Lenin and nationalism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Apr 7 07:03:38 MDT 1995

On Thu, 6 Apr 1995, Tom Condit wrote:

> Earlier, in an excellent 1913 article called "Critical Notes on
> the National Question" (also in Vol. 20 of the C.W.), Lenin
> wrote:
> "Marxism is irreconcilable with nationalism, even if it is the
> 'fairest,' 'purest,' most refined and civilized nationalism. ...

Louis Proyect:

The critical phrase in the Lenin article on Ireland is:

>So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism",
>and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and
>that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a
>ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it
>a "putsch".

And, while Condit's historical burrowing into the background of the
self-determination debate of the W.W.I period was interesting, I take
away a different set of lessons from it. Mainly, I solidarize myself with
the type of politics expressed in the quote from Lenin above. The
problem for much of the US left during the period initiated by the
1960's is that approaches politics in the same kind of schematic,
workerist manner as Radek. Any movement that is not purely
proletarian in composition and class-oriented politically is condemned
in the same manner as Radek condemned the Easter rebellion of 1916.

The national struggle in the United States of blacks and latinos does
not fit neatly into the dichotomy posed by the "self-determination"
and "nationalism" controversy of Lenin's day. Blacks and Latinos are
not colonies fighting for self-determination. However, their struggle
has had a "nationalist" component that has left many on the left in a
quandary if they abide too closely to the letter of some Bolshevik
writings from the period. They used Lenin's formulation that
"Marxism is irreconcilable with nationalism, even if it is the 'fairest,'
'purest,' most refined and civilized nationalism.." to launch bitter
attacks against black and latino struggles for equality.

In the most infamous case, leftists in the social democratic, Maoist and
Trotskyite camp took up the cause of Albert Shanker's United
Federation of Teachers in 1968 when it struck against the demand of
black and latino parents and schoolchildren to have community
control of the schools. The leftists peppered their newspaper articles
and leaflets with all the right quotes from Lenin. They attacked the
black and latino leaders of the struggle as "petty-bourgeois"
nationalists. They counterposed some kind of artificial black-white-
brown unity to the living struggle of the most oppressed nationalities
to improve their education.

My reading of Lenin would lead me to endorse struggles of the black
and latino communities like these. In the context of US society not
Czarist society, the class nature of the black-population and its continuing
demand for full equality within American society leads into constant
confrontation with the capitalist ruling class. Its struggle has had a
nationalist character for decades now. This, despite countless lectures from
erudite Lenin-quoting leftists, will probably continue as long as the
more privileged layers of the working-class continues to identify
politically with the class that rules them. It is mainly white privilege
that explains black and latino nationalism. Now that capital is driving
down the wages of the entire working-class, there may be more and
more opportunities for forging the kind of black-white unity that many
leftists have fantasized about. But in the meantime, it is a travesty on
Marxism to condemn the nationalist struggles of the most oppressed
sectors of America's working-class.

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