Marxism and the right of nations
to self-determination

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #7, March 15, 1996)


. One of the issues debated in this issue of Communist Voice is the right to self-determination of nations. It wasn't so long ago that most activists eagerly supported the national liberation movement in Africa and Asia and elsewhere. Today however most of the old colonial empires have fallen, and the main national movements seem to be fanatics massacring each other in the Bosnia and the Balkans. Does this mean that the right to self-determination is obsolete?

. Some people think so. They have become "socialist"-colonialists who regret their support in the past for liberation movements. They hold that Marx and Lenin's support of the right to self-determination is outdated. They think that the national question is just a harmful diversion. The only struggle they will support is the straight struggle, direct to the future classless society, with no account taken of the twists and turns through which any real revolutionary movement develops. They don't see that a rebellious working class--confident in itself and eager to take on the heavy load of socialist revolution--can only come into existence and steel itself through taking part in struggles of all types, whether for women's rights, or in defense of the environment, or against national oppression, and so on. The pure and narrow revolution that turns aside in disdain from so many "diversions" is a revolution that will never take place.

. The new (and old) socialist-colonialists point to Bosnia, which is bogged down in national hatreds. But a closer look at Yugoslavia shows that it is the denial of the right to self-determination which has turned the national problems into an inferno. When the old state-capitalist regime associated with Tito began to fall apart, most of the republics that composed Yugoslavia wanted, for better or worse, to separate. The Serbian state-capitalist ruling class denied the right to self-determination, and threatened force against all the neighboring republics. Slovenia, which suffered only minor Serbian military interference, separated, and is now calm. But when Bosnia separated, the Serbian and Croatian bourgeoisies moved rapidly to divide it up. And Kosovo, an Albanian-nationality region of Serbia, which is not allowed any national rights, may well be the next flash point, even if the Bosnian crisis recedes.

. To avoid the bloodletting and setting of worker against worker as has happened in Bosnia, the workers must fight the bourgeoisie in order to ensure recognition of the right to self-determination. The more successful they are in this, the more they will calm national hatreds and preserve their unity across national lines. They must fight:

* for recognition of the right of a nation, when its people so desire, to secede; and

* against the discrimination and oppression of the national or ethnic minorities within a country.

. Defense of the right to self-determination is not the sum total of the proletariat's stand on the national question. The proletariat also stands for building organizations--trade unions, its political party and other mass organizations, schools, etc.--that embrace workers of all nationalities that live in the same country. It stands for building links between workers across national boundaries and building up a truly international workers' movement and a truly international class struggle. It works for a future socialist society in which national differences gradually disappear. Its ideology is proletarian internationalism. But without a struggle for the right to self-determination and against oppression, unity between the workers of different countries threatens to become a Sunday school phrase which convinces no on. People show that they have overcome national prejudices not when they are indifferent to national oppression and forcible annexations, but when they fight against all national oppression.

. Today there are still nations fighting for their right to exist--such as the people of East Timor fighting Indonesian annexationism, or the Palestinians, who are penned-up in a Bantustan-style separate area. The denunciation of all "separatism" would mean supporting the annexationism and colonialism of Indonesia, of Israel, and of the stronger bourgeoisies in the world. There are other places where whether a nation separates from another country or joins with it may or may not be advisable, but is not of overriding importance. But here too, denial of the right to self-determination means supporting--not the fraternal unity of the workers of different lands--but the annexationist desires of the strongest bourgeoisie. There are many other situations with respect to the national question. And of course the ruling bourgeoisie everywhere tries to justify its oppression of the masses through national phrases. But in all cases, it is necessary for the workers to recognize which cases involve national oppression, and to advocate that it is a basic democratic right that the people who live in a definite territory comprising a nation be allowed to decide for themselves which country that territory is part of or whether the territory is independent. This is the only way the proletariat can demonstrate that it is not national borders, but freedom, and the fight against the bourgeoisie, that is uppermost in its mind. In this way, the workers pave the way for the merger of nations by insisting that this merger must be voluntary.

. Stalinism perverted Marxism-Leninism on this question as on all others. Stalin, and later the whole trend of Soviet revisionism, negated the right to self-determination in practice, despite hypocritical claims to support Marxism. During Brezhnev's rule, the theory of "limited sovereignty" was his justification of Russian annexationism. The intervention in Afghanistan by both the Soviet Union and the U.S.; the bloody wars by the revisionist "Dergue", the one-time rulers of Ethiopia, against the Eritreans, Tigrayans and others; and other examples showed that negating the right to self-determination means bloodshed and fomenting divisions among the working people.

. But it is no better when it is the "left communists" who negate the right to self-determination. These phrasemongers are to the "left" of Marxism, but what does this turn out to be? The "left communists" think that they are the most consistent opponents of Stalinism; why, they even are skeptical of political parties for fear of seeing a Stalinist party. Yet the various theories put forward--sometimes by "left communists", sometimes by left Trotskyists--that negate the right to self-determination end up providing a "socialist" cover for annexationism. Some say that the right to self-determination only applied in the 19th century. Others say that there will be no right to self-determination under socialism, because national differences will be immediately abolished. But in fact, national differences will only die out gradually. In all cases, these theories end up providing a glorified "left" cover to the revisionist socialist-colonialism.

. Part of the debate centers on the assessment of the collapse of the old colonial empires in Africa, Asia, etc. The "left communists" think that since this did not lead to socialist countries but the growth of capitalism, therefore it was a nationalist blunder. All they can see is that the now-independent countries are capitalist, and that the ruling class--like as not--is oppressing the local national minorities or harassing the neighboring countries. They apparently think that if the workers and toilers had consented to be ruled by foreign overlords who regarded them as half-human, they would have been fit to rise in strikes for better conditions, protests against persecution of the minorities, and socialist revolution against the entire bourgeoisie. They don't see that by blaming all the tragedies of Africa on the national liberation movement, on "separatism", they are in fact duplicating the neo-conservative mood of the present. They are prettifying world imperialism, no matter how much they shout about "imperialism".

. If the colonial peoples were ever to be anything but beasts of burden for the more industrialized countries, they had to overthrow the political rule of imperialist countries which regarded them as uncivilized. The proletariat and the downtrodden provided the basic force, and they fought for their social rights and improvements in their conditions, and for the best outcome of the national struggle. The small size of the proletariat; the ideological confusion in the world revolutionary movement; the military and economic pressure of imperialism and revisionism; etc. meant that the struggle only went so far; the democratic revolutions in Europe in the 19th century had also seen zigzags, bitter defeats and long periods of stagnation. Nevertheless, for the proletariat, participation in the overthrow of the colonial empires would be one of a series of dress rehearsals for future revolutionary activity, and help provide evidence to the workers of what can be expected from other classes. And as result of independence, the struggle against the local bourgeoisie as well as world capitalism came more to the fore. The countries in the industrializing world have, in a general sense, the same path to socialism as those of the industrialized world: through the growth of a proletariat, and its steeling in the struggle against all the crimes and pains of capitalism. There are no short-cuts. And if the "left communists" and Trotskyists and anarchists think that this requires too much patience, too much perseverance, too many sacrifices, too many different struggles, and want quick victory, then they are showing once again that they do not have the ability to lead the proletariat to victory.

. Typical of "left communism" and Trotskyism is a contemptuous attitude to theory. They convert Marxism into a cardboard caricature. They don't understand the need to study the situation facing the proletariat carefully, but substitute absurd general rules. Some say that Marx's inspiring call "the workers have no country" means that the workers should be indifferent to national oppression, rather than fighting against it. Some say that the national question, trade unions, partial demands etc. became reactionary in the 20th century. Some even are upset at the term "people", saying that to recognize the rights of the people is contradictory to basing oneself on the working class. And most agree with the reformists that the struggle against national oppression means supporting the local bourgeoisie.

. Indeed, what nonsense hasn't been said to deny the importance of opposing national oppression? Some claim that supporting one struggle for independence should logically mean supporting them all, as if supporting one political movement logically meant supporting them all, left, right or center. Some say that the principle that any one democratic right (including the right to self-determination) is subordinate to the interests of the overall revolutionary movement, as the part is subordinate to the whole, means that one needn't really be too concerned about these rights. They think that a revolutionary movement should support or reject these rights solely on the basis of whether it helps them to seize power, and don't see that such cynical manipulation would result in a movement being justly hated by the masses. All these simplified dogmas have nothing to do with Marxism; and they are a cover for the renunciation of any serious theoretical work.

. Marx, Engels and Lenin all stood for the right to self-determination--not just under capitalism, but even under socialism. The critique of Stalinism and Trotskyism and left phrasemongering can draw inspiration from Marxist views on the national question. The Marxist theoretical standpoint, combined with the study of the new conditions of world imperialism, provides the firm basis for building up an anti-revisionist communism. It is this that will provide guidance for the rebirth of a militant proletarian movement--a movement that not only knows what the future society will be like, but that is capable of fighting against all the injustices of the present society.

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