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Albert Gates

Discussion on the National Question:

Issues on the National Question

(June 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 6, June 1943, pp. 184–188.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For some considerable period the pages of The New International have been open to a discussion of the national question in Europe, forcibly introduced by the specifically new conditions created by the war. The discussion is meritorious because it is concerned with the concrete question: What is the main task of the revolutionary socialists on the Continent and what is the attitude of the international Marxist movement to the European problems? The discussion reached its high point with the publication of the resolution of the Workers Party, The National Question in Europe.

The Way Out for Europe, by J.R. Johnson, which appeared in the April and May issues of this magazine, published in keeping with the discussion policy of this Marxist journal, contributes a number of views which, in the opinion of the writer, are extremely confusing, unreal and totally at variance with the actual situation in Europe today. For a number of reasons, which are the subject of this article, they can completely disorient a reestablished and revitalized revolutionary socialist movement.

The idea that capitalism has long ago outlived its progressive functions has been propagated for several decades by Marxian socialists. It has been the central theme of their world program described by the graphic term: capitalist barbarism or socialism. By capitalist barbarism is understood a condition where the social order, in a state of decay and disintegration, continues to exist without the prospect of its replacement by a new and higher order of society, namely, socialism. By counterposing these alternatives, revolutionary socialists placed on the order of the day the socialist revolution as a practical international goal.

Thus, Lenin characterized the present epoch as a period of “wars and revolutions.” In this way he succinctly described the chaos of imperialist capitalism. The concept was thereafter embodied in all the writings and in the thinking of the modern generation of revolutionary socialists. Moreover, it has been and continues to be the central thesis of any Marxist analysis of the objective world situation which predetermines the active program for the realization of socialism.

How Lenin’s Comintern Viewed the Question

On the basis of the above conception of modern capitalism as an outlived social order, the internationalists of the heroic period of the Communist International developed the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe. This was the socialist solution to the impasse of European society in the 1914–18 post-war period. The slogan, adopted by the Comintern in 1923, was thereafter incorporated in the programs of the individual revolutionary parties. In this way was presented the progressive socialist way out of the morass of European society, in opposition to the bourgeois continuation of the chaos. [1]

The Russian Revolution was the first successful evidence of the new order emerging from this chaos. The Socialist United States of Europe would have marked a higher stage in the development of the new society; it would have insured the victory of world socialism. With this in mind, the Communist International during the years 1919–24 developed a strategy and series of tactics designed to win for it the support of the majority of the masses, to bring into harmony the activities of its affiliated parties with the revolutionary possibilities latent in the objective conditions of a moribund European capitalism. If the Comintern of Lenin and Trotsky failed, it was due, not to the absence of the historical stage, “barbarism or socialism,” or the lack of the essential complementary objective conditions, but solely to the failings of the revolutionary parties.

In consequence, Allied imperialism was able to create its reactionary system of small states, not only to establish a certain delicate balance between the capitalist powers in Europe, but equally to establish a barrier against the development of the indispensable Socialist United States of Europe.

The logic of the crisis of capitalist society, however, was so powerful that even sections of the bourgeoisie, their politicians and theorists, developed and advocated programs for a United States of Europe (naturally, not a socialist United States), which in their minds implied a “unification” under the domination of one or a set of imperialist powers. This idea, in its variegated forms, persists to this day. The inability of the democratic bourgeoisie to realize its program resulted from the specific relations between the national states and the fact that its kind of United States depended on a military struggle for power. Hitler, in form at least, has established a “unified” Europe: the unification of the sword and flame, wherein Germany, as the one economic, political and military power, exploits the Continent in the interests of the Reich’s imperialist ruling class.

Objective Conditions and the Vanguard

It is important to bear in mind that, however overripe the objective conditions of European capitalism have been for socialism, they did not automatically mean the victory of socialism. For, in the final analysis, the factor which is all-decisive is the subjective force – the organization, strength, intelligence and will to power of the revolutionary socialist parties, equipped with an unassailably correct program. It was this element in the situation which was lacking. The reasons for this are not essential for the present discussion. But it will readily be seen that, for the proletariat to realize its goal, the requirements are altogether different from those which are sufficient for the bourgeoisie.

One important distinction must be borne in mind even when recognizing the fact that the Socialist United States of Europe was a central thesis of the Marxist program: this end aim for Europe was itself contingent upon the national victories of the parties of socialism. Even in the good days of the Comintern, the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe was not the main active slogan of the revolutionary parties. It was a programmatic and ultimate European goal. Yet the necessity of the slogan and its urgency were just as valid and historically correct as they are now, even when wrongly posed by Johnson. Moreover, the Communist International had something with which to give substance and power to the slogan. But a fundamental distinction between the concept of the old days and the concept of Johnson is that the Comintern did not view the slogan as being achieved automatically, spontaneously and simultaneously. In the concept of Lenin, the Socialist United States of Europe would be inevitable only after the victory of the workers in a number of European countries. Again, in the minds of the Marxists, the subjective factor, in view of the decline and decay of capitalism, became in turn an objective factor of inestimable significance, nay, of decisive importance. This is a change from quantity to quality. For this reason, the question of the vanguard organization, its program and its transitional policies, its tactics and their application, was and remains today the fundamental problem of the epoch.

In The Way Out for Europe everything is stood on its head. Johnson shows by the development of his thesis that he has no comprehension of the main problem which the Marxist movement is confronted with in the present period of capitalist decline. The fact that the working class has suffered a series of uninterrupted and paralyzing defeats for twenty-five years, the fact that the working class movement as an organized political force in Europe does not exist, has completely passed him by, as we shall demonstrate by Johnson’s own words.

Johnson believes that the important problem in assessing the current European situation is not to determine the relationship of class forces and the concrete program for socialist emancipation, but to analyze the historical epoch of capitalism. Thus, for the most part, his contribution to a discussion of the national question is a wordy essay entitled: barbarism or socialism. He is wasting his time. That characterization was fully established by an older generation of Marxists; it has become the flesh and blood of the present generation. For this reason, his elaboration of an old theme, which is basic and integral to our thinking, is rhetorical generalizing which has completely missed the core of the problem as it exists concretely in Europe today.

The Views of the Workers Party Resolution

In the resolution of the Workers Party (The New International, February 1943), there is indicated the kind of epoch in which we live. It is upon this concept that the entire resolution is predicated. In proceeding on this basis, the resolution is in keeping with the tradition of Marxism.

What is new in this resolution? That the “unification” of Europe under German fascism, i.e., its conquest, which has reduced the European nations and the European masses to the state of oppressed and conquered peoples, has revived the national question on the Continent. This “unification” of the Continent by German arms has reintroduced the problem of national liberation as a burning question and need for the nationally oppressed European masses. The resolution points out that the “mass movements” in Europe today are largely movements which have been born around the single issue of national freedom from the yoke of a foreign oppressor; that this struggle for national liberation will rekindle the whole struggle between the classes for power, “for the old order or the new”; that there is a possibility of recreating the vanguard party through the instrumentality of these national movements; that these movements are plebian movements which, in the context of the European situation, are basically progressive; that national liberation, when and if realized, no matter if only for a few days, or a few months, can only pose the question of the workers’ power; that revolutionary socialists must support these movements, integrate themselves in them, in order not to lose contact with the masses and to prevent these movements from becoming the instruments of an unchallenged imperialism; that the national movements are transitional in nature, and the participation of socialists in them is part of a transitional program leading to the struggle for socialism; that before the slogan of a Socialist United States of Europe can become a reality and an action slogan, we will see the reestablishment of the national states, and, more important, this development will be necessary to reestablish the International of Socialism as a genuinely functioning organization composed of a number of revolutionary socialist parties in the leading European countries, finally, that the Socialist United States of Europe remains a central, programmatic concept and slogan for revolutionary socialists.

How does Johnson react to this concept and series of ideas? By accepting and rejecting the main idea contained in the resolution, by creating a barrier between the slogan for national liberation and the Socialist United States of Europe; and finally, by mixing up the two, thereby disorienting himself on what is the essential, immediate and active problem for the European working class now.

A Strange Stew

In the very first paragraph of The Way Out for Europe, the author declares that the slogan of national liberation is correct, but immediately qualifies and negates this by saying: “Yet never has the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe been so urgent as it is today.” However, “the slogan is a propaganda, not an action, slogan.” Again: “Yet the socialist slogan has its place.” From merely having its place, we are treated to a vigorous argumentative denunciation of somebody, because “any political orientation which seeks to place it further away and not nearer to the day-to-day political slogans rests on a deep, a profound, miscomprehension of the European crisis.”

There are many things mixed up in this very first paragraph. First, the impression is created that someone other than the bourgeoisie and their Stalinist lackeys is opposed to the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe. Secondly, this quoted tautology says that those who place the slogan further away and not nearer (whatever that means), “rest on a deep, a profound, miscomprehension of the European crisis.” What does that mean? Do those who advocate the main action slogan of national liberation rest on these serious miscomprehensions? Or does Johnson disagree with this slogan, to which he at least gives lip service?

If the slogan of the United States is a propaganda slogan, no matter how urgent (!), that means it cannot be used as an agitation slogan. It means that some other slogan must take its place as the day-to-day slogan around which the socialist movement, and through it the working class, is mobilized for action. While implicitly recognizing this, Johnson demonstrates that recognizing the problem, if only in part, does not mean that he understands it, i.e., understands the difference between a partial, agitational slogan, and a programmatic, final, ultimate demand or slogan. A programmatic, propaganda slogan cannot at the same time be a partial and agitational slogan (national liberation).

The truth of the matter is that Johnson’s support of the slogan of national liberation is unclear and not at all motivated, for his emphasis is always on the “concrete” character of the slogan of the Socialist United States.

This point is strengthened by Johnsons query: Is that slogan nearer or further away? Nearer or further away from what? one might well ask. The resolution of the Workers Party says that the “democratic interlude” cannot last very long; that the issue of workers’ power will arise directly from the struggle for national liberation; that the struggle for national liberation will immediately create a dual power; and, finally, the question of a socialist solution will of necessity emerge out of the struggle for national liberation. Further, the resolution records that under the given circumstances it is impossible to set a time, or a date, on the passage of one phase of the struggle into another. It is enough to be aware that the change will be certain and swift, in order to be properly oriented. For the resolution views the whole situation as a dynamic one, its outcome dependent upon the organized strength of the proletariat.

What Does “Urgent” Mean?

Therefore, to pose the question “nearer or further away” is a totally fruitless proposition, since it is based upon a “feeling” about the situation and not upon the actual relation of forces. Nevertheless, the whole system of ideas developed by Johnson rests upon the tenuous foundation: he believes it is nearer, not further away. The argument is without a measuring point; it has no relation to time and space. It is in the realm of fantasy, where belief is substituted for reality.

Who is opposed to the “propaganda” slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe? The resolution contains a section on it, properly relating it to the agitational slogan, and fixing its place in the socialist program. Why, then, does Johnson repeatedly declare: the slogan is more urgent today! More urgent than before the war? More urgent than twenty years ago? Wasn’t European capitalism ripe for socialism before the war? How much more urgent is it, then? How much nearer than is stated in the resolution? How much further away (from what, nobody can tell, not even Johnson) than is stated in the resolution?

No matter. Johnson writes (page 149, May issue, NI):

To think that in this continent, today, the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe has less urgency than it had because Europe is divided into one national state and several subordinate ones (even this is not accurately stated – A.G.), that is a proposition drawn entirely from superficial forms, and devoid of any content whatsoever ... To push into the background or to moderate the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe ... is completely false. Exactly the opposite must be done. (If that means anything, it means making it the chief slogan, the fighting, agitational slogan – A.G.) ... If you grasp the basic fact of degenerating capitalism, grasp it in its concreteness, the slogan can be seen here in this true relation, nearer, not further away.” “... living truth is that the slogan is now more concrete than at any time since 1933” (page 153). (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

Yet Johnson repeatedly says that he is for the slogan of national liberation. But if what he says above is true, then he must state very bluntly that the slogan of national liberation is false; that we must make the propaganda slogan the active, agitational slogan of the day. Is this unfair? Why, then, does the author of The Way Out for Europe develop this argument? Better yet, we have it in his own words.

One Reference to Trotsky and One to Lenin

In one place in his article he makes reference to Trotsky for the purpose of proving that the national question in Europe does not exist. The case in point is an article written by Trotsky on the occasion of the Czechoslovakian crisis. (The New International, November 1938) Trotsky stated that the German seizure of the Czech Republic would not cause the working class movement to raise the slogan of national independence and organize for the defense of the bourgeois state. Johnson continues to quote Trotsky to the effect that there is no national question in Europe, ... unless a new war ends in a military victory of this or that imperialist camp, if the war fails to bring forth the workers’ power, if a new imperialist peace is concluded, etc. In other words, Trotsky posed a number of ifs in a changing world situation. The war has not yet ended, but the conditions created by the conflict, the unforeseen Hitlerian sweep over the Continent have given rebirth to the national question. Trotsky, five years ago, dismissed these possibilities. And Johnson, not in 1938, but in 1943, says that none of these probable conditions posed by Trotsky have occurred. For emphasis, he adds: “Most obviously not.”

Elsewhere he writes: “Behind any proposals to make a change (what kind of change, and who proposes it? – A.G.) in the application of the socialist slogan undoubtedly lurks some variant of the idea that Lenin put forward in 1915. Given certain conditions of continued reaction (!) and domination of Europe by a single power, a great national war is once more possible in Europe. No such situation as Lenin envisaged is visible in Europe today.” As clear as crystal; and therefore we shall return to this crucial selection from the Johnson contribution.

In his article, The Pamphlet by Junius, Lenin takes up the question of a probable return to national wars in Europe. What he says is also clear:

It is highly improbable that this imperialist war of 1914–16 will be transformed into a national war ... Nevertheless, it cannot be said that such a transformation is impossible: if the European proletariat were to remain impotent for another twenty years; if the present war were to end in victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon, in the subjugation of a number of virile national states; if imperialism outside of Europe (primarily American and Japanese) were to remain in power for another twenty years without a transition to socialism, say, as a result of a Japanese-American war, then a great national war in Europe would be possible. This means that Europe would be thrown back for several decades. This is improbable. But it is not impossible, for to picture world history as advancing smoothly and steadily without sometimes taking gigantic strides backward is undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong. (Emphasis in original – A.G.)

It has not happened exactly as Lenin said, yet several important conditions cited by him have indubitably occurred. But Johnson says: “No such situation as Lenin envisaged is visible in Europe today.” We have merely to ask: if this is so, why, then, do you say that you support the slogan of national liberation? Obviously, Johnson’s support is merely formal. It has no great significance to him. He does not understand his responsibilities to such a slogan. For this reason, the agitational slogan and the programmatic slogan are consistently counterposed throughout his article. Wherever he declares the correctness of the slogan of national liberation, it is qualified by the declaration that the slogan of the United States is “on the order of the day,” and all the emphasis is on the necessity of a “ceaseless pounding, day and night, of the slogan, the Socialist United States of Europe.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

“The Abstract and the Concrete”

Because Johnson is completely absorbed in a programmatic question, over which there is no fundamental dispute, and in which there is nothing new, he has failed to absorb the significance of the reintroduction of the concept of a struggle for national liberation in Europe. On the basis of a completely one-sided approach and his inability to understand the revolutionary consequences of this fighting slogan, Johnson’s only effort to deal concretely with the question has led him into a hopeless quandary. He has addressed a leaflet in the name of the French workers to the German conquerors, the occupying troops, admonishing them to leave the territory of France. The leaflet is a compound of bourgeois nationalism in the tradition of de Gaulle, with the programmatic slogan of the Socialist United States tacked on at the end. Everything is mixed up in this leaflet, which ends with the de Gaullist slogan: “Long Live Free France.” Despite the fact that only a page afterward he writes that the “powerful barriers between the workers of Europe so elaborately organized by bourgeois society have been destroyed by declining capitalism itself,” he says to the German soldiers: “All Europe hates you and is aching to destroy you.” Then, after pleading with the Germans to leave the country or become friends with the French, to cease being oppressors, he warns that “we shall fight against you and do our best to kill everyone of you.” “Long Live Free France.”

Is this leaflet the product of some hypothetical group of revolutionary workers? Then it is not a leaflet written in the spirit of socialism. If it is a leaflet written by “raw” workers, then the tacked-on slogans, “Long live the power of the workers! For the Socialist United States of Europe,” are a gratuitous contribution, not by the hypothetical authors of the leaflet, but by the author of the article, The Way Out for Europe. There is not the slightest harmony between the content of the leaflet and the slogans attached thereto.

The source of Johnson’s errors is to be found in his inability to understand the rôle of the subjective factor in world and European politics, the need of a revolutionary socialist party and the indispensability of such a party to a solution of any class problem. Instead, we are treated to generalities which in themselves are wrong because they have no relation to any vital concrete situation. He concerns himself with the end-aims, without resolving the many steps that must necessarily be traversed before the proletariat can be emancipated. In his presentation, everything is telescoped.

Three Revealing Errors by Johnson

For example, the resolution of the Workers Party argues that there are powerful national barriers between the masses of Europe which must be overcome. Johnson says: “Today these powerful barriers ... have been destroyed by declining capitalism.” Under the subhead in his article, The Abstract and the Concrete, the author commits three grievous errors, which explain a great deal about the whole contribution. In one place he writes in support of the argument that the Socialist United States is more urgent than ever that: “The most dangerous enemies of the militancy of the workers, the flourishing Social-Democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies, no longer exist.” Whatever world he is writing about, it is certainly not our world, not on this planet. He adds to this erroneous statement another: “Our hypothetical half a dozen revolutionaries (in Lyon) have an opportunity a hundred times greater than in 1939, so long as they do not counterpose theories and slogans to action.” Against whom is Johnson polemizing? Against the workers who might “counterpose theories and slogans to action”? Obviously, Johnson does not mean the workers! And what theories and slogans should not be counter-posed by the workers? Is it perhaps the slogan for national liberation? If it is not that slogan and the theory behind the slogan, what is the meaning of the sentence? The author of The Way Out for Europe unwittingly supplies the answer.

To say that the workers of Lyon have “an opportunity today a hundred times greater than in 1939,” means that the possibilities of socialism are today a hundred times greater than in 1939, and that the power, strength and organization of the workers are a hundred times greater than in 1939. For the word “opportunity” has no meaning if organization, program, strength, tactics and strategy are not part of the concept of opportunity. The workers have an opportunity in general, in an historical sense. But the opportunity can never be realized unless it is fortified by the mass organization of the working class, by the existence of the revolutionary vanguard, by the existence of a correct program, and the proper application of this program! This is the idea, above all, which needs to be hammered home incessantly.

As if in anticipation of this argument, he says, in his third error, on page 153: “But, it is urged, the proletariat in the occupied countries is sluggish, it is not organized; the revolutionary movement is non-existent, etc. But how much bigger was the revolutionary movement yesterday than it is today?” Here again, Johnson has missed the whole lesson of the meaning of the fascist victories in Europe and their effect upon the proletariat and its organized movements. It seems odd to have to answer such an argument ten years after Hitler seized power, after the defeats in Spain and France, the victory of Stalinism and the realities of the Second World War.

Prior to the war, a large pan of the European labor movement existed. Today it does not exist! Prior to the war, working class fraternal organizations were in existence. Today they have been wiped out. Prior to the war, there were large cooperative organizations. Where are they to be found on the Continent today? Prior to the war, there were revolutionary organizations in existence. Where are they today? Their size, their influence, their weight in the labor movement varied. It is true, they were not strong. But under the conditions of prewar Europe, they existed and functioned and had the possibilities of enjoying growth and influence. Today, they do not exist!

The problem, to repeat, is one of reconstituting the workers’ movement in Europe, and through it to reestablish its organized revolutionary socialist wing. This the resolution of the Workers Party seeks to do. Johnson has an entirely different conception.

Spontaneity versus the Organized Party

The theory which is implicit in his entire analysis of the historical epoch is not a new theory. It is as old as the socialist movement. I have already indicated what it is by saying that he visualizes the development in Europe on the basis of the “spontaneity of the masses.” Otherwise, what is the meaning of the long, involved and stratospheric discussion of the general historical stage of present-day capitalism? To show that the crisis of capitalism must drive the masses along the socialist road. While this is true, in general, it is only the beginning of the problem. But for Johnson it is the end of the problem. To him, the process is automatic: the workers must become revolutionized! The workers must take the socialist road!

Yet between the compulsions created by the crisis of capitalism, which makes life for the masses a hellish nightmare, and the organization of the masses for the struggle for power, is a long road. It is the road of organization, education, training and preparation. Without the existence of strong mass parties of socialism, the working class is hopelessly doomed. Even a correct program is not enough. A correct program can make it possible to reach the masses, to win them to socialism, to organize them for the struggle. But the vanguard party is the indispensable link between the objectively ripe conditions for socialism and the establishment of socialism in one or more countries. [2]

Johnson’s views are sectarian. In practice, they can never solve the one great problem of this stage, the reorganization and revitalization of the working class movement for socialism. That decisively fundamental idea does not become an integral element in his schema of the European situation.

Johnson has sought to create the impression that the position embodied in the resolution of the Workers Party means postponing the struggle for socialism for an impossibility: national liberation. He is for a Socialist United States of Europe now. What he does not comprehend is that the present situation in Europe has created a condition where the struggle for national liberation becomes interlinked with the struggle for socialism; that revolutionary socialists must be in this movement to lead on the high road of socialism.


1. The slogan was adopted after considerable dispute inside the Comintern. Lenin, for example, hesitated for a long time before he assented to the adoption of the slogan into the program because, under the conditions which existed at the time, he feared that the slogan might cause the revolutionary parties to overlook, modify or weaken their activities In their respective countries which were directed toward the organization of the masses with the specific aim of establishing the workers’ power in the intensely revolutionary European situation which then existed. Lenin also feared, as a result of Bukharin’s concept of the permanent revolution as a simultaneous European process in which the workers would seize power at once on a continental scale, that the entire international might become disoriented by the slogan. Bukharin’s views had, at that time, great popularity. Once adopted, however, it was put in its proper place as outlined in this article.

Why, then, was the slogan adopted in 1923? Because it was the belief and hope of the Comintern that a victory in Germany was virtually assured and therefore the whole question of the socialist reorganization of Europe would instantly become an aktuel question for the working class. It was the immediate possibility of state power In the West which made the slogan a reality in 1928. The defeat in Germany did not alter the programmatic place of the slogan, since it held true as long as decadent capitalism existed. But its utilization depended upon how close the proletariat, through Its parties, was to soviet state power.

2. In his Strategy of the World Revolution, Trotsky wrote: “Politics, considered as a historical factor, has always remained behind economics.” This observation has been accepted by all Marxists as an unassailable truth. It reveals why economics and politics do not develop simultaneously, why the economic collapse of capitalism does not bring about an automatic and Immediate corresponding political response on the part of the masses. For the latter an additional series of experiences are necessary, plus an unprecedented activity by the vanguard socialist party to close the gap between “economics and politics.”

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