Communism and national liberation: The legacy of the Comintern

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 95 June/July 1990

The relationship between communism and the struggle for national liberation is a crucial question for the revolutionary movement. Robert Clough's article assesses the debate on this question in the Comintern. This is a discussion article and does not necessarily reflect the views of FRFI.

Communists today recognise that the leadership of the struggle for socialism has passed to the oppressed nations of the world. Since the end of the last war, revolutionary regimes have been established in Yugoslavia, Albania, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, Mozambique and Angola, however temporarily, and whatever the problems that those countries face today. There has been no consistent revolutionary challenge within any of the imperialist nations during that time, however. Readers of FRFI will need no detailed analysis as to why no revolutionary movement has emerged in the oppressor nations: the wealth of such states, derived parasitically at the expense of the mass of the oppressed, has been partly diverted to bribe a substantial layer of the working class into accepting and supporting the maintenance of capitalism. ROBERT CLOUGH argues that what is worth studying is how the communist movement came to understand that this would be the case, and to look at the debates in which the new conditions were grasped at a theoretical level.

The Bolshevik tradition

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the high point of a revolutionary storm which swept Europe during and after the First Imperialist War. Its herald was the Easter Uprising of 1916, denounced by the English opportunists, dismissed as irrelevant by Trotsky, appreciated amongst few others by Lenin. Under his leadership, the Bolsheviks had established a clear position in support of the right of nations to self-determination. For them, the old maxim ‘no nation shall be free if it oppresses another' was no lifeless phrase, it was the watchword of a struggle against Tsarist imperialism. International class solidarity was impossible whilst there was inequality between nations; as Lenin wrote:

‘to insist upon, to advocate, and to recognise this right (of self-determination) is to insist on the equality of nations, to refuse to recognise compulsory ties, to oppose all state privileges for any nation whatsoever, and to cultivate a spirit of complete class solidarity in the workers of different nations.'

The reality of national oppression means that the actual conditions of workers in the oppressed and oppressor nations are not the same from the standpoint of national oppression. This means that the struggle of the working class against national oppression has a two-fold character:

‘a) 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 who follow it.'

The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation supports the struggle for national freedom only in so far as it promotes its own class interests. In other words, national freedom is only the same as freedom to exploit its own working class. If at any point the struggle for national freedom threatens the conditions of capitalist exploitation itself, the bourgeoisie will abandon the national liberation struggle for an alliance with imperialism. Hence the working class supports the struggle for national liberation as a struggle to realise a bourgeois democratic right, but its policy must not coincide with that of the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie's leadership of that struggle has decided class aims. But in so far as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights imperialism, the working class support it; as Lenin said: 'The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content we unconditionally support.'

The Communist International

The foundation of the Communist International in 1919 signified a break with the rotten traditions of the Second International. It was the recognition that there was now a fundamental split in the working class between the privileged labour aristocracy and the rest of the working class, and that the natural allies of the latter were the masses living in the oppressed nations. The slogan of the Comintern, 'Workers and oppressed of the world unite', was a succinct expression of this new reality. The extent to which there had been a fundamental break with the past was to be tested in the debates that were to take place within the International over the national question, and the struggles in which it was to become involved.

The two issues at the heart of the debates on strategy and tactics were firstly, the relationship between the working class in the oppressed nation and that in the oppressor nation, and, secondly, the relationship between the working class and the bourgeoisie in the oppressed nation. Lenin himself introduced the first discussion when he presented a set of theses on the national and colonial question to the Second World Congress of the Comintern in 1920. In them, he summarised the experience of the Bolshevik Party in the struggle against Tsarist imperialism and national chauvinism. He repeated the two-fold character of the working class struggle against national oppression; it was in the eleventh thesis that he discussed the particular tasks facing the working class in the oppressed nations.

‘With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind: first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the back-ward nation is colonially or financially dependent on; second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements , . third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends ... fourth, the need. in backward countries, to give special support to the peasant movement against the landowners ... fifth, the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic 1

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, ie 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.' (emphasis added)

The challenge from MN Roy

Lenin's position was that in the initial stages, the national liberation movement would be led by bourgeois democratic forces; that communists had to support these movements, but maintain a separate existence so as to ensure the political independence of the embryonic proletarian movement. Note that there is not a trace of his mythical conversion to the theory of permanent revolution. However, the political standpoint of this thesis was challenged by an Indian communist who was to have an enormous influence on the Comintern's colonial policy in years to come - MN Roy. In the commission set up to discuss Lenin's theses, Roy argued two inter-related positions - first, that the fate of world revolution was dependent on the colonial revolution, second, that the colonial revolution had to be led by the working class.

Roy argued by using India as an example. There, he said, was a small but very significant industrial working class, together with a huge landless rural working class, numbering perhaps 80 per cent of the population. The industrial working class had already engaged in a number of major strikes, proving that the elements existed for the creation of a powerful Communist Party. But. he went on to say,

‘as far as the broad popular masses are concerned, the revolutionary movement in India has nothing in common with the national-liberation movement.'

That national liberation movement was the Congress movement, which was made up of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois forces who had no interest in the fate of the oppressed other than that they serve to support them. Roy argued that the reference to the duty of communists to support the bourgeois-democratic liberation movements in the thesis should be deleted. This tactical standpoint cannot be divorced from the strategic position that Roy proposed: that the fate of the revolutionary movement in Europe depended entirely on the course of the revolution in the East:

‘Without the victory of the revolution in the Eastern countries, the communist movement in the West would come to nothing. World capitalism draws its main resources and income from the colonies, principally from those in Asia. If it comes to the worst, the European capitalists can give the workers the full surplus value from their efforts, and in this way win them over to their side, having killed their revolutionary aspirations. And these same capitalists will continue to exploit Asia, with the help of the proletariat. Such an outcome would suit the capitalists very well. This being so, it is essential that we divert our energies into developing and elevating the revolutionary movement in the East, and accept as our fundamental thesis that the fate of world communism depends on the victory of communism in the East . . . ‘

Roy’s counter-thesis

Roy himself presented a series of theses to the commission summarising his standpoint, and these were discussed alongside Lenin's. Roy's theses in one sense were way ahead of their time, for he did exaggerate the developments within the Indian working class. But in so far as it is the duty of communists to seize on the underlying tendencies of historical development and bring them out in the open and to argue their political significance, there is no doubt that Roy was right as against Lenin. Roy argued that:

‘Superprofit gained in the colonies is the mainstay of modern capitalism and so long as it is not deprived of this source of superprofit, it will not be easy for the European working class to overthrow the capitalist order .... Without the breaking up of the colonial empire, the overthrow of the capitalist system in Europe does not appear possible, Consequently, the Comintern must widen the sphere of its activities. It must establish relations with those revolutionary forces that are working for the overthrow of imperialism in the countries subjected politically and economically… '

Roy argued that imperialism, in destroying the craft industry of the oppressed nations so as to create markets for its own goods, and in fostering the concentration of land ownership, had created a massive landless rural proletariat. This was the basis for a new mass movement. In India, he argued to the commission:

‘This mass movement is not controlled by the revolutionary nationalists, but is developing in-dependently, in spite of the fact that the nationalists are endeavouring to make use of it for their own purposes. This movement of the masses is of a revolutionary character, though it cannot be said that the workers and peasants constituting it are class conscious … Naturally a revolution started by the masses in that stage will not be a communist revolution, for revolutionary nationalism will be in the foreground. But at any rate this revolutionary nationalism is going to lead to the downfall of European imperialism, which would be of enormous significance for the European proletariat.'

Hence he argues that the spontaneous movement of the masses will be towards revolutionary nationalism, but that communists cannot allow this to be side-tracked by the bourgeois democrats, who will divert it from its goal of destroying foreign domination. This must be the first aim of the revolutionary movement because, as Roy explains:

‘The foreign domination has obstructed the free development of the social forces - therefore its overthrow is the first step towards revolution in the colonies. So, to help overthrow the foreign rule in the colonies is not to endorse the nationalist aspirations of the native bourgeoisie but to open the way to the smothered proletariat there.'

The ending of imperialist domination is the first step in a process of revolutionary struggle in which the working class and its organised vanguard, the Communist Party, must assume political leadership. Initially, the struggle would be a spontaneous movement of the oppressed, the working class, the poor peasantry and petit bourgeoisie. Lenin had already identified the existence of this alliance in Ireland during the Easter Uprising:

‘The centuries-old Irish national movement, having passed through various stages and combinations of class interests . . . manifested itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petit bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation . . .’

The Irish bourgeoisie, under the leadership of Sinn Fein, had gone over to the side of imperialism well beforehand, and had shown its hand during the Dublin lock-out. But whereas Lenin would not generalise from this experience, Roy, drawing on his understanding of the relationship of the Indian bourgeoisie to imperialism, did. Communist Parties were needed to secure the political independence of the working class, and to ensure that its interests were properly represented in the struggle for liberation. Roy's thesis summarising this point stands in clear contrast to Lenin's:

‘There are to be found in the dependent countries two distinct movements which every day grow farther and farther apart from each other. One is the bourgeois democratic nationalist movement, with a programme of political independence and the other is the mass action of the ignorant and

poor peasants and workers. The former endeavour to control the latter and often succeed to a certain extent, but it would be a mistake to assume that the bourgeois nationalist movement expresses the sentiments and aspirations of the general population. For the overthrow of foreign imperialism, the first step towards revolution in the colonies, the co-operation of the bourgeois elements may be useful. But the Communist International must not find in them the media through which the revolutionary movement in the colonies should be helped . . . '

On the contrary, it was through the Communist Parties that were being set up in the oppressed nations that the Comintern should provide assistance to the struggle for national liberation. Hence Roy argued from the general standpoint that the key to world revolution lay in the struggle against imperialism in the oppressed nations; that imperialism was creating a huge landless working class and a small but increasingly significant and powerful industrial working class in these nations; that these forces would spontaneously adopt a revolutionary nationalism that was quite distinct organisationally and politically from the old bourgeois nationalism, and that the key task was therefore to build communist parties in the oppressed nations as a medium to bring all the real revolutionary forces into action to overthrow imperialism.

Lenin's response to Roy was that he:

‘. . . goes too far when he asserts that the fate of the West depends exclusively on the degree of development and the strength of the revolutionary movement in the Eastern countries. In spite of the fact that the proletariat in India numbers 5 million and there are 37 million landless peasants, the Indian communists have not yet succeeded in creating a Communist Party in their country. This fact alone shows that Comrade Roy's views are to a large extent unfounded.'

The debate ended with both Lenin and Roy making concessions to each other's positions. In Lenin's theses, the term 'bourgeois-democratic movement' was replaced by 'revolutionary liberation movement', while Roy conceded that it was useful to have relations with bourgeois nationalist revolutionary elements. Both sets of theses, as amended, were then adopted by the Congress. It was two years before the issues were next debated; much to Roy's vociferous disgust, the Third Congress the following year had no time to discuss the colonial question. When the Fourth Congress met in 1922, the revolutionary movement in the imperialist countries had suffered decisive defeats, whilst significant developments had taken place in the oppressed nations. These will be discussed in the next article.


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