Socialists say we want to live in a world without nations and borders. We look at walls erected between people and in them, we see the hand of our rulers seeking to divide us along lines of country, ethnicity and religion.
That’s why Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in the Communist Manifesto that workers have “no country”.
Does that mean we can ignore struggles for national independence such as those currently being waged for Kashmir, Kurdistan and Palestine? Should socialists instead focus solely on the business of class struggle?
Similar questions tore through the revolutionary socialist movement in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
They were only resolved by the victory of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
To understand why, we need to look at how modern countries were born.
The nation states that exist today are a relatively modern invention, the first of which emerged with capitalism in 16th century Europe.
Previously, feudal states bound together many disparate peoples in looser formations where often there was no common language—let alone a unified system of currency, taxes, laws and taxes.
The newly powerful capitalist class sought to build unified nations that could aid the process of exploitation and accumulation. As their states came into being, this new elite developed a nationalist ideology that sought to bind their subjects together.
From this emerged the concept of the “national interest”, and today’s well-worn phrase, “We’re all in it together.” Of course there were divisions between citizens, but these must be secondary to our shared common nationality, it was said.
And in return for loyalty, the state dishonestly proclaimed that it would put the collective interest of all of its citizens before all others. So powerful were the forces behind the ideology of nationalism that it became the common sense of millions of people.
Bound up with the development of capitalist nations came intense rivalries between them, and empires that subordinated other peoples in lands near and far.
Many unwilling subjects were coerced into new nations, where their languages, traditions and cultures were subordinated or even made illegal.
And the fate of the peoples in the “New World”, subsumed by the European empires was generally far worse. Denied the right to form their own nations, their lands and people were plundered, with the proceeds going to rich imperialists.
The way dominant nations repressed the desires of people they ruled over gave rise to a wave of national movements. And this sharply posed the question of how socialists should relate to them.
The most vital example at the end of the 19th century was Poland. There the drive for a separate Polish state, free from domination of the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, was led by the country’s middle classes.
Many socialists—including the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg—were deeply sceptical about the movement.
She believed capitalism had moved beyond the era of nation states into one where capital would operate on a global basis.
Those that clung to the idea of a “free Poland” were reactionary and middle class elements that sought only self-advancement.
The independence fight could only serve to divide Polish workers from their natural allies—the working class of Russia, she said.
Luxemburg insisted that these two groups of workers should join in a common struggle.
Lenin, the future leader of the Russian Revolution, opposed Luxemburg and took a hard position in support of the demand for national self-determination in Poland and beyond. For him, such struggles could only be understood as part of the wider battle against imperialism.
He argued that winning workers in the imperialist nations to support the right of oppressed nations to break from empire was a step towards revolutionary consciousness.
In this understanding, Lenin followed in the footsteps of Marx and Engels.
They had argued that the British working class—which was at the time split between English and Irish labour—could only be united if it took up the cause of Irish freedom.
But Lenin went further, insisting that Communists should raise the slogan of self-determination to stir the masses in oppressed nations against their masters.
He wanted the poor in the anti-colonial movements to know that Communist workers in the imperialist countries were their allies.
This, he hoped, would allow them to go further than freeing themselves from the empire.
Their revolt could lead to a complete break from capitalism.
That theme is taken up by fellow Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who explained, “What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude towards oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them, not only the objects but also the subjects of politics.”
Even the most impoverished people in the most oppressed nations could make history, said Trotsky.
Both Russians were particularly scathing about supposed revolutionaries that could not bring themselves to support national liberation struggles that weren’t led by workers and the left.
After the British brutally suppressed the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Lenin wrote a passionate defence of anti-colonial uprisings.
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression—to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution,” he said.
“So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism,’ and another, somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be a social revolution!
“Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch’.”
Lenin’s argument that anti-colonial revolt can ignite struggle in the countries of empire has since been proved correct many times.
Perhaps the best example remains the 1968 revolt in America. It reached its height when the Black Power movement combined with the movement against the Vietnam War and the fighters of the Vietnamese resistance. The revolt at home and abroad together formed the most powerful threat to the US ruling class since the Civil War.
But Lenin also sounded two warnings to Communists.
First, he made a distinction between the duties of revolutionaries in the heart of empire compared to those in the colonies.
Addressing those in the colonies, he said that Communists must combine opposition to imperialism with clear support for the most radical methods possible.
In practice that meant revolutionaries should participate in movements for freedom but must offer a distinct strategy that put the working class in the driver’s seat.
This could include general strikes and encouraging mutiny in the military—even though both tactics were abhorred by the conservative leaders of most national movements.
It also meant Communists should also turn their political fire on the bourgeois forces that often led the liberation forces.
The second warning related to forms of nationalism that can triumph only by oppressing others.
The victory of these campaigns, Lenin said, only had the effect of strengthening the hold of imperialism. The world today remains ravaged by imperialism and its wars. It is also characterised by the breaking up of states, and the desire to create new ones.
But in many ways, the struggle of oppressed nations is much more difficult today.
The world system of imperialism is ever more tightly regulated.
National minorities have continuously seen their aspirations for statehood raised and dashed when it has suited the main powers.
The only way for socialists to navigate their way through the web of territorial claim and counterclaim is to start from a straightforward position.
We are against those whose actions strengthen the hold of imperialism, and we support all those whose fight weakens the system.