And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
— Mark Twain
When my book The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground was published in 1997, at least one of its critics challenged my use of the terms imperialism and its opposite, anti-imperialism. These terms, he wrote, were specific to a time and no longer relevant. My response was simple. These words would be irrelevant only when there were no more imperialist nations. Fifteen years and two wars and occupations later, these words are part of the general discourse and the concept of imperialism is considered by those who champion it and those who oppose it.
A book titled American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism, by Richard Seymour, is a recent and important addition to this discourse. Seymour, who also wrote The Liberal Defence of Murder wherein he discusses the currently popular humanitarian rationale for imperial intervention, provides the reader of American Insurgents with a historical survey of the ant-war and anti-imperialists efforts throughout US history. Within this discussion, Seymour includes religious and feminist opposition; leftist and conservative; and various coalitions of all of the aforementioned manifestations.
From the beginning of the book, it becomes clear how fundamental racism is to the US mission of Empire. If it weren’t for the historical fact of African slavery in the US, this would not be a cause for special consideration, since most European empires utilize racism and racial superiority as reasoning for their empire. However, the special history of men and women of African descent in the United States makes the fact of racism in the US pursuit of empire especially heinous and unusual. In addition, the internalized racism of most US whites, even in the anti-imperialist movement, often made alliances across the color line difficult.
Consequently, this limited the effectiveness of these movements. According to Seymour, it wasn’t until the movement against the US war in Vietnam that white and black Americans worked together in a substantial way to oppose the US Empire. Even though the links between the racism of slavery and US Empire had been made earlier, it was not until the anti-Vietnam war movement acknowledged and learned from the civil rights and black liberation movements in the United States did the union of black and white make a difference.
While Seymour does discuss the libertarian and paleo-conservative elements of the anti-imperialist movement in the US—even praising the role those elements have played in the past twenty years with the website Antiwar.com and other endeavors—he focuses primarily on the left and pacifist elements. Given the predominance of groups with these sentiments in the movement throughout history, this makes sense. Although a longer discussion of the conservative side of the movement would have been useful, its absence does not detract from the book.
Addressing a discussion very familiar among those to the left of anybody in the Democratic Party, Seymour provides an ultimately tragic history of the role Democrats have played in diverting and destroying anti-imperialist sentiment. It was during the Spanish-American War that the future Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan would oppose that adventure and align with the Anti-Imperialist League most famous for the membership of Mark Twain, John Dewey, Samuel Gompers and Andrew Carnegie. In 1900, the League would hitch its star to Bryan’s candidacy. He lost to the empire-builder McKinley, rendering the League essentially moot.
A remarkably similar situation exists today, except that the candidate of the liberals in the Iraq and Afghanistan anti-war movement won the election. Of course, I mean Barack Obama. As Seymour points out (and as most everyone knows), the war in Afghanistan saw an escalation soon after Obama’s inauguration and the occupation of Iraq by US continues, albeit with considerably less bloodshed. Efforts to build a movement against a possible war on Iran have failed to excite everyone but the most dedicated pacifists and anti-imperialists, while US/NATO military and intelligence operations against the regimes of Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria have even been tacitly supported by some in the anti-war movement.
It is my belief that a good part of the reason for the disintegration of the movement against the war in Iraq has to do with that movement’s politics. Seymour agrees, pointing out that the millions willing to hit the streets to oppose the war when George Bush was president have not even called their Congressperson now that a Democrat is in the White House. The presence of Democratic Party allies in the coordinating committee of the largest anti-war network combined with the acquiescence of former Communist Party members to the Democrats agenda ensured this disintegration. There was never a genuine anti-imperialist politics that guided the majority of the movement. That fact explains not only the belated opposition to the Afghanistan occupation but also the seeming refusal to address the belligerent role played by Israel in the wars against Muslim and Arab nations and peoples.
Any future anti-war movement must keep the Democratic Party at an arm’s length. Organizing amongst those who vote Democrat makes sense. Taking money and leadership from donors and operatives dedicated to the party’s domination of left-leaning politics doesn’t. In fact, as Seymour makes clear in his history of US anti-imperialist movements, doing so is suicide for the movement in question. The Democrats cannot be anti-imperialist because they are essential to the very empire anti-imperialists oppose.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the nations of the Middle East remain in turmoil and Washington, Tel Aviv and various European capitals debate how they want to control the region, the need for an anti-imperialist movement will grow. If we are to avoid making mistakes already made in the past, American Insurgents becomes essential reading.