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Imperialism and struggles for national liberation

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Tomáš Tengely-Evans explains how a socialist response to demands for ‘national liberation’ have to take into account the role of imperialism
Issue 2427
Kosovo Liberation Army members hand over weapons to Western forces
Kosovo Liberation Army members hand over weapons to Western forces

Wars from Syria to Ukraine have brought the question of national liberation into sharp focus.

Why do a handful of imperialist powers dominate the world? Are wars and national oppression down to ancient antagonisms between different peoples? 

The idea that nations have always existed seems like common sense. But nations as we understand them today developed alongside capitalism only in the past few hundred years.

Before that, as in feudal England, different classes of people or regions spoke different languages or dialects. Different classes or trades paid different taxes and were tried by different courts. 

The central state might levy armies, but it wasn’t something that much impinged on ordinary people’s lives. But a new merchant class began to challenge feudalism in the 16th century. Its trade networks had already begun developing the nation-state in the towns. The idea of unified language and laws for their markets suited their interests. 

Countries such as Britain and Holland, where the new system came to dominate, prospered. So others elsewhere looked to follow the same path. 

Leaders of the French revolution after 1789 built up a nationalist ideology around citizenship and the “rights of man” that went with it. This promoted the idea that all people in a nation benefit from being citizens, whatever class they belonged to.

As capitalism spread across the world many people saw being part of a nation that controlled its own state as the only way to advance. But many new nations or people with national aspirations found themselves dominated by already existing powers.

Revolutionary socialists have supported movements struggling for national liberation from Ireland to Vietnam— despite arguing that workers need to unite internationally to win their freedom. 

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin denounced those who didn’t support the 1916 Irish rebellion demanding independence from Britain. 

He said, “To imagine a social revolution is possible without revolts by small nations in the colonies is to repudiate social revolution. 

“Whoever expects a pure social revolution will not live to see it.”

Lenin’s Bolsheviks couldn’t afford to get the question wrong. The Tsarist Russian empire was known as the “prison house of nations”.

When workers and peasants rose up in revolution in 1905, there were also revolts by oppressed peoples on the empire’s fringe. Lenin argued against the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg who opposed Poland’s right to independence because she feared it would split the working class. 

He said, “In her anxiety not to assist the ‘nationalist’ bourgeoisie in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg…is in fact assisting the Russian Black Hundreds.” 

These were the Russian gangs that purged “lesser” peoples like Poles, Ukrainians or Jews in the name of Great Russian chauvinism.


Lenin’s argument was that far from splitting the working class it is only by supporting the rights of oppressed people that workers break from the reactionary ideas of their rulers.

But it is not automatic that supporting a people’s national aspirations will weaken imperialism. 

Even if the majority of people in Crimea supported its recent annexation by Russia, all that achieved was to strengthen nationalism and imperialism. It also perpetuates the oppression of the Tartar minority. 

Revolutionaries must always approach the question of national liberation politically.

Many socialists in 1948 supported Israel’s “right to self-determination”. But the new state could only exist by boosting the influence of  imperial powers and dispossessing the Palestinians. 

The defeats of Britain in India, France in Algeria and the US in Vietnam caused deep political crises and were significant blows to imperialism. But the situation is not always that straightforward. Nationalist movements can align themselves with imperialism or brutally turn on one another. 

As Lenin insisted, socialists should assess “any national demand or national separation from the angle of workers’ struggle”. 

This means that there are also times when socialists have to oppose nationalist agitation. 

In parts of the world where capitalism developed late—such as the Balkans—the demand for separate states can lead to lots of different nationalist groups fighting one another. 

Following the Second World War the Communist Party set up a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia which existed in relative harmony until economic stagnation in the late 1980s. 

Workers launched mass strikes to defend their conditions. Different nationalist leaders successfully tried to divert anger into support for regional agendas that they could lead.

The country dissolved into fighting and ethnic cleansing. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) developed among the poorest and most oppressed group, the Kosovan Albanians. 

But the KLA came to ally itself with Western imperialist forces that were trying to gain influence in the region. 


It shifted to being used as a tool by these forces. The demand for immediate Kosovan independence became an utterly reactionary one.

In a globalised world no struggle can be understood without examining its relationship to imperialism.  

Imperialism is not simply powerful nations such as the US dominating small ones. Imperialism is a global system of competing capitalist states.

As capitalism developed firms became more centralised. They came to operate internationally with a growing interdependence between them and the state.

Imperialism is about the division and redivision of the world as the most powerful states try to dominate it. It’s this understanding of imperialism that informs our attitude to the right to self-determination. 

Following the Second World War national liberation movements won major victories. This was partly due to the shifting balance of power, as the old European empires declined, but it was struggle that forced them to relinquish colonial rule. 

To be neutral in a war between an imperialist power and a subordinate one would mean lining up with imperialism. In practice, that meant socialists supporting national liberation movements that fought imperialist domination. 

Sometimes these led to crisis in the imperial homeland. The liberation struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau fed into the political revolution in Portugal. 

Portugal’s 200,000-strong army sucked up half the country’s budget and discontent grew within the military.

In 1974 a group of military officers overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship and opened the door to a much bigger social upheaval. 

For a time this struggle threatened capitalism in Portugal, but none of the post-war national liberation movements led to genuine socialism.

In many poorer countries suffering under imperialism the middle class pushed to create their own nation-state.

During the “Cold War” between the West and the supposedly socialist countries most oppressed people looked to the Russian model of “Communism”. 

By that time this had become a form of national development based on modernising through a form of state capitalism. This was what national liberation movements saw as the alternative to capitalism.


Once the “Communist” countries collapsed in the early 1990s many liberation movements hastened into accommodation with imperialism.

The golden age of national liberation struggles is long gone. For instance, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s nationalist leadership is bogged down in Israel’s “peace process”. Different Iraqi Kurdish factions are working with US imperialism. 

Movements such as Angola’s MPLA that are in government have also made their peace with imperialism. But it is still possible for national liberation movements to strike blows against imperialism. 

The occupation of Iraq triggered a national struggle and the US suffered a geo­political defeat. 

The winning of an independent state in Turkish Kurdistan would weaken imperialism. 

Imperialism causes war and oppression. Socialists’ support for national liberation depends on whether it would strike a blow against—or for—it.

And the Arab Spring began to show how wider social movements and workers’ rebellion could bring liberation across the Middle East. 

Further reading

Imperialism and Global Political Economy, 

Alex Callinicos (£18.95)


Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 

Vladimir Lenin (£4.99)


The multiple crises of imperialism,

Alex Callinicos, International Socialism 144,

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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