Being anti-war does not equate to being anti-imperialist. Being anti-imperialist means supporting the only justifiable type of war, which is class war, while consistently opposing the wars that serve the capitalist class.
To be anti-imperialist, one must properly understand the meaning of the phrase “no war but class war.” This slogan is repeated often, but in many cases it’s said by people who believe that supporting bourgeois “progressive” politicians and parties means the same as engaging in class war. To really uphold this slogan, the proletariat must both truly reject all types of imperialist war while truly engaging in class war.
And while politicians like Bernie Sanders sometimes claim to be socialists, they don’t represent either of these goals. As Mike Talavera recently wrote about the insidious kind of imperialism that Sanders (and by extension the other American social democrats) seeks to perpetuate:
Sanders supporters may express disbelief at the insinuation that a Sanders presidency could fortify imperialism. They may counter that Sanders has a peaceful view on foreign policy and supports humanitarian aid. In 2011, Sanders co-sponsored a Senate resolution “strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya.” Sanders was reluctant to call for outright military intervention, but that didn’t stop him from drumming up support for a “humanitarian” intervention.
Many others joined the call for humanitarian intervention in Libya, and that pretext was exploited by then-Secretary of State Clinton and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to completely destroy the nation of Libya, literally splitting it in two. Examples of humanitarian logic serving as justification for imperialist invasion are littered throughout modern history. If Sanders were to be elected, it is assured that his humanitarian aims would act as the crosshairs for the guns and bombs of US imperialism. Sanders talks tough about capitalism, but he fails to recognize the capitalist class itself, and in his obfuscation of that class he serves the ruling class’s interests.
Sanders may oppose war with Iran, but he supports the larger war that the bourgeoisie wages against the world’s exploited and colonized people. This is a war not just of direct invasions, but of imperialist propaganda, dronings and bombings, and economic sanctions. Sanders has shown support for the latter three categories of imperialist war, and so have similar “progressive” politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard. And it’s worth mentioning the universal support among these politicians for Israel’s settler colonial occupation of Palestine. A paradigm of American social democracy wouldn’t end the exploitation of the Global South and the subjugation of colonized people, it would make this tyranny more robust; increased American taxation under social democracy would give the empire more resources, and Americans would be enjoying expanded social programs because of the wealth that America continues to steal from the global victims of imperialism.
The bourgeois politicians who call themselves “socialists” seek to continue this global imperialist war for the same reason they oppose genuine class war. Class war doesn’t mean the expansion of social programs under a capitalist system. Throughout its history, the capitalist class has often allowed social programs to be expanded so that the proletariat stays contented enough not to overthrow them. Such is the nature of what Sanders is doing; in his statements, he’s obscured the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat while attacking socialist projects like Venezuelan Chavismo and Korean Juche. He seeks to reconcile the growing conflict between America’s capitalists and proletarians, while continuing the imperialist war against the socialist powers which challenge bourgeois control.
Since Sanders and other American social democrats advance their careers by trying to appease the interests of the bourgeoisie, it’s natural that they share the bourgeoisie’s goal of imperialist war. Imperialist war is how the bourgeoisie maintains the upper hand against socialist nations like the DPRK, China, Vietnam, and Cuba, which would otherwise make the class war escalate in a way that imperils the bourgeoisie. In his book Dirty Truths, Michael Parenti wrote this about how imperialism maintains dominance:
A socialist Cuba or a socialist North Korea, as such, are not a threat to the survival of world capitalism. The danger is not socialism in any one country but a socialism that might spread to many countries. Multinational corporations, as their name implies, need the entire world, or a very large part of it, to exploit and to invest and expand in. There can be no such thing as “capitalism in one country.” The domino theory-the view that if one country falls to the revolutionaries, others will follow in quick succession-may not work as automatically as its more fearful proponents claim, but there usually is a contagion, a power of example and inspiration, and sometimes even direct encouragement and assistance from one revolution to another.
This is why while capitalist society tries to make us see liberals like Sanders as “socialists,” imperialist propaganda tries to alienate the public from actual socialist leaders like Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and Nicolas Maduro. The corporate media and the Democratic Party leadership will at least give Sanders a platform while sometimes respectfully calling him a “socialist,” but Marxist-Leninist countries and their top officials won’t ever be treated with this kind of legitimacy. The bourgeois press, and Sanders as well, will only ever describe Kim Jong Un and Maduro as “tyrants” while painting their countries as dictatorships. Bourgeois politicians and pundits will never acknowledge that the DPRK is in fact a deeply democratic country, or that Chavismo has saved Venezuelans from neoliberal impoverishment, or that China, Cuba and Vietnam are more democratic and economically sustainable than any capitalist country.
And much of the American proletariat, including many of the Sanders supporters who call themselves “anti-imperialists,” will repeat the propaganda narratives about these socialist nations. This is how the proletariat’s desire for class war is neutralized, and how the resistance to imperialist war is made confused and ineffectual. No one can properly apply the phrase “no war but class war” when they think class warfare means expanding social programs, and think that anti-imperialist countries should be opposed because they’re “tyrannical.”
It’s up to you as to whether you should vote for Sanders or any other social democrat, and honestly I don’t see the question of whether people should as very important. Because if a revolution against the bourgeoisie happens, it will be carried out not through electoral politics but through an overthrow of the government. If you really believe in the statement “no war but class war,” you’ll work to organize the revolutionary vanguard that can dismantle the capitalist state and replace it with a new proletarian democracy. If America’s various Marxist-Leninist organizations can now be called a “vanguard,” they make up one that needs to be grown significantly. But the important thing about these groups is that they aren’t aligned with the imperialist Democratic Party and they don’t promote the imperialist narratives which imperil the class struggle.
Taking this path of militant communism may be more challenging than aligning with Sanders’ thoroughly mainstreamed brand of “democratic socialism.” But it will prevent you from giving in to bourgeois interests, and will set you on the path to truly participating in no war but class war. Mao said something pertinent to our current task of opposing imperialist war while supporting class war:
War, this monster of mutual slaughter among men, will be finally eliminated by the progress of human society, and in the not too distant future too. But there is only one way to eliminate it and that is to oppose war with war, to oppose counterrevolutionary war with revolutionary war, to oppose national counter-revolutionary war with national revolutionary war, and to oppose counter-revolutionary class war with revolutionary class war…. When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars, counter-revolutionary or revolutionary, unjust or just; that will be the era of perpetual peace for mankind. Our study of the laws of revolutionary war springs from the desire to eliminate all wars. Herein, lies the distinction between us Communists and all the exploiting classes.
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