The Sage of Imperialism: Harry Magdoff
This conference report was published in: Monthly Review Newsletter, Summer 2003.
"The neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration should be seen as frustrated outsiders involved in a desperate gamble to shore up declining U.S. power by throwing to the winds the legitimacy earned through U.S. diplomacy..Workers are drawn into the nationalist project of `exporting unemployment' rather than building internationalism."
The Sage of Imperialism
A daylong conference co-sponsored by Monthly Review and the University of Vermont underscored the values that inspired the work of Harry Magdoff
From: Monthly Review Newsletter, Summer 2003, http://www.monthlyreview.org
Harry Magdoff's major work The Age of Imperialism, was published in 1969, and has since been translated into many languages. A subsequent collection of essays, Imperialism: from the Colonial Age to the Present appeared in 1976. At the time that this work was written, the idea that there could be an Imperialism without Coloniesóthe title of the collection of Harry's most important essays from these books and from Monthly Reviewówas highly controversial. Not only mainstream analysts, but also many on the left, found the idea that the United States could be an imperialist power impossible to credit.
Today, with the spread of U.S. military presence around the globe, the new U.S. doctrine of preemptive war, and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, this perspective has been vindicated for all to see. Whether U.S. imperialism is celebrated or denounced, there is no longer an argument about whether it exists. The major issue today is what direction it will take, and what the results of its project will be.
In this context, the Imperialism Today conference held on May 3 in Burlington, Vermont, was not only a way of honoring Harry on his ninetieth birthday. It was also a discussion of the major issues of our time. An eminent group of the Marxist theorists and commentators came together for the occasion. In his opening address to the conference, Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster brought out the contemporary relevance of Harry's writings on imperialism, contrasting them with the liberal critique of the U.S. war in Vietnam developed at about the same time.
The basic framework of the day's discussions was established in the first panel by two very compelling interpretations of U.S. global power today. Peter Gowan argued that the political system through which the United States has exercised control over the capitalist core since around 1950 has become increasingly redundant after the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union had weakened U.S. control over the capitalist core, and heightened tensions between the U.S. and Europe. In this context U.S. capitalism was attempting to transfer its hegemony from the capitalist core to the world as a whole, through open use of military force.
Immanuel Wallerstein urged that current U.S. military aggression is a sign of weakness rather than strength. Wallenstein described the Cold War as a "choreographed event in which nothing really ever happened," except that the division of the world into Soviet and U.S. dominated zones was stabilized. Although U.S.-led neoliberalism had attacked wages and social spending globally since the 1980s, it had not succeeded in bringing them down to pre-New Deal levels. In this context the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration should be seen as frustrated outsiders involved in a desperate gamble to shore up declining U.S. power by throwing to the winds the legitimacy earned through U.S. diplomacy over the past half-century.
Although Gowan and Wallerstein agreed on many points, there were also important points of difference between their analyses. Wallenstein emphasized the vulnerability of U.S. global power and the limited extent to which it can control the chaos unleashed by its policies. In contrast, Gowan pointed out that the challenge to U.S. hegemony came mainly from the capitalist ruling-classes of Europe, and that their challenge was limited to proposing that international law rather than military might be the decisive means for reconstituting the global order. Europe's more hesitant neoliberalism sought a different route to reducing the social power of labor, and did not involve putting forward an alternative social model.
Subsequent sessions of the conference did not address these different perspectives directly. But each of the papers presented sought to develop this broad understanding of the situation and prospects of imperialism today, and to clarify the possibilities for resistance.
The second panel, entitled "How Imperialism Works," consisted of Bill Tabb, Michael Klare, and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz. Tabb stressed the bipartisan nature of U.S. imperialism, in which diplomacy and forced complement each other rather than being in conflict. Klare described the return of a discourse in terms of U.S. rivalry with Russia and China being extended into their sphere of influence. Dunbar Ortiz stressed the continuity of U.S. imperialism with the genocidal nature of white settlement of the continent.
The third panel dealt with the workings of imperialism within the U.S. "homeland," and was addressed by Eleanor Stein, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bob McChesney. In examining the specific context of U.S. society and politics since 9/11, the panel also turned the focus of the conference towards the question of resistance. Stein spoke of the acts of ordinary decency that stood in the way of the targeting of Muslims. Dohrn of the way in which the U.S. ruling class program extended beyond foreign policy to a host of social issues - from medical marijuana to abortion - and had to be resisted on all of these fronts. McChesney of the silencing of dissent in the mainstream media and the demands that could be taken up by the left in order to activate a campaign for medium reform and democratization.
The final panel of the day dealt with anti-imperialism, and gave what should probably be described as a sobering assessment of its prospects. Sam Gindin described the political and economic mechanisms through which workers in the advanced capitalist countries are drawn into the nationalist project of "exporting unemployment" rather than building a new internationalism of the working class. Barbara Epstein described the divisions and limitations of the massive movement called so rapidly into life against the war on Iraq but frequently unable to connect the war issue to oppressive domestic conditions. Amiya Kumar Bagchi spoke of anti-imperialist resistance in the third world, describing the unnecessary divisions between political activism and moral resistance, and the dead weight of traditional attitudes to gender and the fascination with huge industrial projects on much of the third world left.
In different contexts, each of the panelists brought out the limitations the existing movement would need to overcome in order to challenge imperialism and become a force for human liberation. Their aim in this, and the aim of the entire conference, was clearly to keep the goal of human liberation clearly in view, and avoid illusions about what will be required to achieve it.
This report gives only the briefest overview of the conference, and focuses mainly on the ways the panels and papers fit together into a coherent overall enquiry. The papers themselves have been published in the summer 2003 issue of Monthly Review.
There was also a good deal of lively discussion, although time for discussion from the floor was limited by the embarrassment of riches provided by the speakers. Nonetheless, I think everyone who attended the conference came away with the sense of urgent questions being systematically addressed in ways that reflected a range of individual viewpoints and collective projects on the left. The conference brought together a wide range of people from the Monthly Review community, connected powerfully with the progressive community in Burlington, and helped to ensure that the values that inspired the work of Harry Magdoff live on.
Three-tape sets of the conference proceedings are available for $50 plus $5 postage. Checks should be made out to CCTV, 294 North Winooski Ave, Burlington, VT 05401, tel. (802) 862-1645 ext. 13
Monthly Review Newsletter, Vol 11, No. 1, 2003
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