Imperialism and the ‘Labour Aristocracy’

Given that many believe that those living in the ‘Global North’ are living off the backs of the people in the ‘Global South’, we begin a multi-part series of articles correcting this, starting with the origin of this mistaken view.

Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto was not just a scathing indictment of capitalism; it was also a paean to its material achievements which were seen as preparing the ground for communism.

Remarkably anticipating today’s globally interconnected world, it spoke of capitalism’s expansionist dynamic, propelling it to spread out across the world from its heartland in Western Europe:

The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production’.

These days the shoe is on the other foot: the footprint of Chinese capitalism is everywhere visible in the guise of its mass-produced commodities and those ‘Chinese walls’ have long since become just a tourist attraction. As Marx said:

The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future’ (Capital, Vol 1).

However, this ‘diffusionist’ perspective has not gone unchallenged among those claiming allegiance to Marxism. In the early 1900s Trotsky developed his concept of ‘combined and uneven development’ which he coupled with another – ‘permanent revolution’ – in opposition to the ‘stagist’ model of the Mensheviks. That model maintained that a relatively backward country like Russia needed to pass sequentially through two distinct stages – a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution (which socialists were urged to support) followed by a socialist revolution once capitalism had become sufficiently developed.

Trotsky argued that Russia exhibited a dualistic character -– a modern urban-based capitalist sector and a vast pre-capitalist peasantry – which necessitated a quite different model. The Russian bourgeoisie were too weak to implement a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution themselves. Consequently, it fell to the workers’ party to do this. Concurrently, the new ‘workers’ state’ should move towards implementing a socialist revolution. Hence the idea of a continuous ‘permanent revolution’ – two revolutions rolled into one.

However, Trotsky acknowledged that Russia alone lacked the productive capacity socialism required and so opposed the concept of ‘socialism in one country’ promoted by Stalin and Bukharin. For a socialist revolution to succeed this depended on developments elsewhere – notably, the advanced countries:

We rest all our hope on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the revolting peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed – that is indubitable. Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution’ (1930, History of the Russian Revolution).

The ‘European revolution’ did not occur. Nor was there any good reason to expect it might. After all, most workers there had been patriotically supporting one capitalist bloc against another in World War One. But in Russia, too, the vast majority were not socialists either (as Lenin repeatedly acknowledged) and without a conscious socialist majority you can’t have a ‘socialist revolution’. Thus, having seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks had little option but to develop capitalism.

The unpalatable implications of this for a self-proclaimed ‘Marxist’ like Lenin helps to explain his subsequent subterfuge in trying rationalise away developments there. Though he generally did not anticipate the coming upheaval in 1917 would be socialist, it later became commonplace among Bolshevik cadres to refer to it as a ‘socialist revolution’. That was only credible if you completely redefine what socialism meant which is precisely what Lenin did – identifying it with a form of ‘state-capitalist monopoly’ made to ‘serve the interests of the whole people’ (1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It).

This new definition grew out of Lenin’s belief that state capitalism was a ‘step forward’ for Russia. Though he distinguished between ‘socialism’ and other forms of state capitalism – such as in wartime Germany – he nevertheless endorsed the latter too, arguing that ‘our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it’ (1918, ‘Left Wing’ Childishness).

Lenin’s semantic gymnastics help us to better understand other aspects of his worldview – most notably how he envisaged a ‘proletarian revolution’ unfolding. According to him, this was likely to first occur, not where capitalism was most advanced (as Marxists contended), but rather ‘at the weakest link in the imperialist chain’. Russia, though itself an imperialist power, was a paradigmatic example, being heavily dependent on foreign capital. By breaking that chain here this would induce a domino effect, starting in Europe and culminating in capitalism’s overthrow worldwide. When this did not happen Lenin increasingly shifted his focus from Europe to national liberation struggles against imperialism in the ‘backward’ countries as the way forward.

For Lenin, imperialism was the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, commencing in the late nineteenth century. He was not referring to imperialism in general but rather a new and virulent kind of imperialism originating in certain structural changes within capitalism itself – notably, the emergence of ‘monopoly capital’.

In his book, Imperialism: A Study (1902) which influenced Lenin, the liberal, J.A. Hobson, wrote of a shift from ‘competitive capitalism’ to ‘monopoly capitalism’, after the late nineteenth century Great Depression. Monopoly capitalism was the ‘tap-root’ of the new imperialist era exemplified by the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Hobson opposed the then establishment view that ‘trade followed the flag’, arguing instead that trade could flourish without the need for colonial conquest.

According to him, what fueled imperialism was the accumulation of surpluses of capital beyond what the advanced countries could profitably invest domestically. These surpluses arose out of extreme inequality. Given the capitalists’ ‘higher propensity to save’, redistributing wealth in their favour, not only increased their savings (‘capital’) to the point of excess; it also reduced the workers’ income and thus exerted a restraining influence on their capacity to consume.

Consequently, there was diminished scope for the capitalisation of profits, because of insufficient market demand. This depressed prices and solidified a movement toward monopoly by making it increasingly difficult for small businesses to survive.

Lenin concurred with Hobson’s ‘capital surplus’ theory but disagreed with his ‘underconsumptionism’. As Charles Barone notes, Lenin seemingly argued that capital would be exported, ‘not because it was absolutely impossible to invest in the home market but because it could obtain a higher rate of profit abroad. The variance of profits existed ostensibly because of the uneven development of capitalism where capitalism had become “overripe” in some countries’ (Marxist Thought on Imperialism: Survey and Critique, 2016).

According to the labour theory of value, a higher rate of profit initially occurs where production is more labour-intensive (typically the case in the economically backward colonies) since ‘living labour’ is the sole source of profit. This rate tends to decline with mechanisation and industrialisation (as was happening in the developed countries) though that would be compensated for by an increase in the absolute mass of profits.

Normally, under competitive capitalism, this situation would be mitigated by the tendency for profit rates to equalise through the flow of capital towards industries temporarily experiencing above average profits, thereby increasing supply and thus eventually reducing prices (and profit rates).

However, in the context of the new imperialism, Lenin held that Marx’s 19th century model of competitive capitalism no longer applied. It was being progressively replaced by monopoly capitalism which interrupted this tendency for profit rates to equalise. As Paul Sweezy contended in The Theory of Capitalist Development (1968), under monopoly capitalism, the ‘equal profit rates of competitive capitalism are turned into a hierarchy of profit rates, highest in the most completely monopolized industries and lowest in the most competitive’.

If so, we would expect investment to incrementally flow into the monopoly sector at the expense of the competitive sector. Rudolf Hilferding in Finance Capital (1910) suggested this is precisely what was happening. Bank capital and industrial capital were merging into finance capital, the ultimate form of capital most closely associated with imperialism. Centralisation of capital would eventuate in the formation of a general cartel which would fuse with the state, replacing market competition with planned production. This probably influenced Lenin’s own thinking on the allegedly progressive role of state capitalism.

For Marx, super-profits could indeed arise from monopolies (and developments like technological innovations). However, he did not go as far as Hilferding in thinking this would kill off competition: Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. Monopolists compete among themselves; competitors become monopolists (1847, The Poverty of Philosophy).

For Lenin, the primary source of super-profits originated not within the domestic economies of advanced capitalism, however, but rather from the export of capital to the colonised countries. These super-profits were enormous, being obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers in their own country (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism).

One would expect this to be reflected in the pattern of investment given that capital tends to flow to wherever the rate of return is highest. However, the evidence suggests, firstly, that the great bulk of capital then, as now, raised in the advanced countries was invested domestically rather than abroad (as foreign direct investment FDI). Secondly, most FDI was itself invested (as Lenin acknowledged), not in the colonies but in other advanced countries particularly America. Thirdly, at this time there were few controls on the movement of capital internationally so it is unlikely that the equalisation of profits rates would have been significantly impeded. Finally, fluctuations in FDI flows tended to follow the same pattern as domestic investment, implying a roughly similar rate of return – a conclusion empirically supported by historians like D K Fieldhouse and others.

Bukharin, in Imperialism and World Economy (1915), wrote of two contradictory trends shaping modern imperialism. While monopoly capital made for the decline of competition domestically, internationally competition was intensifying in the guise of economic nationalism (mainly in the form of tariffs rather than capital controls).

Lenin called this state of affairs monopolistic competitionthe imperialist conquest of foreign territories opened up additional markets to soak up the expanded output of domestic manufactured goods whilst affording opportunities to invest surplus capital in the primary sector of these colonies, employing a super-exploited workforce to produce cheap raw materials for export to imperialist countries themselves.

Thus, in contrast to Marxian diffusionist thinking, Lenin (following Trotsky) argued that imperialism shored up and perpetuated the ‘uneven development of capitalism’ and, with that, spatial variations in the rate of profit. Repressive colonial policies that pushed down wages, the establishment of native reserves to subsidise labour costs out of the proceeds of peasant farming and the persistence of labour-intensive production techniques constituted the material basis of these ‘imperialist super-profits’.

Before modern imperialism some countries (notably Germany) had been able to rapidly develop their economies, exploiting what Trotsky called the ‘privilege of historical backwardness’ and join the select club of imperialist powers. However, by the early twentieth century this was no longer possible. Those powers having carved up the rest of the world amongst themselves, one could only expand its sphere of influence at the expense of another. This is what led up to the First World War.

It was then, wrote Lenin, that the ‘world proletarian revolution’ was in the process of ‘clearly maturing’. The events in Russia, he suggested, could ‘only be understood as a link in a chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war’ (The State and Revolution, 1917).

But Lenin’s reading of the situation was hopelessly misguided. A ‘socialist proletarian revolution’ would surely have entailed an emphatic widespread rejection of nationalism and, as noted, there was little evidence of that happening then. Indeed, ironically, Lenin himself was a fervent advocate of the ‘national liberation’ of ‘oppressed states’ from the ‘oppressor states’, convinced that political independence would strike a blow against imperialism and, by extension, monopoly capitalism.

Nothing could be further from the truth as the subsequent history of post-independence states in the Global South bears out.

(To be continued)


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