GEORGE BREITMAN: THE NATIONAL QUESTION AND POLITICAL REVOLUTION IN THE U.S.S.R. AND EASTERN EUROPE (1979)

George Breitman

George Breitman

 National oppression in the Soviet Union is more pervasive and probably more effective than it was under tsarism; in this area the Stalinist bureaucracy is more efficient than the tsarist bureaucracy was. Moreover, it is more extensive. The deformed workers’ states of Eastern Europe, despite their formal independence, are also nationally oppressed by the Kremlin. In fact, this national oppression is a principal feature impeding the political revolution in those countries, which requires a combined struggle to break the Kremlin’s yoke and oust the native bureaucratic castes. Any discussion of political revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe that neglects the aspect of national oppression or underestimates the potential of struggle against that oppression as a component of the political revolution is worse than inadequate.

Unfortunately, this is one of the topics that the commission assigned by the United Secretariat to draft the world political resolution could not come to agreement on. Significant aspects of it were put aside for discussion. Thus the draft resolution submitted by the United Secretariat (“The World Political Situation and the Tasks of the Fourth International” in IIDB, Vol. XV, No. 5, July 1978) is far from meeting our needs on this point. There are many correct and good statements on the political revolution and the national question in theses 13-17 of this resolution, but they are insufficient or incomplete. Thesis 17 presents the principal programmatic points, so I quote from that, adding my own italics:

“The general contents and basic trends of the political revolution in all those postcapitalist societies where it has been placed on the agenda can be judged from the main goals sought by the masses in the series of social explosions that began in the German Democratic Republic in 1953.

“The program of the political revolution has thus been hammered out in living struggles. The main points include the elimination of the organs of mass repression, the conquest of political freedom for the toiling masses, the establishment of independence for the trade unions and of genuine proletarian democracy with its real control by the workers; diversity of parties or factions, abolition of the I censorship, and assurance of the right to real ideological opposition in all spheres of social life. To consolidate these gains requires the exercise of workers power through freely elected councils of the masses, the establishment of workers control and workers management, the modification of the decision-making power of technicians so that they function as consultants and not as part of a ruling caste, and rebuilding the planning system so that the drain of parasitism is done away with in behalf of fulfilling the needs of the toiling population.”

If those are the main points of the program of the political revolution, then what is the right of self-determination and independence from Kremlin domination – a minor point, or hardly a point at all? Even if we limit ourselves to the lessons of the last 25 years, how can anyone forget the Russian troops and tanks that were used to put down the rebellious masses in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and to drive home the point that no serious changes are possible in Eastern Europe without a struggle to remove the threat of those troops and tanks? If there is one thing that the revolutionaries of those countries understand it is the impossibility of separating the struggle over the national questions from the struggle for workers’ democracy at home. So this too is a main point, and under certain conditions the main point.

I do not mean to imply that the resolution does not deal with the national question. Here is how it does that, in the same thesis 17:

“In sweeping away the reactionary bureaucratic structure and replacing it with proletarian democracy, the political revolution will exhibit its social character. It will end discrimination in all forms. The right of oppressed nationalities to exercise self-determination will be guaranteed-as it was under Lenin and Trotsky-up to and including separation if they so choose. The explosive nature of the national question will impose overhauling the relations of the republics in the Soviet Union. The way will be opened for women to come forward with their own special demands,” etc.

The trouble with that way of posing things is that it states them backwards. What we need to know now is not so much how the political revolution will advance the solution of the national problems but how the national struggles can be utilized to advance the political revolution; not so much what will happen after the political revolution has been made, but what we can do about the national struggles that will make the political revolution possible. Limited to the former approach it is not surprising that the resolution did not include the national question among the main points of the program of the political revolution. With the latter approach it will be easier for us to avoid errors of passivity, lip service and adaptation to the Stalinist concept that struggles against national oppression in the USSR and Eastern Europe are and can only be counterrevolutionary.

I don’t know of anyone or any tendency in the Fourth International that is not completely in favor of struggles to liberate the East European workers’ states from Kremlin oppression. Good. So what we must do is express that idea in our theses and propaganda, express it clearly and express it now. Our aim should be to become known in those countries and throughout the world as the principal advocates and fighters for this idea. There is no doubt that such a position and knowledge about such a position would strengthen the forces of the political revolution in East Europe because it is in accord with what every revolutionary there yearns for, even though because of repression the various dissident groups existing there feel that they cannot yet express this position publicly themselves.

About the possibility of unanimity among us over the national question in the Soviet Union itself I am less certain. I am not referring here to the question of the right of self-determination, which is affirmed in the resolution and which almost everyone else supports or pretends to support, except for reactionaries of the Solzhenitsyn type. What I have in mind is the question of our advocating an independent Soviet Ukraine, an independent Soviet Georgia, etc., as a basic component of our struggle for the political revolution. Recognition of the right of self-determination implies possible support for the creation of such breakaways from the Kremlin’s prison house of nations, but I think we should make our support explicit and, beyond that, become advocates of such separation.

As I indicated, there were differences over this question in the drafting commission and it, like several other major questions, is not handled in the present resolution. Another aspect to  this question relates to the in-and-out character of its history in our movement.

Trotsky was the first in the Fourth International to raise the demand for separation, in a public discussion article in April 1939, when he called “For a united, free, and independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine” (“The Ukrainian Question,” April 22, 1939, in Writings 38-39), and in a follow-up reply to critics where he said that a revolutionary national uprising in the Ukraine would represent “nothing else but a single segment of the political revolution” (“Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads,” July 30, 1939, in Writings 39-40). Since these articles are required reading or rereading for everyone concerned with this problem, I make no effort to summarize or comment on them here, except to observe that although many conditions have changed since the time they were written (on the eve of World War II), most of their points are still applicable today, and that Trotsky evidently did not believe that our declaration of support for Ukrainian independence had to be postponed until after the Ukrainian masses had chosen to separate through a referendum or other formal means of expression (the virtual impossibility of getting such a referendum from a totalitarian regime being precisely one of the reasons why separation was necessary).

Trotsky’s proposal on the Ukraine does not seem to have been acted on by any official body of the International until after World War II began in Europe. A week after the invasion of Poland he agreed to let his articles be published in Ukrainian as a pamphlet, expressing the opinion that they had not become outdated by the opening of the war (“The War and the Ukrainian Question,” September 6, 1939, in Writings 39-40). Two months later, he must have held the same opinion because he said, “The slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine  (…) is only an application on the field of the national question of our general slogan for the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucracy” (“A Letter to Max Shachtman,” November 6, 1939, in In Defense of Marxism). But six months after that, when Trotsky wrote his last programmatic document, adopted by the emergency conference of the International, it contained no reference whatever to the Ukrainian slogan (“Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution,” May 1940, in Writings 39-40).

It was reintroduced, however, eight years later, at the next world congress of the International, which adopted theses on “The USSR and Stalinism,” which demanded “the immediate withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops and the application of the democratic right of self-determination, including that of complete secession for the national minorities living in the USSR, fighting for independent socialist republics of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Estonia, Lithuania, etc.” (Fourth International, June 1948, p. 117). This was the first time we formally adopted this position.

In 1953 the International split into the forces around the International Secretariat and those around the International Committee. The “Ukrainian slogan” was not an issue in dispute. This was shown in 1957 when a world congress of the IS forces adopted a resolution on “The Decline and Fall of Stalinism” which said that “the Fourth International defende the slogan of the independent and sovereign Soviet Socialist Republics of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, while at the same time advocating the confederation of all these workers’ states on a strict basis of equality, in one or several democratic federations of workers’ states” (reprinted in “The Development and Disintegration of World Stalinism,” an Education for Socialists bulletin, SWP National Education Department, March 1970, p. 43).

So far I have not been able to find any references to the slogan. in the literature of the IC forces. More important, I could not locate any mention of it in the documents of the International after the split was healed in 1963-neither in the reunification congress that year, nor in the world congresses of 1965, 1969, and 1974, nor in the resolutions or statements of the United Secretariat. This leads to certain questions:

Why has the International dropped this slogan? Do we think it was correct in 1948 and 1957 but has become outmoded or inapplicable since then? Or that it was incorrect from the beginning? In either case, this world congress has the obligation to inform the members what it thinks, and why. Continued silence on the subject contributes to neither the education of the membership nor the preparation of the political revolution. There is nothing shameful in changing a position if we think it is wrong and can motivate it politically, but it can be demoralizing and disruptive if the change is made without explanation. Convince us, if you can, but at least give us a chance for a meaningful discussion.

I favor the reinstatement of the slogan in the present resolution, with whose general line I agree. And this time its adoption by the world congress should be taken seriously: Not a brief statement on the subject every few years, but a campaign to reeducate our members and to mobilize support internationally for systematic and sustained work around one of the main tasks leading to the political revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

February 18, 1979

Socialist Workers Party, Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1979, pp. 26-27.

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