worked in industry and 1.2 million in agriculture. As a product of a very uneven development of capitalism, half of the industrial proletariat was concentrated in the mining and steel enclave of the Donbas, Because of the colonial development and the Tsarist “solution” to the Jewish question, only 43% of the proletariat was of Ukrainian nationality, the rest being Russian, Russified and Jewish. The Ukrainians constituted less than a third of the urban population. The western part of Ukraine, Galicia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The two central demands of the renascent national movement were the independence and unity (‘samostiinist’ i sobornist’) of the Ukraine.

The 1917 revolution opened the road to the Ukrainian national revolution. It was the most powerful, the most massive and the most violent of the all the revolutions of the oppressed nations of the empire. The masses demanded a radical agrarian reform, independence, the constitution of a Ukrainian government and independence. The opportunist petty bourgeois and workers’ parties of the Central Rada (council) which led the national movement opposed the demand for independence. They only proclaimed it after the October revolution to which they were hostile. By authorizing the passage of counter-revolutionary military units, the Central Rada provoked a declaration of war by Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Bolsheviks were very badly prepared to deal with the Ukrainian national revolution.

The right to national self-determination put forward by Lenin was a slogan that had not been very well assimilated by the party, It was even challenged by a sizeable current, characterized by Lenin as “imperialist economism”. This challenge was particularly dangerous as it appeared within a proletarian party of a nation that was traditionally an oppressor and had become imperialist, in an empire characterized by Lenin as an enormous prison of peoples. Apart from Lenin’s writings, the only overall work on the national question at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party was the confused, indeed largely wrong study by Stalin. Written in 1913, it did not even take up the national question in the framework of imperialism. Lenin himself expressed confused and ill-thought out positions such as the excessive inspiration that he drew from the example of the American melting-pot and a categorical rejection of a federalist solution. He condemned this as contradicting his idea of a centralized state and demanded that each nationality choose between complete separation and national-territorial autonomy within a centralized multi-national state, He educated the party in this spirit for more than ten years. After the revolution, and without giving any explanation for his turnaround, he proclaimed the federation of nations as the correct solution and compatible with state centralism — a shift that many Bolshevik leaders did not take seriously. Over and above the democratic slogan of the right to self-determination, Bolshevism had neither a programme nor a strategy of national and social permanent revolution for the oppressed peoples of the empire.

In Ukraine, apart from a few exceptions, the Bolshevik Party (like the Menshevik Party) was only active within the most concentrated and modern section of the proletariat, which was not of Ukrainian nationality. The spread of communism within the proletariat followed the dynamic of the development of a colonial industrial capitalism. Political action within the national proletariat was the domain of Ukrainian social-democracy which placed itself outside the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and was accused by the former of capitulating to Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalism”. The “national” bourgeoisie hardly existed. At this period, the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed was already present in Lenin’s writings but both were considered bourgeois. The notion of revolutionary nationalism had not yet appeared. Social Revolutionary populism, which was becoming national and autonomous from its Russian equivalent, represented another active political force within the Ukrainian masses. The Bolshevik Party in the Ukraine used only Russian in its press and propaganda. It ignored the national question and did not even have a leadership centre in the territory. It is not surprising that when the national revolution broke out it was caught unarmed.

In the Ukraine, the Bolshevik Party only tried to organize as a separate entity after the Brest-Litovsk treaty, that is during the first Bolshevik retreat and at the beginning of the occupation of the country by the imperialist German army. At the ad hoc conference in Tahanrih in April 1918, there were several tendencies present. On the right, the “Katerynoslavians” with Emmanuil Kviring. On the left, the “Kievans” with lurii Piatakov, but also the “Poltavans” or “nationals” with Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhrai, strengthened by the support of a group from the extreme left of Ukrainian social-democracy. The right, basing itself on the Russian industrial proletariat pro-posed to form the Russian CP(B) in Ukraine. The “Poltavans” and the “Kievans” wanted an entirely independent Bolshevik party. A section of the “Poltavans” wanted to settle the national question in a radical way through the foundation of an independent Soviet Ukraine. Shakhrai, the most radical, even wanted the party to be called the Ukrainian CP(B). The “Kievans” were for an independent party (and perhaps a state) while denying the existence of the national question and considering the right to national self-determination an opportunist slogan. With Piatakov they represented the most extreme proponents of “imperialist economism”. However, at the same time, they identified with Bukharinist “left communism” and were hostile to the Brest-Litovsk peace and to Leninist centralism. In order to assert themselves in opposition to Lenin they needed an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine. Moreover, they considered that a particular strategy was necessary in Ukraine directed towards the peasant masses and based in their insurrectional potential. It was for this reason that the “Kievans” allied with the “Poltavans”. And it was Skrypnyk’s position that won out. Rejecting Kviring’s approach on the one hand and Shakhrai’s on the other, the conference proclaimed the Communist Party(B) in Ukraine as the Ukrainian section, independent of the Russian CP(B), of the Communist International.

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

The first congress of the CP(B) of the Ukraine took place in Moscow. For Lenin and the leadership of the Russian CP(B) the decision of Tahanrih had the flavour of a nationalist deviation. They were not ready to accept an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine or a Ukrainian section of the Komintern. The CP(B) of the Ukraine could only be a regional organization of the pan-Russian CP(B), according to the thesis “one country, one party”. Is the Ukraine not a country?

Skrypnyk, considered responsible for the deviation, was eliminated from the party leadership. In this situation, Shakhrai, the most intransigent of the “Poltavans” went over to open dissidence. In two books of inflammatory content, written with his Ukrainian Jewish comrade Serhii Mazlakh, they laid the foundations of a pro-independence Ukrainian communism. For them, the Ukrainian national revolution was an act of enormous importance for the world revolution. The natural and legitimate tendency of this revolution and its growing over into a social revolution could only lead to the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine as an independent state. The slogan of independence was thus crucial to ensure this growing over, for forming the workers-peasants alliance, to make it possible for the revolutionary proletariat to take power and to establish a real and sincere unity with the Russian proletariat. It was only in this way that the Ukraine could become a stronghold of the international proletarian revolution. The contrary policy would lead to disaster. This was the message of the Shakhrai current.” And it was indeed a disaster.

The reasons for the failure of the second Bolshevik government

In November 1918, under the impact of the collapse of the central powers in the imperialist war and the outbreak of revolution in Germany, a generalized national insurrection overthrew the Hetmanate, a fake state established in the Ukraine by German imperialism. The opportunist leaders of the former Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic who, a short while before, had made a compromise with German imperialism, took the head of the insurrection to restore the Republic and its government, this time called the Directory. Symon Petliura, a former social-democrat who had become a rightwinger swearing ferocious hatred of Bolshevism, became the de facto military dictator. But this unprecedented rise of a national revolution of the masses was also the rise of a social revolution. Just as they had previously done faced with the Central Rada, the masses rapidly lost their illusions in Petliura’s Directory, and turned again to the social programme of the Bolsheviks. The far left of the Ukrainian Social Revolutionary Party, called the Borotbists, which was increasingly pro-Communist, affirmed its ideological influence among the masses.

In a situation favourable to the possibility of a convergence between the Russian revolution and the Ukrainian revolution, the Red Army again entered the country, chased out the Directory, and established the second Bolshevik government. Piatakov was at the head of this government before being rapidly recalled to Moscow.

Although continuing to ignore the national question — for him the Ukrainian revolution was not a national but a peasant revolution — the Piatokov government, sensitive to the social reality of the Ukraine, wanted to be an independent state power. It considered such power indispensable in order to ensure the growing over of the peasant revolution into the proletarian revolution and to give proletarian leadership to the people’s revolutionary war. Moscow appointed Christian Rakovsky to take Piatakov’s place. Recently arrived from the Balkans, where the national question was particularly complicated and acute, he declared himself a specialist on the Ukrainian question and was recognized as such in Moscow, including by Lenin. In reality, although he was a very talented militant and completely devoted to the cause of the world revolution, he was completely ignorant and dangerous in his so-called speciality. In lzvestia, the Soviet government newspaper, he announced the following theses: the ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are insignificant, the Ukrainian peasants do not have a national consciousness, they even send petitions to the Bolsheviks to demand to be Russian subjects; they refuse to read revolutionary proclamations in Ukrainian while devouring the same thing in Russian. The national consciousness of the masses has been submerged by their social class consciousness. The word “Ukrainian” is practically an insult for them. The working class is purely of Russian origin. The industrial bourgeoisie and the majority of the big land-owners are Russian, Polish or Jewish. In conclusion Rakovsky did not even recognize a national entity in the Ukraine and for him the Ukrainian national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia that supported Petliura, who were using it in order to hoist themselves into power.

Rakovsky understood perfectly that the Bolshevik revolution in the Ukraine was the “strategic knot” and the “decisive factor” in the extension of the socialist revolution in Europe. However, unable to place his vision within the context of the Ukrainian national revolution or recognize that this latter was an unavoidable and indispensable active force, Rakovsky condemned his own strategy to shipwreck on the rocks of the Ukrainian question. A tragic but relative error if compared with that of Lenin eighteen months later, which plunged the European revolution into the quagmire of the Polish national question by giving orders to invade Poland.

In opposition to the demands of Piatakov, Rakovsky’s government — which was on paper that of an “independent republic” — considered itself a simple regional delegation of power from the Russian workers’ state. But objective reality is implacable. Faced with Rakovsky’s attempt to impose a Greater Russian communist centralism, the national reality, already explained by Bolsheviks like Shakhrai, and also in their own way by Bolsheviks like Piatakov, made itself felt. This centralism unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. The proletarian revolution did not lead the national revolution; nor did a proletarian military leadership impose itself at the head of the armed national and social insurrection of the masses. In order to achieve class consciousness, the masses of an oppressed people have first to pass through the stage of achieving a national consciousness. Having alienated and even repressed the bearers of this consciousness, recruitment to the administration was restricted to the often reactionary Russian petty bourgeoisie, who were accustomed to serving under whoever was in power in Moscow. Things were the same for the army; recruitment took place amongst people with a very low level of consciousness, not to say lumpen elements. The result was a conglomerate of disparate armed forces, with commanders ranging from Nestor Makhno (presented by the central press in glowing terms as a natural revolutionary leader of the poor peasants in revolt, over-looking entirely his anarcho-communist beliefs, totally at odds with Bolshevism) and straightforward adventurers such as Matvii Hryhoryiv. This latter was promoted to the rank of plenipotentiary Red commander of a vast region by Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The leftist agrarian policy, that of the commune, transplanted into the Ukraine from Russia on the principle of a single country and a single agrarian policy, inevitably alienated the middle peasants. It drove them into the arms of the rich peasants and ensured their hostility to the Rakovsky government while isolating and dividing the poor peasants. Power was exercised by the Bolshevik Party, the revolutionary committees and the poor peasants’ committees, imposed from above by the party. Soviets were only permitted in some of the large towns and even then had only an advisory role. The most widely-supported popular demand was that of all power to democratically-elected Soviets — a demand of Bolshevik origin that now struck at the present Bolshevik policy. On the national issue, the policy was one of linguistic russification, the “dictatorship of Russian culture” proclaimed by Rakov-sky and the repression of the militants of the national renaissance. The Great Russian philistine was able to wrap himself in the red flag in order to repress everything that smacked of Ukrainian nationalism and defend the historical “one and indivisible” Russia. Afterwards, Skrypnyk drew up a list of some 200 decrees “forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language” drawn up under Rakovsky’s rule by “a variety of pseudo-specialists, Soviet bureaucrats and pseudo-communists.” In a letter to Lenin, the Borotbists were to describe the policy of this government as that of “the expansion of a ‘red’ imperialism (Russian nationalism)”, giving the impression that “Soviet power in the Ukraine had fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter-revolution”.

In the course of a military escapade, the rebel army of Hryhoryiv captured Odessa and proclaimed that they had thrown the Entente expeditionary corps (in fact in the process of evacuating the town) into the sea. This fictional exploit was backed up by Bolshevik propaganda. Sensing a shift in the wind, the “victor over the Entente”, Hryhoryiv, rebelled against the power of “the commune, the Cheka and the commissars” sent from Moscow and from the land “where they have crucified Jesus Christ”. He gave the signal for a wave of insurrections to throw out the Rakovsky government. Aware of the mood of the masses, he called on them to establish Soviets from below everywhere, and for their delegates to come together to elect a new government. Some months later, Hryhoryiv was shot by Makhno in the presence of their respective armies, accused of responsibility for anti-semitic pogroms. Even the pro-communist extreme left of the social democracy took up arms against the “Russian government of occupation”. Whole chunks of the Red Army deserted and joined the insurrection. The elite troops of “Red Cossacks” disintegrated politically, tempted by banditry, plunder and pogroms.

These uprisings opened the way for Denikin and isolated the Hungarian Revolution. From Budapest, a desperate Bela Kun demanded a radical change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine. The commander of the Red Army’s Ukrainian front, Antonov-Ovseyenko, did the same. Among the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, the “federalist” current, in effective agreement with the ideas of Shaldirai and Borotbism, started factional activity. The Borotbists, protective of their autonomy, although still in alliance with the Bolsheviks, formed the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbist) and demanded recognition as a national section of the Comintern. With large influence amongst the poor peasantry and the Ukrainian working-class in the countryside and the towns, this party looked towards an independent Soviet Ukraine. They even envisaged armed confrontation with the fraternal Bolshevik Party on this question, but only after victory over Denikin, on the other fronts of the civil war and imperialist intervention.

Both the Hungarian and Bavarian revolutions, deprived of Bolshevik military support were crushed. The Russian revolution itself was in mortal danger from Denikin’s offensive.

“One and indivisible” Russia or independence of the Ukraine?

It was under these conditions that Trotsky, in the course of a new and decisive turn in the civil war — as the Red Army went over to the offensive against Denikin — took a political initiative of fundamental importance. On November 30 1919, in his order to the Red troops as they entered the Ukraine, he stated:

The Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in the Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it.— Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer the Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin’s bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia. We are all sure, and we know, that the working people of the Ukraine will declare for the closest fraternal union with us…. Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine.

After two years of civil war in the Ukraine, this was the first initiative by the. Bolshevik regime aimed at drawing the social and political forces of the Ukrainian national revolution – that is the Ukrainian workers and peasants – into the ranks of the proletarian revolution. Trotsky was also concerned to counteract the increasingly centrifugal dynamic of Ukrainian communism whether inside or outside the Bolshevik party.

Trotsky’s search for a political solution to the Ukrainian national question was supported. by Rakovsky, who had become aware of his errors, and closely coordinated with Lenin, who was also now conscious of the disastrous consequences of policies that he had himself often supported, or even promoted. At the Bolshevik Central Committee Lenin called for a vote for a resolution that made it:

incumbent on all party members to use every means to help remove all harriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture…, suppressed for centuries by Russian Tsarism and the exploiting classes.

The resolution announced that in the future all employees of Soviet institutions in the Ukraine would have to be able to express themselves in the national language. But Lenin went much further. In a letter-manifesto addressed to the workers and peasants of Ukraine, he recognized for the first time some basic facts.

We Great Russian Communists (have) differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia and the national question in general,… There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.

In the same open letter, Lenin stated for the first time that it was possible to be both a militant of the Bolshevik Party and a partisan of complete independence for the Ukraine. This was a reply to one of the key questions posed a year earlier by Shakhrai, who was expelled from the party before his assassination by the Whites. Lenin furthermore affirmed:

One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not…. regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort.

The effect was spectacular and had a strategic significance. The insurrections of the Ukrainian masses contributed to the defeat of Denikin. In March 1920 the Borotbist congress decided on the dissolution of the organization and the entry of its militants into the Bolshevik Party. The Borotbist leadership took the following position: they would unite with the Bolsheviks to contribute to the international extension of the proletarian revolution. The prospects for an independent Soviet Ukraine would be a lot more promising in the framework of the world revolution that on a pan-Russian level. With great relief Lenin declared:

Instead of a revolt of the Borotbists, which seemed inevitable, we find that, thanks to the correct policy of the Central Committee, which was carried out so splendidly by comrade Rakovsky, all the best elements among the Borotbists have joined our party under our control…This victory was worth a couple of good tussles.

In 1923 a communist historian remarked: it was largely under the influence of the Borotbists that Bolshevism underwent the evolution from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to becoming the “Communist Party of the Ukraine”. Even so, it remained a regional organization of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and did not have the right to be a section of the Comintern.

The fusion of the Borotbists with the Bolsheviks took place just before a new political crisis – the invasion of the Ukraine by the Polish bourgeois army accompanied by Ukrainian troops under the command of Petluira, and the resulting Soviet-Polish war. This time the Great Russian chauvinism of the masses was unleashed on a scale and with an aggression that escaped all restraint by the Bolsheviks.

To the conservative elements in Russia this was a war against a hereditary enemy, with whose re-emergence as an independent nation they could not reconcile themselves — a truly Russian war, although waged by Bolshevik internationalists. To the Greek Orthodox this was a fight against the people incorrigible in its loyalty to Roman Catholicism, a Christian crusade even though led by godless communists. (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pp 459-460)

The masses were moved by the defence of the “one and indivisible” Russia, a mood fanned by propaganda. Izvestia published an almost unbelievably reactionary poem glorifying the Russian state. Its message was that

just as long ago, the Tsar Ivan Kalita gathered in all the lands of Russia, one by one— now all the dialects, and all the lands, all the multinational world will be reunited in a now faith” in order to “bring their power and their riches to the palaces of the Kremlin.” (M. Kozyrev, Izvestia, 1920)

The Ukraine was the first victim of the chauvinist explosion. A Ukrainian left social democrat, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had been the leader of the Central Rada and who had broken with Petluira’s Directory to negotiate alongside Bela Kun a change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine, found himself in Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government at the time when many white officers were responding to the appeal of the former commander in chief of the Tsarist army to “defend the Russian motherland” and were joining the Red Army, Georgii Chicherin, at that time Commissar of Foreign Affairs, explained to Vynnychenko that his government could not go to Canossa over the Ukrainian question. In his journal, Vynnychenko writes: “The orientation towards Russian patriotism of the ‘one and indivisible’ variety excludes any concession to the Ukrainians. When one is going to Canossa in front of the white guards…. it is clearly impossible to have an orientation towards federation, self-determination or anything else that might upset ‘one and indivisible’ Russia.” Furthermore, under the influence of the Great Russian chauvinist tide that was flowing through the corridors of Soviet power, Chicherin resuscitated the idea that Russia could directly annex the Donbas region of the Ukraine. In the Ukrainian countryside, Soviet officials asked the peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?”

In the face of this Great Russian chauvinist regression, those Borotbists who had become Bolsheviks, continued the fight. One of their main leaders, Vasyl Ellan Blakytny, wrote at the time:

Basing themselves on the ethnic links of the majority of the Ukrainian proletariat with the proletariat, semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie of Russia and using the argument of the weakness of the industrial proletariat of the Ukraine, a tendency that we describe as colonialist is calling for the construction of an economic system in the framework of the Russian Republic, which is that of the old Empire to which the Ukraine belonged. This tendency wants the total subordination of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the Ukraine to the Russian party and in general envisages the dissolution of all the young proletarian forces of the “nations without history” into the Russian section of the Comintern…. In Ukraine, the natural leading force of such a tendency is a section of the urban and industrial proletariat that has not come to terms with Ukrainian reality. But beyond that, and above all, it is the Russified urban petty bourgeoisie that was always the principle support for the domination of the Russian bourgeoisie in the Ukraine.

And the Bolsheviks of Borotbist origin concluded:

The great power colonialist project that is prevailing today in the Ukraine is profoundly harmful to the communist revolution. In ignoring the natural and legitimate national aspirations of the previously oppressed Ukrainian toiling masses, it is wholly reactionary and counter-revolutionary and is the expression of an old, but still living Great Russian imperialist chauvinism.

Meanwhile the far left of the social democrats formed a new party, called the Ukapist Party, in order to continue to demand national independence and to take in those elements of the Borotbists who had not joined the Bolsheviks. Coming out of the theoretical tradition of German social democracy, this new party was far stronger at the theoretical level than Borotbism, which had populist origins and where the art of poetry was better understood than the science of political economy. But its links with the masses were weaker. The masses were, in any case, growing increasingly weary of this revolution that was permanent in both a mundane and theoretical sense. Trotsky’s theoretical conception of permanent revolution was not, however, matched in reality by a growing over, but by a permanent split between a national revolution and a social revolution. One of the worst results of this was the inability to achieve a united Ukraine (the demand for sobornist’). Lenin’s fatal error in invading Poland exacerbated the Polish national question in an anti-Bolshevik direction and blocked the extension of the revolution. It resulted in a defeat for the Red Army and the cession to the Polish state of more than a fifth of national Ukrainian territory on top of the areas absorbed by Romania and Czechoslovakia.

Every honest historian, and all the more every revolutionary Marxist, must recognize that the promise made by the Bolsheviks during the offensive against Denikin — to convoke a constituent congress of soviets in the Ukraine able to take a position on the three options (complete independence, more or less close federal ties with Russia or complete fusion with the latter) put forward by Lenin in his letter of December 1919, was not kept. According to Trotsky, during the civil war, the Bolshevik leadership considered putting forward a bold project for workers’ democracy to resolve the anarchist question in the region under the control of Makhno’s insurrectional army. Trotsky himself:

discussed with Lenin more than once the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

But there is no record of any similar discussions on the vastly more important question of Ukrainian independence.

It was only after bitter struggles led at the end of his life by Lenin himself as well as by Bolsheviks like Skrypnyk and Rakovsky, by former Borotbists such as Blakytny and Oleksandr Shumsky, and by many of the leading communists from the various oppressed nationalities of the old Russian empire, that the 12th congress of the Bolshevik Party in 1923 formally recognized the existence in the party and in the Soviet regime of a very dangerous “tendency towards Great Russian imperialist chauvinism”. Although this victory was very partial and fragile, it offered the Ukrainian masses the possibility of accomplishing certain tasks of the national revolution and experiencing an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920s. But this victory did not prevent the degeneration of the Russian revolution and a chauvinist and bureaucratic counter-revolution that, in the 1930s, was marked by a national holocaust in the Ukraine. Millions of peasants died during a famine provoked by the Stalinist policy of pillaging the country, the national intelligentsia was almost completely physically wiped put, while the party and state apparatuses of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic were destroyed by police terror. The suicide of Mykola Skrypnyk in 1933, an old Bolshevik who tried to reconcile the national revolution with allegiance to Stalinism, sounded the death knell for that revolution for a whole historical period.

Tragic errors that should not be repeated

The Russian revolution had two contradictory effects on the Ukrainian national revolution. On the one side the Russian revolution was an essential factor for the overthrow of bourgeois power in the Ukraine. On the other, it held back the process of class differentiation amongst the social and political forces of the national revolution. The reason for this was the lack of understanding of the national question. The experience of the 1917-1920 revolution posed in a dramatic fashion the question of the relations between the social revolution of the proletariat of a dominant nation and a national revolution of the toiling masses of the oppressed nation. As Skrypnyk wrote in July 1920:

Our tragedy in the Ukraine is that in order to win the peasantry and the rural proletariat, a population of Ukrainian nationality, we have to rely on the support and on the forces of a Russian or Russified working class that was antagonistic towards even the smallest expression of Ukrainian language and culture.

In the same period, the Ukrainian Communist Party (Ukapist) tried to explain to the leadership of the Comintern:

The fact that the leaders of the proletarian revolution in the Ukraine draw their support from the Russian and Russified upper layers of the proletariat and know nothing of the dynamic of the Ukrainian revolution, means that they are not obliged to rid themselves of the prejudice of the “one and indivisible” Russia that pervades the whole of Soviet Russia. This attitude has led to the crisis of the Ukrainian revolution, cuts Soviet power off from the masses, aggravates the national struggle, pushes a large section of the workers into the arms of the Ukrainian petty bourgeois nationalists and holds back the differentiation of the proletariat from the petty-bourgeoisie.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The answer is yes if the Bolsheviks had had at their disposal an adequate strategy before the outbreak of the revolution. In the first place, if instead of being a Russian party in the Ukraine, they had resolved the question of the construction of a revolutionary party of the proletariat of the oppressed nation. Secondly, if they had integrated the struggle for national liberation of the Ukraine into their programme. Thirdly, if they had recognized the political necessity and historical legitimacy of the national revolution in the Ukraine and of the slogan of Ukrainian independence. Fourthly, if they had educated the Russian proletariat (in Russia and in the Ukraine) and the ranks of their own party in the spirit of total support for this slogan, and thereby fought against the chauvinism of the dominant nation and the reactionary ideal of the “gathering together of the Russian lands”. Nothing here would have stood in the way of the Bolsheviks conducting propaganda amongst the Ukraine workers in favour of the closest unity with the Russian proletariat and, during the revolution, between the Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia. On the contrary, only under these conditions could such propaganda be politically coherent and effective.

There had been an occasion when Lenin tried to develop such a strategy. This is revealed by his “separatist speech” delivered in October 1914 in Zurich. Then he said:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots. We Muscovites, are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because out passivity allows others to be oppressed, which is not in our interests.

Later however, Lenin did not stick to these radical theses. They re-appear, however, in the political thinking of pro-independence Ukrainian communism, in Shakhrai, the Bolshevik “federalists”, the Borotbists and the Ukapists.

We should not, however, be surprised that the Bolsheviks had no strategy for the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire. The strategic questions of the revolution were in general the Achilles heel of Lenin himself, as is shown by his theory of revolution by stages. As for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, implicitly adopted by Lenin after the February revolution, it was only worked out in relation to Russia, an underdeveloped capitalist country and not for the proletariat of the peoples oppressed by Russia, which was also an imperialist state and a prison house of nations. The theoretical bases of the strategy of permanent revolution for the proletariat of an oppressed nation appeared during the revolutionary years amongst the pro-independence currents of Ukrainian communism. The Ukapists were probably the only communist party — even if they were never recognized as a section by the Comintern — that openly made reference to the theory of permanent revolution.

The basic idea, first outlined by Shakhrai and Mazlakh, then taken up by the Borotbists before being elaborated by the Ukapists, was simple. In the imperialist epoch, capitalism is, of course, marked by the process of the internationalization of the productive forces, but this is only one side of the coin. Torn by its contradictions, the imperialist epoch does not produce one tendency without also producing a counter-tendency. The opposite tendency in this case is that of the nationalization of the productive forces manifested in particular by the formation of new economic organisms, those of the colonial and dependent countries, a tendency which leads to movements of national liberation.

The world proletarian revolution is the effect of only one of the contradictory tendencies of modern capitalism, imperialism, even if it is the dominant effect. The other, inseparable from the first, are the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples. This is why the international revolution is inseparable from a wave of national revolutions and must base itself on these revolutions if it is to spread. The task of the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples is to liberate the development of the productive forces constricted and deformed by imperialism. Such liberation is impossible without the establishment of independent national states ruled by the proletariat. The national workers’ states of the oppressed peoples are an essential resource for the international working class if it is to resolve the contradictions of capitalism and establish workers’ management of the world economy. If the proletariat attempts to build its power on the basis of only one of these two contradictory tendencies in the development of the productive forces, it will be divided against itself.

In a memorandum to the 2nd congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920, the Ukapists summed up their approach in the following terms:

The task of the international proletariat is to draw towards the communist revolution and the construction of a new society not only the advanced capitalist countries but also the backward peoples of the colonies, taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfill this task, it must take part in these revolutions and play the leading role in the perspective of the permanent revolution. It is necessary to prevent the national bourgeoisie from limiting the national revolutions at the level of national liberation. h is necessary to continue the straggle through to the seizure of power and the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and to lead the bourgeois democratic revolution to the end through the establishment of national states destined to join the international network of the emerging union of Soviet republics.

These states must rest on:

the forces of the national proletariat and toiling masses as well as on the mutual aid of all the detachments of the world revolution.

In the light of the experience of the first proletarian revolution, it is precisely this strategy of permanent revolution that needs to be adopted, to resolve the question of the oppressed nations in the framework of the anti-bureaucratic political revolution in the USSR. As Mykola Khvylovy, Ukrainian communist militant and great writer, put it in 1926, the Ukraine must be independent

because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine. If any nation (as has already been stated a long time ago and repeated on more than one occasion) over the centuries demonstrates the will to manifest itself, its organism, as a state entity, then all attempts in one way or another to hold back such a natural process block the formation of class forces on the one hand and, on the other, introduce an element of chaos into the general historical process at work in the world.

March 23, 2014

Snapshots of Crimean Tatar history

Filed under: Crimean Tatars,national question,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Katherine the Great, Stalin and Putin: cut from the same cloth as far as the Crimean Tatars are concerned

Back in 1966 I signed up for group therapy with Louise Potts, an “art therapist” in her 70s who a number of Bard graduates had begun to see. I was in the same group as Daniel Pinkwater, an art major who became famous for his witty children’s books and NPR commentaries. Pinkwater lived in a loft next to my building in Hoboken and we used to spend a lot of time hanging out.

I stopped going to see Mrs. Potts after my post-Bard depression had lifted. When they said that the “real world” was different from Bard, they weren’t kidding. Breaking up with my girlfriend and facing the draft made the adjustment to living alone in NYC and studying philosophy at the New School an even bigger challenge.

I have vivid memories of the therapy sessions in which after scribbling something on a big sheet of paper you were expected to fill it in as recognizable drawing. Supposedly this was the equivalent of a waking dream (not that the interpretation of dreams ever made much difference in “curing” a neurotic.)

Daniel’s drawings always made mine look crude by comparison. Eventually he was eclipsed by another art major, a woman in her early 20s named Lily. She was a Crimean Tatar who had suffered the lot of a “displaced person” throughout the 50s after her parents had been expelled from her homeland. Mrs. Potts believed that Lily’s depression had a lot to do with her family situation even though it had stabilized after they moved to the USA.

Two years later I was in the SWP and reading about the suffering of the Tatars in Intercontinental Press, a magazine edited by Joe Hansen that covered the activities of Russian dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko, a decorated WWII hero of Ukrainian descent. As punishment for his advocacy of Crimean Tatar rights, including repatriation into their homeland, he was stripped of his military rank, privileges and pension and then sent to a mental hospital for two years. In 1971, a Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Semyon Gluzman wrote a report finding Grigorenko sane and concluding that his hospitalization was a form of repression. For his efforts, Gluzman was rewarded with seven years in labor camp and then three years in Siberian exile. Unlike Joe Hansen and the SWP, most people on the Maoist left backed the Soviet bureaucrats for the same sorts of reasons so many “anti-imperialists” are backing Putin today. If imperialism was applauding Grigorenko’s efforts, that was reason enough to jail him in a mental hospital and to make any psychiatrist pay dearly for a report that deemed the General sane.

Mostly as a way of familiarizing myself with Tatar history, I speed read Alan Fisher’s “The Crimean Tatars”, one of the few authoritative books on the topic. As it turns out, the Tatars are a Turkic people—something that makes me even more sympathetic to them since I have a great affection for the average Turk as opposed to the problematic leadership they have endured for a hundred years or so.

The Tatars settled into the Crimean peninsula back in the fourteenth century under a so-called khanate. Their first great leader was a man named Haci Giray who created an independent state that relied heavily on Ottoman support. Giray was a descendant of Genghis Khan but was far more similar to the more settled and urban character of the Ottoman rulers than the Mongol Golden Horde of nomad conquerors. For example, Giray lived in a castle that was like a smaller version of the Topkapi rather than a tent.

As was the case in the Ottoman Empire proper, non-Muslims conducted business, trading, shipping, and personal finance under Tatar rule and paid a tax for these privileges. And as was typical as well, the non-Muslim enjoyed a level of freedom and tolerance that was remarkable for the age. Fisher reports that Karaim Jews spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions, and even sang purely Turkic songs.

This was by no means a paradise but life generally went well for the citizens for a couple of hundred years until Russia developed an interest in the region. Katherine the Great, a relatively enlightened Czarina, decided to annex Crimea in the same empire-building spirit that led her to launch incursions into the southern Caucasus territories. You can get an idea of the changes in Crimean demographics from this chart that appears in Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.13.06 PM

The Tatars are green, the Ukrainians yellow and the Russians red. So clearly what has happened from the time of Katherine the Great (the late 1700s) throughout the 19th century is a dramatic removal of the Tatars from their homeland. The slight uptick in green toward the far right of the graph reflects the repatriation victory won by the Crimean Tatars. The question, of course, is whether this was similar to Stalin’s wholesale expulsion or something less genocidal.

It was less genocidal but by no means benign. How could emigration ever be benign, after all? As is so often the case, the Russians opted to bring Crimea under its control by using a puppet, in this instance a khan named Sahin Giray. After instituting some reforms intended to “Westernize” the khanate, and deeply unpopular with the masses—including being subject to the Russian military draft—Giray was put under house arrest in St. Petersburg.

Once Crimea was annexed, Katherine began colonizing the region with non-Muslims. This was partly responsible for the demographic changes. There were also reasons for the Tatars to flee, particularly in the period following the Crimean war when Russia was defeated by a coalition of armies including the Ottomans and the British. Despite Russia’s loss, many Tatars fled, especially the elites, because of a fear that there would be reprisals against them even though many fought courageously for the Czardom.

Just as would happen in the Middle East under Zionist colonization, non-Tatars were lured into settling in Crimea with cash awards and the mass expulsions of Tatar peasants.

By 1917, the Tatars constituted only 30 percent of the Crimean peninsula. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks claimed that it favored the self-determination of oppressed nationalities, the tumult of the civil war made it difficult to put this into practice.

In 1921 Lenin wrote a comrade:

In all autonomous republics, the Tatar Republic in this case, there are two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars): one of them takes the standpoint of class struggle and works for further class differentiation of the sections of the native population, and the other has a shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism….

The petty-bourgeois nationalism is an obvious reference to the preference for SR and Menshevik politicians among the Tatars, a most unfortunate choice given the polarization following October 1917.

Celebi Cihan was one such “petty bourgeois nationalist”. As leader of the Milli Farka Party, he spoke for its key demands: nationalization of the church and private property, opposition to the conservative clergy, breaking off contacts with the Russian liberals, and closer cooperation with the Russian social democracy.

Despite these sympathies, the Milli Farka was considered an enemy of Soviet power. In February 1918, the Chekha arrested Cehin and put him in front of a firing squad. Afterwards they threw his body into the Black Sea. And this was during the “heroic” period of Communist rule. It should be mentioned that the Bolshevik heading up such repression was none other than Bela Kuhn, the man who also helped to sabotage the German revolution.

It was such actions that led some of the Tatars to collaborate with the German contingent that was part of the invasion force fighting alongside the White Army, just as they would collaborate with the Nazis during WWII.

In a bold attempt to reverse the disastrous policies being pursued by Bela Kuhn, the Soviet Union created an autonomous socialist republic for the Crimean Tatars in 1923 and had the good sense to put Veli Ibramihov in charge. Ibramihov had been a member of the left wing of the Milli Farka and had evolved toward Bolshevik politics. Ibramihov followed a number of enlightened policies:

  • Crimean Tatars were elevated into responsible positions in the autonomous republic’s government.
  • “War Communism” policies that severely affected Tatar peasants were reversed.
  • Tatarization would be implemented on all levels, including the reopening of Tatar-language schools, scientific institutes, museums, libraries and theaters.

Despite Ibramihov’s nationalist leanings, he never for one minute displayed secessionist tendencies. He and the Crimean Tatar people had the misfortune to have encountered Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism just a few years after these policies were adopted. In 1927 Stalin decided to create an autonomous Jewish republic in the south of Crimea that would be seeded with 3500 “colonists” who would displace the Tatars. (I have written with some pleasure about this kind of project in another part of the USSR. At the time I had not considered the possible collateral damage to the indigenous population.)

After Ibramihov wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about the abridgement of Tatar rights, he was arrested on the charge of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and executed on May 9, 1928.

In my view, there is a red thread that runs from Katherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea, to Kuhn and Stalin’s repression, to Putin’s annexation once again of Crimea. He is basically reprising Katherine’s colonizing tendencies while justifying it in the name of “anti-imperialism” in faux Bolshevik style.

Long-time British Trotskyist (but of a very benign nature) Murray Smith has written a useful article (http://links.org.au/node/3773) that makes the Putin/Romanov connection (Katherine the Great was of course a Romanov). It is about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the traditional Great Russian hegemony over that part of the world even if it has to be realized over the dead bodies of lesser nationalities. Here is Smith:

In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.

And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it’s true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.

When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.

The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).

 

October 6, 2011

Bert Jansch, dead at 67

Filed under: national question,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

NY Times October 5, 2011

Bert Jansch, an Influential Folk Guitarist, Is Dead at 67

By

Bert Jansch, a guitarist whose blend of classical, jazz, blues and traditional British folk music inspired a long list of folk and rock guitarists in the 1960s and ’70s, including Donovan, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Paul Simon, died on Wednesday in London. He was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Jansch caused an immediate sensation with his first album, “Bert Jansch,” released in 1965. He was a mostly self-taught musician. And his idiosyncratic style, with its intricate finger work and bent notes, as well as his bold reinterpretations of traditional material, exerted a powerful influence on a generation of young guitarists. A founder of the progressive British folk group Pentangle, he remains an almost talismanic figure for today’s young artists like Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart.

“With the release of his first album in 1965 he completely reinvented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequaled today,” Johnny Marr, the former guitarist for the Smiths, wrote in a foreword to the paperback reissue of the 2000 book “Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival,” by Colin Harper. “Without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the ’60s and ’70s would have been very different.”

Mr. Jansch (the name rhymes with blanch) became obsessed with the guitar after a teacher in his elementary school in Edinburgh brought one in for a demonstration. His parents could not afford to pay for more than a few lessons, so he tried to construct his own instrument. “The second one I made was even playable, and I learned to chord a D on it,” he told Frets magazine in 1980.

After buying a guitar at age 15, he began listening to records by Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Lead Belly. Gradually he incorporated influences from classical music, jazz and traditional Celtic and British folk songs. He was particularly influenced by Davy Graham, another seminal guitarist, whose composition “Angi” (also spelled “Angie” and “Anji”) became the centerpiece of Mr. Jansch’s first album.

Mr. Jansch remained reserved about describing his style and how it evolved. “Everyone asks that but I’m sorry, it’s a mystery to me how it developed like this,” he told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday in 2004.

Neil Young, who included Mr. Jansch on his American tour last year, once called him the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix as an influence on guitar players. Donovan recorded a cover version of Mr. Jansch’s protest song “Do You Hear Me Now” on his “Universal Soldier” album and paid tribute to him with “Bert’s Blues” on the album “Sunshine Superman” and “House of Jansch” on “Mellow Yellow.”

Mr. Page, who succumbed to the spell of Mr. Jansch’s first album when it came out, did his own instrumental version of “Blackwaterside,” a traditional song from Mr. Jansch’s third solo album, “Jack Orion” (1966). Retitled “Black Mountain Side,” it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

Herbert Jansch was born on Nov. 3, 1943, in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh. After leaving school at 15, he became a fixture at the Howff, a local folk club. Two of the club’s regulars, Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson, future members of the Incredible String Band, encouraged him to break out of the narrow Edinburgh scene.

He made his way to London and performed on the streets and in small clubs. After recording “Bert Jansch” on a reel-to-reel tape deck, he teamed up with the singer and guitarist John Renbourn, his second guitarist on “It Don’t Bother Me” and “Jack Orion” and his duet partner on the influential album “Bert and John” (1966).

He and Mr. Renbourn began performing at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road with the future members of Pentangle: the singer Jacqui McShee, the acoustic bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The group made its debut in a sold-out performance at the Royal Festival Hall on May 27, 1967, and went on to become one of the most dominant folk groups in Britain. It was known for its innovative and eclectic style, which had a marked jazz influence, and for the complex intertwined guitar parts in the “folk baroque” style.

The group’s first album, “Pentangle,” was released in 1968, followed by “Sweet Child,” “Basket of Light,” “Cruel Sister,” “Reflection” and “Solomon’s Seal.”

On New Year’s Day 1973, Mr. Jansch left the group, whose members were buckling under the strain of five world tours. Retreating to a farm in Wales, he returned to a solo career and recorded the album “A Rare Conundrum.” In the late 1970s joined with the fiddler Martin Jenkins to form a duo, Jansch and Jenkins, which became Conundrum after adding the bassist Nigel Smith. For a time Mr. Jansch performed and recorded with various revived versions of Pentangle.

Drinking problems derailed his career for a time, but he rebounded in the 1990s with the album “When the Circus Comes to Town.” He later recorded two critically praised albums, “Crimson Moon” and “The Black Swan,” featuring younger folk-influenced artists.

Mr. Jansch’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Loren Auerbach, and two sons, Kieron and Adam.

June 9, 2010

Critiquing a critique of Lenin

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Lenin,national question — louisproyect @ 4:31 pm

Palgrave-McMillan, an academic publisher, has just come out with Rethinking Capitalism: a Study of Capitalist Rule for only $95. As a long-time observer of the ironies of anti-capitalist manifestos with such capitalistic price tags, I have to give credit to the authors—John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropolous—for putting it on the internet as well.

Since the book was cited in a debate over imperialism on the Marxism list recently, I felt obligated to read it from cover to cover, especially since it was billed as a frontal assault on Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and the Monthly Review or dependency school of Marxism that included Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin et al. I tend to identify with MR even if I find the “anti-imperialist” posturing of MRZine an embarrassment. Suffice it to say that nothing has ever appeared in the print edition that remotely resembles the apologetics for Ahmadinejad on MRZine.

To begin with, there is something a bit odd about such a book coming out at this point, so late in the game, since for all practical purposes the dependency school is dead as a doornail. The simple truth is that the academic left decided long ago that Frank, Amin and company were fuddy-duddies who did not understand Marxism. The younger and hipper academics were determined to get rid of notions about “core” and “periphery” and put the emphasis back on class. Key to this was Robert Brenner’s article in the July-August 1977 New Left Review that concluded:

From this perspective, it is impossible to accept Frank’s view, adopted by Wallerstein, that the capitalist ‘development of underdevelopment’ in the regions colonized by Europeans from the sixteenth century—especially the Caribbean, South America and Africa, as well as the southern part of North America—is comprehensible as a direct result of the incorporation of these regions within the world market, their ‘subordination’ to the system of capital accumulation on a world scale. Frank originally explained this rise of underdevelopment largely in terms of the transfer of surplus from periphery to core, and the export-dependent role assigned to the periphery in the world division of labour. These mechanisms clearly capture important aspects of the functioning reality of underdevelopment. But they explain little, for, as the more searching critics of Frank’s earlier formulations pointed out, they themselves need to be explained. In particular, it was stated, they needed to be rooted in the class and productive structures of the periphery.

In journals such as Latin American Perspectives, the assault on dependency theory continued. Scholar after scholar, invoking Robert Brenner, called for a return to Marxism and an end to such fuzzy notions as “core” and “periphery”.

The late Jim Blaut, my old friend who wrote The Eurocentric Model of the World, had a political explanation for the turn against Frank and company:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

Milios and Sotiropolous (referred to hereafter as M&S) are more ambitious than Brenner and his acolytes. By singling out Lenin as the source of all this theoretical confusion, they follow Commander James T. Kirk and go “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Well, bully for them to have the audacity to challenge Lenin. If anything, Marxism needs more iconoclasm than ever, given the doctrinaire cult formations that speak in its name.

Of course, it is not sufficient to be an iconoclast. You also have to be right.

M & S are heavily indebted to Althusserian Marxism and a fellow Greek exponent of that philosophy, the late Nicos Poulantzas, in particular. In my own rather limited exposure to the branch office of the Althusserian movement in the USA, the economics department at the U. of Massachusetts that publishes Rethinking Marxism, a journal that resonates with the title of M&S’s book, I have read little that would win me to their cause. My main complaint is that it lacks a historical dimension, no accident given the Structuralist foundations that the movement rests on.

Given the focus on “modes of production” in Althusserian Marxism, it should not come as a surprise to see M&S define imperialism in those terms. For them, the proper analytical tools come from Marx’s Capital and not the questionable sources that Lenin relied on, starting from the under-consumptionist book on imperialism by Rudolph Hilferding.

The crucial distinction for them is absolute surplus value versus relative surplus value. In simple terms, absolute surplus value is generated by unskilled workers using simple tools working long hours, in other words what took place before the industrial revolution. Relative surplus value involves machinery and skills such of the kind that dominated after the Industrial Revolution. A country dominated by the former tends to be the victim of imperialism while those characterized by the latter tend to be the victimizer. They write:

The transformations we have described, which apply for all social levels in advanced capitalist formations, distinguish the form of capitalist domination even in the first period after the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century (capitalism of absolute surplus-value) from the later form of this domination (capitalism of relative surplus-value). That which was transformed is not the ‘laws’ of capital accumulation corresponding to the CMP, or in other words the structural characteristics of capitalist relations at all social levels, but the conditions and forms of appearance of capitalist relations in the historical perspective. In other words it is a question of historical transformation of the power balance and accordingly of the organizational forms of power in developed capitalist social formations.

In this modified social, political, institutional and international framework the preconditions were shaped which led to the rise of nationalism in all countries of developed capitalism and to the intensification of the antagonisms among them on the international arena, over markets, colonies and political influence. The era of classic imperialism is thus the specific historical outcome of the antagonisms and contradictions which prevailed during the transition of developed capitalist social formation to Capitalism of Relative Surplus-value and not the expression of a transformation of the CMP (from the stage of ‘competitive’ to the stage of ‘monopoly capitalism’).

Now all this is well and good, but it does little to explain how one country advanced from absolute surplus value to relative surplus value. For example, how was it that Britain advanced toward a mechanized textile industry while India remained mired in traditional hand-spun goods? This, of course, would involve a study of the relations between the two countries and the use of military power and other means of duress that is at the heart of the unfashionable world of Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank. And, lord knows, who wants to be unfashionable.

For me, the eighth chapter of Rethinking Imperialism (Internationalization of Capital) is key since it—unlike all the others—descends from the ethereal world of theory and settles down into the world of economic data. It is the one place in the book that you will find, for example, a table on distribution of FDI by region, the sort of thing that is found on nearly every page of Lenin’s pamphlet.

M&S begin by making an argument that I have heard before, namely that Lenin’s theory and that of his successors posits a kind of aristocracy of labor, even though they do not use this term. They write:

This contraposition of the model of the periphery to the model of the centre effectively whitewashes the capitalism of the centre. The exploitative and ‘irrational’ character of the system may be duly condemned, but the basic political conclusion that emerges as far as the centre is concerned is the same as that of the dominant ideology. The interests of the working class and the popular masses of the centre converge with those of ‘their’ ruling classes, as workers benefit from the exploitation of the periphery and the social system develops and progresses in such a way that the conflicts within it are blunted.

How odd that M&S blame this revisionism on Lenin, when you can read similar charges in Marx and Engels themselves. After all, in his 1916 essay “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, Lenin quotes remarks from these two “mode of production” authorities that sound almost like the “white privilege” rhetoric of the Weathermen:

In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” In a letter to Sorge, dated September 21, 1872, Engels informs him that Hales kicked up a big row in the Federal Council of the International and secured a vote of censure on Marx for saying that “the English labour leaders had sold themselves”. Marx wrote to Sorge on August 4, 1874: “As to the urban workers here [in England], it is a pity that the whole pack of leaders did not get into Parliament. This would be the surest way of getting rid of the whole lot.” In a letter to Marx, dated August 11, 1881, Engels speaks about “those very worst English trade unions which allow themselves to be led by men sold to, or at least paid by, the bourgeoisie.” In a letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels wrote: “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.”

On December 7, 1889, Engels wrote to Sorge: “The most repulsive thing here [in England] is the bourgeois ‘respectability’, which has grown deep into the bones of the workers…. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of the lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with  the French, one realises, what a revolution is good for, after all.”[10] In a letter, dated April 19, 1890: “But under the surface the movement [of the working class in England] is going on, is embracing ever wider sections and mostly just among the hitherto stagnant lowest [Engels’s italics] strata. The day is no longer far off when this mass will suddenly find itself, when it will dawn upon it that it itself is this colossal mass in motion.” On March 4, 1891: “The failure of the collapsed Dockers’ Union; the ‘old’ conservative trade unions, rich and therefore cowardly, remain lone on the field….” September 14, 1891: at the Newcastle Trade Union Congress the old unionists, opponents of the eight-hour day, were defeated “and the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the bourgeois labour party” (Engels’s italics throughout)….

M&S raise the question next:

How is one then to explain that the proportional share of international capital movements and international trade being channelled to the Third World always remains small compared to the respective shares of developed capitalist countries?

If the goal of imperialism, according to Lenin, is to extract super-profits, then how does one explain the fact that the USA invests far more in places like Canada or Britain than Nigeria or the Philippines? Moreover, they argue that the “periphery” countries that attract the most FDI are those that are characterized by “rapid economic development”, such as China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s.

Perhaps they have not considered the possibility that “rapid economic development” and being in the “periphery” are not mutually exclusive. The country that experienced the most “rapid economic growth” in Central America in the 1960s was Somoza’s Nicaragua that was introducing conditions of “relative surplus value” production throughout the countryside. Peasants using subsistence agriculture were being thrown off their land to make way for highly advanced cotton plantations and cattle ranches using airplanes for crop spraying, etc. But this kind of development was destroying the lives of the majority of the population, who would soon rise up against the imperialist-backed dictator.

What M&S have to say about “the agrarian question” is not too reassuring:

We argued above that the ability of the bourgeoisie in the LDCs [least developed countries] to extend its influence over the antagonistic (pre-capitalist) modes of production and bring about the latter’s disintegration is the most important prerequisite for capitalist development.

In social formations where pre-capitalist modes of production continue to reproduce themselves on an expanded scale, the social and spatial territory of capitalist relations and of capital accumulation suffers restriction (what has been described as ‘dualism’, etc., see Chapter 2), even if at the level of the society and of the state overall the CMP is dominant.

By this definition, countries such as El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia and Honduras should be prime candidates for a capitalist “take-off” since they have virtually wiped out subsistence (what they call pre-capitalist) agriculture. But instead they have not become anything like China, Taiwan or South Korea. They remain agricultural export nations whose foreign revenue largely goes toward keeping the rich plantation owners living in luxury. The introduction of large-scale mechanization in the countryside has done nothing except to increase the reserve army of the unemployed desperate to make its way into the USA, an “informal sector” selling chewing gum on the streets and guerrilla movements determined to break the cycle of dependency.

As most people would recognize, including M&S, Lenin’s views on imperialism were closely related to those on what was called the “national question”. I find their views on this question in chapter four (The State as a Vehicle of both Capitalist Expansionism and Decolonization: Historical Evidence and Theoretical Questions) rather disturbing. In many ways, their hostility toward the national struggle is reminiscent of Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” which regarded the struggle for national emancipation as a “poison pill”. They write:

Within a nation-state the nation manifests itself as a totalitarian tendency: incorporation of the populations of the state into the main body of the nation, and differentiation through negative discrimination against whoever does not become part of the nation, sometimes to the point of expelling them from the main body of the nation.

Historically, the process of political structuring of a nation through attainment of independence is generally described in terms of the ‘tendency towards freedom’ at first implied in it: emancipation from an empire or a multinational state entity (embodying – for those seeking ‘national independence’ – national subjugation and oppression). The ‘tendency towards freedom’ is frequently manifested through the irrevocable decision of large sectors of the population seeking independence to apply the principle of ‘Freedom or Death’, sacrificing their lives for the sake of national integration in an independent nation-state.

Citing Poulantzas, they find all this struggling for self-determination to be a potentially dangerous and reactionary thing:

National unity (…) becomes historicity of a territory and territoriaization of a history [...]. The enclosures implicit in the constitution of the modern people-nation are only so awesome because they are also fragments of a history that is totalised and capitalised by the state. Genocide is the elimination of what become ‘foreign bodies’ of the national history and territory: it expels them beyond space and time [...] Concentration camps are a modern invention in the additional sense that the frontier-gates close on ‘anti-nationals’ for whom time and national historicity are in suspense.

No wonder they think that Lenin’s views on imperialism must be attacked since they can lead to concentration camps if you don’t watch out.

Against this dyspeptic view, the Leninist tradition has always been in favor of oppressed nations gaining their independence. To argue that independence from colonial rule opens the door to a “totalitarian tendency” would mean taking a hostile position toward recent struggles such as the East Timorese, the Palestinians, or much of Africa in the 1960s. Frankly, it does not matter that a local bourgeoisie has replaced the colonizer. The Comintern favored national liberation movements even if their outcome could not be guaranteed in advance. “Freedom or Death” for the Indonesian, the Egyptian or the Vietnamese was understandable given their existence as a subordinate peoples under foreign rule. We understand that Nasser was defending the prerogatives of the Egyptian bourgeoisie when he seized the Suez Canal, but Marxism must not put itself in the position of “a plague on both your houses” when one powerful nation-state like Britain 0r France attacks another that is much weaker, like Egypt. To adopt such a stance implicitly puts you on the side of the imperialists.

There is much more to be said, but I will conclude on this note. Lenin’s article on imperialism was composed during the greatest crisis that confronted Marxism up to this point in history. Socialist parliamentarians were voting for war credits while the working class was being slaughtered by the millions. Lenin was not interested in writing a “theory” of imperialism for all time. He was far more interested in making the ties between monopoly capital and war, a relationship that is sadly missing in “Rethinking Imperialism”. If there is one thing that remains valid in Lenin’s work, it is this. Imperialism and war are joined at the hip. Furthermore, unless imperialism is overthrown, we will certainly perish in a nuclear war that will remain a possibility as long as the imperialist system is intact.

For a good summary of Lenin’s aims in writing “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, I will end with Neil Harding’s words in the always useful Lenin’s Political Thought:

The object of Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism was to provide a coherent Marxist economic analysis for the overtly socialist and international revolutionary strategy which he had begun to develop in the first days of the war. He sought in particular to demonstrate that capitalism was not only in decline, not only had it exhausted its progressive role in history, it had become, in its imperialist phase, positively retrogressive, parasitic and oppressive…

These were, of course, far from academic points. Lenin’s concern was not to construct an abstract historiography of the development of capitalism: it was rather to convince all those who called themselves Marxists that the time had now arrived when revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism had become imperative. His primary intention was to impress upon all the faint-hearted who had consistently blanched at the immediate prospect of revolutionary action, who had ever and anon invoked the concept of unripe time, arguing that capitalism had not yet exhausted its progressive potential, that time had run out for capitalism. His object was to convert the faint-hearted and, as important, to seal off once and for all the bolt-holes down which the waverers ran to hide themselves from the actuality of the revolutionary situation. All the proponents of the possibility of a post-war peaceful imperialism, the pacifist dreamers of a democratic peace without annexations, the Lib-Lab, philanthropists who envisaged a gradual redistribution of income as the solution to imperialism; all of them, Lenin argued, saw revolution staring them in the face.

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