Workers' Liberty day school - Marxists and national questions (London)

Submitted by martin on Sun, 01/07/2018 - 20:10

1. Basics from our tradition: the Marxist debates on the national question before 1914

2. How Orthodox Trotskyism skewed the tradition

3. Ireland

4. Israel-Palestine

5. Catalonia and the "Norwegian way"

IoE, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, room 736

Short description

The Workers' Liberty day school on Marxists and national questions in Leeds on 17 February opened with a discussion on Israel and Palestine.

We found that a common attitude on the British left is to talk about Israel and Palestine in a different frame from national questions in general. In general most leftists today support the principle of the right of nations to self-determination. For Israel and Palestine, that indicates support for self-determination of both the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews, in short "two states".

We went on to discuss the "classics", the Marxist debates of the early 20th century, mostly focused on national disputes in central and eastern Europe, on which most modern socialist discussion draws.

Rosa Luxemburg and others denounced national oppression but argued that the development of capitalism had made national self-determination utopian or futile within Europe. (They had a different attitude on peoples outside Europe conquered by European powers, for whom they did support self-determination).

The leaders of the socialist movement in the Austro-Hungarian empire advocated "cultural national autonomy", which meant keeping the Austro-Hungarian realm as a unit but having people within it signed up individually to different nationality groups which would run, for example, their own schools.

Lenin, on this issue, represented the majority in the Second International, and argued that majority view with exceptional insistence and clarity. A program both to counter oppression and to enable class politics to develop with minimum hindrance from national frictions required the right of nations to self-determination, and, accompanying that, rights for autonomy of distinctive sub-territories and wide individual rights for minorities.

One of us commented that at a number of junctures, even as recently as the 1980s, it has seemed that national questions are fading from politics. And then they return, again and again. National identities and national frictions are, evidently, deeply embedded in the fabric of capitalism.

The third session revealed that Orthodox Trotskyism, from the 1940s, tended systematically to warp the ideas advocated by Lenin, although the Orthodox Trotskyists themselves thought they were just continuing them. This happened through coming to see world politics in terms of a contest of "camps", one being "imperialism" (in other words, the US and its allies), and the other being "the revolution".

The fourth session discussed the exceptional history of Ireland, as a sort of "hybrid colony", part an American type where the previous indigenous people were marginalised or even driven out, and part an Indian type where a small minority from the metropolis lorded over an indigenous working population. We traced some of the twists and turns of the last hundred years, and reviewed Workers' Liberty's advocacy of a federal united Ireland.

We concluded by discussing the current conflict in Catalonia, on which we agree with Trotsky's advocacy of Catalonia's right to self-determination but also his view that any setting-up of a new border between Catalonia and the rest of Spain would come "against the advice and criticism of the Communists".