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Imperialism: What is it, why should we be against it?

Kevin Anderson, Chris Cutrone, Nick Kreitman, Danny Postel, and Adam Turl

Platypus Review 25 | July 2010

[PDF]  [Video Recording]

On January 30th, 2007, Platypus hosted its first public forum, “Imperialism: What is it—Why should we be Against it?” The panel consisted of Adam Turl of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Kevin Anderson of the Marxist-Humanist group News and Letters, Nick Kreitman of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Danny Postel of Open Democracy, and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of this event; the full video can be found online at the above link.

The question of imperialism remains obscure on the Left. In light of the continued failure of the anti-war movement to end the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the decline of anti-war protest in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, it seems that the critique of imperialism has not been clarified, but only become more impotent in its opacity. Consequently, the Platypus Review believes that this panel retains its salience.

Opening remarks

Adam Turl: To Marxists, imperialism designates the circumstance whereby economic competition among major capitalist countries, driven by finance capital, large banks, and big corporations, leads to political and military competition. This takes the form of an indirect competition for colonies, zones of influence, and trade networks. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq—it was not just about seizing oil, but controlling the access to oil of potential competitors to America, such as China. So “imperialism” is not just about bad foreign policy, but the necessity for a ruling class driven by competition to pursue such policies. But what force in society can oppose imperialism? My position is that working class people in the United States, whether they work at an auto plant or in an office, have the power and the interest to oppose imperialism.

Unfortunately, most of the 1960s New Left argued that large segments of the American working class benefit materially from imperialism. I do not believe this argument was ever correct, and it has only grown more implausible with age. The costs of imperialism are borne not only by those that the U.S. oppresses abroad, but also by working class people here at home. The benefits of imperialism are almost entirely accrued by the very wealthy here and by tiny groups of collaborators abroad.

Iraqi_resistance_21-240x300

Protesters at an anti-war demonstration.

Working class people identify with imperialist ideology only to their own detriment. It has been a great weakness of the U.S. labor movement that much of its leadership since World War II has identified with the economic interests of major U.S. corporations, ultimately leading to a massive decline of labor rights in America. Although corporations have reaped huge dividends, workers have benefited from neither the theft of Iraqi oil, nor the exploitation of workers around the globe—quite the opposite, in fact. More than 60 percent of the U.S. population has demonstrated repeatedly in polls that they oppose the occupation of Iraq. Imperialism breeds anti-imperialism: The crisis in Iraq, along with the economic crisis facing millions of workers here at home, has bred opposition to the war.

We face this common situation of having to build an anti-imperialist Left. As American workers begin to question the war, is there a Left to offer a position on the war and imperialism that makes sense? Without this, people will believe the commonsense answers pushed by Democrats, who say the war in Iraq is a policy misstep, rather than part of an imperial project in the Middle East connected, among other things, to America’s support of the occupation of Palestine. The Left needs to be rebuilt, and this means creating as large an anti-war movement as possible. With the debacle in Iraq our rulers are facing something of a crisis; now is the time to seize this moment to organize against the war.

Kevin Anderson: Imperialism is a system by which powerful, competing nations are driven to dominate and exploit weaker ones. It is not simply a conspiracy, but a social and economic process rooted in the very structure of capitalism. Modern imperialism seeks to dominate the globe in order to secure markets, cheap labor, and raw materials, a process analyzed by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

Imperialism also has a concrete political and military aspect, but military control is necessary only to secure the access needed for economic imperialism to operate. Imperialism seeks to open up other societies to the penetration of capital, making direct occupation unnecessary and thus uncommon today, which is partly why even some pro-imperialists consider the war in Iraq reckless.

Finally there is cultural imperialism, which has dominated academic discussions of imperialism. Everything from Indiana Jones to the way colonized peoples are typically portrayed legitimates economic and political imperialism. Even elite cultural institutions, such as art museums, in the way they organize artwork—e.g., Egyptian artifacts in the basement and French paintings on the top floor—can reflect a fundamentally racist ideology assuring people of their cultural superiority and right to dominate.

Imperialism strengthens capitalism, but it always engenders resistance. Working people have to fight imperialist wars and thus pay its costs, so they resist; naturally, those directly subject to imperialism also resist. Forms of resistance vary, however, from progressive and emancipatory to reactionary: Take Pat Buchanan, who opposes the Iraq war strictly on isolationist grounds, so as to avoid involvement with “inferior races.” Imperialism is sometimes opposed by reactionary interests abroad, too, from Al-Qaeda to Serbian nationalists. Of course, generally, imperialism is opposed by progressive movements. It is important for anti-imperialists here, and those in countries directly oppressed by imperialism, to be willing to work together. Today, various U.S. organizations support Chiapas and Bolivia. Such progressive anti-imperialists must continue to oppose imperialism, but must also avoid supporting reactionary forms of anti-imperialism. It is not enough to say simply that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Nick Kreitman: Most anti-imperialists today have no program. At the anti-war marches they organize, groups like United for Peace and Justice advance no concrete alternatives. They simply hand you a sticker reading “Troops Out Now.” They do not elaborate on what they want after troop withdrawal, and therefore do not connect this struggle with the question of realizing a more just society. Of course, sovereignty should rest solely with the Iraqis. Yet, even as the war continues, the number of people turning out for protests dwindles because, at least in part, they can see no solution.

The Left needs to resume the responsibility of political leadership, which includes identifying and presenting alternatives to U.S. foreign policy. Only then can we overcome apathy. Unfortunately, the Left has failed to elaborate on what could be done, on what a new Iraq might look like, just as, in the 1990s, we failed to articulate a position on how the U.S. should engage Serbia, which misled people to believe we supported Miloševic.

We need people to articulate alternatives in the long term and to form concrete plans in the short term to end the occupation. Some are interested in this work, but they have not been trying hard enough to lead the movement, to provide solutions that will help us connect with people.

Danny Postel: The Balkan Wars of the 1990s proved confusing for those who, like myself, came of age politically during the Central America solidarity movements of the 1980s, and who were thus anti-imperialist as a matter of course. As Yugoslavia became engulfed in violence, the paradigm inherited from the anti-Vietnam War movement proved insufficient to understand what was happening. Kevin Anderson and I argued that anti-imperialism was obscuring what was critical at that moment. Unfortunately, support for Miloševic on the Left was all too real, drawing in leftists as prominent as Michael Parenti—who helped organize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Miloševic—as well as Diana Johnstone, Michel Chossudovsky, and Jared Israel.

Many on the Left in the 1990s were led down a dark alley, a situation analyzed thoughtfully in “Against the Double Blackmail,” an essay by Slavoj Žižek written around this time. There, Žižek argued that leftists needed to oppose both Western imperialism and its false antithesis, ethno-fascist gangster capitalism, which does not represent a form of resistance to but, rather, the mirror image of global capital and Western empire.

Since September 11, one can witness in dismay the return of this tunnel-visioned anti-imperialism that had deeply confused the Left about the Balkans. A critical stance toward myopic anti-imperialism has lost ground given the brazenness of the new era of global imperialism represented by the Bush administration. Despite this resurgence of U.S. imperialism, the example of Iran clearly shows the limitations of adopting imperialism as the sole organizing principal of leftist thought. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often employs the language of anti-imperialism, to the confusion of people on the Left. Some even admire him for it, especially when someone like Hugo Chavez embraces Ahmadinejad, the front man of Iran’s far right, as a “revolutionary brother.”

This is further confused by the fact that the emancipatory demands of Iranian dissidents tend not to be expressed in the idiom of anti-imperialism, but in terms of human rights and secularism, which are undeservedly dismissed as “mere bourgeois rights” by too many Marxists. The Iranian struggle is indeed anti-imperialist, but not to the exclusion of other issues. Student radicals publicly denounced Ahmadinejad for embracing David Duke at a global Holocaust conference at Tehran University [in December 2006]. Those students are saying their struggle is two-fold: It opposes imperialism and internal authoritarianism. Similarly, our struggle should be two-fold. We should struggle against imperialism, to stop the U.S. from attacking Iran, but we should also struggle in solidarity with emancipatory forces in Iran. Anti-imperialism is only half of our equation. It signals what we are against—but what are we for?

Chris Cutrone: Platypus takes its name from the animal because of its incomprehensibility, its resistance to classification. Like our namesake we feel that an authentic Left today would go almost unrecognized by the existing Left or, if recognized, seen only as a living fossil. We focus on the history and thought of the Marxist tradition, but in a critical and non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing for granted. We do this because we recognize our present, the politics of today, as the consequence of the Left’s self-liquidation over the course of at least a generation. It is our contention and provocation that the Left, understood in its best historical traditions, is dead. It needs to be entirely reformulated, both theoretically and practically, at the most fundamental levels.

The issue of imperialism provides a good frame for investigating the present international crisis of the Left. Though problematic for the Left for some time, the issue of imperialism has taken on particularly grotesque forms more recently, losing whatever coherence it had in the past. Today, it betrays symptomatically the Left’s dearth of emancipatory imagination. The present anti-war movement continues to struggle against the latest war by misapplying the template of the Vietnam War and the counterinsurgencies waged by the U.S. in Latin America. There, the U.S. fought against progressive agents for social change. The same cannot be said today. In addition to confusing the past with the present, the Left now tails after the crassest opportunism of the Democratic Party, for whom the more dead in Iraq, the more they can marginalize the Bush administration.

The Left has abdicated responsibility for a self-aware politics of progressive social transformation and emancipation. Instead, U.S. policy and the realities it grapples with are opportunistically vilified. Thus the Left shirks serious reflection on its own inconvenient history, its own role in how we got here. The worst expressions of this can be found in the intemperate hatred of Bush and in the idea, unfortunately prevalent in some leftist circles, that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks.

We in Platypus recognize that leftist politics today is characterized by its despair over the constrained possibilities of social change. Whatever vision for such change exists in the present derives from a wounded narcissism animated by the kind of loathing Susan Sontag expressed in the 1960s when she said, “the white race is the cancer of human history.”[1] The desire for change has become reactionary. The Left has devolved into apologetics for the world as it is, for existing social and political movements having nothing to do with emancipation. Thus the Left threatens to become the new right. Many who consider themselves leftist dress up Islamist insurgents as champions of national self-determination. One recalls Ward Churchill calling the office workers killed on September 11 “little Eichmanns of U.S. imperialism,” or Lynne Stewart, the civil rights attorney, saying that Sheik Abdul Rahman, who orchestrated the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, might be a legitimate freedom fighter.

The Left has lost its basic orientation towards freedom, a problem going back at least as far as the 1930s. The perspective the Left once had on the question and problem of freedom has become occluded in the present. Consequently, the Left has largely decomposed into competing rationalizations for a bad reality that the Left, in its long degeneration, has not only failed to prevent, but actually helped bring about. The sooner we stem the rot on the Left the better, but first of all we must recognize the depth of the problem. This is why we in Platypus are dedicated to investigating the history of the Left’s demise, so that an imagination for social emancipation can be regained anew. The Left can only survive by overcoming itself. Seriously interrogating the received political categories on the Left, not least of all imperialism, is essential to establishing a coherent politics with any hope of changing the world in an emancipatory direction. The enemies of social progress have their visions and are pursuing them. Some are more reactionary than others. The only question for us now: What are we going to do on the Left?

Panelists’ responses

Kreitman: At times, the Left can degenerate into supporting ethnic fascism. We should not idealize Muqtada al-Sadr or the Iraqi Islamic Party. We need to figure out how we are going to help a democratic, socialist Iraq emerge out of the current mess. If this just means leaving, that is what we should do. But is pulling out going to solve any of Iraq’s problems? Or will it just give the next president a pretext to return in five years? We need to identify who our allies are and how we can affect U.S. policy to provide the best of all possible outcomes in Iraq.

Turl: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformations in China, anti-imperialism certainly became more complicated. Nonetheless, opposing the imperialism of one’s own country still overlaps naturally with political support of organizations and countries resisting imperialism. There are two mistakes made by the Left. One is to associate any and all opposition to U.S. imperialism with progressive politics. The other is what Noam Chomsky writes about in Military Humanism, his study of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Serbia, which actually found support from so-called leftists. The 1990s broke the post-Vietnam reluctance of the U.S. to invade.

I disagree with Chris: I think the Left has more to do than examine our mistakes and despair. The Left is about a process taking place in society, about people radicalizing and struggling against injustice. We need to be engaged with those struggles around the world. There are debates going on in Venezuela today about what the future of that movement should look like. The Left should engage in these debates although, in the U.S., our most important obligation is to stand against our government telling anyone what to do in Venezuela.

Anderson: My interest has always been problematizing what the Left is doing. What alternative to capitalism we offer is connected with the critique of the Left, by the Left. Most would take issue with Ahmadinejad’s comments denying the Holocaust, yet many leftists think talking about such things will distract from organizing the next protest. However, every time we do not explore these critical questions, we lose a chance to clarify what our alternative to capitalism actually is. We imply that our political vision may resemble the world desired by any of the forces opposing imperialism, regardless of those forces’ politics. We have to explore the difficult questions of the Left even as we oppose the occupation of Iraq and affirm our solidarity with progressive movements.

Postel: To clarify, when I said we should be in solidarity with Iranian protesters, I do not just mean, “we Americans.” I mean, we on the internationalist Left: activists, people of conscience, progressives. Particularly in America, some leftists think that people outside Iran have no role to play in the Iranian struggles, because they come from an imperialist country. We do have a role to play: to ask people who are struggling, “What can we do for you?” and “How can we help your struggle?” In general, Iranian progressives do not want financial support from the Pentagon or think tanks. What they do want is the support of global civil society, from intellectuals, activists, leftists—that is, from people like us.

Cutrone: The Left is in a bad way when looking at the possibilities for developing a Left in Iraq. Regardless of intention, the U.S. forces in Iraq and the political process that they have protected—the emergence of an Iraqi state through elections—now stand between whatever possibility there is for an Iraqi Left, in the long term, and the immediate reactionary opposition from former Baathists, Islamists, and Shi’a paramilitaries. What does it mean to call U.S. policy “imperialist” when, on the ground, that policy is opposed primarily from the right? The Iraqi Communist Party put out a statement saying that, while they were opposed the invasion of Iraq, they now also oppose the reactionary military opposition to the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government. In other words, they were opposed to the U.S. occupation, but it matters to them how the occupation comes to an end. For, under the current conditions, the U.S. being forced out of Iraq by right-wing sectarians would be a disaster.

The critique of the Left internationally is a form of participation and solidarity on the Left. The Left exhibits some of its worst features on the issue of anti-imperialism. It is constantly trying to figure out where the Left is, what existing group one can point to and say, “This is the Left.” Too often this involves dressing up as “leftist” more or less reactionary opposition forces. In so doing, the Left expresses a conciliatory attitude towards the status quo. Against this, I say the most salient form of support is critique, and this applies to the preceding historical period, as well: The role of the American Left during the Vietnam War should have been to critique the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese regime.

Q & A

First, the real job of the anti-war movement in the 1960s was not to criticize the North Vietnamese regime, but to stop the genocidal war in Vietnam, and the movement succeeded. These wars are not just about abstract issues debated in graduate papers. Imperialism takes real lives. The ISO, which I am a member of, never had any problems supporting the Sandinistas against the U.S. and Solidarity against the USSR, because we took for granted that nations have the right to self-determination. This means, first, that activists in the advanced world have to be anti-imperialist as a principle, for it is not just about stopping oppression: We should support struggles against the U.S. because, if the forces of imperialism are defeated and weakened abroad, we can better fight for socialism here. Let’s be clear: the “dark alley” mentioned earlier—it was Stalinism. It was the identification, for 60 years, of socialism with totalitarianism and Soviet imperialism. Our task is to redevelop the socialist tradition by unearthing that crap, to make socialism relevant to the millions in this country who want fundamental change.

Cutrone: About Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive the NLF and the North Vietnamese communist regime expended literally thousands of cadres attempting to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Is that a form of fighting for social emancipation we can endorse? More broadly, I’m not sure the anti-Vietnam War movement succeeded. To the extent the U.S. was “defeated,” this was surely a Pyrrhic victory for Vietnam in light of the lasting devastation it suffered. Moreover, whether America lost or won militarily, the anti-war movement definitely did not win, as Vietnam presents no repeatable model of social emancipation.

The Left “here” and the Left “there” should be seen more in terms of an integral connection and less as a distant solidarity, which is a bad habit we inherit from the 1960s anti-war movement, expressed today in the idea that somehow the U.S. being defeated in Iraq automatically translates into an objective victory for the Left. This simply is not true, unless you think more Democrats in office is a triumph for the Left.

Anderson: The anti-war movement of the 1960s, which I participated in, had collapsed by the time the U.S. pulled out. Soon after, we had Reagan as president. The greater transformations we hoped to make out of the anti-war radicalism just did not happen. This failure was not simply a matter of America being a big, bad, reactionary country. It was because of all kinds of mistakes on the Left, not the least of which being the near idolatry of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Turl: You are not going to get a defense of Maoism from me. But still, the anti-war movement of the 1960s forced America out of Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese people to win. Regardless of the politics of the government in Vietnam that resulted, the U.S. had to remain on the sidelines until September 11. That is a successful movement. Did the movement create socialism? If that is our standard, it will deter our participation in struggles for justice that do not measure up, forcing us into a passive stance.

Kreitman: We on the Left should be wary of trumpeting self-determination as one of our values. In the wake of the 1960s radicalism, defending “national self-determination” sometimes meant that the Left simply threw support to the best armed groups in a particular country, rather than take their politics into account.

The major problem in the 1990s was not that people were cloaking anti-imperialist groups in undeserved left-wing colors, but that the vast majority of leftists were apologizing for U.S. imperialism by supporting U.S.-led “humanitarian intervention.” We cannot, as leftists, afford to cease our support of national self-determination.

Postel: Few leftists believed humanitarianism motivated these U.S. interventions, though some liberal centrists may have fallen for that line. Most of us had a complex position on Western intervention in the Balkans. We who supported the Kosovo intervention, myself included, took that position out of a conviction that the consequences, not the motives, would benefit the Kosovar Albanians, as the Kosovar Albanians themselves argued.

Turl: One must differentiate between the politics of the people ruling the countries bombed by the U.S., and the right of the U.S. to bomb people. We make this distinction all the time in the Socialist Worker. We don’t gloss over the politics of the resistance in Iraq, but we also steadfastly defend the right of Iraqis to resist a foreign occupation and its troops. If there were an occupation of Chicago, I would defend the right of hardcore Republicans to resist that occupation. I wouldn’t care that they were right wing.

This relates to the stance of the Iraqi Communist Party, mentioned earlier. If the U.S. troops stand between the Iraqi Communist Party and obliteration, that is only because the Iraqi Communist Party decided to collaborate with the U.S. occupation and, thus, with the biggest imperial power on the planet. It is untrue that the U.S. stands between reaction and the Iraqi people, or that the U.S. troops are defending a nascent democracy, or whatever the propaganda on the evening news says. Most sectarian violence is created or stoked by America. The U.S. deliberately established an Islamic government in Iraq; next, the U.S. consciously decided to stir sectarian violence after it became clear their proxies, like Ahmed Chalabi, did not have a base in Iraq. After that, the U.S. began siding with different sectarian groups, and it is only then sectarian violence escalates. The longer the U.S. military stays, the more sectarian violence there is going to be and the more reactionary Iraqi politics will become. The only solution is to pull out immediately so that the Iraqis can sort everything out themselves.

Closing remarks

Anderson: Imperialism with a capital “I” lasted from about 1880 until around the 1950s–60s. However, rather than simply ending, colonialism has been replaced by neo-imperialism. So economic and cultural domination persist after political independence, which is why one cannot understand imperialism without talking about capitalism. But, when Lenin wrote his classic work on imperialism ninety years ago, there were five or six competing powers. Since then, capitalism has become simultaneously far more globalized and centralized. The nature of imperialism and capitalism has changed as a result of the emergence of state capitalism, exemplified by the total centralization of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Today, there’s one hyper-power: the United States. In many ways, what exactly these changes mean for anti-imperialism remains unclear.

Turl: Marx argued it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. Our ideas are informed by the reality of our lives. This is true, yet this relation is also falsified in America: Propaganda is relentlessly pumped into this society to ensure the prevalence of ruling class ideology. Of course, such lies contradict people’s everyday experience. Some people start to see the growing contradiction between what they are told and what they experience. Going through a struggle, a strike or an anti-war movement, catalyzes this change in people’s ideas. A significant example of this process at work now can be seen in Venezuela.

In the 1990s we began to see a resurgence of the Left. Here in the U.S., we had the Ralph Nader campaign and the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. Towards the end of the decade labor activity increased, with the UPS strike marking the first clear labor victory for some time. But this leftward momentum was interrupted by the political fallout of September 11, which was not only a tragedy in itself, but a disaster for the Left. It gave Bush and the rest of the U.S. ruling class the opportunity to wage war. But this is all beginning to change. Millions of people are demanding their rights. As long as people are oppressed, they will fight back and challenge the system. The question now is how to organize that fight. In order to rebuild a Left, we need to oppose our government, the dominant imperial power on the planet, every time it invades, occupies, and murders.

Kreitman: The Left has been in decline for at least a generation, primarily because it has not offered compelling alternatives. In the 1980s, as factories in America closed, there was no Left articulating a new model of how to do things. Workers today are complicit in imperialism, even if it is not in their interest as workers, primarily because the Left really has not provided a compelling alternative politics.

Take the crisis in Darfur. There is mounting political pressure for the U.S. government to send in troops to prevent further genocide. That would be imperialist, in a sense, but the Left has not said what to do instead. So people begin to think it is a matter either of stopping genocide through U.S. military intervention or not stopping genocide, rather than seeing it as a question of how to stop genocide. We need a framework that remains critical of imperialism while also addressing the political issues of the day.

Cutrone: It is all well and good to invoke the slogan, “the main enemy is at home.” But what position should the Left take regarding reactionary forces outside the U.S.? There are falsifications in much of the talk about the violence in Iraq. No matter whose body count one uses, most of the death and destruction in Iraq has been wreaked by the (so-called) "resistance," not the United States. Starting in early 2005, the majority of deaths in Iraq have been due to either Al-Qaeda in Iraq blowing up Shi’a mosques, marketplaces, or (government) recruiting centers, or Shi'a militias carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against the Sunni. You will hear the statistic that 90 percent of the attacks in Iraq are on U.S. or coalition forces, but the phrase “coalition forces” includes the current Iraqi government, and sectarian violence represents the vast majority of the attacks against it. The Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with national self-determination, much less democracy. One has to be realistic about the goals and responsibilities of the United States. It is fair to hold the U.S. responsible for the security situation in Iraq, but it is certainly not the case that the U.S. is setting off bombs in crowded markets and mosques. Reactionary sectarian groups in Iraq are the ones doing that.

If we actually care about the democratic self-determination of people around the world, we cannot ignore the fact that in a place like Iraq the Left has no hope if the insurgency forces perpetrating most of the violence succeed in their aims. It is simply false to say that the U.S. has instigated or perpetuated most of the inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. has tacked back and forth between the Shi’a and the Sunni precisely in order to prevent one side from getting the upper hand and delivering greater violence upon the other. The Left must recognize reality if it wants to be able to change it. This is not to offer apologetics for the U.S. military, but to assert that we must oppose what the U.S. is actually doing, and cease deluding ourselves. To pretend America invaded Iraq just to kill Iraqis only serves to evade the greater political questions of our time. I do not support the United States; however, I strive to be as clear as possible about what I am opposing, and that I oppose it from the Left. |P

Transcribed by Brian C. Worley


[1]. Susan Sontag, “What’s Happening in America?” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 2002), 203. Originally published 1966.

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