Anti-war activists have not always embraced the rhetoric of
anti-imperialism. Richard Phillips examines the many meanings of that
slippery term and asks whether it is still relevant in describing
today's unequal and often violent world
In summer 2003, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn and other leading figures in
Stop the War Coalition published a 'guide for the movement' boldly
titled Anti-imperialism. The subject was more controversial than
might have first appeared.
When the Stop the War Coalition was founded in late 2001, some
activists proposed that resistance to imperialism should be
formalised in its constitution, but their motions were defeated, not
only in London but in other meetings in cities such as Cardiff.
Persuasive and empowering to some, 'anti-imperialism' seems
problematic to others. Who was – and is – talking about imperialism
and can the term be usefully deployed by the anti-war movements? New
research undertaken by the University of Liverpool has attempted to
find out some of these answers.
According to Martin Empson, of Tower Hamlets Stop the War, 'the
phrase imperialism … is something that's become commonplace in a way
that it wasn't five, ten years ago.' Then, imperialism was the stuff
of radical newspapers, activist summits and dissident intellectuals.
It still is, of course, with sessions on imperialism at Marxism and
European Social Forums, and many other conferences dedicated to the
subject. At such events, speakers can be heard arguing that
imperialism – once dismissed as a closed chapter in history – lives
on in globalisation and the war on terror.
But as Empson observed, imperialism has a currency today that it
lacked in the past. A few months ago, Financial Times (FT) columnist
Gideon Rachman posted notes on his website asking, 'whether it is
analytically useful to think of America as an imperial power.' Many
readers emailed in with their own understandings of imperialism and
thoughts on the existence of an 'American Empire', with some posts
conjuring up images of men in pinstripe suits, stopping for some
critical reflection on global capitalism.
Empire lives on
Perhaps we should worry when the FT picks up on this debate: has it
become so unthreatening to the neoliberal establishment, a mere
conversation piece? Certainly, the left has never had a monopoly over
this. The new imperialism was trumpeted by both neoconservative
architects of the war on terror and by their allies in the academy.
Niall Ferguson, the historian of British imperialism, counsels
Americans to embrace their own 'empire', accepting the
responsibilities as well as the privileges of power. Ferguson has
done well out of the British and American Empires: they have got him
a chair at Harvard, a job presenting Channel 4 documentaries about
'how Britain made the modern world', lucrative publishing contracts
linked to his television work and, most recently (in September 2007),
a consultancy with the hedge fund GLG partners, which takes his
advice on the lessons of imperial history for contemporary investments.
With many different voices on imperialism, we might expect people to
be using the term in a variety of ways, and indeed they are. Many on
the left, including those in the SWP who took the helm of Stop the
War Coalition both nationally and in many local branches, cite
orthodox Marxist sources. Lenin and Bukharin's theories of
imperialism as the final stage of capitalism, and as a process
engendering self-destructively violent competition between capitalist
nation states, is brought forward most systematically by SWP activist
Alex Callinicos in books such as The New Mandarins of American Power,
and by other revolutionary socialists including David Harvey, author
of The New Imperialism.
These readings of imperialism are challenged by others on the left –
or rather, others who redefine the left. Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri argue, somewhat confusingly, that imperialism as we know it is
dead, but that 'Empire' lives on, and with it global inequalities of
unprecedented proportions. Hardt and Negri's arguments, advanced in
Empire (2000) and Multitude (2005), are warmly received by those who
recognise their analysis of contemporary capitalism: a global system
of accumulation said to have transcended nation states and assumed
slippery new forms.
Imperialism and related ideas such as Empire are not entirely
theoretical for socialists, of course. In Britain the left has not
simply applied itself to anti-imperial projects; to an extent it has
defined itself through them, both intellectually and practically.
Pressure groups such as the Movement for Colonial Freedom and
political organisations including the (radical wing of the) Labour
Party and the Communist Party agitated for decolonisation in the
middle of the twentieth century.
The meanings of imperialism multiply further by studying other groups
involved in the antiwar movements. Muslims, whose involvement was
formalised through the partnership between Stop the War Coalition and
the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), bring understandings of
their own to this term. Many have a firsthand experience of
imperialism, as migrants and descendants of migrants from former
British colonies including Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Daud Abdullah, Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of
Britain, traces his understanding of imperialism to his own
experiences in Grenada, and to longer histories. 'We in Latin America
and the Caribbean identify with people in Africa with their struggles
against imperialism and we share common pain.' His embracing of Islam
in Grenada in 1975 helped him, he said, rebuild an identity that had
been assaulted by colonialism. The philosopher Tariq Ramadan argues
that resistance to western colonialism has been one of the
fundamental threads of political Islam, or Islamism, in the modern period.
Since imperialism means different things to different people, it is
not surprising that some activists find it a poor political compass.
For Dr Azam Tamimi, who led MAB into partnership with Stop the War
Coalition, it deflects attention from substantive political issues:
'Even to us, imperialism wasn't very clear' he told me. 'We were
talking about more specific issues. For us Palestine was an issue.'
Others see difficulties in following ideas in general, arguing
instead for politics with tangible, understandable and achievable
goals. Glyn Robins, Chair of Respect in Tower Hamlets, remembers
feeling 'impatient' with those who proposed the anti-imperial motion
at Stop the War's inaugural meeting. They seemed to be wasting
crucial time 'arguing about the nature of imperialism' when the
priority should have been to 'get out there and oppose this imperialism.'
These reservations about anti-imperialism could imply that the notion
is no longer of any use. But is that it? In fact, though antiwar
activists have different and avowedly imperfect understandings of the
term, it is part of the common ground we share in forming a united front.
Superficially, it might seem that now, as the fortunes of US
neoconservatives are waning – the Project for the New American
Century is already looking last century – imperialism and the need to
resist it may seem happily anachronistic. Geographer Neil Smith has
argued, on the contrary, that the essence of neo-colonialism remains:
in the actions and the more coded language of neo-liberalism, which
'has always been conservative' and, at least implicitly, imperialist.
Tracing US imperialism beyond its recent overt form, advanced in the
second Bush presidency, Smith stresses continuity not only with the
obvious precursors of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – US covert
and military interventions from Chile to Vietnam – but also the
economic globalisation of the Clinton era. So anti-imperialism is
needed now just as it was when Bush was in the ascendancy.
As a very general idea, anti-imperialism enables us to think broadly:
about global power and inequality. As Martin Empson explains, 'people
have started to talk about a political and economic system as a
totality,' and this understanding is fostered by understandings of
imperialism: 'people start to see why America would want the oil
because of what's happening to its own economy and so on and then the
phrase makes sense and takes on a wider importance.' The very
generality of imperialism means that this way of thinking cannot be
too narrowly prescriptive: it must continuously be reinterpreted, as
we are forced to decide what we mean by it, what we want it to mean.
No single group or theorist should attempt to define the term
conclusively, as that would only close it down, making it a clearer
but a more limited idea.
So, to speak of imperialism is not necessarily to speak very
precisely, but it is both to describe the unequal and often violent
world in which we live, and to find common purpose with others in changing it.
Richard Phillips is senior lecturer in Geography at the University of