The definition of Marxism-Leninism as “Marxism of the era of imperialism and class revolution” makes central a question which has remained a burning one since Lenin’s time, namely, the relationship of “workers of all countries” to one another given the very unequal circumstances, brought about by imperialism, of the poor in different countries and of different social circumstances. On what basis is unity of struggle to be achieved between a Kurdish worker living under harsh national oppression and direct and indirect colonial oppression and a German worker living under a bourgeois democratic order and enjoying the benefits to the German national economy that Germany’s status as an imperialist power affords?
In the Marxist-Leninist tradition, the proletariats of the dominant nations of imperialist countries have been analysed as “bought off” with the crumbs of the superprofits generated by imperialist domination of other markets, and the social and political gap between the popular classes in imperialist and non-imperialist countries have also been theorised to great acclaim outside of Marxism-Leninism, for example in the dependency theory of Emmanuel Wallerstein.
Interestingly, despite the extensive academic literature on privileged sections of global labour in imperialist centres, the importance Lenin placed on understanding this in terms of anti-colonial liberation struggles, and the practical experience of the 20th century which showed the much greater fear imperialist states have of liberation movements than of the proletariat of the dominant nation “at home”, in imperialist countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, the remnants of the communist movement seem to pay mere lip service to the oppressed (at home and abroad), and place near infinite faith in the unions at home, as if the unionised labour in such countries exists in a vacuum from the world system.
It goes without saying that the authors, both being Marxist-Leninists presently living and organising in imperialist countries, believe that it is possible to organise such populations. The issue that is to be taken up with the communist tradition in imperialist countries is that they seek to organise such populations largely for themselves, as if there were not contradictions to be negotiated with oppressed peoples at home and abroad. The point is that our struggle is as international as capital, and particular sites of organisation must be conscious of it.
This trend towards a social patriotism among self-described Marxist-Leninists in imperialist centres became apparent in the mid-20th century. In the United Kingdom, we have a prime example in “the British Road to Socialism”, a document endorsed by Stalin which became the basis of CPGB (today’s CPB) politics. “The British Road to Socialism” is at pains to explain to the British masses and establishment that the United States, and not the Soviet Union, was the real threat to peace in the post-WWII climate. Naturally this was a necessary statement to make for tactical reasons, as the (relatively small) CPGB was struggling to normalize itself within the paranoid confines of the early Cold War in the UK. The tone and practical effect of the document, however, very much demonstrate the truth of Lukács’s critique that Stalin fell into the error of putting tactics before strategy. The UK was itself an imperialist power, and even if contradictions between the US and UK could have been navigated between, a dangerous sort of social patriotism began to dominate the CPGB, whereby the bulk of the Cold War was spent attempting to convince the Labour Party to lift its ban on Communist Party affiliation. The Trotskyite group Militant achieved greater success even in this same reformist context simply by assuming the malevolence of the Labour Party leadership and infiltrating the party anyway.
However, both Militant and the CPGB were very much enamored with the dream of organising the “British” proletariat and building socialism “in Britain”. The failure here was in their lack of recognition of the fact, recognized not only by Lenin but by Marx, that British imperialism had to be defeated by revolutionary elements outside of the explicitly “British” working class, particularly progressive elements of the national movements of minority nationalities at home and in the UK’s imperialist sphere of influence.
As the Cold War dragged on, Trotskyite sects split from one another and argued over which of their leaders was the next great theoretician as they all struggled to make sense of their collective failures, and the so-called Marxist-Leninists of the island largely remained within the revisionist CP(G)B, with a few Maoist cults springing up from time to time, one of them (the RCPB-ML) embracing the line of Enver Hoxha before descending into obscurity following their “great leader”s death. By the end of the Cold War, practically nothing remained of any of the so-called “anti-revisionists” of the island, and the only really revolutionary Marxist trend in the islands seemed to be the IRSP in the North of Ireland (a self-described Marxist-Leninist but not anti-revisionist group operating alongside the IRA for years in the Irish national liberation struggle). They had close “comrades” in Britain in terms of those English, Welsh, and Scottish who (individually or as irrelevant groups) supported them, but none of these reflected a comparably disciplined revolutionary Marxist line for England, Scotland, or Wales.
However, for all the failings of the communist movement in the UK, it always (with the exception of the so-called “CPGB-ML”, which despite its claims of “anti-revisionism” does not reject the “Three Worlds Theory” and indeed has an analysis of both Kurdistan and the UK which Doğu Perinçek would embrace without a single criticism) accepted, at least when pressed, that there were multiple nations in Britain, and that the North of Ireland was occupied by the British state, and that the “New Ireland” (Éire Nua) movement was progressive in its struggle against the reactionary unionist movement backed by the British state in the North of Ireland. The same cannot be said for their comrades on the other side of the Atlantic.
The rise of the Khrushchev clique in the Soviet Union mirrored the trend of “Browderism” in the United States. Browder, like John Gollan in the UK, actually held reformist and opportunistic views towards his “own” imperialism long before Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” thesis, which advanced the idea that the Soviet Union would simply economically outproduce imperialism (on capitalism’s own terms!) thus negating the need for revolutionary strategy, particularly in the imperialist centres themselves. Unlike the CPGB, which still engaged in some positive work despite its self-imposed limitations, the CPUSA went above and beyond in its dealmaking with imperialism to the point of active sabotage of Afro-American struggle, such as its abandonment on the sharecroppers unions of Afro-Americans in their homeland in the US due to this (and the “national” characterisation of Afro-American struggle more broadly) representing a “division” of the US working class (in fact a provocation to the privileges of whites in the South).
It is worth noting that despite this general trend being referred to in the US as “Browderism” (no comparable slur exists in the UK context for an opportunistic trend of the “official” communist movement, except for “Stalinism” as employed by Trotskyites), resting the blame on one man is deeply incorrect: the Afro-American communist Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. claimed that in the years of struggle over “the Negro question”, Browder in fact defended the importance of struggling for Negro rights against even more chauvinistic white elements within the party. The failure was not in Browder’s personal will to sell out Afro-Americans, but in the basis of the party in a settler white working-class in an imperialist country, a class and national question which was left unchallenged due to the perception that white labour’s self-image was more valuable than a critical approach to the national question and the oppressed in the United States more broadly, a general tendency which was fiercely attacked in J. Sakai’s influential text “Settlers: The mythology of the white proletariat”.
For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working-class ascendancy (…) Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general. (Karl Marx)
In short, the largest oppressed nationality within the continental United States, and thus an “Achilles’ Hell” to US imperialism, was left to fend for itself by what was at the time one of the most trusted progressive organisations uniting US citizens regardless of national background. This led to the first significant split in the CPUSA, the “Hammer and Steel” tendency (condemned by name by Khrushchev in spite of its small size, likely due to its ferocity within the centre of global imperialism), which eventually gave rise to today’s ROL (Revolutionary Organization of Labor, USA), a small group of white Marxist-Leninists who remain fiercely dedicated to Afro-American national liberation in practice. Dissatisfaction with the opportunist and Yankee chauvinist direction of leadership was expressed by great Afro-American Marxist-Leninists within the party as well, such as Claudia Jones (who also organised with the CPGB in Britain), and Harry Haywood, the theoretician of Afro-American nationhood, who played a leading role in the “New Communist Movement”, out of which grew what was to become the FRSO (Freedom Road Socialist Organisation), which also defends Afro-American national liberation as an actually existing movement.
However, the CPUSA’s failure to maintain a revolutionary line against their “own” imperialist bourgeoisie and state, and the small size of those groups (such as FRSO and ROL) which fearlessly defended liberation of the oppressed in spite of the “embarrassment” it might cause “respectable” oppressor nation trade-unionists who fancy themselves “Marxists” represents an object lesson in what makes a vanguard. While the FRSO and ROL (by their own assessment) are not yet powerful enough to be considered “parties” as such, and the much larger CPUSA (alongside the Trotskyists and, in practice, most groups which fancy themselves “Marxist-Leninist” but have some criticism of the CPUSA) continue to evade the national question of Afro-Americans, the Afro-American people produced and constituted a vanguard on their own. Out of their own struggles and observations of national liberation struggles around the world, organizations and leaders emerged from the Afro-American people, who are still hailed by poor Afro-American youth in the United States to this day: the national leader and martyr Malcolm X, the communist rebel Assata Shakur (who survives in exile in Cuba), and dozens of martyrs and political prisoners whose names are carried by nationally conscious Afro-Americans in their struggles.
This situation had its parallel across the Atlantic: as the “official” Communist Parties of Great Britain and Ireland kept a “respectable” distance from the ongoing occupation of the North of Ireland by an imperialist power and its military. The people in the North of Ireland, for their part, were forced by their own material oppression to continue this struggle in spite of the lack of aid from the pro-Soviet parties. This struggle famously culminated in armed struggle against the British occupying forces, both within the IRA and the Republican movement more broadly, whose left wing eventually became the Marxist-Leninist IRSP (with multiple ideological trends reflecting the theoretical splits among Marxists throughout the Cold War). Despite the defeat of Afro-American guerrillas by the FBI and the effective end of armed struggle in the North of Ireland with the Good Friday Peace Process, these national liberation movements remain some of the most powerful forces in their respective regions: Ignored by most of the “white” left, Afro-Americans continue to organise to an impressive extent, with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organising along a Revolutionary Nationalist line in Jackson, Mississippi at the level of electoral politics and street politics, with a heavy basis on economic self-sufficiency and self-determination for the oppressed Afro-American people who make up the city’s majority.
But history has not stood still for the proletariats of the oppressor nations in these countries. Imperialism is running out of new markets to conquer and exploit, and neoliberal policies have resulted in increasingly harsh austerity regimes affecting even the most privileged segments of the international proletariat. The 2008 Financial Crisis hit countries like the US and the UK particularly hard, and a new political reality has emerged. The political order of the Cold War is collapsing, and elements of the bourgeoisie are struggling to preserve it by turning the anger of the formerly mostly labour aristocracy proletariats of the English and Yankee nations towards immigrants, minorities, to the most oppressed and exploited. This heightened chauvinism is reflected on an electoral level in the Presidency of the fascistic Donald Trump, and the dealmaking of Theresa May with the most dangerous reactionaries in the colonial administration of the North of Ireland.
On the other hand, the pressure of austerity has produced positive trends as well. In the US, this has meant the campaign of Bernie Sanders for presidency, which was tremendously positive in many areas: Sanders repeatedly emphasised the importance of popular mobilisation over political saviours (including himself, preaching that his presidency would mean nothing without mass mobilisation against Wall Street), Wall Street as an enemy of the people at large, and to a certain extent supported Black Lives Matter under pressure from activists. On the other hand, it is a mark of the political tradition of “white” Yankee “socialism” from which Sanders comes that he has not only never identified US imperialism by name, but voted in favour of its wars. On the other hand, following the fraudulent primary election which handed the nomination to the neo-liberal Hillary Clinton, he lent his support to striking Nissan workers in Jackson, and specifically congratulated Chokwe Antar Lumumba (the Afro-American Revolutionary Nationalist) on his victory. Sanders own politics reflect the general trend of the white proletariat, and our struggle to unite them with the liberation struggles of the oppressed.
The situation in the UK appears more optimistic: Corbyn explicitly condemns imperialism and the UK’s warmongering, defends the Kurdish people in word and votes for the delisting of the PKK as a terrorist organisation. He is constantly to be seen campaigning for the Palestinians and stands “accused” of siding with the IRA against the British state during the worst years of the conflict. All of this is combined with a similarly explicit condemnation of finance capital and demands for mass mobilisation against austerity and an economy based on “people, not profits”. He resembles few so much as the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, who was assassinated for his anti-imperialist politics and defence of the welfare state.
How are these trends reflected among the masses in these countries? Supporters of Sanders are largely grouped in the Democratic Socialists of America, who take a “multi-tendency” approach to organisation and allow their membership to vote on tactics. Prior to 2008, this organisation had a largely social democrat trend, which is still dominant, but Marxists of various tendencies are to be found in its ranks since the election of Donald Trump.
Supporters of Corbyn are to be found in an organisation within the Labour Party known as “Momentum”, which takes a grassroots approach to “retaking control” of the Labour Party from the corporate interests which have long infested it.
Even in so far as we can fight austerity and achieve important victories through such reformist groupings, we can see from Turkey that when the actual basis of the ruling elite’s power is threatened, elections will be ignored, and the rule of law suspended. We can also see the embryo of this danger in the media and the Labour Party leadership’s many conspiracies to isolate Corbyn in the name of a “proper” democratic process, and we can also see this same conspiracy in how the Democratic Party screams about how Clinton won more votes than Trump (true but irrelevant thanks to the bizarre “electoral college” system) but no serious credence is given within the Democratic Party apparatus nor in the media to an investigation of the Democratic Party’s conspiracy to coronate Clinton the Democratic candidate despite the social democrat Sanders’s clearly greater popularity.
Furthermore, while we certainly must organise with the masses on the basis of their righteous anger at the austerity regimes, even in imperialist countries, our goal cannot be simply to recreate the order of decades past. Just as we must avoid a hard-headed syndicalism, which puts the labour strike as the beginning and end of our practice, so too must we see the limitations of using legal means to hold back the more toxic symptoms of capitalism-imperialism for a privileged segment of the masses.
It is easy to see in the UK the limitations of the break of many English workers with British Imperialism and its assumptions. Many “socialists”, including the Doğu Perinçek-esque CPGB-ML, rushed to the defence of the state when the Scottish held a referendum on independence, because “Scottish nationalism is bourgeois” (or in the case of the CPGB-ML, “the Scottish are not a nation”!). The very same people who rightly see the positive developments of the Corbyn campaign will often turn about and condemn the SNP, although the “Yes” campaign raised many similar complaints, and the rhetoric of Mhairi Black mirrors that of Corbyn. They see in Scotland’s rejection of the British state order a reification of bourgeois society, but can somehow imagine that Corbyn’s becoming Prime Minister will produce a new October within the confines of the British state as it exists! The contradictions of the social and national questions are in fact scarcely addressed due to the chauvinism, opportunism, revisionism, and idiocy of the bulk of the British left.
Scotland is but one example of the social gaps that exist even within the most progressive trends of the English left at present. The chronic underdevelopment of Wales brings the Welsh closer to the North of Ireland than to Scotland, and this is intimately tied up in the national question of Wales. Rather than appropriate Welsh national rights as their own, large sections of the Labour Left views Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party which contains both left and right wings, as a distraction or an annoyance, rather than a sign of the continuing importance of Welsh language and cultural rights to the Welsh people themselves, who have been robbed of these rights by state repression in the past and by economic pressure at present.
More dangerous still, due to the Corbyn camp’s lack of ability to convey a radical vision of what borders, states, etc. represent, an anti-immigrant politics is beginning to be legitimised, alongside other forms of chauvinism, so long as an economic benefit to “the British working class” can be envisioned.
These contradictions are crucial to address in a substantive way immediately, rather than promise that all of this will be sorted out after socialism is achieved (either by the vanguard activity of irrelevant “communist” groups or by Corbyn’s electoral campaigns), because the ruling elite in Britain are in a real state of crisis.
…the content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petty-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. A ‘crisis of authority’ is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or crisis of the state as a whole. (Gramsci)
As Theresa May loses legitimacy, Corbyn’s rise to power is not a foregone conclusion, nor does it preclude that the bourgeoisie will not respond in even more sinister ways. The cracks are appearing in the façade of the British state as we know it, but without an organised response by the poor and oppressed, the new order may well be one which slides rapidly towards fascism. An urgent need for unity of the poor and oppressed is seen, but many “new” socialists believe this unity has already been achieved by virtue of the Corbyn campaign as such. This is dangerous as it begets a “left” excuse for chauvinism against minority nationalities (for “dividing” the struggle), and immigrant groups (Corbyn’s own policy on whom is not clear), which in turn may allow for fascist forces to appropriate much of the energy currently behind Corbyn.
A similar danger has already been seen in the United States through Sanders: Trump was able to successfully appropriate to a certain extent the claim to being an “alternative” to “system politicians” in the United States, likening himself to Sanders. While the bourgeois media is in a panic about Trump (mostly due to conflicting economic interests as the US empire itself is threatened from within and without), Trump has served them well in a direct assault against Afro-Americans right to not be slaughtered by the police, and in the corporate-backed attacks on Indigenous peoples defending their land, such as in Standing Rock.
Gramsci observed that “Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organizations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs, nor of evolving pari passu with the overall relations of force (and hence the relative position of their class) in the country in question, or in the international field.” Every self-described communist party in the US and UK have failed in this task. The problem is that circumstances demand more than our mere observation of this fact. There is an urgent need for a real organisation which can respond to these conditions. Brexit has meant a distancing of British imperialism from EU imperialisms, but at the cost of strengthening London’s domination over regional and national markets in Britain, of a renewed assault on civil rights in the North of Ireland, and “British” identity at the expense of immigrants. Trump reflects a crisis in the ruling class, but one which is accelerating the quantitative accumulation of the most dangerous elements of the imperialist bourgeoisie at home. Compared to Turkey, the order is extremely democratic and the conditions very safe, but the general trend is towards an “Erdoğanification” of these countries, which will in the long term be more dangerous than Erdoğan because of the immense imperialist power these countries wield. Now more than ever there is a need for the real unity of the poor and the oppressed, for oppressed peoples to unite with each other, and for the poor of all backgrounds to see in the struggle of the oppressed their own struggle.
To this point, an interesting line from a piece on the PKK applies: ‘The challenge the PKK envisaged for itself, was to develop a program in which revolutionary politics in Turkey/Kurdistan could be reestablished, beyond nationalist lines, while recognizing the ‘national question’ in Turkey/Kurdistan.’ (source: end of the second paragraph https://ejts.revues.org/4613)
Our task is to reinvigorate the national questions and all liberation movements in imperialist countries by recognising their basis in class society and capitalism, and to reinvigorate class struggle at this historic moment by showing the poor their reflection in each other, in spite of their particular circumstances. Our goal is not to stop austerity alone, but to use the quantitative process of the fight against austerity as an educational process for the masses to learn how they can fight for political power in their own hands, and as a means to expose the ruling elite as robbers and parasites, who just as they now try to tear basic needs from the proletariats that benefit most from imperialism, so too do they rob and exploit and oppress and kill the oppressed peoples who these imperialist proletariats are taught to view as their enemies: the Afro-American, Chicano, Indigenous and other oppressed nations in the US, the Irish and Welsh in Britain, immigrant labour, and colonised and semi-colonised people across the world, from Palestine to Kurdistan to Bolivia to Chiapas.
Antonio Gramsci (1971), “Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis”, Selections From The Prison Notebooks, p.451-2, Lawrence and Wishart: London.
Karl Marx and Frederich Engels (1988), “Marx to Engels in Manchester London, 10 December 1869”, Marx and Engels Collected Works, p.386, Lawrence and Wishart: London