There’s no place like America today

Issue: 109

Neil Davidson

bq. A review of V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism—From White Settlement to World Hegemony with a preface by E J Hobsbawm and an epilogue by J Trumpbour (Verso, 2005), £15, and Neil Smith, The Endgame of Globalization (Routledge US, 2005)

These two very different books are notable contributions to the debate over the nature and role of contemporary American imperialism. Both authors are Marxists, albeit from different generations, left wing organisations and academic disciplines. Both examine their subject from a longer historical perspective than is usual.

Victor Kiernan is, with Eric Hobsbawm and John Saville, one of the few remaining members of the Communist Party Historians Group. Born in 1913, of all his contemporaries he has been the
most eclectic in his range of interests, as Hobsbawm notes in an informative preface (which itself contains some acute remarks on the continuities of US foreign policy).2 Indeed, it may be that the very widespread nature of Kiernan’s subject matter has contributed to his relative obscurity compared with—to take the
most obvious example—Christopher Hill, whose reputation was based on work almost entirely about 17th century England. Even Hobsbawm, who has a comparable range of interests to Kiernan,
is most identified with his great quartet on the history of capitalism since 1789. From 1948 until his retirement Kiernan taught at Edinburgh University, and it is perhaps for this reason that he was virtually alone among the British Marxist historians in
showing any serious interest in Scottish history.3 More important for our purposes, however, is the fact that he was also
exceptional among them in paying sustained attention to imperialism, in a series of articles and books across three decades.4 The book under review here, America: The New Imperialism, first appeared in 1978, in the aftermath of the
catastrophic defeat for the US in Vietnam.

Neil Smith’s The Endgame of Globalization is a different type of book. Smith comes from a much later generational cohort and
stands in a different political tradition from Kiernan. He became active around the time America: The New Imperialism was
originally written, and was for several years a member of the International Socialist Organisation in the US. Like his former supervisor and current colleague David Harvey, Smith is part of the radical geography tradition that emerged in the 1980s.5

The Endgame of Globalization is an angrier, more polemical work than those with which Smith first drew attention.6 It is both a demonstration of how the Marxist theory of imperialism can be used to shed light on current events and an implicit rejoinder to those sections of the left which see the US as virtually invulnerable.7

Kiernan writes in a style quite unlike most modern academic historians, for which we can only be grateful. We gather an
impression of how US imperialism developed through an accumulation of characteristic details, often derived from letters, diaries, novels and other examples of what are sometimes dismissed as ‘literary sources’ by those who believe that only quantifiable methods are valid. His canvas contains the whole of American history as such, which he treats as virtually
co-extensive with the history of US imperialism. On this basis he begins his account with the Puritan settlers ‘building in the wilderness the better society that the Levellers tried in vain to build in England’.8

The implication is that the process by which terr itory was acquired by colonisation, conquest or (that quintessentially
America method) cash constituted the construction of an ‘internal’
empire. ‘The great fact was that industrial capitalism, now firmly installed as arbiter of the national destinies, had a rapidly
growing market and a spacious field of enterprise at home, without needing to look for colonies outside’.9 This absence of
a formal empire constitutes the ‘newness’ of the American Empire.

Kiernan comments with pungent irony on the crimes and follies which fill these pages, but without adopting the persona
of the detached observer, judging from outside history. Instead he holds his subjects to account for transgressing their own self-proclaimed codes and values: ‘In Washington’s eyes, since the ultimate goal, preservation of democracy, was righteous, all means toward it were warrantable, including suppression of democracy’.10 At the same time, we always know where
Kiernan stands in relation to the peoples and classes whose fate he recounts. He treats the question of the Native Americans seriously, at a time when this was far from conventional even in left wing histories of the US. He devotes a substantial part of the book to recounting how they were killed or driven from what
were once their lands, but he never romanticises them.11

The book is recommended then, but two cautions are in order. First, Kiernan’s style, attractive though it is, can also be an
obstacle to clarity.12 It works well in relation to broad themes in social and cultural history, as he demonstrated in his masterpiece The Lords of Human Kind, a sweeping survey of how the Western
merchants, soldiers and colonists regarded the non-European peoples they came into contact with.13 But because it is illustrative of the ideological expressions of imperialism, it is less effective in dealing with its central political and economic aspects. Second, his refusal to privilege one historical moment over another has the effect of obscuring decisive turning points—the long view tends to present a flat landscape.

This is particularly noticeable in relation to Vietnam. Kiernan underplays both the seriousness of the resistance to the war
within the US and the implications of the defeat for US power: ‘Yet as soon as the risk of having to serve at the front was removed, agitation and concern over Vietnamese sufferings died down
abruptly; a year or two more, and Vietnam was forgotten’.14

This judgement would certainly be a surprise to US strategists, since they have spent the last 30 years trying to overcome the ‘syndrome’ to which Vietnam gave rise.15

But there is a greater difficulty here, which springs not from style or method, but from the underlying theory of imperialism with which Kiernan undertakes his survey:

‘Imperialism today…may be seen as a continuation or recrudescence within the capitalist era of the “extra-economic
compulsion” which is the hallmark of any feudal dominion’.16

The classical Marxist definition of imperialism envisages it as a particular stage in the development of capitalism with two key characteristics: on the one hand, the fusion of financial and industrial capital with the state; on the other, the expansion of capital beyond the territorial boundaries of individual states. In this conception, although we can still refer to ‘American (or whichever) imperialism’ as shorthand for the activities of particular
state capitals, it is the system as a whole which is imperialist, and which compels these states to act in certain ways. Consequently, imperialism in this sense is not necessarily concerned with the
relationship between oppressor and oppressed states, as Kiernan believes, but with the rivalry between the oppressor states themselves.

In this respect, Smith has a surer grasp of what the Marxist theory of imperialism involves: ‘Where many on the left have
still not yet embraced [Lenin’s] insight, and still treat colonialism and imperialism as the same phenomenon, the neo-cons who have embraced empire are, in this respect at least, the truer Leninists’.17

Given these theoretical differences, it is interesting to compare their respective accounts of that main episode in American history where the logic of imperialist rivalry manifests itself most clearly—the ultimately abortive colonial adventures in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. For Kiernan:

‘There was of course no rational need of mountainous exports; hence an irrationality tinging all the epoch of expansionism now starting… Here was both the curious logic of capitalism and the American obsession with destiny; a latter-day example also of how, as in the 17th century, Calvinist determinism could be fused with superabundant energy’.18

Smith is equally mindful of the ideological aspects of imperialism, but grounds them far more in the needs of an expanding capitalist economy, rather in a cultural metaphysics:

‘It was a short-lived colonialism, however, not because of some liberal American antipathy to empire—quite the opposite—nor because it solved the questions of economic and liberal expansion. It was short-lived because it didn’t solve these problems’.19

Smith’s core thesis is that the current period is the third attempt by the US to establish a world order based on liberal capitalism.

It is within this overall framework that Smith discusses the specific reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which
he takes due account of the defeat in Vietnam: ‘The rationale for the Iraq war emerged from the amalgam of…three elements: the geopolitics of oil, the dramatic loss of US political power after the 1970s, and the partial fragmentation of the delicate system of power interdependencies that had let the region’s petro-capitalism flourish’.20

Powerful though the main lines of Smith’s argument are, the book is not entirely convincing at every level. It bears some signs of having been written in haste, although, unlike Kiernan, Smith is of
course trying to deal with these crucial issues while events are still unfolding. Nevertheless, some of his judgements are
questionable. Two examples stand out.

One is his treatment of Israel. Where Kiernan simply expresses puzzlement at US support for Israel (‘No nation in history has had a more expensive and more disobliging ally’21), Smith explains its origins in terms of domestic politics: ‘It was in no way a
principled response to the horrors of the Holocaust, but a cynical attempt to win Jewish votes at home, in a tight upcoming. In discussing the subsequent history, he broadens this out to include ‘the need for oil’ as well as ‘a domestically inspired support for the Israeli’.22

Now, Smith is absolutely correct to connect the internal politics of the US to its external relationships with other states. The question here is the extent to which the pro-Israeli lobby is decisive in
determining policy. If it had not existed, would successive US governments have taken a different attitude to Israel? It seems scarcely conceivable that they would have behaved any differently. From 1967 in particular, the American ruling class has regarded Israel as the only stable force representing the interests of US capitalism in the region, and everything that has happened since, from the fall of the Shah in 1979 onwards, has confirmed
it in this view.

A more general issue is the distinction which Smith draws between ‘global aspiration’ and ‘national self-interest’ in
determining American imperial policy. Running through his book is the argument that America’s imperial ambitions have previously run aground on the shoals of nationalist isolationalism.
This is a real division within the American ruling class, but surely the advocates of global intervention were also motivated by ‘national self-interest’? This may simply be a question of Smith’s presentation, but there seems to be a problem in elevating opposing strategies for advancing those interests into a
fundamental political division.

Any criticisms which might be made of either book, however, must be set alongside the fundamental service to truth which, in their different ways, they perform. Members of the pro-war left are fond of explaining America’s tendency to support murderous military dictatorships by claiming that this was an unfortunate
by-product of the Cold War, and not an intrinsic part of the operation of American foreign policy.

However, the historical record set out by Kiernan and Smith makes it quite clear that American imperialism preceded the Cold War by a long way, and that current interventions have to be considered and understood in this context rather than as a
new form of humanitarian militarism.

1: With apologies to the late Curtis Mayfield.
2: E J Hobsbawm, ‘Preface’, in V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism—From White Settlement to World Hegemony (London and New York, 2005), pvii.
3: See V G Kiernan, ‘A Banner with a Strange Device: The Later Covenanters’, in T Brotherstone (ed), Covenant, Charter and
Party (Aberdeen, 1989); and ‘The Covenanters: A Problem of Creed and Class’, in H G Kaye (ed), Poets, Politics and the People (London and New York, 1989).
4: His interest in imperialism was not only theoretical. As a member of the CPGB Kiernan was an active anti-imperialist, and he appears to have done work for the party in India (while in
the British army) during the 1940s. As late as 1990 this reviewer remembers canvassing support among Scottish intellectuals and public figures for an open letter opposing the coming Iraq war which eventually appeared in The Scotsman—Kiernan was one of the first to respond. The essays can be found in Marxism and Imperialism (London, 1974) and H J Kaye (ed), Imperialism and Its Contradictions (New York and London, 1985). A companion volume to America: The New Imperialism, dealing with Europe, is European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, 1815-1960 (London, 1982).
5: For David Harvey, see The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003) and A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005).
6: The contrast with the elegant but somewhat abstract formulations of his first book, Uneven Development (London, 1984), is marked. This important study is currently out of print.
7: See, for example, L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Superintending Global Capital’, New Left Review, II/35 (September/October 2005), pp108-118, 121-122.
8: V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, as above, p3.
9: As above, p75.
10: As above, p279.
11: As above, pp29-46, 70-104.
12: This writing style is not necessarily an obstacle to presenting a rounded picture of imperialism. For a work by a writer with a
similar literary approach to Kiernan (albeit with a different political background) which succeeds in doing this, see A Calder, Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking
Empires from the 15th Century to the 1780s (London, 1981 and 1998).
13: V G Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to the Outside World (London, 1969). By the second edition the
subtitle had changed to Black Man, Yellow Man, and White Man in an Age of Empire (London, 1988).
14: V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, as above, pp340-341.
15: See, for example, J Neale, The American War: Vietnam, 1960-1975 (London, 2001), pp176-177. The slander that anti-war protesters in the US were only opposed to the war for reasons of their personal safety was attacked at the time in blistering style by a recently departed editor of this journal. See A MacIntyre, ‘Le Rouge et Noir’, New Statesman, 22 November 1968, p714.
16: V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, as above, ppxv-xvi.
17: N Smith, The Endgame of Globalization (New York, 2005), p25.
18: V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, as above, pp107-108. Kiernan is equally bemused by the internationalisation of capital: ‘Over much of the globe today there is so complex a criss-crossing of US capital in Arabia and Japan, Arab and Japanese investment in the US, Dutch syndicates buying real estate in the Scottish Highlands, British in Germany, that Lenin would be hard put to say which is the imperialist, who is subjugating whom’ (as above, p273). But since Lenin was one of the first theorists to identify one aspect of imperialism as the movement of capital beyond national borders, he would neither have been bemused nor reduced the question to one
of ‘subjugation’ in the first place.
19: N Smith, The Endgame of Globalization, as above, pp48-49.
20: As above, p188.
21: V G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, as above, p312.
22: N Smith, The Endgame of Globalization, as above, pp114, 115.