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James Connolly Memorial Lecture, 2010


21st-Century Anti-Imperialism

Andrew Murray

Dublin, 15 May 2010


James Connolly is evidently a man of our times. He stood at the juncture of three great movements one hundred years ago, movements which shaped the world of the twentieth century.
    First, he was an anti-imperialist whose fight for the emancipation of his nation from the British Empire led to his glorious death. Second, he was a socialist, immersed in all the controversies of the rising international socialist movement in the years before the First World War. Third, he was a militant trade unionist, at the centre of the Dublin lock-out and the Great Unrest which marked the eruption of fighting, class struggle and industrial organisation in Britain and Ireland alike.
    Few people in the history of the revolutionary movement can claim such a position. In the 94 years since his death many of his admirers have emphasised one or other of these aspects of Connolly’s life and thought. In reality, of course, they were entirely inter-related. National and social emancipation, through all means from strike action to armed uprising, was for Connolly an entirely integral project, directed at the overthrow of the imperialist ruling classes, the British in the first instance, as the prerequisite for any progress, national or social.
    When Connolly said that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, were not antagonistic but complementary” he was taking an advanced position, compared with most revolutionary opinion of his time, the very opposite of the views of Rosa Luxemburg, his comrade in martyrdom for the cause, who was sweeping in her dismissal of Polish national aspirations.
    It is almost superfluous to underline the contemporary significance of Connolly’s work a century on. The great economic crisis which has, like the Great Unrest, marked the end of a belle époque for world capitalism, demands a strong trade union response. What James Connolly would make of the soporific social partnership which has disarmed the working class is easy to imagine, but so too is his response to episodes like the sit-ins at Waterford Glass and Visteon components in Belfast.
    The world crisis also urges on us a revival of the socialist movement worldwide. That is still more challenging after all the triumphs and disappointments of the twentieth century. Yet it remains the fact that the case for socialism rests ninety per cent on the shortcomings of capitalism, now on lurid display. The revival of interest in the works of Karl Marx is a welcome consequence. In rebuilding a mass socialist movement, Connolly has much to teach us too, both in his determination to spread the message among the working class itself and in the course of his own personal struggle of ideological self-emancipation from sectarianism, in his case represented by the now-forgotten doctrines of DeLeonism, the leader whose arid and sectarian reading of Marx considerably retarded the development of socialism in the USA, where Connolly lived for many years.
    But it is the lessons of Connolly and his times for anti-imperialism that I wish to address today. This has become, of necessity, the central question of world politics of this century. I am proud to be a leader of the Stop the War Coalition, which has organised the biggest demonstrations London has ever seen, in opposition to the imperialism of the British government.
    When we set out in Stop the War nine years ago, we were reticent about calling the wars of Bush and Blair “imperialist”—not because we had any doubts that they were but for fear of being thought to be lapsing into the jargon of the left and losing a mass audience. Yet within a year or two, the term had become a commonplace. Millions of people, even in the belly of the beast, were ready, willing and able to call the enemy by its proper name.
    It is an imperialism which of course James Connolly would have recognised. But that is not to say that it is exactly the same beast now as it was then. It would be foolish to attempt to cram the reality of today’s world back into the framework of a century ago. Imperialism is different, and so is the anti-imperialist movement worldwide—different not just compared to Connolly’s time, but compared to thirty years ago, well within living memory.
    The simplest and most useful definition of imperialism that I have come across was given by the late Marxist historian Victor Kiernan, who wrote: “Imperialism today may be said to display itself in coercion exerted abroad, by one means or another, to extort profits above what simple commercial exchange can procure.”
    This definition has the merit of indicating both the source of imperialism in the imperatives of capitalism, and in laying stress on its political aspect as a system of world domination—the coercive dynamic. The synthesis of the mobilisation of capital around the world in search of the higher returns required to keep the system functioning and the political expansion, via the use of the military apparatus above all, of the capitalist state system seems to capture the essence of the process.
    On that general basis, modern imperialism (that is, imperialism arising on a monopoly capitalist basis) has developed through several distinct phases in the last 150 years and many of the insights first developed by Connolly’s contemporaries like Hobson, Hilferding, Bukharin and Lenin need reformulating if they are to help explain today’s imperialism, shaped as it is by the neo-liberal offensive of the last generation. A “new imperialism” is announced from time to time—all good bookshops are filled with works on the subject today. Indeed, the modern imperialism described at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was often called “new” to distinguish it from the preceding phase of settler or mercantile colonialism, and the still earlier Empires of antiquity and medievalism.
    The imperialism studied in the classic works had as its typical features the creation of the joint-stock company with an enlarged role for banks in circulating capital; the division of most of the world into colonial and neo-colonial spheres of influence; while the great majority of industrial production was retained in the imperial powers themselves. The export of capital, most usually invested either in raw material exploitation or essential transport infrastructure, was the main expression of the search for a higher rate of profit than that pertaining in the centres of world economy. According to Harvard Economist Jeffrey Frieden in this period “the average rate of return on British investments abroad was 50 to 75 per cent higher than at home,” and even higher in the railway industry, in which foreign investment was twice as profitable as domestic. Moreover, the government guaranteed the rate of interest on railway debentures in India, creating “private enterprise at public risk,” much as the contemporary bank bailouts have done. The City, unsurprisingly given such rates and such protection, put £156 and £161 respectively into foreign and imperial companies for every £100 invested domestically in the period before 1914. From such rates of return, and the competitive drive to grab access to the super-profit, a profound inter-imperialist rivalry emerged.
    That rivalry led in turn to the First World War, following which the world system broke down and was re-composed in the inter-war years. Fascism and the Second World War itself had the effect of substantially increasing the rate of exploitation of labour in most of the developed world (Britain being a notable exception), itself laying the foundation for a new phase of imperialism after 1945.
    This next “new” imperialism started on the twin basis of a considerable spatial contraction of the capitalist world market with the growth of Soviet power and the Chinese revolution; and the emergence of the USA as the undisputed hegemon in the capitalist world, leading to an abatement of the inter-imperialist rivalry which had pushed the entire system to the point of collapse in the first half of the twentieth century.
    The typical economic actor now became the transnational company and the shift of industrial production capacity beyond the territories of the great powers began, slowly at first but accelerating from the 1970s onwards. The economies of those powers became increasingly oriented towards financial domination within the world system, although this shift was much more pronounced in Britain and the USA, say, than Japan or West Germany. Colonialism and the more blatant forms of neo-colonial manipulation were gradually driven out, to be replaced in part by the development of elements of “ultra-imperialism” in the shape of global institutions devoted, under US control, to maintaining the conditions for capitalist expansion.
    Stage two of the “new imperialism” entered its own phase of breakdown in the late 1960s and 1970s as US hegemony eroded (in part a consequence of the massive spending on the Vietnam war). Thirty years ago, a third of the world declared itself socialist; in the big capitalist states the ruling class ruled, of course, but with its freedom of action (in particular, freedom to raise the rate of profit) intolerably circumscribed, as it felt it, by powerful labour movements and an established welfare and Keynesian consensus; while in the liberated countries of what was called the third world as long as there was a second world, ambitious plans for national economic independence, or at least a fairer world economic order were still on the agenda. In the 1970s, imperialism was being squeezed from all sides, as it had been in the period after 1918.
    This called for a class-struggle counter-offensive, by the ruling class. Rather than fascism, which would have engendered massive resistance (but was nevertheless imposed in Chile) or war (severely complicated as an option by the strength of the USSR and the existence of nuclear weapons) the ruling classes began the neo-liberal offensive, the supreme object being the transfer of wealth from labour to capital worldwide.
    The policies first propounded by Thatcher and Reagan since swept across the world, powered by instruments as apparently diverse as the US Department of Defence, the International Monetary Fund and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Its economic record has been mediocre to say the least—global GDP growth averaged over 5% before 1970, 4.5% in the 1970s, 3.4% in the 1980s and 2.9% in the 1990s—but as an exercise in the reassertion of class power, it has been a staggering success.
    As well as weakening or breaking the power of labour in western Europe and North America, this offensive contributed to the collapse of the USSR and its allied states in Europe. This in turn made the imposition of a “new order” on the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America all the easier.
    The collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied states not only deprived the world of the hope (or fear) of an alternative to capitalism in the here-and-now, it also opened the way for capitalism to both bring millions of workers into the circle of exploitation and for the political “terms of trade” to be turned to the advantage of the centres of high finance just about everywhere. It was the crowning achievement of the neo-liberal offensive.
    This then was the basis for the latest “new imperialism,” the one striving to master the world today.
    In his recently-published masterly Companion to Marx’s Capital, the geographer David Harvey posits that today we are seeing “. . . a different kind of imperialism, which is not about robbing values and stripping assets from the rest of the world, but about using the rest of the world as a site for opening up new forms of capitalist production.” That would seem to me to be an accurate evaluation of the newest “new imperialism.”
    Certainly, it defined the context for the “war on terror” which started to emerge under Clinton’s presidency, attained its military (and rhetorical) apogee under George Bush and is being recalibrated today. In a nutshell, this has been an ambitious attempt to create an integrated world capitalist economy centred on US political power, which itself extracts a “rent” for its ruling elite from the world system in return for maintaining a military and currency domination for the ruling classes of the world. The removal of any and all obstacles to the spread of capitalism within that integrated power structure has been the central aim of the war project.
    There has been an ideological foundation for the project—Fukuyama’s famous Hegelian “end of history” asserting that human progress had reached its terminus in liberal democratic capitalism, displacing of course Marx’s communism. It hardly needs emphasising today that this ideological foundation is cracked. It has been subverted not by a particularly strong challenge on the political front, but by the working out of its own practice, particularly the two neos—so all-conquering just a few years ago—neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.
    Neo-liberalism has now had an epic crash, a truth bearing exceptionally heavily here in Ireland (and let me say in passing I do not think Connolly would have been all that happy to hear the Irish people being praised by the head of the European Central Bank last month for the exemplary way they have responded to the crisis). Neo-conservatism is equally discredited—gorged on the blood of a million people in Iraq, of course, but also symbolically checked by the war in Georgia in 2008 which marked the passing of the “unipolar moment” in world politics, the unrivalled dominance of the US, of which neo-conservatism was a political expression.
    The material foundation for the new imperialism has been the overwhelming military power of the USA, embodied in the fact that Washington spends more on its armed forces than everyone else in the world put together.
    On this basis, neo-conservatism devised different strategies, based where necessary on different alliances, for every region to make the world safe for uninhibited capitalist exploitation.
—Russia was to be kept weak, and the former Soviet space fragmented and prevented from reintegrating. That was the underlying theme of the so-called colour revolutions in several former Soviet republics, “revolutions” which are now almost universally discredited and in considerable measure reversed.
—China was to be kept encircled and pressured. Virtually the first acts of the Pentagon in the “war on terror” was to extend its network of military bases in Asia. Of course, isolating China was not only impossible but also unprofitable for the US, but using all methods to stall its relative rise in the world was a clear Bush priority.
—European integration was to be kept diluted to prevent the EU emerging as a superpower (a highly unwelcome prospect from a progressive point of view, it needs to be said). But when Richard Perle, for example, advocated Turkey’s admission to the EU, it was for the explicit purpose of rendering the EU politically incoherent and incapable of challenging US hegemony.
—Africa was originally left to Britain and France, former colonial empires, to control, a sub-contracting system which led to Blair’s war in Sierra Leone, propping up a corrupt elite. Now, however, Africa, too, is favoured with one of the Pentagon’s globe-straddling regional commands.
—Latin America was for a time taken for granted, and indeed Bush came under considerable conservative criticism for his neglect of the “backyard” because of his concentration on the Middle East, a neglect which the right-wing believed cleared the space for the progressive and socialist advances in a number of states, Venezuela above all.
—And then there was the greater Middle East cauldron, the prime focus of the “new imperialism” extending from North Africa into South Asia, the most resource-rich and politically-volatile region in the world, and the one which has been the hardest to control in the post-1991 order.
    The US strategy here has been to try and find new ways, through direct military intervention and support for Israel, to maintain the imperialist hegemony first established after the First World War in the teeth of resistance by most of the region’s peoples, if not their governments.
    Little elaboration is now needed as to the consequences of that policy. It has been the most infamous chapter in world politics for a generation or more.
    The golden thread, however, was the free-market, the opening up of space to integrated capitalist world economy, the drawing of millions—even billions—into wage labour, the privatisation of common assets, the free flow of capital.
    That is why, adding considerable insult to massive injury, the Republican party praetorian guard dispatched to Baghdad to manage the occupation of Iraq treated the state as a sort of “ground zero” laboratory for the imposition of a privatised free-market regime more radical than they could even dream of imposing on the USA itself.
    Of course, it is reasonable to ask—is this still the US agenda? I am not one of those who believe that the election of Obama represents nothing—that would be to belittle the tremendous impact of the worldwide anti-war movement, including within the US itself, and the struggle of the US people for social progress.
    However, neither can we afford to be starry-eyed. On some issues, a different policy is being followed—progress on nuclear disarmament, the start (only a start) to withdrawing from Iraq. On other issues, a better game is being talked—Palestine, for example—but nothing changes in practice. And then there are issues like Afghanistan, where the continuity with the Bush policy is near total.
    Overall, it would be foolish to imagine that the strategic agenda behind the “new world order” has been discarded or even significantly diluted under Obama. So challenging the over-arching imperatives of US power, looking past any shift in rhetorical gear, will remain the decisive issue for the future—this remains the key to advancing on any other agenda.
    ***
The “war on terror” has involved several concurrent wars against countries overwhelmingly inhabited by Muslim people.
    Does this make it, as some argue, a “War against Islam”? No. As argued above, it is rooted in greed, not God. The devouring dollar recognises no religion, and the only reason Bush’s “axis of evil” onslaught did not extend to a war against North Korea was the latter’s possession of nuclear weapons, not its failure to embrace the Muslim faith.
    However, opposition to the “war on terror” at the sharp end has taken often a religious form, with groups of explicitly Islamist politics playing the leading part in the struggle to expel the occupiers.
    This fact has baffled some people, and led them to defend occupation and imperialism on the grounds that the latter are “secular” while the opposition is “fundamentalist.” They have damned the resistance to occupation in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan as fundamentalists and sectarian
    Even if this were true (and it is for the most part not), it could not justify the wars which are being fought today. It is not a novel conundrum. Many times imperialist “civilisation” has been confronted by allegedly backward peoples fighting for their own independence and self-determination.
    The Victorian British socialist leader William Morris was a hundred times right when he condemned Britain’s war in the Sudan as a “wicked and unjust war now being waged by the ruling and propertied classes of this country, with all the resources of civilisation at their back, against an ill-armed and semi-barbarous people whose only crime is that they have risen against a foreign oppression.” Morris was quite clear when he said that he would welcome a victory for the Mahdi in Sudan as signalling that the Sudan was once more under the control of its own people.
    That the burden of the struggle against the “new world order” is now being carried in many places by religious rather than secular forces, and by movements whose social agenda is radically different to ours (although this difference may be exaggerated), is one of the signal differences between anti-imperialism now and the anti-imperialism of the post-World War Two period.
    This difference needs to be acknowledged and the consequences of it politically addressed, but we should not let it hypnotise us, still less divide us to the profit of the imperialists.
    Some left-wing critics of the resistance to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, appear themselves to be mesmerised by the religious form of the struggle, taking the so-called “fundamentalists” at their own evaluation, without looking at the actual motivations, history, and demands of those movements. To quote Terry Eagleton in his polemic against the eminent atheist Richard Dawkins: “Dawkins seems to nurture a positively Mao-like faith in faith itself—in the hopelessly idealist conception . . . that religious ideology (as opposed, say, to material conditions or political injustice) is what fundamentally drives radical Islam.”
    Their objectives are, of course, entirely secular and in most cases are the same objectives as those long advanced by nationalist, populist and socialist movements in the past. Indeed, movements like Hizbollah and Hamas have to some extent filled the vacuum created by the shortcomings, on the one hand, of the secular left in the Middle East (above all its failure to consistently articulate the national aspirations of the broadest mass of people in societies where the working class has generally only been a small proportion of the population) and their brutal suppression by imperialism and its local satraps on the other. At any event, the popular support of these rising Islamist movements cannot be gainsaid.
    Even al-Qaeda, which is undoubtedly rooted in religious fanaticism, makes demands which can be met in this world, not the next. It is not to excuse the horror of 9/11—nor to suggest that bin Laden can form part of some global anti-imperialist alliance, which the anti-popular sectarianism of his politics and methods entirely precludes—to point out that this atrocity was not carried out to restore the Caliphate or even to impose the burka on the women of the USA. It was directed against the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, the suffering of the Iraqi people under the sanctions regime, and the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state.
    These may be good or bad demands, but they do not depend on any particular view of Islam or God. Merely to draw attention to this fact draws down the charge of “root-causism”—the attempt to look at the roots of terrorism, rather than being content to simply denounce it as an evil rooted in an unshakable religious fanaticism. “Root-causism” is in fact the foundation of rational political debate of these issues. To quote Professor Eagleton once more, “all these potential recruits to al Qaeda stem from countries that have long, discreditable histories of European domination or colonial occupation.”
    On the point of root-causism, I take my stand with Lord Salisbury, the great Victorian Tory imperialist, who when invited to condemn the Phoenix Park murders here in Dublin did so while also insisting on “drawing out the close connection between the crime and the British government policy which has caused it”—the policy of what he regarded as Gladstone’s excessive liberalism in handling the Irish question. So the imperialists are not beyond a bit of root-causism when dealing with terrorism, when it suits!
    So we have to insist on not just drawing out the close connection between all these phenomena—ranging from terrorist attacks to armed struggles for independence—and the British and US government policies which have caused them, but also not refrain from supporting those who are fighting for their freedom under a religious flag just because we cannot identify with them as comrades as easily as we might have done with a previous generation of secular freedom fighters.
    And it is worse than wrong – it is reactionary – to refuse to join hands with movements which are fighting imperialism and national oppression because they draw religious inspiration, while embracing blood-thirsty neo-colonial secularists
    For example, take that leading apologist for the Iraq invasion and song-and-dance man for the military industrial complex, Christopher Hitchens. Is his support for a war which killed hundreds of thousands balanced by his strident atheism?
    Even the title of his anti-religious polemic is illuminating. God is not Great is of course a reversal of a central Muslim invocation. Calling his book Our Father Is Not in Heaven would have been braver in a predominantly (and often fundamentally) Christian country like the USA—too brave, evidently.
    To take another example, the Financial Times journalist John Lloyd denounced the Stop the War Coalition for allegedly forming alliances with Islamic groups which did not respect rights for women and gay people—while himself uniting with George Bush and Dick Cheney, whose views on such questions would raise few eyebrows in Kandahar. If one is to unite with people you have disagreements with, it is better to do so for peace than for war.
    It cannot be denied that some movements fighting imperialism are deeply conservative on social and democratic questions. But the problem is exactly that—social conservatism, not religion. Religion itself can often be allied to socially progressive politics, although it can also sometimes degenerate into sectarianism, which has always been used by colonialists to divide opposition to their rule, from Ireland to Iraq.
    Working through those contradictions, fighting for trade union freedom, for women’s rights, for democracy are causes we should all stand in solidarity with. But they can only be attained through the struggles of the people themselves in their own countries, and above all they cannot be imposed at the point of a neo-conservative bayonet.
    ***
We will certainly not make any progress if we insist on uniting only with those who accept our maximum socialist programme, or with those who celebrate the European enlightenment one-sidedly, not seeing that it not only co-existed with a worldwide reign of blood and terror visited on Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, but that intellectual and political progress in western Europe in large measure actually depended on the massacres and the pillage.
    To state the obvious, the opposite of struggling for unity is acquiescing in division. That is what unites the prosecution of the “war on terror” abroad and the growing assault on the Muslim communities “at home.” Islamophobia is now rampant in Britain and many other European countries, with the Muslim minority under attack for its lifestyle, political engagement, culture, indeed its very right to be.
    This draws on a deep well of imperialist racism and, since Muslims in Britain are overwhelmingly also working class, it represents another way to divide the working class against itself.
    How the bankers must smile, as a distraction from their troubles, when they see dispossessed and exploited white workers marching under the banner of the English Defence League to express their hopelessness by attacking Muslim people.
    Muslim-baiting is also the thin end of the anti-civil liberties wedge which has formed another part of the “war on terror” fought on the domestic front in the USA and Britain in particular. Measures like extended detention without trial may be introduced “temporarily” against “just a tiny minority” but experience teaches that once on the statute book they will remain to be deployed against ever-wider sections of society indefinitely.
    So this is a cause for everyone who calls themselves left, or liberal. And it is part of the struggle against an imperialism that has never fought wars abroad without also being forced to open a domestic front too.
    How will the new world order be defeated? It will not—cannot—be the work of the left in the west alone, or of the labour movement in isolation. That is not only undesirable, but impossible.
    It is a class issue, and not just in the simple sense that all the movements I have mentioned are rooted amongst the poor. Defeating the “new world order” is a prerequisite for any lasting form of social progress. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved under the global domination of the Pentagon, Wall Street, the City of London, News Corp etc.
    That is why I would draw your attention to remarks made in an interview by a leader of Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party, discussing the basis of a possibly soon-to-be-founded Fifth International:
    “Why is anti-imperialism being proposed as the common element and not just socialism? We say that this call has to have a broad character, and it is possible that in some countries, such as in the Middle East, there are organisations and movements fighting against some expressions of imperialism and zionism as such, but that are not socialist in essence, in the programmatic sense. But, undoubtedly, they are fighting imperialism. That’s why we say that it could be that in some Islamic countries that do not have socialism as an ideological element, for example the case of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, which is anti-imperialist, that this element will be an element that will convoke as many parties, organisations, movements of the world to raise the battle, the confrontation with imperialism.
    “From this perspective of an anti-imperialist character . . . it is possible to call as many parties, movements, and currents in the world . . . in order to agree on a plan, a minimum transition program, to move concretely towards a socialist project at a world level.”
    Let me say that while the Islamic revolution in Iran was undoubtedly anti-imperialist, the anti-popular policies of the regime in Tehran have in large measure robbed it of that aspect, and complicate the worldwide struggle to prevent the extension of the war to Iran. But the essence of the point more broadly seems to be correct. Uniting the mass movements against war and for social justice in Europe with the states and movements fighting for social progress in Latin America and those struggling for national liberation in the Middle East must be the foundation for the renewal of a progressive politics in the 21st century, founded on the defeat of the US hegemonic project.
    Can we do it? Let me end with three quotes from James Connolly:
    First, from the manifesto of the Socialist Party of Ireland: “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects: it is national and it is social.” I believe that reflection holds good on a world scale today
    Secondly: “Old political organisations will die out and new ones must arise to take their place; old party rallying cries and watchwords are destined to become obsolete and meaningless, and the fire of old feuds and hatreds will pale and expire before newer conceptions born of a consciousness of our common destiny.”
    And finally, in answer to those paralysed by assessing the balance of forces and forever waiting for another, more decisive, day: “But is the time ripe? You never know if the time is ripe until you try. If you succeed the time is ripe . . .”

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