Polemic with the ICL on Tibet and Falun Gong:

On Combating Religion & Social Backwardness

The 28 May 2004 issue of Workers Vanguard (WV—literary flagship of James Robertson’s International Communist League [ICL]) attacked our treatment of Tibet and national oppression in the Chinese deformed workers’ state in 1917 No. 26. The WV polemic was tacked onto the end of a lengthy recapitulation of the ICL’s stock slanders against us, most of which are rebutted in detail in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, “ICL vs. IBT.” But, as we noted in a 15 July 2004 response to WV (available on www.bolshevik.org) the issue of Tibet was both “new and noteworthy.” The passage from our article, “China: Towards the Brink,” that the ICL found so objectionable was the following:

It is clear that the Tibetan people, who have their own language, culture and territory, resent Han domination. Like the Uighur, the Tibetans are entitled to their own national existence, but for socialists the defense of the national rights of oppressed peoples in China must be subordinate to the defense of the deformed workers’ state. The international campaign to “free Tibet” is one prong in the imperialist drive against China….

Marxists recognize that reactionary ideologies and nationalist sentiments are rooted in the material inequality of class-divided society. Whenever possible, we would seek to erode the influence of social backwardness through education and economic incentives rather than repression. A Leninist regime would combat Han chauvinism by combining generous subsidies for development with real regional autonomy for national minorities, including the right to control local political institutions, to receive education and government services in the language of choice, freedom of political expression and freedom to travel. By agreeing that the Tibetans or Uighur have the right to control their own domestic affairs, a revolutionary government in China would signal its willingness to coexist with Tibet’s traditional ruling caste and Xinjiang’s mullahs as long as they retain popular support.

This prompted the following criticism from Workers Vanguard:

More recently, the BT has extended its embrace of counterrevolution to take in not only the German SPD but the CIA’s favored ‘god-king,’ the Tibetan Dalai Lama, arguing in the latest issue of 1917 (2004): “By agreeing that the Tibetans or Uighur have the right to control their own domestic affairs, a revolutionary government in China would signal its willingness to coexist with Tibet’s traditional ruling caste and Xinjiang’s mullahs as long as they retain popular support.” Where the Beijing Stalinist bureaucracy promotes “one country, two systems” in maintaining Hong Kong as a capitalist enclave, the BT goes the extra mile—to “coexist” with feudalism!—or, in other words, “one country, three systems.” Such respect for the devotion of benighted peoples to their religious leaders has much in common with images purveyed by apologists for class and race oppression of an earlier era….

In our 15 July 2004 letter, we replied:

As every beginner socialist knows, a workers’ state (even a bureaucratically deformed one) can only be created through a social revolution i.e., the effective expropriation of the indigenous ruling classes. This was the major accomplishment of the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Zedong’s Stalinist Communist Party. Yet the transformation of property relations did not put power directly in the hands of the working class, nor did it automatically eradicate the influence of capitalist and pre-capitalist ideologies, particularly among the oppressed nationalities. The latter is the problem we sought to address.

Our proposal for regional autonomy for national minorities in China, including the right to elect whoever they choose to administrative positions, is simply an attempt to speak to the deeply-felt grievances and suspicions of peoples long oppressed by the dominant Han. The social backwardness of Tibet and Xinjiang make it likely that, initially at least, members of the reactionary traditional elites would be among those elected. ‘Co-existing’ with such persons within the economic/legal framework of a workers’ state does not imply tolerating attempts to undermine the system of collectivized property.

You sneer at us for showing “respect for the devotion of the benighted peoples to their religious leaders,” but what we propose is exactly how the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky sought to deal with the peoples of the former Czarist empire among whom superstition and ingrained habits of deference to traditional authority persisted. In its first appeal to the Muslims of the former Czarist empire, the fledgling Soviet government proclaimed:

“Muslims of Russia, Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz (i.e. Kazakhs) and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tatars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and Mountaineers of the Caucusus, and all you whose mosques and oratories have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled under foot by the Tsars and the oppressors of Russia. Your beliefs and usages, your national and cultural institutions are henceforth free and inviolable. Organize your national life in complete freedom. You have the right.”
—“To all Muslim Toilers of Russia and the East,” quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, v 1

Despite this pronouncement, the first period of the Russian Civil War saw conflicts between Red Army units and various “benighted peoples” of the East in which:

“the opposition was intensified by the intransigent attitude of Soviet emissaries towards the Muslim religion. The Soviet leaders had had little knowledge of the eastern parts of the vast domain which they had so unexpectedly acquired. They had in their minds a vague picture of oppressed peoples awaiting emancipation from superstitious mullahs as eagerly as from Tsarist administrators; and they were astonished to discover that, while the hold of Islam over the nomadic peoples and in parts of Central Asia was little more than nominal, it remained elsewhere a tenacious and vigorous institution which offered far fiercer resistance than the Orthodox Church to new beliefs and new practices. By the end of 1919 the Soviet authorities seem to have reached the conclusion that the only course was to divide the priesthood against itself by wooing the support of its younger members. This involved a compromise with Islam; in other words, an abandonment of the stiff ideological attitude of the civil-war period and a return to the toleration of the first winter of the revolution.”

The Bolsheviks provide us with a model of how a revolutionary leadership in China should seek to deal with Islamic mullahs, Tibetan monks and other purveyors of reactionary mysticism, as WV noted in a major article on Falun Gong a few years ago:

“Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik regime enforced the separation of church and state and carried out a concerted ideological effort to educate the masses in materialism. The revolutionary government nationalized the vast property holdings of the Russian Orthodox church, but the church itself was not banned. The Bolsheviks understood that religion could not be abolished by decree but would disappear only as want and suffering disappeared.”
WV No. 762, 3 August 2001

Yet, while you cited the Bolshevik example, your article hints that in contemporary China you incline to a policy of repression, at least toward Falun Gong. Branding it a “Force for Counterrevolution in China,” you chastised two Hong Kong-based ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies (the USec [United Secretariat]-affiliated October Review and the Pioneer group) for opposing the “persecution of Falun Gong” and “rally[ing] to the defense of the Falun Gong reactionaries against Beijing’s ‘high-handed repression’.” While acknowledging that Falun Gong is “not different in substance from any other religion,” you nevertheless equate defense of it with the USec’s scandalous support to the CIA-connected leadership of Polish Solidarnosc in 1981 (see our pamphlet “Solidarnosc: Acid Test for Trotskyists”).

Do you imagine that the best way to destroy the popular influence of Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan monks and Xinjiang’s mullahs is to round them all up and throw them in jail? Repression is appropriate when dealing with active counterrevolutionaries like Lech Walesa, but Leninists, unlike Stalinists, recognize that the popular influence of religion and other forms of reactionary idealism can only be effectively combated by a combination of education and the eradication of “want and suffering.” Your assertion that this amounts to “embracing counterrevolution” only demonstrates your distance from the Trotskyist tradition you purport to uphold.

WV chose not to publish our letter. Perhaps they have reconsidered their criticism in light of our comments; in any case we have heard no more on this issue. Given the rather intemperate character of the original accusation, it seems unlikely that, even with the limited glasnost now in effect in the ICL, we will soon see a formal retraction of the accusation that proposing a policy of limited “toleration” and “compromise” as practised by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky amounts to an “embrace of counterrevolution.”

Posted: 03 April 2005
Published: 1917 No.27 (May 2005)