Kurds, Albanians and national self-determination


Discussion of national self-determination on Marxmail

Bob Gould

Louis Proyect asserts that Lenin was wrong on some things, and that anyway his views often changed over time. Well, that’s pretty obvious, and I often point that out as well. However, of the totality of his thought and practice, Lenin never fundamentally changed his view of the national question, indeed he deepened it.

This is clear from his anguish about great Russian chauvinism during the period of his final struggle with Stalin. Lenin’s general analysis on the national question is one aspect of his thought that stands the test of time. It’s also now known that his approach to the national question gained some emotional force from his early acquaintance with the oppression of national minorities in the area where he grew up in Russia. Lenin’s response to the Easter Rising in Ireland was both scientifically accurate and viscerally moved, by contrast with Trotsky’s response, which was formal and inaccurate.

Phil Ferguson’s incoherent attempt to associate a concern with the national rights of small nations with the reformism of the Second International is confusionism of the worst sort and actually stands history on its head. The fundamental defect of the Second International was its capitulation to imperialism and failure to stick up for the rights of small nations.

Louis Proyect, obviously relying on the ignorance of many of his readers, drags in Trotsky’s argument with Shachtman in 1940 by the scruff of its neck, and casually distorts the whole issue in doing so. In Proyect’s usual lordly and omniscient way, he accuses me of not having read that debate. A certain academic pomposity is par for the course with Louis as most readers of Marxmail for any length of time will be aware.

In both instances in which the Bolsheviks or the Soviet state came most obviously into conflict with the deep-rooted principle of national rights to self-determination, the invasion of Georgia in the first years of the Russian Revolution and the conflict with Finland in 1940, it fell to Trotsky’s lot to carry the can for these interventions, and he did so eloquently, and in my view correctly. Trotsky’s essential argument in both instances, boiled down to them being a special case in which the overriding consideration of the defence of the worker’s state took precedence over the issue of national self-determination. In both instances he said that this did not cancel the right of small nations to self-determination. It is also worth noting that in the instance of Georgia, the Georgian Bolsheviks soon took up a struggle against the centralising great Russian chauvinism that Stalin rapidly became the centre of, and that they fairly quickly acquired Lenin’s vocal support in this, and a little later Trotsky’s support, which unfortunately was less vigorous than Lenin’s.

The general approach of Lenin and Trotsky on the national question, despite necessary exceptions for the profound interests of a real worker’s state, still remains useful. Although he is no current friend of mine, Norm Dixon’s long article on the national question in Links remains an extremely useful modern summary of the issues involved.

Marxists active in politics carry with them a complex baggage of their scientific knowledge and inquiry combined with their early experiences and influences, and even with the issues that propelled them into Marxist politics. I share with Lenin, and with a figure like James Connolly, the fact that a family preoccupation with the national question was one of the major things that propelled me into politics.

I’ve never been to Ireland but familial Fenianism, land leagueism and Irish republicanism were my first political influences as a child. Laborism and Marxism were the second and third impulses for me. A little bit of the familial knowledge of the national question, such as Lenin drew from his father’s defence as a school inspector, of the rights of a small nation in the prison house of nations that was the Russian Empire might improve the comprehension of Marxist pedants like Louis Proyect and his Luxembourgist mates on Marxmail.

It is certainly necessary to locate the national question in the modern world in the framework of imperialist geopolitics. In the final analysis, US imperialism is the main enemy of most of the human race. Immediate withdrawal from Iraq is the appropriate demand. Pedants of another sort such as Worker’s Liberty and the various splinters of the WCPI of Iraq and Iran, which tend to look to the imperialist military forces as some kind of guarantor of the future of democracy and human and worker’s rights in Iraq, are making a profound political mistake.

It’s even possible that bourgeois imperialist realpolitik may force the withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq if the domestic political situation continues to worsen in the imperialist countries. This possibility is beginning to emerge in the United States, and even in Australia. In the context of the possible eventual political defeat of imperialism by enforced retreat from Iraq, the national question in Kurdistan will be posed starkly.

Louis Proyect makes petty demagogy about the reactionary nature of the Kurdish leadership. So what’s new about that, concerning many nationalist leaderships? What the Kurdish leadership have been passably good at, however, has been establishing a de facto small state and a reasonably effective army exploiting the past conflict between Saddam Hussein’s regime and US imperialism.

Abstract moralism directed at them about their de facto alliance with US imperialism, is unlikely to impress any Kurd anywhere (and there are 35 million of them). “England’s difficulty is our opportunity”, the old slogan of the Irish, is a very deep-rooted sentiment in small, oppressed nations, and has never been overcome anywhere by moralising geopolitical rhetoric, either of the conservative imperial sort or the ostensibly leftist sort.

What are Louis and his mates suggesting? The secession of the Kurds from Iraq is now a fact. When imperialist troops are withdrawn, should we socialists in the relatively comfortable imperialist countries support the reconquest of Iraqi Kurdistan by what will probably be a conservative Shi’ite regime in a bloc with the regime in Iran, which at the same time will probably be trying to reconquer the Arab Sunni areas of Iraq?

The eclectic, ostensibly leftist, geopolitical obsession predominant on Marxmail breaks down almost completely concerning the national question, and tends to lead to weird flame wars, in which different participants beat each other over the head in cyberspace, about each individual’s estimate of the likely development of this or that revolutionary nationalist movement, over which in fact the cyberspace commentators have no influence at all.

It reaches its lowest point in moralistic declarations by people like Walter Lippmann and JB, who clearly belt out the proposition that socialist forces in this or that country that doesn’t follow their particular nostrum about subordination to particular nationalist leaderships, and who argue in their own countries with particular nationalist leaderships about the direction of the revolution, are in some way counter-revolutionary. That sort of thing is obviously out of the tradition of Stalinism.

Despite Louis’ projecting on to me his own habit of issuing pronouncements as if he is Trotsky in Coyacan, I am not nearly so ambitious. I have a real interest in the debates between the various socialist and nationalist forces in Latin America. I am interested in following their debates. When Celia Hart makes a careful criticism of Morales, I take considerable notice. I read carefully the reports of the young DSP member Fred Fuentes, (who I know slightly) from Latin America. I study them with interest. He speaks the language, including the political language, and his careful accounts of the political processes and conflicts at work in Venezuela and Bolivia, (even discounting them slightly for obvious enthusiastic editorial improvement back home in Australia), are of considerable interest. This kind of thing is real information, quite different to that of cyberspace pedants and pontiffs!

In imperialist countries, in relation to imperialism in the Third World, it has always seemed to me, during a lifetime of socialist activity, a sounder proposition to fight hard against the major imperialist military interventions and place them in the context of the underlying right of nations to self-determination.

Obviously a certain amount of geopolitical speculation is not unreasonable. We all do it a bit, but the striking thing about the recent debates on Marxmail is that the most sweeping and pontifical commentators, seem to be the ones who have the least interest in empirical accounts of events that may conflict with their own prejudices, and the same people also seem to be the ones who make the most sweeping rejection of core ideas such as Lenin’s careful elaboration of the national question.

All imperialist troops out of Iraq, including Australian troops.

Self-determination for the Arab Iraqs.

Self-determination for Kurdistan.

(Apologies to Louis if these demands sound too much like Trotsky from Coyoacan).

The Kurds and the Albanians are clearly nationalities within the framework of Lenin’s ideas on nationalities and in the Leninist spirit they have the right to self-determination

March 23, 2006 (Marxmail)

There has been an outbreak of prejudiced rubbish about the Kurds on the Marxmail list and the US SWP list, often written by people who should know better. There’s also a distinct anti-Albanian slant to the often slightly bizarre discussion of the death of Slobodan Milosevic on Marxmail and Leftist Trainspotters.

Several very learned Marxists have tried to refute the general thrust of the pamphlet written by Stalin on the national question, ignoring the fact that the guiding hand in Stalin’s pamphlet was clearly Lenin.

Both the Kurds, 30-35 million of them, and the Albanians, six million of them, occupy contiguous areas in which there are relatively small minorities.

Imperialist conspiracies over the years have denied the Kurds a formal state, which is an atrocity.

There’s little evidence against the proposition that both nationalities have a strong impulse to form a national state in their contiguous areas.

In all their abuse of Mike Karadjis, the assorted opponents of self-determination for small nationalities make no serious attempt to challenge his description of the history and circumstances of the modern Balkans.

The latest outburst against the Kurds gives no weight at all to their right to self-determination, and treats the whole nationality as some kind of tool of imperialism, which is an absurdity.

The central slogan for socialists concerning Iraq should be immediate withdrawal of imperialist troops, and there can be little doubt that if that happens the Kurds will immediately declare independence, which is their right. Or are they to be coerced in some way into a unified Iraq by some force that’s hard to imagine?

Even after the white counter-revolution had succeeded in Finland in 1920-21, the Bolsheviks still defended the right of Finland to self-determination.

The latter-day Luxembourgists on Marxmail, who include some surprising people, are really arguing with Lenin about the right of nations to self-determination. Their attack on the Kurds is metaphysics and idealism.

No amount of pseudo anti-imperialist rhetoric from residents of the US is going to persuade a nationality such as the Kurds to surrender their national rights. And why should they?

Again on the Kurdish question

March 23, 2006 (Marxmail)

Louis Proyect responds to my posts on the Kurdish question with more documents by other people and doesn’t clearly indicate his own view. We’re expected, perhaps, to draw conclusions from the documents.

Fred Feldman outlines his view that the Kurds shouldn’t be reconquered, and says it’s his understanding that Louis agrees with that view, although that’s not at all clear to me from the thrust of the documents that Louis posts.

Halliday comes to light with an argument that seems to amount to highly speculative proposition that a combination of the resistance and a category he regards as important, Islamicist Kurds, may reconquer the whole of Iraq. Halliday can correct me if I’ve misinterpreted his view.
Nestor puts up one of his fairly complex pieces and he seems to agree with me that calling on the Kurds to stay in a predominantly Arab Iraq is requiring a kind of self-denying ordinance that no nationality in history has ever adopted. Again, if I’ve misunderstood Nestor he can correct me.

Finally, Fred and Louis both pour a certain amount of ridicule on Stalin’s 1913 pamphlet on the right of nations to self-determination, saying it’s a cookbook and it was superseded by the second congress of the Comintern.

As a bookseller, I can tell Louis and Fred that cookbooks are very useful, and are in fact the category of non-fiction books that sell best. There’s not too much wrong with cookbooks if the recipes are reasonably accurate.

The thrust of the 1913 pamphlet is still valid, as against the Luxembourgists and the Austrians, with whom it polemicised.

Obviously, some things change, and I found Norm Dixon’s overview of the literature and assembly of the arguments on both sides in Links extremely useful in putting the whole debate in 1913 in context. I’m not persuaded at all that anything that came later invalidates the general thrust of the 1913 pamphlet.

Louis and Fred should enlighten me and others as to what aspects of the 1913 pamphlet they consider have been superseded by subsequent developments, and how that has a bearing on the current argument about the right of the Kurds to national self-determination.


Louis Proyect, Fred Feldman and Jim Blaut. The mountain trembles and out comes a mouse

March 25, 2006 (Marxmail)

In an enigmatic way Louis responds to my request to explain the defects of Lenin’s 1913 approach to the national question by putting up a document by the late Jim Blaut, saying that Lenin hadn’t anticipated Puerto Ricans emerging as a nationality in the United States.

This is a bit of a red herring concerning the broad thrust of Lenin’s general perception, and it avoids a forthright answer about the right of the Kurds and the Albanians to national self-determination. I would again refer Louis and Fred to the careful exposition and modernisation of Lenin’s views, which both Dixon and I consider still have fundamental validity, in Norm Dixon’s articles in Links a couple of years ago in his exchange with Malik Miah.

Dixon makes a reasonable case, with which I agree, that in Lenin’s framework African Americans are probably not a nationality. Like Dixon, I don’t want to be too forceful about this, because I am not an expert on the national question in the US.

Blaut’s example of the Puerto Ricans is in some ways a slightly stronger case. The obvious problem with it, is that the Puerto Ricans, being Spanish speakers, tend to blend in pretty rapidly with the other Spanish speakers, Mexicans, Central Americans, Cubans, etc.

There is a reasonable argument that, in some sense all the Spanish speakers taken together are a kind of second nationality in the US. Blaut, narrowing the question of Spanish speakers to the Puerto Ricans, confuses the issue somewhat.

Are the Cubans in Florida and other places a separate nationality, or is it more sensible to treat all the Spanish speakers together? Even with the Spanish speakers, the same problem arises as arises with African Americans. A very large number of them seem to, from a distance, identify as Spanish speakers, and also as American citizens. It’s this phenomenon that has given rise in Australia and Canada to the fairly modern notion of what is called multiculturalism within a nationality, which is the bete noir of the right in Australia.

I have written at length about the question of multiculturalism in Australia, and my material on this question can be found on the Ozleft website.

It’s worth noting in this context that there is an enormous diaspora in England, Scotland, Wales, Australasia, the US and Canada, the Irish, who over many years up to the present time, have largely identified with the politics of their imperially oppressed country. This identification with Irish nationalism hasn’t prevented them from staking a considerable claim to be part of the nation in their countries of current residence.

All of this aspect of Lenin’s general theory about nationality is of considerable current interest, but it is obviously not the main reason that the assorted Luxembourgists on various email lists ridicule the general thrust of Lenin’s theory. Their main reason is that Lenin’s forthright assertion of the rights of nationalities such as the Kurds and the Albanians to full self-determination, including the right of secession, cuts across their varied geopolitical concerns.

To take the matter further, and to give some other examples, various nationalist leaders such as the Burmese leaders, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, collaborated with the Japanese, during World War II and in the case of Bose, with the Germans during the Second World War.

I defend the progressive nature of the military struggle of the Soviet Union and of the various resistance movements in many countries against Hitler, the German Nazis, and Japan. This does not lead me to automatically condemn the alliances of convenience of Bose, Sukarno etc. As the Irish said: “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” Bose, for instance is now a hero in Bengal, including a hero of the various communist parties in Bengal. Sukarno is a hero of the Indonesian revolution.

To bring us to an issue of immediate relevance. Most anti-imperialists in Australia now support the struggle of the West Papuan people for independence, and the implied struggle to form a united Melanesian state with Papua New Guinea. A sharp diplomatic split has developed between Indonesia and Australia because under Australian law the Tory government, much to its embarrassment, has been forced to grant refugee status to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers, a number of whom have been leaders of the Papuan independence movement.

The unfortunate background to this struggle is that the whole of the left in Australia, including the smallish revolutionary socialist group that I was part of at the time, share some responsibility for this situation. We supported the anti-imperialist revolution of the Indonesian people, which was entirely valid.

The Stalinists at the time forcefully peddled the realpolitik view that anti-imperialism necessitated the integration of West Papua with Indonesia (the Dutch held on to West Papua for 10 years after Indonesian independence). To our considerable shame in retrospect, anti-Stalinist socialists went along with that idea, and the so-called Act of Free Choice, which was no choice at all, was forced on the West Papuan people, overseen by the United Nations.

In Australia, there was a considerable bourgeois and Labourite opinion, quite powerful in government circles, that favoured uniting West Papua and New Guinea, and supporting rapid independence for that united entity as an independent united state. In retrospect, it is quite clear that the left should have supported that option, but our preoccupation with generalised leftist geopolitics, considerably influenced by Stalinism, led us to completely ignore Lenin’s general ideas about the right of nations to self-determination, with disastrous results for the West Papuan people.

Discussion, Louis Proyect

See also

Invented “principles” and East Timor

Primitive demagogy on national self-determination


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