Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 23, 2014

Snapshots of Crimean Tatar history

Filed under: Crimean Tatars,national question,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Katherine the Great, Stalin and Putin: cut from the same cloth as far as the Crimean Tatars are concerned

Back in 1966 I signed up for group therapy with Louise Potts, an “art therapist” in her 70s who a number of Bard graduates had begun to see. I was in the same group as Daniel Pinkwater, an art major who became famous for his witty children’s books and NPR commentaries. Pinkwater lived in a loft next to my building in Hoboken and we used to spend a lot of time hanging out.

I stopped going to see Mrs. Potts after my post-Bard depression had lifted. When they said that the “real world” was different from Bard, they weren’t kidding. Breaking up with my girlfriend and facing the draft made the adjustment to living alone in NYC and studying philosophy at the New School an even bigger challenge.

I have vivid memories of the therapy sessions in which after scribbling something on a big sheet of paper you were expected to fill it in as recognizable drawing. Supposedly this was the equivalent of a waking dream (not that the interpretation of dreams ever made much difference in “curing” a neurotic.)

Daniel’s drawings always made mine look crude by comparison. Eventually he was eclipsed by another art major, a woman in her early 20s named Lily. She was a Crimean Tatar who had suffered the lot of a “displaced person” throughout the 50s after her parents had been expelled from her homeland. Mrs. Potts believed that Lily’s depression had a lot to do with her family situation even though it had stabilized after they moved to the USA.

Two years later I was in the SWP and reading about the suffering of the Tatars in Intercontinental Press, a magazine edited by Joe Hansen that covered the activities of Russian dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko, a decorated WWII hero of Ukrainian descent. As punishment for his advocacy of Crimean Tatar rights, including repatriation into their homeland, he was stripped of his military rank, privileges and pension and then sent to a mental hospital for two years. In 1971, a Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Semyon Gluzman wrote a report finding Grigorenko sane and concluding that his hospitalization was a form of repression. For his efforts, Gluzman was rewarded with seven years in labor camp and then three years in Siberian exile. Unlike Joe Hansen and the SWP, most people on the Maoist left backed the Soviet bureaucrats for the same sorts of reasons so many “anti-imperialists” are backing Putin today. If imperialism was applauding Grigorenko’s efforts, that was reason enough to jail him in a mental hospital and to make any psychiatrist pay dearly for a report that deemed the General sane.

Mostly as a way of familiarizing myself with Tatar history, I speed read Alan Fisher’s “The Crimean Tatars”, one of the few authoritative books on the topic. As it turns out, the Tatars are a Turkic people—something that makes me even more sympathetic to them since I have a great affection for the average Turk as opposed to the problematic leadership they have endured for a hundred years or so.

The Tatars settled into the Crimean peninsula back in the fourteenth century under a so-called khanate. Their first great leader was a man named Haci Giray who created an independent state that relied heavily on Ottoman support. Giray was a descendant of Genghis Khan but was far more similar to the more settled and urban character of the Ottoman rulers than the Mongol Golden Horde of nomad conquerors. For example, Giray lived in a castle that was like a smaller version of the Topkapi rather than a tent.

As was the case in the Ottoman Empire proper, non-Muslims conducted business, trading, shipping, and personal finance under Tatar rule and paid a tax for these privileges. And as was typical as well, the non-Muslim enjoyed a level of freedom and tolerance that was remarkable for the age. Fisher reports that Karaim Jews spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions, and even sang purely Turkic songs.

This was by no means a paradise but life generally went well for the citizens for a couple of hundred years until Russia developed an interest in the region. Katherine the Great, a relatively enlightened Czarina, decided to annex Crimea in the same empire-building spirit that led her to launch incursions into the southern Caucasus territories. You can get an idea of the changes in Crimean demographics from this chart that appears in Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.13.06 PM

The Tatars are green, the Ukrainians yellow and the Russians red. So clearly what has happened from the time of Katherine the Great (the late 1700s) throughout the 19th century is a dramatic removal of the Tatars from their homeland. The slight uptick in green toward the far right of the graph reflects the repatriation victory won by the Crimean Tatars. The question, of course, is whether this was similar to Stalin’s wholesale expulsion or something less genocidal.

It was less genocidal but by no means benign. How could emigration ever be benign, after all? As is so often the case, the Russians opted to bring Crimea under its control by using a puppet, in this instance a khan named Sahin Giray. After instituting some reforms intended to “Westernize” the khanate, and deeply unpopular with the masses—including being subject to the Russian military draft—Giray was put under house arrest in St. Petersburg.

Once Crimea was annexed, Katherine began colonizing the region with non-Muslims. This was partly responsible for the demographic changes. There were also reasons for the Tatars to flee, particularly in the period following the Crimean war when Russia was defeated by a coalition of armies including the Ottomans and the British. Despite Russia’s loss, many Tatars fled, especially the elites, because of a fear that there would be reprisals against them even though many fought courageously for the Czardom.

Just as would happen in the Middle East under Zionist colonization, non-Tatars were lured into settling in Crimea with cash awards and the mass expulsions of Tatar peasants.

By 1917, the Tatars constituted only 30 percent of the Crimean peninsula. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks claimed that it favored the self-determination of oppressed nationalities, the tumult of the civil war made it difficult to put this into practice.

In 1921 Lenin wrote a comrade:

In all autonomous republics, the Tatar Republic in this case, there are two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars): one of them takes the standpoint of class struggle and works for further class differentiation of the sections of the native population, and the other has a shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism….

The petty-bourgeois nationalism is an obvious reference to the preference for SR and Menshevik politicians among the Tatars, a most unfortunate choice given the polarization following October 1917.

Celebi Cihan was one such “petty bourgeois nationalist”. As leader of the Milli Farka Party, he spoke for its key demands: nationalization of the church and private property, opposition to the conservative clergy, breaking off contacts with the Russian liberals, and closer cooperation with the Russian social democracy.

Despite these sympathies, the Milli Farka was considered an enemy of Soviet power. In February 1918, the Chekha arrested Cehin and put him in front of a firing squad. Afterwards they threw his body into the Black Sea. And this was during the “heroic” period of Communist rule. It should be mentioned that the Bolshevik heading up such repression was none other than Bela Kuhn, the man who also helped to sabotage the German revolution.

It was such actions that led some of the Tatars to collaborate with the German contingent that was part of the invasion force fighting alongside the White Army, just as they would collaborate with the Nazis during WWII.

In a bold attempt to reverse the disastrous policies being pursued by Bela Kuhn, the Soviet Union created an autonomous socialist republic for the Crimean Tatars in 1923 and had the good sense to put Veli Ibramihov in charge. Ibramihov had been a member of the left wing of the Milli Farka and had evolved toward Bolshevik politics. Ibramihov followed a number of enlightened policies:

  • Crimean Tatars were elevated into responsible positions in the autonomous republic’s government.
  • “War Communism” policies that severely affected Tatar peasants were reversed.
  • Tatarization would be implemented on all levels, including the reopening of Tatar-language schools, scientific institutes, museums, libraries and theaters.

Despite Ibramihov’s nationalist leanings, he never for one minute displayed secessionist tendencies. He and the Crimean Tatar people had the misfortune to have encountered Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism just a few years after these policies were adopted. In 1927 Stalin decided to create an autonomous Jewish republic in the south of Crimea that would be seeded with 3500 “colonists” who would displace the Tatars. (I have written with some pleasure about this kind of project in another part of the USSR. At the time I had not considered the possible collateral damage to the indigenous population.)

After Ibramihov wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about the abridgement of Tatar rights, he was arrested on the charge of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and executed on May 9, 1928.

In my view, there is a red thread that runs from Katherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea, to Kuhn and Stalin’s repression, to Putin’s annexation once again of Crimea. He is basically reprising Katherine’s colonizing tendencies while justifying it in the name of “anti-imperialism” in faux Bolshevik style.

Long-time British Trotskyist (but of a very benign nature) Murray Smith has written a useful article (http://links.org.au/node/3773) that makes the Putin/Romanov connection (Katherine the Great was of course a Romanov). It is about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the traditional Great Russian hegemony over that part of the world even if it has to be realized over the dead bodies of lesser nationalities. Here is Smith:

In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.

And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it’s true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.

When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.

The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).


October 6, 2011

Bert Jansch, dead at 67

Filed under: national question,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

NY Times October 5, 2011

Bert Jansch, an Influential Folk Guitarist, Is Dead at 67


Bert Jansch, a guitarist whose blend of classical, jazz, blues and traditional British folk music inspired a long list of folk and rock guitarists in the 1960s and ’70s, including Donovan, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Paul Simon, died on Wednesday in London. He was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Jansch caused an immediate sensation with his first album, “Bert Jansch,” released in 1965. He was a mostly self-taught musician. And his idiosyncratic style, with its intricate finger work and bent notes, as well as his bold reinterpretations of traditional material, exerted a powerful influence on a generation of young guitarists. A founder of the progressive British folk group Pentangle, he remains an almost talismanic figure for today’s young artists like Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart.

“With the release of his first album in 1965 he completely reinvented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequaled today,” Johnny Marr, the former guitarist for the Smiths, wrote in a foreword to the paperback reissue of the 2000 book “Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival,” by Colin Harper. “Without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the ’60s and ’70s would have been very different.”

Mr. Jansch (the name rhymes with blanch) became obsessed with the guitar after a teacher in his elementary school in Edinburgh brought one in for a demonstration. His parents could not afford to pay for more than a few lessons, so he tried to construct his own instrument. “The second one I made was even playable, and I learned to chord a D on it,” he told Frets magazine in 1980.

After buying a guitar at age 15, he began listening to records by Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Lead Belly. Gradually he incorporated influences from classical music, jazz and traditional Celtic and British folk songs. He was particularly influenced by Davy Graham, another seminal guitarist, whose composition “Angi” (also spelled “Angie” and “Anji”) became the centerpiece of Mr. Jansch’s first album.

Mr. Jansch remained reserved about describing his style and how it evolved. “Everyone asks that but I’m sorry, it’s a mystery to me how it developed like this,” he told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday in 2004.

Neil Young, who included Mr. Jansch on his American tour last year, once called him the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix as an influence on guitar players. Donovan recorded a cover version of Mr. Jansch’s protest song “Do You Hear Me Now” on his “Universal Soldier” album and paid tribute to him with “Bert’s Blues” on the album “Sunshine Superman” and “House of Jansch” on “Mellow Yellow.”

Mr. Page, who succumbed to the spell of Mr. Jansch’s first album when it came out, did his own instrumental version of “Blackwaterside,” a traditional song from Mr. Jansch’s third solo album, “Jack Orion” (1966). Retitled “Black Mountain Side,” it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

Herbert Jansch was born on Nov. 3, 1943, in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh. After leaving school at 15, he became a fixture at the Howff, a local folk club. Two of the club’s regulars, Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson, future members of the Incredible String Band, encouraged him to break out of the narrow Edinburgh scene.

He made his way to London and performed on the streets and in small clubs. After recording “Bert Jansch” on a reel-to-reel tape deck, he teamed up with the singer and guitarist John Renbourn, his second guitarist on “It Don’t Bother Me” and “Jack Orion” and his duet partner on the influential album “Bert and John” (1966).

He and Mr. Renbourn began performing at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road with the future members of Pentangle: the singer Jacqui McShee, the acoustic bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The group made its debut in a sold-out performance at the Royal Festival Hall on May 27, 1967, and went on to become one of the most dominant folk groups in Britain. It was known for its innovative and eclectic style, which had a marked jazz influence, and for the complex intertwined guitar parts in the “folk baroque” style.

The group’s first album, “Pentangle,” was released in 1968, followed by “Sweet Child,” “Basket of Light,” “Cruel Sister,” “Reflection” and “Solomon’s Seal.”

On New Year’s Day 1973, Mr. Jansch left the group, whose members were buckling under the strain of five world tours. Retreating to a farm in Wales, he returned to a solo career and recorded the album “A Rare Conundrum.” In the late 1970s joined with the fiddler Martin Jenkins to form a duo, Jansch and Jenkins, which became Conundrum after adding the bassist Nigel Smith. For a time Mr. Jansch performed and recorded with various revived versions of Pentangle.

Drinking problems derailed his career for a time, but he rebounded in the 1990s with the album “When the Circus Comes to Town.” He later recorded two critically praised albums, “Crimson Moon” and “The Black Swan,” featuring younger folk-influenced artists.

Mr. Jansch’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Loren Auerbach, and two sons, Kieron and Adam.

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.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,525 other followers