When John Rees justified ditching working-class socialism

Paul Hampton reviews Imperialism and Resistance by John Rees (SWP pamphlet, 2006)

John Rees is the new pope of the SWP, establishing himself since Tony Cliff’s death as the main driver of its politics. Yet his new book is remarkably thin: light on the substance of imperialism today, poor on arguments between socialists with absolutely monstrous political conclusions.

Rees calls the world order that has arisen since the end of the Cold War “the new imperialism”. He argues that it is highly unstable. He believes that military rivalry between the great powers — the kind last seen between 1914 and 1945 but frozen after that until 1989 — is once again the central feature of world politics. He defines anti-imperialists as those who understand the fundamental drive to war between the big powers. His arguments and evidence for this? It’s very weak.

To create the necessary delusional state of mind among SWP members and its periphery, Rees needs them to believe that sharper economic competition is leading to geopolitical competition between the big powers, with the real prospect of military conflict.

But the idea some European and Asian states are immediate rivals to US hegemony is utterly fanciful. The US state in fact forged significant political ties with the major powers in both regions. For example the G8 has become a forum to manage macroeconomic problems and to discuss wider political issues.

Rees barely attempts to make the argument that the European Union is a rival. He can’t. US capital and the US state have backed the EU from the beginning, up to and including monetary union.

The steps towards an independent European military posture have been halting and their limits put into perspective by US-led NATO action over Kosova. Given the costs involved (in the context of slow growth) Europe is likely to remain dependent on US military technology for years to come.

Neither do “rivals” such as Russia and Japan pose a greater threat and so Rees only half-heartedly refers to them.

Rees reserves his strongest thrust for China, claiming that by 2050 it will constitute a serious rival to the US, both economically and militarily.

China may emerge eventually as an imperial challenger to the US, but it is very far from reaching that status today. The Chinese economy is far smaller than the US economy and its substantial land army remains far behind US military technology. Chinese exports to the US make it hugely dependent on the US market. And US foreign investment in China suggests that China is a growing regional power being integrated into the US informal empire, rather than a rival.

China’s rapid economic growth has aggravated internal social contradictions, along fault lines of class and region — which may lead to huge unrest in the coming period and promote the break up of China. By 2050 the power and militancy of the working class may have ushered in a democratic regime — or gone much further and taken power for itself. None of these possibilities are discussed in this book.

Rees telescopes being and becoming. Lenin criticised Kautsky in the First World War for predicating one’s current political orientation on notional scenarios about a possible future, instead of on present realities. Rees makes a similar mistake.

Rees is actually projecting potential rivalry in the future back into the present, giving him (or so he hopes!) the appearance of foresight. He is rationalising in order to justify his flimsy political line.

Yet there is much to discuss and debate about the real tendencies found in global current conditions. What about the character of regimes other than those of the great powers. Rees fails to deal with them.

In the 1980s the SWP espoused a theory of “sub-imperialism” to explain states with regional political ambitions, which were also independent centres of capital accumulation — states such as such as Iraq, Iran, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere. Sub-imperialism appears to have completely disappeared from their publications. Perhaps they still subscribe to it, but it plays no operational role. But then if they conceived of Saddam’s Iraq or Iran in this way, it would completely undermine their current politics...

Similarly, Rees dissolves all forms of opposition to imperialism into a disembodied, undifferentiated “resistance”. His book contains no class analysis of the varying social forces that oppose current US foreign policy. He does not differentiate between progressive and reactionary forces, or put the working class at the centre of anti-imperialist concerns.

Rees gives his arguments a certain Marxist gloss, claiming the mantle of Bukharin’s view of imperialism. However he fails to take the arguments of other Marxists who disagreed with Bukharin seriously.

Much of this book is an explicit polemic against the views of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin in Socialist Register (for a positive assessment see workersliberty.org/node/3998) It is also implicitly, without reference, a polemic against the interpretation of modern imperialism held by the AWL.

But Rees makes no attempt to represent real opponents, opting instead for the classic SWP method of smear. For example he associates Panitch and Gindin’s understanding of imperialism with the very different views of Hardt and Negri. Then he criticises Hardt and Negri. Finally, he says Panitch and Gindin suffer from the same flaws.

Rees tries to shore up his position with reference to authorities but only by repeating their mistakes! For example he defends the worst elements of Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism”, amalgamating it with a parody of the Comintern’s theses from 1920.

He says there are “at least two types of imperial conflict”. Firstly there are those that “involve military conflict between major, developed industrial powers” and secondly “wars fought between major powers and states incomparably weaker”.

He says the first implies the line of Karl Liebknecht in World War One — “the main enemy is at home” — socialists should oppose their own governments. This is not controversial among Marxists.

But in the second case, Rees is on shakier ground. He says any “even-handedness” would “in effect end in support for the more powerful, imperial states”. He argues that: “If the anti-colonial movements or states that are opposed to the major powers defeat the imperial powers it weakens the whole imperial system”. Therefore “it is enough that the defeat of the major imperial powers would advance the cause of oppressed peoples everywhere” for socialists to support the weaker power.

This is a tendentious version of Lenin’s anti-war views, which were highly problematic (see Hal Draper’s articles on The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Revolutionary Defeatism’ www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1953/defeat/
index.htm). It makes unacceptable concessions to the methodology of the patriots — namely you always have to take a side in a war — indeed it simply inverts it. “‘Defeatism’, even if preceded by the epithet ‘revolutionary’, puts the emphasis on defeat when we should put it on revolution”, as Alfred Rosmer expressed it.

Rees persistently conflates current movements “opposed to imperialism” with national liberation movements of the past. In Lenin’s time — or indeed during the anti-colonial struggles after World War Two — opposition movements were fighting the long-standing permanent occupation of their country i.e. fighting for political, democratic self-determination — and were rightly supported by the best of the left.

But this is not what most of the movements that Rees supports are doing today.

The Iranian theocracy is already an independent state and the only forces lacking self-determination in Iran are the oppressed nationalities around its borders, not the whole people.

The Iraqi “resistance”, made up of sectarian and reactionary Islamist elements are not for national liberation or democracy.

Hamas and Hizbollah are not for a democratic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The victory of these forces would not be about progress or self-determination, nor about opening space for the working class to organise independently.

To justify the SWP’s political line, Rees offers an interpretation of Cliff’s “theory” of “deflected permanent revolution” as another authority: “Cliff demonstrated that in periods where the working class was unable to mount a challenge to the old order, and yet the old order was decomposing as a result of a wider social crisis, other social forces were able to play a significant political role.”

The AWL has criticised Cliff conception of permanent revolution before, as making concessions to the view of “revolution” as a disembodied process that marches on regardless of the class character of the bearer or agent of revolution.

Rees’ use of Cliff’s theory in this book draws out another important flaw: it is implicitly premised on the assumption that the working class is emasculated as a political force, perhaps indefinitely — and therefore any old substitute will do for “the revolution”.

Rees’ interpretation of Cliff is either a banal one or it is devastating for Marxism.

It is banal if all it asserts is that other class and social forces are active political agents in the current period — not just middle class intellectuals but even the bourgeoisie themselves.

However if it means that when the working class is weak, socialists should back any other force “opposing imperialism”, no matter how reactionary its political programme or how it blocks the road to the emergence of the working class — then this is a terrible perversion of Marxism.

The most hideous aspect of the book is Rees’ justification for the SWP’s alliance with the Islamists.

Here he makes a persistent conflation of the religion of Islam and the political movement of political Islamism. He accuses many on the left of concluding that, “Islam is in general an enemy of the left either worse than or equal to the local and international ruling classes. It follows, of course, that the left cannot ally itself with any Islamic current”.

He argues that globally Islam is “overwhelmingly the religion of the poor” and that “Muslims are overwhelmingly on the receiving end of the new imperialism”. This he says “should give many on the left pause for thought before joining in with the establishment demonisation of Muslims”.

But all this is just a warm up exercise for a justification for backing political Islamists. He says that Hamas and Hizbollah are “more or less consistent opponents of imperialism”.

“The attitude of the socialist left should be that ‘political Islam’ has arisen because of the failure of the nationalist left. It fills much the same sort of space as the nationalist current. It has a very similar relationship with the left, in that it can, at certain times and under certain conditions, be an ally of the left and, at other times and in other conditions, turn on the left and on the working class movement as an enemy. Accordingly the left should treat Islamic movements much as it should have, but often did not, treat the nationalist movement… That is to say, certain Islamic movements are opponents of imperialism and the domestic ruling classes in their own countries. In so far as they are in opposition to imperialism and the domestic ruling classes the left should work with them.”

Rees concludes that the left “should be the furthest left wing of the democratic and anti-imperialist movement”.

Rees includes a short account of the Iranian revolution of 1978-81. His main criticism of the Iranian left is that it failed to build an organisation. He is wrong on this. There were left organisation of some size — the problem was with their politics i.e. accommodation to political Islam, to its “anti-imperialist” rhetoric.

The political line proffered by Rees in this book asks socialists to repeat the mistake of the Iranian left, in a period when working class forces are weaker and Islamists movements are strong and powerful. This is political stupidity of monstrous proportions. And it is political suicide for the Socialist Workers Party.