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American Left Exceptionalism

It is the prerogative of imperialist nations to see themselves as more advanced than the nations they dominate, and it is the prerogative of the leader of world imperialism to see itself as the most exceptional nation.  Since America is currently at the forefront of imperialism it behaves in an exceptionalist manner: it judges its policies and actions as the most moral and civilized, imagines that the entire world wants to be American, and reserves the right to place itself over and above imperialist international law.  Hence its occasional practice of making unilateral decisions in defiance of "proper" rules of imperialist behaviour and the moral platitudes regarding "freedom" that accompany these decisions.  And when it does deign to play by the rules of global capitalism that mediate the contradictions between imperialist nations, it does so in a self-congratulatory manner that highlights its exceptionalism: Obama is a nice guy, we are meant to believe, because his administration approaches imperialism like a team sport rather than behave like a gunslinging Texan sheriff.  But when the US does stoop to place itself on the same level as the other imperialist nations it does so in the manner of an American highschool star quarterback who is nice enough to surrender the lime light to the rest of the team.

Unfortunately this attitude of American exceptionalism resonates amongst the American left.  Just as the left spread throughout the competing imperialist nations have often imagined themselves to be more advanced than the left in the periphery (historically evident in the many chauvinist theories that prioritize the revolutionary potential of the industrial working class in the imperialist nations), the American left often imagines itself––both its struggles and its theories––to be the most advanced and most exceptional.  And as the American imperialists reserve the right to dictate the rules of global capitalism, American leftists believe they have the right to dictate the rules of anti-capitalism.

This American attitude is reflected in my own country––perhaps due to its proximity and shared history of settler-colonialism in the western hemisphere––and it is not uncommon to listen to Canadian leftists act according to an exceptionalism that homogenizes themselves with American leftists, and narrowly focuses on imperialist North America, but then end up complaining when it becomes clear that we're not proper members of this exceptionalism: this is a reflection of Canadian imperialism where this country's imperialists use the term we to define their partnership with US imperialism, and then grow agitated when it becomes clear that, like the highschool quarterback's best friend, they are not as exceptional.

In any case, American left exceptionalism has numerous and annoying tendencies, all of which serve to promote the ideology of imperialist chauvinism amongst the left in the US (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) that had done nothing but harm to anti-capitalist struggle.  This is a sub-species of the eurocentrism that often infects the left in the centres of capitalism even if it sometimes veils itself as anti-racist and anti-imperialist.

1. Cominternism, or the struggles in America (and Canada) are the most important.

This is the most common form of American left exceptionalism, inherited from that old eurocentric approach (most often associated with certain brands of Trotskyism) that prioritizes the struggles of the working class at the centres of capitalism as the most advanced and revolutionary.  While I agree that leftists must focus primarily on the struggles in their own social context––on overthrowing capitalism where they are at rather than fetishizing groups elsewhere––this is different than imagining that the struggles in America are ontologically more important than struggles elsewhere.

Amongst popular left institutions there tends to be an obliteration of revolutionary movements in other parts of the world, an unwillingness to speak about these movements except in the most fetishistic way, and more of an interest in focusing on those movements that fit a certain notion of American exceptionalist theory (which I will address below).  And when the exceptionalist left does get involved in internationalist struggles, it often imagines that it is at the forefront of these struggles and will be the liberatory force because, apparently, the people involved in struggle elsewhere are incapable of freeing themselves and they need the help of a more important and advanced left.  The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement around Palestine is an example of this type of thinking: so many leftists here think that through the boycott movement they will decolonize Palestine; this attitude is evident in ahistorical story they tell about the boycott movement around South Africa––they imagine that it was the work of the boycotters in America, and not the revolutionary actions of the colonized in South Africa, that ended apartheid.  This is not to say that the BDS movement is not important (it is) but that the attitude of its adherents demonstrate this exceptionalist tendency.

Then there is the fact that certain left organizations and institutions in America feel the need to dictate the policies of movements elsewhere, as if they are the bloody Comintern of an international that doesn't exist.  And when occasionally when international bodies of cooperating left organizations do exist, American groups in these bodies cause them to fall apart due to their exceptionalist chauvinism––they act as if they have the essential right to dictate to other revolutionaries in other parts of the world.  And sometimes when they visit other countries, and interact with other movements, they simply act as the leftist equivalent of obnoxious yankee tourists.

But this expectionalist tourism is generally rare because, on the whole, there tends to be an unwillingness to study contemporary revolutionary movements in other parts of the world because the exceptionalist left imagines that these movements have nothing important to offer.  In the past I have heard numerous people proclaim, without any real research, that the Peoples Wars in places like Nepal and India don't matter because they already know what they will "look like", and then act as if trade union struggles in their city are the most radical practice in the world. And then, when spontaneous uprisings happen in the middle-east, and they are presented with a limited revolutionary horizon that accords with their exceptionalist notions about radicalism, they suddenly speak about third-world struggles with an authority they imagine they possess––despite the fact that they initially refused to study the historical theory and praxis of these struggles.  (Again I want to point out that many of these narrow-visioned leftists who made numerous and bold ahistorical pronouncements about the Egyptian uprisings are already returning to their willful amnesia of third world struggles; they will make the same pronouncements, the same bizarre claims about spontaneity, when another uprising occurs.)

In any case, this brings me to the next type of exceptionalism…

2.  "New" theory-ism and theoretical "brilliance"

This category of exceptionalism has two interrelated tendencies: 1) to present theoretical engagements with capitalism and imperialism that are not new, and that have an entire history in Asia and Africa, as "new"; 2) to scrap theoretical developments that emerged out of the two world historical communist movements in Russia and China as "outdated" in a frantic search for the new holy grail of revolutionary theory.

Years back at a conference I attended I listened with curiousity as a well-known marxist academic spoke about the need to rearticulate the notion of "the proletariat" in light of peasant struggles in Latin America, willfully unaware that there was already a history of this rearticulation in the revolutionary theories of Mao, Fanon, Cabral, etc.  And yet he never once spoke of these theoretical developments that emerged through revolutionary struggle, acting as if his insights (which were not nearly as astute as those made by Mao or Fanon) were somehow unique and that no one, until he had written his paper, had really thought about peasant struggles and their relationship to proletarian consciousness.  And this anecdote does not demonstrate a unique attitude: I have lost count of the times that either myself or other comrades have argued with our exceptionalist friends about the need to study the theory that emerged from either the Chinese Revolution or the numerous anticolonial movements in Asia and Africa only to be denounced as "third-worldist" simply because we do not think that commie theory should be read in a eurocentric vacuum.

Of course, these other marxists are treated as being incapable of theoretical thought: Mao is just a "stalinist", Fanon is a misguided "freudian", and revolutionaries from Asia and Africa lack any original or sophisticated theoretical insight.  Thus when current revolutionary groups in the global periphery produce bodies of theory and statements they are dismissed as being "old fashioned" because it is bad form to talk about imperialism with "antiquated terminology" [read: antiquated only in America but not the majority of the world], hackneyed, almost comical.  Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I tend to treat the theory that emerges from revolutionary struggle as possessing more revolutionary weight than the supposedly more "eloquent" theory produced by American exceptionalists who imagine that revolution is writing some flowery ode to the problems of organization and consciousness in the oh-so-complex and more serious (fantasized sometimes as more "dangerous") context of the US.  To be clear, this does not mean that I think we should dismiss all theory that does not fit this qualification but that I get tired of the scorn heaped upon thinkers and revolutionaries produced organically by either world historical revolutions, anticolonial movements, or peoples wars when they have far more to teach us than we can ever teach them.

And yet American left exceptionalism imagines that it has a monopoly on revolutionary theory and will produce new and more exciting developments than leftists in the periphery.  So when the theory that emerged from the two world historical revolutions does not appear to be working in America, rather than wonder if this failure might be explained by the theory that emerged from Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (i.e. the labour aristocracy, American leftist's own chauvinist exceptionalism, and a failure to provide a concrete analysis of the concrete situation of American colonial-capitalism), there is a panic to scrap the insights that were won with the blood of the world's oppressed in order to find a new and magical theory.

We are told by some that America is more complex than any society in the world: the theory that might work for the Indians and the Nepalese, therefore, supposedly only works for them because their social contexts are altogether more simple––meaning less civilized.  Clearly the American (and also the Canadian) context possesses a unique complexity, and there is a need to creatively adapt revolutionary theory to its specific complexities, but every social formation is complex and it makes no sense to imagine that America possesses a larger and more confusing complexity than anywhere else.

But no, scrap that theory that supposedly only applies to third world struggles!  Let's have a New Synthesis, or maybe start searching for a theory of organization that is even newer and more sophisticated, and start proclaiming that we have moved beyond the revolutionary theory that was produced by world historical revolutions.  And if our theory never emerged from a revolution that went beyond the last world historical revolution, or never emerged from a movement that even moved into a revolutionary phase, we can still deem it more important than the now "out-dated" past theories because we believe our social context to be more important than the rest of the world.  After all, there has never been a society more complex than America, no?

This frenzied search for the new holy grail of theory tends to produce theorizations that are either not very new or not very useful.  The obsession with spontaneity discussed above, for example, is always re-theorized in new forms, producing a "movementism" that, despite all our hopes and dreams, continues to lead us nowhere.  And though this type of revolutionary praxis never led anyone anywhere, we refuse to recognize its theoretical failures because we also refuse to reflect on the critiques of this praxis that were written long ago by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and other revolutionary thinkers.  Apparently these critiques do not apply because these thinkers are antiquated.

3. Third-worldist fetishism

It might seem odd to argue that "third-worldism" is a type of American exceptionalism, especially since it claims to prioritize the struggles of the third-world as the solution for world revolution, but its simplistic fetishization of third-world revolution is driven by the very "first-worldist" type of chauvinism it supposedly rejects.

The Speed of Dreams blog recently posted a rather succinct critique of Maoist Third-Worldism that demonstrates why this is just another form of American left exceptionalism.  First of all, when third-worldists speak of a global peoples war where the revolutionary peripheries will surround the imperialist centres, they also tend to denounce every single revolutionary movement, organization, and peoples war currently operating in the contemporary world as "armed revisionists."  And though we should always have the right to critique these movements, third-worldist groups like Monkey Smashes Heaven (MSH) and the Leading Light Communist Organization (LLCO) go further by claiming that the problem with these groups is that they do not follow the specific Maoist Third-Worldist theory that was produced by MSH/LLCO.  In other words, third-worldists think that third world movements will only be properly revolutionary when they adopt a theory produced by a bunch of people living at the centre of capitalism––isn't this the very "first-worldism" they attack in everyone else?

Thus, like the exceptionalists promoting the "New Synthesis", third-worldists often promote themselves as the site of new theoretical development (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-LLCOism) as if they have the exceptional right to sit back in their theoretical arm chairs, do the thinking for the more simple-minded third world cadres, and thus guide the world revolution from the comfort of the first world they claim to despise: a division of mental and manual labour that any serious communist should find dubious.  Truly, if the first-world was devoid of revolutionary potential then why would these organizations imagine that they could invent a new universal development of revolutionary theory?  Simple answer: because they are an historical exception.

American left exceptionalism, then, is generally marked by the same chauvinism that defines American exceptionalism but painted red and cloaked in leftist lingo: the need to dictate policy to the rest of the world, the belief that the struggles in the centre are more significant and complex than elsewhere, the rejection of the theoretical and revolutionary contribution of others (except when this contribution can be used in a very self-serving manner), and a fundamental desire to absent oneself from world history in order to imagine that the American context is more unique and special and deserving of its especial historical category.


  1. Awesome piece.

    I especially agree re: "new-theoryism." You could just as well put "Maoism-Third Worldism" here as well, which just goes to show how much these various problems intersect as well.

    In my own article on LLCO I compared MTW to the Avakianists "New Synthesis." Yet they definitely are not the only two groups who are hard at work on producing some kind universally applicable new theory.

    Mike Ely and the Kasama Project are another good example. Ely broke with the RCP-USA after the autogolpe of Bob Avakian and his "New Synthesis" and ever since has been looking for some kind of replacement. They're a mishmash of ideas - Badiou, denials of white privilege, and a moving further and further away from MLM - yet they to are trying to come up with other First World born universal revolutionary theory. Overall their project is Eurocentric and American exceptionalist to the core.

  2. Thanks... They do all dovetail together, but I wanted to pull specific strands out - I wasn't even thinking of MTW when I first thought about writing about left exceptionalism, but then I read your to-the-point piece on MTW and it reminded me about my past concerns with that ideology.

    I like Badiou as a philosopher, and appreciate some of the positions he's taken, but I find that there is this very strange and eclectic obsession with him amongst the American left that seems to believe, without any way that I can see, that he represents some synthesis [newer synthesis?] of the MLM experience. I suppose it's less annoying/eclectic than the obsession with Zizek, but...

  3. I was kind of surprised when I read on that POCO interview that the LLCO doesn't consider reservation-dwellers and migrant workers (or prisoners) true revolutionary subjects. I was always under the impression that they considered these groups dismally oppressed (in an absolute sense) but too small or dispersed to seriously threaten capitalist hegemony. That seemed fair to me.

    I'm drawing mainly from here: when I say this.

  4. Yeah, there was a discussion on the comments of the POCO interview with RAIM (a group associated with LLCO) where they called an indigenous person a "first worlder"... it was pretty strange.

  5. Monkey Smashes Heaven, which is now the official theoretical journal of LLCO makes it pretty clear what they think of the non-white peoples of the First World in this video (the robo voice is pretty irritating, luckily the transcript of what is said is just below)

    Anyway, I think the LLCO, RAIM and the rest of the Maoist-Third Worldists have, at best, a deeply confused position, and at worst a dishonest position. They say that colonized people of the First World (Indians, Africans, Aboriginees, Maori) etc are NATIONALLY oppressed, but NOT exploited (a refutable point in my opinion as a sociologist and anthropologist). Simply by virtue of living in the First World they are exploiters of the Third World, which I think is a dubious stance.

    They also say that they want to destroy Amerikkka and give the land back to the Indians and everyone else, yet at the same time think that revolution will only come when a massive invasion of Third World forces destroys the exploiter nations and physically disperses them to the Third World as forced labour. But aren't Indians exploiters? So are they going to get their land back and then be made into forced labour in the Third World.

    So they kind of jump all over the place. They are either confused over their own positions or they are being dishonest, and from talking to comrades who interact with some of their key members regularly (I have a good friend who talk to their main theorist, Prairie Fire, all the time)I am, unfortunately, inclined to lean towards the latter.

    It's a real problem then that they won't discuss serious challenges to their thought, and will only take on challenges that they think can be easily handled (like the pretty pathetic critique of them from the Hoxhist American Party of Labor). If you really challenge them then they just attack you with ad hominem attacks, or just ignore you. I learned this the hard way, as I was the Native person being called a First Worlder and other attacks on my character because I presented a critique of their thought. I think this is why they haven't responded to my most recent critique of them.

  6. I should also note that the whole "nationally oppressed but not exploited" thing they have going on has always been there, expressed in lots of their documents (again, they are either confused or dishonest). This got me into trouble in the POCO discussion, but I am always forced to reference my comrades who interact with them regularly, and I know from them that lots of LLCO members (an org that between it and RAIM has 50 members tops) do think the colonized people of the First World are oppressed at all (because they live high of the imperialist hog apparently).

    It should be noted though that this trend of thought though can actually be traced back to their ideological predecessor, the Maoist Internationalist Movement (I can't find the documents now, but I've actually read them recently). It's one of the reasons that, as far as I know, Sakai, whose book Settlers MIM promoted so much, did not really like them at all.

  7. Whether theoretically confused or dishonest, I tend to find the theoretical offerings on MSH hackneyed and cultish: the distinction between nationally oppressed and exploited is hair-splitting that does nothing. I mean, even to say that no one in the first world is exploited by capitalism here is dubious... you can still be exploited by a mode of production *and* part of an exploiter nation. And colonized peoples in exploiting nations *may* (and I emphasize may) benefit from the muted contradictions of nations that are the centres of capitalism (as opposed to their colonized counterparts in countries that are also part of the global periphery) but to imply that that suddenly makes them part of a global exploiting class, and privileged, mutes over so many contradictions. And all of the significant theorists of imperialism (from Lenin onwards) recognized that there were fragments of the peripheries in the central nations. Thus, there are important and necessary readings of colonized nations constituting exploited nations just like the rest of the global periphery: and if there are contradictions here between a colonized peoples' membership in an exploited peripheral nation *and* their existence in a society where a culture industry is produced through imperialism, then that is simply because capitalism, especially global capitalism, produces contradictions. Understanding them is called dialectics: there is a reason that Maoists used to speak of multiple contradictions and trying to understand how things shifted from principle to secondary, etc., etc.

    Yeah, I remember reading that argument on the POCO thread where their positions were pretty much: "I'm not going to argue with you but you're a first worlder"... which is ironic considering, as both you and I have pointed out, their entire approach is actually very demonstrative of first world chauvinism: we have the theory, you do the work for us but only if you follow our theory, us being first worlders, etc.

    MIM had its problems but did produce some interesting stuff: I didn't feel it went completely off the deep end like MSH/LLCO - aside from the puritanical weirdness - and it did do some good work around prisons, apparently, that I've heard is king of still continuing. Reading MIM documents wasn't half as silly as reading LLCO documents (which read as if they were written by a cult, not marxists, no matter how much they talk about science)...

  8. MIM Prisons is still indeed alive and kicking

    I also agree that MIM wasn't as baked as LLCO, my point was just that the kind of hair-splitting that LLCO performs around exploited vs oppressed nations is not something they pulled out of nowhere.

    I also agree that it is all incredibly cult like, which is one of the reasons I consciously chose to compare them to the Revolutionary Communist Party USA.

    As for calling me a First Worlder, it is just plain stupid, as I didn't grow up in North Amerika, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia or New Zealand. I grew up in one of the the UK's remaining colonies in the Caribbean cultural, political and economic zone. But I digress...

  9. Yeah, I always felt that MSH, in its first website incarnation, was an echo of MIM. I have a friend/comrade who jokes that MSH could be an agent organization considering that they confirm the most ridiculous beliefs about maoists: I mean, charges blanket-levelled at Maoism are that it's just a third-worldist ideology, etc., and then suddenly you have people out there confirming the most asinine, straw-person maoism.

    Oh well, I don't want to just bash that crew since, despite the problems I have with their theory, I haven't had real experiences with them as people/activists (though now I'm wondering if they'll flame this comments list)...

  10. " First of all, when third-worldists speak of a global peoples war where the revolutionary peripheries will surround the imperialist centres, they also tend to denounce every single revolutionary movement, organization, and peoples war currently operating in the contemporary world as "armed revisionists."

    I am so glad you wrote this because this is THE reason why I decided the LCCO/MSH was a joke/first world chauvinist. They had extensive article attacking the UCPN and the CPI just because they didn't follow MTWism.

    I talk regularly to "M"TWist and they act like cult people, you try to debate their ideas and you get "MTWism is the most advanced communist theory! all others are fence sitters and reactionary" or else I am a "first world parasite" which is cute because they tell me this over the internet on fb. Which sucks because I really just wanna discuss their policies and hear their "advanced science" for why they believe what they believe but they just parrot the same shit all the time. And when all else fails they just call me names.

    I think they would call a third world revolutionary soldier a first worldist if he spoke up against their line. and one more thing; I hate that they call themselves Maoist, they don't use serve the people as a guiding light, they don't encourage peaceful debate, they kind of act like liberals. Why don't they call themselves what they are? Lin Biaoist-third worldist

  11. Thanks... Yeah, the tone of their "maoism" is so self-righteous, not to mention self-contradictory (and not in the possibly fruitful dialectical way of contradiction) that their members are incapable of arguing except to call names and imagine that they're leading the world. It is telling that when you just want to ask what they believe, mainly out of interest, they react so defensively: hence the "cult" attitude––cult leaders do not like questions or critical investigation and raise their hackles whenever these questions are asked.

    Clearly there are good reasons to be critical of other revolutionary movements, but their critiques are far from thoughtful. The left line in the UCPN(Maoist) might be losing the line struggle, but that's not the reason they're denounced by the MTWists... As you say, the denunciation is simply because the UCPN(Maoist) doesn't follow the MTW line... and then the MTWists say, as if they've scored a triumph, that they were right all along about the revolution in Nepal. But I could say that a basketball team is going to fail because my religious leader told me that they were satan worshippers; that doesn't mean that their failure confirms the reasons given by the religious leader!


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