Nationalism is the cornerstone of Spartacist’s attitude toward the backward countries, just as it is in relation to the class struggle in the advanced capitalist ones. And, just as in the US it extols the supposed revolutionary capacities of the trade unions, in those nations historically oppressed by imperialism it attributes similar potential to bourgeois nationalism and petty-bourgeois guerrillaism.
Before dealing with the arguments made in its attack on the perspective of the International Committee, it is worth noting that, as with trade unionism, Spartacist has made an apparent political about-face on the national question.
For decades the Spartacist League was distinguished by its indifference toward the masses in the oppressed countries, and it repeatedly adopted positions which, despite their ultra-left verbiage, lined the organization up with the US State Department.
In 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War, the Spartacists described the assault by the US-backed Israeli military against the semi-colonial Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria as a “futile and reactionary conflict of rival nationalisms and their mystical ideologies.” Nearly a decade later, when the Lebanese civil war broke out, it adopted a similar “plague on both your houses” position in relation to the conflict which pitted the Palestine Liberation Organization and its allies in the Lebanese National Movement against the Maronite ruling class and its fascist Phalange militia. Spartacist described the struggle as “mutual communal terror.”
With the outbreak of war between Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas islands in 1982, Spartacist once again saw no reason to defend an oppressed nation confronting the onslaught of imperialism. The group declared that it could “only look forward to the spectacle of these two hated right-wing regimes sinking each others’ fleets on the high seas,” adding, “it’s a good thing if they grind up their respective military machines.” Spartacist did not have long to wait. In the one-sided conflict which followed, hundreds of Argentine sailors went to their deaths in the sinking of the Belgrano and many more ill-equipped and untrained conscripts were massacred by British commandos.
Now, in their attack on the perspective of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the Spartacists present themselves as the champion of national liberation and “self-determination”. Curiously, their line on the national movements has shifted precisely under conditions in which the inability of these movements to give any expression to the aspirations of the oppressed masses has been demonstrated by a whole series of world historical events.
For good reason, Spartacist makes no concrete evaluation of any of these movements. As with its fantasy about the AFL-CIO calling a general strike in support of the New York City building workers, the group is reduced to imagining “what if.” In the course of its argument that the national state stands as the omnipotent power in the affairs of world capitalism, it declares the following: “Let us imagine that a left-nationalist government comes to power in Mexico and repudiates the country’s foreign debt. Will the IMF’s army invade Mexico and install a puppet regime? Will the IMF’s navy blockade Mexico’s ports? Will the IMF agents confiscate the assets of the Mexican government?” 
The simplest answer to these musings is of course, no; it doesn’t have to do any of those things. It would simply cut off Mexico’s access to credit.
More fundamentally, however, this passage demonstrates how Spartacist’s false theoretical conceptions are bound up with a politically bankrupt orientation. It never occurs to this organization to ask itself why such a “left-nationalist government” exists nowhere in the world today.
Indeed all of the old bourgeois nationalist governments have jettisoned their economic nationalism. Policies based on import substitution and the development of national industry have long since given way to IMF-supervised “structural adjustment” programs aimed at attracting globally mobile capital to invest in the given backward country. In Mexico, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the longest-reigning bourgeois nationalist movement in the world, is one of the best examples of this fundamental shift. But the same essential path has been pursued by every one of the old nationalist movements, from the Peronists in Argentina, to the Congress Party in India, the Nasserites in Egypt and the various states created through the decolonization of Africa.
A similar though even starker evolution is to be found within the second wave of national liberation movements, those which espoused the “armed struggle” and relied on the aid of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy from the 1960s to the 1980s. Every single one of them—the Palestine Liberation Organization, the African National Congress, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the FMLN in El Salvador—has abandoned the radical anti-imperialist rhetoric which they put forward as recently as a decade ago. All of them have accepted imperialist-imposed settlements and embraced the policies of “free market” capitalism, abandoning in the process the most basic rights of the masses that they purported to represent.
How does Spartacist explain this phenomenon? As with its approach to everything else in political life, it is not a matter of finding an objective basis, rooted in the process of production, but rather attributing this evolution of the nationalist movements to the subjective failings and “betrayals” of their leaderships.
Yet, the very universality of this turn makes clear that it is the outcome of the objective character of the national movements and their relations with global capital. The role of opportunist organizations like Spartacist is to cover up the class nature of these movements and the inevitable catastrophes that their policies produce.
The transformation of the bourgeois nationalist regimes and movements is bound up with the development of capitalism. The great national movements of the 18th and 19th centuries broke down feudal particularism, creating broader economic and social entities, which corresponded to the essential needs of capitalist production. In particular they established national markets, bound together by common law and language.
In an earlier period, the national liberation struggles in the oppressed countries had a similar economic imperative. As long as productive capital remained organized largely within the nation-state framework, there existed a significant objective basis for the conflict between the national bourgeoisie in these countries and imperialism. The national bourgeoisie sought to cast off imperialist domination in order to gain control of the national market and undertake the exploitation of its “own” working class.
With this aim it sought to mobilize the popular masses behind it—India and China providing the classic examples of such struggles. It found itself compelled to raise democratic demands and even adopt a socialist coloration, all the while working to prevent the struggle from challenging capitalist private property.
Workers Vanguard, March 21, 1997