Hardt-Negri's "Empire": a Marxist critique, part two

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Jun 23 10:10:30 MDT 2001

Part two of Hardt-Negri's "Empire" is a rather lofty defense of an argument
that has been around on the left for a long time. It states that all
nationalism is reactionary, both that of oppressor and oppressed nations.
While the argumentation is studded with references to obscure and not so
obscure political theorists going back to the Roman Empire, there is a
complete absence of the one criterion that distinguishes Marxism from
competitive schools of thought, namely class.

Key to their stratagem is a reliance on the Karl Marx India articles that
appeared in the New York Tribune in 1853. Putting this defense of British
colonialism into the foreground helps shroud their arguments in Marxist
orthodoxy. In effect, the Karl Marx of the Tribune articles becomes a kind
of St. John the Baptist to their messianic arrival: "In the nineteenth
century Karl Marx...recognized the utopian potential of the ever-increasing
processes of global interaction and communication." (Empire, p. 118) In
contrast to the bioregionalist pleas of anti-globalization activist Vandana
Shiva, perhaps the best thing that could have happen to India is deeper
penetration by the WTO, based on this citation from Marx that appears in

"Sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness, we must not forget
that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear,
had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, and they
restrained the human mind, within the smallest possible compass, making it
the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional
rules depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies."

It is indeed unfortunate that Hardt and Negri are content to rest on this
version of Marx even though they have to admit that he "was limited by his
scant knowledge of India's past and present." Not to worry, since "his lack
of information...is not the point." (Empire, p. 120) In other words, this
Marx of scanty knowledge fits perfectly into the schema being constructed
in "Empire" since it too is generally characterized by a lack of concrete
economic and historical data.

As Aijaz Ahmad points out (In Theory, pp 221-242), Marx had exhibited very
little interest in India prior to 1853, when the first of the Tribune
articles were written. It was the presentation of the East India Company's
application for charter renewal to Parliament that gave him the idea of
writing about India at all. To prepare for the articles, he read the
Parliamentary records and Bernier's "Travels". (Bernier was a 17th century
writer and medicine man.) So it is fair to say that Marx's views on India
were shaped by the contemporary prejudices. More to the point is that Marx
had not even drafted the Grundrisse at this point and Capital was years away.

On July 22nd, Marx wrote a second article that contains sentiments that
Hardt and Negri choose to ignore, even though it is embedded in a defense
of British colonialism. In this article, Marx is much less interested in
the benefits of "global interaction and communication" than he is in the
prospects of kicking the British out: "The Indian will not reap the fruits
of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British
bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have
been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus
themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke
altogether." So unless there is social revolution, the English presence in
India brings no particular advantage. More to the point, it will bring
tremendous suffering.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Marx was becoming much more aware of
how the imperialist system operated late in life. In a letter to the
Russian populist Danielson in 1881, he wrote:

"In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in store
for the British government. What the British take from them annually in the
form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the Hindoos, pensions for
the military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc.
etc., -- what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart
from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, -- speaking
only of the commodities that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send
over to England -- it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of
the 60 million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a
bleeding process with a vengeance."

A bleeding process with a vengeance? This obviously does not square with
the version of colonialism found in "Empire".

Within a few years, the Second International would become embroiled in a
controversy that pitted Eduard Bernstein against the revolutionary wing of
the movement, including British Marxist Belford Bax and Rosa Luxemburg.
Using arguments similar to Hardt and Negri's, Bernstein said that
colonialism was basically a good thing since it would hasten the process of
drawing savages into capitalist civilization, a necessary first step to
building communism.

In a January 5, 1898 article titled "The Struggle of Social Democracy and
the Social Revolution," Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over
Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham's travel
writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about
Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm
hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

"There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the
present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the
authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of
their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence,
fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule
in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the
picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are *without exception
better off* than they were before...

"Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an 'adulator' of the present? If so,
let me refer Bax to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an
'adulation' of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have
written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto
was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the
revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then,
especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on
the doctrine of social obligation." (Marxism and Social Democracy, p. 153-154)

It is of course no accident that arguments found in Bernstein are now
making a re-appearance in "Empire" a little bit over a century later. We
have been going through a fifty-year economic expansion in the imperialist
world that tends to cast a shadow over the project of proletarian
revolution. From a class perspective, it is not too difficult to understand
why the new challenge to Marxism--in the name of Marxism--emerges out of
the academy just as it arose out of the top rungs of the party bureaucracy
in the 1880s. From a relatively privileged social position in the bowels of
the most privileged nations on earth, it is easy to succumb to defeatist

In a few years, the complacency of the revisionist wing of the Social
Democracy was shattered by the greatest blood-letting in human history, as
the nations of Europe demonstrated that capitalism produced nothing like
"global interaction and communication". The pressures of bourgeois
nationalism caused socialist parliamentarians to vote for war credits. In
reaction to this kind of social patriotism, Lenin and the Zimmerwaldists
fought for proletarian internationalism and withdrawal from the war. In
their most signal victory, the Leninist wing of the socialist movement led
working people and peasants to victory in Russia in 1917.

Key to this victory was an understanding that oppressed nationalities had
the right to self-determination, even if this meant separation from the new
Soviet state. In one of the most important advances in Marxist thought,
Lenin came to the understanding that peoples such as the Crimean Tatars,
the Irish, the Chinese, the Indians, etc. deserved freedom even if they
were being led by bourgeois elements. In the epoch of imperialism, such
struggles had a revolutionary dynamic that Marxists should push to the full

Hardt and Negri dispense with this tradition altogether. They take sides
with Rosa Luxemburg who "argued vehemently (and futilely) against
nationalism in the debates in the Third International in the years before
the First World War." (BEFORE the First World War? It is a sign of Hardt
and Negri's unfamiliarity with this terrain that they allude to debates in
the Third International years before it came into existence. The Third
International was formed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik victory in 1917,
which itself was sparked by WWI among other factors.) In their eyes,
Luxemburg's "most powerful argument...was that nation means dictatorship
and is thus profoundly incompatible with any attempt at democratic

While Rosa Luxemburg was one of the greatest revolutionary thinkers and
activists of the twentieth century, their can be little doubt that her
views on such matters were colored by her experience in the Polish
revolutionary movement. Her differences with Lenin were part of a debate
taking place prior to WWI that had to do with relatively localized concerns
over whether assimilation of Polish workers into the Russian economy would
hasten the prospects of proletarian revolution. Her untimely death at the
hands of the German state in 1919 prevented her from seeing the
revolutionary dynamic of the colonial revolution. That being said, her
article on the Russian revolution was written in prison where access to
information was severely limited. It is, however, in this article where
some of her most extreme anti-nationalist feelings are vented. She writes:

"Lenin and his comrades clearly calculated that there was no surer method
of binding the many foreign [sic] peoples within the Russian Empire to the
cause of the revolution, to the cause of the socialist proletariat, than
that of offering them, in the name of the revolution and socialism, the
most extreme and unlimited freedom to determine their own fate." (Rosa
Luxemburg Speaks, p. 379-380)

Somebody--I can't recall who--once said that there is "Their Rosa Luxemburg
and ours." If this is the Rosa Luxemburg that counts with Hardt and Negri,
they are welcome to her.

Not only would Hardt and Negri have been opposed to struggles for formal
independence from colonialism, they are just as unrelenting in their
opposition to any struggle against neocolonialism that would rely on
defensive measures by the nation-state of the oppressed group. For example,
while Cuba achieved formal independence after the Spanish-American war, the
July 26th movement was organized around many of the nationalist themes
found in José Marti's writings. Even if the Cuban flag flew over Havana in
the late 1950s, the guerrilla movement quite rightly saw sovereignty as
resting in the American embassy.

Not only would Hardt and Negri would have been opposed to any movement that
sought to achieve formal independence like the Portuguese colonies in
Africa in the 1970s and 80s, they would have also condemned efforts to
achieve genuine economic independence in Sandinista Nicaragua in the same
period. As anti-nationalist purists, the only political entity worth
struggling to take over is that which exists on a global basis even though
the forces of repression exist within the borders of the nation-state. When
Somoza's National Guard was throwing radical youth out of helicopters
during the civil war, Hardt and Negri would have urged the FSLN to shun
overthrowing the US-backed butchers and creating a new state based on the
armed peasantry and working class.

Their arguments, although formulated in over-inflated jargon, boil down to
the sentiments found in the Who song "Won't Get Fooled Again." They write:

"The perils of national liberation are even clear when viewed externally,
in terms of the world economic system in which the 'liberated' nation finds
itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic
modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial
and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson
Mandela, really ends up being a perverse trick...The very concept of a
liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely
contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from
foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are
equally severe." (Empire, p. 132-133)

As is the case throughout "Empire," there is a paucity of historical data
to support their arguments. If you read the above paragraph, you would be
left with the conclusion that the problem is mainly theoretical in nature.
By embracing nation-state solutions rather than global solutions, national
liberation movements have been suckered into accommodation to the status
quo. Not only that, the new boss is just as bad as the old boss--won't get
fooled again.

Furthermore, if Marx's main contribution was a dialectical approach to
history and society, Hardt and Negri's binary opposition between "foreign
domination" and "domestic structures of domination" leads one to wonder
whether they have read the Eighteenth Brumaire, which states that people
make history but not of their own choosing. In the recent past, the failure
of national liberation movements has less to do with the bad faith of
leaders, personal greed or theoretical error. It has much more to do with
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of low-intensity warfare, two
key factors that are conspicuously absent from their discussion.

In the 1980s, the Portuguese ex-colonies and Nicaragua were subjected to
intense economic and military pressure in the almost total absence of
Soviet support of the kind that was forthcoming in the 1950s. Perestroika
and glasnost meant the Soviet Union was much more willing to turn a blind
eye to contra terror. In exchange for US trade deals, the US got a green
light to torment peasants in Africa and Central America. One can assume
that "domestic structures of domination" are foreordained only if one
brackets out this real history and the economics that underpinned it. When
the Nicaraguan government adopted a 'concertacion' in 1989 that had all the
earmarks of neo-liberalization, it happened in the context of nine years of
punishing warfare, a devastating hurricane that had left the country on the
ropes economically, back-stabbing by the Soviet Union well on its road to
capitalism, and immense pressure from the FSLN's European social democratic
"allies" who would soon forsake the welfare state themselves. When
guerrillas who had put up with torture, mountain leprosy, isolation and
aerial bombing decide to opt for a market economy, the fault is not so much
theirs as it is imperialism's. Or Empire, if you prefer.

However, one can not condemn the Sandinista revolution because it was
destroyed by capitalism. The Paris Commune was also destroyed, but it
serves as a paradigm for the kind of state power that Marx and Engels
strove for. Rather than thinking in terms of amorphous global struggles
that would leave torture states like Somoza's or Batista's in place short
of final victory, Marxists understand that a state that operates in the
interests of the poor and the working people is a step forward, *even* if
it is compromised by the global economic environment it is forced to
operate in. Basically this is the difference between Cuba and countries
like Jamaica or Haiti. While Cuba is now forced to put up with foreign
investment, tourist hotels and the like, a campesino in the countryside
does not have to worry about his baby dying of diarrhea. One supposes that
such mundane matters are unimportant to Hardt and Negri who are consumed
with the desire to lead the planet toward universal communism as rapidly as
possible, even if they lack the rudiments of an understanding how to get

Cuba, which is not even listed in the index of "Empire" does receive an
offhanded dismissal on page 134: "From India to Algeria and Cuba to
Vietnam, the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation." Now a
separate book written by different authors might examine the concrete class
differences between these countries and how their respective social and
economic differences might explain how a peasant gets treated one place or
another, but Hardt and Negri could be bothered less by such minutiae. These
places are far away and filled with people who are all being oppressed by
"domestic structures of domination". That is all they need to know.

In the one area that more than other cries out for a deeper analysis, they
are content to pontificate from the mountain-top. I refer here to the
global pandemic of AIDS which interests them in Foucauldian terms, as one
might expect:

"The contemporary processes of globalization have torn down many of the
boundaries of the colonial world. Along with the common celebrations of the
unbounded flows in our new global village, one can still sense also an
anxiety about increased contact and a certain nostalgia for colonialist
hygiene. The dark side of the consciousness of globalization is the fear of
contagion. If we break down global boundaries and open universal contact in
our global village, how will we prevent the spread of disease and
corruption? This anxiety is most clearly revealed with respect to the AIDS
pandemic." (Empire, p. 136)

This gob of self-conscious postmodernist prose addresses everything except
that which matters most to socialists, namely the problem of the
intersection of class and public health. We are not only facing a pandemic
of AIDS but other diseases that represent the consequences of an assault on
public health that occur under the neo-liberal regime. The one country that
seems immune to this process is exactly Cuba, that Hardt and Negri are all
too willing to write off. You can find an entirely different attitude from
Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who has not only been running an AIDS
clinic in Haiti for many years but who has tried to explain the relation
between class and disease in works such as "Infections and Inequalities:
The Modern Plagues". Although the distinction between Haiti and Cuba might
be lost on the likes of Hardt and Negri, it surely is not lost on Farmer,
whose attitude was characterized in a memorable profile that appeared in
the July 3rd, 2000 New Yorker magazine:

Leaving Haiti, Farmer didn’t stare down through the airplane window at that
brown and barren third of an island. "It bothers me even to look at it," he
explained, glancing out. "It can’t support eight million people, and there
they are. There they are, kidnapped from West Africa."

But when we descended toward Havana he gazed out the window intently,
making exclamations: "Only ninety miles from Haiti, and look! Trees! Crops!
It’s all so verdant. At the height of the dry season! The same ecology as
Haiti’s, and look!"

An American who finds anything good to say about Cuba under Castro runs the
risk of being labelled a Communist stooge, and Farmer is fond of Cuba. But
not for ideological reasons. He says he distrusts all ideologies, including
his own. "It’s an ‘ology,’ after all," he wrote to me once, about
liberation theology. "And all ologies fail us at some point." Cuba was a
great relief to me. Paved roads and old American cars, instead of litters
on the 'gwo wout ia'. Cuba had food rationing and allotments of coffee
adulterated with ground peas, but no starvation, no enforced malnutrition.
I noticed groups of prostitutes on one main road, and housing projects in
need of repair and paint, like most buildings in the city. But I still had
in mind the howling slums of Port-au-Prince, and Cuba looked lovely to me.
What looked loveliest to Farmer was its public-health statistics.

Many things affect a public’s health, of course—nutrition and
transportation, crime and housing, pest control and sanitation, as well as
medicine. In Cuba, life expectancies are among the highest in the world.
Diseases endemic to Haiti, such as malaria, dengue fever, T.B., and AIDS,
are rare. Cuba was training medical students gratis from all over Latin
America, and exporting doctors gratis— nearly a thousand to Haiti, two en
route just now to Zanmi Lasante. In the midst of the hard times that came
when the Soviet Union dissolved, the government actually increased its
spending on health care. By American standards, Cuban doctors lack
equipment, and are very poorly paid, but they are generally well trained.
At the moment, Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other country in
the world—more than twice as many as the United States. "I can sleep here,"
Farmer said when we got to our hotel. "Everyone here has a doctor."

Farmer gave two talks at the conference, one on Haiti, the other on "the
noxious synergy" between H.I.V. and T.B.—an active case of one often makes
a latent case of the other active, too. He worked on a grant proposal to
get anti-retroviral medicines for Cange, and at the conference met a woman
who could help. She was in charge of the United Nations’ project on AIDS in
the Caribbean. He lobbied her over several days. Finally, she said, "O.K.,
let’s make it happen." ("Can I give you a kiss?" Farmer asked. "Can I give
you two?") And an old friend, Dr. Jorge Perez, arranged a private meeting
between Farmer and the Secretary of Cuba’s Council of State, Dr. José Miyar
Barruecos. Farmer asked him if he could send two youths from Cange to Cuban
medical school. "Of course," the Secretary replied.

Again and again during our stay, Farmer marvelled at the warmth with which
the Cubans received him. What did I think accounted for this?

I said I imagined they liked his connection to Harvard, his published
attacks on American foreign policy in Latin America, his admiration of
Cuban medicine.

I looked up and found his pale-blue eyes fixed on me. "I think it’s because
of Haiti," he declared. "I think it’s because I serve the poor."

Louis Proyect
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