Palgrave-McMillan, an academic publisher, has just come out with Rethinking Imperialism: 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.” 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.