Letter: Fighting Imperialism Needs Clear Politics Not Abstract Platitudes

Date: 2022-06-18T21:18:05+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Hilgers “Specificity of Anti-Imperialism” urges its readers to “make war on war.” Who could disagree? Furthermore, they claim we need to overcome the negative dialectic between the “anti-imperialism of fools” and the “NATO left” – reasonable enough for a Marxist who wants to avoid falling into a duality of bad extremes. Sensible Marxists can all agree on the dangers of state loyalism from either an “anti-imperialist” or “red-blue” direction. Hilgers, however, throws comrade Alexander Gallus into the former camp, claiming his demand that the US take Russia’s security concerns seriously “amounts to arguing that the Left should advocate for a “responsible” form of U.S. imperialism in conciliation with Russian imperialism.” 

In a sense, any kind of demand or reform which is isolated from a broader program will, in the end, amount to a call for the existing system to be managed differently. If we are to follow Hilgers, our “war on war” can’t involve making any kind of demand against our own government’s imperialist provocations. It is one thing to say that war can end under capitalism. This is social pacifism. But to make specific demands on our government against various imperialist provocations is not the same as claiming capitalism can exist peacefully. 

Any kind of popular movement that could disrupt the machinations of imperialism will need to capture support from the public at large and mobilize broad layers of society. It will also have to take clear and principled stands against the operation of imperialism itself. Hilgers, despite their call for “principled anti-imperialism,” is ambiguous and leans towards Ukrainian defencism on the question of arms shipments. They give the example of Serbia, using a quote from Lenin to argue that in WWI Serbia was justifiable in fighting a war of national defense, seemingly drawing a parallel with Ukraine today.

So how exactly did the internationalist wing of the Second International react when Serbia was invaded in the Great War? Dušan A. Popović, a member of the Serbian Social Democratic Party at the time, gave the following as his rationale for refusing to vote for war credits despite the invasion of Serbian lands:

For us it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. And if Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all. However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter — we were profoundly convinced of this — could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we — being a part of the great socialist, proletarian International — considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely.

If we are to follow Popović’s logic today, we would see that Ukraine is not merely fighting a defensive war of national liberation akin to Hamas or the Houthis, which Hilger strangely seems to be implicitly suggesting. The reality is that this war is a battle between the semi-peripheral nation of Russia, which is trying to assert its own sphere of influence, and a proxy of the global hegemon, the USA, who are dedicated to ensuring their position of unipolarity. The question is not whether Ukraine will be reduced to the status of a neo-colony, but rather which geopolitical power dominates an already existing neo-colonial entity. More precisely, the war has essentially come to center on the Donbas region, where a legacy of oppression of Russians by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists has fueled hatred of the Ukrainian regime and even sympathy for the Russian occupiers. Ukraine intends to fight until it is able to take back the Donbas as well as Crimea, and the West seems willing to arm them as long as they are guaranteed to be properly indebted. What seems to be at stake is not the national existence of Ukraine itself, but essentially whether the Donbas and Crimea will be Russian or Ukrainian. Is this really a just war worth fighting? Does this war of national revanchism truly represent some national rising of the oppressed?

I think not. It is a war where a dependent country was politically weaponized by NATO and its far-right nationalist wing to provoke a war with Russia with the long-term aim of regime change. It is a disastrous strategy, following the legacy of Brzezinski, who believed Ukraine to be a pivot point in control of the Eurasian sphere. So yes, the communist movement must declare war on war and do whatever it takes to sabotage the plans of our ruling class, whether we live in the United States or Russia. Even if we cannot make a material difference in the outcome of the war, we can nonetheless use it as an opportunity to campaign for a truly oppositional and disloyal socialist movement.  

Building a movement like this will require political clarity on the question of arms shipments. If we want to propagandize against the NATO war machine, we have to point to the role of the arms industry in fueling the conflict and take a clear stance against it. Hilgers tries to weasel their way out of the question and essentially says that we shouldn’t actively support arms shipments, but that we also shouldn’t actively oppose them either, quoting the Third Campists of Tempest, who state that Ukraine has the “right to get the weapons it needs for its defense from whatever source available.” It is essentially a refusal to commit to any kind of stance, something that elected representatives of the workers’ movement can’t easily do. While most fall in line, principled opposition to weapons for Ukraine from a socialist stance could at least serve to differentiate ourselves from the war-mongering liberals who dominate the Democratic Party. 

I do not know where Hilgers resides, but in my own country, the US, our own representatives in Congress are voting to support billions of dollars of weapons being sent into Ukraine. If we aren’t even willing to actively oppose arm shipments, I don’t know how we are going to be able to actually build a movement that truly “declares war on war.” The suggestions given to us as far as positive action are incredibly vague and abstract. First, Hilgers suggests “connecting Ukrainian refugees to the struggle to destroy the border regime which helps secure global apartheid, something feasible and practical through pushing local areas to declare themselves safe harbors.” This sounds good in the abstract – we all hate borders and want to promote broad solidarity. But what it means in the concrete is left to the imagination. 

Second is the suggestion to “build a radical opposition.” If only someone had thought of this before! Of course, all we are told is what this movement won’t do: it won’t make any demands, it won’t have any social basis in the core, it won’t look like the opposition to the Iraq War, a movement that was “more about whites than Iraqis.” The closest we get to a positive vision for this “radical opposition” is that it “must fight against the capitalist world-system itself, not just particular results of its movements.” This is all just sloganeering, picking away at any positive demands or proposals in favor of an imaginary movement composed of people entirely acting purely of heart in the name of noble self-sacrifice for the most oppressed of the Earth. Such a movement will never exist, and if anti-imperialism becomes a mass social phenomenon in the imperialist countries it will succeed by mobilizing people on the basis of their material interests against imperialism. Hilgers suggests this is impossible, claiming that there no social basis for even basic social-pacifism exists in the core. If this is the case, why would there be a social basis for a “radical left praxis”? We can only assume Hilgers simply does not believe one can organize in the imperialist core, or that if one does they can only organize on the basis of moral sentiments and purity, as their objective interests are to loot the world – something which doesn’t bode well for human liberation. 

Ultimately, I am not as pessimistic as Hilgers. I think the left can develop a solid strategic and programmatic approach to the war in Ukraine that serves as, if nothing, an opportunity for us to build a movement around a principled stand against our ruling class’s war machine. We can make demands, organize around them, and use these political campaigns to expose the bourgeois nature of this war and the real causes behind it. A movement that can stop war or impact geopolitics will not arise in the immediate future. This much is true. But at the very least we can start building such a movement by taking the correct stance today, coherently and openly refusing to support our war machine. 

Donald Parkinson

Editor-in-Chief of Cosmonaut Magazine

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