The poverty of "anti-imperialism" and today's left

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2010 - 2:16 Author: Sean Matgamna
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Socialism in Disarray, Part Four

"There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a 'negative' Social-Democratic slogan that serves only to 'sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism'. A negative slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not 'sharpen', but dull consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation" - V I Lenin

The collapse of European Stalinism in 1989-91 also cleared the way for the revival of the left. Socialism would now be deflated, but real. The real left gained a chance to live and grow again, to clear the old battlefields, to define itself anew, and to develop its influence in the working-class movement.

The way was cleared for the re-elaboration of our traditions and our ideas, for the re-growth of the socialism of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Mehring, Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci.

We have not yet done that.

True, international capitalism has, until the recent eruption of the global credit crisis, been going through a vast expansion under the banners of free trade, neo-liberalism, and globalisation. The social conditions have not been friendly to the conviction of the necessity of replacing capitalism with socialism, the need for a socialist revolution, the belief that, historically, capitalism has outlived itself.

These conditions helped many ex-Stalinists mutate into born-again advocates of bourgeois democracy and capitalism - something, all in all, better than their former Stalinist political personae. Working class democracy was never even potentially real for those power-worshippers, and naturally they do not regard it as a possibility.

But the world working class is expanding; it has, maybe, doubled in size over the last 30 years. That is, capitalism is rearing up armies of its own gravediggers. "Objective conditions" would have allowed us to achieve a great deal than we have.

We have seen not a revival of the left, but a riot of bourgeois triumphalism, and a continuing, indeed, increasing, accelerated, disarray and decline - political, moral, intellectual decline - of the "actually existing" left.

In so far as the bulk of the would-be left has redefined itself, it has in the last decade been in terms of an alliance with one of the most reactionary forces on the planet, "political Islam", or Islamic clerical fascism.

The rise after 11 September 2001 of international "anti-imperialist" terrorism by Islamic clerical-fascist movements, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, threw the remnants of the left into a mortal political and ideological crisis.

In retrospect, the collapse and disarray in the left after 1991 was understandable, and inevitable, after the way the left had been shaped in previous decades.

Though the old European Stalinism, holding state power, is dead, socialists, including the heirs of the anti-Stalinists, live still in the grip of the moral, political and intellectual chaos created by Stalinism. The moral and political crisis of the present-day left is fundamentally a confusion of ideas, of identity, of an unexplored, and often startlingly unknown, history, and of our language of politics.

The crisis of the would-be left today consists in the continued influence within it, in its ways of seeing the world, of un-purged and essentially unrecognised Stalinist politics, patterns, attitudes. This is true of most of these who think they stand in the Trotsky tradition, too.

The all-shaping fact about the post-Stalinist left, including most of the left that sees its own roots in the antipode of Stalinism, Trotsky's movement, is that it is not in fact, in real political life, post-Stalinist. Stalinism still shapes it and still ruins it. Now, in the new era of capitalist crisis, and the new age of austerity, that Stalinist shaping threatens to make the left as sterile and impotent as it was in the last two-thirds of the twentieth century.

It will be easier to understand the character and causes of the self-debilitating faults of the contemporary left in the light of our discussion of the Stalinist experience.

1. No alternative to capitalism?

Since the collapse of the Stalinist Russian empire in 1991, world capitalist power has traded even more on the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. There never was; there never will be; there cannot be. We should, as David Marsland said at a debate organised by Workers' Liberty in 1991, "marvel at the market's gifts to mankind".

Be grateful for the things God gives you! Don't dream, don't scheme, don't rebel! For, warn the ideologues - and the old Labour Party reform-socialists too - if you rebel, then you will stumble into the nightmare of state terrorism, into the Gulag, into the Stalinist archipelago of slave labour camps and mass murder.

They trade on the claim that Stalinism was Bolshevism; that Bolshevism was not negated in the Stalinist counter-revolution, as it in fact was, but continued and developed by the logic of its own nature into Stalinism.

The Stalinist counter-revolution against Bolshevism was, they claim, Bolshevism itself. Bolshevism, which fought Stalinism to the death of the rearguard Bolsheviks, was only infant Stalinism. The anti-Stalinist Bolsheviks were fighting against their other self.

In fact, in all this, the triumphant bourgeoisie has merely appropriated the core lies of Stalinism. The story is demonstrably nonsense - nonsense as ridiculous as Stalin's indictment of the old Bolsheviks in the mid-thirties as having been working for British and other intelligence services when they were leading the 1917 Revolution!

Yet aspects of the post-Stalinist left, for instance the accommodation of the kitsch-Left to Islamist terrorism have been as if designed to prove the bourgeois ideologues' point.

2. Utopianism central still

The great and prolonged crisis of capitalism in the twentieth century properly roused revolutionary Marxists to the idea that the eras of peaceful and progressive capitalist development were gone forever. "The point was to change it", to overthrow it now: that was all. The philosophers had interpreted History; and History had favourably pronounced on the philosophers with the seeming collapse of capitalism. The point was to change it - and that narrowed down into "Build the Revolutionary Party".

This idea persisted long after the crisis that unleashed it was over, and long after History had taken unexpected turns, with the consolidation of Russian Stalinism, and the spread of Stalinism across one third of the globe.

The perspective of hopeless capitalist collapse was kept in place by the dominant "orthodox" Trotskyist doctrine that the Stalinist states were "post-capitalist", the deformed embodiment of a still developing and expanding albeit distorted proletarian world revolution, and thus proof that it was still "the age of wars and revolutions". It persisted despite capitalist revival and prosperity in the most advanced countries, and fast capitalist growth in many poorer countries.

Long before the fall of European Stalinism, and Francis Fukuyama's thesis, derived from it, that we had reached "the end of history", post-Trotsky Trotskyists had applied a similar idea to capitalism.

History, they thought, had reached a point beyond which almost everything in advanced capitalism was reactionary. The SWP-UK had its own dialect of this idea, a core idea of its sectarianism - a thesis that when world capitalism became ripe for socialism, thereafter everything capitalist became reactionary [note 1]. It was the method of the great utopian socialists - once the socialist idea has been invented, everything else is reactionary.

The "evolutionary" aspects of modern communism were, as we have seen, central to the contribution of Marx and Engels and their school of politics. They have largely been lost by the would-be left.

Here the would-be Marxist Left are victims of our own failure to come to terms with our own history in the mid-twentieth century. Capitalism did break down into protracted crisis including world war, between about 1914 and about 1950. Opportunities for the working-class to replace capitalist rule with its own rule did exist in "the epoch of wars and revolutions".

But the working-class was defeated. And in a strange and unprecedented way. The victors in the defeat of the working class and the destruction of Bolshevism presented themselves - and even thought of themselves - as representing the working class. They presented their system, in which the working class was enslaved more than in most capitalist states, as working-class socialism.

That confused all the maps and signposts. In Britain in 1940, when a German invasion seemed imminent, the road signs were removed so as to confuse the invaders. Something like that happened to the socialists. The Marxist signposts have yet to be sorted out and re-erected.

Capitalism revived; it eventually overwhelmed, in economic, military and political competition, the aberrant, historically freakish and unviable Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism which in the mid-twentieth century had seemed to many to be the alternative to capitalism.

The twentieth century crisis of capitalism (and the failure of the left) knocked out of post-Trotsky Trotskyism the "evolutionary floor" which Marx and Engels gave to communism. Socialist revolution became not a matter of the positive development and education of the working class movement, but a quasi-mechanical consequence of the ever-present "crisis" as soon as general mass discontent and the building of a revolutionary-party "machine" should rise high enough.

The post-Trotskyist movement went through its own long "Third Period". Proletarian revolution was always imminent or in process. Strange and alien phenomena - in the first place, those of Stalinism - were misidentified as aspects of it. That was an aspect of reversion to utopianism.

The orthodox Trotskyists built on Trotsky's identification of the USSR as a "degenerated" workers' state and their own definition of the new Stalinist states as "deformed" workers' states to shed Trotsky's idea that Stalinist Russia was an unviable freak social formation that would in the short term collapse, either before bourgeois onslaught or working-class revolution, or have to be reconceptualised as a new form of exploitative class society (see The USSR In War, and Again And Once More On The Nature Of The USSR, both in In Defence Of Marxism). They moved to an implicit acceptance of "socialism in one country" - the development of the USSR , and now other backward states of Stalinism, in parallel with and eventually outstripping, advanced capitalism [note 2].

They relegated Trotsky to the status of a posthumous utopian savant. The "word" was given, thereafter in capitalism no progress was possible. Capitalism was unconditionally and universally reactionary. That then meant: reactionary against Stalinism - and has now come to mean: reactionary against no matter whom.

For the post-Trotsky "orthodox Trotskyists", the basic socialist democratic programme of self-determination and opposition to colonialism came to be submerged into the notion of Stalinist deformed revolution in backward parts of the world such as China. "Imperialism" was the advanced capitalist states, as counterposed to the states and movements of Stalinism, and allied with Stalinism, which embodied "anti-imperialism". Class criteria, and Marxist programmes, were subverted and destroyed.

From a loss of historic perspective here has followed the all-shaping negativism of the "left" towards advanced capitalism.

The power of the idea that capitalism was in its death agony to motivate and mobilise made it of great value to apparatus Marxists. Trotsky once recommended the idea for its mobilising powers - he did not mean, falsify reality so as to be able to use it!

Our alternative to capitalism is a socialism that retains, spreads and deepens the conquests of bourgeois civilisation from the Renaissance and earlier onwards. These include rational, critical, realistic assessments of our world, of our alternative to capitalism, of ourselves. That too was often lost.

We need to remind ourselves of the fundamental ideas of Marxist socialism, which I outlined in part two of this series.

For Marxists advanced capitalism is the irreplaceable mother of our socialism. (And not a good mother: a poisonous old harridan-spider who has repeatedly eaten her own young! Or tries her best to!) Socialism has become possible only because capitalism has created a mass proletariat and, created means of production which, liberated of the drives and unreason of capitalism, can create abundance for all in the basics of life.

We base our socialist programme on this Marxist idea of the necessary evolution of capitalist society, of its forces of production, as the irreplaceable ground-preparer for socialism; on the social, intellectual and political preparation of the proletariat through both capitalist evolution and communist education and organisational work, to make it able to seize power in capitalist society.

These "evolutionary" aspects of modern communism were central to the contribution of Marx and Engels and their school of politics. They have largely been lost by the kitsch Left.

3. Absolute anti-capitalism: the poverty of "anti-imperialism"

Not only has the present-day "anti-Stalinist" would-be left has taken into itself many of the political features of old Stalinism, some of the ideas and attitudes of the would-be left now are starkly more irrational than were these ideas in their Stalinist version.

Ideas that made their own sense when the supposedly socialist or travelling-towards-socialism USSR was at the centre of a world view - for instance, the absolute hostility to advanced capitalism, and automatic support for the "camp" in conflict with it - are rendered utterly nonsensical now that the USSR is no more. No socialist can even half-seriously believe that Iran or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan show a desirable future to humankind, as the devotees of Stalinist Russia thought they could.

The easiest way into the maze of post-Stalinist political remnants in the contemporary left is to deal first with one of the would-be left's all-shaping "positions" - the centrality of "anti-imperialism".

a. Vietnam

The would-be left of today is rooted in the "1968 Left". It was right for that 1968 left to oppose the Vietnam war and fight to end it - right to side against America in Vietnam, to express horror at a very savage war, at mechanised destruction rained down by the greatest power on earth on a peasant people, at the prospect that "victory" against the Stalinists would have required "bombing Indo-China into the stone age", or "destroying it in order to save it", as a US major said of a Vietnamese city in 1968.

But in the left reshaped by opposition to the Vietnam war and "reconstructed" by "1968" and after, there was a powerful strain of reactionary anti-imperialism. It was no accident that know-nothing western Maoists played such a big part in the anti-war movement. Its slogans - like "Victory to the NLF" - implied positively siding with the Stalinists. It was a formative, reshaping experience, saturated as it was with millenarian expectations for the victory of the socialist revolution, soon. For the orthodox Trotskyist ancestors of the present left (the writer amongst them), there was much of political indifference about Stalinism: "don't confuse me with complexities".

b. The Algerian war and the opposition to it

Vietnam came a decade after an earlier shaping experience for the modern left, the Algerian war of liberation against France.

On that, much of the revolutionary left tried to exercise political judgement as between Algerian organisations - which were engaged in a bloody rivalry - and backed the "left wing" of the national liberation movement, the MNA, led by Messali Hadj.

Messali was understood to have had links with the early Communist International and had support in the Algerian trade union movement and among Algerian trade unionists in France. The International Socialist League (Shachtman); the Cannon segment of the split orthodox Trotskyist world movement, including the Lambertists in France; the SWP's predecessor Socialist Review, and Healy's group in Britain, which published a pamphlet with a portrait of Messali Hadj on the cover - they all backed Messali, against the more recently emerged and formally more right-wing and initially purely nationalist FLN.

For some of them, Messali was their substitute for a Communist Party - and for the Stalinists who had already made "deformed" "socialist" revolutions in Yugoslavia, China and North Vietnam.

The Pablo-Mandel orthodox Trotskyists backed the other nationalist organisation, the FLN, the eventual rulers of Algeria.

It became known that the MNA was putting up much less of a fight than the FLN, and eventually, around 1958, that in some areas it had arrangements of coexistence with the occupying French forces. There are perhaps parallels with the rival anti-German forces in early-1940s Yugoslavia, Stalinist and Chetnik-Royalist, and with the two IRAs of the 1970s, the Stalinist led "Official Republicans" and the initially right-wing breakaway, the "Provisional IRA".

In the polemical war between the different Trotskyists, the Pablo-Mandel group eventually won hands down against the champions of the MNA and Messali. I know of no balance sheet drawn up by any of the champions of Messali and the MNA.

The anti-imperialist politics that seemed to triumph then, of unconditional solidarity with those leading the anti-imperialist fight irrespective of politics, dominated the left thereafter. This experience was fed into the anti Vietnam war movement by Trotskyist groups influenced greatly by their experience over Algeria, and by the IS organisation, the future SWP-UK [note 3].

c. The new turn in the 1999 war against Serbia

The confusionist politics of the would-be left on "imperialism" stretches way back, and is rooted in the selective anti-imperialism of the Stalinist movement. But something new emerged - or new in the clarity in which events posed the issues - in the Balkans war of 1999. It was the prelude to the would-be left's craziness with political Islam after 9/11.

By way of campaigning "against the war", NATO's war, and "against imperialism", that is against the NATO powers, which made war to stop genocide in Kosova, the would-be left actively sided with the primitive Serb ethno-imperialism of Slobodan Milosevic and worked to whip up an "anti-war movement" in support of those engaged in a war to kill or drive out the Albanian population (over 90%) of Serbia's colony, Kosova.

Some did this because they had not quite got rid of the idea that the Milosevic regime, the most Stalinist of all the successor regimes in the former Stalinist states, was somehow "still" progressive, or even still "socialist".

Others - the SWP - simply thought that a big anti-war movement on any basis would rouse young people to action and thus help build up the forces of the SWP. So the crowd came in response to their demagogic agitation, they cared not what came to the Albanians...

Yet others were one-sided pacifists, or old style Neanderthal anti-Germans, like Tony Benn. They spent the war re-enacting a foolish parody of the sort of Stalinist antics that over decades destroyed independent working-class politics.

The state of the British left at the start of the 21st century was most horribly depicted in the demagogic, one-sidedly pacifistic "anti-imperialism" which it deployed to build that pro-Milosevic "stop the war" movement in April-June 1999.

In an overflow meeting at the Friends Meeting House on the Euston Road, the CND Catholic ex-Bishop Bruce Kent denounced the then Minister of Defence George Robertson, a man of Scottish working class background, in the tone and manner of a Duchess talking of a careless dustbin man, as "that l-i-t-t-l-e man!"

The central "demand" of the anti-war movement of 1999 was for NATO to stop the war before it had secured its immediate objective of forcing the Serbs in Kosova to desist and withdraw their troops. Translated into the real political world, that meant: let the Serbs get on with it!

d. The Iraq anti-war movement

Three years later in Britain the same people recycled their "anti-war movement" as an opposition to war with Iraq. Now they took on the colours of the Ba'th Party - Galloway on the platforms left no doubt of that - and after the occupation of Iraq, of the "resistance" which they supported there, made up of Sunni supremacists, Al Qaeda, and other clerical fascists, including, on and off, the Shia-based Sadr movement.

The Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-3 consisted of a number of very large demonstrations. Vast numbers of people came out to proclaim that they did not want war, or, after the war, the occupation of Iraq. A smaller number came out to protest against Israel in the Israel-Hezbollah war of August 2006.

The ongoing campaign, between demonstrations and long after they had passed, consisted of a group of people with politics that were not necessarily those of the marchers: the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, the Muslim Association of Britain (which proudly proclaimed its links to the Muslim Brotherhood), George Galloway MP, the long-time voice in Britain of the fascistic Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and others.

These gave the campaign its slogans and rallying cries and, so to speak, constituted the face and voice of the anti-war movement: they also (the SWP mainly) provided the many thousands of placards distributed to marchers. Thus they determined that the demonstrations had a markedly Islamist and anti-Israel dimension, demanding the destruction of Israel in such slogans as "Palestine free - from the river to the sea" - often carried by young people who had not grasped the implications of such slogans.

It became a very Islamic "anti-war movement" after 2002, although, when it had first taken shape in 1999, its SWP core had made it into a murderously anti-Muslim movement...

The SWP-UK's "Respect (George Galloway)" party, rooted in the anti-war movement, campaigned in the 2004 Euro-election as "the best fighters for Muslims".

The chameleon political quick-change antics would denote utter political disorientation even without any of the "anti-imperialist" extravagances that went with them.

e. Different imperialisms and different "anti-imperialisms"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sort of "anti-imperialism" ruled in independent Ireland for the quarter century before 1958. It implied autarky, cutting off from the international division of labour. From 1958, the same politicians who set it up, with the same individual in the lead, Sean Lemass, began to dismantle it.

Behind high tariff walls, it created some native small industries, which couldn't compete internationally. The economy stifled, haemorrhaging people.

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

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

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

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

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

f. Chameleon anti-imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

g. Lenin's critique of "anti-imperialism"

At the same time as Lenin denounced the "high imperialism" of his day, condemning it as having led ineluctably to the catastrophe of World War One, he also criticised the different sorts of anti-imperialisms, as Marx and Engels had criticised the different socialisms and anti-capitalisms in their day (the Communist Manifesto).

"There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a 'negative' Social-Democratic slogan that serves only to 'sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism'. A negative slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not 'sharpen', but dull consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation".

"The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not 'demand' such development, we do not 'support' it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!"

"Imperialism is as much our 'mortal' enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism".

If we support national uprisings against imperial rule, wrote Lenin - and we do - then that is not just because we are "against" imperialism, but because we are positively for national freedom.

When Marxists, continuing the policy of the anti-imperialism of early twentieth century Marxism and communism, support even the most undeveloped victims of capitalism against their advanced capitalist-imperialist conquerors, would-be conquerors, maltreaters and exploiters - for example, the Ethiopians under the leadership of the feudal monarch, Haile Selassie against the Italian invasion in 1935 - we do not adapt to, and still less do we idealise, such forces and their dominant views of the world. We do not champion such views against the typical world outlooks of advanced capitalism.

We do what we do from our own class viewpoint on history, on advanced capitalism, and on what programmatically we fight for as an alternative.

Those who uphold reactionary anti-imperialism on the left today conflate that old communist policy with idealising and glorifying anti-US forces and accepting them as a viable programmatic alternative to capitalist imperialism.

For some of those who tried to build an anti-war movement in support of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic over Kosova in 1999, "anti-imperialism" came to mean condoning attempted genocide because it was done by a "progressive" regime opposed by "imperialism"...

The way that much of the Left today courts and flatters Islamic clerical fascism, painting up its "anti-imperialism", etc., is the clearest and most terrible example here. The Communist International never did that, nor did the Fourth International of Trotsky. Nor even, for a very long time the Fourth International after Trotsky, despite its partial political disorientation, and its putting "The Colonial Revolution" at the centre of its conception of an ongoing socialist revolution, Stalinist-led "for now". We never abandoned or subordinated our critical attitude to, and political war against alien, non-working class, criticisms of imperialism.

h. Anti-imperialism shades into reactionary anti-capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i. Opposition to European unity

The most long-standing example of the regressive - archaic-nationalist, right wing - character of the would-be left is the way that a large part of it has made opposition to a capitalist European Union a central policy, indeed a principle. "No to the Bosses' Europe - Yes to the Socialist United States of Europe", the slogan of the Trotskisant left, sounds good, but in practice it means and, in the absence of immediate prospects of a European working class revolution, must mean, supporting the continuation or re-erection of barriers between countries in Europe.

For the pioneers in this question, the Communist Parties and their sympathizers, and the USSR which guided them, that is what they wanted it to mean. Their de facto advocacy of the continued "Balkanisation" of Europe, flowed from their opposition to that which gave the movement to a united Europe much of its impetus - Europe as an effective antagonist of the USSR. Described candidly, it was literally opposition to progress outside Russia, outside the "utopian socialist" colony.

In the 1960s and 70s, anti-EUism came to be part of the Trotskisant Left in the 1960s and ‘70s, for whom it never made any political sense higher than keeping in with the "big battalions" of the pseudo-left.

Socialists and the labour movement cannot be consonant with our own history and oppose the unification of Europe, even by the bourgeoisie, when the immediate and short-term alternative is the old state system. Within the bourgeois moves to unification we, of course, have our own programme - working-class unity across the fading frontiers, democratic structures and procedures.

The Socialist United States of Europe has been part of our programme since World War One showed the bloody bankruptcy of the European state system, and indeed before that. Because of the multifarious defeats of communism, the working class did not unite Europe.

After the Second World War, the bourgeoisie, faced with the looming power of Stalinist Russia, looked to unite Europe in their own bourgeois-bureaucratic way, taking as their model the Zollverein, the customs union set up after the Napoleonic Wars by the myriad small German states, which over decades prepared the way for the unification of most of Germany half a century later.

"Left" opposition to the unification originated with the Stalinists. Right-wing social-democrats like Hugh Gaitskell opposed British involvement, orienting instead to the British Empire and Commonwealth. The trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Left followed suit, adding their own little Englandism and national reformism.

The would-be revolutionary Left first adapted to mainstream trade-union and Stalinist-influenced attitudes, then moved to their own "revolutionary" version of the same attitudes.

During World War One, Trotsky wrote: "Let us for a moment admit that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, just as Prussian militarism once achieved the half-union of Germany, what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat?

"Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of tariffs, 'national' coinage, 'national' social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not.

"The program of the European revolutionary movement would then be: The destruction of the compulsory anti-democratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of complete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe - without monarchy and standing armies - would under the foregoing circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution".

Trotsky underestimated the degree of nationalist recoil from such a German-imposed European unification, but the whole approach is enormously instructive in a world in which opposition to the European Union and to European unification under the bourgeoisie has for decades been a "left-wing" article of faith.

To be continued.


1. See Tony Cliff's Russia - A Marxist Analysis. The claim that all capitalist development had become reactionary was Cliff's way of avoiding, ducking, the conclusion which implicitly saturated his own version of state capitalist analysis of Stalinism - that the Stalinist economic system, presented by him as better-developing than "western" capitalism, was therefore relatively progressive. His picture of Russian Stalinism paralleled that developed by the orthodox Trotskyists. It was, beneath the name "state capitalism", one of its dialects of the orthodox Trotskyist account. Russian Stalinism had, he wrote, quoting the assessment by Marx and Engels of early capitalism in the Communist Manifesto, created wonders greater than any of the wonders of the ancient world. When he finally arrived in 1963 at a general theory of state capitalism which supposedly unified his radically different theories of state capitalism in Russian and in China, it was that state capitalism was the only way that backward countries could develop. The role of state capitalism in underdeveloped countries was analogous to the role of the bourgeoisie in the development of ordinary capitalism in Europe. It was progressive? Yes by the logic of what he wrote, and by the logic of his historical analogies. But he avoided that conclusion with the cancelling out statement that because world capitalism was ripe for socialism, therefore this state capitalism, though it was developing the means of production in a large part of the world, could not be progressive. It was reactionary. The conclusion was entirely arbitrary.

2. So, after about 1947, did the heterodox Trotskyists of the Workers Party/ISL when Max Shachtman abandoned Trotsky's idea - which he had maintained despite deciding that Russia was a new form of class society - that the USSR was historically unviable. He came to see it as a viable alternative to capitalism - indeed, to believe that it was winning in the competition with capitalism and inevitably would win if a working class socialist revolution did not in good time replace capitalism. The battle between socialism and the looming threat of world Stalinism was what the old slogan "socialism or barbarism" now meant. If Shachtman was “revisionist” vis a vis Trotsky and the Marxist tradition upon which he stood, it was here not in seeing the USSR as a new class society, but in seeing it as able to defeat capitalism by competition from its periphery.

3. The point at which “anti-imperialism” came to be used by orthodox Trotskyists as a euphemism for the Stalinist revolutions can perhaps be pin-pointed in the second month after the start of the Korean War in June 1950. For over a month after the outbreak of the war, the American orthodox Trotskyists, the SWP, hovered on the brink of a "third camp" position, refusing to back either side. They had too sharp an awareness of what Stalinist rule brought to people and to working classes not to be inhibited in backing Russia's proxy - North Korea. Their segment of the orthodox Trotskyists would not conclude that China was a "deformed workers' state" until 5 years later. They were only just bringing themselves to accept the idea, against which they had first fought bitterly, that the Stalinist satellite states in Europe were deformed workers states. They resolved their dilemma and came down solidly on the side of North Korea by way of ignoring was specific to Stalinist societies and rechristening Korean Stalinism as "the colonial revolution" in the Korean peninsula. James P Cannon, after a month's indecision, wrote an open letter to the President and Congress of the USA demanding they stop their attack on the "colonial revolution" in Korea. "Anti-imperialism" allowed him to square the political circle.


Submitted by guenter on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 00:46

For Marxists advanced capitalism is the irreplaceable mother of our socialism

i thought, capitalism wasnt much advanced in russia 1917, only a few %working class, mainly peasants? and thats why trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution, stressing the developing of capitalism on a world scale? or am i wrong?

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