Socialists and the national question

Submitted by AWL on 14 July, 2011 - 2:12

By Martin Thomas. First published in Socialist Organizer, no. 567 & 568, 24 June and 8 July 1993

Capitalism, as Marx pointed out, gives the notion of human equality, for the first time, "the fixity of a popular prejudice." Only consistent democracy - the translation of that "prejudice" into conscious politics - can underpin workers' unity. The "National Question" for socialists is, I believe, a subsidiary of this question of consistent democracy.

Democracy is more than individual rights because people are more than individuals. They identify themselves as part of a community and, in the modern world, as part of a nation. Arabs in Israel have more individual rights than Arabs in Syria; yet the Arabs in Israel feel oppressed because democracy is denied to their nation.

Capitalist production and trade needs arenas: areas of sufficient size in which goods and people can move easily, and in which there is a common language, common laws and common taxes. Historically, therefore, capitalism tends to create nations: groups of people marked out by a particular territory, home market, language, and (arising from all those) culture and sense of common identity.

Nations conquer other nations: they take control of the territory, plunder the economy, downgrade the language and culture, and treat the conquered nation's people as less than equal. Anything less than full support for the right of the conquered nation to self-determination - that is, to independence if it wants it - is not democratic. If the workers of the conquering nation deny to the conquered nation the right to self-rule that their own nation enjoys, then they are nationalist. They are identifying with their own nation's interests - that is, primarily, with the interests of their own nation's bosses - at the expense of the principle of equal rights for all. Any obstacle to links between the workers of the two nations which might be created by the independence of the conquered nation (for example, through greater difficulties in travel and communication) must be very minor compared to the obstacle created by such acceptance of national privilege. In such clear-cut cases, there should be no room for argument among socialists; and, indeed, in the classic Marxist debates there was none. Whatever the arguments about central and Eastern Europe, Rosa Luxemburg was as unequivocal as Lenin about demanding the right to independence for the clear-cut colonies of the European powers.

Many of the colonial peoples were not yet fully formed nations, but the left supported the right of the emergent national movements to pursue and complete the process of nation-formation. For much of this century, while the European powers held lots of colonies, and then were gradually forced to release them, the "National Question" was mainly about such clear-cut cases. It was a central question not only for an often weak and beleaguered working-class socialist movement, but also for much more powerful nationalist movements. Thus, over the decades, the socialist debates about the National Question have become corrupted and confused by nationalist answers.

The National Question has come to be seen as one of backing "good" (oppressed) nations against "bad" (oppressor) nations, with the corollary that socialist revolutionaries are distinguished from mere bourgeois nationalists by their more militant, extreme, or even revanchist advocacy of the cause of the "good" nation. It is true that the nationalism of an oppressed nation is different from the nationalism of an oppressor nation. The demand for free speech from those socially bred to deference and self-effacement is different from the same demand from those educated in the voice of command. Yet free speech is only free speech, not a guarantee that what the previously self-effacing say must be true. National rights are only national rights, not a guarantee that what the previously oppressed nation does with those rights must be ideal. Nationalism of any stripe, putting nation above class, is alien to socialism.

Example: the Israel/Palestine question. A bookish reading of the "right of nations to self-determination" would lead socialists to side with the Israeli Jews. The Israeli Jews are definitely a nation, with a territory, home market, language, culture and sense of common identity. The Palestinian Arabs are dispersed over many territories, have no common economic life, and share a language with other Arabs. But politics is not arithmetic. Nations develop, and they develop out of political movements as well as out of long-term economic processes. The struggle of an oppressed nation is generally a struggle to move from semi nationhood to a fully-fledged nation. Out of the Palestinian Arabs' sense of common culture, common identity, and common oppression comes a strong drive to constitute themselves as a nation. For them to do so - i.e., to bring together as many of their people as wish to come in an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza - does not entail oppressing any other people or building any new barriers to workers' unity. Consistent democracy requires recognizing their right to such self-determination. As long as that right is denied, there is a barrier to Arab Jewish workers' unity. Many socialists however go on to denounce any "compromise with Zionism" as weak-kneed liberalism. The Israeli Jews, they say, have no right to self-determination. They are an oppressor (bad) nation. They must dissolve themselves into an Arab state. In such politics, national self-determination-Palestinian-Arab self determination - becomes a good cause outside and above any considerations of consistent democracy or workers' unity.

Nationalist ideology has also tangled the national question confusingly with questions of economic development. National independence of oppressed nations is proposed, not as a democratic right, but as a step desirable for economic development, especially industrial development. Usually the national independence of former European colonies in Africa and Asia did assist industrial development, for various reasons. But that is not the essence of the question. If national self determination is a democratic right, which it is, then it is a democratic right which remains valid even if independence is likely to slow down economic development. If there are very clear indications that independence will slow down economic development, then there will be a strong case for the Marxists of the nation concerned to oppose secession, but still no case for the Marxists of the dominant nation to deny the right of secession. For socialists, industrial development based on class exploitation - and that is what has been at stake in all these cases, and must be what is at stake unless a socialist revolution overshadows and conditions the National Question - cannot be an overriding consideration. The political conditions for working class unity are more important.

However, the nationalist posing of the question has been influential - so influential that when economic problems arise after national independence, as they must, they are attributed to the independence not being "real." The workers are called on to put their weight behind the efforts of their bosses to win an improved position in international capitalist competition, under the banner of "real" independence. In a sort of international version of the old Stalinist theory of the "antimonopoly alliance," all the efforts of poorer and weaker capitalist states to improve their position relative to the stronger ones are considered "progressive".

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.

It was in discussing the attitude of the English to that Irish struggle that Marx coined his famous phrase: "No nation that oppresses another can itself be free".

The Marxists supported the Irish national struggle. They could have coupled that support with a programme of consistent democracy for dealing with the Protestant-Irish minority within Ireland. In fact they largely failed to do so. The issue was made more complicated by the fact that the Protestant Irish minority comprised not only a distinct community of all social classes from worker and farmer to capitalist in the northeast, but also a privileged landlord caste spread across the whole island.

Nevertheless, I think, hindsight makes it clear that the failure of Irish Marxists like James Connolly (and of their teachers and comrades in the international movement) to address the issue of Protestant-Irish minority rights more explicitly and steadily was a grievous one. The Irish national movement, having gained enough strength to push the majority of the British ruling class into agreeing to let Ireland go, stumbled and faltered on the rock of the Irish minority. The war of Independence ended in partition, that partition which Connolly had predicted "would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labor movement and paralyze all advanced movements whilst it endured"

After over 70 years of partition, Southern Ireland is an independent state and Northern Ireland is in chronic communal conflict, kept down to a simmering level of violence only by a heavy British military presence which bears down especially harshly on the Catholic (Gaelic-Irish) community. The conflict is not (as some of the left present it) just a national struggle between "the Irish people" and Britain. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, about 10 per cent of the Irish people, are battling against a political set-up which traps them, against their will, in a state which they find alien and oppressive (Northern Ireland). The Protestants, nearly 20 per cent of the Irish people, are the main supporters of that Northern Ireland state. They have made it clear that they will fight, arms in hand - and they are heavily armed - against inclusion in any Catholic-dominated Irish state. They will also fight the British state if and when it tries to push them toward inclusion in a Catholic-dominated Irish state. The great majority in Southern Ireland are opposed to the militant Catholic struggle in Northern Ireland (Provisional Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, gets less than two per cent of the vote in the south). Even if they favor a united Ireland as an ideal - and most do - they do not wish to have the warring communities of Northern Ireland immediately included in their state.

Is it then a question of two nations? Should the Northern Ireland state be defended as an expression of the self-determination of the Protestant-Irish nation? Unquestionably, the Protestant-Irish people of Northern Ireland have acquired many of the features of a nation. They are no longer an appendage to an all-Ireland Protestant-Irish landlord caste, as they used to be to some extent; that caste no longer exists. They are based in a definite territory which is also an economic unit, namely Northern Ireland. C

Considered statically, the Protestant-Irish are as near to being a nation as the Irish people as a whole were before the War of Independence. But the question must be considered dynamically. What would be required for the Protestant-Irish to complete their move toward becoming a nation? That they should make Northern Ireland plainly and unambiguously their territory. But the Catholics are a 40 per cent minority in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland could become the territory of a fully-fledged Protestant-Irish nation only by the Catholics submitting and becoming over time, assimilated or marginalized or by the Catholics being driven out. The Catholics, conscious of being part of a big majority across the whole island and conscious also that the border defining Northern Ireland is artificial (there is a Catholic majority on about half the land area of Northern Ireland), will not submit. The only road toward full Protestant-Irish nationhood is, therefore, communal civil war to drive out the Catholics, which would result in mass slaughter, big population movements, and repartition. It would poison relations between Catholic and Protestant workers for decades to come, and wreck the limited unity which exists today on the trade union level. Socialists or democrats cannot advocate "self-determination for the Protestants" - in short because they are not a nation, in greater detail because their becoming a nation would mean the sharpening of division and privileges rather than their abolition.

A wider framework than Northern Ireland is needed for a democratic solution. The only democratic programme which accommodates the rights of both communities without infringing on the rights of either is that of a federal united Ireland with regional autonomy for the mainly Protestant area, linked in a voluntary confederation with Britain.

Lenin's formula - "A struggle against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nations, and no toleration of the striving for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation" - remains the basis on which support for nationalist struggles can aid workers' unity rather than blocking it.

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