Published in Evrensel, 23 October 2017.
Reprinted with permission.
Claims and facts about the right of nations to self-determination, following the independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia.
Following the independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, the right of nations to self-determination has become a popular debate. Here are some of the claims and facts about this right:
Claim 1. Defending the right of nations to self-determination ignites separatism
The right of self-determination is a way of respecting a nation’s right to live the way it chooses to. Lenin states that this right applied even to the most ‘extreme’ options, including the ‘right to secession’. For this reason, the right of nations to self-determination forms the ‘right to establish a separate state’. This means that even if a majority of a nation now calls to ‘break off from’, i.e. ‘secession’, this right must be recognised. However, Lenin did not want this right because he wanted a separation, but because he wanted to advocate a genuine fraternity and unity among peoples. According to the programme of the Bolsheviks, the solution to the national question was to recognise the right of self-determination, and through this, removing all national privileges under a single state framework as a voluntary union based on equal rights. In order for the peoples to live together, the ‘right to secession’ must be recognised. Prohibition of this right encourages separation. For example, the more the demand of Turkey’s Kurds to have autonomous life is repressed, the more the Kurdish people gain a sense of need for ‘separation’. Therefore, the right of nations to self-determination does not mean to advocate separation but to defend the removal of national privileges and the conditions of voluntary unity.
2. The national question has already been resolved in Iraq. Language, cultural freedoms and autonomy have been provided. The Kurds are no longer an oppressed nation. The referendum serves the interests of Barzani, the President of Kurdistan Regional Government.
It is true that the recent independence referendum is linked with Barzani’s political interests. However, reducing the national question to the issue of language and culture is a liberal approach. For example, why has the national question in Catalonia not been resolved? They have their language, culture, local government and own parliament, but the national question still was not resolved. There is a similar situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish question in Turkey. Even if we assume that language and cultural equality were to be provided, the Kurdish question would not be resolved without the demands of the Kurds for autonomy were met. The national question cannot only be seen as a cultural rights issue. The problem will continue as long as the Kurds request for autonomy is interfered with and prevented from the outside. In the final analysis, the national question is the rejection of the right of a nation to self-determination. In some cases, this will include matters such as language, culture and so on (just like the situation in Turkey for instance) and not in others (Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan). And so the national question can not be solved without the recognition of the right to self-determination. For this reason, Turkey’s left’s refusal of this right in ‘good faith’ opens the way to the nationalism of the oppressive nation.
3. To defend the right to a referendum that will clearly lead to separation is to support separatism through the rhetoric of ‘principles’ and ‘rights’.
A socialist from Turkey cannot handle this issue abstractly without taking into consideration the historical context as if they were living in Australia. In Turkey, the nationalism of the oppressive nation is institutionalised and is highly effective among the working people. This nationalism is based on anti-Kurdishness and therefore there is a hysterical hostility to a possible Kurdish state. Establishing a state is seen as a privilege that the Turks hold and therefore a Kurdish state is not deemed appropriate. This is why socialists of Turkey firstly have the duty to help the working people gain an internationalist consciousness and to oppose all national privileges.
The question is as follows: How will an equal friendship-fraternity relationship be established between the Turkish workers and the Kurdish workers? How will the common struggle be achieved? If socialists of Turkey will not respect the will of the Kurds demanding independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, can equality and fraternity even be considerable? The only way to establish trust, fraternity and equality between the nations in the medium term so that a common way of fighting is achieved is only through the recognition of the right to self-determination.
4. Those who support the right to self-determination do not care about the common struggle of the peoples.
For the common struggles and fraternity of peoples and show to them that we are brothers, it is necessary to respect their preferences in order to break the prejudices of a people who have been massacred for centuries. This is the foundation of voluntary unity. The right to self-determination is not only a defence of an abstract principal but also a compulsory principle to provide for the fraternity, common struggle and voluntary unity of the peoples. As Lenin says “Humanity … can only achieve the inevitable union of nations by getting over a transition period when all oppressed nations are liberated, i.e. when they have the freedom of secession from the oppressive nation.”
5. Kurdish parties did not support the referendum. Therefore, the referendum does not reflect the will of the Kurdish nation.
It is true that there are differences between the Kurds and their parties. However, the objection of Kurdish parties is not to the referendum itself, but Barzani’s desire to make the referendum an instrument to serve his own political future. Nearly all Kurdish parties criticized this and called for a ‘yes’ vote the day before the referendum. There will always be division and political infighting within a national movement; their existence does not invalidate the right of people to self-determination; especially for the socialist of another country.
6. In the age of imperialism, the right of people to self-determination is invalid. It is not possible. Small countries get annexed to imperialism.
This is exactly the content of Lenin’s polemics with Luxemburg on the right of people to self-determination. Lenin naturally defends the right of people to self-determination as the solution to the national question. As the right of people to self-determination does not solve patriarchy, press freedom or lowered wages problems, nor does it solve the problem of imperialist economic hegemony.
In his polemic with Luxemburg, Lenin argued this democratic principle not as a solution to all the problems in the world but as an idea to put an end to the national oppression in a multinational country. Of course, this country will be united with the struggle against imperialism and its stance under revolutionary conditions, i.e. progressive or socialist party leadership of the nation. This is the call of the III. International and we defend it. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan.
7. While the concept of the right of people to self-determination is the revolutionary concept of yesterday, this question cannot be discussed ‘idealistically’ unless the concept of imperialism in others dependent on itself is seen today.
Imperialism wants to use the right of people to self-determination to serve its own interests. This was done in Yugoslavia. This, however, requires the socialist not to reject the right of people to self-determination, but the perspective to struggle against and combat imperialism. Big monopolies may suggest control of unregistered employment, in part due to the fact that it is an element of “unfair competition”. As seen in WTO meetings, some representatives of imperialist countries may oppose low pay in countries like Bangladesh, in fear of competition. Imperialist countries such as the USA and Russia may fight against ISIS. All this does not require socialists to give up on these claims and defend ISIS. However, it requires one to struggle and act in a revolutionary context. Therefore, apparent defence of this principle by imperialists in some cases cannot be an excuse for socialists to give up. As Lenin expressed in the then current circumstances, “Just as in the example of Latin countries, conditions, where people were lied to with republican slogans and these were used by financial oligarchy for financial pillage cannot be a reason for social-democrats to give up on republicanism; in the same way, in the fight for freedom against the imperialist state, the condition that this could be used by another ‘bigger’ imperialist state for imperialist intentions of same order, cannot be a reason for social-democrats to reject the right of people to self-determination”.
8. If the national movement is collaborative or bourgeois-led, the right of people to self-determination cannot be defended.
If a national movement was not led by the bourgeoisie, there would be no debate on the right of people to self-determination. The reason for the debate is the bourgeois nature of national movements. Thus, the right of people to self-determination is valid under conditions of bourgeois-led national movements; or even co-operation with imperialism. Socialists recognize it but fights against the nationalistic exercise of this right. For example, some in the Turkish left opposition to the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan openly reject the right of people to self-determination. The referendum is to be respected. The fact that the referendum was brought about by Barzani for various reasons is an internal problem for the people of Kurdistan. When these internal problems are dealt with, there will be no such thing as the right of people to self-determination. Excuses such as “Talabani is a compromiser”, “Goran is a nationalist”, “PKK is nationalist” etc. to deny the right of people to self-determination will never seize to exist. Because an immaculate national movement in human history can never be found. Therefore, it is not the referendum that we should oppose. What we should criticise is Kurdish support for Barzani. And our friendly call to Kurdish workers and labourers is thus: “Do not support Barzani, the representative of the Kurdish co-conspirator bourgeoisie, take your fate into your own hands, do your own politics. Do not let independent Kurdistan become a toy for imperialism.” This call is a sign of our friendly, revolutionary support and solidarity, not a “lecture”. The right of people to self-determination and support for Barzani are two separate things. This is what separates internationalists from Kurdish nationalism.
9. For Lenin, the right of people to self-determination was not a principle but a tactic.
It was beyond a dilemma of whether it was tactics, principles or strategy. It was all of them; tactical principle and strategic principle. Along with being a democratic principle, it was the only way to safeguard the unity of the working class. From this point of view, it had an unbreakable connection with socialist goals. By his statement; “Wherever we see ties relating to international oppression – without preaching for the need to separate – we will vigorously defend the right to self-determination and the right to separation for each nation. To defend, recognise and side with this right means: to defend equal rights between nations; to resist oppression; to fight against national privileges of any nation; and hence, to develop the class struggle between workers of every individual country”.
10. Independent Kurdistan will be a second Israel in the region.
The basis of this thesis is clearly the traditional bourgeois-nationalist sensitivity to an independent Kurdish state. If it remains in Barzani’s leadership, Kurdistan will indeed be an important figure in US imperialism, and therefore Israel’s anti-Iran strategy. It will be a co-conspirator state. However, it will not be a second Israel because there is no Palestine in Kurdistan, there is no Zionism. As a co-conspirator administration to imperialism, it will look more like Turkey than Israel. However, with its size, population and economic dependency it will probably be a weaker partner than Turkey.
11. Kurdistan will be an advanced outpost of imperialism.
It seems likely to be so under the collaborator Barzani administration. At the referendum, the decision was for independence. It must be implemented in accordance with the right of people to self-determination. However, there is great opposition amongst Kurds too. Perception of an independent Kurdistan as an “unchanging, collaborator country” is also linked to the nationalist hysteria of hate against the Kurds. Barzani can be overthrown, independent Kurdistan can advance in a popular, anti-imperialist and democratic line. This popular option is not blocked by independence. In other words, Kurdistan does not have to be an imperialist outpost just because it is Kurdistan. Kurdish people harbour a vigorous vein of opposition in their collective historical memory that advocates the opposite.
12. Independent Kurdistan will trigger a war in the region.
Independent Kurdistan is not a disaster. In fact, Kurdish autonomous region operates like an independent country already. The administration is now a collaborator of imperialism. For that reason, unless war originates from hostility to Kurds; it should be seen as a disaster for the region. Disaster can only happen when politics of Kurdish hate leads to a war, started by reactionary countries in the region. In that case, it is not the Kurds demanding independence, but the reactionary states of the region that should be blamed and fought against.
13. ‘Socialists’ on Turkish left that reject the right of the people to self-determination are fascists.
Of course, rejection of the right of people to self-determination is a step in support of oppressive state nationalism. However, some parties that reject this right on a theoretical level defend recognition of the results of the referendum and oppose military action or oppression against Kurdistan. These parties and movements cannot be accused of fascism. What we see is the result of being influenced by a deviation to the right and oppressive state nationalism.
14. Lenin defended the right of revolution to self-determine, not right of people to self-determination.
Lenin’s perspective was undoubtedly revolutionary. He addressed the solution of every problem with a revolutionary perspective. For this reason, he unfalteringly defended the right of people to self-determination. He did not point to a tautology of “right of revolution to self-determine” because revolution cannot be expressed in terms of a right; it is a matter of power. When sufficient power is gained, neither counter-revolution nor revolutionary forces will be trapped in an abstract notion of right. Revolution does not take place by rights but by the force. However, the right of people to self-determination is defensible and defended as a right and principle.
15. Independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will also open Turkey’s borders to debate.
It is a pity that this argument came from the ‘left’. Of course, the struggle cannot be carried out without considering existing borders. However, today’s borders were drawn by imperialists on the basis of oppression and division of Kurdish peoples. It is the duty of socialists to defend their unity on the basis of equal rights and not act as “border guards” in a geography where peoples are oppressed and massacred, and in order to do this unfailingly, they must recognize the right of people to self-determination.
16. The father of the right of people to self-determination is US President Wilson. Lenin quickly adopted this principle to gain the support of colonial peoples against Wilson.
This principle entered socialist agenda long before Wilson expressed it. This principle was included in the decisions of the Second International Congress held in London in 1896. It has been in the program of Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDIP) since its first Congress.
17. Lenin defended this principle not in the era of imperialism but in the era of socialist revolutions.
The right of people to self-determination was the subject of a further four comprehensive discussions for Lenin and the Bolsheviks after being re-admitted into the 1903 program. First; In 1913, the right of people to self-determination was defended against the Austrian national-socialist Otto Bauer’s “national cultural autonomy” formulation and its reflections in Russia. In 1914, Lenin defended the right of people to self-determination in the Bolshevik Party against rising national movements, and in opposition to those who claimed it will inflame apartheid. In 1916, Lenin again explained in detail the right of people to self-determination against the Bukharin and Kievsky thesis that “the right of people to self-determination cannot be realized in the era of imperialism” and that “it will serve imperialism”; he described their opposition as “Marxism’s cartoon” and “imperialist economics”. Finally, it was proposed by Lenin in the Third International, expanding the scope of the formulation of the struggle against the imperialism of the colonial countries.