Beyond Bourgeois Nationalism

Patrick Janis criticizes Josh Hollandsworth's case for national self-determination

July 26 Movement: did not lead to socialism

Within the Red Party and the Left in general, national liberation has been a major point of debate. National Liberation has been a very important part of the Left’s praxis as it featured prominently the ideas of oppressed nations and was means of liberating them from the inhuman grip of imperialism. While many on the left and a number in Red Party are very supportive of national liberation praxis, others have consistently opposed national liberation. This section of the left often argues that National Liberation movements risk a form of class collaborationist nationalism opposed to the proletarian internationalism at the heart of communism. This proletarian internationalism ultimately offers outcomes that are both more completely emancipatory and more practical to implement.

Although many of us who feel this way are sympathetic to the emancipatory motives of National Liberation, the attempts of pro-national liberation communists to respond to such criticism have ultimately reinforced our position. A rather interesting example of this is the article “Neither Class nor Color-Blind”1 by my colleague in the Red Party, Josh Hollandsworth. While he makes a fair case, in the end Josh backs up the left critique of national liberation by proclaiming the national liberationists’ opposition to capitalist breeds of nationalism, but failing to talk about the historical legacy of nationalist movements in practice and tacitly brushing aside the logical conclusions of application of the theory in the case of the indigenous peoples of North America and Polynesia.

The first thing that Josh tries to do in his article is make the distinction between national liberationism and capitalist forms of nationalism-of-the-oppressed:

Critics have referred to my position as supporting bourgeois forms of nationalism, much as the form of separatism advocated by groups like Hamas, the Workers World Party or the New Black Panther Party. If this were my position it would indeed be worthy of such criticism but that is not the case.

Josh sincerely believes that there is a distinction between bourgeois forms of nationalism and the kind of national liberation he is advocating, and so we should not paint his stance as intentionally anti-proletarian, but he fails to give concrete historical examples of national liberation movements that go beyond bourgeois nationalism. We must evaluate these movements on their real merit, and so should look to real life examples of national liberation movements ranging from of the Cuban Revolution to the Kurdish nationalists fighting in Syria and Turkey. In doing so we find that these movements are not the kind of communist proletarian movements that the working class stands to benefit from advocating for, but rather bourgeois left-nationalist movements that are either co-opted by Stalinists after they gain relevance — as in the Cuban Revolution — or they come to something similar in practice, slowly but surely advancing to capitalism over time.

The Cuban Revolution Began a broad left-wing revolution against the dictatorship  of Fulgencio Batista with Castro’s guerrilla army eventually maneuvering itself into a position of power and shortly afterwards adopting “Marxist Leninism” as the ideology of the new Cuban Republic as means of winning favor with the Soviet Union. Castro’s regime carried out a counter revolutionary wave of terror against working class of Cuba and persecuted the LGBT population in the name of Stalin-esque social conservatism. The question must be asked: what will make the national liberation movements of the future any different than the national liberation movements of the past? Let me be clear: left-wing nationalism of the oppressed is preferable to colonialism and imperialism, and until a clear proletarian internationalist alternative is given to said oppressed peoples the ultra-leftists have no right to haphazardly dismiss national liberation as means of gaining some level of freedom from the grip of imperialism. However this does not mean that we should not be critical of said movements and strive towards the creation of a proletarian internationalist alternative to left-wing nationalism. We have the opportunity as Communists to be the voice for Communism to the proletarian elements of these movements, rather than lending our support to the government that will inevitably oppress them due to its necessarily bourgeois class character.

Another major issue with Josh’s article is that he touches upon an incredibly significant problem with engaging in national liberation in the context of the United States. He uses the example of Hawaiian Natives only making up 10% of the population of Hawaiʻi:

One of the biggest things that has been denied to black people, as well as all Native American nations and island territories is a collective voice which has any serious level of authority over their own material conditions. It goes without saying that a socialist society would empower them in ways they never had been in the history of the United States. But what if they want assurances of their own representation and leadership? It has already been existing policy in the Red Party to support the independence of Hawaii and Native American tribes (which we now identify in our party language as “nations”). And yet only about 10 percent of the population of Hawaii is of Native Hawaiian descent. What do we carry this policy for, if not specifically to empower Native peoples and guarantee their representation in the maintenance of their own historical lands in each of these cases? Their reduced size is a direct result of colonialism and genocide carried out for hundreds of years. In a new socialist republic, they should be guaranteed an opportunity at rebuilding their societies as direct owners of its territory.

Like many of proponents of national liberation, he does not outline what practically would be needed for the Hawaiian people or any other native population in the United States to fully recover from the genocidal actions of colonizers and reclaim their ancestral homelands. Instead he — like many national liberationists — focus on the moral imperative that we make up for the history of genocide at the foundation of nations like the United States of America.

To figure out what a national liberation struggle would look like with the native population of the United States, we will can draw out the implications of the example that Josh uses: the native population of Hawaiʻi is only around 10% of the total population of the state. While Josh imagines a Hawaiian Socialist Republic governed by native Hawaiians and spanning their ancestral territory, he never asks the question: what to do with the 90% of the population that are not of native descent? Now there are two possible options for dealing with 90% both represent the worst possible impulses of any kind of nationalism.The first option would be to make Hawaiians of non-native descent second-class citizens in the Hawaiian Socialist Republic and to strictly limit any kind of immigration to Hawaiʻi from other socialist states.The second is committing ethnic cleansing or genocide against the non-native population of Hawaiʻi. Both of these options are clearly anti-internationalist, anti-proletarian and themselves morally bankrupt. I’m open to discussing any other solutions to this problem on the pro-national liberation side, but I imagine they would agree that Communists should not  support ethno-class societies built on exclusion or elimination.

The position of national liberation is generally popular on the Left. However the criticism of national liberation as inherently anti-internationalist and anti-proletarian has not been addressed by the proponents of these movements. Josh Hollandsworth, while making some relatively convincing arguments on behalf of national liberation, fails to confront the criticism that he claims to be countering in his article and — much like the rest of his left-nationalist peers — theoretically leaves the door wide open for reactionary forms of ethnic nationalism to be accepted by the future proletarian movement.