Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


“For communists to deny the right of an oppressed nation to self-determination is to promote national chauvinism, divide the working class and deny the proletariat the strength of a powerful ally.”

In this way Irwin Silber presented in the Aug. 20 Guardian one of the key issues at stake in the ongoing debate in the communist movement on the Afro-American national question.

The problem is that the lessons of this assertion apply immediately to Silber’s own viewpoint, summed up in his six-part “Fan the Flames” series appearing in The Guardian over the past few months. Silber’s aim, unfortunately, has been to deny the right of self-determination in this situation by trying to demonstrate that an oppressed nation of Afro-Americans does not exist in this country.

Silber’s thesis is that Black people are a national minority throughout the U.S. While Black people once had “all the characteristics” of an oppressed nation in the Deep South, he argues, this has been changed in the past few decades by the further development of U.S. monopoly capitalism, particularly in southern agriculture. Thus, since the right of self-determination applies only to nations and not to national minorities, he states that:

“By the same token, for communists to advocate the right of self-determination for a national minority is also to promote division within the working class and a surrender to reactionary bourgeois nationalism.”

Thus Silber poses the two lines sharply enough. Either he is promoting white chauvinism or his opponents who uphold the right of self-determination are promoting reactionary Black nationalism.

How should this contradiction be resolved? Since the viewpoints are mutually opposed, there will be struggle between them and one or another will win out. But what attitude should be taken toward this struggle and what method should be used to distinguish between correct and erroneous lines?

The Marxist-Leninist attitude toward the ideological struggle is to welcome it, not for its own sake, but because a correct line develops mainly through a process of struggle against an erroneous line in the course of the effort to unite theory with practice.

This is certainly true of the U.S. communist movement. It has been able to move forward, deepening both its theory and practice, because it was compelled to criticize and repudiate revisionism, Trotskyism and various varieties of petty-bourgeois “leftism.”


The debate on the national question has been especially important in this regard. It was in the struggle to defeat the Progressive Labor Party’s “all nationalism is reactionary” line several years ago that many cadres in the movement today first gained a basic grasp of Marxism-Leninism. And more recently, the struggle against the Revolutionary Union’s “narrow nationalism is the main danger” line and its despicable, chauvinist application in the busing crisis has likewise strengthened proletarian internationalism and advanced the movement.

Indeed, if this struggle were viewed all-sidedly and in connection with revolutionary practice, it would be impossible to agree with the opening sentence in Silber’s series:

“A considerable degree of heat–although not a corresponding measure of light–has been engendered by the ideological debate over the ’national question’ in the U.S.”

Silber should speak for himself. But it is obvious to almost all communists that this debate has vastly deepened their study and understanding of Afro-American history, of the history of the two-line struggle in the Communist Party on the question, of the conditions facing Black people today and of Marxist-Leninist works on the national liberation struggle throughout the world.

Look even at the single aspect of organization. Six or seven years ago separate organizations for leftists and anti-imperialists of different nationalities was certainly the main trend, if not upheld as a matter of principle. This was mainly due to the chauvinist betrayal of the CP revisionists of the revolutionary line on the national question in favor of tailing the NAACP, and the chauvinist vacillations of the early white student new left in response to the “Black Power” period–both of which served to strengthen narrow nationalism within the upsurge of national struggle.

Now the situation has been reversed. Most communist organizations are multinational and hardly any uphold separate national organizations as a matter of principle. How did this happen if not through deepening, in the course of ideological struggle, a revolutionary understanding of the national question?


But Silber has hardly one good word to say for this struggle in his entire series. Instead he heaps abuse upon it, disparaging it in every way possible. A list of his characterizing phrases gives a picture of his attitude:

“Stentorian proclamations,” “not improved by virtue of a rise in the decibel count,” “unrealistic quality,” “little concrete investigation,” “sarcasm,” “self-righteous denunciations,” “innumerable quotations from Stalin, Lenin, and Chairman Mao,” “catechismal,” “petty-bourgeois moralizing,” “more sophisticated ’white guilt’,” “furious exchanges,” and “muddle of revisionism and opportunism.” (This last phrase Silber applies to all positions put forward so far, thus attacking every communist organization that has had something to say on the Afro-American question.)

Silber in fact is so blinded by sectarianism and contempt for this ideological struggle that he even indirectly attacks the Guardian on what its staff has summed up as a critically important question.

“For surely,” Silber says near the end of his series, “one cannot dignify the polemical exchanges between the RU and OL [October League] on this matter [the Afro-American question] as serious ideological struggle for a correct line.”

An important part of these exchanges, of course, was on the Boston busing crisis. Not only OL, but the Guardian and many others repudiated RU’s line, with the Guardian and OL closely uniting (and still in basic agreement) on this issue. But for Silber either the struggle in Boston has nothing to do with the Afro-American question or a clear-cut struggle between white chauvinism and proletarian internationalism shouldn’t be “dignified” as “serious.”

Thus on the first question raised by Silber’s series–one’s stand toward the actual ideological struggle over several years–the author’s viewpoint runs counter to a Marxist-Leninist evaluation. He views the ideological struggle as mainly negative, rather than mainly positive. He disparages it, rather than welcomes it. He views the outlook of communists as having been set back or kept stagnant, rather than advanced by the development of the debate.