Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

I Wor Kuen

Revolution, the National Question and Asian Americans

First Published: IWK Journal, No. 1, August 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: “Revolution, the National Question and Asian Americans” is a transcript of a speech by I Wor Kuen to a forum held at the United Asian Community Center in New York City in March, 1974.

Introductory Remarks

We would like to first briefly summarize some of the theoretical study that we have done on the national question, and then discuss our position on the national struggles in the U.S. today, both from a theoretical point of view as well as in the context of practice.

Much of our own understanding of the national question has come not only from study, but from trying to sum up our own practical experiences as well as the experiences of the revolutionary movement in general, and from analyzing the contributions as well as the errors of other groups on the national question. We present our views today with the recognition that our own understanding is still limited and we need to learn much more.

As we go along, then, we hope that sisters and brothers in the audience will recall historical examples and personal experiences that may illustrate some of the points that we are trying to make.

What is the National Question?

The national question refers to the position of Marxist-Leninists towards the question of nations and national minorities in different historical periods, and how that question is related to the working class and the overall revolutionary struggle. It is the question, How will nations and natinria1 minorities achieve liberation and an end to national oppression? Marxist-Leninists always stand for the working class as a whole. The working class stands for progress in all situations. Therefore, the position of Marxist-Leninists and of the working class towards the struggle of nations and national minorities has always been an important part of the revolutionary movement. The national question has always been an important theoretical and practical question for the world communist movement.

We would like to begin with a summary of some of the theoretical study which we have done on the national question.

The most important general point that we learned in studying the national question is that it must be examined within the context of a definite historical era. Stalin said that if there was one question that has to be handled in a dialectical and historical manner, it is the national question.

The national question, then, begins in the epoch of capitalism, for nations only arose with the rise of capitalism, and nations will no longer exist in the era of worldwide communism.

A nation, as defined by Stalin, is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of common language, territory, economic life and culture. A national minority is a people dispersed from their homeland and no longer constituting a territorial unit, and/or lacking one or more of the criteria for a nation, while still retaining some of the other characteristics of a people.

The national question, then, can be generally divided into two distinct eras–that of rising capitalism and that of declining capitalism, or imperialism.

In the first period, that of rising capitalism, Stalin noted that in Western Europe, “the process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism was at the same time a process of amalgamation of people into nations.” For example, the French nation was formed from the Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons and others.

In Eastern Europe, however, political states were formed before capitalism had completely overthrown feudalism. Multi-national states were formed, consisting of several nationalities, such as Russia which included Russians, Poles, Caucasians, etc. These multi-national states were ruled by the ruling strata of a dominant nationality such as the Russians in Russia, which subjugated the other nationalities. As the various subjugated nationalities in these multi-national states developed capitalism, and thus a desire to develop into independent nation states, they encountered the opposition of the ruling class of the dominant nationalities. National conflicts and oppression arose.

During this first period, then, the national question was mainly an “internal” question of the young bourgeoisie of oppressed nations in multi-national states attempting to secure their own independence in order to develop their own capitalist economy. It was a question of the struggle of the bourgeois classes among themselves for their own self-interest, while the masses of peasants and working people wanted freedom from the miserable oppression that they faced from both national oppression and the exploitation of “their own” bourgeoisie.

During the second period, capitalism developed into Imperialism. With the complete division of the world among the imperialist powers, the national question broadened from an internal question to an international question, which included the question of colonies and semi-colonies. In this period, when capitalism is no longer progressive, the national liberation struggles of oppressed nations are anti-imperialist and revolutionary in character. And with the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, the national struggles became part of the worldwide front of proletarian revolution.

In this second period, it also became clear that only the proletariat of the oppressed nations could lead their struggles to complete victory. Because of imperialist domination, the oppressed nations developed with deformed class structures, with the national bourgeoisies relatively weak and tied in too many ways to the imperialists. Therefore, the national bourgeoisie is too weak and too vacillating to lead the national liberation struggles to completion. But the working class can unite all the oppressed classes, including the national bourgeoisie, against imperialism, and lead the struggle towards liberation. If we look at the examples of national liberation struggles in China and Vietnam, we can see that the working class, not the bourgeoisie, led the united front to victory. On the other hand, in Ethiopia, the national bourgeoisie is presently at the head of the national liberation struggle and is clearly not uniting the various classes of Ethiopian society to lead them to complete liberation. Sharp class conflicts still exist between the Ethiopian national bourgeoisie and the more oppressed classes in Ethiopia. National struggles, then, will develop differently, according to which class is leading the struggle against national oppression, and according to its corresponding class interests.

Despite differences in the national question in the case of nations and in the case of national minorities, the solutions to both are tied to the overthrow of imperialism.

So we can summarize that in the era of imperialism, the national question is part of the worldwide question of proletarian revolution, and struggles of oppressed nationalities have a revolutionary character. We say that the national question is essentially a class question because it is tied to the development of capitalism, imperialism, and socialism, and is part of the overall class struggle of this present period. In the era of imperialism, and especially in the United States, it is most clearly a class question because the national question can be resolved only with a proletarian revolution.

Why is it Important to Study the National Question Now?

It is important because it is the pivotal question that can explain the relationship between our struggle as Asians and the struggles of other Third World people in this country, as well as the relationship between our struggle and the struggle of the masses of working people and progressive people in this country. We all know that the struggles of Asian peoples cannot be separated from the struggles of other oppressed peoples and from the working class. The study of the national question will enable us to clarify what that relationship is, and how we can build towards merging the national struggles and the struggle of the working class into one stream that will overthrow imperialism.

The oppressed nationalities of this country are not an out of the way and unimportant part of the population, but form a crucial sector of the working class. A correct understanding of the class struggle necessitates a correct understanding of the national struggle.

What is the Relationship between the National Struggle and the Overall Revolutionary Struggle?

As we said earlier, this is the very question that the national question is supposed to answer. Following from what we just summarized, as principles of the Marxist-Leninist stand on the national question, our position on the relationship between the national struggles and the overall revolutionary struggle is that the national struggle is a revolutionary struggle, and is part of the general question of proletarian revolution.

Concretely, what does this mean? The first point we would like to make is that the national struggle is a revolutionary struggle because it cannot be resolved under capitalism. We believe what Chairman Mao said in relation to the Black struggle is basically true for the national struggles in general in the United States. He said that, “Racial discrimination in the United States is a product of the colonialist and imperialist system. The contradiction between the black masses in the United States and the U.S. ruling circles is a class contradiction. Only by overthrowing the reactionary rule of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class can the black people win complete emancipation.” In other words, only with the complete overthrow of imperialism can national oppression be eliminated. So long as classes and class struggle exist, national oppression will exist. We can see this very clearly in the U.S. because so much of the bourgeoisie’s ability to exploit is based on its super-exploitation of Third World peoples and keeping the working class divided.

Secondly, from the point of view of the entire working class, the working class cannot gain its own emancipation and its own freedom without the elimination of national oppression. As Lenin said, “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” because the oppressor nation would be perpetuating the very class system which could be used against them as well. In Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels between 1846 and 1895, Karl Marx said, that to the workers of an oppressor nation, the emancipation of subject peoples is “no question of abstract justice or human sympathy, but the first condition of their emancipation.” We agree wholeheartedly with this stand. Within the United States, this is certainly true. It is in the interests of the working class to eliminate national oppression, and it is only the working class that can thoroughly do so.

We can see here in the United States, where national divisions and racism is so deep within the working class, that the question of the unity of the working class as a condition for revolution cannot be separated from the fight against national oppression and social chauvinism. It is U.S. imperialism which has continued to draw a sharp line between black and white, which has forced millions of Third World immigrants to its shores, which has pitted workers against other workers in a scramble for jobs, which blames Third World labor for “runaway” shops and “runaway” jobs, and so on. Each time working people support this vicious system of national oppression, they are actually strengthening the U.S. ruling class’s ability to oppress them all.

To illustrate this point, we have chosen an example from the late 1960’s of the United Black Workers of Mahwah, New Jersey, who have seen the need to fight against national oppression in order to strengthen the struggle of all workers in improve their working conditions. Among the 4,000 workers who were employed at that time in the Ford plant at Mahwah, about half worked on the night shift. Of the night workers, a vast majority were black. As usual, the black workers were hired only for the night shift, because the night shift was certainly the most inconvenient, the most grueling, and the most strenuous shift. They organized the United Black Workers as a national or black workers’ organization, because black workers were the quickest to respond to a call for struggle against the doubly oppressive working conditions. Furthermore, they realized that their union was not going to back them up, and that the rank and file would have to organize a wildcat strike. They walked off their jobs and immediately extended their understanding and their struggle to the predominantly white day shift workers, by leafleting the morning shift, by calling open meetings, and by responding to the common problems of all workers at that plant. Here is just one example in which black workers took the lead, organized as black workers, and united with other workers on the basis of their class oppression to strengthen their entire struggle with the Ford motor bosses.

The third point we would like to make is that the national struggle for democratic rights, against national and racial oppression and discrimination, must be a mass struggle led by the working class. As Liu Truh said, in a pamphlet entitled, “National Question and Class Struggle”, the “national question can only be solved through revolutionary struggle carried out by the broad masses of people of the exploited classes of oppressed nationalities who are the vast majority of its population.” He also said the “the struggle against national oppression is in reality a struggle against class oppression, and often simultaneously, a struggle against the reactionaries of one’s own nationality.” The national question, therefore, pivots around the class struggle, both in terms of its broader connections and in terms of its internal struggle. Therefore, the unity between the exploited and oppressed masses of people of the overall American society is inseparably linked with that of the struggle of the exploited and oppressed masses of people within each of the nationalities.

What are our Priorities in our Work at this Time?

In order to answer this question, we would like to give a very brief outline of the history of our organization.

First of all, we did not begin as a Marxist-Leninist organization.

But we did begin as a consciously revolutionary organization. That is, we sought a revolutionary, total solution to the roots of the problems which we face as Asian peoples.

Our organization, like many others here in America arose as a response to the national oppression and racial discrimination, and as part of the growing anti-imperialist movement in the 1960’s. We formed as an Asian organization because, in 1968-69, the national oppression and corresponding national struggles of Third World peoples was the sharpest in the nationwide progressive movement. Furthermore, the bankruptcy of the Communist Party, USA and Progressive Labor Party, among others, especially in relation to the national question, made joining their ranks out of the question.

Thus, we formed to deal specifically with the problems of Asian peoples as a whole against racism and against the denial of our democratic rights. Here we would like to comment that, although we consider ourselves to be an Asian organization, most of our mass work has been limited specifically to the Chinese community. This is because we wanted, from the beginning, to root ourselves among the most oppressed and exploited of Asians, and in New York it was in Chinatown that we found a high concentration of oppressed and exploited Asian people.

So, for the most part, our organization worked within the national struggles of Chinese people in the community, of Asian students on campus, and of Asian workers on the job. From the beginning, however, we recognized that Chinatown and other Asian communities were not separated from the rest of society, and that in order to make the fundamental changes which we wanted, we had to unite with everyone who could be united with. Throughout the history of our organization, we have stood for Third World unity and unity with all progressive people. From our earliest activities both here in New York and in San Francisco , such as our film showings and support for the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement at Gouverneur Hospital, or our public stand in mass demonstrations, we have tried to link our struggles as Asians with those of other Third World and working peoples. Other Asians likewise recognized strength in unity of Third World and oppressed peoples in the struggles to defend open admissions and to establish Ethnic Studies at City College of New York, in joining as Asians in Third World contingents at mass anti-war demonstrations, and in many other struggles across the country.

Today, with our greater understanding of the relationship between the struggle of Asians and that of the whole U.S. working class, our present priorities are:

1) to help build the struggles for democratic rights of Asians in the communities, on campuses, and in workplaces, linking up eventually into a united front struggle against national oppression. By democratic rights, we mean the right of Asian nationalities. Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino, and others, to be able to have full and equal rights to develop as a people. That means full equality in status in language, education, culture and other matters. This includes but is definitely not limited to equal treatment of individuals. And connected with that,

2) to help build a revolutionary workers’ movement. And last, but certainly not least,

3) to contribute to building a single multi-national communist party. We believe that the national struggles and the working class struggle will never be victorious without the ideological and concrete leadership of a communist party.

Then how do we see building the struggle for democratic rights? As we said earlier, we see building them in a mass way, relying on the working people but uniting all other sectors of the community, especially the petty bourgeoisie, in a broad united front. Concretely, today we are involved in coalitions and working with mass organizations in the community, on campuses and in workplaces, aiming at the struggle against racial and national oppression in a revolutionary way.

In general, we feel that building the democratic struggles means, for example, uniting and fighting for our rights to decent living and working conditions, for political rights, for the right of Asians to go to school and learn their own history as Asians, for the right of our people to maintain and develop our culture. We want to build these struggles, and build them in a mass way.

What then do we mean when we say build a revolutionary workers’ movement? As Marxist-Leninists, we see that the leadership of the working class over the democratic struggles will only be a reality when revolutionaries have deepened their roots into the workplaces as well as linking it up to the struggles for democratic rights.

At this time, we see our priority in organizing Asian workers in those place where there are concentrations of Asian workers, so that we can accomplish two things.

1) to involve masses of Asian workers in the struggle for democratic rights, linking up workers issues and community struggles. This is one important way through which the struggles for democratic rights will come under the leadership of the working class.

2) to involve masses of Asian workers in the struggles on the job, contributing to the development of the workers’ movement as a whole Not to do so would negate the role and importance of struggling against national oppression on the job. We believe that in order to build the workers’ movement, we must recognize that the workers’ movement is, in fact, split today, and then proceed on that basis to build unity.

Today, our organization is working in many different kinds of workplaces; we are in workplaces like garment and hotel and restaurant, where there are large concentrations of immigrant Asian workers. We are also in strategic industries where there are Asians, but not in such high concentrations, such as the telephone company, post office, mass transit and light industry and hospitals. We are only beginning in this aspect of our work, here in New York and in San Francisco, and our practice is still quite limited, but we see it as an increasingly important aspect in the movement today.