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The struggle for national liberation

December 15, 2006 | Page 10

SARAH KNOPP explains the socialist tradition's commitment to the struggle of oppressed nations to self-determination.

SOCIALISTS BELIEVE the liberation of humanity will be accomplished by the victory of the working class in a battle with the ruling capitalist class over control of economic decisions.

But battles in the modern world don't always fall on simple fault lines. The struggle of peoples of oppressed nations for self-determination plays a crucial role in the overall fight against imperialism, and therefore capitalism.

Here, the record of the revolutionary socialist tradition is clear. We support the struggles of oppressed nations. This has sometimes drawn criticism, both from pro-imperialist liberals who do not support the aims or means of wars for national liberation, but also from some in the socialist tendency.

After all, national liberation struggles are often led by those who are hostile to the interests of the working class or to oppressed groups within that nation.

What else to read

Many of Lenin's articles on the national question, such as "The Working Class and the National Question," can be found online at Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution contains an important chapter on "The Problem of Nationalities" that sets out the Bolsheviks' experience in more detail.

Hal Draper and E. Haberkern's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution: War and Revolution, the fifth volume in a series of indispensable volumes started by Draper, examines Marx and Engels' writings on these questions.


For example, anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East today are led most prominently by organizations of political Islam. Hezbollah, an Islamist movement based in Lebanon, is widely regarded as the only viable force willing and capable of standing up to Zionism in the Middle East--some 80 percent of Lebanese support its right of armed resistance. In Palestine, the Islamist organization Hamas was elected to power precisely because it promised not to collaborate with Israel and its U.S. backers.

Socialists have to root for the defeat of U.S. imperialism, irrespective of the politics of forces leading the wars against it. If U.S. imperialism is the main oppressing force in a region, than the precondition for genuine liberation in the area is kicking out the imperialists.

A defeat for imperialism would signal the beginning, not the end, of a fight for real liberation and equality in oppressed nations. But support for such movements among workers in imperialist countries shows that we have nothing to gain from imperialism--and defeats dealt to the empire will only help the class struggle at home.

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KARL MARX and Frederick Engels were developing their ideas in the 1830s and '40s, an era of revolutions led by the rising capitalist class--called bourgeois revolutions by Marxists--against the old feudal order.

Thus, Marx and Engels supported, among others, the Polish and Hungarian wars for independence against the European feudal powers--in spite of the bourgeois or petit- bourgeois leadership of those movements.

While Marx and Engels had a slightly different view of national liberation than later socialists who developed their ideas further, they supported revolutions against feudalism and slavery without expecting the leaders of those revolutions to support socialist aims.

For example, they saw no contradiction when unionists in England actively supported the northern Union in the American Civil War, even though the Union was led by Abraham Lincoln, hardly a socialist. Slavery was the issue, and there were two sides--Marx and Engels picked one.

Sometimes, the same national group can, at one time in history, present a legitimate demand for self-determination, and at another, mainly serve as the puppets of imperialist interests. During Marx's time, the Hungarians at one time stood up to Austrian imperialism--a few decades later, they cooperated with it. In modern times, the Kurds in Iraq have played a similar role.

This is not surprising, since national liberation movements are made up of many classes. The local bourgeoisie, weak in developing nations and yet most often at the head of such movements, will always be tempted to collaborate with imperialism for the sake of its own profits.

This creates a tension within the movement, and the balance of forces will be different at different times. Marxists have to assess the balance of forces and ask the question in any war: Would victory for one side or the other (or neither) make the eventual victory of the working class more likely?

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FIFTY YEARS after Marx and Engels began to grapple with what Marxists called the national question, Russia's Bolsheviks--leaders of the successful socialist revolution of 1917--faced a unique problem historically: What should the attitude toward oppressed nations be within an empire once workers' power becomes reality?

Between the overthrow of the Tsar that began the Russian Revolution in February 1917 and the second revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October, Russia was ruled by the so-called provisional government, which was not in favor of self-determination for the 90 million people who had faced national oppression within the Tsar's empire.

The revolution had awakened the "explosive force"--in Leon Trotsky's words--of liberation movements in Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, Georgia and among the "tribes" of Central Asia. But the pro-capitalist parties that ruled Russia--in the name of "democracy"--after the Tsar fell opposed these movements. This new Russian ruling class feared to lose control of the resources and productive forces in the areas conquered under Tsarist Russia.

When the workers' councils gained sole power after a second insurrection in October, these "soviets" took a completely different approach. They supported the demand of national self-determination. The Bolshevik leader Lenin argued that a workers' government must carry out a struggle against every form of national oppression--from, for example, laws restricting language rights to the pogroms against Jews.

Some socialists, like the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, objected. Luxemburg argued that movements for democratic "independence" would be a step backward for oppressed nations within Russia, because they would be led by the local bourgeoisie, instead of workers.

Her objections were understandable given the fact that the middle classes of the oppressed nations within Russia didn't demand national independence, in many cases, until it seemed clear that the Russian bourgeoisie was about to be overthrown.

But Russian workers, argued Lenin, can't emancipate Polish workers or Ukrainian workers--that will be the act of the workers of oppressed nations.

The fact, Lenin said, that the oppressor country in this case had been taken over by workers should not change socialists' commitment to self-determination--given the special burden on revolutionaries in oppressor countries to prove their commitment to fighting oppression.

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LUXEMBURG'S ARGUMENT has an echo today. Socialists are internationalists who fight for a world without borders, so why, some ask, would we support liberation struggles that don't aim for socialism?

The precondition of a world without borders, though, is workers' power. The working class of each country, as the Communist Manifesto argues, has to overthrow the bourgeoisie in its nation. In some nations, though, the main oppressor is an imperialist ruling class, which has to be kicked out as a precondition for real workers' power.

Forcing imperialism out of a country typically requires mass struggle, which raises among workers expectations of further advances that will always be frustrated as long as the capitalists--even native ones--are in power. But in an independent nation, workers and oppressed groups have the "air, the light, and the elbow room," as Engels put it, to wage a struggle to take power into their own hands.

Today, demands for "democracy" and control of a nation's own resources are inextricably tied up with class demands. The fight for the former is bound to spill into a fight for the latter to at least some extent.

Any defeat suffered by U.S. imperialism today is a blow to the power of its rulers, and by extension a victory for the working class of this country. Therefore, socialists should take sides in wars for national liberation, even if we would like the leadership of the struggle of the oppressed to be different politically.

This support does not mean that socialists are uncritical of national liberation movements. But unlike those who don't agree with the aims of the liberation movement, our critique is in the interests of seeing the success of the movement.

Thus, Marx and Engels assessed that the reason the Polish liberation movement of their time lost is because it sought to limit--rather than push to the forefront--working class anger. Any struggle for national liberation will be more successful if it presses class demands and takes a stand against all oppression.

Furthermore, the aim of working-class fighters even in the situation of a national liberation struggle is ultimately to end exploitation through a workers' revolution. This is why working-class organization cannot become the "auxiliary" of bourgeois nationalists.

One of the many crimes of the Stalinist leadership that took power in Russia after the defeat of the 1917 revolution is that it instructed Communist parties around the world to do exactly the opposite. Starting with the disaster of the Chinese Communist Party, which liquidated itself into the Guomindang nationalist movement in China, Communist Parties subordinated themselves to the interests of bourgeois nationalists--and in so doing gave up on fighting for the real aim of ending exploitation and opened up workers to brutal repression at the hands of the nationalists.

This policy had nothing in common with the real Marxist tradition of fighting for an end to all exploitation and oppression--and understanding the important role of the struggle of oppressed nations for self-determination.

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