Some on the left see battles for independence as dividing workers, while others back them as fights for liberation. Dave Sewell looks at how to judge national struggles
Is the area around Barcelona part of a country called Spain or one called Catalonia—and does it matter?
All nations are largely arbitrary. The people of any given country have little in common that they don’t also share with people elsewhere.
For revolutionary socialists, the key divide is between classes—the workers whose labour drives society and the bosses who exploit them.
This cuts across nations. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously ended their 1848 Communist Manifesto with the call, “Workers of all countries unite.”
That doesn’t mean that socialists ignore or oppose national struggles.
When the colonies of European empires won independence, it created new nation states.
Yet any socialist would celebrate these victories against oppression. Similarly, socialists actively support the right of Palestinians to fight for their rights against Israel.
Sometimes victories for colonies have sent empires into crisis and spurred on revolts in the imperial homelands too. These include British-ruled Ireland, French-ruled Algeria and Portugal’s African colonies.
But not all national struggles are the same. Neither Catalonia nor, for that matter, Scotland are oppressed in the same way as Europe’s colonies were.
Their rulers were enthusiastic participants in the empires of Spain and Britain.
Russian revolutionary leader Lenin argued for assessing “any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.”
For instance, Marx and Engels saw democrats rallying behind Hungarian and Austrian nationalisms in central Europe. Meanwhile reactionaries used small Slavic state nationalisms to resist change.
Imperialism has repeatedly co-opted the language of national liberation. The US has hijacked national struggles by Kosovans and Kurds to legitimise its wars.
Britain’s rulers justify keeping the remnants of empire with absurd talk of self-determination for Gibraltar or the Falklands.
Lenin wrote, “If we do not want to betray socialism, we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class.”
Workers’ unity and state unity are not the same thing.
For instance, many on the left in Britain claimed that supporting Scottish independence in 2014 would help nationalists and divide workers.
For fear of Scottish nationalism they backed British nationalism. The British Labour Party in Scotland opposed independence. That pushed working class independence supporters away from Labour—and helped Scottish nationalists.
And it told workers in England and Wales that they shared with their rulers an interest in “the union”.
In contrast, revolutionaries’ support for the self-determination of parts of the Russian empire in 1917 helped rally workers throughout the empire to a common revolutionary cause.
Marx argued that the English working class could only defeat its rulers by breaking with them to support Irish independence.
To understand how to treat national struggles, we have to see through the lie that nations are natural. They are a relatively recent invention, bound up with the growth of capitalism.
Before the late Middle Ages people living within the kingdom of England, for example, would have little sense of shared identity. Many rarely strayed far from their village—and wouldn’t understand the dialects if they did.
There was no national government, only a vague allegiance to a distant king. Different factors began to shift this.
Kings needed consent for higher taxes to pay for wars. This created opportunities for different classes to revolt not just over local issues but for a say about the whole kingdom.
Most important was a new class that grew rich through commerce, not feudal obligations. The fragmentation of different towns and villages was an obstacle to growing their operations.
They needed a larger market with common rules and a common language. This created the need for a powerful central government.
Many in the growing, literate middle class were keen for jobs in such a government.
The idea of a nation united the grievances and aspirations of different classes to sweep away feudalism. It encouraged the poor to feel they had shared interests with capitalists and their state, rather than see them as oppressors.
And the nation state helped promote domestic capitalists against foreign rivals. Nations became the model for driving capitalist development.
Colonists in the Americas fought to end British and Spanish rule and increase their own power. Frustrated elites in parts of Europe marginalised by existing nations fought to create new ones.
Independence struggles replaced colonialism with nationalist governments that prioritised the development of a national capitalist class.
These waves of national struggle reflect different stages in world history.
In today’s world, almost entirely carved up by existing, developed nation-states, it’s very hard to find space for new ones. So where do Catalonia and Scotland fit in?
Some nation-states, such as the one forged by the French revolution, successfully bludgeoned diverse regions into a single unit.
But where capitalism developed later it was harder for national movements to cohere.
After competing monarchies finally merged into one Spanish state in the fifteenth century, it was dominated by the aristocracy.
Capitalism eventually developed, but most successfully outside the Spanish-speaking core.
Its would-be nation-builders were split between the flag of big but sluggish Spain and those of small but dynamic Catalonia and the Basque country.
In Britain capitalism developed early. English and Scottish nationalisms were already entrenched by the time the United Kingdom was formed. They survived within and alongside a new British nationalism built on empire.
These nationalisms weren’t progressive. In 1909, for example, Catalan bosses used nationalism against workers in revolt.
But in both Scotland and Catalonia, support for independence was limited until recent decades.
It became a central issue largely because of the failures of Labour-style parties and the 2008 financial crisis. These created space for a new type of nationalist movement.
Independence supporters include a few big business owners and far more small ones as well as politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals hungry for more influence.
But these movements have grown mostly by winning over millions of working class people.
Poorer people were more likely to vote for Scottish independence in 2014 as a way of fighting Tory rule and for a different society.
The Catalan referendum couldn’t have happened without a mass movement of working class people to defend it.
Nationalist-led devolved governments fought to win the support of working class voters, creating a space for workers to put their own demands.
This has seen political leaders make promises to try and appeal to these demands.
For example, the Catalan government told a mass protest for refugees this year that independence was the way to let people in.
Meanwhile the Scottish government verbally opposes detention centres for migrants, as well as Trident nuclear weapons.
Yet neither Scotland nor Catalonia would become a socialist paradise after independence.
Politicians, police, fascists and bosses in both countries will attack workers whichever nation-state they are in.
Socialists must prepare for such confrontations—not downplay them by idealising nationalism as left wing. But nor must they give nationalists a monopoly by abstaining from the independence fights.
Not all the hopes placed in independence are illusory. The opposition from the ruling class shows it threatens their system.
Catalan independence would plunge the Spanish state into crisis. It would blast holes in Nato and the European Union. Any Catalan attempt to rejoin them would trigger a debate about the militarisation, border policing and cuts they demand from member states.
It’s a struggle socialists should support. And the lessons workers are learning—such as how collective grassroots defiance can beat the cops—won’t be forgotten.
In Catalonia today the actions and arguments of workers are shaping the fight for independence. Their victory would create a new nation-state—but the battle could take us one step closer to a world with none.