As the English-speaking world in general lacks a strong anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist trend, discussions of the Soviet Union and other actually existing socialist states tend to be vulgarised into two main trends, one of uncritical defence and the other of “uncritical criticism”. I presume those actually reading this already understand the dangers of the latter trend: if we assume the Trotskyite position that more or less the entire history of 20th century socialism can be summed up as a counter-revolutionary trend of “Stalinism”, we are left with the assumption that “real revolutionaries”… never actually take part in revolutions. If Marxism cannot actually produce a blueprint (no matter how flawed) for actual revolution*, then it makes more sense to choose (as many leftists do) to abandon Marxism entirely.
The other trend assumes that the revolutions carried out in the Russian Empire, Cuba, China, Albania, etc. were positive, and is problematic for a totally separate reason. It is cultish and unscientific to be unable to provide some sort of explanation for what went wrong. The usual explanation, that the imperialist powers spared no effort to destroy these states, is itself useless: this fact was known from the beginning, and Lenin was firm in opposing such a simplistic outline for international struggle as “know that the imperialists are your enemies”. He would not have advocated a fiercer ideological, political, and cultural struggle AFTER the revolution if the internal problems of the new socialist state were irrelevant, paling in comparison to the question of defence from imperialist powers (a logic which is manifested concretely in the “military first” policy of the DPRK revisionists).
The source of this mistaken approach to struggle is in an undialectical approach to the socialist state as a stage or process in history: proponents of this worldview tend to understand the socialist state as a completely liberated zone, liberated not only from the direct control of imperialist finance capital, but liberated from all internal contradictions inherited from thousands of years of human history:
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
One such contradiction, that I am particularly concerned with, is the national question. This is not to downplay the importance of other contradictions (such as those between rural and urban populations, intellectuals and the rest of the society, the different levels of the party, the party and the non-party masses, contradictions of gender, etc.), but simply to emphasise a contradiction which finds itself in the centre of discussion even today, from China to Syria to the United Kingdom.
The source of national contradictions
“Nations” as we know them are a product of capitalist modernity. In pre-capitalist society, most of the features we associate with nationhood today did not have the same character they have now. The movement of “nationalism” and “nation-states” co-occurs with the penetration of capitalism into a region, because the populations in these regions suddenly find that their market had grown, and with it, forms of communication changed and expanded.
To give a concrete example, the Basques had long been differentiated within the Spanish state by their language and culture, but for most Basques up until a certain stage of historical development, these features of their culture had not been under any threat. Indeed, it is frequently observed that the Basques were relatively priveleged within Spain up until a certain point, speaking their own language among themselves and learning Spanish as a trade language which they used very much to their advantage, much as the Dutch relate to the English-speaking world today, with the side fact that they shared nominal fealty to the same monarch as the Spanish-speakers who, quite frankly, they looked down on.
But as capitalism became more and more the dominant mode of production within the Spanish state, mass communication became more and more a feature of everyday life, and an official language ideology took shape that went beyond mere concerns about a “Lingua Franca”. The growing Spanish bourgeoisie began to conceive of its territory as an economic and social unit, to which groups like the Basques posed a problem: the Spanish bourgeoisie began to understand the link between social and economic belonging, and the existence of minority social relations became particularly inefficient. The Basque bourgeoisie likewise grew conscious of this trend, and the Basque nationalist movement began to take shape.
For the proletariats of these societies, they found themselves increasingly hostage to the economic demands of capitalist modernity, which as a more “efficient” form of class society also represented a more efficient form of exploitation. The general trend of human society began to tear them from their villages, cast them into degraded wage labour, and they became increasingly aware of their lack of control of their own lives. Worse still, the Spanish state’s demands (increasingly authoritarian as the 20th century continued) included that they give up their own language, which the Basque bourgeoisie sought to protect (for selfish reasons rather than out of concern for the average Basque worker, obviously). Inside these national formations, class contradictions also grew sharper, and from this we begin to see the emergence of a Basque nationalist “left”, which rather than being concerned with Basque identity for the sake of the maximal exploiting power of the Basque bourgeoisie, was concerned with the Basque people at large, and in solidarity with other peoples facing similar conditions.
Lenin and Stalin’s answer to the national question
The multi-national Russian Empire was no exception to this international trend. Lenin’s Bolshevik party made an effort to form local communist organisations, who worked tactically with various national elements against the Tsarist autocracy. Stalin himself was one of the first leading militants of the Baku Bolsheviks and a personal friend of Mehmet Emin Resulzade, the bourgeois Azerbaijani nationalist who worked with the Bolsheviks not only past the February Revolution, but years after the October Revolution, until he finally came into such sharp conflict with the Bolsheviks that he exiled.
Under Lenin’s leadership, local communist parties were formed for each of the republics, in which local language was emphasised and local culture given a new lease on life, being raised to a higher stage of development by progressive elements living in each of the republics. Small minority groups within these republics were given education in their own languages, many of which were converted into systematic written languages for the first time by the communist leadership.
It was Lenin’s position that one must err on the side of support for the peoples of smaller, poorer. weaker nations against larger, hegemonic nations because, in practice, the larger and more powerful nations have achieved such great privilege in practice. It must here be emphasised that in contrast to today’s revisionists, Lenin and Stalin understood the “nation” as a community of people, with, yes, an associated country. But revisionists have so totally accepted the bourgeois logic of nation-statism that they do not actually consider populations and classes when analysing international relations, but only the nominal leadership of the state. Even where Comrade Stalin warns against the dangers of dealing with minority nationalities in terms of uniting with their reactionary bourgeois elements on the grounds that they are “national”, he emphasises the right to their own language of the masses of such groups that are minorities in a larger geographic unit, and the right of such peoples to even maintain reactionary cultural traditions (though encouraging communists to agitate against these, Stalin was quite firm against the idea of a quasi-colonialist approach of having a larger nation impose its own cultural ideas on minorities by force).
The Stalin era involved, of course, errors on this and other issues. But it is extremely important to emphasise, at least in public and towards Brezhnevite, Titoite, Khrushchevite, Trotskyite, etc. trends that Stalin, compared to almost every other old Bolshevik, was extremely close to Lenin in his commitment to upholding a correct line on the national question within an actually existing socialist society (in addition to the rich legacy of anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism in fighting for national liberation of oppressed people around the world). It was Stalin who emphasised the importance of full national equality within the Soviet Union, including the right to secession, culminating in the particular question of how to deal with the United Nations, wherein the Stalin era produced the conclusion that the various national republics of the Soviet Union had a right to separate UN membership. As a result, despite the heavy toll of the post-Stalin era, the Soviet Union maintained its fundamentally federal character until the bitter end.
Over the course of the history of the Soviet Union, the revisionists embraced more and more old modes of production, domination, etc. which had never really left the society so much as they had been held down momentarily by the initial construction of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Together with this came more and more problems of how to divide the world, or the so-called “socialist world” (although this character was increasingly lost over the course of various internal and external losses), much as this problem presented itself in capitalist society. Thus, despite the association in the English world of the phrase “state capitalism” with Trotskyist trends, I maintain, alongside Hoxha and Mao, that there is some accuracy to the application of this theoretical label to the Soviet Union (as there was in Yugoslavia even earlier). Indeed, we should not balk at the label itself, as Lenin understood it as an appropriate label for the Soviet Union’s transition from its tsar-era economic existence into the post-October era. Lenin understood that capitalism is not “abolished” in one fell swoop, but “withers away”. So long as capitalism was the dominant world system, it was likely that this process of withering might be reversed, as it was under Khrushchev (and indeed, this was Khrushchev’s real economic sin: not establishing something which bore resemblance to capitalism in the Soviet Union, which was inevitable to some extent, but in encouraging more and more division of labour, etc. as some manifestation of “higher” socialism!).
Over the course of the post-Stalin era, this reversal culminated in the conversion of the Soviet Union from within into something very akin to a capitalist society, with its own mass unemployment and a bureaucracy which acted as a neo-capitalist class. The treasonous bureaucracy had no interest in linguistic, cultural, economic, or political equality within the Soviet Union, or in sovereignty of “foreign” nations (consider Brezhnev’s doctrine of “limited sovereignty”), because it had become a new imperialist power.
Mao and Stalin
We must avoid economic detemrinism, however. Capitalism’s ideological hold on most of human society is in fact stronger than any economic “benefits” (which most of us do not experience ourselves at any rate), and at any rate, it has produced contradictions which, while born of and beneficial to class society and the profit motive, have now some degree of autonomy in our social belonging, including but not limited to our understanding of national divisions. It would be too easy to claim that Khrushchev and company became “greedy” and so they reproduced capitalism for short term gains for themselves (this was likely a factor, and it should be emphasised in so far as bourgeois ideologues blame the “greedy” nature of humanity for capitalist restoration, and we should retort that it was not the greed of the majority, but of a privileged minority who should be held down). Rather, features of capitalist modernity have become almost autonomised in our minds to the point they seem natural and may be reproduced due to lack of emphasis on the contradicitons outside of the immediate class implications.
A fine example of this can be found in Mao’s complaints about Stalin’s “mistakes” towards China. While there are doubltess errors into which Stalin fell with regard to China, Mao was known to demand the “return” of (Outer) Mongolia to “China”. Mao had nothing to gain personally in terms of material life by this demand, it followed from a petty bourgeois national pride that many Han Chinese felt. The problem goes further, to Chinese dealings with Vietnam, and minorities within China. Indeed, the question may be asked why China is not divided into multiple republics as the Soviet Union was? Mao also theoretically defended the right of minorities (not their republics, which didn’t exist, since all of China was one “people’s republic”, a dangerous precedent indeed) to secede from the PRC, but the lack of practical steps towards meaningful autonomy in the sphere of politics (as Stalin took) made it easier for Mao’s successors to erode what autonomy did exist.
The lack of any reckoning with this history and the weakness of the “anti-revisionist” answer (socialist Albania) to the Cultural Revolution, the Three Worlds Theory, and all that that entailed has allowed an even worse revisionism than the original Khrushchevite revisionism to flourish under the guise of “real” (“anti-revisionist”!) Marxism-Leninism in imperialist countries in particular. Thus there exists a sort of received knowledge about the 20th century experience that privileges the “theories” on the national question espoused by the Kims, Mao, or Brezhnev over those of Lenin and Stalin (who, whatever their errors, understood nations in terms of populations living in geographies over a historical process, and not pre-determined, “racial” units with near mystical relationships to state and territory), and it becomes almost normal to hear people claim “Tibet is China” without ever having the question of whether Han Chinese and Tibetans are different groups in material fact cross their minds.
Rojava and our struggle
It is one thing to consider all this as an easy explanation for why we have to hear about a “Syrian nation” (that neither the Kurdish people nor the Syrian regime accepts exists) that the Kurds are “dividing” and thus hurting the “socialism” (!!!) in Syria. We all understand that these people don’t care about the right to self-determination, have done no research into the region, or even into the positions of armed Arab communists on the ground.
The few people who read this already accept that Rojava’s struggle is progressive both for the Kurdish people and for its role as a revolutionary base manifesting revolutionary ideals in practice that we can carry forward. But we must not rest on our laurels of having outsmarted a few Three Worlds Theorists on this one news item, likely due to our own connections to Turkey, Kurdistan, or the Turkish or Kurdish peoples.
The point is that this particular case of understanding national dynamics as having a… well… dynamic character has a universal basis with its own particular realisations in various other countries. If the CPGB-ML is wrong that the Welsh are not a nation, it has implications. A Welsh bourgeoisie will not share with an English bourgeoisie, and vice-versa. This implies a space for our intervention now under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: the Welsh bourgeoisie (and in particular the Welsh petty bourgeoisie) can have some progressive role so long as the English bourgeoisie controls the Welsh market.
Conversely, if bourgeois ideology means inequality among the nations by virtue of the goal of exploitation, the fight against exploitation must assume we would abandon the idea of inequality. The claims of some sort of “natural” Welsh “need” for English are in fact predicated upon English bourgeois domination of Wales. Thus, the claims that Welsh “nationalism” (or Welsh national consciousness and rights, which are in many cases mis-labelled as “nationalism” in spite of the fact that many non-nationalist Welsh naturally support them in spite of other ideological and practical commitments) are a bourgeois distraction miss the point that the current status quo in Wales is itself a natural byproduct of English bourgeois domination of Wales.
Consider then, if these instincts, motives, and processes are still relatively undissected and uninvestigated in British society after its various attempts at federalisation, how much more undissected they were in China and the Russian Empire even among most revolutionaries prior to the revolution. Consider how much less uninvestigated they are in Syria which has never experienced socialist revolution. And if even after having such a world historical revolutionary force as the Bolshevik Party seize power in the Soviet Union, these contradictions were able to reproduce themselves in so many ways that socialism was, in part, destroyed by them, how much can we say those who brush aside these questions in the UK today are planning for victory in any meaningful sense?
The same, of course, applies to the US, Turkey, India, Russia today, etc.
*I leave aside the Trotskyite attempts to claim the October Revolution as the one “pure” revolution, as this is a worthy subject of discussion in its own right.