What is imperialism? (What now?)

Larry Everest (RCP-USA), Joseph
Green (CV), James Turley (CPGB)

Image: Soldiers in Petrograd hold up a
banner reading “Death to imperialism!
Victory to the Red Army” (1920)

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On April 6, 2013, a panel on “What is Imperialism? (What Now?)” took place during the Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panel was motivated by the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aimed to discuss whether we are any closer to understanding what imperialism is and the relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. This panel brought together Larry Everest from the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), Joseph Green from Communist Voice, and James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was moderated by Lucy Parker of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Video is available here.

James Turley: Imperialism poses a series of problems for us as Marxists and they can broadly be divided into theoretical problems and political problems. The theoretical problems are characterized by the sharp inequalities between states, and this is as much a feature of the global order as the very obvious inequality and exploitative relations between classes. This arrangement has serious effects on how the class struggle plays out in different countries. Imperialism also poses a problem of the historical periodization of capitalism. This is the problem of imperialism as a particular stage of capitalism. Even if imperialism is not a particular stage, it is still in this historical sense a kind of carbon dating mechanism. With regard to political problems, it is clear that imperialism, as a system of unequal relations between states, is a way in which state power is organized globally. In this sense, the paramount political problem facing us as Marxists and revolutionaries, if we want to overthrow capitalism globally, is that the highest level of state power requires a serious political challenge.


Imperial map of the world showing British colonial might, 1886

Another issue which has come up, particularly in the last ten years, but which really has existed since at least the early days of the Comintern, is the attitude that we take to forces that are not strictly speaking of the Left but that nevertheless confront and oppose imperialist powers in military conflicts or in other ways. This issue, of course, has caused a serious division on the Left. The guidebook for how we have traditionally dealt with this as a movement is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), which is a sort of brief and very empirical analysis of the nature of imperialism. The background for Lenin’s work was the much larger debate over colonial policy and imperialism in the Second International that began in 1896. Karl Kautsky, who was the foremost theorist of the Second International, wrote a series of articles called Socialism and Colonial Policy arguing that early empires — such as those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch — were effectively pre-capitalist in nature. They did not export capitalist relations of production, but rather were coercive, absolutist exploitation operations. According to Kautsky, these empires gave way, with the ascent of England as an imperial power, to what he called “Manchesterism.” This was free-trade imperialism. Instead of having coercive and brutal operations — this is Kautsky’s view by the way, it is obviously not true — what you had was the elimination of trade barriers and the expansion of capitalism as a system. Kautsky was writing in 1896 and 1897, by which point it was clear that the mechanisms which led to the First World War were accelerating, and the German state was attempting to acquire colonies. Kautsky’s argument is that the Scramble for Africa and similar forms of late-nineteenth-century imperial expansion are an expression of pre-capitalist forces in Germany and other states, and that this imperialism is actually reactionary with regard to “Manchesterism.”

Lenin breaks radically with the final part of Kautsky’s periodization but keeps the other two parts essentially intact. He argues that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism and that — with the accelerated concentration of the forces of production, the formation of monopolies, and the dominance of finance capital (a term Lenin takes from Hilferding) — there is a drive to find external markets for capital and to export capital. Lenin argues that, previous to this period, imperial powers exported commodities rather than capital. He also famously argues that this is the ground for the emergence of reformism in the workers’ movement because a layer of the working class is effectively bribed with the super-profits won via imperialism.

My view is that this is ultimately no longer an adequate account. “Manchesterism” never existed. Inasmuch as Britain promoted free trade, it was because Britannia “ruled the waves” and benefited from free trade since it controlled the trade routes. In places such as India, as we all know, the brutality of the colonial project did not go away. Furthermore, capital exports began much earlier and did not originate in the 1860s and 1870s. Finally, the concept of the labor aristocracy does not explain the emergence of mass reformist parties in Latin America or anywhere else that is not an imperial power. Where are the super-profits in Brazil being used to bribe the Workers’ Party? I do not see them.

I would argue instead that imperialism is not a stage of capitalism but rather an underlying, fundamental dynamic which goes hand in hand with the rise of capitalist state regimes. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance acquired colonies and exported capital to them in order to establish sugar production. The export of capital goes back to the fifteenth century, and was a feature of the earliest capitalist state regimes in Holland and Portugal. Not all modern empires were capitalist — the Spanish empire was effectively feudal — but many of the early-modern empires, such as that of the Dutch, maintained colonial plantations to which capital was exported. British expansion in India entailed the export of capital, the building of railways, and the establishment of cotton farms which were tied in with high industry in northwest England.

There is a tendency for world-hegemonic states to arise simply because capitalism needs such a state to reproduce itself in any meaningful sense. Capitalism requires means of coercion that are global in extent in order to enforce international trade, as it is fundamentally a worldwide mode of production. Hence, the Dutch supremacy was followed by the British supremacy. The hegemonic project ultimately leads to the hypertrophy of military and financial capital as it were, which then leads to additional problems and decline. What Lenin interprets as a terminal stage of capitalism — and he is absolutely correct to state that the world was breaking down — can retrospectively be seen as a period in which British hegemony broke down, eventually to be surmounted by American hegemony. It is clear now that U.S. dominance has peaked, although it is not going away anytime soon. This is clear from the actual outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which is simply chaos. With regard to the conclusions we draw from this, it is a political necessity to disrupt imperialist activity. As long as we have capitalism, we will have the problems of imperialism. It does not matter who happens to be the top dog at a particular time, imperialism will always be a mechanism for the imposition of capitalist order. If we are going to be strict about the terms, to be anti-capitalist is to be anti-imperialist.

Hundreds gather in London’s Trafalgar Square to rally against possible US strike in Syria on August 31, 2013, organized by Stop the War Coalition.

Hundreds gather in London against possible US strikes in Syria on August 31, 2013, organized by Stop the War Coalition.

Joseph Green: The struggles of the Arab Spring have led some to ask: “Should we side with anti-imperialism or should we back the anti-fascist struggle?” This is a false dichotomy, for there is neither real anti-imperialism nor real anti-fascism without the masses. I refer to such so-called anti-imperialism as “non-class anti- imperialism,” a would-be anti-imperialism that attributes every development in the world to this or that Western power or corporation and fails to grapple with what is going on among the masses themselves. “Non-class anti-imperialism” is very widespread on the Left. Over the past few decades, it has repeatedly degenerated into support for oppressive tyrannies and despair over the prospects for mass struggle. Several left-wing groups even regard the Taliban as waging anti-imperialist struggle in Afghanistan. All of this has threatened to discredit anti-imperialism in the eyes of millions of people. The “non-class anti-imperialists” argue that when a regime comes into conflict with the U.S. state, even if such a regime has worked closely with U.S. imperialism before, the internal situation of the country it governs is irrelevant. They ask: “Didn’t Lenin say in his article ‘Socialism and War’ that it did not matter who attacked first, India or Britain, because it would be a war of aggression on Britain’s part and a war of defense on India’s — is there any reference there to the internal situation in India?”

But Lenin contended that a great revolutionary wave was spreading across India and elsewhere, a gigantic movement that imperialism was seeking to suppress. Millions upon millions of oppressed people were standing up in opposition to old social relations and this process had been developing for decades. War was the continuation of politics by other means, since a democratic movement of liberation was taking place in India and elsewhere. In that light, such matters as who struck first were not particularly relevant.

The issue today is: What is the longstanding situation that has led to the Arab Spring and the uprising against Gadhafi and the Assad regime? The people of the region are standing up to demand a say in their lives. The situation now is different from the revolutionary wave in the immediate years after the Second World War. Then, in the Middle East, there was a series of struggles waged by colonies for independence and the overthrow of monarchies. In some countries, working-class parties fought for influence. These struggles changed the face of the Middle East and North Africa and brought economic development — albeit capitalist modernization — but, in country after country, the resulting governments became long-lasting dictatorships that humiliated working people and destroyed their organizations, or transformed such organizations into adjuncts of bourgeois rule. These governments spoke in terms of old ideals and aspirations — even in terms of socialism — but the old revolutionary movement was dead. Typical for these countries, with their supposedly anti-imperialist regimes, Syria and Libya cooperated with U.S. and British imperialism in the torture of each other’s prisoners.

Taking place today is neither the re-colonization of the region nor an anti-imperialist struggle, but rather the masses are fighting for the right to breathe in their own countries. This is not the result of manipulation by foreign powers, but these powers are seeking either to smash the movement or to use it to their interest. No upsurge against these regimes could have succeeded without the global imperialists being divided among themselves. It may perhaps appear that we are facing a wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, like those that swept Asia earlier, but this is not the case. We are facing important struggles that have ended decades of political stagnation, but no matter how bitter or tragic the fighting, they are not democratic social revolutions of the old type. What is effectively taking place in the Arab world is a process of liberalization, as took place in the Philippines with the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, as took place in Mexico with the end of the one-party rule of the PRI, and as took place in Eastern Europe and Russia with the downfall of state capitalism. These are revolutions in the narrow sense, but capitalist development has generally proceeded far enough in these countries that there is no basis for the old-style democratic revolution that eliminated feudalism and semi-feudalism in the countryside. At the same time, the working class is far too disorganized, thus negating the possibility of a socialist revolution. The democratic social revolution is a matter of the past and the socialist revolution is a matter of the future. This affects the character of these movements and, over and over again, the resulting regimes are a disappointment. In these struggles, the working class may fight but it is politically disorganized, as it is around the world.

Nowhere in the world yet does the working class lead such struggles. So the result of such struggles, if these struggles are successful, is that the political situation might open up to this or that extent, but the new regimes will ultimately pursue market-fundamentalist measures. The masses may achieve some political rights, but they will not achieve economic liberation. These are not the grand, liberating revolutions one dreams of but rather liberalizations that may possibly lead to intensifying class struggles. Does this mean that these struggles are useless? Not from a Marxist standpoint. For Marxism, class struggle is the path towards organizing the working class and preparing for socialist revolution. From the standpoint of utopianism, these struggles have failed. From the standpoint of organizing the working class, these struggles are essential. If one genuinely believes that the working class is the master of revolution and the motor of history, then these struggles are our struggles. If one disregards these struggles, one becomes utopian or, worse, an unwitting backer of rival imperialisms.

This situation has tested the political stands and theoretical views of the various trends on the Left. Some supported these struggles because they thought the working class might be liberated. The Trotskyist sects, for example, had to do this as part of their theory of so-called “Permanent Revolution.” Various groups declared that these struggles had to bring the working class to power or else they would accomplish nothing. These struggles continue to disappoint the Trotskyist groups. The perspective of such groups had a marked utopian flavor: either full liberation now or forget it.

Let us also examine the standpoint of an ordinary democrat. I know this does not sound like a very radical thing to consider but it is instructive. Marwan Bishara is a senior political analyst at Al-Jazeera and he wrote a book called The Invisible Era: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. This book is an expression of a certain stage of the Arab Awakening, namely the period of democratic euphoria. He is passionate about what he calls today’s revolution and how it is completing the previous wave of struggles. In his terms, today’s revolution is liberating the people, while earlier struggles liberated the land. He is not aware that the class, social, and political alliances that have brought about the Arab Spring are inevitably going to break down and lead to a period of struggles, haggling, and popular depression. Nor does Bishara realize how serious is the threat of very horrible setbacks, such as periods of fundamentalist government. He has no idea that democracy and liberalization will lead to mass struggle, and that the more thorough democracy is, and the more successful the working class is in utilizing this democracy, the more intense will be the resulting struggles.

"Emergency convergence to stop the war on Iraq" in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2003, organized by the  ANSWER coalition

“Emergency convergence to stop the war on Iraq” in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 2003, organized by the ANSWER coalition

From the standpoint of the political trends I support, it was clear from the start of the Arab Spring that everywhere different class factions opposed the old regimes and everywhere different class interests were represented in the movements. It was also clear that these struggles were not anti-imperialist and that the need to resort to a certain amount of Western imperialist military support was a danger to them. We continue to oppose Western imperialist aims, but we also recognize the legitimacy of insurgencies taking advantage of the differences among foreign powers.

This mixed situation is characteristic of the struggles today. The working class today is disorganized and in crisis around the world. The working masses are divided by a multitude of differences. In this situation, the major struggles that break out are not dominated by the revolutionary viewpoint. However, to abandon these struggles is to make a mockery of belief in, and support for, class struggle. Thus, we have a choice: either utopianism — that is, abstaining from all struggles until one great revolutionary struggle appears — or determining where the working-class struggle lies in these struggles, and using these struggles as a means for the working class to learn the interests and features of the different classes and to become class-conscious.

“Non-class anti-imperialism” adjudicates theses struggles not in terms of their effects on the masses, but rather in terms of how they affect relations between the different imperialist powers. This form of anti-imperialism does not realize that the temporary gains or losses of this or that Great Power, or of this or that multinational corporation, are at most minor aspects of these struggles. The most important factor is how these struggles open a pathway to the class struggle. Moreover, “non-class anti-imperialism” misunderstands the nature of imperialism today. It is not enough to say that imperialism still exists today. One has to be able to see what has changed in the situation and how the basic features of imperialism remain despite these changes.

Several of these changes are of particular importance today. For the sake of brevity, let us deal with just one: the rise of new imperial powers. “Non-class anti-imperialists” believe that only the countries that were imperialist a century ago can be imperialist today. They ignore the rise of new imperialist powers and would-be imperialist powers. They may even argue that the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — are some type of bulwark against U.S. imperialism. However, the working masses of the BRICS face the opposition of the imperialist bourgeoisie of these countries. Now, it is not only the BRICS bourgeoisie who have become imperialist. The bourgeoisie of all countries with some advantages, and which thus can exercise influence, have sought to become an imperialist power and to join the Great Powers. The failure to recognize the new imperialism, and the backing of one imperialist or regional power against another, are travesties of anti-imperialism. We live in the most powerful imperialist country, which remains the world’s only superpower. The only way to undermine this imperialism is to support the development of working-class struggle around the world. Whatever aids this development, ultimately assists the anti-imperialist struggle. Whatever aids other imperialist powers that seek to hold down the working class, ultimately retards the anti-imperialist struggle.

Larry Everest: What should we think about imperialism? Let us begin with what it has done to Iraq over the last ten years. We need a theoretical sense and, especially living in this country that has caused so much murder and mayhem in the world, a visceral sense of what imperialism is. In Iraq, over 120,000 people were directly killed in the war, 1.2 to 1.4 million people have died since the 2003 invasion, over four million have been wounded or injured, and over four and a half million have been driven from their homes. What about the situation of women in Iraq? It has worsened: a secular constitution has been replaced by Sharia law, there are two million widows, and there is an epidemic of violence against women that is more and more institutionalized. In Fallujah, the rate of malformation of children is greater than that of Hiroshima due to white phosphorous and depleted uranium weapons that were used there beginning in 2004. There is the torture and degradation of thousands and thousands of Iraqis in U.S.-run prisons. The U.S. has fostered a reactionary, sectarian civil war under the Malaki government that it placed in power, a civil war that includes torture with electric drills, massive ethnic cleansing, and secret U.S. support for death squads (the so-called “Salvador option,” as Rumsfeld put it). What we are describing here in Iraq, we can find in countries around the world. And then we can talk about the fact that around the world ten million children die of starvation or preventable diseases every single year. There is a global sex-trafficking industry that is based on the rape of millions of women a year. There is the destruction of the environment. There is the global horror of poverty. All this is the product of imperialism. The single greatest obstacle for humanity today is the system of imperialism, particularly U.S. imperialism. The single greatest thing we can do for humanity is to overthrow U.S. imperialism as soon as possible and usher in a world free of imperialism.

What is imperialism? To be clear, the invasion of Iraq was not Bush’s war as so many thought. It was not on behalf of corporations. It was not fought for the military-industrial complex. It was not an erroneous foreign policy based on faulty intelligence. The invasion was a war of imperialism, a war fought to further the interests of a worldwide empire based on plunder and exploitation, an empire rooted in the dynamics of capital accumulation on a global scale. The U.S. maintains a global empire with a home base in the United States itself. The U.S. state is the embodiment, personification, and enforcer of this global empire. Regardless of who is in power, as we have seen with Obama, the function and role of the U.S. state is to maintain this global system of empire. This is a system that requires the exploitation of markets, labor, and resources across the world. This is a system that is based on a great division of the world, a fundamental production relation, and the domination and control of the vast majority of humanity in the oppressed colonial or third-world countries by the imperialist powers. Yes, there is complexity, there is development. However, we cannot ever forget that this production relation is foundational to the entire way the world works. On this point, Lenin is excellent.

Lenin’s work is not merely a technical manual on imperialism, but rather a polemic written against social chauvinism and capitulation in the name of the fatherland, and against basing political struggles on the bourgeoisified sections of the working class rather than on those who hungered or yearned for revolution. This is why the Second International was brought up here. This was an International of betrayal and capitulation that sided with its own imperialists during the First World War, and that helped bring about the slaughter of millions of people. Lenin was the only one who broke with this capitulation and refused to go along with Kautsky’s traitorous betrayal. This is a lesson that we must learn very well here in the U.S. because we have to understand that every single aspect of this society is steeped in and infused with the parasitism that stems from the position of the U.S. in the world and U.S. domination. I am not arguing that there is not a great deal of oppression in this country, for there is, especially among black people. The situation among women is terrible, and there is a tremendous amount of poverty. Nevertheless, the thinking, the class relations, and the social relations of the U.S. are stamped, as Lenin put it, with a seal of parasitism derived from imperialism.

Antiwar protestors inside the counter-inaugural tent near the Washington Monument,  January 19, 1969

Antiwar protestors inside the counter-inaugural tent near the Washington Monument, January 19, 1969

Thus, I think that one of the key things we have to do is point this out, counteract this, and fight for an orientation in which the whole world comes first. We have to reject any orientation in which the workers in this country, or a particular union, or a struggle in any particular place comes first. The whole world comes first and American lives are no more precious than the lives of other people. Right now, there should be thousands and thousands of people in the streets denouncing the torture taking place in Guantanamo and supporting the hunger strike that prisoners there are currently on; many of these prisoners are being force-fed by the U.S.

I think we have to argue for the fact that there is no such thing as a humanitarian intervention. This is a complete oxymoron. How can you have a humanitarian imperialist intervention? You can look at any country, including Iraq, where this was done — even what was done with the Kurds — and you will discover that every single thing the U.S. has done around the world is in the service of perpetuating its empire of exploitation and plunder in rivalry with other imperialist or would-be imperialist powers. The U.S. seeks strategic advantage by maintaining control over various regions of the world, which is of course why it is now threatening Iran.

The other matter we have to confront is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a force that has been clashing with the United States, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bob Avakian, the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, made a very important analysis of this phenomenon, situating it in “outmoded reactionary strata” while being clear that, on a world scale, imperialism wreaks far more havoc. The clash between U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism actually fuels a dynamic in which, if you support one, you are strengthening the other. This is a dynamic we urgently have to break out of, and the way in which we have to break out of it is through revolution.

The other panelists have failed to talk about revolution in any substantial way. They treat it as a very distant prospect. This is a powerful system but it is ridden with deep contradictions. Revolutions are possible due to these profound contradictions, based on the fact that the system is in direct antagonism to the interests of the vast majority of people.

Avakian has done path-breaking work in summing up the very important and emancipatory first wave of communism from Marx through Mao. By analyzing and summarizing the first wave’s great strengths and lessons, as well as its shortcomings and weaknesses, Avakian has brought forward a new synthesis of communism, as well as a strategy for making revolution right here in the belly of the beast. I do not have time to elaborate the entire strategy that the RCP has developed, but I recommend people see the film BA Speaks: Revolution, Nothing Less!. I would also recommend that people take a look at the “Constitution for the New Socialist Republic of North America” draft proposal, which is a thoroughly internationalist document. The proposal makes the argument that there is no genuine, emancipatory communist revolution that does not proceed from internationalism and on the principle that the whole world comes first. This constitution calls for — after the seizure of power and the creation of a revolutionary state, a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat — the immediate dismantling of U.S. bases all over the world, sundering all current trade and economic relations and restructuring those relations across the globe, making every economic decision on the basis of advancing the world revolution, meeting the needs of people here, and protecting the world’s environment. Among the key elements of the strategy for revolution are changing thinking and changing action. In terms of changing action, we vigorously oppose all U.S. interventions, sanctions, bullying, and threats throughout the world.

Q & A

I am curious how you perceive significant non-state actors such as the European Union and the United Nations. Are these imperialist institutions? Also, there seems to be disagreement among the panelists regarding the issue of inter-imperialist rivalry. Some speakers emphasized such rivalry, whereas the speaker from the RCP seems to think that there is no longer inter-imperialist rivalry, and that, basically, the U.S. runs the world.

JG: With regard to “non-state actors” such as the UN and the EU, I think this is an extremely important matter. I think the UN is fundamentally a world-imperialist agency that represents the interests of the leading imperialist powers. I am often astonished when people say: “Oh, you know, we’re against what’s going on in this or that country but the UN says otherwise!” What do you think the UN is? Whose interests does it represent? Yes, these are imperialist agencies.

LE: I was trying to make the opposite point, that there indeed is inter-imperialist rivalry, although perhaps not as pronounced. I think you misheard that.

Tipping the balance of power: Political cartoon showing the main combatants in inter-imperialist rivalry, 1907

Tipping the balance of power: Political cartoon showing the main combatants in inter-imperialist rivalry, 1907

JT: There is rivalry but there is no significant rival to the U.S. at the moment. Europe is not able to marshal forces such that it could inflict a defeat on America. China might be able to in another thirty years and perhaps Europe as well. However, at the moment, no power can seriously challenge the U.S. As for international organizations, such as the UN, these are crystallizations of relations of forces on a global level, both economic and military. In the contemporary world, the UN is effectively a tool of the U.S.-led state order.

I think one of the motivations for this panel is the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War. Why was the anti-war movement, which entailed millions of people mobilizing across cities throughout the world, not able to build a movement towards socialism — a working-class, proletariat, class-conscious movement? Why was it not able to do this, in your estimation?

LE: I think the mass anti-war movement showed potential insofar as it exposed the depths of the people’s hatred for what was going on, but I think it also showed that any movement struggling for socialism has to be led by a revolutionary vanguard party. Even if they are opposed to a particular action of the ruling class, people do not spontaneously understand what is driving this action, what the solution to it is, and what sacrifices and struggles that are required in order to realize this solution. I think it is particularly important that the revolutionary movement be rooted in those that society has cast off. I was in San Francisco and I was at the major demonstration. Afterwards, I think what happened was that a lot of people were sucked into the illusions of U.S. democracy. That is, if you simply got rid of Bush or elected Kerry in 2004, somehow things would change. They did not understand what we are talking about on this panel, that what exists in the U.S. is not democracy. It is capitalism, imperialism, and the political structures that support them. I think the other major issue that people do not want to face intellectually, and in terms of their activity, is what it is going to take to actually challenge U.S. imperialism. I do want to commend and uphold the work of “World Can’t Wait” in organizing to try to drive out the Bush regime at the time. In leading this effort, “World Can’t Wait” sought to change the whole political terrain, to prepare the political terrain for revolution.

JG: I think the anti-war movement played a tremendous role with regard to motivating the Left. In my own case, the war in Vietnam played a very important role in how I became a communist, and in generating a desire both to defeat U.S. imperialism and to find a force capable of doing it. With regard to the struggle against the war in Iraq, I do not think the movement was flawed because things ultimately did not move further. I think it is a very serious issue. The working class is disorganized. Trade unions almost everywhere are class collaborationists. The political parties that one would expect to support the working class do not support it. For example, the Socialist International maintained relations with the Mubarak regime until right before its downfall. Ali in Tunisia maintained relations with the Socialist International. There exists a great deal of disorganization, and the anti-war movement by itself could not overcome it. Now, it is not simply a matter of subjective desire when these struggles grow to a certain level. There are certain objective conditions. From my point of view, I think the anti-war movement played a tremendously important role, and the people who took part in it will remember their experience. However, this one struggle alone could not change the whole situation.

I would like to push the panelists on the topic of the anti-Iraq War movement. Recognizing that the anti-war movement did not succeed, I am wondering whether or not it contributed to the confusion regarding what it means to be anti-imperialist today?

JT: It is clear that the demonstrations against the war in Libya and the war in Syria were pretty depressing experiences in Britain. There were two to three hundred people outside of the embassy and half of them were vigorously pro-Assad types with dubious politics and the other half were liberal Iranians. They would get into physical fights. It was a far cry from 2003, when we had one and a half million people out in the streets. It was an enormous opportunity. However, there will be another anti-war movement on that scale as long as they keep having these bloody wars. I cannot speak about the U.S., but the Left in Britain made an error when it did not realize that the situation had changed after 2003, after the troops went in. In the run up to this, it was clear that large sections of the international bourgeoisie, for their own reasons, thought that this was not a good policy. This is why there were all the issues surrounding UN resolutions and the French opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The international bourgeoisie were bashing heads with each other, which actually meant that it was easier than it was ever going to be again to get through this message to oppose the war. That is why I said earlier, one has to take advantage of these moments of mass demonstration. This was a real opening and a real opportunity and it is not gone completely.

LE: First, the revolutionary communists were not confused. They realized that, unless you overthrow imperialism, wars are going to continue. Furthermore, they realized that a mass movement is not going to sustain itself in the way that some people expect. The anti-war movement was a spontaneous struggle. It included a very broad section of the middle class, and masses of people came out in support of it, but it nevertheless was a spontaneous struggle. The idea that one could simply take up this spontaneous struggle and gradually push it towards revolution is what may have confused some people. I think it is important that the RCP’s strategy — which is in BAsics, and I highly recommend people read that strategy for revolution — entails seizing on these outbreaks and crises in order to broadly plant the pole of revolutionary communism, to build an organization, and to raise the consciousness of the masses of people to the realization that anything less than revolution is bullshit. While a revolutionary crisis did not take place on February 15, 2003, the mass demonstrations certainly showed the potential for millions and millions of people to be drawn into political life very quickly. The key is that the revolutionaries have to accumulate the political strength to lead the masses in a revolutionary direction during a crisis. Then, when millions of people are determined not to live in the same way and the rulers are divided, you actually have the prospect of seizing state power, which is ultimately the only thing that is going to end imperialist wars. Certainly, war flows from the core dynamics of imperialism. We should expose where these wars come from and why revolution, and an entirely different economic and political system, are needed to prevent them. I also want to point out that one of the things the bourgeoisie did in response to this uprising and upheaval was to put in power Barack Obama, whose mission is not to change what the ruling class is doing but rather to bamboozle the masses into passivity. I am not saying this passivity is simply a result of Obama’s presidency, but achieving it was and is the chief mission of the Obama administration. Putting Obama in power allowed for a rebranding of imperialism and quieted the growing discontent. There was tremendous hatred of Bush and in many ways we were starting to see the beginnings of a legitimacy crisis.

Do you think the oppressed people of Libya, the working class and peasants, would have been better off had the West been able to prevent a NATO military intervention?

LE: I am against NATO military intervention in Libya. I am not a supporter of the Gadhafi regime. Raymond Lotta wrote a very excellent article on this in Revolution. The NATO intervention was an intervention by imperialism to put pro-U.S. reactionaries in power and kill many, many people. Certainly, the RCP protested and opposed the NATO intervention in Libya.

Poster urging voters to "Wählt Spartakus" (1920) and crush capitalist imperialism

Poster urging voters to “Wählt Spartakus” (1920) and help to crush capitalist imperialism

JG: The movement in Libya was not a creation of foreign powers. It was an upsurge of the Libyan people who had been oppressed for decades. There were no independent trade unions and no political rights. The Berber people in Libya were being compulsorily turned into Arabs and their national identity was denied. The Libyan uprising was a genuine uprising. The Libyan uprising did not require a massive foreign intervention on the ground. However, it did require a U.S. intervention in the air. Without that intervention, it is likely that the rebels would have drowned in blood in Benghazi and elsewhere. Our task is always to expose the imperialist motives of our government. We know the U.S. government did not do this out of humanitarian motives, but it was nevertheless legitimate for the Libyan people to take advantage of this contradiction among the imperialists. It is astonishing that a person who defends the Soviet Union for receiving massive U.S., British, and French support in the Second World War would deny the Libyan people the right to have these alliances. That said, it makes for a complicated political situation and it is one of the reasons why the anti-war movement got disoriented.

JT: I disagree. I think it is too early to tell but there are not promising signs. We have seen this kind of parachuting-in of a government before, a government that does not really seem to have power in the country. I do not foresee a stable state regime emerging from this situation. Approximately ten years after the U.S. invasion, Hamid Karzai legalized marital rape in Afghanistan. This is already happening in Libya. There is no way around it. A lot of people died because NATO blew them up. However, the uprising would have been crushed by Gadhafi. The problem is that we are not learning from the lessons of Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It is clear that the U.S.-led international imperialist order is increasingly unable to impose a state regime in occupied regions, even one that serves its own interests. I think the euphoria of the Arab Spring led people to think that these movements were just going to sweep up everything. It is clear that has not happened. If you look at what has happened in Egypt, it is clear that things are entering a bad stage. The underlying point is that there is going to be either tyranny or chaos, and my judgment is that we will end up with chaos. |P

3 thoughts on “What is imperialism? (What now?)

  1. Pingback: What is imperialism? (What now?) | Research Material

  2. Pingback: Politics, a dead language | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: We are not “anti” | The Charnel-House

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