Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

SDS and PL differ on the national question

Published: Guardian, July 12, 1969. 
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The principal contradiction in the world today is that between U.S. imperialism and the nations it oppresses. The sharpest blows against U.S. imperialism are being dealt by the nationally oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America and within the U.S. – from the five principles of SDS unity proposed by the revolutionary youth movement faction at the SDS convention.

The principal contradiction in the world today is between U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism on the one hand, and the world’s oppressed worker-peasant masses on the other. – from a speech by Jeff Gordon of the Progressive Labor party during the SDS convention.

The theoretical basis for the expulsion of the Progressive Labor party from SDS has its roots in the differences between the statements above. Some may think it a small matter or a technical point; it is not. For what a revolutionary movement holds to be the “principal contradiction in the world today” determines not only the direction and content of its theoretical work, but shapes all aspects of its program, organization and practical activity. It determines how one assesses and relates to revolutionary struggles, both international and local.

This became clear in the split which developed in SDS chapters over the past year–PL/worker-student alliance caucuses and the revolutionary youth movement groups were diametrically opposed on almost every aspect of political activity.

The theoretical differences between the two groups centers on what Marxists have called “the national question.” The issue is the relation between nationalism and nationalist movements, and the international working-class revolutionary movement for socialism.

Marxists originally saw nationalism as an aspect of revolutions of the rising bourgeoisie, of the necessity of the new capitalists to destroy feudal relations of production and establish nationally integrated markets and states. As such, nationalism was part of the bourgeois revolution and served, in the main, the interests of the ascendent capitalist class.

But as capitalism developed, the need for markets forced the ruling classes of the new national states to go beyond their borders seeking cheap labor, raw materials, outlets for goods and superprofits from the export of capital itself. This was the system of imperialism: as Lenin described it, the highest stage of capitalism. Its effect was the division of the world into two camps: a handful of oppressor nations and the vast majority of the world’s peoples in subjugated or oppressed nations.

Marx foresaw this situation even in his time, before the full flowering of imperialism, in the relationship between the workers of Ireland and England and between black freedmen and white workers in. the U.S. Marx took the position, unpopular at the time, that English workers had to support, as a precondition of their own emancipation, the Irish people’s national demands for independence.

Lenin went even further: “... The central point in the Social Democratic [communist] program must be the distinction between oppressing and oppressed nations, which is the essence of imperialism, which is falsely evaded by the social chauvinists....” Also:

“The weight of emphasis in international education of the workers in the oppressing countries must necessarily consist in advocating and urging them to demand freedom of secession for oppressed countries. Without this there can be no internationalism. It is our right and duty to treat every socialist of an oppressing nation who fails to conduct such propaganda as an imperialist and a scoundrel. This is an absolute demand, even if the chance of secession being possible and feasible before the introduction of socialism is only one in a thousand.” Lenin believed that black people in the U.S. should be considered an oppressed nation.

This distinction became even more important after the victory of socialism in several countries, which changed the nature of national and class relationships all over the world and particularly underlined the importance of national liberation struggles in colonized countries. Before the victory of socialism, Marxists considered anti-imperialist, national-democratic revolutions in oppressed nations as part of the bourgeois revolution, although they supported many of them as progressive.

The victory of socialism ushered in a new era. Anti-colonial, national-democratic revolutions were now seen as part of the new world revolution, the proletarian socialist revolution. The link between national-democratic revolutions and socialist revolutions in oppressed nations was developed in its clearest form by Mao Tse-tung’s theory of the “new democratic” revolution and by the example of the Chinese revolution itself.

This was the theory of the “two-stage” revolution in feudal and semi-feudal countries oppressed by imperialism. Since these Countries were oppressed from the outside, the first order of business was an anti-imperialist war of national liberation. Secondly, since the countries were also feudal, there could not be a direct transition to socialism. But since the local bourgeoisies, also suffering under feudalism and imperialism, were too weak to organize, lead and win national liberation, neither could an independent capitalist system be established.

Thus Mao posited “new democracy,” an economy, state and culture neither capitalist nor socialist, but something new–a “first stage” definitely leading to the “second stage” of socialism. The new democratic revolution and new democratic state would consist of a united front-an alliance of all revolutionary classes that could be united against imperialism, including the patriotic bourgeoisie but led by the working class.

In the united front and new democratic state, nationalism had a progressive role to play, especially in the struggle against national subjugation: The Chinese summed up their position this way: “On the national question the world outlook of the proletarian party is internationalism and not nationalism. In the revolutionary struggle it supports progressive nationalism and opposes reactionary nationalism. It must always draw a clear line between itself and bourgeois nationalism, to which it must never fall captive.” Or as Mao put it, “In wars of national liberation, patriotism is applied internationalism.”

The position of revolutionary Marxists has always been to oppose the nationalism of oppressor nations as reactionary across the board. But with nationalism of oppressed nations, they have always distinguished between progressive and reactionary tendencies. Oh this point, the views of SDS and PL are in complete opposition.

The principle at stake is socialist internationalism. So long as imperialism exists, so long as one nation oppresses another, revolutionaries in oppressor nations especially must uphold the principle of equality among nations and the right of self-determination and full equal rights of nationally oppressed peoples. They do this particularly among the working class of the oppressor nation, as the precondition for international proletarian unity and as the key weapon in the struggle against opportunism in the ranks of the working class.

On the other hand, revolutionaries in oppressed nations have the obligation of struggling against and isolating reactionary nationalism in their ranks, while supporting progressive nationalism. They must fight for solidarity with other oppressed nations and class solidarity with the working classes of the oppressor nations.

This is not a contradiction, but two sides of the same coin. Any other form of internationalism is more akin to the “internationalism” of the imperialists.

PL no longer holds to the principles outlined above, which flow from a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the national question. It no longer makes a distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations; it puts national-democratic revolutions on the side of the bourgeoisie, and rewrites the history of the Chinese revolution, ignoring the concept of new democracy and saying the Chinese proved you could “skip stages” and go straight from feudalism to socialism.

In short, PL ignores most of the experience of the international socialist movement from Marx through Mao. It even admits this in the August issue of PL magazine: “... We found it hard to grasp the complexities of Lenin and Stalin on this question [the national question]. We don’t pretend that what we do or say is necessarily what they meant or did themselves.”

What PL has done has been to find a new principal contradiction in the world, that between “imperialism-revisionism” and “oppressed worker-peasant masses.” It finds an identity between revisionism (the particular form of opportunism calling itself “Marxist” and based on the privileged sector of the working class) and all forms of nationalism.

PL’s error has been to ignore or discount the main form of that sector’s opportunism: white national chauvinism (placing the selfish “interests” of the white U.S. working class above the class interests of the international working class). PL represents the false interests of the privileged sector of the white U.S. working class and, in practice, will probably become more like it with each passing day.