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Haymarket Books Chicago, Illinois
Preface 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Revolution and Anti-Imperialism: The Internal Foes of Empire Cuba Libre, the Anti-Imperialist League, and Beyond From Wilsonianism to Bolshevism The Cold War and Decolonization After Vietnam From the End of History to the “War on Terror” Epilogue: Revolution in the Middle East Notes Acknowledgments [TK?] Index
Anti-Imperialism:, The Internal Foes of Empire
I would not care if, tomorrow, I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in that bloody war in Mexico, and that every man had met the fate he went there to perpetrate upon unoﬀending Mexicans. —Frederick Douglass, 1849
A Republic or an Empire?
The American Revolution began as a crisis in the British Empire— a crisis, ﬁrst, of administration, then of legitimacy, and at last of authority. It was a crisis in an era in which capitalism was already the dominant mode of production in the Anglophone world, and in which nation-states were becoming the dominant form of territorial organization. The British Empire was the vector through which capitalism and its philosophical justiﬁcations had been implanted in the New World, and it was as capitalists—southern slavers, northern merchants and producers—inﬂuenced by its attendant liberal ideology that the colonists embarked on a process of revolution and nation-building.1 At ﬁrst blush, it seems astonishing that they did so. In the mideighteenth century, America was still a colonial backwater. The
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metropole, Great Britain, was ascending to world dominance, but colonial America lacked the urban centers, riches, cultural development, and elaborate political system that characterized its master. Yet, by the 1770s, many of the colonists were ready to believe that they had unique virtues that endowed them with the means to create a radical, republican future.2 This undertaking was prompted when the British Empire began a period of internal reorganization following the Seven-Year War ending in 1763, in which Britain had defeated Bourbon France and gained territories in North America as a result. The imposition of various direct taxes was of signiﬁcance less because of the revenue being extracted than because, as Robin Blackburn puts it, “it was based on unilateral metropolitan ﬁat.”3 The wealth of colonial America had grown stupendously, and many of its denizens were aggravated by the arbitrary power of the crown, which held up commerce and sacriﬁced eﬃciency to royal prerogative. Lacking representation in Parliament, by 1772 they began to form committees of correspondence, which were the seeds of later forms of selfgovernment known as Provisional Conferences. The continued arrogant assertions of the crown, known as the Intolerable Acts, radicalized the colonists. By 1775, the crown was at war with the colonies and the following year they had formally declared their independence with a strident assertion of their natural and legal rights, drawing on the political philosophy of the liberal Enlightenment. This remarkable self-assurance included, however, a powerful dose of imperial pretension. The literature of dissident colonists considering the question of independence from Britain spoke of, in the phrase of the revolutionary James Wilson, “an independent Empire” or, in the words of George Washington, a “ﬂedgling,” “rising empire,” which would soon “have some weight in the scale of Empires.” Ebenezer Baldwin sermonized that “these Colonies” could be “the Foundation of a great and mighty Empire.”4 When Baldwin spoke, he contrasted the
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“Empire forming in British America” to those “other great Empires” forged by “uniting different nations under one government by Conquest.” America was different, comprising a “single People used to the Enjoyment of both Civil and religious Liberty.” It was a nation, one that would grow up under the “friendly Auspices of Liberty.”5 It was, as Gordon Wood phrased it, an “Empire of Liberty.”6 Yet the “Auspices of Liberty” could acquire a decidedly threatening hue for those obstructing their expansion. And expansion, necessarily entailing constant military aggression, was a constitutive component of the American project of nationhood. The westward drive that followed the revolution—the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the “Indian removals,” the Mexican-American War, the ﬁlibustering to the south, the early military adventurism in East Asia, and the bid after 1898 for a global empire—all hark back to this early expansionism. The source of this expansionism can be located in the social formations making up the postrevolutionary American polity. Speciﬁcally, as mentioned, there were three dominant groups: Southern slaveholding plantation farmers; Northern industry; and Northern mercantile capital. It is a matter of some contention whether antebellum slavery in the United States was actually capitalist, but less so that its method of growth required the continual expansion of the number of slave laborers, and the concurrent expansion of territory allotted to plantations— tendencies intensiﬁed by soil exhaustion. This is chieﬂy why the South was the most aggressively expansionist component of the Union. The existence of a large and expanding slave bloc inhibited industrialization and posed challenges to the dominance of industrial capital in the North, thus leading to competition between the respective sectors for territory, a logic that persisted through the Civil War. At the same time, between these blocs was a large mass of petty commodity producers, who sought freedom in the land to the west and thus constituted another drive to expansion.7 This is not to claim that each of these territorial aggrandize-
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ments was inevitable. As this book aims to show, empire was contested at every step, and each episode of imperial metastasis was embedded in distinct political, cultural, geographical, and economic logics. But the motors to expansion were structural. Moreover, the legitimizing discourses of expansion and empire derived directly from America’s ambiguous revolutionary legacy and the national mythologies that arose from it. It was upon this ambiguity that the future of America as both a republic and an empire turned. Both imperialists and anti-imperialists in the future would appeal to the revolutionary legacy to validate their perspective.8 At the center of that ambiguity was the question of slavery and racist oppression. If, for some, the revolution was a quest to begin a wholly new kind of society founded on republican principles, its success would have been impossible without the support of the slaveholding South, which saw revolution as a preemptive strike in defense of slavery against the antislavery movement taking root in the English working class. In the new republic, the slave South dominated the national state, the military, and the judiciary. It was in the South that Jeffersonian republicanism ﬂourished. And the South was in general the most expansionist, aggressive component of the new nation, the site of the most violent waves of ethnic cleansing, and the source of much ﬁlibustering south of the border.9 Aside from slavery, American nationalism was founded in part on the principle of “clearing” so-called Indian Country and annexing it. Benjamin Franklin, who used terms like “nation” and “empire” as synonyms, had warned the British as early as 1751 that a “prince” who “acquires new territory, if he ﬁnds it vacant, or removes the Natives to give his own People Room,” should be considered the father of his own nation. During the revolution itself, Native Americans, black slaves, and many poor workers sided with the British—not for love of king and country, but often from hatred of the “patriot” landowners, or out of fear of what an “independent empire” would
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mean for them. Native Americans, who had already suffered the ravages of war and disease as a result of colonization, had been attempting to form independent nations to defend themselves against the European interlopers. As a result, their initial attitude to revolutionary war was one of studied neutrality, resistant to being drawn into a war that did not concern their interests. By the end of the war, however, the majority of Native Americans had been enlisted to ﬁght on the English side in a series of ad hoc treaties promising the protection of their territorial rights. The British crown had, for the sake of stability in the colonies, long attempted to restrict the westward movement of European colonists, and was now using these “savages” to impede the freedom of the colonists. This grievance was duly cited in the Declaration of Independence.10 Though rebelling against an empire, the revolutionaries were not necessarily in rebellion against the principles of empire. The aim in deposing British rule was to build markets and develop the emerging economy—to create an independent center of capital accumulation. But this required the ongoing exploitation of slaves and the continued extermination of Native Americans. The auspices of liberty were not for everyone. Yet, the point was, and is, that they could be. The same Enlightenment ideology that had been formative of many of the revolutionaries was also the original source of anti-imperialism and antiracism. The tension between the oﬃcially democratic ideology of the United States, and the reality of racial tyranny—which some have called “Herrenvolk democracy”—would play a key role in future American wars.11
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