Western Sahara’s struggle for self-determination: A Marxist perspective


Unresolved national questions in Africa’s Maghreb have re-emerged on the international scene in recent weeks after the United States broke with standing policy and recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested territory known as Western Sahara. The struggle for self-determination of the Sahrawi people there is joined by that of the oppressed Amazhig/Berber people of Algeria and the Tuareg of Mali, whose revolt against that country’s government in 2010 provoked a French military intervention that quashed the uprising. The situation faced by these ethnic minorities highlights the fact that in spite of the victory of national independence movements against the European colonial powers, the right of nationalities to self-determination remains elusive within the context of Africa’s state system.

In a Dec. 16 article on the Socialist Resurgence website, we pointed out that the Trump administration’s cynical recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was compensation for Morocco’s recognition of Israel and represents the most recent expression of Washington’s push to advance its geopolitical interests in the region vis a vis its regional rivals, Iran and Russia.

The U.S. decision revives a national question that has remained unresolved since Morocco annexed the territory after Spain retreated from its former colony in 1975. After Spain left, a war ensued in which the Polisario Front waged a national liberation struggle on behalf of the Sahrawi people—with assistance from its patron, Algeria—against occupation of the country by forces from Morocco and Mauritania, which were assisted by French imperialism. In a ceasefire agreement signed in 1991, the Sahrawi were promised a referendum on independence, which Morocco quickly opposed and has refused to carry out. Both the United States and Spain, while recognizing the right of the Sahrawi to self-determination in the abstract, have taken no concrete steps to ensure that Morocco makes good on its obligation to hold the referendum on Sahwari independence.

Self-determination, according to the U.S. ruling class

In an editorial published recently in the Washington Post, the author, James A. Baker III, Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, opines that Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara both violates international law and discards decades of U.S. policy. While he praises the Abraham Accords, he laments that promoting the recognition of Israel by Arab states “should never come at the price of abandoning the United States’s commitment to self-determination, the bedrock principle on which our country was founded and to which it shall remain faithful.”

Baker’s rhetoric is as laughable as it is absurd, given that the Bush administration under which he served violated Iraq’s sovereignty by disregarding UN Resolution 678, which limited military action to expelling Iraq from Kuwait, and invaded Iraqi territory anyway in what became known as the first Gulf War. And let us not forget that in the context of the U.S. intervention in Iraq in the early 1990s, neither the Bush I nor the Clinton administrations gave any support to Kurdish independence either in Iraq or elsewhere where the Kurdish homeland resides. Additionally, in his role as Secretary of State, Baker actively obstructed any international recognition of Palestine and openly rejected the PLO’s stated goal of an independent state for Palestinians as their chosen expression of self-determination. Baker’s amnesia on the historical record of his own making totally discredits his objection to Trump’s move and illustrates that for the imperialist ruling class in the U.S., the right of self-determination, despite his assertion to the contrary, are in fact “pick-and-choose principles for the United States.”

Baker likes to point out that ever since Morocco annexed Western Sahara, the U.S. and most of the international community have refused to recognize its sovereignty over the contested territory. This fact, however, does not affirm the U.S. to be a principled defender of the right of self-determination. Self-determination for the Sahwari people is not something that is defined and legitimized by the U.S., the United Nations, or any other party. It is an inalienable right that belongs to the Sahwari nation, according to the United Nations’ own definition of the term (see General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960 and plenary session resolution 34/37 of 21 November 1979). Baker demonstrates throughout his editorial that he is merely willing to see Western Sahara’s right to self-determination as an abstract right, to be negotiated with the oppressor nation and sanctioned by an imperialist power interested solely in maintaining regional security and containing radical Islamic forces active in the Maghreb.

A cursory look into U.S. policy on Western Sahara reveals a lack of seriousness and, more accurately, a de facto rejection of the Sahwaris’ right to self-determination. As an envoy of the United Nations, Baker floated a plan in 2000 that would have granted Western Sahara autonomy until a referendum was held five years later. Baker’s scheme for the referendum was rejected on both sides. For the Sahwari, their objections were grounded in allowing Moroccan immigrants the right to vote in the referendum, many of whom were given incentives to move to Western Sahara after Moroccan annexation. The ballot would also include options on autonomy in addition to independence, which the Polisario Front (Frente Popular) viewed as an attempt to split the pro-independence vote. Although Polisario did lend support to a revised Baker-sponsored plan in 2003, it only did so as a basis for starting negotiations, which effectively went nowhere due to Morocco’s intransigence over retaining Western Sahara for itself. Little has changed since that time except for Moroccan repression of the Sahwari and persecution of its leaders.

Always the diplomat, Baker appears to be more concerned with allowing the U.S. to save face for future negotiations over the question of self-determination than pressing for Morocco to recognize the independence of Western Sahara, or better yet, arming the Sahwari to carry out their struggle for independence. He is also concerned with the potential for conflict between Morocco and the Sahwaris’ patron state, Algeria. Repeatedly, he fails to comprehend the substance of self-determination, which is the right of an oppressed nationality to separate from its oppressor. He sees self-determination as merely a bargaining chip to negotiate ad infinitum in a fruitless and cynical attempt to show that the U.S. desires to see self-determination for the Sahwari people realized.

Morocco’s proposal for Sahwari autonomy

In a statement issued by the White House on Dec. 10, Trump both affirmed Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and lent support for its “autonomy” proposal as an alternative to the demand for a referendum on independence advocated by the Polisario Front. What exactly does autonomy entail? The text of the Morocco’s 2007 proposal states, in section three, that “this initiative is part of the endeavors made to build a modern, democratic society, based on the rule of law, collective and individual freedoms, and economic and social development.” In fact, Morocco’s plan does nothing of the sort.

On the face of it, Morocco’s proposal grants the Sahwari full control of their affairs in the territory deemed the “Sahara Autonomous Region,” as defined by the agreement. The Sahwari would be able to run their affairs “democratically” through independent legislative, judicial, and executive institutions. The proposal further states that both inside and outside the autonomous territory, Sahwaris “will hold a privileged position and play a leading role in the bodies and institutions of the region, without discrimination or exclusion.” It is not clear from the language of the text how Sahwaris would be given a privileged position outside of the autonomous territory, but the language of the proposal, especially in the section that defines the powers of the proposed “Sahara Autonomous Region,” illustrates that what the Sahwari would receive from the Moroccan is not democracy but rather a parody of it.

In an article published in the most recent edition of The Economist, the authors describe Morocco’s treatment of the Sahwari as similar to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The authors base their comparison on the fact that the Moroccan state has been encouraging its citizens, through incentives like subsidies and tax breaks, to move into Western Sahara and settle permanently, thus diluting the Sahwari population in the process of creating a colonial-settler territory similar to the West Bank. The authors also cite the persecution of Sahwari activists and violent suppression of their protests as compelling Front leader Brahim Ghali to break the ceasefire in November—which makes the likelihood of negotiations rather remote. As the situation stands today, it’s difficult to imagine that the Sahwari’s national aspirations could ever be realized under Morocco’s autonomy scheme.

Lenin made clear that from the point of view of the working class, the only concrete solution to the national question must be consistent with working-class democracy, and a key aspect of this is to allow different nationalities a basis on which to participate fully in the political and economic life of the nation. The proletariat, Lenin wrote, “welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.”

Sections 12 and 13 of the proposal clearly demonstrate the fraud that autonomy would represent for the Sahwari and the economic and political isolation they would experience as a consequence of this plan. The representatives of the “independent” institutions created in the autonomous Region would assume responsibility for developing infrastructure, providing social services, and promoting economic development all from the revenues collected from taxes and natural resource extraction within the region, most of which Morocco has seized control of since annexation. What this means, in essence, is that the Sahara Autonomous Region would be on its own to develop economically with the meager funds it would be able to raise from the population it would govern. Far from allowing the Sahwari fuller participation in the economic life of Morocco, it would in fact confine them to a remote island of desert, deprived of resources and any realistic basis on which to integrate within the broader national and regional economy. 

How Marxists defend the right of self-determination

Notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy of his views, when a reactionary politician like James Baker asserts that it is a principle of the U.S. to extend support for self-determination, how does his understanding of the term differ from a Marxist perspective? And how do Marxists approach the issue of “autonomy” within the context of the nation-state? These are important questions to address and require expanding on the theoretical framework on which Marxism’s proletarian and internationalist position on self-determination rests.

Socialists support the right of the Sahwari people to self-determination, including the right of independence, not because we feel that national independence would be able to magically solve the fundamental problem of Western Sahara’s exploitation by Morocco, specifically, and global capital more generally. We see national oppression as an outcome of capitalism’s systematic exploitation of cheap labor and natural resources in the semi-colonial world—such as phosphate mining in Western Sahara—and we desire to create the best conditions possible to overthrow that system and to advance the socialist revolution. Lenin made clear in his writings that, from the point of view of Marxism, internationalism, not nationalism, is the key principle upon which solidarity with oppressed nationalities is derived. But at the same time, he believed that the struggle by oppressed nationalities for their full rights, including the option of separation and independence, opens the possibility for the entire working class to secure and expand its own democratic rights, which will enable it to best carry out class struggle against its national bourgeoisie.

The Sahwari of Western Sahara are an Arabic-speaking people, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, much like their neighbors to the north. They are, however, a distinct nationality, with aspirations to acquire independence and self-government under the flag of the Sahwari Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). As the leaders of the national movement, the Polisario Front has struggled continuously for an independent state since Spain’s departure in 1975. It is vital that Morocco’s working class recognize the Sahwaris’ right to self-determination as a necessary step in the development of its class consciousness and away from the false nationalism peddled by its governing monarchy and the Moroccan bourgeoisie that supports it. Furthermore, an independent SADR that realizes its democratic right to self-determination will help to instruct the Moroccan working class of its own duty to carry out class struggle to advance democratic reforms that will advance proletarian revolution in that country.

From a Marxist perspective, the right to self-determination—i.e., the right to succession and independence, if they so desire—is a democratic right that the international working class has a duty to support in order to ensure the realization of the fullest possible democracy in which to advance the class struggle. Accordingly, it is the nationality struggling for self-determination that must take the lead in defining just what self-determination might look like concretely. From the point of view of bourgeois democracy, the offer of “autonomy” for a minority nationality typically translates to its subjugation by the dominant nationality and the entrenchment of chauvinist ideology by the oppressor nation. Such conditions present an obstacle to the development of working-class consciousness and hinder the struggle for socialism.

However, under robust conditions of democracy, it is possible that a nationality may not choose succession. In a 1916 article titled, “The socialist revolution and the right of nations to self-determination,” Lenin argued this very point when he wrote, “the closer a democratic state system is to complete freedom to secede, the less frequent and less ardent will the desire for separation be in practice.” If the Sahwari, under favorable democratic conditions, chose federation with Morocco or another state in the region, it would be their right to do so, especially if taking advantage of federation with bigger, more developed states would advance their own economic development, while maintaining national equality vis a vis neighboring states.

Socialists aim to defend the right of oppressed nations to self-determination without conditions, whether under bourgeois democracy or in a workers’ state. But we must also condemn as reactionary any autonomy scheme or federation that preserves national inequality. We believe that the most favorable conditions for the self-determination of oppressed nationalities lies in socialist revolution and the establishment of a socialist federation of nations grounded in working-class democracy and the equality of nations.

Photo: Sahrawi people in the Tindouf refugee camp in western Algeria. (Hugo Flotat-Talon / DW)

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