Taiwan: Taiwan and the right to self determination

What attitude should Marxists adopt to the national question in Taiwan?

We received the following letter from a certain “Mikawasima/Asian Trotsky” disagreeing with the article ‘China and Taiwan: Reunification or confrontation’ (on www.chinaworker.org , 15 May 2005)

While the author’s name and political affiliation are not given (perhaps for reasons of security) we welcome this opportunity to discuss the issues raised and look again at the Marxist approach to the national question.


Taiwan and the right to self determination

Here is the letter in full:

“I am disappointed with the content of [China and Taiwan: Reunification or confrontation].

This article is dreadful and anti-Marxist.

‘Socialists of course stand for the right of self-determination for the Taiwanese people.’

What a joke! Are you ‘of course’ in favour of the right of self-determination for the Ulster Unionists, Zionists and South African Whites? I am very interested.

They are against reunification because their living standards are higher than those of the mainland. Their ”self-determination” has no progressive content for which socialists can stand. You must decisively break with the AWL-style colonialist "socialism" in order gain support from the Chinese working class.”

Right of self-determination

While the author uses the pen name ’Asian Trotsky’, these few lines indicate that he/she has not understood Trotsky’s approach to this vital question. Lenin taught long ago, and this was amplified and applied to great effect by Trotsky in the years after Lenin’s death, that the right of nations to self-determination should be inscribed on the banner of revolutionary socialism. This would then allow Marxists to win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities and maintain the vital cohesion of the working class in the face of attempts by the capitalists and reactionaries to split the working class along national lines. Without this approach of Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917, the working class would never have succeeded in taking power in Russia. This underlines the importance of the national question: an incorrect position can become a huge barrier in the struggle against capitalism.

Lenin and Trotsky were not “evangels of separation” – advocating for its own sake the break-up of larger states. On the contrary, they explained that just as large enterprises enjoy competitive advantages over small ones, so large countries enjoy important economic benefits over small ones. We need only compare the fragmentation of Europe (which despite the process of capitalist globalisation and EU integration can never be overcome on a capitalist basis) with the development of the US economy. Likewise in relation to China and Taiwan there are obvious benefits from closer integration. This was explained in the article: “Of course there are huge potential benefits for the population as a whole from the fusion of Asia’s ‘silicon island’ – Taiwan is a world leader in semiconductors and computer electronics – with China’s vast labour force and world class manufacturing base.” [China and Taiwan: Reunification or confrontation?].

But as this article also explained: “On a capitalist basis this process will inevitably be accompanied by an offensive against the working class over working hours, labour ‘flexibility’ and wages.”

Therefore, while the arguments for the closest possible economic integration are clear (ultimately, on the basis of the triumph of socialism internationally, of course, national boundaries will disappear), Marxists are completely opposed to any attempt to suppress the rights of small nations or settle such issues on the basis of coercion, which has always and everywhere led to reactionary consequences. In this sense, as Trotsky explained, the position of Marxism on the national question represents ”a compromise, or series of compromises,” taking into account the consciousness of the national groupings concerned as a central factor. The flexibility and extreme sensitivity of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s approach, was not even understood by one of their greatest contemporaries, Rosa Luxemburg, who in the field of the national question adopted the mistaken position that self-determination was ’utopian’ under capitalism and ’unnecessary’ under socialism. Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s mistakes in this field, which Lenin and Trotsky polemicised against, have not been understood by many who claim to be Marxist.

Under Lenin, the constitution of the USSR allowed for the right of self-determination for all the member republics up to and including the right to separate. Of course as a result of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state under Stalin, this right was abolished in practice. Mao’s regime in China was modelled on Stalin’s, not Lenin’s. The role of the Chinese Stalinist regime in Tibet, Xinjiang, its incursion into Vietnam, and its handling of the Taiwan issue, are a million miles removed from the approach of genuine Marxism.

Capitalists cannot resolve the national question

The article on ’chinaworker’ did not call for Taiwanese independence, but rather made clear this is a question for the Taiwanese people to decide. If, in the future, a majority opt for independence we would support this, but would also stress that real independence can only be realised through a break with capitalism. As Trotsky explained, the right of nations to self-determination is not a socialist demand but a democratic demand (an unfinished task of the bourgeois democratic revolution), which however in the imperialist epoch can only be solved by the working class carrying through the socialist revolution.

Only a movement to overthrow parasitic Taiwanese capitalism, linking up with the awakening giant of Chinese labour can resolve the dispute over Taiwan’s relations with China. If the present pro-capitalist dictatorship remains in China, and the Chinese working class is kept in a state of disorganisation, any push for independence on the part of Taiwan could unleash war and very possibly a wider conflict involving US and Japanese imperialism. The bourgeois-led (pan-green) independence movement has shown itself incapable of waging a serious struggle to realise its own programme. Instead, the pan-green leaders have confined themselves to empty nationalist gestures and place all their faith in deals with imperialism. Support for independence, which is confined at this stage to a minority in Taiwan, is strongest among youth and people in the south. The capitalist class in Taiwan, however, mesmerised by the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and its growing importance as a source of profits, is overwhelmingly pro-China and consequently anti-independence (they would fully endorse the remarks of our ”Asian Trotsky”).

Lenin’s approach

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914)’, Lenin wrote the following:

“Successful struggle against exploitation requires the proletariat to be free of nationalism, and be absolutely neutral, so to speak, in the fight for supremacy that is going on among the bourgeoisie of the various nations. If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie. Repudiation of the right to self-determination or to secession inevitably means, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation.”

Unfortunately, our critic does exactly what Lenin warns against: by rejecting completely the right of self-determination in the case of Taiwan, they defend – in practice – the right of the Chinese ruling elite to determine Taiwan’s fate. How does this advance the struggle of the Chinese proletariat? On the contrary, this plays into the hands of the CCP’s Great China chauvinism, which is used to strangle both the attempts of the working class to organise and the growing revolt of the national minorities in China.

Against “high living standards”?

The letter expresses a purely ’economist’ view of national oppression: Taiwan is a more developed economy with ”higher living standards” and therefore, we are told, the right to self-determination does not apply.

No socialist organisation will be able to build support among workers in Taiwan if it ignores their reasonable fears that closer links with China or a redrawing of national borders – on the basis of capitalism – will make it easier for the bosses to lower wages. If capitalism and the rule of the transnationals continues in China, such fears are fully justified: Sweatshop conditions will be exported to Taiwan (these attacks are already happening as a result of capitalist globalisation). As the original article pointed out, ”Just as big European corporations lobbied for EU enlargement in order to broaden their base of operations and play workers in new EU member states off against their higher paid counterparts in the older EU countries, Taiwanese capitalists see closer integration with China as a means to free themselves from the ’burden’ of Taiwan’s higher wages and social insurance.” [China and Taiwan: Reunification or confrontation?].

What answer does our critic give Taiwanese workers facing pressure for wage cuts under threat of ’outsourcing’ of jobs to the mainland? Socialists call for the nationalisation of companies threatening closure or relocation. Workers at Taiwanese companies with operations on the Chinese mainland should demand trade union rights and joint negotiating rights for their company’s mainland employees. In the final analysis, only a socialist planned economy and a regime of real workers’ democracy can guarantee that living standards are raised and not lowered.

Another key issue is the attitude towards the Chinese dictatorship, one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Through mass struggle in the 1980s, the Taiwanese masses forced the bourgeoisie to grant democratic rights, freedom of political activity, the right to strike etc. These rights are still very fragile. Trade unions for example face a maze of restrictions inherited from the long period of Chinese nationalist (KMT) dictatorship. But the situation on the Chinese mainland at this stage is a hundred times more repressive from the standpoint of independent working class activity. This, understandably, plays a big part in shaping the attitude of workers and youth in Taiwan towards China, especially among the predominant Minnanese (around 70 per cent of the population), who suffered national persecution under the mainlander-dominated KMT dictatorship. Among this group in particular, and among the numerically much smaller aboriginal population, there is clear opposition to the idea of reunification with the mainland under yet another repressive nationalist dictatorship.

Taiwan: not an oppressed nation?

The question of what constitutes an oppressed nationality is more complex than the crude GDP-method adopted by our critic. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks defended the right of self-determination – and actual independence – for Finland and the Baltic states in 1917, nations which were on a higher economic level than Russia. This was because of the history of national oppression under Tsarism that created a legacy of national distrust among the masses in these states, which even the victorious Russian revolution could not immediately overcome. Stalinism, because of its repressive methods and the domination of one or other national grouping of bureaucrats (Russian, Han Chinese, Serbian etc), aggravated national tensions almost everywhere. This was a crucial factor in the unravelling of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Slovenia and Croatia were the wealthiest parts of the former Yugoslavia and the first to separate. Presumably our critic would have opposed this on the grounds of their ”higher living standards” and thereby, in practice, sided with the Serbian Milosevic regime’s attempts to stop them by force? Such an approach would make it impossible for a Marxist organisation to intervene in the real struggle of the masses.

What was necessary at the time of Yugoslavia’s break-up was to counter the nationalism of the Croatian and Slovenian pro-capitalist forces, not by ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority for independence, but by giving this movement a democratic and socialist content. In such a situation, Marxists needed to stress the importance of working class unity, resistance to capitalist restoration and very tentatively raise the idea of a voluntary and democratic socialist confederation of states in the region as an alternative to the undemocratic and imposed ’federation’ of Yugoslav Stalinism.

The antics of the pro-capitalist authoritarian elite ruling China have enormously complicated the national question in Taiwan and throughout China. Repeated threats to resort to military force; Beijing’s antics in regard to mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong; the memory of Tiananmen Square 1989; the oppression of Muslims and other minorities – these crimes have hardly endeared the Chinese regime to workers and youth in Taiwan.

Trotsky and the Ukraine

Trotsky in the late 1930s even raised the slogan of an independent socialist Ukraine – its separation from the Stalinist Soviet Union – because of the groundswell of nationalist feeling as a result of Stalin’s crimes, and the oppression of the Ukrainian minorities in capitalist Rumania, Hungary and Poland. Trotsky explained that unless the national movement in the Ukraine was given a working class leadership and socialist direction, it risked being hi-jacked by imperialism and reaction.

The letter poses the question: “are you ‘of course’ in favour of the right of self-determination for the Ulster Unionists, Zionists and South African Whites?” and likens the CWI to a small group (AWL) who advocate a non-socialist ’two state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But even the way the question is posed above by our critic betrays a completely wrong approach. The task of Marxists is to map out a strategy for the working class in relation to the national question, taking the concrete realities as a starting point. The one million Protestants of Northern Ireland and the five million-strong Jewish population of Israel are important objective facts in the countries concerned, which do not simply cease to exist because ‘Asian Trotsky’ does not recognise their ‘right to self-determination’.

As the actual experience of the last three decades has shown, any attempt to coerce the Protestants of Northern Ireland into a capitalist united Ireland would have resulted in a civil war. Given the inevitable spill-over effects within Britain itself, this was something the London government could not allow. The IRA’s campaign using the methods of individual terror served to deepen the division of the working class along religious sectarian lines, and enabled the British state to lean on the Protestants against the IRA, with its base among the Catholics. The result of this was to weaken the one force – the working class – that was capable of bringing about a real i.e. socialist solution to the conflict in Ireland.

Class or national divisions?

In Israel, the issue is posed even more starkly: The Israeli state, backed up by US imperialism for its own strategic interests, enjoys a crushing military superiority in the region. For the Palestinians to achieve victory it is essential that they split the majority Jewish working class – currently facing the full onslaught of Sharon’s neo-liberal attacks – from the Israeli ruling class. Any organisation that just dismisses Israeli workers as one reactionary “Zionist” mass will find it impossible to build support for the idea of a joint struggle by Arab, Palestinian and Israeli Jewish workers’ against capitalism and oppressions and for a socialist alternative to the permanent state of war which imperialism has come to mean in the Middle East. The CWI and its section in Israel, Maavak Sotzialisti, therefore puts forward the slogan of an independent socialist Palestine, and a socialist Israel, as part of a voluntary and equal socialist federation of the Middle East.

In South Africa the black working class consciously tried and succeeded to win over, or at least neutralise, a substantial layer of the white minority, by including whites and other ethnic minorities in the leading bodies of the ANC and demanding ‘multiracial’ rather than just black majority rule as expressed in the call for ‘one person one vote’. Had this not been the case, white resistance would have stiffened, further complicating the struggle against the apartheid dictatorship and, possibly, triggering a racial civil war. This example alone answers the mistaken position of our “Asian Trotsky”. The CWI’s warnings that only by abolishing capitalism in South Africa could the aspirations of the masses be realised, have been completely borne out. After a decade of so called ‘black empowerment’ policies by the right-wing ANC government in alliance with the pro-capitalist South African Communist Party, 95 per cent of the big companies are still in the hands of white capitalists, while unemployment among blacks is at record levels. The economic impasse threatens to reopen ethnic divisions that were apparently ‘solved’ by the transition to majority rule in the early 1990s, underlining the fact that there is no lasting solution on the basis of capitalism. Only the working class, by taking power and bringing the economy into public ownership within the framework of a democratic socialist plan can lay the basis for the resolution of the national question. Even then, this will not occur instantly but will require from the leadership of the workers’ movement a great deal of skill, flexibility and sensitivity towards the national consciousness of the masses in the countries concerned. This is the task of Marxists in relation to the national question today.

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July 2005