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The New International, June 1942

Zachary Jackson

The Meaning of National Liberation

A Discussion Article


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 5, June 1942, pp. 149–151.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In recent years Marxism as a method of social analysis and political forecast has lost the confidence of many people. One of the reasons for this is that Marxists forgot that we cannot give old answers to new questions. The new problems in a changed and changing world need a new approach to them. It is not sufficient to refer to what Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky said about any problem without having seriously determined whether the problem is still the same. We possess a great Marxian inheritance, it is true, and we shall make use of it, but it does not consist of ready-made answers.

Marxism is a method of thinking which enables us to understand what is really happening in a class society. A problem of today may look like a problem treated by Marx or Lenin. However, if other important circumstances have changed we have to examine this problem anew. The main principle of the dialectic is that you have to understand the whole situation of which a problem in which you are concerned is only a part. Thus, for instance, we cannot simply repeat what Lenin said of the national struggle. We have to analyze the situation in which this struggle is going on and to overhaul our own thoughts about it.

From this point of view I want to set forth some remarks on J.W. Smith’s article, Socialism and National Liberation, which appeared in The New International of March. The point of departure for this article is the opinion that “history often develops backward” and that, therefore, “the struggle for national liberation is today again on the order of the day in Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium and France, and in many respects even in Italy.” That is a mistake. History never develops backward. Dictatorship, war, national oppression were already present in previous historical epochs, but they did not have the same social and historical significance as they do today because the economic and social structure of the society never is the same. Thus far, the present struggle for national liberation in Europe does not have the same aspects as those of any other times.

The nations oppressed by the Austrian monarchy, for example, had an entirely different situation to face than those mentioned by Smith. The Hungarians and the Italians, who were fighting for their national liberation from Austria in the 19th century, and the Czechs, who obtained their independence at the end of World War I, joined, more or less, their bourgeois revolution with the national struggle. The aim of an independent national state involved fighting against the absolute monarchy and for the developing of their own capitalist productive system to a higher level. The political aim of this struggle had to be a democratic one. It sought the establishment of a bourgeois democratic state. The demand for an independent national culture meant the development of the culture of the whole nation from a backward and low level to the height of bourgeois culture.

All this was very progressive. (Of course, the character of the national bourgeois revolution was no longer the classic one during and after World War I.) The victory of the national bourgeoisie produced many important advantages for the working class. Only in a state able to develop its own industry can the working class grow and develop. (In India, for example, England hampered the development of a heavy industry and the working class today makes up no more than 1 per cent of the population.) Only with the national liberation was the oppressed nation able to shed its agrarian character and become industrialized. And in such a society only a national bourgeois culture can arise and create the conditions for the independent development of the proletariat. Finally, the working class was interested in a bourgeois-democratic state because it offered the opportunity to create labor organizations. Thus the bourgeois democratic revolution was a success if the workers could compel their own cowardly bourgeoisie to go ahead for national independence.

The German Experience of 1923

We have to distinguish this struggle for national independence from a situation where a bourgeois state is invaded during an imperialist war. Of course, here we have “national oppression” too, but of an entirely different character. We had a classic example when, in 1923, the French army occupied Germany’s heavy industrial region of the Ruhr. And the great errors committed by the Comintern at that time should not be forgotten.

The occupation of the “Ruhrgebiet” was the direct continuation of the World War. Germany’s big business attempted to continue the war with a passive resistance based on the nationalism of the petty bourgeoisie. At the same time, the exploitation, not only of the workers but also of the petty bourgeoisie (with the aid of a managed inflation), increased in a manner unknown up to that time.

What did the Comintern do? It developed a theory about the colonial character of Germany and urged the German Communist Party to participate in the national resistance against the occupation. The workers were told that they had to fight against national oppression and had to go ahead in this struggle because national liberation is a democratic demand. Thus the German CP followed politics which were often similar to those of the Nazis (at this time still divided in several groups). Communist proletarians worked together with Nazis in order to commit sabotage, to blow up bridges, etc. In Moscow, Karl Radek glorified the Nazi, Schlageter, who was shot by the French for sabotage, and the Nazi leader, Count Reventlow, was allowed to set forth his views in Rote Fahne, the official organ of the CP. Although the German CP of 1923 was not the Stalinist party of today, but a revolutionary workers’ party, this policy could only lead to failure.

The French invasion was an imperialist action and the Comintern had to fight against it, but the German workers should have acted according to Liebknecht’s slogan: “The main enemy is in our own country.” The invasion was a continuation of the war, and the military defeat of the German bourgeoisie had not changed its social character. Of course, it never is the task of a revolutionary party to in any way help the other imperialist camp; it must proceed in the struggle in the interests of the working class and cannot follow the “national” aims of the bourgeoisie. The policy of national liberation in 1923 allowed the industrial magnates of the Ruhr to profit from the troubled situation and finally led the petty bourgeoisie to the conviction that the Versailles Treaty was the root of all evil. It contributed to the later victory of the Nazis because of the belief that the main question was national liberation, which required a strong state and a mass army.

The lesson of 1923 is that a workers’ party cannot win influence over the masses in nationalist competition with a bourgeois or fascist party. The victory of socialism will not be the result of a clever calculation or a clever exploitation of prevailing moods of the masses; it can only be reached by the class maturity of the proletariat. Above all, we learn from this short review that all types of national oppression are not feudal and therefore Marxists, in fighting against it, cannot act by consulting a Marxian dictionary, but only by a Marxian analysis of a concrete situation.

The New Situation in Europe

Today we have a third situation in Europe, distinct from the classical form, as from 1923, and we cannot just repeat the lessons of yesterday. Smith correctly wrote in his article that the social power of the bourgeoisie in Europe constantly shrinks and at the time an independent labor movement is non-existent. These two facts certainly are the main features of the new situation. However, there are small illegal socialist circles throughout Europe and it will be of great importance in the time to come to know what they are thinking and doing now, for their present conduct will have a decisive effect on the future.

Of course, we are the implacable enemies of fascist oppression. But because socialists are enemies of fascism they develop special attitudes. They are not only for the liberation of their own nation from German fascism, they are against any kind of fascism. Therefore, they recognize that Germany is not less oppressed than other nations and that the national liberation would be no liberation at all if it gave way to another form of national fascism. However, in the national movement which is oppressed by German fascism the danger lies in the masses turning against Germany rather than fascism, while fascist movements conquer in the occupied countries. Since national independence, even of a state like France is today economically and politically no longer possible, such states could be the basis for the domination over Europe by one of the great powers. The “clever” statesmen-in-exile know that very well. The Norwegian Foreign Minister, for example, launched the idea of an Atlantic Federation, which “could not be of purely economic nature,” but requires collaboration of a military character. After the war Norway should become a link between the Atlantic world and the European continent. (See American Scandinavian Review, December 1941, pp. 318–23.)

Thus, the British agents who organize national resistance in France are only doing a war job and socialists must take care not to become a simple tool of another belligerent camp in taking part in the struggle for national liberation. In this struggle two tendencies are involved: (1) The continuation of the war by other means, and (2) the struggle for liberation from the totalitarian state slavery.

The struggle for liberation from totalitarian state slavery has, at present, the form of a struggle for national liberation. However, there is no similarity with the classic struggle for national liberation. The “liberals” of today, who want to return to an independent democratic bourgeois state, are in reality reactionaries. After the collapse of the world market and the changes in the economic and social structure brought about by the war, an independent democratic capitalist state is impossible in Europe. Those whose policies point to such an independence are in a position similar to the romantic reactionaries after the French Revolution who were enemies of capitalism and desired a return to the political structure of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the various “democratic” governments-in-exile which offer themselves as national liberators, could only be different types of Quislings, forced to rule in a completely totalitarian manner.

What Kind of National Liberation?

In such a situation it is insufficient to say that socialists must take part in the national movements in Europe. The main question remains: what is their task within these movements; what policies must determine their actions?

Socialists must endeavor to direct the struggle against the totalitarian state and not against Germany as a nation. They must show that the interests of the masses is a united Europe without domination of any power, i.e., a democratic socialist Europe. We want to give one example of what this means in practice. The assassination of German soldiers in France is the expression of one type of “struggle for national liberation,” but the attempt to work together with German soldiers against Hitlerism is the expression of the other type. To write on the walls: “Down with the Boches,” corresponds to the first type; to write: “Fraternization for a Workers and Soldiers Peace!” corresponds to the second type.

Such a policy would not be utopian in any way. It is the answer to a situation where the slogan of mere national independence is Utopian and reactionary. It also corresponds to some of the ideas which is part of the thinking of the masses, and it full of contradictions. When the war broke out in 1939 there was not the hatred or national enthusiasm that existed in 1914, either in France or in Germany. There is also a general feeling today that this type of nationalism is out of date (at least in France) and has a reactionary significance; that national frontiers are less compatible than ever with modern production and that what Hitler knocked down without great effort was already rotten and weak. Even such a liberal observer as Joseph C. Harsch wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that he believes it is obvious that a psychological potential of unification exists and can be penalized. Of course the hatred provoked by the crimes of Nazism threatens once more to animate reactionary nationalism and the propaganda of the U.S., Britain and Russia tries to develop this nationalist feeling in their own respective interests. Socialists therefore must emphasize that the liberation of Europe is not possible without the German workers. There are several symptoms to indicate that an international united front of workers will be created in the German factories and mines where millions of foreign workers are exploited and oppressed together with German workers. (Europacus in his article in Labor Action of April 12 already quoted from letters where Norwegian workers report that German workers summoned them to work slowly in the German factories, etc.) Because the basis for a revolt against the Nazis can lie only in the masses of workers and peasants, social revolutionary tendencies will come to the surface. This already proved true in Yugoslavia where, according to the New York Times of March 22, “General Draja Mikhailowitch, Yugoslavia’s guerrilla leader, is conducting a political revolution inside Yugoslavia while he manages a military revolt against the invaders” and where at some places “the populace set up a soviet republic.”

The danger, seen by Smith, that a Marxist would refuse to concern himself with the struggle for the oppressed nations and treat it with disdainful contempt, seems to me not very great. A greater and more real danger is that Marxists will remain behind the masses when a spontaneous mass movement actually begins, because they have based their policy on the “low consciousness” which seems to prevail at the present time. The task, therefore, consists not only of “taking part” in this struggle but, above all, of developing the consciousness of the masses. Marxists must not drop behind the masses; they must lead them. In order to be able to do that, they must carefully analyze the present situation and work out a political conception which really answers the demands of the time.

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