Ernest Germain

In Defence of Leninism:
In Defence of the Fourth International

II. The Danger of Opportunist Tail-Ending

17. Tail-Ending Petty-Bourgeois Nationalism

There is another aspect to the LSA-LSO error on the national question which expresses itself in Comrade Beiner’s article quoted above. This is the identification of the right of national self-determination, and the mass struggles evolving around that right, i.e., concrete demands and slogans which express it, with “nationalism.” This identification leads Comrade Beiner to the preposterous statement that the “positions of Lenin and Trotsky” imply “unconditional support for Quebecois nationalism” (or for nationalism of any oppressed nation). This is absolutely untrue.

Both Lenin and Trotsky, in all their basic writings on the national question, draw a clear distinction between the need for Marxists to defend the right of self-determination of nations which do not wish to remain within a given bourgeois state boundary – otherwise, Marxists become objectively accomplices to annexionism – and the principled opposition which they have to maintain to bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology, the ideology of national solidarity irrespective of regional, ethnic or social differences. This ideology played a progressive role essentially in the 16th, 17th and 18th century, i.e., in the classical period of bourgeois-democratic revolution of the pre-industrial era, when the bourgeoisie was historically a revolutionary class. It was a powerful ideological and political weapon against two reactionary social forces: particularistic feudal or semi-feudal regional forces, which resisted their integration into modern nations; native or foreign absolute monarchs and their aids and props, which resisted that emergence even more desperately. With the development of capitalist industry in the 19th century, nationalism gradually loses its progressive character. The triumphant bourgeoisie uses that ideology now less against – rapidly disappearing – pre-capitalist reactionary social forces, and more and more against its foreign capitalist competitors (or worse: other nations whose territory it wants oppressively to include in its own “home market”) and against the working class. “National solidarity” is called upon to stifle the rise of the proletarian class struggle.

With the epoch of imperialism, nationalism as a rule becomes reactionary, whether it is “purely” bourgeois or petty-bourgeois in character. The universal idea of independent organisation of the working class, of the autonomous class goals followed by the proletariat and the poor peasantry in the class struggle, of international class solidarity of the workers of all countries and all nationalities, is opposed to the idea of national solidarity or national community of interests. In the best of cases – when advanced among oppressed nations – it is a narrow, parochial substitute and cover for the programme of the permanent revolution, i.e., national and social emancipation. In most cases – when advocated by the capitalist class or its ideological representatives – it is a thoroughly deceptive and mystifying ideology to prevent or retard independent class organisation and class struggle by the workers and poor peasants.

Sectarians and opportunists alike fail to make this basic distinction between the struggle for national self-determination and nationalist ideology. Sectarians refuse to support national self-determination struggles under the pretext that their leaders – or the still prevalent ideology among their fighters – is nationalism. Opportunists refuse to combat bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalist ideologies, under the pretext that the national-self determination struggle, in which this ideology is predominant, is progressive. The correct Marxist-Leninist position is to combine full support for the national self-determination struggle of the masses including all the concrete demands which express this right on the political, cultural, linguistic field, with the struggle against bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism.

This principled opposition to nationalism does not imply an identification between nationalism of oppressor nations – nationalism of scoundrels, as Trotsky used to call it – and the nationalism of oppressed nations. It especially imposes on communists who are members of oppressor nations the duty to concentrate their fire upon their own oppressive bourgeoisie, and to leave the struggle against petty-bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed to the communist members of the oppressed nationalities themselves. Any other attitude – not to speak of the refusal to support national self-determination struggles under the pretext that they are still lead by nationalists – becomes objectively a support for imperialist, annexionist or racialist oppressors. But all these considerations do not imply a support for bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalism by revolutionary Marxists of the oppressed nationalities, leave alone “unconditional support.” After all, Alain Beiner like Michel Mill were discussing the attitudes of Quebecois Trotskyists, not the attitude of Anglo-Canadian revolutionary Marxists.

Lenin’s position on this question is unequivocal. In his major contribution to the national question, his 1914 article The Right of Self-Determination of Nations, Lenin makes crystal clear that “workers are hostile to all nationalism” (p.434). He says that it is impossible to march towards our class goal, socialism, without “fighting against all and every nationalism” (p.436). He stresses that to struggle against capitalist exploitation, the proletariat must be alien towards all forms of nationalism, included that of oppressed nations (p.448). He concludes his article by saying that the proletariat has the dual task of struggling for national self-determination and of combating all nationalism (p.480). It is often overlooked that, while chiding Rosa Luxemburg for not accepting that the Russian Marxists should proclaim and support the right of self-determination of Polish, Finnish, Georgian, and other nationalities oppressed by tsarism, he lauds her for struggling, as a Polish Marxist, against Polish nationalism (pp.454, 458.) All references are to the French edition of Lenin’s Works, Vol.20, Editions Sociales, Paris 1959).

In his next major article devoted to that same question, written in the midst of the first imperialist war (Results of the discussion on the right of self-determination, October 1916), Lenin fully maintains the same position. And in his final major contribution to the question, which has programmatic value, his Thesis on the National and Colonial Question, written for the 2nd Congress of the Comintern, we read the following illuminating passage:

“Le Parti communiste, interprète conscient du prolétariat en lutte centre le joug de la bourgeoisie, doit considérer comme formant la clef de voûte de la question nationale, non des principes abstraits et formels, mais: 1) une notion claire des circonstances historiques et économiques; 2) la dissociation précise des intérêts des classes opprimées, des travailleurs, des exploités, par rapport a la conception générale des soi-disant intérêts nationaux, qui signifient en réalité ceux des classes dominantes; 3) la division tout aussi nette et précise des nations opprimées, dépendantes, protégées – et oppressives et exploiteuses, jouissant de tous les droits, contrairement a 1’hypocrisie bourgeoise et démocratique qui dissimule, avec soin, 1’asservissement (propre à l’époque du capital financier de l’impérialisme) par la puissance financière et colonisatrice, de l’immense majorité des populations du globe à une minorité de riches pays capitalistes.”

“C’est la pratique habituelle non seulement des partis du centre de la II Internationale, mais aussi de ceux qui ont abandonné cette Internationale pour reconnaître l’internationalisme en paroles et pour lui substituer en realité dans la propagande, l’agitation et la pratique, le nationalisme et le pacifisme des petits-bourgeois. Cela se voit aussi parmi les partis qui s’intitulent maintenant communistes ... Le nationalisme petit-bourgeois restreint l’internationalisme à la reconnaissance du principe d’égalité de nations et (sans insister davantage sur son caractère purement verbal) conserve intact l’égoïsme national ...”

“Il existe dans les pays opprimés deux mouvements qui, chaque jour, se séparent de plus en plus: le premier est le mouvement bourgeois démocratique nationaliste qui a un programme d’indépendance politique et d’ordre bourgeois; l’autre est celui des paysans et des ouvriers ignorants et pauvres pour leur émancipation de tout espèce d’exploitation.

“Le premier tente de diriger le second et y a souvent reussi dans une certaine mesure. Mais l’Internationale communiste et les partis adhérents doivent combattre cette tendance et chercher à développer les sentiments de classe indépendants dans les masses ouvrières des colonies.” (Manifestes, Thèses et Résolutions des quatre premiers congrès de l’Internationale communiste, Librairie du Travail, Paris 1934, pp.57, 58, 60.) [2]

Trotsky, like Lenin, counterposes support to national self-determination demands to the duty to fight against nationalism (e.g. History of the Russian Revolution, vol.2, p.357 of the German edition). In his writings on the Spanish revolution, several times we find that while stressing the need for Spanish Marxists to support the right of the Basque and Catalan nationalities for self-determination, there are at the same time severe attacks against the right-wing “Catalan Federation” of the CP, which later, after its break with Stalinism, renamed itself the “Workers and Peasant Bloc” and finally fused with the majority of the Spanish Left Oppositionists to become the main force of the POUM, which was born from this fusion. Trotsky heaped scorn upon the “Catalan nationalism” of these right-wing opportunists.

The materialist basis of this struggle against contemporary nationalism is admirably clarified by Trotsky in the following passage:

“The task of complete national determination and peaceful cooperation of all peoples of Europe can be solved only on the basis of the economic unification of Europe, purged of bourgeois rule ...

“It must be clearly understood beforehand that the belated revolutions in Asia and Africa are incapable of opening up a new epoch of renaissance for the national state. The liberation of the colonies will be merely a gigantic episode in the world socialist revolution, just as the belated democratic overturn in Russia which was also a semicolonial country, was only the introducation to the socialist revolution” (War and the Fourth International, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, pp.305, 306).

This Leninist opposition to nationalism is not an abstract and formal principle, but starts, as Lenin indicates, from a “clear notion of the historical and economic circumstances.” That is why there can be some exceptions to the rule based upon exceptional “historical and economic circumstances,” i.e. those of oppressed nationalities which do not yet possess their own ruling class, or which have only such a miserable embryo of a bourgeois that, in the given and foreseeable situation, it is excluded that this embryo could actually become a ruling class without a complete disintegration of the imperialist structure. The best example of such exceptions are of the black and Chicano nationalities inside the United States. We shall discuss them in more detail in the final section of this text.

But it is clear that neither Quebec, Catalonia, the Basque country, India, Ceylon nor the Arab nation, can be classified as exceptional. All these nations have their own bourgeois class. Many of them even have their own semi-colonial bourgeois state. To support nationalism within these nationalities, under the pretext of supporting anti-imperialist liberation struggles, or even to defend the doctrine that “consistent nationalism” would automatically lead to a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, is to lose the “clear notion of the historical and economic circumstances,” to lose sight of the class structure, the class decisions and the irreconcilable class conflicts inside these nations, which national oppression or economic exploitation by imperialism in no way eliminates but, in a certain sense, even exacerbates when compared to what occurs in non-oppressed nations. To defend the notion of “unconditional support” for Quebecois nationalism, Arab nationalism, Indian nationalism, or Ceylon nationalism, is to disarm the workers and poor peasants of these countries in their class struggle against their own bourgeoisie, is to make the conquest of power by the proletariat in the course of the anti-imperialist struggle – i.e. the whole process of permanent revolution – more difficult if not impossible, and puts a big obstacle on the road of building Leninist parties among these nationalities.

An analysis of the concrete historical and economic circumstances in which national oppression presents itself is a vital starting point for adopting a correct position towards the national question. In that sense it is inadmissable to identify national oppression inside imperialist countries with national oppression inside colonial countries. The whole notion of applying the formula of permanent revolution to imperialist countries is extremely dubious in the best of cases. It can only be done with the utmost circumspection, and in the form of an analogy.

Not a single bourgeois-democratic revolution in the past has solved all its historical tasks. The survival of bourgeois society under conditions of the growing decay of capitalism has wholly or partially destroyed some of the conquests of past victorious bourgeois revolutions as well. Under these circumstances, there is undoubtedly an element of combined historical tasks with which the proletarian revolution will be faced in every country. The very fact that all revolutionary Marxist organisations in all countries have to struggle in different proportions for certain democratic demands bears testimony to that combined character of all contemporary revolutions.

But it would be pure sophistry to draw the conclusion that no qualitative difference exists between the combined tasks facing the revolution in imperialists, and those facing it in colonial or semi-colonial countries, simply because of the undeniable fact that some tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution remain unsolved in the most advanced imperialist nations, or rise up again there, whereas all the basic tasks of that revolution remain unsolved (or solved only in a miserably uncomplete way) in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Trotsky pointed out in the Transitional Programme that

“the relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional demands in the proletariat’s struggle, their mutual ties and their order of presentation, is determined by the pecularities and specific conditions of each backward country and to a considerable extent – by the degree of its backwardness.” (ibidem, p.41).

This concept is already sufficient to indicate how inadmissable it is to ascribe to the national self-determination struggle of the Quebecois or of the Basque nationality a similar weight in the Canadian revolution or in the revolution on the Iberian peninsula as, say, the national self-determination struggle of the black people in the revolution in Southern Africa.

Both the objective and the strategic aspects of this difference need clarification. Trotsky clarified the objective significance of the struggle for national independence in colonial and semi-colonial countries in the following way:

“Japan and China are not on the same historical plane. The victory of Japan will signify the enslavement of China, the end of her economic and social development, and the terrible strengthening of Japanese imperialism. The victory of China will signify, on the contrary, the social revolution in Japan and the free development, that is to say unhindered by external oppression, of the class struggle in China” (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, p. 108).

Inside imperialist nations, national oppression does not have the same function. The oppressed Polish and Finnish nationalities, far from being on a lower historical plane than Tsarist Russia, were in fact economically and socially richer and industrially more developed than the oppressor nationality. In no way can one say that national oppression meant for them “enslavement” and “the end of economic and social development.” The same applies for the Basque and Catalan nationalities inside Spain, before 1936 and partially even today. National oppression has not stopped or thwarted capitalist development or industrialisation in these oppressed nationalities.

Strategically, the implications are even more far-reaching. In semi-colonial and colonial countries, democratic demands have generally the weight of transitional demands. It is impossible to realise them under capitalism, at least in their collective essence. In imperialist countries, this is not true. Democratic demands will normally not be granted by the decaying imperialist bourgeoisie. But nothing organically, economically, socially, (i.e. in terms of basic class relations), prevents the bourgeoisie from granting them as a “lesser evil” in order to avoid a mass movement approaching a victorious socialist revolution. Organically, the “national bourgeoisie” of the colonial world cannot solve the agrarian question without to a large extent expropriating itself. There is no fundamental obstacle of the same kind to prevent the realisation of free abortion on demand, or freedom of the press, or even a democratic electoral law in an imperialist country. Given a powerful mass upsurge with a revolutionary potential, the imperial bourgeoisie can grant these concessions precisely in order to avoid expropriation.

In normal circumstances, imperialism was in the past never willing to grant national independence to Poland or Finland; nor is it prepared to do so even today to Quebec or Ireland. But given a pre-revolutionary situation, a powerful upsurge of the workers’ struggle, a concrete danger of a “workers’ republic” being set up, there is no fundamental class interest which would prevent imperialism from transforming any such nationality into independent puppet states.

For these reasons the danger of a mass struggle in an imperialist country based solely on demands for national self-determination being absorbed by the bourgeoisie is very real. That is why revolutionary marxists must constantly combine in their propaganda and agitation, demands expressing the right of national self-determination for oppressed minorities with demands of a proletarian and socialist character in order to make this absorption much more difficult. To relate the proletarian demands to a ‘later stage,’ presumably when the mass movement is “more advanced,” is to objectively increase the danger of diversion. This is what Trotsky meant when he argued that we must prevent democratic demands in imperialist countries from becoming “a democratic noose fastened to the neck of the proletariat.”

18. Tail-Ending Imperialist Nationalism

During the summer of 1972, we were confronted with an extraordinary spectacle. Within the space of a month, the Central Committee of the Canadian section, the LSA/LSO, first nearly unanimously adopted the general line of a political resolution expressing support for “Canadian nationalism” as against “US domination of Canada,” and then rejected the very same line by an overwhelming majority.

We don’t want to concentrate on the somewhat disturbing formal aspects of this development. How is it possible that without a word of explanation a majority of Trtoskyist leaders can adopt two completely conflicting positions, within a few weeks of each other, one of which is totally alien to the tradition of Leninism? Canada is an imperialist country. The fact that there is a strong economic weight of foreign imperialists inside Canada does not modify in the least this basic character of Cana-cian society. Nationalism in imperialist nations is essentially a weapon of inter-imperialist competition (and secondarily a weapon of annexionism). Foreign imperialist influence in Tsarist Russia was as big as it is in Canada today. Can one imagine Lenin under any circumstances supporting Great-Russian nationalism in Tsarist Russia because of that economic situation, e.g. Great-Russian nationalism against “foreign domination” by French, British, German, finance capital?

How could an experienced Trotskyist leader like Comrade Ross Dowson, trained for decades in the Trotskyist programme, arrive at such a gravely wrong position? Why did the large bulk of the Central Committee of the Canadian section follow him at first on that line? Because the method of approach to the national question in an imperialist country was wrong – and had been wrong too in the approach to the Quebecois question. Because, contrary to Lenin’s advice, the Canadian comrades did not start from “a clear notion of historical and economic circumstances,” i.e. from an analysis of objective class relations, but from speculations about the moods of the masses. What inspired Comrade Dowson to move to this wrong position was the fact that growing mass support seemed to manifest itself for concrete demands oriented against US imperialism. At the root of his revisionism is the same deviation of tail-endism.

Within imperialist nations, nationalism is one of the main ideological instruments with which the bourgeoisie (and its petty-bourgeois hangers-on) try to weaken and paralyse the proletarian class struggle. In the first world war, “the Kaiser” and the “bloody Tsar” played that role in both imperialist camps. In the second world war, “fascism” and “western plutocracies” were used for the same purposes. Since the late forties, with the help of the CPs and the maoists, the European bourgeoisie is using the same ideological weapon to confuse and divide the workers. The “main enemy” is supposed to be US imperialism (or the Common Market, or some other “foreign” factor. Some extreme maoists even say today that the “main enemies” is “soviet fascist social imperialism”) – but never the imperialist rulers of one’s own country.

To this nationalism, communists have always countered with the slogan: the enemy is in our own imperialist country! It is the task of the workers of each imperialist country to overthrow their own ruling class and its state power, irrespective of the relative importance of that ruling class in the imperialist hierarchy. The only way in which the Canadian working class can decisively further the world struggle against imperialism – including the struggle against US imperialism – is by overthrowing Canadian capitalism and its bourgeois state. Canadian nationalism, by diverting attention from that task towards the supposed priority of struggling against “predominant” US imperialism, creates an ideological and political obstacle on the road towards class consciousness and class organisation of the Canadian proletariat, thereby making the overthrow of the Canadian bourgeois state more difficult, and, incidentally, in the long run reducing the contribution which the Canadian working class could make towards a socialist revolution inside the USA, the only development which can effectively and totally destroy US imperialism.

There are no doubt some “progressive elements” in “Canadian nationalism.” But then, there are also “progressive elements” in proletarian social-patriotism as well, as Trotsky points out in the Transitional Programme. When workers say they want to defend their imperialist fatherland, it is obviously not for the same reasons as those which make the imperialist bourgeoisie raise the banner of patriotism. But does one draw from that the conclusion that, because there is “some progressive content” in workers’ social-patriotism, revolutionary Marxists should advocate social-patriotism? Isn’t the correct conclusion rather that it is necessary to separate the content of these “progressive elements” (by means of concrete immediate, democratic or transitional demands) from their form, social-patriotism, in order to wage a more efficient war against that reactionary form? Why should we depart from that standard procedure in the case of English-Canadian nationalism?

The US capitalists’ stranglehold over Canadian economic life is not something peculiar to the USA as a nation or to the US rulers. It is the result of a specific relationship of forces in the framework of world-wide inter-imperialist rivalries. Yesterday, the Canadian economy was dominated by British imperialism, a domination which was no more “progressive” than that of the US overlords. To-morrow, it could become a big arena of contest between US, European, Japanese and “autonomous” Canadian capitalists. What we oppose in Canada is not “foreign monopolies,” but monopoly capitalism tout court. What Canadian workers should overthrow is the stranglehold of Big Business, and not just of US Big Business. We struggle for the expropriation of all capitalist property, not just US or foreign-owned property.

When he used the formula “Canadians resent blatant violations of Canadian law by US based corporations leading to loss of jobs and trade by Canada” (p.21 of the Discussion Bulletin of the LSA-LSO, No.5, 1972) Comrade Dowson made an additional step of converting himself from a defender of the “progressive” into a defender of the reactionary content of “Canadian Nationalism.” Since when is the working class worried by the “loss of trade” of its own imperialist bourgeoisie? Since when do Marxists counterpose solidarity with the trade interests of their own bourgeoisie to international solidarity of the workers of all competing capitalist countries, against all capitalist competitors? Since when are we worried lest Canadian bourgeois law is violated? How can you ever make a socialist revolution in Canada without violating bourgeois law? Do you educate the workers of your country towards understanding the need for a socialist revolution, if you instill in them simultaneously worries about loss of trade by Canadian capitalism and the sacred character of Canadian bourgeois law?

The main argument used by Comrade Dowson to justify his tail-ending of Canadian nationalism is the assumed inability of the Canadian bourgeoisie to use in its own interests the nationalist sentiments developing in certain strata of the masses, because its fate in “inextricably bound up with the fate of US imperialism.” This argument is completely wrong. The Japanese, West German, British, French, Italian bourgeoisies are as conscious as the Canadian one that “their fate is inextricably bound up with the fate of US imperialism.” But that does not prevent them from developing all kinds of “nationalisms” in order to modify the relationship of forces (the way profits, burdens and spoils are being divided) inside the imperialist alliance. We have for years correctly analysed the situation inside the world imperialist camp as that of inter-imperialist rivalry and competition within the framework of an alliance. Events during the last years, e.g. around the “dollar crisis,” have completely confirmed the correctness of that analysis. But it then follows that the second half of Comrade Dowson’s formula in no way results from the first half. On the contrary: in spite of them being conscious of the fact that, ultimately, they have to hang together in order not to be hung separately, the different imperialist powers, including Canada, certainly try to use all kinds of economic, political and ideological weapons (“Nationalism” and “anti-Americanism” being one of them) in order to further their own specific competitive interests and to weaken the class struggle in their own country.

It follows that anti-US Canadian nationalism has no automatic “anti-imperialist” or even “anti-capitalist” thrust, as Comrade Dowson tries to imply. It could have this only under very concrete conditions of conscious political working class hegemony inside the mass movement, i.e. hegemony by conscious revolutionary Marxist forces, by the Canadian Trotskyists. To consider this hegemony as guaranteed in advance is to be guilty of a gross over-optimism. In reality, there will be a constant struggle between revolutionary and reformist (i.e. objectively pro-class collaboration and pro-bourgeois) political forces inside that mass movement. In this struggle for political hegemony by the revolutionary Marxists, confusion on the issue of nationalism is going to make things easier for the petty-bourgeois reformist and class collaborationist forces, and certainly not for the revolutionary Marxist ones.

Just to mention one example: nationalisation under workers control is not at all the only possible alternative to US domination of Canadian factories. Other ways are to strengthen “our” businessmen in their competition against the American ones (helping them make larger profits and therefore accepting voluntary wage restraints). Another way again would consist in bringing in stronger partnership with British, West-European and Japanese capital. Still another one would be the takeover of certain American-controlled corporations by the Canadian bourgeois state, without workers control, in the interests of “independent” capital accumulation by the private Canadian imperialists. Do we consider any of these alternatives “lesser evils” which we have to support “critically” as against US ownership or control? If not, how can we cover that whole complex situation by supporting “Canadian nationalism”?

The basic weakness of this whole argumentation is its static character. It deals with the question of Canadian nationalism exclusively from the point of view of political forces as they are – or more correctly: as they appear to be – to-day. But in the coming years, there will be many shifts and upheavals in Canadian political life, some of momentous character, as the class struggle sharpens and the crisis of Canadian imperialism and its pluri-national state deepens. It is unwise and unrealistic, to say the least, to exclude under these conditions the desire or ability of sections of the Canadian bourgeoisie to use nationalism in a “gaullist” way, in order to canalise and divert temporarily a mass explosion towards channels compatible with the survival of the capitalist relations of production. To exclude that possibility is to eliminate the difference between Canada as imperialist country and backward semi-colonial and colonial countries. Comrade Dowson’s grave mistakes on the question of Canadian nationalism flow from the wrong method used by the majority of the Canadian section’s leadership in determining its position on Quebecois nationalism too, – a method of tail-ending mass moods, instead of starting from an assessment of the dynamics of class relations and class struggle.

19. Tail-Ending Elevated to the Level of Principle

In his article Why Guevara’s guerilla strategy has no future, Comrade Peter Camejo does not limit himself to rewriting the history of the Cuban revolution in order to strengthen his case against “terrorist guevarism.” He also gives a summary of what the “essence” of “Lenin’s concept of a combat party of the working class” is like in his opinion. Here is this “essence” in his own words:

“1. The party is built around a revolutionary programme. Only those in agreement with its Marxist programme and willing to accept its discipline in action can be members.

“2. In the day-to-day struggle of the working class, individual workers are radicalised. The party seeks to recruit these workers, train them in its programme and organisational methods, and unite them in a single national organisation that acts in a disciplined manner on a national scale.

“3. The party spreads into all the oppressed layers of the population, including the non-working-class sectors. It tries to promote mass struggles and give the masses confidence in their own strength by mobilising them around transitional, democratic, or immediate demands related to their present level of consciousness.

“4. The party promotes whatever forms of struggle are appropriate, using tactics ranging from peaceful marches to armed struggle (including guerilla warfare).

“5. The party seeks to lead the working class and its allies to state power as its fundamental goal, but does not try to substitute itself for the masses.

“6. Each national party is part of a single international party of world proletariat.” (ISR, November 1972, p.33.)

What is striking about this “essence” of the “Leninist concept of the combat party of the working class is that there is nothing specifically “Leninist” about it. Every single one of these six “essential” aspects of Pete Camejo’s “concept of the combat party” could have been gladly supported and sincerely accepted by all the top leaders of classical pre-1914 social-democracy, with Kautsky, Bebel and their companions in the lead.

A revolutionary party programme? After all wasn’t the Erfurt programme of German social-democracy corrected and accepted by Engels himself? Accepting party discipline? What German social-democrat worthy of that name would have rejected that? Recruiting workers “radicalised in daily struggles”: didn’t German social-democracy do this on a scale much wider than the Russian pre-1914 Bolsheviks? Training them in the programme and the organisation methods, uniting them into a single national organisation: wasn’t that also done in an exemplary way? Spreading to all oppressed layers and trying to promote mass struggles and giving the masses self-confidence: who had more success in that field than pre-1914 German social-democracy? Using all forms of tactics, and “promoting whatever forms of struggle are appropriate,” to the point of not even excluding armed insurrection: Bebel and Kautsky agreed wholeheartedly. (In the case “they” took away universal franchise, they were in favour of insurrection). The conquest of state power? Classical German social-democracy repeated that to be its main goal day after day. The need to be part of an “international party of world proletariat”: wasn’t German social-democracy the mainstay of the Second International?

So Pete Camejo has achieved the amazing feat of reducing Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party to that of pre-1914 classical German social-democracy, whose big historical triumphs are known to all. Lenin equals Kautsky: that is the uttermost “essence” of Comrade Camejo’s new message. This is certainly not orthodox Trotskyism, as understood by Trotsky himself. Nor is it Leninism, as developed by Lenin himself. But at least it gives a clearer and more rounded expression of the kind of tail-endist current which are developing today inside the world Trotskyist movement – and to which Comrade Hansen, seized by his all-consuming passion for tracking down and slaying the dangerous dragon of “rural guerilla warfare” and “terrorist guevarism,” turns a strangely blind eye.

What is missing from Comrade Camejo’s definition of a Leninist combat party are precisely the three essential differences between classical social-democracy (i.e, Kautskyism) and Leninism.

First: in the six point definition of Comrade Camejo, revolutionary perspectives and revolutionary struggles are completely missing: The word “revolution” is mentioned only once in relation with the programme. But a party can have a revolutionary programme – whose realisation will be postponed to the distant future, because of the absence of a revolutionary perspectives and revolutionary struggles.

Of course, a party cannot artificially “create” revolutionary perspectives and revolutionary struggles when objective conditions are not ripe for it. This is why before 1905, the degeneration of German social-democracy was only incipient. But once the objective situation changes, once revolutionary perspectives are objectively opening up, the clear understanding of these perspectives, and the preparation of the party for the revolutionary struggles which will inevitably occur, becomes the first major task of revolutionaries, the key difference between Kautsky’s centrists and Leninists. To concentrate all the party’s effort on the preparation for the coming revolution: that was the key aspect of Lenin’s concept of a revolutionary combat party.

Comrade Cannon starts his article The Vanguard Party and the World Revolution (in Fifty Years of World Revolution 1917-1967) with the sentence: “The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organiser and director of the proletarian revolution.” This key aspect of Lenin’s concept of the party is forgotten in Comrade Camejo’s “essence.” The understanding of the revolutionary character of the epoch, the deep assimilation of the “actuality of the revolution,” is flesh and blood of the revolutionary combat party which Lenin built.

Second: the relationship between the vanguard – the party – and the working class is presented unilaterally and mechanically. The party “Tries to promote mass struggles ... by mobilising the masses” around demands “related to their present level of consciousness.” It “seeks to recruit individual workers who become radicalised through these struggles and train them in its programme.” One can summarise this concept as: intervening in mass struggles and cadre building general socialist propaganda and education. But this formula creates more questions than it answers. Does it mean that no revolutionary struggles are possible as long as the party has not recruited enough “radicalised workers” in its own ranks and educated them in its programme? What is this “present level of consciousness” of the masses? Is it always the same? Can it shift rapidly? If yes, has the combat party to wait till it has shifted before it “adapts” its demands? Or can it foresee these shifts and act accordingly? In function of what factors can it foresee these shifts? Will the “present level of consciousness” itself not be to a certain degree a function of the role of the “combat party” inside the mass movement? But if one of the main purposes of the “combat party” is to raise the level of class consciousness of the working class, how then can the “present level of consciousness” in itself be a decisive criterion for determining what kind of demands the party should raise before the masses?

Trotsky, long ago, answered this question in a way which Comrade Camejo doesn’t seem to have understood:

“We know that the mentality of every class of society is determined by objective conditions, by the productive forces, by the economic state of the country, but this determination is not immediately reflected. The mentality is in general backward, in relation to the economic development ...

“The programme must express the objective tasks of the working class rather than the backwardness of the workers. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It is an instrument to overcome and vanquish the backwardness.” (Discussion with Trotsky on The Death Agony of Capitalism, May 1938.)

And in order not to be taken in by any alleged distinctions between the party programme – Trotsky has in mind here not the general programme but the programme of transitional demands for which the party fights on a daily basis, immediately – and the demands raised by the Leninist combat party, Trotsky reminds us of the following:

“What can a revolutionary party do in this situation? In the first place give a clear honest picture of the objective situation, of the historic tasks which flow from this situation, irrespective as to whether or not the workers are today ripe for this. Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the worker ... We must tell the workers the truth, then we will win the best elements.”

In other words: the function of the Transitional Programme is not limited to raising demands “related to the present level of consciousness” of the masses, but to change that level of consciousness in function of the objective needs of the class struggle. That is the key difference between transitional demands on the one hand, and democratic and immediate demands on the other hand (which of course should not be neglected or abandoned by a revolutionary party). Transitional demands form a bridge between the present level of consciousness and the objective historical needs for a socialist revolution. They are transitional precisely inasmuch as they unleash such types of struggles through which successive sectors of the masses learn to understand the need for a socialist revolution, i.e., overcome, in action first, and in consciousness afterwards, the inadequacy of their class consciousness, i.e., the inadequacy of their “present level of consciousness.”

Obviously, if the demands advanced by the vanguard party are unrelated to the given level of consciousness of the masses, they will fail to unleash mass struggles – and in that case the level of consciousness of the masses will not be raised. But on the other hand, if the demands simply express that given level of consciousness, there is no raising of that level either. What is transitional about transitional demands is precisely the movement from the given level of consciousness to a higher level, and not a simple adaptation to the given level.

This key idea of the Transitional Programme, which permeates the first pages of the document itself and all of Trotsky’s writings of the years 1936-40 on the nature of the epoch, are completely missing from Comrade Camejo’s “essence” of a Leninist party. This essence is thereby reduced to tail-ending – only launching such demands and such struggles which are “adapted” to the given (very often backward) mentality and moods of the masses, not to the objective necessities.

The vanguard role of the party inside the mass movement thereby disappears. Tail-endism becomes elevated to the level of a principle, or a fine art, and this is served up as the “essence” of Leninism. One can be sure that, reading Camejo, Lenin would have answered, following an illustrious example: “Sorry, if that is the case, I’m not a Leninist.”

Third: Another essential dimension of the Leninist concept of the revolutionary party is missing from Comrade Camejo’s “essence”: the dimension of revolutionary initiative. It is true that Comrade Camejo wants the party to “promote mass struggles by mobilising them” around a certain number of demands. But this is formulated in such a vague way, immediately weighed down with the consideration of the “present level of consciousness” of these masses, and further restricted by the warning against “the party substituting itself for the masses,” that the absence of the word “initiative” is by no means an accident.

The very difference between a revolutionary party and a propaganda group is the capacity of the former of becoming a force “influencing, organising and directing broad masses in action.” (James P. Cannon: The Vanguard Party and the World Revolution, op. cit., p.357) “Promoting” mass struggles in different ways, starting from being good trade unionists and having cadres who are accepted by the workers in the shops as good union leaders, is one thing. Taking the initiative to organise and being capable of leading anti-capitalist mass struggles as a revolutionary party, is something quite different. As long as you have not reached that stage, you do not have a Leninist party in the real meaning of the word. This third key dimension of the Leninist concept of the revolutionary party is again completely missing from Comrade Camejo’s “essence.” One of the “essential” characteristics of the classical centrism of the Kautsky-Bauer school was precisely this inability of perceiving the need of revolutionary initiatives by the party, “relationship of forces,” “objective conditions,” “the mood of the masses” deciding everything always in a fatalistically predetermined way. Leninism separates itself from that type of centrism precisely by its capacity to understand how revolutionary initiatives can modify the relationship of forces. Of course it cannot do so regardless of concrete conditions and circumstances; it cannot replace scientific correct analysis of the co-relationship of forces by adventuristic miscalculations and voluntaristic day-dreaming. But the goal of the analysis is always to change existing conditions in favour of the proletarian revolution, not to adapt to the given situation. All this Comrade Camejo doesn’t seem to include in the “essence” of Lenin’s concept of the party ...


2. The following is the English version of the French. The first two paragraphs were taken from the English version of Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 31, pages 145 and 148. The last two paragraphs were translated from the French as they do not appear in the English Collected Works of Lenin.

“... the Communist Party, as the avowed champion of the proletarian struggle to overthrow the bourgeois yoke, must base its policy, in the national question too, not on abstract and formal principles but, first, on a precise appraisal of the specific historical situation and, primarily, of economic conditions; second, on a clear distinction between the interests of the oppressed classes, of working and exploited people, and the general concept of national interests as a whole, which implies the interests of the ruling class; third, on an equally clear distinction between the oppressed, dependent and subject nations and the oppressing, exploiting and sovereign nations, in order to counter the bourgeois-democratic lies that play down this colonial and financial enslavement of the vast majority of the world’s population by an insignificant minority of the richest and advanced capitalist countries, a feature characteristic of the era of finance capital and imperialism.”

“Recognition of internationalism hi word, and its replacement in deed by petty-bourgeois nationalism and pacifism, in all propaganda agitation and practical work, is very common, not only among the parties of the Second International, but also among those which have withdrawn from it, and often even among parties which now call themselves communist ... Petty-bourgeois nationalism proclaims as internationalism the mere recognition of the equality of nations, and nothing more. Quite apart from the fact that this recognition is purely verbal, petty-bourgeois nationalism preserves national self-interest intact ...”

“In the oppressed countries, there exist two movements that each day move further and further apart: the first is the bourgeois-democratic nationalist movement that has a program of political independence and bourgeois order; the other is the movement of the poor and backward peasants and workers for their emancipation from all forms of exploitation.

“The first attempts to lead the second and has often succeeded to a certain extent. But the Communist International and the parties belonging to it must combat this tendency and seek to develop independent class sentiments in the working masses of the colonies.”

Last updated on 9.10.2005