Nations and rights

Defending democracy and the principle of self-determination, Stan Keable (CPGB) replies to James Turley (CS and CPGB)

James Turley, in his contribution to the CPGB’s current debate on Israel-Palestine, quite rightly locates democracy and political freedom as being at the core of the CPGB’s conception of working class advance, and at the core of classical Marxism (‘Carrot and stick’ Weekly Worker March 5). While declaring his support for this approach, however, the comrade proceeds to belittle and undermine the concept of democracy in general and the democratic principle of the right to self-determination in particular. This he does with the best of intentions, posing the question, “What will advance the cause of the working class?”, in order to junk self-determination as outdated.

The cause of the working class, however, can only be advanced through the struggle for class unity. But class unity is not spontaneous. It can only be secured voluntarily, through conscious choices made by practising “the most vigorous democracy” – as James himself argues when castigating the Socialist Workers Party’s bureaucratic centralist regime (‘Business as usual’ Weekly Worker March 5). He elaborates the need for minority rights in a revolutionary party, the right to form factions and to publish differences. “Disagreements are inevitable … and must be “fought out rather than ignored”.

Quite right. But democracy is not only about resolving different views, which, of course, arise at every turn of events and have to be compared and differences thrashed out if we are to act in unity. It is also about enabling all sections of the working class to come together, about understanding and reconciling sectional, short-term interests in order to achieve class unity. And national interests are a form of sectional interest dividing the world’s working class. Democracy is an indispensable method of pursuing voluntary unity on this level too.

Opportunism is spontaneous: chasing after sectional interests or apparent short-cuts. Class-consciousness, on the other hand, must be forged if we are to overcome sectional and short-term interests, put long-term interests before short-term, put the interests of the whole working class before the interests of a part. And class-consciousness can only be developed voluntarily. Workers must be won to choose to prioritise the interests of the class as a whole through the struggle to develop a communist political programme and party.

For the working class, democracy is essential. How else can our class achieve the unity in struggle necessary to be effective? ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ is not just a slogan, but a fundamental truth. Comrade James argues this case when critiquing the SWP and arguing for the Marxist left in Britain to unite into a Marxist party, but loses his grip when it comes to the politics of working class unity internationally.

“Democracy is a simple principle – the rule of the majority,” he says. Well, yes, this is true, but not the whole truth. This definition is too simple. It omits to mention the vital matter of the right of minorities to express their views, and so, through discussion, to win the argument and become the majority. Perhaps this omission of minority rights in James’s definition of democracy in general lends itself to his willingness, albeit reluctant, to sacrifice the national rights of the Israeli-Jewish nation in the supposed greater interests of the world’s working class.

He offers us a deteriorating succession of characterisations of the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, each no better than the one before. The first clue comes in a somewhat obscure aside on Palestinian national rights: “… nobody seriously doubts the demand in relation to the Palestinians (though perhaps they should be more careful even here).” A hint, it seems, that self-determination, grudgingly accepted by James for the time being in relation to oppressed nations, is outdated – an argument to be developed later, perhaps.

We are advised that the principle is “a well-worn position for Marxists, an orthodoxy since Lenin”, the reasons for which are “crusted over and forgotten”. Self-determination is “what we do, and what we have always done”. Mindlessly, we are “relying on ‘rules of thumb’ like the right of self-determination”. His worst formulations come near the end of the article: “We should not be ashamed of overriding , to some extent, the national aspirations of the Israeli Jews”; and, somewhat chillingly: “the national feelings of six-million-odd people constitute a very real obstacle to the liberation of around 300 million others” (my emphases).

Here James guiltily obfuscates, attempting to conceal national rights behind “aspirations” and “feelings”. We should certainly be ashamed of overriding the national rights of the Israeli Jews, of six-million-odd people. Their aspirations might well include continuing to oppress the Palestinians: too bad. Their feelings might be hurt, of course. Feelings are subjective. But their right to determine their own fate – which excludes the right to oppress – must be defended. If not, if the national rights of six-million-odd people are overridden, then we can be sure that 300 million others will not be liberated. “A nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free.”

The “crusted over and forgotten” original reason, according to James, was that in Lenin’s time the proletariat was a minority class in a colonial world and needed to get the peasants and petty bourgeoisie on its side through national struggles against imperialism. In this way the fundamental democratic principle of equality between nations so long as they exist is, in James’s hands, reduced to a special case reserved for nations oppressed by imperialism. In the 26 theses on Israel-Palestine adopted by the CPGB in 2002, this type of argument is appropriately characterised in thesis 17 as a “half-baked and perverted reading of classic texts” (‘Two states for two peoples’ Weekly Worker May 16 2002).

It may be that thesis 13 contributes to this misconception, when it says, “… we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination”. This might be taken to limit the right to nations which are oppressed – which I can confirm, as one who voted for the theses – is not the case. Thesis 17 makes this explicit: “The right to self-determination is not a communist blessing exclusively bestowed upon the oppressed. It is fundamentally a demand for equality.”

This does not make us “moralists”, as James accuses. In the working class struggle to supersede capitalism, national divisions weaken us. The working class is a world class, and we prefer the maximum unity of our class, the overcoming of national barriers and divisions, the merging of national sections. And big states are preferable to small states. But unification must be voluntary if it is to be real. Hence our demand for equal national rights is universal, not peculiar to “oppressed nations”.

James argues against “raising the demand” for self-determination for the United Sates, because it oppresses other nations. But the reason we do not demand the right of self-determination for the US is because it already has it. It has no problem deciding its own fate. To argue, as James does, that diminishing US power to oppress other nations would reduce its capacity for self-determination is to miss the point of the principle: equality.

Likewise for the “Hebrew nation” (ie, the Israeli Jewish nation). James wants to deny its right of self-determination because it has a reactionary ideology: “the expression of [its] self-determination is objectively Zionism”. The argument is spurious, and betrays a failure to grasp the whole point of the democratic principle. Let us grant rights to those we agree with (the progressive nations) and deny rights to those we disagree with (the reactionary nations). That’ll teach them a lesson!

Certainly, Israel is an oppressor state. At present, it is well able to determine its own fate: ie, it is already able to exercise its right to self-determination. The reason we must “raise the demand” is because of the obvious possibility of a reversal of the poles of oppression when the balance of forces changes, as it certainly must ultimately. The Palestinians, and the Arabs as a whole, must defend the national rights of the Israeli Jewish minority in the region. Only with such a principle can they fight for their own rights.

In the CPGB aggregate discussion on February 28, Peter Manson acknowledged – and all agreed – the error in thesis 16, in which we denied (in 2002) that the Israeli Jewish workers constitute a labour aristocracy. In fact they do. Their material privileges, relative to the Palestinians, are funded by US imperialism backing Israel as its regional guard dog. Does this mean we can write them off as a bad job, tell them they will have no rights if we get our way? On the contrary – all the more reason to spell out the importance of avoiding a reversal of the poles of oppression.

In a situation where the balance of class forces, in the region as in the world, is tipped against the working class, it is not surprising that none of the “solutions” being discussed seems likely to come to fruition in the near future – neither one-state nor two-state, nor a pan-Arab revolution. Arguments about whether one or the other “solution” is “realistic”, or pessimistic sighs about how awfully long we may have to wait (!) for the situation to change, all miss the point. There can be no adequate “solutions” short of world communism, when the remains of the workers’ semi-state will have withered away and a classless society achieved.

What we are actually debating is our programme for struggle – what we fight for in the here and now. We are not trying to design a utopian short-term solution, in which everything will be okay. The key is the fight for democracy, within the workers’ movement and in society at large. In Israel-Palestine, this means upholding the right of both nations to self-determination, up to and including the right to form their own state. Insisting on a one-state solution, where the Israeli Jews are denied their national rights, is a recipe for confrontation and failure.

Because of the oppression and bloodshed they have suffered at the hands of the Israeli Jews, the Palestinian right to secede must be supported – but in a viable state, with reparations, and the right to return.

To make possible rapprochement between Israeli Jewish workers and Palestinian and Arab workers, we must also proclaim the right of self-determination of the Israeli-Jewish nation, including its right to its own state – the right of secession, if a pan-Arab state is formed. Raising the strategic aim of pan-Arab unity, a regional (Arab) communist party, a united Arab working class, etc, does not remove the necessity to uphold this democratic principle.

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