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".