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On the National Question

What Is the Right of Nations to Self-determination, Why and How Do We Defend This Right?

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1- The right of nations to self-determination is in essence the right to establish a separate state

The right of nations to self-determination means the right for a nation to determine its political fate by its own will. To acknowledge this right must involve accepting the right for different nations to separate from a political unit they are forced to stay in and form their own independent nation-state

Since the nation-state is a product of capitalist era, national self-determination is historically a bourgeois-democratic political right in essence. Revolutionary program of the proletariat cannot content itself with declaring that national self-determination is acknowledged. Because the bourgeoisie, too, can talk about national self-determination, provided that its political content is greatly emptied. For this reason, in addition to this acknowledgement, struggle must be waged on the following points:

· Definite rejection of using any kind of force against the oppressed nation fighting for its right to separate politically.

· Defending that it is only up to the oppressed nation to decide whether to separate or not.

· Waging ideological struggle against all political views that reject the right of nations to self-determination, advocate repression on the oppressed nations and national communities.

· Absolute rejection of national privileges and an official state language.

2- The right of nations to self-determination is still relevant

Capitalism depends on unequal economic development and there is also an unequal political development with respect to the formation of nation states. For example, while formation of nation-states was a problem of 18th and 19th centuries for West Europe it appeared on the agenda with a delay in 20th century in East Europe, Asia and Africa. Due to differences in concrete conditions a problem that has been concluded in Europe could come out late in other regions.

We can say that at present the number of nations waging a struggle for their political independency is quite a few, if we set aside provoked national conflicts resulting from imperialist rivalry and division. Despite this, the national question is still significant and requires a correct political approach.

3- Distinction between the oppressed and oppressor nation is the first condition of a correct attitude on the national self-determination

It is impossible to adopt a correct political attitude without making a distinction between the oppressed and oppressor nations. Communists can provide no support for any chauvinism that can appear in imperialist countries, which come out mainly due to rivalry among them, nor any bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalism of an oppressor nation even if it is not an imperialist country. Thus, to avoid any misunderstandings, it must be clearly expressed that, what is meant by the national question is the question of political independence of a nation which is under political oppression.

National self-determination principle in the revolutionary program of the proletariat involves opposing imperialist invasions and annexations besides acknowledging the right of separation of an oppressed nation from oppressor. On the other hand one must point out the difference between the position of colonies and oppressed nations whose territory is under invasion, which have not achieved their political independence (i.e. have not yet found their own nation-states) and the position of less or medium developed capitalist countries that have gained their independence and formed their nation-states. For the former we have a historically belated national question to be resolved.

The fact that economic dependency produces political or military intervention in medium or less developed countries that find their places in the lower steps of the hierarchy of the imperialist-capitalist system, is a common feature of the world capitalist system. This kind of “political dependency” is permanently reproduced unless the underlying economic dependency is put an end to, that is, unless struggle is directed at the imperialist-capitalist system as such and the country at hand manages to get out of the system.

Therefore the position of the medium or less developed countries, which have their own nation-states but occupy a lower position in the general functioning of the world system and thus are economically dependent, is different from the status of colonial or semi-colonial countries of the early 20th century. In the case of colonial or semi-colonial countries there is an outright trampling of a political right in the form of denying a nation its “independent and sovereign” nation-state (that is, a separate state).

In reality there is no problem of gaining political independency in medium or less developed countries having their own nation-states, as long as the “independent and sovereign state” situation continues, that is bourgeois powers continue to reign, which does not mean to disregard the fact that all kinds of inequality and dependency relations are produced and reproduced within the functioning of the imperialist system. This independence is already achieved within the framework of the laws of motion of the system. Beyond this, the problem of “independence” is a different matter that can only be conceived within the scope of an anti-imperialist (i.e. anti-capitalist) economic liberation struggle led by the proletariat and which gives the word its essential content.

The pseudo anti-imperialist attitudes of bourgeois powers in this kind of countries, which do not aim at the system but result from conflicts of interest with the imperialist countries, cannot be taken in the same scope with anti-imperialist struggle or national liberation struggle which we find historically legitimate.

On the other hand, the proletariat’s position must also be clear on the kind of “national question” which arises when a bourgeois state invades and annexes another bourgeois state’s territory. In such cases of invasion and annexation the right of the nation subject to an unjust attack to resist must be acknowledged as legitimate. But here proletariat’s support is undoubtedly not to the bourgeoisie but to the working masses of the attacked country. That is the support has nothing to do with defending or protecting the rights of sovereignty of the bourgeois nation-state.

4- Defending the right of nations to self-determination is vital for the international unity and hegemony of the proletariat

Economic inequalities between different nations, the “poor-rich” divide etc. do not disappear by simply acknowledging the right of nations to self-determination or achieving political independence. Resolving the national question clears the picture that the chief problem is capitalism and that all kinds of economical inequality would be produced and reproduced unless the imperialist-capitalist world system is overthrown.

For this reason, such an “anti-imperialist struggle” outside the scope of revolutions aiming at overthrowing the world capitalist system is in essence an expression of a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois national developmentalist political course and, sooner or later, destined to stay within the capitalist system. That’s why, national liberation struggles which are limited only to achieving political independence are not within the scope of anti-imperialist revolution.

However, despite their limited content the national liberation struggles are for the good of the proletariat for two reasons: first, they help overcome the problem of “national struggle” which shadows the fact that the point is to go for the unity of struggle of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system; second, they create the possibility to orient the masses revolting for national independence against colonialism towards a genuine struggle for liberation and freedom under the hegemony of the proletariat, that is towards the social revolution. The question of political independence is historically mixed with the question of getting out of the feudal sluggishness of broad peasant masses. One of the prominent features of national liberation struggles is mass revolts of peasants demanding a land revolution.

The national liberation struggle and proletarian revolution are two different things. It is perfectly possible that the proletarian revolution will solve the national question in passing, but to assume that the national liberation struggle can bear the tasks of the proletarian revolution is a caricature of Marxism.

It is quite in accordance with Marxism that the revolutionary party of the proletariat puts forward democratic demands for the unsolved tasks (such as national question, land revolution) and include such demands into its program these demands that concern wide peasant masses. But it depends on whether the proletariat can establish its hegemony in the revolution to fulfil these demands in their full extent.

5- It is the class contradiction and not national contradiction that is essential for the proletariat

In the imperialism era the real political polarization on a world scale takes place on the axis of classes and not of nations. Even in the conflicts between oppressor and oppressed nations it is the class polarization that decides in the last analysis. That is why we frequently see in history that the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations, which is unable to form a unity of fight with the proletariat of the oppressor nation, surrenders to the oppressor nation’s bourgeoisie when it is afraid of the revolt of its own proletariat and poor peasantry.

One political result of turning a blind eye to the fact that national contradiction is taken higher than class contradiction has been polishing petty-bourgeois nationalist revolutionary currents and expecting from the struggles they lead results that go beyond their limits. The experience of many national liberation struggles have proven that this conduct could be very harmful to the revolutionary fight of the proletariat, that it would result in proletariat tail-ending petty-bourgeois revolutionism, and that in such a case one can not talk about an independent political line of the proletariat, that it would then be a day dream to establish proletariat’s hegemony over the toiling masses that fight and that the struggle would at most end up with the victory of the petty-bourgeois revolutionary leaderships.

These experiences have demonstrated that concessions given from the revolutionary political line of the proletariat (permanent revolution on a world scale) to the advantage of petty-bourgeois national revolutionism have caused harm to the struggle of the proletariat. In order for national liberation struggles to proceed into a real proletarian revolution which aims to overthrow capitalism, the revolutionary proletariat must enter the struggle and gain the leadership with its own programmatic goals and war methods among the revolting masses. That is, the proletariat must establish its hegemony over the toiling masses. Under the hegemony of petty-bourgeois revolutionary leaderships, the result, in the best case, would be (whatever they call themselves, “socialist”, ”anti-imperialist” etc.) nothing but founding of national developmentalist nation-states.

All kinds of conceptions leading to the conclusion that national contradiction is more significant than class contradiction; theses alleging that the fundamental contradiction is the north-south contradiction; the argument that the proletariat in advanced capitalist countries has lost its revolutionary mission; pseudo anti-imperialist rhetoric of Third Worldism etc., all are, according to us, in contradiction with the essence of Marxism and its basic conception of the historical role of proletarian revolutions.

So the real content of the national liberation struggle must be clearly expressed. Unless a national liberation struggle waged against an imperialist state or an oppressor nation is developed into a proletarian revolution under the hegemony of the proletariat, it is purely a struggle within bourgeois democratic scope limited with the goal of founding a separate nation-state.

6- Revolutionary proletariat fights the tendency of the oppressed nation’s bourgeoisie to obtain privileges

Since the right of nations to self-determination is essentially a bourgeois democratic right, the dividing line between political attitudes of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat must be clearly drawn. For the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, the right of nations to self-determination means to end the struggle on the basis of its own class interests. It has been frequently seen in history that, even the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, having won the victory in the struggle against oppressor nations, immediately starts to deprive other national communities of their national rights. One example of this is the conduct of the Turkish bourgeoisie. It achieved its independence waging a national struggle against the invasion of imperialist states in the I. World War and then moved on to oppress the Kurdish nation.

For this reason, the revolutionary proletariat defends the national self-determination demand together with the demand of preventing new privileges gained on the backs of other nations. This attitude means to defend national self-determination while drawing clear lines with the chauvinism of the oppressed nation’s bourgeoisie.

7- We must be alert against illusions stemming from petty-bourgeois radicalism

The proletariat’s class interests call for transcending national boundaries and national narrow-mindedness. The proletariat can not make the national question absolute and turn it into a fetish. Nationalism, even in the best case which arises on the ground of a revolt of the oppressed nation against oppressor nation, is essentially a bourgeois ideology. Existence of the political currents which are shaped by petty-bourgeois revolutionism inspired partly by Stalinism and the conception of “national socialism” it created, does not change this fact. What this can imply at best is the fact that the petty-bourgeois radicalism takes on the task (achieving national unity, establishing national state) which historically belongs to the bourgeoisie.

8- Revolutionary proletariat does not support every national movement

Revolutionary proletariat is not obliged to support every national movement. It is incompatible with the interests of the proletariat to support reactionary national movements not motivated by an historically progressive demand. There are even such movements that have turned into a toy of imperialist powers, which put them outside the scope of a national liberation struggle.

It is perfectly possible that a national movement that has not been supported because it has served reaction at one moment of history, reappears on the scene of history as qualified to be supported by the proletariat, or vice versa.[i] On this basis, the variable character of the communists’ political attitude in the face of changing concrete conditions, is not an indicator of inconsistency of Marxism, but on the contrary of its consistency. But the approach of communists must carefully be based on concrete analysis of the concrete situation of national movements, making sure that it is free from national prejudices, oppressor nation chauvinism, theoretical dogmatism, narrow group interests. Communists must have the flexibility to revise their approach depending on the changes in the national movement or the environment in which it takes place.

Revolutionary proletariat has a positive view of the fusion between nations, which is not realized through force, but produced by concrete conditions of a certain historical era. However, it is possible that separatist bourgeois movements could occur later on within the same historical formation due to inner conflicts of interest within the bourgeoisie (for instance bourgeois separatist movements seen in European countries like Italy, Belgium etc. which have formed their national unity long ago). But the proletariat has no interest in decomposing an historically accomplished union of nations into its precedent components.

Support of revolutionary proletariat for a national question can never go to the point of strengthening this or that nationalism. But petty-bourgeois nationalist leaderships who bear the mission of the bourgeoisie (despite they assume socialist colours) take the exact opposite attitude.

For the proletariat, whose class interests necessitates the unity of all countries’ workers and whose historical mission is to end national divides by securing the voluntary unity and fusion of all nations, the support for national question means fulfilling a “negative” task. Its “positive” task is not deepening and spreading national divides, but overthrowing nation-states and paving the way to voluntary union of nations by a world revolution which progress embracing national units as big as possible.

9- The criterion is not national Interests, but class interests of the proletariat in defending the right of separation

It is programmatically a fundamental principle of communists on the “national question” to acknowledge national self-determination including the right to separate. But the criterion which decides the proletariat’s attitude on the national question cannot be “national interests” etc. The criterion is class interests of the proletariat. For this reason, acknowledging the separation right at large can not mean that separation would be advised and propagated in every concrete situation. Communists would assess each problem individually and take their independent attitude according to the proletariat’s interests. However, that separation could not be advised in a certain case, can not be extended to the point of denial of the right to separate.

Main task of the oppressed nation’s communists is to prevent mixing of banners (revolutionary banner of the proletariat and bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist banners). For this reason, an oppressed nation’s communist supports the demand for political independence not from the standpoint of the interests of a new nation-state but because it constitutes a forward step that helps clear the way for the proletarian revolution. Besides, it wages a fight against small nation philistinism, its tendency towards isolationism and give the struggle for unity of the proletariat highest priority.

10- Acknowledgement of national self-determination is necessary to overcome national prejudices

Rejecting the right of nations to self-determination in the name of “emphasising the class”, or by saying that “the point is the self-determination of the proletariat” will result in overlooking the continuation of oppressor nation privileges. If the right to separation is not acknowledged, then the nationalist propaganda of the oppressed nation’s bourgeoisie would be effectual and could lead the masses. When the revolutionary proletariat, while acknowledging the right of nations to self-determination, manages to gain in practice the leadership of such a struggle that is wide enough to implement all revolutionary transformations that are mainly for the interests of the labouring masses (for example land revolution for peasants) then it can expose the limits of bourgeois nationalism. Thus it can pave the way for voluntary unity of toiling masses from different nations. Thus it can render ineffective the bourgeois nationalism.

If the proletariat, after seizing power in a certain geography, acknowledges the right of nations to self-determination and, further, exercises positive discrimination in favour of the oppressed nation, then this is not in contradiction with the aim of spreading the proletarian revolution worldwide and abolishment of national borders. Because the program of the revolutionary proletariat envisages that the way to the fusion of nations passes from voluntary unity. And a voluntary unity can be formed only on the basis of defending separation right.

11- It is the oppressed nation’s business to decide how to use the right to separation

Another principle of the revolutionary proletariat on the national question is to make sure that the proletariat of the oppressor nation stays impartial to the oppressed nation’s choice between separation or a new union.

The working class of the oppressor nation must be able to keep impartial to the oppressed nation’s choice either it is to build a separate state or form a unity within the borders of another nation-state by its own will. Because wherever the oppressed nation decides to stay, the proletariat always aims at organising in such a manner that it can form the unity of fight of all workers across these boundaries. It is clear that workers who defend that the oppressed nation must in any case stay within the borders of their “own” (oppressor) nation-state, are contaminated with oppressor nation chauvinism.

The main point for the communists of both oppressed and oppressor nation is to produce all decisions according to the goal of advancing of the proletarian struggle. Thus, in the event that a revolution embracing oppressor and oppressed nations’ proletarians develops, the task of the communists of the oppressed nation is to struggle for and propagate that a united workers’ power is in the interest of poor masses.

12- Revolutionary proletariat is for big and democratically united states

In principle Marxism is against small states; it defends centralisation. But it defends a democratic centralisation against bureaucratic centralisation. For this reason the revolutionary proletariat’s programme on national question does not oppose autonomy of lands having different characteristics of economy, ways of life, national composition etc.

Because Marxism is against building national unity by exerting force over different nations, it takes a lenient attitude to the demand for federation should it constitute a step towards a centralized unity.

13- Policies of oppressor and oppressed nation communists are same in their essence despite they may differ on the level of tactics

The main point from the standpoint of historical interests of the proletariat is to build the common revolutionary power of both oppressed and oppressor nation proletarians and thus create, on the basis of acknowledging right to separation, a voluntary will for unity among the toiling masses of the oppressed nation.

But depending on the differences of concrete conditions, internationalist policy of the proletariat, while being the same in its essence, may differ in propaganda and tactics. Common target can be reached only when communists of the oppressor nation acknowledge the right to separate and the oppressed nation’s communists give weight to unity in their propaganda. It is necessary for two reasons to acknowledge the right to separation even when unity is advisable (in the event of a proletarian revolution embracing both oppressed and oppressor nations like in the 1917 October Revolution). First, developing and consolidating the political consciousness of the oppressor nation’s proletariat against dominant nation chauvinism, second, for oppressor nation communists to prove in practice to the oppressed nation that they are not contaminated with dominant nation chauvinism.

14- Chief organizational task must be to secure organizational unity of the proletariat

The most important distinguishing character of Marxist internationalism in its approach towards “national question” is in the field of organisation. Extending the meaning of national self-determination to the point of organising the proletariat on the basis of national divisions is nothing but narrow-minded nationalism. The essential platform of the revolutionary organisation of the proletariat of the oppressed and oppressor nation should be a single revolutionary world party and not separate national parties.

A national liberation organisation can by no means substitute revolutionary class party. The need for revolutionary class organisation of the proletariat cannot be eliminated through national liberation organisations. The basic question is: Class unity of the proletariat or national unity on the basis of national liberation struggle? This is exactly the field where the difference between the goal of the proletarian revolution and of national liberation is exposed. Liberation struggle of the oppressed nation may turn out to come up before a proletarian revolution that would embrace proletarians of both oppressor and oppressed nations. However, this does not raise a national liberation struggle to the level of a proletarian revolution.

15- Criticising nationalism of the oppressed nation should not serve oppressor nation chauvinism

The essence of the internationalist education of the proletariat on national question is to prevent national differences and inequalities (distinction between oppressor and oppressed nation) from hindering the unity of the working class. The goal of the revolutionary proletariat is to overcome bourgeois nationalism and create a real unity of fight and brotherhood between proletarians from every nation.

However, the character of bourgeois nationalism changes under different historical conditions. Nationalism of the oppressed nation cannot be equated with repressive, rabid chauvinism of the oppressor nation. For this reason, communists of oppressor nation should never let their criticism towards nationalism of the oppressed nation overshadow the chauvinism of oppressor nation.

16- Raising the demand of “national cultural autonomy” against the right of nations to self-determination is unacceptable

Implementation of the demand of national self-determination under capitalism generally requires political struggle and organisation of the oppressed nation. This situation leads to changes in political balances and revolutionary turmoil not only within the oppressed nation but also within the oppressor nation.

For this reason bourgeois liberals, reformist and chauvinist socialists of the oppressor nation try to water down (denying the right to establish a separate state) the national liberation struggle by putting forward the demand of “national cultural autonomy” in place of national self-determination. By this way they want to undermine the revolutionary position of the proletariat on the national question and cloud its viewpoint.

A reflection of the same attitude can also be seen among the bourgeois and reformist socialists of the oppressed nation. They wish a “resolution” of national question by various compromises, partial reforms (education in mother language, developing native culture etc.) and not arousing working masses too much, instead of national self-determination, that is by waging a struggle against the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation.

Marxist programme on national question already includes justified demands like education in mother tongue of the oppressed nation. Therefore the programme of the revolutionary proletariat opposes the tendency to replace national self-determination with the demand of “national cultural autonomy”, taking refuge behind such justifiable demands.

Because, unless the political solution is defended in its entirety, that is unless national self-determination is implemented, national question will actually remain to exist and continue to be a barrier on the way to unity of the oppressor and oppressed nation proletariat. That’s why the programme of the revolutionary proletariat is against liberal chatters like “national cultural autonomy” which serves to put a real political solution out of the agenda.



[i] For instance, while Southern Slavs were not supported because they were set to serve reactionary tsarist regime and thus strengthen European reaction, Eastern Europe and the Balkans at a later stage witnessed a mass awakening against feudal reaction, which must be supported.