As long as capitalist powers have divided up the world there has been resistance to them. By the end of the 19th century the big powers had largely finished carving the planet up between them. Imperialism was not just about colonialism, but the shape of capitalist competition. Competing blocs of capital fought economically and militarily for domination.
But after the Second World War national liberation movements gained major victories. The British, French and Belgian empires ceased to exist. China was united.
In part the old empires crumbled because of the changing balance of forces. After 1945 the US became dominant among the big powers, and US capital did not rely on direct colonial control to secure profits. But the strength of the resistance movements was the main factor.
The US and Russia emerged as the two superpowers, dividing the world between them and threatening each other with nuclear war for almost 50 years in the Cold War.
Many national liberation struggles allied themselves with the Russian bloc during the Cold War. They were driven into the Russian camp by US hostility or the ideology of the movements themselves.
National revolutions calling themselves communist or socialist took place in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In none of these cases has the working class come to power — a fact which later bred disillusion as each of these regimes failed in its apparent promise.
Many regimes regarded Russia as a model of how they could develop the country through state sponsored industrialisation. After the collapse of the Russian bloc a common pattern developed, which led to an ideological crisis for national liberation movements.
Previously they had seen the choice as being between Washington and Moscow. Now they accepted that the US neo-liberal model was the only option.
With the “fall of Communism”, US capitalism set out to remake the world to fit its needs. Military force is one part of its armoury. Bodies like the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund are another.
In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was so strong that the white ruling class eventually grasped that it had to give it control. But the ANC had to agree to protect the interests of the multinationals. This means the vast majority of blacks continue to live in poverty.
Organisations such as the republican movement in Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the FMLN in El Salvador were seen as the focus of opposition to the system in the 1980s.
In the 1990s they became proponents of moderation and sacrifice before the dictates of world capital. The FMLN — once regarded as one of the most left wing guerrilla groups in the world — engaged in a peace pact with the butchers of the Arena party, who ran El Salvador’s death squads.
Some national movements even allied themselves with the US, including some sections of the Kurdish movement. But in return for a limited say in government each has had to police its own supporters.
The problem for a number of movements is that imperialism isn’t always ready to accept the compromise. That is the crisis at the heart of the Palestianian problem and the impasse in the Northern Ireland peace process.
George Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon demand that the Palestinian Authority jail those trying to attack Israel. The British and Irish governments demand that Sinn Fein denounce the IRA as “criminal”.
But there are signs that the US-led occupation of Iraq is provoking a new national liberation struggle directed at freeing that country from foreign rule.
The resistance is on a larger scale than the older anti-imperial struggles. It reopens the prospect of a period when resistance to imperialism is not about peace processes, but about struggle.
The imperialists’ potential solutions remain. Attempts by the US to divide and rule along sectarian lines are a tactic as old as colonialism. The attempts to pull sectors of society into accepting compromise on the road to self-rule are also present. The lesson of the last century is that national liberation movements succeed when they are linked to mass movements and supported by a mass movement in the imperial powers themselves.
Iraq demonstrates imperialism is in a vicious stage. But there is also the potential for the Iraqi movement to open a period of liberation and defeat for imperialism.