What place will anti-imperialism have in the socialism of the 2020s? This is one of the big strategic questions the British left needs to grapple with as it slowly recovers and reconfigures itself after the general election defeat of 2019. The question is becoming more pressing for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the Labour party leadership appears to be reverting to its traditional role of broad consensus with the Tories. An explicit Labour foreign policy has yet to emerge, but a clear direction of travel is indicated by aggressive attempts to broadcast a set of recognisably imperialist values. Displays of chauvinistic nationalism and blind loyalty to the security services are designed to show that Labour can be trusted on ‘national security’ – the standard euphemism for British state violence abroad.
These performances are as much for the benefit of the Labour leadership’s peers in the British political class as they are for socially conservative swing voters. At the same time, the obvious political calculation at work should not deceive us into believing that the performance is contrived. Decades of experience proves beyond doubt that Labour’s right wing believes this stuff very sincerely. These are their ideological commitments.
The concern about socially conservative swing voters is widely shared by socialists, though opinions vary on how this challenge should be approached. Some are nervous about the perceived unpopularity of the left’s anti-imperialism undermining its efforts to bring about socialism in the UK. In a recent interview, left academic Jeremy Gilbert argued that while imperialism should be rhetorically opposed, any concrete commitment to break with it was a political dead-end, unachievable outside of a communist revolution.
This sense of a trade-off between solidarity within our borders and solidarity beyond them was expressed elsewhere in 2018 by Paul Mason’s recommendation that Labour adopt “a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay [sic] and Dubai”. It’s a tension as old as the British labour movement itself, long a source of profound frustration among socialists from the Global South.
At this point, it may be worth taking a step back and asking: what do we mean by imperialism today? Plainly the era of formal colonialism is long gone, but it was through those centuries of empire that the modern international system was born, with all its hierarchies of state power and chasms of economic inequality. The key strategic priority of the British state since WW2 has been to preserve as many of its privileges and advantages in the system as possible in the face of imperial decline.
The victories of various anti-colonial movements redrew the map of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. But the sovereignty of the peoples of the Global South continues to be violated by the powers of the Global North. This happens occasionally through direct military intervention, but more routinely through the arming and political backing of client elites and regimes in the South. The violations also occur at an economic level, where investors, transnational corporations, and international financial institutions dominated by states in the North are still able to dictate the terms of economic policy to the states of the South, to a large extent.
It is the systemic nature of these sovereignty violations that make this a case of imperialism, coupled with the fact that this system maintains the relative power and wealth of the North at the South’s direct expense. States like China and Russia often behave in imperialistic ways (see Moscow’s violations in Syria and Ukraine), but it is the US that presides over an imperial system, with the UK and the EU serving as lieutenants.
The role of the British state in this system is far from trivial. The UK is one of a tiny minority of states capable of projecting military power on an intercontinental basis, armed with nuclear weapons, and with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is also one of the world’s most significant arms suppliers, deeply embedded in networks of coercion and violence worldwide.
In economic terms, the UK is one of the world’s largest economies, home to a premier global financial centre and several major transnational corporations. It is a key shareholder in the IMF, wielding influence over the ‘structural adjustment’ programs that have forced open Southern economies to Northern capital in recent decades. In short, it is a leading player in, and beneficiary of, the international systems of economic exploitation that grew out of the colonial era.
This in turn has a direct bearing on our responsibilities as British citizens. In terms of sheer human impact, what the British state does abroad is far more significant than what it does at home. To take the most egregious example, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster today is in Yemen, and has largely been created by Britain’s allies with Britain’s help. Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing and apparent use of starvation as a war tactic could not have been imposed without the ongoing British and American assistance that sustains the Saudi war effort. This Anglo-American-Saudi enterprise has led to 85,000 infant children dying of hunger or preventable disease, to give just one measure of a much wider catastrophe.
The Yemeni people do not have the option of voting against this policy. Their agency is real, but constrained by – amongst other things – the violence being rained down on them with the active connivance of the British state. Yemenis are, to a large extent, relying on us in the UK to use our relatively privileged position to address this state of affairs. In other words, to be active anti-imperialists.
Gilbert presents something of a false choice between an electoral project that dooms itself by committing to an immediate and total break with imperialism, and one that merely verbalises rote opposition to imperialism’s excesses. A more serious, nuanced approach would aim at dismantling British imperialism through a step-by-step process, as opportunities present themselves or are actively created.
Take Yemen as a concrete example, which ought to be treated as a structural rather than a policy issue. Beyond the demand that the UK stops arming Saudi Arabia, we should also demand that the UK arms industry be transitioned to the production of green technology. This would help us tackle the real security threat of climate change, create a new economy of secure and skilled jobs, and also dismantle a major component part of the structure of British militarism. The catastrophe in Yemen makes this not just urgent and necessary, but also possible. And these broad principles can be applied to other parts of the imperial edifice as part of an ongoing process.
Back in 2014, the Guardian reported anxieties among senior figures at the Ministry of Defence that military interventions abroad were becoming politically unsustainable at home. A key reason was that a growing section of the public with its heritage in the Global South was more likely to oppose military actions against the sorts of places where their own families originally hailed from. Seven years on, these demographic changes are becoming impossible to ignore, both in an increasingly diverse young British left and in younger generations more generally who are palpably bringing a new political consciousness to the fore, particularly on race.
The new socialism that emerges in the UK over the coming years is unlikely to have much patience with suggestions that anti-imperialism or internationalism should be traded-off in some sense for a domestic political agenda. Younger and more diverse generations for whom solidarity is instinctively transnational will play a central role in generating the wider counter-hegemonic narrative and set of values that will convey the left’s concrete policy agenda going forward. These are positive developments that should be harnessed and accelerated, not resisted or frustrated.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.