Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2010

Critiquing a critique of Lenin

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Lenin,national question — louisproyect @ 4:31 pm

Palgrave-McMillan, an academic publisher, has just come out with Rethinking Capitalism: a Study of Capitalist Rule for only $95. As a long-time observer of the ironies of anti-capitalist manifestos with such capitalistic price tags, I have to give credit to the authors—John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropolous—for putting it on the internet as well.

Since the book was cited in a debate over imperialism on the Marxism list recently, I felt obligated to read it from cover to cover, especially since it was billed as a frontal assault on Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and the Monthly Review or dependency school of Marxism that included Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin et al. I tend to identify with MR even if I find the “anti-imperialist” posturing of MRZine an embarrassment. Suffice it to say that nothing has ever appeared in the print edition that remotely resembles the apologetics for Ahmadinejad on MRZine.

To begin with, there is something a bit odd about such a book coming out at this point, so late in the game, since for all practical purposes the dependency school is dead as a doornail. The simple truth is that the academic left decided long ago that Frank, Amin and company were fuddy-duddies who did not understand Marxism. The younger and hipper academics were determined to get rid of notions about “core” and “periphery” and put the emphasis back on class. Key to this was Robert Brenner’s article in the July-August 1977 New Left Review that concluded:

From this perspective, it is impossible to accept Frank’s view, adopted by Wallerstein, that the capitalist ‘development of underdevelopment’ in the regions colonized by Europeans from the sixteenth century—especially the Caribbean, South America and Africa, as well as the southern part of North America—is comprehensible as a direct result of the incorporation of these regions within the world market, their ‘subordination’ to the system of capital accumulation on a world scale. Frank originally explained this rise of underdevelopment largely in terms of the transfer of surplus from periphery to core, and the export-dependent role assigned to the periphery in the world division of labour. These mechanisms clearly capture important aspects of the functioning reality of underdevelopment. But they explain little, for, as the more searching critics of Frank’s earlier formulations pointed out, they themselves need to be explained. In particular, it was stated, they needed to be rooted in the class and productive structures of the periphery.

In journals such as Latin American Perspectives, the assault on dependency theory continued. Scholar after scholar, invoking Robert Brenner, called for a return to Marxism and an end to such fuzzy notions as “core” and “periphery”.

The late Jim Blaut, my old friend who wrote The Eurocentric Model of the World, had a political explanation for the turn against Frank and company:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

Milios and Sotiropolous (referred to hereafter as M&S) are more ambitious than Brenner and his acolytes. By singling out Lenin as the source of all this theoretical confusion, they follow Commander James T. Kirk and go “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Well, bully for them to have the audacity to challenge Lenin. If anything, Marxism needs more iconoclasm than ever, given the doctrinaire cult formations that speak in its name.

Of course, it is not sufficient to be an iconoclast. You also have to be right.

M & S are heavily indebted to Althusserian Marxism and a fellow Greek exponent of that philosophy, the late Nicos Poulantzas, in particular. In my own rather limited exposure to the branch office of the Althusserian movement in the USA, the economics department at the U. of Massachusetts that publishes Rethinking Marxism, a journal that resonates with the title of M&S’s book, I have read little that would win me to their cause. My main complaint is that it lacks a historical dimension, no accident given the Structuralist foundations that the movement rests on.

Given the focus on “modes of production” in Althusserian Marxism, it should not come as a surprise to see M&S define imperialism in those terms. For them, the proper analytical tools come from Marx’s Capital and not the questionable sources that Lenin relied on, starting from the under-consumptionist book on imperialism by Rudolph Hilferding.

The crucial distinction for them is absolute surplus value versus relative surplus value. In simple terms, absolute surplus value is generated by unskilled workers using simple tools working long hours, in other words what took place before the industrial revolution. Relative surplus value involves machinery and skills such of the kind that dominated after the Industrial Revolution. A country dominated by the former tends to be the victim of imperialism while those characterized by the latter tend to be the victimizer. They write:

The transformations we have described, which apply for all social levels in advanced capitalist formations, distinguish the form of capitalist domination even in the first period after the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century (capitalism of absolute surplus-value) from the later form of this domination (capitalism of relative surplus-value). That which was transformed is not the ‘laws’ of capital accumulation corresponding to the CMP, or in other words the structural characteristics of capitalist relations at all social levels, but the conditions and forms of appearance of capitalist relations in the historical perspective. In other words it is a question of historical transformation of the power balance and accordingly of the organizational forms of power in developed capitalist social formations.

In this modified social, political, institutional and international framework the preconditions were shaped which led to the rise of nationalism in all countries of developed capitalism and to the intensification of the antagonisms among them on the international arena, over markets, colonies and political influence. The era of classic imperialism is thus the specific historical outcome of the antagonisms and contradictions which prevailed during the transition of developed capitalist social formation to Capitalism of Relative Surplus-value and not the expression of a transformation of the CMP (from the stage of ‘competitive’ to the stage of ‘monopoly capitalism’).

Now all this is well and good, but it does little to explain how one country advanced from absolute surplus value to relative surplus value. For example, how was it that Britain advanced toward a mechanized textile industry while India remained mired in traditional hand-spun goods? This, of course, would involve a study of the relations between the two countries and the use of military power and other means of duress that is at the heart of the unfashionable world of Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank. And, lord knows, who wants to be unfashionable.

For me, the eighth chapter of Rethinking Imperialism (Internationalization of Capital) is key since it—unlike all the others—descends from the ethereal world of theory and settles down into the world of economic data. It is the one place in the book that you will find, for example, a table on distribution of FDI by region, the sort of thing that is found on nearly every page of Lenin’s pamphlet.

M&S begin by making an argument that I have heard before, namely that Lenin’s theory and that of his successors posits a kind of aristocracy of labor, even though they do not use this term. They write:

This contraposition of the model of the periphery to the model of the centre effectively whitewashes the capitalism of the centre. The exploitative and ‘irrational’ character of the system may be duly condemned, but the basic political conclusion that emerges as far as the centre is concerned is the same as that of the dominant ideology. The interests of the working class and the popular masses of the centre converge with those of ‘their’ ruling classes, as workers benefit from the exploitation of the periphery and the social system develops and progresses in such a way that the conflicts within it are blunted.

How odd that M&S blame this revisionism on Lenin, when you can read similar charges in Marx and Engels themselves. After all, in his 1916 essay “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, Lenin quotes remarks from these two “mode of production” authorities that sound almost like the “white privilege” rhetoric of the Weathermen:

In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” In a letter to Sorge, dated September 21, 1872, Engels informs him that Hales kicked up a big row in the Federal Council of the International and secured a vote of censure on Marx for saying that “the English labour leaders had sold themselves”. Marx wrote to Sorge on August 4, 1874: “As to the urban workers here [in England], it is a pity that the whole pack of leaders did not get into Parliament. This would be the surest way of getting rid of the whole lot.” In a letter to Marx, dated August 11, 1881, Engels speaks about “those very worst English trade unions which allow themselves to be led by men sold to, or at least paid by, the bourgeoisie.” In a letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels wrote: “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.”

On December 7, 1889, Engels wrote to Sorge: “The most repulsive thing here [in England] is the bourgeois ‘respectability’, which has grown deep into the bones of the workers…. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of the lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with  the French, one realises, what a revolution is good for, after all.”[10] In a letter, dated April 19, 1890: “But under the surface the movement [of the working class in England] is going on, is embracing ever wider sections and mostly just among the hitherto stagnant lowest [Engels’s italics] strata. The day is no longer far off when this mass will suddenly find itself, when it will dawn upon it that it itself is this colossal mass in motion.” On March 4, 1891: “The failure of the collapsed Dockers’ Union; the ‘old’ conservative trade unions, rich and therefore cowardly, remain lone on the field….” September 14, 1891: at the Newcastle Trade Union Congress the old unionists, opponents of the eight-hour day, were defeated “and the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the bourgeois labour party” (Engels’s italics throughout)….

M&S raise the question next:

How is one then to explain that the proportional share of international capital movements and international trade being channelled to the Third World always remains small compared to the respective shares of developed capitalist countries?

If the goal of imperialism, according to Lenin, is to extract super-profits, then how does one explain the fact that the USA invests far more in places like Canada or Britain than Nigeria or the Philippines? Moreover, they argue that the “periphery” countries that attract the most FDI are those that are characterized by “rapid economic development”, such as China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s.

Perhaps they have not considered the possibility that “rapid economic development” and being in the “periphery” are not mutually exclusive. The country that experienced the most “rapid economic growth” in Central America in the 1960s was Somoza’s Nicaragua that was introducing conditions of “relative surplus value” production throughout the countryside. Peasants using subsistence agriculture were being thrown off their land to make way for highly advanced cotton plantations and cattle ranches using airplanes for crop spraying, etc. But this kind of development was destroying the lives of the majority of the population, who would soon rise up against the imperialist-backed dictator.

What M&S have to say about “the agrarian question” is not too reassuring:

We argued above that the ability of the bourgeoisie in the LDCs [least developed countries] to extend its influence over the antagonistic (pre-capitalist) modes of production and bring about the latter’s disintegration is the most important prerequisite for capitalist development.

In social formations where pre-capitalist modes of production continue to reproduce themselves on an expanded scale, the social and spatial territory of capitalist relations and of capital accumulation suffers restriction (what has been described as ‘dualism’, etc., see Chapter 2), even if at the level of the society and of the state overall the CMP is dominant.

By this definition, countries such as El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia and Honduras should be prime candidates for a capitalist “take-off” since they have virtually wiped out subsistence (what they call pre-capitalist) agriculture. But instead they have not become anything like China, Taiwan or South Korea. They remain agricultural export nations whose foreign revenue largely goes toward keeping the rich plantation owners living in luxury. The introduction of large-scale mechanization in the countryside has done nothing except to increase the reserve army of the unemployed desperate to make its way into the USA, an “informal sector” selling chewing gum on the streets and guerrilla movements determined to break the cycle of dependency.

As most people would recognize, including M&S, Lenin’s views on imperialism were closely related to those on what was called the “national question”. I find their views on this question in chapter four (The State as a Vehicle of both Capitalist Expansionism and Decolonization: Historical Evidence and Theoretical Questions) rather disturbing. In many ways, their hostility toward the national struggle is reminiscent of Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” which regarded the struggle for national emancipation as a “poison pill”. They write:

Within a nation-state the nation manifests itself as a totalitarian tendency: incorporation of the populations of the state into the main body of the nation, and differentiation through negative discrimination against whoever does not become part of the nation, sometimes to the point of expelling them from the main body of the nation.

Historically, the process of political structuring of a nation through attainment of independence is generally described in terms of the ‘tendency towards freedom’ at first implied in it: emancipation from an empire or a multinational state entity (embodying – for those seeking ‘national independence’ – national subjugation and oppression). The ‘tendency towards freedom’ is frequently manifested through the irrevocable decision of large sectors of the population seeking independence to apply the principle of ‘Freedom or Death’, sacrificing their lives for the sake of national integration in an independent nation-state.

Citing Poulantzas, they find all this struggling for self-determination to be a potentially dangerous and reactionary thing:

National unity (…) becomes historicity of a territory and territoriaization of a history [...]. The enclosures implicit in the constitution of the modern people-nation are only so awesome because they are also fragments of a history that is totalised and capitalised by the state. Genocide is the elimination of what become ‘foreign bodies’ of the national history and territory: it expels them beyond space and time [...] Concentration camps are a modern invention in the additional sense that the frontier-gates close on ‘anti-nationals’ for whom time and national historicity are in suspense.

No wonder they think that Lenin’s views on imperialism must be attacked since they can lead to concentration camps if you don’t watch out.

Against this dyspeptic view, the Leninist tradition has always been in favor of oppressed nations gaining their independence. To argue that independence from colonial rule opens the door to a “totalitarian tendency” would mean taking a hostile position toward recent struggles such as the East Timorese, the Palestinians, or much of Africa in the 1960s. Frankly, it does not matter that a local bourgeoisie has replaced the colonizer. The Comintern favored national liberation movements even if their outcome could not be guaranteed in advance. “Freedom or Death” for the Indonesian, the Egyptian or the Vietnamese was understandable given their existence as a subordinate peoples under foreign rule. We understand that Nasser was defending the prerogatives of the Egyptian bourgeoisie when he seized the Suez Canal, but Marxism must not put itself in the position of “a plague on both your houses” when one powerful nation-state like Britain 0r France attacks another that is much weaker, like Egypt. To adopt such a stance implicitly puts you on the side of the imperialists.

There is much more to be said, but I will conclude on this note. Lenin’s article on imperialism was composed during the greatest crisis that confronted Marxism up to this point in history. Socialist parliamentarians were voting for war credits while the working class was being slaughtered by the millions. Lenin was not interested in writing a “theory” of imperialism for all time. He was far more interested in making the ties between monopoly capital and war, a relationship that is sadly missing in “Rethinking Imperialism”. If there is one thing that remains valid in Lenin’s work, it is this. Imperialism and war are joined at the hip. Furthermore, unless imperialism is overthrown, we will certainly perish in a nuclear war that will remain a possibility as long as the imperialist system is intact.

For a good summary of Lenin’s aims in writing “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, I will end with Neil Harding’s words in the always useful Lenin’s Political Thought:

The object of Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism was to provide a coherent Marxist economic analysis for the overtly socialist and international revolutionary strategy which he had begun to develop in the first days of the war. He sought in particular to demonstrate that capitalism was not only in decline, not only had it exhausted its progressive role in history, it had become, in its imperialist phase, positively retrogressive, parasitic and oppressive…

These were, of course, far from academic points. Lenin’s concern was not to construct an abstract historiography of the development of capitalism: it was rather to convince all those who called themselves Marxists that the time had now arrived when revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism had become imperative. His primary intention was to impress upon all the faint-hearted who had consistently blanched at the immediate prospect of revolutionary action, who had ever and anon invoked the concept of unripe time, arguing that capitalism had not yet exhausted its progressive potential, that time had run out for capitalism. His object was to convert the faint-hearted and, as important, to seal off once and for all the bolt-holes down which the waverers ran to hide themselves from the actuality of the revolutionary situation. All the proponents of the possibility of a post-war peaceful imperialism, the pacifist dreamers of a democratic peace without annexations, the Lib-Lab, philanthropists who envisaged a gradual redistribution of income as the solution to imperialism; all of them, Lenin argued, saw revolution staring them in the face.

30 Comments »

  1. Excellent, Louis. What I find very disturbing in terms of where this trend in political thought among academics has led us is the virtual absence of understanding of the Pan-African movements or the Pan-Arab movements in most of the high school humanities departments whose syllabi I’ve had a chance to examine in this city. The same applies to any understanding of the Latin American rebellions. The so-called third world is never understood in its own right in any high school curricula or library I’ve had the opportunity to examine in this city, and I doubt it’s much different anywhere else. Since high school curricula is a reflection of the thought of the “professionals” who currently drive education reform in this town, it’s a real problem, particularly since something called “standardization” is still in the driver’s seat. The openly reactionary character of high school writing on international affairs in this context is frightening. Kids as a rule have a tendency to be conservative, but it’s a frightening thing to see relatively resourceful young people repeat the capitalist party line ideology in term paper after term paper.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — June 9, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  2. I concur with Hureaux, this is an excellent post that addresses a number of related subjects that I have been thinking about recently, and, hence, has been very helpful, particularly in regard to the relationship of world systems scholars like Wallerstein, Minqi Li and the late Giovanni Arrighi, to related disciplines

    thanks for taking the time to read the book and post your review

    perjorative rhetoric aside, such as the use of the term “aristocracy of labor”, which should probably be consigned to linguistic oblivion, and recognized as an indication of intellectual poverty whenever it is invoked in a contemporary context, there is no question that many workers in the US and the EU have been perfectly willing to support imperial policies that operate to the detriment of the working class of the lesser developed world

    if the suggestion of the authors is that we should abandon support for self-determination in these regions and refocus on efforts on class conflict within the US and the EU, and some ancillary countries associated with them, that is not only perverse, but based upon a wholly unnecessary distinction between workers within developed and lesser developed countries

    and, your emphasis upon the harshness of the economic development approach that the authors consider most suitable for lesser developed countries is spot on, a very important issue, and one that may explain why some retrograde Marxists in places like South America in the 1990s supported neoliberal economic policies (as happened in Venezuela, for example)

    one can support self-determination for people around the world, with the hope that it will empower them economically and socially, without being naive about the challenge, as reflected in the remarks of Giovanni Arrighi in an interview published in the New Left Review a few months before his death, he was realistic about the social composition of Pan Africanism while lecturing in Africa in the 1960s, but that did not lead him to oppose it as an illegitimate response to European imperialism

    speaking from an anarchist influenced perspective, Lenin had his faults, but his steadfast advocacy of anti-imperialism remains an inspiration to this day

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 9, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

  3. “The introduction of large-scale mechanization in the countryside has done nothing except to increase the reserve army of the unemployed desperate to make its way into the USA, an “informal sector” selling chewing gum on the streets and guerrilla movements determined to break the cycle of dependency.”

    Stop the press: capitalism leads to the immiseration and ruin of those it dispossesses and exploits!

    So Louis Proyect has an idealist faith in the essential goodness of capitalism, and capitalism’s failure to live up to this faith is an argument against Milios and Sotiropolous?

    Comment by negative potential — June 9, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  4. #3: You didn’t understand what I wrote at all. M&S’s analysis is that the elimination of precapitalist agrarian social relations is key to a country becoming a successful capitalist country, even on capitalism’s own dubious terms. This means the creation of a proletariat, not peddlers selling chewing gum.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 9, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  5. But the history of expropriation was characterized by such a bloody process. Pauperism and vagabondary were rampant. The creation of a classical proletariat that no longer needed to be disciplined by state violence but rather obeyed the “mute violence of social relations” (Marx) was a long process. Read Peter Linebaugh’s London Hanged.

    Comment by negative potential — June 9, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

  6. “Imperialism and war are joined at the hip.” Indeed they are. Part of the reason why in almost a century nobody’s analysis of imperialism has superceded Lenin’s pamphlet is because they’ve wanted to avoid the conclusion that nations like Uncle Sam’s are inherently predatory. Their reformist sensibilities are loathe to admit you cannot make big cats eat salads. No possibility of meaningful reform means revolution is the only answer, and organizing revolution is the most difficult of all human endeavors, nevermind the life of a revolutionary is typically a miserable one.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 9, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  7. Speaking of Iran: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/jun/07/iran-1988-prisoners-murder-international-court

    I also find it hilarious that you let Barker favorably cite some of the very people you now despise due to their hatred of the Green revolution protests.

    Comment by Jenny — June 9, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

  8. I also find it hilarious that you let Barker favorably cite some of the very people you now despise due to their hatred of the Green revolution protests.

    You would find Buster Keaton much more rewarding, I am sure.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 9, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  9. Thanks for an outstanding essay.

    Comment by epoliticus — June 10, 2010 @ 2:35 am

  10. “If there is one thing that remains valid in Lenin’s work, it is this. Imperialism and war are joined at the hip. Furthermore, unless imperialism is overthrown, we will certainly perish in a nuclear war that will remain a possibility as long as the imperialist system is intact.”

    Yeah–if any one aspect of Lenin’s thought can be isolated as his greatest lasting contribution to Marxism, it is his prophecy that “we will certainly perish in a nuclear war”. Uh…

    Comment by skip — June 10, 2010 @ 6:30 am

  11. Louis, Great Review!

    Can you also touch upon the Lenin-Luxemburg debates about the right to self-determination. In what ways did they differed and on what did they agree. I thought you would mention this in the review. Still, fantastic to read!

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — June 10, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  12. Ian, I wrote a fairly lengthy analysis of the national question here that included a discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s views:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/race/black_nationalism.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — June 10, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  13. “If the goal of imperialism, according to Lenin, is to extract super-profits, then how does one explain the fact that the USA invests far more in places like Canada or Britain than Nigeria or the Philippines? Moreover, they argue that the “periphery” countries that attract the most FDI are those that are characterized by “rapid economic development”, such as China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s.”

    Academicians seem to sometimes appeal to the “fact” that FDI outflows from the core to the periphery is relatively small as a basis for refuting Lenin. This is not the first time that I have seen such an argument. Yet these outflows, it is forgotten, are themselves not constant. During the period 1990-2000, the average annual FDI inflow to the developed economies was USD 357 billion in contrast to outflows being USD 438 billion according to UNCTAD. In 2008, the FDI inflow to the developed economies was USD 962 billions in contrast to the outflows being USD 1.5 trillion. Therefore, the argument seems flawed even according to its own logic. For the “the fact” is itself variable. Moreover, to claim that FDI causes economic development is no longer even believed by the vanguard of the (pro-capitalist) economics profession.

    Comment by epoliticus — June 10, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

  14. Karl,

    Hi hope you are well.

    Uncle Sam involved in war?

    List every military conflict starting with World War 2 and see which ones the United States had involvement with troops, selling weapons, or CIA involvement. Compare these numbers with any other country. Then we will know who the real agressor in the world is won’t we?

    I’ll give you a hint it sure isn’t Iran, China or even Russia.

    Love,

    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — June 10, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  15. Louis, I don’t think you or your late friend Jim Blaut is quite fair to Brenner. In his earlier work, he is out to assert a class struggle model of economic change against those over-emphasizing the forces of production–say, some new technology, or “industrialization,” or even “globalization” of trade. Even in the passage you quote, he is emphasizing that the origins of capitalism need to be seen elsewhere than in trade as such–“they needed to be rooted in the class and productive structures of the periphery,” which themselves need to be rooted in the prior capitalist dynamic of the core.

    Later, in MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION, Brenner develops a C.L.R. James-like argument that the economic basis of the English Revolution lies in black sweat–i.e., the Puritan “new merchant” fortunes founded in the organization of slave production in the New World. But it WOULD have been nice to see him acknowledge James’s prior and parallel argument for the origins of the French Revolution, and it would have been even nicer to read a little more about the slaves themselves.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — June 10, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  16. Dear John:

    You’re preaching to the choir brother.

    The sad irony, particularly for a biblical scholar such as yourself, are the American statistics on religious belief, like 33% of adults identifying themselves as “born again” Christians, meaning, I presume, that every word of the bible is literally true. Chomsky once remarked that “to find comparable religiosity in the Western world you’d have to poll old women in Sicily.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 10, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

  17. As mentioned, South Korea could not be considered a periphery country at present time. It’s per cap GDP is only about 15 % less than Japan’s, and about the same as Italy. It regularly wins bids against G7-based companies on contracts involving high value-added technology. The same with Taiwan.

    Li’s and Brenner’s arguments about the swelling ranks of semi-periphery countries ‘overloading’ the capitalist world-system seems pretty accurate.

    Comment by purple — June 11, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  18. Louis, your objection to Milios & Sotiropoulos seems to be mainly to the political conclusions of “euro-centricity”. But your contrary political conclusions are problematic.

    Let us suppose – and I agree – that capitalism, the state and imperialism are “joined at the hip” (beginning with Venetian imperialism in the Mediterranean in the late middle ages). It then follows that

    (1) the flow of surplus from the ‘global south’ to the ‘global north’ results in the last analysis from the use of coercion: whether this is coercion to pay taxes imposed by imperialist occupiers; to sell commodities at undervalues; to pay debts (and interest on debts) incurred by states for the benefit of traders and investors from the ‘global north'; to pay returns on FDI; or whatever. The forms are highly variable; the flows of surplus are small in *absolute* terms (e.g. van Zanden & van Riel, The strictures of inheritance, find inflows of 3% of Dutch GDP in the 19th century from exploitation of the colonial regime in what became Indonesia) but create positive multiplier effects in the economies of the ‘north’ and negative multiplier effects in the economies of the ‘south’.

    (2) Some countries can pass from the camp of the ‘underdeveloped’ and exploited to that of the ‘developed’ and potential exploiters. But they do so by geopolitics. That is, by creating powerful armed forces and arms production complexes, backed by native finance-capitalist operations, to set themselves up as rival imperialists – as in the case of Germany and Japan in the late 19th century. Or because they are “front-line states” subsidised by the central imperialist powers, as in the cases of several minor European states, South Korea and Taiwan. The idea – ‘Brennerite’ or promoted by these authors – that the domestic relations of production in different countries is decisive of which outcome occurs is illusory.

    (3) However, this also implies that the idea that (a) socialism can come first to the ‘global south’ (b) through national liberation struggles, is equally illusory.

    (a) The flow of surplus from ‘south’ to ‘north’ is given by military power – and it is the needs of this military power which leads capital to make economic concessions to the working and middle classes of the ‘north’, to secure loyalty. The relative military power is given by relatively high-tech productive capacity: this, too, is true of Venice and the Netherlands as much as of Britain and the US more recently. The military power is precisely there to enable the capitals of the ‘north’ to enforce ‘open markets’, ‘the security of property rights’ and ‘responsible budgets’ in the south, and thereby enforce the flow of surplus. It is able to do so because states which ‘break the rules’ can be subjected to financial exclusion, naval blockade, covert operations (like British financiers’ and arms dealers’ support for the break-up of Gran Colombia in the 1820s) and ultimately direct military action. These actions will be most sharply enforced against states which attempt socialist change. The largest example is the USSR: but the US still maintains, for example, substantial tech sanctions against China even after that state has largely taken the capitalist road. At the end of the day the USSR failed precisely because of the financial exclusion and blockade operations of imperialism.

    (b) If all the countries of the ‘south’ *simultaneously* defaulted on debts to the ‘north’ and seized the property of the ‘north’, the disruption would probably be sufficient to break the ability of the ‘north’ to reassert control. But such a course of action would precisely not be a project of *national* liberation but an internationalist project of the global overthrow of capitalism as such. A project of *national* liberation implies, in contrast, manoeuvring to improve the *relative* position of the subordinated country in the global hierarchy. Hence the endless disappointments the left has suffered with one or another sort of ‘left nationalist’ leadership: it is illusory to imagine the internationalist solidarity of nationalist movements.

    (4) It follows that the right strategy is not “third world first”, but global internationalist solidarity of the working class for the overthrow of capitalism *as such* and both ‘north’ and ‘south’. It is this approach – only held by trivial minorities today – that is capable of both promoting the global solidarity of the exploited, and breaking up the military-economic power of the imperialist states from within.

    (5) This does not mean that socialists should not oppose imperialist military, etc, operations; but they should be anti-imperialist on grounds of political democracy (as Lenin argued in the polemics against the ‘imperialist-economists’), i.e. that limited political self-determination is preferable, even if economic self-determination is impossible. We should not be attracted to the illusory idea that national liberation movements in themselves contribute to the overthrow of capitalism, and we should not lead opposition to our own states’ imperialist operations to lead us to lend *political* support to nationalist movements.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — June 11, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  19. [We should not be attracted to the illusory idea that national liberation movements in themselves contribute to the overthrow of capitalism, and we should not lead opposition to our own states’ imperialist operations to lead us to lend *political* support to nationalist movements.]

    —————————————————————–

    Mike: I was intrigued by the flow of your argument until the end when I got a more than a bit confused at your conclusions.

    I’ve been on barricades and picket lines full of capitalism’s victims around the globe for the last 40 years and never really met anybody who imagined that: “that national liberation movements in themselves contribute to the overthrow of capitalism.” That’s more like a NY Times caricature of a leftist.

    What national liberation movements have the potential to do, particularly when the imperialists invade & get bogged down militarily, is weaken imperialism, which in turn strengthens the progressive forces at home.

    After all revolutions tend to follow wars. With Russian involvement in WWI the Bolshevik revolution would have been unthinkable.

    So for example while many fell under the illusion that the Vietnam War might’ve actually brought capitalism to it’s knees, what with cities burning and conscripted troops on the verge of mutiny, revolution was indeed illusory, however progressive forces did come to the fore.

    Same with in Iraq today. If it weren’t for the heroic resistance of the Iraqi people G.W. Bush would likely be revered as some holy political genius today and for all we know blogs like this would’ve been shut down in all the neocon’s fascistic glory, that’s the kind of stifling mood all their shock & awe executive authoritarianism was putting on the national body politic.

    We did still manage to lose the great writ of habeus corpus after all, but if the Iraqis didn’t resist so effectively these maniacal neocon jackbooters might have managed to ammend the constitution so that we’d living under Bush’s 3rd term (nevermind that Obama IS effectively Bush’s 3rd term.)

    With that in mind what the hell sense does it make to argue: “we should not lead opposition to our own states’ imperialist operations to lead us to lend *political* support to nationalist movements”?

    Call me a third worldist if you will but when Uncle Sam attacks Brown peoples I say: “Victory to those Brown people!”

    Anything less and you might as well change your name to Christopher Hitchens.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 11, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  20. As mentioned, South Korea could not be considered a periphery country at present time. It’s per cap GDP is only about 15 % less than Japan’s, and about the same as Italy.

    That being the case, I don’t find abstract arguments about relative surplus value that useful. While it is true that Korea had an ambitious land reform program, the real explanation for its “take off” is its unique position in American geopolitical ambitions. Only a tiny number of countries fell into this category.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 11, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  21. Karl Friedrich (#19):

    (1) The group of which I am a member has participated without hesitation in the anti-war movement, and we headlined in the week of the invasion of Iraq (from memory) “Better the defeat of British troops than their victory”. (Various leftists told us this was an ultraleft headline, but it sold pretty well.)
    However, this is not the same as giving *political* support to whoever is targeted by US (and hence by British) imperialism. Example No. 1. We campaign as hard as possible (with very limited resources) against the “sanctions” blockade of Iran and the recurrent diplomatic /media drumbeat against Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. But we are opposed to, on that basis, prettifying the corrupt, neo-liberal, privatising clerical regime in Iran, and we argue that the international workers’ movement needs to give solidarity to Iranian workers, and so on, repressed by the regime, while at the same time opposing the imperialist war drive.
    Example No. 2. George Galloway has done some brilliant work in the leadership of the anti-war movement. But it is undoubtedly true that his *political* support for the Ba’athist regime in the 1990s – “I salute your indefatigability” and all that – was a tactical mistake which weakened the effectiveness of the antiwar movement. (That is, it weakened it once – after the invasion – the section of the British military-security apparat which had indirectly supported the anti-war movement before the invasion withdrew its support.)

    (2) On “weaken imperialism, which in turn strengthens the progressive forces at home”.
    (a) Revolutions follow wars. True, but most clearly true of great-power wars like 1791-1815, 1914-18 and 1939-45. Britain has been engaged in imperialist military operations with pretty varying outcomes continuously (except the year 1968) since 1945, and probably on something like the same frequency since the 1750s, without any of the sort-of defeats, scuttles, etc leading to revolution in the home country. British defeat in America in 1776-83 triggered reaction, not revolution. The single exception of colonial war triggering a (defeated) revolution is Portugal in 1974-76; and it is far from clear that the colonial war would have triggered revolution in Portugal without the European context of May ’68, the ‘creeping May’ in Italy, and so on.
    (b) I don’t buy the proposition that the Vietnamese victory in 1975 *strengthened* the US left. On the contrary, if anything the organised left, which had been growing through the civil rights movement and anti-war movement, fell into crisis in the later 1970s, while US capital rapidly reorganised its policy round neo-liberalism and the use of covert support for local rivals to destabilise nationalist governments; beginning with Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” offensive.
    (c) I think you are counting your chickens before they’re hatched on the beneficial effects on the US movement of Iraqi military resistance. But for the global financial crash, the Republicans could have got a third term; and you yourself say that “Obama IS effectively Bush’s 3rd term”: Obama has escalated in Afghanistan, continued Bush’s policy towards Iran, and offers at most phrases on Palestine. Is the US antiwar movement strengthened? I doubt it.
    Overall, we should fight for the defeat of our own imperialism’s military operations because that is the right outcome, and because promoting opposition to imperialist wars will *in the long term* strengthen the workers’ movement; not because we have illusions that the victory of their opponents will immediately strengthen us.

    3. If you’ve “been on barricades and picket lines full of capitalism’s victims around the globe for the last 40 years and never really met anybody who imagined that: ‘that national liberation movements in themselves contribute to the overthrow of capitalism.'” – then you’ve encountered different arguments than I’ve encountered in the last 35 years. Leave aside Maoists, I’ve encountered plenty of ‘official’ communists and Trotskyists who have argued in the past and continue to argue precisely that. And my comment was addressed in part to Louis’s quote from Jim Blaut:
    “Euro-Marxists, … nonetheless insisted as they always had done that … socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.”
    It seems to me that Blaut’s implicit argument – that socialism *can* arrive first in the Third World – is precisely disproved by the failure of the USSR and ‘Soviet bloc’, the Chinese turn to the capitalist road, and around it, the political collapse of the various left-nationalist regimes.
    In the first place, US-led imperialism still disposes of sufficient resources, both military and political, to inflict blockade and destruction on states which resist or take a different path – even if they can no longer impose positive order.
    Secondly, precisely because imperialism is not the “highest stage of capitalism” but a normal feature of capitalism from its beginnings, the overthrow of *US-led* imperialism without the overthrow of capitalism would merely result in a global imperialist system led by some other power: just as 1914-45 resulted mainly in the transfer of imperialist military and financial leadership from Britain to the US.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — June 11, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  22. Mike:

    The few points that I might quibble over with minor disagreements from your last post are not worth commenting on further as your points are well taken.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 11, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

  23. I am surprised the reviewer doesn’t mention the editors of Monthly Review. In more
    ways than one, people like Sweezy, Baran, and Harry Magdoff were the real heirs of Lenin’s thesis. Especially Magdoff has written extensively on important underpinnings
    of modern imperialism that
    naturally flow from the prepondarance of monopoly capitalism. The theses of
    Amin and Wellernstein seem to have been attacked with fair amount of success even
    within the mainstream Marxism (I remember reading an article of Utsa Patnaik some time ago from New Socialist of early 1980s). However, if someone read Magdoff, one would hesitate many times before quoting FDI data as a credible marker of modern imperialism.
    Nor would one wonder why the US invests more in Canada as compared to Nigeria.

    Comment by Shiv — June 11, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  24. Kautsky already beat Lenin in “outlining” the Marxist theory of imperialism. Those five features that Lenin outlined were outlined by Kautsky even just before Hobson came out with his work.

    It’s tragic that Kautsky never got the credit he deserves for this pioneering.

    “Lenin’s article on imperialism was composed during the greatest crisis that confronted Marxism up to this point in history. Socialist parliamentarians were voting for war credits while the working class was being slaughtered by the millions. Lenin was not interested in writing a “theory” of imperialism for all time. He was far more interested in making the ties between monopoly capital and war…”

    Here’s the hot potato staring in our faces: inter-imperialist conflict (not just war) *outside of a revolutionary period* (as opposed to the period up to and including WWI, with mass worker struggles and more importantly workers parties). Which imperialist power to support? How to support it?

    Revolutionary defeatism is insane except when applied, naturally, in a revolutionary period. Even then, there is the alternative of revolutionary defencism suggested by Engels. Outside this, class-strugglist defencism should be the norm.

    Example 1: China and Taiwan. China is already an imperialist power through its activities in Africa, but I think it should be supported in any future conflict with the USA for forcibly re-absorbing Taiwan.

    Example 2: Die Linke’s anti-NATO stance is the same as Schroeder’s in replacing NATO with a European security alliance that includes Russia. This is a maneuver in favour of German imperialism and against US imperialism, but is a progressive move because of stressing greater European integration.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — June 14, 2010 @ 4:51 am

  25. In short, I have provided some stuff on why “anti-Americanism” (against US and generic Anglo “hegemony” in liberal discourse) may not necessarily be “the anti-imperialism of fools.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — June 14, 2010 @ 4:57 am

  26. Well this is all fine and jim-dandy. I haven’t read the M&S book, and really don’t intend to, but Lenin is no slouch when it comes to citing “facts” and “data” that support his conception of imperialism. And those “facts” and “data” are just as “cyclical” as any used by so-called academics.

    Lenin makes claims about agriculture in the advanced countries that are simply wrong; he makes assertions about the functioning of trusts and syndicates that are wrong; he makes distinctions between export of commodities and export of capital that are simply not accurate; he implies a certain level of revenues from debt instruments that does not correspond to what truly occurs in the capitalist system.

    Lenin’s data are wrong, are wrongly interpreted, and his conclusions are equally wrong.

    Comment by S.Artesian — June 14, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  27. Artesian : I must admit that I scarcely read your postings because your attitude generally sucks.

    Comment by epoliticus — June 14, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

  28. Whew! I was getting all worried about humanity’s future until Artesian was able to convincingly demonstrate that imperialists like Uncle Sam are not inherently predatory and that imperialism and war are not joined at the hip. That darn Lenin. He’s such an antiquated troublemaker. Maybe he was just so wedded to his ideas that he made statistics up to fit his threadbare theory? Maybe there’s really no such thing as imperialism? Or if there is, perhaps it plays only a benign or even progressive role as a civilizing force?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 14, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  29. I should clarify that I completely respect Artesian. But, sometimes, he seems needlessly confrontational.

    Comment by epoliticus — June 14, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

  30. “Li’s and Brenner’s arguments about the swelling ranks of semi-periphery countries ‘overloading’ the capitalist world-system seems pretty accurate.”

    Yes, very interesting in light of ongoing labor militancy in China, which is consistent Li’s thesis.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 15, 2010 @ 1:01 am


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