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New International, June 1939


Jan Buchar

The National Question in Central Europe

From New International, Vol.5 No.6, June 1939, pp.182-185.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE NATIONAL QUESTION has often played a fateful rôle in Central Europe. In the year 1848, as a result of the cowardice of the German bourgeoisie and the reactionary policy of the rising bourgeoisie of the Slavic peoples of Austria, the development of the bourgeois-democratic revolution was frustrated. Thanks to eternal national strife the rotten, semi-feudal Austro-Hungarian monarchy was able to maintain itself into the 20th century. Nationalistic illusions after the World War contributed powerfully to the defeat of the proletarian revolution in Central Europe and to the isolation and destruction of its first fortress, the Hungarian Soviet republic. In 1938 it was the nationalistic corruption of the masses that was one of the chief causes of the proletariat’s inability to intervene independently as the Czechoslovak crisis brought Europe to the very brink of imperialist war – the crisis which suddenly ended with an imperialist truce that handed over the entire “Danube area” to Hitler without a struggle.

In recent years the working population of Czechoslovakia was nationally completely split. The greater portion of the Sudeten German people and even the working class was under the influence of Henlein’s fascist “liberation” demagogy. A large portion of the poor peasantry of Slovakia was in the camp of Hlinka’s clerico-fascist, autonomist People’s Party. The Czech workers and peasants, however, were ready to defend the capitalist fatherland under the leadership of the Czech bourgeoisie. Each national section of the proletariat concluded a class peace with its own national bourgeoisie. The Czech workers stood ready to shed their blood for the interests of Czech and Anglo-French finance capital, because they believed that they would thereby be defending the freedom of the Czech people. The Sudeten German workers allowed themselves to be misused by German imperialism because they awaited their “national and social liberation” from Hitler.

How could that have come about? How could that have happened in a country, in which the communist party was born of a mass split from the social democracy, a party which numbered hundreds of thousands of members at its founding and which for 20 solid years maintained such sizeable influence that in the general elections its vote always varied between three-quarters of a million and a million? How could it have happened in a country in which the Czech, German, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish and Carpatho-Ukrainian workers constituted a unified and centralized communist party – a fact over which Lenin used to rejoice so much?

The Czechoslovak labor movement went down because of opportunism; it was defeated by the betrayal of the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals. An especially important factor, however, was its inability to pose correctly, that is, in a revolutionary manner, the national question which is so tremendously important in Central Europe. It is this question with which we wish to deal here in detail.

The “Heritage” of Austro-Marxism

The social democracy of old Austro-Hungary was unable to connect the struggle of the oppressed peoples of the monarchy with the class struggle of the proletariat. Had it done so, that is, had it been a really revolutionary party, the post-war history of Central Europe and probably of all Europe would have had a different aspect.

The struggle of the oppressed nations in the old Hapsburg empire bore tremendous revolutionary possibilities. The bourgeoisie of these peoples was unable to place itself consistently at the head of the struggle for national liberation – for the same reasons that the Russian bourgeoisie was unable to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia. Like the Russian bourgeoisie, the Czech, Croat and Slovene bourgeoisie, etc., came into the world too late, so to speak. It actually became a class only in the age of imperialism, that is, in the age of declining and decaying capitalism. Under normal conditions it could only shake off the foreign yoke by mobilizing the toiling masses. It was in fear of and hated these masses, however, who had already raised the demands of their own class. It feared and hated them more than foreign dominion.

Moreover, especially in the case of the Czech bourgeoisie, there dwelled, economically speaking, two souls in its breast. On the one hand, it was interested in the large market for its industrial products which Austro-Hungary with its 50 million inhabitants and preponderantly agrarian territory offered; on the other hand, it would have liked to throw off foreign exploitation and regency. The second alternative, however, only on condition that the masses would not solve the question in revolutionary fashion, but that other, “more respectable”, foreign forces would “help the Czech people to freedom” and at the same time guarantee the Czech bourgeoisie its class supremacy and the uninterrupted exploitation of its “own” Czech masses and if possible of others, too.

First, Czarism was considered by the Czech bourgeoisie, especially by its more backward portion, to be such a “more respectable” force. For this reason the Austro-Slavic, prewar program of Kramar demanded the reorganization of Austria on a federated basis and an alliance with the empire of the Czar. For this reason the Czech bourgeoisie in the years 1914-1915 awaited its “liberation” by the Russian cossacks. Soon, however, the defeats of the Czar’s army buried these hopes.

The more “modern” representatives of the bourgeoisie, headed by Masaryk, had long ago directed their eyes more to the West, toward imperialist France and England. There they found during the war the more “respectable” outside power which they needed for “liberation”.

If already during the war the Czech bourgeoisie began to count on “liberation” from without, to which, moreover, they were driven by Germany’s plans for a unified Central Europe, that in no wise meant that it was ready itself to fight actively. It first decided to intervene at the very end of the war after the decision had already been rendered on the battlefields. While the Czech workers had long been struggling for national independence by mass desertions and uprisings at the front, and strikes and hunger demonstrations at home, which they naively identified with “social justice”, the bourgeoisie still continued to pursue a loyal Austrian policy, sending greetings to the “victorious leaders of the Austrian armies” and assiduously underwriting war loans.

If at that time the proletariat had placed itself at the head of the struggle for freedom, if it had boldly commenced the struggle for the overthrow of the monarchy by realizing the right of self-determination, if it had replaced the instinctive connection of the struggle for national and social liberation by the scientific synthesis of both – that is, by the slogans, “Destroy Austria”, “Destroy National Oppression”, “Destroy Class Rule and Exploitation Together”, “Realize the Right of Self-Determination and Peacefully Unite the Peoples in the United States of Socialist Central Europe” – then the Hungarian Commune would not have remained an isolated episode, the revolution would not have been stopped at Warsaw and all history would have taken a different turn.

Already at that time, however, social democracy had placed itself firmly on the basis of the status quo and the status quo at that time was Austria. Thus the social-democratic leaders became loyal, faithful to the Hapsburgs and counter-revolutionary. The Austro-Marxian “analyses” served only as a profound rationalization of their prostitution. Modern economy becomes more centralized, it demands large spheres of development: ergo, the liberation of the small peoples is a reactionary Utopia and God preserve, God protect our Kaiser, our country. That an economic union other than on a basis of exploitation is possible, namely, the voluntary union of liberated peoples in a socialist federation and that the road to it lies through the revolutionary struggle for the right of self-determination – that never even occurred to the learned dialecticians of Austro-Marxism.

During the war it was the Czech social democracy, with its leader Smeral, which went to the worst extremes. Today Smeral, as is well known, is one of the leaders of the CPCz. At the time of the World War he wrote a series of articles on “buffer states”, in which he showed that an independent Czech state could not maintain itself in the present epoch of capitalism and that such a state would necessarily have to become a football of the great imperialist powers. That was correct. History has brilliantly confirmed Smeral’s prognosis long after he himself renounced it. Instead of drawing the revolutionary conclusion, however – namely, that the freedom of the Czech people can be assured only under socialism and that the Czech toilers must struggle for the proletarian revolution even in the interest of their national emancipation – Smeral, in the Austro-Marxian way, drew a counter-revolutionary one: the Hapsburg monarchy must be defended. As a result of this policy he became during the war the man most hated by the Czech people. When at the end of the war he again wanted to speak at a labor mass meeting in Zizkov, a suburb of Prague, the workers cut him off as soon as he appeared on the platform. The leadership of the social democracy lost all influence over the mass movement. The opposition which crystallized in the party toward the end of the war was petty bourgeois and nationalistic. Thus the mass of the toiling people, which under the influence of the Russian Revolution and the peace negotiations at Brest was coming into ever greater flux, remained without revolutionary leadership. On October 14, 1918 the masses spontaneously conducted a general strike with the slogan, “For an Independent Czech Socialist Republic.” The movement had, however, no class conscious leadership. When Austria collapsed 14 days later, the Czech bourgeoisie, which at last dared to show its face, placed itself without any resistance at the head of the “national revolution” and the “national state”. The social-democratic leaders, most of whom, just as their bourgeois masters, had changed overnight from Black-and-Yellow to White-and-Red patriots, formed a coalition government with the bourgeoisie.

Imperialist Czechoslovakia

A twofold process now began. With the help of the reformist leaders the bourgeoisie built up the capitalist state. The mass of the proletariat, which had been expecting a “socially just” republic, began to become disillusioned and to rally behind revolutionary slogans.

In the Fall of 1920 came the inevitable collision. The revolutionary tendency had already won a two-thirds majority within the Czech social democracy. The bourgeoisie, however, under the leadership of the incumbent Minister of the Interior and the leader of the Agrarian party, Svehla, had secretly reconstructed its police force and gendarmerie. Actively led by President Masaryk, the right-wing leaders split the social democracy shortly before the party congress at which the left wing was sure to win out. A specially installed government of bureaucrats headed by the tested Austrian veteran Czerny – who, moreover, is today again the Minister of the Interior in the Sirovy government – beat down the provoked general strike which was poorly conducted by the left-wing’s centrist leadership. The fate of Czechoslovakia was decided for the moment. It became a capitalist, imperialistic republic. Out of the social-democratic left, however, there emerged a mass communist party.

Czechoslovakia was a typical creation of the imperialist Peace of Versailles. It was one of the group of small imperialist states which were constructed with the dual purpose of policing Germany’s eastern border and of blocking the Russian revolution by means of a “cordon sanitaire”. The borders of these states were so drawn by the peace dictate that strong national minorities were to be found everywhere. This was to make the unification of these states with one another or with Germany impossible and to keep them dependent on the western powers. Quite openly, considerations of strategy were put before any ethnographic ones. Thus Czechoslovakia received territories of which the Czech bourgeoisie had formerly never even dared to dream, for example, the Carpatho-Ukraine. A state arose in which the ruling nation, the Czech, formed only 50% of the entire population. To make the fiction of the national state even half-way tenable it was necessary officially to stamp the Czechs and the Slovaks, who are undoubtedly two distinct peoples even if closely related, as a “Czechoslovak” nation.

Czechoslovakia was a bourgeois-democratic republic, but its “democracy” was always a little peculiar. By means of various protective laws and exceptional regulations the political rights of workers had already been so limited since 1923 that not much was left of them. Even in its heyday, Czechoslovak “democracy” was much more reactionary than, for example, the late lamented Weimar Republic. It could not be otherwise in a state in which 50% of the population was not only socially but also nationally oppressed, especially in its eastern portions, where the oppression took on almost colonial forms. Once more it is demonstrated how correct Karl Marx was when he said that no people which oppresses another people can be free. The national independence of the Czech people could have been assured in two ways after the collapse of old Austria: either by the revolutionary way of the overthrow of its own bourgeoisie, the liberation of the oppressed peoples by the realization of their right of self-determination and the voluntary unification of the free peoples of Central Europe in the United Socialist States; or, on the other hand, by the counter-revolutionary suppression of its own proletariat, by imperialist annexation and oppression of national minorities, by arming and by “guarantees” of imperialist allies and protectors. With the aid of the reformist leaders the bourgeoisie succeeded in accomplishing the second alternative. To what extent, however, this alternative really assured the Czech people their national freedom the events of 20 years later demonstrated. In this sense, too, it was demonstrated that no people can be free that permits itself to be misused for the oppression of others.

The National Policy of the Czechoslovak Proletariat

In place of the old “prison of the peoples”, Austria, there now arose a series of smaller peoples’ prisons. What was to be the policy of the proletariat?

Once more the working class had the opportunity of combining its class struggle with the struggle of the oppressed nations and of winning powerful allies in their toiling masses. For it alone was in a position to show the real way out of the blind alley of eternal nationalistic conflicts in Central Europe by the slogan of self-determination and voluntary unification, by the slogan of the United Socialist States.

To be sure, the social democracy did not understand this and as a reformist party it could not understand it. Once more it put itself on the basis of the imperialist status quo. It defended the capitalist republic and along with it the right of the Czech bourgeoisie to suppress national minorities. It opposed the right of self-determination and in practise, too, all of the partial demands of national minorities.

On the other hand, the communist party, in its more worthy past, took some correct steps on the road to a revolutionary policy in the national question. After its second congress in 1924, at which the opportunistic Smeral leadership was ousted, the right of self-determination was added to its program. The fifth congress in 1929 clearly characterized Czechoslovakia as an imperialist state and imposed upon the party the task of combining the struggle for self-determination with the class struggle and of achieving hegemony for the proletariat in the movement for the national emancipation of the oppressed peoples.

In the period which followed, the CPCz was able to score definite successes in the minority territories. In Sudeten German regions there arose a broad non-party and international movement of the unemployed under communist leadership. In 1930 and 1931, 1,500 local unemployed committees were functioning there and took the leadership in broad actions. Against the will of the trade-union bureaucracy of all tendencies a tremendous, united strike of the North Bohemian coal miners was led and won. Germans, Czechs, communists, social democrats, unorganized and Nazi workers participated in solidarity, fought against the Czech state and won great power for their democratically-elected strike committees. In the Carpatho-Ukraine there arose under communist leadership a very broad, revolutionary peasant movement which led to big battles with the gendarmerie and the army and finally forced the government to stop the mass foreclosures and to distribute grain to the poor peasants.

Even at that time, however, the national question was posed too abstractly. The preponderantly economic struggle was carried on for immediate, partial demands and at the same time the final solution of the national question was put forward. The proper connection, however, between the struggle for small economic demands and against every concrete expression of national oppression, and the final solution was lacking. Just as it was taboo in the economic struggle to tread the bridge from partial demands to the final goal, because it rested upon “Trotskyist” transitional demands for workers’ control of production, so in the struggle for national emancipation a mechanical repetition of the final solution had to suffice, which without proper concretization could have only agitational value.

In the end all partial gains were lost. The following period of “social fascism” and the “united front of communism”, together with the effects of the German defeat, isolated the party completely from the masses. There remained only one thing: the international composition of the party and the international, if abstract, character of its agitation.

These remaining accomplishments were cruelly and thoroughly liquidated by the VII World Congress of the Comintern. After helping Hitler into power by his idiotic ultra-left policies, Stalin concluded his illustrious alliance with Laval, which according to its real content bound the Soviet Union to rush to the help of France if France’s imperialist interests were threatened, and bound France, should the USSR be attacked, to consult with the League of Nations. For the sake of this alliance Stalin sacrificed the revolutionary movement in all finality.

The Czech Stalinists, together with the French, now became the most glowing patriots. They not only voted the arms budget, they demanded bigger armaments. They not only preached class peace, they denounced all its opponents as “enemies of the people”. No one, in fact, was nationalistic or patriotic enough for them. Their whole struggle against fascism was reduced to the denunciation of Hitler’s agents, real and supposed, to the police. Even their struggle against the Henlein movement consisted only in denouncing the Henlein adherents to the authorities, and complaining about the authorities to the government if they did not proceed drastically enough.

The only basis, however, for really successfully fighting the Henlein movement was the class struggle, combined with the defense of the German workers against the national oppression of the Czech bourgeoisie and the Czech state apparatus. Only the class struggle could smash Henlein’s false “commonalty of the people”. It was imperative to bring the Nazi workers and peasants into conflict with their capitalist and big landowning comrades in the struggle for higher wages, shortening of the working day with no reduction in pay, adequate and universal unemployment relief, in the struggle for workers’ control of the Sudeten German factories and mines, the division of “German soil” among the German small peasants, for national equality, home rule and self-determination. Then, as to be expected, Czech gendarmes would have been mobilized to protect the capitalist “comrades” against the Sudeten people and that would have been the end of the fascist “commonalty of the people”. Instead, however, the “communist” and reformist leaders called the Czech police and thereby welded Henlein’s ranks more tightly. In the end, they remained completely isolated. In the last communal elections of the republic, Henlein garnered almost 90% of the Sudeten German votes.

(To be concluded)

PRAGUE, Nov. 15, 1938

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