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Imperialism, nationalism and national liberation struggles

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Movements for national rights can strike blows against oppression. But they can also be used as tools of imperialism, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue 2116

The recent war in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia has highlighted once again the complex question of national rights. National antagonisms and nationalism are often put forward as explanations for war. Nationality and nations are portrayed as age-old.

But you would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a nation state before capitalism started to take hold in Europe from the 16th century onwards.

Nations and nationalism are relatively recent inventions that are thoroughly bound up with the rise of capitalism.

Prior to the emergence of capitalism, states operated differently. The regions under a particular state’s control were not necessarily characterised by a common language or culture.

All of this began to transform in the 16th century as the rising merchant classes began to challenge the old feudal lords for domination.

These new capitalist ruling classes had very different requirements for the state. They needed a unified market and a homogenous labour force – both of which fuelled the need for a common ‘national’ language and culture.

As capitalism spread to other areas of Europe, more conscious national movements also began to emerge.

So the revolutionaries who overthrew the feudal order in France in the late 18th century developed a sophisticated ideology of the nation, citizenship and the rights that went with it. A similar process took place in Italy some 60 years later.

The success of these national movements was intimately connected to the triumph of capitalism over the old ways of life.

With the development of imperialist competition between states for control of markets, the ideology of the nation state soon began to spread to all corners of the globe.

But there was a contradiction in all of this. Although the nation state was put forward as the best way to organise society, certain groups were actively held back from setting up their own nations by the stronger imperialist states.


These groups organised themselves into national movements of their own in response. Ordinary people fighting back against oppression and poverty rallied to these new national movements and became their rank and file. But they were often led by the developing capitalist class, who had very different interests in fighting for ‘national’ rights.

Nationalism tries to bind together different classes in a common struggle. However national movements can play a progressive role in certain circumstances. Nationalism, as a dominant ideology thrown up by capitalism, can act as the ‘natural’ form of all kinds of liberation movements.

So it is no surprise that Irish people struggling against British imperialism had organised themselves as Irish nationalists, or that black people struggling against racism in the US shold have seen themselves as a black ‘nation’.

The Indian independence movement, the Vietnamese struggle against the US in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation today are all examples of national liberation movements that the left should support. These movements further the struggle for democracy and their successes strike a blow against imperialism.

So it’s clear that the oppression of weaker nations by stronger ones, and the oppression of minority nationalities within nations, is real and is something that socialists should oppose.

But the national question is not always straightforward. During the Cold War a situation developed whereby different imperial powers lined up to sponsor the national movements of their rivals – and crack down on those of their allies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union this has continued.

The break up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s saw a horrific civil war break out between Serbians, Croats and Bosnians, aided by imperialist meddling from the US, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. This was a case of ethnic divisions being stoked up for the benefit of imperialist powers.

Because national liberation movements are not straightforwardly anti-imperialist, and because nationalism is a capitalist ideology, there has always been an argument over what attitude socialists should take towards national rights.

Debate over the question convulsed the socialist movement of the late 18th century and early 1900s. Some, such as the Austrian socialist Otto Bauer, argued that nationalism was a higher form of consciousness than individualist thinking, and that therefore socialists ought to encourage the development of national cultures and nationalist feeling among workers.

Others, such as followers of the French socialist Jules Guesde, were thoroughly hostile to nationalism, denouncing ‘the transient unity that carries the name French nation’ and describing patriotism as ‘poison’.

The debate was particularly intense among Russian socialists. The Tsar’s Russian empire was, in the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s phrase, a ‘prison-house of nations’, with all manner of nationalist movements competing with socialists for the loyalty of oppressed workers and peasants.

Lenin argued strongly against Bauer’s notion of an accommodation between nationalism and socialism. Nationalism was the ideology of the capitalist class, said Lenin, and its chief purpose was to bind workers to their rulers.


Socialists, in contrast, should break those bonds and encourage workers to put their political loyalties in their class, rather than their nation.

Nevertheless, Lenin drew a distinction between the nationalism of oppressor nations, such as Britain and Russia, and that of oppressed nations such as Ireland or Poland. He attacked socialists who used their opposition to nationalism as an excuse to hold back from supporting the liberation struggles of those nations.

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without the revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outburst by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices… is to repudiate social revolution,’ he wrote. ‘Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it.’

The crucial point here is that to deny support for anti-imperialist movements on the basis of their nationalism means in practice backing the imperialism of the oppressor nation. And this should always be opposed on principle.

That is why socialists today should back the resistance movements in the Middle East, whatever differences we may have with the Arab nationalist and Islamic ideologies that inspire them.

A defeat for US and British forces in Iraq today, for example, would be a major blow for imperialism – just as the defeat of the US in Vietnam in the 1970s was.

In the case of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, this meant opposition to Russian chauvinism and to any form of discrimination against the national groups ruled by the Tsar.

It also meant socialists supported the right of oppressed nations to secede from the Russian state if they so wished.


But supporting the right to national self-determination does not necessarily mean calling for the actual secession of smaller nations at all times, nor does it mean blind support for all secessionist movements, regardless of the concrete circumstances.

The Bolshevik position on national liberation was put to the test when they led the Russian Revolution of October 1917 that brought the working class to power.

One of the first things the Bolsheviks did was to enact the right of nations to self-determination. Five states – Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – opted for independence, while others chose to remain as federal units within the Russian Soviet Republic.

Soviet policy set about reversing the suppression of national cultures. But the new Soviet Republic faced many challenges. Its early years were convulsed by civil war, as the world’s imperial powers sent in their armies to try to crush the revolution.

In particular this created difficulties in Georgia, whose Menshevik government allied with British and German imperialist forces against the Soviet Republic.

Russian forces, despite having invaded Georgia to fight the imperialist powers, still granted autonomy to Georgia. But this autonomy became contested.

Lenin, in the final months before his death in 1924, clashed with Joseph Stalin over the latter’s policy of installing Russian administrators and ignoring the national rights of Georgians.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin rose to power in Russia and reversed the gains of the revolution. The policy of self-determination for the eastern republics was abandoned and the populations there were subject to the same brutal repression as the rest of the Soviet Union.

None of this is to say that national liberation movements should be supported unconditionally.

National independence movements can easily become the pawns of rival imperial powers – such as when Poland’s national movement allied with German imperialism during the First World War, or today when Kosovo’s leaders make an alliance with the US and the West.

Here Lenin insisted that a socialist ‘assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle’. This remains a key lesson for socialists today.

Socialists start by examining how a particular national struggle impacts upon the wider system of competing imperial powers.

It is that wider system that is the ultimate cause of the war, carnage and destruction that engulfs so much of the world. National liberation movements should be judged on whether their success would help to undermine that system – or not.

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