Communism and the national question

Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question. 

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US imperialism must be defeated through global communist revolution for national oppression to be abolished.

The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.

The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).

The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.

This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.

As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).

Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.

The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?

My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.

Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.

To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.

Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.

My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.

Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.

What is happening in Ukraine? Interview with International Secretary of KRAS-IWA

This is a translation of an interview made by Chinese anarchist blog “emblack.wordpress.com” with international secretary of KRAS-IWA, an anarcho-syndicalist union in Russia. Posted from here

Ukraine

How would you explain what is happening in Ukraine? What happened in Ukraine to bring it to such a war situation now?

The Ukrainian crisis is a multi-level phenomenon. It developed against a background of bad social and economic situation of working people arose from continuous neoliberal reforms after the end of “Soviet Union”. This situation led to deep discontent in the society. But it is not this social discontent which produced the so-called Euromaidan protest in 2013, but the political games in the ruling elites of Ukrainian “oligarchic democracy”. The protest actions for integration in the EU were started by a little bunch of youths from the “middle class”, and they obtained a organizational, financial, political, medial etc. support from the oppositional tycoons and parties which wanted to depose their competitor, the little group around President Yanukovich. It was from the beginning not a social protest but a clear political multi-class movement with no less reactionary characteristics than the Yanukovich regime. During the long and violent confrontation on the streets between the opposition and police forces, the protesters begun to arm themselves, and the openly ultranationalist and neofascist forces and groups conquerred a hegemony on the street and in the discourse. After the violent overthrow of Yanukovitch in Kiev, a counter-movement arose in the East of Ukraine, at first, with the federalist demands, and then under the banner of Russian nationalism and separatism as a counter-play to Ukrainian nationalism of Maidan. This movement is also under the leadership of bourgeoisie, and the pro-Russian ultra-rightists and neofascists playing a very significant part here. The separatist regimes in Donbass are no less reactionary then in Kiev. And there is a civil war between them.

The intervention of foreign powers is another decisive factor in the crisis. The USA, the states of EU, the NATO and the Russian state have manifold interests in Ukraine: economical, political, strategic and military. The worldwide struggle for a new repartition of World between the capitalist powers continues, and they wage a “substitute” war on the soil of Ukraine. Western powers supported from the beginning the Euromaidan and then the new, the NATO-oriented regime in Kiev, giving to new rulers money, consultants, weapons and dictating the politic designed by IMF. On the other hand, the Kremlin used the situation of quasi “failed state” in Ukraine to annex the Crimea and to help to Eastern separatists, directly and indirectly. In such a way, the foreign powers struggling each other using their puppets in Ukraine.

Ukraine actually has a long anarchist tradition, people were telling me that everybody in Ukraine has known or heard something about anarchism, did any anarchist movement really root in the society today, if not why, if yes how?

This tradition existed of course, but it was interrupted by Bolshevist and Stalinist repressions as in other parts of “Soviet Union”. It`s true that almost everybody in Ukraine heard about Nestor Makhno, but people consider him as a “popular hero” rather as an anarchist. This leads to very strange phenomena. Both Ukrainian nationalists and people from East of Ukraine take now Makhno as their “own”, without having any real understanding or knowledge about Anarchism and about it aims.

So we can`t say that anarchism has more roots in the Ukrainian society than anywhere. The society in Ukraine is atomized as in the other countries of ex-“Soviet Union”, and the workers haven`t a class or libertarian consciousness.

What about the anarchist history in Ukraine, was it only Nestor’s army or was there other existing anarchist faction, what were they like, if they are now existed in any other different way?

Properly speaking, the Makhnovist army was not anarchist; it was rather a formation of local / regional self-defense, consisted mainly of peasants. Among the political active people, there were not only anarchists therein, but also members of “Party of Left Social Revolutionaries”, non-party people or sometimes also rank-and-file Bolshevists. And this army didn`t have any “anarchist program”: it declared only that it aimed to liberate the population of dictates from outside and to give to it a possibility to organize life how people wanted. There were only a few socialized industries or agrarian communes; the traditional structures of peasants self-administration dominated in the countryside. But it`s true that the anarchists played a key role both in the army and in the constructive work in the liberated areas. The principal anarchist organization was the “Confederation of Ukraine`s Anarchists “Tocsin””. It was surely a most attractive anarchist association which participated in the Russian Revolution 1917–1921. It militants (Voline, Aron Baron etc.) had most developed and radical revolutionary ideas, combining anarchist communism as the goal, syndicalism as the means and anarchist individualism as a philosophy, and they proposed to all anarchists to unite themselves on this ground. The militants of “Tocsin” organized worker unions / syndicates, initiated the building of free Councils and their Congresses, made a school, cultural and propaganda work, and they struggled also in the army of Makhno. This organization was destructed by the Bolshevik State simultaneously with the suppression of Makhnovist movement; some militants were arrested and later executed, the other get in foreign exile. But there were several attempts to rebuild the “Tocsin” in the underground, up to the beginning of 1930s. The repressions of the State were terrible.

Unfortunately, this tradition was interrupted. The new libertarian movement in the Ukraine emerged in the time of Soviet “Perestroika”, in the beginning as a part of an Union-wide movement. Like the most libertarian groups in Russia, it was rather “moderate”, sometime supporting the ideas of a “market socialism without state” or some other strange things. In the 1990s, two principal centers of movement appeared. The first, the so-called “RKAS Makhno” had it strongholds in the East, in Donbass. Despite some allusion to anarcho-syndicalism, this organization was more or less “platformist”, i.e. it advocated a building of a centralist “anarchist” party for leading unions or other social movements. There were also some moments of a quasi-religious sects in it: there was a real leader who was in the same time a teacher of martial art Wing Chun, and the trainings went hand in hand with the mental influence of “anarchist” postulates. In the 2000s, the leaders of the group tried to build a new “platformist” International, with the groups or people from Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Germany, Israel etc., but this project failed after a short time. After the beginning of actual civil war in the Ukraine, the RKAS ceased it activities: some militants supported the Ukrainian state, some others get to separatist army units, and the leaders declared the organization “frozen”.

The other center of movement was in Kiev. It was from the beginning more “new leftist” or sub-cultural, partly with intellectual semi-marxist interests. In the 1990s and 2000s, they animated a semi-syndicalist student union “Direct action”, together with the Trotskyists and some other Marxists. The group didn`t have any clear conception of anarchism, mixing together some platformist, syndicalist and neomarxist elements. Then they proclaimed creation of an “adult” organization, “Autonomous Workers Union” (AWU), which contacted the Swedish SAC and other reformist syndicalists abroad. After the beginning of the actual crisis, the more important figures in the AWU supported the Maidan, declaring it a “bourgeois revolution”. They defend the Ukrainian “national liberation” and the actual regime in Kiev against Russia, rejecting the internationalist position against all states, governments and nations and welcoming the NATO. Some members of the AWU consider such position “too nationalist”. They consider themselves “internationalist” and created a group “Black Rainbow”, but they miss until now to reject Maidan and to break definitely with the nationalist leadership of AWU.

Ukraine in recently years has had a lot of politically active groups appear. When we say political, it says it is almost a pan-political trend of people thinking if they act under the name of the “nation” or a certain big name such as “feminist” or such they are rather promoting a democratic or post colonial change (reflects the culture imperialism they have faced in such political-economical weakness in Europe) under its acute political/economic situation. What do you think are the real interests of the people in this? Are they facing such a difficult time that they are using a lot of names to confuse people about what are the real problems? And what is the reason it brought such an revolt with the people?

It`s a very important point. This problem exists not only in Ukraine, it is worldwide. In the last years, we see a lot of movements in different countries (from Egyptian Tahrir to “movement for free elections” in Russia or “umbrella protest” in Hong Kong), where there are no social and economical demands but only striving for removal of some politicians and for replacing them with others. Moreover, because the demands for any real different social politic are absent, these new rulers obtain in the fact a “carte blanche” for the continuation of the same (or for the carrying out of even worse) politics against working people. These movements are usually multi-classist and occur under the hegemony of bourgeoisie and oppositional politicians. The active political or non-governmental groups mentioned by you consist partly exactly of such people with “middle-class mentality” who think that the existing authorities, corruptions etc. hinder them to go upstairs. Sometime they name themselves a “creative class”. But it`s true that sometime there are also working people who participate in these movements. The grounds are various: the democratic illusions, the lack of class and libertarian consciousness, the personalization of politics (with an identification of system problems with concrete politicians), the absence of any alternative idea about how the society can be reorganized etc.

Unfortunately, some libertarian groups and militants incline to participate in these “pure political” movements “for the democracy”. Some share in the reality a Marxist concept of “stages in the revolution”: first the bourgeois democracy and only then a social revolution. Some other are simply too “movementist”: for them, the principal thing is to do something, and what concretely – it`s secondary. We say in jest about activist “adrenaline-dependence” in such cases. And some activists are afraid “to cut adrift from The People”: as though “the People” are always right… Some try to find the elements of “self-organization” even in reactionary and nationalist mass movements, forgetting that even the fascism can be “self-organized” and that exactly a coincidence of form and content is important…

In our opinion, this is a very dangerous trend. We can and must participate only in the broader movements which promote an independence of working people from ruling classes and politicians, which help to destroy illusions and not to strengthen them. So pure “political-democratic” movements, without any real social demands and under the leadership of politicians, aren`t interesting for us as Anarchists. A normal decisive strike challenging a capitalist or any real social conflict in the neighborhood is a thousand times more important for the possible awareness-building of working people.

How would you explain why it would bring such a war situation politically and what does it mean to ordinary people?

Both sides of the war don`t want to make any serious concessions, because they don`t want limit their power hunger. Both desire to have all. And the puppeteers from Brussels, Washington, Berlin, Moscow etc. incite them to this stubbornness. At the same time, the working people in Ukraine are too disorganized and have less consciousness to stop this war through mass actions or strikes. It`s true that there is a massive local resistance against mobilization and conscription (at least, in the regions under the control of Kiev; unfortunately, we don`t have a such information from Donbass). But it was not enough for stop the war.

The toils of war and the suffering hit the population, ordinary people. This are not only immediate consequences of the war: several thousands of killed, more than 1 million refugees, destroyed houses, schools, hospitals, infrastructure… Also a humanitarian catastrophe (lack of foods and medicaments in the war zone), and a social one (much workers and retirees don`t have their money since months)… The economic suffers from the war, and this makes the hardest economic crisis deeper and only heightens the dependence from IWF, EU and USA, in one side, and from Russia, in the other. And also mental and ideological impact of bestial nationalism will poison the conscience for several coming years if not decades…

Those anarchist outside who went to join the ANTIFASCIST army seem to have simplified what is happening in Ukraine, and it seems that they are also reflecting their failure in their own local that they search a war to fight against the visualized enemy, rather than the rooted enemy – state/capitalist in their own country. Would you give some example about what the Russian people think, and how this reflects their own life struggle?

I agree with your appraisal: this is unfortunately a very serious problem for activists of solidarity movement in the whole world and especially in the so-called “First World”, where many generations of leftists were educated politically in the sense of a “collective guilt” complex against the “Third World Peoples” as whole. So they see in the other parts of the World often only what they want to see. A good example is f.ex. the appreciation of PKK regime in Syrian Kurdistan as a “libertarian revolution”.

For some libertarian people in Europe and America the “antifascism” is a magical word which can justify everything. Also a very active role of ultra-rightists under the so-called “antifascist” spectrum. Thereby they don`t want to see the presence of many Russian and pro-Russian neofascists in the armed forces of Donbass, speaking only about the neofascists on the Ukrainian side. Or they consider it not important at all because they think, the NATO / US imperialism is the “greater evil” etc. This reflects also the leftist ideas about “national liberation”.

And you have right: for some people it is also a kind of compensation for the inability to fight “at home”, against local state and capital!

As to reaction of ordinary people in Russian… I must recognize that not a few people were carried by nationalist, patriotic sentiments and supported the annexion of Crimea etc. The nationalist hysteria organized by the state aimed also to distract the attention from the economic crisis in Russia. But little by little, in process of deepening of crisis, the number of people ready to suffer the real worsening of their situation for the sake of Crimea etc. decreased perceptibly. The population is discontent with low wages, high prices and other social problems (in health, education etc.). But it remains passive in majority: the level of social atomization is too big.

Lets called off the international support of the anarchist of the world in this war? Are they fighting this “for the ordinary people of Ukranie”? What is your personal idea toward Ukraine issue, what do you think what is the real thing that we can do in this ????

I think, the anarchist must not support any of belligerent sides in this war and any of imperialist state power or bloc. Of course, anti-war protests are important and necessary, but they must be equidistant, against all sides and states. And of course do not participate in such joint actions with ultra-rightist only because they are against USA (as it occurs for example in Germany). It would be very good to support the deserters and conscription evaders and also strike movements and social protests in both sides of Ukraine. And if people want to send a humanitarian aid, it is strictly necessary to not give it to organizations close to any of the belligerent sides: there is no guarantee that this aid will reach ordinary people. Such sending makes sense only through real independent organizations, with the possibility to prove the just repartition at place.