Jim Blaut and Lenin, secession and the national question

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Sat Jan 1 03:58:51 MST 2000

James M. Blaut wrote:
> 1914 or 1915 he firmly decided that colonies deserved the right of SD and
> would win independence, even before the demise of capitalism on a world
> scale. He also understood that independence was in the interests of the
> exploited classes, not just the bouyrgeoisie, in oppressed nations. He saw
> that a characteristic of imperialism was to intensify national oppression
> and the struggle against imperialism incorporated the struggle for
> self-determination. He called his opponents' position "imperialist
> economism" -- economism in the period of imperialism (because it dismissed
> politicasl struggles short of the revolution itself).

Jim Blaut claims that the advent of imperialism made Stalin's criteria
redundant, that an oppressed people no longer needs to meet the
four criteria to become a nation. Is this the case?

Jim misunderstands Stalin's point about the nation being ``a
historical category belonging to a particular epoch, the epoch of
rising capitalism''. Stalin (on behalf of the Bolsheviks -- I have
to admit I find it hard to say Stalin was right given my political origins
in Trotskyist movement) situates the development
of nations within a specific stage of the historical development
of class society and the class struggle.

Stalin is making the point that nations are the product of the
rise of capitalist economic relations and of the struggle of the
rising capitalist class against pre-capitalist social relations
and classes. Before the rise of capitalism, communities that
exhibited the four criteria did not form nations.

Capitalism's powerful system of generalised commodity production
breaks up pre-capitalist economic formations, regionally distinct
economies and peoples, and forges them into a single unified
system of class and market relations. Pre-capitalist communities
are unified (e.g. Bretons, Gauls, Teutons etc. into the French
nation) and immigrants assimilated (e.g. Irish, English,
Scottish, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern and many other
immigrants into the Australian nation) into a nation.

Jim is correct to point out that Lenin and the Bolsheviks
adjusted their understanding of the dynamics of the national
question in the light of imperialism. In the period of the
triumph of capitalism over feudalism <197> from the 16th through
the 19th centuries <197> the national movements of both oppressed
and oppressor nations were part of the worldwide development of
the capitalist system and were led by the bourgeoisie. In the
imperialist era, the main content of the national question is the
struggle of the oppressed nations, colonies and neo-colonies
against imperialist exploitation.

However, Jim seems to deny that, even in the imperialist era,
there remain parts of the world where ``rising capitalism''
attempts break free of the fetters imposed upon it <197> the
Third World (as well as the oppressed nations within
multinational states, both in the First World (Ireland, Quebec Basque country)
and many parts of the Third
World). The common description of the Third World as the
``underdeveloped world'' points to the simple fact that the
``highest stage of capitalism'' has been achieved very unevenly
throughout the world.

The bourgeoisie of the developed nations obtain national
privileges over less developed nations, extorting monopoly
super-profits from the latter by exploiting the uneven level of
development of the productive forces. The progress of indigenous
productive forces in the less developed nations, colonies and
semi-colonies is impeded by their exploitation at the hands of
the bourgeoisie of the developed nations.

As I stated in *Links* Number 13: ``Imperialist domination of
the Third World is an
insurmountable barrier to their independent industrialisation and
development. Imperialism blocks their bourgeois-democratic
revolutions. As a result, in the imperialist epoch, the principal
content of the national question has been the struggle against
imperialism by the oppressed nations, colonies and neo-colonies.
The national movements have been driven forward by the working
class and rural poor. They are part of the struggle to overthrow
imperialism and for socialism.

``Lenin and Bolsheviks, building on the
foundations laid by Marx and Engels and applying them to the new
era, put great emphasis on the right of oppressed nations to
self-determination as part of their revolutionary arsenal, both
during the Russian Revolution and in the struggle against world

But while the form and content of the national question does
change according to the stage of development of capitalism,
especially under imperialism, this does *not* invalidate the
historical materialist understanding of what constitutes a nation
as summarised in Stalin's 1913 pamphlet's ``four criteria''.

Can a minority people that shares the same economic life, the
same territory (is ``intermingled'' and present across the length
and breadth of it) and the same language possibly be a nation?
Can such a people exercise national
self-determination, including secession to a viable nation-state?
What is the material basis of the oppression of
African-Americans, US Spanish-speakers and the indigenous peoples
of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand if it is not
national oppression?

By junking the Bolsheviks' view that a nation cannot exist
without inhabiting a distinct, common territory (and as a result
a common, distinct internal economic and class development also
becomes optional), all we are left with to determine if an
oppressed people has is a nation to the rest
of a the larger nation is if they ``see'' themselves as part of
it, ``want'' to be part of it, or ``feel'' they are part of it.

A people's belonging to a nation is objectively
determined by material circumstances, and not the result of a people's
subjective feelings. It would not be controversial to point out that
it would be un-Marxist to determine whether
a section of the working class is proletarian or not on the basis of
whether they ``see'' themselves as members of the working class
or ``want'' to be members of the working class.

Losing sight of the scientific, materialist socialist understanding of what
defines a nation can lead to reactionary political consequences.
The most glaring example of this is the Zionist colonisation of
Palestine. The Zionist leaders claimed the scattered Jewish religious group
was a nation. In order to create the necessary common territory for a common
economic life, the Zionist movement opposed the struggle of Palestinian Arabs for
national liberation from British colonial rule and then usurped
most of the territory of the Arab Palestinian nation.

In South Africa, the apartheid regime denied the various black
ethnic groups' membership of the South African nation, defined
each language and racial group as a nation, and argued
each had a ``right'' to separate development in ``independent''
countries <197> bantustans. This was the
ideology behind apartheid.

Today, the reactionary Inkatha
movement continues to base itself on the false claim that the
Zulu people are a nation. So too do the remnants of the Afrikaner
far right call for ``self-determination'' for Afrikaans-speakers.

Like-wise, in northern Ireland the spurious claim for
``self-determination'' is raised by Protestant supremacists to
justify the British-backed religious caste system that bestows
privileges on them while discriminating against Catholics.

In Australia, idealist notions of what constitutes a nation play
into the hands of racist segregationists who advocate a return to
the reserve
system or bantustan-like territorial islands for Australia's
indigenous people, denying them access to the
services and infrastructure of the Australian nation-state.

A greater danger for anti-racists is to see leaders of racially
oppressed peoples who use the rhetoric of nationalism and separatism
as being more automatically ``radical'' or ``militant'' while underestimating the
anti-capitalist dynamic and potential for radicalisation that
demands for full social, political and economic equality have.
This can lead to socialists abstaining from, or taking sectarian
positions towards, the movement for full equality.

Of course, some of the most militant and radical Aboriginal
activists do espouse ``nationalist'' rhetoric, influenced
as they have been by the national liberation movements of the
Third World and the ideas of radical leaders like Malcolm X. However,
the content of their demands is for full equality, Aboriginal control of
Aboriginal affairs, and black self-organisation to achieve it. Socialists must
be at the forefront in supporting their struggle.

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