What Is the Permanent Revolution?
The following document was adopted by the ICL’s Eighth International Conference.
The epoch of imperialism is characterized by the division of the world between a large number of oppressed countries and a handful of oppressor countries that are economically and militarily dominant. The current world situation is characterized by the hegemony of U.S. imperialism which, in alliance with the other imperialist powers (Germany, Britain, France, Japan), subjugates the enormous mass of the world population through the export of finance capital. The old days of colonial empires, with their naked and open plunder of colonies, have ceded their place to the pillage of countries which are formally independent but are in fact neocolonies or dependent states held in bondage by the economic and military blackmail of the “great” powers.
In most countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and East Europe, it is not the national bourgeoisie but the imperialists who control and dictate every aspect of economic and political life, obstructing and preventing economic, national and cultural development. Loans, spoliation of natural resources, cheap labor, monetary policy, etc., are all means by which the financial oligarchy and imperialist monopolies strengthen their domination, levy tribute from the whole of society and maintain these countries in a state of destitution.
In these countries, modern industry is a product of foreign capital. The latest technology in industry and agriculture stands side by side with precapitalist social relations. Factories, railroads, mines and ports spring out of the ground where water buffalo and wooden tools still plow the land. The dominant role played by foreign capital gives the national bourgeoisie an extremely weak character: it is only partly able to reach the height of a ruling class and thus remains trapped in a position of a semi-ruling and semi-oppressed class. At the same time, foreign capital proletarianizes the population, creating a working class that comes to play a central role in the life of the country. The establishment of powerful trade unions and often working-class parties represents a mighty force which can push back against imperialist exploitation and confront brittle national bourgeoisies and governments.
The backwardness of the national economy, the utter corruption of local governments, the myriad ethnic and religious divisions, the survival of precapitalist relations: all these conditions, maintained and reinforced by foreign domination, create an inseparable bond between the social liberation of the toiling masses and national emancipation. It is the resistance to such destitution and national humiliation, as well as the aspirations for land, democracy and economic development, that propels the struggle of the masses of workers and peasants forward, giving their most basic demands an explosive character.
The development and modernization of the neocolonial countries requires the resolution of basic democratic tasks; the development of national industry and of an internal market requires national unification and emancipation as well as land reform. The national bourgeoisie has an objective interest in the resolution of these questions in order to further elevate its social position as a ruling class. But every single one of them requires confronting imperialist subjugation. Given its weakness in relation to the imperialists, when the national bourgeoisie tries to resist foreign capital, it is compelled to a greater or lesser degree to lean on the proletariat and on the entire nation. At the same time, as a propertied class it is conscious that the proletariat represents a menace to its interests. In order to protect these, it is forced to lean on the imperialists, to whom it is tied by a thousand threads. Thus, incapable of playing an independent role, the national bourgeoisie balances between these two more powerful forces. Trotsky explains:
Based on the impetus of the toilers at home and given a favorable international balance of forces, the national bourgeoisie can carry out nationalizations, land reform and other progressive measures against the imperialists aimed at defending national independence and developing the national economy. The 1938 nationalization of oil in Mexico under Lázaro Cárdenas or Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser taking over the Suez Canal in 1956 are classic examples of this process. But the bourgeoisie carries out such measures for its own aims and with its own methods. It seeks to maintain itself at the head of the national liberation struggle in order to contain and channel the social and economic aspirations of the oppressed within limits acceptable to its class rule, so as to ameliorate its own position as a semi-ruling class vis-à-vis the imperialists.
The bourgeoisies of subjugated countries are fully aware that a serious struggle against imperialism requires a revolutionary upheaval of the masses, which would be a menace to the national bourgeoisie itself. Trotsky wrote:
In mobilizing the masses behind it, the bourgeoisie must thus keep strict control over them—crushing revolutionary parties; maintaining an iron grip on the trade unions through the labor bureaucracy and, sometimes, by directly integrating them with the state; sponsoring the creation of state-controlled peasant organizations, etc. Class struggle, land seizures, attempts to form independent trade unions and peasant organizations—any effort at independent anti-imperialist action by the masses is met with bloody repression. It is by suppressing the only force that can deliver genuine national emancipation and modernization—the working class allied with the peasantry—that the national bourgeoisie not only prevents social revolution but sabotages the anti-imperialist struggle at every step, betraying it and paving the way for imperialist reaction. Because of its ties to capitalist property and the need to defend its class interests against the proletarian masses, the national bourgeoisie not only is incapable of solving the tasks of national emancipation and agrarian revolution but plays a thoroughly reactionary role in this process.
Only the proletariat, rallying behind it the peasant masses and the urban petty bourgeoisie, is capable of breaking the yoke of foreign capital, finishing the agrarian revolution and establishing full democracy for the toilers in the form of a workers and peasants government. As Trotsky explained in relation to Russia in The Permanent Revolution (1929 Introduction to first Russian edition):
The coming to power of the proletariat in one country does not complete the revolution but only initiates it. To modernize backward countries, to develop a national industry and market, to lift the masses out of misery—all of these require the highest level of technology and productivity and access to the world market—the international division of labor. Yet these are all under the control of imperialism. As long as world imperialism remains, the conquests of a single country remain subject to imperialist asphyxiation and the constant threat of reversal. The victory of the neocolonial revolution and the development of socialism require the defeat of imperialism on the world arena, that is, the extension of the revolution to the imperialist centers.
In subjugated countries the first step toward this goal is to forge revolutionary parties whose chief task is to wrest the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle from the hands of the national bourgeoisie. This can only be achieved by pushing forward the struggle for national liberation to its final consequences, in the process exposing before the masses every vacillation, capitulation and betrayal of the bourgeoisie. Seizing the imperialists’ assets, not least their banks; expropriating the landowners, national and foreign; repudiating the debt and every “free” trade treaty—any consistent action advancing the struggle against imperialist slavery pits the masses against the bourgeoisie. As Trotsky observed, this class “always has a solid rearguard behind it in imperialism, which will always help it with money, goods, and shells against the workers and peasants” (“The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin,” May 1927). He explained:
At the same time, insofar as the bourgeoisie seeks to obtain concessions from the imperialists, revolutionaries support such measures while maintaining total organizational and political independence and seek to mobilize the proletariat and peasantry to carry these out for their own aims and with their own methods:
No compensation! Occupy the plants, mines, railroads until the imperialists concede!
Bureaucratic, limited land reform?
Peasant committees to seize the land!
Imperialist threat of “regime change”?
Arm the workers and peasants!
In every instance, Trotskyists advocate the independent action of the masses in the course of the struggle in order to break the hold of the nationalist bourgeoisie.
To combat the influence of the bourgeoisie, it is crucial to combat nationalism, the main ideological tool it uses to rally the proletariat and oppressed behind its interests. Nationalism pits the proletariat against national minorities and their class brothers and sisters of other oppressed nations, and crucially against the working class of oppressor nations, preventing revolutionary unity in struggle against the common enemy, the imperialists. But in order to break the masses from nationalism, it is necessary to distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressor, which is an expression of imperial chauvinism, and the nationalism of the oppressed, a reaction to oppression. To deny this distinction is to deny the masses’ desire for emancipation. Nationalism cannot be defeated by preaching abstract internationalism. It can be overcome only in struggle, by demonstrating the treachery of the national bourgeoisie in the fight for emancipation.
The interests of the proletariat demand the complete solidarity of workers of all nations. In imperialist countries, revolutionary parties must imbue the proletariat with the understanding that the emancipation of subjugated nations is in its own objective interest: every defeat of the imperialists abroad strengthens the position of the proletariat at home. Trotskyists must fight for a break with the social-chauvinists inside the ranks of the workers movement—the defenders of NATO and the European Union, the union bureaucrats in North America who support the USMCA “free trade” pact—and with the centrists who maintain unity with the social-chauvinists. Only in this way can mistrust and nationalist prejudices in the neocolonies be overcome. The main enemy is at home! Oust the pro-imperialist trade-union bureaucrats! For workers revolution in the imperialist heartlands!
Revolutionary parties in the oppressed nations, in leading the struggle against imperialist oppression, must educate the toiling masses in the spirit of revolutionary unity with the proletariat of the oppressor nations. The unity of oppressed nations against imperialism cannot be realized under the aegis of the venal comprador bourgeoisies, for whom “patriotism” means defense of their private property. It can be achieved only under the leadership of the working class allied with the peasantry. Seize all imperialist assets! Land to the tiller! For national and social liberation!
Experience has shown that under exceptional circumstances, peasant-based guerrilla movements are able to defeat imperialism in a single country and expropriate the national bourgeoisie (e.g., China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam). However, the victory of such movements can lead to nothing more than the establishment of Stalinist-type bureaucratic regimes that maintain their rule through brutal repression of the working masses, while the country remains subject to the pressures of the world market. The hallmark of these Stalinist bureaucracies is their staunch opposition to the extension of socialist revolution beyond their national borders in the illusory hope of appeasing imperialism. To defend and extend the gains of these revolutions requires a new revolution against these bureaucrats. Therefore, the tasks of revolutionaries laid out above also apply to these societies: Trotskyists must take the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle from the hands of the bureaucrats and lead it under the banner of authentic Leninism. Defend China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba, Vietnam against imperialism and counterrevolution! For political revolution against the Stalinist betrayers! For the communism of Lenin and Trotsky!
Definite triumph against imperialism can be assured only by merging the struggle of the proletariat in the imperialist countries against its “own” ruling class with that of the toilers of the oppressed nations against the very same imperialists and their local agents.
Workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite!
The ICL’s Revision of Permanent Revolution
Deformed at Birth
Since its inception, the Spartacist tendency’s approach to the problem of revolution in neocolonial countries and oppressed nations was based on a revision of permanent revolution. To understand how and why this was the case, it is necessary to look at the historical and political context in which our tendency elaborated its approach.
The period following World War II was marked by an upsurge of national liberation struggles fueled by the breakup of the British and French colonial empires and the enhanced authority of the USSR after its victory over Nazi Germany. The world was divided between two superpowers representing two rival social systems: the USSR and U.S. imperialism. In this situation, oppressed countries had room to maneuver, and many looked to the Soviet Union for military and political support in their struggle against imperialism. Until the late 1970s, revolts rocked the neocolonial world: China, Korea, Indochina, India, Cyprus, Algeria, Cuba, the Arab world, Chile, etc. At the head of these movements stood bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces. In most cases, the outcome was formal independence under bourgeois nationalist rule, while the yoke of imperialist subjugation remained in place.
Throughout this period, the strategy of almost the entire Marxist left internationally consisted of openly or critically supporting the nationalist leaderships of these movements and their regimes. The justification was that imperialist oppression of colonies and neocolonies gave the national bourgeoisie an objectively progressive role, and that the victory of nationalist forces would amount to realizing the bourgeois-democratic revolution, thus opening the road to socialism. With the argument that the “objective process” would force bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist leaderships toward socialism, the role of revolutionaries was reduced to pushing them to the left. This was the theoretical framework of the Stalinist parties and their Maoist splinters, the New Left and the pseudo-Trotskyists. (Michel Pablo, ex-leader of the Fourth International, ended up as an adviser to the Algerian bourgeois government of Ben Bella.)
This was an utter denial of revolutionary leadership of the national liberation struggle. If the “objective process” would lead to liberation and socialism, then there was no need for revolutionary parties. In reality, this meant tying the proletariat and peasant masses to the national bourgeoisie, betraying the anti-imperialist struggle and socialist revolution. For revolutionaries, what was posed was to provide a program for the independent action of the toiling masses for their needs and aspirations as a means of advancing the anti-imperialist struggle and, in the process, emerging at their head in counterposition to the nationalists and Stalinists. Only on this basis was it possible to expose the class-collaborationist program of the left as an obstacle to victory against imperialism and initiate a process of splits and fusions to build an authentic Trotskyist current.
However, the Spartacist tendency did not follow this course. Faced with the bourgeois leadership of the national liberation struggles and the left’s tailing of nationalism, we resorted to drawing a rigid and sectarian line by denouncing nationalism in the neocolonial world as reactionary through and through. Beginning with a correct impulse to oppose the liquidationism of the left, we criminally arrived at the repudiation of the core of permanent revolution: placing the struggle for national liberation at the center of revolutionary strategy for the neocolonial world. Orthodox phrases summarizing permanent revolution aside, we counterposed national liberation to class struggle and socialist revolution. In so doing, we systematically rejected the fight for communist leadership of the national liberation struggle, reinforcing the hold of the nationalists and petty-bourgeois forces on the masses. This general framework amounted, at bottom, to a capitulation to imperialism.
National Liberation: Thorn in the Side or Lever for Revolution?
Here are two classic examples of the Spartacist tendency’s view of the national question:
This approach to the national question was based on viewing it not as a lever for socialist revolution but as a thorn in the side—an irritating problem that needed to be removed to pave the way for “pure” class struggle. This has nothing to do with Marxism. The approach of revolutionaries consists in using every oppression, every crisis, every act of resistance to forge the unity of the working class in the struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie. In this respect, resistance to foreign domination in the oppressed countries constitutes a mighty hammer to shatter world imperialism. But instead of advancing the fight for socialism based on the actual social and national struggles taking place, in a sectarian and doctrinaire manner the Spartacist tendency sought to project on living reality its own idealized version of the class struggle, purged of any national “inconveniences.”
Such an approach to the national question is not a novelty in the history of the communist movement. Lenin fought it all his life, in particular against those so-called socialists who looked upon the 1916 Dublin Easter Uprising with disdain and dismissed it as a mere “putsch.” In “The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up” (July 1916), Lenin included a section on the Irish rebellion (which we reprinted, without realizing that its entire content was directed at us). He explained:
While we did not reject the right of self-determination, our entire approach was shaped by the idea that nothing good would come out of the “national problem.” Lenin continues:
What is the method of “removing” the national question from the “historic agenda” if not expecting a “pure” revolution, “untainted” by the national sentiments of the oppressed peoples?
The socialist revolution is not a single battle but a series of battles taking place over a multitude of democratic, economic and social questions. In countries under the yoke of foreign domination, to seek to “remove” the national question as the precondition for socialist struggle means denying that the imperialist-imposed state of underdevelopment objectively brings to the fore democratic tasks as the fundamental lever for socialist revolution. The kernel of permanent revolution—and the central lesson of the 1917 October Revolution—is summed up as the bourgeois-democratic revolution, achieved by the revolutionary proletariat at the head of the peasantry and all the oppressed, growing over into the socialist one. Trotsky explained:
In contrast, our whole approach was to ponder how this or that democratic question could be “removed” from the agenda. But this proved to be more complicated to do in regions of interpenetrated peoples like Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine, in which two national groups have competing claims of self-determination over the same territory. The Spartacist tendency thus created a “theory” for cases of interpenetrated peoples. Our seminal article on the question of Israel/Palestine postulated:
It was clearly impossible to “remove” the national question from the agenda in places like Belfast or Gaza. We thus proclaimed the need for revolution. But the whole question remains: how can a revolution happen there? The entire program behind the “theory” of interpenetrated peoples consisted of proclaiming the need for socialist revolution while rejecting the need to put the national liberation struggle of Palestinians and Irish Catholics at the center of our revolutionary strategy. Instead, the socialist revolution is viewed as a process in which both national groups will shed their national sentiments in favor of unity on economic demands and liberal solidarity.
Any “Marxist” who thinks that the national liberation struggle is a thorn in the side of revolution and must be put aside in order to fight for socialism is at best condemned to irrelevance or, at worst, an agent of the ruling oppressor who demands that the oppressed abandon their national aspirations as the precondition for unity. The only way a revolution will happen in Israel/Palestine or in Northern Ireland is through an uprising for the national liberation of Palestinians and Irish Catholics, which would not impinge on the national rights of the Protestants and Israelis but emancipate the workers from their ruling class and its imperialist backers. It is precisely because Irish and Palestinian nationalists are incapable of and opposed to such a perspective that only a communist leadership can bring about a just and democratic resolution to the national problem there.
In a sign of utter impotence, the “Theses on Ireland,” a key document elaborating our view on the national problem there, states in its first thesis:
In regard to Palestine, our articles constantly stressed that revolution is most likely impossible until there is a revolution in a neighboring country. To declare in advance that we do not really believe in the possibility of a native revolution in Northern Ireland or Palestine and that we do not view our intervention as playing a vital, decisive role in these regions amounts to raising a banner reading: “We Are Bankrupt.”
The task of communists is not to counterpose the struggle for national liberation to the struggle for socialism but to fuse them. Such a perspective is inconceivable with the rigidity and narrow-mindedness that characterized the Spartacist tendency’s approach to the national question; it requires the method and program of permanent revolution. The application of permanent revolution is not restricted to countries with a peasantry or of belated capitalist development. Its method lies at the very heart of the modern communist program. The central lesson Marx and Engels drew from the 1848 revolutions in Europe was the need for proletarian leadership of democratic and social struggles. Concluding their March 1850 “Address of the Central Authority to the [Communist] League,” Marx and Engels stressed that workers
Leninism vs. the ICL on Nationalism: Permanent Revolution vs. Liberal Outrage
A central question of revolution for most countries in the world is overcoming national divisions. This question is particularly complex in countries of belated development, where the dominant nation (or ethnic or religious group), while oppressed by imperialism, is also the oppressor of minority nations. This is the case in India, Iran and Türkiye, just to name a few. The following, taken from an article on the Near East, exemplified our approach to this question:
This obliterates any contradiction in the nationalism of the dominant nation in oppressed countries. The 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda is the reality of Hutu nationalism. Yet Hutu nationalism is fundamentally not the same as American or French nationalism—it is the product of Belgian, then French and now American imperialist rape of the region. It is in part a reactionary answer to this reality. The Hutu-Tutsi conflict can neither be properly addressed nor resolved outside of this understanding.
The same approach underpinned our work on the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which we equated the mullah-led opposition to the Shah with Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan!
The mullahs are reactionary: the Islamic regime in Iran is anti-woman, anti-Sunni and against the national rights of all non-Persian peoples within the borders of Iran. Yet the mullahs were a reactionary answer to the imperialist pillage of Iran that the Pahlavi monarchy facilitated. It was impossible to undercut the popular appeal of the mullahs without recognizing this reality. The implication of our propaganda was to intervene among the participants of the 1979 upheaval by telling those who had illusions in the Islamist leadership that they were following a Hitler-esque movement!
Our entire framework denied the fact that the struggle of the Persian masses to free themselves from the imperialist chokehold was a progressive struggle. Our task was to explain that as long as it remained in the grip of the mullahs, it would necessarily be directed against national and other minorities, leading to their persecution and at the same time undermining the liberation of the Persian majority itself. The only way to break the hold of the mullahs was to show concretely how their leadership was an obstacle to the legitimate and progressive aspirations of the masses to be free from the Shah and imperialism.
The following by Engels, although addressing Poland’s oppression by Germany, applies fully to countries such as Iran, which are both oppressed and oppressor:
In countries such as Iran or India, their liberation from imperialist subjugation cannot come about as long as minority nationalities and peoples within those states continue to be subject to oppression by the dominant nation. The latter has “a special interest” in the liberation of the oppressed minorities and must become their most consistent champions, for without this their own liberation cannot advance one step. Why? Since it is imperialism that is responsible for the masses’ state of destitution, and since it is imperialism that engineered the myriad divisions, forcing nations and peoples inside arbitrary borders, the toilers must unite in opposition to imperialism itself. It is in the objective interest of Persian workers and peasants who toil in a country choked by imperialist sanctions to champion the liberation of their Kurdish, Baluchi and Azeri brothers and sisters as part of their own fight for liberation. This includes advocating their right to self-determination, i.e., to secede.
The more aggressively revolutionaries from the dominant people (e.g., Turks in Türkiye or Persians in Iran) champion the national rights of the oppressed peoples in their respective countries, the more will they be able to scuttle the imperialists’ divide-and-conquer machinations. That would throw a monkey wrench into U.S. moves to turn the oppressed into a cat’s paw for imperialism, as in the case of the Syrian Kurds.
This was completely alien to our perspective, which disappeared the fact that imperialist oppression is fuel for nationalism. For instance, in our work on Sri Lanka, we dismissed every measure taken by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Bandaranaike regime as motivated by anti-Tamil chauvinism or as insignificant, denying that they included assertions of national sovereignty against imperialism. In a polemic against the Chinese bureaucracy’s support to the Bandaranaike regime, we wrote:
That the Bandaranaike regime whipped up anti-Tamil chauvinism is beyond any doubt. Yet from this correct recognition, we proceeded to combat Sinhalese nationalism by denying that it was, in its own bloody and reactionary way, an answer to British domination of the island. This led us to dismiss the very proclamation of the Republic of Sri Lanka, which cut ties with the British monarchy!
In the case of Sri Lanka, any defense of the Tamils that does not begin from opposition to imperialism is going to reflect a liberal imperialist outlook. This is the playbook the imperialists use everywhere: they exploit the plight of minorities to advance their interests, sweeping under the rug the fact that the entire state of affairs exists due to their domination. Sri Lanka is no different. With the perspective we had, a small nucleus seeking to become a revolutionary party cannot even begin to find a toehold among the workers of the dominant nation and can only strengthen the hold of the nationalists on them. And to the extent that it appeals to the oppressed Tamils, it would not be in their interest since it would not aid in overcoming national antagonisms or advancing a common struggle against the oppressor of both Tamil and Sinhalese: imperialism. In other words, it would be—and indeed it was—a liberal-imperialist program for the Tamils (outcry over their oppression) and a liberal-imperialist program for the Sinhalese (treat the Tamils better!).
In oppressed countries, the chauvinism of the dominant nation imposed on minorities is partly a result of enfeeblement in the face of imperialist plunder. The more the fight against imperialism is held down, the more the dominant nation turns against minorities within, whether national, religious or otherwise. At bottom this is due to the reality of countries under the boot of imperialism: if material development does not occur at the expense of the imperialists, it must occur at the expense of workers and oppressed minorities within the neocolony. The national bourgeoisie is able to deflect anger against the miserable state of affairs and underdevelopment by playing on national and religious sentiments, keeping the country divided. Contrariwise, the stronger the peoples within an oppressed country stand in opposition to imperialism, their common oppressor, the closer the unity among them and the weaker the chauvinism of the dominant grouping.
The Main Enemy Is Imperialism
The Spartacist tendency sought to combat bourgeois nationalism by arguing that in neocolonies and oppressed nations, the main enemy of workers and the oppressed was the national bourgeoisie. In regard to Mexico, which is directly under the boot of U.S. imperialism and whose internal life is defined in every way by this oppression, we wrote: “We Spartacists insist that in Mexico the main enemy is at home: it is the Mexican bourgeoisie, lackey of imperialism” (“Mexico: NAFTA’s Man Targets Labor,” Workers Vanguard No. 748, 15 December 2000). In an article on Northern Ireland with the blockheaded headline “Not Green Against Orange, but Class Against Class!” (Workers Vanguard No. 7, April 1972), we lecture:
Taking as its starting point “class independence,” this philistine argument denies that in neocolonial countries, the main enemy is imperialism, not the weak national bourgeoisie which, as we ourselves noted, is reduced to the role of a mere lackey. The nationalists and various left groups use this truth to justify their support to the national bourgeoisie. But to put a minus where the nationalists put a plus does not advance the struggle to break the masses from nationalism. On the contrary, such an approach can only discredit communists in the eyes of workers and peasants and build up the nationalists as the only representative of the national aspirations of the masses against foreign domination. It simply capitulates to imperialism.
In recent decades, the ICL refrained from using “the main enemy is at home” for Mexico. Comrade Jim Robertson argued in the early 2000s that we should stop raising that call given the naked plunder of Mexico at the hands of the U.S. However, the content of this slogan remained the guiding principle of our work there. For instance, shortly after this intervention, comrade Ed C. argued that in Mexico our task consisted in “leading the nation in struggle against imperialist domination.” He was strongly denounced in a motion by the leadership of our American section:
This is not only a total repudiation of the permanent revolution but is in fact an inversion of Stalinism, which, in the name of fighting imperialism, subordinates the proletariat to an alliance with the bourgeoisie. The above motion, in the name of class independence, abandons the struggle against imperialism altogether. Whether it is Stalinism or the Spartacist League/U.S. Political Bureau, the result is the same: the struggle against imperialism stays in the hands of bourgeois nationalists. This conference affirms that “leading the nation in the struggle against imperialist domination” is the task of communists in the neocolonies.
The National Development of Oppressed Nations Is Historically Progressive
The development of the nation-state in Europe during the 17th-19th centuries played a progressive role in sweeping away feudal structures and consolidating capitalism. But in the era of imperialism, capital has outgrown the boundaries of the nation-state. Imperialism means the extension and deepening of national oppression on a new historical foundation. Therefore, while the progressive nature of national movements in the imperialist powers is a thing of the past, in oppressed nations, national movements as well as the development and consolidation of the nation-state still play a progressive historical role insofar as they are directed against imperialist subjugation.
Contrary to this basic Marxist truth, the Spartacist tendency argued that national consolidation and unification are now reactionary everywhere. This was one of the political pillars of our South African section and one of the central points of Polemics on the South African Left, one of its founding documents. In polemicizing against black nationalists, we argued that whereas national assimilation was a progressive development in Europe during the 17th-19th centuries:
South Africa is a country brutally oppressed by imperialism where a tiny clique of white capitalists lords it over the black masses who were forcibly divided into bantustans—territories set up by the apartheid rulers to segregate black Africans based on their ethnicity. Like the rest of the continent, South Africa’s borders were artificially drawn by colonial oppressors, who went on to devise a system of rigid segregation in order to control superexploited black labor. To oppose the black African peoples’ aspirations for nation-building and unity against their enforced division was simply reactionary, aligning us with the actually “dominant people”: the white South African ruling class backed by the imperialists. The key to forging a revolutionary party in South Africa is precisely the fight for communist leadership of the nation-building struggle against imperialist oppression, exposing how the black nationalists stand as an obstacle on this path.
In Mexico, to counter widespread illusions in Cárdenas and populism, the ICL’s section, the Grupo Espartaquista de México, resorted to simply denouncing Cárdenas. We attacked him because “his intention was to modernize the country for the benefit of the Mexican bourgeoisie” and because his legacy “was the consolidation of the Mexican bourgeois regime” (“Mexico: NAFTA’s Man Targets Labor”). The national development of Mexico against imperialist subjugation, even under bourgeois rule, is in fact highly progressive. The bankruptcy of denying this is in fact self-evident from our own article. We wrote:
Millions of workers and peasants learned to read and write thanks to this reform. The idea that they would shed their illusions in Cárdenas because we pointed out that the reform was only a ploy to make them “suitable for wage labor” is simply grotesque. The only reform under Cárdenas we could not denounce was the nationalization of oil and the railroads because Trotsky hailed it. We also argued that the Mexican Revolution was merely an orgy of reaction and that even Mexico’s independence from Spain “had a distinctive smell of counterrevolution” (see the GEM conference motion elaborating on this question in El Antiimperialista No. 1, May 2023).
Marxists support and fight for the national development of subjugated nations. This includes the consolidation of national unity insofar as it is directed against imperialism. To deny the progressive nature of the national development of an oppressed country under the pretext that the bourgeoisie is a reactionary class is simply a capitulation to imperialism. To counter the nationalists, communists, while maintaining total class independence, must support progressive measures advancing the sovereignty and development of oppressed countries and seek to mobilize the masses independently to carry them forward. The rising of workers and peasants is bound to show in plain sight that nationalists such as Cárdenas, or López Obrador today, are in fact enemies of the liberation of neocolonies and that the masses’ aspirations cry out for communist leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle.
Trotskyists Are the Best Fighters for Democracy
One of the most glaring examples of counterposing the struggle for socialism to the struggle for democracy is the line adopted by our tendency in 2011 rejecting the call for a constituent assembly as wrong under any circumstances (see “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13). This position was taken in the wake of the Arab Spring, when millions revolted against decades-long dictatorial rule and multiple left groups demanded the convening of constituent assemblies on an opportunist basis. In a rigid and sectarian manner, compensating for our lack of perspective for the Arab masses, we resorted to denouncing in toto the call for a constituent assembly, counterposing…socialist revolution.
To understand the deep-going revisionism of this line, it is necessary to understand what the call for a constituent assembly is. It is a call for a body whose aim is to set up a new constitution. As our article noted, it dates back to the French Revolution, when the National Assembly resolved the central democratic tasks—abolition of monarchy, abolition of feudalism, redistribution of land and expansion of male suffrage. It is therefore a democratic demand. In countries of belated capitalist development without formal democracy, where the masses are disenfranchised and suffer under prolonged dictatorial or bonapartist rule, such as vast swaths of the Near East, Africa and Latin America, this demand animates millions.
Nevertheless, we dismissed it using this argument:
This is a species of bourgeois rationalism. From the correct premise that the bourgeoisie is a reactionary class from the point of view of world history, we deduced the counterrevolutionary character of the constituent assembly at all times. It is precisely because of the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie that it is incumbent upon communists to take the lead in fighting for the democratic aspirations of the masses in order to bring them to fruition. As long as the masses look to bourgeois parliamentarism and see in a constituent assembly the possibility to advance their aspirations, the duty of revolutionaries is to enter this fray and establish themselves as the most consistent fighters for democracy while exposing to the masses the bankruptcy of bourgeois parliamentarism and motivating the need for soviet rule. To reject the call for a constituent assembly is to leave the democratic revolution in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which will use the democratic sentiments of the masses to subordinate them to its own class interests. As the 1938 Transitional Program, the program of the Fourth International, explains:
But the Spartacists wanted to go directly to the soviets, forgetting in the process the need to unite workers and peasants and oppose them to the national bourgeoisie!
The strongest argument against our rejection of the call for a constituent assembly is the 1917 October Revolution itself. The logic of our argument means that the Bolsheviks led the first successful workers revolution in history in spite of calling for the creation of “a new capitalist government.” We took the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the constituent assembly after the establishment of soviet power as “proof” that they should have never called for it. In fact, the call for a constituent assembly played a central role in the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. They used the call to mobilize the peasantry and expose the Provisional Government, which always sought to postpone its convening. It is sufficient to quote point number one of the “Theses on the Constituent Assembly” written by Lenin in December 1917:
Only a formalist could view the call for a constituent assembly as counterposed to soviets for all times and places. Rather, the call for a constituent assembly is a wedge to be driven between the masses and their misleaders in order to win the former to the perspective of soviet power. The Bolsheviks dissolved the constituent assembly only after soviet power was established, i.e., only at the time when the masses had outgrown the democratic program in struggle and when the assembly had become a counterrevolutionary tool.
The central argument of the Spartacist article concerning the experience of China and the call for a constituent assembly is a compilation of slanders of various degrees. We argue that Trotsky’s writings between 1928 and 1932—when he raised the slogan for a constituent assembly again—are “confused and contradictory,” that he “misguidedly” raised this slogan, engaged in “speculation” and “ignore[d] the many historical instances where the bourgeoisie and its reformist agents wielded an elected assembly as a tool against an insurgent proletariat.” Trotsky raised this call in China after the defeat of the 1925-27 Revolution, against the sectarian course pursued by Stalin and the Comintern. This call was a crucial means of re-establishing the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC) among the working masses in the period of the Guomindang’s counterrevolutionary military dictatorship. Trotsky was not “confused.” His writings on the question are crystal-clear. In fact, our line echoed Stalin’s Comintern of 1928, which called this demand opportunist and refused to raise it.
This conference reasserts that the call for a constituent assembly is principled. Of course, many reformists abuse this call, using it to build illusions in bourgeois democracy. This call alone is not revolutionary. Its raising must be tied to a revolutionary program which addresses national emancipation and the agrarian question in a way that unites the masses and counterposes them to the bourgeoisie.
The National Question and Stalinist Oppression
The Spartacist tendency was confronted head-on with the national question in the fight against capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc, as the imperialists seized on the Moscow bureaucracy’s oppression of non-Russian nations to foment a range of capitalist-restorationist forces. The ICL stood out for its unconditional defense of the degenerated and deformed workers states. However, its own program undermined this battle by rejecting the struggle against national oppression as a motor force for proletarian political revolution, handing this weapon to the imperialists and their agents on the ground. The earliest and clearest example of this was the fight in the 1980s against the counterrevolutionary Solidarność movement in Poland, which rose up and consolidated support in the working class largely on the basis of the masses’ deeply felt national oppression under the Kremlin’s domination.
Poland had suffered centuries of national oppression before the Soviet Army moved in and created a workers state from above through expropriating the bourgeoisie following World War II. That social overturn was a major victory for Polish and Soviet workers that needed to be defended unconditionally against imperialism and counterrevolution. However, as in East Germany and throughout East Europe, the Polish workers state was born bureaucratically deformed under the domination of the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, which carried on Poland’s national oppression under new social conditions. The reason for this goes straight to the heart of the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country.” Proletarian revolution in one country, or even several countries, opens the road to genuine national equality and the assimilation of nations. But this outcome will only be achieved through building and developing a world socialist economic system that finally conquers the problem of scarcity. Opposed to the struggle for world revolution, which is the only way to reach that stage, Stalinist regimes from Moscow to Beijing defend the privileged position of the dominant nation in their societies.
With the postwar extension of Stalinist rule to East Europe, it was now the “Communists” who were trampling on the Poles, Hungarians and others. From the beginning, Trotskyists needed to put the struggle for national rights and proletarian democracy at the center of their program for working-class political power to defend the gains of social revolution and extend them internationally. But this is precisely what the ICL rejected. Instead of using the felt sense of national oppression to motivate the need for political revolution, we dismissed such sentiments as counterrevolutionary through and through, painting expressions of nationalism by the oppressed as anti-Semitic, clerical, anti-woman, Nazi-loving, etc. This was in flat contradiction to the lessons of Hungary in 1956, when a developing workers political revolution took the form of a national uprising against Stalinism.
Summarizing the ICL’s perspective in light of the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1992 International Conference document stated: “The breakdown of the Stalinist order could lead toward either proletarian political revolution or capitalist counterrevolution, depending on the conjunctural political consciousness of the working class—the relative strength of socialist aspirations as against bourgeois-democratic illusions and anti-Soviet nationalism” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93). This statement took an essential truth only to then present a complete counterposition between socialist consciousness and national-democratic aspirations. When the Polish counterrevolutionaries launched a bid for power in 1981, it was correct for the Spartacist tendency to demand: Stop Solidarność counterrevolution! The question was how to do this.
What was necessary was to fuse workers’ socialist aspirations and defense of their national rights, against the counterrevolutionary nationalists and the Stalinists. To break workers from Solidarność, Trotskyists needed to explain that its program would deliver them straight into imperialist bondage, deepening their national oppression, destroying the social gains resulting from the overthrow of capitalism and destroying as well the prospect of uniting Polish and Russian workers in common struggle against Stalinist misrule. Trotskyists needed to counterpose a revolutionary-internationalist program linking the call for an independent Polish workers republic with demands to oust Jaruzelski and the Kremlin bureaucrats and unite Polish and Soviet workers in struggle against imperialism.
By refusing to take up the fight against national oppression, the Spartacist tendency could not put forward anything like this revolutionary defensist perspective. All it could offer instead to the masses who resented domination by Moscow were empty appeals to the “historic unity” of Polish and Russian workers combined with reliance on the ossified Kremlin bureaucratic caste to defend the workers state. As the Polish and Soviet Stalinist regimes moved to stop Solidarność, the Spartacist tendency capsized Trotskyist defensism by declaring:
That was a statement of political support to the Stalinist bureaucracy, utterly counterposed to mobilizing workers in the USSR and Poland to wrest political power from the Stalinists whose entire program undermined defense of both workers states.
As a “theoretical” justification for its capitulation to Stalinism on the national question, the ICL repeatedly declared that self-determination and other democratic questions were subordinated to defense of the workers states, a “class question.” To be sure, there are many historical examples of imperialist-backed forces raising the national-democratic banner as a rallying point for counterrevolution, as the Mensheviks did in Georgia during the Russian Civil War. In such cases, defense of the workers state is the primary need of the moment, although that does not erase the reality of national oppression and the need to combat it. Yet the ICL abused such history to reject the struggle for democratic and national rights in the workers states in toto. This flew in the face of Lenin’s fight to remove any trace of Great Russian chauvinism in the Soviet workers state. It was in Georgia shortly after the defeat of the Mensheviks that Lenin waged his “last struggle,” against Stalin and his cohorts who were viciously stomping on deep-seated Georgian grievances against Russian oppression. In what could have been a polemic against the ICL, Lenin wrote:
In opposition to Lenin’s struggle, the lesson the ICL drew from counterrevolution was to double down on condemning all expressions of national sentiment in the workers states as counterrevolutionary. This was the context for the document adopted by the International Executive Committee (IEC) in October 1993 repudiating Trotsky’s call for the independence of Soviet Ukraine (see “On Trotsky’s Advocacy of an Independent Soviet Ukraine,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 49-50, Winter 1993-94). Trotsky raised this as an urgent call as World War II was approaching, aiming to channel the just national sentiments of the Ukrainian masses who suffered brutal oppression under Stalin’s boot toward both political revolution in the Soviet Union and socialist revolution in the western reaches of Ukraine, then under capitalist rule. He explicitly urged Bolshevik-Leninists (Trotskyists) to champion this cause as necessary to defend and extend the gains of October against the Hitlerites and other counterrevolutionary proponents of Ukrainian nationalism.
The ICL would have none of this. The IEC document coyly couched its rejection of Trotsky’s call in terms of an empirical assessment of the situation in 1939—e.g., Trotsky “overestimated anti-Soviet attitudes among the Ukrainian masses,” while pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists “were never able to gain a mass following.” It also flagrantly falsified Trotsky’s position, implying that he advocated a political revolution “nationally limited to the Ukraine” whereas, we wrote, it would “need from the very outset to extend itself, leading to a decisive struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy throughout the USSR.” But it was precisely to promote political revolution in the USSR and socialist revolution in the West that Trotsky demanded an independent Soviet Ukraine!
The concluding section of the document makes clear that the purpose of its tendentious arguments was to oppose all demands for self-determination directed against Stalinist oppression. It notes that the national movements that broke out in the final years of the Soviet Union were “from the outset organized, promoted and led by openly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist forces” and were “universally regarded as a means to achieve the restoration of capitalism and integration into the Western imperialist order.” But it is for that reason that Trotskyists were duty-bound to wage a communist struggle for the national rights of the peoples of East Europe and of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, seeking to break the masses from all pro-imperialist forces and win them to a proletarian-internationalist program.
It is crucial that the ICL reverse its repudiation of Trotsky’s call for an independent Soviet Ukraine. This is not just a matter of the historical record. In China, the imperialists have long seized on the CPC’s Han-chauvinist oppression of the Tibetans, Uighurs and others to promote the overthrow of that workers state. Trotsky’s programmatic approach is urgently needed to intervene to channel Tibetan and Uighur national grievances away from the reactionaries and into the powerful current of proletarian opposition to Stalinist rule, championing the right of self-determination as a lever for political revolution to defend and extend the gains of the 1949 Revolution.
On the other hand, it is not sufficient to simply denounce the Stalinists as “nationalist” as our old propaganda often did; what is necessary is to point out that only a Trotskyist leadership can unite majority and minority populations in a common struggle against national oppression, Stalinism, counterrevolution and imperialism. The Chinese masses, like those of the other deformed workers states still in existence, are economically subjugated by and under the gun of imperialism, and their nationalism is a reaction against this oppression. In these societies, the Stalinists present themselves as defenders of the nation against imperialism. But while the creation of workers states constituted qualitative steps to lay the basis for genuine national liberation, this liberation has been hampered at every turn by the Stalinist bureaucracies and their reliance on “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. In short, Stalinism is no program for national liberation.
In the mid 1970s the Spartacist tendency was challenged on its program on the national question and imperialism by Edmund Samarakkody of the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) of Sri Lanka. In substantial letters, Samarakkody correctly identified key deficiencies in our program, pointing to our failure to distinguish between oppressed and oppressor nations, our “one-sided identity of interests between the imperialists and the native bourgeoisie” and our denying that imperialism is the “main enemy of the world working class.” His 1975 letter explained:
The political conclusions Samarakkody drew on Ireland, Israel, Cyprus and Quebec were wrong, and we had other disagreements with the RWP. Nevertheless, he was essentially correct in his criticism of our method on this question. His challenge was an opportunity for the Spartacist tendency to fundamentally reorient, but instead we doubled down on our revisionist course, shutting ourselves off from a potential fusion with this group and from the neocolonial world itself.
Only with the struggle on the national question in 2017 was this framework given its first blow (see Spartacist [English edition] No. 65, Summer 2017). It overturned decades of chauvinist propaganda on Quebec and elsewhere and put forward, for the first time, the crucial understanding that the struggle for national liberation is a motor force for revolution. But the political content of the 2017 fight was fundamentally flawed. First, it was shaped by the delusion that the historic leader of our tendency, Jim Robertson, had a correct approach to the national question, and therefore it upheld many positions counterposed to permanent revolution. Second, there can be no talk of “Leninism on the national question” without putting forward the need for communist leadership of the struggle for national liberation. Since this question played no part in the 2017 fight, the old program was simply replaced by a variant of liberalism more favorable to oppressed nations. Finally, and most importantly, the discussions that shook the party for over six months were totally divorced from everything happening in the world at the time. Thus, the ICL’s Seventh International Conference did nothing to guide the party in its interventions into the world.
The Spartacist tendency’s revision of permanent revolution has hamstrung our entire work toward oppressed countries. If we have reviewed and corrected so much of our history, it is because it is a necessary precondition to fighting for revolutionary leadership in most of the world. We are throwing away our dull sectarian blade and replacing it with the razor-sharp program of Leninism. The task is now to wield it. As Trotsky warned: