Monday, 5 April 2021

Marxism, Zionism and the National Question - Reform and Revolution

Marxism, Zionism and the National Question

Reform and Revolution

Lenin distinguishes three categories of countries – the advanced capitalist countries; the countries of Eastern Europe, Balkans and Russia, and the colonies and semi-colonial countries. In the first category, there were, now, no progressive national movements, and these countries oppressed others. In the second, bourgeois-democratic revolutions were taking place at the start of the twentieth century. Here, the task was increasingly seen as falling to the workers to accomplish this task, as part of the socialist revolution. This is the basis of Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution. That meant the socialists in the oppressor countries, e.g. Russia, had to emphasise the rights of nations to self-determination, or as Lenin later phrased it, the right to secede,  but that the socialists in the oppressed nations had to emphasise the need for voluntary integration of nations.

“In this connection the most difficult but most important task is to merge the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations.”

In the colonies and neo-colonies, the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not begun, at the time Lenin was writing. Socialists had to argue for the immediate liberation of them. That process was completed in the 1960's. With that, the historical period in which the demand for self-determination had any revolutionary content comes to a close. Its use now becomes, as with its use by the chauvinists in WWI, a cloak for demands for “defence of the fatherland”, and, thereby, nationalist and reactionary. The revolutionary demand, today, is the internationalist demand for the voluntary integration of nations. It is that which also flows from the creation of a world economy, and of multinational capital.

A central aspect of that voluntary integration is the struggle for political reforms, and the rights of minorities. Lenin sets out, in contrast to the Proudhonists and others, that, in the national question, reform and revolution are not opposites, but complimentary. In order for a revolutionary break to occur, it must usually be accompanied by a period of reforms. The reforms, or at least the struggle for the reforms, take the shape of demands for equal political rights and freedoms.

Examples in more recent times are the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the US. All of these political struggles, are ones in which the working-class, across nations, nationalities, or ethnic and religious divides can be united. The role of socialists in oppressor nations or groups is to emphasise the need to introduce such reforms, because, just as no nation can be free that holds another in chains, so this applies to all these other divisions. The struggle for these political reforms does not mean that the end goal should be, or will be, a revolutionary break, but it does create the best conditions in which such a break can occur, if that is what the oppressed minorities decide is required. It creates the basis upon which such a break can be peaceful, and create the least divisions of the working-class.

The example Lenin gives, here, is Sweden and Norway. In this case, the pinnacle of such reforms was the establishment of autonomy for Norway. But, this autonomy still did not mean that Norway was equal with Sweden, and so the Swedish ruling class retained privileges that were mitigated but not abolished. This is the difference between a reform and revolution, Lenin says.

“As long as Norway was merely autonomous, the Swedish aristocracy had one additional privilege; and secession did not “mitigate” this privilege (the essence of reformism lies in mitigating an evil and not in destroying it), but eliminated it altogether (the principal criterion of the revolutionary character of a programme).

Incidentally, autonomy, as a reform, differs in principle from freedom to secede, as a revolutionary measure. This is unquestionable. But as everyone knows, in practice a reform is often merely a step towards revolution. It is autonomy that enables a nation forcibly retained within the boundaries of a given state to crystallise into a nation, to gather, assess and organise its forces, and to select the most opportune moment for a declaration ... in the “Norwegian” spirit: We, the autonomous diet of such-and-such a nation, or of such-and-such a territory, declare that the Emperor of all the Russias has ceased to be King of Poland, etc.”

This may well be the case with Scottish independence, or Catalunyan independence, whether we believe that such independence, of itself, is a progressive development. Similarly, I would argue that in Israel-Palestine, the correct Marxist strategy, given that all Palestinians, be they inside Israel itself, or within Gaza and the West Bank, which exist essentially as vassals, and dependencies of Israel, must be a struggle, here and now, for equal political rights of Palestinians with Jews. That is a political struggle to be fought jointly by Jewish and Palestinian workers, together, and the onus in that struggle falls upon Jewish socialists in Israel to champion it. That struggle, so long as Palestinians do not have their own separate state, must include the right to vote in Knesset elections, for all Palestinians, as well as the right to send representatives to it; it involves the right of Palestinian majority areas, such as Gaza and the West Bank to administrative autonomy; it involves a right to migrate to, and move freely within, Israel and the occupied territories.

It may be that, out of this process, the Palestinians, as with the Norwegians, form themselves into a nation capable of creating an independent nation state, in which case the autonomous Palestinian parliament, as with that of Norway, could simply declare its independence, but, arising on the back of years of joint struggle, by Jewish and Palestinian workers, this would be under completely different conditions to those of suspicion and hostility that currently exists between these communities.

But, such reforms do not necessarily lead to a revolutionary break, and the establishment of a new class state. On the contrary, Lenin sets out the presumption is against the creation of any new class state, except in exceptional conditions. We are in favour of tearing down borders not erecting new ones. The Civil Rights Movement, in Northern Ireland, was not conducted on the basis of creating a new Catholic state in the North, or even of just a redrawing of the border between the North and the Republic. The Civil Rights Movement in the US was not conducted on the basis of creating a new independent black state, in the US. That had been the programme not of socialists but of black nationalist like Marcus Garvey.  The links between Garvey and the Ku Kux Klan, and other white separatists, mirror the links between Zionism, and other such nationalists and separatists like the Nazis, and indeed the relations between US Zionists, and white supremacists, today, inside the pro-Trump movement.

Rather, the strategy of Marxists is to combine the political struggle with the class struggle. Our goal is not the creation of some new class state, nor, as in the case of the social chauvinists, to defend the continuance of existing class states under cover of the demand for self-determination, as a proxy for defence of the fatherland, of national borders and national privileges, but is the overthrow of the existing class state, and its replacement by a workers' state as the only real basis upon which the rights of workers can be guaranteed, irrespective of nation, ethnicity or religion.

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