The poverty of anti-imperialism


A great article by Sean Matgamna: The poverty of “anti-imperialism” and today’s left. (By the way, I think he stole the title from me!) Here are some extracts.

Different imperialisms and different “anti-imperialisms”

There are many different sorts of imperialism, and therefore of anti-imperialism, in history. Up to the middle of the 20th century, and in some cases beyond, the world was divided into great colonial empires – British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian. Russia waged the last of the old-style wars of colonial conquest for the decade after it invaded Afghanistan, in 1979.

That colonial imperialism has gone out of existence, as a result of revolt against the rulers, or because the rulers found continued occupation unprofitable. In the capitalist world after World War Two, the USA exerted a great pressure on the old colonial empires to liquidate; using its superior economic power, it stopped the British-French-Israeli “Suez Adventure”, the invasion of Egypt in 1956.

To an important extent the repression of peoples that was a routine part of colonial imperialism continues, now worked by the successor states, many of them bureaucratic administrative units, not nations, created by colonialism, to contain “alien” segments of the state’s population.

Against old colonial imperialism, the Communist International advocated struggle for national independence, led by “revolutionary” nationalists or by the Communist Party, or both in alliance. This was seen as part of the movement towards world revolution and the global removal of capitalism, in which the working class, especially the working class of the advanced countries considered ripe for socialism, would be the protagonist and leader of the rest of the plebeian population. The proletarian revolution was the central “anti-imperialism”, the answer to the domination of the world by the rich countries

With the liquidation of old colonialism, what is imperialism? Primarily, the workings of the capitalist world market. What, now, is anti-imperialism? It is the working class anti-capitalist revolution!

Against the “imperialism of free trade, and economic might, and military clout”, of the USA now, the only feasible, serious, real “anti-imperialism” is inseparable from working-class anti-capitalism.

Against colonialism and military occupation, anti-colonial struggle for self-determination has definable, reachable, achievable, limited objectives. The anti-imperialism which denounces ineradicable aspects of the natural and necessary relationship of capitalist states where the world market is God – which condemns inequalities of wealth and what goes with them, which denounces state egotism and self-aggrandisement – is, if translated into the realities of our world, denouncing capitalism.

Populist anti-imperialism, as distinct from working-class anti-imperialism, denounces capitalism in a mystified and mystifying, and fundamentally confused and incomplete, way. It does not propose to overthrow capitalism, and hence has no serious anti-imperialist programme.

As the Theses of the Second World Congress of the Communist International noted in 1920, the unequal weight of different independent countries is as natural a consequence of market relationships as is inequality in wealth between formally equal citizens within a bourgeois democracy. It can perhaps be ameliorated in both cases, but then the inequalities pile up again. It is like hacking down grass, that is densely seeded and abundantly watered: the effect is soon undone by nature, so long as seeds and roots remain in place.

Populist nationalists at most aspire to or attempt to create “economic independence” – autarky. That too is limited in its possibilities, economically regressive, and unsustainable. It was the policy of ruling Stalinists – Trotsky itemised as one of Stalinism’s most reactionary aspects its policy of cutting off from the world market, as distinct from regulating and controlling relations with it.

For decades populist nationalists in Latin American and other independent countries have been denouncing “Yankee imperialism”.

What can they do against imperialism, as populist “anti-imperialists”? Not a lot, and nothing fundamental.

[…] “Partial” anti-imperialism of that populist and nationalist sort is, in general, regressive and reactionary. It is of limited effectiveness and duration. In some cases it is possible for industry to grow up behind “nursery tariffs”, as in its day 19th century German industry did; but generally the populist anti-imperialism does not even lay foundations on which the economy can build once reintegrated into the international division of labour from which it has withdrawn to one extent or another.

At best it proposes more or less serious interim ameliorations – protectionism, nationalisation of foreign owned industries, etc. It aims to strengthen “national” capitalism against “foreign” capitalism. These ameliorations may in themselves be worthwhile, play important roles in developing the economy of a given state for a period, in changing the relative places of developing states, but “imperialism” will not in that way be overthrown. Other than the proletarian revolution no anti-imperialist programme exists except a reactionary one, more or less reactionary according to the degree of regression to economic autarky.

We live in a world where the most important victims of imperialism in the time of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Communist International, India and China are becoming super-powers… In which Iran, occupied as late as 1946 (by Britain and Russia), and Iraq, a British protectorate until fifty years ago (1958), long ago grew to be competing regional imperialisms, and spent most of the 1980s locked in a World War One-style regional imperialist war of attrition, with horrendous World War One-level casualties on both sides.

In this world, the residual elements of “anti-colonialism” will be auxiliary and subordinate to working-class socialist anti-imperialism. Otherwise “anti-imperialism” becomes a siding with anything else against the dominant capitalist powers, and comes to include siding with lesser, weaker imperialisms and regional imperialisms, like Iran or Iraq.

We are against imperialism as such, on the lines sketched by the Second Congress of the Comintern? Yes, but the point is that “anti-imperialism” is not an absolute imperative, not outside of context, not outside of the concrete truths of world politics. The Comintern theses themselves made a modification, an exception, insisting on “the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the… mullahs, etc.”

Chameleon anti-imperialism

Nameless, class-less, anti-imperialism, specifying only what it is against, is in existing conditions a trap and a snare. Despite the froth-at-the-mouth hostility to “imperialism”, it is only as progressive or otherwise as the “anti-imperialist” forces it identifies with. Anti-imperialism is only a negative, is, so to speak, politically translucent, undefined, shading in politics. It is a form of chameleonism, taking on the colours of the chosen “anti-imperialist” forces, including lesser imperialisms in conflict with the USA.

Pure and simple negativism towards the USA and the advanced capitalist countries can and does lead those “anti-imperialists” – people operating by emotion, positive but above all negative, without a map of the political terrain in which they operate or a living conception of a socialist “destination” – into self-righteous political reactionism. They take on the colour of the “anti-imperialists” (including real or aspirant lesser imperialisms, for example again Iraq or Iran). The same approach would have led them in World War Two to back Japan, the fundamentally weak and less developed imperialist power; and Japan talked of “Asia for the Asians” and of itself as embodying that course.

In our world, chameleon “anti-imperialism” necessarily signifies not only residual struggles for national independence, but also, and more powerfully, the anti-imperialism, and “anti-capitalism” of people who reject everything socialists see as progressive in capitalism and liberal-democratic bourgeois society, everything on which we must build socialism – religious maniacs of the various currents of political and fundamentalist Islam. Many of them consciously support regional imperialisms such as Iran and Iraq, and not a few of them pine for the restoration of the pre-1918 Turkish Empire – “the Caliphate”!

When the Communist International codified its guiding principles on such things, the victory of “revolutionary nationalists” could be seen as a part of a general movement against imperialism spearheaded by the drive against capitalism of the Communist workers of the advanced world. Or as “anti-imperialist” movements in which communist working class local forces, allied to, augmented and in part defined in their political character by their links with the world movement, could compete with reactionary “anti-imperialists” for political and social dominance, and shape the movement into a working-class-led anti-capitalist “permanent revolution”. The Comintern did not expect that the colonies would become independent under capitalism – least of in a world in which communism has disappeared as a mass force.

Today, “anti-imperialism” is often only a detached fragment of the programme of the Communist International. The frame and the prospect of short or medium term working-class victory is no longer part of it, except in the heads of people who shout about “permanent revolution”, not as a strategic orientation in which the working class can really fight for power, but as a magic mantra. It is a foolish mystifications and in practice a mechanism for accommodation – and de facto political submission to – alien class and political forces. Forces, it needs to be said bluntly, that are sometimes reactionary compared to a straightforward capitalist society. Iran, and its 1979 revolution, is the seminal modern experience here.

In Iran, the clerical-fascists have been in power 30 years and will rule for some incalculable time yet.

For the kitsch anti-imperialists of the would-be left, it is not enough to criticise the great powers, tell the full truth about their goals and methods, and the consequences of what they do – in Iraq now, for the pertinent example. They believe that “Leninist”, “anti-imperialist” political virtue demands that they side explicitly with the enemies of their “imperialist” enemies, no matter how reactionary is what they counterpose to imperialism and its Iraqi allies. They also counterpose their “anti-imperialism” to the working-class communist version of anti-imperialism.

Slogans have become detached from their conscious meaning; they have turned into fetishes – into things with more of the nature of religious mysticism to them than rationally deployed political tools. “Troops Out Now” is a pointed way of siding with the enemies of our enemies, of calling for their defeat. Sometimes it can be a reductio ad absurdum of self-determination, conceived of as progress.

It is a purely negative thing here: another sloganistic fetish-object. The idea of self determination is separated from the whole complex of ideas and goals, and processes which, for Marxists and in the Marxist programme, it is part. There is no time-perspective; no idea of letting things develop until they become – or may become – more favourable to a desirable positive outcome. The negative-only outlook devours that dimension. Here too the lack of historic perspective is all-devouring!

It is not the “anti-imperialists'” indignation against advanced capitalist society and power politics which socialists reject, but their crazily improvised alliances and the alternatives which their allies propose, and which they – to put at its weakest – “go along with”.

The craziest current example is the support by some of the would-be left of the “right” of the ruling Iranian mullahs to have nuclear weapons! Iranian self-determination and “independence” demands the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in particular their possession by the mystics of a clerical-fascist regime, some of whom, certainly, are capable of wanting nuclear annihilation for the greater glory of Allah and their own ascent into a Hollywood bordello-heaven.

Those who accept as “anti-imperialist” progress the various strands of anti-western politics and military campaigns, rampant in and around the Muslim world, and to an extent in the countries of western Europe wherever Muslims are a sizeable part of the population – they are “reactionary anti-imperialists”, like those they reflect.

Anti-imperialism shades into reactionary anti-capitalism

What Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto called “reactionary socialism” was the view of much of the traditional right at the time of the Communist Manifesto. Strong strands of it can be found in political Islam, as in Catholic-Christian clerical fascism.

It was and never entirely ceased to be an aspect of the Catholic Church. For example, even the mildly pro-Nazi Pope Pius XII, whose church in Europe after the war organised and itself became a network of escape and temporary refuge for clerical-fascist collaborators with the Nazis, who were often mass murderers themselves (the Croatian Ustashe, for example) – even Pius XII, in his Christmas message for 1942, called for “legislation [to] prevent the worker, who is or will be a father of a family, from being condemned to an economic dependence and slavery which is irreconcilable with his rights as a person. Whether this slavery arises from the exploitation of private capital or from the power of the state, the result is the same…” (He also, as other parts of that Statement show, was one of the legion of those then who thought that capitalism was coming to an apocalyptic end.)

The socialist who therefore would have looked to the Pope and his subordinates as allies would have been a certifiable political idiot!

For the reactionary anti-capitalists whom Marx and Engels discuss in the Communist Manifesto, it was a matter of criticising modern industrial society and wanting to go back to a pre-industrial time, back to an idealised Middle Ages or rule by enlightened kings and aristocrats. Its essence was an incapacity to link their criticism of capitalist industrial society and its bourgeois rulers with a perspective of the development of the actual, real, evolving society which they lived in and criticised.

They had a positive alternative to offer, though one historically, and in terms of social development, behind existing society. In part it was an imaginary older system they advocated – an utopia, based on idealisation of what had once existed. They were radical critics of capitalist society too alienated to do much about it. The criticism of Thomas Carlyle, a political reactionary and of John Ruskin was used in anti-capitalist educational work until well into the twentieth century.)

The would-be left has, by way of accommodation to “anti-capitalists” like clerical-fascist Islam, taken over this reactionary, critical, alienated, impotent role of the reactionary socialists of the 19th century. Does it have an “ideal”? Nothing so worked out as that of the “back-there-somewhere” reactionary socialists.

The severe rejection of utopianism by Marx and his followers restrains the elaboration by would-be Marxists of ideal societies. So the alternative is defined only negatively. And that opens the way for even clerical fascism to be embraced – or at least to be held hands with – on the basis of the single cardinal virtue of being against ‘imperialism’ .

But, aside from and as well as the effects on it of accommodating to reactionary anti-capitalist or “anti-imperialist” forces, the kitsch leftists are made into sterile critics like the “reactionary socialists” by a too-all-cutting-off negativism towards capitalist society – the society on which, in the Marxist perspective, we must build to erect our socialism. This is one of the pre-requisites of their accommodation to Islamic clerical fascism.

    One Response to “The poverty of anti-imperialism”

    1. hello Anti-German Translation , i look your blog , that a nice blog and useful. Best for me. a lot of stole the title from me and LGF Eurofascism watch content. i going to visit to read and review your blog.

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