The Tropes of Anti-Anti Imperialism, Part 1: The Rise of Imperialist Internationalism

by Patrick

In “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” I essentially argue against what I regard as a deeply liberal approach to the war on Syria that atomizes history. What does this mean? The atomizing of history refers to the attempt to shear the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context of struggle against colonialism and imperialism, supplemented by the attempt to forget or suppress memory around the wider patterns of US imperialism across the world and in the Arab world specifically. In atomized history, the US can promote war in a single region for over half a century, and Arab nationalist republics can conspicuously burn while monarchies remain stable, with only an extended series of “isolated incidents” to show for it all. As expected, there has been backlash against my article in some quarters. Most of it is just noise. Nonetheless, the anti-anti imperialist tropes at work in some of that noise have become endemic, so I will address them in a series of posts, in a way that hopefully transcends controversy around a single article and speaks to the wider issues of war and peace today. At the same time, in order to keep matters grounded and for points of clarity, I will occasionally refer back to the only formally written reply I’ve received, an attack that contains all the hallmarks of anti-anti-imperialism: aggressive and arrogant, to be sure, but also specious.

I. The Rise of Imperialist Internationalism

My most recent writing on the subject of the United States and Syria can be read in Viewpoint Magazine. The article has a targeted audience, a limited scope, and a specific purpose. It addresses English-language readers (and presumably self-identified leftists) generally, but particularly those living in the United States. Its basic purpose is to theorize the role of the US in Syria as a contribution towards the construction of a renewed antiwar movement. The article clearly demarcates these limitations: “How does the destruction in Syria fit into broader historical patterns? How do we situate the war on Syria into the histories of U.S. imperialism, the Arab world (including Palestine), and the relationship between the two? It is only by positing those questions that we can develop the theoretical grounding necessary to build the movements and establish the alliances required to defeat the U.S. war machine in Syria and elsewhere.” Since its publication, I have encountered two forms of critical response (a generous description, I admit), often intertwined. One form, much more rare, criticizes the article on its own terms, for what it actually attempts to accomplish. Another form insists that the article should’ve been about something else. For now, I’ll deal with the latter.

In setting demarcations, I also reveal what the article most certainly is not: a dossier on the subject of “Syria.” (Any such attempt would inevitably fall short, anyways.) If anyone is disinterested in or hostile towards the goal undergirding the entire article as the assumed basis for shared grounds—the necessity of rebuilding an antiwar movement in the United States—then it goes without saying that they’ll have no use for such an article. But for those who are interested in the reconstruction of the antiwar movement, I’ll first address a question that should frankly be considered preposterous: why isn’t this article about Russia, Turkey or Iran, all of which are nation-states with military roles in Syria?

I actually do consider US imperialism uniquely dangerous at this point in history, but we need not even indulge a discussion of Russia’s role in Syria to get the most pressing point on this issue. The fact is, such a question coming from US organizers indicates extreme cognitive dissonance, or at the very least an awesome inability to study US society holistically. The strategy of Trump and his associates to nurture anti-social white nationalist ideology for the purposes of brutal domestic repression and social control represents only one piece of the total problem. The strategy of his ostensible “resistance” in the Democratic Party to stigmatize the nativist Trump for, of all possible offenses, a lack of patriotism only consolidates consent for white supremacy in the form of the US nation-state itself. After all, Trump’s white nationalist strategy merely capitalizes on hundreds of years of settler-colonialism and war, and more recently the racist accumulations arising from the normalization of quotidian state practices such as mass incarceration, ICE deportation, and militarized border control. Both parties of capital have identified their preferred alien enemies of the state: immigrants for the GOP, Russia for the Democrats. It goes without saying that both parties find shared enemies in recalcitrant nations and global competitors to US rule, from Venezuela and Korea to China.

These ultimately complimentary brands of xenophobia do not exclusively circulate in state and media. They stream into, and in turn develop strength from, rhetoric and practices found within the broader US populace. A recent Syria-related demonstration in Washington, DC, provides a glimpse as to where this is all going. A protest event organized February 9th, named “Speak Up for Syria’s Civilians” assembled at the White House to demand “international leadership to protect Syria’s civilians, followed by a march to the Russian Ambassador’s House, holding to account the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The language may be cagey, but it reads like a possible call for war with Russia. Assuming that people who tend to be moved by humanitarian concerns for Syrians are not generally on board with Trump’s overall agenda, we can see in these forms of mobilization the tendency underlining Democratic Party hysteria about Russian subversion towards imperialist reconciliation. For underlying the liberal accusations of disloyalty against Trump, at all times, is the implication that liberals will embrace him once he turns against their preferred military target. (We have already seen this take place, when he ordered the bombing of a Syrian government military target.) As it stands, any contradictions between the two major wings of capital in the United States will be resolved through war—a potentially massive one. Any US leftist who shares priorities with the two wings of capital is only helping to manufacture total consent for white supremacy, spanning from college social justice advocates to Republican Party voters. In the process, these leftists perhaps more than anybody else deliver the coup de grâce against the remains of domestic US opposition to the dictatorship of capital.

Besides, after many years doing antiwar work, I am well aware that the “appropriate” time to discuss US imperialist activities, as they are actually happening, will never actually arrive. US officials, much like Russia-obsessed leftist stalwarts of the “Syrian Revolution,” always invoke some eastern menace in response. More interesting is the ways in which anti-anti imperialists have given leftish-sounding language to similar tactics. For instance, I stand accused, as I have been for years, of “denying the agency” of Syrian people as it is usually phrased in a compulsive nod to recent trends in liberal academia. (As a side note, the word “agency” contains little value if not grounded in Marxist theory; search long enough and you will even come across Columbia University books celebrating the “agency” of footbinding.) The blogger “Cautious Pessimist” uses a different phrase: “Imperial Purity.” The point of both phrases is to suggest that anti-imperialists, in their narcissistic self-absorption, make “everything” about the US. (I must ask, do these people know anti-imperialists outside of the US? There are quite a few, and their hatred for US imperialism could often be described as pure.) The function of this trope is to construct a strawman of anti-imperialists who believe the US is “omnipotent” in order to distract from or downplay what is accurate in their assessments of the powerful capabilities and ill intentions that the US actually does possess.

This trope is not new. Neither is it limited to leftists. It is an argument that has before been voiced by conservative academics and US officials, rendering its arrival on the lips of self-described radicals a perfect death knell for the memory of internationalism. I don’t know what the consensus of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile is in left-wing politics today, given our addled language and abandoned traditions, but there was once a time where leftists widely viewed that event as an unambiguous atrocity committed by CIA, a sinister conspiracy executed by the agents of capital against the Chilean people, consigning them to decades of US-backed junta rule. That lesson was bequeathed to subsequent generations by anti-imperialists of the period who refused at the time to listen to one Dr. James Theberge, Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown’s Center for Strategic and International Studies when he insisted—anticipating the rhetorical evasions of the anti-anti imperialists of today—that blaming Richard Nixon and the CIA were “intemperate and ill-informed claims” reflecting “the paternalistic mentality towards Latin America and the illusion of American omnipotence that is still pervasive in certain circles in the United States.” Theberge might’ve spread disinformation for the CIA, but hey, at least he didn’t deny Chilean agency!

There is no need, however, to go all the way back to 1973 to find examples of this maneuver performed by, let us say, compromised individuals. At a recent speech in Canada, Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice pled that “we” cannot let recent events in Iran “be about Trump or the US,” and that “we ought to speak up foil for its bad behavior and we cannot let the Iranian government have that opportunity.” Here is Rice’s attempt, to turn to another popular phrase “center” Iranian “voices”: “Trump’s remarks about the Iranian protesters were manipulated by the Iranian regime. We must support the pro-democracy sentiments of Iranians. Iran supports terrorism and destabilization.” Since these remarks come from a woman who worked in the highest levels of the very US empire that actually does conspire against Iran with sanctions and war threats, it is safe to read them as demands for enlistment. Some people may hear her words and decide to voluntarily report for duty. Their political prerogatives may be those of the US empire, but they’d at least be transparent. What is unbelievable, and what says a lot about our times, is that because I quote US ruling class actors with the explicit intention to resist their actions I can be accused of “[adopting]…the viewpoint of capital and the state “ by those literally adopting the above-quoted viewpoints of capital and the state!

If anybody is wondering why a US antiwar movement is necessary (to say nothing of an anti-imperialist movement), it is necessary to consider the bigger picture of what’s been lost since its demise. On that note, let me turn to a set of basic observations about the relevance of studying history. On the one hand, history does not contain the capital-A answer to the problems of our world today. On the other hand, history contains the events and processes that led us to the world we inhabit today. If your goal, as an individual or as a collective, is to construct a movement for revolutionary change, history will provide, if not a clear indication of what “worked” and what did not (after all, we continue to live under capitalism), at least a series of indications of what advanced the struggles of the people and simultaneously decreased the power of the ruling class, and vice versa. If we live in the United States, our consideration would then have to become more specific, as an unusual aspect of our struggle against the resident ruling regime is that it is not simply against a state with its coercive apparatuses ruling over the limited territory allotted to it by the nation-state system. Rather, its military power (only one form of its cumulative power) extends to over 800 military bases in over 70 additional countries. To put that in perspective, the total number of outside military bases belonging to Britain, France, and Russia number 30 combined. It helps, I believe, to think of this kind of authority as “imperial sovereignty.”

Our next step would then be to consider if, since the era when imperial authority of this magnitude began to take shape, its power has ever been significantly eroded. We may consider when the US ruling class felt that its grip was slipping. As related by Max Elbaum on the height of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger lamented the fact that 250 State Department employees had resigned over imperialist aggression against Vietnam, he fearfully noted that “the entire edifice of government was falling apart.” This domestic crisis of legitimacy for US rulers cast such a long shadow that it still haunts them today, forcing them, wherever possible, to subcontract wars-for-profit to other states and run them in secret. The rulers have even given that lurking shadow a name: “the Vietnam Syndrome.” After the demise of the antiwar movement and the revolutionary fervor that came with it, US officials rejoiced at their ability to launch aggressive wars once again without any major opposition from a maladjusted domestic populace. After decades of bad memories, it was high time get back to the good old days when they ordered genocidal bombing campaigns upon Korea while only having Paul Robeson and a few assorted peace groups to worry about. After US Special Forces successfully burned Panama City to the ground in Operation Just Cause of 1989 and the US Air Force bombed Iraq relentlessly in 1991 with barely a domestic peep to be heard, then President George H.W. Bush effectively declared victory for his class’s counterrevolution: “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

In surveying this history and the overall tug-of-war between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution contained within it, we might ask about the analyses, alliances, and coalitions that animated the height of the people’s struggles. Put succinctly, the alliances and coalitions at work were internationalist. That word, of course, held a much different meaning than it seems to now, for it indicated then that revolutionaries living in the US would take the actions necessary to inhibit the offensive capabilities of the US military overseas, ever repressive and violent in countries like Vietnam, that oppressed and attacked them at home, in cities like Detroit where quite literally soldiers returning home from carrying out war on Vietnam were ordered to attack Black freedom fighters in July of 1967. What it most certainly did not mean was converging with the geopolitical aims of, and sharing messages and slogans with, the US regime.

At the height of the US antiwar movement, “systemic analysis” was the mode of thought that informed these alliances. “Making connections” was the phrase of the day. This task did not simply involve analogizing varied forms of pain and struggle, although that aspect was certainly important for purposes of mobilization. Just as crucially, it meant identifying the exact state networks and multinational corporations inflicting and profiting from the pain and struggle that must be alleviated through liberation. This latter part is absolutely key. It illustrates the difference between making abstract comparisons and building a plan of action. Through systemic analyses, we identify a common enemy and potential sites of confrontation. We gain the knowledge upon which we are able to construct strategy and devise tactics through the power of organizations and mass movements (and not just as individual commentators on the internet), and in the process make a material contribution to liberation, for ourselves and for others.

The task of making these connections was not only taken up by people’s movements. It was also taken up by the intellectuals and scholars immersed within those movements. For example, in a clear strategic attempt to expand the field of struggle against the most powerful common enemy of the oppressed worldwide, Walter Rodney drew a connection between the US’s war on Vietnam and its earlier campaigns to exterminate Native Americans, writing:

“In recent times, it has become an object of concern to some liberals that the U.S.A. is capable of war crimes of the order of My Lai in Vietnam. But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade.”

Rodney was updating earlier observations made by Marx: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Eduardo Galeano made a similar argument, proposing that the problem of combined and uneven development—the inequality between nations in the global order that enables imperial sovereignty and provides the ability of some states today to invade and dismember other societies—is a structural imbalance built on processes of colonialism dating back upwards of 500 years. Alas, for the opponents of systemic analysis, remembering all of these insights is just an act of romantic yearning. But how could that be when, as I argued in Viewpoint, “the U.S. practice of destroying societies wholesale, as the United States had attempted in Vietnam” continues today? The US ruling class’s wars have not ceased. Depressingly, only our collective resistance has abated.

Part of the issue is that collective resistance requires ideological support. Structural changes in the composition and channels of capital have produced a major ideological crisis. It is essential to consider the depth of that crisis, the possibility that white supremacy and colonial worldviews permeate not only their traditional domains of “conservatives” and “liberals,” but those of the self-described radical left as well. Let us turn to a salient example. The Marx of Walter Rodney has an opposite today in the Marx of, say, Christopher Hitchens. We ought not dismiss what Hitchens, loathsome as he very well was, still has to teach us about the place in which we find ourselves simply because he discredited himself with too blatant an imperialist turn in supporting the invasion of Iraq. No, he believed in that moment that he was acting as an internationalist, which he often claimed to have picked up from his Trotskyist political upbringing. He made his argument on those terms. “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism,” Hitchens complained in 2001. “[C]ertainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.” The Eastern bloc had collapsed, US empire had stood tall, and by 1999, the “anti-globalization” protests in Seattle had convinced Hitchens that anti-systemic movements had become hopelessly reactionary in the face of US-led international capital, a cover for decaying and defensive dictatorships, paranoia, and superstitious bigotries:

“I do remember thinking that [the Port Huron Statement of 1962] had a sort of archaic character to it, exactly the kind of thing that Marx attacked, in fact, in the early critiques of capitalism. What [Students for a Democratic Society] seemed to want was a sort of organic, more rural-based, traditional society, which probably wouldn’t be a good thing if you could have it. But you can’t, so it’s foolish to demand such a thing. This tendency has come out as the leading one in what I can see of the anti-globalization protesters. I hear the word globalization and it sounds to me like a very good idea. I like the sound of it. It sounds innovative and internationalist… The Seattle protesters, I suppose you could say, in some ways came from the left. You couldn’t say they came from the right, although a hysterical aversion to world government and internationalism is a very, very American nativist right-wing mentality.”

This set of observations informed Hitchens’ later support for the US invasion of Iraq. If US-led capitalism was internationalist, it could therefore modernize. It could reduce superstition and deliver enlightenment. We know what US-led capitalism—through NATO, NAFTA, the World Bank, etc.—has wrought: more poverty, more inequality, more violence. And let us not forget that Hitchens didn’t solely claim Thomas Paine and Jefferson as his inspirations; he also claimed Marx. He therefore did not necessarily experience some grand conversion from the left to the right. He was simply following through to the logical conclusions of the “Marxism” in which he believed, and he employed his imperialist reasoning, in the name of teleological progress and historical materialism, well before 2001. “1492 was a very good year and deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto,” Hitchens wrote in 1992, on the centenary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, adding:

“…[T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway . . . [I]t does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.”

Well, there you have it! The longtime resident “Marxist” at the left-liberal Nation magazine giving full-throated support to a holocaust, and all the while, at least at the time, a more or less accepted figure of the “left,” until his supposed defection of 2001 when he was met with unprecedented adulation and awards and book sales. It requires imperialism to produce such a variation on Marxism. And how deep really is the ideological separation between Hitchens the “Marxist” and today’s alt-right, when both in their own ways settle on the wisdom of genocide and white European rule? When Hitchens advocated for the US invading Iraq in the name of international solidarity, the problem wasn’t only that the war would produce monumental violence. The problem extended to the larger dangers of re-legitimizing white European rule as a progressive principle, expressed in practice as the right of the US and its European allies to determine the fate of, violate, and destroy other societies. The Marx of Hitchens asserts victory over the Marx of Rodney in the New Imperialist Internationalism when left-liberals like Juan Cole advocate NATO “intervention” in Libya in the name of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in Spain and the Marxist Gilbert Achcar instructing leftists demand CIA arms flows into North Africa. This is an internationalism opposite that once pursued by the Black Panthers, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.–all true opponents of the system. This new “internationalism,” which repeats the priorities of the State Department, is a grotesque mutation—it is the system itself at work. To reconstruct anti-systemic internationalism, those living inside aggressor nations must return to certain traditions of antiwar activity.

Now, why Syria? If we consider the US war on Syria and the debates around it, we come across several glaring problems, which explain why I find it important to place the fate of Syria into broader historical context. One problem is that the war was efficiently run for years in secret: while US Special Forces amassed in neighboring Turkey and Jordan to arm and train militias to carry out attacks on the Syrian state, it somehow became plausible to insist that there was no war. Another problem is the widespread belief that because of the presence of other state actors in Syria—Russia, Iran, Turkey—revolutionaries in the US may adopt a permissive attitude towards the US role. Or, in the logic of the humanitarian imperialism that has reigned supreme since the 1990s, the belief that the US can possibly act either as a counterweight to “local” repression. Or better yet still, that the US could act as a friend to revolutionary movements. And then there are other popular refrains: the US role in the war has been minor, or that its intention is simply to destroy ISIS. Although these last explanations sometimes come with a disclaimer against formal US intervention, by obfuscating and confusing US strategy and presence, they effectively protect Hitchens’s preferred world wherein core white supremacist imperialism determines the affairs of the colonized periphery states. I would ask readers to imagine the kinds of unspeakable horrors the US empire could get away carte blanche with when these attitudes prevail, but I am afraid those horrors are transpiring now.

In addressing the fact the US continues to attempt destroy societies wholesale, my critics are left two choices: either to downplay the significance of this ongoing practice, or to deny that this practice is ongoing altogether. As we will see, it is not beneath anti-anti imperialists to attempt both.