Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Venezuela

Written by Alan Woods and Ted Grant
14 April 2002

Dramatic events are unfolding in Venezuela. On Saturday April 13, less than 36 hours after a group of right-wing businessmen and army generals had assumed control, the coup collapsed in a welter of confusion. Shortly after 10 pm, interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga resigned and was reportedly under arrest. Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who was sworn in as president by National Assembly President William Lara after Carmona was forced to reinstate the assembly’s elected members and other public officials he fired on April 12.

Finally, amidst scenes of wild rejoicing, Hugo Chávez, having been flown by military helicopter to the Miraflores Presidential palace, was reinstated as President of Venezuela.

Counter-revolutionary provocation

The counter-revolution in Venezuela was spearheaded by the recent anti-Chávez strikes in the Venezuelan oil industry. These were counter-revolutionary strikes – the equivalent of the lorry-owners’ strike that was organised by the CIA against the Allende government in Chile. These strikes were organised by the management of the Venezuelan oil industry (the PDVSA) in alliance with the right-wing trade union bureaucrats of the CTV. That the movement towards reaction was headed by oil interests was no accident. The PDVSA managers wanted to end the restrictions on oil production and return to their previous position as the single largest oil supplier to the United States.

The coup itself flowed from the events of April 11, when a demonstration said to be 350,000-strong was organised against the Chávez government. Since the media in Venezuela are virulently anti-Chávez, this figure is almost certainly exaggerated. Press agency reports put the real number as no more than 50,000. Government security forces and pro-Chávez militia were alleged to have fired into a crowd of unarmed anti-Chávez protesters, killing 15 and wounding 157 people. The right wing used this as an excuse to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chávez. But in fact, later reports have indicated that most of those killed were pro-Chávez demonstrators who were apparently shot by snipers on rooftops. The whole thing was a manifest provocation.

The class interests behind the coup were obvious. The head of the counter-revolutionary government was a wealthy businessman, Pedro Carmona – the chief of the bosses’ association. His first action was to rescind Chávez’s so-called anti-investment laws – that is, all those laws intended to defend Venezuela’s interests and raise the living standards of the masses. The corrupt and rotten Venezuelan bourgeoisie is incapable of playing a progressive role. Its plans would signify putting the country and its considerable oil wealth firmly in the grasp of US imperialism. The PDVSA managers had already drawn up a plan for restoring and expanding production that could bring Venezuela 300,000 barrels per day above its OPEC quota.

Role of US imperialism

The coup was headed by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and their cronies in the armed forces (FAN). But the hand that pulled the strings was clearly in Washington. This plan was born and bred in the United States. The Bush administration, delighted at the thought of Chávez in handcuffs, was preparing to take over the Venezuelan oil industry through the back door, allowing “aid” to go to the new Caracas government – in the form of oil investment. This is part of the broader strategy of US imperialism after September 11 to intervene aggressively everywhere.

The US’s interest in Venezuela is partly economic. There is talk in America of an economic recovery. But this is still weak and unstable. Demand in North America is picking up, but in Europe this is happening to a far lesser degree and Japan remains in deep trouble. In such a situation, the oil markets are necessarily volatile. And any serious disruption in oil production at this stage would have the most serious consequences for the world economy. What is required for a serious recovery is not only an increase in demand (which can have an episodic character) but an increase in profitability. Profit margins still remain depressed. An increase in the price of any one of the factors of production would depress profit margins still further, sending the world economy into an even steeper fall than before. In this sense, the convulsions in the Middle East hang like a threatening storm cloud over the economic scenario.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is stirring up the whole region in a most alarming manner (Hezbollah, Syria, Jordan and Egypt are all getting involved). Things are getting complicated! And then there is the price of oil… This has fluctuated violently, reacting to OPEC’s supply curtailments, threats of war, increasing violence in the Middle East and political instability in Venezuela itself. The chaos in the Middle East seems to have forced Washington to postpone its plans for an attack on Iraq. It appears that last weekend’s summit between the US President and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Crawford, Texas, did not yield very positive results. Even such a great enthusiast for wars as Tony Blair was compelled to warn Bush in private that it is sometimes better to look before one leaps. But postponement does not mean abandonment. Sooner or later the American boot will descend on Iraq.

Bush is determined to press ahead with his plans for military aggression against Iraq, but is uncomfortably aware that the general chaos in the Middle East (underlined by the failure of the Powell mission to force an Israeli withdrawal from Palestine) can lead to a catastrophic drop in oil production that would lead to spiralling prices and destroy any prospect of an economic recovery. The USA is in urgent need of a guaranteed oil supplier that is conveniently several thousand miles away from the Middle East.

The imperialists are attempting to keep oil prices low. There are rumours that Russian producers, following Putin’s line of collaborating with US imperialism, are scheming to steal Iraq’s market share before the end of Baghdad’s 30-day oil export embargo, called earlier this week to protest Israel’s recent occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank. In this worldwide drama, Venezuela is a key actor. The policies of Hugo Chávez were threatening the interests of the big oil companies and causing increased concern in Washington.

With growing instability in the Middle East – where Iraq has just cut its oil production – it was in the interest of the USA to undermine OPEC cohesion. Before the inauguration of Chávez in February 1999, Venezuela was OPEC’s biggest oil-production quota-evader. As recently as December 1999, Venezuela was exceeding its production quota by a million barrels. But the new government, in its attempt to stand up to US imperialism, transformed Venezuela into OPEC’s most enthusiastic quota-enforcer. During his presidency Chávez led the charge for numerous production cuts and toured the world last year to press for cuts in oil production, which met with a certain success. This inevitably brought Venezuela into conflict with the big oil companies and US imperialism.

But there is a wider dimension to the activities of US imperialism in Venezuela, which far transcends the question of economics. The US military is actively involved in a dirty war against the FARC and ELN guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia. It is well known that Chávez maintained friendly relations with the Colombian guerrillas. That alone would be sufficient reason for the CIA to want to depose him.

But the main reason was none of these. The main thing was that the radicalisation of the masses in Venezuela threatened to spread to other countries in Latin America, which is now in the throes of a deep economic and social crisis. By removing Chávez from power, US imperialism hoped to tighten its grip on Latin America. It would be a lesson to the masses in other countries. And in addition, the installation of a more friendly and pliable government in Caracas would lead to an increase in Venezuelan oil production, thus bringing more stability to oil prices. In short, a very sound business proposition! All that was required was a little coup…

How the counter-revolution defended “democracy”

Predictably, the right-wing coup was greeted by scarcely-concealed satisfaction by the bourgeoisie internationally. These hypocrites described the events of April 11 as a “return to democracy” in Venezuela! This was the line taken by the Madrid daily paper El País. However, the same paper was compelled subsequently to print eyewitness reports stating that there were many cases of brutality and violence by the counter-revolutionary forces. Chávez supporters were forced to go into hiding as the armed forces moved to arrest all government supporters. Prisoners were taken to army barracks where they were beaten and tortured. Such are the methods of the bourgeois “democrats” in Venezuela!

Venezuelan Army commander General Efrain Vasquez Velasco – the principal leader of the military rebellion – attempted to prevent any movement against the new government by implementing an aggressive “disarmament plan”. The new regime immediately launched searches of private property and vehicles in an attempt to seize all unregistered weapons and arrest Chávez supporters. He ordered the army to “identify, disarm and dismantle” the civilian militias organised as Bolivarian Circles.

A witch-hunt was initiated against all supporters, pro-Chávez members of parliament and officials of the legally elected government. Vasquez Velasco confirmed that military and civilian police were conducting a national search for former vice president Cabello and Libertador Municipality Mayor Freddy Bernal, on the grounds that Cabello was the chief organiser and financier of the armed Bolivarian Circles, and that Bernal was supposed to have commanded sharpshooters who shot at the anti-Chávez protesters from rooftops in downtown Caracas on April 11.

The victorious reactionaries set about systematically demolishing all the progressive decrees of the deposed government, which had been elected by an overwhelming majority. They sought absolute powers for themselves – an unelected gang of conspirators – while cancelling 49 decrees of the democratically elected government, suspending and arresting elected members of the National Assembly, plus 20 judges (so much for the independence of the judiciary!), 12 governors and all pro-Chávez mayors. All these activities earned them the applause of the western “democracies” as “steps towards the restoration of democracy” in Venezuela! George Orwell could have written a very good novel about this.

From all the reports, the counter-revolutionaries were over-confident. They were convinced that there was little or no danger that the supporters of Chávez could launch a successful counter-strike to regain control of the government. At worst, they anticipated isolated outbreaks of violence in Caracas and other urban areas, which they could easily control. They also feared that pro-Chávez elements in rural regions could try to link up with Colombian guerrillas operating inside Venezuelan territory.

But these gentlemen reckoned without the Venezuelan masses. Despite the fact that Chávez had not carried the revolution out to the end, and the crisis in Venezuela had begun to have adverse effects, the masses instinctively realised the threat posed by the counter-revolution. Having recovered from their initial shock, they poured onto the streets of Caracas and other cities, sweeping all before them.

The collapse of the coup

The role of the masses was decisive in defeating the counter-revolution. Faced with the spontaneous uprising of the masses, the attempts to impose a dictatorship immediately ran into the sands. Without the support of the armed forces, the bourgeoisie could not establish a dictatorship. But the reaction of the masses rapidly aggravated the splits within the army. This was not supposed to happen! It seems that Carmona’s short-lived interim presidency unravelled because the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries – doubtless under the pressure of the CIA – tried to go too far too fast, opening up a rift between them and a section of the generals who, quite correctly, feared civil war.

The leaders of the coup began to split and argue among themselves. From this moment, the coup was doomed. Stratfor reports on the events that led to its collapse:

“The economic and political measures Carmona announced at his April 12 inauguration – including the National Assembly’s dissolution and the dismissal of the Supreme Court judges and other key government officials – were not what had been agreed upon by the political, civic and military factions that built a center-right coalition to back Carmona and were reaching out to the moderate center-left.

“The right-wing coup-within-a-coup was engineered by a group of military officials who are proteges of retired Gen. Ruben Rojas, in partnership with ultra-conservative businessmen and politicians – some of whom belong to the extremely conservative Catholic Opus Dei organization. The Carmona government’s defense minister, Rear Adm. Hector Ramirez Perez, is a longtime protege of Rojas, while Carmona’s choice for foreign minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, belongs to Opus Dei.”

In other words, the reactionaries overreached themselves. When Carmona announced the National Assembly’s dissolution, the civilian-military coalition supporting Carmona’s interim government collapsed immediately, while the balance of forces swung back in Chávez’s favour. With the growth of protests on the streets, Carmona’s civilian and labour support evaporated, and the FAN also split into at least three distinct groups now struggling for power inside the military.

Realising that the situation was escaping from his hands, Vasquez Velasco – in a nationally televised address – conditioned his continued support for Carmona to the immediate reinstatement of the National Assembly. Carmona immediately complied. However, reinstated National Assembly President Lara hastily deposed Carmona and swore in Vice President Cabello as acting president, pending Chávez’s return to the presidential palace. The rebellion collapsed like a house of cards. And the army was split wide open.

Splits at the top

It is clear that Chávez still has considerable support, not only among the masses, but also in the army. General Baduel declared himself in rebellion against the Carmona government even before it was sworn in April 12. Having command of 2,000 elite paratroopers and a large arsenal of weapons and munitions, this was no small threat! Division Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya, permanent secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, also declared himself in rebellion and made his opposition to the interim government known through a telephone interview with Cuban television that was then broadcast back to Venezuela.

Stratfor continues: “One group is led by Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who emerged April 11-12 as the leader of a center-right faction of career officers who oppose Chavez’s attempts to politicize the FAN and shift the country away from capitalist democracy. Vasquez Velasco’s group negotiated the agreement with civic and political opposition leaders that installed Carmona as a consensus interim president.

“A second group consists of ultra-conservative officers in all four branches of the FAN. Some of these officers are longtime proteges of Rojas, and others – including some Opus Dei members – hail from the Christian Democrat Copei party, which long has been dominated by former President Rafael Caldera (who also is Rojas’s father-in-law). STRATFOR’s sources report this group planned to launch a coup against Chavez on Feb. 27, but aborted the scheme under strong pressure from centrist colleagues inside the FAN and from the Bush administration in Washington.

“The third group consists of pro-Chavez officers – including Gen. Raul Baduel, who commands the 42nd Parachutists Brigade based at Maracay in Aragua state. This is Chavez’s former unit, and Baduel is one of his closest friends and political allies in the army, sources say.”

Alexis de Toqueville pointed out long ago that revolution begins on the top. The latest reports show clearly that the ruling class in Venezuela is split. And this split extends to the tops of the state and the armed forces. This, as Lenin explained, is the first condition for a revolution. The failed attempt at counter-revolution will have exacerbated these contradictions and splits in the ruling class, and created the most favourable conditions for a complete social overturn. The reactionaries have been forced onto the defensive, and for a time will be paralysed and unable to act. A courageous word from the top would be sufficient to deprive the reaction of its social base and permit even a peaceful transfer of power to the working people.

There are moments in history that ere decisive. It is a question of “either…or”. The counter-revolution has thrown down the gauntlet. Their first attempt has failed. But it will not be the last! The bourgeoisie and its supporters in the military is determined to get rid of Chávez by one means or another. Their resolve will be stiffened by Washington, which has many reasons for wanting to overthrow the Chávez regime.

Marx pointed out that the revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution. The present situation is reminiscent of the tancazo in Chile – the abortive first attempt to overthrow the Allende government – which was defeated by the movement of the masses. There is no doubt whatsoever that if Salvador Allende had taken advantage of that moment to appeal to the masses to act, the revolution would have easily succeeded. But when the opportunity was thrown away, the counter-revolutionaries in the armed forces (let us recall that Pinochet was supposed to be a loyal “democrat”) regrouped and prepared a bloody coup a few months later. This is a very serious warning to the workers of Venezuela!

The role of Chávez

After the events of April 11-13, the situation is completely unstable. Nothing has been resolved. The situation resembles in many respects that which existed in Cuba in 1960. It is not generally realised that when Castro first came to power, he did not intend to nationalise the means of production. His programme was a programme of democratic reforms that did not go beyond the limits of the capitalist system. In fact, his publicly declared model was…the USA.

However, on a capitalist basis there is no way forward for countries like Cuba and Venezuela. Castro’s attempt to carry through reforms to improve the conditions of the Cuban people immediately brought him into conflict with US imperialism and the big US monopolies that controlled the Cuban economies. In order to defend the gains of the revolution, Castro was compelled to nationalise the property of US imperialism and eliminate capitalism in Cuba.

Although the Cuban revolution did not follow the classical model of the October revolution, and the workers never held power through the rule of democratically-elected soviets, nevertheless Castro had the support of the masses and the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism in Cuba represented a blow to imperialism and a big step forward. The US imperialists burned their fingers badly in Cuba. Their attempt to destroy the revolution by relying on counter-revolutionary forces armed and financed by the CIA ended in a humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs.

There is no doubt that Washington feared that Chávez might go down the same road as Castro, whom he is known to admire. However, the drama is not yet played out. Venezuela is still in deep economic crisis, the gulf between the classes is profound. There is a growing polarisation between left and right. The immediate crisis has resulted in a setback for the counter-revolution. However, the conflict is far from over. The balance of forces that shifted so decisively back toward Chávez on April 13 can swing the other way equally rapidly. He will be under the remorseless pressure of US imperialism. The bourgeoisie, with the active support and encouragement of the CIA, will intensify its campaign of sabotage and disruption.

It is not even certain that Chávez has sufficient support in the National Assembly to retain the presidency. According to an informal count in the assembly and the FAN, roughly 75 percent of the assembly’s members oppose allowing Chávez to continue as president. The former Interior and Justice Minister Luis Miquilena, who commands a sizeable block of moderate votes inside the dominant pro-Chávez Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), will be a key powerbroker in any effort to end Chávez’s presidency by legal and constitutional means. The position of Chávez is therefore extremely precarious. If he does not do what the capitalists and imperialists demand, he can be deposed by the National Assembly itself.

The real Bolivarian revolution

Chávez is no doubt an honest man who wants act in the interests of his country and his people. His intentions are good. But in politics as in life, intentions are never enough. The problem is that Chávez is not a Marxist, and is inclined to be inconsistent. That can be fatal in a situation where the balance of forces is so unstable. If Chávez were a Marxist, he would appeal to the masses over the heads of the National Assembly. The establishment of action committees in every factory, oil refinery, and army barracks is the only way to defend the revolution and disarm the counter-revolutionary forces. The working class must be armed to defend itself against the danger of another coup. Only decisive action can prevent a new crisis in which the counter-revolution will assume an even more violent and murderous character.

The position of the army is a crucial factor. The reactionaries in the barracks have suffered a serious set-back. But they will already be regrouping, with the active assistance of the US embassy. The next 24 to 48 hours could be decisive. If firm action is not taken to defeat and disarm the counter-revolution, civil war could erupt, with fighting between military units that support or oppose Chávez. If the working class acts with sufficient energy, the rank and file of the army can quickly be won over to the side of the revolution. The best of the officers will follow them, isolating the reactionary elements in the general staff. The revolution can still succeed with minimum violence and loss of life. But if the revolution hesitates, it is lost. The way will be prepared for terrible bloodshed, ending in a brutal military dictatorship later on.

Above all, it is necessary to smash the resistance of the bosses and their cronies. For the immediate expropriation of the property of the imperialists and the Venezuelan bourgeois! The only way to remove the danger of counter-revolution is to eliminate its basis of support – by expropriating the capitalist class. An emergency decree to this effect must be put to the National Assembly. If the counter-revolutionaries in the National Assembly attempt to block it, then the only way forward is to dissolve the Assembly and rule through the elected popular committees.

Workers of Venezuela! Everything depends on you now. By your actions, you have defeated the counter-revolution. But your victory is not secure. A terrible danger hangs over your heads and that of your families and loved ones. Remember what happened in Chile! Do not trust those who tell you that all is resolved, that the situation must calm down, that democracy is now safe in the hands of the National Assembly! Unless and until the power of the capitalists – those local office boys of US imperialism – is overthrown, the conquests you have made will never be safe.

Rely only on your own strength and unity! Build action committees to defend the revolution and defeat the reaction! Extend them and link them up, on a local, regional and national basis. Once the power of the working people is organised, no power on earth can resist it. The stage will be prepared for the final, inevitable showdown between the working people and the forces of reaction.

You face a powerful enemy in US imperialism. But in reality, this enemy is a colossus with feet of clay. You have powerful allies in the millions of exploited and oppressed people of Latin America. These people are finding their feet and their voice – in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia – in one country after another, the workers, peasants and unemployed are beginning to fight back. These are the mass reserves of the Venezuelan revolution!

Long ago, Leon Trotsky spoke of the permanent revolution. This is the only way forward for countries like Venezuela. The facts must be faced. The bourgeoisie cannot play a progressive role in Venezuela. Only under the rule of the working class can you even begin to solve the problems. On the basis of a socialist planned economy, under the democratic control and administration of the workers themselves, immense progress can be made. But the revolution in isolation could not last for long. Either it spreads to other countries, or it would be destroyed sooner or later. Internationalism is therefore a matter of life and death for the Venezuelan revolution.

Hugo Chávez has spoken of the Bolivarian revolution. When Simon Bolivar raised the banner of revolt against Spanish imperialism, he had in mind a war of national liberation that would unite all the peoples of Latin America. But this dream was betrayed by the so-called national bourgeoisie that organised the Balkanisation of Latin America. This is the true cause of the enslavement and oppression of a mighty continent.

The only way to defeat US imperialism is by uniting the revolution in Venezuela with the struggles that are taking place in all Latin America. Everywhere, the capitalist system is in crisis. It offers the people nothing but poverty, misery and unemployment. It subjugates whole nations to the control of US imperialism and the dictatorship of Capital, turning the words “democracy” and “sovereignty” into meaningless phrases. All that is required is one victory and the rotten and bankrupt capitalist regimes would collapse everywhere. The road would be open for the realisation of Bolivar’s dream in the only form possible – as the Socialist United States of Latin America.

Last December the Argentinean working class showed the way. The Venezuelan working class is now in the front line of the Latin American revolution. All eyes are now fixed on Venezuela. The stakes are very high. A decisive victory in Venezuela would transform the whole situation. But victory is by no means guaranteed.

It is necessary to draw serious conclusions from the events of the last three days. It is not possible to make half a revolution. It is not possible to improve the conditions of the masses and leave the rotten and reactionary bourgeoisie in control of the means of production. The land, the banks and industries must be taken out of their hands. The economic power must be in the hands of the people. That is the first condition for victory. Without that, no progress is possible.

What is required is a conscious and audacious Marxist tendency, which would participate in the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) and give it the necessary revolutionary perspective, programme and strategy. The elements for such a tendency already exist. Everything now depends upon the speed with which they can organise, mobilise the working class, and lead it on the path to victory. The victory of the Venezuelan revolution would light a fire that would set all Latin America ablaze.

Notes On Nationalism

Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, is still clearly relevant in the present. This is especially true of the section on transferred nationalism, after recent cheerleading by political degenerates for Russian imperialism and the Chinese dictatorship’s ongoing suppression of independent workers’ organisations and national independence movements.


Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word “nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation–that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.

By “nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good’ or “bad’.[1]But secondly–and this is much more important–I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

So long as it is applied merely to the more notorious and identifiable nationalist movements in Germany, Japan, and other countries, all this is obvious enough. Confronted with a phenomenon like Nazism, which we can observe from the outside, nearly all of us would say much the same things about it. But here I must repeat what I said above, that I am only using the word “nationalism’ for lack of a better. Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.

It is also worth emphasising once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist–that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating–but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also–since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself–unshakeably certain of being in the right.

Now that I have given this lengthy definition, I think it will be admitted that the habit of mind I am talking about is widespread among the English intelligentsia, and more widespread there than among the mass of the people. For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible. Out of the hundreds of examples that one might choose, take this question: Which of the three great allies, the U.S.S.R., Britain and the USA, has contributed most to the defeat of Germany? In theory, it should be possible to give a reasoned and perhaps even a conclusive answer to this question. In practice, however, the necessary calculations cannot be made, because anyone likely to bother his head about such a question would inevitably see it in terms of competitive prestige. He would therefore start by deciding in favour of Russia, Britain or America as the case might be, and only after this would begin searching for arguments that seemed to support his case. And there are whole strings of kindred questions to which you can only get an honest answer from someone who is indifferent to the whole subject involved, and whose opinion on it is probably worthless in any case. Hence, partly, the remarkable failure in our time of political and military prediction. It is curious to reflect that out of al the “experts’ of all the schools, there was not a single one who was able to foresee so likely an event as the Russo-German Pact of 1939.[2] And when news of the Pact broke, the most wildly divergent explanations were of it were given, and predictions were made which were falsified almost immediately, being based in nearly every case not on a study of probabilities but on a desire to make the U.S.S.R. seem good or bad, strong or weak. Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.[3] And aesthetic judgements, especially literary judgements, are often corrupted in the same way as political ones. It would be difficult for an Indian Nationalist to enjoy reading Kipling or for a Conservative to see merit in Mayakovsky, and there is always a temptation to claim that any book whose tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book from a literary point of view. People of strongly nationalistic outlook often perform this sleight of hand without being conscious of dishonesty.

In England, if one simply considers the number of people involved, it is probable that the dominant form of nationalism is old-fashioned British jingoism. It is certain that this is still widespread, and much more so than most observers would have believed a dozen years ago. However, in this essay I am concerned chiefly with the reactions of the intelligentsia, among whom jingoism and even patriotism of the old kind are almost dead, though they now seem to be reviving among a minority. Among the intelligentsia, it hardly needs saying that the dominant form of nationalism is Communism–using this word in a very loose sense, to include not merely Communist Party members, but “fellow travellers’ and russophiles generally. A Communist, for my purpose here, is one who looks upon the U.S.S.R. as his Fatherland and feels it his duty to justify Russian policy and advance Russian interests at all costs. Obviously such people abound in England today, and their direct and indirect influence is very great. But many other forms of nationalism also flourish, and it is by noticing the points of resemblance between different and even seemingly opposed currents of thought that one can best get the matter into perspective.

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent–though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one–was G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who whose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan. But Chesterton was not content to think of this superiority as merely intellectual or spiritual: it had to be translated into terms of national prestige and military power, which entailed an ignorant idealisation of the Latin countries, especially France. Chesterton had not lived long in France, and his picture of it–as a land of Catholic peasants incessantly singing the Marseillaise over glasses of red wine–had about as much relation to reality as Chu Chin Chow has to everyday life in Baghdad. And with this went not only an enormous overestimation of French military power (both before and after 1914-18 he maintained that France, by itself, was stronger than Germany), but a silly and vulgar glorification of the actual process of war. Chesterton’s battle poems, such as Lepanto or The Ballad of Saint Barbara, make The Charge of the Light Brigade read like a pacifist tract: they are perhaps the most tawdry bits of bombast to be found in our language. The interesting thing is that had the romantic rubbish which he habitually wrote about France and the French army been written by somebody else about Britain and the British army, he would have been the first to jeer. In home politics he was a Little Englander, a true hater of jingoism and imperialism, and according to his lights a true friend of democracy. Yet when he looked outwards into the international field, he could forsake his principles without even noticing he was doing so. Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the representative government and the freedom of the press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter. Nor did Chesterton ever find a word to say about imperialism and the conquest of coloured races when they were practised by Italians or Frenchmen. His hold on reality, his literary taste, and even to some extent his moral sense, were dislocated as soon as his nationalistic loyalties were involved.

Obviously there are considerable resemblances between political Catholicism, as exemplified by Chesterton, and Communism. So there are between either of these and for instance Scottish nationalism, Zionism, Antisemitism or Trotskyism. It would be an oversimplification to say that all forms of nationalism are the same, even in their mental atmosphere, but there are certain rules that hold good in all cases. The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought:

Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort. If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, he will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking. He will show great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags, relative size of headlines and the order in which different countries are named.[4] Nomenclature plays a very important part in nationalist thought. Countries which have won their independence or gone through a nationalist revolution usually change their names, and any country or other unit round which strong feelings revolve is likely to have several names, each of them carrying a different implication. The two sides of the Spanish Civil War had between them nine or ten names expressing different degrees of love and hatred. Some of these names (e.g. “Patriots’ for Franco-supporters, or “Loyalists’ for Government-supporters) were frankly question-begging, and there was no single one of the which the two rival factions could have agreed to use. All nationalists consider it a duty to spread their own language to the detriment of rival languages, and among English-speakers this struggle reappears in subtler forms as a struggle between dialects. Anglophobe-Americans will refuse to use a slang phrase if they know it to be of British origin, and the conflict between Latinizers and Germanizers often has nationalists motives behind it. Scottish nationalists insist on the superiority of Lowland Scots, and socialists whose nationalism takes the form of class hatred tirade against the B.B.C. accent and even the often gives the impression of being tinged by belief in symphatetic magic–a belief which probably comes out in the widespread custom of burning political enemies in effigy, or using pictures of them as targets in shooting galleries.

Instability. The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. To begin with, as I have pointed out already, they can be and often are fastened up on some foreign country. One quite commonly finds that great national leaders, or the founders of nationalist movements, do not even belong to the country they have glorified. Sometimes they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful. Examples are Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, de Valera, Disraeli, Poincaré, Beaverbrook. The Pan-German movement was in part the creation of an Englishman, Houston Chamberlain. For the past fifty or a hundred years, transferred nationalism has been a common phenomenon among literary intellectuals. With Lafcadio Hearne the transference was to Japan, with Carlyle and many others of his time to Germany, and in our own age it is usually to Russia. But the peculiarly interesting fact is that re-transference is also possible. A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval. In the first version of H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, and others of his writings about that time, one finds the United States praised almost as extravagantly as Russia is praised by Communists today: yet within a few years this uncritical admiration had turned into hostility. The bigoted Communist who changes in a space of weeks, or even days, into an equally bigoted Trotskyist is a common spectacle. In continental Europe Fascist movements were largely recruited from among Communists, and the opposite process may well happen within the next few years. What remains constant in the nationalist is his state of mind: the object of his feelings is changeable, and may be imaginary.

But for an intellectual, transference has an important function which I have already mentioned shortly in connection with Chesterton. It makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic–more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest–that he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge. When one sees the slavish or boastful rubbish that is written about Stalin, the Red Army, etc. by fairly intelligent and sensitive people, one realises that this is only possible because some kind of dislocation has taken place. In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion–that is, the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware–will not allow him to do so. Most of the people surrounding him are sceptical and disaffected, and he may adopt the same attitude from imitativeness or sheer cowardice: in that case he will have abandoned the form of nationalism that lies nearest to hand without getting any closer to a genuinely internationalist outlook. He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack–all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognised for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.

Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage–torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians–which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our’ side. The Liberal News Chronicle published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.[5] It is the same with historical events. History is thought of largely in nationalist terms, and such things as the Inquisition, the tortures of the Star Chamber, the exploits of the English buccaneers (Sir Francis Drake, for instance, who was given to sinking Spanish prisoners alive), the Reign of Terror, the heroes of the Mutiny blowing hundreds of Indians from the guns, or Cromwell’s soldiers slashing Irishwomen’s faces with razors, become morally neutral or even meritorious when it is felt that they were done in the “right’ cause. If one looks back over the past quarter of a century, one finds that there was hardly a single year when atrocity stories were not being reported from some part of the world; and yet in not one single case were these atrocities–in Spain, Russia, China, Hungary, Mexico, Amritsar, Smyrna–believed in and disapproved of by the English intelligentsia as a whole. Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection.

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should–in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918–and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied[6]. In 1927 Chiang Kai Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive, and yet within ten years he had become one of the heroes of the Left. The re-alignment of world politics had brought him into the anti-Fascist camp, and so it was felt that the boiling of the Communists “didn’t count’, or perhaps had not happened. The primary aim of propaganda is, of course, to influence contemporary opinion, but those who rewrite history do probably believe with part of their minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past. When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a valuable part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that the people responsible are merely lying. More probably they feel that their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and that one is justified in rearranging the records accordingly.

Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the present war. The calamities that are constantly being reported–battles, massacres, famines, revolutions–tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. What were the rights and wrongs of the Warsaw rising of August 1944? Is it true about the German gas ovens in Poland? Who was really to blame for the Bengal famine? Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.

I have examined as best as I can the mental habits which are common to all forms of nationalism. The next thing is to classify those forms, but obviously this cannot be done comprehensively. Nationalism is an enormous subject. The world is tormented by innumerable delusions and hatreds which cut across one another in an extremely complex way, and some of the most sinister of them have not yet impinged on the European consciousness. In this essay I am concerned with nationalism as it occurs among the English intelligentsia. In them, much more than in ordinary English people, it is unmixed with patriotism and therefore can be studied pure. Below are listed the varieties of nationalism now flourishing among English intellectuals, with such comments as seem to be needed. It is convenient to use three headings, Positive, Transferred, and Negative, though some varieties will fit into more than one category:


1. Neo-toryism. Exemplified by such people as Lord Elton, A.P. Herbert, G.M. Young, Professor Pickthorn, by the literature of the Tory Reform Committee, and by such magazines as the New English Review and the Nineteenth Century and After. The real motive force of neo-Toryism, giving it its nationalistic character and differentiating it from ordinary Conservatism, is the desire not to recognise that British power and influence have declined. Even those who are realistic enough to see that Britain’s military position is not what it was, tend to claim that “English ideas’ (usually left undefined) must dominate the world. All neo-Tories are anti-Russian, but sometimes the main emphasis is anti-American. The significant thing is that this school of thought seems to be gaining ground among youngish intellectuals, sometimes ex-Communists, who have passed through the usual process of disillusionment and become disillusioned with that. The anglophobe who suddenly becomes violently pro-British is a fairly common figure. Writers who illustrate this tendency are F. A. Voigt, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh, Hugh Kingsmill, and a psychologically similar development can be observed in T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and various of their followers.

2. Celtic Nationalism. Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon–simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc.–but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism.

3. Zionism. This the unusual characteristics of a nationalist movement, but the American variant of it seems to be more violent and malignant than the British. I classify it under Direct and not Transferred nationalism because it flourishes almost exclusively among the Jews themselves. In England, for several rather incongruous reasons, the intelligentsia are mostly pro-Jew on the Palestine issue, but they do not feel strongly about it. All English people of goodwill are also pro-Jew in the sense of disapproving of Nazi persecution. But any actual nationalistic loyalty, or belief in the innate superiority of Jews, is hardly to be found among Gentiles.


1. Communism.

2. Political Catholicism.

3. Colour Feeling. The old-style contemptuous attitude towards “natives’ has been much weakened in England, and various pseudo-scientific theories emphasising the superiority of the white race have been abandoned.[7] Among the intelligentsia, colour feeling only occurs in the transposed form, that is, as a belief in the innate superiority of the coloured races. This is now increasingly common among English intellectuals, probably resulting more often from masochism and sexual frustration than from contact with the Oriental and Negro nationalist movements. Even among those who do not feel strongly on the colour question, snobbery and imitation have a powerful influence. Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it. Nationalistic attachment to the coloured races is usually mixed up with the belief that their sex lives are superior, and there is a large underground mythology about the sexual prowess of Negroes.

4. Class Feeling. Among upper-class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form–i.e. as a belief in the superiority of the proletariat. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming. Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life.

5. Pacifism. The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries. The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China. It is not claimed, again, that the Indians should abjure violence in their struggle against the British. Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent enough. After the fall of France, the French pacifists, faced by a real choice which their English colleagues have not had to make, mostly went over to the Nazis, and in England there appears to have been some small overlap of membership between the Peace Pledge Union and the Blackshirts. Pacifist writers have written in praise of Carlyle, one of the intellectual fathers of Fascism. All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty. The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler, but it could easily be retransfered.


1. Anglophobia. Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases. During the war it was manifested in the defeatism of the intelligentsia, which persisted long after it had become clear that the Axis powers could not win. Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell or when the British were driven out of Greece, and there was a remarkable unwillingness to believe in good news, e.g. el Alamein, or the number of German planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain. In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, “enlightened’ opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy. Anglophobia is always liable to reversal, hence that fairly common spectacle, the pacifist of one war who is a bellicist in the next.

2. Anti-Semitism. There is little evidence about this at present, because the Nazi persecutions have made it necessary for any thinking person to side with the Jews against their oppressors. Anyone educated enough to have heard the word “antisemitism’ claims as a matter of course to be free of it, and anti-Jewish remarks are carefully eliminated from all classes of literature. Actually antisemitism appears to be widespread, even among intellectuals, and the general conspiracy of silence probably helps exacerbate it. People of Left opinions are not immune to it, and their attitude is sometimes affected by the fact that Trotskyists and Anarchists tend to be Jews. But antisemitism comes more naturally to people of Conservative tendency, who suspect Jews of weakening national morale and diluting the national culture. Neo-Tories and political Catholics are always liable to succumb to antisemitism, at least intermittently.

3. Trotskyism. This word is used so loosely as to include Anarchists, democratic Socialists and even Liberals. I use it here to mean a doctrinaire Marxist whose main motive is hostility to the Stalin regime. Trotskyism can be better studied in obscure pamphlets or in papers like the Socialist Appeal than in the works of Trotsky himself, who was by no means a man of one idea. Although in some places, for instance in the United States, Trotskyism is able to attract a fairly large number of adherents and develop into an organised movement with a petty fuerher of its own, its inspiration is essentially negative. The Trotskyist is against Stalin just as the Communist is for him, and, like the majority of Communists, he wants not so much to alter the external world as to feel that the battle for prestige is going in his own favour. In each case there is the same obsessive fixation on a single subject, the same inability to form a genuinely rational opinion based on probabilities. The fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them, i.e. of collaborating with the Fascists, is obviously false, creates an impression that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to Communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference. The most typical Trotskyists, in any case, are ex-Communists, and no one arrives at Trotskyism except via one of the left-wing movements. No Communist, unless tethered to his party by years of habit, is secure against a sudden lapse into Trotskyism. The opposite process does not seem to happen equally often, though there is no clear reason why it should not.

In the classification I have attempted above, it will seem that I have often exaggerated, oversimplified, made unwarranted assumptions and have left out of account the existence of ordinarily decent motives. This was inevitable, because in this essay I am trying to isolate and identify tendencies which exist in all our minds and pervert our thinking, without necessarily occurring in a pure state or operating continuously. It is important at this point to correct the over-simplified picture which I have been obliged to make. To begin with, one has no right to assume that everyone, or even every intellectual, is infected by nationalism. Secondly, nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which he knows to be absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods, only reverting to it in moments of anger or sentimentality, or when he is certain that no important issues are involved. Thirdly, a nationalistic creed may be adopted in good faith from non-nationalistic motives. Fourthly, several kinds of nationalism, even kinds that cancel out, can co-exist in the same person.

All the way through I have said, “the nationalist does this’ or “the nationalist does that’, using for purposes of illustration the extreme, barely sane type of nationalist who has no neutral areas in his mind and no interest in anything except the struggle for power. Actually such people are fairly common, but they are not worth the powder and shot. In real life Lord Elton, D. N. Pritt, Lady Houston, Ezra Pound, Lord Vanisttart, Father Coughlin and all the rest of their dreary tribe have to be fought against, but their intellectual deficiencies hardly need pointing out. Monomania is not interesting, and the fact that no nationalist of the more bigoted kind can write a book which still seems worth reading after a lapse of years has a certain deodorising effect. But when one has admitted that nationalism has not triumphed everywhere, that there are still peoples whose judgements are not at the mercy of their desires, the fact does remain that the pressing problems–India, Poland, Palestine, the Spanish civil war, the Moscow trials, the American Negroes, the Russo-German Pact or what have you–cannot be, or at least never are, discussed upon a reasonable level. The Eltons and Pritts and Coughlins, each of them simply an enormous mouth bellowing the same lie over and over again, are obviously extreme cases, but we deceive ourselves if we do not realise that we can all resemble them in unguarded moments. Let a certain note be struck, let this or that corn be trodden on–and it may be a corn whose very existence has been unsuspected hitherto–and the most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan, anxious only to “score’ over his adversary and indifferent as to how many lies he tells or how many logical errors he commits in doing so. When Lloyd George, who was an opponent of the Boer War, announced in the House of Commons that the British communiques, if one added them together, claimed the killing of more Boers than the whole Boer nation contained, it is recorded that Arthur Balfour rose to his feet and shouted “Cad!’ Very few people are proof against lapses of this type. The Negro snubbed by a white woman, the Englishman who hears England ignorantly criticised by an American, the Catholic apologist reminded of the Spanish Armada, will all react in much the same way. One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.

If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:

British Tory: Britain will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.

Communist: If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.

Irish Nationalist: Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.

Trotskyist: The Stalin régime is accepted by the Russian masses.

Pacifist: Those who “abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.

All of these facts are grossly obvious if one’s emotions do not happen to be involved: but to the kind of person named in each case they are also intolerable, and so they have to be denied, and false theories constructed upon their denial. I come back to the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war. It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. When Hitler invaded Russia, the officials of the M.O.I. issued “as background’ a warning that Russia might be expected to collapse in six weeks. On the other hand the Communists regarded every phase of the war as a Russian victory, even when the Russians were driven back almost to the Caspian Sea and had lost several million prisoners. There is no need to multiply instances. The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when “our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified–still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.

The reason for the rise and spread of nationalism is far too big a question to be raised here. It is enough to say that, in the forms in which it appears among English intellectuals, it is a distorted reflection of the frightful battles actually happening in the external world, and that its worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief. If one follows up this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of Conservatism, or into political quietism. It can be plausibly argued, for instance–it is even possibly true–that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organised religion is a guard against superstition. Or again, it can be argued that no unbiased outlook is possible, that all creeds and causes involve the same lies, follies, and barbarities; and this is often advanced as a reason for keeping out of politics altogether. I do not accept this argument, if only because in the modern world no one describable as an intellectual can keep out of politics in the sense of not caring about them. I think one must engage in politics–using the word in a wide sense–and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognise that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognise that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.

[1] Nations, and even vaguer entities such as Catholic Church or the proleteriat, are commonly thought of as individuals and often referred to as “she’. Patently absurd remarks such as “Germany is naturally treacherous’ are to be found in any newspaper one opens and reckless generalization about national character (“The Spaniard is a natural aristocrat’ or “Every Englishman is a hypocrite’) are uttered by almost everyone. Intermittently these generalizations are seen to be unfounded, but the habit of making them persists, and people of professedly international outlook, e.g., Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, are often guilty of them.

[2] A few writers of conservative tendency, such as Peter Drucker, foretold an agreement between Germany and Russia, but they expected an actual alliance or amalgamation which would be permanent. No Marxist or other left-wing writer, of whatever colour, came anywhere near foretelling the Pact.

[3] The military commentators of the popular press can mostly be classified as pro-Russian or anti-Russianm pro-blimp or anti-blimp. Such errors as believing the Maginot Line impregnable, or predicting that Russia would conquer Germany in three months, have failed to shake their reputation, because they were always saying what their own particular audience wanted to hear. The two military critics most favoured by the intelligentsia are Captain Liddell Hart and Major-General Fuller, the first of whom teachs that the defence is stronger that the attack, and the second that the attack is stronger that the defence. This contradiction has not prevented both of them from being accepted as authorities by the same public. The secret reason for their vogue in left-wing circles is that both of them are at odds with the War Office.

[4] Certain Americans have expressed dissatisfaction because “Anglo-American’ is the form of combination for these two words. It has been proposed to submite “Americo-British’.

[5] The News Chronicle advised its readers to visit the news film at which the entire execution could be witnessed, with close-ups. The Star published with seeming approval photographs of nearly naked female collaborationists being baited by the Paris mob. These photographs had a marked resemblance to the Nazi photographs of Jews being baited by the Berlin mob.

[6] An example is the Russo-German Pact, which is being effaced as quickly as possible from public memory. A Russian correspondent informs me that mention of the Pact is already being omitted from Russian year-books which table recent political events.

[7] A good example is the sunstroke superstition. Until recently it was believed that the white races were much more liable to sunstroke that the coloured, and that a white man could not safely walk about in tropical sunshine without a pith helmet. There was no evidence whatever for this theory, but it served the purpose of accentuating the difference between “natives’ and Europeans. During the war the theory was quietly dropped and whole armies manoeuvred in the tropics without pith helmets. So long as the sunstroke superstition survived, English doctors in India appear to have believed in it as firmly as laymen.

Principled Considerations On Entry

Trotsky’s Principled Considerations On Entry is taken from an ancient Militant Tendency pamphlet which contains a number of essays on entryism (or ‘entrism’) including Ted Grant’s Problems of Entrism, and Peter Taaffe’s 1973 introduction, with the fabulously cutting — and entirely accurate — observation:

Having gained nothing, like all bad workmen who blame their tools rather than their insufficient skill or knowledge of how to correctly use them, Mandel, Frank & Co abandoned entrism and turned to the students.

The pamphlet is available online from the comrades of the CWI, which saved a lot of retyping.

To the British Section, Bolshevik-Leninists London, England

Dear Comrades,

I have not yet received your letter in which you motivate your negative attitude to the entry into the Independent Labour Party. But, so as not to delay this matter, I shall try to examine the principled considerations for and against the entry. If it should happen that your letter contains additional arguments, I shall write you again.

In its present state, the Independent Labour Party is a left-centrist party. It consists of a number of factions and shadings that are indicative of the different stages of evolution from reformism to communism. Should the Bolshevik-Leninists enter into the official Communist Parties, which they had long designated, and with full reason, as centrist organizations?

For a number of years, we have considered ourselves Marxist factions of centrist parties. A categorical answer–yes, yes; no, no–is insufficient also in this case. A Marxist party should, of course, strive to full independence and to the highest homogeneity. But in the process of its formation, a Marxist party often has to act as a faction of a centrist and even a reformist party.

Thus the Bolsheviks adhered for a number of years to the same party with the Mensheviks. Thus, the Third International only gradually formed itself out of the Second.

Centrism, as we have said more than once, is a general name for most varied tendencies and groupings spread out between reformism and Marxism. In front of each centrist grouping it is necessary to place an arrow indicating the direction of its development: from right to left or from left to right.

Bureaucratic centrism, for all its zigzags, has an extremely conservative character corresponding to its social base: the Soviet bureaucracy. After a ten-year experience, we came to the conclusion that bureaucratic centrism does not draw nearer and is incapable of drawing nearer to Marxism, from the ranks of which it emerged. It is precisely because of this that we broke with the Comintern.

While the official Communist Parties have been growing weaker and decomposing, left flanks have separated from the reformist camp, which has grown considerably in numbers. These flanks also have a centrist character, but they move towards the left and, as demonstrated by experience, are capable of development and yield to Marxist influence. Let us recall once more that the Third International originated from organizations of this sort,

A clear example of the above is furnished by the history of the German SAP. A few hundred communists who split off from the Brandlerist opposition aria entered the SAP have succeeded in a comparatively short time in placing themselves at the head of this organization, which, for the most part, consists of former Social Democratic members.

At that time we criticized the group of Walcher-Froelich, Thomas and others not because they resolved to enter a left-centrist party, but because they entered it without a complete program and without an organ of their own. Our criticism was and remains correct. The SAP bears even now traces of shapelessness.

Some of its leaders even now consider irreconcilable Marxist criticism as “sectarianism.” In reality, however, if the Left Opposition with its principled criticism had not been standing at the side of the SAP, the position of the Marxists within the SAP would have been incomparably more difficult; no revolutionary group can live without a constantly creative ideological laboratory. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the movement of the centrist party (SAP) to the left was so decisive that the communist group, even without a complete program and without an organ of its own, found itself very soon at the head of the party.

The history of the SAP is neither a chance one nor an exceptional one. For a number of years the Comintern prevented by its policy the going-over of the Socialist workers to the revolutionary road. A mass of explosive material accumulated, therefore, in the camp of reformism. The frightful crisis of capitalism and the Triumphal march of fascism, accompanied by the absolute impotence of both Internationals, gave the left-centrist organizations an impulsion towards communism; this is one of the most important prerequisites for the creation of new parties and of a new International.

In the area of theory, the Independent Labour Party is completely helpless. This gives an advantage to the official Communist Party–herein lies the danger. This opens up the field for the intervention of our British section. It is not sufficient to have correct ideas. In a decisive moment one must know how to show one’s strength to the advanced workers. As far as I can judge from here, the possibility for influencing the further development of the Independent Labour Party as a whole is not yet missed. But in another couple of months, the Independent Labour Party will have completely fallen between the gear wheels of the Stalinist bureaucracy and will be lost, leaving thousands of disappointed workers. It is necessary to act and to act immediately.

It is worth entering the Independent Labour Party only if we make it our purpose to help this party, that is, its revolutionary majority, to transform it into a truly Marxist party. Of course, such an entry would be inadmissible if the Central Committee of the Independent Labour Party should demand from our friends that they renounce their ideas, or the open struggle for those ideas in the party.

But it is absolutely admissible to take upon oneself the obligation to fight for one’s views on the basis of the party statutes and within the limits of party discipline. The great advantage of the Left Opposition lies in the fact that it has a theoretically elaborated program, international experience and international control. Under these conditions, there is not the slightest basis for the fear that the British Bolshevik-Leninists will dissolve without a trace in the Independent Labour Party.

Some comrades point out that the Independent Labour Party has greatly weakened, that behind the old front a ramshackle structure hides itself. This is very possible. But this is not an argument against entry. In its present composition, it is clear, the Independent Labour Party is not viable. It is getting weaker and is losing members not only on the right but also on the left, because its leadership has no dear policy and is not capable of imbuing the party with confidence in its strength.

It is possible to stop this further disintegration of the Independent Labour Party only by imparting to it Marxist views on the problems of our epoch, and in particular a Marxist analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Only the Bolshevik-Leninists can do this work. But to do this they must courageously destroy the wall that divides them today from the revolutionary workers of the Independent Labour Party.

If the apparatus of the Independent Labour Party should not admit our section into the ranks of its party, this would be the best proof that the leadership has completely submitted to the Stalinist bureaucracy behind the back of the party. In this worst case we would acquire a strong weapon against the leaders and would gain the sympathy of the rank-and-file members of the Independent Labour Party.

It may be objected that the small size of our British section would not permit it to play the same role with regard to the ILP that the group of Walcher-Froelich played with regard to the SAP. Possibly. But even if the Independent Labour Party is doomed to disintegrate, the Bolshevik-Leninists can save for the revolution an important kernel of this party. It must also not be forgotten that the group of Walcher-Froelich was completely isolated, while our British friends can count on international help in their work.

I am very much afraid that our British friends, at least some of them, are restrained from entering the Independent Labour Party by the fear of malicious criticism of the Stalinists. There is nothing worse in revolutionary policy than to be actuated by purely external, superficial criteria or by the fear of public opinion of the bureaucracy only because we were connected with it in the past.

It is necessary to determine one’s road in accordance with the deep currents within the proletarian vanguard, to trust more in the power of one’s ideas without looking back at the Stalinist bureaucracy.

G. Gourov (Leon Trotsky), September 16, 1933