In Defense of (Seymour’s) Marxism

Exposing the ‘Theoretical Framework’ of ICL’s Neo-Pabloist Turn

The abrupt abandonment of the longstanding approach to the national question by the Seventh International Conference of the International Communist League (ICL – formerly the international Spartacist tendency [iSt]) has major (many as yet unelaborated) programmatic implications. It is difficult to overstate the political importance for the ICL of the dramatic turn represented by the main conference document, “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” which repudiates the iSt/ICL’s previous refusal to capitulate to “Third World” nationalism – a stance that distinguished the group from its pseudo-revolutionary competitors for decades. The former policy is now simply dismissed as “chauvinism.”

A substantial section of the document entitled “Theoretical Framework for Chauvinism” is devoted to giving this dramatic line change some coherence by raising a series of criticisms of the Marxist foundation of the iSt’s revolutionary policy. But a serious examination of this critique reveals it to be nothing more than a politically bankrupt attempt to rationalize a revisionist shift.

The “Hydra” document begins by renouncing two key articles on the national question that appeared in Workers Vanguard (WV) in the 1970s for presenting the “theoretical justification for our chauvinist program on the national question.” “The National Question in the Marxist Movement 1848-1914” (1976), a reprint of a talk by the iSt’s leading intellectual, Joseph Seymour, provided a synthetic overview of the development of the Marxist position on the national question, further developed in a companion piece entitled “Lenin vs. Luxemburg on the National Question” (1977). Seymour introduced his talk as “a contribution to understanding the theoretical underpinning of our current positions” on interpenetrated peoples and other aspects of the national question in the Middle East, which he described as being among “the most obvious and sharpest difference when we first encounter [left-centrist] tendencies that appear to be close to us.”

Seymour distinguished between the conjunctural character of the Marxist position on a particular national question at a given moment, and the unchanging core of the revolutionary program for women’s liberation:

“I think that one can draw a contrast with the Marxist position on the woman question. The position in favor of abolition of the family and for the equality of women is a fundamental element of a communist society, and therefore is not subordinate to changing political conjunctures.
“The Marxist position on the national question has a much more conjunctural character historically, and is much more determined by changing empirical circumstances. Thus, it is not only legitimate, but very often obligatory, to change a specific position on a specific national question in a very short period of time. Today we are opposed to the independence of Quebec, while of course recognizing the right of self-determination. But it is certainly possible that in a couple of years, if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence. Such determinations have a conjunctural and a strategic character.”

This eminently sensible proposition is now characterized by the ICL as supporting “the jackboot of Anglophone oppression”:

“In fact, the WV Nos. 123 and 125 article is a polemic against the liberation of Quebec from the jackboot of Anglophone oppression, a perspective also found in our approach to other national questions (witness the equal sign drawn in the article between the oppressed and oppressor peoples in Lebanon). The theoretical framework developed by these two articles is very far from the experience of the Russian Revolution, which demonstrated in life that the national question can be a motor force for revolutionary struggle.”
—“The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra,” Spartacist No. 65, Summer 2017 (emphasis in original)

Neo-Pabloism in Beirut & Entebbe

“The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra,” while focusing on Quebec, states that an “anti-Leninist” framework was also evident in “our approach to other national questions,” in particular the intercommunal conflict that raged in Lebanon in the mid-1970s. The ICL’s recent proclamation that its refusal to take sides in the Lebanese civil war amounted to equating “the oppressed and oppressor peoples” is highly significant, but completely undeveloped. What is clear is that the ICL’s position has been retrospectively aligned with that taken by Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec) and most other ostensibly Trotskyist and Maoist formations at the time.

In January 1977, at the height of the Lebanese bloodletting, the Stalinophobic League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) intervened at a Spartacist League (SL) forum held at Columbia University in New York City:

“LRP speakers charged that the SL had reneged on the revolutionary obligation to give military tactical support in the anti-imperialist struggle in Angola and in the Palestinian fight in Lebanon when they were under attack by the U.S.-backed right wing and the Syrian army. The SL replied that Lebanon was a ‘tribal puzzle’ whose pieces apparently, have no relation to world imperialism.”
Socialist Voice, No. 3, Spring 1977

After 40 years, the ICL has now apparently come to agree with the substance of the LRP’s criticisms, at least on Lebanon. But for all the self-flagellation about decades of capitulation to the many-headed “hydra” of imperial chauvinism, the Spartacists have thus far been circumspect about spelling out many of the programmatic implications. The LRP circa 1977 certainly had no difficulty generalizing its critique of the SL’s “chauvinist” approach to the national question in neo-colonial countries:

“The uniqueness of the Spartacist League, what many leftists mistakenly regard as ‘sectarianism,’ is that it does not capitulate to the nationalism of the oppressed nations – because it directly reflects the attitudes of the privileged sections of the American working class.”

The Stalinophilic Communist Cadre [CTC] groupuscule, which also intervened at the January 1977 forum, put forward a parallel critique of the SL’s “anti-Leninist” policies, which, on some points at least, is uncannily similar to the 2017 “Hydra” document:

“Communist Cadre has repeatedly asserted that the SL in its attitude towards the struggles of the oppressed and the colonial peoples and nations takes an essentially anti-Leninist line. While Leninists and Trotskyists have always insisted upon the necessity of unconditional military defense of the struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors, the SL has sought to evade this communist necessity in favor of a comfortable neutrality.”
—“What the Spartacist League Really Stands For

The CTC considered the SL’s dual defeatist position in Lebanon to be a refusal to side with “the struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors”:

“During the civil war in Lebanon, where the Lebanese left and Palestinian Resistance fought a life and death struggle with the reactionary alliance of Phalangists, National Liberals, and Moslem Brotherhood, the SL took a position of open neutrality. The SL invented the reactionary, anti-Marxist formula of ‘intercommunal warfare’ in order to call for defeatism on both sides in that ‘sordid civil war’, as the SL termed it. And while calling for defeatism on all sides, the SL also came out for the right of all communities to self-defense – including those politically and militarily organized by and under the leadership of the Phalange, which even the SL characterizes as ‘Nazi-like.”

The LRP and CTC correctly identified the SL’s approach to the Lebanese conflict as deriving from its attitude toward conflicts involving “interpenetrated peoples” (i.e., two or more peoples interspersed in a common territory) in places like Cyprus, Palestine/Israel and the North of Ireland:

“This stance [on Lebanon’s civil conflict] is paralleled for Northern Ireland, where the SL advocates the formation of a trade union militia drawn from Catholics and Protestants in order to defend both communities – Irish and Protestant settler – against ‘sectarian violence.’ While this sounds very reasonable and evenhanded, it translates into these terms in political practice: the SL advocates the defense of right-wing Orange settler militants and strongholds against the terror of the Provisional IRA (which the SL characterizes as ‘right-wing nationalist’) and other Irish liberationist organizations. In Israel the SL champions the right of the Hebrew-speaking people, i.e., Zionist settlers, to self-determination.…”

The CTC was also critical of the SL’s neutrality when Israeli special forces intervened in Uganda a few months earlier to free hostages being held by Palestinian guerrillas (see “The Lessons of Entebbe,” Workers Vanguard, 16 July 1976):

“Not only will the SL not defend the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] militants against the Israeli commandos, the SL refuses to condemn the Israelis for invading Uganda, which despite Idi Amin is after all an oppressed nation. The SL says the left must not be drawn into the ‘hypocritical chorus’ that denounced Israel for its aggression against Uganda and for violating Uganda’s sovereignty and territory. The SL explains to us, you see, that ‘Unlike the right of nations to self-determination, “national sovereignty” is not a bourgeois democratic demand that Marxists support. Moreover, Uganda’s “national sovereignty” was subordinated by Idi Amin’s complicity with the hijackers’.”

We consider the SL’s position to have been essentially correct and in accord with the position on Lebanon held at the time. But what does the ICL think? Does it now see their 1976 stance as another manifestation of the “hydra” of imperial arrogance and chauvinism?

Of particular interest about the raid on the Entebbe airport is that, when news of the event broke, Joseph Seymour’s impulse was to side with the Ugandans against the Israeli commandos. Robertson disagreed and a tape recording of a discussion between the two of them was circulated to the various branches of the iSt to be played for the membership. The Spartacist tendency, whatever its other failings, has always taken a serious attitude toward preserving the archival record of its own history, so it is likely that recorded conversation is still available somewhere. Perhaps the new ICL leaders might wish to listen to it in light of their new turn.

We presume that at some point the ICL leadership will itemize the “other national questions” it plans to revise its position on – although, in order not to dent the prestige of James Robertson, their founder/leader, we do not expect the 1983 social-patriotic capitulation over the bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon to be on the list.[1]

We regard the SL’s position on “interpenetrated peoples” to be among its most important original contributions to the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition. Robertson, who played a central role in developing this approach, as he did on virtually every important programmatic issue (including Quebec), deserves much of the credit for it. The iSt’s theoretical framework on the national question allowed it to develop a revolutionary position on a range of important conflicts, unlike its pseudo-Marxist competitors at the time.

The USec, LRP, CTC and all the others who disagreed with the Spartacists’ refusal to take sides in the Lebanese civil war were similarly outraged by the position of dual defeatism in the Arab/Israeli conflicts of 1948, 1967 and 1973 and the analysis of Israel/Palestine as another instance of interpenetrated peoples. Given the ICL’s recent embrace of what we might designate neo-Pabloism on the national question, might this also be up for revision?

Do Marxists Have a Positive National Program?

The ICL is outraged that in “The National Question in the Marxist Movement 1848-1914,” Seymour advanced “the preposterous thesis that ‘there is no Marxist program for the national question as such’.” He asserted that “The Marxist position has always had a predominantly strategic character, aimed at creating the conditions for a successful proletarian revolution” and concluded that, in any given instance, the attitude of revolutionaries tends to be “determined by changing empirical circumstances.”

This is in line with Lenin’s approach to the national question, which always prioritized reducing national tensions in order to bring the class question to the fore. Lenin counterposed the “negative” approach of Marxists – focused on removing barriers to proletarian unity – with the positive programs of bourgeois nationalists in a text in which he specifically focused on “programme vacillations of Marxists and would-be Marxists”:

“Let the bourgeoisie deceive the people with various ‘positive’ national programmes. The class-conscious worker will answer the bourgeoisie – there is only one solution to the national problem (insofar as it can, in general, be solved in the capitalist world, the world of profit, squabbling and exploitation), and that solution is consistent democracy.”
—“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” October-December 1913

Lenin clearly spelled out what he meant by “consistent democracy”:

“The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods.…”

Seymour’s assertion that “there is no Marxist program for the national question as such” could perhaps have been better formulated as “no positive Marxist program.” Lenin’s program on the national question was a negative one that combined opposition to privileges or advantages for any nation with an insistence on strict equality for all:

“it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the ‘positive’ activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.”

. . .
“Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? – Of course not.”
Ibid (emphasis in original)

Robertsonian Dabblings in Kitsch ‘Braveheart’ Mythology

Nationalists with “positive” national programs inevitably promote their own nation at the expense of others. During a 1999 debate with the ICL’s Canadian group, we pointed to a bizarre article in the March 1996 issue of Spartacist Canada saluting Scottish nationalism.[2] We attributed this to an unhealthy desire to curry favor with Robertson, who fancies himself a descendant of Robert the Bruce, a 14th century Scottish king. The Internationalist Group (founded by Spartacist cadres who exited the ICL in 1996) aptly characterized the ICL flirtation with Scots nationalism as dabbling in “the kitsch ‘Braveheart’ mythology shared by both left and right nationalists.”

Robertson’s Scots nationalism has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it has produced some peculiar positions over the years, several of which were reprised in the Autumn 2006 issue of Workers Hammer, published by the Spartacist League/Britain:

“the Scottish proletariat [has] historically openly identified with the Soviet Union and Communism. During the 1980s Cold War we appealed to such sentiments by raising evocative slogans such as ‘Turn Holy Loch into a Soviet U-boat pen!’ and ‘For a Scottish workers republic as part of the USSR!’”

Perhaps the ICL’s refusal to take sides in the 2014 referendum on independence from Britain is another matter that will be up for reconsideration in light of the current turn to celebrating nationalism as “a motor force for revolutionary struggle.”[3]. It seems odd that Scotland is mentioned only in passing in the “Hydra” document – perhaps because it poses some as yet unresolved programmatic difficulties.

Blurring Oppressed & Oppressors?

In criticizing Seymour’s survey article from 1976, the “Hydra” text allows that he is right that “there are no ‘reactionary’ and ‘progressive’ peoples” but asserts, without any evidence, that he “wields this to blur the difference between oppressed and oppressor nations.” The conference resolution complains that the 1977 “Lenin vs. Luxemburg” article is critical of the “widespread support for petty-bourgeois nationalism within the left” and rejects the view held by many “would-be Marxists” that the Palestine Liberation Organization, Angolan MPLA, Irish Republican Army and Basque ETA were “among the vanguard of the revolutionary forces of our day.” This is construed as “a position of indifference to the fight for national liberation,” and “a cover for denigrating the just aspirations” of the various oppressed nationalities involved. As proof, the ICL scribblers can only offer the following brainless critique:

“These articles never expressed any solidarity with national liberation struggles, much less with the right of oppressed nations to break free from their national oppression. This constituted a total rejection of internationalism.”

A couple of articles sketching the complex history of how attitudes to the national question developed over seven decades in the Marxist movement cannot possibly contain (and certainly do not require) a repetition of positions clearly stated in other WV articles on numerous occasions. The assertion that a failure to reiterate them one more time in a panoramic historical survey “constituted a total rejection of internationalism” is as cynical as it is idiotic.

Advocacy of Independence vs Realization

The ICL also alleges that Seymour’s 1976 article falsely counterposed Marx to Lenin on the national question:

“The article in WV Nos. 123 and 125 introduced a false dichotomy between the simple ‘advocacy of independence’ (Lenin) and its ‘realization in fact’ (Marx): ‘For Lenin, the question of whether independence would be realized or not was not a fundamental question, it was secondary.’ This false counterposition served as a cover for our outright opposition to independence for Quebec, thus fundamentally denying the right of self-determination.” [emphasis in original]

Any reasonable person reading Seymour’s article can see that there is no “false counterposition,” nor was he “fundamentally denying the right to self-determination.” Quite the opposite. Seymour carefully (and clearly) distinguished between Marx’s advocacy of immediate Irish independence and Lenin’s recognition of the universal right of all nations to self-determination:

“I should point out that Marx’s position on the Irish question anticipated, but was not identical with, the orthodox Leninist position. Marx expected that an independent Ireland would draw the Irish out of England – that the economic development of Ireland would lead to the repatriation of the Irish working class from England. He looked for the physical separation of the English and Irish working classes as a precondition to political unity. It was not simply the advocacy of independence that was important, but its realization in fact. As we shall see, it is with Lenin that the advocacy of the right of self-determination becomes key.”

Seymour correctly pointed out that Lenin considered the question of whether or not to advocate independence in any particular instance to be less important than winning the workers of the oppressor nation to champion the right of the oppressed people to decide the issue for themselves:

“Lenin maintained that Luxemburg’s abstract propaganda in favor of internationalism was not adequate to convince the Poles and the Ukrainians that the Great Russian socialists were not chauvinist. The workers movement in the oppressor nation must demonstrate in practice and in immediate programmatic form that it supports the right to independence of the oppressed nation. For Lenin, the question of whether independence would be realized or not was not a fundamental question, it was secondary. Before the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks did not take a position for or against independence for Poland, the Ukraine or Finland. The core of Lenin’s position comes through in ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (1914):

“Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle ‘guesses’, we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state. We respect this right; we do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation.” [emphasis in original]

Lenin did not assert that Marxists should generally advocate the immediate independence of all oppressed nations within multinational states. In fact, the ICL’s position of unconditional advocacy of Quebec independence stands in stark contrast with Lenin’s attitude toward the independence of Ukraine, which he saw as a question that depended on “a thousand unpredictable factors.” This is the approach taken by the Spartacist tendency in the 1970s and 80s, and the one we uphold today. The Quebecois have an unalienable and unconditional right to their own state, but whether revolutionaries advocate they exercise this right at any particular moment depends on the concrete situation – most importantly the degree of national antagonism within the working class. Seymour cites Lenin’s comparison with the right to divorce: “the recognition of the right to divorce does not preclude agitation against divorce in a particular case”.

In “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin explained:

“The demand for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very ‘practical’ one. In reality it is absurd; it is metaphysical in theory, while in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeoisie’s policy. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically, you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois-democratic revolution will end in a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper this development by pushing the aims of its ‘own’ nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.” (emphasis in original)

Seymour’s summary of Lenin’s position (which is as valid today as it was a century ago) is both accurate and balanced:

“Lenin’s program was not designed to be popular with Russia’s minorities at any given time. It was designed to foster the fighting unity of the working class within the Russian state. If the working masses of the various nations are so hostile to one another that it makes unified class struggle virtually impossible, then separation into independent states is called for. Where national minorities choose to co-exist within the same state framework, the task of Leninists is to break down all the barriers separating the working masses of the different nationalities. While championing the equality of languages and related democratic rights, we work for the gradual, organic assimilation of the various nationalities making up the working class.”

Leninism vs Nationalism on the Assimilation of Nations

The “Hydra” document, advertised as a return to Leninism, objects to Seymour’s projections regarding the “gradual, organic assimilation” of nations – but he took them directly from Lenin. Having rejected the objective of voluntary assimilation in favor of “defensive measures” aimed at preserving national distinctions, it is entirely logical that the ICL also reject Lenin’s opposition to legislation mandating the use of one language over another by supporting Quebec’s language laws. The ICL considers that such regulations “constitute defensive measures essential to the very existence of the oppressed nation” in Quebec and Catalonia. The ICL brazenly asserts that the “struggle against assimilation” is “the framework in which we must apply the Leninist program for the equality of languages.” But this is a nationalist framework, not a Leninist one – Lenin was adamantly opposed to all state enforcement of any sort of language preference. In “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” he wrote:

Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.”

Far from a move to “re-establish a Leninist framework on the national question,” the ICL’s opposition to voluntary assimilation represents a break with a core element of Lenin’s program. Perhaps the ICL leadership thinks their ranks are not aware of Lenin’s position. Perhaps dumping Seymour’s articles is only the first step, and an open repudiation of Lenin will be next. In any case, Lenin’s attitude is entirely unambiguous; in the third section of “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (which he entitled “The Nationalist Bogey of ‘Assimilation’”), he wrote:

“Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages, and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality, is not a Marxist; he is not even a democrat. That is beyond doubt. But it is also beyond doubt that the pseudo-Marxist who heaps abuse upon a Marxist of another nation for being an ‘assimilator’ is simply a nationalist philistine.”

. . .
“No one unobsessed by nationalist prejudices can fail to perceive that this process of assimilation of nations by capitalism means the greatest historical progress, the break down of hidebound national conservatism in the various backwoods, especially in backward countries like Russia.”

The ICL’s “struggle against assimilation” embraces bourgeois nationalism and rejects Leninism – it is as simple as that.

National Rights & Proletarian Rule

The final element in the “theoretical framework” of the ICL’s break with Leninism on the national question raises the relationship of national rights and proletarian rule. The “Hydra” document asserts:

“The article on ‘Lenin vs. Luxemburg on the National Question’ implies that the right of self-determination does not apply after proletarian revolution: ‘The right of nations to self-determination, as any other bourgeois-democratic right, can only be superseded when proletarian class rule and its democracy supersede bourgeois democracy.’”

This is a crude attempt to create a straw man – there is no implied repudiation of the right to self-determination in the sentence quoted by the Hydra authors. Its meaning is pretty clear, and any possible ambiguity is eliminated in another, more concrete, formulation of the same idea that appears a few paragraphs earlier:

“Lenin’s Bolsheviks did not permit the principle of national self-determination, or any other bourgeois-democratic right, to prevent defense of the October Revolution against counterrevolution.”

The Hydra article’s bogus claim that the 1977 WV article suggests that there is no right to national self-determination under proletarian rule is followed by the indignant assertion that: “This was not Lenin’s position but that of his adversaries like Bukharin and Pyatakov who advocated ‘proletarian self-determination.’” Nor is it the position put forward in the WV article, which clearly explains the logic of Lenin’s opposition to Bukharin and Pyatakov (who were aligned with Luxemburg on the issue).

Lenin of course recognized the right of national self-determination under workers’ rule – as opposed to “proletarian self-determination” – but, as the 1977 WV article explained, he considered this right to be subordinate to the defense of the revolution against the class enemy. He spelled out this principle with perfect clarity in early 1916, long before a Russian workers’ state existed:

“In contrast to the petty-bourgeois democrats, Marx regarded all democratic demands without exception not as an absolute, but as a historical expression of the struggle of the masses of the people, led by the bourgeoisie, against feudalism. There is not a single democratic demand which could not serve, and has not served, under certain conditions, as an instrument of the bourgeoisie for deceiving the workers. To single out one of the demands of political democracy, namely, the self determination of nations, and to oppose it to all the rest, is fundamentally wrong in theory. In practice, the proletariat will be able to retain its independence only if it subordinates its struggle for all the democratic demands, not excluding the demand for a republic, to its revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.”
—“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (emphasis added)

Bourgeois nationalists, Mensheviks and social democrats of all stripes strenuously object to the idea that “proletarian class rule and its democracy supersede bourgeois democracy.” Do the Hydra authors aspire to join their ranks? During the early years of the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks asserted that, from the point of view of the working class, there is a hierarchy of rights (including the right of nations to self-determination) in which the preservation of proletarian rule “superceded” other considerations. This was clearly explained in the now repudiated 1977 WV article:

“Lenin’s acceptance of self-determination for Finland, Poland, the Baltic nations and the Ukraine was a powerful lever for the Bolsheviks during the civil war which followed the October Revolution in 1917. However, after achieving independent state power, the bourgeois nationalists like Pilsudski and Mannerheim mobilized the petty bourgeois masses against the pro-Bolshevik working class, which wanted unity with Soviet Russia. A certain conflict arose between national self-determination and the defense of proletarian revolution.…
“The history of the Ukraine during 1917-20 clearly illuminates this conflict. In October, local Bolsheviks, in alliance with the nationalist-dominated Ukrainian Central Rada, overthrew the pro-Kerensky provisional government in Kiev, the capital. However, the Ukrainian nationalist parties had their social base among the peasantry and naturally opposed the rule of soviets, which represented centrally the urban working classes. In late November the Central Rada suppressed the Kiev soviet and arrested its Bolshevik leaders. Further, it prohibited the Red Army from crossing Ukrainian territory to smash the counterrevolutionary mobilization of the Don Cossacks.
“Lenin’s Bolsheviks did not permit the principle of national self-determination, or any other bourgeois-democratic right, to prevent defense of the October Revolution against counterrevolution. This was well illustrated in a December 1917 Soviet ultimatum to the Rada which simultaneously recognized the independence of the latter’s Ukrainian People’s Republic, refused to recognize the Rada as its government and gave it 48 hours to agree to stop aiding the Whites and repressing the soviets. When the Rada continued its provocations, Lenin’s government declared war.”

Trotsky addressed the issue of conflicts between democratic rights and workers’ interests in his April 1940 “Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events”:

“Just as during strikes directed against big capitalists, the workers often bankrupt in passing highly respectable petty-bourgeois concerns, so in a military struggle against imperialism, or in seeking military guarantees against imperialism, the workers’ state even completely healthy and revolutionary – may find itself compelled to violate the independence of this or that small state. Tears over the ruthlessness of the class struggle on either the domestic or the international arena may properly be shed by democratic Philistines but not by proletarian revolutionists.
“The Soviet Republic in 1921 forcefully sovietized Georgia which constituted an open gateway for imperialist assault in the Caucasus. From the standpoint of the principles of national self-determination, a good deal might have been said in objection to such sovietization. From the standpoint of extending the arena of the socialist revolution, military intervention in a peasant country was more than a dubious act. From the standpoint of the self-defense of the workers’ state surrounded by enemies, forceful sovietization was justified: The safeguarding of the socialist revolution comes before formal democratic principles.”

In repudiating Seymour’s 1976 article, and the companion piece published a year later, the ICL spits on a vital element of its own revolutionary heritage. The fact that it does so in order to avoid alienating a handful of young militants who have apparently not entirely broken from Quebecois nationalism is a testament to the political degeneracy of the current leadership of the Spartacist tendency and the enormous political distance that separates it from its revolutionary past.

The ICL today is capable neither of seriously grappling with the difficult concrete situation the workers’ movement confronts, nor of addressing the political imperatives that flow from it. The ICL’s journey from Trotskyism to neo-Pabloism is qualitatively complete. The valuable contributions it made in the past, including the articles on the national question it now repudiates, are part of the legacy of the living tradition of authentic Trotskyism.


  1  In the early 1980s, with Lebanon’s intercommunal conflict still raging, the U.S. and France established a military presence in Beirut under the auspices of the United Nations. When the imperialists sought to tip the balance in favor of the Maronite Christians, their Muslim opponents retaliated by attacking the barracks of the foreign legions, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers with truck bombs in October 1983. We took the view that the blows struck by “Islamic Jihad” (which drove out the imperialist crusaders in short order) were defensible acts – the SL, denouncing our position as “bloodthirsty,” instead called for saving the surviving U.S. Marines. In a 7 February 1984 letter to the SL, we branded this cowardly flinch “a conscious and deliberate adaptation to the American ruling class.” This letter was one of a series of polemics on the issue which we reprinted in “ Marxism vs. Social Patriotism” (Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2).

2  “Comrade Oliver Stephens, in the March 1996 issue of Spartacist Canada, made a contribution that was considered valuable enough to be reprinted without comment or criticism. He talked about the national question and his article ends … with a rather peculiar quote. I think to understand it you have to appreciate that while Oliver does not have a Scottish background, Comrade Robertson [founder/leader of the Spartacist tendency] does. Oliver’s quote is this:

‘“So the concept of a nation, as we know it in the latter 20th century, is historically a recent development. This of course has not prevented various nationalists from inventing a glorious ‘history’ for their own particular nation. Most of this is nonsense, but the Scots may be an exception to the rule. In 1320 the Scottish lords petitioned the Pope – in writing, quite a novelty at the time! – for succor against the predations of the English king. In their ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ they noted that:

“‘…we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today.… In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.’”

“Now, some of you may not know that the house of Robertson was indeed one of the royal houses of Scotland. I personally think that has something to do with the fact that was considered to be significant and important and included in the document.”
Trotskyist Bulletin No. 7

3  See “Spartacist Confusionists & the Scottish Referendum.”