What is Imperialism?

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded in 1904 as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which had been dominated by Henry Hyndman who controlled the party’s printing press giving Hyndman undue influence over the party.

But a deeper reason was that the SDF was seen to be descending into reformism.

Those who believed in that strategy for the SDF described themselves as the “Possibilists” because they maintained that what they were doing was possible within the context of capitalism by pursuing reformism. The Socialist Party became known as the “Impossibilists”, a name which was originally intended as a slur at the time but the new party embraced the insult and now proudly refers to itself as being in the “Impossibilist” tradition.

The Socialist Party maintains that socialism is a money-free, state-free, worldwide society based on production for human needs, and democratic control of the means of production. An organisation of equals that emphasises, as Marx did, that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

The party has been consistently critical of Leninism, and the now widely-accepted concept of “state capitalism” to describe the USSR.

 Unlike Lenin, and again following Marx, the Socialist Party uses the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably.

It also has a very different understanding of imperialism from Lenin,

The working class, possessing only their labour power to sell to survive, have no country. Conflicts and imperialism for us are a natural and inevitable extension of the war of the marketplace. In other words, nation-states create confrontations in the pursuit of natural resources, trade routes, labour markets, and spheres of influence.

 At certain periods of time, it is inevitable that some capitalist nations dominate others, but we don’t accept Lenin’s interpretation of imperialist and anti-imperialist nations.

The problem with Lenin’s analysis is three-fold.

 Firstly, it lacks internationalism. Rather than seeing the world as divided fundamentally by wage labour and capital, workers and the bourgeoisie, it seeks to replace this analysis with the notion of imperialist nations and anti-imperialist nations. The anti-imperialist nations engage in a national liberation struggle to free themselves from the domination of the imperialist nations. As far as we’re concerned, national liberation is the right of the domestic bourgeoisie to conduct their affairs without interference from foreign capitalists.

Secondly, we disagree on Marxist grounds with Lenin’s economic analysis, which goes behind the notion of imperialism that Lenin posits. According to Lenin, there were these super-profits that workers in imperialist countries partake in the exploitation of workers in non-imperialist nations, taking part of the surplus value that is created in the colonies and the third world basically as a bribe to accept the ruling capitalist class. It supposes there is a top section of the working class in the Western world that is rewarded by exploitation of workers in the third world,  in exchange for supporting capitalism. Therefore, Lenin thought that the national liberation struggle would deprive the western capitalists and their ability to bribe the western working class.

 Lenin’s analysis ignores the labour theory of value. As Marx taught us, labour power’s value is determined like all commodities by the amount of labour power that’s invested in it. So higher wages reflect higher training and skill. It almost requires a kind of conspiracy theory to suppose that capitalists give their workers more than their labour power in order to bribe them. It led to the support of the creation of new capitalist nations to benefit the local capitalist class. So instead of the international working-class struggle, it became about the creation of new capitalist nations.

Lastly, Lenin’s analysis assumes a form of economic determinism, it assumes quite wrongly that workers are less likely to support reformism the poorer they become; the poorer workers become, the more they’re going to become radicalised. Obviously, quite often the opposite is true.

In any case, we think that the working class will only support socialism if they understand the case for socialism. So, we propose an analysis that is based on revolutionary activity arising out of class consciousness rather than an economic determinist analysis.

 Everywhere you look, whether it be in Ireland or South Africa, for workers, at best, the anti-imperialist struggle has led to the creation of new capitalist states to manage their exploitation. At worst, it’s led to the most violent form of inter-working-class sectarian bloodshed.

For example, you have the Marikana massacre in 2012 in South Africa, where 112 workers were shot down. So what was the legacy of the ANC bloodshed, of all the ANC struggle?

 It boiled down in the end to the rights of black workers, and black miners to be murdered by black police instead of the white police.

Or we could look at Ireland where various nationalist factions conducted all sorts of violence against working-class Protestants and British civilians. A notable example is the Kingsmill massacre of 1976, where a busload of factory workers returning from a night shift were murdered. Eleven Protestants were killed; one worker was set free because that worker happened to be a Catholic.

So, what of those anti-imperialists in Ireland now? They now have comfortable, well-paying jobs in Stormont, where Sinn Féin, like all the other parties of Irish capitalism, manage the exploitation of Catholic and Protestant workers alike.

 So, against Leninist anti-imperialism, the Socialist Party maintains the working class have no country to fight for. Our interests lie with that of working people everywhere, and the abolition of the wage system and the war and imperialism that naturally and inevitably come with it.

Many consider China to be a capitalist nation but do they also consider China to be an imperialist nation considering Chinese capitalism’s role in Africa?

 One of the interesting things about the Left, and one of the reasons why we are cynical of their idea of these kinds of fixed categories of imperialist nations and any imperialist nations, is that the Left has never seemed to be able to agree on which nations are imperialist and which nations aren’t imperialist.

For a long time, particularly from the Maoists, it was said that China was this oppressed nation that needed to be liberated from the imperialist nations. Now of course in the natural development of capitalism, as Marxists, the Socialist Party, would say in the natural development of capitalism China has now entered the imperialist world stage and is exploiting workers all over the world and oppressing nations or oppressing people all over the world.

From the Socialist Party’s point of view, we would say that there’s somewhat of an antagonism between Lenin’s idea of super-profits and Marx’s idea of the labour theory of value. Labour power is a commodity like any other commodity and it’s natural that it goes for different prices because some workers have skills that other workers don’t, and that doesn’t rely on this idea of the workers exploiting other workers—workers sort of somehow partaking in the exploitation of other workers. And this to me seems like quite a central bone of contention between what is the orthodox Marxist opinion and Lenin’s conception of imperialism.

Some commentators have made interesting points about Donald Trump and his apparent isolationism. If we’re going to employ a materialist analysis, what are the material circumstances that have changed in America that mean that some sub-section of American capitalism supports Trump in withdrawing from the world, taking a step back, and not engaging in these pointless conflicts?

Was the role of the USSR in Eastern Europe after World War II—so since 1945—imperialist? 

By any definition that’s been advanced of imperialism, capitalist nations engaging in imperialism, it strikes us that the USSR definitely did engage in imperialism in Eastern Europe.  All kinds of anti-imperialist struggles against the USSR had pretty much the same features as you’d find in any anti-imperialist struggle in Africa. For example, in South Africa or Ireland, where you see that there is a proletarian element to the struggle and there’s also a bourgeois element to the struggle.

Ultimately, of course, in the absence of a globalised socialist movement, it ends in a bourgeois way. If you take the Solidarity union in Poland, or you take elements of the 1968 Prague uprising, it clearly is a working-class resistance that also existed against the USSR.

In Yorkshire, where the Sheffield steel industry, largely as a result of the trade unions artificially increasing the demand for labour-power through trade union activity, that basically led to the collapse of the Sheffield Steel Industry. And now the Sheffield Steel Industry exists in China because capitalists are constantly going all over the world looking for the cheapest labour power on the market possible. In the same way that they looked for the cheapest coal possible, or the cheapest bricks possible. Why anyone would think that a capitalist would purchase somebody’s labour-power for more than its true value and how that mechanism actually takes place in capitalism because it does fly against Karl Marx’s labour theory of value—and just basic common sense, the basic stuff we know about how capitalists operate.

 Capitalism for Marx is characterised by an industrial reserve army or a condition of permanent unemployment. It is in response to the threat of unemployment that workers organise themselves in unions to control the labour market. When labour as a commodity, labour-power, is scarce, its price rises regardless of what goes into it—more skills for example. This undermines the power of individual capitalists. The state could step in to break unions, but perhaps an easier way to deal with workers was to export the unemployed or export capital, as Lenin puts it.

You can see Lenin at odds with Marx.

 Marx accepted, that supply and demand affect the price of labour power and also accept that unions can step in to have some control over supply and demand, but that isn’t the same claim as the one being made. which is that the capitalists somehow take this surplus value that they get from the non-imperialist nations—these super-profits—and use it to artificially inflate or boost up the working class of the West. We haven’t heard a convincing argument or an explanation as to how that mechanism actually takes place. That they would deliberately pay more, without being forced to by unions. And even if they are forced to by unions, We’d like to see an explanation that can actually trace back this surplus capital coming from these super-profits from third-world countries or from these non-imperialist countries. It might not sound like a very politically correct thing to say, but the reason that people are paid less in third-world countries is because of the way in which those workers don’t have the same skills. The more logical explanation is that there’s more skill and there’s more labour embodied in labour power in Western countries due to the uneven development of capitalism.

Some make the point that the issue of imperialism is primarily one in the home country rather than in the colony and it is about a crisis of capital in the metropole and the need to export capital rather than how it might be perceived in the present day, as the drive to exploit of resources. Might this not mark a reversal of historical socialism’s understanding of imperialism?

Insofar as capital is exported, of course, capitalists look for new opportunities or markets, wage labour, they’ll look for new opportunities to exploit labour, or to purchase raw materials or whatever it is. Insofar as it’s happened, it has developed western countries, but it’s also been at times against the interests of the Western working class. Maybe we can wind back and talk about labour theory of value. Labour is a commodity that’s determined primarily by the amount of labour power that’s embodied in that commodity. But, for Marx, it’s also a peculiar commodity, precisely because it can create more than its value. And so, when the working class organizes in unions, they’re getting a better share of the surplus value that’s been exploited from them. That is not the same as saying that the working class somehow are part of a chain mechanism that exploits the third world.

Just to be clear, we are not making any normative claims about the justice of all of this. without saying that capitalism is a very uneven system on a global scale.

On the notion of historical debt and what does that means for the Left?

The problem is that everybody does do it and everyone has done it. Are you in the business of chasing around the world and getting every nation-state or every people that has ever oppressed, or exploited, or murdered another group of people, to pay the debt back? It strikes us as a particular way of rearranging capitalism at the expense of organising the movement for socialism.

 If we take up for example the issue of repatriations for slavery, we wouldn’t be opposed in principle to repatriations for slavery, though as a socialist and as a member of the Socialist Party, we don’t support reforms to capitalism. But let’s say a member was in Congress and got to have the decisive vote on whether to take some money from a bunch of capitalists in Washington that used slave labour to build up those countries and give a bunch of money to kids on the South Side of Chicago so we could buy new sailing boats and teach them to sail, we wouldn’t be against that and wouldn’t be opposed it. But would support it as a victory for the working class in terms of the working class getting back through some state reform some of the surplus value that has already been stolen from them. And that’s very different, it seems to me. One of the problems with this idea of repatriation is it implies a kind of just capitalism. That there was something unjust about the capitalism that existed before, that modern capitalism can somehow redeem. Whereas as a Marxist, the only thing that can redeem history is socialism.

An adaptation of a discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society, featuring Cde. Mercer of the SPGB

Taken from here