All seemed possible when the Sandinistas took power 40 years ago

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Sandinistas taking power in Nicaragua, a milestone that merits celebration regardless of our opinions on how the Sandinista Revolution evolved. Nor should the hand of United States imperialism in distorting that revolution be ignored — the huge cost exacted by the U.S.-directed and -funded Contras totaled more than four years of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.

Just as many of the tactics the U.S. government and those on its payroll are using in its all-out economic war against Venezuela replicate what was done to Chile during the era of Salvador Allende (including blowing up power plants to cause widespread blackouts), there are parallels with U.S. tactics against the Sandinistas. Pressuring opposition parties to boycott elections, then declaring those elections fraudulent, was a tactic used by the Reagan administration in 1984, just as the Trump administration is doing in Venezuela today following the attempts to delegitimize the Bolivarian Revolution by the Bush II/Cheney and Obama administrations.

Another parallel between the Bolivarian Revolution of the past 20 years and the Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s is the creation of a mixed economy. The intention of the Sandinistas was to build a mixed economy, one with socialist elements but that would leave much of the economy in the hands of Nicaragua’s big capitalists. The Bolivarian Revolution, although intended to progress toward a not necessarily strongly defined “socialism for the 21st century,” has struggled to advance beyond a stage of ameliorating the conditions of capitalism, although by any reasonable standard Venezuela does considerably more there than any so-called “social democratic” government has done.

The bottom line, however is this: Even when political power is taken out of the hands of a country’s capitalists, if economic power is left in those hands, that economic power will eventually enable the holders of that power (industrialists and bankers) to wrest control of the economy and ultimately force the government to bend to their will. That happened in Nicaragua — ultimately, the devastation wrought by the Contras, the financial blockade imposed by the U.S. and the contradictions arising from the Sandinistas giving ever more concessions and subsidies to Nicaragua’s capitalists resulted in the Sandinista government imposing an austerity program reminiscent of those imposed by the International Monetary Fund, excepting the dubious value of the IMF or World Bank loans.

All of that would be years in the future after the takeover. On July 17, 1979, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country and muscling in on so many businesses that even some of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless work by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

Nonetheless, in the early years the Sandinistas made good on most of the promises they had put forth in their 1969 Historical Program. Nor should the vast array of problems left behind by the Somoza dictatorship be forgotten. The following excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment discusses the new revolutionary government’s struggles with restarting a shattered economy, meeting the expectations of its millions of supporters and attempting to keep industrialists from stripping their businesses of assets while seeking to create a democracy deeper than what is possible in capitalist countries and simultaneously preparing to defend itself against the inevitable counterattack from the U.S. government.

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New government begins process of rebuilding, with strains showing early

The nature of the enormous problems the Sandinistas faced had similarities to what the young Soviet Union faced in the early 1920s. A revolution had succeeded at enormous cost, with a civil war fought savagely by the revolution’s opponents wreaking staggering economic damage; the revolution faced hostile, much stronger foreign powers; the country was dependent on agricultural exports and could adjust that dependency only with difficulty and at the risk of potentially wrenching changes internally; expanding a small industrial sector was desirable but a goal for which the fulfillment would be partly in contradiction to its agricultural base; and a population that had lived in miserable poverty expected its material needs and wants to be met faster than the country’s shattered material base was capable of doing. Somehow these problems had to be solved by men and women with energy and determination but a lack of administrative experience.

Nicaragua’s militants who had participated in the revolution and found themselves in responsible positions upon the revolution’s victory had no experience in the affairs of state, because they had been shut out of public participation, and if their attempts at organizing became known to Somoza’s authorities, the prisons and torture chambers of the National Guard awaited.

So mistakes, many of them, were made in the early days of the revolution. How could it be otherwise? It is not remarkable that the Sandinistas made mistakes; what it remarkable is their willingness to learn from them and often correct them, sometimes effecting sharp reversals of bad policies.

The early Bolshevik cadres, similarly, couldn’t help but make mistakes when they were placed in responsible positions, having also been shut out of societal participation. But that is enough comparison; it would be too easy to overgeneralize and there were more differences than commonalities between the Soviet Union of the early 1920s and Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s. And the Sandinistas certainly carried out policies drastically different than did the Bolsheviks, having the experience of many revolutions from which to learn, but also having carried out a revolution on their own terms, with a mix of ideologies and strategies rooted in their own and their country’s historical experience. They could not have led a successful revolution otherwise.

And the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) did it with much help from inside the country, and very little from outside the country.

The Soviet Union’s theorists had consistently held the position that conditions were nowhere near ripe for a revolution in Central America, and because challenging official dogma in the Soviet Union was anathema, that viewpoint could not in those years be challenged. Indeed, the Soviet Union, since Stalin’s assumption of power, had opposed revolutions everywhere. True, it did use the Red Army to impose régimes in Central Europe, but that, too, went against the spirit of Marxism that believes revolutions can only be made by a people themselves, not imposed from outside. Stalin opposed home-grown communist revolutions in China, Yugoslavia and Greece — counseling revolutionary leaders to stop and instead back their nationalist capitalists in the first two and refusing to lift a finger for the third when its revolution was drowned in blood by the United Kingdom. All of Stalin’s successors held fast to this refusal to back revolutions elsewhere; partly this was out of ideological rigidity tinged with a lack of confidence in other peoples, but perhaps more it reflected a desire to maintain peace with the capitalist West at any cost.

Tomás Borge, the only FSLN founder who lived to see the revolution, spoke frankly during an interview conducted eight years after the Sandinistas took power. “Since it was not easy to see the prospects for such a change — even revolutionary forces in the world had not grasped the imminence of victory and had adopted a rather indifferent attitude — we did not receive support during the war from any of the socialist countries, except Cuba,” Borge said, without judgment.

“The Soviet Union and others did not support us because they believed that only the Latin American Communist parties were the representatives of revolutionary changes, and it was not possible for them to think otherwise at that time. They had been through a whole series of experiences, developing ideas in distant countries that divorced them from particular realities. … I am not blaming those countries, simply pointing out an objective fact. … It cannot be said — in that idiotic language that is sometimes used — that Nicaragua’s revolution was the fruit of Moscow gold. Not even the Soviets, the Soviet revolutionaries, believed in revolutionary change in Nicaragua. So how were they going to help us!”

Official commentary in the Soviet Union’s leading theoretical journal stressed the prevailing viewpoint that armed struggle was hopeless and that Latin Americans should use peaceful tactics while participating in broad coalitions — a view echoed by the head of the El Salvador Communist Party, who went so far as to call those who advocated armed struggle “nihilists.”

The behavior of the Moscow-aligned Nicaraguan Socialist Party can best be explained in this context. The party was a participant in the Sandinista governing structure, but less than two months after the FSLN took power, it issued a formal resolution calling on the FSLN to

“be sensitive to the demands and interests of the capitalist class allies. Putting aside or neglecting those interests, in the name of excessive revolutionary radicalism, will not only lead to losing those allies but will strengthen the counter-revolution. … [T]his revolution must be conducted in such a way as to prevent the influence of tendencies seeking to skip stages or leap arbitrarily over the necessary stages and their corresponding transformations.”

Overall, a statement quite consistent with the Nicaraguan Socialists’ long-standing resistance to revolution. The party’s resolution might reasonably be read as a warning against moving too fast, but regardless of how that resolution is interpreted, it is quite far removed from a “revolutionary” mindset. Continual shrieking about Soviet bogeymen under every rock ceases being comical at some point and becomes simply morbid.

Triumphing with a large coalition

Regardless, there was no need to worry about precipitous moves. The FSLN had consistently carried out its line of encouraging mass participation, creating the largest possible coalition in the final months of the insurrection and leaving plenty of room for political participation by sectors of society ranging from Marxist parties to its Left all the way to capitalist organizations on the moderate Right. Most of the eighteen ministers in the first government lineup were capitalist figures and two of the five seats on the executive body of the provisional government, the Junta of National Reconstruction, were held by prominent capitalists.

The FSLN had adopted Augusto Sandino’s motto, “Implacable in struggle, generous in victory,” and applied that generosity even to the National Guard. Seeking to avoid a bloody revenge, Borge recalled, “When they tried to lynch the [Somozist] prisoners who were in the Red Cross building, I personally went to see the relatives of our martyrs … and convinced them not to do it by saying, ‘So why did we make this revolution, if we are going to do the same things they used to do?’ ” Borge had the moral authority to make that plea, for he suffered through two prison terms in Somoza’s prisons, undergoing torture and being held in solitary confinement, and his wife was tortured to death by the National Guard. Borge had been involved in struggles against Somoza since the late 1940s.

Borge was one of nine members of the FSLN National Directorate, which was the ultimate authority after Somoza fled. The directorate’s structure was based on unity — when the three tendencies reunited, each tendency was represented by three leaders. Daniel Ortega, of the Tercerista tendency, as the one directorate member who also sat on the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction, became the Junta’s chair.

The insurrection of Leon in 1979 (photo by Dora María Téllez)

Ortega assumed his roles because the Terceristas were the dominant faction due to their strategy proving successful and because their tactics could include the other two tendencies’ strategies, giving them a moral authority within the FSLN. Ortega had a long history of political work, joining the student protest movement as a teenager despite the disapproval of his accountant father who had once been a fighter for Augusto Sandino. Interestingly, Ortega also gave bible lessons when a student. He joined the FSLN at age eighteen in 1963, becoming a resistance fighter before spending seven years in jail, where he was tortured.

The new Sandinista government may have shown generosity in victory, but it was going to consolidate that victory. An FSLN commander, Bayardo Arce, put it this way: “This is a Sandinista State; it is a state where the majority of our people subscribe to the political philosophy of Sandisimo, that is why the Council of State has to reflect this majority.” Arce was referring to a new legislative body that would soon be formed, but, more generally, he was noting the reality of Nicaragua. The revolution had been fought under the Sandinista banner, the Sandinistas had organized the insurrection and protected people from the wrath of Somoza’s goons as best they could; there simply would not have been a revolution without them. So while Arce’s words may have been difficult to hear for some, it was a plain statement of how most Nicaraguans felt.

Formally, the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction headed the government as a collective executive, and it ruled by decree for a year until the Council of State convened. Although the FSLN National Directorate was the true center of power, setting overall policy, the Junta worked by consensus in forming policies to implement the Directorate’s broad policy decisions, and the capitalists also had opportunity to affect the carrying out of policy through their ministerial positions. The Directorate worked in a collegial fashion, creating a collective style of leadership. The Sandinistas did not wish to have a dominant personality, nor were there any candidates for such a role; only Carlos Fonseca, killed in a National Guard ambush in 1976, had any potential to do so and it is an open question as to whether he could have. Among other reasons, Fonseca advocated the Prolonged People’s War line, not that of the Terceristas.

The nationalization of Somoza’s stolen property

One of the Junta’s first acts, in Decree Number 3, was to confiscate and nationalize the property of Somoza, his family and a few very close associates. Somoza’s business empire was so extensive that the Sandinista’s new state-controlled sector represented one-quarter of the economy. Included in the nationalization were Somoza’s landholdings, which constituted 23 percent of the country’s farmland. More than 90 percent of the confiscated lands consisted of the largest plantations, those more than three and a half square kilometers (875 acres).

This decree was followed by the creation of the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Reform, and, unlike other ministries, this important department was put in Sandinista hands from the start, under the direction of Jaime Wheelock, a National Directorate member and a Proletarian Tendency leader. Wheelock had originally wished to implement his tendency’s more radical agricultural program, but a more modest program was implemented under Directorate consensus. And, already, the Sandinistas were holding back landless agricultural workers from seizing more land.

The Rural Workers Association had emerged a few years earlier, organizing farm workers, particularly day laborers, and created a national organization by early 1978. The association not only organized guerrilla units and coordinated armed actions with the FSLN, but in the final months before the takeover backed spontaneous land takeovers. The land seizures assured there was sufficient food for the liberated areas; the seized lands were collectively farmed and managed, and not parceled into individual plots.

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

Other early acts of the Junta were nationalization of banks, insurance and foreign trade. Nicaragua’s banks, however, had collapsed; therefore taking them over meant taking over responsibility for the banks’ debts. As that amounted to a bailout, the capitalists were happy to go along with this decree. But this aspect of the nationalizations had its firm logic, as well — the banks had played a large role in the massive corruption under Somoza’s reign and the insurance companies were unable to cope with the country’s massive economic damage. Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Miguel D’Escoto, explained the banking and insurance takeovers in a letter to his embassies and consulates: “In this case, we were forced to act in response to economic necessity rather than ideological preference. The financial institutions were bankrupt. The nationalization of the banks was, in effect, the nationalization of their debt. In order to reopen the banks, the government has assumed an additional debt of $230 million.” That debt was on top of the $1.6 billion foreign debt that Somoza had saddled the country with, which the Junta agreed to honor.

The government takeover of foreign trade was also in effect a subsidy to capitalists, primarily agricultural exporters. The confiscation of Somoza’s properties put some of this sector under state control, but private plantation owners still commanded about three-quarters of the country’s agricultural exports, primarily cotton, coffee, beef and sugar. Maintaining agricultural exports was critical to economic recovery — they accounted for 80 percent of Nicaragua’s exports. Under the nationalization of foreign trade, the state sold imported inputs to exporters at the official exchange rate and purchased their production for export at guaranteed prices better than the exchange rates.

The state was guaranteeing the exporters a higher price, with the state absorbing the difference between the guaranteed higher price and the price set by the international market. The beneficiaries of this subsidy were overwhelmingly large plantation owners. A government pamphlet later explained that “100 percent of the private sector’s needs for working capital and investment” were now financed by the public, whereas never more than 70 percent of these needs had been subsidized under Somoza. The pamphlet continued, “Despite the fact that the private sector has made significant profits [in 1980 and 1981], the producers in this sector have not been forced to use these profits to meet their own needs for working and investment capital.”

Despite subsidies and guaranteed profits, the big capitalists continued to chafe at not being in charge politically. A class that believes it is entitled to exercise political control found it increasingly difficult to remain part of the government, and the contradictions between what the big capitalists wanted and the many policies of the Sandinistas that sought to provide better wages, benefits and working conditions, and new democratic structures, for urban and rural working people — the overwhelming majority of the population and the classes who made the revolution — slowly intensified.

Shifts in the government as the revolution advances

Those stresses caused a major shift in the cabinet. In December 1979 and February 1980, a series of resignations and reshuffles, along with shifts to the Left by other ministers, resulted in a radically different cabinet, with almost all ministries now headed by Sandinistas. Several members of the FSLN National Directorate assumed important ministerial positions. The work of the ministries were difficult at first; most of the bureaucrats who had worked in government before the takeover had fled. But the Junta asked lower- and middle-level employees to return, and about 90 percent did so. A new culture of honesty in the ranks of the ministries was created, and dedication and sacrifice were rewarded; massive corruption had been the norm under Somoza.

A new type of temporary legislature, the Council of State, convened on May 4, 1980. The council had 51 seats, each reserved for organized groups — eight political parties, three mass-participation and community organizations, seven labor organizations, seven professional guilds, five employer organizations and the armed forces. The Council originated most of the legislation and could pass or reject legislation introduced by the Junta of National Reconstruction, although the Junta could veto Council-passed legislation.

There had been hope among the employers that they would be able to control the Council of State, but when mass organizations aligned with the Sandinistas were granted seats, one of the capitalist members of the Junta, Alfonso Robelo, used that as an excuse to resign. Days earlier, the other capitalist Junta member, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, had stepped down. Both were replaced by industrialists. The mass-participation organizations deserved representation, the Sandinistas argued, because of their massive growth during the past year. Robelo had wanted a guaranteed majority for capitalists on the Council, but walked out when a majority instead went to the organizations that had carried out the work of the revolution — the members of which had literally put their lives on the line for it and constituted a large majority of the country’s population.

The Sandinistas were also faced with the massive task of building a court system. Unlike in the ministries, it would not be possible to use the bricks of the past to rebuild; the court system had been a completely servile instrument of Somoza’s dictatorship. Plus there was the need to have trials for the thousands of imprisoned National Guardsmen. Special tribunals were created to try Somoza’s war criminals in which the defendants were afforded vastly more rights than political defendants had been under Somoza, and the trials were open to the international press, another change.

“We didn’t have anything,” said Nora Astorga, a trained lawyer who was selected to be the prosecutor at the trials of the Guardsmen. “They gave you a job and you had to do everything from finding people to do it and a house to do it in, to inventing the mechanisms. From nothing. They’d say to you, ‘You’re in charge.’ And you had to figure out how to do it.” Astorga found prosecuting Guardsmen difficult because many had wives and young children living in poverty. She had the authority to release them without trial, and did so in about one-fifth of the 6,000 cases she handled, and most of those who were convicted received sentences of five or less years. No more than fifteen percent received the maximum penalty of 30 years’ imprisonment; the Sandinistas had immediately abolished the death penalty.

Astorga said, “We had a group of compañeros who could go where the Guard member had lived to get information, to investigate why he joined the Guard, how he had behaved, what he had done. … I’m not saying we were never unjust. It’s difficult to be fair 100 percent of the time, but we made a tremendous effort.”

Citations are omitted from the above excerpt from the book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Alan Benjamin, Nicaragua: Dynamic of an Unfinished Revolution [Walnut Publishing, 1989]; John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution [Westview Press, 1985]; Forrest D. Colburn, Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class, and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy [University of California Press, 1986]; Carmen Diana Deere and Peter Marchetti, “The Worker-Peasant Alliance in the First Year of the Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform,” Latin American Perspectives, Spring 1981; Gary Ruchwarger, “The Campesino Road to Socialism? The Sandinistas and Rural Co-operatives,” The Socialist Register, 1988; Richard Stahler-Sholk, “Stabilization, Destabilization, and the Popular Classes in Nicaragua, 1979-1988,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. XXV, No. 3 (1990); and “Nora Astorga In Her Own Words,” Envío, April 1988

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]