One cannot criticise the national liberation movement or Left political party in another country, apparently. Or so some think. Why not? “Because it goes against internationalist solidarity to do so.” “Besides, one doesn’t live in the other country or maybe know their conditions and their culture as well as does the group one is criticising.” So, one should just applaud their resistance and say nothing negative. Apparently.
Like many positions, that seems fine until you break it down a bit. So let’s take a look at this more closely. The Khmer Rouge was a national liberation organisation of socialist or communist orientation in Kampuchea (Cambodia). The Khmer Rouge had both male and female fighters and they led a struggle against US Imperialism and against feudal rule in their country. The US carpet-bombed the country and aided the Cambodian Government in resisting the Khmer Rouge, who were in turn assisted by the North Vietnamese and the Chinese. So, a clear case of which side we’re on, right? With the Khmer Rouge. Against US Imperialism and feudalism.
But when in 1975 the Khmer Rouge leadership declared that all Cambodians needed to return to the land and, in order to implement this policy, exterminated all who disagreed or who they thought might disagree, and in the course of their programme caused hunger and illness which killed more, all of which came to a total of around 21% of the country’s population, what then? Are we still in solidarity with the Khmer Rouge then? What? No? We’re actually condemning them?
Good! And so we should. But what happened to “uncritical support and solidarity” and “we don’t know what’s going on there as well as the locals” etc, etc?
Ok, that was an extreme example and there was a massacre and huge loss of life. But the massacre event had a trail leading up to it and that trail could have been marked. Apparently two of the leaders back in their Paris student days had written theses advocating returning to a peasant economy. No doubt there were other signs in terms of who became leaders and how they maintained their leading positions – this was the time of the high tide of leader-worship, when in China photos of Mao and in Vietnam photos of Ho Chi Minh, predominated not only in official buildings but in public spaces and in the hands of their supporters abroad. Whether Ho Chi Minh or Mao Tse Tung were good or bad revolutionaries, or even a mixture of good and bad, is not the point. What is the point is whether it is healthy to treat living human beings as saints or gods; whether if you trust them unquestioningly today you will be able to question them (or be permitted to) if they take the wrong path or just a wrong turning tomorrow.
Now let’s take another example, much closer to home and much less in magnitude – the French Mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine in 1981 who, it was reported, in an anti-immigration demonstration, personally drove an earth mover to demolish a hostel for migrants from Mali. He was a member of the Communist Party of France and also the Party’s General Secretary, Georges Marchaise, ran a racist campaign when he stood as a candidate in the French Presidential Election that year. Now, the Communist Party of France had organised the Maquis and most of the urban French Resistance to Nazism and had led the liberation of Paris before the Allies arrived. Surely Georges Marchaise had been elected by his large party and the Mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine not only by his party supporters but also by a majority of the people of his town. So who are we to criticise them, right? No, wrong, you think – and quite rightly so. We are not only entitled to – we should criticise them, expose them and try to get them to change. And our criticism should also serve as a warning to any others thinking of taking the same path.
Back to another big example now. Before WWI all the socialist parties in the world (that included what we would now call communist and social democratic parties) agreed that imperialist war would be a terrible thing and against workers’ interests. Some even vowed that if their governments tried to join a war, they would turn the imperialist war into a war against capitalism. But when it came to the crunch, the main socialist party in nearly every European country made an alliance with their capitalist class and recruited cannon fodder for them. There were very few exceptions and among them were the Irish Labour Party, which had been founded on a resolution by James Connolly in 1912 …. and the Bolsheviks. Although it didn’t openly oppose it, the Irish Labour Party was in general critical of the War and two of the party’s founders, Connolly and Larkin, overwhelmingly so. The Bolsheviks placed ending the War among their main slogans for insurrection and as a result recruited many soldiers and sailors into the actual insurrection.
OK, so would we have had the right to criticise the war collusion policies of the British Labour Party, of the German socialists, French, Italian, Belgian, Australian? Of course we would have had the right – and would have been correct to do so.
And another big example. The Shah of Persia was an ally of western imperialism and had a substantial repressive apparatus, including a huge secret service. In 1978/’79, a wide movement began to rise up against the Shah and his regime fell suprisingly quickly – so quickly that the CIA, who had their HQ for the Middle East in the country, were caught shredding their documents (many of which were pieced together again by Iranians).
There were a number of different interest groups but two important and very different ones were socialist activists, many of them students, on the one hand and Muslim fundamentalists on the other. When the Shah was overthrown, the latter group seized power and thereafter wiped out the socialists. I don’t know whether any mistakes were made by the socialists in their alliances or if anything could have been done to avoid the outcome. But if there were and if there was something, and we thought we knew what it was, would it not have been criminally negligent and uninternationalist of us not to have told them? And if necessary to have argued it with them? And would our criticism not also help others who might find themselves in similar situations now and in the future?
Now, let’s take a minute to look at the other side of the coin. A leader of the popular movement Podemos in the Spanish state recently made a public intervention in Colombian politics the nature of which need not concern us here. But in the course of that, he denounced the Basque armed group ETA and likened them to Latin American fascist murder squads. Was he entitled to do so?
No, he was not. He was entitled to criticise ETA armed actions but in the course of that he should have taken account of the fact that the state in which he lives had practiced fascist repression on ETA for nearly a decade before it took up arms and has never ceased its repression of the Basque people since 1939. He was not at all entitled to compare ETA to fascist murder squads.
During the recent 30-year war, was the Communist Party of Great Britain entitled to publicly criticise IRA bombings in Britain, a number of which killed and injured innocent civilians? Yes, it was. But it was not correct to join the right-wing chorus denouncing them as vile murderers. And with the right to criticise also came a duty of solidarity, to campaign for British withdrawal from Ireland, against repression of the Irish community in Britain and for decent prison conditions and repatriation for Irish republican prisoners in jails in Britain (and the score of politically-framed uninvolved Irish prisoners).
To its shame, the CPGB took the road of histrionic censure but without taking up its duty of solidarity, an internationalist duty more applicable to itself than to any others around the world, since its party is based in the very colonial state that was waging war in Ireland.
I take one last example. At a certain point during the South African people’s struggle against the white racist regime (a settler ruling class which was totally supported by imperialism) it emerged that some things were not quite right within the resistance movement and, as time went on, that they were a lot worse than “not quite right”. We began to hear rumours that Winnie Madzikela Mandela was a member of a corrupt clique that had brutalised and even murdered people within the movement. But Winnie had become an icon of the struggle – a strong, handsome, militant woman with a husband, a leader, decades in jail. And the struggle seemed to be entering a crucial phase so, not wanting to undermine that struggle, we said nothing. (When her husband, Nelson Mandela was released, he agreed to an investigation into Winnie’s clique and ended up divorcing her. However, she is still a member of the ANC’s national Executive).
Worse, in a way, were the rumours of concentration camps being run by the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in neighbouring countries which were jailing ANC dissidents, torturing and even killing them. But the struggle was at a high point …… and we didn’t want to undermine …..
Yes, beginning to sound familiar, isn’t it? Besides, for some of us, the source of these stories were Trotskyists and we didn’t trust their bona fides too much ….. But it turned out that there had been these camps and they had done the things that were rumoured …. and testimonies of some of those cases have now been documented in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. What’s more, it seems that some of the people in the ANC leadership were not only aware of them but had a hand in setting them up.
Mandela may not have known about them while in jail but learned of them at least when released. He eventually criticised the torture carried out in them but did nothing to root out those responsible. This is crucial in terms of what happened later.
When the South African deal was done, an accommodation between the ANC and the white settler ruling class, it was also a settlement with imperialism which not only continued its plunder of the South African resources and labour but increased it. The masses got the vote and little else but a top stream of the ANC, SACP and NUM benefited in terms of government jobs and corruption. The recent head of the National Union of Mineworkers and current Deputy President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a millionaire and on the board of Lonmin, a British corporation mining platinum in South Africa.
In 2012, workers went on strike at Lonmin and other mines, looking for substantial pay rises; many were saying that the NUM was not fighting for them and wanting representation by a new union, AMCU. The mine-owners refused to negotiate, SACP said the strikers should be arrested, Ramaphosa asked the Government to crack down on the strikers, Zuma (President of the ANC and of South Africa and one of those implicated in the concentration camp scandal) covered for his Chief of Police Riah Phiyega while she organised what followed – the massacre of 34 striking miners in one day (in addition to some more over previous days) and many injured.
The Marikana massacre brought many of the elements that had been separately visible earlier together into high relief: ANC, NUM and SACP (South African Communist Party) corruption and jobbery; intolerance and brutality against any dissent; collusion with the white settler regime and foreign imperialists – now coupled with exploitation of black workers and murderous repression on a scale not seen in a single incident in South Africa since the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960.
Were we right to have said nothing about the activities of Winnie’s gang? And not to have tried to check out the rumours about the concentration camps? Were we right to say nothing critical about Mandela and the deal he led the people in accepting? I don’t think so. I think we had an internationalist right to speak, comrades – an internationalist duty. And it was a duty we failed to fulfill.
I could have picked so many other examples from history but I chose these as being ones on which most people would take the same side, so as to get the principle across without sectional positions being taken.
There is another very important role of criticism. It helps to clarify things for us in our own struggles. We have to think things through (hopefully) before criticising and then consider and weigh the reply we receive, then think about our reply to that as well. And so on. And many if not all of these issues will be in some way applicable to us too, either now or in the future.
But in criticising, do we abandon solidarity? Most assuredly we should not. Obviously we could have had no solidarity with Pol Pot and his clique or with his party comrades who followed them – our solidarity is fundamentally with the people and it was the Cambodian people who deserved our solidarity, which in that case had to be oppositional to the party. But we should, as well as being in solidarity with the Mali migrants in Vitry-sur-Seine in 1981, also be in support of French workers there in struggles against French capitalism, while simultaneously criticising any racist tendencies in their movement or parties.
We could and should have, were we adults during WWI, have criticised the policies of the socialist parties who colluded in the bloodbath of Europe, the Dardanelles and the Middle East, even if we had never set foot in one of the countries of those parties at the time.
Maybe it would help to bring the issue down to a more personal level. In families, we generally accept that we should express and act in solidarity with one another. Does that mean that if someone in our family does something really wrong, we should remain silent? Clearly not. We can support him in changing, we can support him in other ways but we cannot – or should not – support him in continuing to act wrongly. For the good of society, the family and even of the individual, we are obliged to point out the wrongdoing and that we disagree with it – in other words, to criticise. What kind of family members would we be if we did not do that, if our attitude were “Whatever you do is fine, no matter what it is or who ends up getting hurt, you or someone else”?
And if we are internationalists, of whatever particular socialist trend, we have an internationalist duty to our ‘family’ around the world not only to act in solidarity but also to express criticism when we think our comrades elsewhere embark on the wrong road or take a wrong turning. Proletarian internationalism and uncritical support not only don’t go together – they are actually opposites. There may be considerations of in what manner to present the criticism but continued silence is not an internationalist option.