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Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Achieving Our Liberation, part III

Note: This is the third in a series of posts, the whole of which might be a conference paper. Comments are encouraged on parts or on the whole.

The Bound Nations from Europe’s Perspective

Historically, the act of the imperialist and colonialist nations imposing the status of “colony” onto a people through military domination and economic exploitation constituted the source of national captivity. The predatory logic of capitalism drives its sponsor to create new markets and found exploitable labor power. This predation required both the domination of the colony and the submission of the local environments to the logic of capitalistic economics: competitive value-added production for a consumer base. Sartre, Lenin, and Cabral disagree, however, on exactly how imperialist capitalist logics dominate the colonies, and, as a result, disagree over what a project of national liberation would mean for the colonized.

Lenin’s International Socialism: Nationalism as Weapon in the European Class Struggle

Lenin, like Sartre, viewed imperialist domination as a function of capitalism. Unlike Sartre conceived of the hierarchical relationship from an international mode of life where capitalism had not, and indeed never fully would, become the dominant economic system of the world. Thus, imperialism was not only the domination of the colonized, but also the inevitable conflicts arising out of capitalist nations’ squabble over the divisions of a largely non-capitalist world. His most famous treatise on the matter described imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism. (Lenin 1974, 78)” Imperialism was not the highest state simply because the best international capitalism could hope for was intra-capitalist competition over raw materials and cheap labor—Lenin indeed thought it was—but also because the furthest capitalism could hope to proceed was a core of capitalist nations dividing and transforming non-capitalist territories between them (Wood 2005, 126). Capitalism, and the imperialism it produced, Lenin fervently believed, would obsolesce into global socialism long before a majority of the world could become capitalist economies.

Lenin’s internationalist perspective of imperialism also colored his view of nationalism and national liberation movements. Capitalist imperialism functioned to increase both commodity exchange, as in the days of classic colonialism, and capital production. The dependence of colonies on European finance capital would permanently bind the colonies and postcolonies to the European center in relations of economic dependency. According to Lenin, imperialism hastened the process of capitalist development in the colonies precisely to strengthen these dependencies (Lenin 1974, 128). Colonial nationalism, for Lenin, arises as a by-product of the imperialist-promoted capitalist development (Lenin 1974, 28).

It is within this historical economic framework that national liberation movements arise to assist the imperialist nations with their transformation of a non-capitalist periphery into a productive part of the capitalist world-system.
Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be political united territories whose populations speak a single language…The tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied (Lenin 1974, 40-1).

National states are the sign of the first period of capitalism—the triumph over the feudal order—and represent its awakening. “The typical features of the first period are: the awakening of national movements and the drawing of the peasants, the most numerous and the must sluggish section of the population, into these movements, in connect with the struggle for political liberty in general, and for the rights of the nation in particular (Lenin 1974, 45).” Nationalism is an excellent source of mobilization, and, in turn creates the desire for each nation to create its own state. Nationalism is dangerous because of its connect to reactionary elements: “The general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie (Lenin 1974, 12).” The nationalism itself is a product of bourgeois culture, and it ultimately used in the service of spreading capitalism through imperialism.

The countries of Asia, the greater part of whom Lenin identifies either as colonies or as depressed, dependent nations, best exemplified the historical link and logic of nationalism and capitalist development. Japan, the only independent national state in the region, had witnessed a speedy growth of capitalism, after which the bourgeois state began to “oppress other nations and enslave colonies. (Lenin 1974, 43)” The link between the bourgeoisie culture, capitalist development, and imperialism caused Lenin to distrust valorizations of these national liberation movements because they distracted the proletarians from their class struggle and threatened to divide the proletariat along national lines. “All liberal-bourgeois nationalism sows the greatest corruption among the workers and does harm to the cause of freedom and the proletarian class struggle…It is under the guise of national culture…that the Black Hundreds and the clericals, and also the bourgeoisie of all nations, are doing their dirty and reactionary work (Lenin 1974, 11).” The challenge, Lenin postulated, was to create a concept of national liberation that did not sell the working class revolution short. To do that, he turns to the fact of imperialist oppression to forge the tactical, though not ideological, alliance between the social democrats and the nationalists.

“In every nation there are toiling and exploited masses” and the oppression of those masses give rise to the democratic claim of national self-determination as a claim against imperialism (Lenin 1974, 12). Narrowing the goal of liberation to the expression of a desire against exploitation served Lenin’s internationalism in three ways. First, it allowed him to situate national liberation in the progression of history from communalism to communism: “If we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations…by examining the historico-economic conditions of national movements…the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state (Lenin 1974, 28).” Second, mere political separation constitutes a social democratic claim similar to the right of women to divorce their husbands and opposed only by critics on the right. “Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose the freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination…means nothing more than the defense of privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods (Lenin 1974, 66).” Three, casting nationalist aspirations as particular manifestations of democratic dreams co-opts a potent source of mobilization from Lenin’s political adversaries. “Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general?—Of course not (Lenin 1974, 22-3).” Lenin feared that nationalists wanted to divide the worker’s movement to continue capitalist exploitation along national lines, a situation he saw as currently present in the United States. “In the Northern States Negro children attend the same schools as white children do. In the South there are separate “national”, or racial, whichever you please, schools for Negro children. I think that this” resulted from “the division of education affairs according to nationality (Lenin 1974, 25, 24).”

Internationalism encouraged Lenin’s frigidity toward struggles for national liberation. Even though he mentions that it is the duty of socialists to aid revolutionary parties in their struggle against imperialism, even if these struggles took on a nationalist character, the struggles for nationhood were distractions from the struggle for social democracy and mere transitions along the path to world socialism (Lenin 1974, 113-14). The growing number of nationalist movements testified to the success of imperial capital awakening the need for national states; socialist assistance of this need aimed toward the imminent world revolution. The nationalisms of the peripheral, colonial, and depressed nations were important only as sites of armed resistance against capitalism. Oftentimes that imperial burden obfuscated the glorious mission of proletariat, observed Lenin in his reflections on Engels and Marx’s comments about the relationship between the British and Irish working classes (Lenin 1974, 81-4). Since “only the victories of the working class can bring about the complete liberation of all nationalities”, it is not surprising that Lenin observed “the English working class will never be free until Ireland is free(Lenin 1974, 82). ” Justice for the Irish, a subjugated nation at the time, is subordinate to the democratic aspirations of the working classes within the imperial nations.

Lenin, however, as he was not entirely in the center himself—being a Russian during the Tsarist period—provided us with a means of overcoming Lenin’s unwillingness to equate the claims of justice for nations with the claims of justice within nations. Lenin admitted that the dynamics of the capitalist world system limited the potential democratic outcomes of successful struggles for national liberation. “The right of nations to self-determination [and] all the fundamental demands of political democracy are only partially “practicable” under imperialism [as a world-system], and [only] then in a distorted form and by way of exception. (Lenin 1974, 100). ” Lenin’s solution to the problem was inelegant: only until the social democratic state gave way to the Communist world order could true democratic aspirations blossom. However, Lenin’s observation that a world-system of imperialism, exploitation, and warfare limits the democratic character of national revolutions is important. This insight suggests that the concept of national liberation must aim to take the nation out of the world-system in which it emerges.