VIDEO & TRANSCRIPT
Alan Freeman decided to call his paper, which he presented on April 24, 2022 at the IMG webinar, Anti-Imperialism and the Western Left, a ‘1914 moment’. This is because we can learn from history. And as Santyana says, ‘those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it’. One lesson in particular stands out: the true victors in 1914, that is the Bolsheviks, came out on the side of history because although they entered the war as a tiny group, they understood what was going on – and as a result created the world’s first workers’ republic. The world of 2022 is more complicated…
By Alan Freeman
Published on Academia, Apr 22, 2022
Click here to watch the entire webinar
I decided to call this a ‘1914 moment’. This is because I think we can learn from history. And as Santyana says, ‘those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it’.
One lesson in particular stands out: the true victors in 1914, that is the Bolsheviks, came out on the side of history because though they entered the war as a tiny group, they understood what was going on – and as a result created the world’s first workers’ republic.
The world of 2022 is more complicated: among other things, beside its capitalist countries and socialist movements, it contains socialist countries and fascist movements. Nevertheless, we should study history, not to make superficial analogies, but to study similar events. This means identifying common causes.
Political collapse of the labour movement
The most important similarity is the political collapse of the ‘socialist’ left. In 1914 this was superficially stronger. It had a world organisation, mass trade unions, and huge socialist parties. Yet when war broke out, these parties supported their own capitalists.
Marx’s most basic lesson is that only the working class has the potential to liberate humanity, because its members own nothing but their labour power. This makes it a ‘class in itself’. But to realise this potential, it must become a ‘class for itself’– it must act politically. To do this, it must act on behalf of all who share this condition – not just some of them.
In 1914 the socialists decided it was more important to kill other workers than fight their own capitalists. The working class then ceased to act as a class.
This parallel is exact. The pro-imperialist left think it more important to kill Russian workers than fight Western capitalists. This is quite naked: the enemy is not ‘Putin’ but ‘Russian people’, down to its tennis players, composers, and Ukraine’s Russian speakers, a third of the population, beseiged and bombed for eight years, about which our ‘leftist’ friends say nothing.
Material basis for imperialism
Then as now, this political collapse took place only in the West. The war was the cradle of colonial revolt. It provoked the Easter Rising and consolidated Indian nationalism’s mass base. It launched Kemalism and pan-Arabism, and gave birth to African anti-colonialism. Today the polarization is far more advanced. Not even India or Saudi Arabia have joined the attack on Russia.
This leads to a second basic point: imperialism is economic, not political, in character.
The Imperialist countries in 1914 split the world working class by buying off their own workers. They gave them a far higher standard of living, integrated their leaders into the state, and created professional subclasses dependent on state largesse, forging a popular base that kept them in power.
These bribes come from surplus profit – income squeezed out of five-sixths of the world. This is achieved by a world division of labour which confines the global South to export minerals, agricultural goods, and products of cheap labour, while subjecting it to a Northern high-tech monopoly – blatantly clear in the ban on Huawei, imposed because Socialist China had better tech, whereon all talk of ‘free trade’ went out the window.
US GDP per capita is forty times higher than, say, India. In Marxist terms, the labour of one US worker exchanges for the labour of forty Indian workers. In short, the USA, Europe and Japan are living off the labour of the world working class.
Material roots of racism
This leads to Marx’s second great contribution: Being determines Consciousness. Western ‘socialists’ capitulated, then as now, because of a material relation to the workers of the world; they then think they are well-off because they are superior: cleverer, more civilized, more ‘advanced’. And this gives them the right to tell everyone else what to do.
Actually, they are just robbers. This is uncomfortable to admit, so it is buried, leading to what I call the ‘Columbian’ myth system, which substitutes for rationality: ‘Western Civilization’, the myth goes, came about because we are more ‘advanced’ – we came first. Therefore, the South is ‘backward’ – inferior.
Actually, China shows, the global South could overtake the North in decades but for one thing: the North prevents them. Underdevelopment, Gunder Frank showed, is something done to the global South – not, as the Western intelligentsia supposes, something the South does to itself.
This is geneticised. This Hubristic, Columbian prejudice is rationalised by supposing the rest of the world is racially inferior, a racist vision directly under the surface of the imperialist left’s thinking.
I therefore have profound doubts about ‘patriotic socialism’. The most farsighted US leaders, like Malcolm X, grasped that oppression at home is the result of piracy abroad. The best hope for US workers is common cause with everyone their government starves and bombs. Though a debate needs to be had, I find it hard to call that patriotic.
Origins of Fascism
I now turn to the most important difference between 1914 and now: fascism. The left is even more confused on this than on imperialism, if that is possible – yet fascism is fast emerging as the greatest modern threat to humanity.
Fascism was born in directly out of Soviet victory. The revolutionary wave of 1918 swept away the old order, iincluding the dynastic Empires of Austria-Hungary, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans.
Until 1914 the European bourgeoisie relied on landed classes like the Prussian Junkers to suppress a working class often too small to command a popular majority. After 1918, country after country had to concede suffrage and deal with social demands inspired by the 1917 revolution.
From then on imperialist strategy was to divide the working class. It needed working class movements that would take its side. In times of wealth it called on social democracy – and in times of decay, fascism.
This has been obscured by the post-1945 reconstruction of Social Democracy, but this rested on two conditions. The US warfare state unleashed a new wave of capitalist expansion, at the same time that it was forced to defend its vassals against a new wave of revolutionary change.
It created capitalist buffer states in Germany, Japan and South Korea, and granted the Europeans the temporary luxury of the welfare state.
But this was only sustainable when it could afford these concessions; it can no longer do because of its internal decay, reducing the French socialists to a pathetic two percent in the last election.
It therefore turns to fascism.
Fascism is a pro-capitalist working class movement organised to suppress the working class. To do this it constructs a ‘national’ identity which claims that one part of the working class is superior to the rest.
It is therefore a profound error to suppose such movements are working class just because workers support them. Every imperialist country has mass working class support. Hitler and Mussolini had millions of working class supporters. What determines the fascist character of a movement is its political objectives.
It is also profoundly wrong to claim that the hallmark of fascism is anti-semitism. To be sure, anti-semitism was its most horrific expression, but fascism can seize on any target; today, that target is the Russian people, deemed capable of all evil and deserving only mass extermination.
We now need a new socialism of the global North, that can work with China, Russia, and the global South to recreate the international unity that the old socialists destroyed in 1914.
Marx gives us a double start point: that ‘No nation that enslaves another can ever itself be free’ and that ‘Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded’
Labour in the imperialist countries has a double obligation: abroad to defend the workers of the world against their own capitalists, and at home to advance the cause of the whole working class, above all the oppressed, the chief target of fascism and also, usually, the most politically advanced.
That is, a world working class alliance against imperialism and fascism.
First, our movement can no longer define itself by rejecting so-called ‘reformism’. What is required is intransigence: at home and abroad, we need people who simply stick to their guns.
Revolutionary zeal was no antidote in 1914. Ferdinand Lassalle, a fiery critic of capitalism and Germany’s leading Social Democrat in Marx’s day, set his party on the path to ruin by offering to support Bismarck against Denmark in return for repealing the anti-socialist laws. Hyndman, leader of Britain’s largest ‘revolutionary’ organisation the BSP, ardently supported the British in the Boer War.
Second, the far right’s sniping criticism of ‘woke’ culture has no place in our movement. The working class can only unite if it defends everyone oppressed by its capitalists. In the historic response to George Floyd’s murder, it dawned on young white Americans that they were no better off than the descendants of slaves. This has laid the foundations of a future American socialism worthy of the name. Cast away this understanding, and we open the door to fascism.
My final point in passing: I think a historic mistake was made when the Communist International was wound up in 1944. It was nothing to write home about, but the working class does actually need an international organisation, which now has to be recreated. It will be very different from any past ‘International’ and will hopefully have a different name – but it is needed.
That is why we wrote the Manifesto, and invite all defenders of international working class unity to join us in giving organised shape to that unity.
Gunder Frank on Underdevelopment:
Economic Structure of Imperialism: https://www.academia.edu/41755158/The_origins_of_Western_Hubris_and_the_destiny_of_Northern_exceptionalism
Persistence of international inequality:
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