National Oppression and National Liberation Movements
from the collection, Marxism and the Modern World, Education for Socialists No.1, March 1986.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
First published in Socialist Worker, 13 August 1983.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
The fact that Marxists are internationalists who work for the world-wide unity of the working class does not mean that they are indifferent to national oppression. On the contrary they are its fiercest opponents. Marx, for example, was a lifelong supporter of the independence of Poland, which then as now was oppressed by Russia, and the independence of Ireland, then as now oppressed by Britain.
It may seem that there is a contradiction here: internationalists supporting national liberation. However the real question is how international unity is to be achieved.
Firstly, Marxists are for voluntary, not forced, international unity, and voluntary unity implies the right of separation. National oppression creates a division between the working class of the oppressor nation and the working class of the oppressed nation. This division can only be healed if the working class in the oppressor nation fights for the self-determination of the oppressed nation.
Secondly, national oppression creates a certain ideological bond between, on the one hand, the ruling class and the working class of the oppressor nation, and on the other hand between the ruling class and the working class of the oppressed nation. Both these bonds can only be broken if the working class opposes national oppression, especially when perpetrated by its own state.
Opposition to all national oppression is therefore an essential part of real internationalism.
The rise of imperialism made this question central to socialist strategy. By the end of the 19th century a handful of advanced capitalist countries had turned most of Africa, Asia and Latin America into their colonies or semi-colonies. At the time much of the European socialist movement either openly supported or, at best, passively accepted this development.
It was Lenin who saw that imperialism would inevitably generate struggles for national liberation and who argued that the working class of the advanced countries must establish an alliance with the national liberation movements against imperialist ruling classes.
Today, the nature of imperialism has somewhat changed and in most cases these colonies have been granted formal independence while the pressure of the world market ensures that their economic exploitation continues. But national liberation struggles are by no means a thing of the past. Whether it’s the struggle of El Salvador and Nicaragua against US domination of Central America, the Palestinians at war with Zionism, or the Poles and Afghans resisting the yoke of Stalinist Russia, the fight for national freedom goes on.
And in all these cases Marxists give the struggle their unconditional support.
However, “unconditional” is not the same as uncritical. Nor does support for national liberation mean overestimating its significance. The achievement of national independence is a bourgeois democratic, not a socialist, task, and national revolution is not a socialist revolution unless it is led by the working class.
Even then it cannot be sustained unless it becomes part of a process of international revolution. This is particularly important because the period since 1945 has seen a succession of national revolutions led by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces calling themselves communist or socialist. China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe are some of the main examples.
In none of these cases has the working class actually come to power, yet many on the left have sought to substitute these anti- imperialist movements for the struggle of the working class in both the advanced countries and in the Third World itself-an attitude which has bred repeated disillusionment as each of these regimes has failed in its apparent promise.
Marxists therefore oppose all forms of national oppression and support the struggle for national liberation, but they do so as internationalists, not nationalists. They do not merge with bourgeois nationalism, or drop their criticism of its limitations.
Instead they work to bring to the fore the working class both as the leader of the national revolution and at the same time as a part of the international working class – the only force that can bring real liberation from capitalism and imperialism and unite the human race.
Last updated on 31.3.2002