By Saïd Bouamama. Originally published by Investig’Action, July 4, 2023.
The following text is a translation of the original article.
In the West, the last major mobilization against war dates back to 2003, when the United States decided to invade Iraq. Since then, military interventions have multiplied with the complacency and even the support of many leftist movements. The most recent example is Ukraine, where many “progressives” are rallying to NATO to send arms and prolong the conflict. Saïd Bouamama and Michel Collon have analyzed this drift in the book The Left and the War: Analysis of an Ideological Capitulation. The sociologist we find every week in “Le monde vu d’en bas” reminds us of the causes and consequences of the left’s pro-war reversal.
Why do some left-wing currents, which are very critical of economic, social or ecological issues, follow the dominant trend on international issues?
There are two essential factors: historical and ideological. The historical factor, still largely underestimated, is the impact of colonial history on the left and the far left. To understand why anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism have always been points of weakness of these currents, it is necessary to understand that operations as vast as colonization could not be carried out without the oppositions being soaked in dominant ideology.
Indeed, in a form certainly different from the right, the idea of civilizing mission was also present in the scripts of the left. The break with the colonial mental space did not go all the way. Moreover, at the time of the colonial conquests, with the exception of a few small groups really opposed to colonization, there was no real opposition, including on the left. There was no massive protest within the labor movement. There was at best the idea that a more humanitarian colonization was needed, that capitalism was bad because it colonized badly.
An idea that is no longer so widespread on the left today…
It’s true, but it left a legacy: international issues, like the question of colonization and imperialism, take a back seat. For most of the left, these questions are disturbing. It doesn’t talk about it. And if the media debate forces it to position itself, the left often finds itself supporting external interventions.
So much for the historical factor. What about the ideological factor?
We underestimate what happened within the great powers in the 80s and 90s and the carefully crafted ideological campaign to disrupt all the usual landmarks of political position-taking. A CIA report, for example, indicates that it is necessary to support financially and in an opaque way the reviews, writers and researchers who tend to deny the notion of the social system as a whole.
This ideological campaign has made it possible to put forward a lot of theories which may be correct on this or that form of domination, but which are never linked to the overall functioning of society, to the dominant capitalist system and to social classes. However, these theories have been gradually disseminated and have influenced the protesting fringes of society. Today we have people who condemn racism or sexism without linking these issues to the functioning of capitalist society. Likewise, one cannot understand international issues without understanding the interests of the dominant classes of the great powers who colonize, plunder and interfere in the countries of the Global South. If we combine the historical heritage with this ideological campaign, we end up with what we have today: people on the left who should condemn wars, but who end up supporting them, as in Libya for example.
On the question of refugees from Libya, many journalists evoke a chaos that seems to have fallen from the sky. The responsibility of NATO and France, however crucial, seems forgotten. How can we explain this permanent amnesia?
Many factors prevent the media system from reporting reality as it is. This doesn’t mean that all journalists are rotten, but economic factors such as the hunt for ratings gives precedence to immediate, ideological factors, or sociological factors related to the journalist’s social environment and the need for recognition… A whole series of factors have made the media system an ideological apparatus of the State in the service of wars.
In the introduction to the book The Left and the War, you remind us that unlike Iraq, Libya did not evoke strong mobilizations against the war. In 2003, Jacques Chirac opposed US intervention. And in the process, the French media had criticized the war. Did all this facilitate the mobilizations at the time?
Yes, and that once again shows the weakness of anti-imperialism on the left and on the far left. In Iraq, the opposition of French imperialism to US imperialism made it possible for the left to position itself against the war. But when the French government was itself involved in the conflict, as in Libya, we saw more ambiguous or even pro-war positions within the left and the far left.
You write in the book: “It is the wars of our own imperialism that arouse the least indignation”. There is the example of Mali. When he launched this war, François Hollande was showered with praise. Journalists even believed that he was finally returning “to his presidential costume”.
Absolutely. It is all the more problematic, and new, if we remember one of the historical propositions of communism, for example. One of its main principles was that one must first oppose one’s own imperialism before opposing others, because it is on one’s own imperialism that one can act to stop a war. We are more effective where we live. However, the situation is completely reversed today. We are critical of the foreign policy of other countries, but we are silent, even complacent with the imperialism of France for the French or Belgium for the Belgians. We see the same thing with police violence elsewhere. Lots of articles criticize this violence in the United States. But it is much more difficult to talk about police violence at home.
As an ideological factor, is there not also the fight against pseudo-conspiracy which has been waged since the 2000s? Recently, the Marianne fund affair revealed that personalities and associations – some of them attacked Investig’Action in particular – had been paid by the State to carry out propaganda work.
To understand the emergence of this global discourse on conspiracy, it must be placed in our own historical trajectory. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the end of the balance of power that resulted from the Second World War, we have witnessed twenty years of decline in peoples’ struggles. The emergence of a multipolar world that challenges US hegemony has stopped this decline. It’s fragile, it’s just being constructed. But once again there is a dynamic of struggle at the international level which seriously puts the American hegemony in danger. The rise of China, the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, the critical discourse on the situation in the Sahel in Mali or Burkina… The United States has realized that it has had to react at all costs.
The first reaction was ideological, and took the form of forbidding people to take an interest in state strategies. Any ideology that qualifies as dangerous or dubious or provides any reflection on the strategies of the dominant classes is labelled a conspiracy. Saying that France has interests in the Sahel that explain its policy in the region is conspiracy! To emphasize that in Libya, the assassination of Gaddafi referred to an international balance of power and to a strategy of the French State, is a conspiracy! These charges of conspiracy are an injunction to become stupid, because they preclude any reflection on the strategies implemented. There is a criminalization of thought: as soon as we try to find a logic to explain a political act, we are called conspirators. Obviously, there are real conspirators who invent things where there is nothing. But there are also real conspiracies that are actually strategies.
In a chapter devoted to the countries of the Global South, we see a tendency by the North to ignore, or even despise, their points of view on the war. Is it voluntary?
There is a real disconnect between the political dynamics of the South and the North. On Libya for example, from Latin America to Asia via Africa, everyone was against NATO intervention with the idea that it would bring nothing to the Libyan people. The political left of the countries of the South have been completely flabbergasted by the positions taken by the political left in the North. In the book I quote left leaders in Latin America who wonder if there is still a European left insofar as this left participates in or supports imperialist wars. Perhaps, we could say that these people come from the Third World, so they are dumber than us. But one could also wonder to what extent we are imbibed with the ideology of the dominant classes of our States who, through their media and their ideological campaigns, manage to contaminate us with their own interests.
Regularly, we find a form of contempt in the Western media for the peoples of the South or their leaders. Very recently, a French public radio show evoked with great irony the disappointment of African heads of state with regard to Putin who has been seen as being too tender with Prigozhin…
There has always been contemptuous speech. We can point to the way that demonstrations that brought together several thousand Malians and Burkinabés are treated. It is claimed that it was Putin’s propaganda that pushed them to mobilize to demand the withdrawal of French troops. This amounts to considering that Malians and Burkinabés have no brains, as if there could be no opinion on Franco-Africa that didn’t come from Moscow. The people of Mali and Burkina are thus presented as manipulated people; not as people with minds capable of thinking about politics.
Some African heads of state carry the voice of their people. But they can also find themselves trapped by their role in Franco-Africa. Recall in La Gauche et la Guerre the declarations of Macky Sall in 2013, just after the launch of Operation Serval: “Without the French, the Islamists would be in Bamako and would threaten all the capitals of the region.“
Some heads of state must face their contradictions. They may have been brought to power with the support of the great powers and tend in these cases to serve their masters. But they also have to deal with public opinion in their own country. This is sometimes confusing. Ten or twenty years ago, they could openly support imperialist interventions. Today, if they do not want their country to be set on fire and bloodied by waves of protest, they must sometimes dare to oppose the great powers.
There is also a new type of head of state, as in Mali or Burkina. Having come to power on the basis of a rejection of French imperialism, they take independent positions. Finally, there is a third type of head of state: which serves the interests of their own dominant classes. They ask themselves whether it is more profitable to pursue relations with the imperialist powers or to play the card of the new multipolar world.
Just look at the number of heads of state asking to join the BRICS.
They are not all revolutionaries. But for material reasons, they tell themselves that it is more important to enter into this new configuration than to depend on the United States or France. A similar change occurred after 1945. Today, even heads of state affiliated with Washington or Paris will take more nuanced positions so as not to be confronted with too much popular pressure.
Recently in “Le Monde vu d’en bas”, you mentioned the Ivory Coast and the maneuvers put in place to prevent Laurent Gbagbo from running for president. We remember that in 2011, the French special forces in “Operation Licorne” had helped to oust him in favor of Alassane Ouattara, a close ally of Sarkozy.
It’s always the same. By detaching the situation in the Ivory Coast from its historical context, it becomes possible to put forward a pseudo-legal discourse. Although prosecuted for crimes against humanity after the coup that ousted him in 2010-2011, Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted by international justice. No wrong had been proven, but we act as if he were guilty and we rely on a conviction in the Ivory Coast to justify his removal from the electoral lists for the next elections to be held in September. Most of the arguments of our media take up the speeches of local authorities, whether for Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast or for Ousmane Sonko in Senegal. We again have a decontextualization that allows us to comment by repeating a discourse full of injustices.
In an interview to be published soon on Investig’Action, Bassekou Kouyate, a Malian griot, explained how important it is to go to Mali, to see on the spot how Malians live. Doesn’t the way in which the Western media magnify the features in certain countries like Mali or Haiti justify Western intervention?
Yes, you have to go there. You have to go to Mali, Eritrea or Burkina for example. I had already realized this with Palestine: you can debate for hours, without success, with someone who sincerely believes in his arguments; but all those who have been there come back aware of what colonization is. For all these countries, going there is the best vaccine against the permanent ideological contamination.
We can also ask: if most Africans are against wars, is it because they know their effects?
Absolutely. It may be a banality, but a banality to remember! The United States has a special relationship with military interventions because it has never experienced any on its territory. They waged their wars on the outside. Europeans have been in the same situation since 1945. However, the perception of what war is in concrete terms is not the same when one has experienced it recently or permanently. For example, in Mali or Burkina, the consequences Libya’s destruction is fully measured. It is not something far away and opposition to war is not abstract. With us, the average Frenchman or Belgian has more difficulty imagining what war is.
In 1925, France intervened alongside Spain to put down the Rif insurrection. But this war led to strong opposition, including a general strike. Can this episode serve as an example of how the left could mobilize again against the war?
The revolt of Moroccans arose in a particular context, that of the October Revolution in Russia. At the time, Lenin had sway over the entire European left. He put forward the question of anti-imperialism and the independence of the colonies. He established , as a fundamental principle, to be on the left, was to be anti-colonial.
In France, the Rif insurrection occurred at the time the PCF (French Communist Party) was created. The very young party then had an extraordinary attitude. All its forces were mobilized against the war, with train blockades, support for the insurrection, communist youth who prevented the transfer of arms. There was unrest that blocked France for weeks. Of course, the repression was fierce. But it did not prevent courageous acts.
It is to be feared that today’s wars are on the increase. Indeed, a wounded beast like imperialist capitalism does not retreat without flinching. But if the European left mobilizes, it will have an impact on the capacity of the great powers to intervene. Yes, the Rif insurrection can serve as an example. But we must remember what an anti-colonial action is today. It should oppose arms transfers with dockers’ strikes and other concrete actions to curb the war machine. As soon as this machine is forced to put on the brakes, we can take into account positions against the war.
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