National self-determination: primitive demagogy


Bob Gould

Discussion on the issue of the right of nations to self-determination on Marxmail has gone around in circles in the past 18 months, and even more so looking back into the archives of Marxmail and its predecessors. I’m in general sympathy with the views of Mike Karadjis and Les Evenchick. I’m driven to comment by Louis’ rather cavalier dismissal of Karadjis and the par-for-the-course insulting reference by Nestor Gorojovsky to Evenchick.

Nestor’s primitive Third-Worldist demagogy is chronic, but to imply that Evenchick might not understand the American Civil War, and Marx’s attitude to it, because he lives in New Orleans, is breathtaking bullshit, even for Nestor.

Putting aside those questions, it’s important to consider Mike Karadjis as a reporter and a witness. On some questions I’m no political fan of the DSP, as everybody knows. But the DSP’s collective work so far on the national question seems to me exemplary, and it is very public.

The DSP leadership seems to have been driven empirically, as it often is, to theorise its generally quite principled activity on the national question. Its extended consideration of this question is no doubt informed by having one leading member involved in work in Indonesia and East Timor, a past association with Croatian autonomists, and contact with an ex-Maoist, now orthodox Leninist, group in the Philippines, which has considered the Moro question in Mindanao.

The highest point of this inquiry was Norm Dixon’s very useful documentary and theoretical overview of the history of this question in the Marxist movement. Dixon’s article, Marx, Engels and Lenin on the national question, published in late 1999, stands the test of time as the best current overview of this historical question in the Marxist movement.Louis, Phil Ferguson and other simplistic anti-imperialists nowhere attempt to engage with this important overview, in my opinion.

In the course of the DSP’s inquiry on the national question, and obviously as part of it, Mike Karadjis went off on an extended political tour of the Balkans. I have no inside knowledge, but as a careful, observant, outside sometimes-critic, sometimes-kind-of-friend of the DSP, it seems to me Mike was a serious young DSP Marxist intellectual of Greek cultural background with a bit of an itch for travel and an interest in the Balkans, perhaps initially from the point of view of the Macedonian question in Greece, and combatting Greek chauvinism.

He spent several years in the Balkans, and used his time there to inform himself on the national question in this area. Karadjis began his travels at a highly critical moment, and his book and subsequent inquiries and articles, informed by a generally orthodox Leninist view of the national question, are extremely detailed, careful and comprehensive, and have the particular merit that this is someone looking at the specific events, many of which he has either observed or interviewed leading participants in.

Karadjis’s work is very serious and exceedingly persuasive. His critics on the Marxism list don’t really engage with the general thrust of his work, they just nitpick about detail, which becomes surreal when Nestor whinges about one of Mike’s posts lobbing in the wrong email box, with which accident he tries to accuse Karadjis of some kind of harassment. Very strange.

Right now, I’m engaged in a rather ferocious argument with the DSP leadership on other matters, but on the national question it isn’t just that the DSP’s political activity has been generally principled, which it has, but that the DSP has done serious theoretical work, and Louis, Nestor and Phil Ferguson don’t even try to address the question on this plane.

In searching the archives of Marxmail, I discover that Louis did, in fact, address the national question somewhat more theoretically a couple of years ago in a previous discussion, at least considering Trotsky’s arguments about the Ukraine in 1939. But that dimension seems to have disappeared in the current debate.

Phil Ferguson confuses the discussion even more in yesterday’s post, dropping in the name of Lenin early in the piece in another context, and then proceeding to give his own invaluable opinions, which are generally against Lenin’s attitude to the right of nations to self-determination, and he obviously uses the earlier Lenin reference to somehow claim a Leninist framework for what are his own views in opposition to Lenin. Very slick demagogy.

At an earlier stage in this discussion, someone dropped in references to Trotsky’s defence of the overthrow of Menshevik Georgia, which I would describe as the necessary Georgian exception in consideration of the national question. To extend the Georgian exception, which was based on the military needs of the new Soviet workers state, to a general exception covering the interests of any bourgeois national state that the writer might think is anti-imperialist, is a caricature of the tradition of the Marxist movment on these question.

To save repeating myself, I’d refer to Trotksy’s 1927 article, Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads an extract from Trotky’s History of the Russian Revolution and my own articles on Marxmail last year The debate over East Timor: concrete issues, and historical questions of Marxist theory and practice and and More on East Timor, national self-determination, Lenin and Luxembourg.


See also

Kurds, Albanians and national self-determination

Invented “principles” and East Timor


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