Internationalism fails

Chris Cutrone

This article is reposted from Platypus Review no. 60. Generally, I agree with its assertions about “anti-imperialist” politics in the present. Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that I support US military aggression overseas (not that I have any say in the matter). On Facebook, a heated exchange between James Heartfield, Chris Cutrone, Spencer Leonard, and Reid Kotlas followed. If they don’t mind, I might repost snippets of that argument as a supplement.

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. The point of revolutionary defensism was to be better defenders of the country than the nationalists could be, in that the nationalists, in upholding the nation-state as such, must necessarily compromise with global capitalism — “imperialism” — in ways the Communists, as anti-capitalist, would not. This did not mean to be better nationalists than the nationalists. Socialism, let alone Marxism, was not meant to be a political ideology of “national liberation,” but rather of global political and social transformation, which was meant to better — and indeed truly, because more fundamentally able to — meet the needs of liberation from national oppression under capitalism.

Today, such specificities and true horizons of politics of social emancipation are lost in the “anti-imperialism” of the pseudo-“Left.” Today’s “Left” has more in common with the Indian National Army (INA), which sought help from the Japanese against the British during WWII. But this was not the Communist but rather the fascist version of “anti-imperialism.” It should not be the Left’s. (Indeed, Hitler hosted INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose in Berlin as a fellow “anti-imperialist.”) As the Burmese nationalist Aung San, father of democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi, put it, “The British sucked our blood, but the Japanese ground our bones.”[1] Mao and his Chinese Communist Party celebrated their WWII allies U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The German and Japanese national-fascist oppositions to the U.K. and U.S.-led global capitalist “imperialist” order were no good. Neither are today’s oppositions.

The question today is whether supposed “revolutionary” defeatism in the U.S. and “revolutionary” defensism in the targets of its military interventions, for example, will actually lead to socialist revolution or any kind of beneficial outcome in either the U.S. or those countries it attacks.

The Left must ask: What might be the actual political effects of a defeat for the U.S.?

It is a mistake perpetuated by the 1960s-era New Left, with its experience of the Vietnam anti-war movement, that somehow imperialist counterinsurgency must necessarily fail. Indeed, historically, counterinsurgencies have been far more successful than unsuccessful. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was quelled; so were the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions of 1850–64 and 1899–1901. The Boers were subdued in 1880–81 and 1899–1902. The U.K. maintained control of Iraq in the 1930s-40s; they waged a successful counter-insurgency against Communists in Malaysia after WWII. The U.S. was successful in rolling back peasant jacquerie in South Korea in 1950-53. The Greek Civil War 1946-49 resulted in defeat for the Communist insurgents.

Furthermore, the question of political-military strategy regarding “imperialism” is not exhausted or even well informed by ostensible Left-Right distinctions. The U.S. supported the Maoist Communists in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, both in and out of power; the U.S. opposed the regime installed by Vietnamese Communist intervention in Cambodia in 1979 by supporting the Khmer Rouge — well after the revelation of the “killing fields” — just as they opposed the USSR-supported regime in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen Islamists. Maoists supported both out of “anti-imperialism,” which found the People’s Republic of China on the same side as the U.S. against “Soviet imperialism” (also in various wars in Africa). Most of the “Left” supported Solidarity in Poland as well. In these instances “anti-imperialism” worked: “Soviet imperialism” was defeated, and there was a “revolution” in the USSR and its Eastern European “sphere of influence.”

Lech Wałęsa

Lech Wałęsa, reactionary leader of Polish Solidarnosc,
here shown on the cover of Time magazine (1981)

Should we expect something similar today regarding the U.S.-led world order? Will defeat for the U.S. in one of its military campaigns result in its collapse? Hardly.

For it would appear that the only instances in which “anti-imperialism” has ever been successful — including in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions — were when there was military support from a more powerful imperialist power: Germany against Russia in WWI; and the U.S. against Japan in WWII.

The mistake of “anti-imperialism” today is in its naturalization of all national states as existing political actors and as domains of potential political action. We are today well past the political compromises of Stalin’s strategy of “socialism in one country.”

However, the deeper history of Marxism, before Stalinism, may yet be instructive in certain ways. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League in WWI Germany was “revolutionary defeatist” regarding the German war policy. They did not regard the greater imperialist powers of the time and their alliance, the U.K., the U.S., France and Russia, as the greater enemies of potential progressive-emancipatory political and social change, but rather “the main enemy is at home” meant the German government. This did not mean that they “sided” with the other imperialist powers, as their political opponents — and ultimate executioners — on the German Right insisted. Neither did Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks side with Germany as the Russian nationalists and their Entente international allies averred. The Provisional Government, overthrown by the Bolshevik-led soviets, fled in a U.K. diplomatic car, but that didn’t change the fact that for Lenin and Trotsky the Russian nationalists were the “main enemy.” Luxemburg feared the political consequences of Lenin and Trotsky’s potential “embrace” of German imperialism in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk — what caused the Bolsheviks’ Russian “socialist” opponents to unleash a terrorist campaign against them, bombing Bolshevik Party headquarters and attempting to assassinate Lenin and the German ambassador — but Luxemburg nonetheless endorsed the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and their soviet government and joined the Third International they led.

The revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, 1871-1919

The revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, 1871-1919

The “Left” today is hardly up for the challenge posed by such political necessities, let alone the task of social revolution. “Anti-imperialism” today is not revolutionary but rather counter-revolutionary in that it is a species of the most powerful actually constituted counterrevolutionary political force, nationalism.

“Internationalism” is no longer what it was for Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Internationals, but is rather inter-nationalism, that is, conjunctural alliances between nationalisms, and not revolutionary anti-nationalism as it was historically for socialism and Marxism.

Defeatism and defensism today have no progressive-emancipatory political and social content either, for they are not “revolutionary” in any sense beyond, perhaps, the conventional and superficial one of “regime change.” Today’s “Left” agrees with the imperialists in their horizon of politics: the existing international system of national states. The “Left” today may be divided among and within the nation-states, between those who “side with” this or that government policy, but they are all on the same side of accommodating global capitalism — imperialism.

There is no real anti-imperialism, but only various forms of compromise with imperialism, which is regarded pejoratively to denounce merely this or that governmental policy, but is accepted at a deeper level as an unshakeable reality. However, historical Marxists once knew that it will not be possible to move beyond it on this basis.[2] |P


1. Quoted in Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory, Cassell & Co, 2nd edition, 1956.
2. See the Platypus Affiliated Society public fora on: “Imperialism: What is it, and why should we be against it?,” in January 2007, an edited transcript of which was published in Platypus Review 25 (July 2010); and “What is imperialism? (What now?),” in April 2013, in Platypus Review 59 (September 2013).

4 thoughts on “Internationalism fails

  1. The problem with this is analysis is that it is so simplified and so generalized as to be, at least in its proscription for present action, ahistorical and purely theoretical without a foundation in material analysis.

    The writer seems to ignore the historic development of national movements which in real fact was the motor of progress in much of the 20th century.

    Not mentioned or glanced only superficially are the fundamental tasks of national development achieved in the revolutions in Vietnam.and Cuba — both of which went over to socialist development, nor the national character of the enormously potent and largely proletarian civil rights/black nationalist movement in the United States.

    Not mentioned is the blow to Imperialism dealt by the overthrow of the Shah of Iran or the Somoza family in Nicaragua (see the historic program of the FSLN) or the end of Apartheid in South Africa by a democratic nationalist movement led by Nelson Mandela and the ANC under the banner of the Freedom Charter.

    Lenin spoke of the “right of nations to self determination” The struggle to exercise this right has revolutionary potential in the immediate present context in Bahrain–where an oppressed Shia population is ruled by an minority monarchial state — one which also houses the US 5th fleet. It has potency in Kurdistan where the struggle to form a Kurdish nation challenges the authority of bourgeois regimes in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran and by extension represents a direct threat to the structure of world imperialism. It has potency in the fight for a progressive resolution to the plight of the Roma in Europe and there are not doubt a dozen other such struggles which could be pointed out by other readers.

    The elephant in the living room is of course Syria and an analysis of what has already taken place in Lybia and Egypt. It is rather a matter of half-heartedness to even write an article such as this without making direct mention of what is obviously the present matter at hand. Who does one support and which side are we on in the unfolding regionalized civil war in Syria?. Was Gaddafi preferable to the Euro/American intervention in Lybia,? Should the working class movement have supported the initial Bengazi uprising or defended the Ghaddafi regime seeing that the democratic movement was niether strong enough nor possessing leadership or direction to bring about even the most basic national-democratic tasks without being overrun. Were progressive elements in the democratic movement in Egypt correct to acquiesce in or encourage the Egyptian military cast’s role in the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi?

    In each case and in all cases an individual who has dedicated his or her self to the cause of the working class and the practice of scientific socialism must begin with the perspective of the social interests of the working class and as much as possible consider the broad interests of the class as a whole, as an international class.

    The writer asks “Will defeat for the U.S. in one of its military campaigns result in its collapse?” Perhaps not in one day or even one year or perhaps not in your lifetime, but the overall weakening of the imperial war machine, the establishment of independent national republics capable of refusing imperial dictate, the historical evolution of modern society away from forms of colonial dominance and unipolar hegemony. These are real social conquests and they create the political space in which to develop an internationalist working class challenge for political power.

    The “left” of whom you speak has no relevance to this conversation at all. Middle class radicals whose cultural function is to mimic revolutionary historical figures are at best temporary vehicles for the dispersal of important ideas but are more often obstacles to the development of a meaningful social movement. While this left cringes on the fringe of bourgeois political discourse and laments its lack of audience, the actual proletariat, that is the mass of the toilers who have been dispossessed of means of production and “live only so long as they work” is larger more internationalized, more sophisticated, and thus has greater potential material power than it has ever had historically. It is this force that must be brought to bare in a movement to challenge world imperialism and to prevent another international slaughter on the scale of the world wars of the 20th century. The challenge is to disown this pointless left and to find a place in the real class struggle. As we do this it will become clear that, though the context of the struggle for the right of nations to self determination and other basic democratic tasks of revolution have changed dramatically from the time of Lenin to today, the basic goals which Lenin defined as the establishment of the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry and which the more contemporary Joseph Hanson described as the “Workers and Farmers Government” and which bring at least temporarily working class revolutionists in line with parties and leaderships possessing a petty-bourgeois democratic or bourgeois national program or character will be at the forefront.

    • Thanks for your view and excellent critique of this rather infantile-disorderly “left-wing” comment on really existing struggles, Rawlin. You saved me, and I guess — hope — many others as well, a lot of typing.

    • Didn’t Lenin come to reject his earlier proposal for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” in 1917? This was, of course, the point at which Lenin moved closer to Trotsky’s position, and Trotsky joined the Bolshevik party.

      This is a minor point, however. From a broader, historical angle, I would say that the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg (involving others, of course, especially Bauer) was primarily over the attitude that orthodox Marxists should adopt internationally toward struggles for national autonomy during a period of world revolution.

  2. Despite the fact that I posted this article, I am not the author. Therefore, there is a question I’d like to pose to Chris Cutrone. I’m curious as to the source for the claim, made in the article, that

    Mao and his Chinese Communist Party celebrated their WWII allies U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Not that I don’t believe it. Somewhere I read that Mao remarked that if he’d had a hundred A-Bombs, he would’ve dropped them all on Japan. But I’m not sure of the veracity of that quote. All I’ve been able to find from Mao on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is some lines in which he generally seems unimpressed by the US’ new military technology, attributing the ultimate surrender of Japan to the threat of Soviet invasion (not entirely untrue, after all). Is there a book or citation for Mao and the CCP’s celebration of the bombings?

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