Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

National Question

The New International, December 1942


The National Question

De Gaullism and Socialism


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 11, December 1942, pp. 332–335.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In a time of reaction it is common that those who have seen the workers’ movement crumble everywhere are on the lookout for forces which would be able to defeat the on-rushing tide of totalitarian slavery. They are ready to cling to any hope which seems to present itself to further these aims. Some discover the democratic virtues of Roosevelt and Churchill, others think that Stalin is not so bad after all. Still others, who have kept intact their revolutionary spirit and are opposed to all imperialist powers, have discovered ... the national question. And now, armed with many learned quotations from Lenin, they are allowed once more to be “on the side of the masses.”

It is hard to swim against the current; it is unpleasant to know that one represents a yet infinitely small current in a world which today moves in the opposite direction. How much more comfortable is the situation of those who have the feeling that they are – in spirit, if not in fact – again members of a great mass movement. Nevertheless, it seems to us that at this moment the only possible attitude of revolutionaries is to swim against all existing great currents. It is not the task of revolutionaries to run to the support of every movement which has stirred the masses. Their first step must be, quite the contrary, to analyze the contents of these movements with the yardstick of Marxian measurement. Revolutionaries cannot say: “Is this a mass movement? If so, we are with it.” But rather: “Is this a movement which is not opposed to independent class action by the proletariat? Is this a movement in which are to be found the first seeds for the development of a Third Camp of workers’ activity? Or, is it predominantly an extension of the military activities of one of the great imperialist blocs?” The fact that masses participate in a movement is not in itself a criterion of appreciation. Large masses, even of socialist workers, enthusiastically followed the lead of their imperialist warlords into the slaughter of World War I. And so were the fascist movements large mass movements.

What the Nationalist Press Writes

Comrade Smith’s two articles in The New International are chiefly characterized by a complete lack of analysis of the national movements in Europe fighting Nazi oppression. He talks as if there were no difference between, for example, the Polish movement, in which large sectors of the working class are participating, and the French movement, largely organized by de Gaullists. Smith dispenses with an analysis of the ideologies and concrete aims of these social forces. He thinks it is sufficient to put forward an abstract policy on the national question, which he takes nearly word for word from Lenin’s theory as applied in the years during and preceding World War I.

Smith’s polemic, therefore, is surrounded by a certain veil of unreality. He talks a lot about “national resistance,” “mass movement,” etc., but he is extremely discreet about their concrete manifestations and their ideological content. But it simply will not do to speak of these movements as if they were only spontaneous mass movements without ideology. Their press is a fairly good mirror of their real content. It might be worth while to quote some excerpts from the French underground nationalist press, which may help us to descend from the heaven of Smith’s abstractions to a more earthly foundation. All these papers proceed unanimously from the assumption that the movement for which they speak is a part of the Allied war effort against the Axis; all these papers, whether directly de Gaullist or not, consider the movement they represent the spearheads of an Allied invasion of France. These papers do not chiefly advocate independent action against the Nazis, they adhere to every move by Roosevelt and Churchill. One of them is outspoken enough to say that it would consider a proletarian revolution in France at least as great a calamity as the present occupation!

Le Coq Enchainé: “Roosevelt said it clearly; America will furnish arms to the oppressed people of Europe the day their liberation will begin ... It will be the honor of France to be the beach-head. At the first debarkation on our shores, at the first landing of airplanes, the patriots will assemble around the Allied soldiers ... Today the French are unable to liberate themselves from the yoke ... but they wait for the hour when they will be aided by the intervention from outside.”
Le Franc-Tireur: “We express our gratitude and admiration to our American friends, who, together with the English, will help us to regain the liberty for which we all fight.”
Libération: “Have no fear. You will have arms and you will have leaders. You will have the assistance – finally in full swing – of your Allies. And do not forget that in Europe alone 150,000,000 men will rise like you, supported by Anglo-Saxon and Russian armies with then- tanks, their airplanes, which, after having crushed the last German offensive, will give the death blow to the exhausted enemy.”

It would be tedious to continue. All these papers say substantially the same thing. But one quotation from Le Coq Enchainé seems important: “If tomorrow, in 1943, the war still continues, then the general famine will create anarchy. And the whole of Europe will know the situation of Russia in 1917–18. Whoever would bind his hopes to this would be a fool and would only run into disaster and into his own loss.” What are the conclusions to be drawn from quotations like these? They seem to be quite obvious. Since there is no workers’ movement worth mentioning, the nationalist middle class masses and even a great part of the workers look desperately for outside help on which to lean. Some hope for the Russian miracle, others pin all their hopes to an intervention by the Allies. They do not consider themselves independent movements but rather spearheads of the Allied offensive. And these are the strange allies with whom revolutionary socialists are supposed to associate ...

The Tasks of Socialists

Smith will undoubtedly reply that these are expressions of the imperialist agents among the movement, but that the masses which constitute this movement think differently. He will be unable to prove this conclusively. But I too am unable to point to concrete evidence to the contrary. We are therefore compelled to rely on our general estimate of the forces which move in history without empirical material at our disposal. Now, then, when and where have there been movements involving large masses of the middle class (and those of peasant origin) who by themselves evolved in a revolutionary direction? Has not history proved over and over again that these movements were unable to evolve independently for more than an instant? Have they not always been attracted and directed by the decisive class influences and power blocs which are active in our period? There is no important workers’ movement anywhere in Europe (except possibly in Poland); on the other hand, there is the powerful imperialist Anglo-American bloc, allied with Stalin’s totalitarian state. The native bourgeoisie has lost much of its powerful position. Is it therefore not obvious that a “national movement” as such must of necessity turn to outside help?

What we are able to gather from written expressions of these movements and from an analysis of similar movements in the past, we are forced to the conclusion that they cannot but evolve more and more into an auxiliary force of the Allied war camp, lest there be a workers’ movement capable of attracting and influencing it. Our chief aim therefore must be to build the workers’ movement anew, to build it around proper socialist ideologies, around the leading idea that only independent class action can bring about liberation for the workers and all other oppressed classes. Does this mean that we ought to “ignore” the national struggle, as Smith so persistently wants us to say? Quite the contrary. Socialists will have to stand in the first ranks of the struggle; moreover, they must not only come forward with their own slogans, their own socialist ideology, but also with an unsparing criticism of the ideology which now grips these movements. It will not do for them to take part in the struggle merely because they must “be with the masses”; they will have to expose the leadership, their activity and their aims; they must not make a single concession to the ideology which reigns in the nationalist ranks. They must persistently criticize and attack all those who conceive of this struggle as a spearhead of the Allied invasion; they must have their proper organization.

The building of such an organization, even at the risk of appearing momentarily isolated from the main current, will be far more important than participation in this or that vast nationalist manifestation. The immediate objective is to have the workers regain their self-reliance and the self-confidence which they lost through successive defeats. Our guiding principle must be to find ways and means for regaining and strengthening proletarian class-consciousness. In this way, they will participate in a manifestation for the preservation of some remnants of trade union liberty or their standard of living. Should they, as Smith proposes, accept the national movement as a global thing, anxious not to lose contact with the masses, they will be condemned to remain eternally a left tail of this movement without any real influence on it.

Smith likes quotations. Why didn’t he let us have some by Trotsky on the Popular Front policy? He might be able to find some rather fine ones there. In fact, what else is Smith’s proposed policy than a repetition of the Popular Front, “national” brand? Trotsky did not propose to “stand on the sidelines,” as certain opportunists tried to reproach him. He was for most determined action, to be carried on under a clear-cut socialist ideology, and was opposed to any muddled alliance with the “liberal” bourgeoisie under the pretext of not losing contact with the masses.

We wish to finish this part with a quotation from Walter Lippmann, which in fact seems to us to convey a much better idea of what the “national movement” actually is than all of what Smith has told us:

“The military forces which are preparing to enter the continent or its approaches must aim to make a sure contact with the French and the other people within and behind Hitler’s lines. When the action is committed, then the military operation from the outside and the national uprising from the inside will be like the two blades of the same scissors.” (Emphasis mine. – E.)

Smith and Lenin

Smith is quite right that there are very many similarities between the situation with which Lenin was faced when he elaborated his theories on the national question and the situation we have to face now. Yet he omits one little fact which seems to be unimportant for him: Lenin was elaborating a tactical approach to the national problem for the existing proletarian movement. But the situation in Europe is dominated by the fact that there exists no proletarian movement (except for Poland). How can it be that, in spite of this, our approach should be practically unchanged? Surely this is possible when we argue in the lofty atmosphere of theoretical abstraction, but, unhappily for Smith, the reality looks utterly different. We are faced with one prime task in Europe, and that is to find the means and possibilities to resuscitate the workers’ movement. If this is our chief aim, the core of all our thinking and acting – and we are sure Smith will not disagree on this – then our attitude toward the national problem must be quite different from Lenin’s.

Today we cannot deal with the proper means which the proletarian movement has to use in order to influence, win over, or at least neutralize large middle class nationalist masses; our problem is rather how to make it possible that the proletariat as such will again be an organized factor capable of attracting these masses. Smith puts the cart before the horse. His well meant theoretical advice on how the proletarian movement should behave toward nationalist middle class masses are very good indeed, save for the “little” fact that this proletarian movement does not as yet exist.

It is obvious indeed that this movement will not be built by “ignoring” the nationalist movement, and I insist that nobody who has any sense at all could very well advocate such a thing. But it is not the question of participation which we are discussing, but rather how to participate and with what ideology. Smith himself says that if he were in Europe he would perhaps lay more stress on the socialist aspect of the fight than he does now. We completely fail to understand his reasons. Since when does a theoretical analysis take into consideration the geographical position of the author? And, furthermore, it is just in this country that the “nationalist” phraseology seems to be flourishing more than anywhere else. It is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the radio without finding long stories about the national struggle and the different national governments; there is an over-production of books and articles on the different “national” struggles.

But Smith not only does not seem to think it very important for us to know what the ideologies of the various national movements are; he does not seem to think it necessary to elaborate a little on the domestic policies which quite a number of these “national” leaders have in store for their country. He has never thought that the only real fascist French movement, for example, can only grow out of the ranks of the actual national movement – just as the Nazi movement, as noted by Jackson, got much of its strength and many of its leading men from the nationalist movement against the Ruhr occupation in 1953. The fascist movements the Nazis now try to start are obviously only tools of the Nazis, without any real mass following. But a genuine fascist movement can very easily arise once the Nazis are defeated, and many of its members will be able to prove that they have stood in the first ranks of the movement for national liberation. Does it not seem worth while to Smith to consider this possibility and to put the workers on guard against pure nationalism while it is not too late?

It might be worth while to consider what has often happened to national movements in the epoch of imperialism. Out of the Czech national movement emerged the Czech Legion, which fiercely fought against the Russian Revolution and constituted a kind of Elite Guard of White Terror. Out of the Finnish national movement emerged a regime of bloody terror against communists which ended in the wholesale slaughter of thousands. And, lastly, the Polish national movement, even in spite of the fact that large masses of workers opposed it, bred the particular brand of nationalism which led to the Pilsudski regime, the war against the Soviet Union and the reactionary dictatorship of the “national” army and landowners. Surely this is a record worth thinking about.

Are the German Workers Less Oppressed?

Smith wants to make us believe that there is a principled difference between the oppression of the German workers and of those in the occupied countries. Here Smith moves on extremely dangerous ground. Of course, nobody will deny that there are differences in the living standard of German workers and those of the occupied nations. This fact will ask for a different tactical approach when dealing with the concrete problems of struggle in these countries. But is this to say that there are principled differences?

If we are not mistaken, Smith agrees with us that in the totalitarian countries the workers have not the limited liberty which consists of offering their labor force to the highest bidder on the labor market. Is not this the by far most important fact about the workers in Europe, outside and inside Germany? Or does Smith want to make us believe that a few crumbs of bread, a little higher ration, make the important difference on which his whole theory is built? The difference between Southern and Northern workers, between Negroes and whites in this country, for example, is far greater, because here it is not only a question of higher standards of living but, above all, of political and civil rights.

The quotations from Lenin which Smith refers to says specifically: “Politically .the difference [between the workers of oppressed and oppressing nations] is that the workers of the oppressing nations occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life compared with the workers of the oppressed nations.” We would be extremely anxious to know Smith’s proofs that such a privileged political situation exists in Germany. When Lenin expressed the above idea, he thought of the possibilities for trade union and political organization of the English workers as opposed to the Indian or other oppressed colonial slaves. But the supreme fact of our time is that the situation of the workers, where they have been crushed by the totalitarian machine, is alike. They are all without any political rights; they are all, in this respect, in the position of the Indian workers in Lenin’s time. There does not now exist the distinction which existed then.

The Real Situation

But Smith goes further – he wants us to believe that since nothing is heard of any passive resistance, sabotage, etc., inside Germany, it follows that the German workers are less oppressed. This is an argument really unworthy of a Marxist. Since when is the degree of oppression to be judged by the degree of resistance at any particular moment? From this argument it would follow that the African Negroes are among the least oppressed in the world and the automobile workers in Detroit among the most oppressed. There is no relation between the degree of oppression and the degree of mechanic cal resistance. Resistance depends above all on two factors: the degree of class-consciousness and organizations of workers and the objective possibilities to fight against the class enemy. The German workers are faced with the most efficient machine of oppression and terror the world has ever known. Thousands of them have fallen victims to this machine and tens of thousands are rotting in concentration camps and prisons; hundreds have died under the executioner’s block. The history of the German underground movement in recent years is a history of unending heroism. In the occupied countries, the Gestapo apparatus, moving on unknown soil, has never been able to work as efficiently. This is the most important reason why reaction is outwardly dissimilar. Furthermore, we find it extremely false to compare the reaction in occupied countries after two years of Nazi oppression with the situation in Germany after nine years of undaunted terror.

Smith’s argument is not only superficial and unworthy of a Marxist whose first duty is always to make an analysis of the concrete situation before making a comparison, it is also extremely reactionary because from this, even if this is not Smith’s intention, it will easily be concluded that the German workers and exploiters have interests in common as opposed to the other nations. Against this reactionary theory the only revolutionary conclusion which can be drawn from an honest study of conditions in Europe is that everywhere the difference between slaves and slavedrivers was never as clear-cut.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 18 January 2015