'Anti-imperialist united front': No inherent connection with the working class
Ten years after the height of the mobilisation against the Iraq war, Mike Macnair calls for an end to the politics of the anti-imperialist united front
In what sense did the Stop the War Coalition fail? After all, no-one could ever seriously have expected to actually stop the war without overthrowing the state. It is an illusion to suggest that you could do so. It might be the case that if a sufficient number of MPs were put in fear of their lives - for example, if they thought they might be hung from lampposts when they went back to their constituencies - then they might have been willing to vote not to go to war. But what sort of success, then, could you expect?
It was right to say ‘Not in my name’, even in common with those members of the capitalist class and the core state apparatus who did not want the war to go ahead. But, while you could not expect to stop the war as a result of that huge protest on February 15 2003, what you could expect, beyond having a couple of million people on the streets on one day, was a long-term movement: the development of a broad understanding that it is necessary to oppose our own country’s overseas adventures. Yet it is clear from Libya, Mali and Syria that this has not been achieved. What we have is a kind of Groundhog Day - the usual suspects, the far-left groups and their periphery, doing the same thing over and over again, only with far smaller numbers.
Part of the story is that Stop the War Coalition has been identified as a rerun of the foreign policy of the old Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. That is to say, the policy of the ‘socialist camp’, the ‘anti-imperialist front’ - of falling behind the opponents of US-led capitalism, whoever they may be, and transforming them into heroes: eg, claiming that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was some kind of representative of the poor of Tehran. And the converse of that has been the repeated exclusion of Hands Off the People of Iran from STWC - even before Hopi’s formation we saw the exclusion of Iranian dissidents from anti-war platforms. Stop the War has associated itself with the opponents of the United States.
This was seen when the Socialist Workers Party attempted to create a party based on the anti-war movement: Stop the War equals Respect, equals George Galloway. And the capitalist class, the state and the media were able to fasten onto the weaknesses of Galloway’s politics to identify the anti-war movement precisely with the usual suspects - with people who retain a nostalgia for the cold war.
The question is, why? There is a simple explanation in the fact that the groups which led STWC came out of the radicalisation around the anti-Vietnam war campaign in the 1960s - or, in the case of the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star, in anti-apartheid - and in effect, STWC represented the straightforward politics of nostalgia for the great times of our youth. I am a little bit younger, so I only remember the tail-end of the anti-Vietnam war movement, but that certainly formed the basis of the STWC leaders’ ideas about how to campaign now.
Of course, the reality is that the whole idea of the ‘socialist camp’, and of the ‘anti-imperialist bloc’ as an extension of that, dramatically collapsed after 1991 - after the fall of the Soviet Union and the market turn in China. Once that had gone, all sorts of people who were ‘talking Soviet’ - in the Congress Party in India, in the African National Congress, in the nationalist parties in the ‘third world’ - suddenly stopped doing so and instead started talking liberal. A very dramatic phenomenon and one which the generation of leaders who grew up in the 60s have not really come to grips with yet. What it demonstrates is that the ‘socialist’ form of nationalism was a product of the USSR, and that there is no natural, inherent connection between the nationalism of oppressed countries and the movement of the working class. It was simply the case that the apparent success of ‘socialism in a single country’ had the consequence that for many nationalists in many countries it looked like a good option.
In addition to the politics of nostalgia for the cold war, what is at stake for the organised Marxist left, and the activists trained in it, is dogma. For ‘official’ communists the dogma was that of the ‘socialist camp’, its construction and defence. For Maoists it was the doctrine of ‘surrounding the cities’ on a global scale - meaning the core capitalist countries in the west - by the global ‘countryside’, the ‘third world’. For Trotskyists there is also a tradition. Trotsky in the 1930s argued that Chinese Trotskyists should throw themselves into mobilising on the side of the Kuomintang against Japan, despite a real incomprehension of what the political dynamics were in China, not least the disintegration of the Kuomintang regime. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Trotsky made it an issue of principle that revolutionaries should back emperor Haile Selassie - which in reality meant that Trotskyists in Britain should back the client of British imperialism in an inter-imperialist conflict between Britain and Italy. These examples of Trotskyist ‘principled anti-imperialism’, of wishing for the victory of the colonial power, are all in fact examples where Trotsky is entirely failing to grasp the actual political dynamics and the role of inter-imperialist conflict.
So within this approach there is something common to ‘official’ communism, Maoism and Trotskyism. And, of course, we have to include the SWP within the Trotskyism category, following the ‘Vietnam turn’ of the International Socialists in 1968, when it rejected the principles on which the IS was supposedly founded in 1950 and became a gung-ho enthusiast for Ho Chi Minh.
But behind all three is actually a politics founded on the first four congresses of the Communist International (and for ‘official’ communists the later congresses and the post-war Communist Information Bureau, or Cominform). Behind all of them stand the resolutions and theses of the Congress of Peoples of the East, of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International, and of the 4th Congress of the Communist International, on the national and colonial questions. These drew a sharp line between the nationalism of the oppressor countries, which is unqualifiedly opposed by communists, and the nationalism of oppressed countries, which was seen as providing potential allies for the proletariat.
It was proposed that there be an ‘anti-imperialist united front’ - of the working class, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie - against imperialism. In fact, this policy was already unable to be implemented even in the 1920s - otherwise than to make the communists bag-carriers for the national bourgeoisie, where they exposed their necks, only to have their heads cut off. This happened in Turkey in the 1920s, which is not much talked about because it was during the time of Lenin and Trotsky - the classical leadership of the Comintern - not the post-Lenin regime. But under the post-Lenin leadership, the same happened in China in 1927: Trotskyists do talk about this, but in reality they do not have an alternative policy. There are many other examples since World War II: the Iraqi Communist Party in the early 1960s, the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and, more recently, the Iranian left and its anti-imperialist front with ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who subsequently jailed and executed thousands of them.
If we ask why the policy fails, the underlying reason is perfectly straightforward, and in fact, entirely predictable from Marx’s and Engels’ own writings in the 19th century. That is to say, the class contradiction between the working class and national bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries is stronger than the national contradiction between the bourgeoisie of the oppressed country and the bourgeoisie of the imperialist country. Notice that I am not saying that there is no such thing as imperialism, or that there is no such thing as national oppression: just that the class contradiction tends to be more fundamental, and that consequently the anti-imperialist united front fails.
When has it not failed? It is true that there are cases when it has appeared to have achieved something, but these tend to be when the communist parties were armed to the teeth and backed by the Soviet Union, in connection with the events of World War II and with Soviet geopolitics generally. Cuba wound up as a ‘communist country’, not because it would have done so without the presence of the Soviet Union, but because the Castroites decided to align themselves with the Popular Socialist Party: that is, the Communist Party of Cuba. And for reasons to do with the struggle with the ‘anti-party group’ in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet split, Khrushchev manoeuvred to the left in mobilising Soviet support for bringing Cuba into the ‘socialist camp’.
So when we discuss the motivation behind the Comintern policy we have to start with this point: what is at issue at the end of the day is the class-political independence of the working class. The constant element of Marx and Engels, from 1846 - for an early example, the address to Feargus O’Connor in connection with the Chartist election campaigns - is the need for the class-political independence of the working class, the political action of the working class, and the political organisation of the working class. The idea of collaboration with the bourgeois liberals emerged in their line for Germany in 1848 precisely because the working class was so underdeveloped there. By 1850, that conception was abandoned and consistently rejected from then on: the alliance of Bismarck and Lassalle was to be rejected; Louis Blanc’s engagement in a ‘democratic government’ in 1848 was to be rejected. The message in the inaugural address of the First International was the class-political independence of the working class.
Now we come to the question of imperialism. We start with Eduard Bernstein, who engaged in debate with Ernest Belfort Bax in 1896-97 over the question: should socialists support imperialism? Should they support European expansion, because it supposedly had a civilising and progressive effect on the rest of the world?
Bax argued the contrary: that as far as possible capitalism should be kept in narrow confines, because this would cause overproduction to take place much more quickly and cause capitalism to collapse sooner. Bax’s argument was nonsense, but Bernstein in the course of the polemic with him, and then with Parvus which grew out of the Bernstein-Bax debate, found that he could not maintain simultaneously the line of the civilising mission of capitalism in the colonial world, and the idea of the class-political independence of the working class. As a result he broke openly with the idea of the latter.
The anti-imperialist united front was not intended to be a break with the class-political independence of the working class, but in practice it is such a break, because placing a priority on the legitimate concerns of the national bourgeoisie inevitably has the effect of subordinating the movement of the class to the aspirations of the national bourgeoisie. And, like Bernstein, the proponents of this idea after the 1920s are inevitably driven to abandon the conception of the class-political independence of the working class, in favour of the ‘broad anti-monopoly alliance’, the people’s front and similar operations, until we end up with the Eurocommunists saying that all this stuff about class in our programmes is really a bit obsolete, that class has ceased to exist. So how the anti-imperialist united front works is in practice to abandon the class-political independence of the working class. How is it justified?
The answer to this is Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. Lenin in the beginning of the pamphlet urges caution about it: he says it is a popular outline, and written to pass the censorship. Nonetheless, Imperialism, having reproduced the general scheme of Second International writers prior to 1914, then diverges from them in significant ways.
The general scheme, just in outline, is that capitalism grows up in the framework of the nation-state. But then it becomes overdeveloped in this framework, and the reason this happens is underconsumption. Because of the great debates about the causes of crisis which took place in the late 1960s and 70s, it is now deeply unorthodox to talk about a secular tendency toward underconsumption as the root of crisis. But the whole of the Second International discussion of imperialism is framed within the idea of such an underconsumptionist view of crisis and a tendency to capitalist stagnation.
The obverse of underconsumption is overproduction, and to deal with this there arise monopolies and cartels to restrict production. The fact that monopolies and cartels restrict production is a reason for supposing that these indicate a decay of capitalism. Following on from this, if there are monopolies and cartels in a national framework, then tariff barriers are needed to protect them from foreign competition. And then, the area included inside these tariff barriers must be increased, the state must expand its territory, and this drives the division of the world by the capitalist great powers.
There are certain sub-themes here which Lenin eliminates. In much of the literature prior to 1914 the relationship between particular capitals and the state is discussed, but Lenin reduces that to two lines in his pamphlet. In the discussion before 1914, there is much debate about the emergence of a world market and the physical internationalisation of production - the extent to which there are flows of raw materials, part-built objects and other output between countries. Lenin completely eliminates discussion of that issue. This decision was not unconnected to the polemic he was engaged in, at the time of writing Imperialism, with the Poles and others about the national question, and the Easter Rising in Ireland.
What replaces these elements of theory in the formulations that he uses is overdevelopment of a few countries - monopolies and monopolisation become absolutely central to his argument. There is now a large degree of polarisation in his account: instead of the division between top-dog countries, middle-rank countries, and colonies and other bottom-rank countries, there is a total bifurcation between a few overdeveloped imperialist countries and a large mass of exploited countries. But equally in domestic politics the pamphlet argues for a division between, on the one hand, the monopolists who control the state and, on the other hand, all the rest. So the alliance between the national bourgeoisie and the working class is already present in Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. All this is set within the theoretical framework of the general collapse and terminal crisis of capitalism - the ‘highest stage’.
It follows from this set of views that for Comintern it becomes necessary to formulate a strategy similar to the one adopted in Russia - the worker-peasant alliance - but on an international scale, in which the Congress Party in India and other nationalist formations like the Kuomintang in China stand in for the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries as strategic allies of the working class. Lenin has accentuated the features of pre-1914 accounts of imperialism that lead to that conclusion, but in fact the pre-1914 story of the growth of capitalism was rubbish in any case.
For example, the capitalists in the republic of Venice exported capital to sugar plantations in Cyprus, which was a colony of Venice, in the late Middle Ages. The bankers of the republic of Genoa financed sugar plantations on Atlantic islands of one sort and another under Portuguese sovereignty. At the moment the Dutch republic emerged as an independent bourgeois state, the Dutch East India Company embarked on a path of conquest in Asia and elsewhere, and by the conclusion of the 80-year war of Dutch independence in 1648, the Dutch empire already included South Africa, Sri Lanka, part of Indonesia, part of Brazil and exclaves of one sort or another dotted round the world.
The parliamentary New Model Army is victorious in the English Civil War, the king is executed, and the New Model Army immediately begins a campaign of conquest - which starts in Scotland and Ireland, but extends by the 1650s to operations in the Caribbean, leading to the conquest of Jamaica. By the time we get to 1689-1713, the British state is engaged in a global conquest for power. Some have said that the Napoleonic wars should be regarded as World War I, but it is just as true to say that the wars between 1689 and 1713 could be seen as the first world war, the Seven Years War as the second, and the Napoleonic wars as the third, and so on. The social dynamic that created the world wars we know was already in operation long before 1914.
We ask then, when was there a time when there was a free-trading, liberal capitalism - a capitalism that did not have tariff barriers, that did not have monopolisation, that did not have the export of capital and finance capitalist operations? Where does this idea come from? The answer to this explains why CPGB comrades have translated and published Kautsky’s text from 1898 in the form of Karl Kautsky on colonialism. The text is frankly dreadful. But it is precisely because he is the person who did history in the Second International that Kautsky’s writing on the history of imperialism was taken as authoritative, and therefore also taken on by Lenin, who was really just recapitulating what was standard orthodoxy at the time.
Lenin was really just taking the standard line of the Second International, and so he assumes that there once was a non-imperialist capitalism. It is Kautsky who actually argues that there is such a thing, that industrial capital does not have an interest in protectionism, in empire, and that the early modern empires are pre-capitalist. But reality shows us that many, although not all, were capitalist. The Spanish in Latin America, to the extent that they went beyond mere looting, attempted to create feudal regimes. But the Portuguese in south Asia, and the Dutch and British, created capitalist empires.
It is also worth reprinting Kautsky because there are two sides of the coin. On the one hand, there are people who want an anti-imperialist united front - and therefore suppress dissent toward the Iranian regime, big up anyone who is opposed to American-led imperialism and think in a nationalistic way about these questions. They see the nationalist movement as the necessary uprising of the petty bourgeoisie and the collapse of capitalism, and ‘know’ this because imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, and because once upon a time there was a nationalist, democratic capitalism, whereas now there are monopolies and cartels and therefore capitalism has reached its limits.
But it is equally true of the other side of this debate: the Eustonites, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Platypus (I have to be cautious about the Platypus comrades, because it is very difficult to tell what they believe). The idea of a non-imperialist capitalism functions for these people as an extraordinary illusion, so that when the United States engages in warlike operations in the Middle East what it is actually doing is bringing capitalist modernity. Compare Bill Warren’s 1970s book Imperialism, pioneer of capitalism.
And there is a contradiction. For millions of people, 19th century England was the home of liberty; it was the most libertarian, most constitutional, most liberal country. That is incredibly visible in Kautsky’s writing - he really believes that England is this great liberal country.
But then, on the other hand, here is Marx on the Indian mutiny, where ‘there is such a thing as retribution’:
However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her eastern empire, but even during the last 10 years of a long-settled rule. To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic instrument of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution ...1
The illusion exists, but what is the reality? The United States claims that it is going into Iraq to create a parliamentary state, and what does it actually do? It goes into alliance with Shia parties based in the mosque and linked to the Iranian Islamic Republic. The United States sees the Arab spring and how does it react? It goes into an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its equivalents elsewhere. The great centre of liberty turns out, when it intervenes in other parts of the world, to operate torture and tyranny itself, to side with torturers and tyrants, and inevitably to promote the most socially conservative forces.
Back to the fundamental politics: for communists and Marxists, the route to the emancipation of humanity comes through the emancipation of the working class, the proletariat, as a class. Why is that the case? The answer is again, to be found in Marx: the division of labour and property rights are two sides of the same coin, which we can see in the SWP right now. What is Alex Callinicos defending? I do not think he is defending the right of ‘comrade Delta’ to hypothetically commit rape or anything like that. What he is defending is his own property rights as an entrenched leader.
The emancipation of labour through a return to family production is impossible simply because technical development has made it so. It is also objectively reactionary because of the role of women and youth - family production comes with patriarchy in its classical sense. The route forward out of capitalism therefore goes through the wage relation, through no-one earning anything more than a wage, and the universal right to access to political decision-making - clinging to the right to manage, the right to a political career, is no different in principle at all to clinging to your own small workshop, your own little farm.
The emancipation of the working class is the emancipation of all humanity, because it can only be achieved by laying collective hands on the whole interlocking process of production, and it is only possible to do that by winning the battle for political democracy. If there is no political democracy, the rights of president Lassalle, as the elected president-with-absolute-powers of the General Association of German Workers, or, for that matter, of Hugo Chávez, or of George Galloway as the particularly notorious leader of Respect, are just property rights. The emancipation of the working class involves laying hands on the whole interlocking process of production, and that implies winning political democracy on an international scale.
Eustonism, ‘democratic imperialism’, simultaneously asserts democracy and denies democracy. It asserts democracy in apologetics, but it denies democracy as soon as it assumes the right to tell the Iranians or the Libyans or whoever what to do. Left versions assert the prospect of the emancipation of the working class, and simultaneously deny it.
The same is obviously true of the anti-imperialist united front policy: it simultaneously asserts the possibility of communism and - by setting up the local tyrant as somehow preferable to the global tyrant - denies it. And it is this simultaneous assertion and denial of a possibility of an alternative to capitalism which has the consequence that the ‘anti-imperialism’ of STWC and the SWP reduces itself to declining numbers of the usual suspects.
It is a politics that had some meaning when the Soviet Union was still in existence during the cold war. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it can only represent a retreat into ever decreasing circles.
1. ‘The Indian revolt’ (1857): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/09/16.htm.