Colonialism and nationalism in the building of liberation movements

The Sandinistas, in their difficulties with the Indigenous peoples of the Atlantic, had not reflected on the irony of being on the opposite side of the nationalist equation than they were when, as the representatives of Nicaragua, they encountered the United States. It had not initially occurred to the Spanish-speaking majority of Nicaragua that they, too, walked in the shoes of a colonialist. Larger nations have long dominated smaller nations, but a nation can be both a larger and a smaller nation at the same time, in relation to various other nations.

Nicaragua, a small country of 3 million, was long the plaything of far larger neighbors. But Nicaragua is an artificial construct: the dominant people of Spanish descent are dominant because their ancestors decimated the people who had already lived there. The concept of a Nicaraguan nationality is itself a legacy of colonialism, but also the peculiarities of local geography. Why are there seven countries on the narrow strip of land between Mexico and Colombia? Five of those countries, all speaking the same language, were part of a single Central American Federation. Yet that federation broke apart, unlike Mexico, because communication and travel were so difficult due to the mountainous terrain.

Over time, patriotisms developed, separate in each country created by the breakup. Domination by more powerful countries, and repeated direct interventions in the twentieth century by the latest, and most powerful yet, of those more powerful countries helped forge strong national identities. But those identities did not include the people who were already there, and had seen their numbers decimated through war, disease and plunder—in plain language, through a hemispheric genocide. It is easy to understand a colonial relationship when you are on the wrong end; it is far more difficult to understand this when you are on the power side of the equation.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Nicaragua’s nationalism was forged in its colonial relationship to the European powers and then to the United States. Augusto Sandino was able to articulate these feelings, and Sandino’s writings and example were strong enough to form a key pillar of a movement decades later. But as the majority Nicaraguans found their voices, found the confidence to create a revolution and to attempt to develop their culture free of colonial domination, the minorities in their midst, the descendants of those Indigenous nations decimated centuries earlier, felt themselves oppressed by those very same people who were so motivated by their own oppression at the hands of the giant neighbor to the north.

The movement of the majority, the Sandinistas, were not oblivious to their country’s history nor to the minorities of the Atlantic east, and were acutely aware of the poverty, underdevelopment and cultural trampling endured by the Indigenous minorities. But the Sandinistas had thought and acted in a mechanical manner, and so, initially, inflamed rather than soothed.

“The Left here did not incorporate anthropological concepts because it was married completely to the strict classical scheme: bourgeoisie versus proletariat without analyzing the cultural differences and the ‘civilizing’ conflicts that took place,” is the assessment of journalist and feminist activist Sofía Montenegro, who was one of the leading figures of the official Sandinista newspaper, Barricada. “What has happened here is not a mixing of the races but a clash of two civilizations, the Occidental and the Indigenous, in which one imposed itself on the other but was never able to completely conquer it.”

Marxist difficulties with nationalism

Marxism’s practitioners have often had a difficult time coming to terms with nationalism. The downgrading of the nation-state was articulated clearly in the movement’s most important early document, The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The two wrote: “The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got…National differences between peoples are daily vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”

Corporate globalization is not a new phenomenon, although of course the process has vastly accelerated since those words were written in the nineteenth century. Despite the increasing cross-cultural fertilizations in which better communications and increased commerce played no small role, the strength of nationalism only increased through the nineteenth century as disunited nations such as Germany and Italy struggled to unify their many pieces and other nations struggled to end their domination by stronger powers.

Those ongoing developments led to a current within Marxist theory that saw a difference between the nationalism of a colonial power and that of a captured nation seeking to throw off the hegemony bonding it. Self-determination for all nations had to be backed and therefore support should be given to independence movements. Independence was the right of all peoples in the name of self-determination. But it was also believed that national struggles were a “distraction” for the vast majority of a nation in that as long as they were oppressed by another nation they would not be able to fight for their emancipation as a class—they would not be able to free themselves of their domination by their native capitalists and aristocracy.

Humans can have multiple motivations, of course. World War I provided an excellent example: Nationalism was whipped up successfully in order to get millions to willingly fight a war that was fought to determine the capitalist division of the world’s resources. There was no other way to get those millions to fight. The war had to be brought to an end when those millions started to think more in terms of class, and of their common interests with the soldiers in the opposite trench, rather than in solely national terms. Very different feelings were unleashed, thanks to bitter practical experience.

Nationalism seen as a distraction from class

But the nonetheless still living body of nationalism continued to engender strong debates among the various strains of Marxism. A forceful argument against advocacy of self-determination of nations was put forth by Rosa Luxemburg, one of the outstanding contributors to twentieth-century political theory. Regardless of how valid a reader finds Luxemburg’s argument, she had the moral authority to make it. She was triply oppressed—as a woman in a male-dominated world, as a Jew in a Central Europe riddled with anti-Semitism and as a Pole (until the last days of her life, Poland was occupied and divided among three empires: Tsarist Russia, Prussian-dominated Germany and monarchal Austria-Hungary). Luxemburg adamantly refused to endorse independence for her native Poland, or any other nation.

“[T]he duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations’…[but] arises solely from the general opposition to the class régime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism…The duty to resist all forms of national oppression [under an apolitical ‘right of nations’] does not include any explanation of what conditions and political forms” should be recommended, Luxemburg wrote in 1909. Generic calls for self-determination don’t provide any analysis of underlying social conditions and therefore cannot provide a guide to action.

A further basic weakness of generic calls for self-determination, Luxemburg argued, is that they do not take into consideration the highly differentiated status of nations. “The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very outset condemns all small nations to political impotence,” she wrote. “Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Further, within each nation, there exist a multitude of interests that cannot be reconciled. “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous sociopolitical entity does not exist,” Luxemburg wrote.

“Rather, there exist within each nation classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights.’ … There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner. If we find in the history of modern societies ‘national’ movements, and struggles for ‘national interests, ’ these are usually class movements of the ruling strata of the bourgeoisie, which can in any given case represent the interest of the other strata of the population only insofar as under the form of ‘national interests’ it defends progressive forms of historical development.”

Luxemburg here argued that movements for national independence or self-determination are effectively controlled by the nation’s capitalists who, by virtue of their economic dominance, will control the movement to establish their own narrow rule and thereby subjugate the working people of the nation. Therefore, only the widespread adoption of socialist economic relations can truly free the working people of any nation.

Seventy years after those words were written, the capitalists of Nicaragua indeed sought to control the liberation movement of their country. Nicaragua wasn’t fighting for independence in the formal sense, but it was a country with very little self-determination. In the modern system of capitalism, the interests of local capitalists in subordinate countries align with the capitalists of the dominant nation. The interests of the Nicaraguan plantation owners and industrialists were simply to rid themselves of their local dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and establish their own rule. Rule by these local capitalists would be dependent on capitalists from the dominant power, through the medium of multinational corporations, and therefore compatible.

When direct rule of a colonized nation is no longer possible because of resistance, formal “independence” is granted, but a compliant dictator can be put in charge. When the rule of the dictator is no longer viable, a more “modern” form of domination is put in place, the rule of a local oligarchy. The local industrialists and plantation owners are ready to step in and assume domination of society; eager to fulfill what they see as their natural role, they seek to topple the dictator. Nicaragua’s capitalists could not do that on their own (they are numerically minuscule) and so joined the rapidly building mass liberation movement in an attempt to wrest the movement’s leadership from the Sandinistas. The capitalists were unable to do so because the working people of Nicaragua took an expanded, rather than narrow, view of self-determination, and this understanding led them to swell the ranks of Sandinista organizations.

But should nationalism be ‘skipped’ as a stage?

But although Nicaraguans were aware of their class interests, and that their liberation necessitated changes in their societal institutions and social relations, nationalism played a significant role. Sandinista National Liberation Front co-founder Carlos Fonseca had helped create the FSLN’s philosophy by skillfully blending the nationalism of Sandino with Marxism. The importance of nationalism was a consequence of the force of colonialism upon Nicaragua. Therefore, for the colonized, nationalism can potentially play a partly progressive role if it is combined with other political ideas. Another outstanding political theorist, Frantz Fanon, writing in the middle of the twentieth century at the peak of the Global South’s national liberation movements, argued that nationalism is an important stage that can’t be skipped.

National and racial differences are used to create and continue colonial situations, Fanon argued, and therefore, for the colonized, this divide adds to the complexities of a class analysis.

“In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the pre-capitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be re-examined here. The serf is essentially different from the knight, but a reference to divine right is needed to justify this difference in status. In the colonies the foreigner imposed himself using his cannons and machines. Despite the success of his pacification, in spite of his appropriation, the colonist always remains a foreigner.”

The urban and rural working people of Nicaragua could not free themselves without “kicking out” the foreigner (the US commercial interests that dominated their country) and instead institute balanced trading relationships with interests outside their borders. No colonized country can attempt such a liberation without developing a sense of itself as a nation, and that sense of nationhood can’t be separated from the differences between the newly awakened nation and the nation that dominates it. During Nicaragua’s domination, just as throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, these differences were pointed to by the colonizing power as justification for the colonial nature of the relationship.

It is the recovery of nationalism, Fanon wrote, that provides the basis for an independence struggle. “A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models…The nation is not only a precondition for culture…it is a necessity. Later on it is the nation that will provide culture with the conditions and framework for expression.” It is impossible to skip this stage of development. “Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims,” Fanon wrote.

“The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture. ”

Sandinistas used national understanding as a scaffold

Fanon wrote as a Caribbean activist deeply involved in Algeria’s 1950s struggle against brutal occupation by France, and so it may seem that his expressions of nationalism and equating those expressions with a definition of culture are too strong, but if a people are oppressed on a national basis, then it is only natural that a culture takes on that oppression in that form. It is not necessary to agree with Fanon’s elevation of nationalism to such heights to find merit in his formulation. The course of the past century demonstrated the validity of Fanon’s theories: Nationalism has been, and continues to be, an extremely powerful political force.

Fanon’s integration of nationalism (grounded in profound sympathy for the distortions imposed by colonialism) with Marxism provides a more realistic analysis than Luxemburg’s dismissal of national liberation movements. Not because Luxemburg’s analysis of the lack of autonomy for the world’s smaller nations is incorrect (in fact, it was fully accurate then as it still is today) but because it, to use Fanon’s phrase, “skips” an important stage of development. A national consciousness bound together Nicaraguans in the struggle against Somoza, but rather than make that struggle a purely nationalist movement, the Sandinistas built upon nationalism, using it as a scaffolding upon which they erected a much larger understanding of what would be needed for Nicaraguans to liberate themselves. A struggle against an internal dictator, underdevelopment, lack of education and external domination is necessarily, in part, a cultural struggle.

Such a struggle by a national majority, however, inevitably contains differences from the concurrent struggle experienced by national minorities, and these differences, too, are cultural. The Sandinistas, to their credit, did come to understand, in a concrete manner rather than in their previous abstract theoretical manner, that they had to provide sufficient space for their own minority nations to develop their culture, and that those minority cultures had been stultified to a degree more severe than their own cultural underdevelopment.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, published by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Katherine Hoyt, The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy [Ohio University Press, 1997]; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [Washington Square Press, 1964]; “The National Question and Autonomy (Excerpts),” Rosa Luxemburg, anthologized in Paul Le Blanc (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings [Humanity Press, 1999]; and Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth [Grove Press, 2004]


16 comments on “Colonialism and nationalism in the building of liberation movements

  1. Jack Shalom says:

    thanks, Pete. Always lots to think about here.

  2. Not sure I can see it this way. The left may or may not be married to the classical owning class vs working class view, but not all of what happend in Nicaragua was led by the left. US Imperialism is not an extension of Spanish Colonialism no matter how much it continued some of the oppressive tactics. The US does its imperialism in a capitalist way, no matter what anyone thinks about it or how a national dialog is framed. It was about the money and the opposition to communism.

    By the time Somoza came along this process had fully transitioned. We were part of the US sphere politically, militarily and economically. The Contra War was entirely about putting Nicaragua back under control. The US government leads up a US polity that does not want to face the oppositions to US economic or political will that stem from national sovereignty.

    • There is no question that the U.S.-sponsored and -financed Contra war was about keeping Nicaragua firmly in the U.S. orbit, under capitalist subordination, and as an object lesson for any other country thinking of an independent path.

      Thanks in no small part to the vast toll the Contras took on the Nicaraguan economy — by one estimate I quote in my book, the equivalent of four years of GDP — the Sandinistas wound up imposing austerity on themselves. That they left much of the economy in the hands of local capitalists was a significant factor as well. I discuss these points at length in my book, and also made a comparison between the Sandinista experience and Bolivarian Venezuela in a blog post in 2013.

  3. Jack Block says:

    Interesting stuff! Heard you on Prof Wolff’s podcast and have been a subscriber to your blog ever since.

  4. […] Book excerpt on how the Sandinistas of Nicaragua dealt with questions of Marxism, colonialism, and national liberation […]

  5. Paul Gilman says:

    In the 20th Century anti-colonial struggles usually had two elements. The first was a Marxist based ideology of ending socialism to develop the country, and hopefully end up in an egalitarian society. The other element was the colonial bourgeois reaching a point in their own development where they felt they could take on and liberate themselves from the imperial bourgeois. Mao developed the theory of antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. The two elements often untied in the struggle against the empire. As long as the war for liberation was going on the the contradiction between the two elements was considered non-antagonistic (except when in cases where the treachery of the bourgeois – Guomindang – shot the communist troops in the back). But then once the war of liberation was over, the non-antagonistic contradiction became antagonistic. Hence the saying, “first the war of liberation then the civil war”.

    In the case of Nicaragua, the Miskito had to suffer from as this column points out a mechanical view of Marxist development, and I am sure antipathy from the bourgeois elements within the FSLN. This is to be expected from the bourgeois. One of my complaints about most EuroCentric Marxists is the patronizing chauvinism that they have a monopoly of wisdom and everything else, especially when it comes to indigenous people is either uselessly quaint or out and out reactionary. Not everything has to be about industrial development. In this case, EuroCentric Marxism replaces nationalism.

    • To give the Sandinistas credit, they did come to understand their mistakes and overly mechanical approach to social development. But they caused unnecessary damage to their cause with those mistakes, which were avoidable.

      I should let readers know that I do discuss problems faced by the Miskito people and other Indigenous peoples in Atlantic Nicaragua in more detail in It’s Not Over‘s Sandinista chapter. The writings of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz are an excellent source for information on this.

  6. Sky Wanderer says:

    As always fascinating and brilliant : )

    In the past few days I have been focussing on a topic related to your post >
    Pt3 – Rethinking the Future beyond Left and Right: Whose #Freedom is it anyway?

    Several thoughts while reading your post: it seems to me, national identity and shared consciousness in the form of rational and socialism-based patriotism can also be the basis of resistance against one’s own nation’s colonialist stance. The flaw in the notion that nationalism is necessarily Rightist and globalism is Leftist can be easily captured via the fact that open borders are necessarily the interest of Capitalists so that they can oppress Labour on global scale, keep them in non-bargaining position and push wages low, meanwhile it is clearly a working class-interest to promote investment in peaceful domestic projects (infrastructure, healthcare, housing etc) rather than investing in Capitalist colonising wars and projects to outsource labour to colonies and keep wages low.

    In this regard the Rightist rational self-interest and Leftist solidarity could be reconciled along the line of Social Nationalism or Nationalist Socialism.

    In addition, nationalism as patriotism based on socialist values, with respect for the interests of other nations, seems to be the future, for other reasons as well. Even though the values of nationalism have severely compromised under the tension generated by the Capitalist globalist divide et impera strategy, national identity is something mankind is unable to live without. Colonialism and globalism, mass-migration and the consequent mix of clashing cultures invoked hostile forms of nationalism, but it does not mean we should abandon the concept of nations and to realise the concept in a rational and social manner.

    “Nation” after all is defined as shared consciousness, culture, language and preferences of a particular community living on one particular location. This means that a rational migration policy would necessarily keep focussing on not breaking that identity even if a country strives to observe solidarity. It is the irrational and anti-social Capitalist class to wage wars in the first place and it is them who arranged for a consequent migration crisis to produce an explosive mix of clashing cultures.

    To preserve nations is necessary also for decentralisation of power, and decentralisation of power in both politics and economy is a central element of democracy. In addition, self-governance of culturally (more-or-less) homogeneous units is also an indispensable perquisite of both democracy and social-economic functionality. Without the idea of belonging to a community within which we share a culture, consciousness, the human individual will be fatally alienated from society.

    • We recently lost Benedict Anderson, and his Imagined Communities remains the best work I’ve read on the topic of nationalism. Readers interested in the question of nationalism, and how and why it came about will find interesting theses.

      • Sky Wanderer says:

        Will look for the book. As for now, what I find mind-bogging is how imagine a global community if we can’t even achieve that on smaller scale (nations) and how to find it feasible that from extant global fascism we can somehow make the quantum leap and land on a fairy place of global socialism. I saw it nowhere explained how this could be done in practice. How can the already divided Left unite with all Left forces all over the world, and even if we assume they do, how can the Left-wing of country A make a difference in country B? Eludes me.

        The marginalised, demonised and divided segment of the so called Left-wing in each country can strive for democracy – by definition – only if they win the Right wing on their side and achieve unity of the 99% of both the exploited Right and Left side of the 99%. Such unity is exactly what Iceland achieved.

        To change the system is something only nations can and are entitled to achieve – one by one – as Iceland did. Even though imperfect, it was already a huge quantum leap.
        This is the one and only feasible next step to take if we wish to survive as a mankind. Then other nations could follow suit.

        Honestly, what is incomprehensible to me, how come that this is not blindingly obvious to everyone. The capitalist class is robbing us on a scale like never before. If we don’t act now to stop the global financial terrorism and don’t renationalise the banks and all stolen lands and resources, tomorrow will be too late.

        To act NOW towards the common objective that we can all share – to save our bare existence: isn’t this the one and only goal we should all pursue? Or what am I missing? Maybe this is still not known by everyone? What I mean >

        The Smash and Grab global agenda behind #Debt, Deficit and #Austerity – and what can we do about it

        • Sky Wanderer says:

          I am aware I sound political incorrect and I don’t mind. I just don’t have the luxury to be collected. I don’t want to gain anything whatsoever from this system. I want to change the system.

          • Sky, I am puzzled as to what could be “politically incorrect” about what you have written. There is nothing “incorrect” about pointing out that we are headed to catastrophe if humanity does not find a way to change course. I do believe we are living in the last century of capitalism, but what follows is up to all of us.

            People around the world are slowly beginning to resist in more organized fashion in more places; on the other hand, the extreme right is also making gains. The right has control of the mass media and the wealth to disseminate its viewpoints, and they have a further advantage in that they offer simplistic scapegoating for the world’s problems, playing on people’s emotions. We on the Left have a more difficult task, not having the means of opinion making at our disposal and having to explain sometimes complicated and/or opaque structural forces.

            We’re going to have to do a better job of making our case. All of us.

            • Sky Wanderer says:

              Am very thankful Pete that you didn’t find my comment politically incorrect.

              What I mean by political incorrectness is that in my analysis I arrived at the conclusion that the only democratically realisable and humanly possible organisation of our societies – which is the only anti-thesis to Global Capitalism – would be National Socialism – a pejorative label due to the infamous misnomer of historical Nazi regimes.
              Another point is that I openly advocate revolution, rather than (r)evolution, and what I found recently is that talk about revolution in real terms – such as Iceland’s – is banned even from “leftist” websites.
              Another point is that I found myself on a nowhere-land beyond the false dichotomy of Left-Right, and I am not alone with this. I am regularly on social media, which enabled me to witness how the 99% are divided along the Left and Right false dichotomy. It is a philosophical-ideological deadlock on society-level. (My “Rethinking the Future” blog-series explains this in detail.)

              It sounds promising – and I do hear it elsewhere as well that humanity is waking up and there are more and more movements all over the world. I just don’t see it happening. John Pilger complains about the same. I am on social media, I would know about it. What I get information about are only marginal movements for marginal causes, here and there.

              Instead of going into more details, let me refer to a recent post about my main concerns regarding the Left, specifically those activities that hinder the very cause of the 99% >

              As always, your thoughts are very welcome : )

  7. […] Before the history of Nicaragua was so commonly taught in schools, the country’s nationalism was forged in its relationship with European powers and later on with the United States in a colonial manner. As time went on, the people of Nicaragua started putting their foot down and worked up the courage to create a revolution that consisted of a life free from colonial restraint. Their motivation behind such courage was the fact that they felt oppressed. Once they were able to overcome this colonial obstacle, they started to create an image of and for themselves which led to its present nationalism ( […]

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