Notes toward an understanding of revolutionary politics today
by James Petras
- Historical survey: 1950s and 1960s
- Counter-revolution in the revolution
- Restoration, imperialism and revolution in the 1990s
- US world hegemony and domestic decay
- Perspectives for the future
To understand the present and future of revolutionary politics requires a historical analysis of the previous half century. A historical survey of the left is a complex project, recognising the uneven development of struggles in different continents, the contradictory tendencies, the achievements and limitations, the short- and long-term legacies, the relationship between economics and politics (the impact of growth or crisis on revolution), in a word, a nuanced analysis that defies intellectual fiats which pretend to define "world processes" via economist and ethno-centric views. Intellectuals, including academics, are sharply divided across generations between those who have in many ways embraced, however critically, "neo-liberalism" or have prostrated themselves before "the most successful ideology in world history" and its "coherent and systematic vision" and those who have been actively writing, struggling and building alternatives, both socialist and others.1
The role of intellectuals in the process of social transformation is complex and significant, but never decisive. They have more often reflected shifts in power between classes than defined "independent" and "realistic"' positions as they sometimes, in a self-deceptive fashion, claim. Historically, the great mass of intellectuals have, at best, sided with democratic and nationalist movements against colonial, dictatorial or fascist regimes. Their support for social revolutionary movements and events has been transitory, contradictory and limited. The bulk of the Russian intelligentsia was opposed to the Russian October Revolution, as were the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban intelligentsias as these revolutions turned toward egalitarian policies and confronted us imperialist attacks.
During periods of counter-revolutionary ascendancy, following temporary or historic defeats, many of the former radical intellectuals revert to their class origins, pursuing private advance, discovering the virtues of right-wing ideologies (spiritualism in Russia, 1906-10) and converting their sense of private despair and isolation into a doctrine of the invincibility and irreversibility of the dominant right. Concomitant with their prostration before the power, realism and eloquence of the right is their denigration of the left, its defeats, mistakes, failures, delusions, self-deceptions.2 From this repentant posture emerges what C. Wright Mills called a crackpot realism, which is a kind of theorising that reifies a particular one-dimensional configuration of contemporary power as the reality and the historical defeat of the left as the starting point for new political thinking.3
This kind of pseudo-theorising lacks any historical depth. Through the lens of lost youthful enthusiasm and middle-age intellectual impotence emerges a contemporary view of a barren left-wing horizon devoid of any redeeming features, except the brave light emanating from the intellectual cronies of historical defeatism. This essay's purpose is to argue that the leftist past is much more complex and contradictory than the picture of 1950s conformity, 1960s-1970s revolutionary upsurge and 1980-2000 defeat and dissolution.4 The cultural and ideological forces in play in these periods had counterpoints and reflected contradictory political realities, which, in turn, played a role in defining the future direction of the left. A critical re-evaluation of the past and its relation to the left today sets the stage for a systematic understanding of the ascendancy and contradictions of Euro-us imperialism, its limitations and the radical and revolutionary challenges confronting it, both externally and internally.
An analysis of the contemporary context requires a principled analysis of the objective and subjective realities, one which resists the temptation to magnify the current configuration of power and minimise the left in a kind of self-flagellation to expiate the excessive exuberance of the past. This is important in pre-empting any pretense for moving further right or toward a kind of apolitical or arcane self-indulgent intellectualism.5
The uneven development of left politics between North and South was never sharper than in the 1950s: in Africa, Asia and Latin America, major leftist eruptions took place. In Algeria, Indochina, Cuba, Korea (among others) world-historical struggles took place involving millions of revolutionary fighters, confronting Euro-us imperialism and its neocolonial clients. In the us and England, this was a period of relative "quiescence". But it is a monstrous distortion to refer to the 1950s as a period of "conformity".6 Even in Europein Italy, France, Greece (despite the defeat in the civil war) and Yugoslaviapowerful mass Communist parties engaged in class politics (except in regard to the anti-colonial struggle). Even in Eastern Europe, contradictory workers' revolts occurred in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and a critical underground cinema burst on the scene. Only blind Euro-centrism would understate the importance of the 1950s struggle to highlight the 1960s resurgence of the left in the us and England. The interconnectedness of these struggles (the extra-parliamentary action against the Algerian war in the early 1960s) created the atmosphere for the uprisings in the late 1960s, as the early victories of the Vietnamese in the 1950s set the stage for the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the us.
Historical materialism describes the interconnection of political processes across time and place; it has nothing to do with anecdotal accounts that pick and choose "facts" to fit a conservative mood. The theoretical point is that the uneven development of left politics defies political fiats reflecting particular conjunctures in specific regions. Methodologically, the development of mass struggles without theoreticians (at least without Anglo-us name recognition) does not lessen their significance as history-defining movements, as Sartre and Sweezy later recognised during their visits to Cuba in the early 1960s.7
From the Marxist perspective, the fact that revolutionary struggles emerged in countries where the general level of the forces of production was low, but the level of exploitative social relations was high, strengthened theoretical perspectives which looked at human agency as central, discrediting the mechanistic "forces of production" argument used by the European social democrats and Communists to justify their active or passive pro-colonialist policies (later theorised by Bill Warren in NLR/Verso and, much later, not surprisingly reaffirmed by Perry Anderson).8
If the 1950s were not a period of worldwide conformity, neither were the 1960s, in all of their manifestations, an age of uniform revolutionary upheaval. Though there was clearly an upsurge of mass struggles in North America, Europe and regions of the Third World, during the 1960s important reversals took place in important countries, and there were severe contradictions and conflicting tendencies within the mass movements. Theoretically, the results were a positive re-evaluation and creative development of Marxist thought and its extension into new areas of intellectual work and new problem areas.
The robust activity of rural workers and peasant-based guerrilla and social movements in Indochina, Cuba and other countries led a few Marxists to re-evaluate the role of the peasantry and rural struggle in their theories of revolution.9 Likewise, the bloody Euro-us imperial interventions in Cuba, Indochina, the Congo and elsewhere forced some Western Marxists to put imperialism back into their analysis. New non-Western theorists-activists like Fanon, Cabral and Guevara were read, and they influenced Euro-us militants and a not insignificant group of Western intellectuals.
The negative side of this "intellectual exchange" was the influence that some Western Marxists had on the struggles North and South. Regis Debray's book, Revolution in the Revolution, with its ill-informed, distorted theorisation of the Cuban Revolution and his militarist-elitist prescriptions, took a heavy toll on the revolutionary left in Latin America.10 His later deluded and aborted attempt to join Che Guevara's guerrilla movement led to his capture, interrogation and informing on the location of the guerrillas and their subsequent decimation. Debray eventually was freed and later became an adviser to the neo-liberal Mitterrand regime, an apologist for France's nuclear bomb and a self-proclaimed French chauvinist. This did not prevent him from remaining a highly respected intellectual in some sectors of the Anglo-us left, on the basis of some banal ruminations on the mass media and a rather arrogant interview with sub-commander Marcos of the Zapatistas.11
If Debray was emblematic of the negative influences of the European left on the Third World, Althusser and his followers elaborated a theoretical artifice devoid of any operational meaning, a set of abstract propositions of elegant deductive logic irrelevant to any practical struggles or empirical reality.12 E.P. Thompson, Poulantzas and Miliband engaged in theoretical debates which contributed to broadening understanding of the "political" and "cultural" spheres, while ignoring the problem of imperialism, particularly the imperial state. Thompson, in a fit of ethnocentric amnesia, denigrated the significance of the imperial-Third World struggles as the greatest source of threats of nuclear war. For Thompson, the threat of nuclear war resided in the Cold War between nato and the ussr.13 He maintained his Eurocentric views despite published accounts which revealed that the greatest threats of nuclear war occurred during the us blockade of Cuba in 1962, Indochina in 1954, during the early stages of the Korean War and in Vietnam during the late 1960s. When I published an essay for Spokesman (edited by Ken Coates) critiquing Thompson's thesis, he chose not to reply.14 Reading the Miliband-Poulantzas debates on the capitalist state, one would never know that the major ideological/economic resources and institutions of the us capitalist state were engaged in a major imperialist war. The 1960s witnessed a great deal of intellectual creativity, with significant political and intellectual limitations.
The massive anti-war movements and urban black insurrections and civil rights movements in the us, and more significantly in France and Italy, the student-worker uprising, raised fundamental political questions, and in the latter countries, issues of state power. The resurgence of the left put closure to the "end of ideology" ideologues like Daniel Bell, the pessimistic assessments of radical "power elite" theorists like C. Wright Mills and the proponents of the "American Century" like Time's Henry Luce. Likewise, the resurgent left marginalised and discredited social democratic ideologues who had thrown in their lot with Western imperialism in the name of "democratic values".15 Curiously enough, many of these discredited ideas, like the unprecedented and total dominance of the us, the absence of opposition and the demise of leftist ideology, were recently recycled in Perry Anderson's ironically titled article, "Renewals".
A new generation of Marxist and New Left writers and activists emerged, who linked up with the best of the older generation of intellectual activists: Lelio Basso, Ernest Mandel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Charles Bettleheim, Hal Draper, Paul Sweezy and E.P. Thompson, to name a few. The 1960s left was multifaceted, even as publicists and later historians saw and described a single dimension: what was dubbed the "New Left", the ephemeral rock celebrities and the dope-snorting, apolitical mystics and poets.16 In reality, the political and cultural sphere of 1960s left was a rich mosaic of contradictory and conflicting movements. In the us, for example, a major anti-war mobilisation committee was strongly influenced by Trotskyists, particularly in New York City; the anti-racist campaigns in the San Francisco Bay area were influenced by the Communist youth group, the W.E.B. DuBois Club. The subsequent attempt to equate the 1960s left with the "New Left" and the latter with the Students for a Democratic Society (sds) was largely a self-serving exercise by former sdsers turned academic historians claiming insider knowledge over a movement that deliberately marginalised itself from the major anti-war movements, was rejected as an equal ally by the most militant sectors of the "Black Power" movement and was an insignificant factor in the Berkeley student movement.17
Within the intellectual left, several distinct styles were present: one tendency was actively engaged in linking the big issues of the property regime to the struggles and was directly involved. Another tendency included the high priests of abstract theory ("structuralists"), who set the stage for the "post-structuralists", who spun theories and spawned endless and inconsequential debates on how many modes of production could be "articulated" in a social formation. A third tendency involved anti-intellectual "populist" intellectuals who embraced and theorised the apolitical protesters and their rock entrepreneurs as the most significant "new medium for politics". Finally, there were the marginalised, professional anti-Communist social democrats, who published screeds in the pro-imperial media bemoaning the student left's illusions about "Stalinism"namely, the left's support for the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The programmatic left, which combined its intellectual work with practical activity, engaged in a difficult two-front struggle: on the one hand against the anti-intellectual celebrants of "revolutionary rock music" and on the other against the abstruse and disengaged intellectual "apparatus" of the armchair "structuralist" theorists. The so-called counter-culture movement was in a very deliberate way a backward and inverted individualism, which later easily lent itself (and many of its practitioners) to being coopted by the ideologues of "market populism": dope-snorting stockbrokers, long-haired it hucksters and hip slogan writers for public relations firms.
In the us the de facto laissez faire drug policy of the federal government led to a massive inflow and consumption of drugs in the ghettos and among the activist left, driving many out of politics. Opium became the opium of the left. William Burroughs and Ralph Ginsberg and their acolytes promoted a philosophy closer to the mystical reactionary ideas of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx. What passed for a "radical critique" of capitalism was a passing reflection on a lifestyle which embraced ego-centred "individualism" and led directly into the self-styled "entrepreneurial right" of the 1990s.18
The rock, sex and drugs left made deep inroads into the political movement; its raucous sounds and evangelical fervour drew huge crowds. But the nature of crowds is easy come and early go. Most counter-cultural academic writing was nothing more than populist pandering to adolescent hormones and middle-aged retarded adolescents. What is significant is how quickly and decisively the rockers joined the capitalist class in outlook, income, stock holdings and lifestyle. Mick Jagger Incorporated, with his $250 million assets, still shakes his skinny arse before the crowds singing "Street-Fighting Man", while hobnobbing with investment brokers in the suites. Jerry Garcia, the hip lead of the Grateful Dead, was a police informer for many years, turning on and turning in his friends and followers. The Beatles, the more sedate, Liverpool proles, clip coupons, in casual clothes, a role model for the new hip it millionaires.
Rock music, the musicians and the counter-culturalists did not create the political movement; they lived off it and later abandoned the occasional benefit concerts for the left when the struggle ebbed, retaining their "populist" costumes and rhetoric while touring for the top dollar. The "evangelical" style of the rock culture profoundly depoliticised an emerging left-youth constituency, undermined programmatic politics in the name of radical "lifestyles" and physically and mentally destroyed many young people with its drug excesses and pseudo-anti-work ethos.
There are links between some variants of intellectual and cultural life in the 1960s and 1970s and the right turn in the 1990s: the substantive differences in political activity in the two periods, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world,are bridged by the pseudo-radical individualist cultural practices and values in both periods.
In England the 1990s inheritance from the rock culture of the 1960s was a millionaire knighted "street fighter". In the us it was Jerry Rubin, the promoter of drugs and left politics in the 1960s, who led the mass conversion of yippies to yuppies. The counter-cultural "rebellion" of the 1960s carried the seeds of the mass commercial youth consumer marketeering of the 1990s.
The significant political-cultural breakthroughs in the 1960s and early 1970s were found in the politicisation of military conscripts and the spread of anti-militarist ideology in the armed forces and in the general public, leading to the virtual paralysis of the army, which contributed to the ending of the Indochina war. This political-cultural transformation led to the end of conscription and the biggest reduction of military budgets in the Cold War period. Equally, it contributed to the long-term weakening of the use of us ground troops in overseas combat. In the sphere of music, anti-war folk singers like Baez and Phil Ochs were important influences. Malcolm X, Che Guevara and hundreds of activist-intellectuals made major contributions in shaping the anti-militarist culture.
Powerful social movements emerged among women, racial minorities and environmentalists that broadened and deepened radical thought and practice. Within these movements, important divisions emerged between liberals pressing for a limited accommodation to capitalist power and those who challenged the property regime. These divisions continued throughout the latter half of the 20th century, with one wing adopting a pseudo-radical post-modernist position emphasising "identity" politics, while others hewed closer to a class analysis. Two points need to be emphasised in this regard. The new social movements, even in the 1960s, were politically divided between radicals and liberals. Secondly, the 1990s accommodation to power of some leaders merely reflected their historical origin, not the totality of the movements, nor were they a particular novelty of the 1990s capitalist ascendancy, as Anderson claims.
In cinema, the academic-apolitical political intellectuals looked toward the elite Cahiers du Cinema and the Nouvelle Vague to inform their avant-garde posturing, while the activist intellectuals looked to Cuban film and documentaries, Gillio Portocarrero, Costa Gravis, Litten and films like the Battle of Algiers, Burn, Z, Missing, and the Battle of Chile. These films and film-makers reached out to connect with tens of thousands of activists, catalysing a new aesthetic breakthrough which linked art to politics.
Deep divisions appeared between Western Marxists and anti-imperialist writers. The former denied the significance of the massive revolutionary struggles in Indochina, Latin America and Southern Africa. "Third Worldism" became a common deprecatory label among the wm who focused exclusively on developments in the "advanced capitalist countries" and, more particularly,on their own nuclear campaigns, library research and polemical tiffs. The anti-imperialists contributed to theorising, analysing and debating the contradictions between imperialism and the Third World, the internal class structures and revolutionary perspectives. Some wrote from an abstract "globalist" perspective,19 others from a "class analysis approach". The former virtually wrote off class and political struggles in the imperial countries, mirror images of their Western Marxist adversaries. The latter optimistically envisioned an eventual class linkage across the imperial divide, based on the French revolt of 1968 and Italy of 1969.
What is important to note is that the intellectuals entered en masse on the political scene late, after the mass movements gained energy and national dimensions, and departed from active engagement early. For them, the major breakthrough was the university administrators' forced acceptance of left intellectuals as academics. On the other hand, many left intellectuals turned academics "institutionalised" leftist thought into part of their professional life: they ceased to write from a political perspective. Academic Marxism, with its journals, conferences and debates, helped fill curriculum vitae, facilitated promotions and even led to state-financed research centres and distinguished chairs for the most entrepreneurial. The movements and struggles became "objects" to write about, not to be engaged in. The institutional intellectuals in the West, particularly after the military coups in Latin America, introduced their exiled Third World counterparts to the world of foundation-funded academic leftism, a world in which the "material existence" of accommodation and the norms of success would ensure an evolution toward and assimilation into apolitical literary-political leftism.
The 1960s were a complex period of intellectual political engagement. Academic institutions became "terrain for struggle" and vehicles for social mobility and access to the prestigious journals of the dominant culture.
Even at the height of the 1960s upsurge, ominous developments were occurring: us-supported coups in Indonesia and Brazil murdered millions of activists in the former and undermined the left in the latter, in two of the biggest and most promising countries in the Third World. China's Cultural Revolution, which began as an egalitarian challenge to bureaucratic power, was turned into a plaything of elite factional wars, alienating activists, emptying revolutionary slogans of their content and setting the stage for the ascendancy of capitalist restorationist forces in the late 1970s. Khrushchev's post-Stalin revelations loosened the Stalinist repressive apparatus, while also encouraging the emergence of a new generation of avaricious pro-Western professionals, functionaries and clandestine marketeers.
While "Soviet Marxism" became a state ideology manipulated by a relatively privileged elite, living standards of the Soviet population rose significantly, with universal employment, free and accessible medical care, low cost housing, free education and month-long vacations in workers' resorts. Significant socioeconomic and political improvements in the Soviet Union, however, went unnoticed by important sectors of the New Left, who continued to rely on outmoded "anti-Stalinist" rhetoric in place of a more nuanced analysis of the contradictory and complex Soviet reality. As one editor of New Left Review told me during the Trotskyist romance with the Vatican-cia funded Solidarity movement in Poland, "Anything is better than Stalinism".20 Thus, the ideological seeds for the Russian catastrophe of the 1990s were sown in the Stalinophobia of the 1960s and 1970s.
There were outstanding intellectuals who spoke and acted against the imperialist pressures and enticements: J-P Sartre's rejection of the Nobel Prize and his collaboration with Bertrand Russell and Lelio Basso in the organisation of the Russell Tribunals on Indochina (and later on Latin America) provided a European platform for the victims and fighters against us genocide.
Any worthwhile attempt to survey and compare the present period with the previous four decades is obligated to go beyond superficial dichotomous simplifications, which overlook the contradictions and counter-currents, the potentialities as well as the limitations in any upsurge or downturn in popular struggles. This is particularly true in looking at cultural and intellectual movements, where one must be careful to separate personal preferences for certain types of film or music from their real political impact and influence. What is intellectually dishonest is to overlook the counter-tendencies of the past, (particularly in the 1960s-1970s) and in the present period in order to paint a black and white picture. This methodology defines struggles and movements by intellectual fiat that the political environment of the 1960s was revolutionary and the 1990s was a period in which the left, Marxism and significant social struggles have no importance and in which us hegemony is supreme and uncontested.21 This is not only a thinly disguised reactionary politics; it is also shoddy social and political analysis, devoid of any historical-theoretical underpinnings. One-dimensional theorising distorted by a pessimistic mood and an ill-informed infatuation with science leads to an anecdotal method more akin to a lawyer's brief, in which selective facts replace careful analysis of the complex and changing realities of the 1990s and the new millennium.
The 1990s cannot be understood simply by issuing a "political manifesto" which proclaims that us hegemony rules supreme, revolutionary struggles no longer exist,22 the ideology of the right is coherent and systematic,23 leftist ideas have been coopted, are fragmentary and irrelevant.24 Nor can we speak of the decade as a coherent whole without taking account of the crises that opened it, the speculative bubble that burst at its end and the unstable volatility in between. Nor can we overlook the sharp and deep opposition to us imperial intervention that preceded the Gulf War and the rising tide of resistance to Euro-us economic domination at the end of the decade. It is the height of wilful myopia to ignore the imperial defeats and the emergence of significant anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and the mass struggles that call into question the whole repertoire of imperial neo-liberal policies, their international financial sponsors and their domestic political underpinnings.
No doubt there have been significant imperial victories, and severe reversals on the left which need to be taken into account. But certainly only an ahistorical and hasty judgment can claim that the decade was a period of unprecedented historical defeats, surpassing anything in prior history.25 From the early 1930s to the early 1940s, the left was totally destroyed in most of Europe (Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, Hungary, Japan, Poland) or reduced to a shell of its past influence (France, Norway) or isolated from the main centres of power (China, Indochina) or coopted into imperialist regimes (Britain, us). Tens of millions of workers, peasants and others were killed; hundreds of millions were ruled by bloody tyrants who allowed not even elemental class organisations. There were theorists then, on both the right and left, who saw the new rising fascist or "bureaucratic" power (Burnham) as "the wave of the future" (Lindbergh), impregnable and all-powerful.26 Some intellectuals turned toward philosophic and literary exercises in the occupied areas (Sartre, Camus). Fascism and imperialism surged from the capitalist economic crisis of the East and West and the passivity of the left. Social democrats in Germany and Austria offered to share power with the Nazis until they were physically driven from office, some jailed, others exiled, a few remaining in Germany unmolested.
Nothing similar has occurred during the 1990s, despite the bloody repression and imperial bombings in Iraq (one million dead), Yugoslavia (thousands) and elsewhere. If anything, us violent reaction was more severe in the 1960s-1970s and 1980s. During the 1965-76 decade four million were killed in Indochina, 50,000 in the Southern Cone of South America. During the 1979-89 decade, the us, with its death squads and client terrorist regimes, killed close to 300,000 workers, peasants and others in Central America alone, not to speak of the millions killed in its proxy wars in Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cambodia. Any serious discussion of us "hegemony" in the 1990s cannot avoid the bloody class and imperial wars that preceded the decade, nor can it evade examining the highly exploitative class relations and servile regimes which emerged to serve the imperial power.27
us "hegemony", a rather vacuous concept that inflates the role of "political persuasion", is totally inappropriate when one considers the scope and depth of violence in the recent past and its continuous use on a selective but demonstrable basis in the present.28 The theoretical point is that imperial power has been cyclical, based on political and social relations and state violence and never "totally dominant" (even in so-called totalitarian regimes), and was certainly more destructive and dominant in other decades of the last century. From this historical perspective, we can dismiss some of the declamatory remarks emanating from Western Marxists, prostrate before the us empire.29
It is not only historical arguments that militate against the prostrators. There is a growing body of evidence that sharply challenges the thesis of unchallenged us imperial powerin the socio-political, diplomatic and economic spheres.
Throughout the 1990s, and in most regions of the world, significant anti-imperialist, socialist and populist leftist movements have challenged the rule of imperial clients, the international financial institutions of imperial power and, more specifically, the neo-liberal policy agenda. Mass demonstrations of trade unionists, community organisations, environmentalists, peasant and farmer organisations, students, feminists and many others against the imperial ruling classes were evident in Seattle, Washington, Melbourne, Prague, Nice and many other Western cities. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India organised to defeat the intrusion of us and European biotech, chemical and agribusiness, multinational corporations attempting to appropriate local varieties and impose monopoly seed control (hardly "archaic movements", as some Western Marxists would have it). In every continent farmers and peasants, consumer groups and trade unionists (despite their leadership) have battled multinationals, blocked highways, taken over parliaments and provided a deeper understanding of the role of the imf-World Bank than ever before in history. The scope, depth and consistency of these movements vary by region and historical moment, but all share a common opposition to imperial domination. In some regions significant advances, political and economic victories, have occurred, leading to an accumulation of forces and a radicalisation of the struggle. In others, waves of massive social action are followed by an ebbing and regroupment of forces.
These revolutionary and radical movements are different from the earlier period and have to be examined in the new context. Some of the 1990s movements draw from the earlier Marxist programs; others have introduced a more extensive and profound integration of a multiplicity of struggles into the vortex of anti-capitalist or at least anti-big business movements. In addition to the growing consumer movements (the opposition to gm food, mad cow disease and other corporate-induced "innovations"), a new wave of environmentalist-social justice advocates and feminists have emerged who question the property regime. Anderson's attempt to amalgamate the "greens" with the German Green Party bosses and feminists with pro-Clinton feminists is shoddy scholarship and unethical political polemics.30 New international networks and organised international struggles surpass efforts of a similar kind in the 1960s.
It is methodologically false to enumerate the demise of 1960s left institutions and activities and equate that with the absence of a left in the 1990s. It is like counting oranges and forgetting the apples. Only someone completely divorced from the realities of the 1990s or in a 1960s time warp could perform such an act of unblinking incomprehension.
While the "Soviet bloc" disappeared, it was not even then part of a "Marxist culture" in its practiceinternally or externally. Its theories had ceased to exercise much influence, not only in Western Europe and North America, but throughout the Third World. The importance of the Soviet bloc was as a counter-balance to us imperial power, an alternative market, source of trade, investment, loans and armsstrategically important in sustaining non-aligned countries, and some revolutionary regimes, even as it imposed blinders and in some cases destructive policies on those parties that followed it. In the 1990s, there is no claim to a revolutionary centre or false oracles of revolutionary verities.
There are, however, powerful revolutionary guerrilla armies in the National Liberation Army (eln) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (farc) challenging for state power, recognised by Washington as a major challenger of us imperial power, even as some leftist intellectuals, more papist than the pope, preach undisputed us hegemony. Together, the two guerrilla armies number 20,000 and have many times that number of peasant supporters, plus urban militia units. In comparison to the 1960s guerrilla challenges to us empire, the Colombian guerrillas in the 1990s are far more formidable than anything earlier, in territorial influence, military-political-strategic capacity, leadership and, most importantly, sustainability.31 In size, population, geo-political location and economic resources, the US-Colombian confrontation is much more significant than the Cuban or Nicaraguan revolutions.
The same can be said for the mass revolutionary struggle of the Rural Landless Workers Movement (mst) in Brazil. With more than half a million members and sympathisers, tens of thousands of politically conscious activists12,000 delegates attended its last national Congress in July 2000the mst's banners of agrarian reform, national liberation and socialism have served as a pole of organisation for a great part of the urban movements, dissident left trade unionists, radical Catholics and Marxist intellectuals. No rural movement in the 1960s had the capacity for successful action that the mst demonstrated during the 1990s: occupying thousands of latifundios, settling more than 200,000 families (one million people) and growing despite hundreds of killings of rural activists. No 1960s extra-parliamentary movements were capable of building such broad, strategic and durable alliances with church, university, parliamentary, trade union and human rights groups as the mst has constructed. Few, if any, mass movements in the 1960s invested as much time and effort in political education for activists, cadres and regional and national leaders.
The argument is not that the mst is in a position to challenge for state power in the near future, but that in a large swathe of the biggest country in the Western hemisphere, there is an avowed heterodox Marxist mass social movement successfully challenging us imperial domination and its client Cardoso regime. The peculiarity of the Brazilian situation in the 1990s is shown by the perverse position taken by one of Western Europe's leading Marxist theoreticians, who early on declared that "Cardoso could be Brazil's best president of this century", a judgment made by ignoring Cardoso's alliance with the most retrograde landlord forces in Brazil and the staunch opposition of the mst and a whole continuum of the left.32 Cardoso's craven sell-off of the most lucrative resources to foreign capital at a "political price" makes him the unprecedented entreguista of the century. It is not surprising that those European and us Marxists or ex-Marxists who put their faith in the Cardosos of the Third World, who failed to live up to their expectations, are the same believers in the "unchallenged power of us hegemony".
If Brazil and Colombia are two of the most powerful examples of challenges to us imperial power, there are numerous other significant social movements that are at least worthy of note. In Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay massive peasant Indian-trade union coalitions have organised general strikes that have toppled pro-us regimes, paralysed imf-dictated neo-liberal measures and politically polarised each country.33
To be sure, the prostrators will argue that these struggles are "episodic" (despite their repetitions), not "party based" (extra-parliamentary movements don't count) and lacking in revolutionary "theory" (they do have detailed programmatic agendas, unlike the scholastic exercises on cultural exotica found in the politically irrelevant literary-political circles of certain Euro-us intellectuals). In the final analysis, the prostrators argue that the demands of these mass movements can be "assimilated" to capitalism, and their leaders "coopted" (according to their idealised version of us "hegemony").34 These Western intellectuals babbling about "hegemony" forget the continual mass murders and assassinations of popular leaders, massive repressive apparatuses and death squads organised by us imperialism, which trusts more in the traditional violence of imperial power than in the persuasion associated with us "hegemony". Some Western intellectuals might concede that some sort of challenge to us hegemony occurs in the Third World (though they cringe to use that term anymore) but certainly not in the advanced capitalist countries, they would argue, where all the major decisions are decided. As Debray once told some friends from Bolivia when he was a French functionary, "The Third World is like a drum: loud noises, inconsequential politics". Once again, the prostrators overlook the significant growth of burgeoning social movements in the imperial countries whose scope and depth of opposition to corporate power exceeds comparable movements in the 1960s in impact and partial victories. The obvious events emblematic of this new turn include the mass demonstrations against international capital. With all of their contradictory elements (protectionists versus internationalists), these demonstrations cut deeper into the core elements of capitalism than the vague "out of Vietnam" slogans of the 1960s. Unlike the 1960s, there are significant working relations between trade unionists, farmers and students and intellectuals. Naturally there are sideline intellectuals who do not see the radical potential (and reality) of these struggles because they don't match their preconceived ideals of what a revolutionary movement should be, illustrating once again the total absence of realism and the prostrators' inability to situate themselves in the changing political realities of the 1990s.
This is clearly illustrated by the powerful worldwide opposition to genetically manipulated food of the imperial chemical companies. From India to France and beyond, consumers, farmers, peasants, students and workers have fought genetically modified foods and the states and regimes which promote them, with a virulent and informed passion that has forced a major retreat by Monsanto and other multinational corporations. The populace versus big business polarisation, the anti-imperial content and anti-corporate ideology and the sustaining power of these movements, as they move from one issue to another, give these struggles more than a symbolic, transitory and cooptable character. It is very odd indeed when a leading Western Marxist deprecates this movement and the empirical research informing it and embraces the press handouts of the most reactionary chemical corporations as the real revolutionary force, borrowing the market populist propaganda of the ideologists of the "new economy".35
The ranks of the new radical movements engaged in extra-parliamentary struggles have been expanded by the re-emergence of trade union activists and workers challenging the existing consensus between the new right (ex-social democratic and democratic parties) and the old right. These struggles in France, Germany, Norway and Denmark put a question mark over the neo-liberal agenda of free markets and the hollowing out of the welfare state. These movements are not revolutionary in theory but are certainly starting points for the reconstruction of class-based politics.
Most Marxists understand that reforms are the starting point for all revolutions; the question is how reforms are attained and how they are linked to broader struggles. To the intellectual prostrators, reforms are simply adaptations by capital, which, they argue, has the unlimited power and will to concede reforms, though no significant reforms have been accepted in the last quarter of a century.36
Even in the United States, popular hostility to free market capitalism is evident in every survey over the last decade. A majority favours a national health plan, company-paid pensions, social security, full employment policy and state regulation of utilities. Substantial majorities oppose free trade, sending us troops to fight abroad, existing inequalities, corporate dominance of electoral campaigns and government policy. Significant social movements exist on many of these issues. These anti-neo-liberal attitudes call into question the notion of us ruling-class "hegemony" (the ideas of the ruling class are not the ideas of the popular majority). The real question is not "hegemony" but the absence of representative democracy: the gap between popularly expressed interests (values) and the political class's policies defending ruling-class interests.
Apart from the collective actions and majoritarian attitudes calling into question us free market "hegemony", us imperial dominance has suffered several blows in the diplomatic arena. In a region of the highest strategic significance (the Middle East) and among the oil-producing states, the State Department has suffered several setbacks. Iran and Iraq have broken the US-sponsored boycott and jointly participated in international conferences with Saudi Arabia, the major us oil supplier. In addition, Libya has broken out of the us-orchestrated boycott and has intensified its links with Europe, particularly Italy. Venezuela under Hugo Chavez has revitalised opec and has developed commercial and political links with Washington's bete noir, Cuba. The latter has totally isolated the us at the un, the Ibero-American Summit and even at the oas on the us economic boycott, Helms-Burton and other regional issues.
In the meantime, sharp and escalating commercial rivalries between the eu and the us are emerging, even as deepening interpenetration of each other's multinationals occurs. Likewise, while nato still remains dominant (and, of course, through it us power) the eu countries are making efforts to create their own rapid deployment military forces to protect their imperial interests. While these European initiatives have nothing progressive about them, contrary to the eloquent lucubrations of French literary nationalist Regis Debray, they do reflect challenges to the notion of unassailable us hegemony.
The regions most susceptible to misunderstanding by impressionist Western intellectual prostrators are the former Communist countries, particularly China, Indochina and even Russia and eastern Europe. While, on the surface, China seems to be creeping under Western hegemony (dubious in itself, since most investment comes from the overseas Chinese plutocrats and Japan) and certainly entrance into the wto will greatly accelerate Euro-us takeovers of market shares, firms and local savings, the other side of the picture is the rising tide of mass protests by unemployed, unpaid and exploited factory workers, peasants and day workers. The growing inequalities, the vast network of party-state-private corruption and the conspicuous Asian opulence in the face of increasing immiseration grate on a population still imbued with and cognisant of Communist values of equality, rectitude and the iron potthe full employment and free public health care and education of the Communist era. The blatant surrender of China's sovereignty, markets and strategic industries, the humiliations accompanying gross acts of deliberate military aggression like the bombing of the Chinese embassy and the heightened missile encirclement of China (which Washington has predictably dubbed the missile shield) have aroused nationalist, popular sentiments even among the intellectuals and students, the most notorious pro-Western, pro-capitalist groupings. The structural underpinnings for a new round of civil warfare are all present. Opposition to the neo-liberal agenda is widespread, dispersed, localised and, despite being constantly heavily repressed, growing. Even Western gurus of China's market opening foresee serious social resistance and the possibility of reversion if (as is expected) massive unemployment occurs.
To treat China as simply another counter when adding up the countries under us hegemony is too facile. It means ignoring the deep structural contradictions, the egalitarian thrust in the Cultural Revolution and, even further back in history, the cyclical swings between nationalism/socialism and liberalism since the middle of the 19th century. Moreover, it ignores the fact that below the leadership level and the wealthy private elites, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese who reject the restoration of Western dominance and the return of what Marx called "all the old crap": humiliation, unemployment, chronic diseases, opiates, regional fiefs. Even within the Communist Party apparatus, there is a sector of vacillating neo-statists and nationalists, who could opportunistically seize the chance if the current crop of neo-liberals falters.
In eastern Europe and Russia, the most blatant servants of Euro-us hegemony have been frequently rejected at the ballot box. Walesa's party didn't break double digits in the last presidential election. In Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belarus and elsewhere, the most fanatical neo-liberals were toppled by ex-Communist demagogues who promised socialist measures (full employment, the end of Western impositionsparticularly imf austerity measures) and then implemented liberal policies. While at one level the alternation between liberals and pseudo-nationalists/ex-Communists has confirmed Euro-us hegemony, at the level of mass behaviour the politics of rejection of imperialist dominance and free-market economics are palpable. Ending the welfare state and full employment, and the unprecedented catastrophic decline of living standards, production and health in Russia and the rest of the former ussr have certainly undermined popular belief in the beneficence of us hegemony among the mass of the people.
Any discussion of us hegemony cannot rely on breezy tourist accounts of developments in Cuba.37
To read into the general public the behaviour and outlook of the client elites is an unwarranted assumptionon both methodological and empirical grounds. To assume that electoral processes aggregate the interests of the electorate and in some way reflect and represent majoritarian interests is to overlook the gross concentration of institutional power, especially in the mass media, the flagrant manipulation of campaign financing and the use of force, corruption and poverty to pervert and manipulate voting outcomes and elected officials' behaviour.
The key to understanding the relative strength of us hegemony is to examine its structural foundations as well as the external constraints discussed above. To engage in general projections based on a misreading of structural fundamentals can lead to the kind of monumental nonsense that predicts an Asian century shortly before the Asian crash (Giovanni Arrighi).38 Underlying the claims of unprecedented and absolute us global hegemony are the arguments of the New Economist's ideologues, who describe an unprecedented period of us economic expansion and its economic superiority based on its advanced information technology and greater productivity (read: competitiveness). The convergence of views between the prostrate left intellectuals and the huckster ideologues of market populism is a result of the same method: grandiose generalisations and celebrations of us global power based on the slender reed of a limited conjuncture and highly selective anecdotal data. In fact, the prostrators show an unmerited respect for the spin masters of globaloney and their rhetoric about the third scientific-technological revolution. As one Western Marxist admirer describes it, " commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the Right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another ".39 These right-wing ideologues, we are told, "unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style".
That was written a few weeks before the crash in the nasdaq bubble, which provided a vivid demonstration of the emptiness of the "powerful thesis" of us economic supremacy, the "fluent popular style" notwithstanding.
Every assertion of the old right or the new right (new economy hipsters) about the us economy (taken up by the prostrate left) was at best dubious, and at worst simply hot air devoid of any relation to the real economy (simply a huge Ponzi put-on comparable to the Albanian pyramid schemes of the mid-1990s).
First, the claims of an it revolution fail to explain the below average growth in productivity between 1975 and 1994 in comparison to the previous 20 years, before the so-called "information revolution". Secondly, the increase in productivity between 1995 and 1999 was comparable to the earlier period (1955-74) and was mainly concentrated in the computer field itself, with little industry-wide effect. In other words, computer makers became more efficient at making computers. Thirdly, studies showed that the claims of the gains from interactive exchange of information were mainly bogus: over 60% of the information received or exchanged within firms had little to do with the projects at hand.40
More decisively, the majority of it companies never generated a product or profit, and some never produced any revenue. The rates of bankruptcy skyrocketed throughout 2000 as the speculative bubble burst. The nasdaq fell 40%, and the value of the most important and biggest companies declined precipitously into the new year. The most singular developmentus global superiority in the IT fieldcited by rightist ideologues, in their fluent populist style, as the mainspring of sustained 1990s growth, collapsed. Millions of small investors attracted by the market populist ideologues lost their entire savings, pensions and even their ability to pay health insurance.
But the profound structural weakness of the us was not confined to the speculative it economy. us overseas expansion and exports back to the us exacerbated an unsustainable trade and current accounts deficit. The us economy runs on consumption, accounting for 75% of gnp. The growing trade deficit was covered by the inflow of $400 billion annually. With the economy heading into recession and the dollar weakening, it is highly improbable that foreign investors will continue to sustain the us dollar. Despite record low unemployment at the end of 2000, it was also the period of the greatest growth of low paid workers, living off charity, without any medical coverage (close to 50 million) with skyrocketing educational costs, and with unsustainable household debts. The obscene growth of social inequalities under the Clinton regime (The ceo to worker income ratio increased to 470 to 1) were largely the result of close ties with millionaire labour officials who were more concerned with a tolerant attorney general to avoid prosecution than with a labour secretary supportive of workers' demands. The possibility of reviving the economy through "pump priming" or demand-side stimulation is outside the current political parameters.
The economic crisis has already hit several sectors (autos, it, telecommunications) of the economy and is spreading rapidly to the rest. Unemployment is growing. The "negative savings" and the lost paper economy offer no unused resources that can be mobilised to stimulate consumer spending. In trade, investment, finance and technology, the us economy is moving toward a "converging crisis" that threatens the fragile neo-liberal edifice built around (and for) the us throughout the world. All the Third World countries that bought into the export-led strategies will suffer severely from a deep us recession. The overproduction of consumer goods and transport (mainly cars) is leading to massive lay-offs by Ford, gm and Chrysler-Daimler, which will have a multiplier effect on the suppliers and service sectors.
The military economy could be revved up, but it falls short, given the channelling of the budget surplus into massive tax reductions for big business. The surplus itself is likely to disappear with the recession and a sharp decline in revenue.
What is striking is the lack of any perceptive or coherent understanding by the right of the weaknesses of the economic fundamentals of us imperial power. Neither Huntington, Brzezinski nor Fukuyamaeven less Yergin, Luttwick or Friedmanhad a clue about the impending speculative collapse, busy as they were propagating their delusional belief in the sustainability of the us empire.41 Huntington was off in his own self-concocted world of "clashing civilisations" (Muslim versus Christian), at a time when Washington's staunchest allies were Muslim Turkey and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean, Morocco in North Africa, Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Pakistan in south Asia. Fukuyama, faced with the bankruptcy of his notion of the "end of history", backtracked on his celebration of liberal democracy and free markets, without developing any new theoretical gloss to embellish the power of empire. (It is ironic that Fukuyama has begun to question the solidity of us hegemony when some of his supposedly apposite counterparts on the left attempt to revive it.)
Brzezinski without the Soviet Union spins strategic visions of new challenges and threats without substance, ignoring the internal economic rot a few blocks from his old stomping grounds at Columbia University. It is true that he can still provide a historical-theoretical rationale for covert operations in Chechnya and other ex-Soviet republics to sustain Washington's mafia clients in power. For the rest, Yergin and Friedman (the journalist) have little to say in the face of the collapse of their vision of a high tech us retaining world power. The visions of Main Street millionaires, of adolescent day traders and Wall Streeters sharing the growing wealth have gone down the tubes. As growing millions of us pensioners lose their hmo private medical plans, and other millions of former welfare recipients can't make a go of it on minimum wage jobs, and as the paper incomes of tens of millions of Americans become a bitter memory, the arrogance of Yergen's and Friedman's claims of us superiority over backward Europe (particularly France) for sustaining social welfare, becomes a bad joke.
Left-wing advances and challenges to us world dominance and the collapse of delusions of sustainable us economic supremacy based on the it "revolution" call for an end to prostrate politics on the left.
Today there are numerous activists and critical intellectuals from the 1960s to the 1990s who have been providing direct political critiques and constructions of where the world has been and where it is, as well as elaborating alternatives in a fluent popular style. In the United States and Canada, there are activist intellectuals like Jim O'Connor on the ecological-capitalist crises, Bob Fitch's brilliant demystification of globalisation as globaloney, Maurice Zeitlin on the us class structure, Noam Chomsky and James Petras on us foreign policy, Harry Magdoff on us imperialism, Ellen Meiksin Wood on class analysis, Howard Zinn, Leo Panitch and Mike Parenti on history, politics and the media. Internationally there is the world-class photographer of work, Sebastian Salgado, novelist Jose Saramago, literary-political critic Michael Löwy, and scores of other political intellectuals who provide comprehensive critiques and elaborate alternatives to us imperial domination, while being deeply engaged in popular struggles. The left in the 1990s possesses some of the outstanding political strategists of the half century, including the brilliant military-political leader of farc, Manuel Marulanda, probably the best in this area since the Vietnamese commander Vo Nguyen Giap; the brilliant tactician of the militant French farmers' movement, José Bove; the brilliant theorist of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, Joao Pedro Stedile, the principled us populist and anti-imperialist Ralph Nader (capable of garnering three million votes against all the odds).
Power is a relationship, not a static position in an organisational hierarchy. The us empire is based on an unstable and changing relationship with a vast array of heterogeneous forces. The power of ideas, including the ideas of the imperial ruling class, is embedded in this conflictual class relationship. While it is true that the (contested) ascendancy of imperial power includes control over the mass media to project their ideas (and seducing sectors of the ex-left intelligentsia with the persuasion of power), the neo-liberal dogma has been under constant attack from all sides. This is so to such a degree that the ruling classes have sought to disguise their rule by coopting the language of the leftwhat some pundits describe as "market populism."42
Into the next decade, the left has to continue developing a systematic and specific focus, and avoid the romantic pessimism that engages in sweeping and diffuse generalisations devoid of substance. The left intelligentsia must identify the class agents of the victories and defeats of neo-liberalism, the class relations and state violence behind the veil of persuasion that sustain Euro-us imperialism. Above all, they must analyse the new intensifying contradictions and emerging crises in the us and the ongoing crises in Asia, Latin America and the former Communist countries and how these will impact on the eu.
The left must reject the flaunting of novelty as an excuse for adapting to the neo-liberal ascendancy. The third way doctrine has its roots in more reformist and failed versions earlier in the 20th century. Neither Bernstein nor later Kautsky understood the relationship between capitalism and imperialism and imperialist wars, nor the immanent tendencies to crisis, class polarisation and fascist power. The current version of the third way has none of the apparent reformist platitudes of the earlier version and all of their reactionary vices: extending the neo-liberal agenda while undermining living standards and deepening inequalities. Few illusions exist today about the reactionary nature of Blair, Clinton et al's third way. It is hardly mentioned today as the stock markets dive and budget surpluses shrink.
Likewise, the right-wing course of European social democracy is readily understandable to any intellectual except those suffering from chronic amnesia or who seek to bolster their thesis that there are no alternatives.43 One needn't go back to the overtures that the leading German Social Democrats (Scheideman, Noske, etc.) made to the Kaiser's general staff in 1918. Closer in time was the role of the British, French and Belgian social democrats in violently defending colonial empires in Algeria, Kenya, Cyprus, Indochina, the Congo and elsewhere. Their servile collaboration with the us in building nato, their unswerving Atlanticist postures, provoked strong criticism even from the traditional right. To argue that the adoption by the social democrats of the us model is a "world historic" novelty is to overlook the historical legacy of social democracy, its pronounced and advanced toadyism, particularly in British Labour.
The whole edifice of the welfare state had less to do with programmatic Social Democracy than with the challenges from the Communist bloc, trade union militancy following the end of World War ii and the presence of Communist parties and the extra-parliamentary movements pressuring from the left. With the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, the diminution of the extra-parliamentary left and the transformation of the trade union leaders into state clients, European social democratic leaders, with a few notable exceptions, are able to compete with the right for the allegiance of the financial and industrial moguls. Jospin of France is a partial exception. Elected in the aftermath of a general strike by public employees, pressured by strong extra-parliamentary movements and the parliamentary Communist Party, he conceded the 35-hour work week in principle, combining it with aggressive privatisation, liberalisation and "flexible" labour legislation.
If the most significant fact of the 1980s was the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the Communist regimes, the most salient fact of the 1990s was the catastrophic socioeconomic conditions, unprecedented levels of pillage and corruption and the repressive institutions that resulted from the transition to capitalism in Russia and the former countries of the Soviet Union. Russia alone is "missing" ten million people who would otherwise inhabit the country, according to demographic projections of 1987. Millions have died prematurely because of disease, stress, suicide and alcoholism resulting from job loss, poverty and the demise of the public health system. While tactically the pro-capitalist Putin regime remains firmly in control, the total failure of the capitalist transition under us "hegemony" has certainly brought into sharp contrast the positive features of the previous planned, collectivist economy.
Western pillage of the economies of the ex-Communist countries, the massive trade in sex slavery and immigrants, the reign of a billionaire parasitic oligarchy that washes its illicit riches in Europe, the us and Israel, have certainly given substance to the notions of Western imperialism and capitalist rapaciousness. More convincing than a tonne of Communist era tracts, the experience of the people of the ex-ussr with real existing Euro-us imperialism has undone years of disbelief in Soviet bureaucrats' rhetoric and credulous trust in Western propaganda. This world-historic shift in popular beliefs has important strategic importance for the rebuilding of a socialist perspective in the east. Even in eastern Europe, bastion of pro-Western client states, their incorporation and subordination to nato and the eu has provoked opposition, demonstrations and in some cases the revival of Communist influence. In the Czech Republic, Grovel Havel is more a favourite of the London/New York literati than he is in Prague, where the Communist Party is fast becoming the major opposition party. The widespread rejection of liberalism and us imperialism and the growth of programmatic socialism sans Stalinism is a world-historic event. The theoretical point is not to name with certainty a time and place for a new revolutionary upsurge but to locate the direction of history and to reject the facile belief that every left defeat is irreversible and world-historic.
The purpose of this essay is not to engage in an intellectual game of naming left advances against the prostrate intellectuals' laundry list of defeats. Given the superficiality of the latter, it would prove to be an easy and not very significant contribution to clarifying the present in order to advance the struggle in the future. Least of all should we resort to the prostrators' cheap psychobabble to justify their inaction and non-commitment to the ongoing struggles. In facing the future, we must recognise that there are numerous intellectual dead ends. We must recognise the barbarities committed today in the name of Western victories, hegemony, democracy and free markets: the premature death of ten million Russians, twenty million African aids victims denied medicine by Western pharmaceutical corporations backed by their governments, the killing of one million Iraqi children by the Anglo-us war and blockade, the 300 million Latin Americans living in poverty, the tens of thousands of Colombians killed thanks to us military training and aid. One could add to the list, but the point is clear: in the East and South, barbarism is an integral aspect of the us empire.
In discussing what is to be done in the face of imperial barbarism, it is useful to recall the last days of the Roman Empirea time, like ours, of tyrants, plunder, corruption and the brazen flaunting of wealth in the face of misery. The similarities with contemporary barbarism are obvious, and so are many of the responses by those who find the empire or aspects of it repugnant. There are many and varied intellectual responses to imperial barbarism, depending on the social conditions and political predispositions of each. The stoics among us are repulsed by the irrationality of the empire, its military brutality and the pervasive immorality. However, they feel politically impotent and declare that any political response is futile. They turn to small circles of friends or like-minded individuals to guard the flame of rationality. They retain their personal loyalties in the interstices of the system, with a modicum of comfort, distant from the imperial powers and distant from the degraded masses. Their debates about cultural studies and the relationship of post-modernism and Marxism are tolerated and ignored by the elite and are incomprehensible and remote from the masses. In a word, they live by and for themselves.
The cynics do not deny the bloody barbarism, the cultural vulgarity and predatory pillage of the empirebut they amalgamate victims and executioners. The condemn both the victims of empire and the imperial predators as equally avaricious (afflicted with "consumerism"). For the cynics, the social solidarity of the exploited is an ideological subterfuge of the weak in order to seek advantage in order to reverse roles. For the cynics, the difference between exploited and exploiters is only a question of opportunity and circumstances. The cynics point to the failed revolutions, the circulation of elites, the exploited who become exploiters, the victims of genocide who practice genocide to justify getting their sensitive snouts into the trough. More often than not, the cynics are repentant leftists: their occupational specialisation is providing testimonials on the perversions of liberation movements. This is a specialty that provides lucrative honorariums and not infrequently a scholarly chair in a prestigious European or us university.
Another familiar intellectual posture is the leftist (or ex-leftist) who bathes in historical defeats and finds in them a pretext for what they dub a new realist or pragmatic accommodation with the status quo. While overdramatising political losses as profound and irreversible historical defeats, they fail to recognise the new revolutionary struggles emerging in the Third World and in the West, the new social movements opposed to the wto, the militant farmers' and transport workers' movements, the massive producers' and consumer movements rejecting the corporate sponsors of genetically altered foods, seeds etc. Pessimistic pathos becomes an alibi for inaction and disengagement or a one-way ticket to liberal politics since it is perceived as the only show in town. The ideologists of empire are not averse to providing an occasional platform for the pessimists, hoping that their critical posture can attract an audience among young rebels and that their pessimism can demoralise, disorient and disarm them.
Critical intellectuals with a bended knee have achieved a certain notoriety among the educated classes. These intellectuals are horrified by the flaunting of wealth in the midst of poverty. Neo-liberalism evokes indignation. This indignation, however, is accompanied by a whimper when it comes to articulating an alternative. After all the indignant cries, they appeal to the elites to change their ways. The rhetorical flourishes, the exposure of the lies of empire, are replaced by new deceptions: the idea that someone, somewhere in the power structure will transform barbarism into a generous welfare state. This combination of violent indignation and appeal to the bad consciences of imperial power brokers is nothing but a bee in the bonnet of low-level policy makers, an excellent formula for a best-seller. It vents indignation that resonates with the educated classes without asking them to sacrifice anything.
In sharp contrast to these intellectual postures, there is the irreverent intellectual, irreverent toward academic protocols and unimpressed by prestigious titles and prizes. On the other hand, they are respectful of the militants on the front lines of the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. They are steady and productive in their intellectual work, which is in large part motivated by the big questions facing movement struggles. They are self-ironic anti-heroes whose work is respected by the people who are actively working for basic social transformation. They are objectively partisan and partisanly objective. The irreverent intellectuals discuss and listen to the pessimists and other intellectuals, despite their titles and pretense, to see if they have anything worthwhile to say.
For the irreverent and committed intellectual, prestige and recognition come from the activists and movement intellectuals who are involved in popular struggles. They work with those intellectuals and activists. They conduct research looking for original sources of data. They create their own indicators and concepts, for example, to identify the real depths of poverty, exploitation and exclusion. They recognise that there are a few intellectuals in prestigious institutions and award recipients who are clearly committed to popular struggles, and they acknowledge that these exceptions should be noted, while recognising the many others who in climbing the academic ladder succumb to the blandishments of bourgeois certification. The irreverent intellectuals admire a Jean-Paul Sartre, who rejected a Nobel Prize in the midst of the Vietnam War. Most of all, the irreverent intellectuals fight against bourgeois hegemony within the left by integrating their writing and teaching with practice, avoiding divided loyalties.
Euro-us imperialism combines violence and threats of violence against mass movements and regimes which oppose its world order and dissuasion and neutralisation against Western Marxist intellectual grouplets. The latter typically universalise their condition, treating the empire as one big debating society. As Perry Anderson stated, "the force of this (hegemonic) order is not in repression but in dissuasion and neutralization".44 This should be news to the hundreds of dead Palestinians, several thousand dead Yugoslavs, tens of thousands of Colombians and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.45
Objectively, us imperial power is built on very fragile foundations: a bubble economy which is collapsing, a quasi-tributary economy dependent on large external flows of speculative capital to compensate for unsustainable merchandise trade deficits, a consumer-fuelled domestic economy in which households are already over-indebted and with negative savings, an empire without public backing for overseas ground wars, and a Ponzi-like "new economy" which is based on firms with no products, no profits and often no revenues. Equally important, the class polarisation between the billionaire owners of the means of finance, production and speculation and the great majority of the population has widened; the ratio of income between ceos and workers has widened from 80/1 to 470/1 in three decades; over 80% of the us public believe their votes do not matter and that big business dominates the political sphere: what some political analysts might call a legitimacy crisis. Social benefits across generations, skill levels and occupations have been savaged. Deregulation has led to unrestrained price gouging of consumers in public utilities.
Present day imperialism has not created a "workers' aristocracy". A proletarianised middle class has been stripped of job security and rewarded with privileged but worthless benefits (stock options in nasdaq are used to paper walls). Old guard leaders of race, gender and ecology movements from the 1960s and 1970s and middle-aged prostrated intellectuals who have jumped on the bandwagon of the third way have been replaced by new leaders who are more militant, anti-corporate and anti-neo-liberal, and by a growing number of extra-parliamentary anti-capitalist activists.
True, there is no consensus on the alternatives, which run the gamut from community-based and -controlled economies to consumer-worker-based socialism, from changes in property regimes to a return of public regulation. It is sheer short-sightedness to argue that sectoral movements do not add up to some idealised collective movement made to order for the coffee-sipping intellectuals of Soho. The emergence of workable coalitions and joint actions, the common forums and dialogues, don't add up to a new version of Lenin's or Keir Hardy's working-class party, but they are a beginning. The growing internationalism (without overseas oracles or revolutionary centres), evidenced in the North-South joint actions of peasants from the Third World and farmers from Europe, is promising. There are enormous challenges in creating a new revolutionary socialist consciousness, generalising it to reach the millions in motion, organising and providing a new inclusive theory to provide diagnosis and strategic direction. One thing is very clear. Intellectual progress of this burgeoning left will not depend on the intellectual fads and foibles of prostrate intellectuals who throw pebbles from the command posts of left journals which have lost touch with reality. Struggles for reforms in this movement are linked to structural challenges to empire and in some cases to the property regime. Multiple collective agencies of greater or lesser strength have emerged to call into question the new imperial order, in a few instances struggling for state power. While the public relations hucksters mount a propaganda campaign, even borrowing the language of the left, to promote science linked to control and exploitation of genes, the left has counter-attacked by exposing the manipulative and thoughtless nature of corporate genetic engineering. Against the mindless embrace by the corporate hucksters (and a handful of leftists) of the development of the productive forces (or destructive forces), the left has brought to the fore the centrality of the social relations of production as defining the meaning, content and consequences of scientific work and research. In this, the emerging left continues and deepens the intellectual work and practice of the last half century. A lot of work remains to be done, particularly in the field of ideological clarification, but much has already been accomplished in diagnosing the empire, discovering its fault lines and creating the new radical movements.
1. Perry Anderson, one of the most influential left intellectuals in the Anglo-us world, has written the most succinct and polemical essay defining a new direction for his journal New Left Review. In this essay, he defends the thesis of the complete dominance of the us empire (what he dubs "us hegemony") and the utter defeat and disintegration of the left. His thesis, however, is deeply flawed, in method, theory and analysis, leading him to an unwarranted retreat toward a kind of apolitical centrist politics. This essay is written, in part, as a refutation of his arguments, but more importantly to define an alternative theoretical approach. See Perry Anderson, "Renewals", New Left Review, No. 1 (new series) Jan.-Feb. 2000, pp. 5-24.
2. See Anderson, op. cit., pp. 9, 12, 15, 19, 24.
3. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York, Oxford University Press, 1956.
4. See Anderson, pp. 6-11. While Anderson's essay is largely concerned with defining a new direction for his journal, in the course of doing so he attempts to provide a historical-political context for its form and content over the last four decades.
5. Anderson's attack on theoretical or cultural writing that is committed to class struggle politics and his defence of arcane and "art for art's sake" reactionary posturing comes out in the following: "Attempts to conscript [sic] any theoretical or cultural field for instrumental purposes [sic] will always be futile or counter-productive nlr will publish articles regardless of their immediate relationship, or lack of it, to familiar [sic] radical agendas." Anderson's use of pejorative terms to caricature activist intellectuals and distort the issues in debate is a constant throughout the essay and suggests that what the essay lacks in substance it makes up in polemical zeal. See Anderson, p. 23.
6. Anderson's attachment of the conformity label to the 1950s is found on page 7, op. cit.
7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre on Cuba, New York, Ballantine, 1961; Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution, New York, Monthly Review, 1960.
8. Bill Warren, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, London, nlr, 1990. Anderson, in one of his less than lucid forays into the world of science to bolster his passive ideological posture, writes "no collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms [sic], when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itselfthe forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive. But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism [sic] of capitalism itself." Quoting these theoretical ruminations is worthwhile in highlighting Anderson's retreat toward the kind of sloganeering General Electric made popular in the 1950s ("science is our principle product") and his uninformed use of science metaphors to cover up the shortcomings of his attempt to devise a theory of social change.
9. Eric Wolfe, Peasant Wars in the Twentieth Century, New York, Harper and Row, 1969.
10. Regis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution, New York, Monthly Review. 1967. For a critical reading, see Regis Debray and the Latin American Revolution, New York, Monthly Review, 1968.
11. See Anderson, p. 18. Throughout the essay, Anderson has a tendency to ignore writers outside his narrow circle of collaborators who have greater competence and depth. For example, in the field of media studies, Schiller, Parenti, Chomsky and Herman have produced far more significant work in the mass media than Debray, yet only the latter is cited.
12. Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, London, nlr, 1970.
13. E. P. Thompson, The Nation, February 26 and April 16, 1983.
14. James Petras and Morris Morley, "The Errors of Edward Thompson", End Papers No. 6, Winter 1983-84, pp. 105-107.
15. Among the most virulent critics of the renewal of the left in the 1960s, and opponent of the Indochinese revolution, was us writer Irving Howe and his quarterly Dissent.
16. On the revolutionary significance of rock, Anderson writes, "The two dominant markers of the period [1960s] was the emergence of rock music as a pervasive sound wave [sic] of youth revolt a popular form laying claim to both aesthetic breakthrough and social upsurge" (p. 7). From pop rock in the 1960s to pop science in the 1990s, Anderson follows a well-worn path of the counter-cultural gurus of the earlier period to market populists of the 1990s.
17. Todd Gitlin, Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, New York, Bantam Books, 1987.
18. See Thomas Frank, One Market Under God, New York, Doubleday, 2000. Particularly relevant is chapter 7, "The Brand and the Intellectuals", pp. 252-276.
19. The writers in this genre include Samir Amin, Gunder Frank, and Wallerstein.
20. Bob Brenner, on the editorial board of New Left Review, in a private conversation.
21. Perry Anderson, in his usual hyperbolic style, writes, "American capitalism has resoundingly reasserted its primacy in all fieldseconomic, political, military, culturalwith an unprecedented eight year boom there is little doubt that the underlying competitive position of US business has been critically strengthened." p. 10.
22. Anderson repeatedly affirms his categorical denials of significant left opposition,as if to assure himself of their veracity. He asks and answers his own question, "What is the principle aspect of the past decade? Put briefly, it can be defined as the virtually uncontested consolidation and universal diffusion of neo-liberalism." (p. 10). A few pages later, he repeats, "In general what is strong is not democratic aspiration from below but the asphyxiation of public debate and political difference by capital from above". (p. 16). On the following page he makes even more exuberant claims in a fit akin to manic defeatism: "For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositionsthat is systematic rival outlookswithin the thought-world of the West: and scarcely any on a world scale". (p. 17).
23. Anderson's attraction to rightist ideologues and their writing is evident in several of his sweeping generalisations. "By contrast [to the left] commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the Right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after anotherFukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style. This confident genre finds no equivalent on the left." (p. 19). Carried away by his fervour for hard right ideologues, Anderson later finds: "The most devastating criticism of the expansion of nato and the war in the Balkans often came from the Right. The [nlr] review should welcome interventions like these." (p. 24). I doubt if Le Pen, Haidar, and Buchanan have time or interest in writing for nlr. In any case, Anderson is clearly not referring to the respectable right when he refers to their "devastating criticism", since the earlier mentioned writers all support nato expansion.
24. Anderson, in the antiseptic language of academia, writes about the left: " most of the tension between deviant [sic] or insurgent impulses [sic] from below and the established order has been absorbed as the market has appropriated and institutionalized youth culture in much the same way it earlier encapsulated avant-garde practices: but much more thoroughly". (p.20). Anderson's uninformed excursions into psycho-babble ("deviant or insurgent impulses"), his preposterous amalgamation of major trade union, peasant and student movements with "youth culture" to argue for general cooption, bespeaks a sad decline in his analytical abilities.
25. Anderson provides a litany of defeats for the left which, strangely, includes the economic stagnation of Japanese capitalism (pp. 10-12).
26. James Burnham, Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, New York, John Day, 1941. Charles Lindbergh described fascism as "the wave of the future" in the 1930s.
27. Anderson grossly understates the role of violence in sustaining what he dubs "us hegemony":"The force of this [us] order lies not in repression but dilution and neutralization; and so far it has handled its newer challenges with equanimity". (p. 16). One is struck again by Anderson's attempt to give profundity to banality by adopting pseudo-scientific terminology.
28. Anderson's abuse of the term "hegemony" to cover all instances of imperial rule (he forgets to use the I-word once) is an egregious fault given the pervasiveness of overt and covert violence that characterises the past decade of us world supremacy.
29. Prostrators are not necessarily supporters of us imperialist power. They include writers with an inability to recognise any reality other than imperial power; they are imbued with a sense of awe and impressionability before the scribes and publicists of this power and harbour a deep-seated hostility to "unbelievers" who are engaged in struggle against the empire.
30. A typical case of Anderson's polemical excesses in analysing the deeply divided green and feminist movements is found in the following: "The performance of feminists in the United States and the Greens in Germanywhere each movement is strongestin the service of Clinton's regimen in the White House and nato's war in the Balkans speaks for itself". p. 16.
31. For a more detailed account of the new revolutionary tendencies in Latin America, see my The Left Strikes Back: Class Conflict in the Age of Neoliberalism, Boulder, Westview, 1999, pp. 11-57.
32. Anderson's ill-advised prophecy presumably is based on his acquaintance with Cardoso 25 years earlier, or related to his belief in the superior intellectual capacity of right-wing ideologues.
33. On January 19-21, 2000, a general strike and broad coalition of Indians, peasants and middle level military officials in Ecuador actually seized parliament and established a popular regime of short duration. Similar displays of mass power which challenge us client regimes occurred in Bolivia, resulting in dozens of deaths and the reversal of neo-liberal policies. Likewise in Paraguay, student-peasant-trade union alliances have blocked the return of dictatorial rule. To say that this has no importance, that it doesn't measure up to a "real opposition", is to engage in real or unintended apologetics. Realism's first rule is to recognise power even if it comes from below and the Third World.
34. See Anderson's litany of the pitfalls of the activist left today, pp.13-14. What Anderson lacks in perception of the burgeoning social-political movements he makes up for with psycho-babble, a version of old-fashioned ad hominem argumentation. Characterising activist left intellectuals as engaging in a kind of politics of "consolation", he writes " there is a natural human tendency to try and find silver linings in what would otherwise seem an overwhelmingly hostile environment. The need to have some message of hope induces a propensity to over-estimate the significance of contrary processes, to invest inappropriate agencies with disinterested potentials, to nourish illusions in imaginary forces. It is also true that no political movement can survive without offering some measure of emotional relief to its adherents, which in periods of defeat will inevitably involve elements of psychological compensation." (p. 13). If we can excuse the excess cynicism and manipulative machinations that Professor Anderson imputes to popular mass leaders, we are obligated to repudiate a posture which substitutes psycho-babble for honest debate and discussion of programs, theories and strategies.
35. Professor Anderson, while cavalierly dismissing millions of protesters in India and thousands in France attacking gm ("no collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon"), joins hands with the publicists of Monsanto: "We are at a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself " (p. 17). Anderson's belief in science divorced from class and state power, which define the tasks and uses of scientific research and discoveries, and his uncritical embrace of genetic engineering, are too bizarre to warrant much comment.
36. Gains and reforms by mass feminist and environmentalist movements in struggle have, according to Professor Anderson, "proven compatible with the routines [sic] of accumulation". p.16.
37. Robin Blackburn, "Cuba on the Block", New Left Review, No. 4, July-August 2000, pp.5-37. There is much of value in this article, but it is very weak on Cuban challenges to us hegemony.
38. Giovanni Arrighi, Long Twentieth Century, London, Verso, 1994. Based on a flawed historical-theoretical approach, Arrighi argued, "But the displacement of an `old' region (North America) by a `new' region (East Asia) as the most dynamic center of the processes of capital accumulation on a world scale is already a reality". p. 322.
39. Anderson, p. 19.
40. Martin Wolf, "Not So New Economy", Financial Times, August 1, 1999, p. 10. Robert Gordon, "Has the New Economy Rendered the Productivity Slowdown Obsolete?", June 1999, http://faculty-web.at.nwu.edu/education/gordon/researchhome.htm.
41. Anderson describes these right-wing ideologues and their polemical publications as follows: "The doctrines of the Right that have theorized capitalism as a systematic order retain their tough minded strength. Those who always believed in the overriding value of free markets and private ownership of the means of production include many figures of intellectual substance." (p. 16). In contrast, left intellectual activists are described as "sterile" maximalists, full of "piety" and euphemisms, who "lend credence to illusions, sustaining conformist myths" and who "confuse the desirable from the feasible" (p. 14). Anthony Giddens beware: Blair may find a new speech writer.
42. Thomas Frank, op. cit. Particularly relevant is chapter 2, "A Great Time of What; Market Populism Explains Itself".
43. Anderson argues: "One might say that by definition tina (There is no alternative) only acquires full force once an alternative (Third Way Social Democratic) regime demonstrates that there are truly no alternative policies" (p. 11). To consider the social democrats an alternative and their right-wing policies a historical novelty is absurd.
44. Anderson, p.16. Robert Brenner puts into question some of Anderson's exuberant enthusiasm for the US economy in "The Boom and the Bubble", New Left Review, No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 2000, pp. 5-44.
45. Any account of the challenges to the us empire and its clients and allies must include the Palestinians' heroic struggle against the Israeli settler-colonial regime. Despite thousands of casualties, assassinations and a murderous blockade inflicted by the Israeli military juggernaut, the intifada continues with virtually no support of any sort from the brilliant circle of Anglo-us writers who publish in Western Marxist literary-political journals.