Bob Gould, 2003
Source: Marxmail, March 4-10, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
The debate on Marxmail over East Timor has a concrete immediate aspect and a Marxist theoretical dimension. I’ll deal with the concrete aspect first.
I’m in sympathy with the view supported by Ben Courtice, Dave Riley, Clinton Fernandez, Michael Keaney and Nick Fredman view, and in opposition to the position of Phil Ferguson, Tom O’Lincoln, Nestor Gorojovsky and Gary McLennan. I won’t canvass a lot of the points put forward by the people I agree with, except to say that in my view, Clinton Fernandes’s account of the actual historical sequence, which is accurately informed by his professional-academic closeness to the events, is the best history. Nick Fredman’s account of the big demonstrations in Australia is the most useful on that aspect.
The enormity of the position adopted by O’Lincoln et al is most clearly expressed in the lines:
“The massive slaughter seems to be a myth. Here is what the East Timor Action Network said about this after the event. A senior human rights official in the UN transitional administration in East Timor today said that an estimated 1000-1200 people had been killed during the violence that followed East Timor’s referendum for independence last September. Briefing the press in Sydney the head of UNTAET’s human rights unit, Sydney Jones, noted that a more accurate figure was expected to emerged from the continuing investigative and forensic work”.
O’Lincoln goes on to say: “but, you see, the despatch of troops didn’t take place until the killing and general destruction was over”.
Philip Ferguson says, in his usual, confident way:
“The point is that the imperialists were able to change tack without paying any political price for their long support for Indonesian occupation and repression of East Timor. In fact, they actually recouped all they had lost in terms of the moral high ground because they were able to present themselves as the saviours of the East Timorese when in fact they were the front line of the new imperial overlordship.
“East Timor is no longer an annexed part of Indonesia, it is now a direct neocolony of imperialism and if they rebel against that they will get a similar repression as was dealt out to them under Indonesian rule.”
Nestor Gorojovsky argues:
“The problem lies with the assessment of the whole East Timor movement as such. No matter how monstrous the Indonesian pro-imperialist rule could be, a radicalized movement aimed at independence of a province of Indonesia could not end but the way it has ended.
“Same would have happened if the Indian ruling classes had stormed Goa and Goans had found Western support for their ‘independence’, etc.
“Hope that now, when the bitter fruits are beginning to ripen, many who were against me and others by the time of Australian occupation of Far Eastern Indonesia (‘humanitarian intervention in East Timor’) begin to think again.”
The above quotes encapsulate, between them, everything that’s wrong about this outlook. First of all, many of the presumed “facts” are wrong. As Fernandes painstakingly documents, the ruthless destruction of the cadres of the East Timor nationalist movement, the young rebels of East Timor, and the infrastructure of the country, continued until the last moment of the Indonesian occupation.
It’s all very well for Tom O’Lincoln to attempt to minimise the numbers, as PP McGuinness tried to do at the time. But the slaughter of 1200 people, many of them the most courageous in the national movement, is a devastating blow in a country of 700,000 people. It’s the equivalent of about 30,000 people in Australia.
The repression by the Indonesians in East Timor over the whole period of the occupation, including the mass repression at the end, had many similarities to the mass repressions in Indonesia itself after the events of 1966, the repressions in Chile after the Pinochet coup and the repressions in Argentina against the Montenaros.
If 30,000 left and labour movement activists in Australia were wiped out, it would be very hard to start again.
Philip Ferguson’s oh-so-profound chatter about a “transition from an annexed part of Indonesia to a direct neocolony of imperialism” is just mystification. Nestor Gorojovsky spells out his view even more brutally. For him, the removal from Indonesian control is clearly a victory for imperialism. In reality, all three commentators have the view that the status quo of Indonesian occupation was preferable to a transition to “neocolonial” independence.
The implications of this view are staggering. Most of the struggles for national independence over the past 50 years have produced independent states with neocolonial aspects. Should Marxists therefore not have supported the various movements for national independence? That is a view of some hardened sectarians, but it’s an anti-Marxist view that cuts across any road to the masses in any country in that situation.
The road to the independence of the working class in colonial countries inevitably must lie through participation in the struggle for national independence. The obvious inadequacies of the national bourgeoisies, which often dominated the leadership of those struggles, is not a sound reason for opposing the struggle for national independence.
The outlook of O’Lincoln, Ferguson, Gorojovsky et al on East Timor is easy for people who, from the comfort of Christchurch, Melbourne or Buenos Aires, take the view that the Timorese masses should have been prepared to sacrifice further in the interests of “Marxist doctrine” (as the three commentators understand such doctrine). Gorojovsky and Ferguson clearly believe the East Timorese are worse off in the independent state of East Timor than they were under the Indonesians.
What a travesty, of Marxism and any notion of basic working-class interests, or even basic democratic rights! The brutal facts are that despite its neocolonial limitations, the present set-up in East Timor, neocolonial or not, beats the hell out of the previous set-up, from the point of view of both the East Timorese masses and anyone in East Timor who wants to engage in working class political activity, start a trade union, organise a peasants’ league, publish a newspaper, or dare one say it, construct a small, independent state.
In addition to this, it’s important to consider what the actual circumstances were at the moment of intervention. The Indonesian military were reluctant to go. They hung on as long as possible, as Clinton Fernandes points out.
As Ferguson says in his response to Fernandes, the brutal fact was that the final, decisive factor enforcing the removal of the Indonesians was the changed stance of US imperialism and its pressure on the Indonesians to withdraw. In what way is this fact different to the fact that, for instance, the abandonment of apartheid by the South African government was partly a response to the direct pressure of imperialist states, particularly the US. Should Marxists have opposed the overthrow of apartheid because it was partly a response to direct pressure from imperialism? The answer is obvious.
There is no traditional principle that Marxists never in any circumstances support the military conflicts of capitalist states. Ferguson et al talk as if this were so, but even the most cursory overview of the history of the Marxist movement shows a number of occasions on which the founders of Marxism supported particular military actions of capitalist states.
Marx and Engels supported certain military actions of capitalist states and so did Lenin and the Bolsheviks in some unusual circumstances.
The Marxist movement asserts that the workers have no country, supports proletarian internationalism, and opposes capitalist wars and militarism, but in some exceptional circumstances necessity has required limited tactical support for the military action of capitalist states.
Of most relevance is the circumstances surrounding the occupation of the Russian port of Murmansk by German forces soon after the Russian Revolution, in early 1918. Clearly at Lenin’s instigation the Bolshevik authorities in Petrograd sent urgent communications to the Bolsheviks in Murmansk suggesting that they collaborate with the British expeditionary force to remove the German forces from the port, but to try to achieve this without being seen to do so.
Military necessity and the interests of the revolution required such a manoeuvre. In the event, this particular collaboration turned out badly, as it was the beginning of the Anglo-French intervention, which the Bolsheviks did not at that stage anticipate.
This incident is recounted in documents in Richard Pipes’ book The Unknown Lenin. The reactionary, anti-communist philistine Richard Pipes recounts this incident from the hidden documents to attack Lenin for duplicity, but actually the incident demonstrates Lenin’s ceaseless revolutionary seriousness and political realism.
Other philistines please note: Lenin’s view on such matters was that the proletarian revolutionary forces had the right and duty to exploit all contradictions among the enemy forces, and he asserted that sort of dialectical approach repeatedly. The same right to exploit contradictions among bourgeois forces, even militarily, extends to movements struggling for national independence.
For instance, Lenin was a vocal and vigorous supporter of the Irish rebellion of 1916 and the fact that the Irish revolutionaries had tried to make military arrangements with Germany fazed him not a bit.
The facile equals sign placed, by Ferguson in particular, between Indonesian rule and the allegedly neocolonial state of East Timor is a piece of nonsense when examined carefully. Ferguson can claim that the East Timorese will be crushed just as brutally at some unstated time in the future by the neocolonialists, but that’s a travesty of the present facts, which are that the creaking little “neocolonial” independent state of East Timor has relatively free elections, relative freedom of the press, civil rights for the population and the right to form trade unions, and in fact an embryonic trade union movement is developing there.
While it’s true that even in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto there are embryonic civil rights, trade unionism, etc, that’s not true of the parts of the Indonesian empire where the masses are pushing for independence, such as Aceh and West Papua, where the Indonesian repression is still total. Anyone who thinks the continuation of Indonesian rule in East Timor would have produced a better situation than the current set-up in East Timor is blinded by their own prejudices from serious consideration of the facts.
Ferguson and O’Lincoln make great play of the way the intervention is said to have created a political climate favourable to the military and the government in Australia. That may have some truth, although as Nick Fredman points out, the East Timor intervention was a two-edged sword from the point of view of reactionaries in Australia.
Even if Ferguson and O’Lincoln were right about the Timor intervention producing some advantages to Australian reactionaries, comparing that advantage to the physical destruction of the forces of the East Timorese revolution by the Indonesian military is to compare things of an entirely different character and a massively different order of magnitude. Even if these events marginally improved the standing in public opinion of reactionaries in Australia, that’s a very minor matter weighed against the extermination of the East Timorese national, popular and working class movement by Indonesian troops and government-backed militias.
Ferguson, O’Lincoln et at are “Marxist” metaphysicians of a very high order indeed. Tom has the hide to acquit those who disagree with him of being quite as being quite as bad as the Social Democrats in 1914 as long as they beat their breasts and confess to very bad “mistakes”.
Lurking in the back of all the bald assertions about “Marxist principles” by Tom O’Lincoln, Phil Ferguson and others is an implicit assumption that their views are the embodiment of traditional Marxist and/or Leninist principles. This is a rather slippery question because when I accuse them of making this assumption, they’ll probably try to wriggle out of it, as this raises the obvious question of what are the traditional Marxist and Leninist principles.
Nevertheless, unless they are invoking these general principles from some interpretation of the views of the great teachers of Marxism, the only other possibility is that they are inventing the alleged “principles” as they go along. In my view, they are in fact making up these alleged principles on the run, on the basis of vague prejudices that they’ve acquired from a very cursory overview of Marxism, often in its very degenerate Stalinist form.
It’s of great value to go back to the Marxist classics on questions of national self-determination, war and peace (and the class struggle, which is central to all these issues). In my view, the most useful source in these matters is Lenin, taking his work, as one must, in its historical context.
There is a considerable literature in this field. The DSP, with which in this area I am in general agreement, has done us a service by publishing Norm Dixon’s useful article in Links: Marx, Engels and Lenin on the National Question This is a very serviceable outline.
Mike Karadjis’s DSP-published book about the Balkans is of considerable value as well. I would also refer readers to the two-volume work by Dona Torr, the British Marxist historian, published by the British Communist Party in 1940, called Marxism, Nationality and War (Lawrence and Wishart, 1941), which is an extremely useful small guide to the literature (published by the British CP during the short period of its opposition to World War II).
The classic discussion about the national question was the protracted argument over about 15 years between Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg. Lenin’s view, as Norm Dixon describes it in a very workmanlike way, was quite complex. He took the view that the development of large national states, and even some empires, had a progressive economic aspect, in the sense that it created large markets, working classes, etc.
But he had also a powerful moral sympathy with the peoples of small nationalities whose rights and interests were violated in this process, and he had a shrewd revolutionary politician’s understanding of the explosive character of unfulfilled national aspirations in disrupting the hegemony and power of the emerging bourgeoisies of the major imperialist countries.
This led Lenin to side determinedly with the struggles for national independence of oppressed nationalities, despite the fact that this sometimes disrupted the development of a mature capitalism. Lenin’s support for national self-determination thus had both moral and practical revolutionary political aspects.
Rosa Luxembourg, following on from Marx and Engels on a bad day, regarded the national aspirations of small nationalities as totally reactionary, which led her to oppose national self-determination for Poland, Ireland, etc.
In these matters pertaining to national self-determination, most modern Marxist sectarians of the Ferguson, O’Lincoln, Gorojovsky ilk are closet, or not so closet, Luxembourgists, not Leninists.
In that sense, concerning the national question, the great Irish Marxist, James Connolly, was the greatest Leninist of all. I must disclose a personal interest here: I came to the general ideas of Marxism and Leninism through a passionate personal interest in the national question. As a precocious only child at a Christian Brothers school in the 1950s, I acquired an interest in the Irish struggle, and in a strange way by some kind of osmosis, in World War II resistance movements.
The first stage of my intellectual development involved infesting the old Sydney Municipal Library and the Public Library in Macquarie Street reading books about the Irish struggle and resistance movements. I vividly remember ratting through my father’s curious collection of Marxist and Catholic Truth Society pamphlets in the back shed and discovering and reading his friend, L.C. Rodd’s little Workers Educational League pamphlet on British imperialism, which inflamed me considerably.
I eventually graduated, in spite of the anathemas of the Christian Brothers on communism (the Brothers had encouraged the interest in Irish history), to section 336 in the Dewey system, on Marxism and communism, and started browsing through books with exciting titles such as Struggle for a Proletarian Party, by James Cannon, and Albert Weisbord’s two-volume epic, The Conquest of Power. But that’s another story.
As the reader can see, I’m predisposed by my background in favour of Lenin’s view and against the Luxembourgist view.
Any serious, intelligent and sensitive overview of the life and work of Lenin throws up constant evidence of the passionate and almost personal commitment of Lenin to the right of nations to self-determination. One commentator has associated this passion with Lenin’s knowledge of his father’s commitment to the educational rights of the oppressed national minority in the area of Russia where Lenin’s father was a school inspector. This emotional commitment did fit in fairly well with Lenin’s strategic political realism.
His obvious, passionate preoccupation with the question of national self-determination is one of the features of Lenin’s life work that is so appealing.
Even when strategic revolutionary geopolitical considerations like the existence of Menshevik Georgia as a knife at the underbelly of the Soviet state led to the necessity of violating the general principle of national self-determination for a greater good, Lenin speedily swung back to a full-blooded assertion of the national rights of the Georgians against Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinistic attack on Georgian national rights, and this battle was part of Lenin’s last struggle, against Stalin.
In all the work of Lenin on the question of national self-determination for small nationalities the issue is presented as the right of nations to self-determination, and it is usually associated by Lenin with the desirability of socialist revolution and the rapid federation of socialist states into large and viable economic units, and both aspects of the question are of considerable importance.
Secession is usually presented by Lenin as a last resort, but in general it’s defended strenuously if desired by the nationality.
There’s nothing in Lenin that can possibly be used to justify the desirability of artificially shoring up a prison house of peoples, such as Indonesia, in the way Nestor Gorojovsky does.
Sectarian Marxists, particularly of the Ferguson-Gorojovsky sort, show little understanding of how serious mass movements of any sort against imperialist wars, for national independence or for proletarian socialism, can actually be built. In the instance of Timor, the DSP, which on a number of questions is my sharp political opponent, played a very effective role in the spectacular movement for East Timorese independence, which erupted in 1998-99.
The DSP already had an interest and presence in the area through a group campaigning over many years in solidarity with Indonesia and Asia, ASIET, and they had a competent comrade, a former minor diplomat who had worked for years in solidarity with opposition forces in Indonesia, the PRD.
When the events erupted, the DSP threw that small accumulation of political resources into the events, and ASIET was at the heart of the agitation for the independence of East Timor and in this instance the sending of Australian troops.
On the Timor question, the DSP has nothing at all to apologise for, and neither do other Marxists like myself who supported the intervention.
Ferguson, Gorojovsky and O’Lincoln are entitled to hold whatever opinions they like on the Timor events. As Trotsky said in the 1930s, paper is patient, it will take any rubbish that’s written on it.
They ought not, however, bombard the rest of us with Moses-like thunderbolts about our sins, on the basis of alleged Marxist or Leninist principles, that aren’t such principles at all, but which are actually plucked out of their own heads.
Marxmail, March 10, 2003
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 World War II. 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 ever on 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 Gorojovsky’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 World War II. 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 by Nick Origlass’s wife in her 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 of the US SWP and the Australian Trotskyists, who at that stage followed the US SWP fairly closely.
Features of this policy included demanding a referendum on the war, going into the army if conscripted, 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 focussing 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 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 circumstances of World War II.
Another problem arose when some Trotskyists in Europe were cautious about joining movements of resistance 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 imperialism.
In countries occupied in a hostile way by Germany and Japan, such as Malaya and most of Europe, the workers’ 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 colonial oppressors.
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 instance.
The complex and contradictory features of the beginnings of the revolutionary national upheavals during World War II 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 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 weeps crocodile tears about the Kurds as part of its ideological offensive.
The approaches of Nestor Gorojovsky and Lou Paulsen 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, which took as its its point of 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 according to 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 image on it, on the roof. 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.
Concerning 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.
Banda had a view similar to that of Nestor Gorojovsky. He argued that the break-up of Indonesia would be a very bad thing 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 national movements.
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 that the Timorese were ethnic 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.
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 words.
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 former 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.
Concerning 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 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 example of a struggle 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 parts 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 Gorojovsky’s point about the Malvinas, it’s very important to make a distinction between a relict military base 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 any principle of national self-determination, but rather is an act of national self-determination. These 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 areas 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 article in Links.
The over-riding, pressing political struggle that 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.