Marxist texts and Marxist method (part 1)

Submitted by martin on 6 April, 2007 - 5:40 Author: Sean Matgamnna

By Sean Matgamna: from
Workers’ Socialist Review no.2, 1982

Time and again the same quotations from Trotsky have been used to justify a pro-Argentine stance in the Falklands/Malvinas war But the main thing the quotations prove is the pro-Argentine comrades’ lack of grip on the points in dispute.
Everyone in the WSL majority would agree that if the comparison with China and the other colonies and semi-colonies of the 1930s referred to by Trotsky is legitimate, then we would not invoke the character of the Argentine regime as a reason for not siding with Argentina.
We could immediately arrive at agreement if the pro-Argentine comrades would — or could — tell us how, in what way, for what real national-liberation goals, or in what social/economic/political sense Argentina is fighting imperialism in the Falklands. But they can’t.
Pro-Argentine comrades quote Trotsky (Writings 1938-9, p.34) saying that he would side with “semi-fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Britain in a hypothetical war because: “If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro [i.e. will control Brazil] and will place double chains on Brazil [i.e., conquer it, or force territorial concessions from it, or unequal treaties, or impose political conditions which tie it economically to Britain’s empire]”.
Trotsky was quite right, in our view. If a similar situation arises today, what he wrote will be a blueprint for our attitudes.
They quote Trotsky in 1937 rejecting defeatism for China which was, under Chiang Kai-shek, beginning to organise a national war of liberation to drive out the Japanese armies that had been on Chinese territory since 1931 and against which the Trotskyists had consistently called for a national war of liberation.
We believe Trotsky was 100% right about China. His comments as quoted would serve perfectly to guide us for any more or less comparable situation today.
But what Trotsky wrote about China naturally cannot serve as a concrete analysis of any situation today! That we must make for ourselves. And only on the basis of that analysis can we decide how much of Trotsky’s blueprint is relevant to the given situation.
The comrades quote Trotsky advocating world working class support for Mexico (Writings 1938-9, p.64), whose radical, perhaps quasi-revolutionary, bourgeois govermment had nationalised British oilfields.
Yes indeed. Trotsky was a good communist! But he was also a good Marxist.
They quote him pledging support for even the “barbarian” Bey of Tunis to drive out France! (Writings 1938-9, p.66).** Yes! Trotsky had attended the Second Congress of the Communist International. He even wrote its manifesto, which said this:
“The Socialist who aids directly or indirectly in perpetuating the privileged position of one nation at the expense of another, who accommodates himself to colonial slavery, who draws a line of distinction between races and colours in the matter of human rights, who helps the bourgeoisie of the metropolis to maintain its rule over the colonies instead of aiding the armed uprising of the colonies; the British Socialist who fails to support by all possible means the uprisings in Ireland, Egypt and India against London plutocracy — such a socialist deserves to be branded with infamy, if not with a bullet, but in no case merits either a mandate or the confidence of the proletariat”.
He had supported the wretched Negus, Haile Selassie, against the Italian invasion. He even wrote this, which is a tremendous statement of the principles that must animate us on the national question:
“What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude toward oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their ‘right’ to self-determination and to Parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of this right. Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations, it raises them up against their oppressors: it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in capitalist countries, it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus or Arabs in the art of insurrection and it assumes full responsibility for this work in the face of civilised executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over this boundary remains centrism” (What Next?).
But these quotations merely beg the question — are they relevant to the Argentine situation? Was the Falklands war remotely, or at all, comparable to what Trotsky is talking about? Essentially, no.

The issue: national liberation
Even in the shortest quote, the concrete issues invoked — struggle for liberation against colonial armies, defence of the right of a backward state to expropriate foreign capital, etc. — is spelled out or referred to. Imperialism still operated through colonial empires, and the struggle for such empires and for their redivision was the substance of World War Two.
But Argentina was not threatened with double chains. The Argentine regime is a protector of foreign capital. They didn’t even expropriate British capital as a gambit in the war.
Any comparison of Argentina with Tunisia, Mexico, or China of the ’30s is preposterous. In terms of its level of development, role in its region, and place in the economic network of imperialism, it might be better compared with Italy or Japan of the 1930s — except that it is more developed than Japan was, and has a more or less fully-developed bourgeois social structure, which Japan and even Italy did not have.
The pro-Argentine comrades’ way with quotations seems to me to be repugnant to the spirit of Marxism and the opposite of the practice of Marxist analysis. It rules out specific analysis, substituting instead dogmatic recipes and formulas. They mechanically apply texts derived from past use of the Marxist method in concrete circumstances of the past. Those circumstances are not with us any more. They have evolved and developed and permuted to the present situation which is different — more or less radically different, but certainly different.
Even where changes are not very profound or major, we cannot just assume that the Marxist text dealing with some apparently similar situation is a sufficiently detailed and concrete depiction. That is to operate blindly dogmatically.
It is possible to “get by” when the changes are not all that great, and the chosen texts not too markedly ill-matched to the concrete situation (but that means that whoever matches them has done at least some work on the concrete situation). On the basic ideas worked out by the geniuses of our movement, it is possible to “get by” for a very long time indeed.

How to use quotations
Even the most miserable of “Trotskyist” sects works from a stock that retains a tremendous potency and relevance. But to adopt the method of dogmatic text-worship is to cut the roots of Marxism and to make renewal and living development difficult and ultimately impossible.
Sooner or later it is no longer possible to “get by”. The texts become dogmas preventing us from relating to reality, acting like distorting spectacles.
The notion that what Trotsky wrote in a very different world (dominated by colonial imperialism, for example) about countries like China can provide us directly with answers to the Argentine war is ridiculous. The principles, methods and ways of looking at the world remain what they were when Trotsky wrote, but to conclude that the texts embodying their results when applied to working through a concrete problem can directly offer us guidelines now, the comrades would have to establish that similar or roughly similar conditions exist — that Argentina was faced with colonial invasion or something similar.
Since many comrades in fact admit that there was no real issue of Argentine national liberation served by the seizure of the Falklands, it is a culpable departure from the Marxist method to pretend to call Trotsky’s voice from the grave to tell us what he thinks we should do over the Falklands war, and to cite what he said about China’s resistance to the Japanese invaders as his answer.
It is sleight of hand, sand in the eyes, asking the relics to speak — but not Marxism.
Marxists should use — or try to use — the classic texts of our movement in a different way: as models of analysis, and as guides and checks in the practice of living Marxist analysis.
If you compare any of Lenin’s serious work with the texts of Stalinism, from the 20s to the 60s, you cannot fail to see the difference between Marxism and pseudo-Marxist scholasticism. The Stalinists quote the classics (as it suits them, of course) as themselves proof, themselves giving answers. Thus, for example, the theory of “socialism in one country” was “proved” true and Marxist by a few lines from an article by Lenin written in 1915.
Lenin’s writings are studded with quotations from Marx and Engels. He cites them to establish Marx’s and Engels’ views on a relevant issue at a given time. He then asks if the concrete reality has changed and evolved, and if so in what way, and how does it relate to other connected issues. He asks what modifications, additions or deletions to the views of Marx and Engels must be made in accordance with their method, criteria, principles, in the light of developments.
He thinks, works it through, reworks it, concretises the answers for his own time and conditions, on the basis of scientific analysis. (See State and Revolution for example).
He frequently insisted against all dogmatists and quotation-mongers that “the truth is concrete”. Political development in a revolutionary Marxist spirit is possible only by an unrelenting struggle for concreteness, for science.
The classic texts here are our starting point, our models, our historic “memory”, our theoretical and political arsenal. We ourselves, however, must work out the political responses to our own problems and our own concrete reality. The books cannot think for us.
Quotation-mongering and “proof from texts” was, and in some cases still is, the method of our anti-Marxist opponents. It is the measure of the state of the Trotskyist movement that the same quotations on China, Brazil and so on have been almost universally cited as if they could tell us anything directly about Argentina.

The letter to Rivera: analysis
It is worth following through in detail a key text of Trotsky’s — his letter to Diego Rivera, a profound and brief text which applies the principles we all share to China in 1937.
What is the issue? “China is a semi-colonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan’s struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China’s struggle is emancipatory and progressive.” “Semi-colonial” meant that until the 1930s China suffered imperialist interventions, it ceded territory to the big powers, it ceded ports, it gave them special privileges — and then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, in 1937 the rest of China.
And Argentina? Argentina is a region “big power”, dominating Uruguay and Paraguay, vying for influence in Latin America with Brazil, skirmishing with Chile over disputed territory. Its national integrity has been undisputed for 100 years at least. It is subordinated to imperialism not through the Falklands but by the agency of its own ruling class. Until 1930, or even 1948 it was one of the world’s richer countries. It is a developed capitalist economy.
“Today he [Chiang Kai-shek] is forced despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the national independence of China...” This was not a symbolic war in which an aspirant regional imperialism and agent of big-power imperialist penetration led a fight over an irrelevant issue — it was a real national liberation war, against national subjugation.
Trotsky’s example of the strike has been scandalously misused by the IMG. The union exists apart from the hideous things its leaders may do — or even its members (racist strikes). We are for the union, despite everything. It is a class organisation. We criticise it fundamentally by way of fighting to transform it. Trotsky uses the analogy of the union to point to what is threatened and worth defending, irrespective of what Chiang Kai-shek may do: the freedom of the Chinese people from Japanese control.
The Argentine people were not struggling to throw out an invader, they were not threatened with subjugation.

“Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive”
“If Japan is an imperialist country and if China is the victim of imperialism, we favour China. Japanese patriotism is the hideous mask of world-wide robbery. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive. To place the two on the same plane and to speak of ‘social-patriotism’ can be done only by those who have read nothing of Lenin...”
Argentina is not the victim of colonial imperialism (which Trotsky is talking about\. It never has been. In his World War One writings, for example, Lenin distinguished Argentina from the “semi-colonies” and bracketed it with Portugal (which itself had a vast colonial empire) as an economic satellite of Britain though politically independent. (Since then Argentina has long ceased to be an economic satellite of Britain.)
The exploitation of the Argentine workers is in part conducted by foreign capital — in tandem with the Argentine bourgeoisie. What have the Falklands got to do with that? What did the war have to do with that?
Chinese patriotism was not primarily backward-looking, xenophobic, etc., but progressive. Why? Not because it had been entirely purged of those aspects, still less because those aspects could ever be progressive, but because it was the patriotism of a people rousing itself to modern political life, and rousing itself to struggle to throw out its conquerors. It was an expression of that struggle.
The attitude to the patriotism of the Chinese was determined by the real content of the struggle, which was a progressive struggle.
And our attitude to Argentine patriotism? We evaluate it as internationalists. We ask what cause it serves, what role it plays, how it relates to the struggles which have to be fought. We cannot answer these questions without an assessment of the issues in the war.
Argentine patriotism was as progressive as the cause it served — as progressive as the bourgeois military junta, on whose coat-tails the masses followed, tied by it. It was not progressive in the war. In relation to the Falkland Islanders it was chauvinist.
The sentence from Trotsky’s article “A Fresh Lesson” usually cited on support for Mexico against Britain is preceded by this comment: “We deem it not only the right but the duty of workers in these [backward colonial and semi-colonial countries] actively to participate in the ‘defence of the fatherland’ against imperialism, on condition, to be sure, that they preserve the complete independence of their class organisation and conduct a ruthless struggle against the poison of chauvinism.” In the Chinese war of national liberation we would denounce as Chinese chauvinists any anti-imperialist militants — and especially any communist militants — who would treat any national, ethnic or religious minority the way Argentina wanted to treat the Falklanders.
We might have to say: the Argentine masses are chauvinist on the Falklanders, but that’s a detail — if it were a mere detail. It was not: control over the islands was the issue over which the rival ruling classes, guided by prestige and chauvinism, clashed.
In fact, the attempt to treat Argentine nationalism as pure anti-imperialism is nothing but wishful thinking as far as I can make out. The comrades do not present any arguments, but only assertions and assumptions. At best they derive the progressive character of Argentine nationalism from the reactionary character of British imperialism: but the conclusion does not follow. We do not always put a plus where our enemies put a minus.
It does not follow that because mass militant mobilisation even on the Falklands issue could have opened channels in Argentina blocked [by the military coup] six years ago and (like the consequences of any wild adventure or gamble often do) created great dangers for the junta, that Argentine nationalism is progressive or that we should support it.
A movement is progressive by its goals and its own logic, not by its possible side-effects. If the nationalist upheaval opens opportunities for Argentine socialists, we should be glad of the outcome. We cannot derive our own assessment of nationalism from that hope.

Part Two

** ** The Bey [Regent] of Tunis was the local ruler within the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Tunisia from 1574 to 1881. In 1881 France seized Tunisia and made it (until 1956) a “protectorate”. The Bey retained a nominal position, but control was in the hands of French officials. The immediate background to Trotsky’s comment cited above was a protest in Tunis organised by the middle-class Neo-Destour (New Constitutional) party and the trade unions. French police opened fire, and killed or wounded 174 people. The Bey had no part in this nationalist protest. Trotsky’s point was that even under the leadership of the Bey and, in fact, later, in 1942-3, Munsif Bey did flirt with Neo-Destour, socialists should support the fight for national independence for Tunisia.

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