Book Review: Fatherland or Mother Earth? By Michael Lowy

Bill Leumer

Lowy’s book consists of a collection of his essays that date back to 1974. The book is a “Notebook for Study and Research” prepared by the IIRE to which Lowy is a fellow. The IIRE and Lowy are associated with the centrist (sometimes revolutionary, more often not) Fourth International (FI).

In this short review, while not being able to respond to all of Lowy’s inanities and inconsistencies, of which there is an over abundance, I will focus on two main problem areas that are of most political significance. The first is Lowy’s attempted synthesis between Lenin’s program of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination and Otto Bauer’s contrary program of “national cultural autonomy.” The second and most important problem with Lowy’s book is his whole, liberal approach to the national question, where he elevates the right of nations to self-determination into an abstract, class-neutral principle. It is in these two areas, especially, that Lowy and those associated with him have revealed that their politics are not revolutionary or Marxist at all, but rather betrayers of Marxism.

First, Lowy’s claim that the Austrian social democrat Otto Bauer has a positive contribution to make is indeed strange. We are told that “a more balanced assessment of Otto Bauer is needed,” given his “harsh” treatment by the “Leninist” tradition in the past. Yet there is no balance whatsoever in Lowy’s revisionist treatment of Bauer. It is in fact a one-sided, deceptive, opportunist rendition that is now being peddled by Lowy most recently.

For example, anyone remotely familiar with the history of the international socialist movement can only smell something rotten in Lowy’s make over of Bauer as a legitimate socialist. Lowy tells us more than once that “Bauer was and remained strongly committed to socialist internationalism.” We are told that it is not Bauer’s nationalist politics that is problematic but rather it is, “Lenin’s general rejection of Bauer’s perspective of national/cultural autonomy that is questionable,” and that the two views “should be considered complementary rather than mutually exclusive.”

The reason why Lowy’s picture of Bauer as a socialist internationalist is one-sided and deceptive is because any “balanced” approach to Bauer would have to include all relevant political information, and if that were done it would reveal that Bauer was anything but a revolutionary socialist internationalist. For example, Bauer, at the time of the Austrian revolution after World War I, as the leader of the Austrian “socialists,” successfully misled the working class into limiting the revolution to what was acceptable to the capitalist class both at home and abroad. The workers were diverted from seizing state power. Bauer also opposed revolution in Western Europe and established an international organization (the “two and a half International”) as a bulwark against the genuine revolutionary workers internationalism which at that time was expressed in the Third International of Lenin and Trotsky. Bauer was not an advocate of international workers’ solidarity but rather was an advocate of the collaboration of the workers and capitalists. He counterposed to a workers’ government in Austria and the rest of Europe a government of capitalists and workers, a popular front government so as to better maintain capitalism. Class compromise was counterposed to class struggle by Bauer.

Furthermore, Lowy’s current lack of a balanced approach to Bauer also reflects his own opportunism in the sense that he now is adapting his own politics to Bauer’s by disregarding his formerly held principled politics without regard to the political consequences. It is interesting to note that we are told in the forward to Lowy’s book that his chapter 3, “The Marxist Debate on Self-Determination,” appeared “as part” of an article that was printed in English in “New Left Review,” no. 96, April 1976. Yet we are not told that the current version is highly edited and that it eliminates the whole section critical of the Austro-Marxists and of Bauer that appeared in the 1976 version. These principled criticisms, now absent in his book, correctly depict Bauer’s politics in general and his politics on the national question in particular as “marked by ‘centrism,’ halfway between reform and revolution, nationalism and internationalism.” According to Lowy’s 1976 article, “Bauer saw the solution to the national question in reformist terms (‘national evolution’ was the phrase he used to describe his strategy.)” Bauer placed his “analysis on the level of culture,” which, “naturally leads one to ignore the political problems: self-determination through the creation of nation states… it depoliticized the national question.” “What is more, Bauer almost completely excluded classes and the class struggle from the sphere of national culture.” Bauer had a “tendency to ‘nationalize’ socialism and the workers’ movement. …Bauer’s theory was to some degree contaminated by the nationalist ideology it was seeking to defeat.”

I don’t think Trotsky, as a member of the “Leninist tradition,” was “harsh” or unbalanced when he described Bauer as having “…considered nationality independent of territory, economy and class, transforming it into a species of abstraction limited by so-called ‘national character.’ In the field of national policy, as for that matter in all other fields, it did not venture beyond a corrective of the status quo. Fearing the very thought of dismembering the monarchy, the Austrian Social-Democracy strove to adapt its national program to the borders of the patchwork state. The program of so-called ‘national cultural economy’ required that the citizens of one and the same nationality, irrespective of their dispersal over territory of Austria-Hungary and irrespective of the administrative divisions of the state, should be united, on the basis of purely personal attributes, into one community for the solution of their ‘cultural’ tasks… That program was artificial and utopian, in so far as it attempted to separate culture from territory and economy in a society torn apart by social contradictions; it was at the same time reactionary, in so far as it led to a forced disunion into various nationalities of the workers of one and the same state, undermining their class strength.”

In other words, Trotsky was arguing, in contrast to Bauer, that nationality should not be fetishized into an absolute principle in isolation from class struggle. Whereas Bauer was urging the unification of workers with capitalists along national lines within the framework of a capitalist state, Trotsky was promoting an alliance of workers along cross national lines in order to unite them against their common oppressor. Trotsky defended the right of nations to self-determination but did not elevate this right into an absolute principle.

The “Leninist Tradition” has not been “rather harsh” on Bauer. Genuine revolutionary Marxists simply reject those who advocate reforming capitalism and dividing the working class.

Lastly on Bauer, Lowy now indicates that, “Lenin’s general rejection of Bauer’s perspective of national/cultural autonomy is questionable.” This is so for Lowy because he depicts Lenin’s policy as merely “confronting minority populations with a choice between assimilation and self-determination” and this “could not give a satisfactory answer to problems of the extra-territorial nations which rejected the first solution but did not dispose of the objective conditions necessary for the second.”

First, Lenin’s policy did not advocate either assimilation or self-determination. Rather Lenin put it this way: “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilized brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in a higher unity.” [My emphasis.] Lenin’s policy was not “assimilation” of oppressed nationalities. In fact, he promoted the idea of the various minority ethnic or language groups being able to be taught in their own language at schools at state expense. After the revolution this was implemented up to and including Yiddish-speaking Jews having their own publishing facilities and schools, etc., for example. Lenin’s policy did not have anything to do with promoting the division of the working class in the face of the class enemy as Bauer did with his “national cultural autonomy” policy which he counterposed to a class struggle approach.

Lenin’s revolutionary internationalist “amalgamation” is not a forced “assimilation” of various nationalities and their languages into a class neutral melting pot of the dominant nation. Lenin’s revolutionary alternative to “assimilation,” bourgeois nationalism and the class collaborationist “national cultural autonomy,” was, as he put it, one that “advocates, firstly, the equality of nations [i.e. nationalities] and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges…” “Secondly, the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind.”

This does not mean that Lenin opposed the right of nations to separate. Lenin advocated equality of nationalities and their respective languages within a state and counterposed this goal to a program aimed at dividing the working class along national lines: “Advocacy of complete equality of nations [i.e. nationalities] and languages, distinguishes only the consistently democratic elements in each nation (i.e., only the proletarians), and unites them, not according to nationality, but in a profound and earnest desire to improve the entire system of state. On the contrary, advocacy of ‘cultural-national autonomy,’ despite the pious wishes of individuals and groups, divides the nations and in fact draws the workers and the bourgeoisie of any one nation closer together.” Lenin maintained that the implementation of this program would require a socialist revolution led by the working class.

It was actually Bauer that rejected the right of nations to self-determination by advocating the reactionary form of working class fragmentation in his “national cultural autonomy.”

For Lowy to view these two slogans as “complementary” merely is an expression of his own eclecticism, his own failure to comprehend the class struggle nature of the working class defending the right to independence as a form of uniting the working class of both nations (while each retains their own cultural attributes) against the common class enemy, the capitalist class. The attempt at smuggling in Bauer’s “national cultural autonomy” alongside of Lenin is simply a reflection of Lowy’s complete lack of consistency when it comes to revolutionary politics.

Secondly, and as a corollary to his Bauerism, Lowy elevates the right of nations to self-determination into an abstract, class neutral principle. This is where he makes a caricature of Marxism by his employment of the a-historical, metaphysical approach to reality. For Marxists, concepts like self-determination are dialectical and historical and not simply abstract principles that can exist independently of the concrete particularities of each and every situation. Lowy, in other words, fails to take into account the distinction and the relationship between the particular and the general when it comes to the politics of the national question.

Lowy expresses his rejection of the working class point of view when, in his discussion of Lenin, in addition to his pointing out Lenin’s famous distinction between an oppressed and an oppressor nation and his general policy of defending the right of an oppressed nation to self-determination, he also mentions that Lenin did not regard the proletarian revolution and democratic struggles as being of equal importance. As Lowy says, for Lenin, “Democratic demands of which self-determination is one always had to be subordinated to the overriding interests of the revolutionary class struggle of the world proletariat.”

Lowy clearly rejects Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s, for that matter) perspective of seeing the general rule only in the context of each particular, class-based historic situation. This is where Lowy views political questions abstractly. For example, he says, “the general rule is the right of secession for each nation,” whereas for Lenin, on the level of simply viewing the relation of oppressed versus oppressor nations, the oppressed had the right to self-determination. Yet on the higher particular level of the concrete reality of the world divided into two main antagonistic classes, the working class and the capitalist class, it was the class struggle which predominated. At the very least, the particular complicated the merely general.

The relationship of the national and the class struggle, for Marxists with a class struggle persuasion, is one where the national question takes the form of a subordinate issue in relation to the higher class struggle.

Lowy goes further in his abandonment of Marxism when he criticizes Lenin for maintaining that “the democratic rights of the nations …[is] a part which has to be subordinated to the whole which is the world democratic and socialist movement.” “This formulation,” he tells us, “seems to me dangerous and somewhat mechanistic.”

The real danger here is in the logic of Lowy’s position, which cannot help but fail to situate the national question or the class struggle in the actual historical process. For, as Lenin correctly says, “Marxist dialectics call for a concrete analysis of each specific historical situation.”

Lowy’s position, in essence, elevates the democratic national struggle or a nation’s right to self-determination into an abstract principle and by so doing subordinates the class struggle of the workers and the supreme interests of socialism.

For Lenin, confronting a situation where a nation’s right to self-determination was denied because it would serve reactionary ends or where a small oppressed nation’s struggle for independence was subordinated to the fight against an imperialist war which would greatly increase the chances of huge masses of workers taking the road to socialism never meant that the right of self-determination would be deleted from the working class’ party program. Yet for Lowy, subordinating a nation’s right to independence, etc., to the overall interests of the class struggle in essence means for him that the principle of self-determination has been violated.

For example, Lowy says, “Unfortunately, the policy of the Bolshevik government (including Lenin) after October 1917 did not always correspond to this principle: for example, witness the invasion of Poland in 1920 and the occupation of Georgia in 1921.” This really is priceless.

Poland, a former oppressed nation within Czarist Russia, sought its independence and was recognized as independent after the October 1917 revolution that brought the workers to state power, led by Lenin and the Bolshevik government. Within two years, Poland’s status had been completely transformed. It was, by March 1920 when it invaded Soviet territory, an imperialist oppressor nation. This was not a neutral, peace-loving nation that the soviets invaded. Poland was itself imperialist and backed by world imperialism, especially France and Britain. It invaded Soviet areas to seize and occupy land in the Ukraine and elsewhere to reinstall Polish landlords who had been sent packing by the Soviet revolution. Poland’s war on the Soviets occurred during the civil war there and was part of world imperialism’s attempt to crush the workers’ revolution. For Lenin and Trotsky, there was no moral, political or strategic principle that prohibited the Red Army from entering an aggressor’s territory when it was in pursuit of enemy forces so as to annihilate the agents of aggression. This Bolshevik policy was part of the exercising of their right to self-determination as an oppressed nation in relation to Poland and the rest of the imperialist countries. And more importantly, this Bolshevik policy represented putting the defense of the workers’ state and the interests of socialism above all else.

The Georgia that was occupied by Red Army troops in 1921 was, from the time of its “independence” in 1918, an “outpost” of the “chief bulwarks of bourgeois reaction,” as Lenin defined this type of nation. Georgia was hardly an innocent, friendly neighbor of the Soviet Federation that had its democratic right to self-determination violated, as Lowy might have us think.

Georgia had refused to form an alliance with the Soviets to fight the imperialist backed counter-revolutionaries during the civil war. It had allowed German troops to occupy the country prior to the end of World War I. And it allowed Germany to cart off raw materials for its war effort against the Entante forces and against the Soviet workers’ state. After the Germans withdrew their forces in November 1918, British troops replaced them in Georgia in order to conduct their imperialist military campaign against the workers’ revolution and the interests of socialism.

In reference to the Red Army troops being in Georgia, Trotsky said, in defense of this working class policy, “The Red forces were not required for the overthrow of the Georgian Mensheviks, but for the prevention of the possibility of a British, French, or Wrangel (an imperialist-backed Russian Czarist, general) descent from Constantinople against the Soviet revolution.” Trotsky also mentioned, “One can say without exaggeration, that Menshevik Georgia created the Wrangel army.” That was the army that was out to destroy the revolution and the gains made by the revolutionary workers. In this context, Trotsky was correct in asking, “Was not Soviet Russia justified in kicking the Menshevik head of Georgia? Is the right of national self-determination equivalent to the right of doing mischief with impunity?”

The reason Lenin often refers to the Marxist principle of the requirement of seeing the “democratic rights of nations as a part which has to be subordinated to the whole,” as Lowy puts it, is because, as Lenin explains, “The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute…. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial monarchist intrigues of other countries, not to mention the “outposts” of invading imperialist armies. If so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement…” but rather, as Lenin put it, “we too would have to be in favor of destroying all their outposts, no matter what small nation movements arose in them.” Yet for Lenin, as well as Trotsky, this policy did not mean that the right of self-determination should be deleted from the socialists’ program. It simply means, again, that, as Trotsky stated it, “Our party did not for a minute turn the democratic principle of self-determination into a dominating factor over all other historic requirements and tasks…. We take care to explain to the masses its limited historic significance, and we never put it above the interests of the proletarian revolution.”

Lowy, in spite of his one exception to his rule, namely, Cambodia, 1971, treats the right of self-determination in practice as an absolute. He elevates this democratic demand into an abstract principle. In contradistinction to Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, Lowy says, “It [Marxism] has to support all struggles for national liberation or for oppressed nations right to self-determination.”

It is Lowy’s policy that is “dangerous” and “mechanistic,” not Lenin’s, in the sense that Lowy (given he uses the examples of Poland and Georgia), treats self-determination as a fixed idea, not to be infringed upon, with universal application, regardless of the concrete context or class interests. If his policy were pursued and not Lenin’s and Trotsky’s, the workers’ revolution would have been placed in danger. What Lowy peddles as good coin is nothing but a license for social democratic opportunism.

Furthermore, Lowy, in the same vein, tells us that in his opinion, “It would be more adequate — and corresponding better to the spirit of most of Lenin’s writings on the national question — to conceive the socialist revolution and the international fraternity of the proletariat as Marxists’ aim and national self-determination as a necessary means for implementing it.” This way of putting the matter is the exact opposite of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s position. In reality this abstraction of a formula has meant supporting nationalist movements and more often than not the nationalist leaderships while the class struggle is subordinated under the guise of the anti-imperialist (or more recently the anti-Stalinist) “unity.” Lowy’s formula reeks of the political strategy commonly known to revolutionary Marxists as the class collaborationist, two stage theory of revolution. This is where the workers’ socialist revolution is viewed as an “aim” and a distinct, second stage of the struggle which follows the establishment of national liberation via a multi-class nationalist government and not with the working class leading the combined national and socialist revolution with the establishment of a working class government and state as the guarantor of national liberation.

This former two stage policy, if pursued, consciously or not, is in revolutionary Marxist class terms, an advocation of the working class collaborating with the capitalists or their representatives, that is, workers subordinating their class interests in deference to their class enemy.

Since the publication of Lowy’s book, unfortunately, the Fourth International has adapted to the same revisions as Lowy, in opposition to its historic program. During and after the NATO war on Yugoslavia, they support the NATO occupation of Kosovo. In their “From the Balkans to the World Order: balance sheet of the war they state:

“…Rather than sliding into a ‘pacifist’ position that would be indifferent to the suffering of the Kosovar people, we supported their legitimate right of self defence. We don’t accept a symmetrical analysis of Serbian state terrorism and the armed struggle of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). But the KLA’s political orientation, after Adem Demaci was removed from its leadership, and the group’s organisational weakness, made it impossible for us to consider the KLA the necessary base for the double struggle against ethnic cleansing and against the NATO war. So we were reduced to the position of struggling for a halt to the bombings and in favour of an agreement which would prioritise the return of the expelled population-protected by a multi-national force.” Last summer they supported the occupation of East Timor by the United Nations troops.”

This class collaborationist policy was also recently advocated by confused liberal leftists when they, under the pressure of capitalist public opinion, called for support to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in its own aborted attempt to separate Kosovo from Yugoslavia and set up an independent capitalist state.

Revolutionary socialists can and do support the right of the oppressed to struggle for independence, regardless of their leadership. But they do so from the working class strategic perspective of the Transitional Program which calls for a working class political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy in the former Yugoslav deformed workers’ states and to establish a genuinely democratic socialist workers’ state recognizing the right of self-determination of the different oppressed nationalities in the Balkans.]

Revolutionary socialists can and do support the right of the oppressed to struggle for independence, regardless of their leadership. But they do so from the working class strategic perspective of the Theory of Permanent Revolution, which, as Trotsky says, “signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is by majority rule of the working class as the leader of the subjugated nation.”

In fact, the elevation of the notion of the right to self-determination to an abstract, class-neutral principle led confused liberal leftists to continue to lend support to the KLA after it had established a military alliance with imperialism against the deformed Yugoslavian workers’ state. In other words, the liberals in reality viewed the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia as the main or most important issue at the time of the imperialist war, in spite of their declared opposition to the imperialist NATO bombing. Even those liberal leftists in the U.S. that characterized the war on Yugoslavia as having a “dual character” (NATO vs. Yugoslavia and Kosovo’s KLA vs. Yugoslavia), and who went so far as to merely mouth the words that imperialism was the main enemy, nevertheless, ended up continuing to support the KLA after it had signed on as imperialism’s junior military partner against Yugoslavia. This “support” continued after the KLA leadership took their own nation’s independence off the table, so to speak, when they agreed to imperialist occupation of Kosovo upon Yugoslavia’s defeat. Thus, the liberal left in effect made the KLA separating from Yugoslavia the main issue at the expense of the anti-imperialist/proletarian internationalist defense of the Yugoslavian workers’ state.

The liberal leftists falsely continued to support the KLA as “progressive,” as if the KLA military pact with imperialism against Yugoslavia meant absolutely nothing. There is nothing “progressive” in militarily supporting and assisting imperialism’s war in Yugoslavia from a revolutionary working class perspective. So while, on the one hand, the liberal leftists claimed to be in opposition to the imperialist war on Yugoslavia, on the other hand, they ended up giving that imperialist war backhanded or perhaps unwitting support by their supporting the KLA militarily against Yugoslavia while the KLA was in league with imperialism in its war of aggression on Yugoslavia.

By turning the notion of the right of self-determination into an abstract, class-neutral principle, these liberal leftists lost sight of the Marxist principle that all struggles must be viewed in their concrete, class-based historical context. They thus also would lose the revolutionary working class perspective that alone guides one in opposing imperialism and not siding with it. To opt for the abstract, class neutral approach, one risks becoming an imperialist stooge, wittingly or not.

Lowy’s book, in this writer’s opinion, has nothing to do with the Marxism of Lenin or Trotsky nor the historic, revolutionary program of the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938.

Originally published May 2001 in Socialist Viewpoint.

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Fatherland or Mother Earth?
Essays on the National Question
By Michael Lowy
Published by Pluto Press with the International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE), 1998

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.