For decades, the progressive left has denounced the West for fostering imperialism. Since at least the 1960s, the reaction of the left to any war involving the West has been almost mechanical: Denounce, form anti-war groups, and organize student and street protests. These tactics (aesthetics?) can be traced back to the Vietnam War. The huge protest movement that formed in response to that war was somewhat understandable. After all, the young protesters were being drafted and the war itself was a bit of a debacle. But after the Vietnam War and the scrapping of the draft, the basic form of the progressive response persisted.
In the decade after Vietnam, there were few overt wars for the progressive anti-war movement to protest. In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-war left focused mainly on nuclear disarmament—a campaign that could be read as an anti–Cold War movement. It got limited traction with its protests against the U.S.-backed Contra War in Nicaragua—a cause that tended to attract only hardcore socialist and communist intellectuals. The first Gulf War generated resistance from the anti-war bloc, but the resistance was limited in scope. After all, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in a cynical power grab, making it difficult to portray the war as due to Western imperialism. Likewise, though the anti-war response to the NATO bombing of Serbia was visible, the resistance never reached Vietnam-era levels. Such breadth and intensity of engagement would have to await the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This war was almost perfectly designed to assemble the progressive anti-war forces and fashion them into a movement. The justification for the war was vague, and the evidence that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction collapsed under scrutiny. A war based on falsehoods was easy to oppose. Another driver of anti-war sentiment was partisanship. Many Democrats saw this as a war waged by Republicans; although it is true that many in the Democratic Party lined up behind the war, the initiative was taken, and the rationale crafted, by Republicans. Protesters trained their ire on the persons of the president, George W. Bush, and the vice president, Dick Cheney. Their rhetoric recalled that of the later Vietnam War protesters, who had focused relentlessly on the character of Richard Nixon.
The Iraq War gave rise to the first true mass anti-war movement since the Vietnam era. It was spearheaded by progressives and the New Left, and it propelled many figures to positions of power and influence; above all, it made possible the election of anti-war Senator Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. It also mainstreamed progressive ideas about Western imperialism that had not enjoyed significant popular traction since the Vietnam War. These beliefs about the evils of Western projection of power would come to dominate progressive foreign policy until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Anti-imperialist rhetoric in its contemporary form arose from the New Left, which in turn arose from the reaction to the Vietnam War. But the New Left was not born in a bubble. It shared much with the Old Left, from which it inherited its anti-imperialist ideology.
The Old Left was born out of the communist movement of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. In the 1910s, its anti-imperialist polemic began to crystalize. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin published his pamphlet Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. The pamphlet was based on the much more impressive and analytical book Imperialism: A Study (1902), by the progressive English economist John Hobson. Lenin saw imperialism as arising out of late-stage monopoly capitalism—a system in which free competition had broken down and a degraded form of power-based capitalism joined hands with powerful states for the purposes of exploitation. He writes:
Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination and not for freedom, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations—all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism. More and more prominently there emerges, as one of the tendencies of imperialism, the creation of the “rentier state,” the usurer state, in which the bourgeoisie to an ever-increasing degree lives on the proceeds of capital exports and by “clipping coupons.”
After Lenin established his regime in Moscow, these ideas became the basis for Bolshevik foreign policy. The enemy abroad was not individual competitor nations but a system, imperialist monopoly capitalism, whose “internal contradictions” were increasingly papered over by its united opposition to Lenin’s worker’s state.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the international communist movement became well organized. Local Communist Party branches took their marching orders from Moscow. These parties instructed their cadres in Leninist theory and taught them to think of communist foreign policy as a fight against Western capitalist imperialism.
The party’s hold on the minds of its members was impressive. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, communists were instructed to engage in a politics of the Popular Front. They were told to form alliances in their countries with any forces—typically leftist or liberal—that opposed fascism. In 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the Popular Front strategy was temporarily scrapped. But it made a comeback in 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. It was in this period that the phrase “politically correct” became popular. It referred to the need for cadres to change their minds every time allegiances shifted between Moscow and other countries.
The Old Left foreign policy began to break down after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 in response to the uprising there. Western communists were able to stomach chaotic shifts in Moscow’s foreign policy, but seeing the Soviets crush a revolution was for many a step too far. The Soviet repression of Hungary came just after Khrushchev’s secret speech, which admitted to many of the crimes committed in the Stalin era. These events put the left in the West in a difficult position, confused about the motivations of the Soviet Union and uncertain where to stand on foreign policy. The left became disoriented as the party line from Moscow became more and more transparently a justification for Russian imperialism.
It was out of these circumstances that the New Left emerged in the 1960s. The New Left were dissatisfied with the realities of actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union. It was not so much the lack of democracy or personal freedom that dissatisfied them; rather, it was the Russian revolution itself, which had produced a society with “rationalistic” institutions and repressive morality similar to those in the West. By criticizing the “rationalistic” they carried on the tradition of Romantic critique of the Enlightenment. The New Left, like the Romantic writers, saw societies based on cold rationalism and moral rigorism as threats to the human spirit, especially when it came to sexuality.
The Marxist writer Herbert Marcuse exemplified this assessment when he wrote, in his work Soviet Marxism, that “the common requirements of industrialization make for a high degree of similarity between the features of ‘bourgeois’ and Soviet ethics; such similarity appears in the work morality as well as in the sexual morality.” Marcuse denounced repression for the sake of productivity and repression for the sake of archaic moral notions. These trends merged with the nascent Trotskyist tendency to view the Soviet Union as a form of “state-monopoly capitalism.” Overall, for the New Left, there was not much difference between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. Both looked like bland, rationalistic, repressive industrial societies.
Not surprisingly, the New Left turned its attention toward younger revolutionary movements. Its partisans thought that something had gone awry with the revolution in Russia and that future revolutionaries could learn from these mistakes. They were therefore particularly interested in conflicts in the poorer regions of the world and, arguably, were far more focused on matters of foreign policy than the Old Left had ever been. In his Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse summed up the mood of the New Left:
In Vietnam, in Cuba, in China, a revolution is being defended and driven forward which struggles to eschew the bureaucratic administration of socialism. The guerrilla forces in Latin America seem to be animated by that same subversive impulse: liberation. At the same time, the apparently impregnable economic fortress of corporate capitalism shows signs of mounting strain: it seems that even the United States cannot indefinitely deliver its goods—guns and butter, napalm and color TV. The ghetto populations may well become the first mass basis of revolt (though not of revolution). The student opposition is spreading in the old socialist as well as capitalist countries. In France, it has for the first time challenged the full force of the regime and recaptured, for a short moment, the libertarian power of the red and the black flags; moreover, it has demonstrated the prospects for an enlarged basis. The temporary suppression of the rebellion will not reverse the trend.
The New Left strongly identified with movements in the poorer part of the world. It saw the student and anti-war protests of the 1960s as part of the same global movement that was spreading revolution in Latin America, East Asia, even China. Many of these Western New Leftists started identifying themselves as Maoists, in the belief that what was taking place in China in the 1960s was fundamentally different from Stalin’s consolidation of power in the 1930s.
The anti-imperialism of the Old Left was amplified, but with a difference: Now the downtrodden were not the working class, but rather non-Western races or cultures. Why did this shift occur? There are several reasons. Probably the most important is that the new revolutionaries in Western countries were mostly middle-class college-educated young people whose bohemian attitudes put them at odds with the actual members of the working class. Though Old Left revolutionaries may have suffered at the hands of the police worse than the New Left ever would, they never hated the police. Indeed, they aspired to gain control of police power. The younger generation viewed police power as a repressive tool that should be abolished.
As the New Left developed what amounted to liberationist attitudes, it turned against working-class institutions, especially the churches and the trade unions. But the left is aimless without an oppressed people to champion. So, during and after the 196os, the New Left turned its focus outward to the alluring and mysterious poor of the third world, with whom its partisans had little if any personal contact, but who acquired in their eyes an almost mystical status.
Marcuse led the way. “The fact is,” he writes, “that monopolistic imperialism validates the racist thesis: it subjects ever more nonwhite populations to the brutal power of its bombs, poisons and money; thus making even the exploited white population in the metropoles partners and beneficiaries of the global crime.” It was Critical Race Theory avant la lettre. So much for the proletariat.
It would be unfair to say that the New Left was defined entirely by its approach to foreign affairs, but it would not be any great exaggeration. The New Left’s domestic ambitions were almost exclusively cultural. It sought various forms of “liberation” but never offered a program for a new society as detailed as the one the earlier communists had provided. Many on the New Left looked abroad or to more primitive forms of life for the outlines of a new society. In the 1970s and 1980s, the nascent green movement would supplement hazy notions of non-hierarchical authority with a vision of what society should not be. But even this movement never articulated a coherent program to replace the old communist one. Instead, it coasted from one issue to another, and the protests continued year after year as the slogans on the banners changed.
Enthusiasm for revolutionary developments on the global periphery could not last forever. The problem was not that these movements lost; the problem was that most of them won. In Vietnam, the communists won the war. In China, Mao prevailed in the Cultural Revolution. In Cuba, Castro fended off the American attacks on his regime and consolidated his power. Yet no new era of liberation was inaugurated by these communist victories. The new regimes remained repressive, their economies never developed, and their societies remained poor.
It’s not as though the New Left gave up on these movements. When the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza in 1979 and put in place a revolutionary government, Castro had been in power for twenty years and Cuba had yet to become a paradise. Nevertheless, the New Left held out hope that the next third-world revolution would pave the way. Even in the 1990s, when many impoverished countries had tired of revolutionary rhetoric, the New Left became fascinated with Subcomandante Marcos, a Mexican philosophy professor-turned-revolutionary who led the Zapatista movement in Mexico. They got briefly excited by the emergence of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
But it was hard to regain the old passion. At some level, the New Left knew that revolutionary movements in poor countries inevitably lead to tinpot dictatorships. Yet all was not lost. A new form of analysis emerged on the New Left. It focused on the decline of the West and the fracturing of the post–Cold War American-led global order. The first book to treat this topic was The Economics of Global Turbulence, by the economic historian Robert Brenner, first published as a special report in 1998. Brenner pointed out that cracks were beginning to show in the American-led global order. These cracks were due mainly to the gradual breakdown of the capitalist economic system that sustained that order.
Simply put, America had been running massive trade deficits for years. This practice had hollowed out the American manufacturing sector and put the country in debt to the rest of the world, most notably to China. The financialized economy that had replaced the old manufacturing economy was, in Brenner’s reading, unstable and prone to financial bubbles and general turbulence.
Later, the Italian economist Giovanni Arrighi published a book titled Adam Smith in Beijing, which teased out the geopolitical ramifications of the growing weaknesses of the American-led economic order. Arrighi argued that the emerging situation could be read not just as the decline of America and the rise of China, but as an economic rebellion of poorer countries against richer ones. Arrighi predicted that China would become the world’s economic hegemon and would provide a new center around which the poorer countries could revolve, and do so with greater prospects for their own prosperity.
The reader should not imagine that Brenner and Arrighi are simply sober economic and geopolitical analysts. Being the work of scholars, their books are less shrill than Marcuse’s. They write more like Marx than like Lenin. But their books are no less revolutionary and anti-imperialist. Both are radical New Left tracts. Both authors see their work as contributing to an ever-developing edifice of canonical Marxist theory; every drop of ink is spilled in furtherance of the eventual arrival of communist utopia.
Truth be told, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Arrighi’s and Brenner’s arguments are looking more and more credible. Beijing has backed Moscow, and other countries—such as Brazil, India, Iran, and possibly even Saudi Arabia—are following Beijing’s lead. The new financial and trade relationships that are forming rapidly between Russia and China look like they could function as a real alternative to the Western model. Meanwhile, the West appears to be far overestimating its economic and military power, and in doing so, hastening its own demise. The sanctions against Russia appear to be failing in their aims while generating stagnation and inflation in the West and catalyzing the shift of Russia and other countries eastward. At the time of writing, the Ukrainian army is running out of weapons and ammunition, and we do not seem to have the economic capacity to create a war machine to supply them. Meanwhile, Russia has occupied almost the entirety of the Donbas.
This emerging order, which challenges the preeminence of the American-led order, puts the New Left in a bind. They can certainly claim to have made the correct predictions. Their analysis of the weaknesses of the American-led order has proved much more accurate than, say, the analysis of the neoconservative interventionists who run most of our foreign policy establishment. But does the New Left endorse the world order whose emergence it predicted? Only yesterday, its partisans cheered the weaknesses and flaws of American-led global governance, which they deemed unsustainable and hoped would implode. Now that implosion, or a version of it, is taking place. Will they like what they get?
The New Left, if we strip it down, is mostly a self-centered lifestyle project. Much of its socialism is skin-deep and subordinated to the lifestyle issues that arose out of the Summer of ’68. These lifestyle issues are now deeply embedded in Western power structures. The children of the baby boomers have made the project of overcoming repression their own. These boomer traditionalists, as we might call them, have translated the core elements of the New Left project into the ideology of the Western capitalist countries, which we now call “woke.” Even the foreign policy of these countries now speaks the anti-imperialist language of the New Left.
The result is a strange contradiction, which the New Left seems unable to grasp. It celebrates the rise of the developing world and the decline of Western capitalist countries. In an essay discussing Arrighi’s book in New Left Review, Johns Hopkins University sociology professor Joel Andreas writes:
I share Arrighi’s expectation that [the decline of the West] might contribute to diminishing the extreme global inequality between countries and regions that have characterized the era of North Atlantic domination. This would be a momentous and very positive change, and for that reason I am happy to see China’s weight in the world economy increase.
Though some members of the New Left are less enthusiastic about the rise of China—they see the country as being too far gone down the road of neoliberal capitalism—Andreas’s sentiment is widely shared. It is difficult to find a New Left author writing today who says that a China-dominated world would be worse than the present America-dominated world.
Yet the Western capitalist countries are where a large portion of the New Left’s political program has been actualized. The West and only the West flies the rainbow flag. Meanwhile, the developing nations that are competing for hegemony tend to base their states on ideologies best characterized as versions of conservative nationalism, whether of the Aleksandr Dugin variety in Russia or the Wang Huning variety in China.
There do not appear to be many serious engagements with the works of Dugin and Huning on the New Left. The reactions to these thinkers that can be found reflect the confusion of the New Left project as it approaches its own disintegration. The popular New Left philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes off Dugin as “Putin’s court philosopher.” Yet Huning, in Žižek’s estimation, is “maybe the most important intellectual today.” These assessments are facile and political. Huning is praised because he still has a whiff of Red China about him, which makes the New Left swoon. Dugin, by contrast, with his Christian Orthodox aesthetic, must be dismissed as a reactionary. Yet these two thinkers share more with one another than with anyone on the New Left. The same New Left observers who are quick to highlight the Russian government’s lack of tolerance for sexual minorities are blind to the even more onerous restrictions on such groups in China.
The New Left’s confusion and self-contradiction are reflected also in its reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. The party line is not clear. Some on the New Left speak of Ukraine as having the right to “self-determination”; others portray Ukraine as a CIA puppet state. But whatever narrative the New Left eventually settles on, it will be markedly different from, say, the same group’s reaction to the American invasion of Iraq. The New Left was swift and unified in its opposition to the Iraq invasion, and in its anti-imperialist denunciation of American power. The response of Western governments to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited from the New Left a reaction that is far less consistent, and far less critical of the West. Is the future of the New Left one that opposes Russian and Chinese self-assertion on the world stage, denouncing it as an imperialism directed toward the subjugation of the West? If so, it will be a strange terminus for the New Left project.
Perhaps we should read the New Left’s trajectory in light of the famous Hegel quote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” Only at the end of a historical process can we look back on it and fully understand its meaning. Perhaps the self-abnegation of the baby boomers and their loyal children, manifest in the uniquely Western anti-Western ideologies so pervasive in recent decades, was the very process by which the West prepared itself for its global decline. Read in that light, the trajectory of the New Left makes sense: Its goal was to erect a tombstone for a civilization that it hated. Now that the death watch has started, the New Left can recede. Perhaps it will reinvent itself as the scourge of authoritarian regimes across the world, applying its anti-imperialist critique to China, Russia, Brazil, India, and any other nation that gains sufficient power and influence. Perhaps—though one senses that the new targets of this critique will be far less tolerant than the old.
Those of us who do not hate our civilization do well to take seriously the New Left arguments about Western economic and geopolitical decline and the emergence of China as a pole around which the Global South will rally. These arguments seem to have diagnosed the situation perspicaciously. The multipolar world the New Left envisioned is emerging before our eyes, and faster than many of us expected. Moreover, the Russian and Chinese states are moving away from raw capitalism and toward something like state-directed market economies. Smaller developing countries will probably imitate them. Just as importantly, Russia, China, and others have unhitched their wagons from the Western cultural trends that the New Left generation unleashed, trends symbolized by the rainbow flag. Paradoxically, the future the New Left dreamed about, the end of the hegemony of the liberal-capitalist West, may signal the diminution of its power to shape other cultures and promote its vision of plenary liberation. As a symbol of the global future, the rainbow flag was always dependent on the superordinate power of the American-led system. Having worked for that system’s demise, the anti-imperialist New Left may rue its own victory.
Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional.