Reviving the Language of Empire

Aziz Rana on revisiting the anti-imperialism of the 1960s and ’70s amid the return of left internationalism.

Nora Caplan-Bricker
May 9, 2024

Student protesters at Columbia University in April 1968.

AP Photo/Jacob Harris

In the past seven months, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have participated in protests in solidarity with Palestine. Across the United States, demonstrators took to the streets roughly 2,000 times in the first eight weeks of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which has gone on to kill more than 35,000 Palestinians. In November, an estimated 300,000 people gathered in DC for what organizers, in a nod to the civil rights movement, called a National March on Washington to Free Palestine. And in recent weeks, opposition has erupted anew on college campuses, with students occupying lawns, plazas, and academic buildings at more than 150 schools. This latest wave has been met on some campuses by police in full riot gear, who have dismantled student encampments at the behest of university administrators, resulting in more than 2,000 arrests in less than three weeks.

Inevitably, these months of protest have recalled the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, the last moment when anti-war demonstrators regularly filled the streets of American cities. (Despite global protests against the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, domestic opposition was relatively limited.) The echoes are inescapable: Students arrested at Columbia University, for example, had taken over a building previously occupied in 1968. Just as significant are the ideological resonances. In the ’60s, opposition to Vietnam and disappointment with the limitations of civil rights victories encouraged a generation of protesters to connect their moral outrage with a broader critique of the US as global hegemon. In a 1970 survey of US college students, for instance, researchers found that 79% of respondents “strongly or partially agreed that ‘the war in Vietnam is pure imperialism.’” They were surely influenced by the era’s left-wing activist groups—such as the Black Panther Party—which drew direct inspiration from the decolonial struggles then unfolding across Asia and Africa.

To discuss the parallels between these moments in history, I reached out to Aziz Rana, the political theorist and constitutional scholar who has written extensively on left internationalism. His 2010 book, The Two Faces of American Freedom, explores the origins of US empire and the complex interplay between American narratives of liberty on the one hand and American practices of subordination on the other. His latest book, The Constitutional Bind: How Americans Came to Idolize a Document that Fails Them, likewise deconstructs foundational national myths, spotlighting the many left movements—including the Panthers and other ’60s formations—that wrestled with how to create a more truly democratic constitutionalism.

I spoke with Rana in February about the often-occluded history of anti-colonial politics in the US, the limitations of the conventional narrative about why the ’60s movements failed, and the relevance of shifts in academic knowledge production to the protests we see today. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and lightly updated amid the ongoing swell of student organizing.

Nora Caplan-Bricker: Let’s begin by discussing the movements of the 1960s and ’70s. That period is remembered as a high-water mark for left internationalism in the US—but in your work, you’ve often complicated that narrative, both by resurfacing the central place of internationalist commitments to earlier left-wing political formations, and by reframing the period from the ’40s to the 2010s in terms of what you’ve called “the long Cold War.” That phrase refers to an epoch of strikingly durable political consensus about the US’s role in the world, which the anti-imperialism of the ’60s and ’70s did not ultimately manage to puncture. How does this framing change our perception of the movements of that era?

Aziz Rana: First, it’s essential to appreciate that internationalist and anti-colonial traditions played an important role in US politics throughout the 20th century. Figures like Eugene Debs and Crystal Eastman, connected to the Socialist Party of America or the Industrial Workers of the World, pressed for an anti-imperial labor radicalism. They opposed World War I and refused to allow an easy patriotism to undermine transnational worker solidarities. With respect specifically to anti-colonial analysis, Indigenous and Black activists offered rich critiques and accounts of liberation. From Clinton Rickard and Laura Cornelius Kellogg in the 1910s and ’20s to Hank Adams and the Trail of Broken Treaties in ’70s, Indigenous thinkers pressed for everything from independence for Native nations to complex systems of federation and concurrent sovereignty, which would go hand in hand with land return, respect for treaties, Indigenous control over natural resources, and massive redistribution.

Within Black politics, the global project of decolonization provided a powerful imaginative backdrop, one that fed internationalist sensibilities. Socialists like Hubert Harrison emphasized in the ’10s and ’20s that Black people should make their alliances with a global world of color that was fighting the mutually constitutive frameworks of capitalism and empire. W. E. B. Du Bois argued, in a 1944 speech in Haiti, that while Black people were not situated in precisely the same way as, say, Native nations, and so may not have “form[ed] a separate nation,” they nevertheless “resemble[d] in their economic and political condition a distinctly colonial status.” Indeed, such ideas became linked to Black radical critiques of American foreign policy, which activists viewed as structurally inclined to defend imperial interests in Asia and Africa. This was because, they argued, US foreign policy tended to be an expression of internal inequalities. Black radicals didn’t use the term “settler colonial,” but they were articulating how the American experience had long bound self-government and economic prosperity for insiders to projects of land expropriation, vis-à-vis Indigenous nations, and coerced labor, vis-à-vis groups like enslaved Black people. Unless the country genuinely dealt with these internal and colonial dynamics, beyond the formal end of segregation alone, it would inevitably project destructive hierarchies onto the global stage. By the mid-century, figures like Du Bois or the great labor activist James Boggs declared that it wasn’t a coincidence that even as the US claimed to be on the side of decolonization, its Cold War practices were thickly embedded in close alliances with imperial powers.

By the ’60s, deepening domestic and global crises moved these Black arguments to the heart of mainstream debate. In particular, the intensity of the Vietnam War, as well as the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans were being drafted annually, spread the language of empire as a way of thinking about the US Cold War project. And as social unrest at home continued despite civil rights legislative victories, it created pressure to push beyond the language and agenda of legal desegregation. Activists—well beyond Black and Indigenous counter-publics—contended that, rather than an exceptional nation untainted by European empire, the US was better understood as one instantiation of that long history. Opposing the Vietnam War therefore meant pursuing a broader anti-imperial agenda. And confronting domestic racism meant creatively adapting the global project of decolonization to the American setting.

Across wide swathes of the emergent left, students and activists called for ending the colonial status of existing territories like Puerto Rico and Guam; sharing real sovereignty with Native nations; broad-ranging reparations, both at home and for communities abroad that had faced security state intervention; expanded socioeconomic rights and wealth transfers (such as through the public and universal provision of food, housing, child care, medical care, reproductive rights, a non-exploitative job, and a guaranteed income); extensive demobilization and reimagining of military, security, and policing frameworks; decriminalizing the border; and providing legal and political avenues for the remedy of both historic colonial crimes and ongoing state violence.

In the end, the difficulty was that there really was no meaningful pathway for movement activists to claim actual political power on behalf of these ideas. That was due to structural facts about the US state and society at the time—especially the growing conservatism of white working-class politics, the diminished radicalism and strength of the labor movement in the ’70s as compared to previous decades, and numerous other changes wrought by the Cold War. And so, when both the Democratic and the Republican Parties shifted to supporting a drawdown in Vietnam, it was very easy for the center to contain radical anti-imperialism—to say, “The problem with Vietnam was that it was an immoral war, not that it exposed something wrong with the Cold War project writ large.”

The war’s end, alongside meaningful material improvements to Black life and the growing incorporation of Black elites into sites of professional and political power, essentially pushed the anti-colonial critique to the margins. It didn’t disappear entirely, of course. These ideas played a central role into the ’80s in left activism against US violence in Latin America and against apartheid South Africa. But overall, the anti-colonial imagination was swamped by the Cold War’s dominant narratives of American exceptionalism. In fact, such narratives were only supercharged by Soviet defeat. That is how, by the ’90s and especially by the eve of 9/11, left talk of the US as an empire abroad or a colonial project at home came to be treated as unserious and bygone ’60s sloganeering.

The story that emerges among American liberals is that there was a “good,” early ’60s, which produced the reforms and achievements of the civil rights movement, and a “bad,” late ’60s, marked by student radicalism and Black Power politics.

NCB: I want to talk a little bit more about the conventional narrative of why the movements of the ’60s failed, which basically holds that the anti-colonial left foundered on its own excessive radicalism. What does this narrative about the movements’ missteps leave out? How do you think about the reasons for the collapse of these radical formations, and what can we learn from their defeat?

AR: The story that emerges among American liberals is that there was a “good,” early ’60s, which produced the reforms and achievements of the civil rights movement, and a “bad,” late ’60s, marked by student radicalism and Black Power politics. I think this division is way too neat. Many of the figures that were centrally involved in the great achievements of the civil rights period, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were radicals; King called for a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society” and railed against the “evils of racism, poverty, and militarism.” I would argue that left energy was in fact key to creating the space for even moderate achievements.

Also, this disaggregation between a “good” and “bad” ’60s tries to separate movements and figures that embraced American nationalist narratives from those that openly critiqued them. Again, this is hard to do, since individuals like King, or Du Bois before him, employed both approaches at different moments. Furthermore, this impulse promotes a false explanation of how the civil rights movement succeeded, suggesting that white supremacists were effectively convinced by the persuasiveness of a redemptive national story rather than politically defeated. But in fact, white supremacists resisted civil rights demands even when they were framed in the most respectful, moderate, and pro-nationalist terms. Just think of how Brown vs. Board of Education and tentative steps toward desegregation in the ’50s and early ’60s precipitated intense white reaction and violence. No matter the narrative language, white supremacists knew that their existing power and status was being contested.

All that being said, it’s true that there were essentially two different orientations among folks broadly on the left in the ’70s. One approach emphasized the need to take over and reconstruct the classic New Deal institutions, like the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party. Such a strategy tended to go hand in hand with a desire to maintain cultural contact with an increasingly conservative white working-class New Deal base, including by investing in national narratives of American exceptionalism and promise. The other orientation was more straightforwardly Third Worldist, in analysis and language. It focused on creating links with transnational anti-colonial and anti-capitalist formations and sought to build a domestic left infrastructure, whether radical unions like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and its offshoots or liberation schools and educational projects. This was meant to be a dissident and insurgent parallel infrastructure to established institutions.

One can overstate these divisions, as there was a great deal of overlap between the orientations. Take Bernie Sanders, a New Deal-influenced democratic socialist who was also involved in solidarity work with Nicaragua. Moreover, both approaches were blocked by the same dynamics, especially the growing conservatism of white working-class politics. Rather than blaming one left approach for the defeat of the other, I think we have to grapple with the extent to which there was little space in that moment for any left project, whether or not it was framed in ways that were respectful of national narratives. When George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon in 1972 on a broad, multiracial platform and an expansive opposition to the premises and politics of the Cold War, he lost in a landslide. Left containment was overdetermined during that period.

NCB: The protests of the past few months constitute the most significant wave of explicitly anti-imperial political action to occur in the US since the ’60s and ’70s. What’s the meaning of this return of an overtly internationalist posture on the US left? And can we talk a little bit about what you see as the resonances with, and perhaps also the divergences from, that ’60s political moment?

AR: A striking feature of the current protests is their explicit internationalism—their refusal to treat foreign matters as disconnected from domestic injustices. Such internationalism recognizes the shaping role of American global primacy both at home and abroad, and the reality that meaningful internal change cannot occur without comparable external shifts. Indeed, a clear resonance between this moment and the late ’60s and early ’70s is the way in which foreign policy—in the context of Vietnam then, and in the context of Israel/Palestine now—is being understood and experienced as a part of domestic politics. That classic imperial cleavage, in which foreign policy is supervised by political elites while domestic politics is the stuff that people wrangle and fight over, has broken down.

During Vietnam, that divide broke down in large part because of the draft. The lesson for politicians, reaffirmed after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was that you can maintain popular disconnect from foreign policy as long as there are no American soldiers on the ground. What’s striking about this moment is that even without American soldiers in Gaza, many young people and activists understand the US as a direct participant. They see the Israeli government’s extreme violence both as tied to American overseas power—given the US’s seemingly unlimited military support—and as continuous with domestic American histories of segregation and dispossession. In this way, today’s revival of the colonial frame—a product of many things, including the Movement for Black Lives, years of work by Palestine advocates, the knowledge production of a changing American academy, and, of course, the US’s approach to Gaza—is notably resonant with the ’60s activist experience of both Vietnam and civil rights protests.

That resonance points toward a possible lesson to be learned from the story of the ’60s and ’70s, about how the opposition to Vietnam was contained as opposition to the war, not to the Cold War itself. With the end of the draft and the drawdown of US involvement, there was a rapid dissipation of energy around the issue. One could similarly imagine that the anti-war politics we’re seeing in this moment would dissipate as the extremity of the violence recedes, so that the issue transforms once again into a matter of foreign policy rather than domestic concern. It remains an open question, as a strategic matter, whether this will become a lasting issue—one that incorporates anti-war energy, for instance, around the question of ceasefire, but is not wholly subsumed by that frame.

There are also interesting dissonances with the past, which hint at why using the language of colonialism or decolonization today can evoke so much intensity. Throughout the ’60s, the question of how to interpret Europe’s colonial legacy remained up for debate, as did the US’s relationship to that legacy. There were commentators and politicians in the US who straightforwardly defended European empire. Others maintained the importance of backing apartheid South Africa as an anti-communist ally. In the ’80s, the US government was still referring to the African National Congress (ANC) as a terrorist group. But from the perspective of 2024, the debate over that colonial legacy has been closed; there’s a clear sense across center and even center-right politics that, for example, what Belgium did in Congo was wrong, as was the US’s participation in sustaining the apartheid system in South Africa. No one today outside the far right explicitly defends colonialism. The term now attaches to historical practices treated by collective consensus as morally wrong.

This fact creates both conceptual difficulties and political possibilities. The main difficulty is that within broader American politics, moral consensus may exist, but it exists devoid of real engagement with the actual complexity of colonial histories. In particular, there is a reductive popular idea of the term that tends to make colonialism a thing of the past, and to understand it through the lens of a simple white/non-white binary. In mainstream uses, colonialism almost definitionally means something like the Belgians in Congo, a relatively thin layer of exclusively European colonial administrators that do not have deeply felt connections or their own national movement linked to a place. This understanding excludes numerous examples, for instance the history of Taiwan, or Japanese settlement in Manchuria. Such conventional wisdom flattens all the varieties of colonialism. It undermines appreciation for how, throughout the world, colonial frameworks have often been intertwined with other deep popular self-understandings and practices. Indeed, colonial analysis, like any lens, doesn’t tell you everything, but it illuminates key things that you otherwise would not see. Still, that flattened conventional wisdom is one reason why commentators can be so incredibly wary of applying the concept to circumstances today. Nonetheless, the moral consensus clearly shifts the cultural terrain in liberal and left politics. It creates an opening for anti-colonial movements, in a way that was less available in the ’60s. For many young Americans coming of age today—no matter their racial background—applying a colonial analysis to contemporary conditions has an intuitive power.

There is another dissonance with the past that is more straightforwardly a dilemma. In the decades since the ’70s, the institutions of the left, both domestically and internationally, have been largely dismantled and demobilized. The places in which left organizing occurred, whether civil rights movement churches or labor unions, have been contained and even legally undermined. Internationally, the first cohort of post-independence leaders across Asia and Africa often instituted authoritarian systems, which deeply compromised the credibility of Third Worldism as a political project. In addition, the kinds of internationalist institutions that leftists and Third Worldists were committed to—and drew guidance and energy from—including the New International Economic Order and many anti-colonial regional formations, faced a similar defeat. Oftentimes this defeat was by force and by the US specifically, but one shouldn’t underestimate the destructive role also played by the Soviet Union and by authoritarians within the Global South. The result today is a political terrain in which the ideas associated with the anti-colonial left are vibrant, and the ideological landscape is more hospitable than it was 50 years ago—but the institutions that could put such ideas into action are relatively weak.

In the decades since the ’70s, the institutions of the left have been largely dismantled and demobilized . . . The result today is a political terrain in which the ideas associated with the anti-colonial left are vibrant—but the institutions that could put such ideas into action are relatively weak.

NCB: From what you were saying earlier, it seems like another thing these two moments share is a series of vexed debates about the role of radical rhetoric in anti-colonial organizing. Can you say more about how this played out in the ’60s?

AR: For liberals and centrists, the lesson of the ’60s has been that the left’s rhetoric and goals—especially those of an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial left—are to blame for conservative success and reform defeats. This narrative holds that the only path to change in the US involves tacking to the political center, particularly on foreign policy or anything connected to security. Those making this argument have routinely scapegoated the most confrontational activist protest choices or slogans from the ’60s as the reason for conservative strength. This is not to say that such choices don’t matter. But any critique of them has to be located within an assessment of the actual power structures and conditions that exist within a society at a specific moment. It’s not like just picking the right words will generate social cohesion.

If anything, our own moment speaks instead to the exhaustion of the centrist vision and agenda that became entrenched after the systematic left defeat of the ’70s. This vision and agenda took for granted many things: the righteousness of American primacy, the legitimacy of global market liberalism, the need for incremental reform, the danger of large-scale structural overhaul. But the result has been rolling social crises: military violence, financial meltdown, intense class inequalities, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and minority communities, white authoritarianism, and ecological disaster, to name a few. Indeed, these crises—as well as the reality of a political class seemingly paralyzed in the face of them—underscore a basic fact: The presumed post-’60s lessons of how to “responsibly” shepherd the American state have had far too deep an imprint on American politics. Biden’s catastrophic approach to Gaza is only the most recent and extreme embodiment of the limitations of this vision.

NCB: I think the pro-Palestine movement is still grappling with the legacy of these presumed lessons from the ’60s, and with the question of which forms of politics will be most effective today. As in earlier eras, some more mainstream formations have prioritized demands that do not explicitly challenge the legitimacy of US global power—such as calls for a ceasefire—while other groups have focused on opposition to apartheid and settler colonialism, and to US support for oppressive regimes. How do you think about the choices facing these movements in the present moment?

AR: This is a significant and live question: “Why can’t activists or people at protests just talk about the violence or make an argument for ceasefire? Why does it have to be wrapped up with invocations of concepts that many people find deeply hurtful or destabilizing?” As you mention, these concepts include everything from apartheid to settler colonialism to genocide. These are important debates to have and it is critical that all sides and groups, within movement formations and beyond, listen seriously to one another and take on board dissenting perspectives about both substance and strategy. These debates also inevitably raise a related question: What does it mean to do solidarity work if you are disciplining Palestinians and Palestinian Americans on what they can and cannot say? That question is part of a longstanding struggle over the extent to which traditionally marginalized groups can make claims in the terms that fully articulate their own sense of estrangement or dispossession.

Across US history, it has been commonplace for groups to be told, effectively, that in order to get a hearing, they have to shift their arguments into different terms, to translate claims into dominant narratives. There is an obvious strategic reason to engage in such translation, given the realities then and now of mainstream American culture and society. The problem has always been that this process of translation isn’t just about picking different words—in a profound way, it can end up shifting what aspirations are sayable. That’s why the call to be pragmatic, to just use the epistemic terms and frameworks that do not produce fracture and division within mainstream American life, doesn’t resolve the matter.

Instead, it generates other, unavoidable political questions. On the one hand, how do activists, given the nature of American society, move the country’s center of gravity so as to make appreciable differences in policy? And on the other hand, how do they avoid reinscribing that estrangement or dispossession that has been a perennial feature of American politics? I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer for how to accomplish this. Ultimately, this is a matter of political judgment and organizing—carefully assessing which claims aid which aims without undermining key commitments to solidarity. I think such political judgment also carries with it responsibilities for both the speaker and the listener. For the speaker, this means being as analytically careful as possible in diagnosis and application. For the listener, it means avoiding “interpretive uncharity.”

Across US history, it has been commonplace for traditionally marginalized groups to be told that in order to get a hearing, they have to translate their claims into dominant narratives . . . The problem has always been that this process of translation isn’t just about picking different words—in a profound way, it can end up shifting what aspirations are sayable.

NCB: This question of what language is permissible to use has become an obsession of the mainstream media. I’m curious what you make of the many think pieces—in outlets like The New York Times—litigating the meaning of terms like “colonialism” and the appropriateness of their application to Israel.

AR: Colonialism and decolonization are among the massive social processes of recent human history, affecting billions of people. It’s no surprise that scholars have been working for decades, especially in the Global South, to grapple with the meaning of those processes for their own societies, and to develop rich, extensive analyses of the concepts themselves. Even if some of the ways the concepts are evoked during protests can be reductive, the movements’ broader analyses are based on serious scholarship.

On the substance of how decolonization specifically has been mischaracterized, I should add that I have been struck by the tendency of various liberals and centrists to see this concept as inherently zero-sum and violent. I understand that this is motivated by genuine concerns over whether some protesters use the terms to reject an inclusive vision for Israel/Palestine. Commentators also very legitimately have in mind both the long history and present-day reality of antisemitism. These concerns though have sometimes become a basis for dismissing entire frameworks and bodies of knowledge—or for avoiding seriously engaging with the ethical reasons that have pushed so many Americans to protest. To me, such dismissal speaks to the way the broader history of American decolonial politics has been occluded. Some centrists and liberals again simply juxtapose “bad” decolonization against “good” civil rights inclusion—formal equality under the law and winning for minorities the opportunity to enjoy professional status and opportunity. The latter is presented as the only way to think of mutual respect and engagement, while the former suggests bloodshed and removal. Just using the term “decolonial” is assumed to reject mutual respect and permanent inclusion.

But to go back to where we started, this ignores that rich decolonial vision that Black and Indigenous freedom activists developed across the 20th century. In the US specifically, activists understood white and non-white communities to be permanently and mutually entangled, and so freedom had to be premised on a non-exclusionary vision of liberation. They believed that the traditional civil rights agenda alone would not address underlying hierarchies nor genuinely produce a society for all in which everyone could achieve meaningful freedom and meaningful protection from violence. Thus the country needed decolonization, but it could not proceed through removal or separation—rather, it required a project that broadly embraced effective equality and self-rule. This is why most of the decolonial agenda discussed earlier was explicitly inclusive—a non-exploitative job for everyone, a guaranteed income for everyone. As James Boggs wrote in 1970 in Racism and the Class Struggle, the project required “tackling” together “all the problems of this society, because at the root of all the problems of black people is the same structure and the same system which is at the root of all the problems of all people.”

Crucially, these ideas echoed the types of demands articulated by Nelson Mandela and others in settler colonial contexts such as South Africa. The goal for Mandela, just as for Boggs, was to find a real path out of the zero-sum thinking that marked the colonial mindset. In fact, that was the very aim of decolonization—not simply flipping who now had the power to oppress. It is a striking limitation of much of the mainstream discussion that it seems to ignore the actual aspirations and concrete agendas of many advocates for decolonization, both then and now.

I see at least some of the hostility to these terms—the profound unwillingness to recognize the depth of the literatures—as connected to the fact that the ground is indeed shifting when it comes to who has control over knowledge production and what ideas get a real airing. Part of that shift is due to a transformation in the backgrounds, experiences, and identities of the people who today are admitted to the American academy. Not unrelatedly, it is also the case that the American academy isn’t necessarily the leader in this transnational work; it is being integrated into a global academy in a shifting world in which the US’s cultural hegemony cannot be assumed.

Some of the opinion pieces you referenced strike me as displaying an uncharity toward younger activists as such, many of whom are very clearly committed to learning from past historical experiences and movement efforts. At least in part, such broad uncharity comes across as a projection of fears about what it means when the world of ideas is no longer centered around a particular range of pre-existing assumptions and questions. It also aids a permissive environment for government crackdowns on student movements, academic centers, course syllabi, and research. But nonetheless, these ideas have deep roots in the US and are more broadly established intellectually and politically than ever before, for scholars and now for generations of students. I don’t think there is any turning back.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is the executive editor of Jewish Currents.