Saturday 15 June 2013

It's Time to Junk 'Imperialism'

Washed-up ex-Trot sellout I may be, but even at my most orthodox and ra-ra-revolutionary I always had a problem with the term 'imperialism' as applied to global capitalism after the Second World War. In Marxism as practiced by official communism and the 57 varieties, imperialism has a highly specific meaning. In Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, it marks the point where capitalism in its advanced metropolitan heartlands has become dominated by monopolies and the merging of industrial and finance capital. To seek new profitable opportunities, capital of necessity must seek new markets and, in the case of imperialism, create them. In the colonies and 'protectorates' of the European great powers, feudal and communal social relations were uprooted and destroyed and economies developed that fed the markets back home. Africa, India, the Orient, whole nations fell before the imperial powers' scramble for territory and resource. And, more often than not, the development they introduced was as brutal as it was one-sided and partial. Imperialism therefore is not a policy - it's a structural imperative.

With the globe more or less divided among the imperial powers, the road to war between them for a redivision of the spoils is more or less inevitable. It was this that underlay the tensions and rivalry between the great powers that led to the slaughter of the two World Wars. There is, of course, a bit more to Lenin's theory of imperialism - especially with regard to the 'super profits' of imperialism being used to provide a higher standard of living for a key stratum of the working class as a means of buying off revolt. But that's more or less it as it stands.

Now, some on the far left might still quote Lenin's pamphlet as if it is the truth revealed some 97 years after publication, but a thing or two has changed in the interval. Colonialism has languished in the dustbin of history for quite some time. The US is the preeminent global power, albeit one in relative decline. The rivalries between the big powers has not been realised in inter-state warfare for nearly 70 years, and there is very little question of emergent states wishing to paint the world map Empire pink. But nevertheless the key theoretical insights remain. Capital from the advanced economies, but also from the new industrial powers, roam the world seeking profitable outlets. In the former colonies the process of expanding the sphere of capitalist relations of production continues, often at the behest of foreign capital. There clearly remains one-sided, disadvantageous relationships between ex-colonies and the former occupying power. And, overall, international relations are characterised by systemic patterns of hegemony and dominance.

You can understand why Lenin's position is still regarded, by some, as authoritative. After all, an ABC of Marxism is the distinction between appearance and essence. So, where international relations are concerned, the empires of Lenin's day are gone but the character of global political economy is not qualitatively different. That said, I still think it's faintly ridiculous to drone on about 'imperialism'.

Language in politics is important, so how you frame your positions and policies is vital. And I don't think the far left who, as a whole, do the right thing to highlight the machinations and interests of the big powers, have grasped this most simple of political rules. Take Syria, for example. The US, Britain and France would prefer a friendly regime installed because it is in their interests that this most crucial of geopolitical regions is not destabilised further. That the Middle East today is mostly what it is because of repeated interventions and the propping up of rancid dictatorships by the big powers is neither here nor there. Clearly, they want to impose a settlement that suits their interests - even if it means overtly arming jihadists and cannibals in Syria itself.

But as far as I'm concerned, quite apart from the tendency for some of the left to give anti-Western opposition a free pass; to refer to the actions of US, British, and French imperialism or, even worse, 'Imperialism' as some malevolent free-roaming entity is to frame the issues in some of the most archaic and alienating language in the far left's vocabulary. For most people imperialism in its wider meaning is synonymous with colonialism and annexation, or even Darth Vader's pursuit of the Rebel Alliance. As an apt description of the USA's pursuit of its geopolitical interests? Well, chances are it would be well down the list.

If your slogans, your banners, your propaganda are peppered with words likely to confuse or obstruct the meaning of the message you wish to convey, it would be wise to think about using them again. Can the ideas and understanding of how global political economy works be better and more popularly conveyed without resorting to the term? I'm sure they can. It's time to junk 'imperialism'.


Evan said...

I think the key sentence here is "some on the far left might still quote Lenin's pamphlet as if it is the truth revealed some 97 years after publication" and I would emphasise the word "some".

Many writers from different Marxist traditions have attempted to analyse "imperialism" in the era of decolonisation and postcolonialism. For example, Kwame Nkrumah's 'Neo-Colonialism' in the 1960s inspired many in the Communist Party and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (such as Jack Woddis) to think about imperialism in a post-Lenin manner. Mike Kidron (from the IS) famously developed the idea of imperialism being "the highest stage but one", which influenced the IS until the 1970s.

More recently Hardt and Negri have talked about "imperialism without an address", meaning that nation-states do not drive imperialism in the 21st century and even the faddish Zizek describes imperialism as driven by multi-nationals, rather than nation-states.

I don't know whether we should junk the concept of 'imperialism', but acknowledge the theoretical developments which have occurred since Lenin.

Boffy said...

I think most thinking Marxist economists certainly ditched the idea of "Imperialism" set out by Lenin's pamphlet back in the 1980's. When I was at University in the late 70's, it was certainly obvious that as Bill Warren put it, Lenin's pamphlet - which was essentially propaganda against Kautsky in conditions of Imperialist War - was pretty shoddy, and filled with so many caveats that it had to be considered only a preliminary analysis.

What Lenin actually described was not Imperialism, but Colonialism the dividing up geographically of the globe primarily of markets. But, as warren points out that happened long before Monopoly Capitalism became dominant.

The term "Imperialism" is still relevant in my opinion if it is actually used to describe the nature of a global capitalist system of states, and the role of big, multinational, industrial capital within that. Understood that way, its easy to see why the aim of that dominant section of capital is a global state to go with that global economy - but something which existing state structures and materials interests frustrate - and why it creates structures like the EU, the WTO etc. as a bridge towards it.

That big multinational, industrial capital is less tied to any one state and has an interest in such global state structures. By its nature compared to small capital, and certainly compared to merchant and Money Capital, it extracts surplus value by relative rather than absolute means, and a central aspect of that is the establishment of social democratic polities, which incorporate the working class in the state.

That is why where that type of capital has been a part of the industrialisation of various economies in Asia and Latin America, it has been a force for bourgeois democratic change. Elsewhere where its interests remain only in markets or extraction of materials etc. it is happy to deal with all sorts of despots, as in the Gulf.

Complicating the picture is then the role of Capitalist States, which continue to look after their national capitals. That means promoting various forms of protectionism, it also means advancing strategic, state interests. Examples are the Falklands, and Syria etc.

ejh said...

If your slogans, your banners, your propaganda is peppered with words


Unknown said...

Mike Macnair of the CPGB on imperialism,

Phil said...

You're right Evan. Things have moved on since Lenin's day but I accept the fundamental theoretical basis of it is sound. After all, it is this that subsequent generations of dependency theorists, world systems theorists, Neo-Gramsicianism (in IR) and latterly Negri and Hardt have built upon.

It's the term I have a major gripe with.

Phil said...

We need to have something we can use to describe the processes you refer to, Boffy. I just don't think the term 'imperialism' is the best fit.

And Ejh, welcome back. I died when I saw that ...

Speedy said...


but how do you describe a global system with shared assumptions that progressively deprives people of the rights (like the EU "sacking" the governments of member states?

On another thread (CIF actually) arguing about Turkey, I pointed out to one radical lefty that the Caliphate was the greatest empire since Rome - my point is: Islam was an imperial force that was larger than nation states with shared values, etc. So too was Soviet Communism for that matter (although really the Russian Empire, so maybe not).

But certainly with regard to Islam, which was an aggressive creed, just as Capitalism is spread by aggression where it cannot reach consensus (Iraq, perfect example).

So capitalism is nothing new in this context, and imperialism has not gone away?

Anonymous said...

I can see why the masses of the West don't want to drone on about imperialism, seen as they benefit from it spectacularly! Amazon don't want to drone on about taxes!

But in the rest of the world imperialism is quite a topic of debate. And the rest of the world is where the action is right now.

Maybe, as the decline in the West really sets in the masses may be open to arguments about imperialism, but in the meantime bollocks to em. I will continue to drone.

Anyway, here's a story that sums the whole thing up I think:

Phil said...

It hasn't gone away, Speedy. My argument is that banging on about imperialism as if mighty colonial empires still span the globe is an obstacle to popularising how global capital works. A simple point that some - such as anonymous - clearly has serious difficulty grasping.

Alex said...

Surely Gallagher & Robinson killed this off when they actually measured how much capital the UK in the 19th Century exported towards the empire and found that it was much less than it did to the US or Europe, and nobody could seriously consider the US, France, Russia, or Germany as British colonies in 1895. The problem with the Leninist analysis isn't that it's not internally consistent, it's just that imperialist investors didn't actually pour capital into Africa in the era of the scramble. They can hardly have been seeking outlets for their surplus to bribe a section of the workers with the superprofits of imperialism, if they didn't seek the outlets, make the profits, or indeed pay the bribes.

G&R of course gave us a further twist by pointing out that the UK sent a lot more foreign investment to countries where the empire didn't have a physical presence, like South America, and as a result they introduced the idea of informal empire and the imperialism of free trade.

But I've not heard of a Marxist explanation of why an imperial power would have an empire with flags and chota pegs and whatnot and not export surplus capital there, while it does export it to all sorts of other places where it doesn't extend military power or administrative control. (Look at the Royal Navy's deployment pattern of the time; there is no base in South America except the Falklands and really that's a wet rock with a coal ship next to it, very much not Singapore or Malta.)

There is a well-developed body of theory about finance and foreign investment in the developing world, of course, but not one that takes into account the concurrent existence of a "Marxist empire" that has the capital export but not the military or political control and a "non-Marxist empire" that has the military and political control but not the economics.

It kinda feels like a Marxist idea - is formal empire the false consciousness of imperialism, or something? - but it's not and perhaps it should be.

You could argue that a sufficiently advanced imperial system needs no coercion to function, that the shared assumptions and ideologies of interconnected elites will do it...but then, that's either profoundly un-Marxist or else it's something other than imperialism and we need another word for it. However, it does describe the EU quite well...

Anonymous said...

Imperialism and colonialism is about theft and robbery on a grand scale. It is about cheapening the transportation costs, about seeking out low wages and appalling working conditions etc etc.

Anyone who can deny this is a total idiot.

If you want to get rid of the word imperialism, go ahead, and replace it with national gangsterism. This is a more apt term I think.