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Five views on ‘National Liberation and Bolshevism’: A response

May 27, 2014

By John Riddell. Eric Blanc’s essay, “National Liberation and Bolshevism Reexamined: A View From The Borderlands,” is “a stimulating and insightful essay” that will “inspire and inform reconsideration of questions long thought settled,” writes Richard Fidler. While I cannot confirm every aspect of Blanc’s analysis, I do strongly agree with Fidler’s assessment.

The worth of this essay is evident in the questions it has provoked in five comments on this website.

Louis Proyect on the views of Marx and Engels

Louis Proyect asks, “I wonder to what degree Lenin’s mistakes and Luxemburg’s more egregiously can be explained by reading Marx and Engels. I understand that they came to embrace the Irish struggle but there is much else that is woefully inadequate.”

He refers to the analysis of Ephraim Nimni in Marxism and the National Question and cites a 1849 article by Engels on Hungary (“the clearest theoretical statement”) and one on Panslavism (1852) signed and edited by Marx but written by Engels.

Proyect is right in one respect: some inadequacies in the Second International view of nationalism can no doubt be traced back to Marx and Engels.

However, I question whether the quotations Proyect presents provide an adequate summary of their views.

The articles cited by Proyect were written at the outset of an evolution and change in the views of Marx and Engels on this question. Often remarked upon, it is well analyzed in a recent book by Kevin B. Anderson: Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

This shift is evident, for example, in the reversal of Marx’s attitude to the impact of colonialism on India. As for Ireland, Engels wrote in sympathy with Irish independence as early as 1843, but he and Marx evolved toward a rounded position around 1870 that was “an interweaving of class, nationalism, race, and ethnicity” (Anderson, p. 115).

Marx was always a partisan of Polish independence from the 1840s, a position, Eric Blanc reports, which Lenin did not adopt in tsarist times.

If the views of Marx and Engels on the national question were inadequate as a guide to the challenges of the twentieth century, this was also true on many other major questions, including anti-imperialism, colonial liberation, and feminism, to say nothing of gay liberation. Although founders of modern socialist thought, they remained children of their time.

Richard Fidler on the Constituent Assembly

Richard Fidler cites Trotsky’s comment that the demand for the Constituent Assembly, directed at the Provisional Government in 1917, was part and parcel of the Bolshevik response to the “problem of nationalities” (History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, chapter 2).

Fidler asks if its dissolution by the Soviet government in January 1918 contributed to triggering the civil war and early anti-Soviet victories in the borderlands. This suggestion is well worth developing more fully.

We must note that much changed between the months before October 1917, when the Provisional Government was stalling on granting self-determination to subject nationalities, and the convening of the Constituent Assembly in January. Development. The Soviet government was born; it was structured as a federation of nations; it pledged to respect the nationalities’ right of self-determination; and several nationalities in the Western borderlands declared independence.

Also by January it was evident that Russia was sliding into a civil war, soon to be complicated by imperialist intervention. In this context, self-determination was worked out not through democratic referendums but through the clash of armies. Nowhere was the struggle limited to rival forces within a given nationality. Ethnic Russian were engaged everywhere on both sides, while imperialist powers invaded to aid the anti-Soviet forces.

Whatever our conclusions about the national question in the decisive first months of Soviet power, Fidler is clearly right in stressing the importance of experiences during the twentieth century on this question, in which constituent assemblies have often served to advance the cause of national emancipation.

Prianikoff on Finland

Prianikoff tells us, “It wasn’t the Bolshevik’s policy on the national question that led to this defeat, but their inablility to send troops to support the Finnish Reds in 1918.” Certainly intervention by the German army, first indirectly and then through an open invasion, greatly reinforced the counterrevolution in Finland.

But White armies were advancing even before the German forces marched in. Many questions come to mind. What was the Whites’ social base, and what were the issues on which they mobilized support? And when the German threat was posed, did the Red forces attempt to rally support to defend Finnish independence against the invaders?

Weizfeld on the Bund

Abraham Weizfeld is right to underline the contribution of the Jewish Bund to the socialist movement both inside and outside Russia. Weizfeld’s work in this field contributes to the important task of expanding our understanding of the Bund’s history.

Vajayachandran on the achievements of the USSR

K. Vajayachandran states that Eric Blanc’s paper “fails to look at objectively the state policies followed by USSR under Lenin and Stalin. Right to secede was only a minor part of these policies…. Despite all the alleged failures Bolshevik had succeeded in building the first ever truly multinational state in human history.”

In fact, Eric Blanc did highlight Soviet policies favouring the rights of national minorities and did not deny the enduring gains of the Soviet Union. Blanc was right, however, to note that these policies were thrown into reverse during the “Stalinist counterrevolution of the 1930s.” The destructive impact of this reversal contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union sixty years later under Gorbachev.

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One Comment
  1. prianikoff permalink

    re. Finnish Civil War

    The Whites had won at Tampere before the German forces landed in the South, but German military assistance was crucial to the outcome of the Finnish Civil war.

    The rank and file of the Whites forces were mostly small-holding farmers from the North.
    2,000 Jaeger troops, trained by the Germans to undermine Tsarist Russia in the First World War Along with 1200 Swedish volunteers – all mostly upper class students – they formed the officer corps of the White Guard.

    The Reds had about 2,000 deserters from the disintegrating Tsarist army, but very limited support from the Soviet Government, which signed Brest Litovsk treaty just before the Battle of Tampere.
    The rank and file of the Red Guard was composed of workers from Tampere and Helsinki.

    The Whites were better equipped, better organised and also far more brutal than the Reds. Captured prisoners were generally shot. Many others died of starvation or disease in camps after they surrendered. The Whites killed 6 times as many of their opponents as the Reds did.

    Even today, many Finns believe that the Reds were trying to supress Finnish Independence, but the reverse is true!

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