Michael Doyle

Michael Doyle

Defeat in Afghanistan: Anti-Imperialism is Essential

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Some on the left have attacked anti-imperialism in the wake of the defeat of Corbynism. Michael Doyle argues that it is absolutely essential, and that the calamity in Afghanistan only underlines this.

The debacle and collapse of the US and British backed regime in Afghanistan, with consequences that will cascade around the world, should cause us to think again about the importance of anti-imperialism.

Throughout its history the British left has always suffered from an attempt by some to separate domestic from foreign affairs. This attitude was moulded in times when Britain was the world’s most powerful empire, and acceptance of imperial policy was deemed necessary to win favour among broad masses, who in any case were only interested in what worried them ‘day-to-day’. 

Unfortunately this theme has returned in the period after Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. A common argument is that anti-imperialism was an anchor that dragged the project down to electoral defeat. The argument goes that Corbyn’s domestic agenda was popular and that ‘unnecessary fights’ were picked on foreign policy.

The most explicit version of the myth of the unnecessary foriegn policy aside was recently articulated by Jeremy Gilbert on a recent Politics Theory Other podcast. 

Gilbert argued that Corbyn’s anti-imperialism was off-putting to large swathes of the electorate because they have not reached the “highest levels of class consciousness”. He sets out a stagist theory of class consciousness, arguing that if the UK electorate is “not at the level of accepting [that] free broadband might be politically feasible, then you can’t get them to the level of accepting a full-scale critique of imperialism and their own country’s complicity in it”. This ignores the entire history of politics in the UK, which has seen many examples of anti-imperialist politics on a mass scale, even at times when other forms of class consciousness were uneven, declining or low. 

This politics was apparent at the height of post-war working class movement, when Scottish Rolls Royce workers downed tools and refused to repair jet engines for the Chilean air force in protest against the overthrown of Salvador Allende’s government in 1974. But the largest ever anti-imperialist mobilisations (and protests of any kind) were organised by Stop the War, a movement that was able to mobilise two million people against the most immoral and disastrous UK imperialist venture in recent decades – the Iraq war – along with numerous major protests over Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and many other sites of western state violence. This movement appeared at a nadir for working class consciousness more broadly, but still managed to build anti-war feeling to the point where it was common sense, and help create a breach between the public, New Labour the media and foreign policy establishments.

Gilbert’s analysis also ignores that many sections of the working class in Britain are descendants of the former colonies, and some have an anti-imperialist disposition as part of that background. The recent Batley and Spen by-election illustrated just how important anti-imperialist and internationalist politics is to working-class voters in that constituency. Despite the recent protestations of the Labour right that voters in the ‘red wall’ are not interested in issues like Palestine, the leadership panicked and the victorious candidate started talking about the illusory ‘two-state solution’. 

In his interview, Gilbert stresses that a moral critique of imperialism should not be jettisoned as part of the left supporting the US Democrats and Labour. Yet in the Labour Party today, scores of members have been suspended for putting forward motions at branch meetings condemning Britain’s support for Israel. Material support for Israel is just the latest iteration of British imperialism in Palestine and there is no starker illustration of the barbaric nature of contemporary imperialism. These motions are typical of the sort of moral critique being advocated by Gilbert, yet even this most elementary form of moral critique is not tolerated in the Labour Party. 

But there is a more general, theoretical problem with Gilbert’s view; political consciousness is not a stagist process. Rather, it develops through complex determinations, beginning with one’s social being and relation to the mode of production of material life. These condition the social, political and intellectual life forming a dynamic social ‘totality’. A building block consciousness, where the abstract and international can only be grasped once the immediate and social is conquered is simply at odds with what we all know about how people think – you don’t need to be a socialist to oppose war or racism, and most people who oppose these things are not.

Gilbert argues that the way to break with UK/US imperialism is a communist revolution, which he then dismisses as impossible. The historical cards we have been dealt are such that we have to simply accept social democratic parties as the only plausible vehicle for advancing critiques of imperialism and a reforming program that strengthens the working-class and possibly leads to a break with imperialism on this basis. However, there is little to no chance of reformist programs that will permanently strengthen the working class in contemporary capitalism. The reformist programs implemented by the Democratic and Labour parties in the 1930s and 1940s (The New Deal and the Beveridge Report) were products of a period in history in which capital was rocked by economic crisis, war and revolution. Moreover, they were the culmination of a long struggle by a more powerful labour movement for positive reforms to improve the condition of the working class. Moreover, it is one of the key limiting factors of social democracy as a tradition that its domestic radicalism has always been limited by attachments to imperial foreign policy. 

The confusion about anti-imperialism on the anglophone left has gone further than debates about stages of consciousness and ‘priorities’. Owen Jones recently conducted an interview with the American YouTuber ‘Vaush’ (real name Ian Kochinski) on the Biden presidency, the US left and US imperialism. They criticised the amorphous ‘online left’ whose anti-imperialism is synonymous, they say, with the nationalism of geopolitical rivals to the US, namely Russia and China. This ignores that many socialists are perfectly capable of criticising various actors at once, whilst never losing sight of the fact that the US and its allies like the UK are overwhelmingly powerful. Vaush bemoans the left’s supposedly singular focus on US atrocities in Afghanistan whilst ignoring the Taliban’s own record of violence (naturally we are never told who is doing this). For Jones and Vaush, the key flaw in the left’s anti-imperialism is a singular focus on the US’ violent presence in various parts of the world. In fact, the left’s focus on the US is the strength of anti-imperialism, since it acknowledges that objectively the US is the biggest and most powerful imperial power and must be held to a higher standard of criticism. If both Jones and Vaush are serious in their claim to want a post-capitalist and socialist world, then it is necessary for US imperialism to be overcome. 

Britain’s domestic politics cannot be divorced from her foreign policy. Despite the formal dissolution of the British empire, the establishment still yearn for the ‘glory’ of the empire which signified Britain’s geopolitical dominance. One only need look at the way some British politicians have howled about withdrawal from Afghanistan to see how deluded they are about the country’s global influence. British foreign policy, like that of other developed capitalist nations, is intimately bound up with its internal economic development, its long-run chronic problems and periodic crises. Imperialism serves the dual purpose of maintaining British geopolitical power and also allowing developed capitalist countries to coerce developing countries (often former colonies) into an asymmetric economic relationship in which the benefits of the relationship accrue to the imperialist countries. 

Corbynism’s anti-imperialism was inconsistent when he led Labour. One of the high points of British politics in recent years was Corbyn’s insistence, amidst an election campaign and in the wake of the Manchester bombing atrocity, that British and western foreign policy contributed to global terrorism. An audacious argument, that nonetheless struck a nerve with a mass public opinion which knew this to be true, helped secure the Labour surge in 2017. As his leadership wore on, Corbyn increasingly put his internationalism into cold storage. This retreat of anti-imperialist foreign policy weakened the Corbyn project, rather than providing it any room for manoeuvre. 

In parallel, Corbyn’s long and continuing association with the anti-war movement is the central reason he was so reviled by the British ruling elite. It is the reason he is being avoided by the media today, despite his unique position as a leading British politician who consistently opposed the disaster in Afghanistan.

One of the consequences of successive defeats for the British left over the past forty years is a lowering of expectations. Some parts of it have internalised the mantras of the neoliberal right and sought to extract concessions from the Labour Party even as it returns to the establishment. Some have even embraced imperialism. The ‘radical social democracy’ that the Labour left promote is prepared to, in the words of Paul Mason “deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai”. That is not a price the British left should wish to pay in an age of more frequent crises of capitalism and a global ecological crisis. Anti-imperialism cannot be jettisoned as part of a strategy that simply tries to extract temporary concessions to the working class. The task of socialists is to move beyond a capitalist world, and anti-imperialism and internationalism are core components of that task.

Image: Defence Images/Cpl Lee Goddard

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