Richard Seymour's new book, "American Insurgents", presents a historical analysis of anti-war protest in the United States. His previous books are "The Liberal Defence of Murder", now published in paperback, and "The Meaning of David Cameron". He blogs at Lenin's Tomb, and writes regularly for the Guardian. Seymour is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. He discussed his new book with New Left Project's David Wearing.David Wearing: Can you summarise for us the subject of your new book?Richard Seymour
: American Insurgents is a brief history of anti-imperialism in the US, from the revolution to the present. Now, this is an odd subject: what's so American about it? What's so anti-imperialist about it? It doesn't seem to sit right. Apart from anything else, most pundits and historians imply that there's something profoundly paradoxical about the idea of an American Empire. Thus, we are treated to lapidary formulations about the 'Empire of Liberty'. This has to do with its ambiguous revolutionary legacy, which is something I explore in the book.
What can be said is that the liberal-democratic ideas that animated the revolution are in some respects in conflict with imperialism. The legatees of that revolution have often operated on that tension, using the inherited liberal-democratic discourse - the principle of self-determination, consent of the governed, etc - against imperialism. Thus, the Anti-Imperialist League, a mass movement included such luminaries as Mark Twain, Henry James and Jane Addams, appealled to the constitution, and the declaration of independence, against the US colonial war in the Phillipines in 1898. That is what is specifically American about the anti-imperialism I'm discussing.
As for what's so anti-imperialist about it, I should say up front that I have not restricted my purview to those movements which explicitly considered themselves anti-imperialist as that would be mainly a chronicle of marginalia. This is a study of the concrete political formations that arose against specific imperialist ventures. For, even if at an ideological level specific groups or individuals did not understand the problem as imperialism, the political struggle they were conducting was against imperialism. This is not to say that it doesn't matter whether groups self-identify as anti-imperialist or not. Their analysis matters, largely because it is a determinant of how successful they can be. It is just that it would be unduly restrictive, and finger-wagging, to adopt an ideal-type of anti-imperialism against which to measure those whose struggles we need to learn from.
One of the key differences that emerges in the history is, to put it very schematically, between liberal anti-imperialism and socialist anti-imperialism. The 19th century is dominated by the former, the 20th century by the latter. So the first two chapters of the book are concerned with how anti-imperialists through the 19th century attempted to use the liberal-democratic aspects of the American make-up against its expansionist drives. This takes us through the resistance (by early feminists, abolitionists, Whigs, etc) to colonial dispossession of Native Americans and the expansion of the slaveocracy in the conquest of Mexico, through to the 'colonial turn' at the end of the nineteenth century. This liberal-democratic strategy had its limits. The Anti-Imperialist League, for example, was a liberal anti-imperialist group. It was dominated by bourgeois white males and, though its dominant political tenor was anti-racist, it incorporated Southern planters nostalgic for slavery. It made use of the labour of workers, women and 'people of colour', but excluded them from its running. It adopted a legalist, parliamentarist political strategy, and channelled its energies into the Democratic campaign of 1900. This was a catastrophic decision, resulting in demoralisation when their ticket lost. Ironically, the demoralisation may have been worse if their candidate had won. There is a long history of anti-imperialist movements evaporating when they imagine they have gained executive power - witness the evacuation of the vast majority of the US antiwar movement from the scene after Obama's election.
However, already by the end of the nineteenth century, socialist and labour movements were asserting themselves. It was largely the socialist left that resisted Wilson's interventions into the Mexican Revolution and his participation in the Great War. The socialists took a very different approach to the liberal-democratic strategy. First of all, they systematically linked anti-imperialism to the material interests of the working class, and the oppressed, by arguing that imperialism was in the interests of capitalism and would make ordinary Americans worse off. Many in the Anti-Imperialist League had also argued that imperialism had 'economic' causes, but it wasn't usually a class issue for them. Second, they advocated the exercise of what Francis Fox Piven calls 'disruptive power' to stop the war machine: strikes, civil disobedience and evading conscription.
Theirs was not a passive, parliamentarist or legalist strategy. And they were met with violent counterattack. This is where a particularly virulent fusion of nativism and anticommunism was born. The militias, citizens bodies, judicial investigations, raids etc which were launched under the Wilson administration to crack down on the socialist Left took aim especially at presumed 'aliens'. These were exact precursors of the anticommunist networks of the Cold War.
But still, in most 20th century anti-imperialist movements, coalitions had had to be formed between socialists and liberals. (Again, I stress that this is a deliberately simplified schema: actual coalition-building involved navigating an array of heterogenous identities and axes of oppression, but the fundamental political and strategic divide can be summed up as one between socialists and liberals). So, these two strategies had to be reconciled, or at least co-exist in the same broad movement.
So, this is a history of US anti-imperialism but, in principle, the questions it addresses can be of use in analysing situations outside the US.( Collapse )Source