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Anti-imperialism: what’s in a name?

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

January 18, 2008
8 min read

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.

Multiple meanings

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 Liverpool. The research for this article was supported by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Research Grant RES-000-22-1785

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