In the past three decades there has been increasing political confusion about the meaning of anti-imperialism, a notion that, in and of itself, has not been the subject of much debate. There are two main reasons for this confusion: the victorious end of most anti-colonial fighting after World War II, and the collapse of the USSR. During the Cold War, the United States and the allied Western colonial powers waged several direct wars against national liberation movements or regimes, as well as limited military intervention and proxy wars. In most cases, western powers faced a local opponent supported by a large popular base. Standing against imperialist intervention and supporting those it targeted seemed like the obvious choice for progressives – the only discussion was whether support should be critical or unqualified.
The main differences between the anti-imperialists during the Cold War were more due to attitudes towards the USSR, which the communist parties and their close allies viewed as the “fatherland of socialism”. They determined much of their own political positions by allying themselves with Moscow and the “socialist camp” – an attitude that has been dubbed “campism”. This was facilitated by Moscow’s support for most of the struggles against Western imperialism in its global rivalry with Washington. As for Moscow’s intervention against the revolts of the workers and peoples within its own European domain, the campists stood by the Kremlin and vilified these revolts on the pretext that they were fomented by Washington.
Those who believed that the defense of democratic rights was the supreme principle of the left supported the struggles against Western imperialism, as well as the popular uprisings in the Soviet Union-dominated countries against local dictatorial rule and Moscow hegemony. A third category was formed by the Maoists, who from the 1960s onwards described the USSR as “social-fascist”, called it worse than US imperialism and, in some cases, stood as far on the side of Washington as, for example, Beijing’s position in South Africa.
The pattern of exclusively western-imperialist wars against popular-based movements in the global south began to change, however, when the first such war since 1945 was waged by the USSR: the war in Afghanistan (1979-89). And although they were not led by what were then labeled “imperialist” states, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979 brought widespread disorientation to the ranks of the global anti-imperialist left.
The next major complication was the US-led war of 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This was not a popular, albeit dictatorial, regime, but one of the most brutal and murderous regimes in the Middle East that had even used chemical weapons to massacre thousands of the Kurdish population of his country – with western complicity as it was against during the Iraq war happened to Iran. Some personalities who had previously belonged to the anti-imperialist left switched to support the US-led war on this occasion. But the vast majority of anti-imperialists opposed it, even though it was run under a Moscow-approved UN mandate. Little did they want to defend the Emir of Kuwait’s possession of his British-granted rule, which was populated by a majority of lawless migrants. Most were not fans of Saddam Hussein either: They denounced him as a brutal dictator while resisting the US-led imperialist war against his country.