Saturday, June 01, 2013

Imperialism in a Bell Jar?

I wrote this polemic as part of an ongoing discussion about the attitude of revolutionaries toward imperialism and toward the military conflicts that have arisen out of the "Arab Spring." It's crossposted from Kasama, "A Reply to Pham Binh and Clay Claiborne: Imperialism in a Bell Jar?"  It's a response to an article by Claiborne and Binh on an episode late in World War 2 where the revolutionary anti-colonialists of the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap briefly cooperated with the OSS, the predecessor of the American CIA. I've discussed many of these themes before but they remain central.

Ever since they decided to back US/NATO intervention in Libya (and later to argue for the US to arm or otherwise support the rebel forces in Syria), Clay Claiborne, Pham Binh and other folks associated with the North Star trend like Louis Proyect, have been repeatedly touting this story of US-Viet Minh cooperation. They fall back on this story as though it's some kind of stunning death-ray evidence that annihilates any argument against their position. They argue that it bolsters their case, somehow transforming their support of their own imperialist power into an act of revolutionary internationalism.

There are many problems with the attempt to enlist this historical episode as an argument for their position. Let's dismiss outright Binh's ridiculous assertion that this is just about historical "fact." We all know why he posted this article. But let's tackle a few of the problems with Claiborne and Binh's assertions.

So what actually happened in Vietnam? It's instructive to read Ho Chi Minh's 1952 article "Imperialist Aggressors Can Never Enslave The Heroic Vietnamese People," up on Unlike the recipients of US armed beneficence in Libya, Ho is absolutely clear what the role of the United States was in Indochina. He rightfully called the American interventionists "masters" of French colonialism: "The U.S. interventionists have nurtured the French aggressors and the Vietnamese puppets, but the Vietnamese people do not let anybody delude and enslave them."
There was a brief historical moment when the strategy of Ho and the Viet Minh was to exploit the contradictions among imperialists. In the declaration of independence that Ho wrote, he says "The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country. We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam."

But there is simply no comparison, historical or otherwise, between the situation in Indochina in 1945 and North Africa and the Middle East in the 2010s. There is simply no contradiction to exploit. And while I think many debates are possible about the nature of the war between Japan and the US, the US was aiding an actual anti-colonial national liberation struggle, regardless of whether they were ultimately trying to hijack it. Binh has claimed that in Libya the US was aiding a "bourgeois democratic revolution." In the post-colonial age of neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, this argument strikes me as dangerously flawed. Perhaps BInh would support waves of NATO airstrikes against the less-than-democratic regimes across Africa? What does he think of the French neocolonialist intervention in Mali?

Who in Libya or Syria today is calling out imperialism for what it is? It's not the people that the US and its close allies are assisting, and that Claiborne and Binh seem to be supporting.
One has only to look as far as Binh's North Star blog to see what the relationship of the pro-NATO Libyan forces is to US imperialism: In "Stage Two of the Libyan Revolution," a "Libyan Rebel" writes, unchecked by any North Star moderator, "Since the killing of Libya’s tyrant and official declaration of liberation, the Libyan people began calling for the next stage in their revolution which is state building....The attack on the U.S. consulate and the passing of the late Chris Stevens was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The act of attacking guests of Libya and the resulting death of a good friend of the Libyan people highlighted the fragility of the state and the danger these militias posed." The article is glowingly illustrated by a picture of Libyans carrying signs like "Sorry People of America" to atone for the attack on the Benghazi spy den.

Back to Vietnam, it's no stretch of the imagination to draw a straight line from US cooperation with the Viet Minh toward the end of WWII to the US relationship with French colonialism and their various puppets in South Vietnam after the war and the eventual defeat of the French, to the apocalyptic war of annihilation waged by the US against the NLF and the North Vietnamese in the 1960s and early 1970s. It would be interesting to know what Ho Chi Minh thought, from the benefit of historical hindsight much later before he died in 1969, whether the aid the Viet Minh received against the Japanese was balanced by the fact it allowed US imperialism a toehold in the independence struggle. Certainly the appeals to American conscience in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence seem to have quickly given way to condemnations of American meddling.

Which brings us to another problem with Claiborne and Binh's arguments. They argue as though NATO intervention in Libya happened in a bell jar. Or now, that US arming the Free Syrian Army that they advocate would be happening in that same bell jar. Ironically they don't seem to even notice the leap from Libya to Syria. One might think such an attitude was quaintly naive, but neither Claiborne nor Binh are naifs new to the way the world works. Is it an accident that the US/NATO embrace of the Libyan manifestation of the so-called Arab spring corresponded to the US acquiescence of the smashing of Arab spring revolts in the US client state of Bahrain? Is it an accident that in the aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya, full of the same brutal violence from the sky that NATO and the US displayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now successfully established a drone base in neighboring Niger? Is there no connection between what imperialism wrought in Iraq and what they're up to now in the rest of the Arab world?

Imperialism was emboldened by its success in Libya. Obama's strategy — which, by the way, should be of great concern to revolutionaries — has been to employ clients and high-tech weapons systems to maximize US military success while minimizing the potential for domestic opposition; this has proved itself invaluable to imperialism's warchest. Regardless of the nature of the Gaddafi regime (in my opinion unmourned), US imperialism achieved a major victory in Libya. And Binh and Claiborne cheered that victory on.

Elsewhere Binh has argued that his call for arming Syrian and Libyan "revolutionaries" doesn't mean he supports U.S. "boots on the ground." But this is meaningless semantics. Everyone knows that the claim the US only facilitated actual military action by NATO members Britain and France in Libya is bullshit. And everyone knows that the claim that the FSA is being armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar but not the US is equally bullshit.

Imperialism is a web of dependent connections, and the destructive, world-dominating force that is US imperialism is the monstrous spider at the center of that web. It's true that the US finds the presence of Salafist and Al-Qaeda-linked forces in the ranks of the Syrian rebels somewhat problematic. It's true that despite the militant rhetoric of the Assads over the years they have proved to be some of the best, non-actually-threatening neighbors the Zionist regime could have asked for, and that therefore the US and its Israeli allies are waiting to see which way the wind blows before making their next commitments. But the partial hesitation of US imperialism to throw its full weight behind the Syrian opposition, or to establish something like a no-fly zone (a thinly veiled declaration of war) shouldn't be seen as some kind of alibi for what Binh and Claiborne are calling for.

Let's get real: Pham BInh and Clay Clayborne are standing right next to the war criminal John McCain in calling for the US to send heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels. The John McCain who, by the way, didn't mind being photographed with sectarian kidnappers in his quick jaunt across the Syrian border.

In my opinion the Assad regime is not something communists have any business supporting. But as the leftish Lebanese resistance movement HIzbollah and some Palestinian factions enter an increasingly polarized conflict on Assad's side, will Binh and Claiborne really be cheering on the shipping of weapons to be used against, say, the PFLP?

What will be the legacy of avowed socialists supporting the military actions of "their own" imperialist power? Karl Liebknecht taught this to us a long time ago: "The main enemy is at home!"  The best way for those of us in imperialist countries to aid the oppressed peoples of the world is to do everything we can to defeat the ruling classes of our own countries. Solidarity that doesn't follow that basic lesson is no solidarity at all: and every failure of leftists like Binh and Claiborne to tell the truth to Libyan or Syrian rebels who might be listening to us further weakens the already damaged reputation of socialism.

It's not like the current conflicts aren't the first time leftists have gone soft on imperialism. In the US wars on Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, segments of the left all abandoned their principle to support the actions of imperialism. It's a timeworn tradition that has happened over and over again when socialists in the homeland of imperialism lose faith in their arguments and doctrines. And the embrace of "state department socialism" is usually also marked by all sorts of other accommodations to capitalism, to imperialism. It marks a shift in roads: is this shift something the fragile and tiny US left can afford?

You wouldn't know it from reading Claiborne and Binh's writings up on North Star, but there are Syrian leftists who recognize the danger from imperialism, while also completely opposing the Assad regime. From the Syrian Leftist Coalition's statement "A Marxist Perspective on Syria: A letter from the Syrian Left Coalition to the Leftists in the Arab Countries" (definitely worth a read in its entirety):
"The media is trying to represent the people’s revolution by the forces of current political “opposition”. This media does not focus on the fighting people, but it considers an “opposition” is combating the regime. This shallow logic reflects a shallow “Marxism” that considers this opposition to represent the people, and thus approaches the revolution through the opposition... No doubt these “opposition” parties should be criticized. Parties that called for an imperialist military intervention, and published an ethnic, fundamentalist speech, in alliance with imperialists and reactionary Arab regimes, should be condemned. These parties are very harmful for the revolution as much as they delay the growth of this mass movement by posing the a speech that frightens the minorities, and also frightens the wide spectrum of people that supports resistance and defiance against imperialism and Zionism...In this situation, a Marxist should be with the people against the regime. At the same time, a Marxist should also fight against this liberal elite “opposition” and against all these fundamentalist forces that threaten a derailing of the revolution into an inter-ethnic and inter-religious struggle, and this is the exact aim the regime was trying to achieve since the beginning of the popular uprising. This can only be achieved first by improving the role of the oppressed masses in this struggle, expressing their demands in a clear program, organize the revolution, and stating a strategy for this revolution in order to overpass its spontaneity into an organized conscious movement.... We should reject any calls for imperialist military intervention, and on this basis also we should reject the intervention of Russia and Iran."
Yes, this is a harder, more difficult position to maintain. The conflict in Syria has taken thousands and thousands of innocent lives. Lives that the United States doesn't actually care about, not one bit. Communists must take the side of the Syrian people, and that means telling some truths that might be unpopular and hard to hear: that intervention of the US into the Syrian civil war, which is already happening, will not free the Syrian people. US weapons come with long strings attached.

So that story about Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh, and the American OSS is an interesting historical tale. But as a rationalization for abandoning everything revolutionaries know to be true about imperialism? No thanks. The first gut response of revolutionaries in the U.S should be to bristle with rage against the machinations of our imperialist ruling class.

Vietnam, Libya, Syria, different stories, different times. But the enemy remains the same.

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