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Catalonia, Kurdistan, West Papua – uphold the right of nations to self-determination!

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Nick G.

In recent weeks there have been three expressions of secessionist sentiment in three different parts of the world.

In Europe, the people of the autonomous community of Catalonia have defied the brutal violence of the Spanish state to express their desire for independence.

In the Middle East, a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region with autonomous status, has been condemned by governments of the four countries in which Kurds live: Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

In Indonesia’s West Papua (formerly part of Irian Jaya), a secretly organised petition, organised on a village-by-village basis, succeeded in gathering 1.8 million votes for independence.

Lenin and Stalin on the National Question

The empire of the Tsars was a prison of nationalities. Complex problems faced the Bolsheviks on this score in the lead up to the October Revolution. Stalin clarified matters enormously with his publication, in 1913, of Marxism and the National Question. The Minister of the Interior under Nicholas II banned the article and had it removed from all libraries and public reading rooms. Stalin was arrested at the same time as the article appeared. Lenin valued the work very highly, saying that on the national question “prime place must here be given to Stalin’s article”.

In the article Stalin gives a Marxist definition of “nation”.  He wrote: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”.  He then advocated the right of all nations to self-determination, saying: “The right of self-determination means that only the nation itself has the right to determine its destiny, that no one has the right forcibly to interfere in the life of the nation, to destroy its schools and other institutions, to violate its habits and customs, to repress its language, or curtail its rights.”

Accepting the right of nations to self-determination did not mean that Marxists had to forego criticism of reactionary elements in the culture and psychology of oppressed nations. “This, of course,” wrote Stalin, “does not mean that Social-Democracy will support every custom and institution of a nation. While combating the coercion of any nation, it will uphold only the right of the nation itself to determine its own destiny, at the same time agitating against harmful customs and institutions of that nation in order to enable the toiling strata of the nation to emancipate themselves from them.”

“The right of self-determination,” he continued, “means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.

“This, of course, does not mean that Social-Democracy will support every demand of a nation. A nation has the right even to return to the old order of things; but this does not mean that Social-Democracy will subscribe to such a decision if taken by some institution of a particular nation. The obligations of Social-Democracy, which defends the interests of the proletariat, and the rights of a nation, which consists of various classes, are two different things.”

Stalin’s article ran to 80 pages.  The few paragraphs we have quoted are the crux of the matter, but readers are encouraged to access the whole article for themselves. It is available online here:

Self-determination means the right to secede

In the complex environment of 1917, when the Bolsheviks were struggling against “revolutionary defencists” who, having overthrown the Tsar, wanted to continue the Russia’s participation in the imperialist war, various interpretations of the practical reality of self-determination were proposed by Mensheviks, the Cadets, Social-revolutionaries and other groups.

Stalin had already dealt with “cultural-national autonomy” in Marxism and the National Question. This was the view that cultural rights could be extended to an oppressed nationality, but the right to a definite territory could not. So, in May 1917, when the program of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik) was undergoing revision, Lenin moved that the “right of self-determination for all member nations of the state” by removed and replaced by another which began: “The right of all member nations to freely secede and form independent states.”

The Bolsheviks acknowledged that regional autonomy within a larger federation was possible, but the only definition of self-determination they would accept was the right to secession and to a territory and state of one’s own.

Why support “wealthy Catalonia”?

Arguments against support for Catalan independence include a “defence” of the unity of the Spanish working class, and the criticism that Catalonian independence is led by the Catalan bourgeoisie.  The latter, it is argued, see Catalonia as a more prosperous region bled by the Spanish authorities to buttress social welfare and other programs in poorer Spain.

It is hard for these objections to be sustained in the face of the incredible brutality of the Spanish national police in upholding Spain’s decree that the Catalan referendum is “illegal”.

It is even harder for them to be sustained if we approach the matter as Lenin did. We quote Lenin, not as a sacred text, but to show his method of analysis, the way he approached certain problems and phenomena.

Lenin wrote of secession involving bourgeois states: “The class-conscious proletarians are not afraid of it. Both Norway and Sweden gained from Norway’s free secession from Sweden in 1905: it made for mutual trust between the two nations, it drew them closer together on a voluntary basis, it did away with the stupid and destructive friction, it strengthened the economic and political, the cultural and social gravitation of the two nations to each other, and strengthened the fraternal alliance between the workers of the two countries” (CW Vol 24 p 338).

If we adopt the same method of analysis, the same approach to current events in Catalonia, does it really matter that the latter is a somewhat wealthier region than the rest of Spain? Wouldn’t it be better for the workers of Spain to support Catalonia’s right to secede, to “do away with the stupid and destructive friction” between the two, to take a stand against their own anti-democratic bourgeois government and thereby “strengthen the fraternal alliance between the workers of the two countries” even though there is no “framework of socialism” on the immediate agenda of either party?

The class character of the Catalan movement is clearly capitalist.  There is no socialist framework that some on the Left require as a pre-condition for support. Even so, the fascist repression of those who dared to vote has brought the working class of Catalonia into the streets and strengthened their hand in the direction the movement is taking. Dozens of Catalonian unions called for a general strike on October 3. Before the October 1 confrontation, two of the biggest union confederations, the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the UGT, had not signed on to the strike. After the repression, they did.

We support Catalonia’s right to secession from Spain.

Why support the "pro-US" Kurds?

Any movement for autonomy must have its class character, and imperialism will always search for opportunities to turn such movements to its own advantage. Hence the flags of US imperialism are seen in some of the demonstrations for Kurdish independence. But can it be denied, on that basis, that the various governments who rule over the Kurds have never oppressed them, have never denied them political, cultural and economic rights?

It is further alleged by some that the Kurdistan Region government’s President Masoud Barzani has signed oil contracts with US corporations. In November 2011, Exxon (whose former CEO Rex Tillerson is Trump’s secretary of state) signed oil and gas exploration contracts with Barzani in defiance of the Iraqi government. Other imperialist corporations active in Iraqi Kurdistan include Total, Chevron, Talisman Energy, DNO, MOL Group, Genel Energy, Hunt Oil, Gulf Keystone Petroleum, and Marathon Oil.

The Iraqi Army is forbidden under the terms of the 1998 Kurdish autonomy agreement from entering Iraqi Kurdistan.  The Kurdish government has its own troops, the Peshmerga. Under the terms of the autonomy agreement, the Peshmerga were given the responsibility for driving out the forces of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), took part in the US imperialist overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and have received US weapons.  However, their weapons purchases are fairly eclectic, with Russia, Germany and China all involved.

It is also said that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their female equivalent, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in Syria are backed by and work with the US imperialists. Well, so did the Soviet Union in WWII.  Alliances like this are determined by the needs of the struggle against the main enemy which, at this time, for both the Syrian government, and Syria’s Kurds, is ISIS. To that end, the Syrian Kurds have declared regional autonomy based on three northern regions of Syria collectively known as Rojava and established a governmental and administrative policy based largely on the “democratic confederalism” espoused by PKK leader Abdullah Oscalan who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.

All of this means that the Kurdish question is complicated by the presence of imperialist economic and military factors.  It is complicated by Kurdish people being spread across four countries: Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Iran’s revolutionary Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), which is very close to the PKK, is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Iran and Turkey but some reports say its armed forces are receiving US support to destabilise Iran.

Despite all of this, we must uphold the right of Kurds to their own homeland. 

Accepting the right of nations to self-determination did not mean, for Stalin, that Marxists had to forego criticism of reactionary elements in the culture and psychology of oppressed nations, or in the institutions of their state. Nor does it mean today that we must forego any criticism of involvements by any imperialism, US or otherwise, to turn movements for independence to their own advantage. Such attempts are bound to be made, and we must oppose them.

In their movement for independence, the Kurds will proceed, if necessary, though a number of intermediate stages involving one form or another or regional autonomy in each of the four countries they inhabit. However, the 93% vote in support of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan held on September 25, 2017 shows that a separate nation must eventually materialise.

We support the Kurdish people’s right to secession from the four states of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

West Papua: why risk antagonising Indonesia?

For we Australian Communists, Indonesia holds a special place amongst the nations of our region. Australian waterside workers and seamen assisted the fight for independence from the Dutch. The Indonesians unilaterally declared independence on August 17, 1945 after 350 years of Dutch rule. From late 1945, Dutch ships in Australian ports preparing to return to Indonesia with military arms and personnel to crush Indonesian independence were paralysed by a series of black-bans by maritime trade unions. These ships were later called the Black Armada. Fraternal ties were maintained between Australian Communists and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – at the time, the largest party outside the Sino-Soviet bloc.

The Dutch were finally forced to concede defeat on December 27, 1949.  However, they retained colonial control of Netherlands New Guinea, or West Papua until Sukarno’s forces invaded and took the province under Indonesian control. This was supported by the PKI as the removal of the last vestiges of Dutch imperialism from their country. However, their collaboration with Sukarno had a down-side: the Papuans were not given the chance, as promised, to decide between incorporation into Indonesia and compete independence. The PKI should have insisted on their right to secession. A fake plebiscite of a thousand or so tribal elders chosen by the Indonesians unanimously voted to stay part of Indonesia as “Irian Jaya” in 1969, as a result of which the Free Papua Movement (OPM) was born. For nearly half a century, it has waged a struggle for independence, its leaders and activists suffering beatings, imprisonment, torture and death at the hands of the Indonesians.

The Australian government has never shown support for the independence of West Papua. It prioritises its relationship with the Indonesian ruling clique over the human rights of impoverished Papuans and West Papuans (Irian Jaya was separated into these two Indonesian provinces in 2003 -  each has semi-autonomous status).

On September 26, exiled West Papuan leader Benny Wenda presented the smuggled petition, signed by some 70% of West Papuans to the UN Decolonisation Committee chaired by Venezuela’s Rafael Ramírez.  He was told that the petition could not be accepted as West Papua was no longer listed as a territory requiring decolonisation.

The petition had asked the UN to appoint a special representative to investigate human rights abuses in the province and to “put West Papua back on the decolonisation committee agenda and ensure their right to self‐determination … is respected by holding an internationally supervised vote”.

“In the West Papuan people’s petition, we hand over the bones of the people of West Papua to the United Nations and the world,” Wenda said of the document. “After decades of suffering, decades of genocide, decades of occupation, we open up the voice of the West Papuan people which lives inside this petition. My people want to be free.”

We support that aspiration.  We support the right of the Melanesians in the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua to secession from Indonesia.


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