Liberal apologists for empire

May 29, 2009

Ashley Smith reviews an important book that contrasts pro-war traditions of liberalism with the revolutionary Marxist opposition to imperialism.

SINCE THE end of the Cold War, the U.S. has justified the expansion of its informal empire with humanitarian rhetoric, claiming that it was protecting victims from despotic governments, from Yugoslavia to Iraq today. Such claims are as old as imperialism itself.

What has been shocking is the host of liberals--and ex-leftists like Christopher Hitchens--who have rallied to cause of empire, swallowing hook, line and sinker U.S. claims of humanitarian motives for imperial war.

In the wake of the fall of Stalinism and disillusionment with postcolonial regimes in the Third World, many liberals and even sections of the left lost their bearings and supported U.S. imperialism--the very force many had opposed as the source of so much oppression and exploitation. Instead, they argued that the U.S. could--and should--solve humanitarian crises in the world. These pro-war liberals became, in the apt phrase of author Jean Bricmont, useful idiots for empire.

Richard Seymour's new book, The Liberal Defense of Murder, is a tour de force--a magnificent attack on pro-war liberals today and their precursors. His book provides a genealogy of liberal and reformist support for empire, from the European conquest of the world to the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq today.

Aftermath of "humanitarian" air strikes during the NATO war on Yugoslavia
Aftermath of "humanitarian" air strikes during the NATO war on Yugoslavia

WITH THE expansion of European imperialism at the dawn of the modern period, liberal intellectuals supplied their ruling classes with ideas, especially white supremacy in its various guises, to justify conquest and war.

Seymour exposes how leading figures of liberal thought, such as Hugo Grotius and John Stuart Mill, played this role for their respective empires. For example, Mill wrote in his famous essay "On Liberty" that "despotism is legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end."

As Seymour argues, "Liberal imperialism thus constructed the colonial subjects at best as passive victims, needful of tutelage, capable of self-government after a spell of European supremacy, and at worst as fanatics and murderers, racially degenerate peoples given to tyranny and unnatural practices, fit only for subordination."

With the rise of capitalist imperialism, however, an anti-imperialist tradition developed in opposition, spearheaded in the 19th century by Marxism. Seymour shows how revolutionary Marxists have always provided the backbone for robust opposition to empire.

Initially, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels themselves shared some of the illusions about how European conquest might play a progressive role in facilitating capitalist development, thereby make possible a working-class revolution in the colonies. However, both consistently opposed imperial conquest and exposed its brutality. Moreover, Marx and Engels championed the anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements, such as in Poland and Ireland.

Marx also showed how colonialism, especially in the case of Britain's occupation of Ireland, instilled prejudices among workers that prevented the unity of the working class and oppressed peoples against their common exploiters.

A full-blown Marxist critique of imperialism and national oppression, however, would have to wait for the Russian revolutionary Lenin in the early 20th century. Lenin elaborated a Marxist theory in support of colonized nations' right of self-determination as part of building an international working-class movement for socialism.

Seymour argues that leftists who have ended up joining liberals in support of imperialism have either abandoned Marxism, or were reformist socialists to begin with. While they may have retained some critique of society from the left of center, this did not extend to opposing imperialism. Thus, the British Fabian socialists and the Labour Party always supported the British Empire's rule over India and other colonies.

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In another example, the reformist wing of Germany's Social Democratic Party, led by Eduard Bernstein, openly supported, in terms that are eerily familiar today, what he called a "humane" and "nonaggressive colonialism." Bernstein declared--with complete disregard for the facts--that, "under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before."

Seymour writes:

Liberal and socialist supporters of empire accepted the moral authority of the polities in which they were active, and identified with their interests and priorities...Consistently denying the right (and even ability) of the indigenous population to resist subjection, believing the worst about them and the best about the colonial overlords, they used their influence over "hearts and minds" to neutralize liberal and leftist criticism of imperial forms of exploitation.

Tragically, most leading socialists of the Second International had abandoned revolutionary Marxism for reformism by the eve of the First World War. Thus, instead of opposing the gigantic inter-imperial slaughter over the carve-up of the world, they backed their "fatherlands"--their own capitalist states. The exception was Lenin's Bolshevik Party in Russia, which along with a revolutionary minority in other countries, argued that workers could achieve peace only by overthrowing the main enemy--their own governments.

The Bolsheviks succeeded. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought workers to power and took Russia out of the war. But other revolutions that erupted during that period failed, isolating Russia's workers' state. In the late 1920s, Russia suffered an internal counter-revolution at the hands of Stalin and the rising state bureaucracy. Stalinism then became an imperialist force in its own right, conquering Eastern Europe after the Second World War.

Stalin effectively controlled Communist Parties around the world, instructing them to defend Russia's conquests. And when Russia ordered the parties to curry favor with their own governments, this meant giving support to their own countries' empires.

For example, the French Communist Party endorsed France's colonial rule over Algeria. In another example, the British Communist Party joined Stalin's Russia in supporting the founding of the state of Israel, and its consequent dispossession of nearly 1 million Palestinians of their land.

AFTER THIS survey of European imperialism and its left-wing apologists, Seymour reveals how similar patterns developed with the rise of U.S. imperialism. He emphasizes that the U.S. was founded as a "herrenvolk democracy"--a white republic, built on chattel slavery and genocide against Native Americans and buttressed with racism. American liberalism and much of the reformist left provided the ideological justification for this.

Seymour recounts how the U.S. became a major imperialist power at the end of the 19th century. President Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913 to 1921, embodied the official liberal face of empire. He declared that the U.S. must batter down barriers to its commerce even if "the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused." Unsurprisingly, Wilson was a racist who supported the Ku Klux Klan, and thought "politically undeveloped races" were incapable of self-government.

Most U.S. liberals supported the new imperialism and America's late entry into the First World War in 1917. The Socialist Party, however, opposed the war, even though elements in the party's right wing supported it. Soon afterward, the party split, with the left founding the Communist Party (CP), which resolutely opposed U.S. imperialism.

The CP's anti-imperialist politics didn't survive the Stalinist takeover of the party, however. After Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin ordered the party to abandon its opposition to the Second World War. Thus, CP members, who had played leading roles in the labor movement, supported a ban on wartime strikes. The party went on to advocate the internment of Japanese Americans, expel its Japanese membership and declare "Communism to be 20th Century Americanism."

Seymour argues that without opposition from a revolutionary Marxist left of any significant size, the U.S. was able to create a base of popular support for imperialism. He contends:

What made way for the emergence of a solid hegemonic imperial constituency was the de-radicalization of the Left and its near-collapse under the bitter experience of McCarthyism and associated forms of repression.

Once again, the USSR played a central role here: the betrayal of the early democratic promise of the Russian Revolution was crushing for many; and the repeated, bewildering change in Moscow's party line were disconcerting for those who kept the faith. Socialism was therefore rendered a singularly unattractive proposition to most Americans, particularly given the relatively stability of the post-war West.

In the wake of the Second World War, Cold War liberalism, represented by Democratic Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, became hegemonic in the U.S. It promised mild tinkering with the system at home and support for anti-communist right wing dictatorships abroad.

Liberal and reformists like the Socialist Party's Norman Thomas formed an "anti-totalitarian" left in support of American imperialism against fascism and Stalinism. They invoked Hannah Arendt's work on totalitarianism to justify support of U.S. imperialism--even though Arendt, in fact, argued that imperialism itself was a source of totalitarianism. They proved Arendt correct by supporting U.S.-backed right-wing dictators and U.S. imperialism in Vietnam.

The Cold War liberal consensus soon met a challenge, however: the New Left that grew out of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. These struggles exposed racism and social inequality at home and opposed imperialism abroad.

Seymour argues that neoconservatism--exemplified most recently by the hawks who led the Bush administration--formed as a reaction against this radicalization. He shows that neocons were actually "Cold War liberals who had become terrified by the explosion of radicalism they were witnessing on campuses, in Black neighborhoods and in Third World countries."

In making this case, Seymour debunks the widespread myth that the neocons, the leading pro-imperialist intellectual current of modern times, were an outgrowth of Trotskyism. While it is true that a few ex-Trotskyists became neocons, they abandoned Marxism and Trotskyism in the process of transforming themselves into apologists for empire.

With the retreat of the social movements in the 1970s and the disillusionment with post-Mao China among New Leftists, U.S. imperialism took the opportunity to regroup and rehabilitate its project. Successive administrations found willing aides de camp among not only neoconservatives, but also the "anti-totalitarian" left and ex-Maoists intellectuals.

France, which had been the scene of a new flowering of radicalism in 1968, transformed itself into the capital of European intellectual reaction. Former Maoists like France's Bernard Kouchner or Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL) joined the so-called New Philosophers to reassert Eurocentrism against Third Worldism. They upheld the right and duty of imperial powers to defeat totalitarianism, and bring civilization to the barbarians by any means necessary.

These intellectuals transmogrified each new supposed enemy into a totalitarian--a "new Hitler" that U.S. imperialism had a duty to overthrow. Within a decade, ex-radical intellectuals around the world were fronting for imperialism. For example, BHL in France and Paul Berman in the U.S. supported the contras, the reactionary death squads that fought against the Nicaraguan Revolution.

AFTER THE collapse of the USSR in 1991, the rout was nearly complete. Many leftists capitulated to the market and U.S. imperialism. In Britain, the ex-Marxist intellectual Fred Halliday supported the Gulf War, declaring Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to as a "contemporary variant of European fascism." Ex-leftist intellectuals of all sorts backed intervention in Yugoslavia and Kosovo to stop yet another Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Canadian-British writer Michael Ignatieff explicitly called for a new, enlightened imperialism from "the democratic free world, the Christian West," to address the crisis in the developing world, where independence, in his view, had "an age of ethnic cleansing and state failure." Seymour writes, "Thus, empire is necessary to reconstitute the 'global order of stable nation states,' necessarily led by that country that the historian Gerald Horne has justly called the 'world heavyweight champion of white supremacy.'"

Following the 9/11 attack, these left apologists for empire went into high gear. They denounced "Islamofascism" in support of U.S. imperialism's attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. As Seymour writes, "The decade of humanitarian intervention provided the ideological reflexes for justifying the war on Iraq."

In the wake of revelations about the oppressive, corrupt warlord state the U.S. installed in Afghanistan and the humanitarian catastrophe it caused in Iraq, many on the pro-war left have retreated in embarrassment.

But instead of blaming the real problem--U.S. imperialism--figures like Michael Ignatieff, in a reprise of Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden," attacked Iraqis as incapable of self-government. And he and others continue to demonize all resistance to imperialism for being barbaric, fanatic, illiberal and, of course, totalitarian.

The liberal and reformist intellectuals have played a vital role in justifying the new imperialism. As Seymour argues:

The liberal façade is important for the empire, because those claiming to draw on leftist traditions are not, like their militarist friends on the right, sullied by having espoused principles of inequality for decades. Liberals and socialists can claim without embarrassment to support the empire because of their profound internationalism, because of their egalitarian commitments, because they hate fascism, and because they favor gender inequality. A look at what they have helped to rationalize and humanize, and the means they have used to do so, suggests that the colonial habits of mind have not left us.

Seymour concludes that the pro-war left is really nothing new, but is a re-emergent tradition of intellectual justification of empire.

Seymour has written a brilliant intertwined history of imperialism and the collaborationist role that liberal and reformist intellectuals and parties have played over the last couple of hundred years. It is a must read to re-arm a generation of leftists.

But there is a vital history of anti-imperialism and anti-racism in the U.S.--one that Seymour does not sufficiently explore.

This dissident tradition includes the Anti-Imperialist League during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the left wing of the Socialist Party during the First World War, and the vital anti-imperialist current that developed during the mass movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. While Seymour refers to this tradition in his book, he focuses more on the dominant tradition of liberal and reformist collaboration with imperialism.

This dissident anti-imperialist tradition must be resurrected. It can serve as an example for a new generation of activists faced with Barack Obama, who, in a rerun of Cold War liberalism, promises to pass reforms at home, while he pursues an imperial agenda in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

But this is a minor reservation about a pivotal book. Perhaps the most important theme of the book is the necessity for anti-imperialists--as Seymour argued at the Left Forum in New York City this spring--to take Marxism and Lenin's Bolsheviks seriously.

The Marxist tradition offers the best strategy to oppose imperialism defend the right of nations to self-determination--and put an end to imperial wars through international working class revolution.

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