MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events


National Liberation Movement

The National Liberation Movement was a world-wide movement which began between the first two world wars, growing to massive proportions after 1945, in favour of national self-determination for the colonies of the imperialist powers.

The National Liberation Movement grew out of the resistance of workers in the colonies in the wake of the Russian Revolution, generally inspired and led by the Comintern, and swept across the “Third World” following the Second World War, culminating in the defeat of the US in Vietnam in 1975.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the great national liberation movements of the world had an overtly bourgeois program. In China, Sun Yat Sen (1886-1925, founder of the Kuo Min Tang, first President of the Republic of China 1911-12) aimed to establish a modern republic in China and took up arms against the Japanese army of occupation and the feudalist Manchu Dynasty. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1925 in opposition to the Kuo Min Tang by Chen Duxui. Chen Duxui was inspired by the Russian Revolution and rejected the nationalism of Sun Yat Sen. From 1925 to the final victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the struggle for China was a three-way struggle between the Mao Ze Dong's Communist Party, the Kuo Min Tang and various imperialist powers, particularly the Japanese who occupied much of China for most of the previous fifty years.

This general pattern was mirrored in one way or another in many other countries. All the early leaders of the Vietnamese Revolution, for instance, were trained in the Communist International. Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French Communist Party.

Little progress in liberating countries from colonial rule was made until the Second World War. During the War, all the National Liberation Movements were active participants in the War, allying themselves with one or another imperial power (generally the Allies) and securing support and promises for national independence in exchange for their allegiance. In the East, the defeat of the old colonial powers by Japan was a huge psychological boost for people, proving that the Europeans were not invincible. After the War, with the Soviet Union in occupation of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Revolution in flux, the war-weariness of the imperialist armies and above all the high expectations of the colonial peoples, the national liberation movement swept like a tidal wave across Asia and Africa.

In Vietnam in August 1945, the surrender of the Japanese sparked a general revolutionary uprising with widespread confiscation of landed property by the peasant masses and the establishment of Soviets all across the country. Ho Chi Minh had established bases in the countryside in the North, but did not oppose the return of the French colonialists, relying on promises of independence from US President Harry Truman. Very soon however, the battle for national liberation began. In Indonesia, Sukharno (Indonesia's Sun Yat Sen) declared an Indonesian Republic. In this case, the Communist Party (PKI) opposed the Nationalists and called for the re-establishment of colonial rule. [The PKI remained marginalised until a new generation of leaders under Aidit and Sudisman came forward and took up the Nationalist cause with support from China.]

The war for the liberation of China was fought by huge peasant armies, led by workers and intellectuals from the cities organised by the Communist Party. Having taken control of the countryside, the Red Army swept into the cities and in 1949, drove the “nationalist” (US-supported) armies off-shore to Taiwan.

In India, rioting and widespread action against the British authorities escalated in 1947. The British partitioned India in 1948 and handed over power to bourgeois nationalist govnernments. In Egypt, the war had postponed British withdrawal, but the Farouk monarchy was overthrown by Nasser in November 1954 and with Soviet support, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956. British attempts to regain control proved an abject failure, and for the following 14 years Nasser was an inspiration for pan-Arabism.

Pan-Arabism was a secular movement which combined anti-imperialism with advocacy of modernisation and fought the Mullahs with just as much fervour as it fought the British and US soldiers. For its part, the imperialists supported every feudalistic monarch or reactionary cleric they could find against the progressive, secular Arab movements. Nevertheless, the Pan Arab movement one by one liberated the Arab countries from Western occupation.

The victory of the Vietnamese over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1956, the Cuban Revolution in 1959 (Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) and the Algerian Revolution in 1962 (Ben Bella) were anti-imperialist triumphs which inspired not only the peoples of the (former) colonies, but was also an inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., for example, where Blacks were experiencing poverty and racism and had never shared in any of the benefits of imperialism.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the US had promoted itself as a champion of national liberation and an opponent of colonialism. The basis for this was the need of US capital to penetrate the colonies which were held as exclusive sources of raw materials and cheap labour by the old, European colonial powers. This was the policy of Neocolonialism in which the US used trade and commerce to weaken the hold of the colonial powers, and gain control of these markets by economic rather than military means.

Later, the US moved to re-establish (neo-)imperialist domination and secure the conditions for profitable exploitation, where the old European powers had failed, invading Vietnam in the years after 1956 and blockading Cuba. Now the National Liberation Movement became an inspiration for young people and workers becoming radicalised by changes in the labour process and the ending of the post-war boom in the imperialist countries.

Broadly speaking, the objective and historical role of the national liberation movements was to secure the independence of their countries from foreign domination, not necessarily to implement a social revolution. Indeed, in all of these countries, the proletariat was a small minority and the forces of production either under-developed or developed very lopsidedly to meet the interests of the imperial power.

Two factors are of particular importance in understanding the basis of the national liberation movement: the development of the productive forces and the labour process, and the victory of the Russian Revolution. Colonialism went into decline from the beginning of the twentieth century for reasons similar to the abolition of slavery in the United States: forced labour and exploitation based on the rule of force became less productive than wage-labour and reliance on more privileged sections of the working-class and national bourgeoisie to organise production.

However, the existence of the Soviet Union was the single most important factor which made national liberation achievable, because it gave a place for these nations to turn to. Consequently, very many of the new nations which came into being in the wake of the second world war, began their nation-building task with close political, military and economic ties to the Soviet Union. India and Indonesia are two excemptions where this did not prove to be the case after tremendous U.S. efforts, and here the countries developed along capitalist lines. Even in most of the countries more closely aligned with the Soviet Union however, these could not be said to be workers' states, but rather capitalist countries with a very large state sector. In China and Cuba, on the other hand, the Communist Party remained the ruling party and market relations did not develop. In every case however, the national liberation movement achieved its aim of establishing some degree of national soverignty. Economic independence, the essence of full independence, is another thing, which very few countries achieved.

The National Liberation Movement differs from the workers' movement in that it leaves open the question as to which class will lead the national struggle - the working class or the national bourgeoisie. For this issue, see Trotsky's essay Permanent Revolution, Lenin on Rights of Nations to Self-Determination, Mao's essay On Tactics Against Japanese Imperialism, Franz Fanon's National Culture and the Fight for Freedom, and Che Guevara's Message to the Tricontiniental. In fighting the common enemy - imperialism - national liberation has frequently found common cause with the workers movement and strong links with socialism. Nevertheless, the national liberation movement may also include repression of the workers' movement, where the national bourgeoisie is in the ascendancy, and may reinstate forms of oppression such as religious discrimination, oppression of women, minorities, etc.