How did Lenin and Trotsky pose the question of war? What emphasis did they put on the right of self-determination? In replying to Oviedo, Alan Woods puts the record straight. He also explains how countries like Argentina, Turkey, Pakistan, etc., are weak imperialist powers, subject to the domination of the major imperialist powers while at the same time having their own imperialist ambitions locally.
Lenin and the defence of the Fatherland
Marxism (and especially Leninism) teaches us that the main enemy is at home. Under no circumstances is it permissible for Marxists to subordinate the class struggle to the leadership of “our” bourgeoisie. This was explained a hundred times by Lenin.
“Aha!” Luis Oviedo will object. “But you have forgotten the national question! You have forgotten that Argentina is a poor, semi-colonial country that is oppressed and exploited by imperialism.”
Even if this characterisation of Argentina were correct, it still would not be justified to adopt a patriotic position and go along (enthusiastically) with the jingoism and the foreign adventures of the Argentine bourgeoisie. Lenin explained many times that the proletariat must always maintain complete independence from the bourgeoisie – and that also goes for the bourgeoisie of small, colonially oppressed countries.
Argentina was a colonial country in the past, but that was a long time ago. Two hundred years is long enough for the bourgeoisie to develop a state in the image of the advanced imperialist nations, to enrich itself, to develop an aggressive foreign policy and, yes, an imperialist psychology and agenda. The period of the bourgeois democratic revolution is far behind it. The oligarchy has all the features of monopoly capitalism. True, it remains dependent on imperialism and foreign capital – as did Russian Tsarism. But its real role is that of a partner to the imperialists – a junior partner, it is true, but a partner nonetheless.
There is no doubt that the masses in Argentina feel deeply that the Malvinas belongs to Argentina. This is an expression of their hatred of imperialism, which is progressive. The Marxists of Argentina obviously had to take this mood into consideration. But one thing is the healthy anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses, and another quite different thing is the cynical utilisation of this feeling by the reactionary bourgeoisie.
In reality the Argentine bourgeoisie is only a local agency of imperialism. It tries to deceive the masses with patriotic rhetoric as a means of maintaining its class domination. The task of the Argentine Marxists is to unmask the bourgeoisie and expose the hollowness of its “patriotic” demagogy. For the nation? Yes, but for 200 years the bourgeoisie has been plundering the nation, selling it to the highest bidder and leading it to ruin. The only way to defend the nation is by expropriating the oligarchy. It is necessary to keep this firmly in mind.
Let us see how Lenin posed the question. We quote at length, so that there can be no danger of misunderstanding and we can see Lenin’s position as a whole, not this or that extract taken out of context:
“Imperialism means the progressively mounting oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of Great Powers; it means a period of wars between the latter to extend and consolidate the oppression of nations; it means a period in which the masses of the people are deceived by hypocritical social-patriots, i.e., individuals who, under the pretext of the “freedom of nations”, “the right of nations to self-determination”, and “defence of the fatherland”, justify and defend the oppression of the majority of the world’s nations by the Great Powers.
“That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It is from this division that our definition of the “right of nations to self-determination” must follow, a definition that is consistently democratic, revolutionary, and in accord with the general task of the immediate struggle for socialism. It is for that right, and in a struggle to achieve sincere recognition for it, that the Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy. On the other hand, the Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 409.)
How clearly Lenin explains the most complicated phenomena! Here the question of imperialism and the oppression of small states is expressed perfectly. In the imperialist phase, the entire world is dominated by big monopolies and a few imperialist great powers. These are the main enemies of the working class and the overthrow of imperialism is the central task of the world revolution.
The world revolution is a war that is divided up into a whole series of partial battles, among which there is the battle for democratic demands, including the demand for self-determination and other revolutionary democratic demands. A consistent anti-imperialist policy is a necessary condition for successful revolutionary work.
However, this is only one half of Lenin’s programme. The other half, equally important, was the need to maintain the absolute independence of the proletariat and its organizations. Lenin was well aware that the bourgeoisie in the oppressed colonial countries was incapable of fighting imperialism. Only the working class, allied to the poor peasants, could wage a serious struggle against imperialism. That is why he warns that:
“The Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations.” What did he mean by this? Only this: that while the proletarian vanguard of the big imperialist powers must fight against their own imperialist bourgeoisie and defend the rights of small nations, the proletarian vanguard of the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial countries must also fight against the chauvinists and the national bourgeoisie and lay stress on the need for unity with the workers in the imperialist countries. Otherwise, he warns, they “will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.”
Is that not perfectly clear? Lenin explains that the workers of oppressed colonial countries must never become the allies of “their own” national bourgeoisie, which will inevitably (Lenin’s phrase) become an aggressive robber (a weak imperialist) class, eager to “annex territory and oppress other nations.”
How Trotsky posed the question
Even after reading these lines, there may still be some who resist the idea that it is possible for a country to be at one and the same time a colonial (or semi-colonial) and an imperialist nation. Listen to Trotsky on this very subject:
“In one sense Tsarist Russia was also a colonial country, and this found its expression in the predominant role of foreign capital. But the Russian bourgeoisie enjoyed the benefits of an immeasurably greater independence from foreign imperialism than the Chinese bourgeoisie. Russia itself was an imperialist country.” (Revolution and war in China, 1938, in Leon Trotsky on China, p. 588, my emphasis)
In what sense was tsarist Russia a colonial (or rather, a semi-colonial) country? In the fact that the belated development of Russia made it economically dependent on world imperialism. It was deeply dependant on loans from France and other countries, and on investment from the foreign banks and big monopolies that owned and controlled most of Russian industry. In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky points out this dependence of Russian industry on foreign capital, a typical feature of a colonial or semi-colonial country:
“The confluence of industrial with bank capital was also accomplished in Russia with a completeness you might not find in any other country. But the subjection of the industries to the banks meant, for the same reasons, their subjection to the western European money market. Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 per cent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling shares of stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.” (The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 32.)
The same could be said of Argentina, which, however, was, and still is, far more developed than tsarist Russia ever was. But did this backwardness and semi-colonial dependence prevent tsarist Russia from playing an imperialist role, oppressing nations, invading the territory of its neighbours, robbing and looting? Not at all – these were the essential features of the tsarist state, which had a highly predatory and imperialist character, although its imperialism was of a most primitive kind, based on the seizure of territory and the oppression of small nations, and not the export of capital.
There can be no greater error on the part of the Marxists in colonial or ex-colonial nations than to accept as good coin the tearful complaints of their own bourgeoisie that they are “poor” and “oppressed”. Under the cloak of this demagogy, the landlords and capitalists continue to oppress, enslave and rob their own workers and peasants, while collaborating with the foreign imperialists and acting as their local servants and agents.
China was undoubtedly a colonial country, suffering terrible oppression at the hands of foreign imperialism. But Trotsky poured scorn on the idea that the Chinese national bourgeoisie could play a progressive role:
“Lenin insisted on a distinction between an oppressed bourgeois nation and a bourgeois oppressor nation. But Lenin nowhere raised and never could raise the question as if the bourgeoisie of a colonial or a semi-colonial country in an epoch of struggle for national liberation must be more progressive and more revolutionary than the bourgeoisie of a non-colonial country in the epoch of the democratic revolution. This does not flow from anything in theory; there is no confirmation of it in history. For example, pitiful as Russian liberalism was, and hybrid as was its left half –the petty-bourgeois democrats, the Social Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks– it would nevertheless hardly be possible to say that Chinese liberalism and Chinese bourgeois democracy rose to a higher level or were more revolutionary than their Russian prototypes.
“To present matters as if there must inevitably flow from the fact of colonial oppression the revolutionary character of a national bourgeoisie is to reproduce inside out the fundamental error of Menshevism, which held that the revolutionary nature of the Russian bourgeoisie must flow from the oppression of feudalism and the autocracy.” (Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, 1928, in Leon Trotsky on China, pp. 294-5.)
That is what Trotsky says. The argument, which is frequently advanced by the ultra-lefts who repeat Lenin on the national question without having grasped the method of Lenin, is only Menshevism stood on its head. It implies that the working class must tail-end the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and subordinate its class interests to those of “the (oppressed) nation – that is, to the bourgeoisie. But nowhere does Lenin say any such thing: he says precisely the opposite. The reactionary nature of the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations was also well understood by Lenin and Trotsky, who wrote the following in the same work:
“Lenin not only demanded that the greatest attention be paid to the national problem of the peoples in tsarist Russia but also proclaimed (against Bukharin and others) that it was the elementary duty of the proletariat of the dominant nation to support the struggle of the oppressed nations for their self-determination, up to and including separation. But did the party conclude from this that the bourgeoisie of the nationalities oppressed by tsarism (the Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, Armenians, and others) were more progressive, more radical, and more revolutionary than the Russian bourgeoisie?
“Historical experience bears out the fact that the Polish bourgeoisie –notwithstanding the fact that it suffered both from the yoke of the autocracy and from national oppression– was more reactionary than the Russian bourgeoisie and, in the State Dumas, always gravitated not toward the Cadets but toward the Octobrists. The same is true of the Tatar bourgeoisie. The fact that the Jews had absolutely no rights whatever did not prevent the Jewish bourgeoisie from being even more cowardly, more reactionary and more vile than the Russian bourgeoisie. Or perhaps the Estonian bourgeoisie, the Latvian, the Georgian, or the Armenian bourgeoisie were more revolutionary than the great Russian bourgeoisie? How could anyone forget such Historical lessons!" (Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, 1928, in Leon Trotsky on China, pp. 299-300.)
Lenin and Trotsky on the national question
Lenin and Trotsky always defended the rights of small oppressed nations against imperialism, but they never proposed a bloc between the working class and the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists. They demanded that the proletariat and its organizations must at all times remain absolutely independent from the national bourgeoisie. The reason for this is self-evident: the national bourgeoisie is incapable of fighting against imperialism or of realising a single one of the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution – or, as Lenin preferred to call it in such cases, the national democratic revolution. Only the working class can solve these problems by taking power into its own hands. That is the central issue that must be emphasised at all times.
Lenin insisted that the proletariat of oppressed nations must fight the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in order to win over the mass of workers and poor peasants. He also insisted that, while it was the duty of the workers in the advanced imperialist nations to fight against imperialism and defend freedom for the colonies, the working class of the oppressed and colonial nations must defend internationalism and unity with the workers of the oppressor states against the common enemy. Luis Oviedo’s memory is very selective on this question, as on others. He remembers very well the first half of Lenin’s position, but completely forgets the second half. Unfortunately, it is precisely the second half that refers to him and the party to which he belongs.
Lenin insisted that the Russian workers (the workers of the oppressor nation) must defend the right to self-determination up to, and including, the right to secession. But he also insisted that the workers of the oppressed nations under tsarist rule must fight against their own bourgeoisie – including the Liberals. What would he have said about those Argentine Marxists who in 1982 were prepared to unite, not with the Liberal bourgeoisie, but with a vicious and bloody dictatorship, allegedly for the “struggle against imperialism”?
Let us give an interesting example from Russian history. As we have shown, Tsarist Russia was at the same time a backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial country and an imperialist state. It was economically subordinated to the wealthier imperialisms of Britain, America, France, Germany and Belgium. In 1904 tsarist Russia was at war with Japan – a young and aggressive imperialist power. The immediate cause of the clash was the conflict between Russia and Japan over China (Manchuria), but in fact, Japan was aiming to invade and conquer Siberia.
What was the position of the Russian Marxists in the war of 1904? All the tendencies, from the Bolsheviks to the Mensheviks, adopted a defeatist position – that is they stood for the defeat of Russia. This was even the position of the Russian Liberals (“Cadets”), and every democratic trend. The defeat of Russia would lead to the overthrow of Tsarism – that was the reason why all revolutionaries and consistent democrats stood for a defeatist policy. Their position was shown to be correct in the first Russian revolution of 1905, which flowed directly from the defeat of Russia in the war.
It is true that the war of 1904 between Russia and Japan was a war between two rival gangsters. Russian Tsarism oppressed the workers and peasants, but would Japanese rule have been any better? It is sufficient to recall the horrors of Japanese colonial rule in China to answer the question. Yet the Russian Marxists remained implacably hostile to the patriotic appeals. They stood for revolutionary defeatism and insisted that the main enemy was at home. Incidentally, even if he had taken the line that it was necessary to defend Russia against Japanese imperialism, can one imagine Lenin going to the Tsar to pledge his support for the “national cause”? The very idea is an abomination and a scandal.
Lenin ridiculed the Mensheviks for not supporting revolutionary defeatism with sufficient energy. This was typical of Lenin. All his life Lenin fought against patriotic deviations in the workers’ movement. He advocated the revolutionary unity of the workers of warring states – and also between the workers of colonial and imperialist states. Of course, the workers of the imperialist countries must fight against their imperialist bourgeoisie, but the workers of the oppressed nation or nationality must also fight against their own bourgeoisie and oppose all attempts of the latter to win them over by appealing to nationalist demagogy.
On this question Lenin was always implacable. To blur the line of division between Marxism and nationalism is a violation of everything Lenin ever stood for. Let Lenin speak for himself. In order to combat the pernicious illusions peddled by the nationalists, Lenin warned that: "The proletariat cannot support any consolidation of nationalism, on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers, supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer or leads to the amalgamation of nations. To act differently means taking the side of reactionary nationalist philistinism." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)
And again: "Whoever wants to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations and fight bourgeois nationalism, 'home' and foreign, unswervingly." (Ibid.) Similar quotes could be reproduced from dozens of his articles and speeches.
What should have been the conduct of the Argentine Marxists in the war? It certainly should not have been one of support for the Junta in its military adventure. What was necessary was to maintain a position of class independence, while taking into consideration the natural and deeply felt anti-imperialist aspirations of the masses. They should have said to the workers and youth:
“You believe that the Junta will fight British imperialism. We do not accept this. If they were serious about fighting British imperialism, the first thing they would have done would have been to expropriate the property of the British imperialists, followed by the property of the US imperialists, followed by the property of the Argentinian oligarchy who are the office boys of imperialism. But they did not do this because they are tied to imperialism. We cannot win a war with one hand tied behind our back. The only way to defeat imperialism is by overthrowing the Junta.”
Of course, the Argentine Marxists would have to join the army and fight alongside the rest of their class. We are not pacifists and must go with the masses. Probably our propaganda would not have had much of an echo at first. The fumes of patriotism were too strong. But this was only a passing intoxication. Later, when the harsh truth dawned upon the people, the authority of the revolutionaries would grow by leaps and bounds.
Is Argentina a colonial country?
The fundamental mistake is to describe Argentina as if it were an oppressed semi-colonial country. This definition contains a serious danger. If one accepts the definition of Argentina as a semi-colonial oppressed nation, there is always the temptation to accept the idea that Argentina is “not yet ready” for socialism, that bourgeois democracy has not yet been sufficiently developed, that the bourgeois democratic tasks have not yet been completed – and so on and so forth. The PO, instead of placing the perspective of workers’ power at the centre, puts forward the Constituent Assembly as the central demand of the Argentine revolution. Although they deny that this is the “two-stage” position, in practice it amounts to this.
Argentina has been formally independent for about 200 years. It has a developed economy and a mainly urban population. Argentina has all the conditions to become a wealthy country: oil, gas, a rich agriculture and an educated population. Most Argentines therefore never saw themselves as members of the “Third World” but as Europeans. There is a developed industry and no peasantry. Agriculture is run on capitalist lines. These are not the typical features of a semi-colonial nation. In fact, not so long ago Argentina was the tenth industrial nation on earth. The fact that the monstrous oligarchy has ruined the country and pushed large sections of the people into poverty and hunger is another matter altogether. It is merely an expression of the hopelessly reactionary character of the Argentine bourgeoisie.
The Argentine bourgeoisie, in fact, was traditionally pro-British. It was common for the Argentine bourgeois to lament the fact that they had been a Spanish colony, rather than part of the British Empire, so that they would be like Australia. This is the kind of servile and cowardly mentality that the Argentine bourgeois had, and still have, towards imperialism. To demand from them a genuine struggle against imperialism is to demand pears from an elm tree.
Before the Second World War, at least some Argentine Trotskyists knew perfectly well that Argentina was not a backward semi-colony but a relatively developed, medium-sized capitalist country. But since then the “Third World” tendency has got the upper hand. The earlier (correct) analysis has been forgotten and most Argentine Trotskyists have accepted a false analysis that has very negative and dangerous implications.
Their mistaken analysis of the nature of Argentina was the main reason why so many on the Left in Argentina lost their bearings and abandoned a class position during the war of the Malvinas. Setting out from the incorrect analysis of Argentina as a semi-colonial nation, they were swept off their feet by the wave of patriotism that the Junta had unleashed in order to disorient the masses and head off a revolution. Thus, an incorrect theory leads to disaster in practice.
As a matter of fact, even if we accept the argument that Argentina is a semi-colonial nation, the conduct of most of the Argentine Trotskyists would still have been a dereliction of duty. Even in the national liberation struggle, Lenin and Trotsky always insisted that the proletarian vanguard must always maintain absolute independence form the nationalist bourgeoisie. The proletariat must fight against imperialism, but it must do so with its own methods, under its own banner and in order to strengthen its own position.
The first condition is: no mixing up of banners – march separately and strike together. But this was not the case here. Most of the Argentine Left went along with the military adventure prepared by the Junta for counterrevolutionary purposes, and they went along with it enthusiastically. An extreme case was the conduct of the PST, who actually sent a delegation to discuss the terms of their collaboration with Galtieri in the war. One would have thought that 22 years later those who lay claim to the heritage of Moreno would hang their heads in shame, but no. They still defend this aberration. They even praise it as an example of proletarian “Realpolitik”. Look! They say. Galtieri tortured and murdered 30,000 people, including our own comrades. Yet we still went to see him to discuss the reconquest of our Malvinas.”
This is really incredible. Even if one were to accept that this was the case of a colonial country oppressed by imperialism, and a genuine war of national liberation (which it was not), such conduct would be completely intolerable. Lenin and Trotsky fought against class collaboration all their lives. It is unthinkable that any of their followers should act in such a way. The argument about an “oppressed semi-colonial country” does not justify it in the slightest.
The revolutionaries in backward countries must maintain their class independence from the bourgeoisie at all times. Just think of the scathing criticisms that Trotsky made of Ghandi and the other bourgeois nationalist leaders of the Indian National Congress, when they were supposed to be fighting against British imperialism. He insisted that the working class must keep separate from the bourgeois nationalists who were incapable of waging a real struggle against British imperialism. It was not the Trotskyists but the Stalinists who subordinated themselves to the Indian national bourgeoisie, with the excuse that India was a colony of British imperialism.
The history of the last hundred years demonstrates that the national bourgeoisie of the underdeveloped capitalist countries is not capable of playing a progressive role anywhere. The theory of the permanent revolution explains that in the modern epoch the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution can only be carried out by the proletariat. That is a thousand times true of Argentina, where the bourgeoisie has had two hundred years to show what it can do, and has reduced a potentially rich and prosperous nation to a state of unparalleled misery and prostration. The rotten, counterrevolutionary Argentine bourgeoisie is not capable of carrying the nation forward. That is why the working class must take power and begin the task of transforming Argentina from the bottom up.
We do not have one policy for peace and another completely different policy for war. The policy of the Argentine Trotskyists during the Malvinas conflict should have been the continuation of the policy before the war: an intransigent policy of class independence and total opposition to the oligarchy and the Junta.
Dialectics and formalism
What is the nature of Argentina? Some “clever” individuals argue as follows: “The Socialist Appeal says that Argentina is not a semi-colonial country, so what is it, then? An imperialist state? But that is absurd!” Such a method of arguing is completely undialectical. It supposes that a state cannot be a semi-colonial state and an imperialist state at the same time. In fact, this is quite possible, and there have been many examples of this in history, starting with Russian Tsarism.
Formalists who lack an elementary knowledge of dialectics do not grasp the fact that it is possible for a state to have at the same time a semi-colonial and an imperialist character. They think in formal abstractions, fixed and immutable, such as “imperialism” and “colony”. They do not see that there can be transitional forms that combine the features of both, or that things can change into their opposite. They do not see things concretely, and that there are all sorts of intermediate forms and stages. Such people are organically incapable of thinking dialectically. As Engels said of metaphysicians, “Let thy communication be yea, yea; nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than this cometh of the Devil.”
As a matter of fact nature knows many transitional forms, which combine contradictory features. Engels himself did not believe reports that there existed an egg-laying mammal, until he saw a stuffed duck-billed platypus. Engels was honest and admitted he was wrong. Will those “clever” Marxists who do not understand how a country can combine the features of a colonial and imperialist state be as modest and admit their error?
In the capitalist jungle there are predators of all sorts and sizes: lions and tigers, but also jackals and hyenas. But they are all predators. The only difference is that some are stronger than others and capable of seizing larger and more appetising prey, leaving the weaker to fight over the bones. A colony that yesterday was an oppressed state strives to become strong and oppress other states, as Lenin pointed out. It is necessary to distinguish carefully between these phenomena if we are not to make serious mistakes in practice.
Tsarist Russia was undoubtedly a backward, poor, semi-feudal country, where the big majority of the population consisted of peasants only recently emancipated from serfdom. There were feudal survivals in agriculture. True, there were areas where industry existed in an advanced state as a result of the law of combined and uneven development. But overall, the country was a picture of the most shocking backwardness. By comparison, Argentina, even today, would be a highly developed nation. On the eve of the First World War, Russia was heavily dependent on loans and investments from more developed capitalist countries like Germany, Britain, France, Belgium and the USA. It therefore had the character of a backward semi-colony. At the same time, Lenin considered tsarist Russia to be one of the principal imperialist powers. This is a contradiction, but it is not the only example.
The fact that a country is economically backward and that it was once a colony of some imperialist power does not mean that it cannot itself develop imperialist aspirations and become an oppressive imperialist state. Dialectics explain that things can, and do, change into their opposite. The best example of this is the USA, which started out as an oppressed colony of Britain and has become the biggest imperialist state on earth. Poland was an oppressed colony for centuries, divided between the Russian and Austrian imperialist robbers. But as soon as they achieved independence after World War One, the Polish bourgeois had an imperialist agenda of its own, aiming to seize the Ukraine from Russia, and also acting as an agent of British and French imperialism in attacking the young and weak Soviet state.
The small states on the Balkans suffered colonial enslavement by the Turks for centuries. They finally got their independence towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. No sooner had the Serb and Bulgarian bourgeoisies raised themselves to the position of the ruling class than they commenced a series of bloody and predatory wars, in which the bourgeois gangsters from Greece and Romania enthusiastically participated. In the end, the Greek, Rumanian and Serb robbers seized territory from Bulgaria, which had done the lion’s share of the fighting against the Turks.
What was the nature of these wars and what position did the Marxists take in relation to them? They were reactionary, predatory wars fought out between ex-colonial bourgeoisies to further their imperialist ambitions. The same is true of Turkey, which has its own imperialist agenda, not only for Turkish Kurdistan and northern Cyprus, but for northern Iraq, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Only a blind man could fail to see this, and only a fool would argue that Turkey cannot be a (weak) imperialist state because it is a poor country and dependant on capital, loans and investments from the west. Sectarians laugh at the idea that there can be weak imperialist regimes. Let them ask the Kurds whether they think that Turkey is an imperialist regime. They will find it’s not so funny after all.
India and Pakistan are backward ex-colonial countries. In both countries the peasantry is the overwhelming majority of the population. After more than half a century of formal “independence”, they are more dependent on imperialism today than they were before they freed themselves from the shackles of direct imperialist rule. They can therefore be fairly described as semi-colonial states. Yet the Indian bourgeoisie acts in an imperialist way in Kashmir, Nagaland, Nepal and Bhutan. It oppresses national minorities (Assamese, Punjabis, Tamils). So India is at the same time a semi-colonial state and a weak imperialist power, at least on a regional basis.
The same can be said of Pakistan. It is even more backward than India, and even more dependant on world imperialism. There are many feudal survivals in agriculture. Yet Pakistan oppresses nationalities like the Sinhdis, Baluchis and Pashtoons. What is the nature of the wars between India and Pakistan? And what attitude must the Marxists take towards them? The answer is clear: these are reactionary imperialist wars, which have not an atom of progressive content and which we must oppose resolutely.
An even clearer example is Indonesia. Although it is more backward than Argentina, and has only been formally independent for about 50 years (as opposed to nearly 200 years), Indonesian capitalism has a particularly vicious and aggressive character. Like tsarist Russia it has colonies, which it brutally oppresses. And what are we to say about Indonesia’s seizure of East Timor? That was a colony of Portugal, which Indonesia claimed as part of its national territory, as its “unalienable right.” It annexed East Timor against the will of its inhabitants and brutally oppressed it for decades.
What was the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor? It was an imperialist relationship. East Timor was an enslaved colony of Indonesia. The fact that Indonesia itself was, and remains, a semi-colonial nation, dependent on world imperialism does not change this in the slightest. What would one think of an Indonesian Marxist who supported the annexation of East Timor on the grounds that “Indonesia is a poor oppressed nation”? To ask the question is to answer it. When Indonesia was an oppressed colony of the Dutch, it was our duty to support its national liberation struggle to gain freedom and self-determination. That was a genuine national liberation movement. But does the fact that Indonesia used to be a colony give it the right to pursue an aggressive and expansionist policy against its neighbours, to annex and enslave them? No, it does not and cannot have such a “right”.
The history of Latin America furnishes us with many similar examples. Most of the nations of Latin America have been formally independent since the first part of the nineteenth century. It was the dream of Simon Bolivar that the liberated colonies should form a Latin American Federation, and that was a correct idea. But the weak and corrupt bourgeoisies of Latin America were not capable of carrying out this necessary historical task. Instead they became the local office boys of imperialism – first British then US imperialism. Latin America was deliberately Balkanised, bled white and impoverished.
Is it true that Latin America is exploited by imperialism? Yes, it is a hundred times true. Is it necessary to fight against imperialism? Of course, it is. But to imagine that the weak, rotten, reactionary bourgeois of Argentina, Bolivia or Brazil can do this is nonsense. The only way forward for Latin America is on the road of socialist revolution. The working class must take power into its own hands. That is the only way forward. Anything that helps to raise the understanding of the workers of Latin America in this sense is progressive; anything that blunts the consciousness of the proletariat and takes its attention away from the central task of power is reactionary.
Of all the weapons in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the most powerful and pernicious is nationalism. This is particularly true in Latin America. By this, I do not mean the national pride that one finds in the workers of Argentina, Chile or Bolivia. This is a natural and healthy feeling, an expression of all that is living and progressive in a country. But the nationalism of the oligarchy, of the bankers, capitalists and generals of Latin America – that is another matter. The kind of nationalism that is always greedy for territory and raw materials, that teaches the people of one country to hate and despise those of another country – that is reactionary.
Since the achievement of formal independence there have been many wars in Central and South America. These were bloody wars where the workers and peasants of one country slaughtered those of another country in the interests of their “own” landlords and capitalists. The War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), in which Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay fought Paraguay, was a typical example. In this war virtually the entire able-bodied male population of Paraguay was slaughtered, and the country was divided up between the victors. Likewise, in the Pacific War of 1879-83 Chile deprived Bolivia of her access to the sea by an act of naked aggression. There are many more examples.
How are we to characterise these wars? They are like the second Balkan War – vicious and predatory wars in which the bourgeoisie of a given country, having won formal independence, seeks aggrandisement at the expense of its neighbours, seizing land and mineral wealth. What is this but imperialism? A weak imperialism, an imperialism that cannot go beyond certain regional limits, but imperialism nonetheless.
At this point we can already hear the rumbling from Buenos Aires. Luis Oviedo cannot wait to defend his country (that is to say, his bourgeoisie) against the accusation of imperialist ambitions. “What’s this! he will shout. Lenin said that imperialism was the highest phase of monopoly capitalism and it is only meant to describe the activities of rich, developed counties that export capital.” Yes, Lenin did say that. But he by no means circumscribed his definition of imperialism to the export of capital. In its most general sense, imperialism is the conquest of foreign markets, territory and raw materials. To underline the point it is sufficient to point out that among the five or six main imperialist powers described by Lenin was tsarist Russia – a poor country that did not export a single kopeck’s worth of capital.
Luis Oviedo tries to place all the responsibility for fighting against imperialism on the shoulders of the British Marxists. We accept without reserve our duty in this respect, which we have always attempted to do. But is this a duty that ONLY applies to the Marxists of the metropolitan countries? Are the Argentine Marxists exempted from their responsibilities by virtue of the fact that Argentina was a colony 200 years ago? Lenin would have answered as follows: let the British Marxists fight against the British bourgeoisie and let the Argentine Marxists fight against their own ruling class.
We maintained – and still maintain – that the Malvinas war was a reactionary war on both sides. On the British side this is not a difficult position to maintain. The crimes of British imperialism are well known. This has always been clear to the British Marxists. For the Argentine Marxists to stand against Argentine chauvinism may be more difficult, but it is just as important and maybe even more so. The reactionary Argentine bourgeoisie is accustomed to hiding behind the screen of a “poor oppressed nation”, and appealing to the (natural and progressive) anti-imperialist instincts of the Argentine workers to undermine their revolutionary class-consciousness and draw them behind the bourgeois in an alleged “anti-imperialist” bloc.
This was the ideological basis of Peronism, which for decades confused and deceived the workers with its false “anti-imperialist” demagogy. Nothing could be more harmful to the cause of the Argentine revolution than this. The slightest concession to this “patriotic” demagogy would mean the ruin of the revolution. The Malvinas issue is periodically dragged up by the bourgeoisie in order to perpetuate this harmful trend. Even as I write these lines, Kirchner, a very cunning representative of the bourgeoisie, is once again raising this question. If the Argentine Left makes concessions on such a question it leaves open the door to social patriotism and class collaboration under the banner of “national unity” – that is, the unity of the horse and its rider, the unity of the workers and the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the fact that the Argentine Marxists, by continually harping the idea that they are a poor oppressed country, make a concession to bourgeois nationalism and play into the hands of the bourgeoisie.
In answer to the nationalist demagogy of Kirchner, the Argentinian Marxists should say: "Mr. President, the working people of Argentina need jobs, bread and houses. You cannot provide this. Instead you offer us the Malvinas. You deceived us in this way once before and we do not intend to be deceived again. We will fight imperialism in our own way and in the interest of our own class. That means we will fight for the expropriation of the property of the British and American imperialists and the property of the Argentinian oligarchy, which you and your government represent."
Does the corrupt, greedy and reactionary Argentine oligarchy have imperialist ambitions in Latin America? Of course, they do! Their territorial ambitions are not confined to a few rocky islands in the Atlantic. In the past they had imperialist designs on Uruguay and Paraguay. At present they claim a big slice of the Antarctic and part of Tierra del Fuego that belongs to Chile. The two countries nearly went to war over the Beagle Channel before the Junta decided that it might be safer to invade the Malvinas. So let us ask the Argentine Left a question: where would you have stood on the issue of war with Chile? According to you, Chile cannot be an imperialist nation, so presumably it is yet another poor semi-colony, just like Argentina. Do you therefore stand for revolutionary defeatism, or would you again fall into the trap of social-patriotism?
And there is always the possibility that the bourgeoisie – whether in Argentina or some other country – can start beating the war-drums again when faced with the danger of a revolutionary overthrow. Under such circumstance, what will the Left do? Will they once again rush to the banner of patriotism and “national unity”? If so, then the revolution is doomed in advance.
London, February 18, 2004