what's left

A wrecking ball of imperialism

with 7 comments

By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at Australia’s University of Wollongong, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive , and then a reply to my reply. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)

In the latest exchange, I try to show that the disagreement between Martin and me is rooted, I believe, in a conflict between Marxist and anarchist perspectives on the state, and the question of whether the state is inherently good or bad.

I argue that because anarchists are opposed to domination, and because the state is an instrument of domination, anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces seeking the overthrow of foreign states. Because the regime change efforts of imperialist forces are aimed exclusively at states operating outside the North Atlantic imperialist orbit, the effect is for anarchists who participate in campaigns to challenge these states to act as one of Western imperialism’s wrecking balls. While the anarchist aim is to challenge state authority, the aim of the imperialist forces that fund and provide training for the nonviolent resistance campaigns anarchists are often involved in, is to transfer control of the state from often popular and anti-colonial forces to comprador forces that are willing to facilitate the despoliation of their countries by North Atlantic banks, corporations and investors. Anarchist challenges to North Atlantic states, without the generous funding Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are prepared to allocate to challenges to states operating outside the United States’ informal empire, are modest and ineffectual by comparison.

The State

I think Martin would agree that the state is an instrument of domination, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a defined geographical territory, exercised by the police and military. In the Marxist view, the state enforces the interests of one class over another, which is to say, it is an instrument whereby one class dominates and oppresses another. Slave owner states oppress slaves, landowner states oppress serfs, capitalist states oppress workers, and working class states oppress capitalists to limit or prevent capitalist exploitation. To Marxists, the question of whether the state is good or bad depends on who controls it, and who’s asking the question. To people conscious of their membership in the working class, the capitalist state is bad, not because it’s repressive, but because it’s repressive against their interests. Similarly, to a capitalist, the working class state is bad, not because it relies on the use or threat of violence to enforce a system of laws that privilege the working class, but because the system of laws backed by violence is against the interests of capital.

Anarchists, on the other hand, regard the state as inherently bad because it is based on domination enforceable through violence. To Martin, nonviolence is “especially useful for those who want to challenge domination” and it “involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.” In other words, nonviolent resistance (NVR) is useful for doing what anarchists do: challenge the state.

But what if the state is under the control of a previously oppressed class or nation and its repressive function is used to prevent its former oppressor’s return to power? The leaders of Zimbabwe’s national liberation, for example, have used the state, and its repressive powers, to advance the interests of indigenous people at the expense of a former colonial oppressor, European settlers, and would-be neo-colonialists. The Bolsheviks used state power to enforce a wide array of measures favourable to the working class at the expense of capitalists and landowners. Is the use of state power to crack down on forces which seek to reduce Zimbabwe to neo-colonial servitude inherently bad? And were the Bolsheviks wrong to use state power to repress class enemies, as a condition of advancing the interests of the working class?

To anarchists the answer is yes. The Zimbabwe state is repressive. It uses violence to enforce the interests of indigenous Africans over those of European settlers and their descendants. The Bolshevik state was also repressive. It used violence to repress capitalists, estate-owners, rich peasants, saboteurs, and political enemies. Whether working class or capitalist, anti-colonial or colonial, the state is repressive; it is an instrument of domination. For these reasons anarchists oppose it.

A movement which challenges the state in Zimbabwe, or the state in countries in which working class interests are dominant, earns the support of anarchists. Indeed, because anarchists are against any state, whether feudal, capitalist, working class or anti-colonial, they often find themselves lining up with capitalist and neo-colonial forces against working class-oriented and anti-colonial states. And because North Atlantic governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are eager to bankroll challenges to working class-oriented and anti-colonial states, but not to North Atlantic states and their satellites, anarchists who participate in these campaigns act as a wrecking ball of imperialism; their function is to tear down independent states so that control can be transferred to forces acceptable to Western banks, corporations and investors. At the same time, anarchist nonviolent resistance aimed at Western capitalist states – which tends to be low-level and largely non-disruptive, owing to the absent or meagre funding received from governments and philanthropic foundations – poses no serious threat.

Interestingly, Martin took exception to what he believed was my description of NVR as being guided by the goal of seizing power. This wasn’t my description, but that of Peter Ackerman, one of the principal proponents of NVR. Anarchists don’t seek power (the ability to dominate); they only seek to undermine it. What Martin failed to recognize was that Peter Ackerman, while a proponent of nonviolence, is not an anarchist but a capitalist, and a very wealthy one, whose avocation is to assist in the transfer of state power abroad from forces not yoked to U.S. financial and export interests, to pro-capitalist forces beholden to the US ruling class. Ackerman defines NVR as the use of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, including nonviolent sabotage, to make a country ungovernable in order to seize power. And yet while Ackerman’s NVR aims are clearly at odds with those of Martin, Martin talks favourably of Ackerman, and Ackerman’s docent, Gene Sharp.


Whether nonviolence is a defining feature of anarchism is a matter of dispute among anarchists. Martin, I suspect, would say it is. Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist whose book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, rejects exclusive nonviolence as an effective strategy for anarchists, would say it isn’t.

I agree with Gelderloos that proponents of nonviolence have claimed success in excess of what the data support. The modus operandi of NVR advocates is to exaggerate the achievements of campaigns which have featured the use of nonviolent tactics (India’s liberation from British colonial rule; the US civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the anti-nuclear weapons movement) and then to attribute the success of these campaigns to nonviolent tactics alone.

For example, in his reply to me, Martin credits the movements against nuclear weapons — “which used NVR as well as conventional political methods” — with saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. But how do we know that demonstrations and civil disobedience made any difference? The fact that some people used nonviolent tactics in an effort to deter superpower nuclear proliferation hardly means that nonviolence worked. If it did, I could say the crowing of the rooster causes the sun to rise, because the rooster crowed and the sun soon rose.

A more compelling case can be made that the end of the arms race came about because the United States no longer needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. It had embarked on an arms build-up to force the Soviets into bankruptcy. With the goal of toppling its ideological competitor achieved, there was no longer a need to pile weapon upon weapon. And after acquiring the capability to obliterate the world many times over, there was little point in acquiring more nuclear weapons. There comes a point where one more nuke makes no difference.

Moreover, were the decision to end the arms race attributable to nonviolent tactics, we could still say very little was achieved. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel still have nuclear arms, and evince not the slightest interest in giving them up. India, Pakistan and north Korea have acquired their own nuclear arsenals (or at least, capabilities.) The United States continues to threaten non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging non-nuclear states to develop their own nuclear arms to deter U.S. aggression. What success was achieved was minor indeed.

Ackerman uses the same approach, attributing the success of campaigns that involved nonviolent tactics in some way to nonviolence alone, as if massive surrounding violence played no role. Believe his version of history, and the violence of a Western-sponsored armed insurgency in Kosovo, sanctions, a 78-day NATO terror bombing campaign, unceasing Western hostility, and a political fifth column, had nothing whatever to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia in 2000. It was all due to anarchist activists practicing nonviolent resistance.

In the same manner, proponents of NVR attribute India’s political independence from Britain to Gandhian nonviolence. In doing so, they ignore the armed struggle led by Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, and the effects of the massive violence of two world wars and the armed resistance to British rule in Palestine in weakening Britain and sapping it of the manpower and resources it needed to hold onto its colonies. What’s more, the success was limited. Britain exchanged direct rule for indirect rule. It authored India’s constitution, handpicked its successors, and continued to dominate India’s economy. India’s independence was largely symbolic.

Relatedly, Martin disagrees with my point that NVR is a means to an end, and is therefore neither inherently good nor bad, but is good or bad depending on what it’s used for. Nuclear weapons, he rejoins, are inherently bad, because they are indiscriminate, and because they are a means of domination. The corollary, it seems, is that NVR is inherently good, because it challenges the state, an instrument of domination, and does so without recourse to violence, violence also being a means of domination. This follows consistently from the anarchist abhorrence of domination.

On the other hand, one could argue that Martin has to claim that NVR is good independent of its consequence, because the consequences of the Ackerman-Sharp-Helvey deployments that have been associated with regime change successes have been so negative from the point of view of the working class, that to do otherwise would leave his pro-NVR case in a shambles. NVR looks good only if its recent outcomes are ignored and the role of violence in the progressive outcomes it claims as its own are passed over. In other words, NVR’s positive reputation depends on ignoring the reality that NVR color revolutions have cleared the way for the ascension to power of Washington-aligned neo-liberal regimes that have privileged North Atlantic investors at the expense of domestic workers. At the same time the role of violence in the progressive developments (India’s liberation from British colonial rule, the end of the Vietnam War, and so on) that NVR advocates claim as their own must be ignored. Or you can simply say – as Martin and some peace advocates do – that the outcomes are immaterial; what matters is the process itself. This is sheer sophistry. A process cannot be evaluated independent of its outcomes. If so, a process that invariably produced bad outcomes, would be considered good.

A Marxist would say that domination isn’t always bad. It depends on who’s dominating who, and why. The domination of the formerly exploiting few by the formerly exploited many is not bad, but good, progressive and necessary. Marxists don’t want to dominate for the sake of domination, but if dominating a minority of exploiters and the use of violence are necessary to prevent the minority’s return to power, and to prevent the resumption of mass exploitation, then domination and violence are acceptable. Likewise, if a nuclear weapons capability allows north Korea to deter the United States from using military (including nuclear) aggression to dominate the Korean peninsula and integrate north Korea into Washington’s informal empire, can nuclear weapons be said to be inherently bad and necessarily bound up with the enforcement of domination? On the contrary, it would seem that north Korea’s nuclear capability challenges the domination of the most violent of all states, that of the United States.


At root, the disagreement between Martin and me seems to boil down to this: is domination and the use of violence always bad, or are domination and violence bad depending on who uses them, why they’re used, and what the outcomes are? These are normative questions.

An empirical question concerns whether the commitment of anarchists to challenge the state is useful to imperialist forces. Through their control of philanthropic foundations and such organizations as the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, involved in the training of (often anarchist) activists in techniques of destabilization, and through their control of the media, which shape public understanding of states that operate outside the North Atlantic imperial orbit as being based on unjustified authority, imperialist forces galvanize anarchists into action as one of their wrecking balls — challenging working class-oriented, anti-colonial, and North Atlantic-independent states. These challenges never develop to the point where the state collapses, as anarchists hope, but to the point where state control is transferred to comprador forces, as the imperialist sponsors of NVR campaigns intend. Despite their aim of challenging the state, NVR activists act in ways that help enhance the power of North Atlantic states to dominate and exploit the global south and Eastern Europe. Anarchist nonviolent strategy hasn’t threatened capitalism or challenged the domination of North Atlantic states. On the contrary, its record is one of service to North Atlantic imperialist forces in integrating hold-out countries into Washington’s informal empire, through the participation of NVR activists in campaigns to smash independent states.

Written by what's left

September 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

7 Responses

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  1. This is a good recapitulation of the mainstream Marxist position on state power. In my opinion though it’s somewhat beyond the point in this particular case. Stephen argues in good faith as if his argument with Dr. Martin was indeed of philosophical nature. In other words, two good politically active men are acting for the benefit of mankind. It’s just that they have tactical disagreements because each of them has solved certain philosophical questions differently. It is as if our political actions were determined not by our position in class struggle but by our philosophical convictions which come from nowhere else but from mental operations as conceived by Anglo-American analytical “philosophy.” Yet Dr. Martin is as much a class fighter as Ackerman. He is man in blood and flesh and his political philosophy is in a multitude of ways is determined by his position within Anglo-Saxon and broader Western Ultra-Imperialism. True, this position is mediated by that of his social group–Western professordom–but this fact only makes it more real and solid. In contrast, Stephen Gowans is essentially a class traitor. In abstract, being a class traitor does not necessarily makes one’s ideas ghostly. Marx and Engels, perhaps the greatest class traitors in history, showed quite muscular performance both in theoretical and practical politics. But Gowans, just like Zorin, is a class traitor who has no “rising class” to go over to. This is what makes their ideas (and their existence insofar as intellectuals cannot truly exist outside of the ideal realm) ghostlike in comparison to the fleshy, jovial, and well-adjusted products of the class they betrayed. This structural political-existential is also what makes traitors like Gowans to lean onto the liberal representatives of the betrayed class by trying to engage them in good-faith but utterly non-sequitur dialogues on the finer philosophical distinctions between Marxists and Anarchists.

    Valentin Zorin

    September 8, 2009 at 3:12 pm

  2. Gowans treats class enemies’ warfare as differences of opinion open to intellectual debate. The architects of capitalist-imperialism’s ‘soft power’ most urgently must be exposed and fought because this arm of u.s. state power, now merged with hard power under pentagon leadership, masquerading as ‘progressive’, ‘human rights activism’, ‘nation building aid’, etc. is a mainly unrecognized and too successful enemy that controls the neoliberal-imperialist-zionist left. As always war is the way our class enemy ‘resolves’ deep structural capitalist crises: ‘global state terror war’ and war against working and oppressed peoples to rescue of finance capital. There’s no more middle ‘ left’ ground.

    ‘Mainstream Marxism’ is reformist treachery, not revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, the only solution to the horrors generated by capitalism. The survival of its class rule depends on expanding its global domination, on expanding destruction and death. The dictatorship of capital must end.

    Class ‘domination’, aka class dictatorship, is not end in itself, not a means to curb / control capitalist domination as Gowans’ makes it out to be: it is a continuing revolutionary transition from capitalist dictatorship to classless communism. The seizure of state power, just the first, and ‘easiest’, step, is the beginning of building a new world. Proletarian led revolution must deepen and grow to uproot capitalism, materially and mentally, in every sphere of society, actively supporting this class war and forging a united front with revolutionary nationalist liberation struggles everywhere in the world.

    Revising the guts out of revolutionary communism, confounding allies with enemies is capitulation, regardless of intent, there can be no piece/peacemeal path to ridding the world of its destroyer.


    liz burbank

    September 11, 2009 at 3:48 am

  3. I appreciate Stephen Gowans’ attempt to clarify our differences concerning nonviolent action.

    1. We certainly disagree about the effectiveness of nonviolent action. Gowans cites Peter Gelderloos’ book in support of his arguments. I’ve written a detailed critique of it, titled “How nonviolence is misrepresented”, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/08gm2.html.

    2. We disagree about the role of means and ends. I believe both are important and, in choosing between violence and nonviolence, the means often are more important than the ends. That’s because using violence often undermines goals of equality, solidarity and emancipation.

    I’m opposed to all nuclear weapons and, like many others in the peace movement, especially oppose those states with the most nuclear weapons. I argued many years ago that nuclear war would be a political as well as a human disaster. See “How the peace movement should be preparing for nuclear war”, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/82bpp.html.

    In reference to the role of the peace movement in preventing nuclear war, I relied on Lawrence Wittner’s volumes under the title The Struggle Against the Bomb. Gowans should address the evidence in those volumes.

    3. We disagree about the relative roles of popular mobilisation and money in nonviolent struggles. Gowans seems to believe that a relatively small amount of money and training can make a huge difference in toppling a hostile government that has vastly more money. I think popular mobilisation is the key. I await Gowans carrying out a detailed analysis of a single case of nonviolent action against a government showing that outside money and training made a big difference.

    4. We disagree about the relationship between anarchists and imperialist forces. Anarchists have long taken positions critical of oppressors of any stripe. Gowans says “anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces” but I’m not aware of any evidence supporting this claim.

    For my view on the state, see the relevant chapter in my book Uprooting War, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/90uw/.

    In relation to challenging capitalism, my view is that socialist approaches relying on force have been tried and failed. See my book Nonviolence versus Capitalism, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/01nvc/.

    Brian Martin

    Brian Martin

    September 22, 2009 at 4:48 am

  4. I think your wasting your time debating with mr Martin.He dosnt accept the existence of class or class struggle.What would happen if there were 3 anarchists and one disagreed with the other 2 ? How would they resolve their issue[s]?It would seem that at some stage a form of repression of the single anarchist would be inevitable.

    mark h

    October 13, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    • Mark,

      I could point out that no sooner had you advised me not to debate with Martin, that you took up the cudgel yourself by asking how anarchists revolve disagreements among themselves. In any event, the point of the article wasn’t to engage in debate, but to point out that while a debate within a paradigm may be possible, a debate based on a clash of paradigms (in this case, Marxism versus anarchism) is often a pointless, and if not pointless, certainly a tedious exercise. I agree with you, then, that a debate is likely to be a waste of time, though my reasons for concluding this may be different from your own. Without a painstaking preliminary of defining terms the debate is likely to be nothing more than each party talking past each other as they use the same words in different ways and therefore fail to understand what the other is saying. Moreover, in the end, the disagreement is often reducible to a difference in values. Zorin Valentin, who lambasted me for allegedly suggesting the difference between the anarchist and Marxist view is simply an honest difference of opinion, failed to grasp this point, namely that my argument is that the differences in opinion are often reducible to differences in values. I do recognize that values don’t emerge fully formed from a vacuum.



      October 13, 2009 at 11:05 pm

  5. Supporting the Color Revolutions is supporting Imperial Oppression of the people. Yes, it’s that simple, NOTHING TO DO WITH MARXISM. Becoming the tool of a larger state to attack a smaller state accomplishes only the dominance of the larger state. And in the case of Iran, that makes one complicit in a war.

    Those who supported the Green Revolution so feverishly didn’t seem to give a damn about far more authentic uprisings in Thailand and Hondura. Was and is very, very telling about what the real motivations of their infamous crocodile tears were.


    May 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm

  6. Anarchism is a broadly applied label and while there has always been a weak immune system in terms of being tolerant of strange individualism, this has historically been a minority tendency within it. However, with the rise of American cultural dominance, there has also been a rise in American sub-cultural influence on related tendencies across the world and unfortunately that individualism is on the increase. For this and, to be fair, many other reasons, the anarchist movement has degenerated badly since the Second World War.

    It used to be the case that the vast majority of anarchists were conscious socialists; the word “libertarian” had a very different meaning before the 1960s! And certainly the “classical” anarchists of yore were not into non-violence. The Spanish union the CNT organised defence squads that engaged in retaliatory hits against employers and state officials who ordered the assassination of their leaders in the 1920s. More famously they led the initial resistance to the fascist coup attempt in 1936.

    But fascism crushed anarchism just as surely as it crushed socialism in Europe and for various reasons, probably the lack of a sponsor such as the USSR, which even Leninist dissidents could orient towards, anarchism has become pretty infected by Quakerism. You even see it in the mania for weird hand-signals and consensus decision making. That has nothing to do with anarchism and everything to do with the importation of radical liberalism into the movement in the 1960s.

    With regard to the specific subject of the post, the anarchist organisation I was in took a resolute anti-imperialist line in all such matters and indeed used to get quite a bit of criticism from types who would accuse us of being de facto supporters of Bin Laden or whoever.

    Since it was American troops who being transported through our little nation on the way to invading various countries, our reply was simple: if the day comes when Bin Laden travels through our country to bomb America, we’ll oppose that too. But since all the violence is going the other direction and since our country is an American satellite state as well as being culturally similar, that is where our attention is focused.

    I don’t think the likes of Brian Martin have anything to do with Anarchism, although it would be an interesting anthropological study to find out why they think they do. It would be particularly interesting to follow their money trail. One suspects that since anarchism has become more popular since the fall of the USSR that it is going to be a recipient of more attention from the powers that be. Since it has a weak ideological immune system these days – anyone can call themselves an anarchist without fear of contradiction – it is fairly easy to throw a chaos bomb into its ranks.

    The situation is somewhat better outside of the English speaking world where longstanding libertarian socialist organisation such as the Spanish CGT or the French Alternative Libertaire have kept the classic anarchist vision alive. One of the forerunners of the latter, George Fontenis, was involved in gun running to the Algerian FLN in the late 1950s.


    December 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm

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