Saturday, March 07, 2009

*The First Folk Wave- Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Lead Belly performing "Bourgeois Blues".

CD REVIEW

Folkways: The Original Vision-Songs Of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Smithsonian/Folkways, 2005


If any of the older generation, the “Generation of ‘68” needs an introduction to Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly then I ask what planet have you been on. Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land” is practically a national anthem (and in some quarters is just that). And Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” is in that same category. So to have the two highlighted on one program, as they had been in life on a number of occasions is a treat. This tribute has the further virtue of highlighting original performances by them unlike a DVD documentary and and accompanying CD “A Shared Vision” reviewed earlier in this space that was composed of tribute performances by some of those who, like John Mellencamp, have been influenced by their work, individually or collectively.

As always with a Smithsonian/Folkways production the CD includes a booklet of copious liner notes that detail, for the folk historian or the novice alike, the history of each song and its genesis. I am always surprised by the insightful detail provided and as much as I know about this milieu always find something new in them. Moreover, the information here provided inevitably details the rather mundane genesis of some very famous songs. Here, for example, “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” is just what it says back in Lead Belly’s old family farm hand days.

I do not believe that I need to detail the work of these two artists but will finish with a note of what you should make sure to hear. “Goodnight, Irene” and “This Land Is Your Land”, of course. “Rock Island Line” has aged well, as has “Do-Re-Mi”. A Woody ‘talking blues’, “Talking Hard Work”, will strike your funny bone. Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” is fine. All of this is rounded out by a Woody/Lead Belly duet on “We Shall Be Free” that has subsequently been covered by many folkies, young and old.


Lead Belly - The Bourgeois Blues Lyrics

Lord, in a bourgeois town
It's a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say "I don't want no n----rs up there"
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n----r just to see him bow
Lord, it's a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don't try to find you no home in Washington, DC
`Cause it's a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

"This Land Is Your Land"-Woody Guthrie

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Words by Woody Guthrie and Music by Martin Hoffman
© 1961 (renewed) by TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc.

Hard Travelin'

I've been havin' some hard travelin', I thought you knowed
I've been havin' some hard travelin', way down the road
I've been havin' some hard travelin', hard ramblin', hard gamblin'
I've been havin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been ridin' them fast rattlers, I thought you knowed
I've been ridin' them flat wheelers, way down the road
I've been ridin' them blind passengers, dead-enders, kickin' up cinders
I've been havin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been hittin' some hard-rock minin', I thought you knowed
I've been leanin' on a pressure drill, way down the road
Hammer flyin', air-hose suckin', six foot of mud and I shore been a muckin'
And I've been hittin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been hittin' some hard harvestin', I thought you knowed
North Dakota to Kansas City, way down the road
Cuttin' that wheat, stackin' that hay, and I'm tryin' make about a dollar a day
And I've been havin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been working that Pittsburgh steel, I thought you knowed
I've been a dumpin' that red-hot slag, way down the road
I've been a blasting, I've been a firin', I've been a pourin' red-hot iron
I've been hittin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been layin' in a hard-rock jail, I thought you knowed
I've been a laying out 90 days, way down the road
Damned old judge, he said to me, "It's 90 days for vagrancy."
And I've been hittin' some hard travelin', lord

I've been walking that Lincoln highway, I thought you knowed,
I've been hittin' that 66, way down the road
Heavy load and a worried mind, lookin' for a woman that's hard to find,
I've been hittin' some hard travelin', lord



Ludlow Massacre

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn't try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union,"
And then I hung my head and cried.

1913 Massacre

Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

I will take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I will let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.

You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They'll tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Working the copper claims, risking their lives,
So it's fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.

There's talking and laughing and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it you're friends with us all,
And you're dancing around and around in the hall.

Well a little girl sits down by the Christmas tree lights,
To play the piano so you gotta keep quiet,
To hear all this fun you would not realize,
That the copper boss' thug men are milling outside.

The copper boss' thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, "there's a fire,"
A lady she hollered, "there's no such a thing.
Keep on with your party, there's no such thing."

A few people rushed and it was only a few,
"It's just the thugs and the scabs fooling you,"
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor,
The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.

Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree,
The scabs outside still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.

The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
"See what your greed for money has done."

Oklahoma Hills

Many a month has come and gone
Since I wandered from my home
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.
Many a page of life has turned,
Many a lesson I have learned;
Well, I feel like in those hills I still belong.

'Way down yonder in the Indian Nation
Ridin' my pony on the reservation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.
Now, 'way down yonder in the Indian Nation,
A cowboy's life is my occupation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.

But as I sit here today,
Many miles I am away
From a place I rode my pony through the draw,
While the oak and blackjack trees
Kiss the playful prairie breeze,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.

Now as I turn life a page
To the land of the great Osage
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born,
While the black oil it rolls and flows
And the snow-white cotton grows
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.



Words and Music by Woody Guthrie and Jack Guthrie
© Copyright 1945 (renewed) by Woody Guthrie Publications , Inc.
and Michael Goldsen Music Inc / Warner-Chappell Music


Pastures Of Plenty

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold

I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win

It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

Pretty Boy Floyd

If you'll gather 'round me, children,
A story I will tell
'Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw,
Oklahoma knew him well.

It was in the town of Shawnee,
A Saturday afternoon,
His wife beside him in his wagon
As into town they rode.

There a deputy sheriff approached him
In a manner rather rude,
Vulgar words of anger,
An' his wife she overheard.

Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain,
And the deputy grabbed his gun;
In the fight that followed
He laid that deputy down.

Then he took to the trees and timber
To live a life of shame;
Every crime in Oklahoma
Was added to his name.

But a many a starving farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.

Others tell you 'bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal,
Underneath his napkin
Left a thousand dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole car load of groceries
Come with a note to say:

Well, you say that I'm an outlaw,
You say that I'm a thief.
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

Union Maid

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

This union maid was wise to the tricks of company spies,
She couldn't be fooled by a company stool, she'd always organize the guys.
She always got her way when she struck for better pay.
She'd show her card to the National Guard
And this is what she'd say

You gals who want to be free, just take a tip from me;
Get you a man who's a union man and join the ladies' auxiliary.
Married life ain't hard when you got a union card,
A union man has a happy life when he's got a union wife.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-Black Freedom, Women's Rights and the Civil War

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for black abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Markin comment:

The following is an article from the Spring 1989 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.

**********

Black Freedom, Women's Rights
and the Civil War

This article is based on a talk given by W&R associate editor Amy Rath at a public forum held 5 April 1988 at Howard University. For additional historical material on women in the anti-slavery struggle, see "The Grimke Sisters: Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights" (W&R No. 29, Spring 1985) and "Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Black Freedom" (W&R No. 32, Winter 1986).

The talk discusses the movement for women's rights in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, its link through the radical abolition movement with the fight against black slavery, and the destruction of that link to produce the antecedents of the present "feminists." It centers on the ideology of the antebellum abolitionists, the most far-sighted of whom saw that all democratic struggles were vitally linked and that deeply revolutionary changes would be required to establish equality. These men and women were not Marxists but bourgeois radicals of their time; for many, the primary political motivation was religion.

Northern anti-slavery activists espoused "free labor" and accepted the idea that if legal barriers to equality were removed, the American dream would be possible for anyone, given talent and hard work. In antebellum America, in the context of steady immigration and an expanding frontier, a propertyless farmhand could perhaps acquire land of his own, while a (white) laborer might look to becoming a small-scale employer of labor in a generation. But if the "free labor" ideology imagined a democratic political system of economic equals based on a society of skilled artisans and yeoman farmers, this model rapidly became a fiction. A capitalist class of Northern industrial, finance and railroad capitalists had the ascendancy. Though still a predominantly agricultural country, America was the fastest-growing industrial power (with the second-highest industrial output, after Britain). America was already the world's technological leader, very much feared as a competitor by Britain, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

The slave society of the South existed in the framework of a powerful Northern industrial sector which purchased staple crops from the South, first of all cotton. The rich plantations which possessed the South's best land and dominated the region politically were built on a pre-capitalist class relationship of black chattel slavery; at the same time they were part of a money economy in the world's most dynamic capitalist country. The conflict of social systems between the ever more powerful North and the backward South was a profound contradiction heading for collision, exacerbated by America's undemocratic "states' rights" political system which had given the South disproportionate control of the national government (especially the presidency and Supreme Court) since Independence.

The Progressive Bourgeoisie and the Limits of Reconstruction


The "irrepressible conflict" exploded in the Civil War, in the course of which Lincoln, the Northern bourgeoisie's ablest political leader, found himself obliged to go much further than he had intended in the direction of adopting the emancipation program of the abolitionists. Fifteen years before, abolitionists had been viewed as an isolated, if noisy, crew of radical fanatics.
The Civil War smashed slavery and left behind in the South a chaotic situation and four million ex-slaves who had been promised "freedom." But the war and its aftermath underlined that a truly egalitarian radical vision of social reconstruction already could not be promoted by a capitalist ruling class.

In her talk, comrade Rath emphasized the birth of a "feminist" women's movement as a rightward split at a crucial moment in American history: the era of "Reconstruction." Reconstruction posed a possibility of socially revolutionary transformations in the South: the regional ruling class, based on the ownership of land and slaves, had been militarily defeated; under the occupying Northern power, political rights were exercised by the former slaves and those willing to be allied with them.

Reconstruction brought not only black enfranchisement but significant democratic reforms: the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention drafted the state's first divorce law, while Reconstruction legislatures established the South's first public schools and went to work on liberalizing the South's draconian penal codes and reforming the planters' property tax system (which had taxed the farmer's mule and the workman's tools while all but exempting the real wealth—land). But the Northern capitalists betrayed the promise of Reconstruction, allowing it to be physically smashed by forces such as the Ku Klux Klan, even though that meant the destruction of the Republican Party in the South.

Replacing slavery, a new system of racial subordination took shape: a refurbished system of labor discipline through such measures as one-year labor contracts and "vagrancy" laws to bind ex-slaves to the plantations, and a rigid system of Jim Crow segregation. The defeat of Reconstruction shaped the postwar South into modern times: the sharecropping, the poll taxes, convict labor (the chain gang), the "separate but equal" unequal facilities.
While the woman suffrage leaders described in comrade Rath's talk took a stand against the great democratic gains that hung in the balance, many women mobilized by the anti-slavery movement served honorably in Reconstruction, for example as freedmen's schoolteachers who risked their lives to participate in freeing black people from the chains of bondage.

During Reconstruction, debate raged over the agrarian question: the radical demand raised by the freed-men and destitute white Unionist Southerners that the secessionists' estates be confiscated and distributed to them. Some abolitionists saw that racial democracy could not be achieved if a class of whites continued to own the land where a class of blacks were laborers. They argued for justice to those who had been slaves (who created the wealth of the plantations, beginning by clearing the wilderness).

But the tide had turned: the triumphant Northern rulers would not permit such an attack on "property rights" (especially as Northerners directly and Northern banks were coming to own a good deal of Southern property). Fundamentally, the federal power reinvested political power in the hands of the former "best people" of the old Confederacy. In the sequel, intensive exploitation of black agricultural labor, rather than industrial development or capital investment in the modernization of agriculture, remained the basis of the Southern economy.
What was the alternative? Working-class power was shown by the 1848 and 1871 upheavals in Europe to be the alternative to bourgeois rule, as Marx and Engels explained from the Communist Manifesto onward, but conditions were not mature even in Europe for the small proletariat to seize and wield state power. In mid-19th century America, the Northern bourgeoisie under the pressure of a revolutionary Civil War possessed a genuinely progressive side, the basis for the abolitionists' support for the Republican Party. The abolitionists' great debates revolved around how far out in front of the progressive bourgeoisie they should be. There were "radicals" and those with a more "realistic" appraisal of what the Republican Party would support. Today, more than a century after Reconstruction, that debate is transcended. The ruling class long since passed firmly over to the side of reaction; the federal government is no defender of the oppressed. Those who look to find support for an egalitarian program in any wing of the ruling class are doomed to disappointment. To complete the unfinished democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution is a responsibility of the modern working class.

When the post-Civil War suffragettes chose to focus on the narrowest political rights for middle-class women and turn their backs on the rights and survival of the most desperately oppressed, they prefigured all of today's "constituency" and "reform" politics which refuse to attack the profound class inequalities ingrained in capitalist society. Sojourner Truth's classic "Ain't I a Woman" speech (see below) today stands as a powerful indictment of these ladies as much as of the outright sexists she was debating. Those who renounce the revolutionary content of the demand for women's liberation so as to advance their schemes for election of female politicians or advancement of women in academia are direct descendants of those first "feminists" who refused to challenge the power structure of their time on behalf of justice for two million of their sisters who were freed slaves.

But there is another women's movement: the women who have joined in the front ranks of every revolutionary struggle on this planet, from the 19th-century radical abolitionists to the women workers who sparked the Russian Revolution to the communist women of today. When the October Revolution of 1917 smashed the old tsarist society in Russia, militant women were among the first recruits to communism in dozens of countries where women were oppressed by semi-feudal conditions and "customs." Young women radicalized around questions like women's education, the veil, wife-beating, religious obscurantism, arranged marriages, etc., recognized a road forward to uprooting social reaction and building a society freed from sexual, racial and class inequality. Our heroes are the revolutionary women who have shared in making all of revolutionary history, from the first moment that slaves rose up against the Roman Empire to the great struggles of today.

It was 1863, and the bloodiest war ever fought by the U.S. was raging. Abraham Lincoln had finally realized he must pronounce the destruction of slavery as the North's goal in this civil war. On 22 September 1862, his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declared that on the first of January, 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union, it turned the tide of battle. The war was now indisputably a war to end slavery, not simply to repair the Union. Soon thereafter, the government began to enlist blacks into the army; these ex-slaves and sons of ex-slaves tipped the military balance in favor of the Union. It was a matter of time until black soldiers singing "John Brown's Body" marched into Charleston, South Carolina—the "soul of secession," as Karl Marx called it-after Sherman's march through Georgia to the sea.

In May of the revolutionary year 1863, the first convention of the Women's Loyal National League met in New York City. Its most eminent speaker was a woman whose name is little known today: Angelina Grimke" Weld. As part of her address she gave a keen analysis of the war:

"This war is not, as the South falsely pretends, a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles; a war upon the working classes, whether
white or black; a war against Man, the world over. In this war, the black man was the first victim, the workingman of whatever color the next; and now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government...are
driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them, victims of the same violence that for two centuries has held the black man a prisoner of war "The nation is in a death-struggle. It must either become one vast slaveocracy of petty tyrants, or wholly the land of the free."

—Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina

A resolution was presented: "There can never be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established." Angelina Grimke' defended it against those who thought it too radical:
"I rejoice exceedingly that that resolution would combine us with the negro. I feel that we have been with him— True, we have not felt the slaveholder's lash; true, we have not had our hands manacled, but our hearts have been crushed I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours."

It was only after the Civil War that an ideology arose which was later named "feminism": the idea that the main division in society is sex. In response to the debate over the role of the newly freed slaves in U.S. society, the leaders of the woman suffrage movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—sided with the counterrevolutionary assault on Reconstruction. The birth of bourgeois feminism was part of a right-wing process which shattered the vision of the left wing of the revolutionary democracy into separate, feeble bourgeois reform movements.

The Second American Revolution

The Civil War was one of the great social revolutions in the history of the world, destroying the slaveholding class in the South and freeing the black slaves. Not only Marxists saw that. The best fighters of the day—the Grimke sisters, the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens—knew that the war would have to become a revolution against slavery before the North could win. They hated the feudalistic society of the South, with its degraded slaves, its cruelty, its arrogant, leisurely gentlemen planters, its impoverished rural whites, its lack of education, industry and general culture. The radical abolitionists wanted to wipe away that society, and also saw much wrong in the North, such as the subservience of women, and legal and social discrimination against blacks. Their ideology was to create a new order based on free labor and "equality before the law," a concept brought to the U.S. by the Radical Republican Charles Sumner out of his study of the 1789 French Revolution.

In Europe after the French Revolution the status of women was the most visible expression of the contradiction between capitalist society and its own ideals. But in the U.S. that was not so true, because of chattel slavery. The United States—the first country to proclaim itself a democratic republic—was the largest slaveholding country in the world, a huge historical contradiction which had to be resolved.

The Industrial Revolution

It was the Industrial Revolution, fundamentally, that generated what William Seward called the "Irrepressible Conflict." In broad historical terms the Industrial Revolution had created the material conditions for the elimination of slavery in society. Technological and social advances made possible a much more productive capitalist agriculture and industry. In 1854 the abolitionist clergyman Theodore Parker described slavery as "the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce...to our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community" (quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom).

The Industrial Revolution had a contradictory effect on the condition of women. Production of goods had been primarily through cottage industry, but with the invention of the spinning jenny, the power loom and the steam engine, cottage industry was ended. The men left home to go to the factory, while women stayed home to do the housework, raise the children and to buy at the local store what once they had made at home.

Women's labor ceased to be productive labor in the strict Marxist sense. This is the material basis for the 19th-century ideology of the "women's sphere." While the material advances of the Industrial Revolution made life easier for women, it also locked them into the stifling confines of domesticity in the isolated nuclear family. Women also worked in factories, but even in the industries in which they were concentrated (in textile production they made up two-thirds of the labor force) generally they worked only for a few years before getting married.

The Fight for Women's Legal Rights

Slaves were a class, but women are a specially oppressed group dispersed through all social classes. Although all women were oppressed to some extent because of their position in the family, the class differences were fundamental between the black slave woman and the slave plantation mistress, or the Northern German-speaking laundress and the wife of the owner of the Pennsylvania iron mill. "Sisterhood" was as much a myth then as it is now. Women identified first with the class to which they belonged, determined by who their husbands or fathers were.

Before the Civil War, women were basically without any civil rights. They couldn't sue or be sued, they couldn't be on juries, all their property and earnings went to their husband or father. Although women did have the vote for a few years in New Jersey and Virginia after the American Revolution, this advance was quickly eliminated. (This was part of a general right-wing turn after the Revolution, when suffrage was restricted gradually through property qualifications. In New York State, for example, with some restrictions blacks could vote up to about 1821.) For the wealthy upper-class woman, this lack of legal rights loomed as a terrible injustice because it prevented her from functioning as a full member of the ruling class (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the mother of American feminism and the daughter of a judge, felt this keenly). For the working-class or slave woman, if her property legally belonged to her husband it didn't seem a problem— she didn't have any property.

Though the legal question was a small matter for poor and slave women, nevertheless legal injustice is not insignificant for Marxists, and it is bound up with multi-layered social oppression. This was true for the position of women in pre-Civil War society. Until the 1850s wife-beating was legal in most states. Divorce was almost impossible, and when it was obtained children went with the husband. The accepted attitude toward women was assumption of their "inferiority," and the Bible was considered an authority. When anesthesia was discovered in the 1840s, doctors opposed its use for childbirth, because that suffering was women's punishment for Eve's sin.

The Anti-Slavery Struggle and Democratic Rights

But how were women to fight for equal rights in this society divided between slave and free? Angelina Grimke' was precisely correct when she said, "until the negro gets his rights, we will never have ours." It was necessary to destroy chattel slavery, which was retarding the development of the whole society. The movement for women's rights developed in the North out of the struggle to abolish slavery. It could hardly have developed in the South. In the decades before the war, in response to the growing Northern anti-slavery agitation, the South was becoming more reactionary than ever: more fanatical in defense of the ideology of slavery and more openly repressive. There were wholesale assaults on basic democratic rights, from attacks on the rights of the small layer of free blacks, who were seen as a source of agitation and insurrection, to a ban on the distribution of abolitionist literature.

In the South, there were no public schools. It was illegal to teach slaves to read, and almost half of the entire Southern population was illiterate. But in the North over 90 percent of the residents could read and write. Girls and boys went to school in about the same proportions, the only country in the world where this was true. So while in the North women teachers were paid less than men, and women factory hands received one-quarter the wage of men, in the South there were few teachers at all, and few industrial workers.

As a young slave in Maryland, and later while he was trying to earn a living as a refugee in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass came to understand the common interests of all working people in the South, slaves and free blacks and whites. He learned a trade on the docks, where he experienced racist treatment from white workmen, who saw black labor as a threat to their jobs. But Douglass realized that the position of the workmen, too, against their boss was eroded and weakened by slavery and racism. As Marx said, "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." And indeed, the working-class movement met with little success in the antebellum U.S., whereas after the war there was an upsurge in unionism and labor struggle.

The vanguard of the abolitionist movement—the radical insurrectionist wing—believed in the identity of the interests of all the oppressed. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the great activist of the Underground Railroad, and the Grimke sisters were all inspired by a vision of human equality based in revolutionary democracy. Although their egalitarian principle was based on a religious view and ours is based on a Marxist understanding of society, we honor their essential work in leading the anti-slavery struggle. The abolition of slavery did profoundly alter the United States, it did open the road to liberation by making possible the development of the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard, which will establish justice by abolishing the exploitation of man by man.

The Grimke Sisters of South Carolina

Penetrating insights into the situation of women in pre-Civil War America came from women who were committed abolitionists. Sarah and Angelina Grimke are examples, as is Sojourner Truth who is better known today. The Grimke sisters were unusual members of the ruling class who defected to the other side. As daughters of one of South Carolina's most powerful slave-holding families, they had grown up in luxury, but left the South because of their revulsion for slavery. The Grimke sisters became famous in 1837-1838 as agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The power of their personal witness of the atrocities of the slave system drew huge audiences. The sisters were quick to point out that as upper-class white women, they had seen only the "better" treatment of the house and city slaves, and not the more brutal treatment of plantation hands in the fields. But one of the things they did know about was the sexual exploitation of women slaves and the brutal breakup of black families through the slave trade.

Because the sisters addressed the issues of sexual exploitation frankly and often, it was one of the issues the opposition used to try to shut them up. The clergy complained that the Grimke's brought up a subject "which ought not to be named"—how dare these delicate .blossoms of Southern womanhood talk about sex! The very idea of women speaking publicly represented an attack on the proper relationship between the sexes and would upset "women's place" in the home. Contemporary observers were shocked by the sight of women participating actively in the debates of the anti-slavery movement, as they did especially in New England, the birthplace of radical abolitionism. The Grimkes replied by pointing out that the same argument was used against abolition itself: it would upset the established order of social relations. They effectively linked up women's rights and emancipation of the slaves.

Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman?"

Black women got it from both sides, as the life of Sojourner Truth shows. She was born a slave around 1797 in New York State and was not freed until 1827, under the "gradual emancipation" provisions of the state law. As a slave she was prevented from marrying the man she loved, who was brutally beaten for daring to visit her (they were owned by different masters). They were both forcibly married to other slaves. Her son was sold South as a small child, away from her. After she was freed, she lived a backbreaking existence in New York City, one of the more racist cities in the North and a center for the slave trade.

Sojourner Truth went to all the women's rights conventions. The famous story about her dates from 1853. The usual crowd of male hecklers had almost shut down the proceedings. The women were unable to answer their sneers of how delicate and weak women were. Sojourner Truth asked for the floor and got it, despite the opposition of a lot of the delegates to the presence of a black abolitionist. You have to keep in mind what this woman looked like in this gathering of ladies: she was six feet tall, nearly 60 years old, very tough and work-worn. She said:

"The man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place—and ain't I a woman?
"Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have born...children, and seen most of 'em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me—and ain't I a woman?"

—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle

Sojourner Truth put her finger on the heart of the contradiction between the stifling idealization of women and their oppression as housewives and mothers and exploitation as slaves and workers.

Women's Rights and the Abolitionist Movement

Support for women's rights was tenuous within the politically diverse anti-slavery movement. Many free-soilers were not anti-racist; some opposed slavery because they didn't want blacks around. Even some of the most dedicated abolitionists argued that "women's rights" could harm the anti-slavery cause, and in 1840 a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society was precipitated by the election of a woman to the leading body.
That same year at an international anti-slavery meeting in London, women members of the American delegation were denied their seats. In the audience was the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Out of this experience she decided to begin organizing for women's rights. Eight years later, in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York the first women's rights convention in the world was held. At first Stanton wasn't going to put forward the vote as a demand—she was afraid it was too extreme. She had to be argued into it by Frederick Douglass. It was the only demand that didn't get unanimous support at the meeting; it was considered too radical.

The role of Douglass was not an accident. The best fighters for women's rights were not the Elizabeth Cady Stantons and the Susan B. Anthonys—the ones who "put women first"—but the left-wing abolitionists. The most militant advocates of black equality, the insurrectionist wing, the prophets of the Civil War, were also the most consistent fighters for women's rights, because they saw no division of interest between blacks and women. Frederick Douglass not only attended all the women's meetings, arguing effectively for full equality for women, but he brought the message elsewhere. He put forward resolutions for women's rights at black conventions, and they were passed. He used to advertise the meetings in his paper and print reports on the proceedings. His paper's motto was, "Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."

The Fight Over the 14th Amendment

Stanton and Anthony had suspended their woman suffrage campaign for the duration of the war. They circulated petitions for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, which became the 13th Amendment. After the war Stanton and Anthony set up an Equal Rights Association to agitate for the vote for both blacks and women. They thought because of the broad social upheaval the time was ripe for woman suffrage. But this proved not to be the case.

The question here was citizenship rights under capitalist law, specifically voting. Compare it with how voting rights and citizenship were looked at in another revolution at the same time: the 1871 Paris Commune, the first proletarian revolution (whose example dramatically reinforced ideological conservatism among the American bourgeoisie). The Commune subsumed nationality and citizenship to class considerations. Anybody who got elected from the working class, whatever country they were born in, sat on the legislative body of the Commune, while the industrialists and the bourgeois parliamentarians fled the city and were "disenfranchised" as their property was expropriated.

This was not on the agenda in the United States in the 1860s. The historical tasks of the Civil War and Reconstruction were to complete the unfinished bourgeois revolution, to resolve questions like slave versus free, national sovereignty and democratic rights. In his novel Gore Vidal calls Lincoln the Bismarck of his country, and this is justified. For example, before the Civil War, each state printed its own money. Greenbacks were first made by the Union to finance the war. The Supreme Court regularly said, "the United States are." Only after the war did this country's name become a singular noun—one national government.

But the big question was what to do with the newly emancipated slaves, and this question focused on two things: land and the vote. The debate over the vote represented, in legal terms, a struggle to determine what "citizenship" meant in relation to the state. Many Northern states did not allow blacks to vote, either. The 14th Amendment, which was passed to answer this question, says that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens of the nation and of the state in which they live, and that states can't abridge their "privileges and immunities" or deprive them of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law" or deny them "equal protection of the laws."

The Republican Party, which was founded as an anti-slavery party, contained within it many shades of political opinion. It has been argued that the only reason the Republicans gave the vote to blacks was to maintain political control over the states in the conquered Confederacy. This was true of some Republicans, but the men who politically dominated Congress during the period of Radical Reconstruction were committed revolutionary democrats, as observers of the time said of Thaddeus Stevens, who was called the "Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America." There were good reasons for Douglass' loyalty to the Republicans, given after much early hesitation and sometimes combined with scathing criticism.

But there were a lot of contradictions. The party that was trying to implement black rights was also the party that was massacring the Indians in the West, breaking workers' strikes in the North, presiding over a new scale of graft and corruption, and trying to annex Santo Domingo. In the fight to replace slavery with something other than a peonage system which mimicked bondage, the land question was key. And the robber barons—the moneylords, the triumphant ruling class-rapidly got pretty nervous about the campaign to confiscate the plantations and give them to the blacks. It was an assault on property rights, in line with what those uppity workers in the North were demanding: the eight-hour day, unions, higher wages. The ruling class was quite conscious about this; an 1867 New York Times editorial stated:

"If Congress is to take cognizance of the claims of labor against capital...there can be no decent pretense for confining the task to the slave-holder of the South. It is a question, not of humanity, not of loyalty, but of the fundamental relation of industry to capital; and sooner or later, if begun at the South, it will find its way into the cities of the North.... An attempt to justify the confiscation of Southern land under the pretense of doing justice to the freedmen, strikes at the root of all property rights in both sections. It concerns Massachusetts quite as much as Mississippi."

—Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War

This question was not resolved quickly, but over a couple of decades. But to collapse a lot of complex history, the revolutionary tide receded under the weight of triumphant capitalism. In 1877 Union troops were withdrawn from Southern occupation as part of the compromise making Rutherford B. Hayes president. The Civil War did not establish black equality, and the 14th and 15th Amendments which codified in law the war's revolutionary gains were turned into virtual dead letters. Nor did the Civil War liberate women, not even in a limited, legalistic sense. They continued to be denied even the simple right to vote (although in some districts in South Carolina in 1870, under the encouragement of black election officials, black women exercised the franchise for a brief time).

From the defeat of Reconstruction was spawned the kind of society we have now. On top of the fundamental class divisions in the U.S. is pervasive and institutionalized racial oppression. The black slaves were liberated from bondage only to become an oppressed race/color caste, segregated at the bottom of society— although today, unlike the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, blacks also constitute a key component of the American proletariat.

The Birth of American Feminism

Many Radical Republicans were critical of the 14th Amendment, which was a true child of compromise. Sumner called it "uncertain, loose, cracked, and rickety." Opposition centered on a loophole that allowed a state to opt for losing some representation in Congress if it chose to restrict black suffrage—and Southern states exploited this concession. But what Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't like about it was that for the first time, the word "male" appeared in the Constitution. And this fight was the birth of American feminism.

Of course the 14th Amendment should have given women the vote, and the importance of suffrage for black women was not inconsiderable. But a Civil War had just been fought on the question of black freedom, and it was indeed the "Negro's Hour," as many abolitionists argued. The biggest benefit for women's rights would have been to struggle for the biggest expansion possible in black freedom—to campaign for the land, for black participation in government on the state and federal level, to crush racism in the North, to integrate blacks in housing, education, jobs—to push to the limit the revolutionary possibilities of the period. But Stanton and Anthony sided with the right-wing
assault on the revolutionary opening that existed. They wrote:

"Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Ung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book, making laws for [white abolitionists] Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble."

Stanton and Anthony embraced race-hatred and anti-immigrant bigotry against the Irish, blacks, Germans and Asians, grounded in class hostility.
They took this position at a time when blacks in the South faced escalating race-terror. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 to terrorize Southern blacks; hundreds were murdered. Republicans of both colors were targeted, and a special object of Klan hatred was the schoolhouse and the schoolteacher (many of them Northern women). In the North as well there was a struggle over the vote, over integrated schools. There was a fight to end Jim Crow in the Washington, D.C. trolley system (after the law desegregating streetcars was passed there in 1865, Sojourner Truth herself went around the capital boarding the cars of companies that were refusing to seat blacks). The freedmen's struggles for a fundamental transformation of race relations triggered in the North what some historians have called the first racist backlash. Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, New York was burned to the ground; Republican and abolitionist leaders routinely received death threats.

So in this period of violent struggle over the race question, the feminists joined forces with the Democrats, the political party of the Klan and the Confederacy, who hoped to exploit the women's issue against blacks. Henry Blackwell (Lucy Stone's husband) argued that white women voting in the South would cancel out the black vote. Stanton and Anthony teamed up with George Train, a notorious racist, who financed their newspaper, Revolution. They adopted the slogan "educated suffrage"—that is, a literacy test for voters—which was deliberately formulated against non-English-speaking immigrants and ex-slaves.

Frederick Douglass made a valiant attempt to win the feminists over to support for the amendments at a meeting of the Equal Rights Association in 1869, where he argued for the urgency of the vote for blacks:

"When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed to the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot."

—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle

At this convention Douglass proposed a resolution which called the 15th Amendment the "culmination of one-half of our demands" while imploring a redoubling of "our energy to secure the further amendment guaranteeing the same sacred rights without limitation to sex." But by this point, a split was inevitable. The feminists blamed the Republican Party and the abolitionists for the defeat in Kansas of an 1867 referendum on woman suffrage. They decided that "men" could not be trusted, and for the first time argued that women must organize separately for their own rights. They even flirted with male exclusionism. The movement split in two, one maintaining a formally decent posture on the race question as a cover for doing nothing. The main wing led by Stanton and Anthony wanted to address broad issues, but their capitulation to racist reaction defined them.

They claimed the ballot would solve everything. Their paper was printed in a "rat" office (below union scale). Anthony urged women to be scabs to "better" their condition, then whined when the National Labor Congress refused to admit her as a delegate! Stanton said it proved the worst enemy of women's rights was the working man.

After Reconstruction went down to defeat, the first "feminists" dedicated themselves to the reactionary attempt to prove woman suffrage wouldn't rock the Jim Crow boat. But in the South, the restabilization of a system of overt racist injustice set the context for all social questions. In the South, any extension of the franchise was feared as a threat to "white supremacy" stability. By 1920, when woman suffrage was passed nationally— largely because of World War I which brought women into industry and social life—not a single Southern state had passed the vote for women, although almost every other state had some form of it.

Today, the bourgeois feminists like to hark back to the struggle over the 14th Amendment as proof there must be a separatist women's movement. They claim Stanton and Anthony as their political mothers. Let them have them! We stand in a different tradition: the heritage of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, the Grimke sisters, of revolutionary insurrectionism against the class enemy. Today, to complete the unfinished tasks of the Civil War and emancipate women and blacks from social slavery requires a communist women's movement, part of a multiracial vanguard party fighting for workers power in the interests of all the oppressed.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

*A "Torch Singer" Revisted-Ethel Waters

Click on title to link to Ethel Waters performing "Eye On The Sparrow" in "Member Of The Wedding"

CD REVIEW

February is Black History Month. March is Women's History Month

Cabin In The Sky: Le Hot Club De France Archival Series, Ethel Waters, 1991


Readers of this space know that I consider Billie Holiday above all, doped up or straight, the undisputed “Queen” of female jazz singers. From a Cole Porter tune like “Let’s Do It” to a soulful “Strange Fruit” her timing and sense of the song was uncanny. However, even a great singer like Billie had earlier singers that influenced her and that is where we pick up the career of the jazz singer under review here, Ethel Waters. Her name may not be known today, except to early jazz aficionados or those who recall her award-winning role as a force of Mother Nature housekeeper in “Member Of The Wedding” who had her hands full supervising characters played by the very young Julie Harris and Brandon DeWilde. Well, if that is your only recollection then do you remember the song that she sings there “Lonesome Swallow”? Okay, that's Ethel Waters.

Ms. Waters performed many early jazz classics here in America and in the more racially and culturally friendly Paris of the 1930’s, a place of exile for more than one creative black talent, and had a fair career as a movie actress and theatrical performer (given the extremely limited role selection, mainly housekeeper or servant roles, and the extremely stereotyped characteristics expected of black actors and actresses during her prime). This CD gives a good cross section of her musical work over three decades (about 1925 to 1955). More importantly, it also displays the talented musicians whom she worked with and who wanted to work with her. A review of the liner notes lists Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, the fabled Fletcher Henderson (of early Bessie Smith fame) and James Johnson. Not bad company, right?

Ms. Waters is another one of those performers, like the early Bessie Smith, who you don’t necessarily get a feel for right away. However, about half way through this CD you start to wonder whether you will have time to play the damn thing again. Here’s why. Put “ Brother You’ve Got Me Wrong” together with the above-mentioned “Lonesome Swallow” mix in “My Handy Man” and a beautiful rendition of “West End Blues” stir and pick up the pace with “Dinah” and top off with a bouncy version of “Am I Blue” (although Billie’s version is the cat’s meow for me). That’s the ticket. Enjoy.

*Ma Rainey's Black Bottom- The Blues Of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey

Click On Title To Link To YouTube's Film Clip Of Ma Rainey Doing "Booze And Blues"

CD Review

February Is Black History Month. March Is Women's History Month

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ma Rainey, Yazoo Records, 1990


One of the interesting facts about the development of the blues is that in the early days the recorded music and the bulk of the live performances were done by women, at least they were the most popular exponents of the genre. That time, the early 1920's to the 1930's, was the classic age of women blues performers. Of course, when one thinks about that period the name that comes up is that of the legendary Bessie Smith. Beyond that, maybe some know Ethel Waters. And beyond that-a blank.

Except maybe I have to take that back a little in the case of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, at least as to her name recognition if not her music that has gotten more recent publicity through the work of playwright August Wilson's Century Cycle play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom". Notwithstanding that possibility, in the CD compilation under review we have what amounts to the best of Ma Rainey during her short but productive recording career in the 1920's. Upon hearing her on this CD women's blues aficionados are going to want to know how she stacks up against the heavy competition of Bessie Smith.

In many ways they are comparable since they worked much the same milieu but, in the end Bessie's wider range and more heartfelt `feel' for a song wins out. A case in point is the classic "Oh Papa Blues" (also known as "Down-Hearted Blues") done by both. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ma's version as entertainment but Bessie's version comes out as if she had just been shot in the heart by some two-timin' man. That difference is reflected throughout the material they both covered.

As is highlighted in Wilson's play Ma however was no fool , unlike Bessie, when it came to business and that included making sure she got her just desserts (and credit) for songs that she wrote (somewhat unusual for a singer in the days of Tin Pan Alley). Moreover, some of the best songs here have legendary blues sidemen on them. For example, Fletcher Henderson on piano on "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom". Coleman Hawkins on "Blues Oh Blues". And both Georgia Tom Dorsey (who later went on to a successful gospel career) and Tampa Red on "Sleep Talking Blues". Wow.

Lyrics To "Down-Hearted Blues"

Gee, but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you!
I'm so disgusted, heart-broken, too; I've got those down-hearted blues;
Once I was crazy 'bout a man; he mistreated me all the time,
The next man I get has got to promise me to be mine, all mine!

Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days,
Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days;
It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave.

I ain't never loved but three mens in my life;
I ain't never loved but three men in my life:
My father, my brother, the man that wrecked my life.

It may be a week, it may be a month or two,
It may be a week, it may be a month or two,
But the day you quit me, honey, it's comin' home to you.

I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand,
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand,
I'm gonna hold it until you meet some of my demands.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

***Damn It- Free Leonard Peltier Now-He Must Not Die In Jail!

Click below to link to Leonard Peltier Defense Committee site.

http://www.leonardpeltier.net/

Commentary

This entry is passed on from the Partisan Defense Committee. I need add little except to say that this man, a natural leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), should never have spent a day in jail. Free him now.


Savagely Beaten in Prison

Free Leonard Peltier!

(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)


In January, Leonard Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement who has been in prison for 33 years for a crime he did not commit, was outrageously put in solitary confinement after having been savagely attacked when he was transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Canaan, Pennsylvania. In a January 20 statement, Betty Peltier-Solano, Peltier’s sister, stated: “We feel that prison authorities at the prompting of the FBI orchestrated this attack and thus, we are greatly concerned about his safety.” We print below a January 22 protest letter from the Partisan Defense Committee to USP Canaan warden Ronnie R. Holt. The PDC is a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League.

It has come to our attention that soon after his transfer to your prison, political prisoner Leonard Peltier was placed in solitary confinement and allowed only one meal a day. This is an outrage. Given this courageous man’s medical conditions, your actions put his life at risk.

Mr. Peltier had asked that he be transferred to a facility near his family and home in the Dakotas. Instead he was vindictively sent far away to USP Canaan. Shortly after his arrival he was set upon and brutally beaten, reportedly by prisoners he did not know. He sustained numerous bruises, a large lump on his head, discoloration and swelling to his hands as well as pain in his chest and ribcage. This incident is the supposed pretext for his being thrown into solitary.

Mr. Peltier is an innocent man who has been unjustly incarcerated for nearly 33 years because of his activism in defense of the rights of Native Americans. During that period his health has seriously deteriorated. He suffers from high blood pressure, a heart condition, failing eyesight and diabetes. As he is at risk for kidney failure, blindness and/or amputation, it is critical that Mr. Peltier be released from solitary confinement immediately and afforded all necessary medical treatment.

We, along with millions of others, do not believe that Leonard Peltier should have been incarcerated at all. We demand his unconditional release from prison.

*Why Marxist Support The Employee Free Choice Act- The View From The Labor Left

Click on title to link to AFL-CIO web site for more information about this campaign. All labor can agree on the need to support this issue. And see, for all those who thought I was an inveterate 'dual unionist' I can play nice with the AFL-CIO-when they are right.

Commentary

Frankly, the Employee Fair Choice Act (EFCA), as written, is not a piece of legislation that a workers party representative in the United States Congress (if we had one) would fight to enact. Our proposal would, obviously, be infinitely more labor-friendly. That said, we are nevertheless very, very interested in seeing legislation passed that makes it easier for labor organizations to unionize the unorganized. Thus, we critically support the current legislation with the caveat that we are not in favor of its included arbitration language , binding or otherwise, for the simple reason that as we organize mass unions we may very well want to take our fight to the ‘streets’.

I pass on the following entry “Why Marxists Support The EFCA” from “Workers Vanguard” that may be of interest to the radical public. I place myself in political solidarity with many of the points made there.Two points should be noted in reading the article. Read the part about the petition campaign around this issue supported by the two labor federations carefully (the critically supportable AFL-CIO one and the not supportable Change To Win Federation one). Secondly, remember our labor history- we have had our victories won, few and far between as they have been, mainly in the streets and in the plants not in the courts or the governmental offices. The backrooms of those institutions are where we have suffered many of our defeats. Take up the fight for this legislation in that spirit. Organize the unorganized! Organize the South! Organize Wal-Mart!

Guest Commentary

Workers Vanguard No. 929
30 January 2009

Organize the Unorganized!

For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!

Why Marxists Support the EFCA

No Reliance on the Capitalist State


With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, union officials, having invested $450 million to put him and other Democrats into office, are now eager for “payback.” At the top of their wish list is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as the “card-check bill,” which would provide for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to recognize a union without a certification election when a majority of employees at a workplace sign union authorization cards. This long-stalled bill to ease union organizing is “the most important issue that we have,” according to AFL-CIO head John Sweeney.

Notwithstanding a slight upswing in union membership in the first half of last year, the strength of the unions has been on the wane for decades. As of 2007, unions represented 7.5 percent of the nation’s private sector workforce, with the total union membership rate hovering around 12.1 percent, down from 35 percent in the 1950s. With the recession deepening, the capitalist ruling class is moving rapidly to attempt to further gut the unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Revitalizing the labor movement is all the more necessary as the bosses try to make working people pay for this crisis.

Dead set on keeping the unions out, conservative politicians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and others, including large employers that have engaged in union-busting like Wal-Mart, have launched a counteroffensive against the EFCA. The headline of a New York Times (9 January) article noted, “Bill Easing Unionizing Is Under Heavy Attack.” Indeed, in 2008, business groups spent a combined $50 million on anti-EFCA ads and are now gearing up to spend an additional $200 million in the coming months. With the bosses engaged in an all-out propaganda offensive against it and the unions waging a major campaign to have it enacted, the EFCA represents a referendum on unionization.

Even though it contains an arbitration clause that we oppose, we support the EFCA, as it allows workers to organize and form unions through a streamlined card-check system, bypassing the prolonged balloting process. At the same time, the EFCA in its current form contains a contradiction. Disputes over the first contract at a newly organized worksite could be referred to government arbitrators if after 90 days of negotiations either the union or the employer invokes the option of federal mediation and then at least 30 days of mediation fail to produce an agreement. We oppose the arbitration provision because it is a form of government intervention into the unions’ disputes with the bosses. While the purpose of such a provision is to curtail class struggle, there are no legal prohibitions in the EFCA to prevent strike action during this four-month period.

Both partisans and opponents of the bill claim that its passage will bring millions of unorganized workers into the unions. In reality, the balance of forces in struggle will ultimately determine the success or failure of any unionization campaign. To the extent that the EFCA affords the possibility of strengthening the working class by organizing unions, workers should make use of it. But at the same time workers must beware the EFCA’s pitfalls and not rely on it or the capitalist state, which exists to defend the rule and profits of the capitalist class. Last month, workers at the Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionize after a more than 15-year organizing battle. Union officials credited a court-imposed “neutrality” agreement for the success, while the company spokesman claimed the result shows “that the union can win without a card check.” In fact, the key was the combativity of the workers, who engaged in walkouts and other protests to win union recognition (see “UFCW Organizes Smithfield Plant,” WV No. 927, 2 January).

In 1981, the government smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in the most massive union-busting attack since before the CIO was founded in 1935. That strike could have been won, but the union tops refused to call out airline workers to shut down the airports. As we wrote in “Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win” (WV No. 349, 2 March 1984): “No decisive gain of labor was ever won in a courtroom or by an act of Congress. Everything the workers movement has won of value has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle, on the picket lines, in plant occupations. What counts is power.” For a class-struggle fight to organize the unorganized!

Break with the Democrats!

Labor is on the ropes, and the criminal policies of the union tops are in no small part responsible. These misleaders have squandered the fighting strength of the unions by shackling them to the bosses’ state, especially through the instrument of the Democratic Party. At every turn, the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” demonstrate their allegiance to the rule of capital, promoting “cooperation” with the employers and policing the workforce on the bosses’ behalf. Meanwhile, this bureaucratic layer enjoys access to privileges and perks.

The labor bureaucrats long ago renounced the class-struggle methods that originally built the unions: mass pickets, sit-down strikes, secondary boycotts. This refusal to carry out a hard-fought battle to organize the unorganized is now a dagger aimed at the unions. In the auto industry, the government’s proposed bailout requires the UAW to agree to slash its wages and benefits to the levels of its counterparts in the large and growing number of non-union, mainly foreign-owned plants in the U.S. Even more, the government has reserved the right to revoke the loans to the automakers if the UAW were to strike at any time. In the face of this declaration of war, the UAW tops readily rolled over.

Worried about the dramatic drop in union membership and corresponding declines in union economic and political power, the sellouts atop the unions are at the same time committed to playing by the bosses’ rules. That’s why their primary recourse is to pressure the government to modify those rules. But capitalist “labor law” is ultimately designed to hold the unions captive to the bourgeois order. The war chest wasted on electing representatives of the class enemy last year was never considered by the union tops for strike funds or organizing drives. One-quarter million union members were mobilized for voter turnout, not to build picket lines or engage in strikes.

Obama’s support for the EFCA was a major selling point for the union tops. He was a cosponsor of the bill in the Senate in 2007 when it was common knowledge that the EFCA would not survive a Bush veto. The EFCA passed the House in a symbolic party-line vote, but was filibustered in the Senate. The backing this bill received from Obama and other Democrats was in the service of undermining class struggle while providing a means to increase the number of dues-paying union members, representing in the Democrats’ eyes more money and manpower for future election campaigns under the watch of the pro-capitalist labor tops. Although Democrats posture as “friends of labor,” their goal is the same as the Republicans: advancing the interests of capital.

But different sections of the bourgeoisie do not always agree. One ranking Chamber of Commerce official has promised “Armageddon” in the battle over the EFCA, which the founder of Home Depot referred to as “the demise of civilization.” Businesses have lined up blue-chip lobbying firms to block it and legal scholars to prove that it is unconstitutional. In the face of this opposition and the economic crisis, the new administration has dropped hints that it intends to hold off on the EFCA and is open to watering it down. When asked about the bill during her Labor Secretary confirmation hearing on January 9, Hilda Solis would not commit to supporting a specific method for union certification. A week later, Obama said of the EFCA in an interview with the Washington Post (15 January): “I will certainly listen to all parties involved, including from labor and the business community, which I know considers this the devil incarnate. I will listen to all parties involved and see if there are ways that we can bring those parties together and restore some balance.”

The labor tops are so beholden to the Democratic administration that some are now second-guessing whether to push right away for the EFCA for fear of alienating Obama. Recently, Obama’s transition team signaled that it would prefer dealing with a single labor federation, as opposed to both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition, which split apart three and a half years ago. In response, the presidents of 12 of the nation’s largest unions immediately jumped into talks to reunite the American labor movement. There are no principled differences between the two federations; their basic strategy is class collaboration, not class struggle. What the labor movement desperately needs is a new, class-struggle leadership.

Binding Arbitration Is a Trap!

In addition to opposing card checks, the bosses are outraged by the arbitration clause in the EFCA, as they cringe at the thought of someone else dictating the terms of employment. Stonewalling on first-contract negotiations after a union is recognized is one common means for employers to derail organizing drives. It is, in fact, the labor tops who wrote the arbitration clause into the EFCA as a means to “guarantee” a first contract without having to engage in struggle.

In his essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940), written at the time of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Trotsky observed: “In the United States the Department of Labor with its leftist bureaucracy has as its task the subordination of the trade union movement to the democratic state, and it must be said that this task has up to now been solved with some success.” From Trotsky’s time through today, the slavish dependence of the trade-union officials on state arbitration of labor disputes has only grown deeper.

Tailing right behind the bureaucrats are left groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Demonstrating fully their willingness to accept the capitalist state as a “neutral” arbiter in the class struggle, the ISO applauds the EFCA’s arbitration clause as a means to “speed up negotiation of a first union contract” (Socialist Worker online, 30 March 2007). Binding arbitration is a trap meant to head off strikes and leave workers with no say in the outcome of the negotiations. It is no accident that the dispute over the last contract for New York City transit workers, which sparked a powerful three-day strike in 2005, ended up in arbitration after angry union members rejected the sellout strike settlement.

In “What’s In Store in the Obama Era?” (Socialist Worker online, 20 January), ISO leader Lance Selfa takes stock of the “full-out opposition” to the EFCA, adding: “As this opposition arises, it will put Obama and the Democrats to the test.” At bottom, the aim of the ISO is little more than that of the union tops: to resurrect Democratic Party liberalism and to make Obama “fight.” We say: Break with the Democrats! For a workers party!

The EFCA and the Working Class

A coalition of 500 business associations has started to run ads seeking to discredit the EFCA as “undemocratic” for taking away the “secret ballot.” The truth is that certification elections are commonly drawn out for months or even years, including when Democrats sit on the labor boards, giving the bosses time to intimidate and terrorize pro-union workers. Employers fire workers in a quarter of all organizing campaigns, threaten workers with plant closings or outsourcing in half and employ mandatory one-on-one anti-union meetings in two-thirds of unionization drives. All these tactics are illegal, but the bosses almost always get away with it or receive a slap on the wrist from the NLRB. From 1999 to 2007, 86,000 workers filed charges over anti-union firings—few ever get their jobs back.

This union-busting is often backed up by the forces of the bosses’ state and racist reaction. Historically, organizing in the open shop South meant confrontations with county sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1995, an organizing drive at a Perdue poultry plant in Dothan, Alabama, failed after a KKK-style cross-burning at the plant. Shortly before an unsuccessful 1997 certification vote at Smithfield in Tar Heel, “N----r go home” was painted on the side of the union trailer. Recently, anti-immigrant workplace raids by la migra, such as at Agriprocessors in Iowa, have helped break up union organizing campaigns. There will be no effective defense against union-busting unless the labor movement becomes a powerful champion of black rights and takes up the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

The reformists in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have actually lined up with the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk in advocating NLRB-run elections over card-checks as “the most effective way for workers to express what they want regarding unionization” (Militant, 9 April 2007). The SWP goes so far as to put a positive spin on union-busting, writing, “Winning such a vote in face of company intimidation efforts means the rank-and-file has become convinced, through its involvement in the struggle, of the need to organize.”

In practice, today most workers gain union recognition through card checks. About 300,000 workers joined unions through card checks in 2007 whereas some 60,000 workers gained membership through elections. Normally for a company to respect the card check, it demands of the union concessions, including sweetheart contracts and “neutrality” agreements where the union foregoes the right to attack or even criticize the company. For the union bureaucrats, such compromises are business as usual.

To broaden support for the EFCA, the two main labor federations have circulated petitions within the unions. The AFL-CIO petition states: “This crucial legislation will protect workers’ freedom to choose a union and bargain, without management intimidation.” The third, and final, provision of the EFCA would increase the penalties for “unfair labor practices” by the bosses. But it is a dangerous illusion to think that the EFCA would safeguard union organizing efforts against employer interference. The union-busting industry of lawyers, spies and security goons rakes in $4 billion annually. If the rules for union certification were to change, so would their tactics. Already there is movement to make it easier to decertify the unions.

The fundamental purpose of the labor boards is never that of enforcing the rights of workers but rather maintaining “labor peace,” which entails preventing strikes or settling them quickly if they break out. These government boards are in effect strikebreaking agencies even if they occasionally rule against the bosses. Moreover, the EFCA will not prevent employers from unleashing their panoply of union-busting laws and tactics against labor struggle.

While the AFL-CIO petition also speaks of the “middle class,” a term meant to blur the line between labor and capital, union militants could sign it and note their objections. Change to Win’s petition obliterates this line by stating that the EFCA is “about preserving the American Dream and ensuring that the economy works for all of us.” This is a lie about and support for capitalism, and should not be signed. In fact, the capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the wage slave, as Karl Marx explained in Wage-Labour and Capital (1849): “A rapid increase of capital is equivalent to a rapid increase of profit. Profit can only increase rapidly if the price of labour, if relative wages, decrease just as rapidly.”

Trotskyists and the 1935 Wagner Act

Especially since the days of the New Deal, the trade-union bureaucracy has perpetuated the myth that the right to organize was won as the result of the passage of liberal labor legislation. Enacted at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) supposedly “guaranteed” the “right to organize and bargain collectively” in its Section 7(a), added as a sop to the craft AFL leadership. Seizing on it, labor organizers urged workers that “the President wants you to join the union.” Intersecting the biggest strike wave since the early ’20s, these organizing drives met with a tremendous response, with many taking these promises as good coin. However, the open shop was not smashed, and in most industries NIRA government/company codes were drawn up that simply ratified existing conditions. As a result of the failure by the AFL tops to strike against such codes, tens of thousands of workers deserted the unions they had only recently joined.

In 1934, three victorious citywide organizing strikes set the stage for the rise of CIO industrial unionism: one led by Communists in San Francisco, the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, and a general strike led by left-wing socialists in Toledo. The Trotskyists in Minneapolis mobilized the city’s proletariat and its allies in mass struggle, including pitched battles with scabs, cops and National Guard troops. In assessing the strikes, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon noted in The History of American Trotskyism (1944):

“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups. They put no reliance whatever in Roosevelt’s Labor Board; they weren’t fooled by any idea that Roosevelt, the liberal ‘friend of labor’ president, was going to help the truck drivers in Minneapolis win a few cents more an hour. They weren’t deluded even by the fact that there was at that time in Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Governor, presumed to be on the side of the workers.”

Intent on preventing the new wave of labor organizing from falling under the control of union militants and “reds,” the Roosevelt administration moved quickly to set up a government-sanctioned mechanism to subordinate the unions to the capitalist state. The result was the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, hailed by union officials as the “Magna Carta of Labor” to this day. The EFCA, like most other federal labor laws, is written as an amendment to the Wagner Act, which established the NLRB and the framework for sweeping federal regulation of labor relations and empowered the government to carve out bargaining jurisdictions and run certification elections.

During the last big push by the union tops for labor law reform some three decades ago, we wrote: “Trotskyists opposed the Wagner Act as a threat to labor’s ability to strike” (“California Farm Labor Bill Threatens Right to Strike,” WV No. 128, 8 October 1976). In fact, as far as we know, the Trotskyists neither explicitly supported nor opposed the Wagner Act. An October 1935 New International article by John West (James Burnham) argued:

“Marxists must be vigilant with respect to it [the Wagner Act]. An attitude of simple denunciation of the Bill as a strike-breaker is not sufficient, and would serve only to confuse union workers and to isolate the Marxists. It must be connected with the lessons of Section 7a, which might be summarized: Take anything it offers, but never depend on it; depend only on independent class activity.”

Section 9(c) of the Wagner Act provided that the NLRB could certify unions by relying on a secret ballot election or “any other suitable method.” One commonly used “other suitable method” at first was card checks. But actually organizing required the mobilization of millions in militant class struggle, sparked by the 1936-37 Flint sit-down auto strikes. The CIO tops, including social democrats and Stalinists, betrayed the evident opportunity to forge an independent workers party by tying the unions to the Democratic Party of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

By the late 1930s, the NLRB was less and less willing to grant card-check recognition. In the wake of the post-World War II strike wave, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes, allowed states to pass “right to work” laws and demanded loyalty oaths from union officials. A majority of Congressional Democrats voted for this union-busting law. The new provisions were used in short order to strangle strikes and purge militants and “reds” from the unions. This law, as well as later NLRB and court rulings, also made card-check recognition far more difficult. Belying the trade-union bureaucrats’ nominal opposition to Taft-Hartley, an AFL-CIO fact sheet on the EFCA states, “just as the NLRB is required to seek a federal court injunction against a union whenever there is reasonable cause to believe the union has violated the secondary boycott prohibitions in the [Taft-Hartley] act, the NLRB must seek a federal court injunction against an employer whenever there is reasonable cause to believe the employer has discharged or discriminated against employees…during an organizing or first contract drive.”

In the 1930s, the thousands of militants who considered themselves communists propelled the great industrial union organizing drives forward. Motivated by their ideals of building a society where those who labor rule, they knew that spiking the bosses’ attacks on black people and immigrants was crucial. The fight to organize the unorganized could be the crucible in which a revolutionary workers party is forged. Such a party is indispensable to uniting the working class and leading it in the revolutionary overthrow of the bosses’ rule.

Monday, March 02, 2009

*The Chickens Come Home To Roost, Part 2- Obama's Iraq War Policy

Click on title to link to "New York Times" article on the ugly (Markin's assessment and comment)details of one Barack Obama's Iraq troop withdrawal "plan" (my quotation marks).

Commentary

Jesus is there no end to the duplicity of bourgeois politicians? Recently, on February 26, 2009, United States President Barack Obama announced his long-awaited plans for de-escalation of American involvement in Iraq. Noticeably, that so-called de-escalation included the continual presence of some 50,000 troops until further notice (of course, given the legal fictions of the situation, with the proviso that this is as long as the Iraqi government ‘wants’ them to remain). That this is a long way off from both Obama’s stated campaign positions and from any meaningful end to the American occupation has not gone unnoticed by the anti-war left wing parliamentary Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority leader and Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern (used here as an example of a parliamentary anti-war rank and file stalwart). Well, you reap what you sow. This is just one more of the ten thousand reasons why thoughtful political militants have to start, if they have not already done so, to think about fighting for a non-capitalist alternative- a workers party that fights for a workers government. And as I have mentioned on prior occasions we better make that pronto.

Note: Today’s main commentary “What I Am Not Running For President In 2012”, a seemingly tongue-in cheek piece on the question of principled opposition to radicals and revolutionaries running for the executive offices of the capitalist state was written several days ago before Obama’s Iraq announcement. Apparently, Mr. Obama is going to be something of an unwitting foil for my ‘campaign’. I, in any case, offer his latest policy twist as prima facie evidence for my position. That said; let’s not forget the important present point. Obama- Immediate Unconditional Of ALL U.S./Allied Troops From Iraq!

Friday, February 27, 2009

He's Got Them "Bourgeois Blues"- Kudos to Lead Belly

As today's commentary "The Times Are Out Of Joint" indicates I am in a peevish mood concerning the doings (or not doings) in Washington, D.C. I'll just take a note from Lead Belly, the old folk singer, and let him give the 'skinny' on this mood of mine.

Lead Belly - The Bourgeois Blues Lyrics

Lord, in a bourgeois town
It's a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say "I don't want no n----rs up there"
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n----r just to see him bow
Lord, it's a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don't try to find you no home in Washington, DC
`Cause it's a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

From The Archives Of "Workers Vanguard"-The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848-1914

Markin comment:

As almost always these historical articles and polemics are purposefully helpful to clarify the issues in the struggle against world imperialism, particularly the “monster” here in America.

Workers Vanguard No. 931
27 February 2009

From the Archives of Workers Vanguard

The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848-1914


The following article, the text of a presentation given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour at a 1976 European gathering, was originally printed in two parts in WV Nos. 123 and 125 (3 and 17 September 1976). At the time of the talk, the Lebanese civil war was raging—hence, the references to Lebanese Muslims and Maronite Christians. Additionally, in 1976 we did not advocate independence for Quebec from Canada, while recognizing its right to self-determination. But as comrade Seymour noted in his presentation, “if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence.” Indeed, since 1995 we have advocated independence for Quebec (see “Independence for Quebec!” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 52, Autumn 1995).

As you are aware, our views on the national question, particularly concerning the Near East, are one of the most distinctive and controversial aspects of “Spartacism.” Very often this question is the most obvious and sharpest difference when we first encounter tendencies that appear to be close to us.

This talk is designed as a contribution to understanding the theoretical underpinning of our current positions. In polemics against the Spartacist tendency and within the ostensibly Trotskyist movement, there are often references to the position Marx or Lenin took on this or that aspect of the national question. Without a thorough knowledge of the evolution of the Marxist position, in its historical context, it is impossible to determine whether or not, and how, these references are relevant.

I believe that an understanding of the evolution of the Marxist position on the national question from 1848 to 1914—i.e., from the origins of Marxism to the collapse of the Second International—bears on the Spartacist position in two significant ways. First, there is no Marxist program for the national question as such. The Marxist position has always had a predominantly strategic character, aimed at creating the conditions for a successful proletarian revolution. In this sense, I think that one can draw a contrast with the Marxist position on the woman question. The position in favor of abolition of the family and for the equality of women is a fundamental element of a communist society, and therefore is not subordinate to changing political conjunctures.

The Marxist position on the national question has a much more conjunctural character historically, and is much more determined by changing empirical circumstances. Thus, it is not only legitimate, but very often obligatory, to change a specific position on a specific national question in a very short period of time. Today we are opposed to the independence of Quebec, while of course recognizing the right of self-determination. But it is certainly possible that in a couple of years, if the national polarization in Canada hardens and the working people of Quebec decisively opt for separatism, we may reverse that policy and come out for independence. Such determinations have a conjunctural and a strategic character.

The second reason I believe a knowledge of pre-Leninist Marxism is important in this question is that our position involves opposition to the notion (which is a resurrection of the earliest Marxist position) that there exist progressive nations and reactionary nations within the colonial world. We do not regard the Palestinians or the Lebanese Muslims as inherently progressive, or the Hebrews and Lebanese Maronite Christians as inherently reactionary, as outposts of imperialism. Many of our disputes with various ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies—for example, over the India-Pakistan war in 1972, over Angola and over Lebanon—involve our rejection of the notion of progressive nationalities and progressive bourgeois state-building in this epoch.

“Progressive Nations” in the Revolutions of 1848

Marxism as a political tendency begins in early 1846 with the organization of the Communist Corresponding Society in Brussels. What distinguished Marx from other German communists was his belief that it was necessary to have an alliance with the bourgeois democrats, and that the road to socialism in Germany ran through an imminent bourgeois-democratic revolution. As such, he became committed to the program of the unification of Germany as an inherent and important component of that revolution.

The unification of Germany was organically linked to the radical redrawing of boundaries throughout Eastern Europe. Marx was committed to the restoration of an independent Poland, which would serve as a democratic buffer against tsarist Russia. Russia was the strongest military power in Europe, and was considered by Marx as the bulwark of reaction in which a bourgeois-democratic revolution was not possible—a position he maintained until the late 1870s. One cannot understand the Marxist position on the national question unless one realizes that for a Central European revolutionary in the mid-19th century, Russia was analogous to the United States for a South American revolutionary today. Radical democracy in Central Europe was linked to the liberation of Poland and a revolutionary war against tsarist Russia.

A more complex aspect of the unification of Germany arose from the fact that part of the German nation was in the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian empire. The majority population of that empire consisted of the various Slavic nations, who were mainly peasant peoples. The most important and advanced of these Slavic nations were the Czechs, and Bohemia was about 40 percent German (concentrated among the urban population) and 60 percent Czech, with virtually all of the peasants being Czech.

Marx and Engels maintained that, with the exception of Poland, the Slavic peoples of the Austro-Hungarian empire were too backward to have a bourgeois-democratic revolution. From that premise, they drew the program of dividing Central and East Europe into three great states—Greater Poland, Greater Germany and Greater Hungary—in which the western and southern Slavs would be expected to assimilate to the higher national cultures.

When the revolution of 1848 broke out, the Slavs—not unnaturally—did not go along with this program. The Czech liberals, led by František Palacký, proposed instead a federated Austro-Hungarian state allied to a democratic Germany. Thus there was a genuine conflict between the national-democratic movement in Germany and Hungary on the one hand, and the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who in part looked to Russia to preserve the Austro-Hungarian status quo.

This situation came to a head in early 1849, when the Russian army crushed the Hungarian national movement of Lajos Kossuth and the Croat national minority maintained a neutral position at best. At that point, Marx and Engels developed a program which amounted to the national, if not physical, genocide of the western and southern Slavs in the interests of the democratic or progressive peoples.

In “Hungary and Panslavism” (1849) Engels writes:

“Everywhere the forward-looking class, the carrier of progress, the bourgeoisie, was German or Magyar. The Slavs found it difficult to develop a bourgeoisie, the South Slavs were only very partially able to do so. Along with the bourgeoisie, industrial strength, capital, was in German or Magyar hands. As German education developed, the Slavs also came under the intellectual tutelage of the Germans, even deep in Croatia. The same thing took place, only later and therefore on a smaller scale in Hungary, where the Magyars together with the Germans assumed intellectual and commercial leadership....”

And in another article, “Democratic Panslavism” (1849), he concluded:

“We repeat: Except for the Poles, the Russians and at best the Slavs in Turkey, no Slavic people has a future, for the simple reason that all other Slavs lack the most basic historic, geographic, political and industrial prerequisites for independence and vitality.”

Referring to the Russian-Slav counterrevolutionary movement, he wrote:

“Then for a moment the Slavic counterrevolution with all its barbarism will engulf the Austrian monarchy and the camarilla will find out what kind of allies it has. But with the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat...the Germans and Magyars in Austria will become free and will take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war which will then break out will explode this Slavic league and these petty, bull-headed nations will be destroyed so that nothing is left of them but their names.

“The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties but also entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. And that too would be progress.”

There was, in the Revolution of 1848, a prominent leftist who did adhere to the doctrine of national self-determination as a principle. This was Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote in his 1848 “Appeal to the Slavs”:

“Down with the artificial boundaries which have been forcibly erected by despotic congresses according to so-called historical, geographical, strategic necessities! There should no longer be any other barriers between the nations but those corresponding to nature, to justice and those drawn in a democratic sense which the sovereign will of the people themselves denotes on the basis of their national qualities…. The welfare of the nations is never assured as long as anywhere in Europe one single people is living in oppression.”

—translated in Horace B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism

At the general theoretical level, Marx and Engels denounced Bakunin for utopian egalitarianism applied to nations, which anticipates their later conflict with Bakuninite anarchism where the same principles are applied to individuals. Thus, Engels polemicized against Bakunin in February 1849:

“There is no mention of the very real obstacles in the way of such universal liberation, of the completely different levels of civilization of the various peoples, of their equally different political needs conditioned by them. The word ‘freedom’ takes the place of everything. There is no mention of reality, or insofar as it is considered at all, it is represented as something entirely reprehensible, something arbitrarily produced by ‘congresses of despots’ and by ‘diplomats’.”

—“Democratic Panslavism”

On a more concrete level, Marx and Engels regarded so-called democratic pan-Slavism as utopian, which in practice would only serve tsarist Russian expansionism.

Marx’s position on the Slav question in 1848 has drawn very considerable criticism, not least from within the later Marxist movement itself. The purpose of this talk is not to second-guess Marx and Engels’ empirical judgments, but rather to focus on their methodology. I will, however, indicate the two criticisms of their position on the Slav question which I consider to be the strongest.

First, there is a too-close identification of political dominance with cultural development. The Czechs of Bohemia certainly had the economic and cultural level equal, if not greater, to the Hungarians and the Poles. Secondly, there is an overestimation of the attractiveness of pan-Slavism, and therefore the alliance of all Slavic peoples under Russian dominance. Consequently, there was a corresponding underestimation of the nationalism of the particular Slav nations.

Bourgeois Reaction and Bourgeois Progress

As a result of the defeat of radical democracy in the revolutions of 1848, Marx substantially modified his program. He blamed the defeat of radical democracy and the proletarian vanguard on objective economic backwardness, not only in Germany and Austria, but also in France. Therefore, classic post-1848 Marxism placed a heavy programmatic emphasis on creating the objective conditions which would enable the proletariat to take power.

This consisted in furthering economic development, in which the unification of Germany and of Italy was considered extremely important. Only economic development would lay the basis for the organization of the proletariat and the expansion of democratic rights to provide the conditions for proletarian power.

An important component of the post-1848 program continued to be the advocacy of the destruction of tsarist Russia’s military power...by anybody. Marx supported the British and French in the Crimean War and always supported Turkey against Russia, on the grounds that Russia was the great reactionary power in Europe.

The next major historical event after 1848 that bears on the national question was the Austro-Italian war of 1859. Here, Marx reaffirmed his fundamental commitment to the unification of Germany as the most progressive national development in continental Europe. He did not support the Italians even though he favored Italian unification because the anti-German Napoleon III of France was an ally of Italy. Marx believed that a victory for the Italian-Napoleonic alliance would threaten the unification of Germany. Believing he had to choose which was more progressive—the unification of Italy or of Germany—he chose that of Germany.

From 1848 onward, Marx and Engels were often accused by their opponents within the left of being German chauvinists. They denied that, arguing that their position on the unification of Germany was objective, and that it did not reflect subjective nationalist prejudice. A united Germany would give an enormous impetus to the economic development of Europe, and would produce the most advanced workers movement in Europe. They were proved objectively correct in that sense. However, it was only in 1870 that they got a chance to prove demonstrably that they were not German chauvinists.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Marx and Engels had the following model of what Europe should look like: it was a Europe of multinational states grouped around the great progressive nations—Greater Poland, Greater Hungary, Greater Germany, Greater France and Great Britain (Greater England). The other peoples, which they called the ruins of peoples—die Völkertrümmer—were expected to assimilate. Among these ruined peoples they counted the Scots, the Welsh, the Basques and the Czechs.

In his 1859 pamphlet on the Austro-Italian war, “Po and Rhine,” Engels spells out this conception:

“No one will assert that the map of Europe is definitely settled. All changes, however, if they are to be lasting, must be of such a nature as to bring the great and vital nations ever closer to their true natural borders as determined by speech and sympathies, while at the same time the ruins of peoples, which are still to be found here and there, and are no longer capable of leading an independent national existence, must be incorporated into the larger nations, and either dissolve in them or else remain as ethnographic monuments of no political significance.” [emphasis in original]

Irish Independence and English Proletarian Revolution

The first major change in this schema occurred in the late 1860s in Britain, where Marx changed his position on the Irish question from the assimilation of the Irish, who were certainly not a great historic people, to independence for Ireland.

The failure of organized Marxism in England obscures the fact that classical Marxism regarded the English revolution as central. Marx devoted much of his energy to the English workers movement. If in the 1850s Marx considered Germany and Italy under-ripe for proletarian revolution, he considered Britain overripe. All of the things that Marx was fighting for in Germany were realized in Britain—a large, well-organized industrial proletariat, a stable bourgeois legality and freedom from Russian invasion.

Yet politically, the British working class in this period moved backward; they were less advanced in 1865 than in 1845. So the English question was important for Marx, not only because the English revolution was strategically important, but because the contradiction between the advanced character of English society and the political backwardness of the proletariat put a question mark over Marx’s entire worldview.

In the late 1860s Marx believed he had found a partial key to this problem in an unresolved national question—namely, the Irish question. In England, Marx ran up against the problem of a divided working class in a multinational state. In 1870, he wrote to two of his American followers:

“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland.... The Irish man pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it….

“England, being the metropolis of capital, the power which has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover, the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have developed up to a certain degree of maturity. Therefore to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Workingmen’s Association. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent.” [emphasis in original]

—Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 April 1870

It was precisely the advanced nature of English society that caused Marx to anticipate the later problems of the workers movement in a multinational state. I should point out that Marx’s position on the Irish question anticipated, but was not identical with, the orthodox Leninist position. Marx expected that an independent Ireland would draw the Irish out of England—that the economic development of Ireland would lead to the repatriation of the Irish working class from England. He looked for the physical separation of the English and Irish working classes as a precondition to political unity. It was not simply the advocacy of independence that was important, but its realization in fact. As we shall see, it is with Lenin that the advocacy of the right of self-determination becomes key.

Franco-Prussian War: End of an Epoch

The next major change which rendered what could be called the 1848 program obsolete was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Marx initially supported the Prussians on the grounds that the war was for the defense of the precarious unity of Germany. When the Prussians defeated Napoleon III and determined to conquer Alsace-Lorraine and crush the Paris proletariat, Marx shifted sides, supporting the French. And in fact, Engels, who was a capable military critic, apparently produced a plan for the French army to defeat the Prussians. Eduard Bernstein, who was Engels’ literary executor, destroyed this plan so that it wouldn’t embarrass the German Social Democracy should it fall into the government’s hands.

Marx and Engels’ defensism of the French against Bismarck’s expansionism was extremely important in terms of enhancing their moral authority as socialist leaders. After 1870, the accusation that Marx and Engels were really German chauvinists, hiding behind pseudo-scientific doctrines, was obviously untenable. The hegemony which Marxism attained in the international workers movement by the 1890s was a direct product of Marx and Engels’ absolutely indisputable internationalism.

Engels on the East European Question

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 rendered Marx’s Grossdeutsche [Greater Germany] position—the inclusion of German-speaking Austria—obsolete. It was now a fantastical program. Marx didn’t like it but he had to accept that—except for Alsace-Lorraine—Germany had acquired its boundaries. This, of course, reopened the question of what to do with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Marx died before he tried to figure out a solution to that insoluble problem. Engels, who lived longer, was stuck with it.

By the time he died in 1895, Engels had moved very far away from the 1848 position on what was called the Eastern question—the East European question—but had not entirely abandoned it. By the late 1870s, Marx and Engels had come to expect a radical democratic revolution in tsarist Russia. This made the question of Polish independence much less important strategically. Nonetheless, Engels still regarded Russia as in some sense the gendarme of Europe, even in the 1880s. He was, therefore, very reluctant to accept the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire, believing that it would primarily benefit tsarist expansionism. Engels’ movement from the notion of “progressive nations” to advocating the right of self-determination can be seen in a letter written in 1882 and an article written in 1890.

In the early 1880s, Engels faced “Luxemburgism” on the national question even before Rosa Luxemburg. For well-motivated reasons, some Polish socialists did not want to fight for the independence of Poland, but rather looked forward to participating in the greater Russian revolution. Engels opposed this position, but he opposed it with a new argument. No longer was an independent Poland seen as a kind of democratic bastion against reactionary Russia—that was not the primary argument. Rather an independent Poland was necessary to sharpen the class antagonisms within Polish society. He wrote to Kautsky (7 February 1882):

“It is historically impossible for a great people even to discuss internal problems of any kind seriously, as long as it lacks national independence. Before 1859 there was no question of socialism in Italy; even the number of Republicans was small.... Only after 1861 the Republicans increased in influence and later transferred their best elements to the Socialists....

“So long as Poland is partitioned and subjugated, therefore, neither a strong socialist party can develop in the country itself, nor can there arise real international intercourse between the proletarian parties in Germany, etc., with other than emigre Poles....

“An international movement of the proletariat is possible only among independent nations.” [emphasis in original]

There is still the empirical qualification of “great nations,” not all nations. In the same letter, Engels still doesn’t think much of independence for the Czechs, Croats, Romanians, etc.:

“Now you may ask me [this to Kautsky, who, incidentally, was half Czech] whether I have no sympathy whatever for the small Slavic peoples, and remnants of peoples, which have been severed asunder by the three wedges driven in the flesh of Slavdom: the Germans, Magyars and Turks? In fact I have damned little sympathy for them.”

However, Engels agrees that after the fall of the tsar it would be all right for the small Slavic peoples to have their independence: after, not before. Then he adds, “I am certain that six months of independence will suffice for most Austro-Hungarian Slavs to bring them to a point where they will beg to be readmitted.” So Engels still considered the smaller peoples of East Europe as economically unviable units, and the Austro-Hungarian state as in some sense progressive.

By 1890 his position had undergone considerable evolution toward the classic Second International position in favor of the right of self-determination. During the 1880s, which was the beginning of the imperialist epoch, the alliances were formed which would result in World War I: tsarist Russia and bourgeois-democratic France against Wilhelmian Germany and Austria-Hungary. Engels foresaw that such a war would have a completely reactionary character. Furthermore, he was aware that changes in military technology meant that the war would be incredibly destructive, and that it would be impossible to predict who would win such a war.

In the 1880s, one begins to notice in Engels’ writings and in social-democratic propaganda a strong antiwar and anti-militarist thrust which was absent from the pre-1870 period. As a result there is a much more sympathetic attitude toward self-determination in East Europe. Discussing what will happen the day after tsarism is overthrown, Engels writes in 1890:

“On the same day Austria will lose its single, historical justification for existence—that of a barrier against the Russian drive toward Constantinople.... Magyars, Rumanians, Serbs, Bulgars, Arnauts, Greeks and Turks will then finally be in a position to settle their own mutual disputes without the intervention of foreign powers, to settle among themselves the boundaries of their individual national territories, to manage their affairs according to their own judgments.”

—“The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsardom”

Kautsky: Multinational States Are Reactionary

After Engels’ death, in the period of the Second International, one can distinguish four characteristic poles on the national question: the German social-democratic center, whose theoretical spokesman was Karl Kautsky; the German-dominated Austro-Hungarian social democracy, whose theoretical spokesmen were Karl Renner and Otto Bauer; Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish group; and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The differences and similarities between these tendencies are extremely complex and defy a simple schema. For example, on the question of the right of self-determination one would find Kautsky and Lenin in favor, and Bauer/Renner and Luxemburg against. On the question of whether to have a centralized rather than a nationally federated party one would find Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin for, and Bauer/Renner against. However, in certain aspects of methodology, I would argue that Kautsky and Luxemburg tended to emphasize the objective economic factor in determining the configuration of nation-states, although they drew diametrically opposite programmatic conclusions. On the other hand, Bauer/Renner and Lenin tended to emphasize the subjective factor, and the question of how to achieve the unity of the workers movement within a multinational state. Finally, I will argue that Lenin’s position is unique in his heavy emphasis on the question of the right of self-determination, rather than on any particular configuration of nation-states.

Under Kautsky’s guidance, the Marxist movement finally liquidated the outdated notion that tsarist Russia was somehow more reactionary than Wilhelmian Germany. Consequently, the Second International in its 1896 convention in London was now able to assert the general principle of the right of self-determination.

Kautsky’s position was that the Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires were essentially feudal remnants
—that they were cases of arrested development. He maintained that a normal, healthy bourgeois development in East Europe required the breakup of these multinational units into their constituent nations. In other words, Kautsky regarded the national liberation of the smaller Slavic peoples as a task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe.

Because the Austrian social democracy did not agree with this position, Kautsky never fought for it publicly. However, his real position was for the dissolution of the multinational states in East Europe. This comes through clearly in a letter (5 June 1901) from Kautsky to Victor Adler, head of the Austrian party:

“Most of our people suffer from the delusion that one can find a solution to every problem, if only one is clever enough. But there are insoluble problems, and the establishment of a viable Austria is one of them. National autonomy would not be a remedy either. It is essential for us in our propaganda and organisation, but under the given conditions, and with the present relation of forces, it is not conducive to a solution.

“In Austria of all places, a gradual approach to some solution or other is unthinkable. The only cure lies in complete collapse. That Austria still exists is to me not proof of its viability, nor yet evidence that we now have the political basis for a slow and peaceful development; all it proves is that bourgeois society is no longer capable of doing away with even the most rotten structures: the Sultan, Tsarism, Austria.”

—quoted in George Lichtheim, Marxism (1961)

Bauer/Renner: Saving the Austro-Hungarian State

The national program of Austrian social democracy, codified at the Brünn (Brno in present-day Czechoslovakia) Congress in 1898 called for a federated, democratic Austro-Hungarian state, and did not call for the right of self-determination. The national program of the Russian social democracy, codified in 1903 before the split, called for a unitary state with local autonomy, and did call for the right of self-determination. This significant difference cannot be explained simply on the basis of left versus right. The Russian Mensheviks also supported the right of self-determination, while even radicals in the Austrian party, like Friedrich Adler, did not advocate it.

Why was the simple solution of breaking the empire up into its constituent nations unpopular among Austrian social democrats of all shades? The problem—and this is why Kautsky was right to call it insoluble—was that everyone knew the breakup of Austria-Hungary would precipitate a war between Russia and Germany over the spoils. The various nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian empire hated one another, but they feared tsarist Russia and Wilhelmian Germany more. In contrast to all shades of Polish nationalism, the program of mainstream Czech nationalism was not independence. Rather, it was extreme federalism—creating a state within a state—combined with some kind of extraterritorial control over all Czechs in the empire.

(I have the impression that present-day French Canadian nationalism is rather similar to pre-World War I Czech nationalism. The goal is not outright independence, but rather virtually unlimited autonomy for Quebec plus some kind of union of all French-Canadians throughout Canada.)

So the Austrian Socialist Party sought to devise a program that would preserve Austria-Hungary in the face of violent national antagonisms. The heart of this program was so-called “cultural-national autonomy,” according to which nations were no longer associated with territories, but were embodied in individuals. In practice this meant that a Czech in Vienna could attend an exclusively Czech school and a German in Prague an exclusively German school. In fact, Karl Renner likened nationality to religion and argued that national organization should be modeled on churches. He writes in 1908:

“We must draw on the map a double network, the one economical, the other political. We must cut in two the sum of the activities of the state, separating national and political matters. We must organize the population twice; once along the lines of nationality, the second time, in relation to the state, and each time in administrative units of different form.”

—quoted in Arthur G. Kogan, “The Social Democrats in the Hapsburg Monarchy” in Journal of Modern History (1949)

From the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism, the worst thing about the Bauer/
Renner position was that it regarded nationality as a positive value. They actually presented their scheme to save the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire as an anticipation of communist society. Bauer writes in his 1907 opus, The National Question and Social Democracy:

“The organization of mankind into autonomous national communities enjoying, organizing, and developing their cultural goals is the final national aim of international Social-Democracy.”

—translated in Robert A. Kann, The Multi-National Empire

For Bauer, the state may wither away, but national affiliation goes on forever.

Luxemburg: National Blindness and Revolutionary Optimism

Now we come to the anti-Bauer, Rosa Luxemburg. It is important to emphasize that Luxemburg’s position on the national question is very much Polish-centered which in a sense is a paradox. There were, however, rather plausible reasons for a Polish revolutionary Marxist to oppose the independence of Poland. Luxemburg inherited that tradition, she didn’t invent it. One must realize that Poland was the most advanced, most industrialized part of the Russian empire with privileged access to a relatively large market. From the 1880s on, Polish nationalism was a petty-bourgeois, not a big-bourgeois, phenomenon. Luxemburg was convinced that the economic integration of Poland with Russia had gone so far that there was no possibility of an independent, viable Poland. So she considered Polish nationalism a form of petty-bourgeois reactionary utopianism analogous to Proudhonism in France or Bakuninite anarchism in Spain.

Rosa Luxemburg’s position on Polish independence is also closely linked with her revolutionary optimism concerning the possibility of a socialist revolution breaking out in the Russian empire and then spreading west. She more or less accepted Trotsky’s position on the permanent revolution in Russia. In fact, Trotsky’s seminal articles on the subject were first published in Luxemburg’s Polish-language journal. Thus, Luxemburg developed an attitude toward the Russian empire that was analogous to Marx’s attitude toward the German nation on the eve of 1848: for her the Russian empire became progressive as a powerful material basis for the coming proletarian revolution.

Luxemburg did not recognize what Lenin did: that the antagonisms between the Polish, Ukrainian and Great Russian working classes were an obstacle to a successful revolution in the tsarist empire. Her method of countering nationalist attitudes exclusively through internationalist propaganda was not enough. A positive programmatic opposition to tsarist Russia as “the prison house of nations” was necessary.

Lenin: Self-Determination and Workers Unity

The Leninist position on the national question was only developed in its final form during World War I, around 1917, but I believe it is basically relevant to the pre-1914 period.

Superficially, the Bolshevik position appears to be orthodox Kautskyan. However, I believe that the formal similarities obscure significant differences. Kautsky advocated self-determination because he was really in favor of independence as a means of pushing the bourgeois-democratic revolution in East Europe forward. Insofar as Lenin recognized that national emancipation for Poland, for the Ukraine, for the Czechs was an uncompleted bourgeois-democratic task there was a similarity of position.

But Lenin’s position was not essentially a two-stage revolution which looked forward to a relatively lengthy period of development of a bourgeois-democratic Polish, Ukrainian or Czech state. Rather, what Lenin emphasized—and he was the first Marxist to do so—was advocacy of the right of self-determination as a necessary means of unifying the working class in a multinational state.

Lenin maintained that Luxemburg’s abstract propaganda in favor of internationalism was not adequate to convince the Poles and the Ukrainians that the Great Russian socialists were not chauvinist. The workers movement in the oppressor nation must demonstrate in practice and in immediate programmatic form that it supports the right to independence of the oppressed nation. For Lenin, the question of whether independence would be realized or not was not a fundamental question, it was secondary. Before the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks did not take a position for or against independence for Poland, the Ukraine or Finland. The core of Lenin’s position comes through in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914):

“Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle “guesses,” we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state. We respect this right; we do not uphold the privileges of Great Russians with regard to Ukrainians; we educate the masses in the spirit of recognition of that right, in the spirit of rejecting state privileges for any nation.” [emphasis in original]

In New Left and “Third World” Stalinist circles, Lenin’s position is systematically misinterpreted so that he appears as a supporter of any demand put forward by an oppressed national minority. The anti-Luxemburgist Lenin wrongly overshadows the anti-nationalist Lenin. Lenin was violently hostile to “cultural-national autonomy” because it directly and immediately furthered nationalist ideology. He was opposed to federalism, and favored limited regional autonomy for minority nations in a unitary state. On this latter point, he was in basic agreement with Luxemburg. Some bourgeois commentators have noted that Lenin seems to have an all-or-nothing position on the national question. This is in contrast to the Austrian social democrats who offered the population an infinite gradation of steps between independence and assimilation. Richard Pipes in his The Formation of the Soviet Union writes:

“Lenin’s theory of national self-determination, viewed as a solution of the national problem in Russia, was entirely inadequate. By offering the minorities virtually no choice between assimilation and complete independence, it ignored the fact that they desired neither.”

However, Lenin’s program was not designed to be popular with Russia’s minorities at any given time. It was designed to foster the fighting unity of the working class within the Russian state. If the working masses of the various nations are so hostile to one another that it makes unified class struggle virtually impossible, then separation into independent states is called for. Where national minorities choose to coexist within the same state framework, the task of Leninists is to break down all the barriers separating the working masses of the different nationalities. While championing the equality of languages and related democratic rights, we work for the gradual, organic assimilation of the various nationalities making up the working class.