In the minds of most people, self-determination is often defined by a group of people obtaining control of their own state and governing themselves. The nation-state is generally the most accepted method of achieving this. While there is no doubting that the construct of the nation-state can allow for a people group to govern their given area of territory, there are certain disadvantages that are often overlooked. These disadvantages are enough to conclude that the nation-state can never truly give all people within certain areas true democratic representation. Those problems include issues of overlapping national borders, issues of cultural hegemony, historical dynamics between groups, and the inherent arbitrariness of nations. While to many these problems can be accepted as prices to pay for greater independence, this attitude is one that allows for the continued denial of self-determination to certain people groups. It is also an unnecessary position to take as these problems can be solved through relatively simple methods.
Before any discussion of nation-states can begin, it must be defined. Put simply, a nation-state is a political entity where the majority of the population aligns itself with a specific nation. This means that the ideal world is one where national and political boundaries will align (each nation having its own state). This idea of nation-states is one that is intertwined but, also separate from the idea of universal self-determination. Universal self-determination is the idea that each people group has the right to control its own affairs and govern itself on its own terms. This does not have to be a nation-state but, throughout history, the nation-state has been the way it is achieved. The inherent problem with nation-states is that they are states. (state being defined as the organised political force of one group oppressing another). Marxism puts forward that the state is always restrictive and oppressive. Even socialist states, which are not oppressive towards the majority but, are still restricting to self-determination. It must also be stated that the role of a state in socialism is not being disputed. Lenin puts forward in State and Revolution that the state must be used in a transitionary sense for the development of socialism and communism. This point stands true.
While the state in and of itself is a useful political structure; the single, unitary, nation-state proves itself to be an outdated form of answering the question of self-determination. This is due to the fact that the entire concept of nations is arbitrary and man-made. What this means is that the borders of nations often overlap and intersect each other. People groups and cultures are spread throughout the world, often constituting their own nations and some are without a real defined territory. Diaspora groups are also an issue that the nation-state has historically done a poor job at handling. One prominent example of this is the Romani people. The Romani are considered one of the most oppressed people groups on the planet due to centuries of demonisation and oppression. The nature of their culture is one of travelling, which contributes to the English term for them as “Travellers” (this term can also apply to non-Romani itinerant groups). Despite not having a defined area of native land, they are nonetheless a nation. They have also been discriminated against in most countries they reside in. Most notoriously was the Romani Genocide carried out by the Nazis which killed between 500,000 and 1.5 million people. The travelling nature of Romani culture prevents the formation of the definite land-based borders of a traditional nation-state. For the Romani, a nation-state representing them is not possible. This has forced them to live within the boundaries of other nation-states. Within this, they have suffered under the heel of repressive governments, societal bigotry, and economic disparity. Some will claim that this would not happen under a socialist state but, this claim falls apart once one looks at the history of how socialist governments have dealt with the Romani and minority groups in general. The Soviet Union had been dealing with the national question in a suitable manner until the government of Joseph Stalin restarted the process of Russification just before the German invasion. The Chinese government also made many mistakes in regard to the treatment of minority groups. Such as in Tibet and with a variety of religious groups in China. It should be noted, however, that in theory, the Chinese system of minority autonomy is viable. The issues presented by groups like the Romani cannot be solved through the nation-state apparatus. The only solution is complete cultural autonomy.
It can be argued that cultural autonomy can be achieved within a nation-state. While this is theoretically true, there are other systems of representation that forego the traditional nation-state. These alternatives are also viable. One of these is the system proposed by Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan called Democratic Confederalism. In this system, a network of loosely interconnected councils would govern a given area. These councils control political and economic policy for specific communities and only report somewhat to a highly decentralised confederal government. What this system allows for is complete cultural and political autonomy for groups of people that also guarantees individual freedoms. The problem this system of governance has from a socialist perspective is the fact that its decentralised nature hinders the development of socialism in an effective way. It fills the requirements for a socialist system of democracy but, falls short in its ability to develop the economic factors of socialism. This is because the decentralised nature of a central government in democratic confederalism would not allow for central economic coordination. While this is not necessarily needed for socialism to develop, it aids in the process. What works best from a socialist perspective is a mixture of multiple different systems into some form of socialist revolutionary democracy. Incorporating elements from the system of Soviet democracy, the Chinese commune system, and democratic confederalism could lead to a possibly viable and democratic system of socialist governance. What this would exactly look like is a topic for another time but, the basic idea provides an option for a possible system that could service the needs of people and forego traditional and reactionary national constructs.
As mentioned earlier, the abolition of the nation-state is necessary due to the many conflicting national interests there are in the world. The most obvious example where the need for a non-nation based approach is needed is in Palestine where there are two distinct national groups with a claim to land in the area they are both in. Solving the question with a nation-state, either way, would definitely lead to one group feeling disaffected, as is the situation today. The obvious solution is the creation of a non-national federal or confederate construct. The problem with this solution in the Palestinian context is that it is hard to imagine such a construct in the area given the political climate. It is ideal but, not necessarily practical. A situation where this federal solution is more apt to work is Ireland. Ireland is a divided nation with both people on each side of the border having distinct identities. In the South of Ireland, many call themselves Irish and practice (at least nominally) Catholicism. In the North, there is a large population of people who identify as being Ulstermen or British. They largely practice forms of Protestantism. While it is true to say that the Ulster Protestant identity is a colonial construct forged by the British to solidify the partition of Ireland, the fact still remains that these people exist and their identity exists. Ulster Protestants would no doubt feel alienated within an Irish state and this could lead to violent resistance. These people also have a right to practice their culture as long as it does not threaten or oppress other groups of people. Given the nature of Ulster Protestant culture, it could be assumed that they would repress Catholics but, really, without the forces of British Imperialism, there would be no real incentive. This obvious problem is one that has been thought out before and a solution has been developed. The concept called Éire Nua (New Ireland) proposes a federal Irish state that allows for communities to govern their own affairs. This theory was thought of by the Provisional IRA during the 1970s and is maintained in some form by many modern Irish Republicans. This solution of a federal state shows to be the most effective in solving the problems associated with Irish unity and should not be discounted. The general concept of federal socialism could also be applied to other instances of conflicting national groups and issues of settler populations. It can allow for revolutionary control of government, while giving all communities and groups the ability to govern themselves within the confines of a federation.
While many may object to the concepts espoused in this essay, there seems to be no better alternative. It should be noted that the ultimate goal of socialism is stateless communism. The nation-state and the concept of nations must be abolished in order to achieve it. If the nation-state can be replaced sooner rather than later, why would you not replace it? The issue of settler colonialism and settler populations is a large one also and many may not find the solution provided satisfactory but, if socialism is a system for all then a federal system would work best to ease contradictions. Settler populations introduce the issue of their identities being inherently oppressive in their current forms and this is a valid point. This position ignores the socialist transformation that would need to take place before systems like this could be implemented. It is also true that there are some groups and areas of the world where this system could not work due to the truly ingrained colonial mindset of certain settler peoples. The particularities of this form of government are hard to guess at this point and to try and provide all the answers is folly. All we can make are educated guesses based on what we have seen in history and some form of federal socialism is the best answer for many parts of the world. This is not to say that it is a monolithic or universal concept. As with most systems of governance, some work better than others depending on where they are. Material conditions affect the development of socialism and it develops differently everywhere. There is no universal answer but, some answers appear to work better than others.