“Anti-imperialism was one of the core principles of the Corbyn project. And the narrative that it was an unpopular part needs to be challenged.”Andrew Murray
The below piece is based on Andrew Murray’s speech at the recent Labour Outlook forum on Why Socialists Are Anti-Imperialists.
This is a timely discussion. Just a few weeks ago a Labour front-bencher, Wayne David, announced that the Labour Party must drop it’s “obsession with anti-imperilaism.”
David is the Shadow Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, in Lisa Nandy’s team. His record speaks for itself – a supporter of the Iraq War, the Libyan War and intervention in Syria who failed to support Labour’s motion to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the Yemen war. His approach to the countries covered by his portfolio is to invade, bomb, overthrow governments and protect the pro-western oligarchies. That he should hold that role is a sad commentary on Keir Starmer’s approach.
In fact, it is the obsession with imperialism advocated by David and the like that is the danger to Labour. And the danger to the rest of the world – there are few outside Britain itself who would think Labour has historically been too indulgent to anti-imperialism. More anti-imperialism in Britain would be almost universally appreciated.
Anti-imperialism was one of the core principles of the Corbyn project. And the narrative that it was an unpopular part needs to be challenged. This was proved by Corbyn’s response to the Manchester terrorist bombing during the 2017 General Election campaign – pointing out that the “war on terror” had failed and that the persistence of such attacks was in part a consequence of British foreign policy decisions. The Tory attack on his response fell flat after instant polling showed most people completely agreed with him. Far fewer would have agreed with the Labour staffer who wrote in a message group that “normal people blame terrorism on immigration.” No, most normal people don’t.
There is another view on the left though – that because anti-imperialism is controversial and challenging Labour should basically forget about it. It should strictly separate domestic from foreign policy, and confine radicalism to the former while going along with the status quo on the latter. This view can be associated with Paul Mason, the writer who was a significant contributor to the Corbyn project in its early stages. Their argument is that is one wants to get away with nationalising the water industry we must “give the generals what they want.”
This can be criticised on several grounds. First, the conceptual separation of domestic and foreign makes no sense in a world defined by capitalist globalisation and the commonality of international problems which require, among other things, an aggregation of radical domestic solutions.
Second, it is a divisive position, in that it divides the international working-class, sacrificing the rights of peoples elsewhere, including the right to live free of the depredations of imperialism, to the metropolitan political requirements of securing a progressive government.
These arguments are not new either. They reproduce the fundamental lines of the debates in the Second International over colonialism before the First World War. And as then, those advocating turning our back on anti-imperialism end up not in a neutral position as they imagine but in a fundamentally pro-imperialist position, supporting the expansion of NATO, supporting the confrontation with China, joining political campaigns which prepare the ground for military intervention.
When discussing imperialism today, we need to be clear about what it isn’t. First, it isn’t over – it is alive and kicking today and did not disappear with formal colonies. Second, it isn’t just over there – it is over here too, impacting on our own society in myriad ways. And third, it is not just a policy, it is a system, the expression of contemporary capitalism in Britain.
So what is it? The simplest definition I have come across was given by the British Marxist historian Victor Kiernan, who wrote some years ago that “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.” That brings together both imperialism’s exploitative – one could say super-exploitative – nature with its coercive aspect, the aspect which attracts most political attention.
Within that framework, imperialism does not stand still – 21st century imperialism appears more as a global system with a high degree of integration between many of the great powers, as against the situation of one hundred years ago. It cannot be examined simply through the methods of a sort of “tick-box Leninism” wherein it is established that the same factors as he identified in 1916 are still operative, and that exhausts the requirements of analysis.
So let’s consider how imperialism impacts here in Britain – the disastrous consequences in many other countries over the course of this century are pretty obvious. First, there is the role of the City of London, which has enormous weight in the British economy and owes its position to its role as a centre for the redistribution, the concentration and the international reorganisation of capital historically, a role it continues to play today and which mandates that it use the British state to maintain the “open” global economy on which it thrives, by force when necessary. That dictates the alliance with the USA, with its far greater military potential. To challenge the role of the City, as Labour seeks to, inevitably means striking at the heart of imperialism.
Second, and still more obviously, there is racism. Racism in Britain rests substantially on the ideas of racial superiority which were integral to the British Empire, and which permitted Britain to rule non-white peoples through authoritarianism, violence, often terror and sometimes genocide. It is good to tear down the statue of Edward Colston but let us recognise that British society has one foot on the same pedestal. Most black people in Britain trace their heritage to countries which were within living memory coercively controlled by British imperialism. As the great anti-racist Sivandndan wrote “we are here because you were there.” The great Black Lives Matter movement has sharpened awareness of this.
Nor is this just a matter of history. It is impossible to separate Islamophobia, the most pervasive form of racism in Britain today and perhaps the only one which is almost “respectable” from the wars waged against mostly Muslim-populated countries, with all the associated demonology.
Imperialism distorts the economy in other ways too. It empowers the arms industries which constitute a disproportionate part of the manufacturing sector, and the oil monopolies like Shell and BP which intervene to shape British foreign policy and have the closest connections with foreign despotisms. And that is before one gets onto inflated arms spending, up to two per cent of GDP as per NATO demands, much of which is money that could be much better spent on other things.
And how can we speak of tackling climate change without addressing the poverty and resource despoliation which go hand-in-hand with imperialism. The Green New Deal demands an anti-imperialist outlook. It is also not too much of a stretch to see close connection between contemporary authoritarianism and right-wing populism and imperialist and war-mongering attitudes.
So it is impossible to change British society without addressing these issues, without confronting imperialism in its various forms, and it would be better to do so consciously rather than blindly, continually bumping into the issue without having made the political connections.
So anti-imperialism today is not philanthropy, something we do as a favour to peoples elsewhere, nor is it political jargon. The wars of this century have put the concept and the term back at the centre of the political agenda.
Failure to address it will lead to even worse disasters. Today, it is about confronting Russia and China, opening up the prospects of still greater conflicts than those in the Middle East. These are the wars which imperialism risks. So, as Trotsky nearly said, “you may not be interested in imperialism, but imperialism is interested in you.” So the Left needs to maintain the focus on anti-imperialism which irritates the Wayne Davids of the world so much. It is the key to a successful socialist government.