Link to audio recording
Fundamental Socialism: Imperialism and Internationalism
Brandon: Alright. Welcome, everyone, to Socialist Fundamentals: Imperialism and Internationalism. As DSA has grown, one of the critiques from other left groups has sort of been a lack of analysis of imperialism, or global capitalism, and whatnot within DSA, and particularly in its history. So we thought it’d be a good idea, collectively, to start talking about some ideas about what imperialism, global capitalism, and internationalist solidarity look like, what it’s looked like in the history of socialism, but also what it could be for us today and how we can go about theorizing, organizing for a socialist future.
Because it’s a fundamentals discussion, we’re not going to go super in depth into the theory and history of different ideas about internationalism or imperialism. But I think it’s a good idea to start with some broad, basic stuff that we can open up to discussion and if anyone has more questions or comments, critiques, etc., [we can discuss those].
So what is imperialism? So it’s important to realize that imperialism wasn’t this stage that appeared late in the development of capitalism. It’s something that was fundamental to its inception, and Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 already recognized this. In their opening to the Manifesto, they described how the discovery, the so-called discovery of the Americas, the free flow of capital, trade, and accumulation, was already fundamental to the rise of the bourgeoisie. C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins, in his history of the Haitian Revolution, described how the French bourgeoisie itself from its very inception depended on the exploitation and enslavement of black people in Saint-Domingue, which is present-day Haiti. So it’s important for us to realize that any understanding of what imperialism and colonialism has been throughout history depends on this intertwinement of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism (which – they have their distinctions), and sort of the quote-unquote “free” movement of peoples, trade, and goods around the globe.
So, instead of staying in the abstract level, we thought it’d be interesting to think about the U.S., and the U.S. as an empire, as an imperial force. What have been some of the conceptions of the United States as a world power since its very inception? Assuming that we all at some point took a U.S. history class – or if we didn’t, we probably heard this at some point – there have been two myths about the way that America has portrayed itself. On the one hand, we have the myth of isolationism: that because of our founding and our anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire, we decided that, “Hey, here we are, we’ve got 13 colonies, and we have this non-interventionist philosophy toward the rest of the world”. But for some reason, we’re going to keep expanding. So why is that we kept expanding, and why is that expansion, that the same people who were calling for expansion at the same time wanted to describe the United States as if it was not an empire, as if this was something new and different in the history of the United States? So this conflict between being an expansionist power and not wanting to be called an empire is crucial to the way the United States has portrayed itself internationally, from its very inception. And it’s a myth precisely because this country was founded on settler-colonialism; indigenous genocide, dispossession, displacement, and further exploitation; and of course trans-Atlantic slavery; the creation of a notion of blackness and race as inferior to whiteness, and this pure idea of what the white, pure Christian male was supposed to be.
Of course, these ideas continued on to the 19th century. The United States, once again trying to present itself as this anti-colonial or non-colonial force with ideologies such as Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, presented its expansionist ambitions as if it were a matter of like messianic destiny for the United States to keep expanding, to bring its own version of civilization and democratic ideals to the rest of the world, and to keep those backward European empires with their imperial maneuvering from coming to Latin America and the rest of the Atlantic world and interfering in our affairs.
So it’s crucial there, even in the way that I’ve framed this already, that by the time that the so-called Age of Imperialism takes off in the late 19th century for the scramble of Africa, for Asia, capital’s penetration of parts of the world that had, up to that point, not been fully incorporated into the global capitalist system, racism and imperialism had already been intertwined and would continue to be intertwined. It’s also interesting to think about how the United States entered this phase of its development as an empire. It presented itself as this, once again, this anti-colonial force. We’re liberating Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, for example, from the Spanish Empire, yet at the same time we want to impose our own interests within our own divisions of labor, our own companies, to extract wealth and raw materials from those places.
In terms of the ideology of this period – this is something I didn’t know beforehand, but Casey told me about it – the first journal, academic journal, of international affairs (run out of Columbia University), which is now called The Journal of International Affairs, at its point of inception wasn’t called that. It was called The Journal of Race Development. So we already see here what international affairs meant to the United States, even if it posed that conception of itself.
W.E.B. DuBois – this is probably too small for some of you to see, but if you can [referencing slide] – this text, Black Reconstruction in America. You know, DuBois – huge influential figure in the history of African-American anti-imperialist stuff, and he was himself an internationalist, a socialist. He, from the very beginning, thought of the United States as having, post-emancipation, after the Civil War… he saw the defeat of radical reconstruction, the failure for black Americans to become fully free citizens in the United States, that story being completely intertwined with the history of further imperialism in the rest of the world, the U.S.’s role as an imperial power. There’s a quote that I love from W.E.B. DuBois; if you can’t read it, I’ll just quickly go over it.
That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather.
So essentially, the United States, regardless of what image it was trying to present of itself to the rest of the world, was participating in the same forms of capital accumulation based on commodity production in the rest of the world.
And here’s a really famous image, a cartoon from, I believe, 1914, about these contradictions – of how the United States continued to see itself as, you know, tutoring its colonies. This is supposed to be Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines [referencing image]. And then – you probably can’t read (the people in the back) – but those are children that are Arizona, Texas, Alaska, New Mexico, California… you have a Native American who can’t read, he’s reading the text backwards in the back, and a Chinese person who’s entering this classroom. So you have the rest of the world having to learn from the United States what it would mean to be fully human, even.
So, what happens? Some of you might be familiar that, you know, a huge world transformative event, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—and later on the Communist International—founded an idea that in order to make world revolution, socialists around the world, communist parties around the world, needed to really entrench themselves in the colonies. Most of the world at this point, 1917 into the 1920s and ‘30s, was still colonized. So the United States found itself in this position in which more and more organizations—communists, socialists, anarchists, you name it, even liberal nationalists in the colonized world—started pointing to the United States as precisely the problem, the problem in the distribution of wealth in the rest of the world.
So the United States was very, very astute, and they decided to do something. To sort of take on this anti-colonialist developmentalism to the rest of the world: that as long as you were not going to go into a communist direction, as long as you wouldn’t align with China after 1949 or the Soviet bloc, we would provide you aid, we’d develop you to the best of your countries’ capacities. So once again, the United States constantly—as you can see, it’s just transforming this same notion of what its world role is supposed to be, as both this reactionary force that keeps extracting the wealth and labor of the rest of the world but at the same time presenting that as an alternative freedom that is not actually freedom for most of the world.
Both of course, these movements kept pointing to this contradiction. Whether it was the subjugation of labor, or black workers, or black people in general and Native Americans in the United States, or it’s the United States’s imperial role in Latin America and much of the rest of the world… this was very clear to anti-colonialists well into the 20th century. And there were pockets of anti-imperialist opposition within the United States. And this all comes to a boiling point once we get to the Cold War period.
And this is where the origins of DSA’s internationalist, or lack thereof, position in the 1970s really comes to view. Because at the center of this historical moment, at the creation of an anti-war, anti-imperialist left within the United States, we’ve already had a crisis of communism—of Stalinism, as other people would put it—so the old left is in crisis and needs new organizations, or needs to reform its existing organizations. The anti-war movement spawns, later on, a—some people call it “Third Worldist”, I just prefer the term “anti-imperialist”—outlook about the United States’s role in the world. And, you know, it can seem kind of crazy looking back now, but this was the moment, the moment where a lot of the world was decolonizing, and U.S. radicals wanted to stand in solidarity with this.
So, DSA, at this point, it wasn’t yet DSA—it was sort of the origin organizations—had never articulated an anti-imperialist position. It called, during Vietnam for example, for peace, but it never had a very nuanced critique of imperialism; it never publicly really opposed these forms of domination that the United States was imposing on the rest of the world. And, you know, a lot of the left did not align with the democratic socialist organizations that would later merge into DSA. And this is all because, to be a democratic socialist in this Cold War period, for people like Michael Harrington, was to be a principled anti-Communist, because the rhetoric of the time was that if you had any whiff of Communist sympathy within your organization—well then, there you go. So, red-baiting within the left was a real thing. But then of course you have an explosion of all these other kinds of groups—these are like the Black Panther Party, the Third World Women’s Alliance—they were small groups, but they’re significant. They really mobilized and organized their bases on an anti-imperialist outlook.
Of course, this vision of the world, the decolonized world that would be an alternative, socialism, didn’t come to fruition. Even from the moment of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, as he was trying to take Chile down an alternative, democratic socialist path that would break free from this Cold War divide, things like the Non-Aligned Movement tried for decolonizing countries to take a new path that was neither U.S. liberal free-market democracy or Soviet Communism, the spaces for them to actually exist and implement this view of society became smaller and smaller, for many different reasons. There was some U.S. intervention, obviously, in many parts of the world, [which] continued that crisis, which [was] only exacerbated through IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs that forced all these countries to cut back on their spending programs, their social spending on different programs that really did improve the lives of the majority of the population of these decolonizing countries. So, this moment passed, and we were left with this ideology that we’re all familiar with: that there is no alternative anymore, and we have to adapt to the parameters of the existing capitalist system, which by now is completely globalized, and here we are.
Casey: Alright, so, I’m going to cheat a little bit, since my notes are on here. I’ll flip this around. I have some pictures, but if you can’t see them, it’s alright. I’ll flip it around when I have some nice pretty graphs to show you that actually are informative. There we go.
So, at the end of the Cold War, there’s kind of a notion that this was the end of history. Literally, a fellow named Francis Fukuyama published this essay called “The End of History” in which he said that what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that as the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution, the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government. And when he was talking about this, he meant this in a kind of way not only about liberal democracy, but also capitalism. And the end of the Cold War was thought of as not only the defeat of the Soviet Union, but the actual ideological victory of the time of liberal democracy and capitalism over socialism and Communism the world over. This is all going on much longer, you have the breakup of the Soviet Union from 1986 to 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and Francis Fukuyama’s essay itself is also from 1989.
So, part of the question was, what does a sole global superpower, how can it rule? What is it supposed to do? And in the 1990s, a kind of new idea of how American power would be framed, alongside a kind of reframing of the American past to kind of explain this new power, a kind of softened power imperialism. So the Cold War required a reframing of the American past itself, as a history of ideals of capitalism and democracy. So if there are issues on the home front back in the United States, say questions of race, class conflict, gender inequality, et cetera, the overall consensus of Cold War liberalism was that, regardless of those things, we are on the path of overcoming all those problems. The completion of this project of liberal integration, however, also took off the table any possibility of rapid change.
However, at the end of the Cold War, the American story and its kind of historical trajectory, in a sense was universalized. All countries were on the march toward democracy, with capitalism, not just the United States. At the same time, American interests became framed as being coterminous with the interests of the entire global community. Anything that was good for the United States, because it was the kind of scion of liberal democracy and capitalism, would also be good for the rest of the world and push them further along that path. So you had a way of thinking about, rather than American power being a matter of coercion, of force of arms, being about the forces of representation, a form of cooptation of governments. There’s a bit of false dichotomy there because cooptation and coercion still are forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do, but nevertheless, this was the ideological way this was framed. So it was an active change to actually change the global norms of power, in which the United States would be the one setting what exactly those norms would be. You can think of the famous phrase of George W. Bush, that kind of saying of like “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” There’s that kind of hard form of cooptation: we’re not going to use force to convince you to do these things, but if you don’t do them, you’re on the bad side.
So, part of the problem, of course, was that this period of liberal democracy, this victory and capitalism’s victory, was also a time that had the highest levels of violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, economic oppression, that the world had ever seen. So despite that veneer of victory, some things were still very wrong. So this became framed as no longer the Cold War, but it’s also still war is going on. International conflict, however, is increasingly framed as “police actions.” You can think of the 1991 Gulf War, the NATO intervention in Kosovo, for instance. And what this symbolized was kind of a legalization of war and conflict, a legalization within the international framework: ideas of multilateral intervention, i.e., NATO, you have “peacekeeping missions,” forms of negotiation between parties. And—here’s a pretty graph—and you literally see a—come on, let’s see the whole thing… I mean, you can’t see this very well, but this is literally a stack graph, a bar graph of the conflicts, worldwide conflicts in which—so, this point right here is about 1976; this top spike is 1990-ish. And what you actually see is, these down here are interstate conflicts. These are the number of civil wars that are still going on. So in the 1990s, you’re actually having more conflicts than you actually did during the Cold War, and even before that. And also kind of a redefinition of conflicts from interstate conflicts to civil, or civil wars with foreign intervention. And it’s also increasing attention on not just the point of conflict, but also the ways in which the world systems try to deal with things like global hunger and extreme poverty. These actually became these objects of development policy. However, with increasing focus on poverty and human development, especially things like the Human Development Index, which was developed in the 1990s, it really solidified very specific metrics for the ability of populations to be and do desirable things. However, this was entirely within the frameworks of capitalism. Literally—like, the HDI purposely excludes questions of inequality at the national level, and since it’s framed as merely the nation-state itself, it totally ignores global inequalities. And you can imagine just what it means to fight only hunger and extreme poverty within a capitalist system. You’re trying to get rid of whatever possible things might get in the way of things like social reproduction, the ability of people to feed themselves, to have families, for just basic living to happen, so that people can actually just be exploited.
You can think about now the kind of divisions of wealth across the work. To be within the top 10% of the world population you have to make…what is it, like, $32,000 now? So you can think of the rest of the world barely making by.
So that’s kind of like this moment within the 1990s and kind of how things were developing ideologically at that point. So we have the kind of big moment that we all think about, which is obviously 9/11, and how that actually transformed the world from there on, and the emergence of terrorism and perpetual global war. So, within 7 days of 9/11, the U.S. put forth a policy of authorization of the use of military force and put forth a policy eventually that was more elaborate later of preemptive war, that the US government would be obligated to anticipate and counter threats before the threats could do grave damage to American people and American interests. Both political and economic, obviously.
This authorization of force was broad as can be, nearly no limits, and what that allowed for was an expansion of military power abroad. We all know the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but those were not the only points of conflict. By the beginning of 2017, there were over 76 countries in the world which were directly involved in counterterrorism efforts, whether hosting bases, site of actually fighting, security partnerships with the U.S., etc.
This is literally a map of all those countries [referring to slide]. You have pretty much every single continent except North America, which I am kind of suspicious about, since I’m sure there’s at least one Central American country that has security partnerships. But pretty much the entirety of Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, large parts of Europe, Australia, southeast Asia, et cetera.
And, alongside this also is not only just increasing military interventions, but also increasing Americans’ foreign aid from the United States, both economic and military. And if you actually look at a graph of this, you really do see a jump from the 1990s, where it’s a relatively low period of U.S. foreign aid, to almost doubling in 2000-2001, and maintaining a kind of constant level until now. And this aid is going to the exact same countries on this map.
So even at this point today, the United States military expansion now, we have almost 300 thousand Department of Defense personnel stationed overseas, over 516 military bases, 200—military bases being anything over 10 acres or $10 million in assets. We also have 271 of what they call lilypad bases, which are below that threshold, and 56 U.S.-funded host nation bases, which we basically pay to allow for U.S. personnel to use for whatever—for refueling planes, for intelligence gathering, everything. It really kind of demonstrates the increasingly extraterritorial nature of American power in the 21st century—you know, the really main case being Africa and the ways in which the war on terror has expanded their drone bases and whatnot.
And I have a pretty picture that you can’t really see [referencing slide]. It’s just a map of bases. That’s in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, which is actually an old French base which has been transformed into this whole 500-acre compound, with its own Pizza Hut, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… and which is currently slated for $1.4 billion in upgrades over the next ten years. And it’s one of the centers for air operations in the Persian Gulf, but also the central hub for drone operations in Africa.
So, part of the story and part of the reason why we’re talking about why imperialism is important for socialists here in the United States is that empire making and race making go along hand in hand. The kind of histories of racial suppression and discrimination in the United States are coupled in very interesting ways with the ways in which the American empire functions overseas. Some of this is very direct, the militarization of the police that we’ve seen over the past… we think about it happening especially post-Katrina. We saw it really strongly after Katrina. We actually had police patrolling in armored personnel carriers, private military contractors like Blackwater deployed in New Orleans. And we’ve seen that kind of become even more and more regularized over the past decade and half.
And part of the discourse around the global war on terror, which actually allowed for U.S. military expansionism, has allowed for normalization of racism at home. For almost a decade of like, “we have a black president now, so the United States is no longer racist,” colorblind liberalism, right? So something like racial profiling was able to move from something that was denied by police forces in the kind of, like, early ‘00s late ‘90s, to something which is now standard practice, both in terms of the war on terror and ever-increasing against immigrants and refugees. There’s something we know as fact that polices forces have been doing for the past two decades, around broken windows policing and so forth.
And the kind of ironic thing is that you can understand why the militarization of police works this way when you actually look at the ways in which poverty, wealth, and inequality have been transforming. Where this entire period where U.S. military expansion has been going on, you have an increasing global wealth inequality, where the United States has the effects of that, but also interior to the United States, you have huge amounts of wealth inequality here! Not only in terms of the 1%, but then also the ways that maps onto, obviously, racial wealth inequality.
Here you can see this graph right here, which is basically this racial wealth inequality where the top line is whites within the U.S. and the two bottom lines are black and Latino. And this projected out into 2024. So you can see the huge wealth disparity, right, between us. And you can see how the ways in which the militarization of the U.S. has been used abroad to maintain forms of global wealth inequality, i.e. capitalism, and the ways in which these are now coming home to be used on American populations.
So we kind of wanted to talk about—so, what are the possibilities for internationalism today? How do we move beyond sectarian debates about previous internationalism, so western socialists versus third worldists? How do we rethink or reinterpret the histories of anti-war activism to learn from their successes and failures, what the limits of those past theories and practices have been? And also, to move beyond thinking—or at least understand what is unique about today and what’s not. To what degree are those old theories and practices actually something we can use today?
So the particular nodes that we were thinking about are like, how does labor organizing relate to internationalism? How do we organize labor in such a way to actually focus on things like class struggle, not in a sense that divides, but one that is used to move across racial lines, but also international lines.
Immigrant and refugee solidarity. Capitalism relies on borders. Because it’s able to cross them! Whereas labor is not supposed to, except for in these limited cases of, like, migration, right? So how do we think about immigration and refugee solidarity in that very context.
And anti-war activism. How can anti-war activism hook up with these other things? How can anti-war activism be something which is actually international? When we think about grassroots movements throughout places like Japan, South Korea, even the Middle East to some degree, though they don’t really allow these kinds of protests… protests against U.S. military bases abroad, grassroots movements in those countries, how can that be related to anti-war activism at home? So these are all questions we wanted to pose for discussion to think about collectively… We’ll just open up the floor.