The Rhetoric of “Self-Determination” vs the Practice of Decolonization

My recent burst of writings on this blog regarding the subject decolonization, my responses to varied white “left” reactions to said writings, and subsequent discussions that i have had with various comrades (Indigenous and non-Indigenous; anarchist, marxist and “other”) has caused me to return in my thoughts to a subject i have touched on before. The topic on my mind has been the way that the broad “left,” in particular marxists of a leninist bent of some sort, employ a rhetoric of a right to self-determination as opposed to putting forth a politics based on actual decolonization (1).

The featured image at the top of this entry is typical of the call for “self-determination” from the various colonizer-left formations on this continent. In this instance it is a poster from the maoist revolutionary communist party of kanada (pcr-rcp), which programmatically advocates for the “right of self-determination” for First Nations (2). But how would a vision of self-determination for our oppressed nations play out? And more importantly, how does it differ from our goal of the decolonization of north amerika?

Many formations on the left in north amerika (not just the pcr-rcp) (3) in both the united states and kanada pump up support for the right of self-determination for internal colonies (First Nations, non-Status Indians, Inuit-Iñupiat, Métis, Xicano, Genízaro, Boricua, Kānaka Maoli and Afrikans) in their programmatic documents and other materials. However, regarding, in particular, the struggles of First Nations, non-Status Indians and Métis (and versus the example of their support for the struggles of [New] Afrikans, Xicanos and Boricua), the rhetoric of self-determination is constructed quite often in a relatively vague manner, which has the effect of depressing what is the central question of the Indigenous Liberation Movement: the question of land. More specifically the return of land, and significant swaths of it at that (4).

I’ve addressed elsewhere that i believe that the style of their support for the national liberation & anti-colonialist movements of some of the internal colonies, specifically (New) Afrikans, Xicanos and Boricua, allows for a vision of the continued existence of settler-colonialism in a newly commoned/collectivized form following the proletarian socialist revolution. This is because conceding New Afrika, Aztlán and Borikén—while also framing other national liberation questions in such a way as to depress the specific question of the return of the land— translates into a vision of revolution that, while having to kiss goodbye significant chunks of land, is ultimately one that allows for the vast majority of the territorial corpus of the empire to remain in colonizer/invader hands. Thus, to draw from the thought of Osage indigenous liberation theologian George E. Tinker, after the marxist (or anarchist) workers’ revolution “our land will still not be ours but would enter into the collective possession of a much larger colonizer proletariat who are also foreign to our land and who must be considered invaders” (American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, p. 23-4).

The quieting of the question of the return of the land to Indigenous Nations thus can come across as somewhat cynical. As if they think we are not going to notice, or that they hope we will not force the issue with the (nominally) proletarian movement. As one comrade with who i discussed this topic recently put it: “it’s like they’re thinking, ‘I hope they don’t want to self-determine *that* way.'”

Related to this is the backwards framing of the question of when. Those who rely on a rhetoric of self-determination vs a politics of decolonization have historically treated the national liberation of the internal colonies as an after thought, something to be dealt with following the seizure of power by the proletarian class (lead of course by its advanced vanguard representative). From this perspective, following the socialist workers’ revolution, We of the Darker Nations, can choose, if we find ourselves so inclined, to separate from whatever Federal Socialist Workers’ Republic of North America they would have replace the united states and kanada.

And this right here exposes perhaps the most important difference between the rhetoric of “self-determination” versus of the politics of decolonization. The former sees socialist revolution as something that can happen on this continent WITHOUT necessarily including the liberation of oppressed nations as part of the fundamental set of demands. The “right of self-determination” will be granted to (some of) the internal colonies only after the revolution, and, again, we can act on it if we so choose (but really, who would want to separate and go their own savage way from the new and glorious Federal Socialist Workers’ Republic of North America, right?) The latter however holds that decolonization, that is the thoroughgoing doing away with of this imperial-colonial thing we call north amerika—which only exists by dint of genocide, enslavement, theft and colonization—as the fundamental precursor for the emergence of any kind of truly liberated society here on this continent. Thus, settler-colonialism can very well, and indeed almost certainly would, continue to be the dominant order of the day following the line of organizations appealing to a rhetoric of self-determination, while enacting a project of genuine decolonization here on Maehkaenah-Menaehsaeh would utterly annihilate it.

Which brings me to one final, somewhat less critical, point which i want to quibble about, which is the eurocentrism embedded simply in even using a language constructed around a “right of self-determination.” I mean this in the sense that the way it is always worded—as a “right to self-determination”—implies that We, the colonized, are dependent on this right being granted/handed to us by our entirely hypothetical colonizer working class allies following the socialist revolution. It frames it as something which will happen via the largess of the new (and inherently colonizer/invader dominated) Federal Socialist Workers’ Republic of North America. I have no interest in waiting for our “right” to be as we choose, to live as independent and free, to be granted to us by a group of people who have, at every single level of their existence, come to be entirely dependent on colonialism. Indeed it goes even deeper than that. They are not just entirely dependent on colonialism: they exist entirely and wholly ONLY BECAUSE of colonialism. Decolonization then, even if only taken to be the bare minimum of what it means, thus presents a radical existential threat to this entity. To decolonize, really, following Fanon, is a project to destroy the(ir) world in a sense.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that day. Indeed the reactions from sectors of the left to my previous writings on the subject of decolonization have shown me that such a wait would be a very, very long one. So why would we wait for them? I propose that we must seize our freedom and take it for ourselves.


(1) I just want to be absolutely clear here on something, as this seems to be an issue that has cropped up in the time since i posted this article: i am not attacking what i’ll just call self-determination qua self-determination. I absolutely am for the self-determination of the oppressed nations of the world. What i am trying to point out here is that the rhetoric of a right to self-determination AS IT IS PROGRAMMATICALLY PUT FORTH by the majority of leninist sects in north amerika is done in such a way that it results in obfuscating or depressing the ILM goal of decolonization.

(2) In kanada First Nations is a legal term that specifically means Status Indians. Thus the term excludes the Inuit-Iñupiat, Métis and non-Status Indians, all of whom are Indigenous People. It would be somewhat weird (not to mention colonizing towards non-Status Indian groups) if the pcr-rcp meant it in this narrow sense, so i am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they (incorrectly) believe the term is a catchall for Indigenous People in this kountry.

(3) To be clear (and also fair, i guess): i am only here singling out the pcr-rcp for the purposes of example, in part because i am using their agit-prop materials in this post, and in part because i reside in kanada. I think the point i am broadly trying to make in this post broadly applies to essentially every leninist group on the continent). Other organizations, such are the freedom road socialist organization are just as glaring in their status as examples of this point.

(4) See for example the frso Statement on National Oppression, National Liberation and Socialist Revolution which states under Section II. Statement on the National Question:

  • Support the struggle for independence of Puerto Rico and other colonies of the United States;
  • Assist and support the struggle for sovereignty and national development of Native Americans, Native Hawai’ians and other indigenous peoples in the United States;
  • Fight for full equality of oppressed nationalities, including the right to self-determination for the African American, Chicano and Hawai’ian Nations.

Notice the striking difference between how they frame points 1 and 3 with how they frame point 2.


4 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of “Self-Determination” vs the Practice of Decolonization”

  1. Reblogged this on Unsettling America and commented:
    “settler-colonialism can very well, and indeed almost certainly would, continue to be the dominant order of the day following the line of organizations appealing to a rhetoric of self-determination, while enacting a project of genuine decolonization here on A’nó:wara Kawè:note would utterly annihilate it.”

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