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The Case of the Mapuche: What Can Trotsky Teach Us about the Fight against National Oppression?

Trotsky’s reflections on the social aspect of permanent revolution have deep implications for building working-class hegemony through solidarity with oppressed peoples.

Juan Valenzuela

December 4, 2022
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Mapuche people standing with a flag

For this discussion, we draw on Trotsky’s 1923 text “On the National Question.” We must first recognize certain analogies between the reality Trotsky was writing about and our present circumstances. Of course, we should always bear in mind that each context is different and must be studied concretely.

Let’s begin with the distinction Trotsky draws between the aggressive nationalism of oppressor nations (Russia) and the defensive nationalism of the oppressed (peoples like the Ukrainians). “In relation to the first,” Trotsky recommended “implacable struggle” and “harsh contempt, especially in those cases where it manifests in the spheres of government and administration.” As for the nationalism of the oppressed, he called for “patient, attentive, and cautious education.”

National Oppression’s “Roots in the Past”

Far from economism or class reduction, the revolutionary tradition of Marxism has treated the national problem as one of differentiation within the problem of exploitation — and by no means a secondary one. For Trotsky, in the Bolshevik tradition, the national problem was an essential part of the political position of a class and could not be subverted or opposed to it. Trotsky wrote that “a class criterion minus the national question is not a class criterion but only the trunk of such a criterion, inevitably approximating to a narrow craft or trade-union outlook” (Trotsky, “On the National Question”). This was in regard to Russia’s centuries-long tradition of oppressing other peoples, including the Ukrainians, Poles, and Georgians. Trotsky opposed the idea that a class criterion must ignore topics such as oppression for reasons of nationality: when he points out that this leads to a “craft or trade-union outlook,” he means an immediate and narrow political viewpoint, one that makes it impossible for the working class to constitute itself as the leading class of the oppressed in the struggle against the ruling classes.

Far from any economistic caricature of contempt for the national or the cultural, Trotsky pointed out that every national, political, and economic question is, for oppressed nationalities, refracted  “through the prism of their native language, their national-economic and folk peculiarities, their national mistrust which has its roots in the past.” Since the nascent workers’ government emerged from the revolution, Trotsky, alongside Lenin, bore this “prism” in mind, combating attempts to impose the Russian language on oppressed nationalities or to coercively deny cultural or “idiosyncratic” practices.

Using this criteria to carry out an exercise in the present, we can refer to a very relevant economic issue for the Mapuche, an indigenous people of Chile, whose historical lands comprise a large forest area whose bounds were officially established during the Pinochet dictatorship. If we take seriously Trotsky’s claim that, for oppressed people, every national, political, and economic issue is refracted through “prisms” such as the native language or “national mistrust” rooted in the past, then we should not treat the issue — that 2 million hectares belongs to the state, in contrast to the 500,000 allotted to the Mapuche — as a purely economic issue. We must also consider it through the prism, for example, of the Mapuche’s distrust of “the Chileans,” “foreigners,” and wingkas (a pejorative term used by Mapuche, roughly equivalent to “colonizer,” from “we-inka,” or “new Inca,” referring to the historic invasion of the Inca empire). Such distrust exists among some Mapuche people, and it has strong roots in the past — for example, the occupation of Araucanía by the Chilean state and its subsequent theft of the historical territory, or the decrees of the Pinochet government in favor of large forest landowners, actions in which national differences with the Mapuche were used as an agent of plunder. In addition to the repressive forces of the state, the Mapuche are deeply aware of how foreign domination was consolidated through a series of legal maneuvers alongside religious and educational initiatives.

 “Chileans,” in these cases, represent agents of plunder. Ignoring the roots of oppression in the past can only lead to policies that do not confront it in the present. We must not fail to distinguish the nationalism of the oppressors from that of the oppressed.

The Importance of Language

In the same vein, Trotsky posited that “language is the most basic, most broadly embracing and deeply penetrating instrument of the link between man and man and so, between class and class.” As a corrective to economistic extrapolations of vulgar Marxism, Trotsky included the question of language for revolutionary strategy. His conception differs starkly from the trade-unionist type of Marxism, which considers only the demands of the workers derived from their condition as an exploited class, without taking into account their relationship with other oppressed subjects, such as the original nation-peoples, or their own internal composition, which also includes oppressed subjects. The question of language, which is an ongoing struggle for oppressed peoples even today, is fundamental for Trotsky.

Mapuzugun (the Mapuche language), for example, has been suppressed in urban spaces since the consolidation of state power in Mapuche areas at the end of the 19th century, and on private property ever since the beginning of colonization. It was strictly excluded from educational institutions. The persistence of the language over time is closely tied to the resistance concentrated in some rural Mapuche communities. Its incorporation into some state and educational bodies is quite recent, the result of both the historical struggle of Mapuche people and of an attempt by the state to disguise its essentially oppressive relationship with the Mapuche nation.

Hegemony Is at Stake

When Trotsky wrote the lines we have quoted, the question of hegemony was at stake; that is, of the alliance of the working class — already in power since the October Revolution of 1917 — with nationalities historically oppressed by Russia, such as the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples. To implement and direct this alliance, the working class needed to consider the cultural composition of oppressed peoples — including their languages — in addition to the economic-structural elements linked to agrarian policy. The danger of neglecting the national question was that the working class would be unable to generate the necessary hegemonic “nexus” with oppressed nations. That was how relevant the question of national oppression was for revolutionary Marxism: it depended on the working class maintaining the link with the peasantry — which included non-Russian sectors, without which its permanence in power was put at risk:

While in our conditions the question of the proletarian revolution is … above all a question of the relations between the proletariat and the peasantry, this latter question amounts, more than fifty percent, to the question of relations between the more advanced and influential Great Russian proletariat and the peasant masses of the other nationalities, which were mercilessly oppressed in former times and still remember very well all that they suffered. What’s wrong with you, friend, is that all your would-be-radical, but essentially half-baked, nihilistic arguments strike not only at the national question but also at the fundamental question of the link between the workers and the peasants.

Let us then bring Trotsky’s method into the here and now. A revolutionary policy of the working class that fails to consider the struggle against the oppression of the Mapuche nation bases itself in the erroneous idea that we must think exclusively about problems of the working class as such. In so doing, it liquidates the hegemonic potential of the working class as a consequence of its own position as the producing class. For example, in the occupation of the Huite farm, carried out by workers of the Chilterra Union in alliance with local Mapuche communities, workers took up the demand for restitution of lands to indigenous communities, and some proposed cooperative management of the farm between representatives of the communities and the union. 

In this struggle, the workers’ demands for jobs in the face of the company’s bankruptcy were allied with the Mapuche demand for territorial restitution. To consider this latter issue irrelevant, or of secondary significance to the former, would have divided the workers from their Mapuche allies and weakened them in struggle. It was workers, on a farm that produces milk for half a million people, who took up the demand for restitution; the importance of this cannot be overstated. The workers’ productive position makes it possible for them and for communities in struggle to address the needs of the working and impoverished population of a region that is bearing the brunt of food price increases. Both Mapuche and non-Mapuche workers endorsed the demand of territorial restitution, a key achievement of this struggle. We can draw from this a lesson for all workers: develop the hegemonic potential of the working class, its ability to generate alliances with the oppressed against the capitalists and their state. To argue the contrary, that the national demands of the Mapuche are irrelevant to a supposedly “working class” policy, reduces the workers’ political potential.

Problematizing the National “Principle”

Trotsky argued that the class principle does not exclude, but rather encompasses, the question of national self-determination. But this should not be thought of as a “suprahistorical abstract principle,” based on Kant’s categorical model. This model, to which Trotsky alludes, basically consists of conceiving a moral duty that does not depend on experience or circumstances. To speak of national self-determination outside concrete circumstances and experience has the same problem as Kantian ethics: we fall into a suprahistorical fetish. For example, there is currently a social interpenetration between workers and Mapuche at levels never before seen, and an important process of urbanization taking place among the Mapuche, the majority of whom live in the capital city of Santiago. To speak of the right to national self-determination outside of these current social relations, based on idealized preconceptions of “what is Mapuche” and what is not, leads to all sorts of political dead-ends.

In the last few decades, a key antagonism has arisen between the large forestry conglomerates and the Mapuche people, who suffered massive dispossessions by decree under the Pinochet dictatorship. Today, the state openly protects these properties, born of theft, through repression and fraud. With regard to the real and material conditions of life for the Mapuche, advancing and developing in the present necessitates questioning the existing capitalist property relations. It implies confronting the private property of resource cartels such as the Angelini and Mattes groups, and of articulating a social force large enough to win that confrontation.

This is why, for Trotsky, “a revolutionary application of the class ‘principle’ can ensure the maximum realization of the ‘principle’ of national self-determination.” Just as the workers of the Chilterra Union, acting as a “class,” took up the demand for territorial restitution (which, to be fully resolved across Wallmapu,1A modern coinage used to refer to the historical territory of the Mapuche people, spanning a region of the continent from southern Chile to south-central Argentina. would require the realization of national self-determination), so it is possible for the struggle of workers and the Mapuche to strengthen one another more broadly. Instead of searching for national “principles” that remain valid in all places at all times — either to draft a constitutional text or to restore supposedly “neither capitalist nor socialist” social relations — we should instead seek to articulate the social alliance that can defeat the state, the forestry companies, and the landowners — the real agents of repression. We should open the conditions in which Mapuche and the working class can manage Wallmapu without the oppression of the machinery of the Chilean state and its states of exception; of the foresters and capitalists that persist in their historical plundering and theft of land. Only in this way can the right to Mapuche national self-determination be established concretely.

The Question of Land, the End of Oppression, and the Construction of Socialism

For Trotsky, when the working class had held power for six years, the solution of the land question was still not enough to satisfy the problem of Russia’s national oppression of other peoples.

Undoubtedly the agrarian question, above all in the sense of the abolition of all remnants of feudal relations, must be settled everywhere. As we now have an already firmly established union-state, we can carry through this settlement of the land question with all the resoluteness that it calls for; of course the settlement of the land question is a most important task of the revolution. … But the abolition of landlordism is an act that is carried out in one blow, once and for all, whereas what we call the national question is a very lengthy process. After the land revolution has been completed the national question will not disappear. On the contrary it will only then come into the foreground.

If, according to Trotsky, the abolition of large landed property “is an act that is carried out in one blow,” while the national question is “a very lengthy process,” his Marxism evidently did not reduce the national question to the issue of land. These are different problems. While the land question can be resolved in a single act, the national question is a problem of oppression, with dimensions that exceed rural property relations; the national question is thus closely linked to the tasks of building socialism. It implies breaking with centuries of oppression in all areas of life. The land question was a structural, democratic task, but the question of national oppression could not be reduced to a purely democratic question to be solved through national self-determination; on the contrary, it was played out in the realm of life. This task involved lifting the burden of centuries of oppression of non-Russian peoples that shaped the terrain of customs and daily social relations.

This relates to an aspect of the permanent revolution that Trotsky addresses in the introduction to his 1930 pamphlet. He discusses “the socialist revolution as such,” in which, “for an indefinitely long time and in constant internal struggle, all social relations undergo transformation.” This process, he says,

develops through collisions between various groups in the society which is in transformation. Outbreaks of civil war and foreign wars alternate with periods of “peaceful” reform. Revolutions in economy, technique, science, the family, morals and everyday life develop in complex reciprocal action and do not allow society to achieve equilibrium. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such.

Let us consider this through the lens of the contemporary example of the Mapuche. Given that socialism aims to end all traces of oppression, and that the Mapuche have been plundered by the state, capitalists, and landowners, we can say that this oppression has been inflicted in service of capitalist relations, manifested by the privatization of forest property. Ending Mapuche oppression is obviously unthinkable without ending the forest property of the Angelinis and Mattes, establishing the control of workers and Mapuche over the territory. But, following Trotsky’s logic in the quote above, does carrying out these restitutional measures automatically imply an end to national oppression? The answer is no: they are different problems. Oppression plays out in all social relations; therefore, combating it implies clashes between social groups, transformations of customs, etc. That is part of the process of permanent revolution, as Trotsky’s Marxism understands it.

Evidently, we would be in a better position to end national oppression if the forestry cartels that control much of Wallmapu were expropriated, but ending oppression implies confronting centuries of history, entrenched common sense, and the arduous educational tasks, including the element of language, that will arise during the process of socialist revolution. The working class and the revolutionary party must prepare for this great task.

Originally published in Spanish on November 6 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translated by B. C. Daurelle


1 A modern coinage used to refer to the historical territory of the Mapuche people, spanning a region of the continent from southern Chile to south-central Argentina.
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