Anti-imperialism and the Arab Spring

Presentation by Joseph Green at the panel on
"What is Imperialism? (What Now?)" at the
  Platypus Convention, April 6, 2013

(CV #48, June 2013)

The struggles of the Arab Spring has led some to ask, should we side with anti-imperialism or should we back the anti-fascist struggle? But this is a false dichotomy. There is neither real anti-imperialism or anti-fascism without the masses. I would call such supposed anti-imperialism "non-class anti-imperialism", a would-be anti-imperialism that attributes everything to the maneuvers of this or that Western power or corporation, but somehow misses what's going on among the masses.

Non-class anti-imperialism is very widespread in the left. Over the last few decades, it [non-class anti-imperialism] has repeatedly degenerated into support for oppressive tyrannies, prettification of new imperialisms, and despair at the prospects of mass struggle. Some groups even regard that the Taliban is waging an anti-imperialist struggle in Afghanistan. All this hasthreatened to discredit anti-imperialism in the eyes of millions upon millions of people.

The non-class anti-imperialists argue that once a regime comes into contradiction with the US government, even a regime that has worked closely with US imperialism before, then the internal situation is irrelevant. It argues that, "didn't Lenin say in his article Socialism and War that it didn't matter who attacked first, India or Britain, that it would be a war of aggression on Britain's part and of defense on India's?" Is there any reference here to the internal situation in India?

But Lenin argued that a great revolutionary wave was spreading across India and elsewhere in Asia, a gigantic movement which imperialism was seeking to suppress. Millions and millions of oppressed people were standing up against old social relations and national oppression, and this had been going on for decades. War was the continuation of politics by other means. So since a movement of liberation was taking place in India and elsewhere, since the long-standing issue was the democratic movement and the fight against colonialism, any war should be judged in that light. In that light, such things as who struck first were not particularly relevant.

So the issue today is, what is the long-standing situation of decades that has led to the Arab Spring and such things as the uprisings against Qaddafi and the Assad regime. It's the people of the region standing up to demand a say in their lives. The situation now is different from the revolutionary wave in the immediate years after World War II. Then in the Middle East there were a series of struggles that brought colonies to independence or overthrew monarchies. In some countries working class parties fought for influence. These struggles changed the face of the Middle East and North Africa and brought economic development, albeit it was capitalist modernization, but in country after country the resulting governments became long-lasting dictatorships that humiliated the working people and destroyed their organizations or made these organizations into adjuncts of the government and ruling bourgeoisie. These governments spoke in terms of the old ideals and aspirations of the people and even in terms of socialism — but the old revolutionary movement was dead. Typical of the reality is that the supposedly anti-imperialist regimes in Syria and Libya cooperated with US and British imperialism in the torture of each other's prisoners.

What is going on today is neither a recolonization of the region, nor a struggle with an anti-imperialist banner. It's the masses seeking the right to breathe in their own countries. It is not the result of the outside manipulation of foreign powers, although these powers are all seeking to either smash the movement or use it to their interests. But no upsurge against these regimes could have succeeded without the outside reactionaries and imperialists being divided among themselves.

Perhaps this would make it appear that we are facing a wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, like those sweeping Asia earlier. But this is not so. We are facing important struggles that may end the decades of political stagnation. But no matter how bitter and protracted the fighting, they are not democratic social revolutions of the old type.

What is taking place in the Arab world are democratizations or liberalizations, as took place in the Philippines with the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, as took place in Mexico with the end of the one-party rule of the PRI, as took place in Eastern Europe and Russia, with the downfall of state-capitalism. These were revolutions in the narrow sense. But in these countries, capitalist development had generally proceeded far enough so that there was no longer the basis for the old-style democratic social revolution that eliminated feudalism or semi-feudalism in the countryside, and yet the working class was far too disorganized for there to be the possibility of a socialist revolution. The democratic social revolution was a matter of the past; the socialist revolution the matter of a future still in the distance.

This affects the character of these movements, where over and over again the resulting regimes are a disappointment. In these struggles, the working class may fight, but it was politically disorganized, as it is around the world. Nowhere in the world yet does the working class lead such struggles. So the result of these struggles, if these struggles are successful, is that the political situation may open up to this or that extent, but the regimes may even carry out market fundamentalist measures. The masses may achieve some political rights, but not economic liberation.

So these are not the grand liberating revolutions of one's dreams, but liberalizations with the possibility of an intensified class struggle taking place. Does this mean the struggles are useless? Not from the Marxist standpoint. For Marxism, the class struggle is the path towards organizing the working class and preparing for socialist revolution. From the point of view of utopianism, these struggles have failed. From the point of view of helping the working class organize, these struggles are essential. If one really believes the working class and mass revolution are the motors of history, then these struggles are ourstruggles, the struggles of our comrades. If one disregards these struggles, one becomes a utopian or worse, an unwitting backer of rival imperialisms.

This situation has been a test of the political stands and theoretical views of the various trends on the left.

Some supported those struggles they thought had the possibility of bringing the liberation of the working class. The Trotskyists, for example, had to do this as part of their theory of so-called "permanent revolution". Various of these groups would declare that these struggles either had to bring the working class to power, or they would accomplish nothing. Such declarations might appear exciting at the height of the mass upsurges, but they lead to fits of depression as these struggles continued and disappointed the Trotskyist groups. The Trotskyist theory had a marked utopian flavor, either full liberation now, or forget it.

Let's also look at the standpoint of an ordinary pure democrat. I know this doesn't seem like a very radical thing to consider, but it's instructive. Marwan Bishara is a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, and he wrote a book called the Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. This book is an expression of a certain stage of the Arab Awakening, namely the period of democratic euphoria, and he is passionate about how what he calls "today's revolutions" are completing the previous wave of struggles: in his terms, it's liberating the people, while, he says, the earlier struggles liberated the land. He has no idea that the class, social, and political alliances that are bringing the Arab Spring are inevitably going to breakdown, and lead to a period of struggles, haggling, and popular depression, nor does he realize how serious is the threat of very horrible setbacks, such as periods of fundamentalist government. He has no idea that democracy and liberalization lead to class struggle, and that the more thorough the democracy and the more successful the working class is in utilizing this democracy, the more intense the resulting struggles.

From the standpoint of the political trend I support, it was clear from the start that, in the Arab Spring, everywhere different class factions opposed the old regimes, everywhere different class interests were represented. It was also clear that these struggles did not have an anti-imperialist banner, and that their need to resort to a certain amount of Western imperialist military support was a danger to them. We neither glorified their nature as the great revolution, nor were we disillusioned when the mixed nature of the results of these struggles became apparent. We continued to expose Western imperialist motives, but we also recognized the legitimacy of the insurgent people utilizing differences among the foreign powers.

This mixed situation is characteristic of the struggles of today. The working-class movement is disorganized and in crisis around the world, and the working masses divided by a multitude of differences. In this situation, the major struggles that break out are not dominated by a revolutionary viewpoint. But to abandon these struggles means to make a mockery of belief in the class struggle. So we have a choice: either utopianism, abstaining from all struggle until somehow the one great revolutionary struggle appears. Or knowing where the working class interest lies in these struggles, using these struggles to have the working class learn the interests and features of the different classes and become class-conscious.

But non-class anti-imperialism judges these struggles not by their effect on the masses, but on how they affect the relations between the different imperialist powers. It doesn't realize that the temporary gains or losses of this or that big power or this or that multinational corporation may be the most minor aspect of the struggle — the main aspect is how far these struggles open a pathway to the class struggle.

Moreover the non-class anti-imperialists also misunderstand the nature of imperialism today. It's not enough to say that imperialism still exists today. One has to be able to see what's changed in the world situation, and how the basic features of imperialism remain despite this.

Several of these changes are of particular importance for today. For the sake of brevity, let's deal with just one — the rise of new imperial powers. The non-class anti-imperialists believe that only countries which were imperialist a century ago can still be imperialist today. They ignore the rise of new imperialist powers and would-be imperialist powers. They may look towards the governments of the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — as some type of bulwark against US imperialism.

But the working masses of the BRICS face the opposition of the governments and bourgeoisies of these countries. This has been dramatized by what happened at the latest of the annual meetings of the BRICS governments, this time in Durban South Africa late last month. Activists from the social movements in South Africa organized the "BRICS from below" countersummit against the "BRICS from above" meeting of BRICS governments. One of the main organizers of this countersummit was the South African activist Patrick Bond, who describes the BRICS countries as "sub-imperialist", not anti-imperialist. He describes in detail examples of how these countries join in world imperialism and act like imperialists. This counter-summit was billed as a meeting of civil society, which shows that the South African movement is still far from an independent working class standpoint, but it is an important exposure of what the BRICS really are.

It's not just the BRICS bourgeoisies who have gone imperialist. Any bourgeoisie of a country with some advantages allowing it to exercise influence has sought to become its own regional power and join the dance of monopoly powers. The strategic position and oil money of the Arab world has financed these imperial strivings in the larger or more powerful countries.

Failing to recognize the new imperialisms and backing one imperialist or regional capitalist power against another is a travesty of anti-imperialism. We live in the most powerful imperialist country, which is still the world's only superpower. But the only way to undermine US imperialism is to build support for the development of working class struggle around the world. What aids this, ultimately aids the anti-imperialist struggle. What aids other imperialist powers seeking to hold down the working class, retards this. <>

(Along with the presentation, a listing of some important Communist Voice articles on imperialism was handed out at the forum.)

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Last changed on August 14, 2013.