Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle

The struggle must spread to establish economic, political and social structures in the liberated territories, based on federalist and libertarian forms of struggle. Alfredo Bonnano, Elephant Editions

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While anarchists are opposed to nationalism, this does not mean that they are indifferent to national liberation struggles. Quite the opposite. In the words of Bakunin, "I feel myself always the patriot of all oppressed fatherlands. . . Nationality. . . is a historic, local fact which, like all real and harmless facts, has the right to claim general acceptance. . . Every people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself. . . Nationality 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." [quoted by Alfredo M. Bonanno in Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle, pp. 19-20]

More recently Murray Bookchin has expressed similar sentiments: "No left libertarian. . . 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." ["Nationalism and the 'National Question'"Society and Nature, pp. 8-36, No. 5, , p. 31] 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 this century, calling 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. [Ibid., pp. 25-31] "But to oppose an oppressor is not equivalent to calling for support for everything formerly colonised nation-states do." [Ibid., p. 31]

Thus 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).

A major problem with national liberation struggles is that they usually counterpoise the common interests of "the nation" to those of an oppressor, but assume that class is irrelevant. Although nationalist movements often cut across classes, they still seek to increase autonomy for certain parts of society while ignoring that of other parts. 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 in order to continue economic growth and realise suitable profit levels (as is happening, for example, with South Korea).

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, The Cuban Revolution - A critical perspective, p. 41 - Dolgoff is referring to the Cuban movement here, but his comments are applicable to most historical -- and current -- situations]

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 practise 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. Most of the time that makes it possible for individuals members of these struggles to realise this and break from these politics towards anarchism. But at times of major conflict this contradiction will become very apparent and at this stage it's possible that large numbers may break from nationalism if an alternative that addresses their concerns exists. Providing that anarchist 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]

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.

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 in "Bakunin", Jean Caroline Cahm, in Socialism and Nationalism, volume 1, pp. 22-49, p. 43]


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