In this article I will first of all address the question of the early Comintern’s ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’ (AIUF), its rights and wrongs, and its application by the Comintern both in its revolutionary period and later. Later I will also address related weaknesses and inconsistencies in the early Comintern’s approach to imperialism, how those weaknesses have impacted on the left since, and how they can be corrected in our practice today. This will actually be quite a wide-ranging critique of some weaknesses in orthodox ‘Leninist’ theory, and will not abstain from criticising (when necessary) even people with the highest authority in the early 20th Century Communist movement: Lenin and Trotsky. But this is done from the standpoint of acceptance of Lenin’s understanding of imperialism, and an attempt to deal with some important, but secondary, flaws in that understanding.
The AIUF was put forward in the Theses on the Eastern Question at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. It was an attempt to extend the concept of the United Front developed by the Comintern for the workers movement of the advanced countries, to the very different circumstances of backward colonial and semi/ex-colonial countries. The concept of the United Front is pretty simple – though the devil is in the detail as we shall touch upon here. Communists are the part of the working class movement that represents its historic interests, both in immediate struggles and ultimately in those struggles that pose the need for the working class to take power. But in all countries where the working class is the decisive section of the population, the workers movement is dominated by pro-capitalist bureaucracies and misleaders, who act as a brake on the movement and systematically betray struggles that threaten the capitalist system.
Therefore, a crucial aim of communists is to win workers away from these misleaders. But this cannot be done simply by denunciation; but only through the workers’ own experience. Therefore communists must tirelessly promote the unity of the workers movement in action, in struggles, and simultaneously demand that the existing misleaders unite with them for offense or defence against the bosses, as befits the situation. They must, through their criticism, expose the vacillation and treachery of the misleaders so that the workers embrace communist views and strategy through this experience, learning which programme really defends their interests. This is a long, hard battle of struggle and exposure, in which communists must be seen as the most consistent partisans of class unity against the sectionalism and opportunism of the non-communist leaders, and therefore in time gain hegemony.
This becomes more complex when there are different political parties involved in the movement: reformists and communists. Then the question of class unity impinges into politics; ultimately the workers need political unity also. But the reformist parties want to share power with the ruling class, sometimes in coalition with openly capitalist parties, always by administering the capitalists’ state. Since that state machine defends capital, it follows that ultimately all governments that administer it must do the same. When there is a high level of class consciousness among the workers, the need for a working class government comes onto the agenda.
Governments of reformist parties defend capital. Exposing this fact to the workers, so that a genuine workers government can abolish capitalism and the ruling class, is a complex task. It must involve higher forms of united front activity, such as communists demanding that the reformists take office in the existing state alone, without coalition partners, to expose their servility to the existing state. It may involve communists doing political work within reformist parties, organising sympathetic trends to the communist party within them, or even seeking affiliation of communist parties to bigger reformist parties in order to fight within them. In some conditions a communist organisation may join a larger non-communist workers party as a whole, to fuse with a significant left wing within it. And it could involve agitation for the reformist party to form a joint government with the communists, outside the framework of the existing state, when there is mass resonance for such an idea among the workers who support the reformist party.
These are all variations of the tactic of the united front. The original slogan that sums up the united front is ‘march separately, strike together’, so that the maximum unity is obtained, while the demands and aims of the communists are not mixed up with those of the reformists. But that idea, of marching separately, becomes much less clear when the higher forms of the united front are in operation, such as critical support in elections, affiliation, joining a reformist party to fight within, or the demand for the workers government. It is then not easy to keep the banners entirely separate in formal terms; what is relied on instead is the power of the communist programme to draw lines of demarcation and prevent confusion between the aims and tactics of the communists, and those of the reformists.
With the so-called ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’, the early Comintern tried to extend this concept from the workers movement, to the struggle against imperialism in the dependent countries. This does not really work, as there is one crucial difference between the situations: the UF in its classic form was the united front of a class, for the achievement of the historic objectives of that class and defeating opportunism that acted against this. As such, the classic UF is obviously applicable within the workers movements of dependent countries; similar tactics can be employed to expose the misleadership of reformists and other trends (including labour supporters of bourgeois liberation movements) in these conditions also.
The ‘anti-imperialist’ form of United Front the Comintern advocated, however, went further than that, was inadequately theorised and highly problematic, because it was not a matter of using such tactics to fight for the interests of a class, but rather of using such tactics in a situation when forces belonging to fundamentally different classes were in play, against a temporary common enemy, the imperialists. These classes were the indigenous bourgeoisie, different urban and rural sections of the petty-bourgeoisie, and often a massive, differentiated peasant class. The peasantry being an oppressed class that straddles capitalist and pre-capitalist social relations; in some conditions outright pre-capitalist formations have played a role also on either side.
I am not disputing that the working class has an interest in expelling and defeating imperialist incursions and occupations of backward countries, and allying temporarily with bourgeois and even pre-bourgeois forces to defeat the imperialists. I am 100% in favour of that and share the views of Lenin and the early Comintern. For instance, the following passage is exemplary:
“The refusal of Communists in the East to take part in the fight against imperialist tyranny, on the pretext of their supposed ‘defence’ of independent class interests, is the worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East”
But calling this an ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’, and failing to properly theorise and make clear what this does not have in common with the classic united front within the workers movement was a serious strategic/programmatic error, which caused problems even in the days of the early Comintern, before Stalinism. It also provided precedents that were later used by Stalinism to lead the workers of China and other places to bloody disasters.
The words ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’ were first used at the Fourth Congress. But the strategy was put forward before then, on an empirical basis. It is an academic approach to say that its origin was only when this term was written down. The ambiguities were there early on and not resolved by the Eastern Question theses. For instance at the Second Congress of the Comintern, in the session on the national and colonial questions, Lenin in his report said:
“I should like especially to emphasize the question of the bourgeois-democratic movement in backward countries…. There is not the slightest doubt that every national movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, for the overwhelming mass of the population in backward countries consists of peasants who represent bourgeois-capitalist relations. It would be utopian to believe that proletarian parties, if indeed they can emerge in these backward countries, could pursue communist tactics and a communist policy without establishing definite relations with the peasant movement and without giving it effective support. . . .
“[W]e, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organizing the peasantry and the broad mass of the exploited in a revolutionary spirit. . . .”
This was rendered into the theses passed in a modified form:
“the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e, those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form”
It’s worth noting the change of ‘condition’ in the endorsed text, from Lenin’s original formulation. The latter wording is algebraic, leaving open the question of whether the bourgeois movements will be ‘really revolutionary’ or not, and defining this ‘really revolutionary’ nature according to whether or not they will ‘hinder’ the communists’ independent organisation of the ‘peasantry and the broad mass of the exploited’ in a ‘revolutionary spirit’.
This formulation did not find its way into the text, but its influence was considerable nevertheless. What was substituted was a stringent-sounding condition as to need for ‘elements’ of the ‘future proletarian party’ to be ‘brought together’ and trained in class independence from the bourgeoisie. The perspective of a ‘temporary alliance’ with the nationalists is put forward instead, but communists are forbidden to ‘merge’ with them, and to uphold class ‘independence’ even if embryonic.
But this is enormously ambiguous when you are dealing with complex relations in fluid situations of the struggles of a variety of classes who struggle against each other as well as being involved in conflicts with an imperialist oppressor. The algebraic formulation in Lenin’s speech is based on an illusion; the bourgeoisie will never ‘not hinder’ (even in a subtle manner, given a particular relationship of forces), communists in organising the broad mass of the oppressed. That would be against their class nature.
Even more importantly, these speeches and resolutions do not clarify what ‘support for the bourgeois-democratic movement’ actually means. Could it mean joining it and acting as a communist faction within it, or does that constitute ‘merging’ with it? Or is this a caution against political ‘merger’ only, i.e. ‘giving a communist coloration’ to the bourgeois movements? Does it mean supporting struggles led by it from the outside, but maintaining a strict public separation and only doing fraction work within this movement from the perspective of building a rival, proletarian-communist party? There is no clarity here. This later allowed the Stalinists to drive a coach and horses through considerations of class independence in China in the mid-late 1920s.
Then there is the Theses on the Eastern Question itself, passed at the Fourth Congress. It cautions against some possible pitfalls of these positions, as experienced by the Comintern itself, but gives no real clarity, and in some ways makes matters worse:
“The workers movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries must first of all establish itself as an independent revolutionary factor in the common anti-imperialist front”
“While the working class may and sometimes must make partial and temporary compromises to gain a breathing space in the revolutionary struggle for liberation, it must be absolutely opposed to any attempt by the indigenous ruling classes to maintain their class privileges by agreeing to open or tacit power-sharing with imperialism. The demand for a close alliance with the proletarian Soviet republic is the key-note of the anti-imperialist united front. This slogan must be accompanied by a determined struggle for maximum democratisation of the political system, which will deprive the most politically and socially reactionary elements of their popular support and will give the workers organisations the freedom to fight for their class interests.”
This is most unfortunate in its implications. It talks about the workers movement establishing itself as an ‘independent revolutionary factor’, which sounds good, but then talks of the ‘common anti-imperialist front’. But the question arises: what is this ‘common anti-imperialist front’? Is it a purely practical matter, of the workers movement ‘marching separately and striking together’ with other class forces against the common imperialist enemy? Or is it a common political front? This is not clarified. But the longer passage hints that it might be something more than a purely practical agreement for action.
It talks about the need for ‘partial and temporary compromises’ to obtain a ‘breathing space’ from the struggle, which seems fair enough, as it would be absurd to argue for the obverse, i.e. something akin to a ‘theory of the offensive’. But then it talks about being ‘absolutely opposed’ to the ruling class ‘maintaining their privileges through a deal with imperialism’. But then it seems to imply that they could do so by means of a ‘close alliance’ with the Soviet republic instead. That might sound like a malicious reading of the text, except for the fact that that was exactly the perspective the Stalin/Bukharin leadership later carried out in China! This implication alone brands the ‘Theses on the Eastern Question’ as a badly flawed document, and the ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’ as a flawed programmatic acquisition that should be rejected.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of ‘taking a side’ in mass-based struggles against imperialism, even when such struggles are led by non-proletarian forces. That remains obligatory for communists. Rather it is about a built-in flaw leading to capitulation to the leaderships of the nationalist movements, which can only lead communists and the working class to disaster. That this was not a theoretical question even at the time is shown by the question of the relationship of the early Soviet state with Atatűrk’s regime in Turkey, which casts considerable light on some of the caveats in the passages quoted above. As narrated in a recent study of Turkish politics in that period:
“The suppression of the two main currents was implemented not in one sweeping move, but in stages in response to political requirements. The first stage of the suppression was during and in the immediate aftermath of the National Struggle and was ‘direct’. This can be demonstrated with reference to the establishment of an ‘official’ Turkish Communist Party (Tűrkiye Koműnist Partisi, 1920) and the defeat of Ethem’s forces. The official TKP was established by Mustafa Kemal himself to prevent socialist activities from spreading, while still trying to keep the Soviet Union on the side of the Kemalists. This was followed by the abolition of the Green Army, placing all communist activities under the control of Ankara. In legal terms, in addition to widening the scope of the Treason Act to include ‘political subversion’ as a punishable offence (September 1920), the Law of Associations followed suit by prohibiting organisations that opposed ‘public law and state policy’ (October 1920). While Anatolian Bolshevism was eliminated with the drowning of Mustapha Suphi and his compatriots […] Despite Soviet criticism over the nationalist crackdown on Bolshevism, support for Ankara continued as an attempt to prevent Turkey from identifying itself in the Western camp.”
This is actually corroborated by some of the passages in the Comintern Fourth Congress’s own resolution on Turkey. Protesting against this repression, it complained:
“The Turkish Communist Party has always supported the bourgeois nationalist government in the struggle of the toiling masses against imperialism. The Turkish Communist Party even consented, in the face of the common enemy, to make temporary concessions in its programme and its ideals.”
“Congress … protests against this barbarous act and considers it as its duty to proclaim its readiness to support any government or political party that refuses to play the role of gendarme of imperialism, which continually fights against imperialism and which realises democratic reforms for the benefit of the toiling people of Turkey”
The Comintern, despite these serious weaknesses, did, as some of the earlier quoted passages show, try to address some of the problems that this false perspective posed. But they never got to the root of the problem, which was really an ambiguity about the role of the national bourgeoisie, as shown by Lenin’s algebraic formulation about how it was permissible to ‘support’ the bourgeois movement on condition that it did ‘not hinder’ the work of the communists in organising the broad mass of the oppressed.
In the hands of a different leadership, that of Stalin and Bukharin later, which really did not care about these matters, the result in China in 1926-7, was entry of the Chinese CP into the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang party, then the ‘left’ Kuomintang when the original turned on the communists, the elevation of Chiang Kai-Shek to the Executive Committee of the Comintern, and the destruction of a revolution. It was left to Trotsky to draw the conclusion from the Chinese events that:
“When and under what conditions a colonial country will become ripe for the real resolution of its agrarian and national problems cannot be foretold. But in any case we can assert today with full certainty that not only China but also India will attain genuine people’s democracy, that is workers and peasants democracy, only under the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Thus from the failed Chinese revolution Lenin’s ambiguity was removed, and with it the basis for the ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’. In generalising the permanent revolution in this way, Trotsky did not explicitly criticise this, for it would have meant a criticism of Lenin in a factional situation where, from his standpoint, that was tactically unwise. In fact, this lack of clarity was strategically deeply unfortunate. But that is a key lesson of the Chinese revolution, where it was tested to destruction – the application of higher political forms of ‘United Front’ tactics, mechanically transposed from those devised to be used within the workers movement, to parties of other classes can only lead to disaster for the working class.
This concept must therefore be rejected by communists, in favour of a different strategy and tactics to support struggles against imperialism centred on the perspective of ‘march separately, strike together’, which must be qualitatively more ‘rigid’ in its enforcement than with the united front proper, i.e. political tactics for use within the working class movement.
This is not the only flaw in Lenin and the early Comintern’s understanding of imperialism. There are a couple of other important theoretical flaws that need to be addressed, that have caused a degree of misunderstanding on one case, and have seriously theoretically and programmatically disarmed communists in the second.
Lenin’s pamphlet against Pyatakov/Kievsky and co, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism has rightly been very influential on the communist movement ever since it was published, and has considerable authority. This is largely a good thing, as many of the things Lenin is polemicizing against are common problems that need to be fought over and over again. But it is not flawless.
The first question is that of what exactly constitutes legitimate struggles against imperialism. In A Caricature of Marxism …, Lenin makes the following somewhat contentious point, which has sometimes been quoted to justify a neutral attitude towards some anti-imperialist struggles:
“…Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy of capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and imperialism is progressive as compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.”
This snippet of a quotation is often used to justify neutrality towards anti-imperialist struggles led by forces that a particular left-trend strongly disapproves of. It implies that there can be a counter-revolution against imperialist capitalism in backward, oppressed countries, which can overthrow capitalism and restore earlier, pre-capitalism social systems such as feudalism, ‘Asiatic’ society, or even antique slavery. If such a social counterrevolution were not possible, then obviously there could be no such ‘reactionary uprising’ in a social sense.
The real logic of Lenin’s theory of imperialism is that such counterrevolutionary overturns of modern, imperialist capital are impossible. This point is implicitly debunked in the very same pamphlet, in the context of spurious comparisons being made by Pyatakov between the alleged ‘unachievability’ of self-determination and of the break-up of monopoly capitalism into smaller units. Lenin ridicules such comparisons:
“Everyone would laugh at this imperialist economism if … in parallel with the law that small-scale production is ousted by large-scale production, there were presented another ‘law’ (connected with the first or existing side-by-side with it) of small states being ousted by big ones!…”
“…We all accept the law of large-scale production ousting small-scale production, but no-one is afraid to describe a specific ‘instance’ of ‘small scale industry prevailing over large-scale industry’ as a reactionary phenomenon. No opponent of self-determination has yet ventured to describe as reactionary Norway’s secession from Sweden, though we raised the question in our literature as early as 1914.”
“Large-scale production is unachievable if, for instance, hand-worked machines remain. The idea of a mechanical factory disintegrating into handicrafts production is utterly absurd.”
Lenin treats the ousting of small-scale production by large-scale under capitalism as a ‘law’, and ridicules the idea of factory production being broken down back into handicrafts. Even when he raises the idea hypothetically, the ‘instance’ he is talking about is in mocking quote marks and is never specified. Evidently he could not think of such an ‘instance’. How much more absurd it is to imagine a viable reactionary attack on modern imperialism from some pre-capitalist force in a backward, colonial country, where the material advantages of modern imperialism would by definition be qualitatively greater than even (hypothetically) over its own earlier self! At the most, such a thing could only be marginal, and no real threat to imperialism, rendering the point moot.
This shows conclusively that the quotation about ‘reactionary anti-imperialism’ represented one aspect of Lenin’s understanding of imperialism which was not properly thought through. In fact, in a world dominated by capitalism, seemingly pre-capitalist formations as appear to exist become bourgeoisified, and insofar as they wage any sort of battle for national independence and the like, do so as bourgeois nationalists in practice, whatever their formal ideology. To believe the opposite is to lapse into idealism.
In fact, Lenin blatantly contradicted himself on this only on the next page after his point about ‘reactionary anti-imperialism’. He wrote:
“But even in colonial countries where there are no workers, only slave owners and slaves, etc. the demand for ‘self-determination’, far from being absurd, is obligatory for every Marxist.
But support for self-determination is not for Lenin conditional on the struggle being led by the slaves, otherwise it would not be ‘obligatory’. Therefore for Lenin (and rightly so) it is ‘obligatory’ for Marxists to support a struggle for self-determination against imperialism even if it is led by the slave-owners of a pre-capitalist, backward country with no workers. But such a struggle fits perfectly the template of a “struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism” that he denounced on the previous page.
In fact, a reactionary struggle led by bourgeoisified elements of the ‘reactionary classes’ is quite conceivable – but not against imperialism. Rather, such a struggle has happened against reformist-minded petty-bourgeois nationalist movements whom the imperialists consider dangerously radical; such a battle was waged by the mujahedin against the PDPA in Afghanistan, with the full backing of the major imperialist powers (including ultimately the USSR, which took the opportunity to remove the radical elements of the PDPA from power and replace it with a capitulatory puppet regime). Obviously if this reactionary movement represented some kind of threat to imperialism as a social system, the imperialists would not be so keen.
All this shows is that while Lenin’s theory of imperialism is an important advance, accepting it does not equate to accepting that his own elaboration of it was flawless, or without inconsistencies. That is generally true of all the major thinkers in Marxism; treating every word as holy writ is contrary to the critical spirit of Marxism itself.
A more important flaw that needs addressing is in the following passage:
“What is the present war being fought over? … England, France and Russia are fighting to keep the colonies they have seized, to be able to rob Turkey, etc. Germany is fighting to take over those colonies and to be able herself to rob Turkey, etc. Let us suppose even that the Germans take Paris or St Petersburg. Would that change the nature of the present war? Not at all! The Germans’ purpose – and more important, the policy that would bring it to realisation were it to win – is to seize the colonies, establish domination over Turkey, annex areas populated by other nations, for instance Poland, etc. It is definitely not to bring the French or the Russians under foreign domination. The real essence of the present war is not national but imperialist. In other words, it is not being fought to enable one side to overthrow national oppression, which the other side is trying to maintain. It is a war between two freebooters over the division of their booty, over who shall rob Turkey and the colonies.”
I have emphasised two very important sentences that contain a hypothesis that was never really tested in the First World War. It appears to dismiss any possibility of any form of national oppression if an imperialist country was vanquished and occupied by another.
This was the starting point for a problem that has since caused difficulties for communists in dealing with later imperialist conflicts. The Versailles Treaty, for instance, that was imposed on Germany after WWI, demanded reparations to its rivals that were seen to economically cripple Germany and violate its sovereignty, which produced a palpable feeling of national oppression that affected even the working class. The French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 accelerated an economic disaster that was already underway, characterised by hyper-inflation, but it also triggered off a revolutionary movement of considerable dimensions in Germany, which the German Communist Party was not politically strong enough to place itself at the head of.
During this revolutionary crisis, Karl Radek made his (in)famous Schlageter speech to the Executive Committee of the Comintern, praising a German proto-fascist militant who had been shot by the French for sabotage when resisting the French occupation. This reactionary figure had attained the status of a national hero for his act of resistance. This speech has been contentious ever since, with many alleging that it prefigured the grotesque blocs of the German Stalinists with the Nazis during the early 1930s, such as the notorious Prussian ‘Red Referendum’ of 1931. Yet Radek at the time was an ardent opponent of the developing bureaucracy, he was to become one of the earliest supporters of the 1923 Opposition.
My point is here not to say anything for or against Radek per se. It is rather to point out that the reality somewhat falsified Lenin’s view of national oppression, or rather its impossibility, in a defeated and subjugated imperialist country. If large sections of the working class felt that such oppression was real, and were prepared to fight about it to the point of pushing the country into a revolutionary situation when the defeated country was ‘punished’ by its imperialist rivals (as with the French occupation of the Ruhr) then obviously the dictum that ‘foreign domination’ and ‘national oppression’ could not be a factor in a conflict between imperialist nations, was too rigid and wrong in theory and practice. Radek, faced with a reality that contradicted that theorisation at the highest level of the class struggle (in a developing revolutionary situation), acted impulsively faced with that situation that somewhat contradicted accepted theories, and made a leap into the void (to parody his own phrase about Schlageter), damaging his own historical reputation in the process. But really, this was because of a weakness and rigidity in Lenin’s theory, which Radek did not succeed in correcting.
Analogous problems dogged the Trotskyist movement as it sought to maintain a principled position of opposition to imperialist war in occupied France. Such as, for instance, the resistance movements led by bourgeois-imperialist nationalists like De Gaulle, and also by the Stalinist French Communist Party. Faced with the resistance, and the fact that even the bourgeoisie feared that it potentially harboured a revolutionary threat, the French Trotskyist movement split more or less in half, with one section adopting a sectarian attitude of complete hostility to the resistance, and the other adapting to it wholesale. But arguably, the complementary flaws of both trends stemmed from not having a properly theorised view of the national question when one imperialist country is occupied or reduced to an unwilling vassal of other imperialists.
Lenin’s statement quoted earlier, denying the possibility of such national oppression, has considerable influence among some of the more serious elements on the international left even today. One interpretation of this is to deny that oppressor nations have the right to self-determination at all. Though in Lenin’s comprehensive work on the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, no such statement can be found, nevertheless the passage denying the possibility of national oppression in imperialist nations conquered by other imperialist powers can conceivably be interpreted this way. It can almost be seen as Leninist orthodoxy to say this.
This in my view is a correct position when applied to nations or nation-like formations whose very existence is bound up with the oppression of other peoples. Such semi-national entities as apartheid South Africa and Israel could not exist without denying other peoples – black Africans and Palestinian Arabs – of their own basic rights as peoples. These entities can only exist as separate states, under any social system, by either depriving the indigenous population of all political rights, as with the apartheid regime, or the basic right to inhabit their homeland as in Occupied Palestine. Such entities have no right to form separate states: in doing so, they must deny basic rights of others.
This is not true of the main European nations (or Japan for that matter). Their national existence is a result of organic development before the imperialist epoch, they were not simply oppressor nations in this earlier epoch, but in Lenin’s words, “in the van of mankind”. It is incoherent theoretically and wrong in practice to say that their later role as imperialist powers makes their entire national existence so bound up with the oppression of other peoples as to mean that they are incapable of being subjected to national oppression themselves. The size, power and geographical position of the United States makes it very difficult to imagine a realistic threat to its national independence, but in political-theoretical terms, while its origins are bound up with the genocide of native Americans in the last two centuries, it is untrue today to say that merely by existing under whatever social system, this nation must oppress other nations. As Israeli Marxist Moshe Machover observed, the USA, along with other similar states of colonial-settler origin in an earlier epoch, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are no longer “active as in ‘active volcano’”, as settler states, but rather “extinct”.
What is true is that these are imperialist states and that imperialist nationalism today is bound 100% with imperialist ideology, and thus thoroughly bound up with the oppression of other nations, particularly in the backward countries. Therefore there is no progressive war that can be waged by the state machines of those countries, and in any and all such wars we communists must be revolutionary defeatist. When they fight against peoples in the imperialised world, we must openly support the victory of the rebellious peoples. When the imperialists fight each other, we must be revolutionary defeatist on all the warring sides, as Lenin quite correctly advocated.
But when one of these states is defeated and occupied by another imperialist country, national oppression is as possible as in any other situation of foreign occupation. The state must be defined as an oppressor state, but that does not equate with the nation itself in these cases. In all such situations of foreign domination, national oppression affects all classes of the population. What we are concerned with is the working class, and the effect of such oppression in obstructing the development of class consciousness among that class.
Trotsky recognised the existence of this problem when he wrote:
“…it is necessary to differentiate strictly between the pacifism of the diplomat, professor, journalist, and the pacifism of the carpenter, agricultural worker, and the charwoman … In the pacifism and even patriotism of the oppressed, there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war, and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good – elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions.“
What is also true is that the admixture of national oppression and imperialist nationalism is very potent and dangerous, and more difficult to deal with than more straightforward forms of reactionary nationalism and chauvinism. Because it has a component that is directed against oppression, this form of nationalism is much more deeply rooted than the more traditional variety of ‘pure’ imperialist chauvinism. Examples are many from the Second World War; obviously in countries like France the ideology of the resistance against Nazism affects all sections of the population, including the working class movement, the Communist Party and parts of the far left. In Russia also, the nationalist ideology of ‘the Great Patriotic War’ against fascism had and has an enormous impact upon popular consciousness, even now that Stalinism is no more.
Even the credible threat of invasion and occupation by a fascist imperialist rival had a similar impact in Britain; the ideology centred around 1940, when ‘Britain stood alone’ had a huge impact on the working class movement here, with Churchill seen as above classes and an hero of the struggle against fascism. There is no section of the left that has not capitulated to it; there never was any Labour MP, however left-wing, who rejected the nationalism of the Labour Party mainstream over WWII. The official Communist Party, despite its ‘disgrace’ in these terms in the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, was (and its remnants still are) among the most virulent purveyors of this kind of nationalism. The far left has also capitulated to it, what with Militant’s talk of ‘our Eighth Army’, during WWII, to the SWP’s initiation of the Anti-Nazi League that successfully used this sentiment to defeat the fascist National Front in the 1970s, to the pervasive use of ‘Hitler’ analogies about third world despots like Saddam Hussein etc. by ‘left’ social-imperialists like the AWL to justify joining in the propaganda preparation for wars like Iraq.
Trotsky tried hard to address this problem at the beginning of WWII, prior to his murder. He formulated the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP), which made a ‘tactical’ compromise with ‘anti-fascist’ imperialist militarism, calling for universal conscription, trade union control of military training, the election of worker-officers, all of which have the flavour of a somewhat utopian attempt to make use of the resources of the capitalist state for revolutionary purposes. One problem with this is again that it was not fully theorised and it did not fully account for the differences between these tactics and the straightforward anti-imperialist strategic positions argued by Communists in WWI, as typified by Lenin’s slogan: ‘turn the imperialist war into civil war’ and Karl Liebknecht’s ‘the main enemy is at home’.
In his last, unfinished article, written shortly before his murder, Trotsky indicated some of the thinking behind the PMP, which came close to taking the bull by the horns on this question, without actually doing so. He wrote:
“The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat toward the second imperialist war, is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening.
“in 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars that the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow’s task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionists naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But while this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training the cadres, it could not win the masses, who did not want a foreign conqueror.”
This has to be dealt with in a coherent manner. This dualism between principles (‘propaganda and training’) and practice (‘winning the masses’) is theoretically wrong, and therefore politically suspect and incoherent. It should be obvious that in saying that the masses ‘did not want a foreign conqueror’, Trotsky was saying that they did not want to be subject to national oppression. But Lenin, as quoted earlier, believed that national oppression for an imperialist nation was not possible even if it was conquered. It must be recognised therefore that this was overstated and wrong.
There are however some important and decisive differences between national oppression in an occupied imperialist country, and national oppression in an imperialised country being oppressed by imperialist power(s). One is that in an imperialist state, the state is intrinsically an oppressor state on a world scale. This is not true of the state in an imperialised country. Both are sub-varieties of bourgeois states, and we as Marxists do not take political responsibility for either of them. Both kinds of bourgeois states are our enemies, and we will side with workers and the oppressed in all progressive struggles against them.
When the state of an imperialised nation is destroyed or broken by being subordinated to imperialism, we are prepared to make practical alliances with those seeking to reassert the power of the state of the oppressed country against the imperialist oppressor. Even though we are on the side of the oppressed classes within the oppressed nation against this state, and want it destroyed and replaced by a workers state, we do not make this a condition of our support for national independence. We support national independence unconditionally, and insofar as the working class is too weak during such a struggle to directly take power itself, we are prepared to the extent that fighting the imperialist enemy actually does this, to ‘help’ the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation to re-establish ‘its’ state against the imperialists, despite the fact that it will be used against the working class, which will have to overthrow this state just as soon as it can establish the political-military strength to do so. In a sense, such a (possible) compromise is the reflection of the position that our defence of imperialised peoples against imperialism is unconditional.
It is otherwise when we are talking about an imperialist nation being subjected to national oppression by being subjugated by another imperialist state(s). As democrats and tribunes of the oppressed, we are obliged to give expression to our opposition to national oppression in a practical way, and find ways to lead the working class that feels such oppression in struggle against that. But we cannot engage in the same kind of temporary common struggle with the home grown bourgeoisie as with imperialised countries.
We cannot, even for a moment, support the re-establishment of the state of the ruling class of an imperialist country, because that state has as its primary attribute the oppression of other nations, and as soon as it is re-established it will immediately resume such oppression with full force. There can be no agreement, even a temporary one, with the imperialist bourgeoisie of a conquered nation that implicitly, still less explicitly, aims at even tolerating the re-establishment of the ‘national’ imperialist-bourgeois state. One can only recall the actions of newly ‘liberated’ France in immediately re-taking its colonies, suppressing the workers insurrection in Saigon in 1945, etc., to see why! To support this even for a moment is social-chauvinism, making the working class movement complicit in the oppression of the peoples oppressed by this imperialist power.
Yet the communists must actively resist occupation, or else the imperialist bourgeoisie of the conquered imperialist nation has a monopoly of opposing national oppression. What then is to be done? Should communists in such a situation (a) abstain from participation in resistance, as did one wing of the Trotskyists in occupied France, or (b) simply join the bourgeois resistance along with the social democratic and Stalinist chauvinists, as did the other? Neither is a correct position!
What needs to be done therefore is the formation of a separate, explicitly revolutionary resistance movement, that will undertake its own actions when the opportunity arises, separate from that of the bourgeois-imperialist resistance movement. It must conduct a propaganda pointing out that the existing resistance is no better than the occupying powers, and that the home grown imperialists fully intend to do to other peoples what the occupiers are doing ‘at home’, and worse, as they were doing before the defeat and occupation by the rival imperialists.
This is a very difficult tactical problem, and it would be easy to slip into suicidal adventurism particularly when the genuine revolutionary movement is small. Insofar as the external enemy and the rival pro-imperialist resistance organisations were armed, it would also need to be armed. This is dangerous, but probably no more dangerous than doing what some revolutionaries in France and Greece for example did in WWII, joining existing Stalinist-led resistance formations, being unmasked as revolutionaries and then murdered for their bravery. Or conversely, as did the other wing of French Trotskyism, engage in an unarmed revolutionary fraternisation with German soldiers, an activity that though heroic, was almost certain to end in betrayal and death. An independent, underground armed organisation with its own security, would at least have some measure of protection from these things. Obviously there are questions of resources, but at least the establishment of such a force should have been the perspective of genuine communists in this situation.
This movement would carry out some similar actions to the existing pro-imperialist resistance organisations, but it would not co-operate with them except maybe in episodic, exceptional circumstances, and would keep up a continual internationalist propaganda denouncing the home-grown imperialists and social-imperialists. Such a force would see seen as the ‘sectarian’ internationalist communist resistance and be the object of a whole new demonology from the bourgeoisie. But it would also gain a reputation among the masses, put down an ideological ‘marker’, and break the monopoly of the imperialists and social-imperialists both of the resistance itself, as well as of the popular mythology around the likes of Churchill, De Gaulle etc. that has been such a powerful factor in Europe since WWII.
This is what should have been done, both from the point of view of theory and practice, though the practical aspect can by its nature only be a brief sketch of the possibilities. It is a tragedy that the assassination of Trotsky, and the failure of his co-thinkers to fill the theoretical and programmatic gap left by him, meant nothing like this was even attempted. But producing a synthesis of these questions is crucial for communists today; solving these political problems at least in theory and principle, is essential. We still live in a world dominated by imperialism, and it is entirely conceivable that we will be confronted with these kinds of questions again, perhaps in novel forms. Without learning from history, we are in danger of falling into similar traps in the future.
 See Theses on Comintern Tactics (p388) and Theses on the United Front (p400) in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, 1980
 From “Theses on the Eastern Question”, Ink Links 1980, p414
 Lenin’s report on the National and Colonial Questions, July 1920. https://www2.stetson.edu/secure/history/hy10430/lenincolonial.html
 Ink Links, Op. Cit. p 80
 Ink Links, Op. Cit. p416
 Kemalism in Turkish Politics: The Republican People’s Party, Secularism and Nationalism, Sinan Ciddi, Taylor & Francis 2008, p19
 To the Communists and Working Masses of Turkey, 20 Nov 1922, Ink Links Op.Cit. p319
 Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder 1969 p256.
 A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, 1916, Lenin CW vol 23, p63. By way of self-criticism, it is worth noting that I once used this quotation myself, in a 2001 article on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 (http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/402/reactionary-anti-imperialism/). One aspect of this article was correct: at that time there was no possibility of the Taliban leading a popular revolt against imperialist occupation; in Afghanistan at the time the bulk of the population was relieved to see the back of their foul and primitive regime. However, it also ruled out in principle that Islamists could ever lead a real popular struggle against imperialism, and implicitly ruled out support for such an uprising were it to occur on the grounds that such forces were more reactionary than imperialism itself. This article cited Lenin at the one point in his writings where he contradicted his own theory of imperialism, and inserted a flawed and nonsensical point into his article. At that point I had broken from ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ without having fully clarified a Marxist worldview to replace it, so this article had a transitional character and was as flawed as the Lenin quote it hung its argument around!
 Ibid. p50
 Ibid. p64
 Ibid. p34
 See Revolutionary History vol 3 no 4, Autumn 1991, Imperialist War and Nationalist Resistance, for more information.
 Lenin “A caricature…” Op. Cit. p 38
 Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution, Haymarket 2012, p264
 Transitional Programme, 1938
 Bonapartism, Fascism and War, in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p410
 By this term imperialised, I mean a nation or country subjected to imperialist oppression, a colony or semi-colony. This term was first used by Workers Power, and also now by the League for the Revolutionary Party in the US: I think it is a useful term that describes world reality.