The struggle against national oppression has always been a thorny issue for Marxists. Our movement is founded on the idea that the proletariat is an international class and that proletarians in every country have a common interest in fighting for the same objective. Unlike the bourgeoisie, which is also an international class but is divided into various national capitals in competition with each other, the proletariat can only achieve socialism as part of a world revolutionary process – which also includes transcending the nation-state itself, which since the maturation of capitalism has become a fetter on human capability. The democratic right of self-determination is how communists can positively overcome national oppression and reach the strategic aim of international unity.
National self-determination is not a question of whether communists should promote secession of minority ethnic populations from the larger state they inhabit. I will concede that, among proponents and detractors alike, self-determination is often conceived of this way – perhaps most famously during the decolonization of Africa, where various national liberation movements successfully overthrew direct colonial rule only to replace it with the domination of local ruling classes. In contemporary politics, we see things like the Scottish left’s capitulation to Scottish nationalism full stop, with the socialist movement there giving essentially uncritical support to the bourgeois Scottish National Party and its plan to leave the United Kingdom as a positive step toward socialism.1
But the Scottish left’s collapse into nationalism does not mean it created the Scottish national question, nor does it mean the policy itself is unsound. Communists should not be in the business of promoting secession or trying to impose national sentiments that aren’t really there, but we must be able to positively articulate solutions to historically-constituted national oppression where it exists.
It is not the purpose of this article to argue extensively for what constitutes a ‘nation’; needless to say, I don’t know of many people on the left who fight for Texas to be freed from the chains of oppression that bind it. As a working definition, let’s consider a national entity as a population with a shared language, common culture, geographic concentration and – most importantly – a national identity. The latter is the most crucial issue, not only in the moral sense (oppressing a subject population is morally wrong) but politically. In the dominating nation, the means used by the ruling class to control the subject nation will inevitably be turned back toward the proletariat of the imperialist country – to paraphrase Lenin, no nation that oppresses another can be free.2 National questions are a block against the development of class power in the oppressed country, with the local ruling class able to monopolize anti-establishment sentiment for its own purposes.
The solution here is not to cede that ground to bourgeois nationalism, but to champion national self-determination in the interests of the world working class. As far as North America goes, it should be fairly uncontroversial to say that Puerto Rico, Quebec, and the American Indian nations all have unresolved national questions.3
Resolving that question is an elementary democratic principle: that all nations have the right to decide their own fate, so long as this doesn’t involve oppression of another people. This doesn’t rise above or supersede the interests of the world revolution, but it does require recognizing “voluntary union as the basis of the democratic republic.”4 Except in the most extreme circumstances, communists should fight for larger states as opposed to smaller ones, for more integration as opposed to separation. Naturally, beginning the transition from capitalism to socialism requires a large territory with a developed capitalist economy, not an island or a historically underdeveloped region of an existing country. So there is a material basis for avoiding a lapse into separatism, while also steering clear of ‘great nation’ chauvinism.
In Puerto Rico’s case, it’s undeniable that Puerto Ricans both individually and collectively have an unequal relationship with the United States. Puerto Ricans on the island have no voting power in the federal government, denied even that constrained democratic right won by the working class on the mainland. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has no authority except what is given to it by Congress, which can quite easily be taken away – as we see with the virtual debt dictatorship established by PROMESA.5 As recently as last June, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Puerto Rico has no right to alter this relationship unless Congress chooses to grant it. There are also hierarchies within U.S. colonial possessions, with some granted more rights than others – Puerto Ricans for example can at least count themselves as citizens, while American Samoans are merely “nationals.” When a national question is clearly deep-set in popular consciousness, socialists must have a positive program for it – whether that national question is ‘traditional’ and straightforward, as in Puerto Rico, or more ambiguous, as in Quebec.6
Less traditionally, the Red Party also favors self-determination for American Indian nations. Needless to say, even the largest tribal governments – the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, with around 300,000 and 180,000 residents respectively – lack the economic base to become independent states even if such an outcome were desirable. But there is still the infamous legacy of colonialism and the national resentment associated with it. Tribal governments still preside over the most impoverished populations in the United States, in territories where their legal authority is so limited that rapists can offend with impunity, as tribal law enforcement is barred from prosecuting non-native citizens. In reservations where strong tribal identity exists, self-determination could be exercised in favor of increased tribal sovereignty within the current framework of recognized tribes being “domestic dependent nations”7, or as integration into the existing state structures.
There is a wide tactical range involved in the demand for national self-determination. As a rule, revolutionaries in the oppressor nation should lean toward emphasizing the right of the people in the subject nation to decide their future, while revolutionaries in the oppressed nation lean toward emphasizing the workers’ strategic interest in remaining in the union – not in its current form but as equal partners. This is a test the Puerto Rican left, by and large, fails in its present form, but it does not need to be this way. Our vision should be bold enough to imagine a Marxist party organized in the 50 states and in American colonial possessions, where the ‘mainland’ makes a principled case for Puerto Rico’s right to settle its relationship with the U.S. and the island argues against the Puerto Rican ruling class’s two mainstays of separatism and maintenance of the deeply unequal status quo.
This is the internationalist answer to national questions: overcoming national antagonisms and resentments, ending involuntary unity in favor of the closest possible voluntary unity.
- “The Determination of Revolution.” Jack Conrad. Weekly Worker. http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/638/the-determination-of-revolution/
- “‘Practicality’ in the National Question.” V.I. Lenin. The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch04.htm
- Note the absence of Black self-determination in my argument, which, while it is part of the Red Party’s minimum program I am not prepared to defend. In any case, Black self-determination (even for those who support it in one form or another) is a relatively unique case compared to those like Puerto Rico.
- From the Red Party Draft Program. http://red-party.com/about/draft-program/
- As described by Ed Morales for Jacobin, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/puerto-rico-promesa-board-obama-trump/
- Which is to say, whether or not we can say with certainty that Quebec is ‘oppressed’ by the Canadian state is secondary to the fact that the live national question is a break on class organization.
- As domestic dependent nations, recognized tribes do not function in the same way as states or municipalities, their status being somewhat like a ward of the federal government: http://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/marshall.html