DSA, we need to talk about imperialism

Let me immediately preface this by stressing that I am not writing this for sectarian reasons, and this is not directed at any individuals. I have many friends in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and I respect them and their work.

But DSA, we need to talk. About imperialism, specifically.

I write this because I am concerned about the state of the US left, and because I want it to be better. It needs to be better.

DSA prides itself on being the largest socialist organization in the US, in terms of membership. In the past two years in particular, the number of people joining the group has skyrocketed.

DSA recently conducted a survey asking members what their campaign priorities were. It found that, of 20 ranked issues, imperialism came in 18th place — third from the bottom. The only issues that came below it were “voting” and “capacity.”

This is incredibly troubling.

It is also very concerning that immigrant rights came in just 16th, below political education and electoral reform. Yet immigration is directly tied to imperialism, so this is unfortunately not surprising. (As is anti-racism, which is not even on the graph — not to mention mass incarceration and prison reform.)

If you do not oppose imperialism, you cannot call yourself a socialist. This is true for anyone anywhere in the world, but it is especially true for the United States of America.

The USA is the largest empire in human history. It has done more than any other country to brutally crush socialism throughout the world, with torrents of bullets and rivers of blood. And the US still remains the most violent regime in the world today.

In response to the survey, a member said in the organization’s defense, “This poll wasn’t a ranking of your top issues. It was what should DSA focus on as near-term objective.”

This provides little consolation. If anti-imperialism is not a near-term objective, it will never be a long-term one.

This mindset reflects the age-old argument, “Racism and sexism can be dealt with after the revolution.” Such a perspective belies a basic understanding of how revolutionary movements work.

You simply cannot have a socialist movement in an imperialist country that is not fundamentally predicated on anti-imperialism. This is not merely a problem of skewed priorities; it is a basic problem of praxis.

Anti-imperialism should, must, be at the top of our list of priorities, not the bottom.

Capitalism is a global system, and those exploited the most are workers in the Global South.

If imperialism is one’s third-to-last priority, it is hard to see how one differs much from European-style social democrats who reflexively support every war and NATO military intervention, while calling for more public spending.

Even more pragmatically, if you do not prioritize anti-imperialism, you are abandoning the vast, vast majority of the working class: the other 95 percent of the planet.

After all, there already are active socialist struggles going on in the Global South — in several countries in Latin America, in India, in the Philippines, in Nepal, and beyond.

These same socialist struggles are actively being repressed by US imperialism. The Cold War never ended. Capitalism will always be at war with socialism; capitalism is war.

If you want to stand in solidarity with your comrades in other parts of the world, that starts most basically with opposing your own government’s repression of international liberation struggles — especially if you believe the US government (which was founded on genocide of Indigenous peoples, enslavement of Africans, and subjugation of women) supposedly is or can be “democratic.”

The other causes in the survey that DSA members are fighting for are very important; there is no question. But if you do not oppose imperialism, and if you do not make it a primary priority, you are failing in your most fundamental duty as a socialist.

Once again, this is particularly true for socialists in the US, history’s largest empire.

It is already widely known that US-based corporations dominate the global economy. Many are more powerful than entire countries.

What is much less discussed, even by self-described socialists, is the fact that the US has more than 150,000 military personnel in more than 150 countries.

The US has approximately 800 military bases outside of its borders, scattered throughout the globe, a staggering 95 percent of all of the world’s foreign military bases.

And these foreign bases are used — a lot. In his last year in office, the administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim-majority countries.

Since World War II, US imperialism has led to the deaths of millions upon millions of people, mostly civilians. To name just some of the most egregious cases:

  • 3 million deaths in Vietnam;
  • another 3 million in Korea;
  • nearly 2 million deaths in Laos and Cambodia;
  • up to 1 million in a US-backed anti-communist genocide in Indonesia (which the CIA secretly recognized to be one of the worst crimes of the 20th century — a remarkable feat, given the Brobdingnagian competition);
  • at least 1 million deaths in Iraq (after 2003), then another more than 1 million from crippling US-led UN sanctions on Iraq (in the 1990s), along with an additional 1 million in Iraq and Iran (in a war the US sponsored in the 1980s);
  • plus countless more in Latin America and Africa.

US imperialism has propped up the most repressive regimes on Earth, while cultivating and sponsoring the most reactionary forces — fascist death squads in Latin America, Salafi-jihadist mass-killers in the Middle East, genocidal warlords in Africa.

Putting imperialism near the bottom of your list is a reflection of the dehumanization of people in the Third World who bear the brunt of it.

Just so we are clear about the degree of violence I am talking about here, it bears stressing that, in the 21st century alone, the victims of US imperialism are already on the magnitude of millions.

For those who are not quite sure of the details, to understand why this is so extremely important, here are some of the crimes of US imperialism, just 17 years in.


The US completely destroyed Iraq, leading to the death of more than 1 million people, and destabilizing the Middle East.

It likewise internationally poured fuel on the fire of sectarianism, strengthening al-Qaeda — which has since metastasized throughout the globe — and gave rise to the genocidal fascist militia ISIS.


Through a NATO war based on lies, the US destroyed Libya as a state, after arming and training sectarian Islamist extremists that ethnically cleansed Black Libyans, leaving behind a chaotic political deadzone where various Islamist militias fight for turf — and civilians pay.

This resulted in the creation of open slave market for African refugees. It also led to the rise of a gangster state in the east ruled by a CIA-linked warlord where women have been banned from traveling.

US-led regime change in Libya fueled a massive migrant crisis that turned one-third of the population into refugees, and helped ISIS create its largest so-called caliphate outside of Iraq and Syria.


For years, the US spent billions of dollars arming and training militants — including Salafi-jihadist extremists — dedicated to violently overthrowing the Syrian government, who proceeded to wage a sectarian war and ethnically cleanse religious minority groups from the diverse country.

After a series of splits, the Syrian opposition eventually gave birth to the genocidal monstrosity that calls itself the Islamic State, which has slaughtered countless innocents — with US weapons, and with support from the US-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.

Al-Qaeda’s biggest affiliate in history also controls large swaths of what was — like Iraq — formerly a staunchly secular country. It too is fighting with US weapons.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed on both sides of a horrific war that would have ended years ago were it not for intervention by the US and its reactionary allies.


In more than two years of relentless bombing, the US and its Saudi subject have created in Yemen the largest humanitarian crisis on Earth — which the US has also drone bombed for 16 years.

Continuously imposing a paralyzing blockade on the poorest country in the Middle East, the US has left more than 80 percent of the population in desperate need of humanitarian aid, with millions of people on the verge of starving to death, and with hundreds of thousands more expected to become victims of an unprecedented epidemic of cholera — a preventable disease that has already taken the lives of many.

Tens of thousands of children have died from preventable diseases, and — in a very conservative estimate — at least 10,000 more civilians have been killed in fighting. US-Saudi bombing has reduced huge parts of the incredibly history-rich country to ruins. Countless civilian sites — hospitals, funerals, schools, shelters, stores, markets, families’ homes, and more — have been turned into ash in more than 90,000 air sorties.

Saudi Arabia

The US has poured hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons into the extremist, ultra-draconian Saudi regime. Many of these have been used to grind Yemenis into dust and to arm Salafi-jihadist killers in Syria.

Under US sponsorship, the Saudi regime has likewise spent more than $100 in the past four decades spreading its destructive, hyper-sectarian Wahhabi ideology throughout the globe.

It has also directly supported genocidal Islamist death squads like ISIS and al-Qaeda, as even internal US government documents admit.


Hundreds of thousands of people have similarly been killed in the US war in Afghanistan — or, as liberals called it, the “good” war.

This 16-year war that still has no end in sight. And it comes after the US gave rise to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the first place, by supporting extremist mujahideen to battle the Soviet Union in the 1980s.


Palestinian solidarity has, fortunately, become an increasingly popular cause in the US. Unfortunately, there have been few attempts to understand how Israeli settler-colonialism is an extension of US imperialism (and of British imperialism before that).

Thousands of Palestinians have had their lives destroyed in 70 years of oppression and dispossession. Israel’s illegal military occupation and ever-increasing colonization of Palestinian land have only continued for 50 years because of staunch backing from the most powerful empire on Earth, the US.

Israel’s periodic wars in Gaza, which have left thousands of civilians dead and turned the densely populated strip into a nearly uninhabitable hellscape. Israel’s US-backed wars in Lebanon have likewise killed thousands and left ruin in its wake.

Palestinian leaders created the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign — not measly liberal “partial BDS,” as DSA has endorsed — as the bare minimum comrades across the globe can do to support them.

Latin America

Ever since the first election of Hugo Chavez, the US has endlessly destabilized the democratically elected socialist government in Venezuela. In 2002, the US helped carry out a coup — that is, briefly, until the masses took to the streets to demand that Chavez return to power. Today, the US continues to support violent right-wing protesters who have lynched Black Venezuelans, burnt people alive, set government buildings on fire, and thrown explosives and molotov cocktails at security forces.

In 2009, the US supported a right-wing military coup in Honduras that plunged the country into violent chaos, earning it the dubious honor of having the highest murder rate on the planet.

Likewise, the US has backed soft parliamentary coups in Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016).

And, after 57 years, the US continues to impose a unilateral embargo against Cuba, which the entire international community (literally every country, save for loyal US subject Israel) opposes and votes against at the United Nations every year.

All of this was done under the watch of not just President George W. Bush, but also under Obama, a popular Democrat.

Again, this is not to mention the even more heinous crimes of US imperialism before the 21st century.

It also excludes the thousands of people killed in the covert drone wars the US has waged in several countries in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa since 9/11.

Meanwhile, in the past 17 years, as the US has fueled this chaos and bloodshed around the world, it has also pushed for the continued expansion of NATO. At present, there are thousands of NATO troops on Russia’s border.

Now, myriad liberals — yes, including Bernie Sanders — are propagating unsubstantiated paranoid rumors about Russia. The ceaseless fearmongering about the US empire’s favorite bogeyman just so conveniently helps to justify further US aggression against the Eastern European nuclear power.

And the US has continued to impose more and more sanctions on Iran, Syria, and North Korea, while pursuing increasingly aggressive military posturing, hurtling to the brink of nuclear war.

If you do not oppose these crimes, you cannot call yourself a socialist. Period.

And opposition to imperialism cannot just be rhetorical; it must be demonstrated, followed up with action. Putting it near the bottom of your priority list, in light of the aforementioned atrocities, is grotesque.

Yet most worrying about this is the fact that these historical questions have already been thoroughly dissected. This debate about the centrality of imperialism is far from new.

A century ago, the international socialist movement split over precisely this point: imperialism. During the unspeakable bloodshed of World War I, social chauvinists supported their respective countries in the inter-imperialist conflict.

Rosa Luxemburg is admired by many self-identified democratic socialists today, but few acknowledge her revolutionary history. Luxemburg broke with the chauvinist German Social Democratic Party, which sent millions of workers to be cannon fodder in World War I.

She created the Spartacus League, which eventually became the German Communist Party. Then, in 1918, Luxemburg — a tireless opponent of imperialism — helped lead a premature revolution.

In the end, Luxemburg paid the highest price for staying true to socialism. German social democrats sided with the reactionary right, including the proto-fascist Freikorps, and crushed the German Revolution.

Under the leadership of SPD President Friedrich Ebert, German social democrats joined forces with German proto-fascists and murdered Rosa Luxemburg. Her body was dumped in a canal. Fellow anti-imperialist Karl Liebknecht was also killed.

German social chauvinists destroyed socialism in the name of defending imperialism.

DSA prides itself on being the largest socialist group in the US. And it is indeed great to see so many people excited about socialism, in the most capitalist country in history.

Yet the unfortunate reality is that DSA has a most ignoble history on questions of war and empire. Michael Harrington, the group’s founding father, frankly cared little about imperialism, and wrote off the majority of the anti-imperialist movement as “Stalinist” — a lazy yet popular social-democratic tactic to shut off people’s brains and silence political opposition.

This lack of prioritization for anti-imperialism is reflected in the DSA’s weak statements on Palestine and Syria and its utter silence on the US-fueled slaughter in Yemen, Libya, Venezuela, and beyond.

To be clear, for the umpteenth time: This criticism is not directed at any specific individual. It is meant as a form of constructive criticism.

I most definitely do not want this to be misconstrued as a personal attack. It is not about individuals; it is about organizations and institutions.

I have had internal discussions with new young leaders in the DSA. I know their strategy. I know they are attempting to take it over. I know they have an election in August where they very well may succeed in doing so. This is all great. I really do hope the organization moves to the left.

But it does not matter how far left one or one’s group is if one still does not oppose imperialism. It is the principal duty of socialists in imperialist countries to oppose imperialism. The principal duty.

I repeat: Anti-imperialism should be at the top of our list of priorities, not the bottom.

It is the most important duty of socialists in the largest empire in history to put everything they have into organizing against that bloody empire.

It is the least they, we, can do. After all, we are not the ones suffering under that empire’s spiked boot.

Originally published at BenNorton.com on June 8, 2017.




Benjamin Norton is an independent journalist reporting on geopolitics. // Benjamín Norton es un periodista independiente informando sobre la geopolítica.

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Benjamin Norton

Benjamin Norton

Benjamin Norton is an independent journalist reporting on geopolitics. // Benjamín Norton es un periodista independiente informando sobre la geopolítica.

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