Socialists and the national question part 2

Submitted by AWL on 6 March, 2004 - 8:35

Thus some Argentine Marxists have been campaigning for a "Second Independence" of their country; and large sections of the Marxist left were persuaded to support Argentina's minicolonial venture in the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982.
This was an attempt by Argentina's military dictatorship to grab itself a small colony in territory which was - and had been since before the modern Argentine nation came into existence - occupied by a different people. Some of the motivation for supporting Argentina also came from a justified desire to oppose Britain's imperialist intervention as energetically as possible. Yet it was entirely possible to oppose Thatcher's role without supporting Galtieri's. And, in general, the attempt to read off positive policies from the negative principle of "anti-imperialism" has had bad effects. (It provides, for example, one of the main arguments used to present Arab revanchism as a Marxist policy for Palestine.)

Socialists quite commonly say that we should support the independence movements of oppressed nations because they will weaken the oppressor ruling class. They may well not do so. A ruling class which holds an oppressed nation under its control often pays a high price in economic costs of coercion, political costs of permanent unrest, and strategic costs of a built-in "fifth column" in its territories. Freeing the oppressed nation may make it stronger. For Marxists, this calculation cannot be crucial. We have to think independently, not write a plus wherever the ruling class writes a minus. The whole tendency of the nationalist posing of the National Question, and its adoption or semi adoption by socialists, has been to pull the National Question out of the framework of consistent democracy and workers' unity, and to elevate it as a higher principle, standing on its own. One byproduct is an extreme loosening, in Marxist discourse, of the definition of "nations." The word "nation" is used for almost any disadvantaged or oppositional community whose demands you wish to elevate by dubbing them the "self determination" of a nation (a "good" nation, of course). Like many other slippages, this one has a germ of sense in it. National oppression almost always means making the oppressed nation something less than a fully-fledged nation - dispersing its population, dislocating its economic life, suppressing its language. A static, bookish use of definitions of a "nation" could leave us shunning the struggles of those oppressed nations on the grounds that they do not fit our textbooks. I have already given one example: such an approach could "justify" denying national rights to the Palestinian Arabs and upholding them only for the Israeli Jews.

That said, however, there is very good reason to restrict the use of the term "nation" to communities linked to moreorless definite territories. The separation of two communities, each of which has its own territory, into two states rather than one, need not harm workers' unity. It implies no split or divide among the workers in any given factory or city. Apart from minor problems in travel and communications which may be created by the new border, the separation will not harm the links between workers of the two different territories. If one of the communities previously felt oppressed, then support for their right to secede by workers of the other community will improve links. It will ease suspicions, aid the free cultural influence of each community on the other, and bring the day closer when the workers regard the national differences between the two sides as unimportant.

Matters are very different with two communities mixed together on the same territory. Then, to separate them out, and to try to create separate political structures so that each community can "self determine" separately, must divide the workers.

Maybe Marxist theory has not had enough to say about what democracy should grant to linguistic or cultural minorities which live among a majority population of a different language or culture, and do not have the compactness of nations, but which nevertheless have a sense of collective grievance, over and above all questions of equality of individual rights. Such linguistic, cultural, or ethnic "layers" in society, commonplace in pre capitalist systems, tend to merge into nations as capitalism assimilates people to abstract labor, but a lot of them still exist. Examples are Jews in early 20th century Russia and Eastern Europe, the different communities in Lebanon, the different linguistic/ethnic groups in South Africa, and African Americans in the U.S. Maybe Marxism has a gap here. I don't know. But it seems to me certain that to advocate a political structure which gives separate quotas of power to the various communities - whether in the form of the confessional state in Lebanon or the arrangements advocated by the Austro-Marxists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire - can only be like trying to construct a carefully balanced system of equal communal privileges, rather than the abolition of all privilege which is necessary to underpin workers' unity. And it is something completely different from the right of nations to self determination. The right of nations to self determination goes together with a series of other democratic principles, summarized crisply by a 1913 resolution of the Bolshevik Party:

"In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit making and strife it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national makeup of the population, etc."

Or, as Trotsky put it some 27 years later:

"In so far as the various nationalities, voluntarily or through force of necessity, coexist within the borders of one state, their cultural interests must find the highest possible satisfaction within the framework of the broadest regional (and consequently, territorial) autonomy, including statutory guarantees of the rights of each minority."

The collective grievances of a noncompact community are here addressed by local or regional rights for the localities or regions where they are a majority. This seems a roundabout way of doing it: its advantage is that it does not solidify or codify divisions between the communities in the way that explicitly communal institutions would, and it does not put barriers in the way of free mutual assimilation.

The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR has unfrozen all the national conflicts there, and led to explosions of immense bitterness in circumstances far more complicated than the relatively clear cut battles of African and Asian nations for freedom from colonial rule. Versions of Marxism on the National Question which have become waterlogged by nationalist influence are unable to deal with this. Where are the "good" nations? All the nations seem to be "bad"! Who are the "anti-imperialists"? Where are the prospects of national independence bringing economic progress? Revulsion at the chaos and confusion here can lead us to want to wash our hands of any involvement in any national cause. This tendency is often reinforced by the half thought that the old structures - the USSR or the Yugoslav federation - were forms of socialism, or at least of deformed or degenerated workers' states, and had better be defended against the new capitalist mess.

To discuss the nature of the Stalinist states is beyond the scope of this article. In my view they were state-capitalist systems of class exploitation no better than western capitalism. In any case, the National Question is not resolved automatically by socialism. The creation of a cooperative commonwealth should make consistent democracy for the nations involved easier, but it does not substitute for it. The right of nations to self determination still has validity.

The "wash our hands" approach is well illustrated by the reaction of many on the left to the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia: the different nationalist leaderships are all to blame, they all have chauvinist ambitions, and we should simply advocate peace, reconciliation, and workers' unity across the borders. I can see strong arguments for saying that socialists in Slovenia or in Croatia should have argued against independence, indisputable arguments for saying that they should oppose their own governments most fiercely, and imperative arguments for saying that Croat socialists should fight hard against the anti-Serb chauvinism of Tudjman and of almost all official Croat politics. None of that has any weight or relevance to the question of self determination for Slovenia or Croatia. The Slovenes and the Croats are indisputably nations, and they felt or feared oppression by a stronger nation, the Serbs. They had the right to secede. Likewise, whatever our fears about the possible effects of an uprising in Kosovo in triggering a wider regional war which would bring in Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, the Albanians of Kosovo have a right to secede. At the same time, all the other demands of consistent democracy - guarantees against discrimination, local autonomy, and so on - are relevant, especially in relation to the Serb minority in Croatia.

A final example should illustrate some of the theoretical arguments developed in this article and give a better idea of their political drift. It is Ireland. In the whole period up to the War of Independence following World War 1, the Irish were not a fully-fledged nation. Their separate language, Gaelic, had become confined to a small minority. Culturally, they had, through centuries of mutual influence, developed much in common with the English. Economically, Ireland was not a compact unit. There were diverse regional economies in North and South, separately connected to the outside world through the two centers of Belfast and Dublin. There was a clear territory - the island of Ireland - but a big chunk of it, in the northeast, had a majority of Protestant-Irish (or Anglo-Scots-Irish: their demarcation from the rest of the Irish was, and is, fundamentally national, not religious) who preferred rule from London to rule from Dublin. Nevertheless, there was plainly a drive toward developing a fully-fledged nation - and it was the drive of a long-downtrodden people to demand equal rights.

Part 3