What is the Third Camp?

Submitted by cathy n on 25 October, 2006 - 1:53

The central concern of “Third Camp” socialists is to promote independent working-class politics. Working-class independence from the given working class’s “own” ruling class and, not least, independence from its own ruling class’s enemies. My ruling class’ enemy ruling class is most decidedly not my friend. “The main enemy is at home”, as the heroic Karl Liebknecht put it during World War One. Everything depends on that.

Yet in all the great wars of the 20th century, including the Cold War with Stalinism, the bourgeois democracies, Britain, France, the US and others, faced enemies who were — leaving the western powers’ rule in the colonies aside — indisputably worse than their own systems at home.

In Stalinism, they faced a totalitarian empire which deprived the peoples in its maw of all the “rights of man and citizen” which had been won in centuries of struggle by the people, and in the latter stages, the working class, of the pioneering bourgeois democracies — freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, social self-organisation, national self-determination, sexuality etc.

In World War Two fascism, they faced totalitarian states whose rulers though they did not, like the ruling class of the USSR, own the economy and administer it directly, were scarcely less powerful vis a vis society, and who extirpated the rights of man and citizen just as effectively as Stalin did. The Nazis added their own systematically murderous racism against Jews and gypsies, and a relentless geno-imperialism directed against the “under-men” to the East of Germany.

In World War One, France and Belgium were invaded and partly or wholly occupied by German armies — under the control of the still very powerful German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm; Serbia was occupied and a sizeable proportion of its people slaughtered by Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary. “Prussian militarism” ruled the German empire, some of whose features were not too far from Nazism.

In turn Germany in World War One faced as enemy not only the French, British and Belgians — all of which countries were among the most advanced bourgeois democracies then existing — but also Russian Czarism, whose state had no more than partly emerged out of feudalism, and whose rulers had been the main bulwark of European reaction since wars of the French revolution a hundred years and before.

In World War Two the Russian people faced a savage enemy which branded them as inferior and fit only for slavery, and came in a Blitzkrieg to kill and enslave them.

In World War Two the German people faced a Stalinist empire, whose victorious armies, when they eventually swept through eastern Europe and over nearly half of Germany, systematically plundered and looted and raped. Hundreds of thousands of women in Berlin and Vienna alone were raped by “Red Army” soldiers. Everywhere the Russian armies plundered plant, rolling stock, equipment and moved them to Russia, stripping the occupied countries as bare as was practically possible. For the socialists in all these states, it was not possible realistically to pretend that where their own immediate fate was concerned there was no difference between the two sides, the stance described by Silone in his polemic as “equidistance”.

One of the arguments used by the “Third Campist” Lenin in 1914 and after against those who backed one of the armed camps, was that if you backed the British-French bloc because Austria-Hungary was devastating Serbia and killing vast numbers and Serbs — the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was the issue that led to the outbreak of the World War — you would in fact be allying with Britain, which kept Ireland, India and many other colonies in subjection; and with France which kept Algeria and Indo-China in its empire against their will; and with the invaded Belgium whose treatment of its colony in the Congo had before World War One becoming an international by-word for colonialist savagery.

Even so, you could always argue that then, at that moment, some oppression was demonstratively worse, or better, than other oppressions. That not all imperialist oppressors were, at a given movement equally terrible. There was nothing in 1914 on the French-British side — not even Belgium rule in Congo at that time — comparable to the Austro-Hungarian ruin and slaughter being wreaked on the Serbians.

And, of course, nationalists of all sorts put their own perceived interests first. And “took sides” accordingly. The Irish nationalist Roger Casement, who, as a British civil servant, had exposed the horrible treatment of the Congolese by their Belgian colonial masters, acting in the interests of Irish nationalism, wound up backing the German-Austrian-Turkish bloc, which was doing things in Serbia that Britain had ceased to do in Ireland a century earlier, and, against Armenians, things that have rightly been compared to the Nazi extermination of the Jews during World War Two.

The international socialists, the Third Campists, took their stand against the world system of imperialism. Against imperialism as a whole. They held that in the epoch of imperialism it was impossible to take sides on isolated issues, however important they were.

For instance, Lenin, thought that if the Serbian-Austria-Hungary could be taken in isolation, then it would be the duty of socialists to side with Serbia. The point was that it could not be taken in isolation.

The point also was that the only way to put an end to “Serbias”, “Irelands”, “Congos” and all such imperialist outrages, was to overthrow the interlocking networks of imperialism as a whole. That could only be done by the international working class. And they could never do it unless they kept their political independence from all the combatants.

To side with one of the imperialist blocs for a limited objective, or in the hope or calculation that things on balance would be better if that side won, could only, at best, solve one, or one set, of problems — those connected with the enemies of the victors.

Even where an imperialist power proclaimed ostensibly just principles, as US President Woodrow Wilson did in 1917 when the US declared war on Germany and Austo-Hungary, when it came to it these principles would in practice be outraged by the other victors on the side of Wilson’s America. Wilson championed national self-determination, but his allies France and Britain insisted on the imprisonment of reluctant peoples within the new and old European states — Germans and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, Croats and others in Yugoslavia.

One of the most striking passages in the writing brought together here is in Trotsky’s March 1939 discussion with Palestinian Trotskyists: “If there were any grounds for believing that a new victory of the familiar and slightly senile Entente (minus Italy) can work miraculous results, i.e. those counter to social-historical laws, then it is necessary not only to 'desire' this victory but to do everything in our power to bring it about. Then the Anglo-Frence social patriots would be correct.”

As it turned out, the victory of Britain, the US etc. did in western Europe lead to the restoration or installation of bourgeois democratic systems. Not, it is true, without the mass activity of the working class — in Italy, Belgium, France. In eastern Europe, the nature of the bloc allied against Nazi Germany as a bloc between the bourgeois democracies and Stalinist totalitarianism, and the military power of Russia, decreed that throughout eastern Europe, and in half of Germany, totalitarian puppet states and foreign occupation (or the threat of foreign re-occupation) would hold power for half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies.

In eastern Europe, shaky bourgeois democracies in which the labour movement could, not in some cases without harrassment and suppression and casualties, function, or loose authoritarian regimes, in all of which the labour movement could more or less exist, were replaced by totalitarian states. Some of these were loosened up a little as a result of mass working-class action at various crisis periods in the 1950s, but all of them deserved to be called either “totalitarian” or “heavily authoritarian”.

The workers of the eastern part of Germany, who had fallen under the Hitlerite juggernaut in January-March 1933, did not emerge from totalitarianism for almost sixty years.

It was never for internationalist socialists a matter of ignoring the distinction between different antagonistic systems.

An additional problem, or aspect of the same problem, confronted the socialists of bourgeois democratic countries facing totalitarian states, whether Hitlers’ or Stalin’s or Mao’s, was the difficulty that, in using their rights under bourgeois democracy to propagandise and organise against their “own” ruling classes’ foreign policy, in accordance to Liebknecht’s dictum, “the main enemy is at home”, they were thereby siding with or, at least in terms of practical realpolitik, helping, the “other side”.

That sort of charge had of course, always been made against their domestic opponents by governments facing external conflicts. Calling leftists “unpatriotic” was always a big stick, and easy to wield. (We see it now in the USA and George W Bush’s regime).
In the First World War the international socialists could answer that they had comrades doing exactly the same thing behind enemy lines.

But even then it was not an argument that could not be challenged. The powerful Germany Social Democracy backed the Kaiser’s war from the beginning. It took the first half of the war for a strong socialist opposition to the war to emerge (the German party split in 1916).

The behaviour of the German Social Democrats on the outbreak of war pushed socialists in the other camp into backing their “own” countries.

Even so, the argument from reciprocal opposition in both camps, was then still an adequate answer to the charge of “helping the enemy”. That argument could not serve those facing the same charge in the bourgeois democrat camp when they were accused of helping Hitlerite or Stalinist totalitarianism. There was no reciprocal, no balancing-out opposition in the totalitarian states. There could not be. Opposition was driven underground and crushed in Germany, and simply annihilated for two to three generations in Stalinist Russia.

In such situations the pressure for socialists to pick the lesser evil and side with it, and to abandon the fight for independent working class politics, was accordingly very great. Many, including, sadly the author of some of the best articles, Max Shachtman, succumbed to it.

They were of course wars in which the international socialists positively wanted their “own state” to lose to the “enemy” – wars being fought against colonial uprisings, wars of conquest. There we were vehemently on one side, wholeheartedly against “our own” countries and actively in favour of the victory of those fighting to defend or win their liberty against French, British etc imperialism.

Despite the terminology of "defeatism" which came into use in the 1920s for “Third Camp” attitudes, international socialists held in the strongest contempt opponents of an imperialist government at war who tipped over into support for the imperialists of the other side.

Lenin polemicised against the Menshevik Pavel Axelrod because in his socialist opposition to Russia’s war, he was in fact pro-German, wanting a German victory. The internationalists fought and treated with contempt the energetic attempts by the German Social Democrats to use pseudo-Marxist arguments to get the socialists of other countries to back Germany. In one of the articles in this collection, Old Garbage in New Pails, Max Shachtman tells the story of some of these efforts.

Today’s anti-imperialists relate to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threat of conflict in Iran, as if it were a question of colonies fighting against colonial-style imperialism for their liberation. They are like people trying to find their way round the London Underground using a map of the Paris metro. They misapply the old communist programme for the attitude to take to colonial liberation movements — actively siding with them — to smaller regional imperialisms like Iraq and Iran.

“My enemy’s enemy is always my friend” would be a fair summing up of their attitude — the very opposite of Third Camp socialism. They ally with movements that are not in any sense liberating forces, not national liberation movements, but proponents of the worst social and cultural reaction. They have reduced themselves to an absurd caricature.

They ally with political Islam, have refused to denounce al-Qaeda bombings, they back Saddam Hussein and make excuses for the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are a thousand miles from the politics of international socialism — the politics of Lenin and Trotsky — the politics of the Third Camp.

The articles in this issue of Workers’ Liberty discuss problems of independent working-class socialism in a number of past historical situations. We hope they will help make discussion of these issues better informed.

Sean Matgamna

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