D.7 Are anarchists opposed to National Liberation struggles?

Obviously, given the anarchist analysis of imperialism discussed in section D.5, anarchists are opposed to imperialism and wars it inevitably causes. Likewise, as noted in the last section, we are against any form of nationalism. Anarchists oppose nationalism just as much as they oppose imperialism -- neither offer a way to a free society. While we oppose imperialism and foreign domination and support decentralisation, it does not mean that anarchists blindly support national liberation movements. In this section we explain the anarchist position on such movements.

Anarchists, it should be stressed, are not against globalisation or international links and ties as such. Far from it, we have always been internationalists and are in favour of "globalisation from below," one that respects and encourages diversity and difference while sharing the world. However, we have no desire to live in a world turned bland by corporate power and economic imperialism. As such, we are opposed to capitalist trends which commodify culture as it commodifies social relationships. We want to make the world an interesting place to live in and that means opposing both actual (i.e. physical, political and economic) imperialism as well as the cultural and social forms of it.

However, this does not mean that anarchists are indifferent to the national oppression inherent within imperialism. Far from it. Being opposed to all forms of hierarchy, anarchists cannot be in favour of a system in which a country dominates another. The Cuban anarchists spoke for all of us when they stated that they were "against all forms of imperialism and colonialism; against the economic domination of peoples . . . against military pressure to impose upon peoples political and economic system foreign to their national cultures, customs and social systems . . . We believe that among the nations of the world, the small are as worthy as the big. Just as we remain enemies of national states because each of them hold its own people in subjection; so also are we opposed to the super-states that utilise their political, economic and military power to impose their rapacious systems of exploitation on weaker countries. As against all forms of imperialism, we declare for revolutionary internationalism; for the creation of great confederations of free peoples for their mutual interests; for solidarity and mutual aid." [quoted by Sam Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution: A Critical Perspective, p. 138]

It is impossible to be free while dependent on the power of another. If the capital one uses is owned by another country, one is in no position to resist the demands of that country. If you are dependent on foreign corporations and international finance to invest in your nation, then you have to do what they want (and so the ruling class will suppress political and social opposition to please their backers as well as maintain themselves in power). To be self-governing under capitalism, a community or nation must be economically independent. The centralisation of capital implied by imperialism means that power rests in the hands of a few others, not with those directly affected by the decisions made by that power. This power allows them to define and impose the rules and guidelines of the global market, forcing the many to follow the laws the few make. Thus capitalism soon makes a decentralised economy, and so a free society, impossible. As such, anarchists stress decentralisation of industry and its integration with agriculture (see section I.3.8) within the context of socialisation of property and workers' self-management of production. Only this can ensure that production meets the needs of all rather than the profits of a few.

Moreover, anarchists also recognise that economic imperialism is the parent of cultural and social imperialism. As Takis Fotopoulos argues, "the marketisation of culture and the recent liberalisation and deregulation of markets have contributed significantly to the present cultural homogenisation, with traditional communities and their cultures disappearing all over the world and people converted to consumers of a mass culture produced in the advanced capitalist countries and particularly the USA." [Towards an Inclusive Democracy, p. 40] Equally, we are aware, to quote Chomsky, that racism "is inherent in imperial rule" and that it is "inherent in the relation of domination" that imperialism is based on. [Imperial Ambitions, p. 48]

It is this context which explains the anarchist position on national liberation struggles. While we are internationalists, we are against all forms of domination and oppression -- including national ones. This means that we are not indifferent to national liberation struggles. Quite the opposite. In the words of Bakunin:

"Fatherland and nationality are, like individuality, each a natural and social fact, physiological and historical at the same time; neither of them is a principle. Only that can be called a human principle which is universal and common to all men; and nationality separates men . . . What is a principle is the respect which everyone should have for natural facts, real or social. Nationality, like individuality, is one of those facts . . . To violate it is to commit a crime . . . And that is why I feel myself always the patriot of all oppressed fatherlands." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 324]

This is because nationality "is a historic, local fact which, like all real and harmless facts, has the right to claim general acceptance." This means that "[e]very people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself. Therein lies the so-called national rights." Nationality, Bakunin stressed, "is not a principle; it is a legitimate fact, just as individuality is. Every nationality, great or small, has the incontestable right to be itself, to live according to its own nature. This right is simply the corollary of the general principal of freedom." [Op. Cit. p. 325]

More recently Murray Bookchin has expressed similar sentiments. "No left libertarian," he argued, "can oppose the right of a subjugated people to establish itself as an autonomous entity -- be it in a [libertarian] confederation . . . or as a nation-state based in hierarchical and class inequities." Even so, anarchists do not elevate the idea of national liberation "into a mindless article of faith," as much of the Leninist-influenced left has done. We do not call for support for the oppressed nation without first inquiring into "what kind of society a given 'national liberation' movement would likely produce." To do so, as Bookchin points out, would be to "support national liberation struggles for instrumental purposes, merely as a means of 'weakening' imperialism," which leads to "a condition of moral bankruptcy" as socialist ideas become associated with the authoritarian and statist goals of the "anti-imperialist" dictatorships in "liberated" nations. "But to oppose an oppressor is not equivalent to calling for support for everything formerly colonised nation-states do." ["Nationalism and the 'National Question'", pp. 8-36, Society and Nature, No. 5, p. 31, p. 25, p. 29 and p. 31]

This means that anarchists oppose foreign oppression and are usually sympathetic to attempts by those who suffer it to end it. This does not mean that we necessarily support national liberation movements as such (after all, they usually desire to create a new state) but we cannot sit back and watch one nation oppress another and so act to stop that oppression (by, for example, protesting against the oppressing nation and trying to get them to change their policies and withdraw from the oppressed nations affairs). Nor does it mean we are uncritical of specific expressions of nationality and popular cultures. Just as we are against sexist, racist and homophobic individuals and seek to help them change their attitudes, we are also opposed to such traits within peoples and cultures and urge those who are subject to such popular prejudices to change them by their own efforts with the practical and moral solidarity of others (any attempt to use state force to end such discrimination rarely works and is often counter-productive as it entrenches such opinions). Needless to say, justifying foreign intervention or occupation by appeals to end such backward cultural traits is usually hypocritical in the extreme and masks more basic interests. An obvious example is the Christian and Republican right and its use of the position of women in Afghanistan to bolster support for the invasion of 2001 (the sight of the American Taliban discovering the importance of feminism -- in other countries, of course -- was surreal but not unexpected given the needs of the moment and their basis in "reasons of state").

The reason for this critical attitude to national liberation struggles is that they usually counterpoise the common interests of "the nation" to those of a (foreign) oppressor and assume that class and social hierarchies (i.e. internal oppression) are irrelevant. Although nationalist movements often cut across classes, they in practice seek to increase autonomy for certain parts of society (namely the local elites) while ignoring that of other parts (namely the working class who are expected to continue being subject to class and state oppression). For anarchists, a new national state would not bring any fundamental change in the lives of most people, who would still be powerless both economically and socially. Looking around the world at all the many nation-states in existence, we see the same gross disparities in power, influence and wealth restricting self-determination for working-class people, even if they are free "nationally." It seems hypocritical for nationalist leaders to talk of liberating their own nation from imperialism while advocating the creation of a capitalist nation-state, which will be oppressive to its own population (and, perhaps, eventually become imperialistic itself as it develops to a certain point and has to seek foreign outlets for its products and capital). The fate of all former colonies provides ample support for this conclusion.

As Bakunin stressed, nationalists do not understand that "the spontaneous and free union of the living forces of a nation has nothing in common with their artificial concentration at once mechanistic and forced in the political centralisation of the unitary state; and because [they] confused and identified these two very opposing things [they have] not only been the promoter of the independence of [their] country [they have] become at the same time . . . the promoter of its present slavery." [quoted by Jean Caroline Cahm, "Bakunin", pp. 22-49, Eric Cahm and Vladimir Claude Fisera (eds), Socialism and Nationalism, vol. 1, p. 36]

In response to national liberation struggles, anarchists stress the self-liberation of the working class, which can be only achieved by its members' own efforts, creating and using their own organisations. In this process there can be no separation of political, social and economic goals. The struggle against imperialism cannot be separated from the struggle against capitalism. This has been the approach of most, if not all, anarchist movements in the face of foreign domination -- the combination of the struggle against foreign domination with the class struggle against native oppressors. In many different countries (including Bulgaria, Mexico, Cuba and Korea) anarchists have tried, by their "propaganda, and above all action, [to] encourage the masses to turn the struggle for political independence into the struggle for the Social Revolution." [Sam Dolgoff, Op. Cit., p. 41] In other words, a people will free only "by the general uprising of the labouring masses." [Bakunin, quoted by Cahm, Op. Cit., p. 36]

History has shown the validity of this argument, as well as the fears of Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon that it is "the duty of all the poor to work and to struggle to break the chains that enslave us. To leave the solution of our problems to the educated and the rich classes is to voluntarily put ourselves in the grasp of their claws." For "a simple change of rulers is not a fount of liberty" and "any revolutionary program that doesn't contain a clause concerning the taking of the lands [and workplaces] by the people is a program of the ruling classes, who will never struggle against their own interests." [Dreams of Freedom, p. 142 and p. 293] As Kropotkin stressed, the "failure of all nationalist movements . . . lies in this curse . . . that the economic question . . . remains on the side . . . In a word, it seems to me that in each national movement we have a major task: to set forth the question [of nationalism] on an economic basis and carry out agitation against serfdom [and other forms of exploitation] at one with the struggle against [oppression by] foreign nationality." [quoted by Martin A. Miller, Kropotkin, p. 230]

Moreover, we should point out that Anarchists in imperialist countries have also opposed national oppression by both words and deeds. For example, the prominent Japanese Anarchist Kotoku Shusi was framed and executed in 1910 after campaigning against Japanese expansionism. In Italy, the anarchist movement opposed Italian expansionism into Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1880s and 1890s, and organised a massive anti-war movement against the 1911 invasion of Libya. In 1909, the Spanish Anarchists organised a mass strike against intervention in Morocco. More recently, anarchists in France struggled against two colonial wars (in Indochina and Algeria) in the late 50's and early 60's, anarchists world-wide opposed US aggression in Latin America and Vietnam (without, we must note, supporting the Cuban and Vietnamese Stalinist regimes), opposed the Gulf War (during which most anarchists raised the call of "No war but the class war") as well as opposing Soviet imperialism.

In practice national liberation movements are full of contradictions between the way the rank and file sees progress being made (and their hopes and dreams) and the wishes of their ruling class members/leaders. The leadership will always resolve this conflict in favour of the future ruling class, at best paying lip-service to social issues by always stressing that addressing them must be postponed to after the foreign power has left the country. That makes it possible for individual members of these struggles to realise the limited nature of nationalism and break from these politics towards anarchism. At times of major struggle and conflict this contradiction will become very apparent and at this stage it is possible that large numbers may break from nationalism in practice, if not in theory, by pushing the revolt into social struggles and changes. In such circumstances, theory may catch up with practice and nationalist ideology rejected in favour of a wider concept of freedom, particularly if an alternative that addresses these concerns exists. Providing that anarchists do not compromise our ideals such movements against foreign domination can be wonderful opportunities to spread our politics, ideals and ideas -- and to show up the limitations and dangers of nationalism itself and present a viable alternative.

For anarchists, the key question is whether freedom is for abstract concepts like "the nation" or for the individuals who make up the nationality and give it life. Oppression must be fought on all fronts, within nations and internationally, in order for working-class people to gain the fruits of freedom. Any national liberation struggle which bases itself on nationalism is doomed to failure as a movement for extending human freedom. Thus anarchists "refuse to participate in national liberation fronts; they participate in class fronts which may or may not be involved in national liberation struggles. The struggle must spread to establish economic, political and social structures in the liberated territories, based on federalist and libertarian organisations." [Alfredo M. Bonanno, Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle, p. 12]

The Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine expressed this perspective well when it was fighting for freedom during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. The Ukraine at the time was a very diverse country, with many distinct national and ethnic groups living within it which made this issue particularly complex:

"Clearly, each national group has a natural and indisputable entitlement to speak its language, live in accordance with its customs, retain its beliefs and rituals . . . in short, to maintain and develop its national culture in every sphere. It is obvious that this clear and specific stance has absolutely nothing to do with narrow nationalism of the 'separatist' variety which pits nation against nation and substitutes an artificial and harmful separation for the struggle to achieve a natural social union of toilers in one shared social communion.

"In our view, national aspirations of a natural, wholesome character (language, customs, culture, etc.) can achieve full and fruitful satisfaction only in the union of nationalities rather than in their antagonism . . .

"The speedy construction of a new life on [libertarian] socialist foundations will ineluctably lead to development of the culture peculiar to each nationality. Whenever we Makhnovist insurgents speak of independence of the Ukraine, we ground it in the social and economic plane of the toilers. We proclaim the right of the Ukrainian people (and every other nation) to self-determination, not in the narrow, nationalist sense . . . but in the sense of the toilers' right to self-determination. We declare that the toiling folk of the Ukraine's towns and countryside have shown everyone through their heroic fight that they do not wish any longer to suffer political power and have no use for it, and that they consciously aspire to a libertarian society. We thus declare that all political power . . . is to be regarded . . . as an enemy and counter-revolutionary. To the very last drop of their blood they will wage a ferocious struggle against it, in defence of their entitlement to self-organisation." [quoted by Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno Anarchy's Cossack, pp. 377-8]

So while anarchists unmask nationalism for what it is, we do not disdain the basic struggle for identity and self-management which nationalism diverts. We encourage direct action and the spirit of revolt against all forms of oppression -- social, economic, political, racial, sexual, religious and national. By this method, we aim to turn national liberation struggles into human liberation struggles. And while fighting against oppression, we struggle for anarchy, a free confederation of communes based on workplace and community assemblies. A confederation which will place the nation-state, all nation-states, into the dust-bin of history where it belongs. This struggle for popular self-determination is, as such, considered to be part of a wider, international movement for "a social revolution cannot be confined to a single isolated country, it is by its very nature international in scope" and so popular movements must "link their aspirations and forces with the aspirations and forces of all other countries" and so the "only way of arriving at emancipation lies in the fraternity of oppressed peoples in an international alliance of all countries." [Bakunin, quoted by Cahm, Op. Cit., p. 40 and p. 36]

And as far as "national" identity within an anarchist society is concerned, our position is clear and simple. As Bakunin noted with respect to the Polish struggle for national liberation during the last century, anarchists, as "adversaries of every State, . . . reject the rights and frontiers called historic. For us Poland only begins, only truly exists there where the labouring masses are and want to be Polish, it ends where, renouncing all particular links with Poland, the masses wish to establish other national links." [quoted by Jean Caroline Cahm, Op. Cit., p. 43]