David Wearing wrote a really great piece in the Newstatesman the other day about Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialism. It’s worth talking about.
The cutting edge of Corbyn’s success as leader of the Labour Party – his election as leader, his victory over Owen Smith, and the historic advance of the Labour vote in the last election – is his opposition to austerity and support for an economic strategy that defends the living standards of the majority. Certainly, his well-known opposition to the Iraq War was a contributing factor, but Ed Milband also opposed the war. Corbyn’s Labour Party has rightly focussed on living standards and it’s for this reason he’s succeeding.
But I think it would be a mistake to view Corbyn’s economic policy as entirely unrelated to his anti-imperialism. In fact, I think the two are intimately connected. As Wearing very deftly points out, the British Labour Party has historically been quite happy to hitch its wagon to the interests of first British then US-led imperialism. This is worth quoting by way of example:
The relative economic stability required for the creation of the welfare state depended in part on various forms of imperial exploitation. In Malaya, commodity exports were the source of foreign exchange earnings that were crucial for the UK, given its precarious balance of payments, and Attlee’s government began a vicious counter-insurgency war to maintain British rule.
When Iran tried to wrest control of its oil from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the precursor to BP), the Attlee government moved swiftly to retaliate. Nationalising key industries as part of a programme aimed at raising living standards was permissible only in Britain, not Tehran. Devastating sanctions were imposed on Iranian oil exports in the expectation that they would undermine the government and potentially lead to its overthrow. After the 1953 coup, backed by Attlee’s successor, Winston Churchill, and the US, the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s helped sustain the Shah’s dictatorial regime.
Marx had always argued that the rapid growth and concentration of an industrial working class in the advanced economies meant they would be the first to undergo social revolution. Having experienced the jingoism of the First World War, many – though certainly not all – leftists of the early twentieth century reached the opposite conclusion, largely for the reasons Wearing outlines: despite their economic development, the political bloc formed between a privileged (on a world-scale) ‘labour aristocracy’ and the imperialists would militate against the development of a revolutionary perspective. The imperial plunder of half the world was a way of stabilising the domestic economy and buying the support of the British working class. For all their economic development, the heartlands of imperialism would be political backwaters.
It seems to me that this analysis is basically correct (Ralph Miliband’s book provides a very good discussion). The British Labour Party and broader labour movement has no short supply of people who will gladly and enthusiastically shill for US foreign policy interests. The spectacle of Labour MPs calling for the bombing of one side of the war in Syria only then, months later, to advocate bombing the other side – whatever the exigencies of the US State Department – is a case in point. That Hilary Benn was able to make his much-acclaimed “fighting fascism in Syria” speech under the farcical auspices of “internationalism” is a testament to the level of debate on these issues in the UK (side note: I got the impression the speech had been “acclaimed” in the British media long before it had ever been written).
The political counterpoint of this unedifying history of support for the imperial subjugation of people abroad – provided the people at home were kept happy! – is jingoism, chauvinism, and out-and-out racism. Today, witness the ongoing attempts to racialize the working class with the epithet “white”, recent comments such as Graham Jones and Gloria de Piero’s which portray the British (“white”) working class and working class politics as irredeemably reactionary (for Jones and de Piero this is A Good Thing), and organisations such as Blue Labour. I’d argue, too, that Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion’s recent remarks are evidence of a tendency to see such things as sexual violence against women through the distorting lens of racial categories – a tendency which has its roots in privileging one section of (white, British) workers over another (“foreigners”).
All this has long-term political consequences. It sounds like a strange thing to say, given the aggression in the Middle East and intensified attempts to undermine democracy in Latin America, but US-led imperialism is on the wane*. The US economy is in relative decline. In order to maintain its position as the global superpower, it more and more depends on (expensive!) military force rather than economic influence. If the stability of your economy depended on the imperial exploitation of the rest of the world, then a decreasing capacity to carry out this exploitation will have side-effects at home. For capital, the choice between maintaining the living standards of the domestic population or maintaining profits is an easy one; the workers at home are going to have to take the hit.
One might think this the time for the former labour movement propagandists for empire to step up to the plate, break their former alliances, and bring down thunder and fury on a ruling class attempting to make ordinary people pay for a crisis they didn’t create. No such luck, I’m afraid. A degree of chauvinism isn’t just a political oddity of the British left; it’s a political weakness. The crucial point, I think, is that it makes those sections of the left – which had previously dominated the Labour Party – unable to mount a serious defence of living standards. When you come from a political tradition that has been quite happy to acquiesce to forms of nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, or even racism all in the service of imperial adventures abroad, it’s far easier to pick a fight with one section of the workers at home (immigrant labour, or the non-white bits of the working class, like Pakistani men), then it is with capital. It’s the line of least resistance.
If, alternatively, you come from a political tradition which has actively and vocally opposed Britain’s imperial exploits, then it seems to me you are much less likely to make concessions to the racism that justified and continues to justify them. You are also far more likely to advance solutions to the economic crisis which do require a direct confrontation with capital. Enter Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst I’m not saying that his anti-imperialism is the reason Labour advanced by ten points in the polls in June, I am saying that it’s this anti-imperialism that has made him the best advocate for anti-austerity politics on the left. Corbyn’s ascendancy is thus a feature and product not only of economic crisis, but the corresponding weakened and weary state of imperialism.
It’s often said by his enemies and supporters alike that Corbyn represents a return to the politics of old Labour. This simply isn’t true. Paradoxically, the thing that has branded him an advocate for “old” Labour ideas – his support for the welfare state and public investment in infrastructure – has been enabled by his break with one of “old” Labour’s distinguishing features – the alliance between imperialism and the British labour movement. As Wearing points out, the post-war advance of living standards relied on this alliance. What makes Corbyn historically distinctive is that he is part of a political tradition on the left that would end it.
*Edit: As a friend has pointed out, wane is perhaps too strong a term. I don’t mean to say that imperialism’s enthusiasm for foreign adventures has waned. If anything, its economic decline has led to a redoubled viciousness.