The Anti-Imperialist League lessons for today

Opinion



“The United States has always protested against the doctrine of international law which permits the subjugation of the weak by the strong. A self-governing state cannot accept sovereignty over an unwilling people ... if an administration may with impunity ignore the issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition of war anywhere on the globe ... organize a truth-suppressing censorship and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgment and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the fighting, representative government itself is imperiled ... we propose to contribute to the defeat of any person or party that stands for the forcible subjugation of any people. We shall oppose for re-election all who in the White House or in Congress betray American Liberty in pursuit of Un-American ends.” (excerpts from the platform of the American Anti-Imperialist League, 1899)

Founded in response to the U.S. government’s annexation of the Philippines and brutal suppression of the Filipino independence movement in the aftermath of the Spanish American war (1898), the Anti-Imperialist League continued the peace activism of the abolitionists who had opposed the Mexican war of the 1840s as a slaverholder’s war of conquest. Representing largely middle-class professionals, the League rallied to its ranks old abolitionist Carl Schurz, philosopher William James, novelist Mark Twain, and even robber baron Andrew Carnegie, who fancied himself a “progressive” on some issues.

Beyond its famous members, the League organized chapters throughout the country and had at its peak more than 30,000 members. It pressured Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had opportunistically avoided the issue of Philippine annexation earlier, to campaign as an anti-imperialist in the election of 1900.

As Marxist historian Philip Foner and other scholars have noted, the League’s failure to reach out to the labor movement, along with Bryan’s waffling on the question of imperialism and other issues of importance to labor, reduced working-class support and contributed to the Republican victory in 1900, which the establishment press hailed falsely as a popular mandate for imperialism.

Many of the League’s capitalist supporters also withdrew their support in the face of government threats to go after critics of its war policies. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, also harmed the League by connecting imperialism with pro-labor social reform policies – what Lenin called in the European context social imperialism and social chauvinism.

Still, the League played a major role in publicizing the atrocities committed in the name of the United States in the Philippines, where hundreds of thousands perished as whole villages were routinely destroyed in the search for guerillas. While U.S. imperialist policies continued, the League helped to rally the American people against naked colonial conquests of the kind that had been carried out in the Philippines and that European powers had carried out in Africa and Asia.

In his powerful writings against imperialism, Mark Twain mocked what he called “the Blessings of Civilization Trust,” which, like Standard Oil and the domestic trusts, proclaimed themselves to be agents of progress while they sought to use military force to gain profits. Writing to the New York Herald in 1900, Twain noted that at first he had been a “red-hot imperialist.”

“I said to myself,” Twain recalled, “here is a people who have suffered for three centuries ... we can make them as free as ourselves ... put a miniature of the American constitution afloat on the Pacific ... I have seen that we do not intend to free but subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. We have also pledged the power of this country to protect and defend the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars” [a feudal system of landholding controlled by the Catholic Church through its religious orders].

If a contemporary peace movement is to be effective, it must learn from the mistakes of the Anti-Imperialist League and rally the working class, which is the first and surest defender of democracy anywhere. It must also work to promote and support broad-based candidates and platforms that oppose an imperialist foreign policy, hopefully finding a better candidate than William Jennings Bryan to run against Bush (it is a sad commentary on the state of American politics that Bryan would compare favorably with many recent Democratic presidential candidates).

Finally, the peace movement must make clear that Mark Twain’s understanding of McKinley’s imperialist policy fits Bush today, that the rhetoric of “freedom” and bringing “the blessings of civil society” (the contemporary term for “civilization”) to the Iraqis hides a policy of conquest and subjugation carried out on behalf of international oil and construction companies and the local exploiters who will do their bidding.



Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at pww@pww.org