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Ben Hall

Discussion on the National Question:

National Liberation and Fantasy

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 113–115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In an article entitled Our Differences with the Three Theses (Fourth International, December 1942), Felix Morrow discusses the movement for national liberation in occupied Europe. Who the “our” refers to is not clear, but since this is the same Morrow who was the official defender of the line of the SWP on China we may assume it to be more or less an official defense or elaboration of the SWP on this question.

At first glance the Morrow who confronts us here appears to be a new man. For China, he insisted that despite the fact that the war on its part is conducted in alliance with the imperialist war of the “democratic” camp by the bourgeois Chiang government, that war is a genuinely progressive war for national freedom. But how different is his approach to the European scene. No hint of his former “flexibility” is discernible. In reply to a group of European comrades who maintain that national liberation in Europe is a democratic demand deserving our support, Morrow, not without numerous distortions of their views, accuses them of working for the revival of the Third Republic in France, the Weimar Republic in Germany, of counterposing the “national movement to the workers’ movement,” and of committing a “nationalist deviation.”

It might appear that Morrow, who developed the opportunist line on China, has had a change of heart and is now the champion of a revolutionary policy for Europe as against nationalist deviators. Nothing could be more mistaken.

The opportunism of the Cannonite position on China consists in clinging to support of a war which in the past was a genuine war for independence but which is now part of the general imperialist war carried on by the United Nations camp. This is a social-patriotism concealed only by the fact that China formerly fought a real war for independence against Japan.

Morrow established a principle for himself in China: support to the war of a bourgeois regime in alliance with imperialism. He applies this principle because China is a semi-colonial country. But if he concedes that in Europe a genuine fight for national liberation exists, not under the leadership of revolutionary socialist elements he would be compelled to apply his principle to Europe as well.

Should the Norwegians, for example, succeed in overthrowing the domination of Hitler and permit the reestablishment of a bourgeois regime which would continue a war in alliance with England and the United States, Morrow would be faced with an impossible difficulty. How could Morrow, who grants support to Chiang’s war in alliance with imperialism, deny support to its counterpart in Europe?

But such a policy for Europe would be clear and open social-patriotism and Morrow’s entire article is permeated with the fear of facing the ultimate consequences, in Europe, of his line in China.

Morrow can extricate himself from this dilemma in one of two ways: 1) he can develop his China line for Europe and fall into a hopelessly pro-imperialist war line, or 2) since the development in real life of a progressive national struggle in Europe deals irreparable blows at his China position he can find refuge from life itself by falling back on principles eternally applicable “in this epoch.”

He chooses the latter as the lesser of the two evils. The opportunist Morrow finds refuge from his own opportunism in the starry realms of sectarianism. Far from mitigating or nullifying the errors of his China line, Morrow’s sectarian line for Europe reinforces them from another angle.

This article will concern itself not with Morrow’s repeated and deliberate distortions of the Three Theses which he attacks but with outlining the essentially sectarian content of his whole treatment of the movement for national liberation in Europe.

“National Freedom in This Epoch”

Says Morrow: “The workers under the Nazi boot want national freedom. Good. The task is to explain to them that national freedom in this epoch is the task of the working class under the leadership of the Fourth International.”

This idea is unimpeachable as a general principle. But it also applies to China and for that matter everywhere else, and not only to the problem of national liberation but to all the important social problems “in this epoch.” But in China, where this principle is equally valid, Morrow recognizes in addition the need to support what he considers a progressive, democratic, anti-imperialist struggle now not under the leadership of the Fourth International but of the Chinese bourgeoisie. In Europe, Morrow confines himself to glittering universalities.

One might with equal validity proclaim to the Negro masses of the United States: “Full social, political and economic equality for the Negroes in this epoch is the task of the working class under the leadership of the Fourth International.” But this hardly begins to define our relations to the Negro masses who fight today for equal rights under quite a different leadership.

What is at stake is the recognition of the progressive character of struggles which do not take place under your own socialist banner but which nevertheless in reality further the development of the socialist revolution itself. This is precisely what is occurring in occupied Europe today and exactly what Morrow contrives to dodge and to confuse throughout his whole article. Nowhere does he indicate the possibility of support to a not-yet-socialist struggle for national liberation in occupied Europe.

It is this attempt to substitute general principles applicable to “this epoch” for relations with a living mass movement that constitutes the hallmark of sectarianism.

“What Is Really New”

Given a correct estimation of the fight for national liberation it becomes possible for revolutionists to lead it into a fight against not only the foreign oppressor but the native bourgeoisie as well. Morrow is forced to give a twist to this idea which transforms it into something entirely different and in fact altogether false.

What is really new in the occupied countries is that the national sentiment of the workers and peasants is sharpening their class bitterness against the collaborating bourgeoisie. National oppression has given a new edge to the class struggle. National sentiment hitherto serving only the bourgeoisie, today can be used against the bourgeoisie of the occupied countries. That is what is new. (Emphasis in original.)

Morrow translates “bitterness” against the collaborating bourgeoisie into class-conscious opposition to the bourgeoisie as a whole. The class struggle has become more intense against the entire bourgeoisie as a class because a section of it collaborates with the Nazis. What this neglects is the fact that national oppression makes the masses, including the workers, prey to bourgeois elements of the de Gaulle variety and above all especially vulnerable to the bourgeois democracy of the labor reformists.

In pre-war France, the socialist proletariat was led into the People’s Front of collaboration with the bourgeoisie by its socialist and communist leadership. The working class tolerated this policy only because unity with the bourgeois politicians appeared necessary to defend the workers and their organizations from fascism inside France and from Hitler on its borders. This enemy, fear of whom facilitated class unity, is now the master of all of France, both as a fascist ruler and a foreign oppressor. Morrow contends that this national oppression itself intensifies the class struggle. What is this but a pale reflection of the Stalinist pre-Hitler idea of “After Hitler come we.” By a similar process of reasoning, the class struggle in Germany received a “new edge” after Hitler’s rise to power, when it became clear that the bourgeoisie preferred fascism and that the socialists and communists could not fight it.

But if the class struggle has become more intense, and if the main content of our slogan is “under the leadership of the Fourth International,” then there is really nothing new. There is no new element which in any way modifies the road taken by revolutionists in their approach to the masses. Morrow, uncomfortable in the Europe of 1943, seeks a formula which would miraculously return him to the pre-war days when his China line had no application outside of Asia.

But there is something manifestly new. Before the war, the present struggle of the peoples of the occupied countries for national freedom did not exist. Now it does. Before the war the fight in all these countries was directly and first of all against the native bourgeoisie. Now, in order to carry on an organized, centralized and systematic struggle on a nationwide basis against the native bourgeoisie, the peoples of the occupied countries must get rid of the foreign oppressor. In this respect, the advanced peoples of occupied Europe are in the same position as the colonial peoples of Asia and their movement, like the latter, deserves our support.

Morrow has devised the theory of the “new edge to the class struggle” to escape the application of his China line to the European stage. In China, national oppression has led to a war for the democratic principle of self-determination which continues today, he maintains. Once he admits that this is the case in occupied Europe, the necessity of supporting bourgeois regimes in alliance with the imperialists inexorably follows.

The “Workers’ Movement”

The Three Theses have this merit: they emphasize the democratic nature of the fight for national independence in Europe. Morrow refuses to understand them, accusing their proponents of favoring the re-establishment of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the Third Republic in France; similarly a confirmed sectarian might accuse us of favoring the establishment of a capitalist regime in Spain because we supported the war against Franco. This is not because the Theses are unclear on this point or because Morrow read them hastily. Morrow cannot permit himself to understand this point and cannot honestly reply to it because his own line on the democratic struggle for freedom as developed for China leads to social-patriotism.

Does Morrow contend that the movement among the people of occupied Europe for national liberation is a conscious and direct struggle for socialism? We seek in vain for an answer to this question. Unwilling to characterize the movement as socialist and unable to characterize it as democratic, he seeks a new, ambiguous formula. It is a “workers’ movement.”

But this cannot save Morrow. The vague phrase, “workers’ movement,” clearly indicates the class composition of the chief organizations and groups and individuals participating in the fight for national liberation but it says nothing about the immediate and direct aims of the struggle, nothing about its political character. A “workers’ movement,” which is based first of all on the struggle for national independence, is a movement for democratic rights – and the proletarian struggle is going through a democratic phase.

Socialist United Stares of Europe

Says Morrow: “In discussions, the authors of the Three Theses have indicated that they consider national liberation as an immediate agitation slogan and the Socialist United States of Europe as a propaganda slogan, i.e., not suitable for immediate agitation. Their separation of the two slogans must be characterized as a nationalist deviation.”

Here again Morrow refuses to recognize any distinction between a democratic slogan – national freedom, and a socialist slogan – Socialist United States of Europe.

Presumably Morrow equates these two slogans because just as “national freedom in this epoch is the task of the working class under the leadership of the Fourth International,” so national liberation is impossible without a Socialist United States of Europe.

This is a principle absolutely valid “in this epoch.” In the long run, unless the revolutionary masses go over from the fight for national independence to a Socialist United States of Europe, it will be impossible for them to solve their pressing economic, social, and political problems. Imperialism persisting, the further intensification of national oppression is guaranteed.

But despite this general principle, the peoples of Europe fight now for national liberation. This is a just demand and moreover its realization is a prerequisite to the voluntary federation of the peoples as against the forcible unification by Hitler. This fight for national independence is the ideal of hundreds of thousands and millions. In that sense the demand for national independence is an immediate agitational slogan. The demand for a Socialist United States of Europe is the program of an infinitesimally tiny minority and a propaganda slogan.

Morrow cannot separate these two slogans. Just as he finds it impossible to distinguish between a socialist and a democratic demand, he finds it impossible to recognize the possibility of a struggle by masses striving for national liberation,

not yet raising a socialist banner. Like all such movements it runs the danger of becoming a disciplined tool of the Allied war machine. But Morrow’s China line prevents him from recognizing a genuine movement for liberation from one which has been subordinated to the imperialist war. Fearing to support the latter, he refuses to conceive of support for the former.

“We insist,” he says, “that these two slogans must go together , otherwise the slogan of national liberation degenerates into mere bourgeois nationalism in the service of one of the imperialist camps.”

If we translate this idea into the truth it would read as follows and demonstrate the crux of Morrow’s difficulty:

“My China position supports a non-socialist, non-proletarian war for national liberation in alliance with imperialism. In Europe such a position would openly degenerate into mere bourgeois nationalism in the service of imperialism. To save myself, I ‘insist’ upon the possibility of and recognize only a socialist war for national freedom in Europe.”

Morrow argues: “Only the working class can free the country by proletarian revolution.”

Had Morrow deliberately set out to confound and confuse he could never have discovered more suitable formulations on every point. The above is a typical example.

Ordinarily the phrase “proletarian revolution” is quite clear and simple. We mean the socialist revolution. But the phrase may contain serious ambiguities.

There have been many proletarian revolutions in the last quarter of a century which did not solve the problems of national freedom, democracy, or any of the other major social problems of “this epoch.” They were revolutions led by and dominated by the proletarian class and parties of the working class. But these proletarian revolutions stopped short of the socialist revolution, confined themselves within the framework of bourgeois democracy and consequently suffered ultimate defeat. Deespite their failure to go to the end, great victories were achieved which made possible a speedy transition to the socialist revolution. Only in Russia did there prove to be a tested revolutionary party which could take advantage of such a proletarian revolution and lead it to the socialist revolution,

The only kind of proletarian revolution which can really achieve lasting national liberation, which can free a nation economically and politically from imperialism, which can establish a genuine democratic regime and prevent the restoration of capitalist rule is a socialist proletarian revolution which spreads internationally to the powerful, advanced, industrialized nations. The socialist revolution aims at the complete destruction of the power and influence of the bourgeoisie and the expropriation of the industries under their control.

But between now and the time when such a proletarian, socialist revolution succeeds, many struggles and revolutions can and will take place which are not under the leadership of revolutionary socialist parties and revolutionary socialist slogans. One such struggle is the movement for liberation in occupied Europe which leads in the direction of a revolution which will facilitate the socialist revolution.

The phrase “proletarian revolution” is thus able to slur together two different, though closely related, aspects of the working class struggle. It is this ambiguity which makes the phrase ideally suited to Morrow, who is concerned above all with glossing over the democratic nature of the liberation struggle.

Imperialism and Democratic “Restraint”

The difference between the socialist movement and the movement for national liberation which can also be carried on by revolutionary proletarian methods is that the former is directed toward the seizure of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the native bourgeoisie, while the latter sets as its first goal the ousting of the foreign oppressor as the precondition for organizing the socialist struggle of the masses on a systematic and centralized basis. Possible within the limits of still existing bourgeois property relations, the fight for national freedom is a democratic movement.

In order to achieve the ousting of Hitler the masses must be ready to struggle directly against their own collaborating bourgeoisie and the forces of Hitler occupation. In order to make the socialist revolution, the masses must be prepared to break with their own “democratic” bourgeoisie and its labor agents, to fight against the counter-revolutionary Stalinist regime which stands ready as the executioner of the Eastern European socialist revolution, and above all with the international bourgeoisie which as always stands ready with its tremendous economic and military resources to intervene in any one of the national sectors of its battlefront.

When Henry Wallace warns that if the Soviet Union agitates again for world communism there will be another war, he is really threatening war against all socialist revolutions; and when he promises food to those nations which string along with the Anglo-American camp, he promises blockade to its socialist enemies.

It is the power of the bourgeoisie on an international scale which makes it possible that the movement for national liberation will stop short of its logical and ultimate goal, the socialist revolution.

The real alternative presented by international imperialism to the revolutionary people of Europe will be: “Restrain yourselves to a ‘normal,’ ordinary bourgeois government and we offer you economic assistance, food and temporary, benevolent neutrality. But go forward to a socialist revolution and we promise you economic blockade and military intervention.”

All kinds of concessions and compromises with capitalism and imperialism are possible provided the peoples “restrain” themselves and are “realistic.” And it is to this realism and restraint that all the bourgeois democrats, reformists and Stalinists are dedicating themselves. These compromises are designed to withdraw the fruits of victory from the masses piecemeal until a firm basis for the bourgeois status quo is restored.

The thwarting of these “realistic” plans and the possibility of transforming the rising of the people for national liberation into an international socialist revolution on an all-European scale depends directly upon how rapidly the revolutionary, socialist proletarian party is organized and extended and obtains support from the masses. But this in turn is just as directly dependent upon the recognition by revolutionists of partial, progressive struggles which lead in their direction.

But all this is lost on Morrow. In his world, all is clearly black and white. All the reactionaries and imperialists line up dearly on one side and the revolutionary proletarians under the banner of the Fourth International line up on the other – and thus national liberation will be won. He must fear that if he recognized life with all its possible cruel compromises and betrayals, he would turn as opportunistic in Europe as he is already in China.

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