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The New International, July 1944

Notes of the Month

The Dilemma of National Self-Determination


From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, p. 195–197.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We concluded our Notes last month with an extensive quotation from a criticism by Mr. Emery Reves, one of the democratic world-reorganizers, of the principles proclaimed by the Atlantic Charter, particularly the one upholding the right of self-determination, sovereign rights and self-government of all peoples. In place of the “anachronism” of self-determination of nations and “absolute” national sovereignty, which “all events since 1919 plainly show ... have failed to insure freedom, independence and peace for the peoples,” Mr. Reves propounded the “basic principle” that “real independence of nations can be attained only by the regulation of their interdependence.” He arrived at this conclusion after pointing out the inability, in our world, of small, weak nations escaping the role of satellites of the big powers, only three of which are (or, after an Allied victory, will be) “capable of creating and maintaining armed forces in the modern sense.” Secretary Hull’s recent broadcast about the Charter being “an expression of fundamental objectives toward which we and our allies are directing our policies,” was therefore, based upon an assumption which – again Mr. Reves – “is precisely the fundamental fallacy of our policies.”

For the sake of continuity, if not to refresh the reader’s memory, we quote our own comment upon Mr. Reves’ criticism of the Charter:

In his own way, Mr. Reves has reached out to the heart of the problem, not only for Europe but for the entire world. How Indeed shall we reconcile the “determination” of the small, economically and politically weak nations to have full national freedom with the not lesser “determination” of the large and strong nations to deprive them of their freedom? How shall we reconcile the determination of the small nations to be independent with the economic and political forces that impel them to dependence upon the big powers? If, “in their absolute form, the principles of the Atlantic Charter lead straight to anarchy in international life,” and if “real independence of nations can be attained only by the regulation of their Interdependence,” then in what non-absolute form should the principles of the Atlantic Charter be applied? Just how is the “regulation of their interdependence” to be organized, and who is to organize it?

These key questions Mr. Reves left unanswered, except by the generalization that “the centrifugal force emanating from the Atlantic Charter must be replaced by a system of principles exercising a powerful centripetal attraction within the United Nations and around them.”

Before attempting to give answers of our own, let us restate the question more concretely.

What Is Self-Determination?

What is the right of self-determination of nations? The right of a nation – defined as a people with a common language, a common territory, a common cultural tradition, and a historical viability demonstrated by it – to decide freely its political constitution. This right is fully satisfied whether the people decides to establish a monarchy or a republic, to constitute itself as an independent nation or to incorporate itself into another nation. The right is violated when the decision is not made freely but under coercion by a foreign people or nation. It is completely abrogated when a nation is annexed (”incorporated”) by another by means of force against its will. The forcible annexation of other peoples and nations, and therefore their subjugation to a foreign yoke, is a common characteristic of all imperialism, from ancient times down to modern capitalist imperialism and Stalinist imperialism, however much they may differ in motive forces, in historical consequences, and otherwise.

The establishment of the great modern nations was one of the biggest contributions to historical progress of the young capitalist class in its epochal struggle against feudalism, clericalism, national dismemberment and particularism. The newly-constituted or reorganized nations became vast arenas in which the productive forces, including, principally, the modern working class, found room for an unprecedented development. The world became a decisive reality through the world market which awakened millions and tens of millions of people from historic torpor. Capitalism wrote an unexpungeable page for itself in history. It created the conditions under which the last barrier to human freedom could be forced.

Growing capitalism, however, accentuated the unevenness of social development. It widened the disparity between the big, modern nations and the small or backward nations and peoples, between the strong and the weak. The needs of capitalist expansion began to outstrip its possibilities. The few began to consume the many. The old imperialism of plundering the weak gave way to the modern, finance-capitalist imperialism of exploiting the weak or the weaker and converting them into modern colonies. Liberating capitalism became rapacious, parasitic, reactionary, oppressive imperialism all over the world. In the course of this metamorphosis, the powerful nations which had acquired and fortified their right of self-determination, proceeded to deprive one nation after another of this right in order to subject them to exploitation.

By the beginning of the present century, there was hardly a corner of the globe not included in the new division: a half-dozen great imperialist powers on the one side, ruling over their respective colonies, vassals, protectorates, satellites and “spheres of influence” on the other side. With the further widening of the gap between needs and possibilities, this partition of the entire world was constantly threatened by attempts at redivision made by each of the powers, cramped within the limiting framework of its own share. Where “peaceful” methods (i.e., economic and political pressure) of satisfying imperialist appetites did not suffice, military methods were employed. This, and nothing else, is the explanation of the two world wars of the twentieth century, of the rivalries and conflicts that preceded, separated and accompanied them. They have nothing at all to do with the chemical composition of a people’s blood, or the shape of its head, but derive entirely from the immanent tendencies of the social system in which we live.

A False Notion

The way modern imperialism developed historically gave rise to the notion that its depredations are confined exclusively to the very old and backward world, to the darker-skinned peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. There were liberal thinkers who believed that as the advanced countries brought industrialism to the backward agricultural lands, the latter would be raised to the level of the former not only economically but also politically. A little firm – not violent, just firm – pressure upon the more enlightened rulers of the advanced countries would be required to accelerate this trend. The essential benevolence of imperialism was assumed.

This belief was based upon two radical errors. In the first place, imperialism did not promote the cultural (i.e., economic and political) development of the colonies, but retarded it. It operated like a brake on the modernization (industrialization) of the backward lands, and resisted the claims of the colonial peoples to political independence with every economic and military weapon at its disposal.

In the second place, it is now perfectly clear that modern imperialist expansion is not confined to backward, agricultural nations. This seemed to be the case in the earlier period of capitalist imperialism, when there was still room in the agricultural part of the world for all of the advanced industrial nations to spread out. In the First World War, each of the imperialist coalitions sought, more than anything else, to expand at the expense of the colonies of the enemy. In the intervening quarter-century, world capitalism has experienced the most scarifying crisis; it has decayed almost beyond belief. One of the important distinctions between the First and the Second World Wars is that today, in addition to the greatest possible control of the “backward colonies,” each imperialist coalition seeks to reduce the advanced, modern enemy to the status of a colony or a semi-colony.

In other words, under continuing, that is, decaying, reactionary capitalism, there is room for fewer and fewer independent great powers. Just as the general tendency of capitalism is to increase the number of the exploited and decrease the number of the exploiters in each country, so the general tendency of capitalist imperialism is to decrease the number Of imperialist powers and increase the number of subject nations.

Does this mean that Japan aims to reduce the United States to the same position that is occupied in the Empire by Korea? That Germany aims to reduce England to another India? That the United States aims to reduce Germany to another Puerto Rico? The wheels of history move too firmly forward to be turned backward that far – although it would be hard to say just how far they could be moved backward if we were to make the monstrous assumption that ahead of us lies half a century of reaction in which the international proletariat does not bring the social disintegration to a halt. But we are dealing here with the tendency of decaying imperialism, not with the abstract possibilities of its ultimate realization.

Under German imperialism, this tendency is manifested differently in Poland than it is in France, differently in Greece than in Denmark – but in all these countries to come under German dominion, it is the same tendency that manifests itself. Under Anglo-American imperialism, this tendency manifests itself differently in its declared aims toward Italy and Germany, toward Japan and France – but again, it is the same tendency at work. If it manifests itself in different degrees and in different forms, this is due not to any fundamental difference in the nature of imperialist nations, but to the specific historical conditions in which they developed, and to the resistivity of the material forces they operate against – the strength of the country or people they seek to subjugate and the strength and class consciousness of their labor movement.

Lenin on Imperialism

Polemizing during the first world war against Karl Kautsky, who held a fundamentally liberalistic view of modern imperialism, Lenin wrote:

The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agricultural regions, but even highly industrialized regions (German appetite for Belgium, French appetite for Lorraine), because (1) the fact that the world is already divided up obliges those contemplating a new division to reach out for any kind of territory, and (2) because an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between a number of great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine bis hegemony (Belgium is chiefly necessary to Germany as a base for operations against England; England needs Bagdad as a base for operations against Germany, etc.) (Collected Works, Vol. XIX, pp. 1621)

Twenty-eight years since this was written, the decay of imperialism has advanced beyond what even Lenin envisaged. Countries and peoples that the big powers do not subjugate, they carve into helpless fragments. Nations which, only yesterday, were not only independent but were imperialist oppressors on their own, are now oppressed in turn, or declared bankrupt and placed in receivership. Where? At the periphery of the world? In the traditionally backward countries of ancient continents? No, not only there and not even primarily there. It now happens in Europe, and not only at the hands of the “enemy.” Rumania’s independence, like Italy’s or Slovakia’s, is threatened no less by the Anglo-American-Russian enemy than by the German ally. Poland looks now with less apprehension to the retreating German enemy than to the advancing Russian ally. When Roosevelt all-but-publicly ridicules de Gaulle’s affinity for Joan of Arc, he means that American imperialism will stop before nothing less than another miracle to prevent the modern Maid of Orleans from realizing his objective of “restoring France to her just position as a great world power.” Basically, the same tendency that impelled Germany to make a colony out of Poland, impels the Allies to plan to make three colonies, or semi-colonies, or protectorates – in any case, objects of plunder – out of defeated Germany.

Modern imperialism, in a word, cognizant of the interdependence of all nations, of their inability to live an isolated, autarchic life, proceeds to what Mr. Reves calls the “regulation of their interdependence” on the basis of a division of the world into an ever-smaller minority of imperialist nations, which not only enjoy but fiercely insist upon their own right of national self-determination, and an ever-increasing number of nations that are deprived of this right to one extent or another. Hence, Mr. Reves, who is right in a sense to speak of national sovereignty and nationalism as “eighteenth century concepts,” is utterly and reactionarily wrong in rejecting them so categorically for the twentieth century.

The Slogan Renewed

Rapacious capitalist-imperialism has forced new millions of people to fight for the right of national self-determination as one of the most urgent political tasks of the day. Lenin was right a hundred times over when he said: “Imperialism is the epoch of the oppression of nations on a new historical basis ... Imperialism renews the old slogan of self-determination.” There is more to be learned from these two sentences, than from everything written by Mr. Reves, plus all the writings on the subject by Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Sumner Welles, Walter Lippman, Earl Browder, and – may our readers forgive the audacious inclusion – Samuel Grafton.

What Mr. Reves considers an “anachronism,” Lenin says is renewed by modern imperialism. Mr. Reves, who is in a better physical condition than Lenin to observe the facts, is nevertheless altogether wrong. Let us takes the Poles. Under the German yoke, they have neither the same political, economic, social, legal or cultural rights as the rulers of the country. They are subjected to double exploitation, once as toilers and again as Poles. Their fight to shake off the German yoke, Mr. Reves would probably be among the first to admit (to insist!), is noble and anything but anachronistic. In Poland, the disdainful reference to “eighteenth century concepts” would surely never leave Mr. Reves’ lips. By virtue of what considerations, then, would the same fight become anachronistic, “archaic,” a “total fallacy” and a “mortal peril” when directed by the same Poles, animated by the same motives and ideals, against a yoke imposed upon them by Russia?

The right of self-determination implies, if it does not include, the right of people themselves deciding not to be uprooted from their land, jammed into cattle cars by the millions, and transported to other lands like sides of beef. The struggle of the defeated and conquered peoples of Europe against the Nazis who carried out such mass deportations, has aroused the passionate sympathy of every civilized person, not one of whom labelled the struggle “anachronistic,” not even, so far as we know, Mr. Reves. Would he apply that label, however, to the people of East Prussia if they resisted attempts to uproot and deport them in mass, which Russia has announced it intends to make?

Similar questions could be asked without end. The only intelligible answer Mr. Reves could make would be couched in the language of present German imperialism, elegantly translated into English and lightly perfumed. His very answers, however elegant, would indicate why the people of the weaker and smaller nations fight for independence against the big power who seek to “regulate their interdependence,” and why their fight is a just one.

The fight, so far as the overwhelming majority of the little people are concerned, is not a matter of national chauvinism, or national vanity, or an expression of national or racial superiority. That’s the case with the big oppressor nations. With the people of the oppressed nations, the struggle is for equality. With them, the struggle is for democracy. With them, the struggle is for freedom. At one time, the struggle for national freedom, for the sovereign national state, was directed against feudalism, principal obstacle to social progress. If that is what Mr. Reves means by his reference to “eighteenth century concepts,” he is right. Nowadays, the struggle for national freedom is directed against capitalist imperialism, the present principal obstacle to social progress, the present main foe of the peoples, which maintains “the oppression of nations on a new historical basis.” Even the most primitive popular struggle for national freedom from foreign rule or oppression is therefore implicitly a social struggle against imperialism.

National Freedom and the Proletariat

Imperialism is not only the oppressor of small nations, but the deadly enemy of the working class everywhere. This class is the only one capable of defeating it. But this defeat cannot be administered without the support of the small nations and the people in them who seek equality, democracy and freedom. Indeed, it cannot be administered unless the working class shows, not only in word but in action, that it stands unhesitatingly by every people aspiring to national freedom, most particularly, by every people whom its own imperialism oppresses. It is only in this way that the working class, especially its socialist sector, can demonstrate that national oppression is only a form of class oppression; that it is not “Germans” or “Americans” or “British” or “Russians” who oppress other peoples, but the German, American, British and Russian ruling classes – not working classes; that the struggle for national freedom can be fought consistently and successfully only under the leadership of the proletariat whose very interest has been inseparably linked with the fight for democratic rights; and that the struggle for national freedom, as for all other democratic rights, is genuinely and supremely achieved only by the rule of the working class and the achievement of its historic goal.

Mr. Reves, who is for national independence in the eighteenth century – that is, when his bourgeoisie achieved it – but condemns it in the twentieth century – that is, when hundreds of millions of people are seeking to achieve it against his bourgeoisie – only reveals his class position, and emphasizes to these aspiring millions what they may expect from the most “democratic” of the imperialists. What they may expect from Mr. Reves’ not so democratic opposite numbers, has been sufficiently impressed on their bodies by Hitler, Goebbels, Rosenberg, Frank and Seyss-Inquhardt.

If the working class of the imperialist countries does not become the militant champion of the right of self-determination for the oppressed or about-to-be-oppressed nations, the struggle of the latter is not only doomed, but must inevitably degenerate into futile chauvinism. Sheer national hatreds would then be directed not only against the ruling Germans but against all Germans, not only against the ruling British, Russians, Americans or Japanese, but against the whole of the British, Russian, American or Japanese peoples. From such a struggle, chaos or stagnation can come, reaction can come, but little else. Here, as in every great problem of our time, the solution depends upon the working class. Mr. Reves has involuntarily drawn another line under what has so often been underscored.

If Mr. Reves stands on the class position of American imperialism, how account for his criticism of Secretary Hull’s declaration that “The Charter is an expression of fundamental objectives toward which we and our allies are directing our policies” – a declaration scored by Reves as “precisely the fundamental fallacy of our policies”? The answer is that Mr. Reves not only does not understand modern imperialism in general – and this is surely putting a charitable construction on his article – but fails altogether to understand American imperialism and its policies in particular.

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