Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question.
The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.
The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).
The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.
This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.
As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).
Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.
The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?
My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.
Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.
To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.
Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.
My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.
Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.