National self-determination

In 1896, the London Congress of the Second International passed a resolution declaring that it stood ‘for the complete right of all nations to self-determination’. Over a hundred and twenty years later, can socialists still make the same confident declaration?

Support for national self-determination should be relatively uncontentious. It does not mean socialists supporting secession by every national group who demands it, but rather supporting them in making an unimpeded decision about their constitutional status, which is simply a question of democracy. Socialists need not necessarily support a particular decision and may argue against it, depending on what they see as being in the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism more generally.

But clearly, there are some cases in which even recognizing the ‘right to decide’ is always going to be against the interests of the working class, notably where a particular group is aligned with one imperialist power or another. In these examples, socialists could legitimately point to the way in which national demands were directed towards reactionary ends, but this implicitly means abandoning the notion of a ‘right’, since by definition these are universal and cannot be restricted to those with whom we politically agree. An alternative strategy would be to deny that groups with which we disagree are nations at all, but this involves returning to some variant of the discredited Stalinist ‘checklist’ method of definition, in which one sets the criteria to get the result one desires: in this case the notion of a ‘right’ can be retained, but only by denying the existence of certain nations.

It might be more helpful to abandon ‘rights’ talk altogether. Who or what, after all, could confer a ‘right to self-determination’? Assuming it is not an unalienable right granted by the Creator, such as those listed in the American Declaration of Independence, it could perhaps be one recognized in international law; but as the Palestinians have long since found out, motions passed by the United Nations do not have the force of law, unless they are supported by the US and its allies. It is not, of course, that all rights are completely intangible; they can and have been won, including, most obviously, the right to vote; but these are outcomes of class and other social struggles within the territories of individual nation-states, subsequently enshrined in their laws.

One need not accept Rosa Luxemburg’s belief in the ultimate pointlessness of national self-determination under capitalism to recognize the truth of her assessment: ‘A ‘right of nations’ which is valid for all countries and all times is nothing more than a metaphysical cliché of the type of ‘rights of man’ and ‘rights of the citizen’.’

There are, of course, national movements whose struggle for statehood socialists are obliged to support. Perhaps Lenin’s most important contribution to debates on the national question was to highlight the distinction was between ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ nations, as a basis for deciding which national movements should be supported and which opposed by socialists. The former were those nationalities held against their collective will within the remaining absolutist or tributary empires of the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans, or the colonies and semi-colonies of the Great Powers in Africa, Asia, Latin America and, of course, Ireland. These national movements had to be supported, whatever the exact nature of their politics, which were in most cases uninformed by socialist aspirations. On the other hand, there were the ‘oppressor’ nations (and the absolutist and tributary empires) which prevented the oppressed from achieving independent statehood. The nationalisms of these oppressor states had to be opposed, above all by the working class within them.

The distinction between oppressor and oppressed was never an entirely adequate device for establishing the attitude of Marxists towards national movements. It had nothing to say about the attitude of socialists to nations which may have had legitimate grounds for claiming that they were oppressed – as Serbia did in 1914, for example – but which were part of a wider inter-imperialist struggle in which their situation was manipulated by one side. Nor did it provide guidance in a situation in which a socialist revolution in a multi-national empire – like Russia in 1917 – might result in some of the formerly oppressed nations seeking to secede from a workers’ state, as for example Ukraine attempted to do during the early stages of the Russian Revolution. My argument here is not that the positions adopted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in these cases were wrong, quite the contrary, but rather that they were based on a wider set of political considerations than simply the oppressor/oppressed distinction. However, it could be legitimately argued that these were exceptional cases and that as a broad distinction the categories of oppressor and oppressed generally allowed socialists to arrive at correct operational conclusions.

Lenin tended to see the question of national self-determinationas an intrinsic part of the bourgeois revolution. In other words, it was not one which would remain eternally valid until the global triumph of the socialist revolution, but rather one relevant to a situation in which three remaining absolutist or tributary empires (Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey) and eight capitalist powers (UK, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, USA and Japan), had between them reduced the rest of the world outside Europe, North America and Australasia to colonial or semi-colonial status.

The world remains deeply uneven and unequal in terms of power and influence, but it is now one divided into a system of nation-states. The historic formation of this system was accomplished during the sixty years between the opening of the First World War and the end of the post-war boom. The three major national questions still unresolved from the era of decolonization are the reunification of Ireland, and the plight of the Palestinians and the Kurds. The latter are both exceptional in different respects: the former because the Palestinians no longer possess a territory in which to exercise self-determination, having been effectively expelled from it by the Zionist colonial-settler regime; the Kurds because they are spread across the territories of five different nation-states and have different relations with each. The Kurdish example also illustrates the difficulty of simply attempting to apply the oppressor/oppressed distinction, given the quite different political trajectories taken by the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in relation to US imperialism, the internal regimes in the territories they control, and much else besides.

However, the biggest problems for Marxists in deciding what attitude to take to national movements has not been these long-standing struggles for self-determination, but two relatively recent phenomena. One is where former nation-states have entered a process of complete disintegration, as in Yugoslavia during the 1990s and in several states in Central Africa and the Middle East more recently, above all in Syria. What attitude should the left take in these cases, where economic collapse, civil war, invasion, or failed revolutions have left different religious, tribal or ‘ethnic’ groups struggling against each other to seize territory and resources? It is completely futile for the left to assume there must necessarily be a ‘progressive’ side in these situations. One can and must oppose Western intervention on behalf of one side or the other without having any illusions that, for example, Assad represents a more progressive option. When Karl Leibknecht raised the slogan ‘the main enemy is at home’ he did not mean to imply that the only enemy was at home.

The other, more relevant to Scotland, is the emergence, or in some cases the re-emergence of ‘stateless nations’ seeking autonomy or independence in the long-established capitalist states of the West. In some cases these had an earlier history of oppression, in others not; but by the 1980s differences between Catalonia and Quebec on the one hand and Scotland on the other were marginal, compared to what faces the Palestinians and Kurds. No nation-state recognizes a constitutional ‘right’ to secede from it. Some, like the UK, do not refer to the issue at all, leaving politicians and state managers to deal with national issues on an ad hoc basis as they emerge, rather than tying their hands in advance with legal constraints. Others, among which the Spanish state is preeminent, explicitly exclude the possibility. But simply rejecting Scottish or Catalan demands for self-determination on the grounds that they are not oppressed is to embrace a stultifying formalism which takes no account of the exigencies of the class struggle or the dangers of inadvertently supporting the existing constitutional structures of the leading capitalist nation-states.

For socialists, the question of support for particular national demands (not for particular nationalisms) is determined by their relationship to the struggle for socialism, regardless of whether the nation concerned is oppressed or not. Lenin’s response to Rosa Luxemburg is relevant here. He argued that withholding support from national movements seeking to escape great empires, as her native Poland was from Russia, had two detrimental effects: one was to hand over leadership to the bourgeois nationalists in the former; the other was to implicitly endorse the continued rule of the latter. Support for national demands should of course be openly undertaken with the purpose of weakening the support of workers for nationalism, and in this context several questions have to be asked. Does support strengthen or weaken the capitalist or imperialist state? Does it strengthen or weaken the class consciousness and organization of the working class? Does it strengthen or weaken the tolerance of people of different nations or ‘races’ for each other?

Depending on the answers, and without any illusions in the ability of small states to resist the pressures of the world capitalist system, deciding to secede can be seen as both a progressive and democratic option which need not involve nationalism at all. In each case, however, constructing an argument for why a particular group should determine their own future has to be done on the basis of a political argument, rather than the application of a formula.

Neil Davidson is a lecturer in sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He is author of Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition; We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions; Holding Fast to an Image of the Past: Explorations on Marxism and History; and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (all Haymarket Books).