Monday, 2 October 2017

The Legacy of Anticommunism

There were two thematic ommissions in the opening chapters of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's new documentary series, The Vietnam War. The first was the relationship of capitalism and colonialism, and the second was the relationship of race and anticommunism. The components all made an appearance, but the links drawn were the conventional ones between anticommunism and capitalism and race and colonialism. What prompted this line of thought was an unrelated squall of outrage that blew up around the political scientist Bruce Gilley's 'The Case for Colonialism', which was published recently in Third World Quarterly. What initially appears to be Swiftian satire turns out to be a sincere desire to rehabilitate colonial practice. This is not just the banal accountancy made popular by the likes of Niall Ferguson, in which property law and Shakespeare are held to outweigh genocide and engineered famine, but an attempt to make the case that colonialism is a suitable solution to contemporary problems in national development: "Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch".

Gilley's justification is utilitarian: "Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it". The words "most" and "by and large" are doing a lot of work here. Even if we accept that some good can incidentally arise from colonialism, there is no way of predicting what this might be or where and when it might occur, so the precautionary principle is sufficient to rule out all colonial ventures in advance. What we can say from the historical record is that colonialism invariably produced evils, from mass murder and exploitation to the more subtle psychological damage of subaltern societies and the warping of economies to suit foreign interests. Arguments that seek to balance these endemic evils with the benefits of imposed industrial development and the importation of "superior" culture rely on counterfactuals in which uncolonised native societies are incapable of autonomous development or even trade and exchange. Colonialism is thus presented as progressive, which is one reason why it has often been promoted more vigorously by liberals than conservatives.

The argument for colonialism that Gilley makes is actually an argument for capitalism and market liberalism, hence his central contention is that inequality and other evils are justified by aggregate gains. His case studies of new colonial practice turn out to be instances of transnational privatisation or the importation of management expertise (e.g. Indonesia employing the Swiss to reform its corrupt customs service). The problem with this approach is twofold. First, it ignores the historic antagonism between colonialism and free trade; and second, it ignores the existence of social constraints on capital and markets that ameliorate their evils within the metropole: the "double movement" of Karl Polanyi. These constraints can influence colonial administrations as well. In the case of white settler colonies they can be imported wholesale (as in Australia and Canada), and even exploitative colonies with majority non-white populations may import some constraints and progressive norms (formal colonialism was a step up in the Belgian Congo, for example). But, "as a general rule", colonialism prefers self-regulation (its purpose is exploitation) and lacks structural incentives (most obviously the imperative of democracy) to promote either social protection or competitive markets. This is why the "civilising mission" rarely lives up to its billing and why colonialism tends in practice to be abusive and protectionist and thus never the "best" of capitalism.

Gilley's central error, which ironically echoes Lenin on the subject, is to assume that colonialism is really just capitalism and that it can be applied uniformly across the globe. Unlike Lenin, he fails to understand colonialism in its historical context - specifically that it cannot replicate metropolitan society - and also fails to address the inherent conflict between capitalism and free markets that is accentuated in the colonial setting. What interests me about his argument is not the dubious cost-benefit analysis, which has been thoroughly fisked by others, but the centrality of anti-colonialism to his case: "It is hard to overstate the pernicious effects of global anti-colonialism on domestic and international affairs since the end of World War II. Anti-colonialism ravaged countries as nationalist elites mobilised illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic and constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonisers". If anticolonialism is so bad then colonialism must be good, right? This is reactionary boilerplate, but what's striking about it is that anti-colonialism here occupies the rhetorical role previously held by communism as the chief global threat to capitalism. That the "merits of colonialism" school should have arisen in the quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall - a period marked by the abject failure of actual neo-colonial projects, such as the invasion of Iraq - is surely no coincidence.

As a documentary, The Vietnam War is little different in form to the 1970s' The World at War: extensive archive footage interspersed with personal testimony presented in recall, all marshalled by a sonorous voiceover (Laurence Olivier then, Peter Coyote now). Given the US audience, it is no surprise that the history of French colonialism in Indo-China is dispatched within the first episode, while the UK's contemporary struggles in Malaya and the postcolonial history of Indonesia get only a passing mention. It's arguably more of an omission that the history of US intervention in Cuba and The Philippines is ignored. What the opener does emphasise is that the Viet Minh was primarily anticolonial and even pro-US in the immediate postwar years, later becoming dominated by communists largely through American neglect. This strategic mistake is attributed to Washington's anticommunist obsession and specifically the "domino theory". What this narrative underplays is the way that anticommunism was employed instrumentally by Britain and France to defend colonial regimes in the face of US criticism, which in turn provided the template for later nationalist authoritarians to secure US support. The question that Burns doesn't ask is why the US was peculiarly susceptible to this manipulation. The standard answer, that anticommunism led to policy derangement, is a statement of fact rather than an explanation.

While American anticommunism formally dates from the Red Scare of 1919, it was not a novel reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution but a continuation of the nativist and racist ideologies that had developed over the course of the nineteenth century, hence its acute concern with outside agitators suborning blacks and immigrant labour, which would be a central feature of the reporting of the "Red Summer" race riots of that year. Though the foundation story of the USA produced a sentimental attachment to anticolonialism (ignoring the subjection of Native Americans and imported slaves), this had evolved into an expression of competitive distaste for the UK and other European powers by the early twentieth century. As US power grew after World War Two, its own interests were often served by anticolonial interventions, such as over Suez in 1956, but this was pragmatic rather than principled. In practice, the US preferred the informal, finance-led colonialism that it had pioneered in Central and South America (following British precedents), together with the covert colonialism of its "unincorporated territories" such as Puerto Rico (as an aside, Gilley criticises anticolonialism for its default attitude of "victimhood and entitlement", which finds a contemporary echo in Donald Trump's criticism of the Mayor of San Juan as a "politically motivated ingrate").

In the immediate postwar years, American progressives sought to establish a link between anti-colonialism and anticommunism, arguing that support for national liberation would halt the spread of Soviet and Chinese influence, but this also implied that communism might best be resisted domestically through the expansion of civil rights, an argument that found little political support in the early years of the Cold War. The significance of the 1947 Truman Doctrine, which committed the US to confront communism internationally, was its decision to prefer the status quo over risky reform: "to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". Coming hard on the heels of the Marshall Plan, which had provided aid to colonial powers, this marked the point at which American anticommunism globalised its reactionary stance. Though it would remain ostensibly committed to anticolonialism, for example in the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine's guarantee of the independence of Middle Eastern states, democracy was clearly subservient to anticommunism.

In Burns' narrative, the coincidental consciousness-raising of the 1960s Civil Rights movement is a key factor in the emerging domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam, leading to participants drawing the inevitable connection between antiracism and anticolonialism. In a separate interview, he emphasises the importance of Muhammad Ali's crack that "no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'" and also highlights how domestic injustice and inequality were replicated within the US armed forces in Vietnam. But he doesn't explore (at least explicitly) the possibility of a causal relationship between the two: that the near-hysterical pitch of anticommunism by the early-60s may have been the product of resistance to civil rights reform in the 1940s and 50s as much as a reasoned response to Soviet and Chinese foreign policy, and that this helped propel the US into an unwinnable foreign conflict. In other words, that the "derangement" of anticommunism reflected domestic anxieties over race and white privilege, and that the escalating commitment of troops to Vietnam was partly a compensation for the grudging "surrender" to the civil rights movement at home. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that the American commitment to violence, both in terms of military folly ("fire and fury") and the symbolism of gun ownership, reflects the inadequate grammar of its politics.

A notable feature of black American writing on US history and politics in recent years is the growing acceptance that the "original sin" of white supremacy requires what amounts to a second American Revolution, albeit one that preserves much of the liberal spirit of the first. Where Malcolm X and others turned the weapons of white supremacy around as a form of theatrical antagonism in the sphere of citizenship (segregation was recuperated by the Nation of Islam, blacks were urged to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms etc), contemporary black activists seek to supersede white supremacy through a focus on assets (reparations for slavery) and consumer rights (Black Lives Matter is a critique of unequal provision). This reflects the spread of neoliberal and even libertarian norms within the black community since the 1980s: progressive regulation, choice as a human right, the centrality of property. That the liberal reformism of Bernie Sanders is characterised as "socialist" is not just a gleeful windup by leftists, it reflects a genuine belief among many Americans that any social programme that disproportionately benefits blacks (as any proper "accounting" must do) is by definition a threat to their way of life. While historians and political scientists argue about the legacy of colonialism, and while black American writers muse on the legacy of slavery, not enough people seem concerned about the baleful legacy of anticommunism.


  1. "In the immediate postwar years, American progressives sought to establish a link between anti-colonialism and anticommunism ..."

    Yet there had been an alternative imperative - the US had also sought to use anti-colonialism to replace the power of the old colonialists with their own. Specifically in Vietnam, where the US supported the Vietminh against the Japanese and French.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment4 October 2017 at 18:20

    Of course Colonialism gets a bad press but as Boris Johnson says once you clear the dead bodies everything can really look good.

    Actually Boris Johnson's vision is the vision of the pro war left. The consequences don't matter, it is all about the vision!