In the 1840s famine struck Britain's colony in Ireland. The British government enforced the export of food from Ireland. One and a half million people died from starvation, and a million and a half emigrated.
Small wonder that the question of national independence dominated Irish politics. Only after a long struggle did Ireland win independence, and then only in the South. Struggles for national independence became more important from the later 19th century.
That was when the British and other European states consolidated their empires. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, colonial regimes subordinated local people's needs to the power of the imperialist centres. The colonisers claimed their mission was 'civilising'. In reality they held back development and impoverished many colonial economies.
India in the late 19th century suffered famines many times worse than that in Ireland. Belgium's colony in the Congo was a byword for brutality. In the 20th century anti-colonial movements really took off. Despite the brutal repression often meted out to them, the demand for independent states grew. To their immense discredit, the Labour Party backed imperialism. The first Labour minister for the colonies sent aircraft to bomb Iraqi villages.
Between the wars, only the Communist Party and the Labour left supported the growing national liberation movements. The left repeated what Karl Marx said about the Irish question-no nation that oppresses another can itself be free. Lenin, writing during the First World War, fought hard for communists to support the right of nations to self determination. Such struggles, he insisted, could help to crack imperialist power.
Not till after the Second World War did national liberation movements really gain major victories. The British Empire in India ended ingloriously in 1948. In 1949 Mao's Chinese Communist Party drove out Chiang Kai-Shek's Western-backed regime. The Dutch lost Indonesia. In the 1950s many African and West Indian colonies won independence.
Sometimes the struggle was fairly straightforward. Sometimes it was long lasting and bloody. In Algeria significant numbers of European colonists had taken control. It took a savage civil war to break out of the French Empire.
Such 'settlers' were often the worst and most racist opponents of national liberation-not just in Algeria, but in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and of course in South Africa. One reason the old empires did crumble was the changing balance of forces in world imperialism.
After 1945 the US was dominant. US capital did not rely on direct colonial control to secure profits. Indeed, it wanted access to what had been Europe's colonies. In the later part of the 20th century the motive for imperialist control, and the methods used, changed.
In numbers of Latin American countries US Marines invaded to secure governments pliant to Washington's global interests (they have just been doing the same in Haiti).
Vietnam had no fabulous wealth. Cold War rivalries, more than immediate economic interests, led the US to wage a bloody struggle against the national liberation movement. In two places in the world today, above all, national liberation struggles are still vital. One is Palestine, the other is Iraq.
Israel has all the classic hallmarks of a settler state, dominated by the reactionary ideology of Zionism. Israel takes the largest amount of US aid. The Palestinians' liberation struggle, the intifada, has understandably become an international symbol of resistance.
In Iraq, the US-led invasion and occupation are provoking a new national liberation struggle directed at freeing the country from foreign rule. These cases apart, the classic era of national liberation struggles has largely ended. The face of modern imperialism has changed. No longer do the most powerful states seek direct colonial control, with their own governors and officers in charge. Now it is the imperialism of finance that rules-through the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the 'Washington Consensus'.
Socialists always supported genuine national liberation movements. The workers' movement had nothing to gain from colonial oppression of others, and everything to gain from solidarity with movements against oppression across the globe. Sometimes the left made the mistake of treating national liberation movements as if they were socialist. They weren't-nor was that the reason for socialists in the imperial heartlands to support them.
Those who led national liberation movements aimed to establish a state not directly controlled by a colonising power. In itself, that was a democratic advance.
However, it did not make those leaders socialist. Winning national independence only cleared the decks, in a sense, for the direct class struggle. The clearest position was advanced by the early Communist International, the international organisation of socialists founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Socialists, it argued, following Lenin, should unconditionally support movements for national liberation. But they should not make the mistake of giving them a 'communist coloration'. The workers' movement must maintain its political independence from these movements' middle class leaderships.
Nationalism today has less and less progressive content across the world. What's most prominent now are the common problems facing working people in 'rich' and 'poor' countries.
In the new 'globalised' world, the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Mumbai symbolise a new internationalist struggle against the destructive power of world capitalism.