Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Union

Narrow Nationalism: Main Deviation in the Movement on the National Question

First Published: Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 10, November 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The struggles of the oppressed nationalities in the US. have been a tremendous inspiration and clarion call to all exploited and oppressed people in this country. The new US. communist movement owes a great deal of its development to the lessons of these struggles, and understands that the firm alliance of the multinational proletariat and the oppressed nationalities is the core of the united front against imperialism. At the same time, with the revisionist betrayal of the “CP” USA, leading to a lack of firm roots in the working class or in proletarian ideology, a tendency has developed in the new US. communist movement towards tailing behind bourgeois nationalism, both among white communists and those of other nationalities, in essence, this comes down to raising the national struggle above the class struggle, and writing off white workers as unable to make revolution. And this narrow nationalism (not white chauvinism) is the main deviation on the national question in the U.S. communist movement today.

The RU’s formulation that narrow nationalism, and not white chauvinism, is the main deviation on the national question within the U.S. communist movement at this time has given rise to very sharp struggle. This is not surprising. The national question –the struggle against the oppression of the minority nationalities, and the relation of this struggle to proletarian revolution–is at the very heart of the revolutionary struggle in this country.

The mobilizing and uniting of the whole class, of workers of all nationalities, to take up and lead the fight against national oppression–and the fight against white chauvinism (as well as narrow nationalism) as a part of this–are crucial to achieving the revolutionary unity of the class, together with its allies, for the historic task of overthrowing imperialist rule, building socialism and advancing, together with the peoples of the world, to communism.

Such sharp struggle is also not surprising because certain forces in the communist movement have come to base their careers on promoting bourgeois nationalism among the oppressed nationalities, and the tailing after it among whites. Genuine revolutionaries are struggling for unity around a correct line on this question, but these opportunists regard the RU’s formulation on this question as a direct attack on their whole position–and rightly so.

These opportunists–particularly the leaders of the Black Workers Congress (BWC), Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers’ Organization (PRRWO), October League, Marxist-Leninist (OL) and others–try to remove this question from the realm of scientific Marxist analysis. They treat it not as a question of line, but as a matter of bourgeois psychology, guilt, blame, etc., all of which lets the bourgeoisie off the hook and sets the proletariat off the track.

The question involved here is certainly not who is more “messed up,” the communists of the oppressed nationalities or the white communists? The question is which political line–which affects communists of all nationalities–has constituted the main deviation on this question? Has it been the tendency to deny or downplay the revolutionary role and potential of the movements of the oppressed nationalities and the workers of these nationalities, or the tendency to deny or downplay the revolutionary role and potential of white workers?

Any objective analysis shows that the tendency to write the white workers out of the revolution, to reduce their role to a very secondary one or to treat them as a group that has to be dragged against its own inclinations into the revolution, has definitely been the main deviation on this question in the new U.S. communist movement. And this has been coupled with the tendency to treat people of the oppressed nationalities as though they are “automatically” revolutionary.

The reason for this lies in the development of the revolutionary mass movements and the new communist movement over the past period. In the late 50s and especially in the 60s, the Black people’s struggle developed from a civil rights movement into a revolutionary hurricane, shaking the foundations of imperialist rule as it wracked city after city. This gave tremendous inspiration and encouragement to millions of other people in this country who were fighting back against this same imperialist ruling class, especially the other oppressed nationalities, the youth and students, women and sections of the working class of all nationalities.

But this also developed at a time when, due to the revisionist betrayal of the “Communist Party,” USA, 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 and was not marked by a high degree of class consciousness or political struggle against the ruling class and its various forms of oppression of the people. The new U.S. communist forces have arisen in this situation and have been marked by both its positive factors –the great inspiration of the revolutionary national movements–and its negative aspects–in particular the fact that the revolutionary movement had very little roots in the workers’ movement and has only begun to really sink these roots.

Given this, and given the fact that these young communist forces have also been cut off from the historical experience of class struggle, as summed up by the leaders of the international communist movement, there has been a strong basis for bourgeois ideology within the new communist movement in the U.S., and the main form this has taken around the national question has been to tail after the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nationalities.

This tendency was actually strengthened, under these conditions, by the fact that, at its very beginning, this new communist movement had to take on and smash the chauvinist line of the Progressive Labor Party (PL) which, in the face of tremendous revolutionary upsurge among the oppressed nationalities, tried to liquidate the national question. While defeating PL’s line was an important step forward for the new communist forces, it also opened the door further to the opposite error–to raise the national question above the class question–given the fact that the roots of these forces in the working class and their foundation in working class ideology were still not very developed.

Further, the ruling class, panicked by the rebellions of the Black people and other oppressed nationalities, not only used violent repression to attack them, but also moved to build up petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces among the oppressed nationalities, in an attempt to put a brake on their struggle, and to divert it from its revolutionary thrust. This has taken the form 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. (Of course, as these programs dry up, many of the former “beneficiaries” of them will increasingly go in the direction of more militant struggle against the ruling class, though they will also continue to inject non-proletarian ideology into those struggles.)

This has been coupled with a certain tactical shift by the ruling class in the sphere of ideology and public opinion. While certainly not giving up its chauvinist propaganda aimed at “proving” the inferiority of the minority nationalities and blaming them for their own conditions of oppression, the ruling class, especially through its “liberal” wing, has put tremendous effort into promoting bourgeois nationalism among the oppressed nationalities, pointing to white people–and especially to white workers–as the enemy of Black people and the source of their oppression. Who has not heard from these spokesmen for the ruling class, “we understand and sympathize with the plight of Black people and other minorities, and we would like to do something about it, but we can’t because of the ’white backlash,’ and because the white worker, with his hard hat, won’t let us”?

That representatives of the ruling class would come out with such a line in the face of mass upsurge of the oppressed nationalities, is, of course, not surprising. But the fact is that this bourgeois line has been picked up and propagated–sometimes in more subtle form, sometimes not so subtle–in many quarters in the revolutionary movement, including among the new communist forces. And any challenge to this line has been met with attacks of “racism,” “white chauvinism,” “liquidating the national question,” and so on.

This was the case, for example, when the RU opposed the slogan “Black Workers Take the Lead,” and struggled against the line that revolutionary nationalism is the same thing as Marxism-Leninism for oppressed nationalities. These attacks came from within the RU itself, on the part of a handful of opportunists who were banking on this line (and certainly not from the majority of Black and other third world comrades in the RU, as these liars have claimed) and from the leaders of groups such as BWC and PRRWO. These opportunists blast the RU for “liquidating the national question:” they really mean that we refuse to treat it as some kind of special category, independent of and above the class struggle of the proletariat. They denounce us as “national chauvinist:” they really mean that in struggling against white chauvinism, we refuse to take the stand of the bourgeoisie, but insist on directing our spearhead at the ruling class and expose the fact that it, and not the white workers, is responsible for national oppression and the ideology of white chauvinism.

This struggle became as sharp as it did because these opportunists base their careers on the promotion of bourgeois nationalism. As Mao Tsetung points out in “Get Rid of the Baggage and Start up the Machinery,” within the communist movement itself people may try to capitalize on a special skill, their background and class origin, etc. And if this is not struggled against, it can become the basis for careerism– for thinking that you deserve a special place in the revolutionary movement, that you are above criticism and so on.

It is a fact that in the recent history of the revolutionary movement in this country, including the new communist movement, it has been possible to capitalize on being a member of an oppressed nationality, and some people have done so. This is certainly not to say that the majority of communists of the oppressed nationalities have done this, or that this is the only thing that people have capitalized on in the communist movement; but due to the development of the new communist movement which we characterized earlier, this has been one form which it has been almost taboo to struggle against.

As Stalin stressed, addressing the question of whether the deviation toward great-nation chauvinism or narrow nationalism in the Soviet Union was the main danger at a given point, “It would be absurd to give ready-made recipes suitable for all times and for 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.” (Stalin, Report to the Seventeenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B)) In the new communist movement, the deviation that has not been struggled against-or against which the struggle has been seriously down-played-has been the deviation toward narrow nationalism, and this has allowed it to grow into the greater danger.

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.”

Since the new U.S. communist movement is mainly white, how can it be that a major form of careerism has been promoting the bourgeois nationalism of the oppressed nationalities? Why would whites tail after this? The answer to this is partly that tailing after bourgeois nationalism on the part of whites is another form of white chauvinism–a patronizing attitude of refusing to struggle with comrades of the oppressed nationalities, in effect patting them on the head and saying when you think they’re wrong, “Well, what more can we expect from you, we can’t really expect you to be a Marxist-Leninist.”

But more fundamentally, tailing after bourgeois nationalism is a convenient way to avoid remolding your world outlook and learning from the working class. If white workers can be looked on as just a bunch of racists, then what is there to learn from them, and why would you want to adopt any of their ways of looking at the world?

The new communist movement is still largely drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, and while people in this movement have, by and large, made a qualitative leap to basing themselves on the outlook of the working class, this definitely does not mean that they don’t carry much of their baggage, their petty bourgeois contempt and fear of the masses of working people with them.

The point is that tailing after bourgeois nationalism–specifically in the form of contempt for white workers–has been a “safe” way of carrying this baggage with you. In the final analysis, of course, this represents contempt for the masses of workers of all nationalities, but at this time contempt for white workers has been a particular form it has taken.

As we said before, this ideological line–fear of the masses–finds particular expression in the political line of denying or downplaying the revolutionary role and potential of white workers. And for the reasons we have cited, this has been the main deviation on the national question within the new communist movement.

The problem for those who want to stubbornly hold to this line is that exactly because of the advances of the communist movement, especially in sinking roots in the working class, this line is no longer so “safe” any more. When the struggle between the RU and BWC and PRRWO broke out about a year ago, for example, the opportunist leaders of BWC and PRRWO thought they could get over just by the old Bogart act of attacking the RU for wanting to “keep the niggers in their place.” (See BWC article in the Guardian, April 3, 1974, reprinted in Red Papers 6.) But the communist movement is more advanced than that, and people demanded to know–what are the lines involved in this struggle, and, BWC and PRRWO, how about some Marxism-Leninism?

Scrambling for Cover for their Raggedy Line

This forced these opportunists to scramble about for a better cover for their raggedy line. So they dug about and came up with the 1928 and 1930 Resolutions of the Communist International on the Negro National Question in the U.S. As we showed in Red Papers 6, the analysis of the Comintern, while correct at that time, is no longer essentially correct today. Under today’s conditions while it is correct to uphold the right of self-determination for Black people, to raise it as the main demand of the Black liberation struggle that Black people must control the “Black Belt” in order to decide whether or not to secede there, is, in fact, to promote bourgeois nationalism, and to reduce the Black liberation struggle to a bourgeois-democratic question–against feudalism and for the right of political secession in the “Black Belt”–thereby cutting the heart out of that struggle, and undercutting its powerful links with the overall class struggle.

BWC and PRRWO have been generally forced to back away from the most blatant features of their efforts to promote bourgeois nationalism, but have they given these up altogether? No, not at all, and wherever they think it’s still “safe” to do so, they run these crude aspects of their tine out again.

For example, the BWC, PRRWO and the August Twenty-Ninth Movement (ATM) recently put on a speaking tour in the Southwest. At one point, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a BWC ringleader and barker on this Bundist three-ring traveling circus, declared that Chicano workers “automatically understand social-imperialism” because they are concentrated in the industrial proletariat. This from a leader of a group that is always (one-sidedly) stressing the role of theory and the need for a vanguard to bring class consciousness to the masses. Talk about “bowing to spontaneity” and “belittling the conscious element!”

This only goes to show that opportunists such as the leaders of BWC have no consistent principles, except to promote their careers, especially in the form of promoting bourgeois nationalism. Since this particular meeting was in the Southwest, this took the form of trying to play up to Chicano nationalism, but it didn’t get over because throughout the country more and more people are basing themselves on Marxism-Leninism and are demanding the same of others who call themselves communists.

But what is revealed by the antics of this BWC leader is that such opportunists have contempt not only for white workers, but also for the workers of the oppressed nationalities. As we showed in Red Papers 6, the BWC line says in regard to the oppressed nationalities, you don’t need to be armed with the ideology of the international working class, nationalism is good enough for you. This is really trying to keep them “in their place,” so that these careerists can stand on their backs to elevate their own position in the movement.

The line of BWC and similar opportunists is just the latest form of a bourgeois nationalist current that has run through the revolutionary movement, including the new communist forces, over the past period. An earlier form of this line was the idea that Black people and other oppressed nationalities (perhaps in alliance with the peoples of the Third World) could and would make revolution alone in this country–or with a small number of white supporters mainly from the petty bourgeoisie.

But this ran up against objective reality. Some forces within the revolutionary movement began to study Marxism seriously and to see that revolution, especially in a capitalist country like the U.S., means proletarian revolution. But this understanding, combined with baggage from earlier stages of the movement, produced in some organizations, and as a political current in general, the line that the proletariat will make revolution, but Black-and other third world –workers are the only real proletariat.

This, too, ran up against objective reality, and those forces that studied Marxism more deeply to sum up this development grasped more firmly that the proletariat is an objective social class, defined basically by relationship to the means of production, and that in the U.S. the proletariat is multinational. But this understanding, combined with some persisting baggage, led to the line that, yes the multinational proletariat and its vanguard party will lead the revolution, but within that “Black Workers Take the Lead” or “Third World Workers Take the Lead.”

With the development of the communist movement over this period, two things have happened in relation to this current. On the one hand, those forces that are genuinely seeking to base themselves on applying Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought to the struggle of the masses in this country have, step by step, shed off much of this baggage. On the other hand, the opportunist forces, seeking to build a career by speculating on this baggage, have simply tried to find a new and more sophisticated form for the same old opportunism around this question. This is what the BWC and others like it are now doing.

The fact that these opportunists have been forced to adopt a more sophisticated, Marxist-sounding cover for their opportunism is itself a reflection of the great progress of the new communist movement and of the fact that it is putting an end to the political (as well as organizational) primitiveness of the past period and moving on to the establishment of a true revolutionary Communist Party, based firmly on the working class and its ideology.

On the other hand, the fact that these opportunists cling as stubbornly as ever to the substance of their opportunism is a reflection of the fact that it has been necessary to lay the basis for the new Party. through the most bitter struggle against this opportunism, and that the Party can only be built on the basis of thoroughly repudiating this opportunism.

Since the RU has taken up this struggle, the OL has stepped up its efforts to promote and play up to bourgeois nationalism. The ugly features of OL’s anti-working class line are becoming all the more apparent, as can be seen from its actions during the current busing conflict in Boston, where the OL has taken the position that to “Defend Democratic Rights of National Minorities” means to denounce the “white boycott” as a “fascist tide,” and even further to call for the government (!) to “breakup the fascist gangs.” (See October Revolution)

The OL, like a number of its fellow opportunists, is fond of quoting Stalin, without regard to condition, time or place; in order to attack others around the national question. Therefore we would like to ask OL, specifically around the present situation in Boston: have you read how Stalin dealt with similar situations in tsarist Russia?

Have you seen, for example, how Stalin exposed that it was the “agents of the tsarist government, who incited the ignorant among the Tatars against the peaceful Armenians”? How Stalin, rather than directing his fire at the masses who were misled by the tsarist agents, points out the aim of the tsar–“trying to break up the general proletarian movement into petty movements and to incite them against one another, it is organizing pogroms against the Jews, Armenians, etc.”? And how Stalin calls on the “Armenians, Tatars, Georgians, and Russians! Stretch out your hands to one another, unite more closely, and to the attempts of the government to divide you answer unanimously: Down with the tsarist government! Long live the fraternity of the peoples!” (See “Long Live the International Fraternity,” written as a Manifesto by Stalin in 1905, Works, Vol. 1, pp. 82-84, emphasis Stalin’s.) We would like to say to OL, if you have not learned about the stand that Stalin took on this question, perhaps you should look into it–or do you think that Stalin was a chauvinist because he didn’t blast the Tatar masses as reactionaries and call on the tsarist government to break up the Tatar gangs!

OL’s Position Not Accidental

OL takes the rotten stand it does, because for the OL to take a correct class stand would mean that it would have to go against an incorrect tide in the communist movement; and rather than trying to suck up to certain forces, OL would then be forced to struggle with them to win them to a proletarian outlook. This OL cannot do because its leaders lack such an outlook themselves. Principled struggle for the purpose of uniting around a Marxist-Leninist line does not fit their aims of establishing an unholy alliance against every advance of the struggle, since such advances threaten those whose position rests on speculating on baggage and primitiveness, on bourgeois ideology and petty bourgeois prejudices against the working class and its stand and outlook.

OL’s position around the events in Boston–its promotion of bourgeois nationalism in particular and bourgeois ideology in general–is not accidental but typical and flows from its line and the outlook of its leadership. For example, in a forum held by the OL this summer in Oakland, Calif., the major speaker attacked the RU for opposing the special demands of third world people as “divisive.” When challenged by an RU questioner to give an example of this, this speaker said he didn’t know of any specific examples.

When pushed further he came up with only one example: in a coalition planning for International Women’s Day this year in Boston, he said, the RU opposed slogans raised by certain third world groups. What were these slogans, this OL spokesman was asked? His answer was, “I can’t think of what the slogans were, I’ll just say that–just that third world people raised them.” Therefore, automatically, the RU is chauvinist for opposing them, regardless of what these slogans were or whether they were correct or incorrect. Isn’t this a typical example of bourgeois nationalism–disguising itself, of course, as upholding the national question against attempts to liquidate it!

But the worst from OL that evening was yet to come. Near the end of this forum, the moderator, another frequent spokesman for the OL, informed the audience that “I have been a communist for 40 years,” and then worked himself into a frenzy, attacking white communists for supposedly not working in the “racist enclaves” of San Leandro and Fremont (white working class communities in the Bay Area). “That’s where racism resides!” he shouted, “That’s who votes in a Nixon, that’s who votes in a Wallace, that’s who is the basis of fascism!” Since OL thinks this is a “communist” stand, it is no wonder that OL is unable or unwilling to see why narrow nationalism is the main deviation on the national question in the U.S. communist movement!

According to OL, if you refuse to attack white workers as fascists, then you are not struggling against white chauvinism, just as OL holds the view that refusing to support the leadership of the bourgeois (or even feudal) forces in the national movements in the Third World countries is the same thing as refusing to support the national movements themselves. And on the basis of this line, the OL joins in the gang of “communist” gossip columnists attacking the RU as “national chauvinist,” relying, like the rest of these “red” Rona Barretts, on rumor-mongering and slander.

OL Sings Bad Song Off-Key

We would like to remind the leaders of OL that we have heard this tune from you before. Like before it won’t get you a hit record now either.

At the beginning of the past period in the communist movement, at the time when the new communist forces were first forming, these opportunists attacked the RU and set up the “true” revolutionary organization. Revolutionary Youth Movement 2 (RYM 2), an amalgamation of old SDS forces who opposed the Weatherman’s “terrorism” with social pacifism and reformism.

At that time, the present leaders of OL were linked up with the forces putting forward the bankrupt “strategy” of “repudiating white-skin privilege” (now the OL even has the nerve to accuse the RU of upholding this line, because we continue to recognize that there are petty privileges that come from being members of the oppressor nation, and that these do affect the consciousness of the white workers, though they certainly don’t make them non-revolutionary, counter-revolutionary or even fascist as OL has it).

Further, then as now, these opportunists screamed that the RU was “male chauvinist,” because we sharply criticized RYM-2’s mechanical policy that its leadership bodies must have at least 50% women, and we opposed RYM-2’s mockery of the united front which reduced it to a gimmick, with positions like “women are part of the united front and men must repudiate their male privilege in order to join with women in the united front.” And then as now, the present leaders of the OL spread rumors around the country that the RU was falling apart; at that time it was supposedly all the women who were leaving the RU because of its “intolerable male chauvinism.” Unfortunately for these opportunists, idealism does not work–wishing does not make it so.

At each point, the rote of these opportunists has been to unite all who can be united against whatever represents the road forward. And now, with the old period coming to an end and the new period and the new Party on the horizon, their attacks have become all the more frenzied. But like before they are bound to fail, exactly because the communist movement has gone forward, despite their consistent opposition, and on the basis of these advances is beyond the point of mistaking OL’s fantasizing for mass work to build revolutionary struggle, or its rumor-mongering for ideological struggle to build principled unity.

Party Must Be Formed on Basis of Correct Line

For our part, we do not intend to respond to all the slanders of the OL and other opportunists–and we know that they can churn out rumors faster than we can answer each of them. Instead, we rely on the fact that the honest forces in the communist movement are correctly concerned with ideological and political line, and what these lines lead to in practice. We would simply point out that from its beginning and down to today, the RU has actively taken up struggles against national oppression and has fought for a proletarian line within these struggles–against police repression, against discrimination on the job and in society generally, for open admissions and third world study programs on the campuses, and other forms of the struggle against national oppression. And we have consistently struggled against, and played a leading role in defeating, lines in the communist movement that actually do liquidate the national question, such as the line of PL and the “CP,” USA.

Recently the RU played a leading role in the fight to smash Operation Zebra in the Bay Area. We are presently involved; together with many other forces, in struggles against police repression and murder in cities all across the country. In each issue of the anti-imperialist papers the RU works on across the country (as well as in Revolution), many articles are devoted to struggles against national oppression. Could we have taken up these struggles in the way we have without taking up the struggle against white chauvinism, within the communist movement (including in our own ranks) as well as among the masses?

We recognize that among the masses, white chauvinism is the main danger around the national question, that historically white chauvinism has been a powerful weapon that the ruling class has used against the masses of people, and that sharp struggle must be waged against it to develop the revolutionary movement of the working class, fighting against all oppression, for its own emancipation and the emancipation of all humanity.

But what divides us from the opportunists is that we insist that this struggle be based on a proletarian class stand, identifying the bourgeoisie as the source of national oppression and white chauvinism (as well as narrow nationalism). We insist on directing our attack against the ruling class and not against the white workers. And, further, what sets us apart from these opportunists is that we have correctly analyzed the main deviation on the national question within the communist movement as narrow nationalism, and have waged struggle against it–while continuing to struggle against white chauvinism in the communist movement as well. These opportunists, on the other hand, have based their careers on promoting bourgeois nationalism, and bourgeois ideology in general.

The communist movement and the mass movement are not the same. The communists are the conscious element in the struggle, those who consciously struggle to grasp a correct line, based on Marxism-Leninism to lead the masses and, while learning from them, raise their consciousness in the course of struggle. Especially at this crucial stage of forming a genuine vanguard Party of the proletariat, after so long a period without one, it is decisive that the new Party be based on a correct line to be able to lead the masses in revolutionary struggle.

To do this we must base ourselves firmly on the class stand and outlook of the proletariat and no other class, and we must ruthlessly root out deviations from this stand which masquerade as Marxism whatever form these deviations take. But we must especially dig out those deviations in the communist movement that have become most deeply entrenched and now represent the strongest base area for the bourgeoisie and its ideology within our own movement. Only in this way can we build a revolutionary Party by uniting all who can be united around a Marxist-Leninist line, and thoroughly expose and defeat the opportunist line.