C.L.R. James (aka, J.R. Johnson), Harry Allen & Tom Brown: The National Question and The European Socialist Revolution, Contribution to the Discussion, (December 1943)
Originally published in New International, Vol. IX No. 11, December 1943, pp. 341–344.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA. (July 2015)
[Editor’s Note] – The following document consists of extracts from a resolution submitted to the Workers Party by three of its members. It is printed here as a continuation of the discussion on the subject begun months ago in The New International.
The Character of Fascism
The second imperialist war has concentrated in Europe all the suicidal tendencies of totalitarian barbarism characteristic of capitalist society in this epoch.
To maintain the German workers in subjection, fascism was compelled to destroy the democratic liberties of the whole nation. It destroyed as socially organized forces all intermediate strata of society which act as a buffer between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, converting them either into bureaucratic appendages or propagandist adjuncts to the regime. All organs of administration, economic and social, it infused with its own corrosive content and stamped with its own loathsome insignia. The bourgeois state, seen abstractly, appeared to have reached the peak of power. In reality, the fascist state, seen in its concretely developing relations, represented a brutal but hollow facade of bourgeois defense against the invading socialist society.
Fascism began by atomizing but ends by polarizing the nation into the fascist regime with its supporters on the one hand, and on the other, enemies of fascism, the large masses of the people. It has so concentrated power in the state that the alleviation of grievances becomes inseparably associated with the smashing of the state power. By making violence the overt and not the latent force of government, it familiarizes the masses with the idea of violence as the only solution to their difficulties. It is the implacable enemy of Marxism. Yet it is compelled to make demagogic references to “socialism,” “classless society,” “workers of the world, unite!” and other Marxian concepts. Thereby it betrays to the world that ten years of the most brutal repression have failed to dim the aspirations and extinguish the hopes of the German proletariat, with its predominant role in modern society and its deep-rooted traditions of Marxian socialism.
Unable to solve the basic economic contradictions of capitalism, fascism embarked on an adventurous war, when it pushes the regime toward a catastrophic explosion. But much as it has destroyed, fascism cannot destroy that organization of the working class which is imposed upon it by the very process of capitalist production itself. When all the superstructural relations of society are destroyed or loosened, the working class possesses in the social organization of the factory the means of instantaneously creating revolutionary proletarian organizations embracing the class and therefore of a type most dangerous to capitalist society. Owing their very inception to fascist barbarism and capitalist ruin, these alone can form an organized social force to raise and, to the degree of their political consciousness, carry out the immediate and imperative needs of the nation and thus the historic destiny of the class.
These are the characteristics of German fascism. And these, in peace as well as in war, it has transferred to the European continent as a whole. To the deprivation of all democratic liberties in Germany, fascism is compelled to add, abroad, the deprivation of the only democratic right still left at home, the right of national independence. Thereby it raises the national question on a continental scale. But the process cannot stop there. German monopoly capitalism as a result of fascism will be compelled to yield or to barter even this last democratic right of the German people to a still greater imperialism in order to retain some shred of profit and privileges. This is the national question in Europe. It is the culmination of the capitalist degradation of European civilization by German monopoly capital. The consolidation of the independent national state was the first creation of the European bourgeoisie and the basis of democratic liberties for the nation. Today the completed centralization of capital is fast leading to its logical conclusion, the destruction of national independence for the whole of Europe.
Such is the disintegration of bourgeois Europe, so violent and contradictory have been the remedies attempted by the bourgeoisie in peace and in war, against the working class and against each other, that even now, before the end of the war, the absolute character of the European crisis is already revealed. With the coming of peace, bourgeois Europe, victorious and conquered, will present the unprecedented spectacle of a continent where conquerors and conquered alike are involved in a common ruin and social disintegration.
America will propose to the European proletariat in exchange for its socialist birthright a mess of American pottage. But it will have no stable base in Europe. It will have to police the continent, openly in certain areas, and vicariously, if that is possible, in others. But the policing of a continent is primarily a political and only secondarily a military question. The main political weapon of American imperialism against the European proletariat is the national divisions of Europe.
To save Europe for capitalism, American imperialism must wring every drop out of its glory as the “liberator” of the continent from German fascism. For the time being it incites occupied Europe against Germany while it promises protection against an embittered Europe to frightened capitalist groups in the Axis. It is bitterly hostile to the underground movements of both France and Germany, the basis of a future proletarian unity. Stalin, more than any other leader of the counter-revolution, knows that a social revolution in Germany could radiate to every corner of Europe. He knows that the bourgeois national passions which divide the proletariat today are subordinate to the fundamental objective unity of the European proletariat, established by the development of the European economy and the cumulative experiences of thirty years. As the revolutionary crisis approaches, Stalin, operating for the Anglo-American imperialist combine among the proletariat, dissolves the Communist International. Thus this experienced enemy of the proletariat seeks, for the time being, to isolate and keep isolated the dreaded proletariat of Germany and strikes a moral and political blow at the haunting specter of proletarian unity.
The European Proletariat and National Liberation
The European proletariat is unified by its common experiences of 1914 to 1939. It is unified by the intensive barbarism, devastation and cruelty of the present imperialist war. It is unified by the centralization of European capital which makes the main enemy in every European country, the fascist regime in Germany. At the end of the war it will be further unified by the changed correlation of forces between the proletariat in every country and the bankrupt and disgraced European bourgeoisie.
Upon the basis of this objective unity, the cruelties of the military occupation, forced upon German officers and men by fascism, have engendered fierce national hatreds, surpassing anything known in Europe tor generations. This has created the belief that nationalism is the dominating social force in Europe today and that in this respect the continent has been thrown back a hundred years. Such a conclusion would be entirely false. Nothing but the destruction of the European economy can throw the mental processes of the present European proletariat back a hundred years, least of all at this time when all tensions are at their highest. In the minds of the masses of the workers of the oppressed countries, their liberation from the crimes and catastrophes of thirty years of capitalist society undoubtedly takes the form of the struggle against the foreign oppressor. But whereas the slogan of national independence one hundred years ago was raised by the bourgeoisie on the basis of the struggle tor the bourgeois-democratic regime, today the banner of national independence is raised by the proletariat on the basis of the advancing revolution.
The fact that stares us in the face is that in France and in Poland the native bourgeoisie, as an independent force, does not exist. By capitulation or abdication, collaboration or absorption, plain flight or plain destruction, it is gone. But no class in any period of modern history can escape the consequences of so complete a removal from all its functions. The barbarous slogans of bourgeois nationalism become merely an outward shell for a new proletarian content. Every intensification of chauvinistic sentiment against Germany has resulted, as it must result, in the increased development of the proletariat as an independent force in society. In irreconcilable conflict with the German bourgeoisie and the collaborators, and distrusting or ignoring the serio-comic governments in exile, the proletariat is compelled to struggle for the national, i.e., its own, emancipation by its own means in its own way.
There are only two fundamental classes in modern society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie is the servant either of the one or of the other, and it can dominate the proletariat only when it has the power of capital and the bourgeois state to reinforce it. Today, in the occupied countries, capital and the bourgeois state are the enemy, not the support, of the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie in places appears to lead but in reality must obey the proletariat or forfeit all influence.
Thus it is clear that owing to the very bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie the proletariat is compelled to develop its own political independence and self-confidence and, even while it fights under the banner of bourgeois nationalism, is in practice shaking itself free from the old crippling bourgeois ideology with its dependence upon the bourgeoisie. The exiled bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie in the occupied countries, notably the French Committee of Resistance, is always chanting hymns to the new unity of the nation. They are striving to deceive the workers. The sacred unity of the nation before the bourgeoisie was driven out was a profane lie based on the domination of the native bourgeoisie. The new unity is equally a bourgeois lie based on the domination of the proletariat. This is the distance traveled by Europe in three short years.
In the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to drive out the existing capitalist class, it is being rigorously trained and subjectively educated in the hard school of civil war for its place at the head of the nation. This process, going on before our eyes, is appreciated nowhere so much as by the most class-conscious of all classes, the bankrupt bourgeoisie of Europe. These, far from rejoicing over the destruction of the old organizations of the proletariat, view this new development, the direct product of their own inadequacy, with mortal terror.
Essentially false is the idea that the proletariat is satisfied to think, for the time being, only of the restoration of bourgeois democracy. The underground press in France contains full and detailed discussions of socialism and the prospects of a new order. The proletariat does not express its aims clearly. That is the task of the vanguard. But even when the great masses of the French workers say the Republic, they mean a republic in their own image, that is to say, an abstract, ideal proletarian republic, and, above all, not the Third Republic which so persecuted the workers and ruined France.
The bourgeois struggle for national independence, though carried out in the name of the whole nation, organized and consolidated the bourgeoisie as a political class. Despite all superficial and misleading appearances to the contrary, the proletarian struggle for national emancipation, though carried out in the name of the whole nation, does not and cannot throw the proletariat back but accelerates its political consolidation and consciousness as an independent class, representing the immediate and historical interests of the nation.
Whatever the consciousness of the Polish proletariat, in the very preparation for the class struggle against the Polish bourgeoisie, it is objectively far closer to the proletariat of Germany than is the proletariat of an unoccupied country. Conversely, the British proletariat, functioning in a stable bourgeois milieu and therefore still dominated by the successful and triumphant Anglo-American bourgeoisie, allowed its Labor Party to pass a resolution specifically condemning the German proletariat. Thus events in Europe have already shown, and the coming insurrections may reveal with incredible speed to the participants themselves, that it is the proletariat in the occupied countries far more than those in countries unoccupied, which will be ready for collaboration with each other and with the revolutionary proletariat of Germany.
The Building of the Party
After a century of European history, the international vanguard knows that the proletariat, with its traditional mass organizations (as in Catalonia in 1936), or without them (as in Russia in March, 1917), is fully able to achieve, a successful insurrection against a bankrupt bourgeois society without any substantial cohesive vanguard party. That is the organic strength of the proletariat.
The same century of European history and forty years of Leninism have taught the vanguard that an insurrection needs for its continued success a powerful, well organized vanguard party. The difficulty of creating this is the organic weakness of the proletariat.
The vanguard knows that the proletariat of Europe, in the approaching historical circumstances, without assistance from Marxists, is fully able to break the back of the fascist regime. Its difficulties will begin afterward because of the absence of a revolutionary international. The vanguard, small and disorganized as it is, approaches the task of building this, not with lamentations about the destruction of the proletarian organizations, nor with the technique of routine times. Instead, in the organic strength of the proletariat in motion, it seeks the basis of repairing its organic weakness.
The vanguard realizes that the Stalinists, the Social-Democrats, the Radical Socialists and the downright fascists are raising the slogan of national emancipation and, according to their policies, seeking to use the working class and then chain or limit it. The vanguard, therefore, as its special task in the national struggle, seeks to unveil to the masses the fundamentally socialist character of the approaching insurrection.
Because it so clearly understands the proletarian character of the national revolution, the vanguard in the oppressed countries plunges into the national struggle.
Every member of the vanguard therefore joins the organized national resistance movement.
The vanguard raises the slogan of national independence and makes this the main political slogan of the day.
The proletariat, however, is in revolt, and every revolution, whatever its character, poses the question of power.
The vanguard raises the slogan of the power to the workers (or workers and peasants as the national circumstances may warrant).
The vanguard seeks to base the resistance groups consciously upon factory committees or peasant committees. It encourages the peasants to form joint committees among themselves for the planning of joint production, distribution, and secreting of food. It struggles for a constant relation and representation between the peasant committees of resistance and the city committees, seeking always to build up conscious mutual action, conscious mutual experience and conscious mutual confidence. In this way it concretely prepares the workers in town and country not only for the immediate struggle but for the joint task which history has placed upon them. By constantly emphasizing to the workers and peasants their own responsibility for every action in the struggle for national emancipation, the way is prepared tor the final conclusion. With flexibility but with firmness, on every possible occasion, in every speech and in every leaflet, the vanguard distinguishes itself from the Social-Democrats, the Stalinists and the de Gaullists by pointing out that the workers and peasants are not sacrificing and dying so that the Girauds, the Peyroutons, the Daladiers and Blums and all those who led the country into ruin should come back and rule. The rule must be by the workers and peasants themselves, those who are bearing the burdens and will have to face the post-war misery. Thus, the vanguard, in the midst of the struggle, by example and by precept, educates the masses of the people, and without in the slightest degree subordinating the national struggle, attracts to its ideas and organizations those elements which are most conscious of the lessons of thirty years.
The Tasks of the German Vanguard
In Germany today it is estimated that there are over twelve million foreign workers of various nationalities. These workers are animated by the sole desire of overthrowing Hitler so as to regain their personal liberty and national independence. Today, the most significant feature in the whole European tangle is that the French workers in Germany and the German workers have already established good relations against the common oppressor and this fact has been broadcast to the French people by the underground press. There, in the very heart of the bourgeois barbarism, the Socialist United States of Europe is taking shape.
The German vanguard must demand the right of all those workers who wish to do so to be returned home immediately at the expense of the German government. It must raise the slogan of the national independence of every country oppressed by Germany and call upon the German soldiers in those countries at the first possible moment to join the populations in their struggle against Hitlerite tyranny.
For every concrete demand – food, clothing, conditions of labor, right of free press, right to organize, etc., which it makes on behalf of the German working class, it specifically includes the workers of the nationally oppressed countries, demanding for them special national privileges, such as the right to their own press, assembly, etc., and encouraging them to make the same demands. On this basis and in every possible manner it strives to create a complete and yet flexible unity between all sections of the wage slaves in Germany for the coming revolution and draws together the most advanced and resolute elements as a nucleus for the revolutionary international.
The vanguard in Germany, as it sees the impending imperialist domination of Germany by Anglo-American imperialism, prepares the German people for the only road out. It therefore watches the developing struggle and at the correct moment raises the slogan, “The workers and peasants of Europe must safeguard the German revolution.” According to the success which it has had in forging a unity between the millions of workers from the oppressed countries and the German proletariat, the vanguard thereby creates a powerful sentiment among the masses of the European liberated people in support of Germany's national independence and builds up the consciousness of unity among the European proletariat.
The analysis of the national question in Europe thus be-gins and ends with Germany. What was apparently merely the national question in oppressed Europe is in reality the most powerful adjunct to the achievement of the all-important proletarian revolution in Germany and the strongest preparation for the defense of the European proletariat against American imperialism.
The fundamental weakness of the European proletariat is the absence of any trained and organized revolutionary party. For this reason the conscious seizure and consolidation of power by any section of the proletariat, immediately succeeding the national liberation, is by all historical precedents and present prospects extremely unlikely. The most reasonable expectation is that at the end of the war the proletariat, through its factory committees, peasant committees, Soviets, and other organs of resistance, should seize the property of the collaborator, establish workers’ control in all factories and, in a manner similar to the Catalonian revolt in 1936, actually form what will be de facto governments over large sections of the continent. The returning bourgeoisie will then try to regain possession of the countries. This will inaugurate the period of dual power.
The Marxian terminology must be here defined with some rigidity in order to avoid confusion. The bourgeois-democratic regime is the regime in which the workers have not created organizations to challenge the power of the bourgeoisie. There is only a single power, bourgeois power, and the working class organizations, trade unions, labor parties, etc., are recognized by the bourgeoisie and in turn submit to it. The dual power begins when the workers have created factory committees or Soviets which openly contend with the bourgeoisie for the whole or part of the power. If these organizations are beaten down, the bourgeois regime, with or without democracy, is once more reestablished.
If the first eruption of the European proletariat takes place in Germany with the full participation of the imported European workers, the dual power in the occupied countries will assume a particularly sharp and unbearable intensity. American imperialism and European socialism will stand face to face. If the German revolution lags behind the others or does not take place at all, the dual power in the occupied countries is likely to be of an entirely different character. The task here is not speculation about unpredictable things but to teach the proletariat by word and deed the importance of the German revolution.
The second stage of the proletarian revolution depends upon many factors besides the relation of forces established by the action of the proletariat and the consolidation of the van-guard. Owing to the very weakness of the vanguard, the future revolutionary course depends heavily upon the military decisions of the imperialist war, upon the points chosen for attack by Allied imperialists, upon the disposition of the forces at the moment of victory, on the character of the decisive defeats inflicted and sustained by Germany (and not any temporary arrangements preceding these “military decisions of a violent nature”) on the particular moment when the break in the morale of armies and civilian populations takes place. These factors are so unpredictable in themselves and so closely intertwined that an examination of possibilities can only return to the starting premise of any national liberation in the coming world. At a particular stage German fascism will collapse and the European proletariat will face the problem of power against the American bourgeoisie, pushing in front of it its European satellites.
The American bourgeoisie is undoubtedly preparing to seize all strategic positions on the continent. It will bring much-needed food and clothing and medicine. It will be welcomed at first. The chief enemy of its early success here is the revolution in Germany. It is this revolution leading Europe which can unite the European proletariat, sharpen appreciation of America's role, and do more than anything else to awaken the proletariat of America, Britain and Stalinist Russia. But the more clearly one visualizes the enormous counter-revolutionary potentialities of the American bourgeoisie and of Stalinism, the more urgent it becomes to place before the proletariat, today, the necessity to struggle for workers’ power and proletarian unity in the present stage. It is on this theoretical basis that the European vanguard party can be founded. It can be founded on no other.
So great a change as faces Europe is not accomplished in a day or in a year without advances and setbacks. The Russian Revolution has given us a false conception of the rapidity of revolutionary development. The French Revolution lasted for years. The workers, as so often in a revolutionary crisis, may need a period of rest and a physical, mental and political reorganization immediately after their first torrential outburst. European society will see many strange changes, unpredictable at the present moment. American imperialism may find itself in the first stage compelled to enter into direct co-operation with the proletariat. Whatever the forms, they will revolve around the proletariat until its eyes are gouged out, its hands tied and its legs broken.
The revolutionary vanguard in America is not at all a passive or even merely a sympathetic spectator of these events.
It must show to the advanced workers that in the same way that the defeat of the German proletariat has resulted in such a catastrophe for Europe and the world, so the defeat of the European socialist revolution by American imperialism must have ultimately disastrous consequences for the American workers.
By its own deeply-felt interest, not so much in the national and international manoeuvers of the bourgeoisie, but in the strenuous study and analysis of the actual struggles of the workers for independent action, the vanguard can stimulate and impregnate the advanced workers of America with the ideas and give them an invaluable concrete education in the true meaning and historical significance of the concepts: class struggle, independent action, international solidarity, socialism or barbarism.
The vanguard has a special responsibility to take the offensive on behalf of the German proletariat and the tortures which American imperialism is preparing for it.
In its presentation of the national aspirations of the European peoples oppressed by Hitler, the vanguard takes care to place this always in its proper European perspective and to make clear that the national revolutions in Europe today are merely the form assumed by the advancing socialist revolution.