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April 1973: The Nationalities Question Printer Friendly Version

The Nationalities Question

James Herod
April 1973

  The discussion last Monday served to update the argument on the nationalities question, clarifying the current state of the debate and adding a new aspect or two.

  The nationalities question remains very central, although I am somehow surprised at this. I somehow feel that it shouldn't be important still. But it is important, mainly because of the confused position that so many people are taking on the question. The question is intimately related to our own struggle, to the black power question, to the third world peoples debate, and even, ironically, to the women's movement. But confusion on the issue is rampant, as far as I am concerned.

  The strong tendency here, as on so many other issues, to mechanically transfer to our situation positions on this question that were worked out seventy-five years ago for other situations, is, as always, disgusting. We can now find groups like RU talking about multi-national struggles when discussing the movement internal to the United States. That is, they are now defining Indians, Puerto-Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Black people, and so forth, as nations which have to unite to form a multi-national front to fight against imperialism. It is no accident that they refer to these groups as internal third world colonies and see the fight as being against imperialism and not capitalism. The whole analysis is so misconceived that your first impulse is to completely ignore it, to not even grant it the recognition of an argument. This would be possible if the analysis weren't so deeply entrenched and becoming ever more widespread across the entire left – old left, new left, and new old left.

  The discussion on Monday was about minorities in China but the issues raised have more general significance. The interesting thing was that because of our two professors the whole issue got linked up to liberal theory in this country, namely, to the shift in liberal thought from the melting pot thesis, which was the prevailing ideology here for decades, to the new (post-melting pot) stress on ethnic heterogeneity. Both theories are ideological, of course, merely serving as useful props to the status quo. The melting pot thesis justified the enormous assimilation or homogenization of the immigrant labor force that was required by industrialization under capitalist auspices. Workers had to be able to understand the boss. Now that the main danger is that the society might split along class lines, and that solidarity might be established among workers, a shift to an ideology of ethnic diversity and heterogeneity was necessary, as part of the divide and rule strategy. It is a convenient way of keeping the working class divided, passive, and integrated.

  The left's (old and new) stress on minorities means that it has fallen into the same liberal trap, and this exposes an interesting link with bourgeois theory. I had never connected the left's nationalities question with liberal ethnic theories before, until I was reviewing the question and thinking about it before the seminar began (and looking over Luxemburg's critique, and also pulling out the `Culture of Poverty' debate (Valentine) and recalling Nina's work and the Glaser-Moynihan thesis in Beyond the Melting Pot). And then of course these very issues did come out in the discussion, by grace of our two liberal professors. This does clarify things quite a bit and highlights the obnoxious absurdity of the neo-liberal position (a la the McGovern campaign, as its most ludicrous expression yet, that is, the whole quota thing, which rightly brought rebuttals even from liberals, especially Jewish liberals). But the quota business, and the categories, are still very much a part of the left, both in what is left of the New Left and also apparently in the new Old Left (in the form of this so-called multi-national strategy). Our professors of course had taken over lock, stock, and barrel the neo-liberal, post-melting pot, ethnic heterogeneity line. One of them took the argument to the extreme of implying that it was wrong for a tribe to abandon its slash and burn agriculture! He seemed to be arguing that all cultures and peoples must be maintained intact (as fossilized museum showpieces for U.S. tourists and social scientists, one can presume). What nonsense! Our other professor spoke approvingly of the move to turn New York City into a state, and of the Quebec separatist movement, and of self-determination for all the various ethnic groups in the United States. When pushed to define more precisely the content or meaning of self-determination or autonomy for all these ethnic groups in a society like that found in the United States, he was at a loss, but he believed in it nevertheless. What a cold warrior, and a mediocre one to boot.

  Our professors disapproved of the assimilation of national minorities in China (if this is indeed what is happening.) They saw it as bad that minority languages were dying out (if they were). For them this was proof that China is a dictatorial state. But in fact they started with this assumption, that China is a totalitarian society, and hence if minority languages are disappearing it is because of coercion (they were being wiped out, exterminated by the government). This is so very ironical because for decades it was seen as democratic, as the road to freedom, to let go of one's own language and culture and become part of the great American Middle Class, the great Melting Pot. Now however they condemn as culturecide the melting pot in China, and set forth instead the ideal of cultural autonomy and heterogeneity as the new road to democracy and freedom. What a bad trip! What a psycho!

  It is clear to me that the whole question of minorities in China depends on one's judgement about the structure of power in that society. If you began from the opposite position – that China is a democratic society – you would come to a very different view of the matter. My position is fairly ambivalent on the China question because I am not willing to write China off yet as completely totalitarian (like I have the Soviet Union), but neither am I willing to say it is socialist and democratic. I think a struggle is being waged there to make it democratic, but the outcome isn't in yet. So I don't know about the minorities question there. Is the assimilation free or coerced (if assimilation is in fact happening)? Thus for me the assimilation of a minority or the disappearance of a minority language has no meaning in and of itself. It is neither good nor bad in and of itself. This fact has no meaning by itself. It must be interpreted. It all depends on why. Was it destroyed by force or was it abandoned voluntarily? (`Voluntarily' does not include however the kind of voluntary integration of ethnic minorities seen in the United States: assimilate or else. Integrate in order to be able to get a job, get ahead, and take care of yourself. That is, assimilation could actually be seen as voluntary only in a truly democratic and socialist society, and then of course there probably wouldn't be any real need to abandon one's own language and culture. It is thus impossible to separate the nationalities question from the question of the structure of power in the society in question. Is the society democratic or totalitarian? This is the question, and one that must be answered before any meaningful discussion of the nationalities question can take place.

  When challenged about their unstated biases, about their implicit starting points, our professors denied of course that they had any preferences or assumptions. At that point they claimed to be neutral (after more than an hour of clearly political statements). They said they didn't care one way or the other. They said they were only interested in establishing the facts. This is the standard dodge. About all one can do with the facts is list them. The minute you try to determine what they mean then you have to face the question of power in China, democracy or tyranny. That is, you have to examine your overall framework. But this question apparently was not up for discussion for the professors. They claimed it was irrelevant to the present task, which was merely to establish the facts. But obviously the facts, in and of themselves, have no meaning for the professors either. The interpretation that they do give to the facts (and did clearly give for more than an hour) flows out of their hidden, unacknowledged, undefended framework (bias); hence their attempt when challenged to separate facts from values, in order to continue their game, in order to continue to camouflage their implicit answers to the larger questions; all with the best of intentions and sincerity of course.

  In authoritarian societies like the United States and Russia, minorities get zapped regardless of whether the ideology is melting pot or ethnic diversity. Even if they survive or are tolerated like the Uzbeks for example or the Lithuanians or even the American Indians, they are in no sense autonomous or self-determining. Power is centralized in Moscow and Washington. No group within these territories is autonomous. That's what a nation-state means almost – the monopolization of all power by the state. People may have some limited say on minor issues, within this national framework, but they are not autonomous. And the trend has been for even this limited say to diminish more and more. This point is not even up for argument, despite the claims of the Soviet and American governments. The nationalities question is thus inseparable from the general struggle for democracy, equality, and socialism, i.e., for the equal distribution of power and wealth. The problem is not intelligible outside of this framework, nor is it solvable.

  My previous position on this, explained in the introduction to the draft constitution, still holds, but must be explained more fully in relation to all these other aspects of the problem.

  The argument on nationalities is really the same argument as that against decentralization and community control. What must be opposed is fragmentation of societies. There is no way to return to the fragmented autonomous estates of feudal Europe. There is no way, nor is there any point, in returning to small scale organization and small scale production. It is only people lacking the slightest sense of history – of the one thousand year long destruction of local autonomy – who can even entertain such a scheme. What must be demanded is autonomy for the people as a whole (self-government). The argument is about the structure of power within the entire unit (however big or small), democracy or tyranny, and not about the size of the unit. All you have to do to stump persons arguing for decentralization (breaking up the U.S. into a lot of smaller states) is to ask them how decisions would be made within these smaller units. This brings you back immediately to the real questions (class, power, self-rule).

  And so it is not difficult to see the weakness of programs like: (1) Black Power: the problem is not to get blacks into power but to get everyone into power. (2) Women's Power: the problem is not to get men out of power and women into power, but to get the bourgeoisie out of power and the proletariat into power. (3) Indian Power: the Indians as Indians have already lost the battle, long ago. The problem now is to win for the first time the battle to be a human being, not merely an Indian. (4) Youth Power: the problem is not a generational problem, but a problem of securing for all ages dignity as human beings. The problem is not black power, woman power, Indian power, or youth power, but human power – full and equal power as human beings in a democratic society.

  This brings into relief the central error of all attempts to build a movement on third world peoples, blacks, women, Indians, or nations. It violates the central self-identity of the proletarian revolution (wage-laborers) and the central goal of that revolution (a classless society, an egalitarian society). The whole point after all is to eliminate discrimination based on such personal characteristics as sex, race, language, looks, intelligence, and age, as well as the central oppression of wage-slavery. People might need to organize temporarily as blacks, women, or Indians, but the theoretical framework within which this is done must not include a call for self-determination of these various minorities. Self-determination of the people as a whole is the goal, not fragmentation of the people along ethnic lines. If this call were ever carried to its logical and consistent conclusion, that is, autonomy for all minorities in the U.S., for Swedes, Poles, Germans, Irish, English, Italians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Rumanians, French, Filipinos, etc. etc. etc., even the protagonists of such a program could see the absurdity of the argument. For some reason however they limit their `nations' in this country to Blacks, Latinos, Indians (and in the feminist version, Women).

  This turns out to be a central stumbling block for our revolution it seems – the substitution of these categories based on personal attributes for a class analysis. It happens most completely in the New Left, which completely ignores the working class and recognizes only youth, women, and blacks. In the Old Left it also happens but in a different way. There it is the combination of the two analyses, the superimposition of one on the other, that is the problem. The Old Left has a class analysis of sorts. It recognizes the working class (in a patronizing, emulative, romanticizing fashion). Its tendency however (as with SWP) is to pander to the minorities, in a most manipulative way, and to elevate these groups to the vanguard of the fight because they are the most oppressed. This is only for temporary, tactical reasons though because they themselves are the real vanguard. They can't assume that role however until the movement reaches a certain level, and to make it reach that level the stress now has to be put on minorities.

  As with everything else from the Old Left, this is the mechanical carry over of the arguments flowing out of revolutions on the fringe of capitalism into our own very different situation in the advanced capitalist societies. Lenin may have been right to call for the autonomy of nationalities, given his goal (the seizure of state power by the vanguard Bolshevik party and the protection and preservation of that power), and given the fact that any other goal, workers councils and direct democracy for example, wasn't even on the agenda. He also perhaps had his reasons for promising the peasants land with one hand and the workers bread with the other (two contradictory promises) in order to win their support for the goal of seizing power. But all that this raises is the question: did this goal have anything to do with the establishment of socialism. Basically I side with Luxemburg, although I am even less inclined to defend the Bolsheviks than she was. I do defend them. I believe they were revolutionaries in intent. But good intentions are not enough. One must succeed. One must actually get where one sets out to go. It is more than clear by now that the Russian revolutionaries did not get to the free society. The whole thing therefore has to be called into question. Nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing is beyond scrutiny. And this includes Lenin.

  So on the domestic level then the nationalities question is quite clear in broad outline: there must be no fragmentation. It gets much more complicated of course when one tries to deal concretely with strategies for the fight against discrimination against women, blacks, browns, youth, old people. The objective is clear: to win freedom from discrimination for being female, black, young, not freedom as women, as blacks, as youth. In other words, sex, race, and age would cease to be salient personal attributes, any more than height is (i.e., no longer noticed, rewarded, or punished, no longer the basis for relating to the person, no longer relevant). But it is harder to work out the complex question of how this can be done and what the relation is between this fight against discrimination and the class struggle (or the fight for freedom, for the destruction of wage-slavery). I can't hope to work this out here either. But in a sense this is the key question. So it is a real failure to leave it unanswered. (For example, do blacks organize their own unions, set up black caucuses in white unions, or work completely inside white unions?) This is why it is so very urgent to work out a thorough treatment of the internal stratification of the proletariat. What is the best way to handle and conceptualize the relationship between these categories (which have taken on historical reality) and the class per se?

  But on the international level I am now even more confused. At the time of the events, I supported both the Ibo struggle for national independence and the revolt of the Bengalis. But in view of my rejection of Lenin's national self-determination plank, at least in its application to the U.S., perhaps I have to reconsider. But have I also rejected it for Russia? After all, Russia was not a national economy at that time like the U.S. is today – so Luxemburg's argument was slightly off maybe, because it presupposed such a national economy, that is, an integrated economy over the entire territory. Things get fairly complicated in these situations in the colonies and neo-colonies. Do the same principles apply there as here? Is the existence of an integrated economic and social unit the key? What is going on here? In the absence of a widespread and large proletarian class it is even impossible to talk of a revolution to abolish wage-slavery. But of course peasants are slaves also. Peasants are trapped by capitalism just like wage-laborers. So I have to review in detail this whole question. Focus especially on the Ibo and Bengali cases. Try to work out the issues. Study Marx more on China, India, Spain, Ireland. Read more Lenin on the nationalities question. Read Mao on class structure in rural China.