Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Which Side Are You On? [On RU and “Narrow Nationalism”]

First Published: The Guardian, in two parts, on December 25, 1974 and January 8, 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

How could it be true, as the Revolutionary Union (RU) now asserts, that narrow nationalism and not white chauvinism came to be the “main deviation” on the national question in the new U.S. communist movement?

In its effort to defend this erroneous line in the November issue of Revolution, the RU goes a long way toward exposing the step-by-step abandonment of Marxism-Leninism that has led the organization to its chauvinist stand in the Boston school desegregation crisis.

Historical materialism, for instance, is the method used by genuine Marxists in conducting the struggle for ideological clarity. RU’s latest polemic, however, is neither correct historically nor materialist in its approach. Instead it proceeds from the stand of subjective idealism, arguing from case to case and never taking into account both objective and subjective conditions as a whole.

RU’s article, first of all, makes no mention of what historically has been the left’s main deviation on this question: white chauvinism. The reason why is clear enough. For if it did so, RU would then have to explain why this was so, how it came to be the dominant line and, if RU’s present position is to be seen as correct, how the two-line struggle was waged so effectively as to set back white chauvinism to the extent that it was no longer the main deviation.

What RU does instead is typical of many petty bourgeois radicals: it develops its position as if history began in the 1960s thus isolating itself from the lessons of the theory and practice, both positive and negative, of communists previously.


The reason narrow nationalism is the main danger, says RU, “lies in the development of the revolutionary mass movements and the new communist movement over the past period. In the late 1950s and especially in the 1960s, the Black people’s struggle developed from a civil rights movement into a revolutionary hurricane. ...”

RU points out that this inspired “millions of other people,” but then also notes that this was also a period when, “due to the revisionist betrayal of the CPUSA, there was no vanguard party of the working class, and the workers’ movement, while often breaking out into militant struggle, was mainly on the trade union level. ...”

The new communist movement, then in its earliest and most impressionable formative period, was thus duly impressed by these “positive” and “negative” aspects. It was indelibly stamped with the view that Blacks could do no wrong and white workers were a bunch of creeps, reformist at best and racist at worst–and ever since, the left, says RU, has been tailing after “the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nationalities.”

This is sheer subjectivism. It liquidates the character of the two-line struggle among U.S. Marxist-Leninists on the national question in favor of the “analysis” of the pragmatist social psychologists. RU mentions, for instance, the CP’s revisionist betrayal. But what was the substance of it on the national question? First, it was seen as a matter of reform and not revolution, which is the line the CP took on every question. But in essence it was a capitulation to white chauvinism, carried out by rejecting the party’s earlier line on self-determination for the Black nation in the Deep South since, as Gus Hall and others argued, it had been “dispersed” and “proletarianized.” The CP followed through by waging its own fight against “narrow nationalism,” by blasting Malcolm X as a reactionary police agent.


The clear implication of RU’s analysis is that this revisionist line was overcome or set back into a secondary position spontaneously, since, as RU itself points out, there was no party, the left was relatively isolated from the working class and its struggle, in turn, “was mainly on the trade union level.” In fact this liquidates the role of a party.

RU is even one-sided and wrong in the impressionistic picture it paints of the spontaneous struggle. Its article completely ignores, for instance, the reactionary trend stirred up among whites, including a section of the workers, by the Wallace forces and the labor aristocrats in the late 1960s.

RU will agree that white chauvinism is the main danger “among the masses.” But it is blind to the fact that the RU line itself is the reflection of this chauvinist trend within the left. What is the difference between RU on one hand directing its main fire at the NAACP and a liberal judge for a “forced integration” busing plan that “stirs up national antagonisms,” and Wallace on the other hand championing “freedom of choice” against the NAACP and the courts for “forced race-mixing” that “just stirs up trouble?” The difference, essentially, is that RU gives the whole rotten “antibusing” enterprise a “left” cover.


Did Marxist-Leninist forces, even without a party, try to defeat the white chauvinist betrayal by the CP on the Black national question? Several attempts were made, most notably by the early Progressive Labor party (PL). But it soon embraced white chauvinism, too, when it came up with its “all nationalism is reactionary” line, which attacked the special demands of Black workers as “divisive” and the struggle of Black students as “counterrevolutionary.”

What about the other anti-imperialist organizations many white radicals were associated with in the 1960s? How did they fare in this fight? Did white students leave SNCC, for instance, primarily because they were “tailing nationalism” or did they mainly get pushed out for their white chauvinist resistance to the awakening of Black national consciousness? And SDS, which was essentially an all-white organization, finally split over the question of white chauvinism and, due to the lack of a party with a correct line on the same question, was unable to reconstitute itself. Now, following the RU line on busing, the Revolutionary Student Brigade is faced with similar difficulties.

Did a deviation toward narrow nationalism play a role in all this? Certainly, and it was fueled precisely when the main struggle, against white chauvinism, was waged incorrectly or not at all. There were still many important advances made. Many student radicals and others first began seriously to study the works of Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tsetung in order to do battle with PL’s white chauvinist line, demonstrating that the correct line develops in struggle against the erroneous line. While many RU cadre made a good contribution in the early period of this fight, whatever weaknesses existed then have now taken command, turning RU’s conception of strategy and tactics upside down. This point will be discussed in the next installment of this column.

* * *

One thing can be said of the Revolutionary Union’s (RU) new line on the national question appearing in the November issue of Revolution: It is entirely consistent with the strategy RU has put into practice in the Boston school desegregation crisis.

Among communists, says RU, the main deviation in regard to the national question is narrow nationalism. It follows, then, that the main blow in the ideological struggle must be aimed at the Black “Bundists” and their supporters. White chauvinism recedes to a position of secondary importance.

Among the masses in Boston, says RU, the main slogan to combat the bourgeoisie’s policy of promoting national divisions should be “Unite to smash the Boston busing plan!” It follows, then, that the main blow in the immediate political struggle is, in effect, directed at the NAACP and its conciliators. White racism and the defense of the democratic rights of national minorities, according to RU, are not “the main issue.”

The immediate target of the main blow in both cases is the same: the Black bourgeoisie, either in its “assimilationist” or “separatist” guise. And the link between the reformists among the Black masses and the “Bundists” among communists, RU argues further, is the “careerism” made possible by the advances of the Black liberation struggle.

“This has taken the form,” says Revolution, “of poverty programs, loans to set up businesses, opening up of some professional jobs and other forms–which were at one and the same time concessions to the struggle of the oppressed nationalities and attempts to channel the struggle into a reformist dead end.”

“In the recent history of the revolutionary movement,” RU then says in regard to the left, “it has been possible to capitalize on being a member of an oppressed nationality, and some people have done so. . . . People who have made a career of capitalizing on this always picture themselves as great champions of the oppressed nationalities, of course. But in fact they are the lowest hustlers on the struggle of the oppressed nationalities, no better and in some ways worse than the ’poverty pimps.’” (In case there is any doubt as to who “some people” are, RU makes it clear that it means the “liars” and “opportunists” leading the Black Workers Congress (BWC), Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO) and August 29th Movement. BWC representatives are singled out with particular venom as the “ringleader and barker on this Bundist three-ring traveling circus.” As for the lack of substance for the “Bundist” charge, it should be noted that all three groups are now multinational organizations and uphold the view of building a multinational party along Leninist organizational lines. There are still differences in political line, both among the three and between them and others, but these have little to do with “Bundism.”)

The RU’s presentation of the problem of Black careerism and reformism and its significance for the entire struggle among all nationalities in the U.S. is completely one-sided and therefore erroneous.

The U.S. ruling class without a doubt has used a wide variety of reforms–whether in the form of genuine or sham concessions–as a weapon against the revolutionary rise of the Black masses and as a method to strengthen the class base of reformism in the Black community. But in a far greater measure, both presently and historically, it has used similar methods in the labor movement to create the “thousand threads” that tie the privileged white labor aristocrats to imperialism and its national chauvinist policies.


Careerism is also undoubtedly a danger to be guarded against in the communist movement. The main source of it, however, is also to be found in the trade unions, especially as the left makes advances in winning leadership positions. This is in terms of both the movement’s future and its overall history. In regard to the new communist movement’s immediate past, taking into account its roots in the student movement, another key source of careerism is the universities and other institutions that envelop large sections of the intelligentsia.

All of these objective conditions constantly exercise a negative influence on the political consciousness of the left’s cadres. But it is precisely this overall view, which must stress the significance of those factors creating the basis of white chauvinist opportunism and careerism within the left, that RU chooses to gloss over or ignore in its reactionary formulation of the “main deviation.”

In fact RU is one-sided in the worst possible way. By directing its main fire at Black reformism in the overall straggle, it liquidates the most important of all objective conditions in relation to the national question–the distinction between the oppressed and the oppressor nations.

“What is the cardinal idea underlying our theses,” asked Lenin during the debate on the national and colonial questions at the Comintern’s 2nd Congress in 1920. “It is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. Unlike the 2nd International and bourgeois democracy, we emphasize this distinction.”

Lenin argued further elsewhere that this distinction should be drawn even to the point of implementing a division of labor among communists of the oppressed and oppressor nations in the struggle against opportunism. Here, for instance, Black communists would have the task of isolating and defeating Black reformism and narrow nationalism while white communists have the task of defeating the main deviation, white chauvinism. It is the actual conduct of the struggle against white chauvinism, furthermore, that sets the best conditions for the defeat of narrow nationalism.

Was Black Bundism or white chauvinism the main error of communists at the massive Boston antiracism rally of Dec. 14? Stalin is crystal clear on this point. In his 1923 report to the 12th Party Congress on the national question he states the following:

“Russian Communists cannot combat Tatar, Georgian or Bashkir chauvinism; for if the Russian Communist were to undertake the difficult task of fighting Tatar or Georgian chauvinism it would be regarded as the fight of a Great-Russian chauvinist against the Tatars or the Georgians. This would confuse the whole issue. Only the Tatar, Georgian and other Communists can fight Tatar, Georgian and other chauvinism, only the Georgian Communists can successfully combat Georgian nationalism or chauvinism. That is why it is necessary to refer in the theses to this dual task, that of the Russian Communists (I refer to the fight against Great-Russian chauvinism) and that of the non-Russian Communists (I refer to the fight against. . . anti-Russian chauvinism). Otherwise the thesis will be one-sided, otherwise we shall not create internationalism either in state or party development.”

RU tries to justify its position by quoting Stalin also on whether Great Russian chauvinism or the local nationalism of the oppressed nationalities in the border regions posed the “major danger.”

“It would be absurd,” said Stalin, “to give ready-made recipes suitable for all times and all conditions as regards the major and minor danger. Such recipes do not exist. The major danger is the deviation against which we have ceased to fight, thereby allowing it to grow into a danger to the state.”

Very good. Stalin is arguing for the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, the ABC of Marxism. But RU’s use of this passage to back up its line only amounts to quoting Stalin out of context to defeat Stalin and give RU a “left” cover for its opportunism.

Stalin says universal recipes do not exist. But what did he say posed the major danger for Russian Communists at each concrete stage in their struggle from the beginning up until 1930? In every case and in all but one of his writings he poses the Great Russian chauvinism as the main deviation.

RU ignores all this and takes the one quote from Stalin where he shifts the emphasis. But what was the context, if we are seriously to learn from Stalin?

The statement was made at the 17th Party Congress in 1934 in regard to the tenacity of the “survivals of capitalism” in the border regions and “the attempts to undermine the Soviet system and to restore capitalism” there. The situation was that the proletarian revolution had already made its greatest advances and its state power was most consolidated in central and urban Russia. It had only more recently developed in the countryside and the border regions, and in these backward areas Stalin warned that local nationalism had both a particular persistence and had become a critical problem because of its links with imperialist interventionists. This is what Stalin is warning against, in the quote used by RU, when he refers to “a danger to the state.”


Is this situation comparable with what the left now confronts in the U.S.? No, it is not. And RU’s use of Stalin’s comment here only shows its contempt for Stalin and Marxism-Leninism in general.

Stalin, in addition, in several of his writings makes a key point about the particularities of local nationalism in the Soviet Union that RU chooses to ignore. Local nationalism in the border regions, he points out, had two aspects. One aspect was hostility toward the Great Russians. The other aspect, and in some cases the predominant one, was the chauvinism of one oppressed nationality toward another. An analogy here, for instance, would be the existence of anti-Black chauvinism among Chicanos. Stalin made this observation on the matter at the 1923 Congress:

“When the survivals of nationalism are a peculiar form of defense against Great-Russian chauvinism, the surest means of overcoming nationalist survivals is to wage determined war on Great-Russian chauvinism. When, however, these survivals assume the form of local chauvinism directed against weaker national groups in certain of the republics, it is the duty of party members to wage direct war on these survivals.”

RU claims to uphold the strategic line of the united front against imperialism, which is based on the alliance of the working class and the oppressed nationalities. But how can that alliance be formed and maintained if the revolutionary forces do not direct their main blow against its chief obstacle–the white chauvinist opportunism based in the labor aristocracy and conciliated by the right and “left” revisionists?

It cannot be done. And by making what should be the task of Black communists–directing their main blow at the opportunism of the Black bourgeoisie–into the main task of all communists, RU turns everything upside down and into its opposite. It amounts to forming a united front with the imperialists against the workers and the oppressed nationalities. Unless this line is soon repudiated and thoroughly rectified, it also means RU has completed its journey down the trail blazed by the Progressive Labor party.