Anti-imperialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2021

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an “anti-imperialist,” since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.
—Gilles Dauvé

Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist, a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League (1898-1920) which opposed US annexation of the Philippines. For the League, just republican government was based on the principle of the “consent of the governed” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The imperialism of US territorial expansion thus violated the classical liberal precepts of self-government and non-intervention as put forward by British writers like John A. Hobson. Twain’s dark sarcasm and claims of America’s liberatory intent notwithstanding, he was neither so generous nor as damning regarding the US continental expansion of Manifest Destiny that expropriated the native peoples. The raison d’être of this type of anti-imperialism was simple; empire was bad and needed to be morally opposed.

Vladimir Lenin wrote Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917 influenced by this liberal anti-imperialism. He analyzed the end of capitalist free competition and the closure of world markets that resulted from the need for capital to continually grow investment, material resources, and labor power in a way that necessitated colonial, military, and financial expansion.(1) Lenin considered imperialism a structural feature of capitalism in this schematic stagist polemic. Deemed a crucial work for understanding the political, economic, and social consequences of “monopoly capitalism,” Imperialism and the anti-imperialist response have become fundamental to any version of Marxism-Leninism worth its salt in “late-stage capitalism.”(2)

Whereas Lenin straddled the line between revolutionary internationalism and national self-determination, his followers tweaked anti-imperialism to suit their favored ideologies. Stalin tacked on “socialism in one country” to make anti-imperialism serve the foreign policy objectives of the Soviet Union. Trotsky added anti-imperialism to theories of permanent revolution, contending that worldwide proletarian revolution was imminent and capable of jumping historical stages, a decidedly utopian stance. Often at odds with Stalin, Mao rejected Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin and subsequent “Thaw” in Soviet society, culture, the economy, and international relations. He promulgated an anti-revisionist anti-imperialism that described the Soviet Union as social imperialist on a par with the capitalist imperialism of the West. The national liberation struggles and regimes of Third World Leninism has made anti-imperialism synonymous with anti-colonialism. Leninism’s insistence on anti-imperialism’s centrality to the Left has resulted in numbers of left anarchists, libertarian Marxists, even old-school social democrats taking up this dubious theoretical construct. Combine the appeal of such crap political content with Leninism’s crude political forms—“points of unity,” enumerated political programs, types of frontism—and much of the anti-authoritarian Left has become a clone of the worst of Leninism.

Anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism are easily ideologically decoupled however. Fascism has often claimed to be anti-capitalist, proclaiming solidarity with “proletarian nations” against “bourgeois nations” in a reactionary anti-imperialism that defends a corporatist Third Positionism pretending to go beyond capitalism and Marxism.(3) Populist nationalism in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World nominally denounces capitalism and imperialism, decrying “Yanqui imperialism” and promoting the economic independence of national autarky. Ultimately, what emerges is a purely negative, classless anti-imperialism that attacks capitalism and imperialism without offering up anything positive, much less a socialist alternative.

Finally, the anti-capitalism of a conservative / Traditionalist / religious politics that Marx called “reactionary socialism” criticizes modern capitalist industrial society and idealizes a bygone aristocratic feudal order. The pre-Vatican II Catholic Church of the mildly pro-Nazi Pope Pius XII, with its anti-usury teachings and pro-family labor decrees intended to safeguard the “dignity of the worker,” anticipated the Christian clerical fascism on the rise today. This runs parallel to a pan-Islamic clerical fascism which seeks to combine national liberation struggles against Western imperialism with support for fundamentalist Islamic movements and regimes. “It is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support,” Lenin once wrote. “We will not support [a struggle or] an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.”

I’m not interested in reactionary forms of anti-imperialism, focusing instead on Leftist anti-imperialism. Even here I distinguish between rabid tankie versus measured socialist anti-imperialism. Tankies are those who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still support “real existing socialist states” like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Stalinist, Maoist, or Third Worldist Communist Party hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers who champion a hardcore anti-imperialism. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States. And they support as “objectively anti-imperialist” such reactionary dictators as Lukashenko and al-Bashir and such authoritarian regimes as Iran and Myanmar. Tankies consider themselves the true anti-imperialists, but theirs is often called “the anti-imperialism of fools” by others on the Left.

The July 11, 2021, protests in Cuba (4) involved up to 5,000 people in 200 plus locations across an island wracked by the pandemic crisis, severe economic contraction, and the decades-long US Embargo. (The sanctions regime involves economic warfare, CIA infiltration and sabotage, “independent” Western “aid” for Cuban “civil society,” propaganda intended to promote popular discontent and dissent or destabilize and undermine the regime, etc.) The protestors demanded an end to one party / Cuban Communist Party (PCC) rule and the resignation of President Diaz-Canel amid anger over the lack of COVID vaccines and other medicines as well as food and public service shortages. The government labeled the protestors counterrevolutionary and deployed police to shut down the protests. Several hundred Cubans were arrested, some 178 “disappeared,” and one person killed. Dissident Marxists Frank García Hernández, Manuel Alexandro Martínez Pérez, and others were also arrested. The government sponsored massive pro-regime counter-demonstrations, outlawed citizen internet criticism, announced that tariffs on the private importation of food, medicine, and personal goods would be temporarily lifted, and legalized small-to-medium-sized businesses. The protests galvanized an ongoing, acrimonious debate between these tankie anti-imperialists and the wider anti-imperialist community consisting mostly of Trotskyists, anarchists, libertarian Marxists, and some social democrats.

The broader anti-imperialist Left first and foremost demand an end to the US blockade, the threat of American intervention and regime change, and attempts at a US sponsored capitalist restoration. The historic gains of the 1959 Cuban Revolution are defended but the current Cuban government is criticized. Authoritarian one-party rule, the stifling state bureaucracy, and moves toward a market economy are denounced. Free speech, the release of all political prisoners, workers’ control of the economy, and a genuine socialist democracy are demanded. Regional anti-imperialist unity is proposed, comprised of an alternative socialist federation for Latin America.Tankie anti-imperialists brook no criticism of the Cuban regime. The threat of hegemonic US imperialism and capitalist restoration is so overwhelming that it absolves the PCC of its “mistakes / errors.” The word “crimes” isn’t used, and the Cuban revolution is categorically glorified. Any attempt to censure Cuba is denounced as playing into the hands of Yanqui imperialism. Those who criticize the regime are condemned as meddling and naive at best, or CIA agents at worst. Tankies sometimes call other socialists all sorts of epithets. Social democrats are social fascist, anarchists and libertarian Marxists are adventurist, Trotskyists are counterrevolutionary. They dare criticize and claim to have solutions to Cuba’s problems or a way forward for Cuban socialism when the “heroic” PCC has struggled unsuccessfully to solve these issues for over 60 years. The July 11 protests are simply the latest example of the US attempt to exacerbate internal Cuban contradictions and antagonisms to destabilize and overthrow Cuban Communism. The protests must be roundly condemned.

Some 45 countries declared themselves Communist from the 1917 Russian Revolution through the 1989 Warsaw Pact’s dissolution and the 1991 Soviet Union’s collapse. Today there are only five Communist countries remaining: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. This retreat and retrenchment was not all due to capitalist imperialism. Many factors contributed to the “Autumn of Nations”—Brezhnev-era stagnation, bankrupting Afghan intervention, Chernobyl, popular uprisings (Ceausescu-successful, Tiananmen Square-unsuccessful), etc. China and India, once darlings of the anti-imperialist / anti-colonialist Third World Left, are now world powers in their own right and quite reactionary. Current liberation struggles are more and more opting for non-Leninist alternatives: for example the EZLN’s libertarian Marxism in Chiapas and the SDF’s democratic confederalism in Rojava. The imperialism / anti-imperialism paradigm often means a socialist internationalism that defaults to rabid nationalism and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” politics, and as often suffers from substitutionism: substituting opposition to these structural features of capitalism for the revolutionary socialist program as a whole.(5) Anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism need to be subordinated to revolutionary working-class anti-capitalism.

I oppose the power and influence of my country and its rulers around the world, with the goal of eventually overthrowing capitalism and creating socialism here. I also decline to apologize for and whitewash cops busting heads in Cuba or Hong Kong, China’s Uighur concentration camps, Syrian Assadist chemical genocide, North Korea’s “racial purity” nationalism, etc. I reject tankie anti-imperialism and gulag socialism everywhere.

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” by Mark Twain (1901)
Imperialism: A Study by John A. Hobson (1902)
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism and Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism by V.I. Lenin (1916 & 1917)
“The Anti-Imperialism of Fools” by Paul Berman, Dissent Magazine (1987)
Reply to Aufheben #1 by Gilles Dauvé (1997)
“The poverty of ‘anti-imperialism’ and today’s Left” by Workers’ Liberty (2010)
“The ‘Anti-Imperialism’ Of Idiots” by Leila Shami, Leila’s blog (2018)

1) The concentration of production and capital developed to such a high stage that it created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life.
2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a “financial oligarchy.”
3) The export of capital, which has become extremely important, as distinguished from the export of commodities.
4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.
5) The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed.

As Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism contends, imperialism is supposedly the “highest stage” of capitalist economic development in what Lenin took to be the system of “monopoly capitalism.” What is implied is that capitalism’s highest stage is also its final stage. One way or another, capitalism was supposed to have been transformed into socialism at the turn of the 19th / 20th centuries. Yet capitalism continued to evolve, as did theories of capitalism. Ernest Mandel and Fredric Jameson both called post-WWII capitalism “late capitalism” or “late-stage capitalism.” Implied in this terminology is that capitalism is again in its final stage. But as Lenin said “[t]here is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and the analysis of World-Systems Theory argues the US long cycle of capitalist development is by no means the final one for world capitalism. Instead of debating then whether we are in the final, apocalyptic “crisis of capitalism” or experiencing “capitalism without end,” I like to quote Mao in saying: “[e]verything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall.”

Concepts of “proletarian nationalism” and “Fascist anti-imperialism” were introduced as early as 1910 by the Italian Nationalist Association, and were developed in 1919 by Enrico Corradini. These ideas were made flesh in 1920 through the Fiume uprising initiated by Gabriele d’Annunzio who subsequently helped write the Charter of Carnaro. Similar concepts were embodied in 1919 in the Manifesto of the Italian Fasces of Combat written by Alcesta De Ambris and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, which Benito Mussolini wholeheartedly embraced.

The July 11, 12, 13 and 17, 2021, protests in Cuba to be precise.

Leninism practices a deliberate substitutionism—substituting the vanguard party for the working class in power.

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