One of the most curious aspects of Hawaiian culture to outsiders is the existence of Hawaiian nationalism (also known as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement). Hawaii was originally an independent state with a monarchical form of government. However as capitalism began to take hold in the 19th century, Hawaii’s nascent bourgeoisie began to gain power. With the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 (so called because it was forced on the king at gunpoint), the (largely white) class of agricultural industrialists managed to wrest control of most of the monarchy’s political power for itself. When the king’s successor, Queen Liliuokalani, attempted to take back some of that power, she, and in fact the Hawaiian Kingdom itself, were overthrown in 1893 with the help of American Marines, leading to the formation of a parliamentary provisional government which was dominated politically by the agricultural industrialists. It was, in fact, a classic ‘bourgeois revolution’, in which a monarchy was overthrown by a merchant class which then became the new ruling class. A few years later, Hawaii was annexed by the United States as a Territory. Modern Hawaiian nationalists have reinterpreted this event through a racialist lens, seeing the overthrow of the kingdom as an example of Anglo-American political and cultural domination which continues to this day. This viewpoint is, in my opinion, an example of how real problems of oppression are misconstrued as they are filtered through the lens of postmodern bourgeois ideology.
As part of an indigenous revival movement beginning in the 1970’s, the nationalist movement has since gained the support of a significant minority of the native Hawaiian population. According to the late John Reinecke, a professor of linguistics and former member of the now-defunct Hawaiian Communist Party, “time and energy devoted to “the Hawaiian national question” is mostly time and energy wasted, which could be devoted to much more important issues.” (Marxists.org: Hawaiian Nationalism: A Non-Question).
Several decades ago, Reinecke’s position would have been a defensible one. However, the modern nationalist movement is much more powerful than before. From the ivory tower of academia to the tent cities of indigenous homeless on Oahu’s west side, there is a non insignificant level of support for the idea that Hawaii, ethnic Hawaiians, and Hawaiian culture have been victims of US imperialism, and that this injustice should be redressed. While some adherents of the sovereignty movement who advocate secession, others instead advocate for a ‘nation within a nation‘ solution, similar to the tribal status enjoyed by native Americans. Still others advocate for peaceful appeals to the United Nations on the grounds that the United States‘ annexation of Hawaii was illegal under international law, and that the UN should compel the United States to peacefully give Hawaii political independence. Although this strategy may be a decent means of garnering some international sympathy, the legal case is borderline conspiratorial at best. In some ways, the ‘international law’ nationalists are reminiscent of right-wing American ‘sovereign citizens’, who are equally convinced that the federal government of the United States is a fiction, and that by saying some magical combination of legalese mumbo jumbo, the United States will somehow be compelled by law to leave Hawaii. This conviction is obviously highly unrealistic. Hawaii’s role as a strategic naval base for the US military and it’s importance in projecting power into the wider pacific/Asian region means there is no rational geopolitical motive for the United States to give up Hawaii, even if it were a violation of ‘international law’. Furthermore, even a cursory examination of the American foreign policy reveals a well-documented history of boutique military adventures, covert interventions, coups, torture, airstrikes on various civilian targets such as hospitals, pharmaceutical factories and weddings, as well as countless other war crimes and wars of aggression. The idea that American commitment to ‘international law’ extends beyond mere lip service is laughable, and so are any theories of political change that are based on it.
However, in my opinion, given the social and material reality of the Hawaiian situation today, socialists must support the sovereignty movement, despite it’s admittedly distasteful racialist and petty-bourgeois aspects. I am reminded of a quote from Marx. “we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” The nationalist movement may succeed politically but fail in practice if foreign absentee capitalists and landlords are allowed to continue to profit off of Hawaii while the only economic benefits accrued to the population take the form of low wage service jobs. Unless the nationalist movement makes redistribution of land and property part of it’s political program, formal independence will mean little. In any case, any socialist movement, must (for the time being) attempt to ally itself with (or at least not offend) the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement in order to have even the slimmest chance of success.