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The Challenge of National Self-determination:
The Pitfalls and Contradictions of Anarchism and Nationalism

by Matt Hern

Speaking about anarchism and nationalist self-determination is a perilous prospect. In one sense, nationalism has always been anathema to anarchists. The idea of nationalism is in direct contradiction to traditionally reified anarchist ideas of voluntary association and autonomous communities. Yet compelling self-determination movements across the world continue to challenge anarchist notions of affiliation, loyalty and governance. I believe it critical for contemporary anarchists to confront that challenge thrusts.

It is my contention that anarchists have to recognize national self-determination movements as fundamental to creating a socially ecological society and reversing the centralized colonial domination that smears every part of the globe. I want to make an argument that self-determination has to make up one layer of a directly democratic vision for social reconstruction.

In practice and theory, the contradictions of national self-determination movements and their implications for radical thought have been largely and notably ignored: "the leading figures of political philosophy, past and present, are virtually mute on the issue of secession. Neither Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, nor Mill devoted any serious attention to secession." (Buchanan, 1991; p. vii) The term "Balkanization" has been synonymous with state breakup and breakdown, chaotic nationalist loyalties and organizational confusion for most of this century. The term is almost always used pejoratively and disdainfully by centralists, and has connotations of civil war and violent secessionism.

Anarchists have always been opposed to nationalism, or at least the manufactured patriotic defense of arbitrarily defined states, and especially the seemingly inherent nationalistic urges toward domination, imperialism and colonialism. There are, however, many struggles for self-determination, usually by one distinct nation against the colonization of an imperialist state, that ought to elicit anarchist support. I am arguing here for the dissolution of state domination into a socially ecological vision of a community of communities. I believe it possible that self-determination, even resting at root on national affiliation, may well provide the legitimate and useful basis for radically decentralized communities.

This is difficult and emotional territory to be sure, because secessionist movements have so frequently dissolved into bloodbaths of nationalism. The currently unfolding dystopias in Bosnia, Serbia, Burundi, Rwanda, El Salvador, Punjab, and elsewhere each have unique dynamics, but represent some of the worst possible formulations of nationalism. I believe these scenarios are, in fact, the absolute negation of self-determination by colonialist aggression. It is not demands for self-determination that are reprehensible, it is centralized authorities' responses that are the catalyst for warfare.

More specifically, I believe it is entirely reasonable to support self-determination across the board, to say that all struggles for self-governance are "good," and at the same time to abhor and denounce every spot where those movements descend into inhumanity and imperialism.

An anarchist opposition to state domination has to support self-determination for native indigenous nations everywhere, and for all other independence struggles. These sites represent profound opposition to contemporary statism, and significantly increase the potential for radically decentralist ideals to take hold. "Autonomists, devolutionists, nationalists -- whatever one calls them -- are by definition not the same....They are the only politicians anywhere near mainstream interested in destroying the power of the State rather than capturing it for themselves." (Zwerin, 1976; p. 14)

Typifying so much of contemporary radical discourse, the terminology around self-determination has become so plasticized that many of the central ideas have become confused and confusing. It is absolutely critical though, to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, states and nations, as American writer Michael Zwerin put it:

Nations should not be confused with States. A nation is an organic social and economic unit with common territory, history and language. A collection of cousins. States have been superimposed over nations. State boundaries often divide nations: Basque, Lapp and Mohawk nations for example. States are often comprised of more than one nation: Alsace, Corsica, Brittany and Occitania in France. (Zwerin, p. 4)

This is an axiomatic difference. Self-determination and the love of place is a fundamentally different stance than patriotism and Statism. Nations are comprehensible historically and culturally, drawn together by collectively created meanings. States are superimposed, manufactured entities, with coarse elite economic determinism as their rationale. As Sartre wrote "Present frontiers correspond to the interests of the dominant classes, not to popular aspirations." (cited in Zwerin, p. 29)

Supporting self-determination in no way suggests that secessionist movements should be exempted from rigorous anarchist and egalitarian analysis. It is especially incumbent upon anti-authoritarians to name, very specifically, the adversaries of an ecological society, and to articulate a liberatory praxis, while at the same time recognizing that the undermining of statism by historically and culturally unique peoples represents important radical opportunities.

Whether it be in Quebec, or Puerto Rico, or Northern Ireland, or Tibet, or Chiapas, or Hawaii, or for the Nisga'a, Innu, Mohawks, Misquito, Catalonians or Basques, it seems clear to me that the possibility of a directly democratic, ecological society emerging from within independence movements is much greater than if these homelands are colonized and disfigured by imperialist domination. It is important to hold a position that self-determination is critical everywhere, but that the resulting entities themselves cannot recede into parochial aggression or colonialism, and must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other governance. Thus, I support Quebec independence from Canadian colonization fully, and I equally support the right of indigenous peoples within that province to an equal standard of self-determination as well.

Secessionist movements represent one assault on monopoly capitalism and statism, but cannot be the only place of contestation. Self-determination is not enough in and of itself. It is certainly not enough to support independence movements carte blanche and each scenario needs to be analyzed specifically, using egalitarian, directly-democratic and decentralist criteria. However, an ecological society is much more likely to emerge from within small, comprehensible and historically coherent nations such as the Basque, than in huge, sprawling, manufactured states like Canada.

Without question, there is certainly the possibility that any given secessionist movement will lead to the simple re-centralization of power, that independence in practice means a cheap reconfiguration of centralist control, only in new hands. Further, secession might create a whole new series of bureaucracies, each with their own little fiefdoms and manipulative mechanisms, moving control further again from local interests.

The promise of self-determination, though, is that with the dissolution of colonialist control, and the necessarily smaller scale, the chances of reducing bureaucracy and creating a direct democracy are significantly greater.

I am advocating for a land and place-based community of communities. I am contending that a genuinely ecological world can only be achieved when people organize themselves into small-scale, locally self-reliant communities and in a considerable number of cases, that goal seems, at least at face value, congruent with secessionist claims. In the places where independence means re-centralization and the colonialist mentality on a smaller scale, I believe anarchists will oppose them with the same clarity as they critique current states.

Concluding Remarks

The attempt to bring together the philosophical ideals of anarchism with the political imperatives of self-determination is a particularly awkward task, despite a certain amount of evidence suggesting the two are well suited for one another. This piece is a small stab at locating the confluence of the two ideals, and I think it begins to move towards a coherent, radical decentralist theoretical stance on nationalism, secession and self-determination.

It seems plain to me that a developed anarchism has to assume self-determination for historically organic nations. Anarchism necessarily includes self-determination, but the reverse is not true. While it is reasonable to assert that smaller political entities based on organic nationhood might offer genuine opportunities for the establishment of a direct democracy, it is by no means a given. Nationalist movements come in every flavor, and each self-determination movement has to be subjected to the same rigorous examination as the contemporary nation-state.

Whether it is a military guerrilla revolution, a constitution and referendum-based secession, or protracted treaty negotiations, there are innumerable ways to begin breaking down artificially-defined and defended nation-states. States like Mexico and Canada have colonized so many real nations, and become self-anointed trustees over so many organic affiliations of people, that each situation demands a unique and specific response. Clearly, I am not offering a blanket support for nationalism here, but am counterposing historically and culturally organic nations and a call for self-determination against artificially imposed states.

As the millennia comes to a close with secessionist movements fomenting in literally every corner of the globe, it is a critical distinction to make, especially for anarchists. These movements can go hand-in-hand with and ultimately support a complementary decentralization, and clearly, the creation of local community control mimics at another level the radically democratic potential of self-determination and the recovery of popular power.



Buchanan, A., Secession, Boulder: Westview, 1991. p. vii.

Zwerin, M., A Case for the Balkanization of Practically Everyone, London: Wildwood, 1976. p. 14.

ibid., p. 4.

Sartre, J.P., in Zwerin, A Case... p. 29.

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