Friday, January 26, 2007
Empire and social-democracy. posted by Richard SeymourI mentioned before, without elaborating, the impact that the experience of empire had on European consciousness, particularly alluding to the way in which procolonial attitudes manifested themselves in the social-democratic tradition. Take the German SPD. In German South West Africa, what is now Namibia, there was a particularly brutal form of colonialism, permeated by an elite military culture, described in Isabel V Hilton's Absolute Destruction, as not only being brutal and racist in the conventional sense, but as comprising in-built, structural capacities for perpetual annihilation that extended well beyond its ends. There the first genocide of the century was perpetrated, against the Herero, in that colony. Atrocity piled upon atrocity, and the German state repeatedly proved itself at least as prepared for barbarism as the British state. In such circumstances, it would seem logical for socialists to articulate the most forceful opposition to the extension of such a state's authority over another people, regardless of the fanciful reasoning offered to excuse this.
On the other hand, Eduard Bernstein argued that the SPD should adopt a "humane" and "nonaggressive" colonialism, to promote democratisation and the evolution of capitalism. Offering no argument against imperial domination, Bernstein did thnk that inter-imperial conflict could be ironed out through the internationalisation of colonial management. Perhaps some sort of 'United Nations' or 'League of Nations'. Manfred Steger's sympathetic biography of Bernstein describes the impact of his family's liberal background, and of his years in London being surrounded by social-liberals and Fabians. It is hard to miss the impact of this on his wider political philosophy, particularly his preference for a ethical socialism and his gradualism, his conviction that capitalism was developing slowly, under growing working class pressure, into a welfare state that would facilitate the transition to socialist democracy, and his belief that the labour movement could impact on the colonial state to humanise its policies. Bernstein therefore argued, in The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution, that: "the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite." He adds: "under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before." (Quoted here).
At the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, August 1907, the colonial question was raised directly. It was suggested by most of the leaderships represented on the Congress Commission, that after all not all colonialism was bad, and it might even continue to play a civilising role under socialist governments. Bernstein, allied with Van Kol of Holland, argued for a "socialist colonial policy" rather than a socialist anti-colonial policy. Lenin's response:
This vote on the colonial question is of very great importance. First? it strikingly showed up socialist opportunism, which succumbs to bourgeois blandishments. Secondly, it revealed a negative feature in the European labour movement, one that can do no little harm to the proletarian cause, and for that reason should receive serious attention. Marx frequently quoted a very significant saying of Sismondi. The proletarians of the ancient world, this saying runs, lived at the expense of society; modern society lives at the expense of the proletarians.
The non-propertied, but non-working, class is incapable of overthrowing the exploiters. Only the proletarian class, which maintains the whole of society, can bring about the social revolution. However, as a result of the extensive colonial policy, the European proletarian partly finds himself in a position when it is not his labour, but the labour of the practically enslaved natives in the colonies, that maintains the whole of society. The British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. In certain countries this provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism. Of course, this may be only a temporary phenomenon, but the evil must nonetheless be clearly realised and its causes understood in order to be able to rally the proletariat of all countries for the struggle against such opportunism. This struggle is bound to be victorious, since the “privileged” nations are a diminishing faction of the capitalist nations.
Nor was Bernstein unprecedented in this. Kautsky had commented in a letter to Engels in 1882, two years before Germany started its protectorate in South West Africa, that "In so far as they cannot be assimilated by modern culture, the wild peoples will have to disappear from the surface of the earth."
Actually, if you want to get serious about it, some of the earliest left-wing apologetics for empire came from the near descendants of the French Revolution. There was enthusiastic support for the colonisation of Algeria in the 1830s. The Saint-Simonian Philip Buchez argued that France should take the opportunity to dominate the Mediterranean as it would provide a holding base for "direct communications with the interior of Africa". Charles Fourier had hopes that the communal societies he was proposing for Europe could be imported into Africa, a move certain to civilise the local population. One Fourierist paper declared that France's motto should be "colonise everywhere and always". The Fourierists in Algeria declared in 1848 that the colonisation of Africa was "the providential destiny of France in the nineteenth century". Proudhon argued that it was Europe's role to teach non-European peoples the need for work and, in the case of Africans, "it is our right to compel them to do so". Another Saint-Simonian was, of course, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who oversaw the construction of the Suez Canal as a means by which French and European imperialism more generally could radiate through the region. He specifically called for the partition of Africa among the great powers. Victor Hugo's newspaper, L'Evenement, urged that France conquest Madagascar so that a two-pronged French assault could be mounted on Africa from there and Algeria. Even when a strong communist party emerged under the influence of the October Revolution (which, let's not forget, was a revolt against imperialism as well as against capitalism) with a serious commitment to anticolonialism, it went on to participate in the left-wing Popular Front government which, while delivering many serious reforms, refused to grant independence to the colonies. You might remember that one of those most disappointed by the failure was Michel Aflaq, the intellectual founder of Ba'athism. Another set of disappointed people might have been the inhabitants of Morocco, ruled by both France and Spain since 1912 under the Treaty of Fez. The cruel irony here is that when Franco wanted to smash the Spanish left and, by creating a decisive foothold of fascism in Europe, set back the whole European left, he was able to mobilise thousands of Moroccan troops under Spanish command. Franco had, after all, emerged through the ranks of the Spanish Foreign Legion in Morocco, and had learned his methods of 'pacification' there.
What about the British? I don't know if people are surprised any more that the Labour Party in government is every bit as bellicose and grotesque in its foreign policy as past Tory administrations. But the legacy of support for empire among admired left-wing figures is substantial, and before getting into it, I simply want to illustrate Lenin's point with some examples of what we're talking about. Mike Davis pointed out in Late Victorian Holocausts that when the sans cullotes were storming the Bastille, the largest manufacturing districts in the world were the Yangzi Delta and Bengal, with Lingan and Madras not far behind. Further, he added that India contributed about 25% of global economic growth compared to Britain's measly 3%. With extraordinary speed, the British Empire succeeded in deflating these societies, at first imposing an opiate society in China then carving it up with the rival imperialist powers, while enforcing an agrarian despotism based on the rule of a Brahmanic caste in India (that was called 'Indian Tradition'). This period of domination, lasting until the middle of the twentieth century, saw Britain's ruling class immeasurably enriched while the Indian subcontinent and China experienced holocaustal famines as a result. Well, this is all uncontroversial, and the brutality of the empire combined with growing class consciousness in Britain itself stimulated a germinal tradition, embraced by a number of the Chartists, of anti-colonialism. Ernest Jones, for instance, urged Britons to support the 1857 uprising in India with an internationalist conscience that recalled the abolitionist movement and the Atlantic tradition of motley crews and revolution. It was this tradition that would re-emerge in the Movement for Colonial Freedom under Fenner Brockway with a large intake from the Bevanite Left, and the anti-apartheid movement that developed from it.
Still, at the time that Jones was taking this position, Chartism had by and large lost its mass base, and his views did not resonate very widely. Even the most Radical Liberals were not eager to give Ireland Home Rule, never mind give up the Jewel in the imperial crown, as India was described. In 1902, a sort of precursor of the Eustonites, the pro-empire Coefficients Club, was organised by those famous middle-Fabians, the Webbs. It included, alongside colonial governors and traditional conservatives, such surprising figures as Bertrand Russell. The Histomatist discusses them here. It was the middle-class Fabian left and the radical-liberals, who were to go on to formulate Labour's earliest attempts at a colonial policy.
Where they offered a critique, it was not that empire was essentially wrong, but that British rule had not sufficiently protected the colonised populations from the inroads of capitalism. The historian Paul Kelemen describes the policy as a paternalistic defense of "merrie Africa", an Africa of communal land and tribal authority, the natural state as they had it. This conception, though offered as a critique of capitalism, was steeped in racism, and it certainly did not provide any basis from which to oppose the empire in principle. Again and again, despite their critique, despite seeing the iniquities of the settler societies, they urged that the colonial system be retained and tinkered with. Indeed, the Fabian colonial experts impressed upon Labour the necessity of turning the empire into an exercise in propagating the kind of welfare capitalism they supported domestically. The Colonial Office also found the TUC leadership very congenial, prepared in principle and practise to defend the British empire against both anticolonial nationalism and communism. Neither were Labour governments necessarily inclined to be more conciliatory to anticolonial movements: whether in suppressing the Indian national movement, or the insurrection in Malaya, or even cleansing the island of Diego Garcia so that the Americans could have a military base, there never was a moment when a British Labour government took a principled anti-imperialist stance.
I outline these points to illustrate a few things. The first is that whether we are witnessing former soixant-huitards clamouring for 'humanitarian intervention', or seeing lifelong Atlanticists demand unconditional support for Bush, these arguments and alignments are not new, although the situation in which they unfold clearly is. Secondly, support for imperialism is directly rooted in support for capitalism. I'm not talking about the tacit consent expressed by the acquiescence of people who are simply doing their best with what's available. I refer to the explicit ideological claims made about it, whether they amount to a positive assessment of its capacity for gradual reform toward socialism, or a negative of assessment of every alternative. The latter case is what is most evident these days, and what is being offered as 'left-wing' imperialism is therefore not left in any meaningful sense: it advertises a profoundly reactionary subjectivity, one whose range of perception is that provided by the ruling class itself. Thirdly, that imperialism extends back into our own societies in very clear and ominous ways, some of which we are now seeing in the way that America's elaborate and secretive national security state has been cracking down on civil liberties and on unionism (although, in the latter case, direct repression is usually moot since Bush can rely on a manufacturing crisis to cut the rate of unionised labour by one or two percent every year now), and in the way that ostentatiously democratic governments are hosting Stasi prisons and torture flights, rolling back basic legal rights such as habeus corpus, enforcing internment, and raising the wall to migrants.
Not only in those ways, however: when ruling classes turn imperialist, they have always sought a bargain with the working class, depending on its relative strength. In seeking to create a hegemony behind the imperial mission, they rely on doctrines which are obnoxiously anti-democratic and racist. Anti-democratic in the sense that absurd and irrational attitudes of obedience to the state are encouraged, and racist in the sense that absurd and irrational attitudes of superiority to the targets of imperial aggression are encouraged. Imperialist culture is a potent competitor with the left for hegemony, even if its most vocal advocates are often those who claim to represent a decent left, a chastened left, a serious left, a sensible and tolerant left, a left that has been mugged by reality and much else besides. Indeed, in referring to 'advocates' - which in another context would refer to someone who is paid to argue a case whether she agrees with it or not - I want to convey that people like Kouchner, Ignatieff, Glucksmann, Makiya, Berman and all of those who have claimed to argue for empire from within the terrain of the left perform an important role of advocacy for the Bush White House (and its local auxiliaries). Within the organs of establishment liberalism and even the more dissenting outlets, using a language mastered during long past periods of activism, they are consistently hostile to the left, use all means available to redirect its polemical fire, and ritually bolster the ruling mantras (the Muslims are coming). They take the task of threat-exaggeration out of the domain of White House press briefings, where it would be regarded cynically, and remove the business of self-righteous moralising from the Pentagon, where it produce gales of laughter. They make all the necessary noises and obey all the etiquette that is needed for them to be adequate to the task, but the appearance of doctrinal consistency matters less than repetiveness. For it is through repetition that their cruel, barbaric, hateful panaceas acquire the quality of common sense.