Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Group (Marxist-Leninist)

Our Tasks on the National Question

Against Nationalist Deviations in Our Movement


The lines of the BWC and the RU are concessions to nationalism, not because they consider Blacks in the U.S. from the standpoint of the national question, but because regardless of the objective status of Blacks both organizations set out to grant the right to self-determination and rationalize the co-existence of nationalist tendencies within the communist movement. Both organizations bow before the nationalist deviation and so create positions on the national question that not only accommodate, but foster and perpetuate opportunism in our movement.

Within the past two months, the movement has been treated with two polemical works that are the natural compliment to the opportunism of the BWC and the RU. The Critique of the Black Nation Thesis, penned by Harry Chang of the Racism Research Project, is something of a manifesto issued from the liberal camp, from the “friends of the people”, and holds that treating Blacks in the U.S. in terms of the national question is a form of racism. Defeat the “National Question” Line in the U.S. and Unite to Fight Racism, by the New Voice, essentially develops the same position as Professor Chang, the difference being the New Voice puts itself within the communist camp. Both works set out to deny the existence of a Black nation in the U.S., and from that basis attempt to develop a “Marxist” analysis of racism. Both accuse the RU and the BWC, among others, of committing nationalist deviations, not because of the opportunist way in which the BWC and the RU handle the national question, but because theyconsider it a national question at all.

Just as the BWC and the RU take to theoretical opportunism in order to prove the right to self-determination applies to Blacks regardless of their national status, the New Voice and the Chang group indulge in a “separate but equal” form of opportunism in order to prove Blacks never were a nation. The BWC and the RU defend the national question approach, saying that to treat Black oppression from the standpoint of “racism pure and simple” is a racist error. The New Voice and Dr. Chang defend the “race” thesis just as adamantly, saying that to treat Black oppression as a national question is a nationalist error. Evidently, there must be a contradiction between racial oppression and national oppression. From one side we hear that the “race” analysis fails to understand the full scope of Black oppression. From the other side we hear that the “national” analysis “negates racial oppression altogether”. Each side points a fat finger at the other, accusing their opponents of “liberal racism”. Thus we have all the makings for a “two-line struggle”, with the national questioners at one pole, and the “race” theorizers at the” other.

Is there a contradiction between race and nationality? In defining a nation, Stalin wrote:

This community is not racial, nor is it tribal. The modern Italian nation was formed from Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, and so forth. The French nation was formed from Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons, and so on. The same should be said of the British, the Germans, and others, who were formed into nations from peoples of different races and tribes.

Thus, a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people. J.V. Stalin Marxism and the National Question p.9

It follows from this that race alone is not sufficient to define a nation, that nations may be composed of many distinct races, and that the racial composition of a nation is a secondary feature of its national existence. It follows, too, that the fact that some nations are multi-racial in composition in no way prevents other nations from being composed almost entirely of one race. What concerns us here is how a people, or races of people, have evolved historically into a single national unit.

The racial composition of a nation predominates when the bourgeoisie of that nation uses racial distinctions as a means to divide its “own” workingclass. The bourgeoisie has two aims in mind. First, to fragment and isolate the workforce, to pit worker against worker, and thus retard the development of class consciousness and solidarity. And second, to justify the necessary economic stratification of the workforce under capitalism and keep the entire workforce at minimum and below minimum rage. Capitalism requires a technical strata, the skilled trades, a large reservoir of unskilled labor, and a large pool of workers for labor-intensive branches of production. It makes little difference to the bourgeoisie which workers occupy what strata, but such stratification is facilitated by throwing the minority racial groups to the bottom. The bourgeoisie can then rationalize an economic necessity – the stratification of labor – as an arbitrary and racial “necessity”. Only the minorities are “fit” for such work. These two aspects are complimentary, since to the degree that the workforce is integrated within the existing stratification, the racial “basis” for stratification disappears, and its real basis becomes clear.

Racial composition also predominates when a nation oppresses or is oppressed by another nation having a different racial composition. The oppressing bourgeoisie in this case uses the racial difference, as it uses any distinction between people, as a means to strengthen its hold over the working population of both nations. The workers of the oppressor nation are fed a steady diet of racial superiority and jingoism. The labor aristocracy, as always, receives its bribe, except that it is now “color-coded” to foster race chauvinism among the majority of workers. Economism, which objectively has nothing to do with racial categories, is now reinforced by the color line, since, as the bourgeoisie never tires of promising, membership in the “proper” race is billed as a passport to economic success.

As in its home policy, the oppressing bourgeoisie uses the racial aspect as a means to divide the workers of both nations and thus to prevent them from developing class solidarity. It likewise rationalizes the international stratification of labor. The economic division of the workforce within the oppressor nation finds its international compliment in the division between the advanced countries and the colonies and semi-colonies. It makes no difference to the imperialist bourgeoisie whether the workers of the oppressed nation are of one color or another. All that matters is that they be kept at a subsistence, and often starvation, wage, that the natural wealth of the nation be easily accessible, and that there is sufficient economic development for imperialism to dump excess goods. None of these phenomena have anything to do with race, but a racial difference provides the oppressing bourgeoisie with a chauvinistic cover behind which it can go about making the maximum profit.

Such are the basic features of the racial category within and between nations.

Race is both a biological and sociological concept, and predates the national question in that we find people of different races before we find people composed into nations. The social definition of racial categories, like everything else under class society, depends on which class is creating the definition. The objective reality, in this case the reality of racial differences, is approached in one or another way depending on what material interests are at stake. The doctrine of racial superiority (and this theory has the capacity of casting any race into the superior role) attempts to justify class oppression on the grounds of “natural” necessity. As Chernyshevsky said of the landed aristocracy in the South:

The Southern states of North America were not the first powerful societies to be based on slavery. The theory expounded by the learned advocates of slavery in the Southern states was not essentially new. The ancient Greeks justified their rule over slaves on the grounds that the bulk of the slaves were people of a different breed. This is what Aristotle, for example, said. He divided people into categories, one appointed by nature to rule over the other, whom nature had destined to be slaves. N.G. Chernyshevsky “An Essay on the Scientific Conception of Certain Problems of World History” Selected Philosophical Essays p.201

Whereas the ancient ruling classes were intelligent people and could adequately articulate their own class interests, our modern bourgeoisie are too busy stuffing their faces to get out more than a handful of words. They therefore hire mouthpieces, professors, academicians and scientists, to do their talking for them.

The planters were so powerful that cautious people in the Northern states thought it dangerous to quarrel with them. They declared that if the Union legislature encroached on their “slaveholder right their states would secede from the Union and form a separate Confederation. Intimidated by their threat, the majority of the inhabitants of the free states yielded to the planters and allowed them to govern the Union. In books, this compliance found reflection in that scientists of the Northern states went over to the side of the advocates of the planters’ race theory. ...

Just as scientists in the Northern states yielded to the authority of the Southern advocates of slavery, so the majority of the European scientists yielded to the authority of the North American scientists on the race question. ...

But the European scientists should also have asked themselves whether the North American scientists had really and impartially studied the facts about which they spoke with such conviction, whether they had honestly communicated at least those facts which are obvious and strike the eye without special study. The European scientists did not deem this necessary. They were whites; the planters’ race theory flattered the white race; why should they doubt its soundness?

The Northern states were intimidated by the planters. Europe heard that the planters were threatening to break up the Union; she knew that secession would lead to civil war; civil war would hinder work on the cotton plantations, and Europe would suffer from cotton shortage. ...If the Northern states were victorious, Europe would be left without cotton and this would lead to a grave economic disaster; therefore it was in Europe’s interest that the Northern states should continue to submit to the Southern states and that slavery should continue in those states. That is what the majority of the influential people in Europe thought at that time. N.G. Chernyshevsky Ibid. p.203-204

The ruling classes advocate racial superiority as a means to support their real economic superiority over production. When production is based on slavery, the race theory justifies slavery. When production is based on wage-slavery, the race theory is used to justify the hierarchy of wage-slavery. But it is important to remember here that the mechanism of wage-slavery is one thing, the mechanisms of its justification are quite another. The bourgeoisie uses race distinctions, like it uses all other distinctions, to justify an economic distribution that would exist even if the workforce were entirely homogeneous. Racial oppression is therefore not the root of a particular people’s exploitation (since that root is wage-slavery) but only one, arbitrary and completely conventional aspect attached to class oppression.

When Europe began its traffic in slavery in Africa, the recipients of European hospitality were not nations, but tribes. The bondage of Africans was thus not national oppression, or drawn on national lines, but racial oppression, the selective oppression of a people based on the color line. It goes without saying that if slave labor had not been so accessible in Africa, or if Africa had been white (or Europe black), the racial aspect of slave labor would not have been so pronounced. The bourgeoisie would have found some other justification. With the abolition of the slave system, the color line continues, not as a justification for wage-slavery in general, but as a means to rationalize racial divisions within the workingclass and assign the minority races to the lowest strata of the workforce. Formerly the minority races were “fit” only for slavery; now they are “fit” only for the bottom levels of wage-slavery. Someone must occupy the lower depths, and if the bourgeoisie can guarantee its occupancy by asserting the color line, all the better for the bourgeoisie.

What sort of oppression is this? It is first and foremost class oppression, in that the racial minorities are part and parcel of the workingclass as a whole. But it is class oppression directed at a specific racial grouping of the workingclass, aimed at splitting the class and keeping the general wage scale to a subsistence level. In that racial discrimination is necessary to divide the majority of the racial group from the rest of the workingclass, it spills over to other classes within the minority, and thus effects all members of the minority race.

What is the difference, then, between national oppression and racial oppression? Both are directed at a specific people. Both hit all classes within that peoples. Both serve to divide the working population, either within a single nation, or between nations. And both are justifications for economic exploitation. But clearly, national and racial oppression are not the same. What separates one from the other is the nature of nationality and the nature of race.

Race is a secondary aspect of nationality, since nations may be composed of one race, many distinct races, or race mixtures. At the same time, nationality is a secondary aspect of the racial category, since one race may evolve into many distinct nations. A nation is composed of definite social relationships, rooted historically on a given territory, and is specific to capitalist development. A race, on the other hand, is primarily a biological, and only secondarily a social, category. It is not limited to a specific mode of production, or a specific territory, but travels through history, from one region to another, is dissolved or transformed through inter-marriage with other races, etc.

When a nation is oppressed, its aspects come under oppression. The oppressor nation exploits the labor-power and raw materials of the subject nation, and to minimize resistance, suppresses the native language and culture. It attempts to turn the subject nation into a replica of the mother country, a backward and easily exploitable province. A race, on the other hand, is not defined by culture, territory or language, and thus when a race is exploited what is exploited is its labor-power alone. National oppression is, therefore, from the bourgeois point(of view the more lucrative form of oppression.

As we have seen, when there are racial differences between the oppressor and oppressed nations, racial oppression may become a feature of national oppression. In this case, the oppressed nation suffers a dual oppression. Aside from all the national inferiorities heaped upon the subject nation, it is now lectured on racial inferiority. The oppressing bourgeoisie has no sense of proportion in this respect, but always strives for absolute domination of a people.

We see, then, that there is no contradiction between national and racial oppression. The difference is that racial oppression is common to many mode of production (slave, feudal and wage-slave) and takes the form of exploitation of labor or labor-power alone, whereas national oppression is specific to capitalism and takes the form of exploitation of labor-power and the other national attributes (territory, raw materials, home market). Why, then, does the current debate over the national question in the U.S. pose a contradiction between the two?

If a specific people suffer both national and racial oppression, but they are considered only from the standpoint of racial oppression, they are thereby denied their national characteristics and therefore their national rights, i.e. self-determination. To treat a people in this way is a liberal maneuver, designed to relieve a specific form of oppression while perpetuating others. Hence, the opposition put by the national questioners to the idea of considering the Black population from the standpoint of race alone.

On the other hand, if a people suffer racial oppression and yet are not a nation, attempts to analyse their oppression in terms of the national question may either be concessions to nationalist tendencies within the racial minority, or capitulation to great-nation chauvinism. To treat a people in this way is also a liberal maneuver, designed to perpetuate racial divisions on the excuse of national self-determination. Hence, the opposition posed by the “race” theorizers against the idea of considering the Black population solely from the standpoint of the national question.

This, of course, does not exhaust the possible deviations rising from the supposed contradiction between racial and national oppression. As we have seen from the history of the national question within the CPUSA, the combined features of racial and national oppression can send our opportunists and revisionists into a frenzy of “creative Marxism”. Liberalism surfaces around both race and nationality, with “left” and right deviations around every conceivable aspect.

This is especially evident when a racially oppressed people who may or may not be a nation have begun to disperse from a particular territory. If they were a nation to begin with, they immediately begin to lose some national characteristics. If they were not a nation, they could suffer racial oppression and have nation-like features stemming from racial separatism. If we are premising a contradiction between racial and national oppression, we immediately, in either case, begin to distort objective conditions since certain conditions do not fit into our preconceived framework. Beginning with a one-sided and exclusive outlook, we naturally draw one-sided and exclusive conclusions.

All of this has nothing in common with Marxism-Leninism, which does not set out to prove a people are or are not a nation, does not create artificial contradictions between race and nationality, and does not take one form of exploitation as being “more oppressive” than another. The Marxist-Leninist begins with objective conditions, discovers the essential features of those conditions, the interrelationships and interconnections, and from those draws the necessary conclusions, i.e. what stand the workingclass should take to that given condition.

Now, however, we will give the theoreticians of “racism pure and simple” a chance to speak for themselves.