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Felix Morrow Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism on the Struggle in India

Saturday 15 November 2008

Felix Morrow Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism on the Struggle in India (September 1942)

The essence of petty-bourgeois radicalism is phrase-mongering with no thought that the words will ever have to be followed by deeds. Unfettered by any responsibility to the participants in the struggle, the petty-bourgeois radical can afford unlimited intransigence of the word. It doesn’t cost anything, so he raises the stakes. Shouting and doing, Marx noted, are irreconcilable opposites. Quite conscious that the doing is beyond him, the petty-bourgeois radical is unbridled in the shouting. Political impotence assures him of never having to make good his ferocious words. Abstentionism masquerades as revolutionary doggedness. Instructive examples of this phenomenon are provided at every turn of events by the Shachtman “Workers Party.” The latest comes in connection with India.

With the moderation of doers, Lenin and Trotsky declared the working class, by its own methods, should support any colonial struggle even if it were led by the colonial bourgeoisie. In his Open Letter to the Workers of India on the eve of the war, Trotsky declared: “In the event that the Indian bourgeoisie finds itself compelled to take even the tiniest step on the road of struggle against the arbitrary rule of Great Britain, the proletariat will naturally support such a step... with their own “methods.” This is the “moderation” of revolutionary action.

The petty-bourgeois radical has no need of moderation; everything is possible in words. In June, just before the outbreak of the present struggle in India, Shachtman decreed that, in view of the extension of the military arena, colonial struggles under bourgeois leadership are undeserving of the support of revolutionists; Shachtman now would support nothing less than a colonial struggle under the leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. At the top of his lungs he decreed it:

“Yes, the struggle of the colonies for freedom is utterly hopeless during the present World War if they continue the course of serving one imperialist camp against the other. That is today the course of the bourgeoisie in every colonial and semi-colonial country.

“The ‘Second World War,’ imperialist to the marrow, is total and all-dominating. In its first stage, at least, it was inevitable that it draw into the grip of its iron ring all the isolated national wars and struggles for national freedom. That is where these struggles are today—within the iron ring of the imperialist war.

“... Yes, the struggle for national emancipation of the colonies has been deserted—by the Chiangs and the Nehrus and the Boses and the Wangs, by the people who led and directed it and then, at the showdown, brought it into the imperialist war camp...

“It is therefore on the basis of objective analysis, and not of rhetoric, that we declare that... only the leadership of the proletariat can re-launch the just wars of the colonies against imperialism.” (New International, June 1942.)

An Embarrassing Revolt

Shachtman scarcely had gotten this off his chest when the pressure of the Indian masses impelled the bourgeois All-India Congress to embark on a civil disobedience campaign against Britain. Shachtman had said all such struggles are inevitably part of the imperialist war and undeserving of support. But great masses, ignoring his prophetic decree, arose under the formal leadership of the Congress. What would Shachtman say now?

Logically, it might seem, only two courses were open to him. Either repeat that the struggle in India is undeserving of support. Or, recognizing the empty instransigence of his previous words, concede their falsity and come out for support of the struggle. But if men of ordinary clay would see only these two alternatives, Shachtman is otherwise constructed. In the face of the events he did not have the brass to repeat his absurd pronouncement. Still less did he have the honesty to acknowledge his error. He preferred to seek a formula avoiding either explicitly repeating his June decree or recognizing its falsity.

The new formula that Shachtman found is the Workers Party Statement on India (Labor Action, August 17). Its boldly-conceived principle is: “Stand by the people of India.” What about this present struggle led by the Congress—does Shachtman support it? There is nothing about that in the statement. “The Workers Party stands 100 per cent with the people of India?” But at the given moment the people of India are fighting under the banner of the Congress—does the “Workers Party” stand 100 per cent, or 10 per cent, behind this struggle? No, that is ruled out by Shachtman’s June pronouncement, which he had to maintain in order, as they say in the Orient, to save face. That is worth more to Shachtman than ten revolutions.

His statement says: “We do not know whether Gandhi, Nehru and Azad intend to go through with their call to mass struggle.” In June, Shachtman was absolutely positive that these men could only serve “one imperialist camp against the other”; now he doesn’t know whether they will “go through” with “mass struggle.” We, on the other hand, were and remain certain that the Congress leadership will not go through with the struggle to the end. The question is whether or not revolutionists should support the struggle, wholeheartedly and unconditionally, as long as it does go on. Before and now, we answer YES. Shachtman said NO in June and now says nothing. His verbal intransigence of June is followed by political cowardice.

The “Workers Party” statement is a deliberately dishonest document. It is designed to give the appearance of support without declaring support of the actual struggle led by the Congress. In its small way the statement is as deliberately dishonest as the Stalinist formula, which declares support of Indian independence but condemns the struggle. The dishonesty in the two cases flows, of course, from very different sources. In the case of Stalinism it serves the material interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy. In the case of the “Workers Party” it serves Shachtman’s personal considerations.

His Basic Line

This is not to say that it Shachtman were honest he would condemn his June article. As a matter of fact, he would now be reiterating it, if he had the courage of such convictions as he has. He could not repudiate it without at the same time abandoning his whole conception of the Second World War. In his conception, the “character of the war” determines the role of all participants, regardless of whether they are imperialist or non-imperialist powers. He makes no distinction between the role of the imperialist powers and that of semi-colonial China and the Soviet Union. To him “The Second World War, imperialist to the marrow, is total and all-dominating.” From this false conception he drew his logical-enough corollary in June that the “total and all-dominating war” determined the character of all present colonial struggles: “That is where these struggles are today—within the iron ring of the imperialist war.” It was on the basis of this false and anti-Marxist theory that Shachtman abandoned the defense of the Soviet Union and split from the Fourth International on this issue. His natural next step was to abandon the defense of China against Japanese imperialism. Equally consistent was his refusal to support the specific struggle in India.

In all these instances the essence of Shachtman’s politics comes out: abstention from the struggle, cloaked by ultra-left phrases. Trotsky pointed this out when the Burnham-Shachtman group called for a simultaneous insurrection by the Polish people against both Hitler and Stalin. Trotsky answered:

“The advanced workers in eastern Poland could justifiably say: A simultaneous insurrection against Hitler and Stalin in a country occupied by troops might perhaps be arranged very, conveniently from the Bronx; but here, locally, it is more difficult. We should like to hear Burnham and Shachtman’s answer to a ‘concrete political question’: What shall we do between now and the coming insurrection? ... Throughout the vacillations and convulsions of the Burnham-Shachtman opposition, there is a tendency to refrain from active participation, a tendency to self-elimination, to abstentionism, naturally, under cover of ultra-radical phrases.”

Likewise for India, Shachtman will support nothing less than simultaneous insurrection on two fronts: against British imperialism and the native bourgeoisie. Naturally that would be best. But if the workers of India are not yet ready, if the native bourgeoisie stands, for the time being, at the head of the struggle against British imperialism? Shachtman will not support it, as he will not support the Soviet Union against Hitler or China against Japan. Until the struggle catches up with his prescription for it, he will abstain.

If the struggle does catch up with his formula, Shachtman will find new reasons for abstention. When the Red Army invaded Finland, Shachtman opposed defense of the Soviet Union but added: “If the imperialists assail the Soviet Union with the aim of crushing the last conquest of the October Revolution and reducing Russia to a bunch of colonies, we will support the Soviet Union unconditionally.” Reality caught up with his prescription when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Whereupon Shachtman changed his... prescription. * * *

P.S. The August Issue of Shachtman’s New International has just appeared. To its previous theoretical errors, it now adds an irresponsibility which one can characterize only as criminal. On page 197 it says of the Social Democrats: “Where even the bourgeois press hesitated before the extreme slander of labeling Gandhi and his group as ‘Japanese-Axis agents,’ the decrepit old nags of the New Leader did not hesitate.” The editorial board, then, understands that to characterize the present bourgeois leadership of the Indian struggle as linked to Japan is an “extreme slander.” But on page 196—in the same editorial on India—we read in the New International:

“Therefore, beyond a doubt the Indian bourgeoisie is casting about for a new master to which it may subordinate itself; a new power before which it may lay its claim for junior partnership in the exploitation of the country. Obviously that new power is the greatly expanded Japanese Empire! It is impossible to say whether a ‘deal’ or tacit understanding has been reached with Japanese imperialism, but it is clear that doubly parasitic Indian capitalism is seriously pondering the question.”

The difference between the “extreme slander” of the New Leader and that of the New International is that the latter pretends to give a “theoretical” basis to its slander. A Marxist would grant that it is theoretically not excluded that the Indian bourgeoisie will go over to Japan at some stage or another, and the point may very well be made in a general analysis. But certainly not at this moment, when British and American Imperialism and their labor lieutenants are attempting to justify the repressions by smearing Gandhi-Nehru as aides of Japan; when there is not the slightest sign that the Congress leadership is seeking a “‘deal’ or tacit understanding” with Japan; when the entire leadership of the Congress is imprisoned by the British and unable to defend itself, and every honest democrat—not to say revolutionist—should lean backward to defend the Congress leaders against the mountains of slanders.

Moreover, the New International goes far beyond the proposition that it is not theoretically excluded that the Congress leaders will turn to Japan at some stage. It says much more: The “Indian bourgeoisie is casting about for a new master” and “Obviously that new power is a greatly expanded Japanese Empire” and one cannot say “whether a ‘deal’ or tacit understanding has been reached.” This, as a matter of fact, goes further than the New Leader, which did not even pose the thought that an actual deal might have been reached. An enterprising British agent could very well quote this slander of the New International as the impartial testimony of “revolutionists” against the Congress leadership.

This criminal irresponsibility flows from the Shachtmanite freedom from any sense of participation in the struggle. The thing furthest from his mind is any sense of responsibility toward the participants in the struggle. Why can’t he say anything he pleases about the Congress leadership? Does it matter what he says? This “freedom” is the essence of petty-bourgeois abstentionism.

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