Material on the Tibet question

Chris Faatz recent recently stimulated a discussion about Tibet (provoked by material in Workers World) which prompted me to look at the position taken by the Trotskyist movement on this question in earlier stages. I found a major policy statement from the FI, which I set out below, and nothing much else ever officially adopted. I found one reference to the Tibet question from the Healyites, and a section in Tim Wohlforth's Theory of Structural Assimilation.

JJ Plant
06 Feb 97


Resolution of the International Secretariat On the Events in Tibet

from 4th International, Autumn 1959 (copy among the papers of the late Sam Levy)

[Some words originally spelled in ‘American’ style have been amended to avoid excessive time on spellchecking – jjp]

The events in Tibet, which this year brought about a conflict between the military and civil authorities of the central government of the People’s Republic of China and the Tibetan armed forces, have given rise to diverse interpretations, including in our own ranks. Imperialist propaganda has seized on these events for the obvious purpose of impairing the drawing-power of the Chinese revolution, especially among the Asian masses, and also of compromising the Pekin government in Asian “;neutralist” opinion, especially in the eyes of the Asian and world colonial bourgeoisie, whose good graces and alliance Pekin – following the Kremlin’s example – is seeking.

The precedent of Hungary provided this propaganda with facile analogies, that were, however, obviously superficial.

In order to clarify the questions raised by the recent events, a reminder of certain facts of a historic and social nature is necessary.

Especially since the XIIIth century and up until the XIXth century, Tibet was administratively a part of the Chinese national empires and never appeared during this period as an independent state. In the XIXth century it became a protectorate of British imperialism, which – at the time of the liberation of India – transferred its rights to that country, but continued to keep its own agents on the spot, working against the Chinese revolution.

In 1951 the armies of the Chinese revolution entered Tibet and Pekin reached an agreement with the local authorities “on the measures for the peaceful liberation of Tibet.” In 1945 (presumably this is an error for 1954 – jjp) the Nehru government yielded its rights over Tibet to China, and Nehru himself then (15 May 1954) declared: “I am not aware that at any time during the last few hundred years, Chinese sovereignty, or if you like, suzerainty [over Tibet] was challenged by any outside country.”

Within the limits of the Chinese empires, especially since the XIIIth century, the Tibetan people, ethnically distinct from the Han people, the Chine people properly so called, lived side-by-side with other national minorities, the Mongols, the Uighurs, the Chuags, the Miaos, the Koreans, etc (to the number of about 50) who constituted the multinational country, historically formed as such, known by the name of China.

These historical facts – as well as the fact that Tibet, detached from China since the XIXth century by imperialism, had become in an unquestionable way an imperialist platform against the security and unity of China – justified the effort undertaken by the victorious armies of the Chinese revolution to recuperate Tibet from imperialism, according to a statute of autonomous territory (and not of province) within the limits of the Chinese People’s Republic.

What is more, there has not been, especially in these last years, any proof of the existence of a Tibetan movement of national independence from China.

The national policy of the Pekin government can be essentially criticised only from the viewpoint of its attitude toward the toiling masses of Tibet.

This country is marked by the existence of an extremely anachronistic and barbarous feudo-theocratic social and political regime. Some two to three hundred families of nobles hold – directly themselves and by their preponderant role in the government – about two thirds of the land, the other third belonging to the monasteries ruled by the higher clergy. More than a million serfs, that is, the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, labour on the lands, in the service of the secular and ecclesiastical nobility, as peasants, shepherds, and servants, in conditions of extreme material and cultural destitution.

In order to spare the country a revolution by its labouring masses, and not to compromise its relations with the Asian ruling classes, especially those of India, and the opinion of Asiatic Buddhism, Pekin carefully avoided overturning the existing social order by basing itself on revolutionary mobilisation and organisation. In fact what it based itself on was just what it is now denouncing, namely the higher social strata crowned by the government and the Dalai Lama; it was from the “re-education” and “understanding” of these strata that Pekin was awaiting the gradual introduction of reforms.

This opportunist policy completely failed. The strata of the ecclesiastical and secular nobility, fearing after all the inevitable process of structural assimilation with the rest of China, were concerned only with indefinitely postponing the reforms, to gain time and to pair up with imperialism to defend their "independence".

It is naturally possible that these efforts found a certain echo among the most backward elements in the country, disappointed by the de facto support accorded by Pekin to the feudalists instead of stirring up civil war and backing the masses of the serfs against them.

It was in these conditions that the Chinese armed forces stationed in Tibet were harassed by white bands long before the more massive attack to which they were subjected in Lhassa itself last March.

At that time, the Chinese army had not "invaded" an “independent” country, but had been for several years on the spot, and according to all available proofs (including those of imperialism and the letters written by the Dalai Lama and later recognised as genuine by Nehru himself), it was subjected to the assault of forces trained and prepared by the feudalists.

Thus the analogy with the case of Hungary, where a workers’ state, formally independent, was invaded by the Soviet army in order to crush a workers’ uprising aimed against the political, bureaucratic, and police regime whose allegiance was to the Kremlin, is superficial and therefore null and void.

Quite apart from any criticism about the previous attitude of the Pekin government toward Tibet, at the moment of conflict itself revolutionary Marxists define their position by taking into account the social forces facing each other: who is fighting whom. From this point of view, they are unreservedly for the victory of the armies of the Chinese revolution against the armed forced of feudal reaction.

The mass character of the latter, although problematical in the concrete case of Tibet because not based on tangible proofs, enters the question only as an element to determine the future solution once the feudal reaction has been beaten and the victory of the revolutionary army assured.

Taught by experience, forced by events, Pekin is at present being led to proceed, finally, to the social revolution in Tibet, by relying on the serfs and by destroying the position of property and power of the ecclesiastical and secular nobility.

Revolutionary Marxists support this action, while asking that it be entrusted essentially to the democratic organisations of the country – committees, trade unions, militias, parties – and that it be carried out in the framework of a real regional autonomy for Tibet, including the right of complete separation from the rest of the Chinese Republic.

The Tibetan people being obviously a separate nationality, revolutionary Marxists recognise this people’s right of self-determination, including the right to separate from China. In order that this right be exercised, it is necessary that the majority of the entire Tibetan people clearly express its opinion, for the proclamation of Tibetan independence by the feudal leaders does not represent a proof of that desire. Between the recognition of the right to independence and the active struggle of revolutionary Marxists for this right, there is, however, a difference.

In Tibet itself, any revolutionary Marxist forces would, however, have to support the position that the country remain fraternally united, on a basis of equality, with the other nationalities and autonomous territories of the People's Republic of China.

THE INTERNATIONAL SECRETARIAT OF THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL, July 1959


Appendix 1: Some quotes on Tibet

1. Extract from Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol.3: The Socialist Workers Party’s road back to Pabloism

from Letter of the NC of the SLL to the NC of the SWP, Jan. 2, 1961

In his letter to the Indian comrade Kolpe (a man who was prominent in the organisation of a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Bombay as a protest against the Chinese “attack” on Tibet) comrade Hansen writes in a most apologetic way about the behaviour of the British comrades; in doing this he dissociates himself from our editorial in the Labour Review of August 1959. “Personally”, he writes, “I would agree with you that this article was not well conceived”. pp.53-54

This is the only reference in the SLL’s official history to Tibet. There is some more material on Kolpe and his history – he was to become a leader of the Pabs SWP of India. I don’t know much about them. But it may be that their record on the Tibet question is worth investigating. I suppose the gloomy probability is that they were accommodating to Indian anti-Chinese feeling, but maybe not. It seems clear that the SLL did not approve of Kolpe’s action. I have not seen the August 59 editorial which the SLL refers to (there is a lacuna in the SLL’s official history between July 57 and January 61). Later in 61 Peng takes an important role in the debates between SWP and SLL, but (at least in the material republished by the SLL) does not deal with the Tibet question.


2. Tom Wohlforth’s Theory of Structural Assimilation, Folrose edition, London 1978, first pub. 1964

[I have shifted footnotes into the main text here to avoid tedious renumbering problems – jjp]

The Structural Assimilation of Tibet, North Korea and North Vietnam

The current SWP resolution on China states, in a section on the unfolding of the permanent revolution in China: “The triumphant revolution has tended to extend into the neighbouring lands of Tibet, North Vietnam and North Korea ...” [The SWP Position on China - PC Draft Resolution, Discussion Bulletin, Vol.25 No.19 (June 1963) p.4) While such as concept raises no insurmountable theoretical problems, we are afraid it is just plain inaccurate (quite in character with the level of theoretical work the SWP is now producing). The role of Stalinism in the rest of Asia has not been as simple as that.

The social overturn in Tibet, was, of course, essentially the product of the social overturn in China itself. But Tibet, the Chinese will be the first to make clear, has not historically been considered a “neighbouring land” but rather a part of China.

Furthermore, the Tibetan overturn was not the product of some impetus China gave to revolutionary forces in Asia. It was in fact the product of the process of structural assimilation once again – this time in its strictest “classic” sense pre-World War II form.

An Indian Trotskyist by the name of Kalyan Gupta, points this out in his excellent little pamphlet on the Sino-Indian border dispute. [Gupta, Kalyan. Sino-Indian Border Dispute (Bijoy madhab Mallick, Calcutta 1959) pp.8-9.] For many years the CCP carried on a policy of peaceful coexistence with the deeply reactionary feudal ruling Lama caste of Tibet. As long as the Tibetan monks accepted Chinese domination there were no problems. The Chinese actually bolstered this reactionary force and did little or nothing for the extremely oppressed Tibetan serfs.

However, in the long run such coexistence “did not work out”. Even though the Chinese leaders did not wish it, the social overturn in China as a whole had an undermining effect on feudal rule even in isolated Tibet. Thus the Tibetan feudal lords finally went into a rebellion as a desperate effort to preserve an antiquated social order from erosion. This rebellion opened up Tibet to possible imperialist domination for certainly the monks could not stand alone without external aid. If Tibet were to fall under imperialist domination, the whole vast Southwestern “;underbelly” of China would lay exposed and the strategically important Himalaya “buffer” with India would be no more. So, as Gupta notes, “this attempt was crushed by the Peking bureaucracy not with the help of the Tibetan serfs but mainly by military means. Later on, they have sought to broaden their social base by organising the serfs ... With the onslaught on the feudal structure, the process of the structural assimilation of Tibet into the new Chinese social order (that is, Sovietisation) has also set in.”

The Tibetan experience in 1959 once again shows both how the process of structural assimilation works, and also the impossibility of a workers’ state coexisting internally with another form of class rule. ather than being an extension of the Chinese Revolution they represent the final consolidation of all of China by the Peking regime in a second, separate process of structural assimilation.

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