Why a ‘bi-national workers’ state’?

In a 1988 polemic against the British Workers Power group we addressed our differences over Vladimir Lenin’s approach to the “national question.” In particular we discussed how the interpenetration of the two peoples living on the territory of Palestine-Israel makes it impossible to equitably resolve their competing claims via either a two-state or one-state solution within a capitalist framework:

Self-Determination” and Interpenetrated Peoples

Most of the national questions posed in Lenin’s time have been resolved–the former colonies of the imperialist powers have generally achieved nominal political independence, without, of course, being emancipated from the imperialist world market. Many of the national questions which remain are particularly complex because they involve situations where two or more peoples are interspersed throughout a single territory (e.g., Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine). Unlike the classical cases of oppressed nations addressed by Lenin, simply advocating the right of self-determination in such situations does not resolve the problem, because two (or more) hostile populations cannot both self-determine themselves on the same piece of land. Under capitalism the exercise of the legitimate right of self-determination by either population can only come at the expense of the other. Such a “solution” can only result in maintaining or inverting the existing relations of oppression. For nationalists this is not a problem–they are only concerned with the national rights of their own people. Workers Power adopts a similar criterion–it asserts that the right of self-determination applies only to “good” (that is, the currently oppressed) people.

Leninists oppose forced population transfers and reject the reversal of the terms of oppression as an equitable solution to the seemingly intractable problems posed by interpenetrated peoples. There is a certain romantic attachment to the PLO and IRA within the radical/liberal milieu. But the plight of other interpenetrated peoples in comparable situations receives considerably less attention. We would be interested, for instance, in knowing exactly how Workers Power proposes to resolve the labyrinth of conflicting nationalist/communalist claims in Lebanon. Whose side do you take there? Or in Cyprus? In that case the relations of communalist oppression were actually reversed, revealing the anti-Marxist logic of simply embracing the nationalism of the oppressed in situations of intermingled peoples. Until 1974 the Turks were the oppressed. However, the invasion of the Turkish army that same year resulted in the brutal expulsion of some 200,000 Greek Cypriots from the northern portion of the island, which effectively reversed this situation. Yet in no sense was this a democratic resolution of the problems of communalist oppression.

You quote Lenin [“The Right of Nations to Self-Determination”]: “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression and it is this content that we unconditionally support.” Yet in the very next sentence Lenin continues: “At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.” In certain peculiar circumstances (and not in Catalonia, as you suppose), where peoples are closely intermingled, the exercise of the right of self-determination, the compacting of a territory to form a nation-state, can stamp a real genocidal quality upon that “tendency towards national exclusiveness.” Witness the fate of the Palestinians in 1948 at the hands of the Irgun.

To say this is not to deny the abstract right of self-determination in such cases–merely to note that there are instances in which the exercise of such a right would not be in the historic interests of the proletariat. This coincides exactly with Lenin’s approach to the question:

The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected.” 

–“Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up