The Myths of National Autonomy

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Joined: 29-09-06
Jun 1 2018 09:00
The Myths of National Autonomy

It is nothing new that parts of the libertarian movement hold radically different positions on questions such as national liberation or national autonomy. And not only the libertarian movements. Questions such a the issue of Polish statehood clearly divided socialists a century ago into nationalist and internationalist camps and later became a strong influential factor in building the nationalist distraction that has sidetracked the working class and steered them in the direction of more nationalistic elements.

It's certainly one thing when an area has come under imperalist domination and the local populace seeks the recovery of land, resources etc. and seeks to implement a more horizontal distribution of wealth. But it's quite another when the national elites use this question to mobilize support for an autonomy or independence which is nothing more than a changing of rulers and money. Modern E. Europe shows many examples of this.

At the same time there is a growing fascism, a growing number of organizations of the left are moving away from a clear internationalist position and retreating with the social mood. How much of this is just the logical extension of national influences on the left or on the anti-globalist trend from 2 decades ago and how much is part of the tendencies towards supporting "self-determination", whatever direction, is up for discussion.

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Jun 1 2018 10:09
akai wrote:
It's certainly one thing when an area has come under imperalist domination and the local populace seeks the recovery of land, resources etc. and seeks to implement a more horizontal distribution of wealth. But it's quite another when the national elites use this question to mobilize support for an autonomy or independence which is nothing more than a changing of rulers and money.

So I think one problem here is that these are often conflated, by both 'nationalists' and 'internationalists' into the same thing.

Somewhere like Kenya had decades of mass struggle. There was work refusal in the '20s/'30s when mass enclosures took place, subsistence farming was systematically undermined by restrictions on keeping livestock etc. to force people into wage labour.

Then there was a general strike in Mombasa 1939, then a wave of strikes/general strikes in the late '40s.

Only after these mass strikes, when unions were banned and a state of emergency declared, did you see the emergence of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The KLFA was mostly Kikuyu, with the main demand being land redistribution - not remotely communist, but neither can be described as a bourgeois national liberation movement, Tabitha Kanogo's book on the origins of Mau Mau absolutely slams RCP/Living Marxism/Spiked Frank Furedi's book for constructing a 'petit-bourgeois leadership' narrative from nothing. This is commonly called the Mau Mau rebellion. But Mau Mau was a term made by the colonial authorities, with help from quack race scientists, to justify concentration camps and torture during the state of emergency.

And only after all of that, the British handed things over to Jomo Kenyatta, who was opposed to both strike action and the KLFA (although played both sides rhetorically a bit, was mostly out of the picture in prison until the last minute) - to the point where the last KLFA factions were wiped out post-independence by Kenyatta.

I tried to write some of this up here: and it links off to other sources. I didn't know much at all of this history until I started looking into it, I think most people have heard of 'the Mau Mau rebellion' but that's usually as far as it goes, and Kenyatta is often cited as the leader/founder of Mau Mau (including in a Stephen Halbrook pamphlet republished by Zabalaza books a decade ago) which is just historically wrong.

It's very tempting to say that mass strikes opposed by nationalist political parties aren't part of the national liberation movement, but then the African Workers Federation, and specific strike leaders like Makhan Singh, had explicit demands for the end to colonial rule (I think they put forward that demand way before the nationalist parties did in fact). So they were against colonialism (anti-colonial), if not for the creation of a new nation state.

In far too many discussions, all these different things, some of which were in direct opposition to each other, get collapsed into a 'national liberation movement' which either has to be supported against British colonialism, or rejected against Kenyatta's new nation state. Whereas we can see national independence in the form of a new nation state as the recuperation of mass working class struggle (in this case - obviously that doesn't apply across the board, which is another issue when completely different situations get conflated, like 1950s Kenya and 2000s Scotland ffs).

I would really like to see more effort put into investigating these histories properly and honestly, because an internationalist position rooted in that history is a lot harder to write off as pro-imperialist, which the 'campist'/anti-imperialist left constantly does.

Joined: 6-01-07
Jun 1 2018 10:28

Recuperation ''In the forms of new nation states'' sounds right but the nationalist ideological battle ground sets in much earlier during the development of class struggles that incorporate an anti-colonial language.

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Jun 1 2018 11:35
Spikymike wrote:
Recuperation ''In the forms of new nation states'' sounds right but the nationalist ideological battle ground sets in much earlier during the development of class struggles that incorporate an anti-colonial language.

It does, but then someone like Fanon was talking about the 'pitfalls of national consciousness' while simultaneously participating in the FLA in Algeria, first paragraph of that chapter from Wretched of the Earth:

Fanon wrote:
HISTORY teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. For a very long time the native devotes his energies to ending certain definite abuses: forced labour, corporal punishment, inequality of salaries, limitation of political rights, etc. This fight for democracy against the oppression of mankind will slowly leave the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood. It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.

So if that anti-nationalism exists as a tendency within anti-colonial struggles, then it's not unique to internationalist anarchism/communism. This isn't to say it's identical, but a lot of internationalist writing ignores it, and there is pro-national liberation anarchist/communist stuff that is less critical of 'national liberation' than Fanon.

Then apart from that, British colonial rule in the '20-'60s is a completely different situation to the British railway system being run by nationalised companies based in other European countries, but that doesn't stop unions bringing out fucking terrible xenophobic videos like this (still can't get over that video, even from a crude pro-nationalisation standpoint they could've picked fucking Branson). However, to what extent every time someone mentions a strike in the UK do we say how it's completely constrained by nationalism (given the leadership of all the major unions are demonstrably nationalist, and the majority of workers in the UK aren't internationalists). Not very often.

It comes up with something like the Lindsey oil refinery strikes but most communist accounts of that were careful to emphasise aspects of the strike which were positive despite the nationalism - such as the practical solidarity with Eastern European workers against manipulation by the BNP and media.

There was also a nationalist aspect to Hungary 1956, and the oft-cited-by-tankies presence of ex-Nazis in one of the fighting groups in Budapest, who were supported by the CIA. This presence is massively exaggerated by tankies to write off Hungary '56, workers councils and all, as a fascist counter-revolution (literally see people still call it a 'Nazi stay-behind operation masterminded by the CIA' all the time on twitter), while Hungarian nationalists now try to claim '56 as a nationalist foundation story.

But most internationalist accounts would look at the student and workers councils as the nucleus of the uprising rather than the group around Nagy, or right-wing nationalist militias in Budapest. If we can do it for Hungary, why has it not happened for mass meetings of thousands every day in Nairobi just six years earlier? This isn't to say they're equivalent movements but we're talking about multiple books and dozens of articles vs. nothing. Or to put it differently, why do we imply that Hungary was not a 'national liberation movement', but that the Nairobi general strike was (if we've even heard of it)?

David Hyde wrote:
In Pumwani and Shauri Moyo the basic ingredients of planning and coordination quickly emerged as the strikers organised themselves ‘in daily mass meetings’. A ‘holiday atmosphere’ became quickly pervasive. A fire was lit in the Kaloleni Valley, an area between Shauri Moyo and Pumwani and close to Nairobi’s industrial area and railway station, which according to Maina, “was a sign of unity. It was telling the people that the strike was going to go on. It was a large bonfire that could be seen throughout the location and fueled by engine oil from Nairobi’s railway workshops”. Almost from the start flying pickets patrolled the locations bringing people out on strike, dealing with the recalcitrant and consolidating the authority of the strike committee generally. A large part in organising these groups seems to have been played by youth and the unemployed who were drawn towards the E.A.T.U.C. by its stand against the state. During the course of the strike many demonstrations were concentrated in Kaloleni Valley where large crowds of the unemployed swelled the strikers ranks. Every day, ‘between 4,000 and 5,000 was at the waste ground’ which became the strike’s principal theatre. According to Maina, there were speakers “encouraging people to continue with the strike, the release of Chege Kibachia, better houses and water”. Scabs, including “drivers, domestic workers and some clerks”, had their heads publicly shaved and were “instructed to be cleaners of the toilets. The toilets in Majengo had never been cleaner as they were during that time”.

Now I think there were good (or at least understandable) reasons for this to a large extent at the time. The events were almost completely silenced by contemporary reporting, and history destroyed by colonial authorities, whereas geopolitics determined that Hungary '56 got a lot of attention. Where there was reporting, it was of the 'Mau Mau terrorists', not mass strike action.

The history of these movements only really started to get pieced back together properly again since the '70s and '80s, whereas with Hungary '56 you had Peter Fryer, Andy Anderson and other accounts come out very quickly. But these differences of emphasis 50-70 years ago still impact discussions now.

And the point here is not that we should all go soft on national liberation, but that there are massive gaps in terms of an internationalist account of these events, which make it easy to discredit an internationalist position as not giving a shit about 'class struggle under/against colonial regimes' - whereas an excavation and promotion of that history is much more likely to undermine nationalist accounts than saying 'nationalism is poison for the working class' over and over hoping it sinks in.

Joined: 17-05-04
Jun 1 2018 12:37

admin -split from


Let me tell you something, the reason why the masses are not flooding to your Anarchism is exactly that one – it is your Anarchism. It is a white, petty-bourgeois Anarchism that cannot relate to the people. As a Black person, I am not interested in your Anarchism. I am not interested in individualistic, self-serving, selfish liberation for you and your white friends. What I care about is the liberation of my people.

This harsh critics fits perfectly into eurocentric anarchist (to which my CNT has contributed so much), as we may see in every national liberation movement, or peasants or indigenous movement in the so-called third world. The question is, how is it possible we're not able to attract oppressed people and (some) fascists are?

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Jun 1 2018 14:00

With Kenya (and many other former colonies, Guyana, Jamaica, India all have rich histories of class struggle) and the UK, but the same could go for Spain and Morocco or French groups and Algeria/Mozambique/Senegal, reckoning more properly with this stuff has three purposes IMO:

1. To more properly put forwards an internationalist position against statist anti-imperialism/campism in general, but one which builds off an understanding of the internal contradictions of movements in different countries and how nationalism impedes working class emancipation. Too much rehashes Lenin vs Luxemburg or is focused on the most extreme left-nationalist politics like Tankies, which leaves a massive space open for euro-centrism accusations.

2. To counter nationalist/pro-colonialism tendencies that are on the rise now, in the UK but also elsewhere - like Nigel Biggar's colonialism project.

3. As the basis for understanding current struggles in those countries, towards international links, and as some of the pre-history of struggles of workers who migrated to the colonialist countries (like Jamaicans and East African asians in the '50s-'70s).

If those things happen, there's a lot less basis for people to write articles like the one Salvochea links above, but too often the response is to either dismiss it as baseless, or just opportunistically embrace pro-national liberation politics. It should be noted that anarchists and communists in India (or diaspora) are often extremely put off by horrible anti-imperialist politics from UK/US leftists that will praise someone like Bhutto or the CPI, ignoring their histories of attacking working class struggles.

Joined: 29-09-06
Jun 2 2018 18:45

The stuff here is all very interesting to examine. I think that the last sentence above also is very important because it shows that what is sometimes thought of as some anti-imperialist progress is really far away from what we are supporting. I would add that besides talking about class struggle under colonial regimes, there was the issue of class struggle in the Soviet bloc, which should be treated differently, but which also intersected with the national question more than once.