This text is based on a speech to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee banquet given in December.
I was a resident in the United States from 1965 to the early summer of this year, when I returned to Ireland to live, and I still hold—though not for much longer—the little green card of the resident alien.
Coming back here recently, I was told at the American Embassy in Dublin that I did not require a visa; I could come in on my little green card. When I presented myself at Immigration at Kennedy Airport, I had to explain why, though still technically a resident alien, I had become, as it were, more alien than resident. The officers who questioned me were gentle and polite, with an indefinable compound of the baffled, and compassionate, and the faintly alarmed in their manner. It reminded me of something which I could not for the moment place. Then I got it—I come from a Catholic country, and the manner of these Immigration officers reminded me, in its full range, of a sympathetic Catholic priest trying to find out why someone has stopped going to mass.
It also reminded me, this manner, of something else: of the demeanor of some of my American left-wing friends—of whom I have, I am glad to say, a great many—when I told them this spring that I was resigning from New York University and going back to Ireland to run in politics. Now the Immigration officers and these friends were very unlike in other ways. The Immigration officers were, I believe, patriotic Americans in a traditional and unquestioning way. My friends were all, in different ways, in revolt against the forces that dominate America today. The first group would sincerely regard the second as anti-American. Yet the two groups have more in common than they know. They are both in the grip of an Americocentrism of which they are not fully conscious. All members of the first group approve of foreigners loving America; some members of the second approve of foreigners hating America. The concept that there are many millions of foreigners who never think of America at all—and many who have never even heard of it—would strike most members of both groups as unlikely, suspect, and generally unsatisfactory.
It is true that people may be, and are, affected by American imperialism without knowing much, or perhaps anything, about either America or imperialism. Most people are affected in some way by American wealth and power; the whole population of the planet is affected by it in the broad sense that these things exist and are not shared, and that the knowledge of their existence is widely diffused by television and other means. Many are affected more directly, through the exploitation of the resources of their country by American capital and technology, and through the manipulation of their governments and their social and political life by agents of American corporations and of the American government. And some are affected in the most direct possible way—by the massive use against them of America’s apparatus of violence for the supposed protection of the people whom it destroys, as in Vietnam.
There has been, so far as I know, no satisfactory study of the relation of America’s wealth and power to the economic, social, and political life of the rest of the world. Conventional, academic approaches to this question are normally concerned, consciously or unconsciously, with minimizing, or exorcising, the concept of America as an imperialist power. One can have so-called political “area studies” of places which are in fact under American indirect rule, and these area studies can simply ignore that fact, and write of Russian or Chinese attempts to find a foothold in countries which are misleadingly presented as genuinely independent. Scholarship of this kind is in fact a part of the phenomenon which it suppresses from view—a part of imperialism. It is a form of academic activity which still continues, but has had to be conducted with somewhat more subtlety and discretion in recent years, with the increasing consciousness of the degree to which the intellectual and academic communities have been manipulated by the great corporations, and by government agencies like the C.I.A. serving the same corporate interests.
Yet the task of analyzing American imperialism, its possibilities and limits—a task understandably neglected by the academies, at least so far as published work is concerned—has not been carried out by the left either. The left has always suffered from a tendency to let its agitation get mixed up with its analysis. It also suffers from its own curiously intense pieties: from a desire to see contemporary realities as much as possible through the eyes of certain past thinkers, and from pedantic rigidity about the modification of established categories. Today, particularly, it is affected for both good and evil by the greatest wave of youthful revolutionary romanticism that has been known since 1848, and by the forms of rhetoric to which that gives rise—including the competition between forms of black and white revolutionary rhetoric.
These tendencies, especially when combined with unconscious Americo-centrism are calculated to obscure the actual relations between America and the rest of the world. Young American revolutionaries see everything that happens in the world as an aspect of US imperialism and the fight against it. Here I want to refer to an important and influential manifesto, which many of you, no doubt, know—the pamphlet, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know How the Wind Blows.” The manifesto is remarkable in several ways, and I shall come back to it later. For the moment, I want to consider only its presentation of America’s place in the world, of which the core is the following:
…every other empire and petty dictator is in the long run dependent on US imperialism, which has unified, allied with, and defended all of the reactionary forces of the whole world. Thus, in considering every other force or phenomenon, from Soviet imperialism or Israeli imperialism to “workers’ struggle” in France or Czechoslovakia, we determine who are our friends and who are our enemies according to whether they help US imperialism or fight to defeat it.
Quoting Lin Piao and Che Guevara, the writers argue for the inevitability of “two, three, many Vietnams,” and of the over-extension of US imperialism, and thereby its destruction. Through this process, it is believed that the revolution in America itself will have been made by the people of the entire world.
This pamphlet, though its arguments are well presented and often acute in relation to what its authors know best—the present situation of this country’s youth—is not singled out here just as a specimen of socialist analysis; there are obviously many more sophisticated analyses in existence. Its impact is a double one: it represents the current, or more or less current, world view of many of the most serious, courageous, whole-hearted, and determined young people in this country, and it is distorted to the point of fantasy.
The United States is not the sole purveyor of oppression and aggression in the world, nor has it “unified” all other reactionary forces. Neither the Soviet Union, nor imperialist actions by the Soviet Government, are “dependent on US imperialism”—“in the long run” or otherwise. “The people of the entire world,” thrown en bloc by the manifesto into the struggle against American power, are not in fact united in any such struggle, and can be united only if the United States insists on making them so. There is no certainty, and no inevitability, about the idea of multiple Vietnams and over-extension of American power—although many potential future Vietnams exist in Thailand, the Philippines, Latin America, and elsewhere.
The bourgeoisie also learn from Marxism, as one of the most acute Marxists of the century, Antonio Gramsci, pointed out in The Modern Prince, and they also learn from an even more copious and relevant repertoire: that of their own mistakes. One Vietnam makes others rather less likely than not. The relations of interdependence or exploitation between the United States and the poor world are grossly overstated in the whole theory. If all of Africa were wiped out, the American economy would not be seriously shaken, and if all the United States were wiped out, populations of Africa would be neither much better nor much worse off, nor otherwise greatly affected by the news.
Lin Piao’s identification of the advanced countries with “the cities” of the Chinese revolution, to be starved into submission by the “countryside” of the underdeveloped world, is surely one of the least sound analogies ever to be widely quoted with affright or approval. These supposed “cities”—Canada, for example—are actually exporting grain in quantity to the supposed “countryside.” The unsoundness of this key analogy, coming from one of the key exponents of the revolutionary theory I have been discussing, spotlights the weakness of the theory generally and of its predictions of the inevitable.
It is not true at all, as the Weather-man manifesto claims, that the relative affluence existing in the United States is now dependent upon the labor and natural resources of the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians, and the rest of the peoples of the third world. It would be true to say that this relative affluence was achieved in the past by the spoliation of other peoples, by the African slave trade and the genocide of the Red Indian, but it is not true that it depends now, to anything but a marginal extent, on the labor and resources of the third world. Nor is the margin decisive: the United States is not visibly worse off economically for the loss of China, and would be distinctly better off without Vietnam. America is neither dependent today on the third world nor capable of being revolutionized by anything that happens there—unless it is something America itself decides to do Those America who are counting on the revolution in America being made by the “people of the world” are counting on something that is not going to happen.
“We determine,” says the manifesto, “who are our friends and who are our enemies according to whether they help US imperialism or help to defeat it”! We determine, or so the manifesto implies according to a predetermined system whether the Ibo or the Hausa, the Belfast Catholic or Protestant, the Moslem or the Hindu, the Arab or the Kurd, is friend or enemy—though not one of them, in relation to the struggles between the pairs, is giving a thought to “us” or to US imperialism, and though the hostilities between them antedate the coming into existence of the United States. This form of thought is almost a sub-variety of imperialism, a standing-on-its-head of the old “indirect aggression” theory. Just as, for the United States government, if a foreign State was friendly to the United States, the peoples oppressed by it were automatically suspected of communism and deserved what they got, so in this world-view, if a State is hostile or even judged to be potentially or “objectively” hostile to the United States, then peoples oppressed by it are enemies of the revolution, and deserve what they get.
These are two faces of Americocentrism. Another and more reasonable one is also possible:
Violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.
The saying is not, obviously, one from Mao or Che: it is from the nineteenth-century Irish agrarian agitator, William O’Brien. As it has been attributed to me by Miss Hannah Arendt, I may perhaps claim the patent rights for the present century.
The saying may, in certain circumstances, be true. Now obviously the last thing most of the young revolutionaries of today might seem to want is to ensure a hearing for moderation. That, nonetheless, is what they may succeed in doing and they are aware of this. It is one of the possibilities. It is vastly more probable that young revolutionaries will gain a hearing for moderation than that they will achieve their actual program, dependent as that is on a misunderstanding of the world. It is about on the same level, in respect of probability, as the chance that their activities may help—only help—to bring into being some new American form of fascism.
The dialectics of non-violence, violence, reform, and repression are still insufficiently understood. In my own island, we have had experience of one form of interplay of these forces. The Civil Rights movement in Northern Irelend was modeled, consciously, on the civil rights movement in this country—especially, in the beginning, on the forms which the American civil rights movement took in the early years of this decade in the South. The situations were in some ways comparable. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—to give it its full title—is a kind of federal system, within which the political entity of Northern Ireland enjoys limited autonomy, a kind of states’ rights.
As in the case of the American South, the main function of the local autonomy is to provide cover for a local caste system, the Catholics being the blacks in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, like Dixie, is potentially vulnerable to protest in that ultimate power is in the hands of people who cannot overtly condone or back the use of force in defense of the local caste system. This civil rights movement began as a strictly non-violent one: civil rights workers were pelted with rocks, thrown into jail, beaten by the police, without resistance or retaliation. That was in January of last year at Burntollet near Derry, and elsewhere.
By August of last year, civil rights people and the people of the Catholic ghetto, in Derry itself, used force to break up a traditional procession of their oppressors—which symbolizes the subjection of the Catholics—and successfully defended their ghetto against the police by the use of petrol bombs. In Belfast, armed defenders of Protestant supremacy started shooting Catholics and burning their homes. The British Government, in a decision strikingly similar to Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to Little Rock, sent in British troops, with the primary object of preventing a massacre of Catholics. In the wake of these events appeared the Cameron and Hunt reports, officially acknowledging for the first time the notorious facts pertaining to the second-class citizenship of Catholics in the area, and the maintenance of an institutionalized caste system through an armed sectarian police. Legislation is following, intended to ensure equality of rights.
“No bombs, no rights” read a local headline. There is not a doubt that the young people of the Civil Rights movement with backing from older people had achieved first through non-violent, symbolic protest, and then through the use of a limited degree of violence, far more than their elders had achieved in two generations of argument and minority voting. It is also true that the cost was high, and probably not yet paid in full, and that the outcome might, and probably would, have been different had Northern Ireland—like Dixie and unlike, say, South Africa—not been legally open to intervention from outside. Nonetheless, the achievement remains real, and notable. In this case, violence did indeed assure a hearing for moderation, which, in the absence of violence, had gone unheard for nearly fifty years.
The Northern Ireland demonstrators were following—at their own pace, in their own way, in their own particular situation—an American example. And that example was set in the course of a struggle within America itself. Paradoxically, what is most important for the world outside is not what attitudes you take towards that world, but what happens domestically, inside your own society. Americocentrism, understood in that way, makes the soundest of good sense. You can neither export nor import revolution. Your government, it is true, can and does export varieties of counter-revolution, but these are fragile and temporary precisely in the degree to which they require American support. Conversely, a revolution which can be defeated by your Central Intelligence Agency cannot be a revolution on a Russian or Chinese scale. Military intervention is, of course, quite another matter.
It is quite true that, granted the horror and misery of most of the world, advice to concentrate primarily on the internal problems of your own society, so rich as a totality, may seem callous. Many of those most concerned about the world are also those most concerned about life here. Yet, this country being what it is, the most urgent priority, by far, lies here. So long as your society remains dominated by racist values, as it is still now, so long as it is securely in the grip of the capitalist ethic of the devil take the hindmost, so long as it tolerates within itself such great regions of blight and poverty, which as a society it has ample means to heal—so long will anything that it offers to give to the rest of the world be blighted too, whether it be aid or advice. The thing of most real value that America has given to the world in this decade has been something not designed for export: the examples of Americans fighting against American abuses in America. Foremost among American abuses, of course, have been those policies which have squandered America’s wealth on an infamous war in Vietnam, instead of using it for the solution of America’s problems in her own cities. The struggle against these policies, and specifically against the war in Vietnam remains the most urgent task today, and must not be allowed to flag.
It is obvious that the only hope of changing this society lies in its young people both black and white. The impetus must come from there. But what direction the impetus will actually take—a question quite distinct from that of the direction planned—depends to a very great extent on older people. American society will not change its ways unless the younger generation is sufficiently militant, is sufficient number, to force it to do so. And if that necessary intensity and quantity of militancy are present, then some violence will probably be involved, at least at the fringes of the movement; or if not violence, a rudeness of manner that will strike some people as violent. Much will depend then on whether those millions of middle-class Americans who now oppose racism and the Vietnam war will continue to do so, will stand firm, or will allow themselves to be scared off by the scattered violence, or rudeness, of the left, and the predictably greater violence of the right, into that officially approved condition, the silence of the majority. If that happens, some new form of fascism is likely to be the outcome. If so, it will be the fruit, as before, not only of the violence of the young, but also of the timidity and collusion of their elders with the status quo.
My own approach to this is necessarily that of an outsider. Since the advice I give you is essentially to mind your own business as a country, it is logical that I have, up to a point, decided to mind mine—perhaps for the first time—by going back to my own country and there pitting myself against various picturesque local editions of the poor man’s Spiro T. Agnew.
As an outsider, I have felt it most useful thus far to concentrate on your relations with the outside world, and on what seemed to be some dangerous illusions about that outside world. In doing so I dwelt on those aspects of a recent manifesto—the Weatherman—which seemed to me to exemplify those illusions. But I should like to recommend any one of you who may not have read the pamphlet in question to read it carefully, not for its advice about the world in general but for what it says about America. I speak to those who, like myself, were born about the same time as the October Revolution of 1917, and who are not standing up very well either. Read it, this revolutionary manifesto—I shall not try to summarize it—bearing in mind that your reactions in reading it, and in hearing things like it, and in hearing the reactions of your contemporaries to it, are likely to be of considerable significance in the future of this country, and of the world.
Communication between the generations is still possible, not on the basis of flattery, patronage, or acquiescence in nonsense, but on the basis of a limited agenda, limited expectations, and common objectives. Few, in our generation, are likely to share the millenary and Messianic hopes of the young revolutionaries, and if we don’t we should make that clear, as we should also make clear the distrust which experience has probably instilled in us for all neat, systematic, and precisely predictive formulations in politics. This should not rule out work for common short-term and mid-term objectives. Could, for example, the present police persecution of the Black Panthers, and what looks very like concerted police terrorism against members of that movement, suggest a common objective at present? Are there means for people who are non-violent to make their presence felt against racist terrorism, ordered by this society in the name of law enforcement? If the Panthers welcome cooperation as they seem to, will it be forthcoming?
These questions I must leave to you, to black and white Americans, or I overstep the line I set myself as an outsider. If anything can be done along these lines, however, I should like to support it in any way I can as an ex-resident-alien perennial visitor, former potential American, and sometime fringe participant in your struggle.
Violence is inscribed by the past and present of this society, into its future also. To what extent it can be minimized, to what extent it will, when it occurs, open a hearing for moderation that will promote major social change, and to what extent it will simply open a way for violent repression depend in some degree on you and especially on the quality of the interaction between those young and middle-aged black and white Americans who have in common a perception and detestation of racism and imperialism and a desire, however loosely formulated, to work together to defeat these forces in America first.
I hope you will forgive me if I have seemed to lecture you. It is a position which it is rather hard for a lecturer to avoid. In any case it is really not in that spirit that I have wanted to talk to you, but in one of respect to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, whose members and friends bore the brunt of reaction in the past decade and are likely to be called to do so again in the decade that is about to open—and most especially those whom we all so rightly have honored this evening.* The National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee has struggled against those forces in America which oppress much of the outside world too but it has challenged above all their control over Americans. That struggle, conducted by Americans inside America and primarily for America, is the work and the example which the world most needs from America.
January 29, 1970