what's left

Left Imperialism

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By Stephen Gowans

There is a major cleavage among the politically active members of the left between those who identify with the working class across all borders (the working class internationalists) and those who defend governments or movements engaged in anti-imperialist struggles (the anti-imperialists.) Since governments engaged in anti-imperialist struggles are most often not working class governments, or are, but are not always seen as such, these two groups are regularly at odds with each other. The anti-imperialists are accused of being thug-huggers while the working class internationalists are accused of being pro-imperialist.

While it is true that anti-imperialists do sometimes spring to the defense of thugs, it should be noted that they don’t spring to the defense of thugs simply because they’re thugs. Defending a thug (Saddam Hussein, for example) from the unjustified aggression of another county is hardly thug-hugging. If it were, one could say that a person who defends a child abuser from spousal abuse is a child abuse supporter. This is logically untenable, and yet it is not unusual to hear it said that defending the Iranian government from the aggression of the US and Britain amounts to defending holocaust-denial or misogyny or working class repression.

At the same time, it should be made clear that many of the people anti-imperialists spring to the defense of are not thugs, though it is common practice for imperialist governments to depict them as such. Working class internationalists frequently discourage critical examination of pro-imperialist propaganda by denouncing those who dare challenge official demonology as pro-fascist leftists and supporters of dictators and tyrants.

By comparison, working class internationalists are frequently willing to accept the charges leveled at targeted countries by imperialist governments at face value. This amounts to an inexcusable dereliction of critical thought, since it is standard practice for aggressor states to demonize targets to enlist public support for their aggressions and for the US and Britain to lie to justify their aggressions (WMDs in Iraq being the most conspicuous recent example.) This ought to be obvious to anyone with a modicum of good sense. Turning a blind eye to the accustomed fabulousness of great powers may make it easier to live with one’s government, but it should hardly be a trait embraced by those who consider themselves to be politically left.

While working class internationalists argue that unlike anti-imperialists they act independently of the judgments made by Washington and London about the governments of foreign countries, the truth of the matter is that they operate within a frame established by the US. They uncritically accept the demonology of aggressor states and work to promote the demonology as a legitimate part of the leftist project. That they are most vociferous in denouncing imperialist targets at precisely the time their own governments are gearing up for aggressions against other states and wish to win public opinion to their side either calls their motivations into question or paints them as gullible. Their ardent denunciation of official targets in the run-up to war and comparative silence on anti-working class governments that operate as subordinate members of imperialist blocs likewise calls their sincerity into question or suggests they’re dupes. You’ll hear working class internationalists rail vigorously against Mugabe but will hear not a peep from them about Mubarak. They’ll anguish more over Darfur than over Iraq (though Iraq’s humanitarian crisis is more profound than Darfur’s.)

Working class internationalists also profess fealty to the working classes of other countries, but work, through their amplification of pro-imperialist demonology, to support imperialist interventions in other countries which harm the working classes in those countries. Working class internationalists who echoed NATO denunciations of Slobodan Milosevic did nothing to help the Yugoslav working class, and much to harm it. Serbs are now saddled with a harsh neo-liberal regime of the sort Milosevic’s government eventually resisted. Working class internationalists who echo pro-imperialist diatribes against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government in Zimbabwe help justify interventions that, if successful, will lead to reversal of land reforms, privatizations and the anti-working class tyranny of the IMF.

Working class internationalists may be sincere in their devotion to the working class but their actions do little to help the class they profess fealty to and much to strengthen the corporate rich of their own country. As Germans they would have gladly joined Hitler in his pre-invasion denunciation of the Polish government, arguing that the Polish government, no friend of the working class, was no friend of theirs, and deserved to be toppled.

Written by what's left

October 3, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Imperialism

One Response

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  1. The description of left-wing supporters of imperialism is very accurate but the notion of “working class internationalism” is misleading. In reality proletarian internationalism and anti-imperialism are inseperable. Left imperialists who support their own goverments against socialist and state capitalist regimes of the Third World are called not “working class internationalist” but “social chauvinists”. Please see Lenin works on that topic, for example “Imperialism and the Split in the Socialism”.

    Yuriy Dergunov

    October 22, 2007 at 10:22 pm


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