Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


What has been the purpose of this series of articles on the Afro-American question?

From the outset of this debate, my aim has been two-fold: First, I have tried to affirm and explain, in broad outline, the Marxist-Leninist view of the Afro-American people as an oppressed nation in the Deep South. Second, I have tried to criticize the political line and analysis of the series in the Guardian that preceded this one–a viewpoint that would oppose the right of this nation to self-determination on the grounds that the nation did not, in fact, exist.

In regard to this second aspect, my assumption has been that this has not been a personal quarrel between myself and the author of the previous series. Rather, I have viewed it as an ideological and political struggle between two contending lines within the communist movement. In this sense, I have tried not to engage in personal attacks or fathom individual intentions. Instead I have aimed my criticisms at the political line of a printed document, hopefully without distortion or unprincipled argument. In any case, readers can examine both series and judge for themselves whether or not this has been the case.

In regard to the first aspect of this task, the presentation of the Marxist-Leninist position, I have tried to do it both historically and dialectically. The reason is pointed out by Stalin: “The solution to the national problem can be arrived at,” he says, “only if due consideration is paid to historical considerations in their development.”

The fact that the previous series also makes use of this same statement points to one of the underlying issues in the debate. It turns on the questions, “Who makes history?” and “What is the motive force of historical development?”

There are two opposing answers to these questions, or two lines on how to look at history.


The Marxist-Leninist view is that the masses are the makers of history and that class struggle is the motive force. The revisionist view places the masses primarily in a passive role and presents the development of the productive forces as the motive force.

The development of productive forces, of course, is an important factor in the advance of history. Whoever denies this is not a materialist. Or, to paraphrase Marx, people make their own history, but not out of whole cloth, just as they choose.

But the question here is what is the principal aspect, what is the key link. It is the class struggle. Whoever denies this is not a revolutionary.

It has been a basic theme of this series that the political line of its predecessor was rooted in an analysis that took changes in the productive forces, rather than class struggle, as the motive force.

As a result, the view of Black history it presents is one of vulgar evolutionism and economic determinism. It begins by dividing 300 or more years into three categories mechanically and metaphysically abstracted from the actual course of events: slave period, peasant period, and proletarian period.

The slave period is presented in one paragraph and the main “fact” within it, the claim that 99% of Blacks at the time were slaves, is wrong.

The peasant period is presented without regard for its main particular: Reconstruction and its counterrevolutionary betrayal. In fact the entire series never mentions Reconstruction, one of the most revolutionary periods in American history in general, let alone Afro-American history.

The proletarian period, beginning in the 1950s, mentions one condition for the Black revolt of the 1960s–“the bourgeoisie’s need for ’free labor’ ”–and claims that it showed how “the source of Black oppression is not primarily in the political system.”

The class analysis made of the slave and peasant periods is an incomplete muddle. At one point, plantation owners are feudal landlords and at another point they are semifeudal. But nowhere is an analysis made of the slave system as a hybrid of slave, feudal and capitalist relations.

Also within the peasant period, the Garvey movement is misconstrued and presented in isolation, i.e., without mention of the fact that it was a component part of the worldwide upsurge in national liberation struggles following World War I and the October Revolution.

The “productive forces theory,” however, is even more apparent in how the series presents the transition from one period to another, assuming for the sake of argument that this division into periods is correct.

In the transition from the slave to peasant period, for instance, the series says:

The Civil War ended the system of chattel slavery and brought about a fundamental change in the class character of the Afro-American people. Slavery was replaced with the feudalistic plantation system; the Black chattels became land slaves, peasants tied to the land and the plantation owners.

This is no explanation at all. Viewed pragmatically, it is a series of assertions, some of which are “true” in the most narrow sense. But viewed dialectically and more deeply, it is a gross distortion. The passage does not mention the fact that the Black masses themselves played a critical role in winning the Civil War, nor does it mention the role of other popular classes. Black people are presented entirely passively; they are objects to be housed, fed, clothed, worked or transferred from one condition of servitude to another. Not once does the series mention the Black masses in this period as a revolutionary force in the making of their own history.


In the transition from the peasant period to the proletarian period, the series also makes the development of productive forces primary. First agriculture is mechanized and then Blacks are dispersed with the consequence that the nation is dissolved. This is regarded as primary while the Black revolt in the Deep South, the greatest national revolutionary upheaval there in decades, is a secondary factor.

Finally, in any Marxist presentation of history, it is necessary not only to examine the objective conditions, but also to evaluate the role of the subjective factor, especially the role of the revolutionary movement and the struggle between the two lines within it. To fail to do this is to miss the main reason for studying the past in the first place. As Marx put it, our task is not only to interpret the world, but to change it. The past must be learned from in order to serve the present and revolutionary theory must be used as a guide to revolutionary action. This is what genuinely separates both pragmatists and dogmatists from Marxist-Leninists.

It is for this reason that my series discussed the views of the First and Second Internationals and went into some detail on the two-line struggle in the Communist International on the Afro-American question. Even more important in this regard was the analysis of the rise of Browderism and the two-line struggle in the Communist Party USA in the 1950s.


None of this was aimed at presenting the line of the Comintern in 1928 and 1930 as some kind of icon or holy writ, incapable of change or development. But unlike the recent Guardian series, I hold to the view that the Comintern line was correct at the time in its essentials and that it serves as a basic guide in reestablishing a correct line today against the revisionism of the CPUSA. I likewise tried to indicate some areas where changes in a Marxist-Leninist program would be necessary to take into account changed conditions.

But the recent Guardian series either belittled or ignored the history of this two-line struggle. It does not even mention Browderism or its aftermath and only mentions Harry Haywood, a leading Marxist-Leninist fighting against it, to disparage him.

At one point the series throws out a challenge: “A nation is not just a concept,” it correctly says. “It is a material force, a national social cohesion with a dynamic life of its own that is bound to come forward and grip the consciousness of that nation so long as its rights as a nation are denied or infringed upon.”

The implication is that this cannot be shown to be true in relation to the Afro-American people. In my series, however, 1 tried to show how this has persistently been the case. Moreover, I sketched out how in at least four periods in U.S. history, it was manifested in mass upheavals the Reconstruction era, the Garvey movement, the 1930s struggle and the Black revolt of the 1960s.

None of this was done by the recent Guardian series in a revolutionary way. Instead it presented a sham version of history, both of the Afro-American people and of the communist movement. Under the banner of “anti-dogmatism” this line in fact aims at undermining Marxist-Leninist theory.

Take, for instance, the argument around Stalin’s definition of a nation as a historically constituted “stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture.” The Guardian series’ claim is that those “dogmatists” who uphold the right of self-determination, for “emotional” reasons, have seized upon this definition and have gone around trying to cut up social reality to fit it.


In fact the opposite is true. The usefulness of Stalin’s definition is precisely that it enables us to see and to grasp more clearly what is already there. The Black nation was clearly historically constituted as a consequence of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It developed in the common territory of the Deep South, which was likewise the birthplace of its common language, culture and economic life–all of which persist, to one degree or another, to this day.

Stalin’s view in this regard is shown to be an accurate summation of national and class struggle that serves as a guide to action. It shows the basis on which a nation is formed. It does not say that a nation does not change and develop or, as is the case with the oppressed nations, under-develop.

But what the Guardian series has in fact implied is that Stalin’s theory needs some revision before it can be applied in the U.S. It hints at three points:
(1) A nation must not only have a common territory. Its people must also be the majority nationality living there at the time.
(2) A nation must not only have a common economic life. Instead those ties must also be the predominant economic aspect of its existence. Moreover, the main particular features of the economic conditions facing it at its birth must persist throughout its existence.
(3) A nation must not only have a common language, it needs a language separate from that of an oppressor nation if language is to be deemed a “significant” factor of its nationality.

These “refinements” could certainly apply to many nations in the world today. The key problem, however, is that they would not apply to many oppressed nations, some of which are less developed in certain respects than the Afro-American nation.

But this is the heart of the issue. The Guardian series’ de facto revision of Marxism-Leninism on the national question, its productive forces theory, its pragmatism and eclecticism in the view of the past and present-all add up to a definite direction, orientation and viewpoint: conciliation or revisionism and the tendency to liquidate the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations.

The danger of this course is obvious. It was outlined in the Guardian series itself:

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.

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

The two paths are shown clearly enough. But revolutionary practice is the criterion of truth in the end, and I am confident that applying the lessons of the former statement will be the key to developing the revolutionary unity of the Afro-American people and the American working class as a whole.