Peck & Max Shachtman

Misunderstanding or Folly?

Two Letters on the “National Question”

(June/August 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, pp. 270–272.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following letter appeared in the Mid-July, 1944, issue of the Socialist Appeal, official newspaper ol the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Trotskyist organization of Great Britain.

The reply to this amazing distortion of the position of the Workers Party of this country on the national question in Europe was written by Max Shachtman, national secretary of the WP.

June 1944

Dear Comrade:

I have just heard the Shachtmanite position on the national question. His position, as I understand it, is based on a complete misunderstanding of what is actually happening in the occupied countries. At basis, it is defeatist in the worst sense of the term, of course, and leads straight into the camp of class collaboration and social chauvinism.

Just in case there are some doubting elements in the ranks of the Fourth International, I think a few words might be useful. You are, of course, at liberty to use them as you choose.

First of all it is necessary to get a very clear idea of just what the Committees of National Liberation are. What I have to say applies particularly to the one in Italy which I have been able to observe at first hand. Undoubtedly there will be differences in the various countries, reflecting the intensity of the struggle and the class consciousness of the masses. But in general, I feel confident, we will find the same conditions basic.

The Committee of National Liberation is not a mass organization. This is the first thing to get clear in our heads. It is an organization of political parties. The masses do not in any way attempt to express themselves through the committee, but turn, invariably, to their own organizations – the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the trade unions.

In Italy, the Christian Democrats (Catholics), whose paper carries across its front page the slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite in Christ” (without acknowledgments), carry considerable weight among the poor peasantry and the more backward elements of the proletariat. But in general it can be said that the workers have remained loyal to their traditional organizations. Cut off for twenty years from active participation in politics, the workers are easily confused, but their instincts are very sound and, even while the flock into the Socialist Party and Communist Party, they manifest their distrust of the National Committee, which they see, unmistakably, as the instrument of collaboration with the national bourgeoisie and with Anglo-American imperialism.

Both these parties are rife with discontent, which is coming daily more and more into the open. Almost every issue of L’Unita, the Communist Party paper, records another expulsion from the party for “factionalism.” These expelled elements, together with like-minded people still in the party and the Socialist Party, have formed themselves into the “Fraction of the Left of the CP and SP” and they publish a weekly paper, Il Proletario. Right now they have a Trotskyist tendency but this will undoubtedly take on a more positive aspect in time. Among them are some of the most important trade unionists in the country, who command a great deal of popular support

The fact that it has not been possible to transform the Committee of National Liberation into the nucleus of a mass movement is unmistakable proof that the Italian workers are not vitally interested in “national liberation” as such. In any case, they see in the committee just a tool of one set of imperialists and its aim, the substitution of one army of occupation by another. More than anything else, the Italian proletariat today is inspired by October. That is why they are entering the Communist Party in great numbers – and leaving it almost just as quickly precisely because they discover that this if not the party of October after all but simply a competitor with the Socialist Party in the gentle and despicable business of collaboration.

”Opportunism” is a word which is today on the lips of almost every Italian worker. Of course, this situation is only hopeful of something is done about it. Failing the necessary steps it will lead to complete disillusionment and to a setback for years, maybe decades. But the atmosphere is very good on the whole and the weather stimulating.

About Shachtman’s theory of the colonization of Europe, I need not say much. I don’t think this preposterous theory can find much support among us. The Germans conquered and occupied Europe out of military necessity. Their goal was the richer loot of the British Empire and the sparsely developed areas of the Ukraine; not to turn countries like France and Italy into colonies. Rather she wished to convert them into junior partners in exploiting the world – the same fate that Yankee imperialism holds out for us.

The whole discussion on the national question should not take up much of our time. But where does Shachtman stand with regard to Russia now? If the workers must be for national liberation in France, Italy, etc., then what about the Soviet proletariat? Has he come through the back door to take up the position of defensism he so decisively rejected?


All the best,

August 12, 1944

National Committee
Revolutionary Communist Party
London, England

Dear Comrades:

The letter by Comrade Peck in the Socialist Appeal of mid-July, 1944, dealing with “the Shachtmanite position on the national question” represents such a gross misstatement of our point of view that we are compelled to address this correction to you.

We do not know exactly where, or from whom, Comrade Peck “just heard” our position. As you are surely aware, our views on the “national question in Europe,” or, more accurately, on the struggle for the socialist revolution in Europe today have been stated at great length in detailed resolutions adopted by our party and in numerous expository and polemical articles that have appeared in our press. Comrade Peck suggests, without saying so in so many words, that our position calls for support of the Committee of National Liberation in Italy. There is not a single line written by us on the “national question in Europe” or on the revolution in Italy that in any way warrants such a suggestion – I repeat, not one single line. Exactly the opposite is the case. As can be easily and amply demonstrated, we have repeatedly said that the principle prerequisite for an effective struggle against the imperialist coalitions now dominating Italy, and against the Italian bourgeoisie and its social order, is an uncompromising struggle against the Committee of National Liberation.

What Our Position Really Is

In The New International of April 1944, we pointed out, and not for the first time, that the Committees of National Liberation “are mostly bureaucratic committees without any real organizational strength or following.” With regard to the new government set up by the Committee of National Liberation, we said:

What the masses want NOW, these “democrats” will probably continue to promise them ... in the future. Will it give them democratic rights, the genuine right of free press, free speech, free assembly, the right to vote for a government of their own, a national constituent assembly, which will decide the government of Italy? Yes ... When?

Tomorrow, always tomorrow, and never today. “After the war,” they say. But the people want these rights now, and promises made by those who have already condemned themselves by their cynical violation of solemn promises are not a substitute.

The events leading up to the second stage of the Italian revolution that has just opened emphasize what we and, we are glad to note, our Italian comrades, whose first proclamation we printed recently, have said from the beginning. The people of Italy cannot expect to get their liberation from foreign imperialism, and they cannot expect it from the Stalinists, the Sforza-Croce “democrats” or the right-wing socialists. The winning of their freedom is their own job, and it can be achieved only in the course of an independent struggle.

Real freedom, peace, security, abundance – these are not to be won short of the victory of socialism throughout Europe.

In this call, our Italian comrades once more show that the revolutionary socialists do not merely talk about democracy -and democratic rights, but are the most consistent and fearless fighters for it. They show that the fight for democracy for the masses of the people lies along the road of the fight for socialism and is best conducted under the leadership of revolutionary socialists.

Our comrades are not deceiving themselves, however, or the workers to whom they speak. They do not ask the workers to look to AMG for the realization of their legitimate demands. They do not tell them to expect it of the King, the bankers, the industrialists, the “ex-fascists” like Badoglio, or even from Sforza and his ilk. To the contrary, in their very first pronouncement, our Italian comrades warned the workers against such illusions. Their warning has already been more than amply justified, and the recent decision of the “Six Parties” serves to underscore it.

Our Italian comrades tell the workers that they must organize and fight for these rights, that they themselves must acquire these rights, including the calling of a National Constituent Assembly. To organize themselves most democratically and most effectively, the workers, soldiers and peasants of Italy, say our comrades, must organize their own councils. It is in such organization that the future of the Italian revolution is assured.

From our standpoint, the course recommended by our Italian comrades is not only thoroughly wise and correct, but corresponds perfectly to the needs and interests of the people of Italy.

A dozen more articles and documents could be cited along the same lines. But this quotation should suffice to prove that Comrade Peck is guilty either of crude disloyalty in political discussion, or of allowing his imagination to outstrips the facts.

This letter permits only two comments on Peck’s supercilious remarks “about Shachtman’s theory of the colonization of Europe.”

What Is This “Colonization”?

First: He says that the Germans occupied Europe out of military necessity and that their goal was the loot of the British Empire and the Ukraine – “ not to turn countries like France and Italy into colonies. Rather she wished to convert them into junior partners in exploiting the world – the same thing that Yankee imperialism holds out for us.” Anyone capable of making this statement is obviously capable of not allowing his study of Lenin’s Imperialism to make the slightest impression on his mind. Anyone capable of believing that American imperialism holds out for its British partner the same fate that German imperialism accorded the bourgeoisie of Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Norway, and even Holland and France, is also capable of dividing his body and his mind between the earth and the planet Mars.

Second: Comrade Peck must surely be acquainted with the memorandum drawn up by leading comrades of the Italian Fourth Internationalists which gives their views on the situation in Italy. The memorandum states that the “main enemy” in the South of Italy is Anglo-American imperialism, and the “main enemy” in the North is German imperialism. He must be, I repeat, very well acquainted with these characterizations. It is equally evident to us, however, that he is not at all acquainted with their political implications. The revolutionary struggle for democratic rights which both we and our Italian comrades advocate, is directed mainly (although, of course, not exclusively) at these “main enemies,” and directed at them not in agreement with and not in support of the Committee of National Liberation, which serves one of these enemies, but against it as well.

“Where,” asks Peck finally, “does Shachtman stand with regard to Russia now? If the workers must be for national liberation in France, Italy, Poland, etc., then what about the Soviet proletariat?” It would be more to the point to ask Peck where he stands with regard to the subjugation or impending subjugation by Stalin of the Ukraine, the three Baltic countries, Poland, and the other nations oppressed by the Moscow autocracy. We, along with Trotsky, “were and remain against the seizure of new territories by the Kremlin.” We, along with Trotsky, are for the independence of the Ukraine and of all other nations under the Stalinist yoke. We are for the Russian proletariat performing the elementary duty of raising these demands to the top of its program of struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution. If Comrade Peck would not confine himself to “just hearing the Shachtmanite position” but devote himself to reading the easily available material on the subject, his questions would be superfluous.

A final point: It would be interesting to record the reaction of Comrade Peck if he “just heard” of the position on the “national question” of the French and German sections of the Fourth International. We have certain differences with the position of the French and German comrades on this question, as is known. But what separates us is a few cracks. What separates all three of us from Peck, however, is a gulf.

We hope that you will find it possible to make this clarification of our position available to those whom Comrade Peck’s letter can only mislead.


Fraternally yours
Max Shachtman
National Secretary, Workers Party

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