Graveyard of Empire: Does national independence make sense after the fall of colonialism?

Ben Wray

CommonSpace’s special week of coverage on international movements for self-determination continues with a look at the rise and fall of new nationalist movements in the 20th century

THE twentieth century saw the globe cast and re-cast by insurgent nationalisms.

World war, revolution and the rise and fall of Empires combined to promote the establishment of numerous new states.

We live in the shadow of those developments, and it has become common for supporters of the national independence of small countries to reflect on the 20th century as evidence that national ambitions naturally transmute into national states.

But that history also follows particular global dynamics, and there is no reason to believe they will re-produce themselves again.

Gareth Dale is a Lecturer in Politics at Brunel University in London who specialises in the post-Soviet states and the now disappeared East Germany in particular.

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“The 20th century was the graveyard of empires” he says, “the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the Kaiserreich, and, in the mid-twentieth century, the Japanese and West European empires. 

“The long millennia in which empires had ruled the world were brought to a final, convulsive end. The nation state system triumphed, and globalised. The dominant tendency ever since has been for nation states to proliferate.”

And proliferate they certainly did. The first world war rocked the imperial settlement. The US, still just beginning to emerge as a world power, called for a new respect for the self-determination of nations.

The Tsarist Empire exploded on impact with the October Revolution, as the Bolsheviks shocked the world by making good on their pledge to demolish the ‘prison house of nations’. They too sought to export national revolution into the world colonial system, which infested almost every reach of the globe.

But it was the second world war that accelerated the weaknesses of the old imperial powers and laid out the path for anticolonial revolutions that swept a ‘global south’ starved of development and democracy.

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According to Professor Vijay Prashad, Director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, which explores historical and contemporary geopolitical dynamics, that anti-colonial nationalism was successful because of the over-extended nature of the empires and the appeal to overthrow oppression.

“They were mass movements,” Prashad says. “That means that imperialism did not have the support of the people and faced expensive struggles from one end of the empire to another.

“Nationalism captured the feeling against being dominated by a foreign power. Imperialism impinged on the dignity of people. Nationalism, of the anti-colonial kind, returned that dignity.”

Excluding the US and Canada, and all Dominions, the collapse of just the British Empire alone saw the birth of 58 post-colonial and post-sphere of influence states.

Africa was the crucible of post-colonial nationalism. Between 1910 and 1976 alone, 57 new African states broke from European Empires.

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Anti-colonial revolutions also swept some of the world’s largest nations – like India and China – combining vast populations and tracts of territory, which are now transforming the world system.

Such revolutions pointed to the potency of mass insurgency and the weakness of the empires. But they also reflected the growth of a new imperialism, principally in the form of the US, and a rapidly changing global economy.

“Empires had become largely redundant, meaning that the [old] products had been superseded – plastics over jute – and it was possible to dominate the economy without controlling these countries – imperialism without colonialism,” says Prashad.

The new post-colonial states were typically forced to submit to this new global regime, Prashad concludes: “The post-colonial state was always hemmed in by imperialism even if colonialism ended. We call this ‘flag independence’. Attempts to create a new world order, such as in the New International Economic Order of 1973, had to be destroyed. It was not given a chance.”

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The second world war unleashed two new Super Powers. Besides the US, the second was the USSR, which developed out of the revolutionary period in Russia. The USSR turned its back on the project of global revolution, and reconstructed a ‘Greater-Russian’ nationalism in Eastern Europe and large parts of Eurasia, made up of both formal USSR members and friendly satellites. As Dale explains, the USSR brought its own unique characteristics, but maintained an “imperial form”.

“In an age of declining empires the Soviet Union under Stalin succeeded in replicating the tsarist imperial form of Great Russia dominating its periphery, with chauvinism to match. But was the Russian case wholly anomalous? Two considerations modify the picture. One is that the political form of the new imperium was national—not to say hypernational. Stalin’s slogan was socialism in one country: a new nation was to be forged, with all the usual paraphernalia.

“The other is that the 20th century trend to imperial dissolution did not entail the straightforward extinguishing of logics of political and economic agglomeration. The interwar era of deglobalisation spurred processes of trade and currency bloc formation – around the British and French empires, around the USA, around Japan, and so on – and to that extent the USSR, its own bloc, was flowing with the tide.

“Similarly, the 1930s and 1940s saw the economies of Central and Eastern Europe forcibly geared around great power economic interests—first Germany’s Mitteleuropa, and then the Soviet bloc. Later on, economic competition with the USA drove political integration in Western Europe—and the Union that resulted has some imperial characteristics too.”

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The USSR’s weaknesses versus the new imperialism organised around the US and its allied bloc in Western Europe meant that it eventually had to invert the traditional imperial relationship in order to survive, Dale explains.

“The initial stance was that of an occupying power, with mass rape, the crushing of workers’ uprisings in the GDR and Hungary, and so on. Over time the relationship changed. In some regions of the intra and extra-Soviet periphery, Moscow sought to boost industrialisation—more akin to Japan in Korea than Britain in Ghana. 

“And the Soviet Union was an unusual imperialist power in that it was less economically ‘developed’ than some of the countries it conquered, notably eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. To hold Comecon together in the face of western-led globalisation increasingly came to depend on a framework of subsidisation by Russia, in the form of cheap oil.”

At crucial points in the development of the anti-colonial movements, the existence of the USSR – as an alternative geopolitical pole and source of economic and diplomatic resources – made a real difference.

That pole finally collapsed in 1989-91, in a series of revolutions and other processes with a strongly national dynamic.

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“Although understated—for tactical reasons—as a programmatic objective, the Solidarity movement in Poland in part expressed national resistance to the Soviet imperium, as did resistance by Afghans to the Soviet invasion. These were the movements that did the most to weaken Moscow’s grip over its European and Asian satellites. As the perceived legitimacy of Russian power began to be questioned, such movements cropped up within the USSR, contributing to reform movements in the satellite states, and precipitating the eventual collapse,” Dale says.

But this history of the modern emergence of nation states leaves major questions for pursuing the demand for national independence today.

The colonial and soviet empires having receded – to leave behind a global imperial structure in many ways less tangible and more sophisticated in its manipulation of national sovereignty – what drives forward new demands for national independence?

Neil Davidson is a lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University, and an author of much work concerned with national questions today and historically.

“The number of serious national movements reached a climax between 1945 and 1975 – the ‘tidying-up’ process since then has mostly involved overthrowing colonial-settler regimes like Rhodesia and South Africa (with Israel and Northern Ireland still outstanding).

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“In other words establishing majority rule within the nation-state rather than creating an entirely new one. There are still some territorial liberation movements, notably in North Africa, although Tibet would also fall into this category. But the two main outstanding ‘stateless peoples’ are quite distinct: the Kurds are divided between 4 different states and show no signs of wanting to form a single territory, and the Palestinians have  – mostly – been physically expelled from the territory which they used to inhabit.”

This picture is mirrored in the west, where very different circumstances otherwise pertain:

“In the West, the number of active national movements has also significantly reduced, partly because there is relatively limited number of  remaining ‘historic’ nations – i.e. feudal kingdoms, like Scotland, or colonial outposts with a distinct settler base, like Quebec – which were later incorporated into actual modern nation-states, but retained their own identity.  Of course, all nations are ‘invented’ and ‘imagined’, but they have to be invented and imagined out of something , which is usually some long-since subsumed pre-capitalist state form or other.

“Scottish nationalism as a serious political movement really begins from the late sixties as a response to the weakening of the British economy and the international decline (i.e. post-Empire) of the British state.

“There were other responses, of course, notably the massive increase in class struggle between 1971 and 1974 – its interesting that support for the SNP reaches its first peak in 1974 as the climacteric of class politics is also reached. Contemporary Scottish nationalism – i.e. since the late 1980s – is a far more specific response to the local version of neoliberalism – but even then was relatively weak even into the 21st century compared with support for devolution.”

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But national movements like Scotland’s have failed to make the breakthrough thus far. From Scotland to Quebec, Catalonia and the Basque country besides others, all roads have so far led to road blocks. Rebellions from within the old empires lack the impetus of those in the colonised and subjugated global south. Is there something else about powerful western states that means they refuse to fragment?

“I don’t think its so much the power of the dominant states since, with the partial exception of Catalonia, that has yet to be unleashed. For the moment it involves two other factors,” Davidson argues.

“One is the ideological cohesion of and historical memory associated with the metropolitan centres. This is why I find it so ludicrous when nationalists claim that Britain isn’t ‘really’ a nation – unfortunately for this particular fantasy, most Scots for most of the last 300 years have thought and (more importantly) felt that it is. 

“The second is that – difficult though it may be to believe –  it is likely that a majority of Scots simply do not feel that things have got bad enough to take the risk of separation – i.e. they haven’t reached the ‘how could things be worse’ phase. But that isn’t in itself a very positive starting point, not for the left anyway, as our case has to be a positive: the more people vote for independence out of fear, the more likely they are to accept more right-wing or least conventional visions of a future Scotland.”

Great historical forces have forged the modern world and its nations. We know that some of the old forces are no longer present, and that new ones have taken their place.

We know too that the nation-state is far from a redundant form of social organisation. What we do no yet know is if a response to the current world order and its future arc of development holds a significant place for national independence movements. 

Picture: Robert Allmann

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