East Timor, Luxembourg and Lenin
ozleft at optushome.com.au
Mon Mar 10 05:42:07 MST 2003
More on East Timor, national self-determination, Lenin and Luxembourg
By Bob Gould
Louis Proyect ticks me off for invoking historical authorities and
precedents, but then he proceeds to invoke historical precedent himself -
the precedent of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. He objects to my
discussion of the Murmansk events, as does Philip Ferguson, asserting that
they're too obscure.
The reason I brought up Murmansk was to underline the point that what
Ferguson et al belt out as principles, are "principles" that they invent.
Ferguson now tosses off a new "principle": that one can never, under any
circumstances support an act of the United Nations. He should be a bit
careful with that proposition. Right now it seems likely that UN Security
Council may veto the imperialist war against Iraq. Without peddling the
slightest illusion in the UN, a Security Council veto against Bush's war
would be a desirable development at this point.
Allegedly "immutable principles", on examination, usually turn out to be
the, often ill-informed, opinions of the people invoking them. The reason I
refer to the rich experience and theory of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the
classic period, is that the whole early Bolshevik experience produced the
most significant body of practice, ideas and theory we've yet witnessed
about war, peace and national self-determination.
While the views of the Bolsheviks can't be treated as immutable principles
either, they're a better place to start than Phil Ferguson's or Nestor's
"principles", or rather, their opinions.
Louis Proyect asks me what other instances there are of Marx and Engels
expressing support for various capitalist powers in war, other than the
American Civil War. There are quite a number, but I don't intend even to
recount them here, because I have other issues to raise, and I suggest Louis
does a bit of independent research about the views of Marx and Engels on the
capitalist wars of their time.
Louis opens up the question of the Soviet Union and the Second World War.
That question has a complex history in the Trotskyist movement, and it's
worth considering carefully. The only letter that Trotsky ever wrote to
Australia (in 1938) ended crisp and brown, after being hidden in Nick
Origlass's wife's oven during a police raid in 1940.
In this letter Trotsky raised the point that a light-minded opposition,
expressed in the Australian Militant, to a military resistance to a possible
Japanese invasion of Australia, was mistaken. He said the Australian masses
would resist Japanese conquest, and rightly so, and the Trotskyists should
counterpose to the military policy of the ruling class the program of a
proletarian defence of Australia.
This was an early statement of what later came to be called the Proletarian
Military Policy. This was the approach followed by the US SWP and the
Australian Trotskyists, who at that stage followed the US SWP fairly
Features of this policy included demanding a referendum on the war, going
into the army if conscripted and demanding democratisation and workers'
rights in the army, and counterposing to the bourgeois army and bourgeois
defence the idea of a proletarian army and defence, meshing in thereby with
the animosity of the masses to fascism.
This went hand in hand with continuing to prosecute the class struggle, even
in wartime. Some Trotskyists elsewhere regarded this approach as betrayal,
and there was a particularly sharp exchange between the Spanish Trotskyist
Grandizo Munis and the US SWP over defence policy in the Minneapolis Trial,
which focused on the Proletarian Military Policy, which Munis challenged.
In the event, Trotskyists in the US, Britain and Australia, led big class
struggles during the war, within the framework of the Proletarian Military
Policy. They also supported the military operations of the USSR, and the
Chinese communists and nationalists against Japan.
The contradictions of the capitalist world and empires reached a sharp point
in wartime colonial upheavals in a number of countries, particularly India
and Ceylon, where the nationalists used the war situation to launch a
massive Quit India movement, and the Trotskyists launched a similar movement
in Ceylon. The Stalinists in those countries opposed these movements and
actively collaborated with the British authorities in having Indian
nationalist leaders arrested and the Trotskyists arrested in Ceylon.
The Stalinists argued the defence of the USSR demanded the virtual
suspension of the national movements for the duration of the conflict with
Germany and Japan.
A number of nationalist forces in Asia took the view that collaboration with
Japan and Germany was in their interests, as did a few leaders of the IRA,
such as Frank Ryan. The charismatic Bengali leader of the militant wing of
the Indian national movement, Subhas Chandra Bose, went to Germany and Japan
and raised an Indian national army on the Japanese side.
Sukarno collaborated with the Japanese in Indonesia, and a number of leaders
of the Burmese nationalist movement collaborated with the Japanese.
Those Asian nationalist leaders who collaborated with the Japanese were
mistaken, but nevertheless that collaboration did not prevent them,
particularly in the instances of Sukarno and the Burmese, emerging as major
leaders of nationalist insurrections that overthrew colonial rule in parts
of Asia, after the war ended.
Retrospectively, I regard the Proletarian Military Policy of the US and
Australian Trotskyists as the best political practice that was possible in
the given circumstances of the Second World War.
Another problem arose, when some Trotskyists in Europe were cautious about
joining the resistance movements to German occupation, because those
resistance movements had a nationalist aspect, while other Trotskyists
joined those movements despite their nationalism. It's my view that the
Trotskyists who participated in the resistance movements were more correct.
It's important to note there were different responses by resistance and
national revolutionary movements in different countries during World War II.
The mass movements in India and Ceylon were more interested in fighting
British imperialism than prosecuting the war against Nazi and Japanese
In countries occupied in a hostile way by Germany and Japan, such as Malaya
and most of Europe, the workers' movement and nationalist movements fought
for national liberation against their occupiers. On the other hand the
national movements in Indonesia and Burma tended to collaborate with the
Japanese occupiers, because their greatest hatred was for their previous
When the anti-colonial national upheavals exploded after the war, most
historians have noted that the way the Asian masses witnessed the relative
ease of Japan's initial defeat of Britain, France and Holland, was an
obstacle to the imperialist powers re-establishing their empires in Asia.
All these events, in my view, underline the importance of absorbing Lenin's
general approach to the national question, which placed such a powerful
emphasis on the right of nations to self-determination, even taking into
account other important political or global considerations, which might
militate against supporting national self-determination in a particular
The complex and contradictory features of the beginnings of the
revolutionary national upheavals during the Second World War underline the
importance of being very concrete in approaching particular situations of
national oppression and national aspirations. It's a truism that many
national movements rapidly develop the tactical standpoint expressed in the
saying in the Irish movement "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity"
Marxists are quite often faced, in the area of struggles for national
self-determination, with national movements adopting strategic positions
that contradict the overall global strategy of Marxists. As an example all
attention and energy of serious Marxist is directed right now at defeating
Bush's drive to war against the masses of Iraq. Despite this tactical
necessity, however, we should not give up our support of the right to
self-determination and their own state, for the 35 million-strong Kurdish
nation, currently divided between four states, despite the fact that the US
imperialist hegemon uses crocodile tears about the Kurds as part of its
Nestor's approach, and Lou Paulsen's approach tend to sublate the specifics
of questions of national self-determination into a global view that they've
arbitrarily constructed. For instance, the Workers World Party, of which Lou
is a member, had its origins in the Sam Marcy-Vince Copeland group in the US
Trotskyist movement, who took as their departure opposition to the 1956
Hungarian uprising against Stalinism, and the WWP has opposed every uprising
against Stalinism since that time, including the 1968 Prague Spring and the
upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989-90, because in their geopolitical view,
all those upheavals could only be judged from their impact on an imagined
fundamentally progressive Stalinist world.
Most Trotskyist tendencies, both workers statists and state capitalists,
supported those upheavals against Stalinism on the general grounds both of
hoping for the political revolution, and defending the right of national
self-determination against the Soviet Union's empire. In the event, the
political revolution didn't happen.
The capitalist restorations that took place were a commentary on the
extremely degenerate nature of the Stalinist regimes, which most Trotskyists
had underestimated. Despite the fact that the popular upheavals of 1989-90
were followed by capitalist restoration, it would have been political
madness to oppose those mass upheavals.
The difference between myself and Lou Paulsen and others on these questions
is obviously sharpened by our different personal political experiences:
where we were and what we did. I was a very young member of the generation
that revolted against Stalinism in the CPs in 1956. In the 1960s I worked
flat-out as a poorly paid full-timer for six or seven years against the
imperialist war in Vietnam, and in support of the Vietnamese national
movement, despite its Stalinist leadership.
Nevertheless, when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, I was one
of the leaders of the demonstration of 1000 or so members of Resistance and
SDS, who opposed the Vietnam War and who marched to the Polish consulate in
Sydney (at that time the Soviet Union didn't have diplomatic relations with
Australia) in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I
climbed into a tree in the moat of the consulate and planted a red flag with
Che Guevara's head on it, on the roof of the consulate. I was arrested and
convicted (for entering enclosed land).
In 1989-90, I supported the revolt of the masses in Eastern Europe against
Stalinism and in part against national oppression by the Soviet Union. I was
deeply moved to see the old communist oppositionist, Stefan Heym, walk
through the first hole in the Berlin Wall. I was a vigorous participant in
the demonstrations against the Tien An Men Square massacre, etc.
My view on a number of these questions is obviously moulded by my political
experiences, as also I imagine is Lou Paulsen's.
In relation to East Timor, I was in the orbit of the SLL-WRP from about
1975-76, when the initial Timor invasion took place. The Australian SLL
initially supported Fretilin and independence for East Timor. Gerry Healy
and Mike Banda, to whom Healy deferred in his role of colonial expert, came
down on the Australian SLL like a ton of bricks and forced a reversal of the
SLL line in support of East Timorese independence.
Banda had a view similar to Nestor's. He argued that the break-up of
Indonesia would be a very bad event and he harked back to the reactionary
character of the Dutch republic of the South Moluccas during the
independence struggle and the reactionary nature of the partition of India.
Banda had strong feelings about both those questions, as he came from
Ceylon, where he had grown up during the time of the explosive post-war
Banda's opposition to East Timor's independence was mistaken, but it was not
a stupid position, and some of the considerations that Banda raised were
important from a Marxist point of view. Lenin did, after all, regard
federations as a good thing and national separation of smallish
nationalities as a last resort.
Banda argued in relation to Timor that the Timorese were Malays and he made
a distinction between Timor, where he asserted some limited cultural
autonomy was appropriate and West Papua, which he said was Melanesian, with
a totally different culture and therefore entitled to independence.
At that time, I was prompted to by this sequence of events in the SLL to do
a bit of research on these matters. I concluded Banda was mistaken about
Timor. Tetum, the language in both parts of Timor, is not a Malay language.
It belongs mainly to the Melanesian group of languages, with many Malay loan
Timorese people are, in appearance a mix of Malay and Melanesian, with
Melanesian features such as frizzy hair tending to predominate.
In religion the Timorese are either adherents of traditional local
religions, or they are Catholics in East Timor and Protestants or Catholics
in West Timor. There are almost no native Timorese Muslims. The Timorese as
a whole, amount to a small nationality. Nestor's analogy with Goa doesn't
hold. The people of Goa, other than the Portuguese speakers, speak languages
similar to or the same as the surrounding Indian populations.
The same applies to the people in Pondicherry, and another small French
enclave, incorporated in India about the same time as Goa.
In the event, there was no significant movement for national independence
either in Goa or the French colonies in India.
(After the explosive break-up of the SLL-WRP International Committee in
1985, Mike Banda and his brother Tony developed a viewpoint generally
rejecting Trotskyism. They went on to become extremely active in the
movement in Britain for Kurdish self-determination and a Kurdish state. I
noted on the web recently a lengthy, intelligent and rather moving obituary
to John Lawrence by Mike Banda, which made me smile a bit, recalling the
possibly apocraphyl story about the blow-up in the SLL printshop during the
split in 1953, which is said to have included a very aggressive
confrontation between Lawrence and a very young Mike Banda in his then role
of Gerry Healy's favoured apprentice.)
In relation to East Timor, it's worth remember that at the time of the
declaration of independence in 1975, the rubric of the reactionary forces
was the explicit fear of a "little Cuba" in the middle of Indonesia, at a
time when the Indonesian masses were thoroughly ground down under the heel
of the Suharto junta with the full support of US and Australian imperialism.
This fear of a "little Cuba" was the basis of the rotten deal between the
Indonesian junta and the Australian ruling class.
The partition of India by British imperialism was a particularly barbaric
act because it split two major nationalities with a long and complex history
and culture, down the middle on the crudest religious lines: that is the
Punjabis and the Bengalis.
Both the Punjab and Bengal, despite their religious diversity, were real
nations, and the British fanned the religious tensions deliberately with a
policy of divide and rule, as they did in Ireland.
An examples of struggles for national self-determination or independence
that in my view is quite clearly worthy of support in the Leninist spirit is
that of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, despite the fact that this struggle
implies the break-up of an ex-colonial state. I also view the struggle for
independence of the non-Muslim African tribal peoples in the southern Sudan
as entirely supportable.
That brings me to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. There is no doubt
that Western European imperialist states and the US have pursued their own
economic and political interests during the break-up of Yugoslavia. In my
view the NATO military assault on Serbia had to be opposed. Nevertheless,
once the old Yugoslavia had broken up, more or less by the mutual agreement
of all the nationalities involved, the long-term question became the right
of self-determination, and the necessity to sort out different and opposed
self-determinations on the most civilised basis possible.
It seems to me that the Bosnian Muslims have the right to
self-determination. It also seems to me that the Albanians in Kosovo,
Macedonia, the little bits of Serbia and Montenegro where Albanians
predominate and Albania proper, have the right to form a state together if
they wish. Romany, Serbian and other minorities should be protected in such
a state, but it seems fantastic to me for Marxists to oppose the general
idea of the Albanians having their own, larger state. The geopolitical
context in which such a development might take place is a separate question.
Addressing Nestor's point about the Malvinas, I think it's very important to
make a distinction between relict military bases of imperialism and real
colonies with nationalities inhabiting them. I support the unconditional
return of the Malvinas to Argentina, of Gibraltar to Spain and Ceuta and
Melilla to Morocco, and Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. The return of these places
does not violate an principle of national self-determination, but rather is
an act of national self-determination. These four or five places are
entities carved out by imperialism for mainly military purposes, and the
relict populations there are mainly remnants, in the case of Gibraltar, the
Malvinas and Guantanamo Bay, of military garrisons. I support the return of
these bits to their host countries on general anti-imperialist grounds.
The nature of this debate underlines the need for a careful study of these
questions, and it's from that point of view that I highly recommend Norm
Dixon's Links article, which people in the DSP tell me will be posted on the
Links website soon.
The over-riding, pressing political struggle that's faces us in the
foreseeable future is the general campaign against the world hegemon, US
imperialism. It seems to me, however, that to successfully defeat US
imperialism, even at the day-to-day strategic level, it's a great political
mistake to allow Bush to posture as the main defender of human rights and
national self-determination for small nations.
>From this point of view it is very important, therefore, to approach all
questions of national self-determination carefully, and the spirit of Lenin
and the early Bolsheviks is a pretty good introduction to the kind of
framework in which we should approach these questions.
PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.
More information about the Marxism