Lucien van der Walt, 2003, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” in A.M. Bonanno, Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle (South African edition), Zabalaza Books, Durban/ Johannesburg.
Introduction to the Second South African Edition (2003)
by Lucien van der Walt
The ongoing struggle in Palestine is only the most obvious of a number of national liberation struggles taking place worldwide. In northern Ireland, in the Basque country in Spain, in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey, in Kosovo, large popular movements for national liberation exist.
For revolutionary anarchists, such movements are of more than mere intellectual interest. The aim of revolutionary anarchism is to create, through a social revolution, a world based on social and economic equality and self-management of the workplace and the community.
Therefore, no anarchist revolutionary can turn a blind eye to the question of the national liberation struggle. National liberation struggles are a social struggle against domination, a struggle founded on the demand of oppressed nationalities against discrimination and persecution, and for equality and self-determination.
What is National Liberation?
In short, these struggles are struggles against the domination of one people by another. They are struggles centred on questions of equal language and cultural rights and recognition of local cultures. They are struggles for political and social equality. They are struggles for equal access to resources, to welfare, to jobs, all jobs, to land. Above all, they are struggles which address concerns specific to an oppressed nationality, and they are struggles which centre on a particular territory, fought by the distinct and oppressed nationality which lives in that territory under conditions of oppression and domination. As national liberation struggles grow and gather strength, they became mass movements, drawing in people from across the class and social spectrum in the oppressed nationality.
To take one example. The Palestinian people have been fighting since the 1940s for a return to lands taken by the Israeli state, for a removal of Israeli army forces from Palestinian areas, for equal wages and access to jobs with Israelis, for free political activity and the right to choose their own destiny, and not to exist as slaves, as subalterns, as subordinates, to the Israeli’s. And this struggle has drawn in a great many people from the working class and peasantry.
Because we oppose national oppression, because national liberation struggles draw in millions of working class and poor people, millions of peasant farmers, because we cannot stand silently by whilst blood is spilt in struggles for equality, we cannot stand aside.
Mikhail Bakunin, the great anarchist revolutionary of the 1860s and 1870s, a lifelong advocate of the right to self-determination of oppressed nationalities declared “strong sympathy for any national uprising against any form of oppression,” for every people “has the right to be itself… no one is entitled to impose its costume, its customs, its languages and its laws.” It was “shameful,” Bakunin added, to ignore national liberation struggles, for it meant, in practice, siding with States and empires that practice imperialism or national oppression.
How do we relate to National Liberation Struggles?
The question, however, is HOW the revolutionary anarchist movement relates to national liberation movements. Much confusion arises on this issue. And it is here that this important pamphlet by our comrade Alfredo Bonanno, who today languishes in an Italian jail for his revolutionary activities, is invaluable, an indispensable guide.
Two false approaches
There are two mistaken views on the national liberation struggle that exist in sections of the anarchist movement. The first is a left-wing view; the second, rather more right-wing.
Some anarchist comrades take the left-wing view. They have argued that anarchism is internationalist, because it aims at an international revolution, an entirely new world. Therefore, these comrades argue, we cannot confine our attention to the Irish Catholics, or the Basques, or the Kurds, or the Palestinians. Some have even argued that taking sides in national liberation struggles will divide the working class and peasantry. These issues, they say, are best ignored; they do not “really” matter anyway. What is important is the class struggle.
The left-wing view has some good points. It underlines the anarchist commitment to internationalism. It points to the importance of the class struggle.
Where this view is mistaken is when it assumes, when it claims, that internationalism and the class struggle stand in contradiction to national liberation struggles. A real internationalism, a living internationalism is one that stands in concrete solidarity with the working class and peasantry the world over. And what does this mean, if not solidarity with the working class and peasantry of oppressed nationalities in their struggles for national liberation?
It is equally mistaken to see national questions as separate to the class struggle. The class struggle is the struggle of ordinary people to take control of their lives, to resist exploitation and domination. The class struggle necessarily, therefore, encompasses struggles against national oppression.
The right-wing view in the anarchist movement on the issue of national liberation is one that holds that anarchists should uncritically support national liberation struggles. In practice, this means that comrades remain absolutely silent about the problems with some of the groups involved in these struggles. For many of these comrades, any current in the national liberation struggle that seems “militant” or calls itself “revolutionary” should be given a blank cheque of anarchist support.
These comrades, in short, refuse to engage politically with national liberation movements, and excuse this by saying it would be “oppressive” to do so.
The great mistake of the right-wing approach is its refusal to recognise that national liberation struggles are complex and contradictory: like the trade union movement, the national liberation struggles are made up of many different and contradictory political currents, some progressive, some reactionary.
Class Struggle and National Liberation
Sometimes these different political currents even exist in the same organisations. On the one side, there are progressive currents that fight for the working class and peasantry, that struggle to expand the realm of freedom, that struggle for a better life through direct action. On the other side, there are reactionary currents that love capitalism, hate democracy, love dictatorship, hate trade unions, and love only the most reactionary aspects of the oppressed nationality’s culture: the elements that hate free thought, hate women, hate human rights.
Precisely because national oppression affects everyone in an oppressed nationality, the class struggle takes place WITHIN national liberation struggles. The oppressed working class and peasantry fight for national liberation as part of the broader struggle for freedom and equality. The oppressed middle class and capitalist class struggle only to establish their own rule: they hate the capitalists of the oppressing nationality for limiting their scope to exploit “their own” people. These two different sets of classes, the masses and the elite, share no fundamental interests or aims; even the culture of the nationality takes radically different forms for the masses, and for the elite.
Nationalism versus National Liberation
What these reactionary currents all share is the ideology of nationalism: the ideology that maintains that class struggle is irrelevant, that oppressed workers and peasants must join hands with their “own” exploiters and aspirant exploiters, to establish a national capitalism and national State. Their aim is “national independence,” meaning that “local” capitalists will replace “foreign” capitalists, “local” generals the “foreign” generals, “local” government officials the “foreign” officials.
Nationalism is a reactionary current in the national liberation struggle, a reactionary current that simply cannot deliver any meaningful freedom for the working class and peasantry of the oppressed nationality. Nationalism is a reactionary current that sacrifices the masses on the altar of the elite.
As Bakunin said, national liberation must be achieved “as much in the economic as in the political interests of the masses.” If the struggle is taken over by “ambitious intent to set up a powerful State” and “carried out without the people,” it will become hijacked by the “privileged class” and degenerate into a “retrogressive, disastrous, counter-revolutionary movement.”
The ANC in South Africa is a perfect example. Established in 1912 by the African middle class, the ANC has always aimed at nothing more than the expansion of the African capitalist class. Whenever the African working class has sought to transform the ANC into a vehicle for its own specific demands, as it managed to do, to some extent, with the UDF, the trade union, and the civic struggles of the 1980s, the ANC leadership has fought back to silence and sideline the demands of the working class.
The ANC leadership has used the trade unions to pursue its sectional, and elitist agenda. The results are perfectly clear: the ANC leadership has betrayed every one of the demands of the African working class and contracted an unholy marriage with the big mine-owners, factory bosses and farmers. It implements the neo-liberal GEAR policy that has led to millions of job losses, to millions of evictions and cut-offs, to a wave of subcontracting and casualisation, breaking every promise it made to African working class people in 1994. Yet it still calls on African workers to vote for it.
There can be no common ground with such reactionary currents.
Social Revolution or National “Independence”?
The role of anarchists in national liberation struggles is clear.
Anarchists support struggles against national oppression, just as anarchists support struggles against the oppression of women, just as anarchists oppose capitalist wars. Anarchists support struggles for more political and economic and social rights: even small victories are important because they increase the scope for working class and peasant self-activity, and because they inspire further, and greater struggles. And anarchists support the dismantling of empires and of dictatorial States.
Anarchists even defend the right of oppressed nationalities to establish their own States if they wish. We do not agree that this is the correct approach, but people have the right to mistakes without being locked in jail, without being shot down, without being butchered in the streets.
We do not, therefore, ignore national liberation struggles, but see these as an important site of struggle for the working class and peasantry. However, our real aim is revolution, always revolution. Our main struggle is class struggle, always class struggle. And our aim is international change, always international. The key issue is the struggle for social and economic equality, and the struggle for self-management.
Therefore, our aim is to win national liberation movements to the struggle for social revolution, not the fraud of “political independence.” It is capitalism and the State which create national oppression. No one country can be “free” in a capitalist world.
For the people of Palestine, freedom from Israel will not mean freedom from external domination, for an “independent” Palestinian state will still be dominated by larger States and giant corporations from outside its borders, economically, politically, culturally. It will inevitably be, at best, a junior partner of powerful forces from outside, and will not therefore truly be independent.
And the “independent” State will inevitably be the tool of Palestinian capitalists, who will prove no more generous to their own working class and peasantry than the Israelis were. National oppression itself may disappear, in that the Israeli tanks and laws will be withdrawn, but exploitation, poverty and class rule will remain. And the new State will itself practice national oppression against its own internal national minorities.
What else does South Africa after 1994 show but that the country remains dominated from outside by the United States and by the multi-nationals, by the World Bank and by the World Trade Organisation, while the African majority of the working class languishes in the hell of poverty and the jail of unemployment whilst the African capitalist class gorges itself at the trough with its close friends, big White business?
Participation for Transformation
From this basis, it is simply not good enough to write blank cheques to any and every current that exists in actual national liberation struggles, and to exist as nothing other than charity organisations, operating on the sidelines as fundraisers for any and every current that manifests in a national liberation struggle.
Instead, anarchists must PARTICIPATE in national liberation struggles, and reshape them into revolutionary movements. We participate on the side of the oppressed classes, and we fight the domination of nationalism.
As Bonanno says here, anarchists “refuse to participate in national liberation fronts” that try to submerge the struggles of the working class and peasantry for the malignant purposes of local elites. Instead, anarchists “participate in class fronts which may or may not be involved in national liberation struggles.” Sometimes this will mean allying on a temporary basis with currents who do not agree with us, sometimes even with nationalists, on specific issues and campaign, but we remain politically independent – always. And we fight for anarchism – always.
The aim is to foster the class struggle, to develop it in the direction of self-management and revolution, to defend the independence of the working class and peasantry, to develop a social RUPTURE with nationalism, with capitalism and the State, AND with the local elites. In practice, this means anarchists must participate in the more progressive currents in the national liberation struggle to transform them in a revolutionary direction. No blank cheques here: rather, a political struggle to promote class struggle, combat nationalism, and foster social revolution.
The “anarchist project concerning the national liberation struggle is very clear: it must not go towards constituting an ‘intermediate stage’ towards the social revolution through the formation of new national States.” Instead, writes Bonanno, “The struggle must spread to establish economic, political and social structures in the liberated territories, based on federalist and libertarian organisations.”
A New World
And as part of this struggle, anarchists aim to promote alliances and unity with working classes and peasantries in other nationalities, in other countries, in ALL other nationalities and countries, including those of the oppressing nation. The anarchists aim at uniting class struggle internationally.
This means striving, without sacrificing the struggle for national liberation, to UNITE Palestinian and Israeli workers and peasants, Catholic and Protestant workers in Ireland, Kurdish workers and peasants with their Turkish and Iraqi class brothers and sisters. All working class people and peasants share a common interest in improving their economic and social conditions, in extending their political rights, in ending capitalism, in abolishing the State.
Our approach to the national liberation struggle, therefore, is part of a broader struggle for an extension of freedom for all. We do not promote ethnic and racial conflict, we struggle for the general extension of rights and freedoms and self-management. We struggle for universal principles, and we will not shy away from criticising the political currents, and cultural practices that contradict those principles. We support only what is progressive, democratic and socialist in a given culture: nothing more, nothing less.
For real autonomy and self-determination can only take place in a free world, in a world where there are no States, corporations, multi-national or otherwise, no World Banks, no World Trade Organisations.
The new world will recognise and celebrate cultural identity. The new world will allocate international resources equitably to remove poverty and under-development. The new world will unite all nationalities in a single world federation, without sacrificing cultural difference and distinction.
In such a world, based on libertarian communism, national oppression will disappear, social and economic equality will be real, and humankind will be united as never before, with the great and oppressed masses oppressed no more, but now, and forever, the architects of human destiny.