A discussion document for the New Socialist Group (1996)
By David McNally
Part One: The Nationalist Challenge to Marxism
1. Nationalism dominates world politics—and it does so with surprising ease. Open any daily newspaper, listen to discussions at work or school, watch or listen to any news show, look at the courses taught at universities, and you find that the division of the global population into entities called “nations” is overwhelmingly taken for granted. As I write these words, the Summer Olympic Games are underway in Atlanta. All the athletes at these Games are organized by nation-states; they represent “their” state, they wear its colours and its flag. The medals won by these athletes are said to belong to their country, they bring the country honour and pride. Every day, a tally of medal standings by nation is provided to the millions upon millions of people who are following this event.
For the vast majority of people, there is nothing odd, insidious or dangerous about any of this. They take for granted that they are members of a nation-state; they take pride in its alleged accomplishments; they suffer when their nation is embarrassed or humiliated (remember Ben Johnson?). It rarely if ever occurs to them that the nation-state system is a very recent creation in human history, that most human societies have had no concept of the nation whatsoever, and that the rise of the nation-state system corresponds to the international development of capitalism. Moreover, rarely does the idea enter political debate that the nation-state system is a unique political form that regulates, controls and disciplines people in a way that facilitates their exploitation by capital. Most of the time, we simply inhabit a mental universe in which discussion of things in national terms—Japanese cars, Canadian steel, American movies, Russian athletes, Jamaican music and so on—is part of the common-sense that organizes our political and cultural understanding of the world.
Even the rise of virulent ethno-nationalisms—like those in the former Yugoslavia, or those which are killing hundreds of thousands in Burundi and Rwanda at the moment—rarely cause us to question the very idea of nations or our own nationalism. It is overwhelmingly the other person’s nationalism that is considered the problem; almost never our own.
2. For all these reasons, nationalism represents arguably the greatest challenge to Marxism. “The workers have no country,” declared Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. In this spirit, Marxism launched the first political movement that thought in truly international terms and declared world-wide human emancipation and the elimination of the nation-state to be its highest goal. The International Workingmen’s Association (often known as the First International), launched in 1864, represented the form of organization that fit this outlook: an international political movement of the working class.
Yet, the period of nearly 150 years since the publication of the Communist Manifesto has been one in which working class movements have tended (outside of the interlude of 1917-23 or so) to become increasingly dominated by nationalism. Labour movements are almost entirely national in organization; they generally seek to organize workers in a given country with little thought of their sisters and brothers elsewhere. More than this, they are dominated by nationalism: they tend to support import controls (and other forms of national protectionism) to protect “our jobs” and “our” way of life. It is no exaggeration to say that left nationalism is the dominant ideology of labour movements throughout the world.
Yet, unless the hold of nationalism can be broken, the prospects are dim indeed for the politics of socialist internationalism. For this reason, discussion of “the national question” has been a recurring one within the socialist movement. In what follows, I intend to review some of the key elements of Marxist debates over nationalism, to look at their strengths and their weaknesses, and to apply some of the insights this survey provides to discussing national questions in Canada today.
Part Two: The National Question from Marx to Trotsky
3. The persistence of nationalism and the reality of national struggles have forced socialists to return regularly to this issue. But it has to be acknowledged that generally things have not gone well in this area. The vast majority of socialists have adapted to or accomodated to nationalism; they have come to see their project as involving a more enlightened and humane running of the national state (not its elimination in the course of an internationalizing struggle of “the wretched of the earth”). A small minority of socialists have simply tried to ignore the realities of national struggles, endlessly issuing calls for international unity of the world’s workers that move almost no one and which ignore real, concrete national questions. There are some important cases where socialists have struggled to find a genuinely internationalist ways of relating to realities of national oppression—Marx’s attitude towards Ireland in the 1860s, and Lenin’s approach to the oppressed peoples of Tsarist Russia stand out in this regard. Before looking at these examples, however, I want to spend a few moments on the first two trends to which I’ve alluded.
4. The world socialist movement first developed a mass character in Germany beginning in the late 1880s. Germany at that time was a monarchy with a parliament whose electorate was a small minority of the adult population. Over the years, more and more workers received the vote, and the organized party of the working class, the Social Democratic Party (often known by its German initials SPD), became a major political force. The SPD soon became identified with “capturing” the German state, not overthrowing it. As a result, SPD leaders became more and more influenced by the idea of the national interest. Increasingly, leading figures began to defend the idea of a “progressive” German colonialism. An SPD government, they suggested, would not free German colonies; it would simply treat them better. So powerful was the identification with the nation-state, so committed did much of the SPD leadership become to the idea of inheriting and taking over the nation that in August of 1914, the SPD came out in favour of the German government’s entry into the First World War. Most parties of the so-called Second International (founded in 1889) quickly followed suit.
5. In the forefront of the socialist opposition to the War were the Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, and the Russian Marxist V. I. Lenin. Both denounced the War as a feature of imperialism, as part of the competitive struggle of the major capitalist powers to divide up the globe. Luxemburg and Lenin developed policies of international socialist opposition to the War; they argued that workers should refuse to support “their” national ruling classes and that they should work to turn the social crises that the war would eventually induce into class wars of workers against the capitalist system.
6. Luxemburg and Lenin thus contributed to a vitally important internationalist and anti-imperialist current within the socialist movement. Despite their significant agreements in this area, however, they differed strongly on the question of the socialist attitude to national struggles. Luxemburg claimed that in the age of imperialism and the full internationalizing of capitalism, national struggles were out-moded. So powerful was the world economy, that the idea of an economically independent nation-state had become ridiculous. In the mid-nineteenth century, she argued, national wars that broke up old empires and created new bourgeois-democratic states had been progressive. But that age had passed. In the epoch of international capitalism, it was reactionary to support the creation of new nation-states. The task now was to mobilize the international working class against world capitalism. “In the era of rampaging imperialism, there can be no more national wars,” she declared. National struggles “can serve only as a means of deception,” of duping the masses.
Luxemburg’s position has a strength: its principled internationalism, its vigorous opposition to nationalism. But it also has, as Lenin argued, two crucial weaknesses. First, it papers over the hierarchical character of the relationships between nations—the fact that some dominate and others are oppressed—and in so doing leads socialists to a position of indifference or neutrality in struggles between oppressor nations and oppressed ones. Secondly, it underestimates the importance of socialists advocating the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination as a way to challenge the national-chauvinism that generally infects workers in the dominant nations. Luxemburg’s error, in other words, has to do with the fact that she looks at national struggles only from the relatively abstract level of the world economy. In so doing, she loses sight of their concrete political dynamics, the way in which such national conflicts shape the terrain of political struggle and working class consciousness. If Marxists are to be part of the real terms of political debate in society, argued Lenin, an abstract and timeless position of the sort “all national struggles are out-moded” will not do. Instead, revolutionary socialists must try to assess how given national struggles affect the general terrain of political struggle in society, and work out their approach from there. Lenin presented the argument he developed in this areas as an elaboration of the position Marx had taken on the struggle for Irish independence. In truth, Lenin’s position was more original than that. He developed a quite novel approach to the whole issue of national struggles. But let’s begin with Marx on Ireland, and see where Lenin went with it.
Marx and Engels had originally put little stock in the Irish struggle for independence from Britain. In 1848, for example, they held that Britain’s mass workers’ movement of the time (known as Chartism) would deal with the problem. They saw the Irish question as a fairly minor aspect of the working class struggle in Britain, and they often faulted the Irish nationalists for failing to ally themselves with Chartism. After the decline of Chartism, as anti-Irish sentiment started to play a more and more important role in British politics, and as the Fenian movement for Irish independence surged forward again in the 1860s, Marx’s position changed.
Marx’s argument took the following form. First, he claimed that anti-Irish sentiment, by tying English workers to an identification with their own rulers, was the biggest obstacle to independent working class politics:
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. . . . This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class . . . (Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, 293-4)
Second, Marx now argued that the national struggle in Ireland was the key to igniting the workers’ revolution in England. This, he acknowledged, was a reversal of his earlier view:
For a long time, I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime through English working class ascendancy . . . Deeper study has convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland . . . The lever must be applied in Ireland. (ibid., 284)
And it followed from this that the Irish question should now move to the forefront of working class politics in England. This, Marx insisted, was a vital issue for the First International: “Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland” (ibid, 294). The experience of rethinking the Irish question tended to be of more general importance for Marx and Engels. It lead Marx, for instance, to coin his wonderful saying that “any nation that oppresses another, forges its own chains.” In many respects, what Lenin did was to take this insight and apply it systematically.
8. The empire of the Russian Tsars contained dozens upon dozens of oppressed national communities. In trying to organize a working class movement across the Tsarist empire, Russian Marxists inevitably came up against nationalist aspirations. Many Russian Marxists dismissed these, suggesting that national issues had no place in a Marxist movement. Lenin’s early writings pay little attention to these questions. But over time, the national question came to play a more and more important role in his thinking. By the First World War, he had developed a fairly distinctive attitude towards the issue.
Lenin’s view has the following elements. First, in an imperialist world order there is a hierarchy among nations which inevitably produces nationalist revolts. Second, the key problem for Marxists is how to find their bearings as internationalists in a world dominated by national conflicts. Third, the crucial strategic problem is to try to displace workers’ nationalist sentiments by internationalist ones. Fourth, the biggest obstacle to doing so is the nationalism of workers in the dominant nations which (as Marx argued about English workers in the case of Ireland) leads them to identify with their ruling class; and which reinforces the nationalism of workers in the oppressed nations (since the latter do not see workers in the dominant nation as the least bit sympathetic to their aspirations to be free from national oppression). What follows from this, according to Lenin, is that Marxists should support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, including their right to form an independent state.
The key to Lenin’s argument is its focus on the political (unlike Luxemburg’s largely economic argument). Lenin insists that nationalism represents crucially a political division within the working class. The marxist approach takes this political division as its starting point in an effort to overcome it. To this end, the key question is not the economic viability of a given nation-state, but what tactics will be most effective in building working class solidarity and internationalism. And Lenin’s answer is clear: undermine the national chauvinism of workers in the dominant nation by campaigning openly for the right of oppressed nations to determine their own futures. To win workers in an oppresor nation to such a position would represent a major blow to nationalist identifications.
Lenin made it clear that this did not mean that marxists would like to see more and more independent nation-states set up. On the contrary, as internationalists Marxists favoured federations that brought more workers into a common political life. But, all such federations should be voluntary. Forcible, coercive or oppressive forms of political association were to be opposed:
If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. (cited in James M Blount, The National Question: Decolonising the Theory of Nationalism, 67).
Supporting the right of nations to self-determination thus became a key element in a strategic approach towards building international solidarity of workers. Not to support that right means to align oneself objectively with the dominant nationalism. And that means to operate with an abstract internationalism which fails to acknowledge the importance of the experience of national domination, or what Lenin called “the psychology that is so important in the national question” (Collected Works, v. 19, 499). International solidarity requires, in other words, that workers in the dominant nations be the most vigorous advocates of the right of oppressed peoples within “their” state to self-determination (including their right to secede).
At the same time, argued Lenin, it is such principled opposition to the dominant nationalism that will enable workers in the oppressed nation to move from nationalism to socialism. While socialists in the oppressor nation advocate the rights of the oppressed to self-determination, socialists in the oppressed nation “must attach prime significance to the unity and merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie” (Collected Works, v. 21, 409). In a similar spirit, the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions of the Communist International insisted that, even when supporting a bourgeois national struggles against colonialism, socialists should insist upon “the independence of the proletarian movement.”
This approach has considerable strengths in enabling socialists to engage seriously with actual national struggles without abandoning their internationalist objectives. For these reasons, we can learn much from Marx’s writings on Ireland and Lenin’s discussions of the national question. At the same time, these writings offer little more than guidelines. After all, defending the right to secede does not tell one under what conditions one should advocate it. Attention to the writings of Marx and Lenin is no substitute for concrete analysis of actual struggles in real conditions. Rather than providing a formula that can simply be applied in each and every context, they are a starting point to guide analysis. To try to use them as anything more is to substitute sloganeering for serious analysis. Before proceeding to discuss how we might use these insights in approaching national struggles in the Canadian state, it is important first to comment on the issues of nationalism and internationalism as they burst out in the period after Lenin’s death in 1924.
9. The world communist movement shifted from internationalism to nationalism under the impact of the degeneration of the revolution of 1917 in Russia and the rise of Stalinism. As early as 1923, the idea of “national Bolshevism” was being developed in the German Communist Party. Once Stalin declared that it was possible to build “socialism in one country,” the door was opened to the idea of distinct national struggles for socialism that accepted the terms of reference of the dominant nationalisms. So, for example, the Communist Party of Canada soon discovered that Canadian nationalism was “progressive”; meanwhile, CP members in Quebec who tried to promote a more nuanced understanding of the Quebec national struggle were regularly expelled for “bourgeois nationalism.”
It was one of the great historic contributions of Leon Trotsky to have resisted the notion of the struggle for socialism as a national one and to have held firm to marxist internationalism. For all their terrible problems, trotskyist groups played an important role in keeping such ideas alive at a time when nationalism dominated the left. Trotsky’s distinct contribution in this area was his theory of “permanent revolution.” Originally formulated as a strategic view of the coming Russian revolution, in the late-1920s, Trotsky reformulated it as a theory of the relationship between national and class struggles in the age of imperialism.
The theory of permanent revolution was a brilliant and original contribution to marxist thought. Rejecting the schematic, linear, and mechanistic idea that every society must pass through given historic stages before the struggle for socialism can be posed, Trotsky argued for concrete analysis of the class dynamics in any given society in the context of its relationship to the world economy. Thus, while most Russian Marxists argued that Russia first had to undergo a “bourgeois democratic revolution” against Tsarism and then complete a stage of capitalist development before the struggle for workers’ power might be on the agenda, Trotsky argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was too frightened by the growing power of a precocious Russian proletariat to lead the struggle against the Tsarist monarchy.
Frightened that a revolutionary movement for liberal democracy would spark mass strikes and bring an insurrectionary proletariat to the streets fighting for its distinctive class demands (as had indeed happened in 1905), the Russian bourgeoisie will soon desert such a struggle, he maintained. As a result, leadership in the anti-Tsarist struggle will pass to the proletariat which will put its unique stamp on the movement, pushing it towards the struggle for workers’ democracy. Borrowing a phrase from Marx, Trotsky described this as a “permanent revolution”—what begins as a revolutionary movement for liberal democracy will soon pass over into a struggle for socialist democracy and workers’ power.
Trotsky’s theory (developed in 1905-6) proved to be a profound anticipation of the class dynamics of the revolutionary process of 1917. Under the impact of the revolutionary movement in China in the 1920s, Trotsky soon extended the theory from Russia to the colonial world in general. In the colonies, he suggested, the same pattern will apply: a frightened bourgeoisie will pull back from the anti-colonial struggle; the latter will triumph only if led by a revolutionary party of the working class. While there were some important insights gained from this argument, it ran the risk of over-generalization. After all, in the absence of a working class as self-organized and combatative as the Russian workers’ movement of 1905 and 1917, why should petty bourgeois or bourgeois groups inevitably pull back from leading national struggles? Indeed, they didn’t. In countries like India, Algeria, Pakistan, Bangaldesh and dozens upon dozens more, nationalist movements not led by the working class did indeed establish independent nation-states. In China, a so-called Communist Party led such a struggle with no semblance of working class self-activity, and with no creation of organs of workers’ democracy.
The world after 1945 in fact saw a whole succession of national independence struggles in which working class movements played no meaningful role. Clearly this required some revision of Trosky’s theory. Whatever its strengths, it could not be used as a universally-valid prediction about national struggles in the age of imperialism. Some trotskyists did attempt to come to terms with developments that clearly failed to conform to Trotsky’s theory. Others, however, continued to cling dogmatically to the letter of Trotsky’s account. The largest U.S. trotskyist group (Socialist Workers Party) produced a document in 1974 for example, which argued: “In the imperialist epoch, the national bourgeoisie in the industrially backward countries betrays its own revolution. Bourgeois democratic tasks, including the achievment of national independence can be carried out only through the socialist revolution” (Dynamics of World Revolution Today, 137-8).
Now, the fact that this claim was obviously false (i.e. national independence was being achieved without socialist revolution) did not seem to matter. Trotsky had said it, therefore it must be true. But many trotskyists who took such a line started to see socialist revolutions and workers’ states everywhere: Algeria, Egypt, wherever a progressive-sounding nationalist regime took power. After all, if national independence could not be achieved without socialist revolution, then the achievement of national independence could only mean such a revolution had occurred. The fact that nothing resembling a socialist revolution could be identified—like millions of oppressed peoples taking to the streets and winning the rank and file of the army to their side, like mass strikes and workplaces occupations, like new institutions of popular self-government springing up in the workplaces and communities—did not seem to matter. Going much farther than had Trotsky, some groups began to argue that a hidden logic drove all nationalist struggles onto the road of socialist revolution. Even if they didn’t know it, bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists were actually making workers’ revolutions. The primacy of workers’ self-emancipation quickly disappeared (since almost any social group could now create socialism). And, inevitably, the line between nationalism and socialism became blurred. After all, if anti-imperialist nationalism automatically grows over into socialism, then the line between the two is quite fluid indeed. Some trotskyists who gravitated towards such views eventually went over to a more or less uncritical embrace of progressive-looking nationalism (Cuban, Nicaraguan, Grenadan) and gave up on the whole idea of permanent revolution and its insistence on independent working class and socialist organization within the national struggle (this was the evolution of the American SWP).
I make these points because they underline how important it is to resist simple formulas when assessing national struggles. There is no general law or dynamic of national struggles today (and there never has been). One of the errors of many marxists has been to search for one rather than undertaking the much more important task of developing a concrete analysis of particular national struggles at a given historic conjuncture. With this warning in mind, I want shortly to turn to some preliminary considerations on national struggles in the Canadian state. But first, I want to point out some of the areas in which the marxist account of nationalism remains weak so that we might be aware of areas of some of the work that remains to be done in developing a more thorough and comprehensive understanding of nationalism in the modern world.
Part Three: Problems for the Marxist Theory of Nationalism
10. One of the great strengths of Marx’s views on Ireland and Lenin’s writings on the national question is that they provide a way of (critically) supporting national struggles of oppressed peoples without championing any kind of nationalism per se. This makes their legacy a most important one. But having said this, we must acknowledge that neither Marx nor Lenin really provide us with a theory for understanding the biggest problem we face in this area: the incredible power and persistence of nationalism and national identifications. For, rather than being short-lived or episodic “diversions” from a more powerful class consciousness, nationalism has dominated and continues to dominate the thinking of the vast majority of working class and oppressed peoples. I do not claim to have all the answers as to why this is so. But let me outline four partial explanations that deserve to be explored and developed.
11. The first issue is what might be called the attractions of citizenship. Remember that early working class movements were formed in circumstances where the vast majority of working people did not have the vote. For that reason, the struggle for democratic rights, especially the right to vote, figured prominently in socialist agitation. Indeed, socialism—usually known by the name social democracy—often appeared to be largely about the inclusion of the working class within capitalist democracy. As a result, a whole historic tradition developed in which capitalist democracy was criticized simply for not being inclusive enough. As a result, the question of the form of capitalist political power—the bourgeois nation-state—and its inherent problems (bureaucratism, national definitions of citizenship, separation of economic and political power) were rarely raised. This meant that working class movements generally sought the full rights of citizenship within capitalist democracy. One cannot deny the importance of this struggle. After all, the struggle for bourgeois democratic rights, the battle to be considered a full member of society is of fundamental significance. But in the process, working people often became attached to this as a sort of ideal; they had little connection to political traditions which put forward a profound criticism of the inherent limits and biases of liberal democracy itself. Thus, a basically liberal-capitalist definition of rights and citizenship sunk very deep historic roots in working class movements—one in which people are treated as utterly separate entities called “individuals” who come together in competitive economic markets and who are regulated according to laws which recognize only the rights of individuals (and their “families”) who are largely buyers and sellers of goods and services (all of which is one aspect of what is often referred to as “reformism”). It has to be said that marxists have paid little attention to the ideological power of these notions of citizenship, often preferring simply to focus on “corrupt” or “sell-out” leaders who betrayed the socialist movement. If we are to develop a serious alternative to reformism, however, it will be necessary not just to denounce “bad leaders,” but, more important, to find ways of advancing a critique of capitalist democracy and citizenship that acknowledges the importance of rights while advancing a critque of their limits which resonates with the experiences of working class people, rathering than sounding like a set of crude slogans.
12. Related to this issue is a second problem: the state-centered versions of socialism that have dominated the 20th century. Across a whole historic period most of the left presented state ownership as the social and economic essence of socialism. Marx had put the entire emphasis of his critique of capitalism on what he called the social relations of production, by which he meant the relationships of domination, control, alienation and exploitation that dictate how wealth is produced in a capitalist society.
What followed from this emphasis was the idea that socialism entails the development of new social relations of production based upon dis-alienated forms of control and self-management of production by working people. Workers’ control of production and new institutions of popular self-government are at the heart of such a perspective.
Especially during the era in which the Stalinized Communist Parties dominated the socialist left (1925-1980 or so), these commitments were lost. State ownership of the means of production and a “planned economy” were said to be the essence of the new society. Despite their best intentions, many trotskyists also placed the emphasis here. As a result, the idea that state ownership is inherently progressive, indeed that it is inherently socialist, became very widespread on the left. This contributed to the “state-centered” politics in which the ideas of state regulation and state planning were elevated to a prime position in socialist propaganda. One consequence of this was that the inherently oppressive nature of the nation-state was rarely broached. In fact, to this day, many on the left continue to push such a view, seemingly oblivious to the mass hostility to centralized state bureaucracies that has developed—for good reason—among working class people in huge parts of the world.
What is entirely lost in such “state-centered” socialist politics (what we would call socialism from above ) is that the nation-state arose with the development of capitalism as bourgeois classes sought integrated national markets with a uniform system of laws and taxes, a common language, a unified government, and a national army to defend and advance their claims against “foreign” capitalists (and to put down domestic revolts when necessary). Also lost is a strong sense of the inherently bureaucratic form of bourgeois democracy (emphasized by Marx in The Civil War in France ).
Finally, state-centered versions of socialism tend to lose sight of the fact that as national structures and institutions nation-states perpetuate the division of the world into “us” (who belong to a given nation) and “them (foreigners, outsiders, etc). The consequence of state-centered socialism, then, has been to reinforce nationalism at the expense of internationalism.
13. This brings me to a third issue: the politics of space. Marxists have been curiously indifferent to questions of space, especially to the way in which peoples’ identities have spatial and geographic points of reference. Yet, personal memories invariably have spatial dimensions: we think of ourselves as having been born in a certain place, having lived, grown up, worked, gone to school in various places, and so on. Now, for most of human history, relationships to space have had nothing to do with belonging to a nation. But capitalism has stamped our sense of belonging, our need for community with others, with national forms. In truth, people belong to groups with both smaller and larger spaces. But capitalism constructed what Benedict Anderson has described as “imagined communities.” Nations are thus in part imaginary constructions—organized around symbols like flags, anthems, national colours, and largely artifical myths and histories—which connect with administrative units called nation-states. But it would be naive to think that these imagined communities do not exercise a real power of attraction for people. We need only observe phenomena like the Olympic Games to realize the attractive power of these imagined communities. Millions of people who have never met Silken Laumann or Donovan Bailey nevertheless act as if they are “their own flesh and blood,” glorying in their victories, agonizing in their defeats.
I say this not because I think there is anything inevitable about national identifications; on the contrary. But unless revolutionary socialists understand that such identifications speak to a real need—the desire to belong to a community with others, to have some sense of common purpose—- then we will underestimate the sense in which mass socialist movements of the future will have to help develop truly internationalist feelings of community that connect with both local and global experiences. It will not be enough to have a “vanguard” which tells people that nationalism is their enemy; it will be necessary to create new experiences of space based upon forms of organization that create new solidarities and new identifications, forged in common struggle, that go beyond the nation-state.
14. And this brings me to my fourth point: the rise of nationalism in the age of globalization. Economic globalization is all the rage; barely any corner of the globe has been untouched by the dramatic ascendancy of transnational corporations (TNCs) and global financial markets. Most nation-states are economically smaller than the world’s largest TNCs; and world money markets move sums around every day that massively exceed the holdings of any central bank (see my article “The End of the Nation State?”, New Socialist 3, May-June 1996). Yet these global economic entities are wreaking havoc on peoples lives: factories close, whole communities are destroyed, social services are savaged as communities’ hospitals, schools, post offices and so on disappear, all in the name of globalization.
In such circumstances, nationalism often becomes the first and most accessible means for understanding and resisting these forces. However remote a national government might appear, it’s a lot closer and a lot more tangible than some TNC or an electronic global money market centered in cyberspace. And it’s more likely to listen to a group of angry farmers or laid-off miners than is the head of the World Bank or one of the world’s most powerful corporate executives. Yet, demanding that the national state protect “us” against global capital slides almost inevitably into seeing the problem in national terms. Foreigners and things foreign become the enemies of our security and well-being. Nasty and unscrupulous politicians quickly become adept at fuelling and manipulating such sentiments. So, US autoworkers engage in bashing Japanese cars, disaffected youth in Germany get pulled into firebombing hostels full of Turkish migrant labourers, people in California support propositions cracking down on “illegals” from Mexico, English-speaking Canadians denounce “greedy” Quebeckers, Serbs, Croats and Muslims are pitted against one another in the former Yugoslavia, Hutus and Tutsis find themselves in bloody conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi—the list goes on.
It’s no accident then, that in a period of fierce global restructuring of capital, old and new nationalisms are rearing their heads—and many of them in a most virulent and violent fashion. Rarely do we hear the clarion cry of the anti-colonial nationalisms of the 1950s and ‘60s since most of these have been thoroughly discredited by their failures to meet hopes for development. Instead, nasty, divisive, increasingly ethnic nationalisms are being promoted in one part of the world after another. And in a context of anger and despair, especially where the left and the labour movement appear to be spent forces, right-wing ethnic nationalisms quite often seize the political initiative. Again, there is nothing inevitable about any of this.
But it would be foolhardy to underestimate the upsurge of nationalism we are witnessing in this era of globalization. And it should remind us that the need for socialists to underline their internationalist commitments is perhaps more pressing than at any time since the bulk of the left embraced nationalism in 1914. To do so, we will need to take up the important insights offered by the tradition of socialist internationalism and develop them more thoroughly in relation to questions like the politics of space, nation-states and economic globalization, and the critique of the form of the bourgeois nation-state from the perspective of socialism from below.
Part Four: National Questions in Canada Today
15. Canada is a product of the imperialist expansion of the European powers. Established as a British “colonial settler state,” Canada is based upon the domination, oppression and subordination of aboriginal peoples and of the French settlers who populated New France and other parts of the Canadas conquered by Britain in 1759. Canada was founded upon the oppression of these groups; for this reason Canadian politics is shaped by two main national struggles, those of native peoples (or the “First Nations”) and of the Quebecois.
16. Because native peoples were economically marginalized, politically disenfranchised, and horribly oppressed by the apartheid policies of the Indian Act, they have had a difficult time finding levers by which to exercise political pressure. It was largely in the midst of the explosion of social protest in the 1960s and early 1970s that politically organized native movements began to make their mark. Inspired in part by groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement in the US, native activists began to engage in much more militant and concerted forms of struggle (see “Red Power,” an interview with Howard Adams in New Socialist 2, March-April 1996).
Since the upheavals of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there has been an effort to professionalize the native movement, to make it a more conventional lobbying effort. At the forefront of this shift has been the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations. Much of the focus of the AFN has been on constitutional change, in particular the attempt to get recognition of the “inherent right to self-government” of native peoples enshrined in the Constitution Act. It is vital that socialists support this demand. Given that native peoples never consented to being governed by the Canadian state, their inherent right to choose whatever form of self-government they desire must be acknowledged and defended.
At the same time, we must recognize that a whole layer of native activists (many of them of a younger generation than the AFN leaders) rejects the focus on constitutional change and land claims through the courts that dominates mainstream native politics. These activists have been in the forefront of direct action forms of civil disobedience like road and highway blockades and occupations of historic native lands of the sort that we’ve seen at Oka, Gustafsen Lake and Ipperwash. It is vital that socialists, while defending the demands of a group like the AFN, also try to organize solidarity with these more militant forms of native struggle. We must make it clear that we support militant native self-organization and self-activity and that we blame the colonialist practices of the Canadian state for any violence which occurs.
16. The national question which has dominated official politics in Canada is that of the Quebecois. This has to do with the fact that, wanting to profit from the agricultural and commercial development of New France, and wanting French farmers to continue working their land, the British colonizers were not interested in displacing the people of the colony. While native peoples were increasingly pushed to the margins of economic life, things were more complicated with the French settlers. Initially, the British tried to suppress the Catholic Church and the French language. They soon realized, however, that they would need an alliance with the French elite—landlords, clergy, and a few capitalists—if they were to govern the area effectively. As a result, while locking New France into a relationship of colonial domination by British-appointed authorities, they also made concessions: tolerance of the French language, the Catholic Church and the French legal code. When the push came in the 1860s to integrate the British colonies in North America, Quebec was granted a further concession: restoration of its own provincial legislative assembly. As a result, a political entity was created (the province of Quebec) which housed the second largest provincial population in the country, a vast majority of whom were francophone, and which was home to some of its most important centers of agriculture, manufacturing and commerce. This meant that grievances from Quebec had usually to be negotiated by the predominantly English-speaking ruling class.
While nationalist pressures regularly emanated from Quebec (and could become quite frustrating for them at times of war), so long as the Catholic Church dominated cultural and political life, Quebec nationalism did not seem especially threatening to Canada’s ruling class. That changed in the 1960s as the rise of a secular middle class and a new labour movement broke the stranglehold of the Church and launched a new kind of nationalist movement (which crystallized ultimatedly in the creation of the Parti Quebecois). The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the October crisis of October 1970 (in which the Trudeau government used the army and police state measures to crush the Front de la Liberation du Quebec), the militant general strike of 1972, and the election of a PQ government under Rene Levesque in 1976 all combined to move the “Quebec question” to the forefront of political debate. And there it has remained for a period of thirty years. Moreover, the alleged “obsession” of federal politicians with resolving the Quebec question has been exploited by right-wing politicians to suggest that in the midst of hardship for most, Quebeckers are getting “special treatment.”
17. In the first instance, the attitude of socialists should be clear enough. Quebec is an oppressed nation within the Canadian state. Initially conquered by British imperialism, it continues to be denied the democratic right to determine its own future. Socialists thus defend Quebec’s right to self-determination including its right to secede from the Canadian confederation (this does not mean that we accept the right of the Quebec government to deny that same right to the native peoples in its midst). But from here, things get more complicated. For, as I pointed out above, there is no general rule or universal law which instructs socialists as to whether we should advocate or oppose separation or secession. To sort that out, we need a concrete analysis.
Basically, the socialist attitude should probably be something like Marx’s was on Ireland. If a powerful, united workers’ movement shows the capacity to address problems of national oppression, then national separation is unnecessary. Marx thought this was the case in Britain during the period of Chartism which peaked in 1848. But, if chauvinism towards the oppressed nation becomes a continual means of blocking the development of independent working class politics, then it makes sense to advocate independence as a way of removing a national antagonism that holds back left-wing politics.
Whatever one might say about the past, I believe a good case can now be made that in the aftermath of the debate over Bills 101 and 172 (Quebec’s recent language laws), over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, and with the enormous hostility that has been generated in much of the country to the idea of granting Quebec recognition as a “distinct society,” anti-Quebec chauvinism now functions in much the same way anti-Irish chauvinism did in the 1860s: as a way of binding English-speaking workers into an identification with their rulers and the traditions of the English-Canadian state. All attempts to deal with national demands coming from Quebec are soon met with a powerful chorus of opposition from a considerable portion of ordinary English-speaking people. In the midst of such anti-Quebec outcries, a national identity uniting working people with the traditions of the Canadian state is affirmed. For these reasons, it probably makes sense for socialists in the Canadian state to advocate the secession of Quebec. We can address questions like advocating a new “equal and free confederation”—which Marx proposed in the case of England and Ireland—once we sort out our stand on the first issue.
I should make clear at this point that my suggestion that socialists should probably advocate Quebec independence has nothing to do with thinking that a new Quebec state would be inherently progressive, or that the struggle for it would inevitably unleash a radical social movement. On the contrary, unlike some of the comrades in Gauche socialiste, I think that an independent bourgeois Quebec achieved without a massive social upheaval is very much a possibility. As a result, an independent Quebec state with immigration controls, racist practices and hostility towards native peoples seems to me quite possible. Indeed, I think that Gs comrades err when they suggest that the bourgeois nationalists in Quebec (like Lucien Bouchard) don’t really want a sovereign state and that socialists can and should try to outflank them by being more sovereigntist than the “sovereigntists”. I think, in fact, that such a position runs the risk of being insufficiently critical of Quebec nationalism and of the nation-state as a political form.
18. One further point should be made with respect to national questions in Canada. Much of the left which addresses these issues came up in an era when immigrants and people of colour had not yet organized politically. Often, socialists talked as if there was an homogenous entity called “English Canada” in a way which seemed blind to the multi-ethnic, multi-racial character of the country. As a result, the systematically racist character of the Canadian state was often underplayed or ignored. This is something that should be redressed. Socialists should not “privilege” the native and Quebec questions in a way that seems to ignore the racial oppression of Canada’s peoples of colour. For this reason, a consistent commitment to anti-racism must go hand in hand with a principled commitment to the rights of aboriginal peoples and the Quebecois to self-determination.
19. National questions are likely to be of even greater importance in world politics in the years ahead. Revolutionary socialists have an obligation to try to find ways of dealing with the debates and crises that these create. This will not always be easy. While using some of the historic contributions of past marxists to guide our analyses, we must be on guard against dogmatic and simple-minded responses which fail to do justice to the complexity of the issues involved. And while supporting the right of oppressed nations to determine their future, we must never lose sight of one of the vital features of socialism from below: its commitment to a world community without nation-states.