[Reader-list] on the word "imperialism"

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Wed Oct 3 13:42:07 IST 2001

Dear readers,

here are  few thoughts on the word "imperialism" which has appeared with 
increasing frequency on the reader-list in the last few days.

Apologies for the rambling length of this piece , and its tendency to get 
astray into the backwaters of our recent past.


In the din of messages about war, there is an increasing tendency to reduce 
what is going on to an easy classification of the world along "national" 
lines. This is the playing out of the familiar script of - the - " BigBad US 
Imperialists and us poor third world victims" Drama. We have seen this play 

I want to make one categorical statement before I go on to write the rest of 
what I am going to say. No ruling power , existing, in waiting, or potential, 
 in any part of the world is deserving of any sympathy or support, simply on 
the basis of a dispassionate reading of the history of the twentieth century. 

The record of the twentieth century is ample illustration of how yesterday's 
victims, turn into tomorrow's aggressors. All terrorists are state 
terrorists. They act in the name of existing or desired states. Conversely, I 
would also aggree that all states are terrorist states.

The reference given by Jo and Tarun to the case of Japan is salutary. 
Imperail japan deployed the slogan of Anti Imperialism with great aplomb when 
it talked about the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which in 
operation meant little more than death camps for erstwhile indentured 
labourers in south east asia. In the nineteen thirties and forties in India, 
there were many progressive and left wing intellectuals and activists, who 
were more than sympathetic to the death camps of Japanese anti - imperialism. 
Some even recruited ex prisoners of war to police the same death camps along 
the burma-siam railroad.

But I dont want to elaborate on their argument, only to state that I 
completely agree with their call for caution in applauding the slogan of 
anti-imperialsim when it comes to the USA and conveniently forgetting the 
big, little and miniscule imperial aspirations of every gang of armed thugs, 
or pious non-violent satyagrahis, that flies the flag of national liberation.

This is not a defence or an apology for any state and its actions. If anyone 
reads this as an apology for the violence of the Imperialism that some have 
called American then there is little that I can say, I am only writing this 
to caution those who are rushing to join the chorus against Imperialism to 
step back and think about whether they too are being goaded to join armies 
that they might otherwise be reluctant to be foot soldiers for.

If we examine any  movements of national liberation in any part of the world 
at any time in the last three hundred years, we will see how quickly 
erstwhile victims become oppressors. 

Even the american war of independence was once the national struggle of an 
oppressed colony against an imperial power located in london. 

And the freedom fighters of the Stern Gang in British administered palestine, 
who then went on to found the militarist state of Israel, were also in their 
day, saluted by the left as vanguards of the anti-colonialist struggle. 

It did not take long for the Stern Gang to be denounced as  Zionist 
Imperialists and for the mantle of freedom fighters to fall on the 
Palestinians, and so on...

it is ironical that in the strange twists of contemporary history, the 
Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which is a coalition of erstwhile CIA 
funded mujahedin (identical to the Taliban) and erstwhile Soviet Army 
supported Khalqis and Parchamis (for those unfamiliar with the intercenine 
details of Afghan politics, Khalquis and Parchamis were bitter rival factions 
of the PDPA - the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan - aka the Soviet 
style apparatchik party of Afghanistan- whose internal squabbles led to the 
fraternal invitation to the Red Army -to settle what was a 'family quarrel' 
within the Afghan left)  are now being bankrolled by the United States. 

The US is today arming many of those it spent money and raised Osama bin 
Laden to dethrone. In itself this is not surprising, it is little known that 
the Viet-Minh for instance, during the second world war, when it was fighting 
Japanese  (and Vichy French) as opposed to American Imperialism in Vietnam, 
was once privy to covert support from the OSS (precursor to the CIA). The 
Vietnam War followed a few decades after. 

To see "leftists" in the third world denounce the Northern Alliance (which 
continues to comprise of PDPA elements) because they are US puppets (which 
they no doubt are) is to also witness an increasing smog of  "progressives" 
caught in the trap of  fluctuating 'nationalist" myopias. 

I am not for a moment suggesting that we try and weigh whether the Taliban or 
the Northern Alliance are preferable to each other. Or whether Saddam Hussain 
(who massacred all the leftists of Iraq even as they sang his praises) can be 
considered as an ally against imperialism.They are all shades of each other, 
just as, in my opinion the Minisitry of Home Affairs of the Republic of India 
and the controlling organs of the freedom fighters/terrorists fighting for 
the self determination of 'x' or 'y' people (Naga, Kashmiri etc.) are shades 
of each other. Each is fighting for territory it either has or wants to have.

The point is not to distinguish between "greater and lesser" evils in terms 
of who for the moment is tailing behind which power, but to realise that all 
the armed factions, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance,  ex PDPA kommissars 
(the Dostum gang) , ex Mujahedin  of the Rabbani or the Hekmatyar factions, 
the Iran supported Hazara Shia militias, or the geriatric and long forgotten 
and now resurrected King Zahir Shah  are all responsible for the tragedy of 

For Afghanistan, also read the Balkans, or Iraq-Iran-Turkey-Kurdistan or 
Israel-Palestine, or India-Kashmir-Northeast, or China-Tibet, and the picture 
is more or less the same with greater and lesser degrees of farce and 

It might be salutary to recall at this time, that even as early as at the 
time of the first world war, it was possible for many people on the left to 
declare that there cannot be a question of taking sides, or of choosing 
"lesser" or "greater" evils, or of trying to see justifications of acts of 
"violence inspired by feelings of national humiliation at the hands of 
imperialist powers" . This is what marked the crucial distinction between 
those on the left who voted for war credits to their respective governments 
and those who caled for revolutionary defeatism. Let ti be remembered that 
the Social Democratic Part of Germany, the part of Engles and lassalle, sined 
support to the war effort because it felt that it could not bear to see the 
Austor Hungarian Empire weakened by Serbain Terrorists. The Socialists of 
France, the party of Lafargue, voted for war credits to the French government 
because it wanted to support the cause of national liberation and democracy 
inthe blakans and the ottoman empire. In each of the major european powers, 
socialists murdered fellow working class militiants who refused to sing to 
the tune of the patriotism that surrounded them. This is what marked the 
difference between Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, and the Leftists who also 
assasinated her. Only a tiny minority, took a consistently anti-patriotic 
position. The same arguments, pro and anti imperialism, prevailed then, as 
they do now. The same rush to conclusions, the same sigining of orchestrated 
petitions denouncing this or that variety of Imerialism in the name of this 
or that struggle for self determination in this or that corner of the world.

Capital demands wars, and violence on a global scale, just as much as it 
desires the peace and quiet of the graveyard. In the confusion of fluttering 
national flags, flags of faith, and flags of states aborted and still born,  
let us not lose sight of the cold calcualations of money and profit that are 
made on all sides in times of war and peace (is there a difference any longer 

Let us not forget that those who declare "Jehad"  also run construction 
companies, or that the erstwhile comrades of Che Guevara in the Congo now 
profit from the world trade in tantalum which is a substance refined from 
coltan and used in the manufacture of semiconductor chips. Coltan is a a rare 
earth mineral which is mined using slave labour - overseen by rival national 
liberation movements and regimes in the heart of central africa, 

The miltiants of national liberation, and jehadis,  are just as happy to milk 
the global financial system by speculating on the stock market. as are the 
managing directors of Exxon corporation. On occasion, they even do business 
and set up joint ventures with men in suits who can be seen on television in 
finance programmes and heading the boards of respectable transnational 
corporations and public sector monopolies. 

No national liberation movement anywhere, no jehadi group known to human 
history has ever been heard to call for an abolition of wages, or of 
capitalism, or of the market or of the state. They want their market, their 
state, and the ability to determine wages for work on their terms. 

They want to overthrow evil jewish-christian- hindu- 
muslim-black-white-brown-yellow regimes and replace them with their own 
jewsih-christian-hindu-sikh-black-white- brown-yellow regimes. 

Sometimes, these expectations are based on unrealistic or laughably miniscule 
terms, like the desire to control a population that actually lives in refugee 
camps rather than in territories, and the desire to honour the stateless with 
the distinction of statehood.

And leftists everywhere will sign petitions in their behalf and congratulate 
themselves on the impeccability of their anti-imperialist credentials.

And then leftists everywhere will rot in the prisons of their own making.

Perhaps it is time we all returned to a dispassionate examination of 
capital,and remember an old man sitting in London who once wrote on the 
margins of the "patriotic" Gotha Programme of the Social Democratic Party of 
Germany  the following pithy comment - about the citizenship of the graveyard

"The workers of the world have but one country - and that is two feet under 
the ground" 

Perhaps it is time to reflect on this phrase yet again, and to transpose 
funeral pyres for graves and see how the phrase reads today. 

"The workers of the world have but one country and that is made of the ash of 
the aftermath of  explosions"

We can enter this country anywhere, we can see its citizens in the ash 
covered survivors of September 11, in the to-be-reduced-to-ashes people of 
Afghanistan, in the ashen sullenness of children in Iraq and in the blood and 
ashes inKashmir. We can see the ashes falling like flakes in front of our 
eyes. It makes us sick and tired and humiliated, everywhere.

Let us not weigh today the  fragile chance of solidarity of all those who are 
humuliated, of those who have no estate, anywhere, be it in Jackson Heights 
or in Jalalabad  - against the questionable record of the naton state in 
human history. 

Is it time, then, for the last international ? And time to leave our dreams 
and nightmares of statehood behind. And time to conceive of 
"Internationalism" not as the alliance of nations, but the coming together of 
people who find themselves, outside, the mind frame of the nation state or of 
civilisational  and cultural certainties. 


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