[DEBATE/ PAPER]: Lucien van der Walt, 1999 paper, “Some Comments on the National Question From an Anarchist/ Syndicalist Perspective” (revised)

Revised version of paper prepared by Lucien van der Walt for Lesedi Socialist Study Group, Wits University, 16 May 1999

We need to distinguish between several clusters of issues:

  • National oppression, the national question and the basis of national liberation struggles;
  • The causes of national oppression;
  • Nationalism as an ideology of an existing States;
  • Nationalism as a right-wing form of national liberation struggle;
  • The possibilities for revolutionary national liberation that opposes nationalism.


This typically lies at the root of the national question. Issues of cultural and linguistic and other diversity are a fact of human life. This diversity is not in and of itself problematic, it is part of the rich heritage of human history. Nor is such diversity inherently a basis for conflict. In most circumstances, the tendency is towards cultural cross-influences: what culture can be said to be pure of influences from all others? What language is unique and does not borrow words and phrases and grammar from others?

It is national oppression — discrimination against, and subjugation of, a particular group — which provides the basis for the raising of specifically national grievances and demands, centred on opposition to discrimination and subjugation. The oppression is national, in that it is applied to a “national” group or nationality, usually defined as having a common national identity, or nationality, and applies to all members of that group. These national criteria in people’s minds tends to overlap with long-standing characteristics of race, religion, language etc. That is, the oppressed nationality is usually seen as having inherited, or at least deeply historical roots. In cases like South Africa, the racial question and the national question are, for all intents, identical

National oppression is undertaken primarily by the State and capital, but this sometimes supported by sections of the working class of what is now seen as the oppressor nationality (in South Africa, for all intents, this is seen as identical, with the oppressor race). Which forces undertake the national oppression is separate from the question of who benefits from national oppression.

On the whole, although there might be some relatively small benefits for the working class and peasantry in the oppressor nationality, the primary beneficiaries are members of the ruling class within the oppressor nationality. The working class and peasantry in that oppressor nationality are harmed, threatened by exactly the elements that benefit that ruling class: cheap labour, an authoritarian political system, bourgeois propaganda. Obviously these harm the working class and peasantry in the oppressed nation, and far more severely!

(Of course, demography matters: the smaller the working classes and peasantry in the oppressor nation, the larger the benefits … so, the benefits are marginal in, say, the USA but were considerable in South Africa. South Africa, like “Rhodesia” and “South West Africa” were, in some respects, a unique category. So, the context matters a great deal).

The national question has, then, two components: first, the national oppression, which is specific to the oppressed group, and exists above and beyond class oppression and exploitation, and, second, the division in the working class and peasantry that results. As I have suggested, the working class and peasantry in both oppressed and oppressor nationalities have, to an important extent, common class interests, against capital and state.

But the national question appears within the working class and peasantry precisely because, first, of the special oppression the oppressed nationality’s working class and peasantry face as members of that nationality, and because, second, that special oppression is a threat to the working class and peasantry of the oppressor nationality e.g. cheap labour.  So, class unity is only really possible if the working class and peasantry in the oppressor nation oppose (in real ways) the national oppression of the working class and peasantry in the oppressed nation. And both will benefit from this. That is one condition for such unity.

Now, national oppression is the basis of the national liberation struggle, which is a just and correct struggle against special oppression. This cannot be reduced to class struggle, but its direction is contested from within, by a class struggle within the oppressed nationality, over the aims and directions of the national liberation struggle.To the extent that the working class and peasantry in the oppressed nationality take the lead, and imprint on the national liberation struggle their own, specific demands — including anti-capitalist revolutionary content — then a real alliance on a class basis also becomes more feasible with the working class and peasantry in the oppressor nation. That is the second condition for such unity.

Having said that, regardless of whether an alliance on a class basis emerges, the the working class and peasantry in the oppressor nation should support the national liberation struggle of the oppressed nation, as this weakens their “own” ruling class, is part of the larger struggle for human emancipation, and because they generally benefit from the emancipation of all popular sectors facing special oppression

But, as will be said below, the national liberation struggle can be approached in a variety of ways by different forces.


What are the roots of national oppression? It is hard to a give a single answer, however, there are several forces in capitalist society that can provide the basis for national oppression. We need to examine each case of oppression in detail to see which is primary.

The first such force is the inherent need of capital and the State to divide the working class and peasantry. If capitalism failed to divide the working class, it could not long survive. Hence this issue of dividing the working class needs to be seen not as a conspiracy theory or as occasional development. It is a standard feature of capitalism. Such division is readily accomplished on national lines – in addition to promoting prejudice (bias) through the institutions of ideological power (press, schools, church etc.) the capitalists actively discriminate against certain national groups, this being highly profitable at the same time i.e. what is sometimes called “super-exploitation”.

It is not simply a question of dividing the working class amongst itself, but also of trying to win the support of a substantial section of the working class for the current State. Nationalism is a state religion, and always serves to bind workers to “their” nation-state, to place patriotism above class, to fight and die for the nation. It is a normal condition of ideological life on capitalism, as essential to capitalist power as the division of the working class to which it is integrally linked.

In a situation of national oppression, the nationalism of the oppressor nation provides a means to pose the problem in society as “us” (this nation) versus “them” (the oppressed nation), and to justify that oppression, and  so, to sanctify that oppression despite the fact that the working class and peasantry in the oppressor nation do not, fundamentally, benefit from it.

It is not the capitalist market that creates nationalism through a need for national homogeneity to facilitate its operations as Lenin and other Marxist “theorists” would have it. On  the contrary, the market can readily operate in a multi-lingual context – for example SA, or the global market. International neo-liberalism does not require a homogeneous world any more than a local capitalism does. Further, the drive to national homogeneity is rarely successful, and the capitalist market continually undermines national homogeneity to the extent that it operates through bringing in immigrants, profitable foreign cultural commodities etc.

There is almost never a homogeneous nation-State: few territories on earth can be said to be nationally homogeneous, and the State itself originates typically from conquest, power politics, and deals between sections of the ruling class. Homogeneity is a rarity, not a standard feature of capitalism, or an explanation for nationalism.

This brings us to another, and very crucial, cause of national oppression: war-making and conquest, including colonial conquest, by the ruling classes of specific nationalities. This is then entrenched as national oppression, since the conquered are integrated into the conquering State — whether nation-State or empire — as a subject nationality, rightless and despised.

Imperialism is driven by class systems in the broad sense: first, by competition within the capitalist ruling class (I speak of our epoch) on both the political and economic levels, that is, at the level of competition within the state system and at the level of competition within the world market. And historically imperialism has been based on nationally oppressive forms of rule and justified to the home countries’ working classes in the language of national and racial superiority.

This brings us to an additional reasons for national oppression: “nation-building” from above. Newly independent States, for their part, use nationalism to mobilise working class support for the ambitions of the emergent local ruling class, loyalty to its institutions and projects, and to paper over the cracks of class cleavage. Hence, the language of national unity against oppression has typically been used to justify brutal attacks on the working class, for example, Ghana in 1961, Tanzania in the late 1960s and early .1970s, Zimbabwe in 1980-1981

So, it is this mixed character of actual capitalist “nations” that makes division on national lines possible in the first place. Even States set up by nationalist movements seceding from larger States (discussed below) are mixed bags. Hence, most decolonised States in Africa continue to be quite internally diverse, an issue linked directly to the imperial origins of these States. What after al is South Africa but a State created by British imperial conquest, with its legal basis an Act in the British parliament in 1909?

The larger point here is that nations and states rarely coincide, and the nation-state, as a state form, rarely matches any “nation,” and is widely associated with the national oppression of at least some of its population…


So far I have discussed nationalism as a tool of a ruling class in power, from an oppressor nationality — including those involved in oppressing other nationalities.

Yet nationalist ideology also commonly plays a role in national liberation struggles. Inasmuch as it fights national oppression, it is progressive — and while nationalist, with all the problems this involves like multi-class alliances, a drive for state power, elements of chauvinism — is infinitely better than the nationalism of the oppressor nationality.

Nationalism in the context of the national liberation struggle is a political ideology calling on all classes of a supposed nation to unite to constitute a national State. This multi-class model by its nature requires abandoning anti-capitalist and socialist aims. In other words, you cannot build a multi-class coalition if you oppose the bourgeoisie and emergent state elite of the oppressed nationality: they will not join. The multi-class “popular front” coalition on which such nationalist ideology is premised can only be built into a living movement if it fails to challenge the national bourgeoisie and state elite. And nationalism aims at state power, an independent states. But all states are institutions for minority class rule, and, in the current period, must be pro-capitalist to operate.

More– nationalism is an ideology that is capable of getting working-class support, but the class base of nationalism is the bourgeoisie or aspirant bourgeoisie. Nationalism serves to give the cover of a “general interest” to the specific interests of the oppressed national bourgeoisie and emergent state elite. It is a way of mobilising the support of the working-class around these alien class interests.

Why would such groups seek to use nationalism? The “national bourgeoisie” too suffers from national oppression, and hence, seeks to mobilise for its own distinct class interests in the national liberation struggle. But it is a small group, weak, underdeveloped, frustrated. In order to secure its own agenda, it must have working class and peasant support. To get this, it needs to form alliances with those classes. And this has historically been done in the form of nationalism.

Nationalism is a right-wing form of national liberation struggle, since it is, in the final analysis, the mode of national liberation struggle that secures the interests of the oppressed national bourgeoisie and emergent state elite, brings the big battalions of the masses into line as supporters, and, if successful, places that national bourgeoisie and emergent state elite in state power. State power is essential for the national liberation of the national bourgeoisie and emergent state elite.

In order to secure working class and peasant support, a successful nationalist movement must raise some of the demands of the working class — and when the working class moves leftward, the nationalists will move leftwards as well, so as not to lose the support of the working class. But it must do so in a cynical manner that in no way compromises the class interests of the oppressed national bourgeoisie. It must halt the leftward swing, while pretending to support it.

The ANC in the 1980s, for example, adopted the language of class struggle, the talk of “leading role of the African working class” etc., “peoples’ power,” some “workers’ control” of the economy — because nothing less would have been acceptable to the community and labour movements. Yet at the same time, it denied a contradiction between the interests of the black working class and the national bourgeoisie/ elite, and promised the representatives of big white capital and state officials that it would not harm their interests, always insisting that the time was not right for a move to socialism etc.

But this manoeuvre had no lasting impact on the party, which now openly implements its bourgeois class agenda of neo-liberalism whilst still claiming that it represents working and poor people. The national liberation of the national bourgeoisie and emergent state elite takes place from when it has state power, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, but it is done, now, at the expense of the majority of the old oppressed nationality i.e. its working class and peasantry. So, the ANC creates black billionaires  … while retaining much of the old system of cheap black labour, and the miserable township system.

A successful nationalism is a flexible political animal that can change its rhetoric to appear attractive to diverse social classes, without losing the core premise: the primacy of nation over class, and the drive towards capitalist state power.

In short, nationalist support for the working class is a tactical ploy. The nationalists will raise and fight for some of these demands -for example, trade union rights- but will always circumscribe them within the framework of the capitalist system. It will promise national freedom, but will do so only as much as is possible within the capitalist system. Hence, the ANC promises to redistribute wealth and create jobs — but within the context of capitalist programmes like GEAR, or statist programmes like the RDP — and within the context of the nation that it defines, claims to represent, and … rules.

Once in power, nationalist shift rapidly to the right, setting out to divide, rule, and exploit the working class. In other words, the covers come off, the bourgeois nature of nationalism is revealed for all to see.

The language of the “leading role of the working class” becomes at most a mystical chant. The real policies become those required by capitalist accumulation at a given point (in the 1960s, usually ISI, sometimes Soviet-type state-capitalism; in the 1990s, neo-liberalism), patriotism and national sentiment is used to manipulate the working class, and xenophobia, racism etc. are moved to the fore as the “nation” is implored to unite against it enemies – those who reject the unity of classes may be seen as counter-revolutionary.


There is a tendency in much of the left to equate nationalism and the national liberation struggle. In fact, they are separate issues. The conflation of nationalism and national liberation movements is radically false. The national liberation struggle has be fought by forces as varied as Stalinism (China 1949), religious fundamentalism (Iran 19179) and anarchism (Ukraine 1918-1921). Even in SA, the SACP was often larger than the ANC, notably in the 1930s and 1940s.

Nationalism is thus a particular current within the national liberation struggle. Whether it comes to be hegemonic in that struggle depends on a number of specific historical circumstances, notably the extent to which the working class has an independent programme and institutions. And what this means is there can be a left-wing form of national liberation struggle that aims at a radical social change, and that is not captured by bourgeois and elite elements in the oppressed nationality; that does not restrict itself to the narrow agenda of nationalism, with its embrace of class oppression and the state; that understands the complete national liberation of the majority in the oppressed nationality requires, in fact, a society of freedom and equality, an anarchist-communism, which can remove the legacy of past oppression, like colonialism, with a system of radical reconstruction and equity; that tears up the roots of national oppression in capitalist competition, the international state system, and “nation-building” from above; and that allows alliances on a class-basis by working classes and peasantries in both oppressor and oppressed nationalities, allowing a widespread social change, rather than isolation, subversion and counter-revolution by a vigilant global system of oppression.

This means, that it is possible to build a working-class-based ANTI-nationalist but PRO-national liberation movement, with a revolutionary agenda, that should entail, at a minimum, the following:

  • A class-based defence of democratic rights: opposition to repression of any element of a national liberation movement, defence of the right to choose the secessionist road, including such opposition and defence by the masses in the oppressor nationality.  This implies solidarity with the national liberation struggle on a principled basis. Opposition to all imperial wars, but focus on the popular movements in each country as the key to ending the war. This should be enforced by the organizations of the working class organised outside and and against the state and the local ruling class.
  • Class-based anti-imperialism: capitalism and states are the main causes of national oppression; and nationalism is the ideology of a specific elite class in the national liberation struggle. Hence, it is essential that the working class puts its own national liberation demands forward as well: demands that are both social — insofar as they address broad social and economic issues in an anti-capitalist and anti-statist manner — and “national” — insofar as they explicitly oppose national oppression, yet from the standpoint of the working class / peasantry and their demands and interests. We do not fight a national liberation struggle to win patriotic sweatshops and anti- imperialist local tyrants, after all! This must be built in vigorous competition with the nationalist current and must be built from within the organizations of the working class at work and in the communities. This means no surrender to the nationalists on the terrain of opposing national oppression: in fact, we must be the most vigorous fighters against national oppression, but do so on the basis of the working class/ peasantry and its interests.
  • Need for study of historic (broad) socialist positions on national liberation struggle: these positions are not homogeneous, and vary in terms of their position on nationalism. Relentless critique of nationalist positions, must be matched by honest critique various socialist” positions. At one level this means drawing the lessons from failures, arming ourselves against repeating mistakes from the past (e.g. the tendency of many Marxist-Leninists to liquidate themselves into nationalism through two-stage theories), and recovering positive example (most notably, the role and achievements of the anarchists/ syndicalists in Ukraine in the late 1910s, in Korea/ Manchuria in the late 1920s, and elsewhere e.g. in Cuba in the 1890s, Ireland and South Africa in the 1910s, China in 1920s …). These are all essential to the construction of a class-based anti-imperialism that can work.
  • Internationalism, not nationalism: insofar as national oppression is rooted within an international capitalist system, and can thus only be resolved fundamentally through social revolution against capitalism, it follows that class-based anti-imperialism must be anti-xenophobic and internationalist, seeking allies within the international working class movement rather than within “the nation.” One enemy, at least,  is at “home!”

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