SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 181 September 2014

Socialism Today 181 - September 2014Socialism and national rights

The bloody conflict in Ukraine, alongside the slaughter of the Palestinian people in Gaza, has brought the issue of the ‘national question’ once more forcefully onto the political agenda. How can we open a road to begin to solve seemingly age-old intractable issues? This is the question which is sharply posed for the workers’ movement, firstly in the regions immediately affected by war, but also for the international labour movement. PETER TAAFFE writes.

Events in the last few months have graphically underlined that the different capitalist powers are totally unwilling and incapable of providing a democratic and just solution to the situation in Ukraine. The sheer hypocrisy of US imperialism and European capitalism on the one side and Russia’s oligarchic Putin regime on the other, in seeking the mantle of defenders of ‘oppressed nations and minorities’, will fool few thinking workers. It is a naked cash calculation allied to their strategic political and military vital interests that are at stake. ‘The right of self-determination’ is a hollow phrase, so much small change, to be quickly discarded if it stands in their way.

‘We will cripple Russia with sanctions’ warn the major western imperialist powers, led by the US. ‘We will retaliate with our own sanctions starting with the seizure of the assets of British companies, including Shell and British Petroleum’, replies the Putin regime.

If the capitalists, and their parties and representatives, have no solution, the left, including some describing themselves as Marxists, display absolute ideological confusion and helplessness in the face of what, in Ukraine and the Middle East, are dire national and ethnic conflicts. There is not an atom of a socialist, let alone a Marxist, approach in the analysis of most of what passes as the ‘left’ in Britain.

For instance, one leaflet distributed by ‘Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine’ at a recent London demonstration on Gaza proclaims: "We are against the UK and western governments’ backing for the far-right regime in Kiev". There is nothing wrong with this, particularly as the Kiev government has leaned on right-wing and even neo-fascist forces in its murderous campaign in eastern Ukraine.

But where is the equal condemnation of the imperialist Russian oligarchic regime of Putin with its openly professed intentions to dominate the ‘near abroad’, some of the countries of the former ‘Soviet Union’, and, in the process, its trampling on democratic and national rights?

There is no mention of this, but one of the prominent supporters of this campaign stated at its launch meeting: "It’s not my business to criticise the Russian oligarchy, but if I were, it wouldn’t be to criticise them for intervening too much, but for not intervening at all"! Incredibly he also stated that "the national question is not an issue" in Ukraine and that, "when you have US imperialism, NATO, Angela Merkel, the Con Dem government and Ukrainian fascists on one side, I know which side I’m on". The clear implication here is that the workers’ movement – let us remind ourselves that this is coming from a ‘Marxist’ – should be on the side of Putin’s oligarchic regime and its intervention in the Ukraine.

We, on the other hand, steadfastly upheld the legitimate national aspirations of the peoples of Ukraine, Crimea, etc, while opposing and fighting against the far right and openly fascist forces in Ukraine, which in the recent elections got no more than 3% of the vote. At the same time, we seek to forge and cement class unity, giving critical support to genuine socialist forces even where they are weak.

No finished formulas

It is vital to support the genuine democratic and national aspirations of the peoples of Ukraine and the region. For instance, in relation to Crimea, it was correct to give support to the right of self-determination – including secession from Ukraine – which appeared to be the wish of the overwhelming majority of its population. At the same time, it is the bounden duty of Marxists, when giving critical support to any genuine independence movements, to also defend the rights of all minorities; in the case of Crimea, the Tatars and others.

There were claims that the Crimean referendum was not conducted in a fair, non-coercive fashion. But there was little doubt that a majority of the population favoured returning to Russia. All doubts, however, could be removed either through the election of a revolutionary constituent assembly – a parliament – convened through mass committees to establish the will of the people, or a democratic referendum.

Does this mean that we favour separatism, and the breaking up of formally integrated states? No, not automatically. There are no once and for all finished formulas where the national question is concerned. The situation on the ground in Ukraine is very fluid; what can be a correct demand at one stage can be overtaken by events.

But we do not support the forcible retention of one group or nationality within a state that is considered by them to act as an oppressor. We advocate a voluntary socialist confederation. It was through this method that the real ‘Soviet Union’ of Lenin and Trotsky – and not the Stalinist caricature which masked the domination of the centralised bureaucratic Russian elite – was created.

But as Lenin said more than 100 years ago, a new society, necessarily democratic as well as socialist, could not be built on the ‘slightest compulsion’ against any nationality or group for that matter. In general, the right of self-determination applies to a nationality, linked to a distinct territorial entity. However, sometimes this can take the form of a city or smaller entity which considers itself separate and apart from other countries or regions. For instance, we have envisaged the future possibility of an entity for Brussels – within a Belgian socialist confederation – whose population consider themselves different from Wallonia or the Flemish region.

Similarly the struggle in Ukraine, particularly eastern Ukraine, could be so fragmented through the bloody conflict which is taking place at the present time that what could result would not be a contiguous state or statelet but a process of cantonisation of the region. In the million-strong city of Donetsk, which has been bombarded by Ukrainian government forces and threatens to become a ghost town, a situation could arise with the population demanding separation both from Ukraine and Russia. It would be incumbent on genuine Marxism to support the people of the city if this is what they desired, while at the same time linking this to a socialist confederation of Ukraine and the region.

Such an outcome is not at all fanciful, as critics may suggest. The unipolar world – with the US as the dominant world power able to impose its stamp on events – has passed into history. The US is still the most important economic and military power, and will remain so for some time. But there are limits to its power. A new post-Iraq ‘syndrome’ has emerged, with the pronounced war-weariness of the American people underpinning opposition to a permanent ‘boots on the ground’ interventionist policy. Bombing from the air and the extensive use of drones are now the preferred options. On the other hand, bombardments like this often produce the opposite results to that intended.


Like Ariadne’s thread, only a rounded-out Marxist analysis can lead us through the labyrinth of the national question. This particularly applies to the complex question of the national rights of the Palestinian and Israeli people, highlighted once more in the Gaza conflict, which now resembles Grozny, with countless deaths and a quarter of its 1.8 million population displaced.

The CWI has consistently argued that a way out of this bloody conflict, which satisfies the rights of Palestinians and Israelis, is to advance the long-term solution of two states – a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel – with two capitals in Jerusalem, linked to the idea of a socialist confederation. This idea, along with our past opposition to indiscriminate sanctions against Israel – because this could further push Israeli workers into the arms of the Israeli government and the right – has now, belatedly, come under attack in the US by the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), which is linked to the British SWP.

They wrote on 17 August, criticising the CWI’s US co-thinkers, Socialist Alternative, that "their attitude about Israeli Jewish workers is consistent with the political position about the right of Israel to exist maintained historically by the international grouping to which both Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party in Britain belong, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)… This belief in the right of Israelis to their own nation informs the CWI’s and Socialist Alternative’s position on BDS [boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaigns]. But it is premised on a fundamentally wrong view of the socialist principle of the right of nations to self-determination. There is no support in the genuine Marxist tradition for the position that a colonial settler state – which is, by definition, an apartheid state, whether it is a Jewish state, in which non-Jews are politically disenfranchised; or the apartheid state of South Africa, in which non-white South Africans were politically disenfranchised – has a right to exist".

The right of self-determination is not a "socialist principle", as the ISO asserts, but a democratic task. Genuine democratic principles are supported and resolved in this epoch through socialist revolution. We have answered these arguments of the ISO and others many times. In Marxism in Today’s World we wrote: "The most important law of the dialectic is that truth is concrete. On the historical issues, it is indisputable that Trotskyism, starting from Trotsky himself, opposed a Jewish state being formed on the territory of Palestine. That was his general position in the inter-war period. However, he modified his stance after the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews became evident. A new situation had emerged. Trotsky was always flexible when taking account of new important factors. There was a feeling on the part of the Jewish population to get out of Germany and Europe and with this went increased support for the dream of a new homeland.

"Under socialism, reasoned Trotsky, if the Jews wanted a state in, say, a part of Africa, with the agreement of the African people, or in Latin America, it could be considered, but not in Palestine. Here, it would be a bloody trap for the Jews. It is amazing how this prediction has been borne out… The Trotskyist movement opposed the establishment of a separate Jewish state in Israel because it was a wedge against the Arab revolution. Israel was set up as a result of the colonisation of Arab lands, by driving out the Palestinians and by using a mixture of radical and even ‘socialistic’, nationalist rhetoric directed towards a Jewish population who had escaped the nightmare of the Holocaust and the second world war".

On the issue of colonial settler states we pointed out: "A state or a series of states can be established by the brutal displacement of peoples. Look at the removal of the Greek population from many parts of Asia Minor and of Turks from Greece following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. If you went back and redrew the map, you would now have huge exchanges of populations. As a result of a terrible crime against the Jews in Europe under Nazism-capitalism, this was then used as justification for a crime against the Palestinian people. That remains an indisputable historical fact.

"However, the reality now is that, in the course of time, a Jewish or Israeli national consciousness has been created. What do Marxists say to this? Just ignore the real situation and continue with the old position? The solution of… [the ISO] and others on the left is a Palestinian state – which was originally our policy – of a unified Palestinian state with autonomous rights for the Jews. They put it forward, however, in a bourgeois context, while we always put it forward in a socialist framework. We do not have the position of a two-state solution on a bourgeois basis as do, for instance, some tiny groups. That is a utopian dream".

Previous proposals envisaged only a small portion of historic Palestine going to the Palestinian people. Former Israeli prime minister "Olmert’s proposal for a re-division of Palestine, which is now off the agenda, would leave just 10% as a state for the Palestinians. It is a Bantustan. It is not a viable state as far as the Palestinians are concerned. There is no possibility of a viable capitalist two-state solution. An interim arrangement could not be ruled out but it is not a solution to the national problems of either the Palestinians or the Israelis. Nevertheless, the idea of a two-state solution, of a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel within a socialist confederation of the Middle East is, at this stage, a correct programmatic demand". (Marxism in Today’s World, 2013 edition, pp29-30)

No doubt the ISO and others dismiss the idea of a socialist confederation in the Middle East as an unrealisable solution to the problems of the masses throughout the region. But the capitalists themselves are not at all dismissive of the huge economic benefits that would flow from the implementation of such a confederation: "For example, Egypt has low-cost labour but high youth unemployment. Neighbouring Libya has excess capital, huge infrastructure projects and an insatiable demand for workers. Turkey has the expertise to build airports, bridges and roads. These dots need connecting. According to our research, at least $20bn of Gulf money has been pledged to Egypt in recent months but with no long-term plan. The Arab League, the existing regional structure, does not have the credibility, capability or creativity to help these nations pull together". (Financial Times, 20 June 2014)

The capitalists in the Middle East are incapable of realising such a project. The working class, however, working in a unified fashion and establishing democratic socialism throughout the region, would be able to implement a socialist confederation.

Boycott Israel campaigns

The ISO have drawn a crude comparison between Israel today and South Africa under apartheid. However, this will not reinforce their criticisms of the CWI but undermine them. Contrary to what the ISO asserts, there are profound differences between the South African apartheid regime and Israel, particularly from a demographic angle. There were seven times more Africans and others than the white population in South Africa. This is not the situation in Israel/Palestine at this stage. If threatened with destruction, the Israeli population will fight.

We wrote in Marxism in Today’s World (p32): "Even the ‘peace camp’ will fight if their right to a separate state is under threat. The Israeli working class will fight if you threaten them that they will be driven into the sea. Therefore, transitional demands are necessary in order to approach the masses. We say: you decide what the borders of a future state will be under a socialist confederation. It is even possible, on the basis of a socialist revolution in the Middle East, that the Israelis and the Palestinians would then decide to live together in one state with autonomy for both. We cannot say beforehand. But the dialectic of the situation is that if you try and impose one state on them now, it will be rejected.

"Israel is a running sore in the region. A key question in the Middle Eastern revolution is how to split the Israeli workers away from the ruling class. Challenge them, threaten the idea of an Israeli ‘homeland’, then there is no chance of achieving this".

At the moment, we have to face the fact that the Palestinian and Jewish peoples have decided that they could not live together in one state. That is their consciousness. What does a Marxist and a Trotskyist say in this situation? The ISO just repeats dogmatically abstract formulas which bear no relationship to reality on the ground. Socialists and Marxists cannot compel different peoples to live in the same state.

On the issue of BDS campaigns the ISO belatedly criticises an article by Judy Beishon in Socialism Today (No.169, June 2013). Once more, their arguments are not just false but are completely inaccurate. Neither she nor the CWI opposes all boycotts. We do stress that only unified mass action of Israeli and Palestinian workers can create a force which can overthrow the capitalists, both Israeli and Palestinian. However, selective targeted boycotts can play an auxiliary role in weakening the Israeli state by, for instance, a boycott of Israeli arms exports, as well as goods and produce from the occupied territories or a boycott of universities located there. Such measures can be useful in highlighting the oppression of the Palestinians. But by themselves they will not be sufficient to seriously undermine the grip of the Israeli ruling class, no more than sanctions and the boycott of South African goods seriously weakened the apartheid regime. Moreover, a targeted campaign, which could grow now in the wake of the horror of Gaza, should be discussed with both Palestinian but particularly Israeli workers. All of this was discussed in some detail in Judy’s article, which we stand behind.

A similar one-sided approach has also been adopted by the ISO in relation to the retaliation by Hamas with rockets fired into Israel. We have never opposed the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israeli attacks, including armed defence in Gaza and legitimate attacks on military targets in Israel itself. We did, however, point to their ineffectiveness – it is like using peashooters against tanks – but also that they are counter-productive when indiscriminately used against civilians. It drives Israeli workers into the arms of their own worst enemy, the right-wing government of Netanyahu, just as the Israelis’ indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Gaza have not undermined but strengthened Hamas.

The national question is immeasurably more complicated than even existed at the time of Lenin and Trotsky. For Marxists it has two sides. We are opposed to bourgeois nationalism, which seeks to divide the working class. We are for the maximum unity of the working class across borders, continents and worldwide but at the same time we oppose the forcible incorporation of distinct nationalities into one state against their will. We are for the independence of Ukraine but totally oppose the Kiev regime and its policy of leaning on right-wing neo-fascists and Ukrainian nationalists in its suppression of the rights of minorities. Equally, we oppose the Great Russian chauvinism of Putin and his supporters and fight for class independence in the fight for a socialist confederation of the region.

It is only in this way, through a clear class programme and perspectives, which avoids abstract propagandism, that a path can be cleared to win over workers to socialism and Marxism even in the difficult objective situation of war and conflict.

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