Forgetting the evils of Empire

The left's embrace of Europe as an alternative to America creates illusions in a destructive elite.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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A rising clamour of anti-American sentiment can be heard among the European intelligentsia.

It was exacerbated by the election of George W Bush as US president, putting the Republican White House at odds with the then left-of-centre governments of Europe.

In the first nine months of the Bush presidency, European cities from Genoa to Copenhagen were rocked by protests vilifying the ‘Toxic Texan’ for tearing up the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse emissions and re-launching the ‘Star Wars’ weapons’ system programme. In the demonstrators’ language, anti-capitalism, anti-militarism, environmentalism and anti-Americanism were all interchangeable – as if European countries were not themselves powerful capitalist states.

But on 11 September, anti-American sentiment was made manifest by a handful of Saudi and Egyptian conspirators, with deadly effect.

11 September made things hard for the anti-capitalist crusade. After all, were these not the very targets that the anti-capitalists had singled out: New York’s financial markets and the Pentagon? Surely a movement that seriously believed its own anti-American rhetoric should have welcomed these attacks.

Thankfully, the ghoulish reality at Ground Zero made that impossible, and a sheepish anti-capitalist movement cancelled its scheduled Washington demonstration. But still, a strand of the European intelligentsia took guilty pleasure in America’s distress, and it did not take long for the campaign to get going again.

There is no denying that the actions of the Bush administration have given good grounds to those who would challenge American militarism: air attacks on civilians in Afghanistan, mass execution of Taliban prisoners, internment and ill-treatment of Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, support for Ariel Sharon’s reoccupation of the West Bank, restoration of US bases in the Philippines and the preparation for war against Iraq.

America’s critics latched on to the qualms of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who declines to ‘click his heels’ at America’s bidding, or French president Jacques Chirac, who criticises British prime minister Tony Blair’s sycophancy towards Bush.

It appears that Europe provides an alternative to American militarism. But this is wrong. Europe’s elite is quite as reactionary as America’s, and any attempt to rally to Europe’s cause as an alternative to the USA can only entrench its authority.

Even the central charge laid at America’s door – that it is a new empire – brushes over Europe’s guilty secret. America has never had an empire, unlike the major European powers of Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany, who colonised Africa, India, the Far East and Eastern Europe. Anger at the presumptuous American ally, who made decolonisation a condition of reconstruction after the Second World War, has always been a component of anti-American sentiment in Europe.

Today’s ‘anti-imperialist’ critics of American militarism are all too willing to mix up demands that the USA rein in its horns, with the entirely opposite demand that it takes more responsibility for governing so-called ‘failed states’. The din that accompanied America’s attempts to exempt its troops from responsibility to the proposed International Criminal Court took it for granted that these troops would continue to contribute to the military occupation of parts of Afghanistan, the Balkans and East Timor.

Another allegation made against America is that it is not interested in ‘nation-building’ – in other words, it is not taking up its colonial responsibilities in ruling lesser peoples. The charge of ‘unilateralism’ made against the USA is in effect a demand for America to join in with the major European powers in ruling the world, not that it should relinquish an interest in foreign adventures.

With characteristic bad taste, America’s critics welcomed 11 September for blasting the USA back into engagement with the wider world. But now that America is dictating the terms of such an engagement, its European critics protest that that is not what they had in mind.

The growing pile of anti-American Jeremiads in European bookshops includes former Observer editor Will Hutton’s The World We’re In, French small-farmers’ leader José Bové’s The World is Not For Sale, Italian radical Antonio Negri’s Empire and Canadian Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Often these works criticise the USA for the very things that are good about it. America’s one-quarter share of the world’s industrial output is re-interpreted as a one-quarter share in pollution. Similarly, the high living standards of American workers are characterised as greed.

But let’s allow that critics also identify the less attractive aspects of American society. Should we be surprised that the most eloquent criticisms of America are made from beyond its shores?

When European states competed to colonise the world, a century ago, the best exposures of imperial barbarism were made by each country’s national rivals. So British civil servant Roger Casement wrote the definitive exposé of the rape of the Belgian Congo (though when he joined the Irish rebellion against Britain he was hung as a traitor). Casement’s findings were published by ED Morel, who raised funds from Liverpool merchants to publish a weekly magazine on Belgian atrocities – though the most pressing of these to the Liverpool merchants was the protective tariff preventing them from trading in Belgian colonies.

In response, Belgium’s King Leopold produced a counter-publication enumerating the many cruelties of the British Empire. The German Gerhart von Schulze-Gaevernitz published the definitive account of British Imperialism, while the British Sylvia Pankhurst rallied to the cause of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded his kingdom. All of these critics of imperialism were alive to the atrocities committed by rival empires, but were all too quiet about the atrocities their own countries undertook.

And as the European powers threatened war against each other, their governments encouraged the manufacture of atrocity propaganda against their rivals. Tragically, it was the Socialist parties that were particularly prone to militant exposés of rival imperialisms, and as a consequence, each rallied to its national flag in the war of 1914.

It was in an attempt to cut through the humbug of this myopic anti-imperialism that the German socialist Karl Liebknecht coined the principle, ‘the main enemy is at home’. It was in that spirit that the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky advised the English socialists was that they would be taken more seriously if they agitated against Britain’s colonial rule over India and Ireland, than if they published pamphlets against King Leopold. In that way, they might contribute more to the overthrow of their own ruling classes, rather than supporting them in a war against a national rival.

Liebknecht and Trotsky’s advice, though, has been forgotten. When international rivalries returned in the 1970s, European radicals lined up to expose ‘Yankee’ imperialism. French Gaullist Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was embraced by the left for his warning in Le Defi Americain (published as The American Challenge in 1969), and the Belgian socialist Ernest Mandel rewrote it in more Marxist language as Europe versus America (1970).

Ignoring the atrocities committed by European powers in Ireland, North Africa and the Pacific, the European left rallied to the cause of the Nicaraguan victims of US oppression. And though most European social democratic parties had an Atlanticist wing in charge, their left wing was more open to Euro-chauvinism. Some, like left-wing MP Tony Benn, CND, the German Red Army Faction and Greece’s November 17 terrorist group argued that it was the Europeans who had now been colonised by the USA.

In this way an assertion of European power in the world could be given a radical gloss as a challenge to American imperialism – rather than being revealed for what it truly was, European imperialism.

Newly unified Germany asserted a distinctive foreign policy by recognising the national minorities of Yugoslavia, the Croats and Slovenians, as independent states, setting in motion the country’s civil war and eventual dismemberment. But instead of challenging the emergence of German imperialism in the Balkans, and the eventual subjugation of Bosnia under an un-elected High Representative, European leftists rallied to the cause.

The European left has lost any ability it might have had to advance an independent alternative, and so has been reduced to the role of cheerleader to one side or another in the subterranean conflict between Europe and the USA. The left leaps upon any nuance differentiating the policies of Great Powers, hoping to open it up into a full-blown conflict, while remaining indifferent to the fact that there is no positive outcome on offer.

The left’s late embrace of Europe as a positive alternative to America not only creates illusions in a destructive European elite – it also marks the left-wing intelligentsia as an irrelevance, incapable of forging its own course. And in the end, Europe will always back America against its chosen enemies in the South.

The pro-European left should take note of scripture: ‘look not to the mote in thy neighbour’s eye, when thou has a beam in thine own.’

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

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