Corbyn, Stein, and the Left’s Anti-Imperialism Problem

by Benjamin Studebaker

If you ask the British people what they think about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, it’s clear that any skepticism they may have about his economic agenda is far surpassed by misgivings about his foreign policy:

Since becoming Labour leader, Corbyn and his supporters have been accused of being “terrorist sympathizers” and anti-Semitic. This perception is tied to a suite of policy positions and attitudes which are best described as “anti-imperialist”. Left wing politicians and movements which embrace anti-imperialism face a set of political obstacles that they avoid if they jettison it. Today I’d like to think a little bit about how anti-imperialism works, both as a theory of international politics and in terms of its influence on the success and failure of the left in domestic politics.

The term “anti-imperialism” suggests that there is imperialism–that America, Britain, and other rich democracies are participating in a system of domination which exploits groups of people in other parts of the world. Many people living in the rich democracies today recognize the colonial systems of past centuries as imperialist in this sense, but they are far more reluctant to apply the term to the contemporary international system. They are liberal humanitarians and they believe that when the United States or Britain attempts an intervention in Iraq, Libya, or Syria, these countries are acting in good faith–they intend to help the people living in those countries, even though they may not always succeed. Anti-imperialists instead hold that the United States and Britain act in bad faith–that they intervene in these countries to increase the wealth and power of the US and UK at the expense of the people living in those countries, and they do this knowingly and deliberately. Some anti-imperialists are realists who believe the US and UK are primarily motivated by strategic concerns while others are Marxists who believe the US and UK are motivated to intervene to serve the interests of the global capitalist class.

We can represent these positions in a handy little chart:

Beliefs US/UK are Right to Intervene US/UK are Wrong to Intervene
US/UK Act in Good Faith Liberal Humanitarianism Cautionism
US/UK Act in Bad Faith Imperialism Anti-Imperialism


Since the Iraq War, it has become increasingly acceptable to be critical of foreign intervention provided that you concede that the interventionists are well-meaning.  Cautionism has influenced Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and to some degree even Donald Trump, all of whom opposed the Iraq War not because they believed its supporters were deliberately engaging in imperialist warfare but because they thought it was a mistake–it would not achieve its objectives either for the United States or the people living in those countries. Cautionists are not reflexively isolationist in the way that Gary Johnson is, but they have a level of skepticism about the efficacy of intervention that must be overcome before they will endorse action abroad.

Left wing politicians like Jill Stein, George Galloway, and Jeremy Corbyn go further and adopt an anti-imperialist position, and this has been a much tougher sell. American and British citizens are prepared to accept that George Bush and Tony Blair made mistakes, but they are not prepared to accept that these people and their supporters are deliberately vicious. There is a fundamental divide in the anti-war left between cautionists who saw Bush and Blair as naive fools and anti-imperialists who saw Bush and Blair as evil war criminals.

Green Party supporters in the United States are sometimes frustrated that they have not been able to attract more support from the “Bernie or Busters” who disagree with Clinton’s record of foreign policy interventionism. But while some of this is no doubt due to concerns about a strong Stein candidacy possibly enabling Trump to win, it is also in part due to significant differences in the foreign policy platforms of the two candidates. Sanders is okay with Obama’s use of drones and he backed a relatively modest $18 billion defense cut. Stein wants to cut defense by $500 billion and close most of America’s military bases. When Sanders talks about defense, he frames it in terms of adjusting the military’s focus from the Cold War to terrorism. He wants to largely preserve the military instrument but use it more cautiously. Stein wants to eliminate much of America’s capacity to intervene abroad, a much more radical position.

This shows up the two politicians’ favorability ratings–Stein is regarded as a “kook” in a way that Sanders never was:



As voters learned more about Sanders, they tended to like him better, but this was never true with Stein. This is why Stein is not going to get the 5% the Green Party needs to secure federal funding in 2020–right now she polls at less than half of that. In spite of his gaffes and undisciplined domestic policy agenda, Gary Johnson has a much better chance of securing federal funding for the Libertarian Party–his proposed 20% defense spending cut is much bigger than Sanders’ but much smaller than Stein’s, and rhetorically he’s clearly more isolationist than anti-imperialist, drawing less on Marxist theories of imperialism and more on the old right‘s ambivalence about foreign entanglements and quagmires.

Anti-imperialism is probably always going to be a tough sell in the moment–many people are veterans or know veterans or respect veterans and they will be reluctant to believe that these people are effectively the moral equivalent of stormtroopers. They suspect that anti-imperialists believe, deep down, that terrorists hate us because we deserve it, and they adamantly do not believe that we deserve it. Hence the accusation of “terrorist sympathizer”. People are open to the argument that our policies create terrorism, but only if it’s by accident–they will permit you to characterize terrorism as “blowback” but not as a form of righteous anti-colonial struggle. During the historical period many people recognize as imperialist, many contemporary commentators argued for imperialism on liberal grounds and civilizing missions. It was only long after the fact that it became possible for anti-imperialist critiques of this period to go mainstream, and even today a majority of British voters believe the British Empire is “something to be proud of”:

When anti-imperialism is applied to the Israeli case, the willingness of anti-imperialists to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians combined with their belief that Israel acts viciously as a colonial power in the region combines to produce a level of disdain for the Israeli state that is easily conflated with anti-Semitism by opponents. More persuasive arguments against Israeli policy drop anti-imperialism’s premise of villainy and argue that the Israelis are well-intended but mistaken and that their policies will damage Israel’s interests as well as those of the Palestinians.

There is little to be gained politically from taking the anti-imperialist position, particularly in British politics. Britain is no longer in a position to prevent these interventions from happening–the United States is willing to engage in interventions with or without British participation. So when Corbyn announces that he opposes things like the UK’s participation in coalition bombing missions in Syria, he is taking an unpopular position where even if he wins the argument in Britain the bombing happens anyway. This damages the Labour Party’s ability to present itself as an attractive alternative to the Conservatives and thereby undermines Labour’s anti-austerity economic agenda. When Corbyn chooses to prioritize anti-imperialism, he is quite literally choosing to prioritize a futile effort to oppose US foreign policy over the immediate material interests of poor and working people in Britain.

This does not mean that the left should not oppose bad interventions, but it must learn from Sanders’ example and express its opposition in cautionist terms that are friendly to the American and British citizenry’s view of itself as a set of good people participating in a well-intentioned political project. Most importantly, it must never put unpopular foreign policy positions ahead of advancing the economic interests of its core poor and working class voter base. When that base feels abandoned on economic policy, it defects in favor of right nationalist platforms which blame economic stagnation on immigrants and foreigners, leading to waves of nationalism that result in foreign policy which the left is likely to regard as even more imperialist than the set of policies to which it presently objects. This argument holds regardless of whether anti-imperialism is correct or incorrect–either way, anti-imperialists have become a significant obstacle in the development of a successful left egalitarian political movement, particularly in Britain. If anti-imperialists also care about austerity and stagnating living standards, they need to get out of their own way.