Nationalism, Self-Determination and Socialist Revolution
First Published: The Black Nation, Fall/Winter 1982.
Forward, published by the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L).
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Forward Note: In the following article Amiri Baraka addresses the topics of nationalism, national consciousness and internationalism. This essay originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 1982 issue of The Black Nation. Forward is reprinting this because these topics are of continuing importance for the progressive movement in the US.
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Although the right of Self-Determination is a democratic demand, a political reform, obviously it must be upheld by people calling themselves Marxists. Lenin said, social democrats who refuse to uphold the right of Self-Determination should be denounced as social imperialists and scoundrels.
The reason for this is that how can one be fighting for socialism and not even uphold democracy? But also it is part of the approach of building all around proletarian unity, upholding democracy for all nations and nationalities; so that proletarian unity is embodied by the joining together of workers of all nationalities in order to smash imperialism and monopoly capitalism, and all the ills these scourges bring with them such as national oppression, racism, the oppression of women and the like. This is what we mean by proletarian internationalism.
Marxists are internationalists. And even if they are Marxists of an oppressed nationality, they seek to join with workers of other nationalities in smashing their oppression and all oppression and exploitation even with workers of the oppressor nation! Ultimately genuine Marxists know that “no nation can be free if it oppresses another nation.” They also understand that national oppression cannot be ended until the elimination of class exploitation and that their own national oppression is just one particular aspect of the outrages of monopoly capitalism and imperialism.
Marxist revolutionaries understand that the national oppression of the African American Nation, for instance, is based economically on the system of monopoly capitalism (that is its material base), and that the only beneficiaries of this oppression is that minute percentage of the U.S. population that makes up the white racist monopoly capitalist class, plus those relatively small sectors of the working class and petty bourgeoisie who have been bribed with some of the spoils of imperialism, particularly the robbery and denial of rights of the African American masses.
A Marxist is an internationalist, but also as Mao pointed out the Marxist of an oppressed nation must also be a patriot. The fight against that nation’s national oppression is “internationalism applied.” Marxists cannot be so involved with theoretically upholding internationalism that they dismiss their own nation’s concrete national liberation struggle – that would be a caricature of Marxism. This is precisely why Mao wrote this essay, to counter those people disguised as Marxists who wanted to “liquidate the national question.” Lenin fought the same battle with Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish and Dutch Social Democrats, among other Marxists in the early 20th century who wanted to deny the right of Self-Determination as an exercise in reformism or nationalism.
But to talk rationally of internationalism, one must understand and fight for the freedom of all nations! In the U.S., one of the main deterrents in really multinational communist organizing has been incorrect political positions on the national question, particularly the Afro-American National Question. For a long time the liquidationist and chauvinist positions held sway in the CPUSA, and actually it was Lenin and Stalin and the weight of the Third International, plus the agitation and struggle of correct comrades including several Afro-American cadre, that forced the CPUSA to take the correct position upholding Self-Determination for the Afro-American Nation in the Black Belt South.
The question of Self-Determination is a question of the extension of all around democracy to all nations; it is not Marxists winking at nationalism. Marxists oppose nationalism, a bourgeois ideology which promotes the privilege, primacy and exclusiveness of the nation. Nationalism is not the same thing as patriotism which Mao said was applied internationalism in the case of oppressed nations, and is not the same as national consciousness which we will talk more of later. Lenin said that even the bourgeois nationalism of an oppressed nation has elements of democracy in it, to the extent to which such nationalists fight against imperialism. So Marxists support “the nationalists in the sense of a negative support,” that is we support nationalists to the extent to which they fight imperialism, but there is no support whatsoever for nationalism, per se!
It would seem obvious to any advanced observer of a society like the U.S., for instance, that nationalism has been one of the greatest assets the U.S. ruling class has possessed. The class struggle inside the oppressor nation that the imperialist U.S. is, in relationship to the African American or Chicano Nations, is consistently repressed, diverted, fragmented and held off by the white racist monopoly capitalist ruling class having infected sectors of the white working class with the drug of white supremacy. Chauvinism, Lenin called, opportunism in its most developed and finished state, where the bourgeoisie could use “its workers” to fight against the workers of another nation! Such chauvinism has the same economic base as opportunism, the bribe of a small section of the workers and petty bourgeoisie with the spoils of imperialism. And in the U.S. those spoils are literally ripped off the Blacks and other oppressed nationalities. This is that sector which is paid for collaborating in the superexploitation of African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asians and so forth.
It is nationalism that can divide the workers so that the workers of one nationality are struggling against the workers of another nationality for a few illusory crumbs the rulers throw out exactly for that purpose! It is nationalism that can pit groups of workers against each other with the most hideous rage, while their mutual oppressors skip off with both their purses for a little sun and fun.
Nationalism is a bourgeois ideology which developed with the emergence of nations and the rise and development of capitalism. Nationalism serves the bourgeoisie in the sense that they are seeking a market for their goods, and their national market is always primary as capitalism develops. And nationalism serves to help that bourgeoisie secure its national market. Joseph Stalin writes, “The market is the first school in which the bourgeoisie learns its nationalism.” (page 31, Marxism and the National Question)
Black national oppression, based as it is on the slave trade and the enslaving of African Americans, has created an obvious and even “justifiable” ground for Black nationalism. The fact that white supremacy has been the most easily defined instrument in that national oppression creates a situation where Black nationalism can flourish. But even so, the majority of African Americans are not nationalists. In fact, part of the struggle to strengthen the BLM must be in creating a stronger national consciousness among the African American people, i.e., an awareness of the Afro-American Nation and of the political necessities of Black survival and development.
The BLM, the national liberation struggle of Black people in the U.S., must include the heightening of national consciousness, identity and self-respect. But these are not the same as nationalism, an ideology a world outlook, promoted by the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie that advocates the primacy; exclusiveness and privilege of “their” nation.
The masses of the oppressed peoples want national equality, democratic rights for their nationality equal with all other nations. This is why in essence the Black struggle, the struggle of the African American Nation for Self-Determination is a national democratic struggle, the struggle as an oppressed nation for liberation.
Nationalism, though, means exclusivism and isolation. Any nationalism finally implies that those people are better than all others. The Black struggle is for equality, in essence, not “superiority.” We are the victims of a nationalism that preaches superiority and inferiority. We have seen its obscene terror and oppression. We are not fighting so that we can put these on somebody else.
And further. Bourgeois nationalism ultimately does not serve the real interests of the masses of that nationality. As ironic as this sounds, nationalism does not ultimately serve the nation. This is true and has been proven correct time and again. Bourgeois nationalism after a certain point isolates the oppressed masses from their mass allies and delivers them into the hands of the exploiters and reactionaries of their own nationality. In today’s world, imperialism must be destroyed to destroy national oppression and certainly this couldn’t be more true than here in the heartland of the U.S. superpower.
Zionism should teach us at this moment more forcibly than anything else, how even the most “justifiable” nationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, can end up justifying the slaughter of almost anybody else outside the nation. Certainly, the slaughter of six million Jews by Nazi fascism (rule by the most nationalistic sector of finance capital) made Zionism seem attractive and reasonable to many people who had never taken it seriously before. Now we see the Israelis, themselves turned into fascists, slaughtering the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples, justifying it with Israeli nationalism.
Within the BLM, the nationalist sector is small, but admittedly very vocal and active. There has also emerged from out of that sector some of the fiercest fighters against Black national oppression. (The fact of white supremacy and chauvinism even on the Left, made multinational organizing difficult and kept Black fighters in organizations isolated, contributes to this fact.) However, in the mid-70s a great many of the younger generation of erstwhile Black nationalists and Pan-Africanists took up Marxism-Leninism in a stunning development created perhaps by more exposure of their generation to an atmosphere of international struggle against imperialism made more familiar by modern communications media and the fact that some of the leading African revolutionaries like Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Augostino Neto Nelson Mandela and liberation organizations like the PAIGC, MPLA, PAC, ANC, ZANU, SWAPO did not take bourgeois nationalist lines and were often heavily influenced by Marxism.
Plus struggles in Black communities had in quite a few cases risen to a level where some aspect of partial political democracy was won and the electing or appointing of Black politicians to office quickly revealed that nationality is not the same as political correctness. This was made clear in places like Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta, where Black activists had to go up against Black political infrastructures with many of the same characteristics of neo-colonialism in the third world.
Unfortunately, since that incendiary crossover of many of the most active and informed members of the BLM into the M-L movement, that movement generally has bogged down and been victimized by a general move to the right of U.S. society. The anti-revisionist M-L movement is a young movement, but it has had to survive the shallow, often idealistic enthusiasm of the mid-70s and its virulent “left” and right opportunism, just as it has to survive the wave of disillusion and right opportunism that now beset it. The large number of petty bourgeois cadres in the U.S. Marxist- Leninist movement help account for some part of these extremes and political vacillation.
But what is obvious is that the M-L movement has not given leadership to the mass movement in the U.S. as it must if a genuine M-L communist party is to be built. Certainly this is true in the BLM. Too often, not only is the M-L movement not giving the overall guidance and leadership that the mass movement needs, it is tailing the various sectors of the mass movement whether it is the Black Democrat sector or the Black nationalist sector or the Black Christian sector.
In the same way that the old RU (Revolutionary Union, now RCP) tailed the most reactionary sectors of the white working class movement, screaming “smash busing” along with the racists, we also have would-be M-Ls tailing cultural nationalists or Christian nationalists, or elected officials or union leaders or “community leaders” or “reverends” and legitimizing it by saying that this is their mass work. The role of communists is to represent the working class and to ensure working class leadership in the mass movements. A communist organization must lead by its stance, viewpoint and action.
One example of what I would call “a militant tail” is when the so-called M-Ls like the RCP and CWP (Communist Workers Party, now called the New Democratic Movement–ed) showed up at an NBUF (National Black United Front) rally in Brooklyn called to protest the murder of Luis Baez by police. These two “super” revolutionary groups then staged separate little demonstrations off the side of the main body of people, because they said the leadership of the NBUF was reformist. So the NBUF calls the rally, organizes the people, and then the RCP and CWP show up being super revolutionary off to the side with their small coteries of cultists denouncing the mass movement – not the police, but the mass movement. The Black nationalists had a field day denouncing “white folks” obstructing a Black rally and the masses thought both these groups were some kind of hippies.
But this tailing from the right or “left” is one of the reasons that the mass movement is often led by nationalists or social democrats or revisionists. Another reason is the failure to mount consistent and principled struggle with the various non-Marxist organizations and leaders. Certainly, in the BLM there has been no consistent criticism of the various Black organizations by M-L organizations. They have usually treated these organizations, certainly the nationalist ones, as if they didn’t exist, only to tail them in real life. Going to their rallies, programs, conventions, and not taking the lead in organizing these events themselves.
Too many so-called M-Ls even think the mass movement is the nationalist sector of the BLM. Certainly RWH revealed this in their recent pamphlet on the Afro-American national question. But go to any large program or event given by nationalists and so forth and you’ll find all kinds of M-Ls there, but where are the forums and the rallies and the marches and the mass movement organized and led by the M-Ls?
Tailing the mass movement, “everything through a united front” as Mao put it, falling to struggle principledly with various trends within the BLM only supports the less advanced sectors of the movement, such as nationalism. These are clear right deviations and instead of “winning the advanced to communism” too often the M-L movement, through its own present right errors and some “left” errors as well, leave the leadership of the mass movement to the nationalists and make them stronger than they would be if we waged consistent and principled ideological struggle against them. The relationship of Marxists to the mass movement is unity and struggle, not just unity!
The BLM for democracy and Self-Determination exists in the U.S. not only alongside other National Liberation struggles, e.g., the Chicano and Native American movements for Self-Determination, there are other oppressed nationalities (not necessarily nations in the U.S.) fighting for equality and against racism, such as the Puerto Ricans and Asian Americans. Yet, at the same time the masses of African Americans and these other oppressed nationalities are also, along with white workers, members of the multinational U.S. working class.
The working class recognizes and supports all the various struggles against National Oppression, but the struggle that unifies that class completely must be the struggle to smash monopoly capitalism forever. Therefore the class-conscious African American workers must fight consciously not only for Self-Determination for the Afro-American Nation but for the victory of the whole working class. Such a class-conscious worker must support all the just struggles of the various oppressed nationalities, but also see a primary the collective struggle of the multinational working class.
Actually, the Afro-American struggle for Self-Determination is fought against the same enemy that the multinational working class fights against, that is, the white racist monopoly capitalist class which rules the U.S. and is the chief beneficiary of U.S. imperialism. So that a well-organized and fighting multinational workers movement must attack the same chief enemy of the Black Nation – the white racist monopoly capitalist class – the U.S. imperialist class.
This is why the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and oppressed nationalities is so critical. It is the creation of a conscious fighting unity, a revolutionary unity, that monopoly capitalism cannot withstand. This is also why nationalism is so divisive and destructive and ultimately only serves the bourgeoisie.
The successful national liberation movement, unless it is led by the working class, only defeats foreign domination, it does not eliminate class exploitation within that nation. We’ve seen liberation movements defeat foreign domination only to become neo-colonial states governed by a domestic bourgeoisie who are absolutely in collaboration with the ex-rulers (see M. Babu, African Socialism or Socialist Africa, Zed Press).
A national liberation movement led by the working class not only will take the revolution through to the end, it then continues without pause into the phase of eliminating class exploitation and building socialism.
The struggle for Black Self-Determination, objectively, is a struggle against the U.S. imperialist class – its monopoly capitalist state has always been based on Black slavery; It would be a caricature of Black concerns to say, “All right, the multinational working class is fighting the monopoly capitalist class for a socialist society but we Black people are fighting for a Black capitalist society.” The Black bourgeoisie and the less advanced sectors of the petty bourgeoisie might co-sign such a statement, but Black workers would not willingly remain the doormats for yet another exploitive regime. Our struggle is to end exploitation – ours as well as everyone else’s.
Even such a fantasy Black capitalist state would see civil war as item number one on the workers’ agenda (or have you read the news from Kenya, Zaire, etc., recently?) Black people are not fighting white imperialism so they can find themselves under the brutish rule of domestic Arap Moi’s, Mobutu’s and Amin’s, and believe me, brothers and sisters, we have quite a few of them telling us how bad white folks are – but ask them do they want to smash class society and capitalism forever? Some of these nationalists already exist in organizations whose narrow, oppressive structures and ideologies are chilling projections of what they have in store for all of us.
The BLM is not directly a struggle for socialism, it is a struggle for democracy; But it’s just these struggles for democracy, in all areas of U.S. life that will bring the masses of all nationalities to revolutionary positions. In the ’20s, Lenin pointed out that after the Soviet socialist revolution the national liberation struggles should no longer be termed “bourgeois democratic” struggles but “national democratic” or “national revolutionary.” As these struggles aided the proletariat’s struggle against imperialism and led by the working class, these struggles did not have to create a capitalist state controlled by a domestic bourgeoisie but could move uninterruptedly to socialism. The first socialist revolution had pointed the way past capitalism! The victory of the People’s Republic of China proved this thesis brilliantly.
In a multinational state, such as the U.S., to isolate the African American people or their liberation movement is to do the imperialist bourgeoisie’s work for them. Segregation has, in the main, been the way that the rulers have kept people outside the mainstream of democratic struggles in this country; Segregation has enabled us fewer allies, fewer links with the collective workers movement and other oppressed nationalities. To push nationalism in the 1980s is to narrow our struggle rather than to broaden it. Genuine revolutionaries need allies, and they must have allies to strengthen their fight. The Israeli fascists prefer to fight the Palestinians with as few allies as possible – keep the struggle narrow with all information hard to come by – with only the modern U.S-supplied Israeli war machine in state power versus the less well-armed and stateless Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinians are fighting a national liberation struggle is unquestionable, to suggest that they become narrow nationalists pushing some metaphysical and exclusivist Palestinian “superiority” would not only be bizarre, but Israeli foreign policy. The Israelis would love it. So too, any movement to give the BLM fewer ties with other advanced and fighting forces would be made in Ronnie Reagan’s heaven.
The movement for Black Self-Determination must be supported by class-conscious workers of every nationality. That must be the strategic line in the BLM. Nationalism is opposed to this. The BLM is part of an unbreakable fabric of anti-imperialist struggle. Black liberation can only genuinely exist with the destruction of monopoly capitalism. The destroyer of monopoly capitalism is the collective workers struggle, the victory of the multinational working class in alliance with the oppressed peoples and socialism!
The principal task for advanced forces, revolutionaries and class conscious workers in the U.S. is the creation of a multinational revolutionary M-L communist party. A party that can tie the various national, democratic and workers movements together and give them collective leadership. In many cases, nationalist movements among the various nationalities will oppose the creation of such a party. Communists working in the various mass movements must fight for such a party and they cannot do this without consistent criticism of and struggle against nationalist forces within the mass movement. Not only struggle against nationalism but against every deviation from revolutionary theory and practice – not in the spirit of Pharisees, critical but abstract, but with the spirit of living Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-Tung Thought, criticism and struggle for the sake of creating a higher level, of unity. It is just this kind of class struggle that makes the movement go forward!