It is quite proper to acknowledge that Karl Marx was the thinker responsible for introducing the concept of historical materialism, a contribution for which we are all in his debt. It is of no insuperable consequence that he didn’t get it quite right, or that his economic ideas are hopelessly flawed, or that his own dialectics contain rather conspicuous contradictions of their own, his theory of how and why things change, and where they are headed, thrust our social discourse through the looking glass and how we look at ourselves was forever altered. In the 19th Century, he ranks with Darwin.
However, Marx’ theories have had, sadly, a retardant effect on the march to social emancipation in that his devotees accept his judgments, however erroneous they may appear to a disinterested observer, as part of a “science” upon whose every detail the validity of the whole depends. Consequently, Marxists have historically been doctrinaire and therefore insensible and/or hostile to exogenous theses for social phenomena even when they are clearly better fitted to the facts. No matter how far the boat drifts from the shore, Marxists never call for a lifeline.
So Marxism can for some can be enfeebling. At the top of the list roars one Alan Woods. He recently wrote a piece on Scottish independence in which many symptoms of the disease are evident.
It should be noted that his critique of the SNP, and the Marxist fools who rallied to it, is spot on. However, it is upon the larger point of nationalism where we see the debilitation.
It took Woods all of four paragraphs before he cited one of his favorite Marxist seers, Leon Trotsky. (Remarkable restraint for him, perhaps he is in remission.):
Trotsky explained that a revolution is in essence a situation in which the masses – the millions of ordinary men and women – begin to become active in politics and begin to take their destiny into their own hands. That is exactly what happened in Scotland, and it has revolutionary implications for the future. The great Russian revolutionary also said that nationalism can represent “the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”. And that is worrying the ruling class more than anything else.
Here Trotsky states the obvious (and it had been said about a century before) when he says that revolution is the working masses intervening in history, yet Woods seems to think that it is some profoundly perspicacious theoretical breakthrough in human understanding. Unique among socialist camps is the Marxist proclivity for sycophancy and apotheosis. And there are none so gravely afflicted as Alan Woods. ( Ted Graaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaant.)
Trotsky is indeed correct when he says that nationalism can be the shell of an immature Bolshevism. It cannot, however, beget or in any way facilitate socialism. (Only those infrangibly committed to Marxist theory could mistake the two.) Trotsky expressed these reactionary thoughts after the Bolshevik putsch. They were written in defense of indefensibly imperialist Bolshevik policy. Trotsky was doing quite a bit of that sort of thing in those days. So here Woods, in holy obeisance, presents shameless counterrevolutionary propaganda as worthy socialist theory. Nationalism, in its jingoist and racist aspects, is inimical to socialism. If it is not, then I renounce socialism.
And the ruling class isn’t worried about too much these days. They have never been so secure. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is at its zenith. Given that Marxist theory insists that capitalism must and will collapse of its own internal contradictions, the thus besotted see in every social divide the harbinger of its demise. They are like Orthodox Rabbis who examine historical events to see in them any indication as to when the messiah will arrive.
Some hopeless people who describe themselves as “Marxists” have completely failed to understand what Lenin wrote on this subject. Lenin defended the right to self-determination as a democratic demand, but he did not believe that the right to national self-determination can be justified in all circumstances or at any price. On the contrary, he always regarded it as subordinate to the general interests of the international proletariat and the socialist revolution.
They are hopeless because they fail to understand another of Woods’ divinities Lenin. No effort is made here to justify what Lenin said–the fact that he said it suffices to make it holy writ.
How convenient for Lenin that he should maintain that the right to national self-determination is not inviolable as he gave how many nations over to German capital at Brest-Litovsk after he had replaced the Tsar as their jailor? Particularly when the price is Bolshevik rule. How can any socialist justify the domination of one people over another? It takes a Marxist…
Rosa Luxemburg had a wrong position on the national question. But her mistake, as always, was dictated by her strong internationalist beliefs. She not only denied Poland’s right to self-determination, but even denied the very existence of the Polish nation. Nevertheless, Lenin respected the fact that Rosa Luxemburg, who was Polish by nationality, was conducting an implacable struggle against the capitalist Polish nationalists and the so-called Polish Socialist Party led by Pilsudski.
“Rosa” was wrong but for the right reasons. Good grief! Luxemburg, a heterodox thinker as Marxists go, succumbs here to the aforementioned disease. The masses don’t want what Marxist theory insists they ought and must, so she adopts a position in opposition as vapid as it is counterrevolutionary. The Polish people deserve the same status as any other. One cannot create socialism by stretching it over a racist hierarchy of nations and peoples. The Poles who sought self-determination, even the most reactionary, whether they knew or desired it, were pushing the world toward social revolution.
Lenin said: I understand that it is your duty to fight against Polish nationalism, but, as a representative of the Russian Social Democracy (since Russia was the oppressor nation), I have to defend the right of the Polish people to self-determination, even up to the point of forming a separate state. At the same time, Lenin stood implacably for the unity of the working class above all lines of nationality, language, religion, etc. He would have regarded it as anathema and a betrayal to make any concessions whatsoever to bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalism. On that question he and Rosa Luxemburg were in complete agreement.
It takes a pathogen such as racks Alan Woods not to see the contradiction. Which is it? If one defends the Right of Poles to form a separate state, then one is making concessions to bourgeois nationalism. Unless one is willing to say that one will not support nationalism until after the social revolution (an idea fraught with contradiction), then one is embracing bourgeois nationalism. One either supports a nationalist movement such as it is, or rejects it as it is.
Moreover, what message does Luxemburg’s position send to Polish workers when what is dear to them is opposed by those intellectuals who purport to act on their behalf. There is no contradiction between supporting the nationalist idea that all peoples should be on an equal footing and also contending that capitalism has to go so that all people within those societies can be on an equal footing; there is no conflict between advocating equality within as well as without. The real contradiction lies in the Marxist theory which propelled Luxemburg to take such an unconscionable stance.
If you apply Lenin’s position to the Scottish referendum, it is clear that Marxists south of the border had a duty to defend Scotland’s right to self-determination while systematically exposing the reactionary role of British imperialism, the reactionary Lib-Con government and the shameful conduct of the Labour leaders. On the other hand, the Scottish Marxists had to emphasise the need for unity of the working class, concentrating their fire against Scottish nationalism and the capitalist SNP.
So then the roles of Scottish and English socialists (Marxist or otherwise) differ? Here is the best Left argument in favor of nationalism one could ever hope to hear. But, alas, they do not. Scottish self-determination should be supported–full stop. That some may have nefarious reasons for backing independence should not keep us from championing this cause. The Nazis campaigned against the speculation in foodstuffs and real estate, should we then feel compelled to advocate such predatory capitalist activity? Woods’ argument is insane. It’s a dog chasing its tail.
Watch it spin:
Unfortunately, the Scottish Left allowed itself to be carried away on a wave of nationalist sentiment. It abandoned the class position and shamefully tagged along behind the capitalist SNP. Such behaviour has nothing in common with the position of Lenin or, for that matter, that of James Connolly or John MacLean. The majority of the Scottish Left in the referendum campaign were even more enthusiastic about the prospects for an independent Scotland than even the leaders of the SNP who they shamefully tail-ended.
That a given position conflicts with Lenin’s does in no way suggest that it is invalid, except in the hopelessly compromised mind of an acolyte. This is scholasticism, not logical argument. Here we see the disease advance to its final stages. If we as a Left are ever to unite and overthrow capitalism, we need a cure.