Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

T.H. Andre

Progressive Labor Party: ’All Nationalism Is Reactionary’

Published: The Stanford Daily, Volume 156, Issue 29, 5 November 1969. 
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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(This is the second half of an article concerning various factions of the radical movement. Today’s article is on the Progressive Labor Party.)

* * *

The Progressive Labor Party claims Marxism should be confronted in its own terms. As said, the controversy is over the stand it has taken on the question of nationalism. Right now, this is not “only theory” but has led them to denounce the present policies of the NLF and the DRV for the solution of the Vietnamese war: “All nationalism is reactionary”; they specify, “all contemporary nationalism.” The refutation of this conclusion requires a lengthy (though still schematic) recital of marxist political theory, perhaps excusable as a useful reminder of basic ideas.

Marxism repudiates “romantic nationalism,” an ideology that would divide mankind into separate distinct nations, have those nations constituted into sovereign States, whose claim is that the freedom and fulfillment of man are to be worked out in terms of his national identity, his goals expressed in terms of the national totality however defined.

It is true enough that this kind of nationalism is pervasive in the world today, especially in countries that have nothing to offer their people but ideologies; used to justify a reactionary sacralisation of the nation, hence of the State, in units whose boundaries were drawn in Berlin or London; in another presently engaged in an imperial expansion as if to retaliate for 2000 years of oppression.

But marxism does not say that all nationalism is reactionary; it so happens also that certain contemporary nationalist movements are progressive, in the present historical conditions.

Materialist Understanding

Marxism is characterized by the materialist understanding of history: This says that the motives of historical movements are the interests, in particular (but not only) material ones, of individuals and groups.

Within a nation there is a “national class” that serves the interests of the nation by serving its own; the enlightened patriot supports the proletarian struggle because it is the true national class, that does not have any vested interest in the oppression of other groups, the class whose interests are socialistic.

When the Communist Manifesto claims that “proletarians have no fatherland,” this is not anti-nationalism; it means that the capitalist society has deprived proletarians of any participation in charting the national history (viz. colonial situations).


Socialism will give them nationhood. Put plainly, it is because nationhood has substantial reality.

The PLP is right to this extent: No nationalism has an unconditional right to the support of the socialist movement. The socialist’s conditions are that the nationalistic interests should coincide with the advancement of the proletarian struggle.

If one admits that even the proletarians of the United States are privileged by the present capitalist system because of the exploitation of other countries, then the true “imperial” (rather than national) class is the oppressed of those countries: These are the ones whose struggle a non-myopic socialist ought to support: These struggles advance the “imperial society” towards the socialist ideal of non-exploitation.

The fundamental premises of historical materialism forbid PL to condemn the nationalism of these people. The answer to PL’s accusation of the Vietnamese is the answer to the question, why did Marx see the proletariat as the progressive class? Because its particularistic interests coincide with those of mankind.

There was a time in the history of Europe when the bourgeoisie was the progressive class. The same thing as of now with Vietnamese, Palestinian, African nationalism, if it is anti-imperialist.

(At this point I am willing to grant a parenthesis to Bruce Franklin’s objection to the PL Party: You should not attack the leadership of the most heroic anti-imperialist movement; we are Americans, if we were Vietnamese we would not dare do it . . . But this is against historical materialism, in other words, idealistic: The leaders are believed to be the conscience or consciousness of the Vietnamese struggle, so that the motive force lays in their prestige and authority, i.e., charisma; there is some of that by now, sure, but isn’t Franklin succumbing to an (anglo-) saxon hero worship? The Vietnamese are fighting not for their leadership but for their land, their children, their political economic integrity.)


But the PL Party’s position is also authoritarian: There is no voluntaristic nation. People are not moved to form a nation by some nationalist ideology. A national community is formed by objective conditions already there, consequences of extended historical process, that bind and identify people together, that make them want to live together.

Few countries have as extended and vigorous a history of nationalism as Vietnam, an almost secular resistance against foreign domination: This resistance of communal integrity is what PL in effect denies as it condemns the nationalist aspect of this war.

PL wants to ignore the objective local conditions, causes and aims of the war, and impose its ends over those of the Vietnamese people. The French Communist Party too wanted to ignore nationalism: What were the Algerians to say to a marxist who told them their independence would be won in Paris not in Algeria?

The revolutionary duty to criticize presupposes an ability to understand.

It is sad that the radicals should be so primitive and rural in the society that is at the vanguard of international capitalism. When will they break out of this ivory tower, “an old rotten tooth”?

There is a certain complacency no doubt in the knowledge that one is living at the heart of the problem. Knowing oneself to be at the vanguard of the vanguard inevitably fosters racist temptations, now expressed as provincialism.

Responsibility Greater

These people’s responsibility is greater because they are in the most important country, and begins with giving up parochial perspectives.

Even PL’s doctrine seems to imply a practical imperative to channel all energies into the internal US scene: This is strategically justified yet there is there the prejudice similar to that of Marx and Engels towards Germany and the “Western European” proletariat in general. Lenin proved them wrong; as he proved PL wrong on nationalism by rallying the nationalistic movements to the revolution against czarism.

One final remark: People were apparently disturbed by what they thought to be quasi-racist overtones in Malik’s statement that he is from the Third World and does know better. That evening, the fact did seem to be that only he knew what goes on in the Third World, as when arguing for nationalism against PL. Besides, as said, there is an anti-authoritarian justification for such a statement. Malik is no racist.

What he was doing was pointing out the ignorance of the people who were there and the irresponsibility of their statements. A proverb says, “When a man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.”

(T. H. Andre is a graduate student in Economics.)