Proletarian Internationalism and “Anti-Imperialist” Harringtonism Cannot Co-Exist

A Reply to the Communist League of Richmond

“In the era of imperialism, there can be no other salvation for most of the world’s nations than through revolutionary action undertaken by the proletariat of the Great Powers, spreading beyond the boundaries of nationality, smashing those boundaries, and overthrowing the international bourgeoisie … The overthrow of the bourgeoisie will enormously accelerate the downfall of national partitions of every kind …”

Lenin, “The Main German Opportunist Work on the War”

“Everywhere there is the bourgeoisie and the imperialists, everywhere the ignoble preparations for carnage; if Russian tsarism is particularly infamous and barbarous (and more reactionary than all the rest), then German imperialism too is monarchist: its aims are feudal and dynastic, and its gross bourgeoisie are less free than the French. The Russian Social-Democrats were right in saying that to them the defeat of tsarism was the lesser evil, for their immediate enemy was, first and foremost, Great-Russian chauvinism, but that in each country the socialists (who are not opportunists) ought to see their main enemy in their ‘own’ (‘home-made’) chauvinism. … Militarism, whether German or Great Russian, fosters counter-chauvinism and the like.”

Lenin, “The European War and International Socialism”

“There literally is not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the most subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity.”

Rosa Luxemburg, the National Question

The Communist League of Richmond (CLR) has pinned an “open letter to principled Marxists in DSA”, remarking that “we are pleased to see that a new wind has arisen and begun to fill the banners of anti-imperialism in your organization. [DSA]” This perfectly illustrates that the CLR, like many in the DSA, “anti-imperialism” is merely a placard, a collection of foreign policy opinions.

To Lenin, anti-imperialism meant “the conversion of a war between governments into a civil war”. (See “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War”) CLR explicitly rejects this position. In fact, CLR’s position is that “the chances” of revolution in the United States “are low”. (Time to emigrate to the Bahamas!) 

The CLR, in typical philistine anti-american fashion, views the original sin of DSA as that of “CIA socialism”, as if Lassalle and Bernstein were also CIA. Thus CLR does not interrogate the molecular structure of opportunism and revisionism, but rather bemoans the absence of a revisionism with a superficially different orientation towards international politics.

A cruder variation of this position has already been articulated on “the Virginia left”, when, in 2019, the Shenandoah Socialist Collective (SSC) split with the DSA, condemning the latter group’s efforts to “…divert revolutionary energy into bourgeois electoralism, collaborating with the capitalist Democratic party to enact social programs that benefit Americans, especially white Americans, at the expense of the international working class”, while affirming their own commitment to “anti-imperialism; democratic control of the economy by the working class; environmental responsibility; food, housing, healthcare, and education for all.”

SSC’s statement is important because it illustrates that this sort of “anti-imperialism” does not preclude a revisionist conception of Marxism, e.g. in the case of SSC, a Marxism that calls for an ambiguously defined “worker democracy” while omitting the need of the proletariat (regardless of how democratic its political organs are) to exercise class-dictatorship over the bourgeoisie, or which views a socialist economic system as merely one that administers equal distribution of the social surplus of only specific essential goods.

The reason this is important is because this would also be the outlook of much of the DSA rank-and-file if they ever found themselves to follow CLR’s call to split with “imperialism” without vigorously interrogating the Lassalian foundations of their ideological worldview.

CLR are not themselves immune to mealy-headed social-democratic thinking despite the incessantly professed vigors of their “Leninism”, praising DSA’s unabashed support for Castillo and Perú Libre in Peru and Maduro and the PSUV in Venezuela as “the first baby steps toward a proletarian internationalist line”. (As if the government of Maduro, much less that of Castillo, has any relationship to “proletarian internationalism”!).

The thrust of this DSA controversy is New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman’s decision to vote Yes on HR 5323, (aka the Iron Dome Supplemental Appropriations Act,) a bill that procures $1 billion in funds to be provided to the Zionist regime in Palestine for their Iron Dome missile system. But in the eloquent words of Lenin:

“Chauvinist patriots vote for the Budget! … Even given the total incapacità and impotence of the European socialists, the behaviour of their leaders reveals treachery and baseness: the workers have been driven into the slaughter, while their leaders vote in favour and join governments! Even with their total impotence, they should have voted against, should not have joined their governments and uttered chauvinistic infamies; should not have shown solidarity with their ‘nation’, and should not have defended their “own ”bourgeoisie, they should have unmasked its vileness.”

When has any DSA legislator held themselves to Lenin’s standard? The very notion is absurd. The mastodon in the room is that celebrity DSA Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (only briefly mentioned in passing in CLR’s piece, nor the target of any major internal censure effort by the DSA) also theatrically voted “Present” instead of “No” for the Iron Dome Act.

Previously, Ocasio-Cortez enthusiastically voted Yes on the 2019 Bipartisan Budget Act, which increased the USA regime’s “defense” spending budget cap by $172 billion. Michigan congresswoman and DSA member Rashida Tlaib, to her credit, routinely votes against defense budgets. Tlaib is of course not a revolutionary socialist employing her position within a bourgeois legislature to agitate for proletarian revolution, but is a petit-bourgeois social-democrat serving as an elected functionary of the bourgeois state, (as evidenced by her enthusiastic support for police unions) and professes the perspective that defense budget are “bloated” and that the bourgeois state should redirect excess defense funds into replenishing the withered social wage that exists in the US. (Perhaps, like Franklin Roosevelt, she wishes to forestall revolution.)

This is a position that likely also enjoys some deal of support among her working-cass constituency. Although Ocasio-Cortez’s district is arguably as demographically working class, this is not a concern that makes Ocasio-Cortez lose any sleep during her Met gala disco naps. Tlaib articulated best the actual opposition to the Iron Dome Act from within the DSA wing of the Democratic Party: “I will not support an effort to enable war crimes and human rights abuses and violence. … Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system, and are dying from what Human Rights Watch has said are war crimes…”Tlaib’s position, (which is essentially one and the same as the “left” within this DSA debate) is not by any means “anti-imperialist” in the Leninist sense nor “proletarian internationalist”, but rather Kennedyian or Carterist.

Tlaib, like Jimmy Carter, wishes to use the force of US imperialist purse-strings to penalize allied regimes in order to coerce them into complying with “humanitarian” concerns. Despite whatever her personal motivations may be, Tlaib represents a political impulse that sees the humanitarian crisis in Palestine as destabilizing for the capitalist-imperialist state in the US. After all, one could easily make the argument that Guam is (or at the very least began as) a colonial possession, occupied by the US military, but few would characterize the situation in Guam as a major humanitarian crisis. 

Tlaib, herself Palestinian-American, is one of the few figures in mainstream US politics to speak sympathetically of a “one-state solution” in Palestine, not only on the grounds that a “two state solution” does not address Palestinian Right of Return, but that it could displace Israelis in the Palestinian Territories.

The Palestine Solidarity Working Group of the DSA similarly criticizes the two-state solution as a “dead letter” and demands “Palestinian freedom”. Neither Tlaib nor statements by the Palestine Solidarity Working Group of the DSA support a binational socialist republic in Palestine. We only have to look to South Africa to see what Tlaib and the DSA Palestine Solidarity Working Group’s vision of Palestine looks like.

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a Black Indigenous (vhaVenda) multimillionaire who once owned 145 McDonald’s restaurants in South Africa, and once sat on the board of Lonmin, the British mining company notorious for owning the mine where 36 striking (mostly Black South African) miners were gunned down by South African police in 2012.

Diplomatic relationships between the United States and South Africa have, if anything, improved since apartheid, with the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an arrangement that is as imperialist in the strict classical Leninist sense as any other imaginable. Other communists have argued elsewhere that the current African National Congress [ANC]-ruled government emerged as a result of a “negotiated betrayal” with the “old state” to quell a potential socialist revolution in South Africa.

Unlike elements of the apartheid-era ANC left, the Palestine Solidarity Working Group of the DSA does not seem to demonstrate a belief that national liberation in Palestine is part of a strategy to advance a socialist revolution there. A humanitarian could of course make the argument that ending the humanitarian crisis in Palestine is a more urgent concern than any political strategy. This of course would not be a remotely Marxist position, but one we will address at face value with the following; if a building  was on fire, one would try to rescue people from the burning building, but if the fire was being caused by an active oil leak, anyone who does not ask how to stop the leak is essentially complacent in allowing the fire to burn. 

To turn to another important, but more overlooked example, the nominally independent South Sudan, (once almost as much a national liberationist cause celebre among at least the regional Middle Eastern left as Palestine) remains to this day entirely dependent on the regime in Sudan to export oil to the international market, an arrangement that rakes in billions of dollars of profits for the Sudanese bourgeoisie while also fattening the pockets of the South Sudanese bourgeoisie and their highly repressive security state. And the modern-day regime in South Sudan is as great of a US comprador regime as you can get, with South Sudanese “president” Salva Kiir proudly wearing a cowboy hat given to him by George W. Bush.

Are we seriously to believe that if we could Thanos-snap Tlaib’s one-state solution into existence, absent a socialist revolution in Palestine, the outcome would be any better, given the much greater strength of the Israeli bourgeoisie? The CLR largely embraces a Cold War-era left caricature of “imperialism” in the Middle East. While CLR pays lip service to Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “…the export of surplus financial capital to foreign markets”, they don’t seem to make any effort to analyze what this means to 21st century geopolitics.

The Israeli bourgeoisie is no longer simply a puppet of US imperialism. For example, Bank Hapoalim, the largest bank in Israel, exports billions of dollars in finance capital to Turkey via its Turkish subsidy BankPozitif. The Gulf states also regularly engage in finance capital export; QNB Group, a Qatari multinational bank, and itself essentially a subsidiary of the monarchist Qatari state, are a majority shareholder in banks across the Middle East and Africa, and Saudi financiers are now making multimillion dollar loans to Ukrainian state-owned banks.

In the realm of geopolitical diplomacy, Israel is at present very close with Russia, with Putin recently praising the “economic links” between the two countries Israel’s diplomatic ties with China are also very strong, and in the economic realm this resulted in the construction of a $1.7 billion dollar cargo port in Haifa to be operated by Shanghai International Port Group. Chinese banks collectively had $25.8 trillion in global assets, compared to US banks which held $13.04 trillion. Yet CLR’s statement seems to reveal no indication of this reality.

One might object that according to the supposed logic of Lenin’s revolutionary imperialism, one must only criticize “one’s own” bourgeoisie. Abstaining from the criticism of other countries’ bourgeoisie was never a position held by Lenin, and we are not in a context remotely similar to that of World War I, where the global imperialist powers were sacrificing workers in open trench combat throughout the world.

Lenin’s position, as stated above, is a strategy for transforming imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war, a position not frequently held by today’s “anti-imperialists”. Regardless, the position we are now in is one in which a rapidly increasing multi-polarity and multi-nationalization of global capitalism demands ironclad international solidarity between workers of every nation against the international and local bourgeoisie. 

The “anti-imperialist left” among the DSA rank-and-file, and by extension, the CLR, do not even consistently apply a scathing condemnation of the militarism and expansionism of US allies in the Middle East. The Kemalist regime in Turkey is itself as much a Cold War-era NATO proxy that’s grown too big for its britches as the Zionist regime in Palestine, and one as wholly guilty of accusations of genocide, apartheid, etc, towards its ethnic and national minority populations (particularly Armenians and Kurds) as the latter, including launching a bloody military incursion into Syrian Kurdistan in 2019.

While not herself a DSA member, Ilhan Omar remains a darling and a mascot of the “anti-imperialist” wing of DSA, often enthusiastically cited as a good, anti-imperialist social-democrat. And the DSA is certainly very warm towards her, issuing a “solidarity” statement towards her when she came under attack from US Zionist reactionaries towards her position on Israel.(Which is itself to the right of Tlaib’s, as Omar is an enthusiastic supporter of the two-state solution.)

This is all in spite of Omar’s role as a go-between for Erdoğan and Somali president Farmaajo, a role that has influenced her to make pro-Turkish legislative votes as her capacity as a US congresswoman. And of course, virtually no one in DSA is concerned with the recent ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans by longtime US ally Ethiopia. At the end of the day, CLR demonstrates a thoroughly petit-bourgeois analysis of “the anti-war movement”, openly lionizing the “radicalized mostly white petit-bourgeois student groups like the SDS” for their contribution to the composition of the “independent revolutionary organizations” which produced and shaped the anti-Vietnam War movement.

The irony that the SDS emerged out of the “CIA socialist” LID appears to be lost on CLR. What’s also omitted is that the “petit-bourgeois” character of SDS was largely a political choice, with the organization being a restructuring of the Student League for Industrial Democracy as the cause of labor fell out of fashion among the petit-bourgeoisie. CLR puts the “radicalized petit-bourgeois[ie]” on equal footing with revolutionary organizations “composed primarily of members of oppressed communities like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords”.

While an entire critical history of the Black Panther Party is beyond the scope of this polemic, it’s worth noting that one of their sharpest and most celebrated intellectual leaders, Fred Hampton, certainly did not see himself solely as an emissary of a minoritarian “oppressed community”, famously stating “you’ll remember I said with the last words on my lips, that I am a … a proletariat … You’ve got to make a distinction!” While the Panthers are certainly part of the canon of Black American Marxism, they are not the only group. Others, such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, understand perfectly well the importance of US industry, US labor, and the possibility of proletarian revolution within the United States. 

CLR also remarks that “at times, it even led US soldiers on the front lines into mutinies and other forms of overt resistance.” But why is this surprising to someone with a proletarian revolutionary perspective? Army GIs were the segment of US society at the time whose lives were most directly and violently impacted by the imperialist invasion, were overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the US proletariat, and were preponderantly representative of the “oppressed communities”, ie Black, Hispanic, and American Indian workers. (And they were no more participants in the “war machine” than the petit-bourgeois students, as complicity of the latter’s academic institutions in the war effort was a major factory in “radicalization”).

Soldiers’ mutinies have always been an essential component of a revolutionary program, being a decisive factor in the victory of the Russian revolution, and are even immortalized in the lyrics of The Internationale. Plenty of fancy excuses are used to sidestep this issue in the context of the present-day US, but the CLR’s contrast of GI resistance as somehow rare and exceptional in comparison to the supposedly essential role of the petit-bourgeoisie is illuminating. 

As alluded to above, the CLR’s position is that “the chances that the next revolutionary wave will begin in the US, or anywhere else in the imperialist core, are low”. The CLR, of course, does not clarify what they mean by “imperialist core”, as those who brandish the term seldom do. This is likely, as it often is, a bastardization of Lenin’s premise that in the epoch of capitalist imperialism, the bourgeoisie in imperialist countries uses a portion of its surplus to bribe an aristocratic stratum of the proletariat.

What Lenin was largely referring to at the time were trade-union functionaries and political representatives of bourgeois labor parties. Lenin did not make this as an argument in favor of pessimistic defeatism for the prospect of revolution in the imperialist countries, (among which he included Russia) but rather an argument in favor of ruthless and unrelenting political struggle against these forces within the workers’ movement. What’s interesting about the exceptionally pessimistic (and distorted) view of the labor aristocracy debate held by groups such as CLR is, in the context of the post-neoliberal United States, the trade-unions have largely been hollowed out.

At no previous point of time since the establishment of trade unions in the United States has there been more favorable circumstances for a victorious outcome of a political struggle against the reactionary labor bureaucracy. (Which is what makes CLR’s monomaniacal obsession with reforming the DSA all the more baffling, but we’ll get to that in a second.) What makes this relevant to understanding CLR’s gross misreading of the anti-Vietnam War movement is (like the SDS) they view the primary task in the United States as “building a robust movement which could actually challenge imperialism here and abroad”, leading to their bizarre conclusion that the anti-Vietnam War movement was a success.

As Alewitz notes (in a much more sympathetic assessment than this author’s) in his retrospective on the Kent State massacre, the communist leadership of the movement in the United States against the Vietnam War adopted tactics from the 1968 uprising in France, but deliberately obfuscated much of their political character, e.g. changing the name of the “Red University” to the “anti-war university”.

As CLR notes, the resistance to the Vietnam War spread to working-class GIs, including those stationed, deployed, and returning veterans. In response to the combined pressure of Vietnamese resistance and GI mutiny, the US bourgeois state withdrew its military from Vietnam and abolished military conscription in 1973. Because the US left shirked their duties of building a Red movement instead of merely an anti-war movement, this concession did not accelerate the momentum of the class struggle in the United States, and if anything neutralized the potential threat of the GI resistance movement.

The gift the abolition of the draft gave to the stability of the bourgeois political order in the United States was “deradicalizing” the petit-bourgeoisie from this issue, removing the primary material incentive for them to resist US imperialism, and fully transforming the enlisted rank-and-file of the US army into economic conscripts. A lack of authentic proletarian perspective in CLR’s “anti-imperialism” is most apparent in their description of Virginia itself.

We are told Virginia is the “epicenter of American military might. Decisions are made at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia.  Explosives and propellants used in foreign conflicts are manufactured at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in the Southwest, and the bloody fist of imperialism is built, modernized, repaired, and deployed across the world from the largest naval base in the world in Hampton Roads. ” In CLR’s conception, the “bloody fist of imperialism” is largely a homogeneous force with no class-distinction, not clarifying the fact that Northern Virginia, where “decisions are made”, is one of the wealthiest areas in the United States, and that the actual military manufacturing is performed in predominantly working-class regions, such as Southwest Virginia, part of the Appalachian region, and Hampton Roads,  part of the historic Blackbelt.

No thought is given to the consequences these manufacturing jobs have for workers. For example, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant is an EPA sacrifice zone, with an incremental industrial cancer risk 230 times higher than that of what is normally considered acceptable. CLR also seems to have no appreciation that it is workplace action by these munitions workers which has the strongest potential to paralyze the “bloody fist of imperialism”, as evidenced by the Scottish machinists’ strike of 1973 that refused to repair fighter planes for the Chilean military.  

Like many “Leninist” dogmatists, CLR enjoys citing the negative example of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany but omits the fact that Lenin and Trotsky viewed the success or failure of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia as dependent upon the success or failure of a workers’ revolution in Germany. Similarly, despite the victory of socialist revolution in Vietnam (at the time a country that, like early 20th century Russia, still had a very large agrarian pre-capitalist sector) against US imperialist occupation, the absence of a broader revolutionary wave that toppled more advanced capitalist economies meant that the socialist bureaucracy of Vietnam were quickly compelled by the gears of the global capitalist economy to restore capitalism in Vietnam. (A compulsion that promoted the Vietnamese bureaucracy to the position of a new local bourgeoisie).

Again, upon consideration of the genocidal horrors of US invasion and occupation, a humanitarian argument can be made that US withdrawal from Vietnam was a “victory”. However, from a Marxist perspective, a cursory glance at the basic empirical facts can tell us that the Vietnamese proletariat of today are super-exploited wage-slaves, and that today’s Vietnam is more in need of a proletarian economic and social revolution than ever before. 

CLR’s own priorities are apparent when they write “we know from historical experience what the most effective tools against apartheid and imperialism are: i) boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS); ii) a large organized revolutionary working class movement.” Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they’ve made “a large organized revolutionary movement” a secondary item on their list, after “divestment and sanctions”, presumably by other factions of the bourgeoisie opposed to whatever specific feature of contemporary global capitalism they are somewhat arbitrary cordoning off as “apartheid and imperialism”. 

CLR’s humanitarianism is no more obvious than when they clarify to their audience that the US does not fund the Zionist regime in Palestine out of “any serious commitment to ensuring the Holocaust never happens again”. Zionist propaganda aside, why should the Shoah even be part of a conversation among adults on the subject? If the Israeli bourgeoisie were truly motivated by “[a] serious commitment to ensuring the Holocaust never happens again”, (and rest assured, a few madmen among the Israeli bourgeoisie may sincerely believe this!) would this make them any more worthy of our consideration?

Let us not forget that the Shoah was the direct result of the emergence to fascism as a counter-balance to a more vibrant revolutionary workers’ movement in Europe, one that had been seriously stymied by both Social-Democracy and Stalinism. The CLR uses the terms “Palestinian workers” and “Palestinian people” pretty much interchangeably, no mention is made to the Palestinian bourgeoisie, the exception to this being praise for Palestinian-British musician Dua Lipa’s “bold stance” on the Palestine question, which is essentially a garden-variety anodyne position among the liberal wing of the Palestinian bourgeoisie. (“Jews, Muslims and Christians — have the right to live in peace as equal citizens of a state they choose.”).

This national-reductionist view of Palestine is especially politically dangerous given that the chief political representatives of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, the Palestinian Authority, are open collaborators with the Zionist regime, and their principal rivals, the political leadership of Hamas, are largely content to administer a theocratic government in the Gaza Bantustan.

In fact, very little of this controversy in general has much to do with the practicalities of the class struggle in Palestine. This text, as an example, spends more time explaining an organizational technicality that would give the DSA rank-and-file de jure authority to censure Bowman. All of this is supposedly done in service of transforming DSA (an organization with a largely petit-bourgeois class-composition) into a more “Leninist” or “democratic centralist’ organization.

No thought is given to the fact that the time and energy spent on this Herculean – and most likely Sisyphean – effort (“You must keep fighting.”, “Do not let the NPC tell you this is a done deal”, etc) could be spent salting and organizing shop floors and working-class neighborhoods in the United States. On this subject, given that the CLR quotes him out of historical context to justify their DSA strategy, we should keep Engels’ advice to Bebel regarding Lassallean organizations to heart:

“… With regard to the attitude of the Party towards Lassalleanism, you can of course judge what tactics should be adopted better than we, especially in particular cases. But there is also this to be considered. When, as in your case, one is to a certain extent in the position of a competitor to the Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiter Verein (General Association of German Workers) it is easy to pay too much attention to one’s rival and to get into the habit of always thinking about him first. But both the General Association of German Workers and the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party together still only form a very small minority of the German working class. Our view, which we have found confirmed by long practice, is that the correct tactic in propaganda is not to draw away a few individuals and members here and there from one’s opponent, but to work on the great mass which still remains apathetic. The primitive force of a single individual whom we have ourselves attracted from the crude mass is worth more than ten Lassallean renegades, who always bring the seeds of their false tendencies into the Party with them. And if one could only get the masses without their local leaders it would still be all right. But one always has to take a whole crowd of these leaders into the bargain, and they are bound by their previous public utterances, if not by their previous views, and have above all things to prove that they have not deserted their principles but that on the contrary the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party preaches true Lassalleanism. This was the unfortunate thing at Eisenach, not to be avoided at that time, perhaps, but there is no doubt at all that these elements have done harm to the Party and I am not sure that the Party would not have been at least as strong to-day without that addition. In any case, however, I should regard it as a misfortune if these elements were reinforced.”

– from Shama Bismas

One response to “Proletarian Internationalism and “Anti-Imperialist” Harringtonism Cannot Co-Exist”

  1. […] Virginia Worker recently published an article by the Communist League of Richmond (CLR), and a response by Shama Bismas, the latter of which contained harsh criticisms of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective (SSC). In […]

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