- Created: Wednesday, 22 April 2009 12:50
- Written by Louis Brehony
• Socialist Register 2004 – the new imperial challenge, available from Merlin Press
www.merlinpress.co.uk, £14.95, 280pp.
Most of the British left have been denying the existence of imperialism for years, so we welcome any opportunity to further a Marxist understanding of imperialism, not just for ideological clarity, but to focus the actions of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Socialist Register 2004 is made up of 13 essays, written by academics. The first essay by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin claims: ‘The left needs a new theorisation of imperialism, one that will transcend the limitations of the old Marxist “stagist” theory of inter-imperial rivalry, and allow for a full appreciation of the historical factors that have led to the formation of a unique American informal empire.’ This ‘new theorisation’ consistently either ignores or denigrates Lenin’s contribution to Marxism and understanding of imperialism. Consequently these essays overlook and deny the reality of inter-imperialist rivalry centred on the US, Europe and Japan. There is no mention of a labour aristocracy, generated by and tied to imperialism, that must be fought and overcome if imperialism is to be challenged. Nor is there any call for solidarity between socialists in the oppressor nations and all those fighting imperialism in the oppressed nations. Gone are the prospect and reality of revolution.
For Panitch and Gindin, Lenin’s assertion that imperialist wars are inevitable is ‘clearly lacking in the contemporary context of American military dominance’, which one could have said about British military dominance in the past. British military dominance was based on economic strength, but its imperialist rivals caught up, just as today the imperialist rivals of the US are catching up (see FRFI 175 for figures on US and EU economies). It seems the US ruling class agrees more with Lenin than these authors: the 2002 US National Security Strategy states that the US should ‘maintain mechanisms for deterring potential competitors, from ever aspiring to a larger regional or global role’.
Instead the authors just talk of rivalry between the three imperialist blocs due to the inter-dependency of international capital. They explain the dispute over the Iraq war as being due to Germany, France and Russia preferring to use ‘international financial institutions, the World Trade Organisation and the UN to try to fashion the “effective states” around the world to global capitalist needs.’ The US and British war on Iraq was to get control of the oil, and to demonstrate that US imperialism will use force on countries that do not follow its dictates. As Michael Klare’s essay ‘Blood for oil’ shows, the US has military bases and forces in the Middle East, the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia, Latin America and hopes to get a base in West Africa. These are all areas where there are large quantities of oil. US forces are there not just to secure it for US consumption, but to control the oil and ensure the dependence of rivals. Which sounds like old-fashioned imperialism. As the contribution by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, ‘Ecological Imperialism’, states, the US is ‘securing for itself an increasingly dominant position in the control of this crucial resource as part of its larger economic and geopolitical strategy.’
Lenin sought theoretical clarity with a view to action. In ‘The New Imperial Challenge’ only two essays give any vague pointer to socialist action. ‘Only a revolutionary social solution... offers any genuine hope that these contradictions can be transcended’ (‘Ecological Imperialism’). ‘Fighting for...the end to the criminalization of poor people crossing borders’, (Bob Sutcliffe, ‘Crossing Borders in the New Imperialism’). Others suggest that ‘the main focus in promoting an alternative security paradigm must be on NGOs, citizen groups, and independent analysts’. However, in Tina Wallace’s ‘NGO Dilemmas’, these ‘champions of the poor, as organisations working in solidarity with those marginalized by the world economy’ are being ‘tied to global agendas’ by the governments and corporations they seek donations from!
This book fails to convince that its contributors are developing a new theory of imperialism that will stand the test of time, and, with very few exceptions, the choice of essays to demonstrate the state of imperialism today are very poor.
Brothers under the skin
• Comrades and Cousins, Neville Kirk, Merlin Press, London 2003, £14.95, 230pp.
This book is a comparative study of the labour movements in Britain, Australia and the US from the last decades of the 19th century to the outbreak of the First World War. This was a period of rapid expansion of imperialism that, in some aspects, mirrored the present period of globalisation. However, instead of trying to draw lessons for the current struggle from this earlier epoch, Kirk restricts himself to a rather dry historical study in which he refuses to take any strong political standpoint at all. The only conclusion of this nature he makes is a rather timid suggestion that the modern labour movement might benefit from being more internationalist in its outlook.
The bulk of the book is concerned with drawing out the different paths taken by the labour movements in the three countries. Kirk concludes, ‘In the American case, this revolved around the primacy of craft trade unionism, anti-statism and increasingly anti-socialism and the “defence of democracy”; while the Australian movement adopted a combination of statist Labour politics, mass unionism and workerist nationalism’. He characterises the British movement as having, ‘an ideological mixture of voluntarism and collectivism, craft and general unionism, liberalism, labourism and socialism’ and tries to explain the differences as partly due to the US and Australian movements wanting to take independent paths from the ‘pioneering’ but ‘traditional’ British movement.
Of interest are not the differences but what came to be the similarities between the movements. The better off workers dominated the movements and they attacked revolutionary socialism. They collaborated with their imperialist masters and they would eventually, at the end of the period, support the imperialist war. Kirk does point out that all the movements were, ‘limited, disfigured and diminished by racism’, but his analysis fails to demonstrate that racism was not simply some sort of unfortunate aberration but an essential ingredient of the pro-imperialist, class collaborationist policies of the trade unions. Naively, he spends a third of the book quoting from British left-wing journals of the time trying to demonstrate that the British movement perhaps wasn’t so racist and pro-imperialist after all. No doubt that is true of some of the writers, but it is to the actions of their organisations, not just their words that Kirk should be looking.
What is missing from Kirk’s analysis is a concept of the split in the working class that occurred as the imperialist ruling classes sought to divide and rule the labour movement. They encouraged a labour aristocracy that would steer the working class away from class conflict and revolutionary politics towards compromise with the capitalist status quo. An historical study in that light would help us to understand the same processes that hamper the working class in the imperialist countries today and make a contribution to socialism and the overthrow of capitalism.
A history of Zionist brutality
• The Gun and the Olive Branch (third edition), David Hirst, Faber & Faber 2003, £16.99, 613pp
When it was first published in 1977, The Gun and the Olive Branch was one of the most comprehensive books on the history of the Palestinian struggle and of Zionism. 26 years later this is still the case. Written by David Hirst, former Middle East correspondent of The Guardian, the reporting is well referenced and expresses sympathy – though not outright support – for the heroic Palestinian cause.
Hirst begins, rightly, at the roots of Zionism and makes more than brief mention of the fact that Herzl, ‘the father of Zionism’, knew that physical force would be necessary to uproot the Palestinians from their homes:
‘The prophet of Zionism foresaw that coercion and physical force were inevitable; they were not unfortunate necessities thrust, unforeseen, on his followers. To his diaries, not published until 26 years after his death in 1904, Herzl confided the beliefs which, in his public utterances, he had been careful to omit: that military power was an essential component of his strategy and that, ideally, the Zionists should acquire the land of their choice by armed conquest.’
Hirst also points out that Palestinian resistance is not merely a recent, post-1948, phenomena as some historians would have us believe, but that as early as the first Aliyah (wave of Zionist immigration) in 1882 ‘the peasants resorted to physical violence against the settlers’.
Due attention is given to the fact that British-Zionist military collaboration existed as early as the first imperialist war prior to the Balfour Declaration:
‘War in Europe, as Herzl had foreseen, could be turned to their advantage. It opened up dazzling opportunities, both in Palestine itself and outside it. Early in the war two young men, Joseph Trumpledor and Vladimir Jabotinsky, created a Jewish fighting unit, the Zion Mule Corps, which served with British forces in Gallipoli. During the war, too, a third, Aaron Aaronsohn, organised an espionage network, the Nili (Netzakh Israel Lo Yeshaker – “the eternal Jewish shall not fail”), which collaborated with British intelligence. And as the war drew to a close, Jabotinsky succeeded in forming “The Jewish Legion”, four battalions of Royal Fusiliers, 5,000 men in all, who fought with the British under their own flag. The three men were celebrated militants.’
The Balfour Declaration itself is covered in detail, however Hirst plays down British imperialism’s intentions, seeing the Declaration as intended to protect Arab interests.
Hirst deals concisely with the often forgotten epoch of the ‘Arab Rebellion’ of 1935-1939 which was crushed by Britain’s ‘re-conquering’ of Palestine, subsequently leading to Zionist control. He is absolutely right to highlight the role played by the opportunistic British Labour and trade union movement in the chapter ‘Gun Zionism’ and this is summed up by a quote from Chaim Weizmann’s memoirs saying that ‘we have never contemplated the removal of the Arabs, and the British Labourites, in their pro-Zionist enthusiasm, went far beyond our intentions’. Hirst, however, does not at this point lay due stress on the fact that the creation of the Israeli state was in the interests of British imperialism and his argument that the Zionists had control over imperial policy is an empty one.
The period around 1948 is dealt with in great detail. Hirst gives many accounts of the murderous force that the Zionists used to crush the Palestinians and drive them from their homes. Without these actions, the racist colonial settler-state of Israel could never have come into existence. Deir Yassin, Hirst states, was not an isolated incident; rather it was but a particularly ruthless massacre among other smaller ones.
The expansionist nature of the Zionist state is undeniable and the provocations used by Israel against neighbouring countries in the period after the state came into existence were clear in motive. It was not until 1967, when Israel ‘was suffering the severest economic crisis of its existence’ and ‘emigration was beginning to exceed immigration’, that ‘favourable circumstances presented themselves’. Israel went to war with its Arab neighbours, utterly defeated them in six days with its imperialist-sponsored military and ‘acquired an empire’. Hirst powerfully describes the events which followed and how ‘the immediate aftermath of the war... was an ideal opportunity which the Israelis had no scruples about taking’.
When writing about the history of the subject, the reporting is excellent, detailed, and in some parts, moving. However, where Hirst is at his weakest, when his liberal class standpoint seeps through the most, is in writing about more recent events, particularly the rise of armed Palestinian militancy. He describes acts of resistance as ‘terrorist attacks’. While he accepts that the current Intifada was born out of Israeli aggression and provocation, he does not support it and is in favour of a two-state solution. Similarly, he praises Arafat’s ‘historic peace offer’ to renounce 78% of Palestine. Hirst’s foreword to the current edition includes a section entitled ‘Who is master – George Bush or Ariel Sharon?’ which adds weight to the myth that ‘The Lobby’ controls US imperial policy towards Israel. All liberal writers find it easy to be critical of past imperialist actions but have the crippling inability to attack the status quo and this is Hirst’s downfall.