IMPERIALISM AND THE U.S. ANTIWAR MOVEMENT
The term "imperialism" is heard more frequently in the U.S. to describe George W. Bush's wars, but it's still ignored by a large sector of the American peace movement.
IMPERIALISM AND THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT
By Jack A. Smith/New Paltz, NY
The use of the word "imperialism" to describe U.S. foreign policy is making a comeback in America, at least in certain liberal and conservative circles, although a significant section of the peace movement continues to avoid using the term even after Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy have done so.
Imperialism has accompanied the development of capitalism for some 500 years. The U.S. political left, Marxist and non-Marxist, has criticized imperialism fairly consistently for over a hundred years, going back to the Spanish-American War. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote his famous book "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" in 1916, arguing that "imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism." Noam Chomsky, who has written extensively about imperialism, is perhaps the best known of the non-Marxist left analysts of this phenomenon.
Imperialism was the topic of a public meeting in New Paltz, N.Y., Village Hall May 7 addressed by Brian Becker, national coordinator of the ANSWER antiwar coalition, sponsored by CLASP (Caribbean and Latin America Support Project). ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) leads the anti-imperialist sector of the peace movement and has organized demonstrations of up to 500,000 people in the nation's capital.
Becker's talk was titled, "Imperialism: What is it? Who is it? Where is it? What can we do about it?" Speaking without notes, he traced the history of imperialism from the early days of capitalism in the 15th century through "the period of 1850-70 when most of the world became colonized," to World Wars I and II, followed by the Cold War, de-colonization, neo-colonialism, Vietnam and the war against Iraq. He also discussed certain issues within the peace movement.
The last time accusations of "imperialism" enjoyed considerable vogue in the United States lasted roughly from the mid-1960s to the latter 1970s — the era of the anti-Vietnam war uprising and its aftermath. This was followed by the 12-year social-political conservative backlash of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush I years, when the term "imperialism" was bullied into disuse. It languished in relative obscurity through the eight years of Bill Clinton's center-right governance — with liberals even praising the Democratic president's "humanitarian intervention" configuration of imperialism.
While the Democrats were apoplectic over President George W. Bush's assumption of office, only the U.S. left publicly described the early months of the Bush II period as imperialistic. Bush's national security policies from Jan. 20 to Sept. 11, 2006, differed little from those of his predecessor, including the adoption of Clinton's commitment to "regime change" in Iraq, which was generally supported by both liberal and neoconservative ideologues.
The 9/11 terror attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center provided the pretext for the Bush Administration to begin openly deploying its neoconservative-driven mighty swift sword of imperial aggression — thus also provoking quite a few liberal intellectuals and writers to resurrect the charge of imperialism from the political graveyard to which it was consigned in the late 1970s.
In October 2002, after Bush announced his policy of "preemptive" war and was using lies and fear to manipulate the American people to support an endless series of wars, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) arose from the collective armchair of remnant congressional liberalism to daringly declare: "The question of whether our country should attack Iraq is playing out in the context of a more fundamental debate about how, when and where in the years ahead our country will use its unsurpassed military might.... The administration's doctrine is a call for 21st century imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.''
Few other liberal politicians to this day, including those who say they oppose the Iraq war, have joined Kennedy in making so bold a pronouncement that was particularly honest since it was his brother, the late president, who declared in 1961, "Our frontiers today are on every continent." Evidently, the Bush Administration's frontiers are extending even further outward, causing former President Jimmy Carter to declare last year that "there are determined efforts by top U.S. leaders to exert American imperial dominance throughout the world."
Many other liberal politicians have remained mute, however, fearful of forthrightly naming precisely what Bush is doing in the Middle East and Central Asia lest their patriotism be questioned or their party's complicity exposed. They seem to belong to the category identified by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert when he wrote the following May 8:
"With superhawk Republicans like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani making their way toward the starting gate for the 2008 White House run, the terminally timid Democrats continue to obsess about what they ought to be saying, neurotically analyzing every syllable they hesitatingly utter, as opposed to simply saying what they really believe."
This is despite the fact that — as John Bellamy Foster points out in his new book, "Naked Imperialism" (Monthly Review Press) — "imperialism is more embraced by the U.S. power structure [today] than at any other time since the 1890s," a period of crass imperialist aggression by Washington that spawned a lively anti-imperialist movement throughout the country at the time.
Supporters of the neoconservative clique in the White House have been unusually forthcoming in their embrace of imperialism and empire-building. For example, in 2002, influential neoconservative historian Max Boot actually wrote that "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." He also argued quite seriously in the Financial Times for Washington to create the equivalent of the British Colonial Office to administer its new imperial holdings.
Some two months before the U.S. invaded Iraq the New York Times published a cover story in its Sunday Magazine titled, "American Empire (Get Used to It)," by Michael Ignatieff, who beat the war drums for American aggression and hegemony: "Being an imperial power... means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest.... It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century."
Writing in the New Yorker in February 2004, moderate liberal Joshua Micah Marshall commented that "After Sept. 11... conservatives increasingly began to espouse a world view that was unapologetically imperialist. You could watch this happening in Washington's think tanks. Over their lunchroom tables, in their seminar rooms, on the covers of their small magazines, the idea of empire got a thorough airing — particularly among ideologues close to the policymakers planning the war on terror."
Neoconservative pro-imperialist panegyrics have been muted since last year when it became apparent the U.S. can occupy Iraq but not win the war, but even now the Democratic Party dares not utter the one word in the English language that is appropriate to describe the Bush Administration's foreign endeavors. The reason, according to Becker in his New Paltz Village Hall talk, is that the "opposition" party is not only cowardly but has been politically complicit in launching and supporting the war until the present moment. He argued that this is because the Democratic Party shares with the Republicans the same commitment to extending U.S. hegemony throughout the world — whether by reliance on military intervention or economic penetration backed by the threat of armed force and sanctions.
Imperialism, Becker continued, is not a policy that can be turned on and off depending on which party occupies the White House. "It is the dominant feature of modern global capitalism, an inherent element in all advanced capitalist economic systems," he said, adding: "Imperialism is not just arbitrary plunder and conquest, but an essential element in the accumulation of capital that is necessary for survival in the competitive capitalist world."
Becker, an editor of Socialism and Liberation magazine ( http://www.socialismandliberation.org), argued that in today's world, advanced capitalist countries and their multinational corporations are continuously engaged in fierce competition for raw materials, expanding markets, cheap labor, profits and economic domination — whether through peaceful or violent means. Therefore, he argued, the political struggle against imperialism must take place at all times, not just during shooting wars in which the U.S. has engaged overtly or covertly dozens of times in recent decades but during periods of relative peace as well.
Bill Clinton, for example — while responsible for unjustly attacking Yugoslavia and frequently bombing prostrate Iraq while presiding over savage sanctions that killed over a million Iraqis — largely advanced the fortunes of U.S. economic and political hegemony through means that did not directly rely on military violence. This was accomplished through NAFTA or the machinations of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund or through bribery and threats. Does that mean Clinton was not pursuing imperialism? Hardly, according to Chalmers Johnson, a former Cold War hawk, who described Clinton as being a more dangerous imperialist than Bush. The author of "Blowback" and "The Sorrows of Empire" — two indispensable books for informed antiwar activists — he argued that "Under the Clinton model, the United States ruled the world, but it did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations... . Clinton camouflaged his policies by carrying them out under the banner of 'globalization.' This allowed the U.S. to maneuver rich but gullible nations to do its bidding."
Becker's main point was that whether by force or more peaceful means, whether directed by Republicans or Democrats, the U.S. — as the leading world capitalist superpower — is obligated to extend its imperial domination in order to exercise economic, political and military supremacy. If it loses that supremacy, as did imperialist leader Great Britain after World War II, it becomes subordinate to other capitalist powers. The use of force to secure imperial hegemony has been more prevalent than peaceful means during the last century. The two devastating World Wars were, after all, intra-capitalist wars initiated for imperialist objectives. The U.S., which defended itself from imperialist aggression by Japan and Germany, emerged from the ashes of World War II as the only capitalist superpower and has continuously sought to expand its realm ever since.
The U.S. did not disarm after World War II but launched the Cold War instead — American capitalism's attempt to destroy the development of an alternative economic system, continuing until the implosion of the USSR and the socialist camp in 1990. Instead of reducing its huge Cold War military apparatus, the U.S. then began searching for new targets — in part to extend its conquests, in part to sustain an American economy that had become, and remains, thoroughly dependent on war spending.
Bush's open-ended war on terrorism against a relative handful of religious fanatics was settled upon, in effect, as a successor to the Cold War. Bush once again made this ahistorical comparison in his West Point speech May 27, this time claiming the mantle of President Harry S. Truman in the process.
U.S. military spending today is now higher than ever, and Washington's post-Cold War ambitions appear more extensive. The invasion of Afghanistan has provided the Pentagon with large military bases throughout the Central Asia region — including in three former republics of the USSR — all of which now threaten western China. The conquest of Iraq was supposed to result in the extension of U.S. hegemony throughout the entire Middle East, as well as to provide Washington with permanent military bases from which to launch attacks on Syria and Iran, although that objective seems to have gone up in the smoke of roadside bombs.
To a certain extent, the U.S. is still fighting a mini-Cold War. The fear of a possible socialist alternative is the reason why Washington backed the aborted coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, why it is undoubtedly contemplating intervention in Bolivia, and why it has ceaselessly tried to destroy socialism in Cuba for nearly a half century. China, of course, is U.S. imperialism's main strategic target, assuming it continues growing economically for another couple of decades. Interestingly, this is not because the Beijing government describes itself as communist or due to its military prowess, but because China's successful embrace of capitalistic practices is perceived as a serious threat to Washington's economic dominance.
During the question and answer period, Becker was asked to describe ANSWER's role in the antiwar movement, and specifically how it differed from the other leading peace coalition — United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ).
In outline, he replied that ANSWER was formed by anti-imperialist groups a few days after the 9/11 attacks, correctly anticipating that Bush would exploit and exacerbate the malaise and fear that overtook the population to launch a series of wars to extend U.S. hegemony in the geostrategic Middle East and Central Asia. The new coalition organized a mass antiwar demonstration in Washington less than three weeks after the terrorist incident, and has continued its protest for peace ever since. UFPJ was organized nearly two years later and cooperated in several big demonstrations with ANSWER up to the Washington protest last September (2005) that drew some 300,000 people. Several weeks later, in an act that split the antiwar movement in order to isolate the anti-imperialist coalition, UFPJ publicly announced it would no longer participate in joint actions with ANSWER. (Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter readers received full texts from both sides on this matter in December.)
Regarding the question about UFPJ, Becker said the two coalitions "have a great deal in common," not the least being they both call for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Although this is a major concordance, he indicated it was "not sufficient" in itself to educate the antiwar movement about the imperialist danger emanating from Washington.
Becker opined that one of the important differences between the coalitions was the question of orientation toward the Democratic Party.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, ANSWER called for demonstrations outside both the Democratic and Republican conventions, particularly since the centrist/center-right "opposition" party was about to nominate a candidate who not only supported the right wing administration's illegal and unjust war but insisted that only the Democrats could win in Iraq, especially when led by war hero John F. Kerry. The other coalition ignored the Democratic convention in Boston and organized a massive protest outside the Republican event in New York City, the essence of which was support for "anyone but Bush," obviously meaning war hawk Kerry. Criticism of Democratic Party support for the war was muffled — an opportunist move that weakened the struggle for peace.
ANSWER's argument is that the antiwar movement should be totally independent of the two ruling parties, especially since the "lesser evil" party has not only supported this particular war at every turn but subscribes to the broader quest for U.S. world hegemony through coercion and violence. Becker recently wrote that "we have no interest in building a mass movement that will function as the 'loyal opposition' for a system that is in essence imperialist."
Another difference is between an anti-imperialist outlook that includes a major antiwar component, and an antiwar outlook that ignores or denies an anti-imperialist component. As a result of its outlook, ANSWER's events focus not only on opposing Washington's war of the moment but on relating that war to the situation of all countries threatened by U.S. imperialism, from Cuba and Venezuela to Iran and DPR Korea. It also brings up matters such as racism, class oppression and world poverty, which it considers subsidiaries of imperialism. The objective in making such connections is to elevate political consciousness of the imperialist character of Washington's wars in order to fight the disease as well as the symptoms.
A further difference is ANSWER's insistence upon giving a certain prominence in demonstrations to support for the Palestinian people against Israeli oppression and calling for withdrawal from all the occupied territories (a position that has some support within Israel itself but which is extremely limited in the United States). UFPJ expresses sympathy for the Palestinian plight, but the extent of ANSWER's commitment to the issue is an important reason for the decision to break relations. Not the least rationale for minimizing the Palestinian struggle in the antiwar movement is the fact of the Democratic Party's total support of Israel.
The message Becker brought to the CLASP meeting is the same one ANSWER has been projecting to the mass movement for nearly five years: America's offensive wars are not a mistake, or the result of an errant political administration in Washington. They are not conducted for humanitarian reasons or to spread democracy. They are wars embarked upon by those who rule the United States to extend the parameters of economic, military and political hegemony and to strengthen Washington's world domination.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has engaged in overt and covert war after war almost continuously, mostly against small, far weaker countries, as though fulfilling the dictum of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." As soon as one war ends, planning begins for the next one. The plans for attacking Iran already exist. The plans for regime-change in Cuba likewise exist. The plans for subverting Venezuela have been updated since the last failed attempt. The plans for China are in the works, as undoubtedly are those for dealing with Russia. There are many more such plans. It's systemic, which is why it is important for the antiwar movement to attack the imperial cause of Washington's wars as well as the effects.
[Editor's Note: There are many books about imperialism and, according to Google, 22.8 million articles and books online. Noam Chomsky's interview by David Barsamian a couple of years ago, titled "Telling the truth about imperialism," makes excellent brief reading and is reprinted at http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/200311--.htm. James Petras and William Blum, among many others, are worth looking up in this regard. Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism," is the key text that brought anti-imperialist studies into the modern era and politicized the struggle against colonialism and war. It's at http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/200311--.htm. James Petras and William Blum, among many others, are worth looking up in this regard. Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism," is the key text that brought anti-imperialist studies into the modern era and politicized the struggle against colonialism and war. It's at link to www.marxists.org.]
--This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2006, Issue of the
HUDSON VALLEY ACTIVIST NEWSLETTER, published in New Paltz, NY
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