Concerning Anti-Imperialist Thought

Alejo Brignole
Rudyard Kipling, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, was a doctrinal colonialist. In his poem “The White Man’s Burden” he invited the United States to invade the island of Guam and annex Cuba and Puerto Rico by extension after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

From José Martí, at the end of the 19th century, to later thinkers such as the Peruvian Raúl Haya de la Torre, or the Argentinean Atilio Boron, Latin America has been fertile in ideas and men who have boldly sought to interpret continental reality from a decolonized place and centered on a necessarily anti-imperialist humanism.

The problem that colonialism and imperialist hegemonies constitute for culture and human social development is fundamental to the historical analysis of any era. Under this prism we will see that the political, social and economic map of the world was formed -in good part- from these phenomena related to the ambition of domination of some nations or groups, over others. Even the most modern imperialist countries (England, France, Portugal or Holland, among others, and undoubtedly the United States) have suffered in their history from the conditioning of other colonialist forces that subjugated them. This leads us to an obvious reflection that consists in knowing that no nation or political-cultural entity is exempt from suffering the hegemonic advance of exotic factors.

The British Rudyard Kipling, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, was a doctrinal colonialist. With his poem “The White Man’s Burden” he urged the United States to invade the island of Guam and annex Cuba and Puerto Rico by extension after the Spanish-American War of 1898. For him, the white man had the ethical “burden” of bringing civilization and progress to the most backward nations.

Notwithstanding this undeniable historical dynamic, we must also point out that the resistance and opposition of the white man by variable methods (war, social struggles or internal wars) have been equally important in the configuration of culture and societies.

The philosopher of power Michel Foucault stated in his 1966 book, Words and Things, that “where there is power, there is resistance”. And although Foucault applied it more to the psychosocial field, under this principle, the response to external subjugation is central to understanding global historical developments. Without an anti-imperialist interpretation of cultural, economic and military resistance, all anthropological and social studies would be incomplete.

In Latin America this form of analysis is indispensable, or better yet, inescapable, since our region has been molded by imperialisms of different character and condition. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the British and the French, and finally U.S. imperialism, were factors that determined our history in different ways but with a common omnipresent link: the brutal exploitation and material and human plundering for the benefit of the different metropolises. But also – and more importantly – Latin America was shaped by its resistance to these imperialisms (often instrumented under domestic expressions such as the persecution of the indigenous).

If we were to establish a beginning of the most modern Latin American anti-imperialist thought, we should undoubtedly refer to the Cuban José Martí. And although there were many other earlier thinkers in the different national orbits during the American Wars of Independence – Simon Bolivar being the epitome – it would be impossible to review them here. But once the Hispanic colonial period was over, it was Martí who interpreted the neocolonial problems that would affect the region during the next century, because he understood very early on that the United States, as the cultural heir to British militarist expansionism, would be the main problem for the South American region.

In his 1891 work, Our America, Martí warned about the necessity of unity among Latin American nations, while at the same time he warned about the historical and political course of the United States and its dangerous view of the South, full of imperial economic and geopolitical desires.

Based on Marti’s analysis, we could trace a path followed by our Latin American thinkers who reflected on the question of regional union and U.S. hegemony as the new dominant actor. The Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, in his book Ariel, published in 1900, was perhaps one of the earliest to follow this trail in the field of continentalist ideas, although -with a certain myopia- he saw the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the United States. Rodó’s book was of enormous influence among the Latin American youth, immersed in those beginnings of the 20th century in an eager search of national and regional identity, of an idealistic renovation of its own, that was searching for an age of majority with respect to the Europeanist currents of thought, which – at the end of the day – were new forms of cultural colonization. Ariel had so much influence in the following decades that arielism was formed around its ideas, and its influence would reach the historical University Reform of 1918 in Argentina, later replicated in almost the entire region.

There were others who, through their writings, social ideas, and even their armed struggles, contributed to building up the ideological and discursive knowledge around the problem of imperialism, and in particular U.S. imperialism as a growing threat. The Peruvian Raúl Haya de la Torre, who was secretary and also a disciple of the Mexican pedagogue and politician José Vasconcelos, belongs to these constructive impulses of a decolonial and anti-imperialist regional thought. The same is true of the Argentine socialist Manuel Ugarte, perhaps one of the most energetic and clearest propagators of the American danger. Even Ugarte takes up and adheres to the scheme conceived by Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico-where he was finally murdered in 1940 by Soviet envoys-on the need to establish socialist states in Latin America.

Manuel Ugarte’s books El Porvenir de la América Española (The Future of Spanish America), 1910, and El Destino de un Continente (The Fate of a Continent), 1923, are a marvelous effort to consolidate a unionist ideology with a socialist matrix among the nations of the American South.

Nevertheless, the group of men and ideas should not be seen as a solid and unified corpus around continentalism and its derivations, since all of them (and the many dozens of thinkers that we omit here), were not homogeneous in their ideas, even if they shared similar characteristics. And if the Mexican Vasconcelos denied the importance of the indigenous movement in the formation of Latin America, his colleague Haya de la Torre made the indigenous movement a fundamental pillar for thinking about regional construction.

In these not always simple notions of imperialist hegemonies and their historical traces that affect the cultural and social (always hand in hand with economic exploitation), controversies often arise about what is or what should be considered imperialism. Of course there are deniers of the imperialist concept itself, as a tool of historical interpretation. Others, on the other hand, consider it to be central to understanding human processes.

In this regard, the controversy initiated by the Argentine sociologist Atilio Boron with his book Empire & Imperialism – A Critical Reading by M. Hardt and Antonio Negri (Ediciones CLACSO) is very interesting, in which he refutes certain analyses of the imperialist dynamics outlined by both authors in their book Empire.

For Boron -perhaps the best current exponent of the ideological and scientific construct around the anti-imperialist concept- the theses of Hardt and Negri embodied in the cited work, suffers from severe interpretative and historical flaws. In this respect Boron pointed out in 2002: “Today’s imperialism is not the same as that of thirty years ago. It has changed, and in some of its facets the change has been very important”.

As we see, the discussions around the idea of empire and imperialist practices are inescapable both in the Latin American and global context. Nor do they ever cease or become obsolete, since together with capitalism, imperialism transforms itself and adapts itself to contexts, and therefore its inherent struggles also mutate and must be approached from new perspectives.

To be continued in the second part…

Translation by Internationalist 360°