Confronting Empires

Eqbal Ahmad Confronting Empire (Pluto Press, £14.99)

This little book is an absorbing read. A mere 155 pages long, with 6 pages of bibliography and a 3 page appendix of other writings, it sets out in clear and concise language what every student of international affairs and personalities ought to know.  The format is question and answer, where the author discusses the histories and the underlying causes that make up these world events as well as the famous progressives involved in them. The foreword by Edward Said, himself of world renown on the Middle east and the Arab world, introduces the reader to Eqbal Ahmad who provides the text.

Ahmad was born in the Indian province of Bihar, in the village of Irki, in either 1933 or 1934. He has an imposing list of friends and heroes, to whom he pays tribute in a greater or lesser degree. He refers warmly to Noam Chomsky, as an "anarchist humanist", Franz Fanon, (African liberation leader), Mohandas K Ghandi, Antonio Gramsci, (Italian Marxist thinker), Karl Marx, Jawaharlal Nehru, Pablo Neruda, (Chilean poet), and Rabindranath Tagore, (Indian poet). But he is no sycophant, criticising Marx for instance, for shying away "from saying what shape Communism would take" in the Eighteenth Brumaire. And Ghandi is criticised for launching the "Quit India" movement in 1942, Ahmad describing this as a tactical blunder.

He describes Lenin as "antidemocratic", and Regis Debray as "radical but wrong". But V.A Naipaul, though lionised in western circles and winner of the Noble prize for literature, is dismissed for his hatred of Islam and support of the military dictatorship in Pakistan, "as fit only to sell sausages."

But the central theme, as the title suggests, is an analysis of US strategy since 1945. Clearly and without obfuscation the author shows how this has been changed to respond to the growing universal opposition to the administrations grip on their hegemony. Yet even with all their resources concentrated wonderfully on the task, in the opinion of this reviewer they are in the twilight of their supremacy.

Ahmad describes the turning point as the Vietnam war. Whereas previous adventures in Iran, Guatemala and the Congo were virtually unknown to the American people, Vietnam cost 57,000 American lives, 230,000 wounded, nearly $220 billion and thousands of U.S. aircraft. This singular event forced the administration to change tactics with the adoption of the "Nixon Doctrine". Ahmad explains in some detail what this meant.

His view on "terrorism" is worth quoting at some length: "Terrorism should be defined in terms of the illegal use of violence for the purposes of influencing somebody's behaviour, inflicting punishment, or taking revenge, If we define terror in that way, the first thing we discover is that it has been practised on a larger scale, globally, both by governments and by private groups. Private groups fall into various categories. The political terrorist is only one category out of many others. When we talk about terror, then, we are talking about the political variety. When we talk about the political variety, the first thing to ask is, what are its roots? Who is the terrorist?"

Ahmad is critical of the strategy of the Palestine leadership, having discussed it unsuccessfully with Yasir Arafat on a number of occasions, arguing that meeting Israeli force with force is doomed to failure. Rather they should have emulated and still can, the peaceful demonstrations of Mahatma Ghandi and the U.S. civil rights marchers. In this reviewer’s opinion a chance was missed this Christmas, for a peaceful march on Bethlehem to enable Arafat to celebrate the mass.

The author’s view of the Tamil/Sri Lankan war, now 18 years on, puts the blame squarely on Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism, but concludes that the tit-for-tat violence makes "it difficult to foresee a way out".

In this connection the author is particularly well informed about the Indian subcontinent. His views therefore on the current India-Pakistan crisis are invaluable. The original problem is that though the Raj left 47 years ago, colonial governance still rules. Ahmad describes the Indian, Hindu Nationalist government as fascist and that both they and the Pakistan military rulers as caught in a medieval military mindset, but now equipped with nuclear weapons. His answer to this is "You can't put the genie in the bottle, but you can arrest its growth".

He also deals with Armenian genocide, the Balkans, the CIA, Islam, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Taliban, and Zionism.

He concludes on the challenge to the progressive forces of individualism, stating that "The notion of solidarity beyond self and beyond family, beyond the small group, has become increasingly alien in modern consumer-oriented American society." This is an understandable characteristic in a U.S. $7 trillion economy, that spends $1 trillion on targeting individuals for marketing purposes.

His answer to this challenge is to transmit ideas and information as best we can and take risks for the common good.

This is also a useful reference book in following events world wide.

The reviewer, George Anthony is a member of the editorial board of the UK anti-imperialist magazine Liberation and edits the Islip Unity Group Political Newsletter (see our Magazines list for both).  Find out more about independent left publisher Pluto’s list of titles at