Decolonialism and Right to National Self-Determination in America

National liberation of oppressed nations from their colonial and imperialist oppressor is integral to class struggle. What national liberation entails is the right to national self-determination. What is this right exactly? It is the right of an oppressed nation to decide whether or not it wants to secede from the dominant nation. Virtually every communist agrees that the right to national self-determination is a corollary to internationalism. However, this virtually universal consensus wasn’t always the case. During the late 19th century to early 20th century, the idea of the right to national self-determination was contested among Marxists. In fact, one of the chief defects of the Second International is that at worst it (de facto) rejects the right to national self-determination and at best it has an ambivalent attitude towards the right to national self-determination. One of the sources of this defect is that the Second International consists primarily of European communists from European countries who colonized Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Because the Second International hasn’t settled on the national question, the question of whether or not oppressed nations have the right to national self-determination, it was prone to opportunism and social chauvinism, especially during World War 1.

Vladimir Lenin (among others) rightly criticizes the Second International for not adopting the correct position on the national question and eventually starts the Third International which unequivocally supports the right to national self-determination. What made Lenin stand out from his contemporaries is that he consistently champions the position of the right to national self-determination. The reason why the right to national self-determination, especially in the form of an anti-colonial struggle, has such an important place for Lenin is that oppressed nations have a stake in the struggle against imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism in which capitalist monopolies, owned by financial oligarchs, originally based in the global north, export capital to the global south to extract surplus value from the labor of the colonized peoples.

However, Lenin’s consistent and principled advocacy for the right to national self-determination should not be construed as an argument for it being an absolute right that takes priority above everything else. Lenin, being a principled Marxist, stresses that we must analyze the class character of any demand for the right to national self-determination of an oppressed nation. The bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation tends to demand the right to national self-determination of its nation unconditionally, but the proletariat must always analyze a demand for the right to national self-determination from its angle:

“On the plea that its demands are “practical”, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations will call upon the proletariat to support its aspirations unconditionally. The most practical procedure is to say a plain “yes” in favour of the secession of a particular nation rather than in favour of all nations having the right to secede! The proletariat is opposed to such practicality. While recognising equality and equal rights to a national state, it values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle. This call for practicality is in fact merely a call for uncritical acceptance of bourgeois aspirations.”

Vladimir Lenin, “The Right to National Self-Determination.”

In other words, the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation favors secession of its nation unconditionally, but the proletariat must assess any demand for succession from the perspective of whether or not this would further the interest of the world proletarian struggle. For instance, formal decolonization of colonized African countries was progressive, but while they gained formal political sovereignty, they failed to secure economic sovereignty. Why? Because the national bourgeoisie of colonized African nations ultimately benefited from maintaining their ties to their former colonial masters in the form of neo-colonialism. Political secession was beneficial for the national bourgeoisie, but it is detrimental for the working class of African nations.

Lenin also writes that if a particular demand for national self-determination contradicts whole proletarian and socialist struggle against capitalism insofar as its fulfillment would benefit an exploiter class, it ought to be rejected:

“The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete casts, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement, but it would be ridiculous to delete the demand for a republic from the programme of international Social-Democracy on these grounds.”

Vladimir Lenin, “The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up.”

What differentiates Marxists from bourgeois nationalists is that Marxists analyze the right to national self-determination concretely while bourgeois nationalists treat the right as an abstract, unconditional, and transhistorical principle. Marxists analyze whether or not exercising the right to national self-determination in a way that would tantamount to secession would advance the interest of exploited classes, especially the proletariat, in the global class struggle for socialism. Bourgeois nationalists treat the right to national self-determination in such a way that abstracts it away from class struggle.

Joseph Stalin provides a concrete example, which could be used to illustrate Lenin’s point:

“A nation has the right to arrange its life on autonomous lines. It even has the right to secede. But this does not mean that it should do so under all circumstances, that autonomy, or separation, will everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation, i.e., for its majority, i.e., for the toiling strata. The Transcaucasian Tatars as a nation may assemble, let us say, in their Diet and, succumbing to the influence of their beys and mullahs, decide to restore the old order of things and to secede from the state. According to the meaning of the clause on self-determination they are fully entitled to do so. But will this be in the interest of the toiling strata of the Tatar nation? Can Social-Democracy look on indifferently when the beys and mullahs assume the leadership of the masses in the solution of the national question? Should not Social-Democracy interfere in the matter and influence the will of the nation in a definite way? Should it not come forward with a definite plan for the solution of the question, a plan which would be most advantageous for the Tatar masses?”

Joseph Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question.”

Stalin asks the above rhetorical questions on whether or not communists should support secession of an oppressed nation that would restore the old order where an exploiter class rules over exploited classes. He already answers those questions earlier:

“The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.

This, of course, does not mean that Social-Democracy will support every demand of a nation. A nation has the right even to return to the old order of things; but this does not mean that Social-Democracy will subscribe to such a decision if taken by some institution of a particular nation. The obligations of Social-Democracy, which defends the interests of the proletariat, and the rights of a nation, which consists of various classes, are two different things.”

Joseph Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question.”

Stalin distinguishes between the formal right to secede and whether or not secession of a particular form advances the proletarian struggle. An oppressed nation has the formal right to secede, but if its secession tantamount to restoring an old order, communists would deem the secession to be objectively reactionary. So, like Lenin, Stalin acknowledges that the right to national self-determination is not infallible, absolute, and unconditional. Like Lenin, Stalin argues for analyzing any demand for secession from the point of view of whether or not secession of a particular oppressed nation in a particular concrete situation would further the interest of the proletariat and other oppressed classes or not. If secession of a particular nation leads to restoring an old social order in which a reactionary exploiter class rules over the toiling masses, communists should not support it.

In the light of what this essay discussed, how should we apply the insights of Lenin to the present-day United States of America? It is no secret that the United States developed historically through a long, protracted, and extremely violent process of expropriation of land and resources from mainland indigenous tribes, Mexicans, Native Hawaiians, Peurto Ricans, and so on. Such a long and protracted process of expropriation created the foundation for the development of monopoly capitalism in the United States. Many of the so-called decolonial Marxists argue that since the United States’ current territory results from such expropriation and dispossession, it is a settler-colonial state that exists on stolen land. Because the United States as a settler-colonial state is built on stolen land, the only way to correct for this egregious error is to return all of it to indigenous tribes. What decolonial Marxists assume is that since all indigenous nations have the right to national self-determination, which entails the right to secede, and their land is stolen from them, their right to secession includes the right to acquire back lands that were stolen from them.

Many decolonial Marxists support the current indigenous-led campaign under the slogan “Land Back.” The Land Back campaign is led by organizations such as NDN collective, but it has been proven that NDN collective is led by a real estate landlord and it is funded by capitalists such as Jeff Bezos and Peter Buffet. The slogan “Land Back,” which expresses the right to national self-determination for indigenous tribes, is an abstract slogan that conceals the particular and concrete class character. The real aim of the Land Back campaign is to consolidate more land in the hands of the national-tribal bourgeoisie of indigenous tribes; they will retain connections with the transnational capitalists like Jeff Bezos. But decolonial Marxists ignore or downplay the national-tribal bourgeois nature of the Land Back campaign. They assume that the right to national self-determination not only takes priority, but also that at the present moment there is a shared interest between the indigenous proletariat and indigenous bourgeoisie to exercise their right to national self-determination. But we know from empirical observation that this assumption is patently false.

Many indigenous proletariat who live in reservation are suffering from poverty while indigenous bourgeoisie and their bureaucratic and administrative affiliates live in opulent wealth.

Who will own the land that is supposedly being acquired? It’s obviously the national bourgeoisie of indigenous tribes because they have the power, wealth, resources, organization, and backing from the transnational capitalists to acquire back some of the land. The secession of some of the tribes in this context would tantamount to empowering the national bourgeoisie. At the moment it is really the indigenous bourgeoisie who have the real power and leverage, backed by the transnational capitalists, to demand “Land Back” while the indigenous working class have little or no say in the matter.

Some decolonial Marxists might concede that the current Land Back campaign is bourgeois, but they will insist that nonetheless all land should be restored in the hands of indigenous workers. Surely, secession of the kind that is demanded by and for the working class of indigenous tribes is congruent with the kind of national self-determination that Marxists are in favor of. One problem with this view is that if all land is restored in the hands of indigenous workers, then non-indigenous workers, in particular white workers, are dispossessed of their land. If white workers remain in mainland North America without deportation, they will become propertyless workers who lack means of production, especially land, while indigenous people will own the means of production (including land). This would in effect perpetuate a class division rather than abolish it. Since class division is perpetuated rather than being in the process of abolition, there is no meaningful dictatorship of the proletariat because it is essentially one group that has political and economic power while the other group is politically and economically disenfranchised.

One possible solution to this problem is to deport all white workers to Europe. In this way, one can avoid the problem of perpetuating class division altogether. However, needless to say, this is extremely unrealistic and unfeasible. But not only is this unrealistic and unfeasible, but it also reproduces the racialist and essentialist ideology created by the European bourgeoisie in order to create an artificial division among the toiling masses along colored lines. The establishment of socialism through the dictatorship of the proletariat is supposed to destroy this deeply reactionary bourgeois ideology rather than merely inverting it.

Another solution is to give the right of residence to all white workers in indigenous countries and allow them to formally partake in the ownership of the means of production, but they have limited political power because they are to be treated as foreigners. Specifically, white workers are passive citizens who merely have civil rights that protect them from discrimination and economic disenfranchisement, but they are not active citizens who get to decide how to govern the political community through political processes such as elections. Under this arrangement, class division is in the process of abolition rather than being perpetuated. However, this solution is still very problematic for several reasons.

First, dictatorship of the proletariat entails that all workers of a political community are part of a self-governing body. All workers who partake in the process and body of self-governance are active citizens. In other words, apart from children (who are passive citizens until they become adults), there are no passive citizens in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Second, if a group of workers (active citizens) have all the political rights to govern their political community while others (passive citizens) merely have civil rights, then active citizens can express their voice through elections on how to manage the means of production and distribution of the proceeds of collective labor, but passive citizens lack such a voice. But if this is the case, passive citizens have no meaningful political control over the means of production because they only have formal ownership rather than real and concrete ownership. Ultimately, passive citizens are subject to the decision of active citizens, expressed through elections, on how to manage the means of production and the distribution of goods and services. The distinction between passive citizens and active citizens quickly turns into a class distinction. In effect, such an arrangement still perpetuates class division under the guise of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Third, would the secession of indigenous tribes amount to a complete balkanization of North America or would it amount to a unified multinational indigenous socialist country? If the former, then such balkanization leaves workers in North America heavily divided and therefore vulnerable to external imperialist assault. If the latter, the problems I’ve stated earlier still apply.

Some decolonial Marxists might double down on their position by arguing that most white workers are labor aristocratic settlers whose wage derives from the exploitation of oppressed workers within the U.S. Given that real wages have been stagnant in the United States since the 1980s while at the same time productivity (surplus labor) outpaces them and almost $50 trillion dollars have been privately appropriated by the transnational capitalists from the labor of all workers in the U.S., the argument is patently unsound. Furthermore, the argument that white workers derive benefits from stolen land and resources is fundamentally a non-Marxist argument. The only benefit that ultimately concerns Marxists is exploitation, the private appropriation of surplus value from laborers. “Benefits” such as living on stolen land, eating food made in stolen land, using infrastructure created from resources from a stolen land, and so on are not instances of exploitation because these are instances of consuming use-value not privately appropriating surplus value. Furthermore, the assumption behind the argument that all the wealth accumulated on a stolen land belongs to indigenous people is an implicit rejection of the labor theory of value. Accumulated wealth isn’t from land alone but rather it is from the conjunction of natural resources (including land) and labor. Without labor it is impossible for wealth to accumulate regardless of whether or not the land is stolen.

Despite my criticisms, I am not arguing against the right to national self-determination. What I have argued is that the right to national self-determination does not necessarily entail complete secession in all circumstances. Furthermore, I argued that how the right to national self-determination is being exercised should be assessed strictly based on whether or not it advances the interest of the whole proletariat in the long run. What I propose is a more realistic and materialist solution to the national question in America which is not complete and universal secession, but rather it involves land reform that redistributes as much land as possible for indigenous tribes based on their concrete conditions and need, respecting the treaties with them, and granting them regional-tribal autonomy in which they can legislate their own laws and manage their own productive forces within the context of a broader socialist America. The alternative I’m proposing allows for meaningful and peaceful coexistence between working class communities that would facilitate the process of reconciliation.