A Case Study of Chauvinism
David North “Abolishes” the Right to Self-Determination
PART TWO OF TWO
Part One of this article, polemicizing against a pamphlet by David North ‘s International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), titled “ The Road to Tuzla.” appeared in WV No. 626 (28 July).
From Sri Lanka…
In his speech, “Permanent Revolution and the National Question Today,” North says he drew inspiration for the ICFI’s opposition to self-determination from Keerthi Balasuriya, a former leader of their largest section, the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL) of Sri Lanka.
Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 from the racist colonial rule of the British and the subsequent passage of a Sinhala-only language law in 1956, the national chauvinism of the Sinhalese ruling class has led to au increasing, and increasingly bloody, communal polarization of the Sinhala and Tamil peoples of the island. This reached a watershed with the 1983 government-inspired pogroms against the Tamils. Hundreds upon hundreds of Tamils were murdered in bloodcurdling wholesale massacres, Tamil homes and businesses in Colombo were burnt to the ground (often with the occupants inside), economic and geographic interpenetration of the two peoples was severed in blood as the Tamils were increasingly compacted in the North and East of the island.
Sinhala communalism, designed and instigated by the Lankan ruling class, has always been wielded to assert its own class domination over both the Tamil and Sinhalese working people and oppressed, to head off any popular revolt by preventing class unity. From our inception as a tendency in the 1960s, we have championed the rights of the oppressed Tamil people. At the same time, we oppose Tamil nationalism, which, for example, dismissed the struggles of the strategically placed Tamil plantation workers in the central highlands of the island. In fact, the Tamil nationalist politicians wrote off these stateless “Indian Tamils” who had lived and worked on the island for more than a century. In fighting against the popular-frontist betrayals of the once-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), we pointed out that their class collaboration was rooted in an accommodation to anti-Tamil Sinhalese chauvinism.
We had always called “For the Right of Self-Determination of the Tamil People!” From the time of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms, we raised the demand for the right of Tamil Eelam. As we wrote in “Massacre in Sri Lanka” (WV No. 336, 12 August 1983):
“The impact of the bloodletting and mass population transfers can only be described as a catastrophe….In the early 1970s, Healy’s ICFI stridently opposed the national rights of the oppressed Tamil people, arguing that a separate Tamil slate would only serve imperialism. By the late ‘70s, however, they were uncritically cheering the petty-bourgeois nationalist “Tamil Tigers” (LTTE). In the late 1980s, the RCL did manage to approximate a decent and correct line — defending the right of self-determination for the Tamil minority, opposing the intervention of India, demanding the withdrawal of the Sinhalese government troops from the Northern and Eastern Provinces and calling “For a United Socialist States of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka.”
“What is posed now as a minimal democratic demand is a plebiscite of the Tamil working people to decide on the formation of an independent state in the North….
“What is desperately necessary is the building of an internationalist Trotskyist party in Sri Lanka, necessarily substantially based among the exploited Tamil masses. The struggle against the hideous national oppression of the Tamils and communalism is central to forging such a party.”
Now, RCL leader Wije Dias repudiates the Tamil struggle for self-determination. For all North’s denunciations of Healy, he and his supporters have come full circle to the original chauvinist position (as articulated by Michael Banda) of Healy’s ICFI. In Dias’ words:
“If the LTTE established a separate Eelam state, it would, like any other comprador regime, offer the masses of Tamils as cheap labour to the transnational corporations. This is inevitable, as there exists no possibility of implementing any programme of national development under the present capitalist global system of production…. These nationalist aspirations lead not to national liberation, but to national subjugation to imperialism.”This is truly Orwellian — to “prevent” national subjugation to imperialism one must preserve national subjugation to the dominant state power and to ...imperialism. Even the demand for withdrawal of the Lankan army from the Tamil areas is missing from articles in the ICFI’s International Workers Bulletin — rather contradicting all the bombast about the RCL’s opposition to what is euphemistically termed the government’s “racist” war. The Northites even mimic the chauvinism of the Sinhalese rulers by referring to the Tamil areas with quotation marks around the term traditional homelands.
— International Worker [Britain], 22 January 1994
This chauvinist denial of the right of self-determination for the Tamil people is alibied in the name of “proletarian internationalism.” But the Northites’ opposition to Tamil national rights is not simply confined to the “here and now.” The RCL’s previous call for “A United Socialist States of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka” has been changed to the call for a single “Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Eelam.”
J.V. Stalin had a similar idea when in 1922, as Commissar of Nationalities, he highhandedly sought to subordinate the national independence of the Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani soviet republics by turning their nascent Transcaucasian federation into a single federated republic. When Lenin then objected to Stalin’s subsequent plans to bring the Transcaucasian republics into the Russian republic, Stalin stubbornly persisted by incorporating the Transcaucasian federation again as a single republic into the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The last fight of Lenin’s life was against the Great Russian chauvinism which was the initial signature of the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy.
Of a piece with their new appreciation of the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka, in “The Road to Tuzla” the Northites write, with apparent alarm, that “India is faced with the threat of dismemberment.” Citing the fact that “the Marxist movement opposed the partition of India and Pakistan along ethnic and religious lines in 1947” — a partition that was engineered by British imperialism as the culminating act of over 300 years of colonial “divide and rule” — they oppose legitimate national struggles such as those in Kashmir and of the Sikhs in the Punjab. This is nothing other than an apology for the maintenance of bourgeois “secular” India, a living hell for oppressed castes, women and myriad different peoples and nationalities.
Every few years, the membership of North’s ICFI have their heads put through another “dialectical” wringer. From prostration before bourgeois-nationalist regimes, it is now pronounced that any and all struggles for self-determination must be vigorously opposed.
In Canada, leading up to the electoral victory of the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the Quebec elections last fall, the Northites were screaming like a bunch of Alberta prairie yahoos: “A PQ victory would throw the continued existence of the 127-year-old Canadian nation-state into question and raise the specter of a Yugoslav-style civil war in North America” (International Workers Bulletin, 29 August 1994)! The idea that Quebec is about to become the next Bosnia is truly dérangé. Unlike the Balkans, where the bloody nationalist conflicts are inspired by the competition of interpenetrated peoples for the same territory, Quebec is a separate French-speaking nation with a common people, common language, common culture and common history. Although Native Indians would certainly continue to get it in the neck should Quebec secede (not that they aren’t presently abused and denigrated by the English-Canadian imperialist rulers), independence would hardly require “ethnic cleansing” to drive out another people or nationality.
Quebec was forcibly incorporated into British North America following the 1759 defeat of the French garrison on the Plains of Abraham. In 1867, the national subjugation of the Québécois was the cornerstone of Canadian confederation. Almost 100 years later, the belated emergence of Quebec from clerical-dominated backwardness produced an upwardly mobile French-speaking petty bourgeoisie, and at the same time there emerged one of the most militant and class-conscious proletariats in all of North America. Opposition to Anglo chauvinism and the suppression of the national and language rights of the Quebecois fueled an upsurge in labor militancy in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
The Quebec labor bureaucrats channeled the militancy and combativity of the Québécois working class into support for the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois. In this they were assisted by the Anglo chauvinism of the labor misleaders in the rest of Canada, who militantly opposed the legitimate national and language rights of the Québécois. The fact that Quebec is a separate nation, with corresponding national rights — -i.e. the right to independence — -is similarly not even given a nod in the Bulletin’s articles on the question. Nor do they mention, much less oppose, the raving Anglo chauvinism against Quebec in English Canada.
Today, such chauvinism is particularly represented by the prairie-based Reform Party, which is now one of the two major opposition parties in the Canadian parliament. The other major opposition party is the Bloc Quebecois — the federal’ analogue to the PQ which now rules Quebec. This alone should give some idea of the dominance of the Quebec national question in Canada and the extent to .which it poisons relations between the workers of Quebec and English Canada.
Our Canadian comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste have consistently championed Quebec’s unconditional right to independence, not out of support to the emergent Quebecois bourgeoisie‘s aspirations to become maîtres chez nous (masters in our own house), but out of a proletarian internationalist commitment to remove the national barriers to the class unity of the English — and French — speaking workers of North America. The Northites, however, although claiming to fight “to unite workers in Canada with their class brothers in the US and Mexico,” refuse to defend Quebec’s right to independence. This is antithetical to an internationalist struggle for revolutionary working-class unity.
On the contrary, it is simply a backhanded endorsement of the “unity” of the Canadian bourgeois state. In the words of Lenin:
“The proletariat cannot remain silent on the question of the frontiers of a state founded on national oppression, a question so ‘unpleasant’ for the imperialist bourgeoisie. The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state, which means that they must fight for the right to self-determination. The proletariat must demand freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words; neither confidence nor class solidarity would be possible between the workers of the oppressed and the oppressor nations; the hypocrisy of the reformists and Kautskyites, who defend self-determination but remain silent about the nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation and kept in ‘their own’ state by force, would remain unexposed.”Counterfeit “Orthodoxy”
— “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (January-February 1916)
While the Northites’ open rejection of right of nations to self-determination may be a new innovation, getting there is not a very big step. They have long sneered at racial and other forms of oppression born of capitalist exploitation somehow irrelevant to the “class struggle” — by which they meant the pursuit a crude workerist adaptation to the racist Cold War labor bureaucrats. At the height of the Vietnam antiwar protests and struggles for black freedom, the Bulletin put forward a program for a labor party which took up neither opposition to the war nor the fight for black liberation!
In a long series of articles in the U.S. Workers League’s Bulletin titled “The Politics of the Spartacist League,” written in the mid-1980s, the denounced us for “An Obsession With Race.” Why? By the Northites’ lights, Workers Vanguard featured too many articles on the question of black oppression, racist terror and opposition to fascism, and not enough on “workers.” Never mind that blacks are heavily represented in the ranks of organized labor and that the fight against racist and fascist terror is integral to the defense of the labor movement as a whole. But obviously not for the Bulletin. In 1983, it ran an article smearing the SL-initiated November 1982 labor/black mobilization in Washington, D.C. — in which over 5,000 black workers and youth came out and stopped the Klan — as “an adventure which played right into the hands of the police”!
Even Gerry Healy wrote of “D. North’s whiter than white socialism.” In American society, where the forcible segregation of blacks at the bottom is a keystone of U.S. capitalism, labor must champion the cause of black liberation if it is to break the chains of capitalist exploitation and degradation. This, the Northites claimed, is to “counterpose …struggle against racism” to “the struggle of the working class.”
The same Bulletin series reviled us for the simple (and eminently truthful) statement that the hard-fought 1986 strike by Hormel meatpackers had been knifed by the “labor traitors that currently make up the top leadership of the American labor movement.” The Workers League sneered that this was only further evidence of our “virulent hatred of the working class and deep pessimism.” The Northites’ equation of the trade-union misleaders with the unions themselves has been one of their few political constants. Now they have simply reversed the equation. From squealing that to attack the labor bureaucrats was some kind of “proof” of “hatred of the working class,” they have gone on to pronouncing that the unions as a whole can no longer be considered workers organizations!
A few years back, in one of his ponderous speeches, titled “The End of the USSR,” David North declared that “to define the AFL-CLO as a working class organization is to blind the working class” (Bulletin, 10 January 1992).
The unions have been grievously undermined by the pro-capitalist labor tops to the point where organized labor in this country is increasingly a hollow shell. Nonetheless, even though now only representing a small percentage of the working class, the unions are still the economic organizations of the working class. To transform them into fighting organizations for the working class and all of the oppressed requires a political struggle to break the trade-union bureaucracy’s stranglehold and replace these sellouts with a class-struggle leadership.
But it is precisely such a political struggle that is excluded in either incarnation of the Northite line on the unions. From appealing to the AFL-CIO tops to do everything from launch general strikes to form a labor party, the Northites now equate all of organized labor with the bosses and their government. Such a view of the unions is one that is obviously not shared by the capitalists or their state, which have poured some billions of dollars into mercenary strikebreaking outfits. Far from promoting working-class struggle, the Northites’ appeals for the workers to junk their unions neatly dovetail with the interests of the union-busting bosses.
There are, of course, so-called “unions” which have fit North’s description as “direct instruments of imperialism.” Solidarność in Poland is one, and one which the Northites eagerly and vigorously supported.
There are, of course, so-called “unions” which have fit North’s description as “direct instruments of imperialism. Solidarność in Poland is one, and one which the Northites eagerly and vigorously supported. Another is the “Union of Democratic Miners” in Britain. Consisting of a bunch of scabs on the heroic British coal strike of 1984-85, this “union” was set up at the behest of the Thatcher government to destroy the National Union of Miners (NUM).
Healy/North’s ICFI had its own hand to play against the British miners union. On the eve of the strike, Healy’s press made a big splash by scandalizing NUM leader Arthur Scargill for his correct opposition to Solidarność as “anti-socialist.” This scurrilous anti-Communist campaign was instantly picked up by the Fleet Street tabloids as well as the Labour Party/Trades Union Congress right wing with the aim of isolating the miners union and trying to crush it. The campaign to smear and discredit Scargill was taken up by the British secret police of MI5 as part of a full-scale mobilization of all the forces of the capitalist state aimed at destroying the miners union. Yet even now the Northites’ only criticism of Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) when it comes to the British miners is that it supposedly “ruled out any criticism of Scargill” (International Workers Bulletin, 25 April 1994)!
In the concluding portions of “The Road to Tuzla,” North’s ICFI statement declares that Cliff Slaughter’s WRP “has been transformed as the result of a protracted national opportunist degeneration into a bourgeois tendency.” That just about finishes it. North’s organization has written off the unions, the social-democratic and ex-Stalinist parties, all of what they perceive as their major “Trotskyist” contenders — from Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat to Slaughter’s WRP — as thoroughly bourgeois organizations. As Hegel and Marx would say, the Northites have obliterated all contradictions — to the end of portraying themselves as the last, the only, proletarian leaders on the face of the planet.
The Northites’ description of Slaughter’s organization sounds all too much like their own, particularly the statement that the positions of the WRP serve to “ideologically” condition its membership “to reject any connection between the party’s politics, on the one hand, and the class interests of the proletariat and the principled positions of Marxism, on the other.” More than ten years ago, in responding to the Bulletin’s smear of our anti-Klan mobilization in Washington, D.C., we wrote that the leaders of Healy’s ICFI were “classless demagogues, all-purpose mock extremists whose radicalism has nothing in common with socialist struggle” (“Smash Fascist Smear of SL,” WV No. 379, 17 May 1985).
Every few years, the membership of North’s ICFI have their heads put through another “dialectical” wringer. From prostration before bourgeois-nationalist regimes, it is now pronounced that any and all struggles for self-determination must be vigorously opposed. After years of pandering to the AFL-CIO tops, the membership is now told that the unions are the “direct instruments of imperialism” and must be destroyed.
North’s grand speeches proclaiming “decisive turning points” for the proletariat not only serve to justify and reinforce his organization’s distance from the class struggle, they are a direct echo of the interests of the imperialists. The ICFI’s “theories” are nothing but cowardly rationalizations for sneering at struggle against chauvinist oppression, and for writing off the economic defense organizations of the working class, in order to boost their own petty advantage. The Northites’ policies are those of poseurs seeking a niche as spoilers. Otherwise, they are utterly devoid of, and antithetical to a program which can lead the international working class and oppressed to a socialist victory over their exploiters.