Defining Independence at the Twilight of Empire

Danny Haiphong

“Movements for self-determination must be judged on the concrete pressure they place to either unite the oppressed or empower the imperialist order.”

It appears that wherever one looks in the world, the imperialism is crumbling. Spain has been thrown into chaos by the call for Catalonia’s independence. The Kurdish oligarchy in Iraq is seeking to divide the nation through an independence referendum of its own. Puerto Rico’s status as a US colony has left the island in rubble following Hurricane Irma. And the US is launching dangerous war provocations with Russia in Syria, threatening the very future of humanity in the process.

All of this points to a geopolitical crisis. To understand the crisis, one has to understand the broader social relations that dictate world affairs. The US empire has for the last six decades dominated the world with unilateral force. It has empowered vicious puppet states that ruthlessly protect US corporate interests abroad. The EU and NATO have been essential toward this end. One of the most overlooked aspects of Catalonia’s drive toward independence is how the region’s leadership had effectively declared loyalty to NATO and the EU well prior to the results of the referendum.

Objectively, the Kurdish situation is markedly different from that of Catalonia. The Kurds in Iraq are ruled by an oil-thirsty oligarchy attached to the hip of the Israeli state. Masoud Barzani, the president of “Kurdistan,” has called for an independence referendum. The referendum falls in line with US-Israeli designs to divide the Arab nation of Iraq and control its oil supply. These designs were drawn by the Bush Jr. Administration in 2001 and loyally followed by the Obama Administration. Not only does an independent Kurdistan deprive Iraq of a third of its oil-rich territory, but it also significantly weakens the resistance axis of Iran, Syria, and Iraq in their war to preserve national integrity. Of course, this is exactly what the US and its Zionist ally have in mind.

“The Iraqi Kurdish referendum falls in line with US-Israeli designs to divide the Arab nation of Iraq and control its oil supply.”

At the same time that hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, the US was engaged in war provocations with Russia in Syria. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the US has been “accidentally” striking Syrian Army posts, giving leverage to foreign-backed armed groups that have invaded the country consistently since 2011. The devastation in Puerto Rico and the US investment of over 700 billion dollars in “defense” tells all one needs to know about the priorities of the empire. Puerto Rico is nothing but a colony to the US empire, which has imposed permanent austerity on the island to enrich the overstuffed coffers of finance capital. That is why the US did not intervene to ensure the safety and recovery of Puerto Rico. The legacy of colonialism has stripped the nation of its ability to assert independence in all realms of policy.

The concept of independence has been a central theme of the geopolitical crisis. Yet independence has gone largely undefined in discussions about geopolitics. There are qualitative differences between the struggle for Kurdish independence, Catalan independence, and Syria and Russia’s struggle to maintain sovereignty. Puerto Rico also finds itself in a unique position as one of the last formal colonies in the world. What these phenomena do share, however, is a common catalyst for their struggles.

That catalyst is the crisis of US imperialism. The crisis of US imperialism has spurred chaos around the globe. Chaos has led to a profound state of political confusion in the United States and the Western world, the home bases of imperialism. There are many on the left who have voiced support for Catalonia’s independence and the independence of “Kurdistan” yet have said nothing about independence for Puerto Rico or the defense of Russia and Syria against imperialism. Such a profound contradiction points directly to the need for a concrete definition of “independence” in the 21st century.

“Puerto Rico is nothing but a colony to the US empire.”

A review of V.I. Lenin’s thesis on the “national question” is instructive in this regard. According to Lenin, the national question is the recognition of self-determination for oppressed nations. Recognition, however, does not mean support for every demand for national independence. Lenin stressed that struggles for self-determination must necessarily lead to the unity of the working class. When oppressed nations struggle for independence from their colonial masters, the possibility for unity among the exploited people around the world increases exponentially.

Oppressed nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America struggled mightily for self-determination against the imperialist powers in the 20th century. Some, such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Syria and Vietnam, achieved long term success. Others, such as Ghana and Chile lost their self-determination to the backlash of war imposed by the imperialist powers. The landscape changed after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. US imperialism became the world hegemonic power, with China creeping on its heels to replace it on socialist terms.

Independence is thus not an abstract concept but a concrete aspect of the larger struggle between competing social systems. The question must be asked: does independence unite the working and oppressed masses or does it further divide them? In the case of Catalonia and Iraq’s Kurdistan, it divides them. Catalonia has every right to determine independence through a referendum and oppose the repression of the Spanish government. However, if the vote to become independent from Spain leads to the strengthening of EU and NATO imperialism, then national independence does not serve the poor and working masses. The Kurdistan question is even more contradictory since the ruling clique in that region is heavily aligned with Israel and the US. One has to ask whether the question of Kurdish independence manifests from the oppression of the Iraqi government or if it is merely a ploy to weaken that government in service of Israel’s expansionist ambitions to divide the region.

“The crisis of US imperialism has spurred chaos around the globe.”

Russia, Syria, and Puerto Rico are all distinct cases, but the compulsion to destroy these nations comes from the same source. Puerto Rico remains a colony because US finance capital sees the island as the perfect dumping ground for its speculative schemes. Russia and Syria are independent states. Syria is a secular state that achieved independence from French colonialism in the mid-20th century. Russia has been climbing out of a state of dependence on US capital imposed after the fall of the socialist Soviet Union. Both states are threats to US hegemony. So while Puerto Rico cannot resolve its national crises in the aftermath of Irma without independence, Russia and Syria stand to lose their ability to determine their own destiny should the US and its imperial allies succeed in the destabilization of the region.

The twilight of the empire will continue to sew chaos in the international political order. That means movements for self-determination must be judged on the concrete pressure they place to either unite the oppressed or empower the imperialist order. There is no middle ground. As the US loses more ground in the world both economically and militarily, the ruling class will stop at nothing to slow down the inevitable collapse of the imperialist system. Independence cannot truly exist without the overthrow of the social relations of the empire. How we judge developments in the world should rely on thorough investigation of their concrete character and how they fit into the broader struggle to do just that.

Danny Haiphong is a Vietnamese-American activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at