Marxist Bulletin No 5 Revised

The Secret War Between Brother Klonsky and Stalin (and who won)




Reprinted from Spartacist No. 13, August-September 1969

The following document was written for a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) regional conference by Spartacist League comrades in the South; later copies of the polemic, with an introduction and entitled Mike Klonsky Versus Brother Stalin, were distributed at the June 1969 SDS Convention.

Trotskyists loathe Stalin, and after his earliest years we do not consider his views Marxist. Marxism and the National Question was a viable reference for two reasons: this was Klonsky’s “theoretical” cover for his own separatist views, not corresponding to canon text; secondly, as the document makes clear, Stalin wrote this work in 1913 at Lenin’s direction and under his editorial tutelage. The work pales in significance compared with the subtlety and depth of Lenin’s own work on nationalities; but if mediocre, Stalin’s essay is still considered justifiably a theoretical contribution of the Marxist movement.

But even in terms of his own theory, Stalin never had an integrated and systematic view on the national question. The man who shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution was capable (with aid) of stating the Leninist analysis on imperialism and the special oppression of minorities could, by 1922, indulge himself in a fierce, great-power bureaucratic suppression of Georgia and the Georgian Bolsheviks in so crass and ugly a manner that when finally notice of this came to the attention of the dying Lenin his response was to recommend to the Central Committee of his party that Stalin be removed from the office of its General Secretary.

Our document quotes Stalin to the effect that in contradistinction to the bourgeoisie’s attempt to prolong the national aspects of social struggle “the class-conscious proletariat cannot rally under the ‘national’ flag of the bourgeoisie.” This is Lenin’s politics. Yet the same man who wrote that became the architect of the popular front with the “progressive bourgeoisie” and in China, Spain, France and tens of other places wrecked potential communist revolutions by the self-same rallying under the “national” flag. Would-be revolutionaries should understand that blind enthusiasm for “national liberation movements”, in preference to class struggle conceptions leads down an old, old road heaped with the bodies of dedicated communists butchered by their “progressive” “liberal” bourgeois allies. Those who seek sustenance in Mao thought should remember that it was Mao, Stalin’s greatest living acolyte himself, who engineered the political techniques that disarmed the Indonesian working class and led to the mass execution of their Communist Party. Readers of this document should not allow any admiration for Stalin’s youthful Leninist orthodoxy here to blind them to the fact that in whatever contemporary guise Stalinism is the syphilis of the workers’ movement and unless mercilessly eradicated will destroy yet another generation of young revolutionaries.

What is self-determination? SDS National Secretary Mike Klonsky says self-determination means the right of a group, or a people, to decide their own destiny.

According to Marxism, self-determination means the right of a nation to independence and equality in its dealings with other nations.

What’s the difference? First, the Marxist begins with material reality. Can this or that group really decide its own destiny? Maybe students and soldiers ought to be able to decide their own destiny. It might be nice. But these groups exist only because they’re subsidized by the rest of society. Their struggles for political and personal freedom are necessary and just, but we can’t talk about self-determination for a fragment of society that can’t support itself. Would a steel mill, under socialism, decide its own destiny? No, the fate of the mill and the workers would be socially determined by the need for steel, the availability of ore, the state of technology, the skill and consciousness of the workers.

After a successful revolution, does a workers’ state “decide its own destiny”? No. Cuba’s destiny is strongly influenced by U.S. and Soviet foreign policy. Even if socialism were victorious on a world scale, the economic development of individual areas and industries would be socially determined on an international basis.

So, Marxists don’t begin by asking whether a group wants complete autonomy, or is oppressed, or deserves a break, or feels it needs independence. When a revolutionary says “self determination” he isn’t talking about abstract or utopian independence from society by small, weak castes--“student power,” for example. The revolutionary uses “self-determination” to describe the right to secede, and the capability to form a nation, when that struggle for secession advances the revolution--the whole class struggle.

A Black Nation?

Klonsky says American Blacks are a nation, and that self-determination, in the Marxist sense, applies to their struggle. In his recent New Left Notes article on SSOC, he says:

“While I disagree with SSOC’s notion of the South as a colony, I do believe that the nature of the struggle in the South is going to take on special characteristics. This is due primarily to the historic role of the Black liberation movement in the South and to the fact that the historical basis for a separate Black nation lies in the South. [emphasis added]

Of course the South will exhibit special characteristics. The revolution in Brooklyn will be very different from the struggle in Queens, for that matter. But is there actually a historical basis for a separate Black nation? Is there now, or in the future, a material basis for separatism?

Brother Klonsky seems to assume--correctly--that most radicals are unaware of just what Marxists consider constitutes a “nation.” At the recent SSOC High School Conference in Atlanta, he recommended as an authority on the national question--J.V. Stalin. Lenin, too, considered Stalin an authority on the national question for the Party; that is, until Stalin’s brutal treatment of the Georgian communists, along with other offenses against the Bolshevik principle led Lenin to declare that Stalin’s tenure as General Secretary posed grave dangers for the Party.

Stalin’s Contribution

A standard work on the national question and self-determination is Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question. We reread it after the confusing experience of listening to Klonsky in Atlanta. The National Secretary kept referring to “self-determination” to support his points. For example, he said that American radicals have no right to criticize the policies of the NLF. That would be imperialism, since their revolution was their own business. We were wondering whether we had the right to criticize counter-revolutionary Soviet policy when he dropped another one--criticism of the Black Panthers indicated a racist mentality, since whites had no right to tell the Black liberation fighters what to do.

That sounded consistent, anyway. But the next moment Klonsky had nominated the Panthers for vanguard not only of the Black liberation struggle, but the whole American revolution. Now if the National Secretary really thought he had no business criticizing the Blacks he wouldn’t be putting the Panthers on a pedestal at the expense of SNCC, ELRUM, and many others. He would take his own advice, and keep his mouth shut. However, no such deviation from character occurred.

By and by, Klonsky was asked where his theory came from. He referred us to Stalin. We had read the pamphlet. Someone had a very bad memory. Checking the pamphlet would tell us which. When we reread Uncle Joe’s work, we found that Stalin contradicted Klonsky on every point. The differences can’t be accounted for by lapse of memory.

Let’s summarize just what Stalin said about the national question in 1913, when his view was close to Lenin’s. Once people get this straight in their minds, Klonsky can come forward and take credit for developing a new theory of nationalism that has nothing to do with the Bolshevik crew of amateurs.

Leninist Criteria

What constitutes a nation, and once we know that, what should we do about it? In Marxism and the National Question (Stalin, Works, vol. ii, pp. 300-381) Stalin declares that:

“A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

He goes further:

“It must be emphasized that none of the above characteristics taken separately is sufficient to define a nation. More than that, it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and the nation ceases to be a nation.”

The Bolsheviks thought it was pointless to spend a lot of blood trying to get political independence for groups which would fall, quickly and totally, under the economic domination of some other power. So they defined a nation in such a way as to exclude religions, cliques, castes, and any other groups which couldn’t make a go of it independently. Stalin set down four characteristics, and specified that a “nation” must have all of them.

1) Common language

2) Common territory

3) Common economic life (with independent class structure and means of production organized along capitalist lines)

4) Common psychological make-up; common culture

Now which of these features of nationalism is shared by Blacks in the U.S.? Do they have a common language? Well, yes: English, like most other Americans. Common territory? While the South retains a large Black population, the population shift of Blacks in the last fifty years has been from the rural South into all parts of the country, especially into the big cities, many of which now have Black majorities or near-majorities. The geographical distribution of Blacks is increasingly the same as that of the U.S. working class as a whole. Psychological make-up manifested in a common culture? This question lends itself more than the others to subjective interpretation; but it seems that what common, distinctive culture exists is that of the lower, most oppressed stratum of the American working class and that section squeezed into the ranks of the chronically unemployed. Blacks may give the appearance of possessing some degree of special, national culture, because unlike whites almost all Blacks are working-class; this is a class difference in culture, not a national one. Appalachian white workers, or migrant agricultural laborers, for example, possess a somewhat distinct culture as a result of their special niches in capitalism’s division of labor.

The forced segregation of Blacks in the U.S. is another factor lending them the appearance of nationhood. But this forced segregation from the bulk of the working class, of which they are economically a part, stands in direct contrast to the usual pattern of national oppression: forced assimilation. The forced segregation imposed on Blacks by a ruling class seeking to prevent working-class unity has impelled Blacks to seek integration and equality with the rest of the working class. Separatism is an accommodation to the ruling class’ tactic of working-class division along racial lines, and most Blacks know it. When they unite in separate Black organizations it has usually been to fight the separatism, the appearance of separate nationality, imposed upon them by the (white) bourgeoisie. A separatist ideology, in its very nature, cannot direct a struggle against the segregation which keeps Blacks in their doubly oppressed condition. And it’s obviously dangerous to imply to racist white workers that since Blacks are a separate nation and deserve a separate state, the whites can have a segregated socialism. This is not different in principle from SSOC’s organizing workers as Southerners.

Utopian Cultural Nationalism

People trying to make a case for Black Culture usually tell only half, or less than half, of the story. They emphasize escape, insurrection, sabotage, protest--the whole spectrum of Black resistance to oppression.

In fact, these traditions are largely absent from the Black community. They are smothered by the culture of humility and submission promoted by the preachers and Uncle Toms. The demand for Black studies is an attempt by the militants to attack the dominant ghetto culture, the culture of submission. This situation duplicates that of the working class as a whole: a dominant ideology of religion end patriotism, promoted by the rulers and all their media, and an insurgent culture of class struggle preserved by the left and part of the labor movement.

In their book Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton state:

“Under classic colonialism, the colony is a source of cheaply produced raw materials… which the ‘Mother Country’ then processes into finished goods and sells at a high profit--sometimes back to the colony itself. The black communities in the United States do not export anything except human labor.” [p. 6, emphasis added]

Now that is a respectable Marxist definition not of a nation--colony or otherwise--but of the situation of the proletariat under capitalism. Many of the special features of Black life and consciousness in the U.S. follow from the fact that Blacks are proletarians like most other Americans, only more so; that is, the Black petty bourgeoisie is extremely small, and the Black big bourgeoisie non-existent. In the epoch of decaying capitalism there simply isn’t room for new Black Rockefellers.

On Separate Organization

Are Black people simply working-class, in their vast majority? No. They represent a specially oppressed color caste within the U.S. working class. There are other such specially oppressed strata, or “castes,” within the working class, and within the petty bourgeoisie as well. The special oppression of Blacks is qualitatively similar to that endured by women, youth, many American Indians (some of whom would qualify for a national status in the Marxist sense), and white ethnic minority groups. These examples, too, are predominantly working-class in composition, though sometimes less overwhelmingly so than Blacks. Each of these groups suffers special oppression in addition to the fundamental oppression of the working class under capitalism.

Modern Bolsheviks, like Lenin’s party, do not oppose but rather encourage these groups to form special organizations to fight their special oppression. These organizations and movements do not compete with the vanguard party of the whole class, but rather are linked to it through their most conscious cadre. What we must oppose is the dual vanguard concept; the U.S. has a single bourgeois state and ruling class, and unifying the struggles of all capitalism’s separate oppressed groups must be a single Marxist party.

With Lenin looking over his shoulder, Stalin would probably say that Blacks no longer have a common territory, that language barriers don’t separate them from most other workers, that their culture is not widely divergent either, and that they own nothing but their bodies. He would conclude from this that it would be extremely difficult to unite the Blacks around a demand for secession. And if secession were accomplished, Black workers would still be working for white capitalists since there is no Black big bourgeoisie, no Black capital. Similarly, Lenin’s party opposed self-determination for the Jewish ghetto because it provided no avenue of struggle against the dominant institutions of oppression. For this reason the Party opposed the slogan despite the recognized special oppression of the Jews under Tsarism, and despite the existence of widespread anti-Semitism among the less conscious Russian workers.

So the Bolshevik Stalin might say: “Throw in with the white workers, struggle against the bosses and against the specific forms of oppression that isolate you and weaken you.”

Klonsky cuts through all this nit-picking. He states, boldly and clearly, “If you want to secede, go ahead. It’s your blood, and anyway it’s not my business to tell you what to do.”

Let’s put another question to Klonsky and Stalin: Assuming an oppressed and oppressor nation, how should the vanguard party organize?

Klonsky thinks in terms of two vanguards--one Black, one white--with unity at some future date.

Stalin’s views on the vanguard are sort of old-fashioned:

“We know where the demarcation of workers according to nationalities leads to. The disintegration of a united workers’ party, the splitting of trade unions, aggravation of national friction, national strike-breaking, complete demoralization within the ranks of Social-Democracy.”

Simple, isn’t it? One ruling class, one vanguard. One boss, one union. One bureaucracy, one caucus to fight it. Stalin wouldn’t think much of ELRUM, with its demands for Black foremen. That would seem to him only one step from the demand for Black cops.

Klonsky is more open-minded and liberal in his approach. He’s more modest and diplomatic. He knows his place.

No Liberal Blank Checks

Let’s assume Klonsky can persuade us that the situation of the American Blacks is a national liberation question, and furthermore, that it requires a separate vanguard. Would that mean that revolutionaries shouldn’t criticize the Black vanguard? The Bolsheviks were notorious for fierce and uncompromising criticism of foreign vanguard parties. Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder is mostly criticism of the mistakes of other vanguards. Lenin considered this international criticism and debate to be a vital part of internationalism.

Marxists emphatically do not support all national demands. They proclaim the right of nations to wage their own class struggles, to decide their own historic destinies, even to move backward to an outmoded social order. But Marxists don’t abdicate their responsibility to their class, the proletariat. They don’t tail-end the self determination struggle. They try to direct it politically, to lead the national struggle in a direction favorable to the international proletariat and the establishment of its dictatorship. They don’t act as yes-men for national movements, which usually suffer from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leadership. Honest revolutionaries don’t issue blank checks of support to anybody.

The Bolsheviks adopted an extremely critical attitude toward national movements and their demands. In the first section of the pamphlet cited Stalin observes that nationalism was flourishing in 1913, to the weakening and defeat of the proletarian movement internationally. As to the Marxist approach, he says:

“Social-Democracy [will not] support every demand of a nation. A nation has the right even to return to the old order of things; but this does not mean that Social-Democracy will subscribe to such a decision if taken by some institution of a particular nation. The obligations of Social-Democracy, which defends the interests of the proletariat, and the rights of a nation, are two different things.

“This is what essentially distinguishes the policy of the class-conscious proletariat from the policy of the bourgeoisie, which attempts to aggravate and fan the national struggle and to prolong the national movement.

“And that is why the class-conscious proletariat cannot rally under the ‘national’ flag of the bourgeoisie.”

Stalinist enthusiasts for non-proletarian “movements of national liberation around the world” (Arab nationalism, Ben Bella and Boumedienne, Sukarno, Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920’s, etc.) should note that Stalin, too, before he liquidated the Old Bolsheviks Left, Right, and Center, spoke for the critical, proletarian, Leninist approach to the national question.

Stalin makes another important observation about nationalism which is very difficult to square with the “historical basis” which Klonsky says exists for a separate Black nation in the U.S.

“A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.”

Does Klonsky believe that the twentieth century is one of “rising capitalism” in the U.S.? Or that the U.S., even the South, was “feudal” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the historical basis for a separate Black nation was presumably being laid?

Ersatz Orthodoxy

Summing up: Klonsky and the National Collective have been using Stalin’s name--only his name--to justify their attitude toward the Black liberation struggle and their overall perspective for SDS. Even a hasty reading of Marxism and the National Question leaves us with this choice of conclusions:

1) Klonsky can’t read.

2) Klonsky is lying.

Ever since the National Collective made its first abortive power-play it has been desperately searching for a national perspective for SDS that would justify greater centralism. It was unable to develop a program of class struggle, because most of the National Collective doesn’t believe in the working class as a revolutionary force, much less the primary force for change. But it could and did unite around the romantic appeal of the Panthers. By making the victory of the Black movement a precondition for the development of the American revolution (Klonsky, “The White Question,” NLN 20 Mar. ‘69) it has dumped the difficult job of teaching class consciousness and promoting the class struggle. What remains is simple agitation against white supremacy, which quite a few liberal and reformist groups have been doing for years. In effect, the National Collective is “with” the Panthers the same way a tape worm is “with” its host. If the Panthers pressure the National Collective to adopt a genuine revolutionary strategy of class struggle, we can depend on the parasite to leave by the traditional route.

PL vs. Marxist Clarity

The chief opposition to the National Collective’s line on nationalism has come from Progressive Labor. Observers of this battle should know that until its drastic left turn on nationalism a few months ago, PL endorsed the same kind of petty-bourgeois nationalist movements here and abroad which the National Collective enthuses over now. PL condemned the Trotskyist Spartacist League for its critical approach to national movements, an approach now adopted by them. PL won’t admit just whose analysis they have borrowed from, any more than Stalin admitted adopting aspects of the Left Opposition’s program after purging them from the Party. They admit they were wrong on the Black liberation movement, Algeria, the NLF, etc. (see the article on Black Liberation in PL, Feb. ‘69), but they can’t say who was right on these questions or what political method led them to avoid PL’s errors. Maybe they feel that all that’s lost is Marxist clarity, and they’re right. Keeping silent means fewer questions when a new zig-zag is called.

PL has not revised its method of analyzing problems like the national question. That would require the repudiation of all the characteristic theory and practice of Communist Parties since Stalin’s break with Lenin, Trotsky, and Marxism, and his dictatorship over the Party. Socialism in One Country, the Bloc of Four Classes, the Theory of Social Fascism, the liberal Pop Fronts--all this history of the Third International parties would have to be condemned, and that would be getting “dangerously” close to--Trotskyism.

PL belongs to a tradition of degenerate Bolshevism--Stalinism and Maoism. Both look to social formations other than the working class for support of parasitic bureaucracies ruling in place of the proletariat. This is the basis, in political method, of the forty-year pattern of betrayal of the proletariat, a betrayal proceeding from the bureaucracy’s need to obtain support or neutrality from bourgeois forces. PL’s dependence on the ideology and leadership emanating from China (read Peking Review, if you can) will bring their national position right back to where it was should Mao’s bureaucracy reprimand PL for its recent divergence from Peking’s ultra-opportunistic stance on the national questions. The old Moscow-oriented Communist Parties followed every twist and turn of the Soviet bureaucracy as it sought to avoid the twin dangers of imperialist invasion and workers’ political control from below--in the period which PL considers healthy and revolutionary. Radicals leaning toward PL should keep their political spines flexible, and keep close watch on Peking Review.

--Nick Dicken--SDS at large, Spartacist League
--Leon Day--SDS at large, Spartacist League




Posted: 26 March 2006