By Mike Ely. First published by Kasama Project.
Here is one of the most basic and important questions of any revolutionary movement: Do you support the government and this system or don’t you? Do you see what their interests are, and the criminal nature of their actions, or don’t you?
All my life, I have seen how in popular movements the most basic goals are controversial. In ironic ways, it has been controversial to be antiwar in the antiwar movement. It has been controversial to be communist in the communist movement.
So I’m not surprised that someone writes (for audiences of communists, revolutionaries, and socialists) that we should support the U.S. military in its previous attack on Libya, and then even urges pre-support for a not-yet-existent U.S. attack on Iran’s ally government in Syria.
(I wonder: Is this argument the leftist pre-stage to supporting coming Israeli/U.S. attacks on Iran? And which of Pham’s arguments here can’t be applied there?)
Here is my view in a nutshell:
- We should not support U.S. military attacks around the world. We should not support U.S. bases, fleets, drones, agents, trainers, commandos or nukes intruding into the lives of people around the world.
- We should support the isolation, defeat and dismantling of the U.S. military (not its murderous deployment in the troubled spots of empire). “Yankee Go Home!”
- We should politically expose this military, its purposes, its goals, and its nature — not portray it as a possible force for good.
- We should not create public opinion for its next possible attacks in the next zone of civil conflicts.
- We should create public opinion for the future political dismantling of the U.S. military as an institution (and for its systematic removal around the world, break up of its office corps, the destruction of its nukes, the trial and punishment of its leading war criminals). Where the Pentagon stands, we should hope for a salted field of the kind that surrounded ancient Carthage.
I would like to break down parts of Pham’s argument, piece by piece.
Starting with Insult for Your Opponents
Pham starts by saying:
“Reflexive opposition to Uncle Sam’s machinations abroad is generally a good thing. It is a progressive instinct that….”
Since Pham then goes on to reject such opposition, it is worth noting that the phrasing here is loaded. Our opposition to U.S. imperialism is here described as “reflexive,” “instinct” and later as “a broken record.” At one point, he even compares us to dogs salivating on command.
His claim is that consistent opposition to U.S. imperialist actions is unnuanced, mechanical and unthinking, as if we don’t consider specific circumstances, and are just on autopilot following raw gut feelings. And then his own analysis is purported to be, by contrast, thoughtful and engaged with reality.
I think these characterizations are as mistaken as they are rude.
Is It Counterrevolutionary to Oppose U.S. Imperialism?
“The moment the Syrian and Libyan revolutions demanded imperialist airstrikes and arms to neutralize the military advantage enjoyed by governments over revolutionary peoples, anti-interventionism became counter-revolutionary because it meant opposing aid to the revolution.”
This jumbles everything up.
First, supporting the U.S. government (from here within the U.S.) is counterrevolutionary, because we intend to make a revolution against them.
One of the key tasks of any revolutionary movement is to systematically expose the core institutions, figures and interests that define the existing system. It is an inflexible task. Any movement that is not clear on that cannot and will not ever train forces to make a revolution.
There may be rebellions against established governments in Syria and Libya, and this-or-that group may make tactical decisions of various kinds. But their choice hardly define (for us) what we should say or do in regard to this empire and its military.
We obviously can’t control what political forces do in Libya or Syria (and we are hardly in a position to advise them). But I can tell you that regardless of what anyone says, anywhere in the world, we will oppose U.S. imperialism.
When the German revolutionaries said during World War One, “The main enemy is here in our own country,” they were saying that their political exposure and activity had to be aimed at the German imperialists – at the German justifications of war aims, at the German government’s pretenses of democracy and anti-autocracy etc. Why? Because they (the communist revolutionaries in Germany) intended to mobilize forces to overthrow the German Kaiser and the capitalist system in Germany.
People in other countries (say in Russia, or France during World War One had other tasks — because (obviously) if a Russian socialist focused mainly on exposing German imperialism’s oppressive nature it would (objectively, in the real world of politics) mean encouraging the Russian war effort and strengthening the Russian Tsar.
We (in our time and place) have a special and distinct task in regard to U.S. imperialism. We are in the belly of this beast, in the heart of the empire — and the demagogic lies of the U.S. government have an especially great influence among the people.
Here in the U.S., too many people believe “The U.S. might not always be good, but it is certainly better than a Saddam, or an Assad, or a Gaddafi, or a Brezhnev, or…..” When the Hillary Clintons and Ronald Reagans of this government portray the U.S. as a force for good, and for “democracy,” and for ending torture, and for popular sovereignty of distant peoples, we have a special and ongoing responsibility to expose all that.
There may be times when revolutionaries in distant places may find themselves in tactical alliances with reactionary powers. Mao Zedong in China and Ho Chi Minh in Viet Nam took aid from the U.S. in World War Two. The Vietnamese took aid from the U.S.S.R. during their struggle for independence…
But again no decision by anyone anywhere should lead revolutionaries in the U.S. to ally with U.S. imperialism. And history is rich with examples of those who flirted with such pro-imperialist tactics, and the terrible consequences of that.
The Illusion That the U.S. Military Might Help the Revolution
Pham assumes that the U.S. military intervention is somehow aid for revolutions in Libya and Syria. This is perhaps the key issue (and key illusion) to discuss (and I will open that issue here without dealing with it in great depth).
But here is the core reality to confront: The U.S. military is the single largest force of murder and oppression in world history. Its very purpose (its nature and its conscious goal) is to serve, defend and extend U.S. imperialism. When this massive and brutal military enters anywhere, that is done to extend U.S. power (and serve the larger purposes of U.S. state policy and capitalist interests).
Sometimes the U.S. fails in its policy goals. Sometimes its military actions bog down in failure and defeat (thank gawd). But their purpose and intent is always to deepen the U.S. grip on key and strategic parts of the world, to prevent genuine revolution, prevent the rise of non-revolutionary but anti-U.S. forces, to co-opt and intimidate diverse political forces, to force intrusion of U.S. economic interests and so on.
The military entrance of the U.S. imperialists is (objectively and inevitably) the intrusion of American interests and power — and (especially in fragile, undefined and chaotic political situations) they intentionally skew and transform the entire situation.
They encourage pro-U.S. puppet forces to emerge, they corrupt and compromise those who were not previously inclined that way, they attach threads to everything (including debts, trainers, etc.) as political-military forces on the ground become dependent (for their day to day survival) on imperialist actions (and therefore inevitably obedient to imperialist demands, or even hints).
We oppose all of that.
We do not want the U.S. empire strengthened. We do not want the U.S. to have a say in who emerges in Syria or Libya or Iran. We do not want them to be able to mascarade as defenders of popular aspirations anywhere.
We need to oppose their practical efforts and politically expose their nature (to anyone we can reach).
When Did Supporting U.S. Attacks Become Internationalist Duty?
“In both cases, the Western left mistakenly prioritized its anti-imperialist principles over its internationalist duty to aid these revolutions by any means necessary. By any means necessary presumably includes aid from imperialist powers or other reactionary forces.”
This is wrong in its basic point.
We cannot and do not take as our first priority solving the specific and immediate horrors created by this system. If we could solve such problems under this system and by supporting the government and U.S. military (!) — why would anyone need a revolution?
In fact most problems of this society can’t be solved under this system — the horrors of war, the massacre of rebels, the torture by governments, the homelessness of millions, the rape by priests and patriarchs.
And (to be very clear) every determined reformist in the universe has argued “You act like you don’t care about xxxx.” And the urgency of xxxx is raised as their argument for a) voting for the Democratic Party, b) supporting the empire’s drone strikes, c) joining the “fight against terrorism,” whatever….
After all, we don’t have power. So (if our main priority is to solve each horrific problem of the system in real-time) who else do we have to rely on and turn to? The U.S. imperialists who (whatever else is true) have vast power and the instruments of projection.
And let’s not be naive: We will be told soon that we all need to support Obama (the commander in chief of this empire) because whatever his crimes, he will be picking new Supreme Court justices. “Don’t you care about whether Roe v Wade gets overthrown? Don’t you realize that…”
But in fact, we do not have some hysterical or overriding responsibility to do whatever we can in every situation of suffering real-time around the world, within the power-relations of this system and world order.
And if we adopted that standard we might as well become aides to Hillary Clinton — because by that standard we would constantly seek out those wings of the bourgeoisie who were (somehow) seeming to side with “change elements.” What you discover is that those imperialists only support “change elements” in places where the U.S. has been relatively squeezed out, and their “support” is really cooptation and counterinsurgency (made in the guise of “supporting popular sovereignty and democracy”).
Anti-Imperialism in General, But Pro-Imperialism in Each Specific Moment?
Pham claims that on some general plane it is fine to oppose U.S. imperialism and its interventions, but then argues that in specific moments we should be open to supporting it. This breaks up time into smaller and smaller moments where our politics are constantly inappropriate and it makes a general and strategic approach impossible.
Our answer to such arguments needs to be “No.” We don’t have to shift with every micro-moment around the world.
For a decade, the U.S. has been on a rampage (unprecedented since Hitler attacked his neighbors one by one in the late 1930s). This U.S. “war on the world” has focused on the wide swathe of countries from North Africa to Central Asia: Afghanistan, Iraq, Western Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, now potentially Syria and Iran. This is all part of a single global strategy that emerged from 9/11 — where Bush and Obama policies have a great deal of overlap.
Do we really need to train the people to look at each of these cases, one by one, and ponder afresh “Is this one good for the people there?”
We should (and do) support popular uprisings against oppressive governments (including in China, Iran, Syria, Libya, Greece, Egypt, etc. etc.) but we should be firm, strategic and consistent in our opposition to U.S. imperialism. (That is our special responsibility for reasons having to do with both our position in the world and our particular task within world history.)
Politics and tactics should be reconsidered by revolutionaries because of new conditions (and at special times of crisis and opportunity our tactics should perhaps be reconsidered moment to moment). But all tactical considerations should be in the context and framework of our strategic goals — which are (to repeat) overthrowing U.S. imperialism and all class society.
We can and should have a general sympathy for oppressed people when they rise up. We can and will provide political support from afar (in the ways we can). But we also can and should have a general (and militant) hostility when the U.S. wades into a complex conflict to pursue their sinister global interests.
A Note on Raw Demagoguery
Pham ends his piece with this argument:
“Knee-jerk anti-imperialism leads to our enemies doing our thinking for us: whatever Uncle Sam wants, we oppose; whatever Uncle Sam opposes, we want. This method plays right into U.S. imperialism’s hands because the last thing Uncle Sam wants is a thinking enemy.”
Notice, this is an argument for supporting U.S. military intervention, in the name of being a “thinking enemy” to U.S. imperialism.
We must (supposedly) free ourselves from opposing U.S. imperialism, so that we are not slaves to opposing their attempts to brutalize and dominate the world. And by supporting U.S. attacks we can become “thinking enemies” of U.S. imperialism.
This is the most amazing feat of doublethink i have seen in a long time.
Then there is Pham’s argument (quoted above) that our tactical view should be defined by Malcolm X’s phrase “by any means necessary” — and that this means we can’t rule out the “means” of supporting drones (or presumably nuclear threats) when the U.S. wants to topple or bully some third world dictator.
To answer this: Our tactical views are not confined to any single phrase from Malcolm or anyone else, in some simple-minded formulaic way. Tactics involves situating actions and forms of struggle within our strategic goals so that what we do serves the road we are trying to pursue.
Besides, when Malcolm X talked about “by any means necessary” — he was raising the question of using violence in the struggle against the oppression of people, against police dogs, against lynch mobs, and ultimately against the U.S. imperialist state.
To quote this famous phrase from 1965 in its actual context:
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
To twist Malcolm’s words, to argue that “by any means necessary” can be a slogan for supporting U.S. drone and air strikes in Arab countries (of all things) –well, it is a shameful demagogic twisting of words and logic.
Should We Think at All? Do We Even Have That Right?
Pham makes a point (as I mentioned at the beginning) of describing anti-imperialists as unthinking actors. But what struck me is that he is also ultimately arguing that his position should be adopted without thinking — in a way I would like to unravel.
The key sentence (methodologically) says:
“If Syrian revolutionaries ask for Western airstrikes because they lack an air force to counter the Assad regime militarily, who are we to oppose those airstrikes?” [my italics]
In other words, “we” (and I will get to the “we” here in a second) have no right to oppose U.S. bombing of a Third World military and government — if some groupings among local political forces want them.
And why do we have no right to oppose U.S. imperialism here? Because it presumes we know better than local political forces.
Note that one of Pham’s captions said:
” By any means necessary, or by any means we in the West deem acceptable?”
This implies that opposing U.S. imperialism “in the West” is somehow connected to privilege and chauvinism, and that opposing U.S. imperialism is a luxury that people outside “the West” somehow can’t afford… so that we (“in the West”) should support U.S. imperialism (in its attacks in Arab countries) as a way of breaking with our own arrogance of “the West.”
And (in case you think I’m exaggerating) Pham goes on to say:
“Syrian revolutionaries know damn well what atrocities Uncle Sam is capable of – Iraq is right next door – and the Arab world knows better than we in the West ever will what the colonial boot feels like. To lecture them of perils and pitfalls they know better than we do is to insult their intelligence. To pretend that we know the dangers of dealing with imperialist devils better than Third World revolutionaries do is a kind of white anti-imperialist’s burden, and its arrogant paternalism is just as misguided as its colonialist antipode.”
There are many layers of wrongness here.
First, it invents a category of “Syrian revolutionaries” who presumably “know damn well” all kinds of things. There are no interests discussed (particularly class or religious sectarian interests). In fact, many political forces in the third world both know what the U.S. is capable of, and want it to intervene on their side (and prop them up). There are class and ethnic forces who think U.S. intervention is in their interests.
Second, there is no law of nature that people in the Third World just “know” (i.e. understand the nature of) U.S. imperialism simply by virtue of living in a poor country. People don’t automatically know their interests (simply because of direct experience), and they don’t automatically know how the world works, and even people in colonial countries don’t automatically know what U.S. imperialism is and what it will bring about if unleashed.
Third, some groups of local political leaders speaking to the western/world media don’t automatically represent the people of Syria, or the interests of the oppressed masses of Syria. To act like no one has any right to contradict demands and calls emerging from Syria is naive at best. All kinds of political forces and programs emerge (and recede) in crisis and uprisings — and they are capable of making all kinds of schemes and demands (based on their immediate interest and views).
Fourth, this quote makes a remarkable assertion:
“…the Arab world knows better than we in the West ever will what the colonial boot feels like.”
Again this invents a non-existent homogenous entity (“the Arab world”) that apparently “knows” something (both collectively and individually). And it assigns us (in this conversation) to another non-existent homogenous entity (“we in the West”) who apparently will never understand well “what the colonial boot feels like.”
Can you imagine a more reductionist model with more preposterous claims?
That “Arab world” is highly diverse — and (just to take the class aspect for a second) significant and powerful forces of that Arab world administer that “colonial boot” on behalf of the U.S. and other great powers. They “know what the colonial boot feels like” because they wear it. And other forces (waiting in the wings) aspire to lick those colonial boots.
Lots of people (millions of them) in any country don’t automatically know key and necessary things. Many have very little understanding of history, politics, and economics (even their own). If you go out among the oppressed in the Arab world you will discover that many of them have great illusions about life in the West, and about the motives of Western powers, and about the history of colonialism in their own societies (or about Islam, or…).
And that is because real knowledge doesn’t automatically arise from being a member of some identity group, or just residing in some location.
Who Is the “We” That We Belong to?
Now what about this “we in the West” that Pham uses to describe his socialist and left audience? Are we really defined mainly as some entity “in the West”? Is it really true that no one reading this debate “in the West” can truly understand what colonialism and imperialism are? Is knowledge so direct and so mysterious that we literally can’t know about the world — and must therefore simply bow obediently to any random proclamation from within “the Arab World”?
The reductionism, moralism and anti-materialist know-nothingism of this argument is extreme.
In fact, the “we” that is operating here (in this discussion) is revolutionaries and communists mainly in the U.S. And (of course!) we can understand things about colonialism and imperialism that all kinds of conservative forces in “the Arab World” either don’t understand or actively hide.
And sure, many different forces in “the Arab world” (and within Syria, or wherever) will call for a stronger U.S. action in their conflicts. And we (communists and revolutionaries here in the belly of the beast) have every right and basis to disagree with them — and actively fight politically to restrain the U.S. ability to unleash new madness in the Middle East.
Pham’s assumptions and logic are familiar to all of us. They are part and parcel of the worldview called “identity politics” which we all encounter constantly, and which is constantly training people to just shut up and shut down, and simply do what they are told by whoever is proclaiming themselves representatives of this or that oppressed group.
It is not the case that people claiming to speak for oppressed groups necessarily know the interests of those groups, or actually represent the interests of those groups, or have understood how to solve the problems of those groups. Direct experience as a member of some group does not bequeath sophisticated political knowledge and revolutionary strategy. And anyone who has spent any time among oppressed people understands this well.
More, just living “in the West” does not make people incapable of sorting out right and wrong — and it certainly does not prevent communists from understanding the nature and role of US imperialism. And it cannot prevent we communists from opposing U.S. imperialism.
Pham openly argues that making our own, independent analysis (and opposing U.S. imperialism on that basis) is
“a kind of white anti-imperialist’s burden, and its arrogant paternalism is just as misguided as its colonialist antipode.”
Presumably: Freeing ourselves from this “white burden” and “arrogant paternalism” requires that we support U.S. drone attacks on Syria, U.S. agents scattering throughout their villages, massive funding of selected political forces, new embargoes, etc.
I must say again, the moralist and demagogic double think here is truly unbelievable.
This is a method, and a whole way of thinking, that we need to excavate and expose so that more and more people see its utter nonsense. Over and over, people “on the left” are ordered to stop talking and stop thinking, that they have no “right” to make an analysis, and no right to engage in actual debate over right and wrong. And that they are (because of identity and privilege) somehow incapable of making judgments about things.
I want to answer Pham’s question:
“…who are we to oppose those airstrikes?”
We are revolutionaries and communists in the belly of the beast. We are people with serious responsibilities and serious intentions.
It is (as I said above) startling to see someone argue that communists and revolutionaries in the U.S. somehow can’t know enough to oppose new U.S. crimes if someone in the Third World calls for them.
Of course we can… and do… and will.