Created: Thursday, 18 February 2016 12:05
Written by David Reed and Terry O'Halloran
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 52 - September 1985
As communists in the world's oldest imperialist nation, the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) has consistently fought long and bitter struggles with the British left to establish the communist position of unconditional support for the struggle of national liberation movements against British imperialist domination and against national oppression. Our record on this, especially in relation to Ireland, is beyond serious challenge. In Britain, with its long tradition of imperialist exploitation, its strong and well entrenched labour aristocracy, communists have always had to emphasise the goal we have in common with the national liberation movements — the defeat of British imperialism.
As the crisis of British imperialism has deepened, with the consequent polarisation of British class society, and as the tempo of the national liberation struggles themselves has accelerated (Ireland 1981, South Africa 1984-5) inevitably the issue of the relationship between communists and national liberation movements will present itself in new ways, raising new questions and demanding answers. So today the very same political forces that yesterday accused the RCG of conceding to reactionary nationalism for demanding unconditional support for national struggles against British imperialism and against national oppression, are now flaunting a newly discovered 'solidarity' with liberation movements to justify their own opportunist attempt to sustain the deadly grip of the labour aristocracy over the working class and oppressed in Britain. It is, therefore, necessary to restate the basis of the communist standpoint on the national question.
Lenin and the right of nations to self-determination
Under imperialism the world has been divided into oppressor and oppressed nations and national oppression has been extended and intensified. A split has been created in the working class movement in the imperialist countries. One section, the labour aristocracy, has been corrupted by the 'crumbs that fall from the table' of the imperialist bourgeoisie, obtained from the super-exploitation and brutal oppression of the people from oppressed nations. The other, the mass of the working class, cannot liberate itself without uniting with the movement of oppressed peoples against imperialist domination. Only such an alliance will make it possible to wage a united fight against the imperialist powers, the imperialist bourgeoisie, and their bought-off agents in the working class movement. This means the working class fighting in alliance with national liberation movements to destroy imperialism for the purpose of the socialist revolution.
The unity of all forces against imperialism can only be achieved on the basis of the internationalist principle 'No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations'. This is expressed through the demand of the right of nations to self-determination. This demand recognises that class solidarity of workers is strengthened by the substitution of voluntary ties between nations for compulsory, militaristic ones. The demand for complete equality between nations, by removing distrust between the workers of the oppressor and oppressed nations, lays the foundation for a united international struggle for the socialist revolution. That is, for the only regime under which complete national equality can be achieved.
While the working class in the oppressed and oppressor nations have the same goal they necessarily approach it by different paths. As Lenin pointed out, the actual conditions of the workers in the oppressed and in the oppressor nations are not the same from the standpoint of national oppression. The struggle of the working class against national oppression has a twofold character:
'(a) first, it is the "action" of the nationally oppressed proletariat and peasantry jointly with the nationally oppressed bourgeoisie against the oppressor nation; (b) second, it is the "action" of the proletariat, or of its class-conscious section, in the oppressor nation against the bourgeoisie of that nation and all the elements that follow it.' (Lenin, 'A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism'; our emphasis bold)
Lenin was accused of being inconsistent in his attitude to nationalism for arguing that the approach of the working class in the oppressor nation to this question was necessarily different from that of the working class in the oppressed nation. His reply to his critics was simple and direct.
'Is the position of the proletariat with regard to national oppression the same in oppressing and oppressed nations? No, it is not the same, not the same economically, politically, ideologically, spiritually, etc.
'Meaning that some will approach in one way, others in another way the same goal ... from different starting points.' ('The nascent trend of imperialist economism')
What this means is that the strategy and tactics necessary for building an effective anti-imperialist movement in Britain (the oppressor nation) may differ from the strategy and tactics required to develop the liberation movement's struggle in the oppressed nation. The RCG has long opposed all attempts by the British Labour movement and the British left to impose their own, usually opportunist, strategy and tactics on the liberation movement. Equally, the RCG is opposed to all attempts to impose the strategy and tactics developed by liberation movements to meet the specific conditions of their own struggles on the anti-imperialist movement in Britain. The example of the Lancaster House negotiations on Zimbabwean independence in 1979 makes this point clear. Communists in Britain defended the right of the Patriotic Front to enter into negotiations with and make concessions to the British government, whilst, at the same time, attacking the British government for imposing these concessions on the liberation movement.
Opportunists hide behind liberation movements
On the question of Ireland and South Africa opportunists are attempting to use Sinn Fein and the ANC to attack the RCG's approach to solidarity work. In a recent leaflet Proletarian, a tiny and uninfluential group associated with the Morning Star, attacks the RCG's work on Ireland using a quote from a review in the Sinn Fein journal Iris of Ireland, the key to the British revolution. In the same leaflet it attacks the RCG's involvement in City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and demands the disbanding of City AA on the grounds of 'solidarity' with the ANC. Readers should note that Proletarian chooses to support the Morning Star, a newspaper which is vehemently opposed to the Irish national liberation struggle. This fact alone exposes the cynical and opportunist character of Proletarian's solidarity. We cite Proletarian only because it is a typical example of the way in which British opportunists use liberation movements for their own narrow sectarian ends.
The review referred to by Proletarian appeared in Iris No 10 July 1985. The review contains important distortions of the RCG's position on building a movement in Britain. (See review and our reply). More important for our argument here however, is the standpoint stated in the review on solidarity work and the strongly implied attitude of the reviewer that socialists in Britain should adopt the same standpoint. G McAteer accepts our central argument that emancipation of Ireland is a necessary precondition for the socialist revolution in Britain. We are also in agreement that socialists in Britain should 'build on whatever support there is in Britain for a withdrawal'. Where we disagree fundamentally with the reviewer is the assertion that the possibility of building an effective anti-imperialist solidarity movement in Britain 'is a totally unrealistic expectation given the political situation for the foreseeable future'. On the basis of this the review concludes that the RCG has adopted 'an isolationist stance that is doomed to obscurity' —the very quote seized upon by the truly obscure Proletarian sect.
This position ignores the political developments which have taken place in Britain particularly in the last five years. During the crucial period of the hunger strike in 1981 major British cities saw the most significant, intense and wide-spread street confrontations between the oppressed black and white youth and the police. These were the most serious spontaneous revolts in Britain in the whole post-war period. The possibility of uniting the oppressed in Britain with the Irish people in a common struggle against a common enemy was there for all to see. The opportunity was thrown away precisely because the existing solidarity movement led by the Troops Out Movement turned its back on these developments for fear of disrupting its, in any case, futile attempt to win the official Labour movement to support the hunger strike. Rather than appeal to a section of the working class which had a common interest with the Irish people in defeating the Thatcher government and was actually fighting that government on the streets, the existing solidarity movement adapted its campaign to avoid any exposure of its chosen allies in the Labour Party: the very people who, in government, were responsible for the hunger strike —by withdrawing Special Category Status for political prisoners in 1976 —and who viciously condemned the risings in Britain.
The miners' strike 1984-5 once again demonstrated that the deepening British crisis would produce new forces that could be won to an anti-imperialist position on Ireland. The striking miners' experience of police brutality, government manipulation and rigged courts led many of them to identify their own struggle with that of the Irish people. The risings in 1981 and the miners' strike 1984-5 have already shown that the expectation that real possibilities for building an effective anti-imperialist movement exist in Britain is far from being 'unrealistic'. Indeed as the crisis develops and more and more sections of the working class are forced into confrontation with the British state these possibilities will multiply.
The growing political and social crisis in Britain has also revealed that the official Labour movement will move further and further to the right as its own position is increasingly threatened — a point confirmed during the miners' strike. What is indeed a 'totally unrealistic expectation' is any belief that the existing official Labour movement can be won to a progressive position on Ireland.
Comrade McAteer and the Republican Movement have every right to assess developments in Britain from their own standpoint and act upon that assessment. But neither the Republican Movement nor opportunists in Britain claiming to act in its name have any right whatsoever to demand that the RCG and other British anti-imperialists must accept that assessment and any conclusions that flow from it. For while we have the same goal as the Republican Movement — the defeat of British imperialism in Ireland —we necessarily approach that goal along a different path. Comrade McAteer is right to say that 'Republicans cannot afford the luxury of waiting around until the British working class becomes sufficiently politicised to fully support our struggle in all its form'. But we equally are right to expose the role of the official Labour movement and to fight against the very opportunism which not only obstructs the struggle for Irish self-determination but also the struggle for socialism in Britain. We are also right — indeed it is our duty —to concentrate our efforts on building an effective anti-imperialist movement amongst the most oppressed sections of the working class, whilst at the same time working in unity with any other forces whenever possible.
Similar issues have arisen in relation to the building of a solidarity movement against the apartheid regime. The Proletarian leaflet claims that Johnstone Makatini, Director of the ANC's International Department has called for 'the shelving of differences within the Anti-Apartheid Movement in this country and for unity on the basis of exclusive recognition of the ANC'. This is a misrepresentation of comrade Makatini's remarks in London on 3 August. He did urge unity of the AAM in Britain. He did say as a separate point that the ANC had initiated a campaign for what he called, 'exclusive recognition' of the ANC as the sole representative of the liberation struggle in South Africa. If the ANC chooses to campaign for `exclusive recognition' that is a matter for the South African people to resolve. The same would be true if the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement, the UDF, AZAPO or any other force within the overall liberation movement took a similar stand. It is not a matter for the movement in Britain to decide or, even worse, cynically exploit for their own narrow sectarian ends. Proletarian's 'interpretation' of comrade Makatini's remarks, in any case, flatly contradicts the AAM's own constitutional requirement:
'to cooperate with and support Southern African organisations campaigning against apartheid' (Clause 2c)
The AAM's constitutional position is the only correct internationalist position for organisations in Britain. That the leadership of the AAM has consistently failed to abide by its own constitution on this issue is something that must be opposed. For British organisations to take it upon themselves to decide only to recognise one liberation organisation fighting apartheid and not others in the same fight is British imperialist arrogance and chauvinism of the worst kind. Our task in Britain is to give unconditional support to all organisations in their fight against apartheid in South Africa regardless of differences which may arise between different sections of the liberation movement.
Unity in the British AAM does not mean the shelving of differences. Unity means the democratically organised co-operation of different forces with different political standpoints in a common campaign against the apartheid regime and against British collaboration with that regime. When those in the AAM, who have attacked and disaffiliated City AA and also attacked the RCG's involvement in the AAM, call for 'unity', what they mean is the bureaucratic imposition of their own narrow sectarian prejudices on all anti-apartheid activists. No one seriously committed to the destruction of apartheid could submit to this demand. The fact that these sectarians attempt to use the heroic sacrifices of the South African people and the ANC to justify their own sectarian behaviour is an insult to the people of South Africa.
In the forefront of the sectarianism in the AAM is the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) — primarily the Morning Star wing of that party. In common with their counterparts in the solidarity movement on Ireland, they have rejected any attempt to build an alliance with the newly emerging political forces in Britain. All their anti-apartheid activity is strictly confined to what is acceptable to maintain their alliance with sections of the official Labour movement. Their 'unity' requires the separation of apartheid in South Africa and racism in Britain, disaffiliation of City AA (now the largest active anti-apartheid group in the country), attempts to ban FRFI from official AAM pickets, bureaucratic manoeuvring against anyone 'suspected' of wanting an active movement, and a foul, non-stop campaign of rumour, gossip and lies to justify their own position. (See reports in this FRFI and recent issues.) Any movement in Britain which denies basic democratic rights to its own supporters cannot possibly be trusted to wage a consistent fight for the democratic rights of the people of South Africa.
The political priority of the CPGB and its allies in the leadership of the AAM is the election of a Labour government under Neil Kinnock. They are prepared to subordinate the struggle against apartheid to this opportunist end. This is why they object to FRFI being sold on official AAM events because it contains material on Ireland and other issues which expose the reactionary character of their chosen allies. We remind these self-styled communists of Lenin's explanation of the task of the working class in the oppressor nation in relation to national oppression, which is to oppose:
'the bourgeoisie of that nation and all the elements that follow it''
The Labour Party's record on South Africa, and its record on Ireland, prove beyond dispute that it is one of the elements that follow the bourgeoisie.
As with Ireland, so with South Africa, unconditional solidarity with the struggle against national oppression does not and cannot oblige British communists to give up that struggle against British opportunism. Our job, as communists and anti-imperialists, working in the world's oldest imperialist nation, is to formulate the strategy and tactics appropriate to the building of an anti-imperialist movement in Britain in solidarity with all those fighting British imperialism and national oppression.
Terry O'Halloran and David Reed
Lenin: 'The nascent trend of imperialist economism', Collected Works, Volume
Lenin: 'A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism', Collected Works, Volume 23
Lenin: 'The right of nations to self-determination', Collected Works, Volume 20
Lenin: 'The discussion on self-determination summed up', Collected Works, Volume 22
Reed D: Ireland: the key to the British revolution, Chapter 2
Brickley C, O'Halloran T, Reed D: South Africa: Britain out of apartheid: apartheid out of Britain