The Challenges of National Self-Determination: The Pitfalls and Contradictions of Anarchism and Nationalism

By Matt Hearn

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. It is critical for contemporary anarchists to confront these challenge thrusts.

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. 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. Anarchists have always been opposed to nationalism, or at least the manufactured patriotic defense of arbitrarily defined states, and the seemingly inherent nationalist 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 should elicit anarchist support. It is 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. Secessionist movements have frequently dissolved into bloodbaths of nationalism. The dystopias in Bosnia, Serbia, Burundi, Rwanda, El Salvador, Punjab and elsewhere, each unique, represent some of the worst possible formulations of nationalism. These scenarios are the absolute negation of self-determination by colonialist aggression. Demands for self-determination are not reprehensible; it is centralized authorities’ responses that are the catalyst for warfare.

It is reasonable to support self-determination across the board, to say that all struggles for self-governance are “good,” and also to abhor and denounce every spot where those movements descend into inhumanity and imperialism.

Anarchist opposition to state domination must 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. As other have argued, many autonomists and nationalists want to destroy state power, not capture it for themselves.

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. American writer Michael Zwerin defined a nation as “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.”

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.

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, Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland, Tibet, Chiapas, Hawaii or for the Nisga’a, Innu, Mohawks, Misquito, Catalonians or Basques, 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, not the only, assault on monopoly capitalism and statism. Self-determination is not enough in and of itself. It is not enough to support independence movements carte blanche. 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 sprawling, manufactured states like Canada.

There is 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 chances of reducing bureaucracy and creating a direct democracy are significantly greater.

I am advocating for a land and place-based community of communities. An ecological world can only be achieved when people organize themselves into small-scale, locally self-reliant communities. In many 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, anarchists will oppose them with the same clarity as they critique current states.


The attempt to bring together the philosophical ideals of anarchism with the political imperatives of self-determination is awkward, despite a certain amount of evidence suggesting the two are well suited for one another.

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 similar 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. This is not blanket support for nationalism, but a counterposing of historically and culturally organic nations and a call for self-determination against artificially imposed states.

As secessionist movements foment 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.

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