Kosambi Circle meeting 7 notes

5 April 2020

1100 – 1330

Meeting notes


This was the seventh meeting of the KRAC done online via zoom, 107 people attended. This meeting initiated our April theme of discussing nationalism. Rosa's book “the National Question” and Lenin's rebuttal “the Rights of Nations to Self Determination” were the focal points. Other writings that were used were the Russian Tragedy by Rosa and Between Red and White by Trotsky which describe events many years after the Rosa-Lenin debate. Also used were several pieces of writing on Assam by Suraj Gogoi, and an old piece by Tagore on nationalism.


These writings will be again covered in their other aspects on the meeting on 17th.

Before the meeting, some voice notes had been used to explain some of the material which can be found here: Notes on Nationalism


The meeting begins with a discussion on why nationalism is important to discuss given the world condition as it stands now and what points of the Rosa-Lenin debate are relevant to current conditions and what aren't, also what new issues stare us in the face and what it means for Marxists. It was discussed that India in colonial period saw many, often competing nationalisms, out of which only a few survived to become potent forces. One of the most contentious issues of sub-nationalism in India is the North East, we decided to discuss in detail, as well as the various kinds of nationalism we've seen in India through the years.


Context was discussed in the Rosa-Lenin debate, in short that Poland was part of the Russian Empire, and thus the Social Democratic Party (this is what all Marxist parties used to call themselves then, who were all associated with each other till the Second International conflicts, as explained in the previous meetings' notes) of Russia contained the Poland branch. Since Rosa was a Pole living in Germany, she was associated with both the German Social Democratic Party and had deep ties with the Polish Social Democratic movement. She and the other Poles in the SDP opposed the push towards “the unlimited right to self determination” (which means the right of any subject nationhood to secede from the parent country any time) the Russian Social Democrats were advocating, because Rosa calculated that such a move for Poland would be inimical to Polish workers and socialists, because “national socialism” was a popular idea in Poland and it was likely after independence a lot of “socialists” would ditch socialism and suppress workers. Lenin and the other Russian social democrats were operating from the position that Russia being an empire, any socialist inside Russia must fully support rights of any subject nationality to secede, unconditionally, because the Russian core had an imperialist relation with these nationalities which is harming their workers. While Lenin postulated that such a radical form of self determination is necessary precondition for capitalism to develop (because socialism can only be made on top of national-capitalism, most of Russia was deeply feudal with capitalism being a new thing), Rosa's thesis was that the Russian line was dogmatic, was fetishising “self determination” as a virtue in itself and was not accounting for whether it is actually going to help socialism or not, or worse whether it could be harmful. Lenin was thus combating “Great Russia Chauvinism” while Rosa was concerned about “little chauvinisms”. The debate both has general and specific parts. These are the premises from which to approach the debate, and as can be seen this framework is useful because similar problems have been encountered in India and elsewhere.


We went into how the Russian SDP split into the Bolsheviki and the Mensheviki, and how events effected the German SDP etc (these have been covered partly in previous notes). We discussed in short also the Indian communist movement and how they approached this question, the agreements and the disagreements the Indian left (and we went into a short conversation of how that was, what people like M. N. Roy did etc) had with the position of Lenin and the later USSR.


Back to the debate on nationalism we went into the two large pieces, as to their arguments, specifically, how Rosa used various examples of nationalities to prove that self determination is not necessarily beneficial to the working class and how Lenin countered that, Lenin's insistence that Rosa had mischaracterised their position (Rosa saying self determination is a vague thing, Lenin saying it means secession, Rosa talking about all sorts of states but Lenin insisting the debate is about nationalities with significant capitalist development etc), how Lenin's contention that Rosa's position was helping the “liquidationists” (people who wanted to liquidate the original goals of the Bolsheviks), Lenin's example of Japan, Rosa's example of newly freed colonies in South America immediately warring and trying out their own imperial projects, etc. Our discussion went into two parts here a) both Rosa and Lenin misrepresenting each other, and b) what happens in the future after these arguments, how did events play out. Also, we went into how RTSD of a colony can't be the same as RTSD of some nationality not being oppressed. What counts as legitimate oppression?

Also, one argument of Rosa which Lenin handwaves is who decides what the sub-national line is, is it the largest majority of people, or their politicians, or specifically the working class/party and what if there is contradictory interests. We went into this in detail in the Indian cases. Assuming a monolithic nationality never works because often areas with seccesionary movements will have their own subnationalities and minorities with specific material conditions. Thus the discussion leaned towards critiquing Lenin's universal and unlimited right to self determination.


There was also criticism of Rosa's line which people felt was economist to the point of being blind to the idea that socialist (or even capitalist) development, can be halted simply because of a military occupation which is not necessarily imperialist. Or in imperialist cases a non-working class resistance could be needed. Lenin's case of Ireland was discussed. Another criticism of Rosa in the discussion was her analysis of federations, which haven't proven to be as reactionary historically and at times have actually provided the stability needed for capitalism to develop. The USA example Rosa used was discussed in detail, but it wasn't that the confederacy was reactionary and conservative only because it wanted more “states rights”. Modern ethnonationalism and its abuse of federation demands were examined in this context. Similarly on multiple nationalities in a region, the discussion felt both Rosa and Lenin had incorrect positions as varied examples exist of both, and can only be analysed on case by case basis.


Tangentially, the Austrian social democratic position of Kautsky was also examined as a third way between Rosa and Lenin. While Lenin is skeptical of characterising “self determination” in linguistic/cultural terms, often historically thats the route that is taken instead of secession. Why is that good or bad was discussed, especially in the context of the Indian North Eastern frontier states. Thus, nationalist demands and statehood demands were contrasted.

The discussion on the debate ended with the consensus that was some disagreement from Lenin in “absolute and unlimited” right to self determination for all nationalities with capitalist development, because who makes the demand is important, it can harm working class and socialism in that area, it needs to be evaluated as to first what the demands are, who is making them, and what the oppression is which is preventing development of capitalism/socialism (and if the “self determination” movement is situated about excluding/displacing/dividing/oppressing the working mass of that area it might even be needed to be strongly fought), and there was disagreement with Rosa's position as well that “true self determination can only happen in socialism” (its a correct statement but such movements should neither be ignored till socialist movements happen in an area nor is it possible to do so given material realities) or that self determination is a completely idealist goal.


We went into what happened in the future of that debate with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and Rosa's description in the Russian Tragedy of the true nature of German Militarism. A lot of her predictions in that come true. We discussed the competing ideas of “revolutionary defeatism” and “revolutionary defencism” and went into Lenin's decisions, both external with regards to how the treaty was framed, and internal in his fight with the SR, led to future developments like the ill fated fight against Poland, and then the invasion of Georgia, which proved some of Rosa's points correct. The Polish “socialists” abandon socialism and start war preparations against Russia. Russia tries invading them and fails. Within a few years Russia completely reverses its policies and invade these countries (the split between Trotsky and Stalin also is examined with the Polish invasion going bad, and how Georgia was invaded just one year after guaranteeing its independence). Trotsky's whataboutery notwithstanding on Georgia, Stalin's socialist-nationalist line had triumphed with a comprehensive failure of Lenin's earlier line within the party and in any case Lenin was bedridden by 1924.


We went back into Lenin's and then Stalin's positions on India and Indian communism and how the CPI struggled against both the imperialists and the attempts from USSR to make CPI take Congress's line. The Pakistan movement was examined with it being a genuinely popular movement, not exactly ethnonationalist, but still needed to be opposed at that time if one is looking as a socialist and as the Indian communists did, and needs to be thoroughly critiqued from the left. We went into demographic changes and violence leading to displacements hurting the working class. We discussed the undivided CPI more and how communist parties were banned just after independence. It was also discussed that socialism as a political force always weakens in ethnonationalist states precisely because the foundational principles of those states cannot tolerate any universalist project. At this point the competing principles of Jus Soli (citizenship to all who live on the land) and Jus Sanguinis (citizenship to only those who satisfy certain ancestry/ethnic criteria) was discussed and how India has been drifting from the former to the latter and why that is bad for the people/socialism. Among Indian nationalisms not completely on ethnic lines Dravidianism was touched as it also has an economic component which was discussed and critiqued, as the proponents of “give us back our tax money” conveniently ignore how these taxes are paid from profits extracted from cheap labour in the first place and these workers are again often migrants. We also went into how ethnic and language movements are often bad for other languages/cultures in those area which have to completely assimilate to prove their belongingness if not from the dominant sub-national movement. The languages of Tulu and Gondi were discussed which are popular languages driven to the margins because of other subnationalisms. Again the discussion veered into how various nationalist movements cannot be evaluated without thoroughly examining the effects on the working class involved. Some non-Indian ethnonationalist movements were discussed in short.


At this point Suraj Gogoi's pieces on Assam were discussed. Recently, during the NRC movement it has been observed by many that the Indian liberals/leftists have started to accommodate ethnonationalism, and it was discussed that historically and as socialists why that is wrong. The Assam movements' demands were compared and contrasted with the Kashmir movements. This was situated in the discussion till now on how socialists should frame debates on nationalism. The history of the Assam national/language movement, in particular the students movement was gone into, as well as the Assam Accord and the way it was enforced. Also, the mythologisation of the movement and how it systematically erased the history of the Other (in this case the so-called “Bongal”) was gone into. We also talked about the colonial creation of the “tribal” category, what it means to critically examine its class nature, and how it is misused (questions like “isn't calling it an ethnonat/fash movement erasing the tribals and hence racist?” are fundamentally bad questions, etc). We discussed and critiqued the mainland/colony category. And how all of this “special case” behaviour among liberals/leftists has overturned the burden of proof of being a person and a citizen on the individual (let alone completely harmed the working class)

A lot of this can be examples in support of Rosa's argument that a blanket nationalist movement shouldn't be prioritised over international working class solidarity. The question this begs is: what constitutes as a legitimate demand for the right to self determination and how it that related to socialism?


We started to talk about how all RTSD is not the same. RTSD of a nationality historically oppressed to the point normal life let alone working class politics is not possible as compared to RTSD of a nationality which is locally dominant and has no imperialist or otherwise oppression over it is not the same. We talked about what settler colonialism actually is and how that word in bandied about. We talked about separating the self determination question from the nationalism question, when nationalism itself becomes a violent project on the working class, and how “illegal immigrant” politics and the politics of borders are tied with it. We decided to go more into detail the next time, talk of the Valley and other Indian nationalisms and subnationalisms past and present.