Book Review from the September 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Indefensible. Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. By Rohini Hensman. Haymarket Books. 2018. 380 pages.
This book sets out to expose the hypocrisy of those the author calls ‘pseudo-anti-imperialists’. She criticises them for their opposition to Western imperialism only and for supporting all sorts of oppressive regimes on the grounds that they are opposed to the West. When the West is involved in military action, these ‘anti-imperialists’ support the opposing side whatever the nature of their regime. She instances and goes into detail about Serbia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Argentina, Libya and North Korea could be added.
What is odd is that, although Russia doesn’t claim to be socialist any more, some continue to exclude it from anti-imperialist criticism, as she documents in detail over Ukraine and Syria. She has no illusions about the former USSR. It was, she says, state capitalism, making the additional point that a socialist revolution was not possible there in 1917. Not that knowing that Russia was state capitalist necessarily rules out pseudo-anti-imperialism. The Stop the War Coalition is supported by people who know this, yet while it loudly criticises bombing in Syria by the West, Turkey and Israel it is not very vocal about bombing there by Russia and the Syrian government. She mentions Corbyn as being in this tradition.
This is a fair criticism, and one we have long made ourselves.
Anti-imperialism is a slippery concept because its meaning depends on how you define imperialism. This ought to mean the policy of acquiring an empire, which European states joined by the USA and Japan increasingly pursued in the latter part of the 19th century. This was a development that needed analysing. Those in the Marxist tradition tended to give an economic explanation (acquiring a protected market, need to export capital). Lenin elevated imperialism to ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ and that’s when the rot set in.
It wasn’t that his analysis of the First World War as a war between imperialist powers for the re-division of the world was wrong, but the political implications he drew from this once he himself was in control of the Russian state. First, he developed into a full-blown theory his idea that the parties of the Second International had supported their governments in the war because the section of the working class they represented benefitted from imperialism in terms of higher wages and social reforms. Then, the revolution in Europe having failed to materialise (it was never on the cards anyway), he saw in the rising of ‘the peoples of the East’ against imperialism a way to relieve pressure on the Bolshevik regime in Russia.
Hence ‘anti-imperialism’ became the policy of the Russian state and its supporters abroad. Under Stalin after the Second World War, it became opposition to the West, the US-led bloc that was its rival. It was hypocritical because by then Russia too was manifestly an imperialist power, having acquired the Baltic states and parts of Poland under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and, after the Second World War, Eastern Europe, apart from the empire in Central Asia it had inherited from Tsarism. Hensman aptly writes of ‘the Russian State Capitalist Empire.’
Her starting point is that, as Rosa Luxemburg put it out in a passage she quotes:
‘Democracy is indispensable to the working class because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task.’
From which she concludes that it is in the interest of workers in countries which do not have political democracy to obtain it, whether or not the government there is ‘anti-imperialist.’ True, but the way to do this is not to support one capitalist group against another either in politics and certainly not in war, nor by the various changes to the UN she naively suggests in the final chapter.