Anti-Imperialism & the WSM
Irish Anarchists & the Defense of Neocolonies
During Dublin’s Anarchist Bookfair in November 2010, a claim made by a Workers Power supporter that the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM—Ireland’s leading anarchist organization) had not called for British troops out of Northern Ireland was promptly challenged by WSM members, who referred the comrade to their position paper, “The Partition of Ireland” (October 2005). In addition to demanding the removal of British troops, the paper made a broader observation: “As anarchists, we oppose imperialism…and believe it cannot play a progressive role.”
The WSM’s statement, “Capitalist Globalisation and Imperialism” (July 2004), defined imperialism as:
“the ability of countries to globally and locally dictate trade relations with other countries. This means the term can only be usefully applied to a few countries, in particular those composing the permanent members of the UN security council and the G8.”
While we consider this to be an impressionistic and one-sided description, the WSM, unlike most anarchist organizations, at least attempts to make some sort of distinction between imperialist states and their neocolonial victims. The WSM adds:
“While we oppose the imperialist powers we recognise that the states that defy them do so in the interests of their own ruling class rather then [sic] their people. So rather then [sic] supporting, critically or otherwise, these local ruling classes we look to support the working class (including rural workers) of those countries in there [sic] struggle against imperialism and their own ruling class. We make this concrete by offering solidarity including material aid to independent working class and libertarian organisations.”
It is true that neocolonial regimes which have come into conflict with the imperialist powers generally do so in order to protect or advance their own interests, but revolutionaries must uphold the right of subjugated nations to resist the predations of the “advanced capitalist” global powers—which is why, for example, Lenin and the Bolsheviks sided with the Easter Rising of 1916. Anti-imperialism means taking sides—and it cannot be restricted solely to cases where “independent working class organisations” are involved. When Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, revolutionaries supported Egyptian military resistance to British/French/Israeli attempts to restore colonial control. More recently when the U.S./UK invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, no genuine revolutionary could have adopted a position of neutrality. We called for driving out the invaders—despite the reactionary character of the Taliban/Baathist regimes.
To its credit, the WSM does pose the issue in an international context and supports military resistance to imperialist aggression (which, for those who are consistent, would imply taking sides):
“to win any permanent improvements anti-imperialist/anti-neoliberal struggles have to be transformed into the struggle for the international anarchist revolution. That said we recognise that short of this any military defeat for imperialism will not only reduce the ability of the imperialist powers to engage in future interventions but is also an encouragement for those involved in similar struggles elsewhere.”
The WSM further elaborated its view in a subsequent article, “Anti-imperialism”:
“Anarchists believe that people should be in control of their own lives and should have a say in how the resources in the places where they live are used. Therefore, anarchists are opposed to imperialism and they are not alone in this. Almost nobody likes it when a powerful group invades the place where they live, steals all the resources and orders them to do as they are told and, inevitably, they organise themselves to oppose the imperialists. Since imperialists use force of arms to control the countries which they invade, this generally means that the natives will need to physically oppose them. They aren’t going to leave just because they’re unpopular, after all.
“Thus, anarchists support people’s right to fight against imperial invasions. If somebody has decided to control you with violence, you have no choice but to overcome this violence or else remain a slave. This is why anarchists call themselves anti-imperialists.
“However, unfortunately, anarchists are currently a small minority in the world. Nationalism has been the most powerful political ideology in modern times. When people fight against imperialist control, they also generally fight for some version of nationalist alternative.
“Anarchists are opposed to nationalism. We do not think that people can be neatly divided up into areas where the populations have a shared culture, history and heritage. The world is much messier than that and cultures and identities are fluid and intermingled. What’s more, nationalist movements normally simply try to replace the foreign imperialist control with control by a local ruling class, who might be just as bad—or even worse—than the imperialist rulers. Therefore, while we support anti-imperialist struggles, we always strive to argue against nationalist politics within them. Instead we seek to promote the most progressive, libertarian and socialist strands so that, if we can defeat the imperialists’ control, we won’t just be replacing them with new masters.”
—Workers Solidarity No.93, September-October 2005
The Leninist/Trotskyist approach to such conflicts is to uphold the political independence of the working class from its “own” bourgeoisie, while being prepared to bloc militarily with indigenous petty-bourgeois or bourgeois formations against imperialist invaders. In the 1930s, when Mussolini sent his troops into Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), Trotskyists sided militarily with Haile Selassie despite the extremely reactionary nature of his regime. If the WSM indeed considers imperialism to be the central feature of the global capitalist order, then a neocolonial ruling class could not, from the standpoint of the working class, be “just as bad—or even worse—than the imperialist rulers.” Imperialism is not a lever for lifting up the economically and socially more backward areas of the world—but rather the primary reason that their backwardness is maintained.
The WSM’s anti-imperialism is confused in theory, and inconsistent in practice. In the aftermath of the January 2010 Haitian earthquake, for example, the WSM’s Haiti Solidarity Ireland correctly proclaimed:
“We call for the immediate departure of international troops from Haiti, and for aid and reconstruction efforts to be controlled by Haitians themselves through their unions and community organisations.”
—“US Troops out of Haiti,” 24 February 2010
Yet when Iraq was invaded by the U.S./UK et al, the WSM’s “anti-imperialism” went out the window in favor of equating Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime with the foreign imperialist expeditionary forces attempting to seize control of the petroleum resources of the Persian Gulf:
“We take no side between the major imperialists led by the U.S. and the would-be mini-imperialists led by Saddam Hussein. Saddam is no anti-imperialist and tying Iraqi workers to an ‘anti-imperialist’ front with him would be criminal. The regime would betray such a struggle as soon as it believed it was [i]n their own class interests to do so.”
—“The Gulf War” [undated]
The WSM’s neutrality in this conflict between a neocolony and its former imperialist patrons stands in stark contrast to the formally correct observation that: “any military defeat for imperialism will not only reduce the ability of the imperialist powers to engage in future interventions but is also an encouragement for those involved in similar struggles elsewhere.”
The WSM’s attempt to get around the blatant contradiction by labelling Iraq’s rulers as “would-be mini-imperialists” can only be described as political cowardice. Of course the Iraqi regime, like every neocolonial bourgeoisie, was quite willing to bully its weaker neighbors, but this does not change the fact that there is a qualitative difference between the U.S./EU imperialists and dependent underdeveloped countries like Iraq. The WSM’s own position paper provides an abstractly correct description of the relationship of imperialism to neocolonial client states:
“In any specific region one country will be more powerful then [sic] others. They will attempt to use their dominance to gain favourable trade and territory concessions. They are however subject to the major imperialist nations, and are probably retained as client states by one or more of them. It is not [sic] therefore not useful to refer to such countries as imperialist.”
Neither is it “useful” to describe Iraq under Saddam (or Iran under Ahmadinejad) as “would-be mini-imperialists,” particularly when the point of doing so is to rationalize a refusal to defend them against imperialist attack.
The inconsistencies in the application of the WSM’s anti-imperialist stance appear to directly correlate to popular opinion in the radical left. With opposition to the British military occupation of the Six Counties a default setting for all Irish radicals, the WSM was very clear that it favored the departure of the imperialist troops. So too in the case of Haiti, where the reactionary role of the imperialist troops was obvious to (almost) the entire international left. In Iraq, where Saddam’s blood-soaked rightist dictatorship was deeply unpopular, the WSM refused to take sides as the U.S./UK “coalition” launched its “shock and awe” terror campaign.
The WSM’s inability to “swim against the stream” on this important issue provides an index of how far it is from being able to provide the revolutionary “leadership of ideas” to which it aspires. A genuinely revolutionary organization determines its political positions solely on the basis of the inexorable logic of the class struggle—opportunists, on the other hand, always have an eye on what is likely to be most popular.