Anti-imperialism is not anti-capitalism


< Continued from Part 2 here.

We continue our series on the origins of the mistaken view that workers in the advanced capitalist countries share in the exploitation of those in the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

In his 1920 Preface to Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin comments:

Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries’.

 Colonialism is not quite the same thing as imperialism. It entails the annexation of, and direct political control over, other territories by a state which is not necessarily true of imperialism. For Lenin, political independence was indeed achievable ‘within the bounds of world imperialist relationships (A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, 1916).The classical Marxist diffusionist view held that, with capitalism’s development and the increasing internationalisation of capital, nationalism would decline as a social force. Unfortunately that hasn’t yet happened. However, here we are focussing on what ought to be the attitude of socialists towards nationalism.

Early twentieth century Marxists, like Rosa Luxemburg, were already arguing that nationalism had become reactionary. Capitalism had outlived its usefulness to progress, having prepared the ground for socialism by raising society’s productive potential to an unparalleled degree. While that potential continues to expand with technological innovation it is increasingly being squandered in all sorts of ways.

Nationalist struggles

Lenin’s take on nationalism was different. The rise of monopoly capitalism associated with imperialism entailed the ‘super-exploitation’ by a few oppressor (imperialist) nations of the oppressed (colonised) nations on the capitalist periphery. Nationalist movements in the latter, were – allegedly – qualitatively different from those in nineteenth century Europe in an era of ascendant capitalism. As Jim Blaut summarises:

 ‘The nationalism of colonies and semi-colonies is called into being by the intensification of exploitation and oppression. In an important way, this is a new phenomenon…, it cannot be assimilated to the theory of national movements which emerge during the rise of capitalism and have as their purpose or goal the simple creation of a bourgeois state. The nature of colonialism is such that producing classes suffer along with whatever young or incipient bourgeoisie may exist. Therefore the national liberation movements in colonies and semi-colonies are profoundly different from the national movements of earlier oppressed nations such as those in non-colonial portions of the Tsarist Empire. It is not innately a bourgeois struggle against feudal forces for the creation of a classical bourgeois state. It is a multi-class struggle directed primarily against imperialism’ (The National Question: Decolonising the Theory of Nationalism, 1987).

Since imperialism and monopoly capitalism were linked, this suggested that ‘national liberation struggles’ could serve as the harbinger of ‘global proletarian revolution’ which would likely erupt first where the impact of imperialist exploitation was harshest – namely, those economically backward countries still transitioning to capitalism. That required workers there to take the lead in this struggle, so itcould be turned onto a socialist trajectory or a non-capitalist trajectory which would result in socialism’.

National struggle was thus clothed in the rhetorical language of class struggle. Trotsky similarly opined: ‘The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution’ (Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads, 1939).

For all Trotsky’s labyrinthine attempt to assimilate class struggle to national struggle, he was attempting to square the circle. ‘National struggle’ can only be advanced by watering down, and compromising, the class struggle. It is an attempt to impose from above a fake commonality of interests between classes whose own interests are diametrically opposed.

Though Lenin himself rhetorically committed himself to the concept of ‘proletarian internationalism’ and the repudiation of ‘national chauvinism’, it is difficult to see how one could ever successfully prosecute any ‘national liberation struggle’ without also fostering national chauvinism as its motivating ethos.

In any event, subsequent global developments exposed the fundamental flaws in his thinking. Particularly after the Second World War, vast swathes of the ‘developing world’ were granted political independence from their erstwhile colonial masters. Indeed, since then there have been further – successful – attempts at achieving political independence though these have tended to follow a somewhat different trajectory, resulting in the formation, along mainly ethnic lines, of new breakaway states as the product of civil war within existing states – for example, Southern Sudan. These latter developments do not fit well within the Leninist framework and its simplistic division of the world into ‘oppressor countries’ and ‘oppressed countries’.

In any case, history has emphatically vindicated Luxemburg’s repudiation of Lenin’s argument that socialists should support national liberation struggles to expedite a ‘global proletarian revolution’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, capitalist relations of production along with an accompanying capitalist mind-set has become firmly entrenched in the countries concerned. Hence the unedifying spectacle of erstwhile ‘Marxist’ guerrilla fighters transmogrified into well-heeled business people or corrupt politicians, hobnobbing with multi-nationals in a bid to pimp out the nation’s cheap labour force to overseas investors while cracking down on dissent and spiriting away a sizeable chunk of the nation’s revenue into some private offshore account. If you are going to ride the capitalist tiger don’t be surprised where it takes you.

World revolution

Yet ignorant Marx critics still routinely trot out the ridiculous refrain that Marx ‘got it all wrong’ in that the revolutions he hoped for occurred first, not in the advanced countries, but on the capitalist periphery. What these critics overlook is that these were not the revolutions Marx had in mind. Rather, they were capitalist revolutions enabling the transition to capitalism.

In the German Ideology Marx suggested the coming communist (socialist) revolution would likely be spearheaded by the advanced countries precisely because communism presupposed the advanced development of the productive forces: ‘Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of the productive forces and world intercourse bound up with them’.

We don’t need to take the idea of instantaneous global revolution too literally. Obviously, there will be some time lags involved in the spatial transformation from global capitalism to global socialism. However, Marx insisted on the absolute necessity of majoritarian socialist consciousness before that could happen. The logic of his diffusionist model suggested that if one part of the world had a socialist majority, other parts would not be far behind.

For Lenin, the ‘law of uneven development in capitalism’ meant it was impossible to achieve socialism simultaneously across the world. But, this was a reference to the objective preconditions for socialism – not the subjective preconditions – and, if anything, it would support Marx’s contention that a socialist revolution would likely occur first in the advanced countries where the productive forces were most developed. But Lenin’s ‘law’ has long been completely irrelevant to the socialist objective, anyway. Socialism can only be a global alternative to capitalism and it is the productive potential of the world as a whole that crucially matters, not any one part of it.

Why then his obsessive preoccupation with this ‘law’? A clue can be found in his article On the Slogan for a United States of Europe (1915):

The victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone. After expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world—the capitalist world—attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries.’

This implies not only the uneven development of the productive forces but the uneven growth of socialist consciousness itself. Lenin’s view was that workers in the advanced countries, by benefitting from imperialism, would be much more resistant to socialist thinking compared with their counterparts in the backward countries where national liberation struggle would more readily translate into ‘proletarian revolution’.

So when he spoke of organising ‘socialist production’ within a single country initially, the logic of his argument about how he saw a global proletarian revolution unfolding suggested he had in mind an economically backward country. However, it is precisely in such a country that material conditions would be least propitious for socialism. Furthermore, insofar as socialism and capitalism can no more coexist than one can mix oil and water, this would imply severing links with global capitalist supply chains exacerbating the hardships experienced there.

Lenin’s attempt to argue his way out of this impasse was disingenuous. Instead of the ‘victorious proletariat of that country’ literallyorganising their own socialist production’ what he really had in mind was a process of ‘building socialism’ involving the implementation of state capitalism which he saw as being organically linked to socialism.

Ironically, far from advocating autarky, Lenin favoured closer integration with global capitalism and imperialist investment in the Soviet economy under his New Economic Policy his government was forced to adopt in 1921:

Get down to business, all of you! You will have capitalists beside you, including foreign capitalists, concessionaires and leaseholders. They will squeeze profits out of you amounting to hundreds per cent; they will enrich themselves, operating alongside of you. Let them. Meanwhile you will learn from them the business of running the economy’ (The New Economic Policy, 1921).

This partnership with Western capitalists continued under Stalin, the former providing much of the capital and expertise to finance Soviet industrialisation. Prominent among these was Henry Ford to whom Stalin expressed his gratitude, calling him one of the world’s greatest industrialists and obsequiously adding, ‘May God preserve him’ ( ford-signs-agreement-with-soviet-union).

Who is ‘imperialist’?

This was not just a one-way street, however. Just like the ‘Monroe doctrine’ enunciated by the American president James Monroe in the early nineteenth century, opposing further colonisation in the Americas by European powers only in order to hypocritically assert US imperialistic hegemony over the region, so the same can be said of Soviet imperialism.

The realisation that workers in the West were not going to rise up to support the Soviet regime prompted a strategic shift by that regime towards supporting nationalist struggles in developing countries as a means of undermining its Western rivals. For all its paper commitment to the principle of ‘national self-determination’, this did not stop the Soviet Union exercising its own political (and economic) muscle when it came to those countries falling within its own sphere of influence, installing puppet regimes and threatening or carrying out military intervention in countries like Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

All this prompts the question – what exactly is meant by ‘imperialism’ – and, by extension, ‘anti-imperialism’ – today? Lenin developed his theory of imperialism in opposition to Kautsky’s ‘ultra-imperialism’ which envisaged the major imperialist powers forming a federation which would make military conflict largely redundant or irrational – a pious hope, indeed.

But Lenin’s own theory was shaped by the then existing reality of colonialism which in the post-war era has largely disappeared. At the same time we have witnessed the rise of giant multinational corporations, some with a larger revenue base than most states. If imperialism is about the conflict between nation-states how does this hold up in an era of ‘neo-liberal’ governance?

Concerning Lenin’s distinction between ‘imperialist countries’ and ‘oppressed countries’, Michael Roberts and Guglielmo Carchedi, have identified ‘10 countries at the most that fit the bill as imperialist’-– essentially the G7 countries plus one or two small states – by analysing cross-border flows of profit, interest and rent. As Roberts notes, little has changed in the century since Lenin wrote on the subject: ‘it’s still the same countries’ (

But if being an ‘imperialist country’ means being a net ‘recipient of cross-border income flows’, then it seems improbable you will ever get rid of imperialism while capitalism (and its ‘cross-border income flows’) exists since what we are talking about here is essentially a zero sum game. Eliminating one imperialist power simply creates a vacuum into which another will inevitably step.

Thus, nationalistic ‘anti-imperialism’ has proved to be not only a fundamental distraction from the class struggle for socialism but also fundamentally futile on its terms.


Socialist Standard October 2020

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