Furthest Right

A Qualified Defense (Paul Gottfried)

A Qualified Defense

Paul Gottfried


Book review: Alain de Benoist’s Europe and the Third World


Benoist is to be praised for reminding us of leftist sources of imperialism, but his assessment of Third World dictatorships leaves much to be desired.

       Benoist’s critique of imperialism has two parts: one of them intellectually sound and timely, and the other flawed and trite. The stronger part of his critique concerns the leftist sources of European imperialism. Benoist reveals the already half-forgotten record of liberal democratic and socialist support for Western colonial expansion, from the last quarter of the nineteenth into the third decade of the twentieth century. Without the political support and intellectual assumptions of self-styled progressives, Benoist maintains, Western imperialism would have been a far less thriving enterprise. It was those who hoped to achieve universal social and material advancement, from the bourgeois democrats of the French Third Republic to the English Fabian socialists and the mature Karl Marx, who had perhaps the least difficulty seeing the positive side of imperialism.
        Benoist piles text upon text to demonstrate the leftist sources of imperialist thinking. He does not claim that there were no grizzled aristocratic officers or other social reactionaries among the advocates of imperialism. Rather he criticizes the theory of Joseph Schumpeter – who challenged Lenin’s association of imperialism with advanced capitalism. Schumpeter tried to refute the Marxist-Lenist account of imperialism by introducing an explanation that turned out to be equally dubious. He blamed imperialism (which he assumed was wicked) not on capitalists (whom he defended as soft-hearted democrats), but on a resurgent military aristocracy. Using nationalism to take back power from an overly rationalistic and pacifistic middle class, the military, the church, and feudal monarchy, according to Schumpeter, were the true driving forces behind imperialist expansion.
        The Schumpeter thesis, though presented by a defender of capitalism, fits in with modern Marxist interpretations of imperialism. Much of the recent research on the social history of Germany during the Second Empire (1871-1918) stresses the fateful link between the military-aristocratic elite and big business. It is argued, correctly, that members of the old ruling order and the rising Grosskapitalisten were both represented in the German naval league and in various groups that advocated colonial expansion for the German Empire. The discovery that such groups also enjoyed the backing of much of the German working class and even of declared Marxists should have discredited the attempt to link German, or any European, imperialism to any one particular social class. Instead, Fritz Fischer, Fritz Stern, and other prominent historians of Germany point to the popular base of German imperialism in order to show a peculiarly German susceptibility to racist and expansionist views.
        In point of fact, imperialism was popular among French and English as well as German workers. One particularly fervent and effective advocate of imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century was the great French republican politician Jules Ferry. Like Karl Marx and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ferry considered imperialism to be a modernizing force that would bring backward parts of the world into a socially and materially advanced civilization. Although it would be wrong to deny that at least some conservatives also supported imperialism, Benoist is correct to observe that European leftists were not acting contrary to their beliefs by backing imperialist adventures. Imperialism was thoroughly consonant with the Left’s belief in modernization. Moreover, until its recent obsession (partly in reaction to American capitalism) with Third World life-styles, the European and American Left made no secret of its contempt for traditional rural societies. The Left hoped from Marx onward that imperialism would obliterate the patriarchal form of production and the religious superstition identified with non-Western parts of the world.
        The efforts of the early Communist Party to incorporate movements aiming at anticolonial uprisings were always affected by a Western Marxist notion of modernization. Revolution was legitimate only if it aimed at creating an industrialized, socialist society of the kind that Marx and other Western progressives had outlined. Benoist notes that the Communist Fourth International in 1928 qualified its support of colonial uprisings by trying to integrate them into a Marxist conception of progressive revolution. Anticolonialism was seen as desirable only if it promoted the workers’ struggle against the owners of the means of production. By contrast and by implication, anticolonial struggles that expressed national or racial consciousness without the aim of Marxist modernization went against the Fourth International’s agenda.
        In light of Benoist’s revealing comments about the history of imperialism, it is regrettable that much of his book is taken up with intemperate attacks on the American government. From reading his work one might get the impression that the principal aim of American foreign policy is to provide protection for corporate capitalism as it savages the Third World. Nowhere does Benoist suggest that Third World countries have been financially and physically victimized by their own rulers. All Third World tyrants are conveniently presented as national revolutionaries who are cleansing their countries of Western democratic and capitalist influences.
        Never does Benoist move beyond the established leftist litany by criticizing Asian and African dictators for squandering financial and national resources without furnishing their people with an industrial infrastructure. His comments on Mexico’s financial crisis are truly astonishing for what they omit, the institutionalized corruption of the ruling (misnamed) Progressive Revolutionary Party. Within a few years the government wasted the revenues from a limited resource, oil, mostly on political patronage, without making significant efforts to modernize the economy. Benoist’s remarks that the Mexican people have been enslaved by the World Bank and by the International Monetary Fund, depicted as the instruments of expanding American capitalism, overlook the true culprit in this morality play. Mexico, like other painfully developing countries, has been shamelessly abused by its own political leadership.
        Benoist claims to be representing the “cause of nations.” By this he means that he supports the rights of peoples to be different from each other and to maintain their own folkways and traditions. His critical comments about the present American government’s expressed commitment to world democracy are often incisive as well as spirited. It is therefore lamentable that he allows these strictures to become interwoven with the unreflective anti-Americanism of the journalist-academic Left. Although a more profound, and certainly more serious, social critic than Jean Francois Revel, Benoist should read Revel on the pandering of Western intellectuals to Third World tyrannies.
        He might also consider whether those anticolonial regimes that he hastens to defend represent a true return to the ancestral ways of formerly colonized people. Certainly it is hard to imagine this return occurring through the imposition of Marxist collectivist schemes and predatory leadership that has followed the establishment of most Third World states. Virgil praises the leader who moresque viris praemia ponet (establishes among men customs and distinctions).”
        The practice of Third World leaders, amply documented by, among others, P.T. Bauer, is to seize privileges and distinctions while leaving their people in worse material circumstances than those that had existed under colonial rule. There is no possible return to the past in the Third World. The amenities of earlier Western liberalism (due process and parliamentary government) have been scrapped and replaced by more recent, harsher Western ideologies – namely, nationalism and Marxism. This replacement of one set of Western ideas by another and the creation of a monolithic state apparatus controlled by a national leader are the typical concomitants of the Third World quest for nationhood. It is remarkable that Benoist should view these developments as an explicitly conservative alternative to liberal democracy.


Paul Gottfried is a senior editor of the Modern Thought section of The World & I and author of The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.

[The World and I (New York), May,1987]


Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn