The 2020s and the Reemergence of the National Question

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Danny Byrne is a member of the International Socialist Alternative Executive.

World capitalism is entering an epoch of crisis, which in many respects is unique in history. With an economic depression triggered by a capitalist-driven global pandemic amid an unfolding climate catastrophe there has perhaps never been a crisis which is deeper, more global, or more multi-faceted. However, this crisis is also a very classical one, rooted in the same contradictions — primarily the inability to develop the world economy further on the basis of private property and the nation state — which have plagued capitalism for over a century. 

One feature of all such crises is the interaction between the modern-day problems of capitalism and the age-old intractable problems which have been built into the system during its historical development. One such complication is what Marxists call the “national question,” essentially unresolved issues and disputes over the rights, borders, and status of national peoples. Hundreds of such unresolved problems exist around the world, in both “advanced” capitalist countries and in the so-called “developing” world. “National questions” have been the source of countless political conflicts, wars, and mass movements throughout the last century. 

Capitalist crises almost inevitably sharpen and bring to the surface previously dormant national questions. This was the case following the 2007/8 financial crisis, which, among other examples, gave birth to a new mass movement for national independence in Catalonia in 2017 and the historic independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. Already in 2021, we could see that this crisis is no different.  

Socialists around the world need to pay renewed attention to this crucial issue and reaffirm the fundamentals of a principled Marxist approach, which is essential to the success of the struggle for socialism.  

Lenin, the foremost leader of the Russian socialist revolution in 1917 and the Bolshevik Party which led it, explained on more than one occasion that without a correct policy on this complex question, the working class would never have triumphed in the “prison-house of nations” that was the Russian Tsarist empire. Today, a correct approach to the national question remains essential to the building of the necessary unity of the working class and all oppressed in the fight for our collective liberation, while at the same time standing steadfastly for the democratic rights of all peoples.  

Indeed, much more recently in Britain and the Spanish state with Corbynism and Podemos, we have seen how a mistaken position on the national question in Scotland and Catalonia respectively did decisive damage to new projects on the Left. 

Centrifugal Tendencies 

The national question — which today is largely manifested in tendencies towards the breakup of existing states — is part of a bigger picture of “centrifugal” processes (pointing towards fragmentation) which dominate world events in the 2020s. This includes a process of partial de-globalization, driven by the New Cold War between U.S. and Chinese imperialism. Brexit, itself a powerful new factor in the UK national question, especially in relation to Scotland and Northern Ireland, is another expression of this process. 

This crisis is undermining the pillars of capitalist stability, and weakening the foundations of what for many years have seemed to be unshakeable aspects of the status quo, including the sacrosanct integrity of some of the world’s most established states.  

Game Over for the “United Kingdom?” 

States don’t get much older or more established than the British one. In particular, the unity of “Great Britain,” as distinct from the “UK and Northern Ireland,” was perceived to be unquestionable until very recently. Bringing together England, Scotland, and Wales, the British state was consolidated over centuries at the center of what became the biggest territorial empire in history. But in the aftermath of World War II, as Britain was decisively displaced by the United States as the world’s foremost capitalist power, the empire began to disintegrate, driven by Britain’s economic weakening and the power of the “colonial revolution” which was sweeping the world. 

Eventually, Britain’s decline began to undermine the glue holding its own multinational state together. In particular, the deindustrialization and privatization which came with Thatcher’s neoliberal counter revolution in the 1980s (see article on page     ) bred devastation and resentment among the Scottish working class. Thatcher’s defeat of the miners following the heroic 1984-5 strike had a massive impact in Wales too, with communities in large stretches of the country dependent on the industry. 

These processes coincided with the rightward shift beginning in the 1980s of the leadership of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress, organizations which had been powerful factors in binding together the working class in Scotland, Wales, and England.  

In Scotland in particular, this combination of factors set in motion a change in the outlook of millions, centered on the youth and the working class, whose outlook began to shift from fighting for change as part of an all-British movement to the idea that Scotland could chart a better path independently, if it could dislodge itself from the Thatcherite juggernaut of British capitalism. From what had been marginal levels of support for decades concentrated in the middle class, opinion polls began to show increasing support for independence. Initially a majority among young people and the most downtrodden working-class communities, support for independence began to approach an overall majority in the 2000s. 

The key factor in this change in consciousness was opposition to neoliberal austerity. A Labour heartland for decades, Scotland found itself ruled for almost 20 years by London based Thatcherite Tory (right wing Conservative Party) governments it had not voted for, which were ruining the lives of working people. 

In response to this situation, the Scottish National Party (SNP), a traditionally rural middle-class party which had been dubbed the “tartan Tories” by the Scottish working class, shifted its rhetoric significantly to the left. It began to openly campaign for independence for the first time in its history, linked to a program to undo some of the worst aspects of Tory austerity. It won power in the Scottish parliament in 2007, overwhelmingly at the expense of the Labour Party. For Labour, Scotland was transformed from stronghold to weak link. 

The Great Recession of 2008-9 and the brutal austerity inflicted by the Tory-led government which came to power in 2010, sent this process into overdrive. The culmination was the independence referendum of 2014, in which the British ruling class had to mobilize every tool at its disposal to narrowly defeat the pro-independence campaign. In the face of an unprecedented “project fear” backed by the Tories, Labour and the entire British establishment, 45% voted for independence, including most working-class people and a big majority of the youth. 

Since then, the impact of great political events has added fuel to the flames. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in 2016, which has deepened the desire for a different path from the British capitalist roadmap. Then came the murderous mismanagement of the pandemic by Boris Johnson’s government, and the onset of the deepest economic downturn in Britain in over 300 years. Six years after the referendum, opinion polls are showing consistent majorities — up to 58%! — for independence, in the run-up to elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament on May 6, in which demands for a new referendum will take center stage. 

Though at a much more incipient stage, there are some echoes of a similar process taking place in Wales, where as much as one third have supported independence in some opinion polls, with a more powerful expression among the youth. 

As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, just over 100 years since its establishment as part of British imperialism’s partition of Ireland, the pillars of its foundation have never been more insecure. It also voted to oppose Brexit in 2016, and the untenable compromise agreed between Boris Johnson and the EU poses significant economic challenges. This leaves Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union, hence creating a de facto border between it and Britain. This  is seen by many Protestants, one of the two communities in the North which overwhelmingly favors remaining in the UK, as a step towards an “economic united Ireland.”

Added to this is the impact of demographic changes which appear to point towards the Catholic population —  which has generally tended to favor a united Ireland — becoming a majority. With Scottish independence on the cards and the main nationalist party in Ireland, Sinn Fein, demanding a referendum on Irish reunification, events will continue to undermine the ever fragile status quo. Any move towards imposing a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which could result from further conflict between the EU and the UK. would lead to a massive growth in support among Catholics for an immediate referendum on a united Ireland. The post-Brexit situation has already seen an increased threat of sectarian violence, and the situation continues to demand the building of a united working-class movement which can stand in the way of a return to sectarian conflict. 

Spanish State: “Regime of 1978” Crumbles 

Spain’s Franco dictatorship came to power in 1939 after a bloody Civil War which defeated a developing socialist revolution. Francoism’s mission was to crush the opposition of the working class and the threat of socialism, and within this, a major task was to put out the embers of resistance from oppressed nationalities — especially in the Basque Country, Catalonia and, to a lesser degree, Galicia. The struggle of the working class and peasantry of these peoples for self-determination and freedom from Castilian Spanish domination, was a crucial aspect of the revolutionary wave which swept the Spanish state in the 1930s.  

Franco’s regime was one of murderous suppression of the working-class movement, but also of brutal Spanish nationalist terror and oppression. Languages spoken by millions were banned and all autonomous regional institutions dissolved. 

When a revolutionary upsurge of the working class brought the dictatorship to an end in 1975, those oppressed nationalities again occupied an heroic place in the struggle against the dictatorship, especially in the Basque Country. The capitalist class, desperate to avoid socialist revolution, which was rapidly developing in neighboring Portugal, turned to the bureaucratic leaderships of the workers’ parties, particularly the Stalinist Communist Party, for assistance.  

A famous “Transition” was agreed in 1978 by the representatives of the dictatorship and the “Communist” and “Socialist” leaders. It established capitalist parliamentary democracy — with Franco’s designated successor, King Juan Carlos, as the symbolic head of state — while maintaining the fundamentals of the capitalist system which Francoism was put in place to protect.  

The national question was a crucial part of this betrayal. The new Constitution — which the Basque people voted to reject but was foisted upon them anyway — explicitly rejected the right of nations to self-determination, enshrining the single and indivisible “Spanish nation.” The historic nationalities were granted limited autonomy on the basis of redrawing their borders to exclude much of their historic territory, and as just another three out of 17 “autonomous regions.”

The pillars of this system, what became known as the “regime of 1978” in the mass movements that followed the 2007/8 financial crisis, enter the 2020s in a very undermined state. This includes the national/territorial model. The epicenter of this crisis is Catalonia, where support for independence surged during the 2000s. Unlike in Britain, the Spanish state refused to allow for a legal referendum. This led to the development of an heroic mass movement which forced the nationalist leaders of the Catalan government to organize an “illegal” referendum in October 2017, which saw more than two million people defy police brutality to cast votes, often going toe to toe with military police in order to do so.  

This was followed by an authoritarian clampdown and draconian attacks on the Catalan government’s leaders, most of whom remain in prison or in exile today. The working class and youth responded with general strikes, student strikes, and three more electoral victories for the pro-independence parties (most recently in February 2021), despite the intimidation of the state. The impasse generated by these events remains unresolved as we enter a new explosive period. In the 2020s, amid inevitable ebbs and flows, new fronts of national rebellion can be added to the Spanish capitalists’ nightmare, in particular in  the Basque Country, which has a far more established and organized pro-independence movement than Catalonia, including a significant left and trade union tradition. 

Nagorno-Karabakh – Stalinism’s Crimes Unravelling 

Last year’s two-month war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both part of the former Soviet Union, over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, gives a glimpse of how hundreds of age-old national quagmires can be set alight in coming years. This region, with a largely Armenian population, within the territory of Azerbaijan, has long been denied the right to determine its own future and used as a football in clashes between rival capitalist elites, at a great human cost. 

The region also gives an example of the crimes of Stalinism — the dictatorship which came to dominate in the Soviet Union when a bureaucratic counter revolution wiped out workers’ democracy following the death of Lenin — which were also significant in relation to the national question. The Bolsheviks’ support of the right to self-determination, which was the basis for uniting, on a voluntary basis, dozens of nationalities in the Soviet Union, was applied to Nagorno-Karabakh after the October Revolution where a series of referendums were held to determine the region’s future, with a clear majority expressing the will to be part of Armenia. 

But as well as eliminating workers’ democracy, and rolling back massive gains made by women and LGBTQ people, Stalinism also wound back the clock in relation to the rights of nations. Indeed, an important part of Lenin’s last political battle, against Stalin himself, centered on this issue. The Stalinist regime refused to implement the will of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and cemented the region’s status as an enclave within Azerbaijan.  

The brutal repression of the Stalinist state machine, together with unprecedented economic development in the first decades of Soviet power, kept a plethora of national quagmires largely papered over for a whole period. But the collapse of the Stalinist bloc in the 1990s saw old wounds reopen, most disastrously in the bitter ethnic conflict which developed in the former Yugoslavia. 

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, taken together with the war in East Ukraine which followed the last global crisis, is a reminder of the sheer gravity and quantity of unresolved national questions in that part of the world, all and any of which can be aggravated by the unfolding global crisis and explode in new bloodbaths.  

A Principled Marxist Approach 

For Marxists, the national question is among the most complex and challenging issues to navigate. It arises from the unevenness of capitalist development, and the capitalist class’ failure to complete the tasks of its own revolution which abolished feudalism. One of these tasks was the establishment of nation states, which united geographical areas into unified economic and political entities, facilitating capitalist economic development. Trotsky’s theory of “Permanent Revolution,” which is an essential part of the modern Marxist program, explains how only the working class can resolve the leftover problems of the capitalist revolution, as part of the socialist transformation of society.  

This is the starting point for a socialist approach to the national question today— that it cannot be solved on the basis of capitalist “solutions.” Capitalist reforms or constitutional makeovers, many of which may be attempted in the coming period to try to paper over the cracks, will not resolve these age-old problems. They can only be resolved by multinational, multiethnic working-class movements, as part of the fight for socialism. 

The national question has a contradictory nature in another sense too. On the one hand, Marxists see the revolutionary potential inherent in mass struggles for national rights and against oppression, and fight to win the leadership of such struggles. To this end, we have often quoted Trotsky’s words, when discussing the role of the national aspirations of many nationalities under the yoke of the Tsarist empire in the Russian revolution: that “their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.” This progressive element of the national question has tended to predominate in the situation in Scotland and Catalonia in recent years, where workers and youth have taken to the road of national independence as a way to fight against capitalist austerity and for fundamental change. 

However, also crucial is the other side of the coin: the reactionary and counter-revolutionary impact of all national divisions, which cut across the potential for united class struggle and internationalism. In many countries around the world, national divisions appear not primarily as avenues to advance revolutionary struggle but, on the contrary, as factors which complicate the building of workers’ unity and struggle. National and ethnic divisions have already been exploited by ruling elites to wage bloody and murderous wars in 2020, such as in Ethiopia. 

The key to a Marxist approach to the national question lies in understanding this contradiction, which is manifested in different ways, in different parts of the world, at different times. Marxists must be flexible in their approach. We analyze each national question in its context, striving to understand what factors are driving movements, their composition, and the consciousness of different layers involved.  

Marxists are consistent defenders of the democratic rights of all oppressed peoples including their right to use their language and express their culture and also to a separate state if they so wish. This is what Lenin meant by the “right of nations to self-determination.” But while upholding the right of self-determination, we do not automatically support the call for independence in each situation. Lenin was very clear that “The bourgeoisie always places its national demands to the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle.”  Where we do support movements fighting for independence, we do so on the basis of a clear class and internationalist approach, including advocating the voluntary unity of independent socialist states in regional socialist federations. 

We fight for the greatest possible unity of the working class  in struggle across borders and nationalities, and for a socialist, internationalist alternative to petit bourgeois and bourgeois nationalism. We reject the bourgeois lie of “national unity,” point towards class divisions which exist in all nations and emphasize the common interests of the working class and oppressed across borders. 

Twin Pitfalls 

Our international socialist organization, International Socialist Alternative, is building on a proud tradition of revolutionary theory and action in this field. Basing themselves on the method of analysis of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly, new generations of Marxist fighters in ISA applied this method in new and challenging circumstances in the late 20th century as global capitalism fell further into decadence and degeneration.  

Peter Hadden, an important Irish Marxist and founding member of ISA and the Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland), published Troubled Times in 1995, a book analyzing the evolution of the Irish national question which the Socialist Party in Ireland is in the process of republishing. In Troubled Times, he writes of the national question more globally: “Broadly the tendency to assimilation of peoples into nations, apparent in the last century, and even then most often by the most brutal methods, has, in the present epoch, been replaced by the opposite tendency – to the accentuation of division, even to separation.” This tendency — with inevitable exceptions – has been generally dominant throughout the 20th century, and been boosted by each wave of capitalist crisis since.  

This situation exerted great pressures on Marxists, with many falling into political traps and adopting one-sided positions. Often, this was expressed in a dismissal of the importance of movements for democratic and national rights, or against national oppression. Rather than wage a principled struggle to link these movements to the struggles of the international working class, led by a socialist political program, many left organizations merely dismissed national questions as “reactionary” or “divisive,” standing aside from — or worse, denouncing — movements of people fighting against an oppressive status quo.  

For example, this has historically been the case in the Spanish left. At decisive moments in the state’s revolutionary history, the Socialist and Communist parties, and more recently Podemos, have failed to energetically take up the demands of historically oppressed nationalities, amongst whom tremendous upheavals have taken place, as part of every major crisis of the Spanish capitalist system. Without a clear struggle by left and workers’ organizations to link the movements of the Catalan, Basque or Galician workers for their democratic rights with the overall struggle of the working class and oppressed to end capitalism, revolutionary opportunities have been lost. Moreover, right wing nationalist political forces have often been allowed to remain as the primary political “representatives” of these movements, despite deep class contradictions.  

The opposite pole of a mistaken approach to the national question is a “one size fits all” position of socialists acting as uncritical cheerleaders and champions of all movements for national independence or separation. While in many cases, Marxists should support demands for national independence on a clear internationalist, socialist basis, this must be based on an overall analysis of the needs of the class struggle. For example, there is a world of difference between a mass movement for national liberation which is expressing a revolt against the system, and a process of national and ethnic division in a region, which is expressing a reactionary trend, and leads to the fragmentation and undermining of the working class’ ability to struggle together against the system. Moreover, in every movement for national rights or independence, socialists must promote an approach of class struggle, and conduct a clear battle against pro-capitalist forces of all nationalities. 

Throughout the past decades, we have seen a plethora of so-called socialist organizations uncritically cheerlead national liberation movements, including those which have been based on methods not of class struggle but of “individual terrorism,” which sees no role for the organized working class and bases itself on an elitist strategy of small armed bands “liberating” society. In addition, despite often brandishing leftist rhetoric in the past, many of these political forces have been responsible for implementing pro-capitalist policies once in power, and often politically represent aspirational capitalist elites, keen to enjoy the benefits of statehood from their own class point of view. Many left organizations internationally gave uncritical support to the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Hezbollah or Hamas in the Middle East.  

While socialists support the right of all oppressed peoples to resist occupation and oppression, we do so while maintaining an independent position, and openly criticize failed strategies and pro-capitalist politics. In the case of Ireland, the IRA campaign of terrorist attacks during the 70s and 80s, often on civilians from a Protestant background, far from being able to defeat British imperialism, only served to deepen division among the working class, in fact cementing the opposition of the majority of the population to the idea of a united Ireland. Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and beginning of the “peace process,” Sinn Fein (the political party linked to the IRA) was in government for over a decade, and presided over brutal cuts to public spending at the behest of the bosses. 

The Socialist Party (ISA) in Northern Ireland stands for the unity of the working class in struggle against “orange and green” (unionist and nationalist) sectarians. We fight to build united movements around a program for socialist change, which can undermine the basis for division and open up a viable perspective for a shared socialist future for the working class in Ireland, as part of a free and voluntary socialist federation with Scotland, Wales and England in a socialist Europe. 

International Organization Key 

Crucial to avoiding the twin pitfalls which have befallen many on the left is not only serious and sharp Marxist analysis but the role of an international Marxist organization. An issue as complex and varied as the national question cannot be navigated from the standpoint of an isolated national grouping. Moreover, developing an approach based only on a single “case study” will inevitably lead to serious imbalances and attempts to transplant features of one national question onto another.  

ISA’s approach has been developed not in the abstract but via living interventions in varying, changing, and challenging situations. From Israel/Palestine, to Scotland, to Nigeria, to Quebec and beyond, ISA sections have put the Marxist method into practice and added valuable armor to the arsenal of international socialism. Drawing the full lessons from these experiences remains a crucial task for Marxists today. This is part of the reason why, for socialists — the most internationalist of all political trends — the international form of organization is fundamental.  

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