Linked with Rohini Hensman – Sri Lanka.

Published on Lines Magazine, by Rohini Hensman, February 2003.

Often we use one word to describe a complex historical process involving diverse social forces that converge at a certain point in time; at that point, it seems appropriate to use the word, yet as soon as the convergence unravels, we are in trouble. Nationalism is such a word. Any alliance between the classes constituting the ‘nation’ is bound to be fragile and ephemeral. The fundamental premise of nationalism – that all those who constitute the nation have a community of interest greater than the common interest any segment of that nation may have with others outside it – is an illusion which only those in power have an interest in fostering.

As Max Adler pointed out, ‘imperialism and its World War’ grew organically out of the nationalism of the industrialised nations. Each state, in order to secure the interests of its bourgeoisie, strove to control larger and larger areas of the globe, and at first the prosperity arising from imperialist expansion gave workers in these countries a stake in it: ‘there arises on the ground of national politics a sudden community of interest between capital and the proletariat, which finds expression in an identical inclination of both classes to imperialism’.

But what about the nationalism of the colonies and oppressed nations? It was Rosa Luxemburg who argued most passionately that ‘the famous “right of self-determination of nations” is nothing but hollow, petty bourgeois phraseology and humbug’. How could she reconcile this position with her own declaration that ‘socialism opposes every form of oppression, including also that of one nation by another’?

Here it is important to separate the genuine aspiration for democracy of the masses who participate in independence and national liberation movements from the desire for power that drives others. The distinction here is between those who support values of equality and individual rights and those who oppose them. Unless the presence of the latter in Third World nationalism is recognised, it is not possible to understand the numerous civil and international wars, including the so-called ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, that have claimed so many millions of victims.

Nationalism and patriotism depend on an ‘othering’ of those who do not belong to the ‘nation’, whether inside it (Jews to the Nazis, Tamils and Muslims to Sinhala nationalists, Sinhalese and Muslims to Tamil nationalists, and so forth) or outside (the Iraqis to Bush, etc.), and this is turn can be used as a justification for all kinds of atrocities, up to and including genocide. Although Lenin and Luxemburg appeared to be arguing opposite positions in the debate on national self-determination, in a deeper sense they were in agreement. Lenin, coming from imperialist Russia, was attempting to counteract the nationalist illusions of workers in imperialist countries; Luxemburg, coming from oppressed Poland, was attempting to counteract the nationalist currents in oppressed nations …

… If this is recognised, it should be clear that democracy – including human rights, equality, freedom of information, expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in government, at the very least through free and fair elections – must be an essential part of the programme of any communist movement. Where there is a conflict between any brand of nationalism and democracy, as there always will be, the Left should take a firm and unambiguous stand in favour of democracy.

This means, for example, insisting that any proposed solution to the ethnic conflict includes a guarantee of all the democratic rights listed above for people of all communities in all parts of Sri Lanka. Once a reorientation towards a twenty-first century politics of internationalism is achieved, it becomes clear that the field of activity open to the Left is vast. Remaining stuck in the politics of nationalism, on the contrary, will only ensure that the Left becomes increasingly reactionary and irrelevant. (full text).

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