Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The National Question

30-1. The ICFI returned to a critical re-examination of the national question following the eruption of separatist movements in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In his writings of 1913–16, Lenin had advocated the “right to self-determination” as a means of uniting the working class and rallying the support of the oppressed nationalities for the struggle against Czarism and imperialism. As Trotsky explained: “In this the Bolshevik Party did not by any means undertake an evangel of separation. It merely assumed an obligation to struggle implacably against every form of national oppression, including the forcible retention of this or that nationality within the boundaries of the general state. Only in this way could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed nationalities.”[1] Yet in the decades after World War II, the Pabloites and numerous other petty-bourgeois pseudo-Marxists systematically distorted the “right to self-determination” to mean that the working class was politically obligated to support virtually any demand for national-ethnic separatism.

30-2. Lenin’s stance had always been conditional on socio-economic circumstances and the development of the class struggle. On the eve of World War I, when Lenin had advocated the right to self-determination in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Czarist Empire, these regions were still predominantly agrarian and capitalism and the national movement were largely in their infancy. Nearly a century on, conditions in these regions, as around the world, were vastly different. Small cliques of ex-Stalinist bureaucrats and capitalists whipped up ethnic and communal sentiment in the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia, as a means to carve out their own territory as part of the process of capitalist restoration. Far from being anti-imperialist, these movements actively sought the support of the imperialist powers which, as in the case of Balkans, encouraged separatism as a means of furthering their economic and strategic ambitions. In Lenin’s day, the national movements in the colonial and semi-colonial countries of Asia and Africa had barely begun. Nearly a century later, it was the abject failure of the nationalist movements that gained “independence” after World War II to resolve basic democratic tasks that spawned new separatist tendencies based on ethnicity, religion and language.

30-3. The globalisation of production was a key factor in the spread of national-separatist movements at the end of the twentieth century. The processes of globalisation vastly reduced the significance of national markets and nationally-based production in comparison to the global market and globally-integrated production. As the International Committee explained: “The new global economic relations have also provided an objective impulse for a new type of nationalist movement, seeking the dismemberment of existing states. Globally-mobile capital has given smaller territories the ability to link themselves directly to the world market. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan have become the new models of development. A small coastal enclave, possessing adequate transportation links, infrastructure and a supply of cheap labour may prove a more attractive base for multinational capital than a larger country with a less productive hinterland.”[2]

30-4. Summing up the character of the new separatist movements, the ICFI explained: “In India and China,” the national movements of the first half of the twentieth century “posed the progressive task of unifying disparate peoples in a common struggle against imperialism—a task which proved unrealisable under the leadership of the national bourgeoisie. The new form of nationalism promotes separatism along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines, with the aim of dividing up existing states for the benefit of local exploiters. Such movements have nothing to do with a struggle against imperialism, nor do they in any sense embody the democratic aspirations of the masses of oppressed. They serve to divide the working class and divert the class struggle into ethno-communal warfare.”[3] In the interests of unifying the working class, the International Committee insisted on a critical, even hostile, attitude to the proliferation of national separatist movements and their invocation of “the right to self-determination” to justify the formation of separate capitalist states.

30-5. This analysis has a particular relevance to South Asia where the national bourgeoisie’s abortion of the democratic revolution and the failure of its respective nationalist projects has produced a multitude of divisive bourgeois tendencies based on religion, caste, language and ethnicity. In India, the turn from the old schemes of national economic regulation to the embrace of foreign investment and integration in global production processes has accentuated regional economic disparities and deepened social inequality. The resulting social crisis and popular anger is being exploited by various bourgeois tendencies to promote ethnic separatism, including to press for the creation of separate ethnically-defined nation-states in Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Assam and other parts of the north-east. The ICFI explained: “The central question here is, how does the revolutionary party of the working class respond to the breakup of the old bourgeois nationalist movements? Are the masses in these countries to advance their interests through new separatist movements based on fragments of the states created through decolonisation and founded on religious particularism? We categorically reject such a perspective. Such statelets will provide no way forward for the working class and the oppressed masses of India or anywhere else. At best they will create profits for a thin layer of the privileged classes if they are able to create a free trade zone and cut their own deals with transnational capital. For the masses, they hold out the prospect only of ethnic bloodbaths and intensified exploitation.”[4]

30-6. As part of the ICFI discussion, the RCL concluded that support for the right of “self-determination for the Tamil people”, which in practical political terms could only mean support for the national separatist project of the LTTE, no longer had any progressive content. As the war restarted in 1990, the LTTE took on an even more pronounced anti-democratic and communal character: outlawing political opposition and murdering political rivals; denouncing all Muslims as “enemy agents” and driving them out of Jaffna; killing captured soldiers and police; and indiscriminately attacking Sinhalese civilians. While rejecting the LTTE’s separatist program, the RCL continued to intransigently oppose the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to forcibly maintain the island’s unity by military means. Its demand for the unconditional withdrawal of the armed forces from the North and East did not imply support for a separate Eelam. Rather, in opposing the military oppression of Tamils, the RCL was seeking to unite the working class and oppressed masses in a revolutionary struggle for the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Eelam.


Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3 (London: Sphere Books, 1967) pp. 41–42.


International Committee of the Fourth International, Globalisation and the International Working Class, Mehring Books, 1998, p. 108.


Ibid., p. 109.


Ibid., p. 115.