Western imperialism’s ideological crisis

New York City rally protests 70 years of Nakba

A few weeks ago, the Financial Times published a highly interesting article titled, ”America breaks global rules as it defends the free world”. This piece is exceptional not only because of its contents but also the nature of its publisher. The Financial Times is a leading paper of the Anglo-Saxon monopoly bourgeoisie and the articles’ author, Gideon Rachman, has been its chief foreign affairs columnist for nearly two decades. In short, the arguments outlined are not the intellectual outpourings of a maverick but reflect a serious trend within the Western ruling class.1

Rachman deals with the glaring and growing contradictions between the official ideology justifications and actual foreign policies of Western imperialism:

As an organising principle for western foreign policy, the “rules-based international order” has long suffered from some disastrous flaws… In opposing Russian aggression, Blinken argues that the US is standing up for a world based on rules rather than raw power. That is an attractive idea. But rules are meant to be consistent. And America’s own actions are undermining vital parts of the rules-based order.

The past fortnight has brutally exposed these contradictions. The 100 per cent tariffs that the Biden administration has imposed on Chinese electric vehicles are virtually impossible to reconcile with international rules on trade… America’s response to the prospect that the International Criminal Court will bring war crimes charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was also telling. Rather than supporting the court’s effort to enforce international law, Blinken told the US Congress that the administration would consider imposing sanctions on the ICC.

The author recognises the negative result of such blatantly arrogance of Western imperialism: 

In large parts of the world, America’s claim to be upholding the rules-based international order is treated with derision.

However, he believes there is a solution for Washington and its allies: 

So what can be salvaged from this mess? One answer is for Blinken and co to talk less about the rules-based international order and more about defending the free world. That is a more accurate and comprehensible description of what western foreign policy is actually about. The US, the EU, the UK and other democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Ukraine are currently struggling to contain the territorial and political ambitions of authoritarian countries — above all, China and Russia. A world in which those countries are more powerful will be less safe for free people and countries.

Of course, even Rachman can hardly ignore the inner contradictions of such a concept: 

Unlike the defence of a rules-based order — which implies absolute consistency — the defence of the free world involves accepting some necessary inconsistency. During the cold war, the US and its allies made some tactical alliances with undemocratic regimes, as part of the broader effort to contain and ultimately defeat the Soviet Union. In today’s world, the US is once again making uncomfortable trade-offs as part of a larger struggle with the major authoritarian powers.

The author concedes that while the US accuses Beijing of violating the UN convention on the law of the sea in the South China Sea, Washington itself “has not ratified that particular convention”. He also admits that “America’s refusal to contemplate the idea that Netanyahu may have committed war crimes in Gaza is discreditable.” But as there is a higher goal – the defence of the “free world” — Western Great Powers stand above law and moral: “As in the cold war and the earlier struggles of the 20th century, the world’s democracies do not need to apologise for being ruthless in defence of free societies.” 

Causes of the ideological crisis

It would be foolish to imagine that an ideologist of Western imperialism could present an appropriate analysis of the world or a way forward for humanity, as the purpose of bourgeois ideology is not to understand the reality of capitalist society and its inner contradictions. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in one of their earliest works:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.2

However, in periods of crisis and decline of the political and economic base of capitalism, the ruling ideas also undergo a process of crisis. In the decades after the collapse of Stalinism in 1991, Western imperialism, led by the United States, dominated the world. This was the period in which the world was governed by the so-called “rules-based international order”, the rules of which were made and imposed by Washington and served the interests of Western monopolies and imperialists.

But the crisis of capitalism automatically provoked a crisis of its dominating power and ideology. This process went hand in hand with the rise of new imperialist powers, such as China and Russia.3Washington tried to halt its decline through its “War on Terror” and, more recently, its regime of sanctions against undesirable states. However, these measures were self-defeating as defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the growing strength of imperialist rivals in the East, have ended the US’ absolute hegemony.4

The US’s reckless invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in particular its unlimited support for Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza, have totally discredited the Western ideology of a “rules-based international order”. 

The result is, as Rachman notes, that “in large parts of the world, America’s claim to be upholding the rules-based international order is treated with derision.” Hence, the White House is no longer able to use this concept effectively for its own advantage. As a smart thinker of the Western ruling class, the FT chief analyst recognises that the ruling class in the US and Europe needs an alternative ideology to legitimise its claim to global domination. 

The “free world”: Ideology and reality

Marx and Engels noted that in ruling class ideologies “men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura … as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.“5The Western imperialist ideology of a “free world” is definitely an outstanding example for such a “camera obscura”.

If we take the historical formation of the “freest” countries in the world — those which already had a more or less developed form of bourgeois democracy a long time ago — we see that this was accompanied by brutal plunder of colonies and/or the annihilation of native populations and the appropriation of their land. Britain, France and the Netherlands conquered land and people on all continents and subjugated them to shameless super-exploitation. The US and Australia brutally murdered most of the indigenous population and stole their land. In other words, as Leon Trotsky once noted, “the exploitation of classes was supplemented, and its potency increased by the exploitation of nations.” Today, the regime of colonies has been replaced by semi-colonies. But the system of super-exploitation and political (and sometimes military) interventions remains basically the same.6

This correlation was noted a century ago by Marxist theoreticians of imperialism such as Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky. The former, for example, noted: 

Another thing should not be forgotten … namely, that imperialism is the exploitation of hundreds of millions in the dependent nations by a handful of very rich nations. Hence, the possibility of full democracy inside the richest nation with its continued domination over dependent nations. That was the state of things in ancient Greece on the basis of slavery. That is how things now stand with New Zealand and Britain.7

For Trotsky: 

The bourgeoisie of the mother countries was enabled to secure a privileged position for its own proletariat, especially the upper layers, by paying for it with some of the super-profits garnered in the colonies. Without that any sort of stable democratic regime would be utterly impossible. In its expanded manifestation bourgeois democracy became, and continues to remain, a form of government accessible only to the most aristocratic and the most exploitative nations. Ancient democracy was based on slavery, imperialist democracy – on the spoliation of colonies.8

Israel is a particularly striking example for such “democracy” based on the oppression of other peoples. It is a settler state, which expelled the majority of the native population, has brutally oppressed them since, and regularly wages wars in the Middle East. It is a prime example of the coexistence of bourgeois democracy (for the ruling nationality) and expulsion and genocide for the oppressed people (the Palestinians).9In short, the “liberties” of the “free world” are based on the slavery of the oppressed peoples.

This has been also evident in the past decades. Think about the close relationship the US and Europe have with the absolutist monarchies of the Gulf States because they need their oil and gas. Or the fact that Western states were happy to import large amounts of commodities from China and made huge investments to exploit the cheap labour force there. At that time, human rights violations were no obstacle for close business relations. 

The Stalinist-capitalist dictatorship in Beijing was no problem for the Western hypocrites as long as China did not challenge their global hegemony. The same with Russia, where hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered by the Kremlin in two Chechen Wars (1994-96 and 1999-2009). Now, as China openly challenges Washington, the “free world” is trying to win over Vietnam — ruled by a Stalinist-capitalist dictatorship for decades — as an alternative location for producing cheap commodities.

We can add to this that the “free world” itself is becoming less and less free. We have seen the rise of reactionary forces — from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen — and a shift towards bonapartism by the ruling elite, despite its official advocacy of the ideology of liberalism. Then there are the police-state methods that governments imposed “to fight COVID”10and the systematic discrimination of migrants, in particular those of a Muslim background. And since the beginning of the latest Gaza War, there has been huge repression against the pro-Palestine solidarity movement.11


Let us be clear: behind the smokescreen of bourgeois democracy hides the dictatorship of the ruling class. If bourgeois society is stable, it can allow some forms of democracy in rich countries while it continues to super-exploit poor countries. However, when it enters a period of crisis, the ruling class limits or even abolishes democratic rights, even in the rich countries.

The “free world” is neither free nor a “world”. Rather, it is a minority of the richest, most decadent Western imperialist states that, in addition to exploiting their own working class and oppressing national minorities, parasitically exploit many countries in the Global South.

Faced with growing resistance, it is quite likely that the Western ruling class will in the next period replace their ideology of a “rules-based international order” with the alternative of “defending the free world”. However, this will neither succeed in attracting the popular masses nor reversing the decline of Western imperialism.

Furthermore, as Trotsky noted, “ideology is an important, but not a decisive factor in politics. Its role is that of waiting on politics.“12The policy of Washington and Brussels will be dictated by economic and political interest — not by ideological doctrines elaborated by journalists or university professors. Concepts like the “free world” will rather serve to rally the middle class and confuse the masses.

Engels wrote that the class struggle has to be waged on three levels — “the theoretical, the political and the economic-practical (resistance to the capitalists).“13Indeed, socialists must not ignore the ideological efforts of the capitalist class to legitimise its rule and confuse the masses.

However, a sharp critique of smokescreen ideologies such as that of the “free world” must go hand in hand with clear demarcation of reactionary alternative ideologies, such as those promoted by Eastern imperialisms and right-wing parties (“multipolar world order”, glorification of a totalitarian state, chauvinism against other people, “conservative values”, etc.)14

The task of socialists is to fight for the liberation of the international working class and oppressed peoples. Such a struggle, practically as well as ideologically, must be directed against all Great Powers and monopolies — those of the West (US, Western Europe and Japan) as well as East (China, Russia).

Michael Pröbsting is a socialist activist and writer. He is the editor of the website thecommunists.net where a version of this article first appeared.