The last three decades have witnessed increasing political confusion about the meaning of anti-imperialism, a notion that, in and of itself, hadn’t previously been the topic of much debate. There are two main reasons for this confusion: the victorious end of most post–World War II anticolonial struggles and the USSR’s collapse. During the Cold War, the United States and allied colonial Western powers directly waged several wars against national liberation movements or regimes, along with more limited military interventions and wars by proxy. In most of these cases, Western powers confronted a local adversary supported by a large popular base. Standing against the imperialist intervention and in support of those whom it targeted seemed the obvious choice for progressives—the only discussion was whether the support ought to be critical or unreserved.
The main divide among anti-imperialists during the Cold War was rather caused by the attitude towards the USSR, which Communist Parties and their close allies regarded as the “fatherland of socialism”; they determined much of their own political positions by aligning with Moscow and the “socialist camp”—an attitude that was described as “campism.” This was facilitated by Moscow’s support for most struggles against Western imperialism in its global rivalry with Washington. As for Moscow’s intervention against workers’ and peoples’ revolts in its own European sphere of domination, the campists stood with the Kremlin, denigrating these revolts under the pretext that they were fomented by Washington.
Those who believed that the defense of democratic rights is the paramount principle of the left supported the struggles against Western imperialism as well as popular revolts in Soviet-dominated countries against local dictatorial rule and Moscow’s hegemony. A third category was formed by the Maoists, who, starting from the 1960s, labeled the USSR “social-fascist,” describing it as worse than US imperialism and going so far to side with Washington in some instances, such as Beijing’s stance in Southern Africa.
The pattern of exclusively Western imperialist wars waged against popularly based movements in the Global South started to change, however, with the first such war waged by the USSR since 1945: the war in Afghanistan (1979–89). And although they were not waged by states that were then described as “imperialist,” Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979 brought widespread disorientation to the ranks of the global anti-imperialist left. [Continue reading…]