“The National Question” has been debated among communists for well over 150 years. This is because the nascent socialist movement was born into a capitalist world of nation-states; and the nation-state had itself emerged with capitalism. To Marx and Engels, this new form of state was a reflection of a stage of social development, of the bourgeoisie reshaping society not on the basis of a particular ruling bloodline or theological basis, but primarily on the basis of common social interaction, as a whole society. In the first instance, this is a progressive process: “Modern nationalities are thus the creations of the oppressed classes”, writes Engels in his analysis of the transition from feudal statelets to nascent modern capitalist nation-states.
It is not only from the perspective of economic development or at the stage of capitalist construction that Engels defended national rights, but also as a precondition for socialist revolution:
“Without restoring autonomy and unity to each nation, it will be impossible to achieve the international union of the proletariat, or the peaceful and intelligent co-operation of these nations toward common aims.”
–Preface to the 1893 Italian edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1893
Taking a few lines of Engels out of context, it would be easy to reimagine Marxism as nothing but perpetual support for bourgeois nationalism of each and every nation, an ideology which poses no threat to capitalism itself. But it must not be forgotten that Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who actively organized against the bourgeois nationalist states of their day: they did not defend these bourgeois nationalisms beyond their ability to achieve said “autonomy and unity” for a given nation (that is, to overcome oppression by another nationalism), and to carry forward bourgeois domination of the feudal oppressor classes (that is, to overcome oppression by backwards, pre-capitalist and pre-nationalist ideologies).
After these conditions are met, the bourgeois state and its nationalism are to be understood as instruments of oppression and exploitation like any other ideology which conceals the contradictions between oppressor and oppressed classes. The communist perspective is always, at all stages of history, to turn popular social processes into weapons against the oppressor classes and their states. Thus, the struggle for a a modern democracy is progressive until a certain point of solidification. At this point, the limitations of liberal democracy become clear, and the social struggle is increasingly reduced to one between capital and labor, the apparent “final” struggle of class society. Because the new capitalist state is a weapon in the hands of capital, a new collection of “oppressed classes” find themselves in conflict with it. But who are these classes? Are they always and only the proletariat? Can the bourgeoisie be an oppressed class under capitalist rule? Here we come to the essence of why we speak of “the national question”.
The individual capitalist does not “want to” share their control of productive relations, and the capitalist class as a whole likewise jealously guard their privileges. Their desire to dominate as much of the market as possible leads the individual capitalist into competition with other capitalists, and leads the ruling classes of one society into conflict with other societies, leading to national oppression. The national formations which are held down by the power of the bourgeois state take on the same quality of being “oppressed” which the bourgeoisie as a whole did under feudal social relations. The oppressed nations in their entirety seem to play a progressive role, a weapon not only for their own society, but against the oppression of the capitalist state.
Thus was it that Marx and Engels noted the importance of the national struggle in Ireland and the anti-colonial struggle in India, in spite of the advanced development of the English proletariat in productive and social terms relative to other working classes around the world. Thus did it come to be that the Marxist watchword was “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations”.
But what precisely is meant by this, and what is our explicit goal? If national oppression means that any oppressed nationality’s class struggle is held back, that the “stage” of socialist revolution cannot yet be reached, do we simply advocate a struggle for a particular set of national borders which will allow for the “pure” class conflict to emerge afterwards?
In practice, this has been impossible to achieve on a universal scale: national liberation struggles are rendered more difficult precisely because of the strength of imperialism as an economic world-system. Even “victorious” national liberation struggles may be arrested at the moment of victory, such that the movement forward to socialist revolution may be indefinitely postponed in the eyes of the masses themselves by the very real fact of imperialist attempts to indirectly or directly dominate a nominally independent country.
Further, the class interests of the bourgeoisies of different nationalities mean that they come into conflict with each other: which of the major 20th century national liberation movements have arrived at their expected end? True, Vietnam was able to drive out imperialist occupiers, only to invite them back to counterbalance economic domination by other imperialist powers. True, the PLO was able to fight the Israeli state to the negotiating table, only to have a single killing by Zionist fanatics— the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin– turn the negotiating table into the farcical site of Zionist domination, with no single meaningful concession to the oppressed Palestinian people since. Even in many of the countries which threw off the colonial yoke of yesteryear, such as Sri Lanka, who freed themselves from the British, national conflicts between the local peoples remain intractable.
These national questions seem effectively endless, lurching from conflict to conflict much as capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis. Far from bourgeois nationalist ideology providing us with resolutions to the national question, the old nationalist conflicts which the liberal bourgeois media has spent decades trying to convince us were resolved (in Ireland, in the United States, in Turkey and Kurdistan), are returning, more relevant than ever, as the crisis deepens.
Proletariat and bourgeoisie in oppressed nations
As materialists observing the facts such as they have been simplistically laid out above, we might naively conclude that Marx and Engels were mistaken: that the struggle for national liberation, anti-colonial struggles, all manner of struggle which is not proletarian revolution as such, all of these things represent a dead end, and are not progressive. Capitalism has universalized itself long since, and appeals to “nationhood” as even a component of political analysis amount to nationalism, a covering up of the essential universal conflict between bourgeoisie and proletarian.
However, it is a known fact about the world that the national divisions which exist and come to constitute nation-states cause real, material conflict which results in wars, deportations, in short: the suffering of the poor. The imperialist world-system means that the exploitation of a Pakistani worker is clearly greater than that experienced by an equivalent white worker in the United States. A Pashtun in this same country faces a military violence imposed by the same United States, and relative ambivalence towards their plight by the ruling classes not only because they are poor, but because other poor Pakistanis may be turned against them on the grounds of the social division between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.
Such contradictions among different kinds of exploited and oppressed, different sections of the proletariat, take many forms: such as those which are gendered, racialized, etc. All of these contradictions must be taken up, criticized, and overcome through concrete social struggle. But due to the particular political-social power of nationhood specifically under capitalism, the highest level of politics takes on a national form, and this fact cannot be brushed aside, if we wish to intervene and change the world.
Taking a bird’s eye view of the historical process of nationalism will allow our analysis to become clearer: robbed of political power, the nationalist bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation today appears weak under the subjugation of more powerful nations, particularly the great imperialist powers. Upon achieving power and controlling a nation-state in the capitalist world system, that subjugation is felt as economic or even military pressure, and the exploitative logic of capital dictates that the same nationalist bourgeoisie, once in power, becomes openly reactionary in its political program.
The contradiction between the known shortcomings of nationalism as an ideology and the actual national form of oppression and exploitation experienced by the proletarian masses cannot be resolved by a choice between nationalism and an abstractly anti-nationalist socialism, but only sublated in concrete proletarian internationalism. The great Marxist theoretician Vladimir Lenin wrote so extensively on the nuances of a proletarian internationalist approach to the national question that these writings alone constitute a substantial body of work covering a broad period and diverse particular conflicts.
To briefly summarize, however, the proletarian internationalist perspective which Lenin outlines is to oppose all national oppression and privilege, and concretely fight for equal rights under all circumstances. This puts us in the same camp as the nationalists of oppressed nations when they fight for democratic rights, and against them when they fight for their own bourgeois privileges. It is an ideology based neither on numerical majority nor on states and political power as it already exists, but based on recognition of the equal status of every particular national identity in reflecting some universal human experience.
Thus if every nation is equal, the common interest of the proletarians of all countries is less an aspiration and more a practical basis for common struggle. In seeking this unity, the proletarians of oppressor nations show the level of development of their internationalist consciousness by “suicidally” defending the national interests of their class brethren of the oppressed nations against their “own” oppressor nation bourgeoisie. The far-sighted oppressed national proletarians, likewise, do not merely follow their “own” bourgeoisie into nationalist struggle, but strengthen this nationalist struggle by identification with their class brethren among other oppressed peoples.
Settler-colonialism and nation-building in the United States
Turning to the United States, the oppressor nation is the white settler-colonist nation which dominates the country, the Yankee nation which was “born as slave-masters and settler-colonisers”. Both in its current state, and historically, it is not difficult to see why the proletariat of the Yankee nation did not automatically stand together with the Indigenous nations, for example: though they are divided from their “own” bourgeoisie on class grounds, they had no reason to identify with the victims of developing US imperialism because they were at no point struggling for recognition of their democratic national rights. From the beginning, white Yankee men were able to gain tremendous privileges by aiding in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, whose resistance was not relatable for them.
It is with this in mind that J. Sakai made claims about a “mythology of the white proletariat”: obviously there are objectively speaking white workers who earn their wages in a proletarian fashion under US capitalism. But only when they attack the nationalist project of their “own” bourgeoisie does a Yankee proletariat worthy of the name emerge as a political class, a conscious subjectivity.
The labeling of the United States as a “settler-colony” by birth and in its ongoing operational logic to this day evokes rather shrill and unwarranted reactions from many white communists in the United States: “If this is a settler-colony in need of decolonization, will you be demanding the deportation of all white people back to Europe?” “How can the Indigenous nationalities ‘decolonize’ without ‘oppressing’ settlers?” This reaction, the fear of “white genocide”, implicitly reveals a still-lingering identification with the ideology of the ruling classes. Opposition to the liberation of groups that are a threat to the political order of capital in their “own” country is usually excused by labeling the national movements of these oppressed people as “bourgeois” (though we cannot deny that all national movements have some bourgeois element, because the bourgeoisie is part of the whole nation and indeed the part that coemerges with the nation as category). In practice, however, it is tragically obvious that such “leftists” are seeking a “left” defense for their “own” bourgeoisie— the hegemonic class in the most powerful imperialist country on Earth!
The Yankee bourgeoisie really did deport Indigenous peoples en masse from their own lands, in addition to creating a new Afro-American nation by forcibly importing and enslaving untold numbers of Africans. These crimes are not hypothetical excesses, but the real violent foundation of the political and economic order in the United States. While dreaming up all the possible ways that anti-colonial resistance could “go wrong”, how much does the white left in the United States really understand the immense violence that was necessary to construct and is still necessary to maintain the dominance of a nation founded and dominated by European settlers on the continent?
“If violence began this very evening and oppression had never existed on the earth, perhaps the slogans of non-violence might end the quarrel. But if the whole regime, even your non-violent ideas, are conditioned by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passivity serves only to place you in the rank of the oppressors.”
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”
But, of course, chest-beating anti-imperialism does little to actually bring white communists into agreement about what is to be done. They are implicitly asking what national liberation for the victims of US imperialism “at home” will concretely look like, and this question is a legitimate one.
That is to say, although giving up the fight for the liberation of oppressed peoples––Indigenous peoples in the “lower 48”, the New African people and their land, the “Alaska Native” peoples who are divided from their co-nationals by the colonial border with Canada, the island colony of Hawai’i, etc.––would mean objectively defending the real oppression of these peoples by Yankee imperialism (and is therefore reactionary)… despite this, we should––after declaring our unconditional support and comradely defense of the anti-colonial struggles of these peoples––confess that a new bourgeois state built in the names of these people could indeed reproduce new forms of national oppression, including of other oppressed peoples: for example, one can easily imagine a liberated New Africa wherein the Indigenous peoples of the continent are still denied their land and national rights, no longer by white settlers, but by a now-free nation of New Africans. If we are not merely nationalists for currently oppressed nations, but revolutionary communists, surely we have something to say about this?
Let us return to the idea that the nation emerges as the bourgeoisie, initially itself an oppressed class, rises in prominence. It thus appears as the “natural” leader of the national liberation struggle in cases of colonized peoples. The proletariat of such colonized nations finds itself in a difficult position: like the proletariat of the oppressor nation and the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, their struggle is against the ruling classes of the oppressor nation. However, unlike the oppressor nation bourgeoisie, this seems to place the proletariat of the oppressed nation in an alliance with the bourgeoisie.
How can the oppressed nation proletariat, and how can internationalists interested in their liberation, chart an independent course through the struggle for national liberation? How can we truly overcome nationalism and arrive at a real proletarian internationalism?
Self-determination and proletarian internationalism in the US
So far I have danced around the question of what self-determination will actually look like for Afro-Americans and Indigenous peoples in the US, which is at present a rather “hot” issue on the radical left. Let us then turn to concrete examples: suppose that some or the other oppressed nation in the United States were able to muster enough force to be able to exercise its right to self-determination and enter into sincere negotiations with the members of other nationalities affected by this exercise. That is to say, explicitly, if the Hawai’ian people were to demand their national rights and call for a vote on secession for their territory (which, being a set of islands, is fairly easy to demarcate). Let us further suppose that this Hawai’ian liberation movement were able to gather enough popular support and accordingly pressure through whatever means necessary for their political will to be heard.
Given the fact that the Hawai’ian people, however they are conceived of, are victims of colonialism without significant capital behind them facing a state which is still the premiere imperialist power on Earth, such a struggle would be a long and difficult one, including likely both legal and illegal methods, messy alliances, and complex organization. But at the moment of forcing the US state to a stalemate, it would be able to negotiate with the diverse groups in Hawai’i who might not accept Hawai’ian nationality about the terms of their rights as minority nationalities. The process of this struggle over a territory more or less pre-determined by geography would likely involve discussions about what Hawai’ian nationality would look like and what this national movement’s understanding of minority rights would be, among others.
In the “mainland” US, however, the land claims of oppressed nations would appear more complicated: first by past violated treaties between various Indigenous nations and the US; secondly by overlapping land claims between Indigenous peoples; and thirdly by questions such as the larger non-Indigenous nationalities— first and foremost the oppressor Yankee nation and the oppressed Afro-American nation. For the Afro-American nation, their land claims have the disadvantage of having never been accepted in US law, and therefore not being able to appeal to international law even in the realm of theoretical debate.
This last example, of the Afro-American people’s claim to land in New Afrika, has the unique position of being a significant national claim of the size expected for a settler nation, such as the French in Canada, given that they are a non-Indigenous group that is none the less similarly oppressed to the Indigenous (that is, Afro-American land claims are similar to those of the French Canadians, in spite of the fact that the former are subjected to harsh colonial oppression and not mere dispreferential treatment as the latter are). The land claimed for the national liberation of this internal colonized people accordingly includes traditional Indigenous land as well. How is this question to be dealt with, before we even touch upon the question of what will happen to white settler society in the land affected?
In fact, both the Afro-American people and the Indigenous have made rather clear their willingness to negotiate with representatives of other oppressed nationalities to arrive at a mutually satisfactory arrangement in the liberation of the land to which they have meaningful historical connections.
Why might not the Afro-American national liberation project place any emphasis on a similar arrangement with the Yankee nation? Quite simply, because the current arrangement is the one in which the Yankee nation already has control of effectively all of the land, all political and cultural and economic power. In short, negotiations at the point of Yankee rifles were concluded long ago, resulting in all other nationalities in the United States have already made maximal concessions, as the abandonment of the Afro-American people following the failure of Reconstruction, and the subsequent joint war by northern and southern capital against the Indigenous, resulting in genocide and broken treaty after broken treaty, can attest.
In fact, such a decolonial project would share much with that of other former colonies around the world, where deals between various victims of colonialism might go wrong, but the former colonizers were largely disregarded because they had no interest in negotiations from the beginning, since their maximal privilege was the starting point against which the colonized were revolting. The fear harbored by the former oppressors of revenge by the former oppressed resulted around the world, including in the US, in fascist gangs guarding their privileges jealously. This, and not the “excessive” nationalism of the colonized, is the real threat to peace between peoples. Neutralization of such reactionary threats, like the forcing of the colonizing state to a stalemate, is the precondition for peaceful and democratic discussion of the possibility of “reverse oppression” and the safeguarding of the minority rights of the former dominant group— provided, of course, that in the new society, the former colonizers actually lose enough of their privileges that this can even be a meaningful possibility.
The limits of nationalism and national liberation
If it should occur that an oppressed nation in the US should achieve its liberation and so strip white settler society of its privileges, including economic influence and physical force, that the rights of white settlers as white settlers could in fact be violated, the white settlers would merely find themselves in the same position as the other minorities in a given territory. Let us suppose that the Republic of Lakotah were realized, the Lakota people reclaimed their stolen land, and were able to form a state which allowed them to develop their culture. like any other nation-state.
Let us further suppose that the white population in this territory were to consider itself a settler nation within this nation-state, and accept to live at peace in this arrangement, with the numerical support of whatever percentage of non-Lakota (whether settlers or not). Perhaps the local population would begin to adopt the Lakota language more and more, and acculturation and assimilation might hypothetically reduce the remaining population identified with white settler culture to a minority over time.
Again, this proposed scenario is less oppressive than the real reality which the Lakota people have experienced since they were subjected to invasion, genocide, and colonization. But, if this new state is indeed yet another normative nation-state in a world of nation-states, it is a fact we should acknowledge that potentially minorities in the territory may feel put upon by the Lakota language and culture, and therefore could potentially come into conflict with the state and apparently experience oppression by a Lakota ruling class.
The current apparent diplomatic stance between the Afro-American and Indigenous peoples mentioned above reflects something of an anomaly: the peoples in question have not yet dealt with the practical reality of dividing between their ruling classes the profits of capitalism in the territory in question without Yankee domination. The conceding of land to another oppressed people could still serve the interests of the national bourgeoisie in so far as it serves as a kind of deal-making aimed towards gaining any of the land and profits that both want from their common colonial oppressor.
But once this victory is achieved, the foundation for a normative bourgeois-nation state of these oppressed nations will be laid. If the revolution goes no further than liberating the land, it will certainly be a great step forward for the liberation of an oppressed people from harsh colonial rule, the crushing of their culture, the thorough subjugation of their toiling classes among the workers of a given country, etc. But it can easily be transformed into a Bantustan dominated by imperialism, or even as a “fully” independent country impoverished by imperialist blockade, one in which the ruling classes fight ever more jealously for whatever profits they can squeeze out, thus necessitating a new “local” national oppression of whatever minorities to safeguard the interests of the new ruling classes.
In this case, the difference between settler society and colonized societies would matter less— which is not to say it would not matter at all. An independent Québec would almost certainly, under current conditions, continue to harshly oppress the Indigenous in its borders, and a liberated Indigenous nation in North America would could easily find itself under the sway of no longer anti-colonial but simply everyday nationalism by which the national bourgeoisie would use any tools at its disposal, including national oppression of whatever minorities, to ensure that it received the maximal benefit of its own territory. Demands for national rights by minorities in such a context would go unheeded because of the class interests of those in power, as such demands are now.
The spreading of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle across a broader geography would alleviate some of these problems, by bringing more parity between peoples over a vast geography with an interdependent market, and weakening the imperialist blockade or subordination which would currently be so easy to imagine. But the nations of Europe (or the western part of the Eurasian continent, per your preference) presently have such a relationship, and they too find themselves— particularly in moments such as the current economic crisis— in struggle over nation-based economic domination, competing with one another for allies and markets in the region and abroad, and finding “local” national enemies in the form of immigrants or peoples who have yet to achieve a nation-state of their own.
The persistence of inequality between national groups under diverse particular circumstances shares as its common thread the problem of capitalist ruling classes competing in a capitalist market in a capitalist world-system. It is the task of the revolutionary proletariat, the first class in history which does not seek to exploit but which is only exploited, the first underclass in history which has a global and universal reflection, that is truly an international class, to push the revolution beyond the limits of nationalism, which has no apparent end under capitalism. The proletariat can and it seems must take part in the struggle for national liberation, but must due so out of a commitment to a true proletarian internationalism, and will seek to push forward these particular nationalist struggles beyond their limits such that that conscious political will as the political class of proletariat is able to overcome the bourgeois national consciousness with which it finds immediate common cause against imperialism.
To create a society where rights are not curtailed based on an exploitative logic requires questioning and struggling against the nation-state which right now appears the horizon of the liberationist imagination of so many oppressed peoples around the world. It requires bringing down the entire capitalist order which created the nation-state so that in practice, all people, regardless of identity or numerical minority or majority, can enjoy truly equal rights as part of a united humanity.
Recommended reading: “The National Question in Turkey” by İbrahim Kaypakkaya