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Against Trotskyism: Trotskyism and the national question

By J. Sykes

1932 Communist election poster addressing the national question.

By now it should come as no surprise that Trotskyism, with its ultra-left emphasis on “pure proletarian revolution” originating in Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution,” that Trotskyism’s errors extend to the national question.

But, before we can get into Trotsky’s view on the subject, what is the national question? When Marxists talk about the “national question” we’re talking about the analysis of the problems posed to the revolutionary movement by the materialist process by which nations form and develop, and the role that plays in revolutionary change. Practically, we’re talking about how the proletarian revolutionary movement should relate to oppressed nations and nationalities.

Marx and Engels wrote about this in relation to a number of important issues while they were alive, especially concerning the Irish and Indian struggles for national liberation against the British Empire, and in the context of the Black liberation struggle, especially in relation to the abolition struggle and the U.S. Civil War. Their support for these struggles was unequivocal. Lenin and Stalin further developed Marxist-Leninist theory on the national question. Lenin and Stalin understood that it was necessary for communists to support self-determination for oppressed nations as an essential element of the struggle against our common enemy, monopoly capitalism, or imperialism. African American Marxist-Leninists like Harry Haywood and Claudia Jones applied these theories to the concrete analysis of the national question in the United States.

In 1933, Trotsky says plainly, in “The Negro Question in America,” “The Negroes are a race and not a nation.” In almost the same breath, Trotsky claims to support self-determination for African Americans. But if Black people in the U.S. are not a nation, what could this possibly mean? Lenin was crystal clear on the meaning of self-determination, practically: “The right of nations to self-determination means only the right to independence in a political sense, the right to free, political secession from the oppressing nation.” Trotsky would have us believe there is some other kind of self-determination, some kind of racial, rather than national, self-determination. For Trotsky, the slogan of “self-determination” should be used as “transitional demand” to recruit Black workers to the cause of a purely proletarian revolution. This isn’t support, but rather it is the cynical manipulation of the demand for Black self-determination. He pays lip-service to self-determination but robs it of its meaning in order to twist it to his own aims.

The U.S. Trotskyite theoretician Max Shachtman isn’t any better on the question. In some ways he’s even worse. He likewise states, in his pamphlet Race and Revolution from 1933, “The American Negroes do not constitute a nation separate and apart from the rest of the population of the country.” His conclusion is that African American liberation in the Black Belt is a “reactionary utopia.” He is opposed even to Trotsky’s lip-service to self-determination. At least, unlike Trotsky, he doesn’t mince words.

Shachtman argues that an oppressed nation must be distinct in every way from the nation that oppresses it. It is not enough for Shachtman, for example, that the African American people speak a common language (English), but rather they must speak a common language unique to them. The same holds true of culture, economic life, and so on. He also gives a lot of weight to the migrations of African Americans out of the Black Belt South, in order to deny that this is their historically constituted national territory. But would anyone deny that Ireland and Palestine remain the national territory of the Irish and Palestinian people, despite migrations resulting from the oppression of imperialism and its lackeys in Ireland and Palestine? Only the imperialists and their agents would make such a claim.

To the Trotskyites, the question of Black liberation or Chicano liberation is a race question. It is a question of overcoming racial prejudice to unite the multinational working class against the capitalist classes and strata, large and small. It is a purely ideological struggle, with no real material basis. Further, by limiting the question to a question of race, the Trotskyites fail to comprehend the inherently anti-imperialist nature of the national liberation struggles. They call the national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie reactionaries, and would exclude them from being allies in the united front against monopoly capitalism.

We have already seen how the Trotskyites demand for pure proletarian revolution has led them astray on the issues of the alliance with the peasantry and the united front. Their wrong views on the national question are a branch from the same poisonous weed. The only way the working class in the United States will win socialism is to build a united front against monopoly capitalism, and the cornerstone of that united front is the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the movement of oppressed nationalities for national liberation. There is no path for victory that does not include support for the self-determination of the African American Nation in the Black Belt South, the Chicano Nation in Aztlan in the Southwest, and the Hawaiian Nation. By denying that essential point, the Trotskyites would set the proletarian revolution up to fail.

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