Revelation on the Road to Tuzla
David North “Abolishes” the Right to Self-Determination
PART ONE OF TWO
The collapse of the former workers states of Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union unleashed an orgy of nationalist bloodletting. Today the imperialist media denounces Serbian war crimes in the fratricidal slaughterhouse that is now Bosnia. But “ethnic cleansing” is hardly a practice unique to the Serbs. Not only are grisly atrocities carried out by all sides in the Balkans, but no less bloody national wars have been waged between Armenians and Azeris for possession of Nagorno-Karabakh, by Georgia against the Ossetians and Abkhazians, and throughout the Caucasus. To assert its domination in the region, the Russian army launched a full-scale military invasion of Chechnya which has virtually obliterated the capital city of Grozny and devastated the countryside.
To read the bourgeois press one would get the idea that these gruesome nationalist slaughters are inspired by the revival of some ancient “tribal” feuds. In fact, it is the logic of capitalist counterrevolution that is the motor force behind the resurgence of nationalism from Central Europe to the Caucasus, as economically more advanced peoples seek to consolidate their own advantage at the expense of their less-developed neighbors. As we wrote in “`Ethnic Cleansing’ and Nationalist Wars” (WVNo. 580, 16 July 1993): “What is happening in Bosnia is a recurrent phenomenon in this epoch of capitalist decay.... Thus national consolidation under capitalism has been reduced to its stark component of communal savagery to drive out or eliminate minority nationalities.”
Yet it is to the capitalist imperialist rulers that a whole number of Vietnam-era “doves,” liberals and radical intelligentsia appeal for military intervention to bring “democracy” to the Balkans. Among this lot is one Tim Wohlforth, former leader of the American Workers League, the U.S. satellite of the now-departed Gerry Healy and his International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). In his current role as saved sinner and “born again” anti-Leninist social democrat, Wohlforth called for U.S. imperialist intervention in Bosnia under the headline “Give War a Chance” (In These Times, 26 July 1993).
Wohlforth’s former master, Gerry Healy, was the consummate example of what Lenin called a “political bandit” able to wield Trotskyist orthodoxy when that suited his purpose and equally capable of being the bought-and-paid-for press agent for a variety of bourgeois-nationalist Mideast regimes (which he and his organization were for many years). Almost a decade ago, Healy’s organization blew apart, but the mark of this self-proclaimed “founder-leader” of the ICFI can be found today in the heated exchange between Healy’s one-time lieutenants over their mutual responses to the Balkan quagmire. One side openly embraces Bosnian Muslim nationalism, while the other feigns orthodoxy in a supposed anti-nationalism which turns out to be de facto support for imperialism and national oppression.
For the past couple of years, Healy’s former “theoretician,” Cliff Slaughter, and his Workers Revolutionary Party have occupied the leading position in the campaign for “Workers Aid to Bosnia.” Running supplies to the bourgeois-nationalist Bosnian Muslim regime, with French and British imperialist troops in “UN” blue helmets riding shotgun, the WRP calls this an example of “working class internationalism”! To believe this line, one would have to include former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher — who is beating the drums for more aggressive aid to the Bosnian Muslim government — in the ranks of “proletarian internationalists.” In short, “Workers Aid to Bosnia” is nothing other than a direct echo of, and stalking horse for, those ruling-class forces who want to take a more belligerent military stance against Serbia.
Occupying the “orthodoxy” corner is David North, who replaced Wohlforth as leader of the Workers League and is now the head of the various national fragments who lay claim to the heritage of Healy’s ICFI. In response to Slaughter’s “Workers Aid” campaign, North’s group published a lengthy statement titled, “The Road to Tuzla — How Slaughter’s WRP Aids Imperialism in the Balkans” (May 1994).
North’s ICFI screams foul at its former comrades, sputtering with indignation, “Never before has a group claiming to be Trotskyist directly collaborated with bourgeois regimes....” Actually, Healy’s ICFI dragged the banner of Trotskyism through that pigsty some years ago — and not without the complicity of one David North.
Correctly arguing that communists must “fight intransigently against the nationalist poison spread by capitalism,” North’s ICFI screams foul at its former comrades, sputtering with indignation, “Never before has a group claiming to be Trotskyist directly collaborated with bourgeois regimes....” Actually, Healy’s ICFI dragged the banner of Trotskyism through that pigsty some years ago — and not without the complicity of one David North.
It is hardly a large leap for Slaughter and the WRP to go from singing the praises of Libya’s Qaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Iranian Revolution” to becoming the blatant press agent for the Islamic regime of Sarajevo’s Alija Izetbegovic. But North’s Workers League was also up to its neck in backing the sheiks and colonels in the name of the so-called “Arab Revolution.” If today North’s ICFI chooses to wax “orthodox,” it is simply because that is what fits their perceived opportunist advantage.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Soviet Union, amidst the imperialist chorus hailing the “death of communism,” North’s organization began issuing strident statements writing off the unions as “direct agents of imperialism.” Any and every other tendency within the workers movement have been deemed to be thoroughly bourgeois organizations. To what end? The obvious conclusion is that one is to believe that David North is now the sole uncontested proletarian leader on the face of the planet. Now, posing as Marxist theoretician maxim, North writes off the right of nations to self-determination as completely retrograde.
Proletarian Internationalism and the Right to Self-Determination
There can be no democratic solution to the bloody nationalist conflict in Bosnia and other regions of ex-Yugoslavia short of a thorough-going socialist revolution. Bosnia is not a nation, and there is no Bosnian “people.” Rather, Bosnia-Hercegovina is composed of three heretofore intermingled and closely related peoples — Serbs, Croats and Slavic Muslims. Formerly a province in the Ottoman and then Habsburg empires, Bosnia — Hercegovina was set up as a constituent republic in Titoist Yugoslavia, intended to be a model of interethnic harmony. Now, within the framework of capitalist counterrevolution, the heavy geographic interpenetration of these various peoples means that the national rights of one can only he realized through savage persecution aimed at driving out the others.
While various social-democratic and pseudo-Trotskyist organizations back the Bosnian Muslims and some leftover Stalinists back the Serbs, as communists we oppose all sides in this national/ communalist slaughter. We also, naturally and necessarily, oppose all imperialist intervention in the Balkans. Concretely this means that our organization internationally has stood for the defense of the Serbs against repeated NATO air strikes, as well as demanding that all UN troops, including those of Yeltsin’s Russia, get out of the Balkans and calling for an end to the UN/NATO blockade of Serbia. The only perspective that offers a way out of this all-sided slaughter is for the working class throughout the former Yugoslavia to overthrow their bourgeois-nationalist leaders in an internationalist struggle for a socialist federation of the Balkans.
To realize such a perspective, to forge proletarian unity and bring revolutionary consciousness to the working class of the Balkans, requires a leadership which in Lenin’s words acts as a “tribune of the people,” fighting against every manifestation of nationalism, chauvinism and ethnic hatred. Only in this way can the various competing nationalisms be undercut and the common class interests of all of the working people be brought to the fore. It was in this respect that the Bolshevik Party championed the right to self-determination for the myriad nations and peoples imprisoned in the tsarist empire.
But such a leadership is not what the Northites have on offer, nor could they. While they write that the “strong internationalist traditions of the Yugoslav proletariat must be revived on the basis of a scientific analysis and revolutionary program,” in “The Road to Tuzla” they simultaneously write off the whole question of the defense of the right to self-determination as an anachronism, inapplicable in today’s “global economy”:
Beyond Bosnia, the Northites argue against the right of self-determination for Kashmir, the Punjab and other nations locked into the “prison house of peoples” that is the Indian bourgeois state. Similarly, they come out against the national rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Quebecois in Canada.
“In politics, terms which had a definite social and class content in one period often come to represent something quite different in the next. This is the case with the slogan of ‘self-determination.’...
“Those who advance the demand for self-determination through national separatism and bourgeois rule are responsible for the global consequences of such slogans. This ‘right’ will be championed by imperialist powers and backed by their military forces in other parts of the Balkans and throughout the world.”
The ICFI statement invokes the authority of the Marxist movement and Lenin. But in fact the Northites’ position is a purely chauvinist one which accepts the rule of the dominant nation in multinational states. Or as Lenin himself put it in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914): “Repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration...”
Far from having become some kind of anachronism, defense of the right of self-determination is, if anything, increasingly important. The escalation of interimperialist rivalries coming in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the drive by major powers to redivide the world into regional trade blocks and the increasing offshore production in low-wage “Third World” countries reinforces the need for communists to champion the rights of neocolonial and oppressed nations in order to advance the interests of international proletarian class struggle.
North’s ICFI and Nationalist Reaction
The Northites try to find refuge in the statement that in “Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in particular, nationalism arises today as part of a retrograde tendency seeking to restore both direct imperialist domination and capitalist property relations.” But nationalist reaction is not simply a product of counterrevolution. It was also a driving force for capitalist restoration in the former Stalinist-ruled workers states. In the latter case, North’s organization was among the bigger fans of nationalism.
For decades the imperialist rulers howled about the “oppression” of the so-called “captive nations,” seeing them as a battering ram for shattering the former Soviet bloc. And the Northites howled right along with them. In 1979-80, when the Soviet army intervened in Afghanistan, we of the Spartacist League said, “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan,” noting that this brought with it the possibility, albeit unfulfilled, of breaking the chains of Islamic feudal reaction and extending the gains of the October Revolution to that hideously backward country. The Northites, in contrast, squealed along with U.S. president Jimmy Carter that the Soviet intervention was an attack on “the national rights and feelings of the Afghan people” (Bulletin, 8 July 1986). But there was no Afghan “nation,” and the peoples whose “rights” were being attacked were a cabal of tribal chiefs and Islamic mujahedin funded by the CIA.
Together with the Vatican and the CIA, North’s Workers League made the counterrevolutionary cause of the Pilsudskiite nationalist Solidarność in Poland their own, hailing it as “an undaunted, young, vigorous and independent trade union movement” (Bulletin, 15 September 1981). In 1990, they echoed crazed anti-Communists like U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in denouncing then-president George Bush for refusing to take retaliatory action against the Soviet Union for its clampdown on the right-wing nationalist Sajudis government in Lithuania.
An article headlined “Gorbachev Steps Up Stalinist Aggression Against Lithuania” (Bulletin, 30 March 1990) decried that the “Bush administration has pointedly refused to make any condemnation of the Soviet military actions in Lithuania.” As we wrote in our article, “Imperialists Demand the Baltics” (WV No. 518, 18 January 1991):
Looking to establish their own independent capitalist states, the nationalist movements in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had their own program for “ethnic cleansing,” calling for the suppression of any and all rights of other peoples (Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Jews, Poles and others) within these states, if not openly advocating their forcible removal. But this didn’t much bother the Northites then.
“As Leninists and internationalists, we stand for the democratic reorganization of the Soviet Union and for the right of any nationality with a leadership that opposes counterrevolution to withdraw to any extent it sees fit. But in Lithuania and the other Baltic republics the fig leaf of ‘national independence’ is being used as a cover for capitalist restoration. And this must be fought.... To prevent the disintegration of the USSR amid fratricidal nationalism, it is necessary to recapture the proletarian internationalism which animated the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.”
Now they try to palm themselves off as the epitome of proletarian internationalism. Not only is this a monumental fraud, but the ICFI’s new-found opposition to nationalism is neither “orthodox” nor even vaguely leftist. Rather, once again, their position mirrors that of the imperialist rulers. Whereas yesterday they aided and abetted reactionary nationalism in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, today international capitalism is far from happy that the spoils they expected to loot from the victory of capitalist counterrevolution are being drowned in a sea of bloody nationalist-inspired regional conflicts. While raising a hue and cry about “poor little Bosnia,” the imperialist rulers now generally decry the very nationalist forces they fomented, and the Northites join the chorus.
Was It All Gerry Healy’s Fault?
In his article, “Permanent Revolution . and the National Question Today” (The Fourth International, Winter-Spring 1994), David North declares that Healy’s WRP “systematically betrayed the principles of Trotskyism as it subordinated the proletariat to...bourgeois regimes such as those of Libya, Iran and Iraq.” From here he goes on to opine that only the “split within the International Committee made possible an intensive reexamination of the entire historical significance of the movements of ‘national liberation’ and their relation to the proletariat and the perspective of socialist revolution.”
North certainly has an elastic view of his own history — similar to his organization’s relation to any question of Marxist principle or proletarian morality. His support to bourgeois — nationalist forces was far from abstract. In 1979, North’s Bulletin reprinted articles from Healy’s News Line hailing the execution of 21 Iraqi Communist Party members by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government. The Bulletin (30 March 1979) even reprinted from News Line an official Iraqi communiqué, under the grotesque headline, “Where the Iraqi Communist Party Went Wrong.” That same year, celebrating the “Tenth Anniversary of the Libyan Revolution,” the Workers League sent a telegram to Qaddafi praising his “progressive socialist policies.” The ICFI, including North and his current cohorts, also enthused over “the anti-imperialist content of the struggle being waged by Khomeini” — i.e., the Iranian ayatollah’s “struggle” for an Islamic Republic (to the best of our knowledge this praise was gratis).
Healy’s financial ties to Arab regimes were a notorious scandal on the left long before the 1985 implosion of his Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain. As for the so-called “split” in the ICFI, it would better be described as a falling out among thieves. Healy was ousted, North rushed to claim his mantle as the ICFI “leader,” and Slaughter took the name of the WRP and ran. For years, North & Co. have sought to clear their name by claiming they had no idea Healy was being paid for the role as publicity agent for Hussein, Qaddafi and others. In other words, their defense is that they betrayed the very same Trotskyist principles — except that unlike Healy, they did it for free! But even this “defense” would appear to be rather threadbare, considering that, for one, North’s colleague Nick Beams, leader of the Australian Socialist Labour League, got censured by the Central Committee of his own organization in February 1986 for failing to report the receipt of monies from Arab regimes to the IC (Socialist Labor League Internal Bulletin, February 1986).
To alibi their former support for a whole variety of reactionary nationalist causes and regimes, today North’s ICFI acts as if nationalism has only recently become a “retrograde tendency.” In the “Road to Tuzla,” they write of the “progressive, unifying characteristic of the national movements of the epoch in which Lenin put forward the slogan of self-determination of nations.” But in calling for military support to national movements fighting against imperialist-colonialist subjugation, Lenin never praised their supposed “progressive, unifying character.” On the contrary, in his “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” at the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920), Lenin called for:
“...a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations.”The Bolsheviks championed the right of self-determination not to advance the cause of nationalism but to advance proletarian class unity. The fundamental propositions of a Marxist position on the national question in the imperialist epoch were underlined by Lenin in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”: “on the one hand, the absolutely direct, unequivocal recognition of the full right of all nations to self-determination; on the other hand, the equally unambiguous appeal to the workers for international unity in their class struggle.”
The right to self-determination is purely a bourgeois-democratic demand and as such is correspondingly a subordinate part of a revolutionary-internationalist program. This question was posed point-blank for the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian Revolution in the Ukraine and in the Caucasus. In the latter region, newly independent bourgeois regimes sought and found the direct military backing of the imperialists — first the Germans and then the British — posing a direct threat to the revolution. At the close of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks took power in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan through a combination of local uprisings and Red Army intervention. As Trotsky wrote two decades later, “Forceful sovietization was justified: the safeguarding of the socialist revolution comes before formal democratic principles” (“Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events” [April 1940] in In Defense of Marxism).
The “Global Economy”
Other than claiming that their newfound “wisdom” on the national question is the fruit of having got rid of Healy, the ICFI claims a “new world reality” for its line change:
“Vast changes in world economic and political relations have created corresponding changes in the character of the national movements.... Can it be seriously argued that the resurgence of ethnic chauvinism in the Balkans, or for that matter in the former USSR or the Indian subcontinent, expresses an effort to put an end to the legacy of imperialist and feudal domination? Can one speak today of the national bourgeoisie of Bosnia, or Kazakhstan or Kashmir seeking to ‘capture the home market,’ thereby creating conditions for the ‘victory of commodity production’ and hence a fuller development of the class struggle?”The idea of an “era of global economic integration” which North presents as if it were yet another of his unique “theoretical breakthroughs” has been known to the Marxist movement for over a century now. It’s otherwise known as imperialism!
Up until the mid-1880s, Marx and Engels judged national movements according to their ability to consolidate modern independent nation-states favorable to economic development. But with the development of imperialism the terms of reference changed. Marx and Engels began to address this over the question of Irish independence. As Marx wrote in a paper on the Irish question in 1869: “it is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland.... The English reaction in England had its roots in the subjugation of Ireland.”
Marx’s position on Ireland was further developed by Lenin in his writings on the national question. For Lenin the question of self-determination had nothing to do with the ability to develop a modern, economically independent capitalist nation. Indeed he polemicized at some length against Rosa Luxemburg, who declared that self-determination had become an “illusory” demand with the development of imperialism. In “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin answered:
“Not only small states, but even Russia, for example, is entirely dependent, economically, on the power of the imperialist finance capital of ‘rich’ bourgeois countries. Not only the miniature Balkan states, but even nineteenth-century America was, economically, a colony of Europe, as Marx pointed out in Capital....Unlike the Northites, however, Rosa Luxemburg was animated by genuine proletarian internationalism. Although wrong, her visceral opposition to the right of self-determination was motivated by revulsion with the various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist forces in Poland (forces which some decades later the Northites would cheer on in the name of Solidarność counterrevolution).
“For the question of the political self-determination of nations and their independence as states in bourgeois society, Rosa Luxemburg has substituted the question of their economic independence.”
Lenin recognized that imperialism was the epoch of capitalist decay, in which the development of a national economy and emergence of a vigorous bourgeoisie were stifled by imperialist exploitation and domination over the more backward capitalist countries. The understanding that the national bourgeoisies of these countries are incapable of carrying out the most elementary bourgeois-democratic tasks, such as genuine national independence, is ABC Trotskyism — in fact it is a fundamental underpinning of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.
Of course, very real changes have taken place in the world in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The relentless drive to destroy the Soviet workers state provided a point of unity for the various imperialist powers. With that removed, inter-imperialist rivalries have escalated. The global system of “free trade” the economic cement which held together the U.S.-dominated anti-Soviet alliance — has crumbled as the major powers seek to redivide the world into regional trade blocs. But what is going on is not “new.” Rather, the post-Cold War world increasingly resembles the pre-1914 world of heightened interimperialist rivalries intersecting regional nationalist conflicts.
The so-called “globalization of production” — i.e., the export of capital — simply means that the capitalists have moved large chunks of industry to low-wage “Third World” countries. This, for example, has meant the attempted wholesale takeover of Mexico by U.S. imperialism under the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Far from being a negation of the Leninist position on the national and colonial question, the current situation underlines the importance for communists of defending the rights of neocolonial and oppressed nations against imperialist depredations in order to advance the interests of international proletarian class struggle.
[TO BE CONTINUED]