A common line of argument from the contemporary American left is that “socialism has never been tried.” It’s understandable that Western socialists would make this argument to members of the US proletariat, who have been deeply affected by years of red scare propaganda. This argument however, ignores the millions who have struggled and died in an effort to move beyond the contradictions of capitalism. It diminishes the herculean effort which was needed to transform Cuba from an agrarian society, managed by Western multinationals and their dictator Batista, into its current form, a Nation who recently sent an army of doctors all around the globe to fight Covid. Most importantly, this argument that socialism has never been tried, ignores the role played by Western imperialism in destroying, or attempting to destroy, any and all attempts at building an alternative economic system to capitalism. What Vijay Prashad does in Washington Bullets, is concisely detail just how the US and their allies go about crushing economic and political enemies. The book serves as a guide for a younger generation of socialists to understanding the tools and techniques of the imperialists, which have for years been used to maintain what US officials have called ‘Preponderant Power’, or in other words, economic, political, and military domination of the entire planet.
As Karl Marx wrote his theories on capitalism in the 19th century, he predicted that capitalism would take hold globally, the productive forces of Nations would increase, and eventually workers revolutions would sweep the old system aside, replacing it with communism. While Marx was not dogmatic in this view, and became more critical of colonialism and imperialism later in life, it is safe to say he did not predict the level of capitalist imperialism which would emerge, and be analyzed by Vladimir Lenin in the early 20th century. Rather than the productive forces of all nations increasing as capitalism developed, Lenin found that Imperialist Nations actively halt the development of productive forces in the country’s they exploit. Take for example Venezuela, who for years saw their most abundant natural resource, oil, extracted by British Dutch Shell and Rockefeller Standard Oil. The profits from this oil flowed to Western Private interests, while Venezuela was left with underdeveloped industry, and an entirely oil dependent economy. It was in this context that Venezuela sought to build socialism through reclaiming their natural resources, while simultaneously facing an all out assault of sanctions and coup attempts from the US. The role imperialism plays in the present struggle for socialism is immense. Prahsad’s book analyzes both the impact of imperialism, as well as its changing forms, with the explicit goal of giving socialists a better idea of how to combat it.
In Part One of Three, Prashad talks of Imperialism’s change of form, which was seen after World War II. Following the war, national liberation movements swept across the global south, primarily in Africa and Southern Asia. The Japanese empire and European powers, weakened from the destruction of the Second World War, began losing their grip on their liberation minded colonies. Vietnam, Korea, Syria, Algeria and many more would declare independence following the war, with most only doing so after years of organized struggle. These national liberation movements created a shift from traditional colonialism, to what is usually called neocolonialism. Many nations did achieve their national independence and legal recognition as a nation, what Prashad calls ‘flag independence’. However, the economic and political systems of these nations remain largely under the control of Western private interests. The events of the war, and the National liberation movements, forced a change in form of Western Imperialism. The United States was now the dominant empire, and their primary goal was ‘preponderant power’. A phrase Prashad takes directly from State Department documents, which essentially means the US will seek to be the world’s sole superpower, and enforce their own preferred political and economic systems wherever is seen fit.
The United Nations was created following the war in 1945, with the publicly stated goal of maintaining world peace, and preventing any one nation from acting belligerently. However, in the founding charters of the UN, Prashad finds Western Nations had already crafted the legal framework to justify imperialist aggression. Article 41 allows for sanctions and economic disruption by UN member states, and Article 42 explicitly allows for the use of armed force against sovereign nations. Despite this, the UN security council, made up of France, UK, China, USSR, and the US, held the power to veto acts of unwarranted aggression by fellow member states. The first 56 vetoes were made by the USSR in an effort to protect liberation movements, which often had socialist tendencies, from Western aggression. Later in the book, Prashad describes how Saddam Huessein wondered why the USSR hadn’t come to his aid as the US bombed Iraq to a pre-industrial state in 1990. He was unaware that the USSR had already begun its collapse, and smaller nations like Iraq would no longer have a shield from Washington’s aggression.
Part Two of Washington Bullets begins with a nine point manual on how the US goes about enacting regime change against those who defy their interests. Prashad uses the events of the 1954 CIA backed coup of Jocobo Arbenz in Guatemala, and a myriad of other examples, to describe the repeated strategies used by the CIA, and other regime change arms of the US State Department. There are patterns of imperialism which play out again and again. Understanding these patterns is vital when analyzing what the State Department is currently looking to do to their enemies such as China, Venezuela, and Iran.
The first step in any US regime change effort is to manufacture public support for intervention. This involves a propaganda campaign not just at home, but also within the target Nation. Prior to the coup in Guatemala, journalists from NYT, Chicago Tribune, and TIME all received payments from the United Fruit, the multinational company which dominated Guatemala. In reality Arbenz was a popular leader who sought to enact minor land reforms. In the media he was portrayed as a dangerous communist, drunk with power. As the US corporate media fell in line, the CIA filled the streets of Guatemala with anti-Arbenz propaganda. This strategy of propagandizing both the American Public, and the people of whatever country the US is targeting, has been repeated again and again. Libya, Syria, and Venezuela have all seen money from the West used to bolster right wing media campaigns inside their borders. Control of public opinion has been one of the most vital components to US regime change efforts from the beginning.
Step four in Prashad’s manual of regime change is to “Make the Economy Scream.” A reference to directions given by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to the CIA in 1970, as the US looked to overthrow the Democratically elected Salvadore Allende in Chile. Here we see a vital component of what Prashad calls ‘hybrid war.’ Isolating from the world those Nations who seek to develop themselves, and reclaim their own natural resources. Sanctions and blockades are used to starve smaller nations of financing and trade, as corporate media outlets point and say “look. Don’t you see socialism clearly doesn’t work?” US sanctions recently led to many deaths in Venezuela and Iran during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the US has continued their murderous regime change efforts, with techniques they designed almost 70 years ago.
All these strategies of the empire, which Prashad lays in the manual for regime change, have the shared goal of destabilizing target nations. If the State Department thinks that starving Venezuelan civilians via sanctions will increase political unrest, they will not think twice about enacting those sanctions. There is no consideration given to human rights, democracy, or whatever it is that corporate media claims to be the goal of US foreign policy. The true goal is destabilization of the target Nation, and the replacement of their government, with one which will favor the interests of Western multinational corporations. Prashad uses the term ‘hybrid wars’ to describe the sustained regime change efforts enacted by the US around the world to achieve these goals.
In Part Three Professor Prashad gives a short history of imperialism’s change in form following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some analysis of US regime change efforts since that time. Without the Soviet umbrella of protection, Prashad says “interventions from the west came like a tsunami.” He writes of the aforementioned bombing campaign against Iraq, which would have previously been strongly opposed by the USSR. Following their ruthless bombing of Iraq, the US went on to sanction the country for 13 years, before launching a full scale invasion, killing millions of people, before occupying the country where they remain today. The collapse of the Soviet Union increased the US capacity for achieving Preponderant Power. By the early 2000s Western Propagandists had coined the term “war on terror” which took the place of the “cold war” as the justification for invading a smaller country, and killing hundreds of their people.
In this section Prashad also covers the current global financial system, which was essentially hand crafted by the US, and Western private entities. Global financial organizations, such as the IMF and World Bank largely control which countries will receive financing. IMF financing to Chile was halted after Allende’s rise to power, only to be increased again when the despotic dictator Agusto Pinochet seized control of the country with a great deal of help from the CIA. In addition, the financial institutions have become notorious for their structural adjustment programs. Promising to finance only Nations who promise to cut social spending, and implement other neoliberal economic reforms. Countries who accept these deals often see the interest on their loans hiked to absurd levels, leaving them trapped in debt, and at the mercy of the Western dominated global financial system. This debt trapping technique is one of the many issues socialist leader Thomas Sankara railed against as President of Burkina Faso, prior to his being murdered by French backed forces in 1987.
Given the level of corporate dominance in the global economic and political systems, Western interests have developed more covert methods of regime change, which they employ when possible. Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have long played a role in regime change efforts, posing as unbiased observers, while doing all they can to destabilize target Nations and promote Western media narratives. Prashad focuses on Haiti, who have more NGOs than any country on Earth. When priest and socialist Jean Bertrand-Aristide became the first democratically elected Haitian leader in history, he was quickly ousted by what essentially amounted to a coup by NGO. After a struggle for power, and a second coup of Aristide in 2004, Haiti became a “republic of NGOs.” A country with no real state, essentially being directly governed by Western Interests. To this day Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
In addition to coup by NGO, Prashad touches on what he calls ‘lawfare’ or the use of the legal system to dismantle left wing movements. For US based socialists the FBI and Police crackdown on the Black Panther party should come to mind. Intellectual leaders such as Fred Hampton were murdered, while many others were sent to jail on trumped up charges. Prashad uses the example of Brazil, where the left wing Lula da Silva was put in jail on charges of corruption by a judge who would later be a member of the far right Bolsonaro Government, who took power in Lula’s absence. Under Bolsonaro’s Western backed leadership, multinationals have been given free reign to pillage the Amazon rainforest of resources.
Professor Vijay Prashad is one of the most well read Marxist intellectuals alive today. The fact that his books are published in english should be considered a gift to those of us living in the heart of the US empire. In a country where we find ourselves surrounded by imperialist and anti-communist propaganda, a book like Washington Bullets cuts directly through the bullshit. Prashad often says that he writes not to simply explain history, but to discover how it can be changed. This book is a concise history of US imperialism and regime change since the second world war, and paints a clear picture of how these things are carried out.
American socialists who read this book should keep in mind the recent actions of the State Department, and look for patterns in their actions. My upcoming essay on US imperialism in 2021 seeks to identify the current targets of regime change, and the specific strategies being used against them. To recognize the patterns of imperialism which we’ve seen time and time again. US State Department representatives now tell us Iran seeks to proliferate nuclear weapons, as they wrongfully accused Iraq of doing before launching a murderous invasion that costs trillions of dollars. Blurry satellite images of human rights abuses in China are being used to call for increased sanctions and military presence. How quickly we have forgotten the fake satellite images used to justify bombing Iraq to a pre-industrial state in 1990. Western backed NGOs in Venezuela cry fraudulent elections, and beg the US to restore Democracy, as the US crushes the country under embargo, and launches coup attempts through Colombia. Each of these situations echo the past regime change efforts carried out by the Western imperialist powers.
Washington Bullets is a book that every US socialist should read carefully. It is high time we recognize the lies of our ruling class, and refuse to send any more of our children to fight and die in their wars for profit. To do this we must understand the tools and tactics of the deceitful imperialists, so that we may know how to fight them. Vijay Prashad’s Washington Bullets is a wonderful tool for doing just that!
Edward Liger Smith is an American Political Scientist and specialist in anti-imperialist and socialist projects, especially Venezuela and China. He also has research interests in the role southern slavery played in the development of American and European capitalism. He is a co-founder and editor of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. He is currently a graduate student, assistant, and wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
The article was first published by Midwestern Marx