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A Recap on the imperialism debate

Defining The Question

The imperialism debate began with the antagonism’s comment that they did not find imperialism an extremely useful concept. Carol and Wageslave X have responded that they believe imperialism was a useful concept. The question has gone back and forth in many different threads, including discussions of the French list.

I have already posted quite a few arguments on the side of antagonism My goal is to clarify the points being made and present them in a form less dependent on previous network discussion.


Leninism And Leftism

To begin our consideration, we must remember that we have lived under the “long night” of the Stalinist domination of anti-systemic considerations. Even now, authentic communists are a distinct minority visa-vis Trotskyists or other such rot.

Even those of us who hopefully explicitly diverge from the capitalist left quite likely still have social contact with many leftists and take a fair amount of information from the leftist press. The dominant left discourse either speaks only of imperialism and never of capitalism or speaks of the two “isms” as interchangeable. This discourse frames the world’s problem as an unfairness of market rather than the existence and frames the aspirations of the third world’s proletariat as a desire to be governed by an native, autonomous ruling class rather than having an aspiration to end capitalism, states and classes.


Now, here we can also mention that this approach can be in outline in the basic approaches of Lenin. The texts of Lenin have, in general, a strong practical relation to the conditions of their times but are the cloth of opportunism in their “theoretical” development. In “Imperialism, The Highest Stage Of Capitalism”, the title is the thesis and the body consists only of examples and avoids all argument. Here, in a stroke, Lenin abandoned proletariat politics and substituted nationalist politics.

See all this understanding, we must state that Lenin’s approach was not simply “an effort to understand his times” but a specific class strategy – though one strongly rooted in the on-going events of his times.

For Marxists, a political position grows out of the fundamental political-economic dynamic. The “highest stage” formulation implies the idea that the destruction of the “imperialist domination” of third world nations by Western Nations as being equivalent to the destruction of capitalism and the creation of communism. And this has been the “main line” of the vast majority of theory presenting itself as Marxist over the last fifty or more years. By this token, the only litmus test which state capitalist or other regimes have had the pass in the anti-imperialist “political economy” was opposition to the major imperialist blocks. And this continues in the laughable and despicable support of the Taliban by the British SWP – and so forth.

Certainly distinguishing ourselves from such positions is a critical factor for communicating revolutionary Marxism, revolutionary anti-capitalism, as a distinct tendency.


The Debate In Outline

State Domination Is Real

Thus, I find it important to avoid the language and those assumptions which would lead in same direction as leftism. If imperialism is merely a term for the description of one nation dominating another, it is hardly critical in the sense that we could use a term like “national chauvinism” and be freer of leftist baggage. Of course, if imperialism is critical as a theoretical position within revolutionary anti-capitalism, it would still be important to use it. The terms “communism” itself also has a lot of baggage but as specific heritage of the workers movement, communism is very useful as well.


In looking at the question of imperialism, it is important to ask on what level a concept is applicable. Just about adjective in the English is useful if what we looking for is a descriptive pallet of the present world. On the political level, we can admit that


There are quite a few folks on the list who take issue with the questioning of imperialism as a key category.

For some, it may simply be that they believe political imperialism is undebatable phenomenon. Many posters have mentioned that all states are imperialist and imperialism is as old if not older than capitalism. Here, what is meant is political imperialism, the domination of one state by another state. And here I think the members of the list agree that this is real, common phenomenon today – and I would say throughout history.

I would begin noting that political imperialism is indeed a reality and an important reality of the modern capitalist world. Power within capital is asymmetrical in many different ways, between nations and within each nation and each bureaucracy. At the same time, I believe we should not consider imperialism a “key category” in our analysis of capitalism. The key categories would still be essentially the proletariat, wage-labor, commodity production, surplus value and those other directly related categories.

The reason for taking these are as key categories is that they describe the dynamics of capital, how it changes and how it remains the same. The present world political scheme is certainly roughly imperialist but every state in the world is also “authoritarian”.


One country moving to conquer another country in itself doesn’t need more explanation than the obvious. What starts need political is the situation where capitalist production is slowly altering the power structure as the war goes on.

Now, I would say that considerations such as how to gain access to natural resources happen whenever a major power takes military action. But the question is whether a given actor is acting for the destiny of capitalism as a whole or simply lining his own pockets. For a world market, we want to ask what the most profitable arrangement of the state is. For a particular nation, capital has gradually evolved to a system with a state presenting itself as a fair-dealer with various massive private corporations. The reality is that there is massive corruption and inter-twined interests in this process. But this “fair-dealer” approach is still reasonably coherent and somewhat followed by the modern state.

America, the major imperialist power, has intervened in numerous locations around the globe. These interventions have both followed an ideology of anti-communism as well as protecting US and Western immediate economic interests. Anti-communist ideology is more a strategy for the whole of capital while immediate interests rate as closer to an instance of corruption.


This might seem like quibbling but I don’t believe so. We can compare imperialism to corruption, since each are important aspect of capitalism. Capital might theoretically operate with either maximum or minimum corruption – the reality will be somewhere in-between. Corruption can increase or decrease from era to era, driven by a number of factors. Corruption can be a sign that capital is reaching crisis but it is not sufficient in itself – some capitalist nations reputedly survive with a massive level of corruption. Altogether, corruption is a subordinate phenomenon within our economic schema. Imperialism can be seen similarly.


Economic Imperialism Theorists

Others believe that the economic theories of imperialism are critical to our understanding of the present situation. They call for either a Luxemburgist position or a new approach taking into account the economy. Here the key word is “critical”. Every part of the modern world makes contribution to capitalist economics and certainly each state seeks an economic advantage in its conquests.

We should note also that here imperialism becomes more than simply the domination of one nation by another. The Imperialism outlined by Luxemburg was specific schema of capitalist reproduction – you could have a nation which dominates another without having this kind of reproduction.

The question is how critical to modern economic processes are the political conquests, especially those fitting into the standard framework of imperialism – the domination of less-developed nations by more developed nations. and how much does the economic force of these conquests


I would say that those who put forward criticalness of anti-imperialism must do so in terms of imperialism the fundamental, final stopping point of capitalist economic development.

The debate is essentially between who view imperialism as the ultimate face of capitalism on an economic level and those who view it as one of many faces of capital, sometimes more visible, sometimes less so.


But I would also say that there is fundamental problem with the those who put forward the position “imperialism is important so we need a theory of it”. Until they have formulated their theory, they really can’t say exactly what the importance of the theory would be. Luxemburg’s theory has a different level of importance than Lenin’s theory. Thus saying “some other theory of imperialism” leaving a truly gaping hole.


Eric has put forward Rosa Luxemburg’s writings as an example of an analysis of imperialism, especially one which did not fall into the trap of anti-imperialist support for a single nation.

To quote Luxemburg (as quoted by Eric): “Imperialism is not the creation of one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognizable only in all its relations, and in which no nation can hold aloof at will.”


My Position In More Detail


I believe that much of the argument comes out of a fuzziness about when a theory is needed or not. You don’t necessarily need a theory about something only because it is a large phenomenon in the world. I have a “theory of imperialism” – my theory is that you go out and conquer someone.

Imperialism a very old phenomenon – the first class societies were empires. The flexibility of capitalism developed out of the more rigid order of European Empires. By that token, empires are essentially static.


The dynamism of capitalism in many ways comes because of its indirectness. The arms of the warrior can seize more than the productivity of a factory at any one time. Even when you have a bourgeois state, you have something like warrior class in charge of the military itself.

Many moments of accumulation aren’t fundamentally different from the direct appropriation of earlier modes of production. The most important aspect of capital is it’s organization of things through time. Capitalism is circle as compared to earlier empire’s straight lines. Capital’s operations are best notice as a deflection over time rather than

Bush the warlord is most likely interested in maximizing US military power. He receives briefings from wide variety of corporate, ideological and bureaucratic actors who give him reasons to move more in one direction, less in another. This way Intel corporation can manage assets through-out the world.


Capital’s ideal is the market. And this market has not actually had a great track record as the manager of massive flows of resources (indeed, part of capital’s present crisis seems to stem from it’s very success in actually making the market absolutely dominant). Still, the class interests and dynamic of capitalists the world have pushed forward this control system. But history of capital has still involved many “strong hands” moving resources according to plan outside a pure free market. And certainly, these strong hands would fit into a fuzzy schema of imperialism.


A Narrative Of Capitalist Development Showing Crisis And International Class Struggle.


I would argue that the crises of capital can be explained reasonably well using Marxian categories not directly related to any new “theory of imperialism” but entirely within themselves.


Currently the world is indeed becoming more imperialist as the US accelerates the “War On Terrorism”. But this world is also less imperialistic than it was during the “classical period” of colonialism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the third world was forgotten by the political thinking of Western states. September 11th brought this part of the world “off the back-burner” in the minds of the US state and it seems we will likely will see more direct colonial activity. But is still activity within areas of the world that are marginal to the world economy.

Just as much, the domination of the political power US is certainly an important part of advanced capitalist production. At the same time, more and more trans-national corporations have interests spread throughout the globe.


So our question is whether we need a “theory of imperialism” or simply the term “imperialism”.


The question of the importance of imperialism intersects with the question of the nature of the crisis of capitalism. This is a big enough topic in itself that’s merely outline my thinking on this. Crisis can be seen as either accumulation or circulation. In a circulating crisis, capitalist have trouble selling the good capitalism produces. In an accumulation crisis, capitalism has trouble generating investment, making profits and so-forth. These two problems often come together so it’s tricky know at a glance what kind of crisis capital is experience. My position is that the accumulation crisis is the most fundamental crisis of capital and that a circulation crisis only appears as a major problem when capital is ultimately facing an accumulation crisis. Driving demand was only one of the tricks of Keynesianism. The other part was creating a regime where corporations felt safe enough to reinvest.


The Luxemburgist or other extended reproduction schema sees imperialism as a means to drive demand from external forces. While such driving can work, it is only one of several schemes for driving demand. Moreover, it becomes less important as capital’s productivity increasingly outstrips the productivity of pre-capitalist and less-advanced regions. Other schemes involve imperialism as a key tool for lowering or raising commodity prices and thus profits.

We certainly can acknowledge that colonialism could be considered part of the capitalist model of development from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. A model of development here is ruling class ideology which gives a general thrust to development and investment. Such an ideology is critical to maintaining accumulation – investors need both profits and a general impression those profit will continue.

The development of the crisis of capital here resulted in the situation of blocs of trade facing each. And certainly the Luxemburgist position is something of a snapshot of what was happening at that point.


But capital has moved on. The imperialist model has shown itself to not be the “highest stage” but merely a stage, and a stage which has pasted. We have had both the Keynesian Schema and the Neoliberal schema since the colonial/imperialist period.

In the Keynesian period, the third world served primarily as a source of raw materials, area for competing blocs to donate excess production and an area for development of armies and conflict. The US and Soviet bloc faced each other similarly to the way older colonial power blocs had faced each other. But it gradually became clear that the US or Western power bloc were absolutely supreme economically. The Keynesian period rested on the ultimate supremacy of the US dollar. This allowed the US to drive demand with military industrial spending without the dollars spent ultimately fleeing to different countries. Investor confidence in the dollar was such that foreign investors “recycled” their dollars back to the US, allowing the US to have “both guns and butter”.

The condition of the less-developed capital states during that time was that of “neocolonialism” – capitalist states strongly linked to either the US or the Soviet Union, with one or the other state often providing the bulk of resources propping up the capitalist sector of the nation. Afghanistan during that period provides an example. The state sector was centered in Kabul. This sector involved may a third of the population of the sparsely populated country. The state was financed primarily by foreign aid with only a small amount of extra money coming from natural gas production. An important part of negotiating foreign aid was the “bidding war” which the US and the Soviet Union engaged to gain influence. It is worth noting that this was characteristically “modernization without development” – no development that was viable on the world market took place and anyone in Afghanistan who could accumulate enough to be worth investing would want to invest it in the US, not Afghanistan – and would want to hold US rather Afghanis. (The Afghan state satisfied a fair portion of its budget by simply printing money).

In anycase, we can see the third world as a sink into which the US tossed excess resources but the third world’s dependence on these resources, this sink was less important than the vast public works projects within the US and other Western Nations. During that time, the model for development of the least developed countries was raw materials production and “import substitution”. Moreover, one important aspect of production that could still be called “imperialist” was that Western corporations controlled of the raw materials production taking place in various third world nations and could make certain that these raw materials remained cheap. But our question here would be, was it a matter of these companies having a patriotic desire to favor American capital or was it simply another example of dollars being recycled to the area where profits can most fully be realized. It should be noted that the “mildly developed” states of East Asia were able to experience a high rate of growth during this period – they have moved from third world to close to first world status during the last fifty years. This contradicts the most vulgar theories of imperialism which framed the neocolonialist order as being primarily oriented around preventing the economic development of third world nations. Of course, during this period, other mildly developed states, especially those in South America, declined markedly. But this is also natural in a capitalist order – there are many losers and few winners.

Now the end of Keynesian Breton Woods period happened with end of the Vietnam War and the Arab oil embargo. I would say that this period marked a point where US capital was no longer so much more competitive that it could afford to have “both guns and butter”. They chose guns. Essentially, the US cut back on both social spending to decrease its relative deficit and severely attacked it’s working class to make US investment more appealing. This resulted in the continuing recycling of dollars and maintained a reasonable level of investment in the US. A US deficit still drove world demand and dollar recycling was an even more important factor.  During this time also, the prices of other raw materials were “floated” on the world rather than being managed but unlike oil, this caused these commodities to fall “into the cellar”, disrupting what little modernization the raw materials-dependant third world was experiencing.


This was beginning of Neoliberalism, a new model of world development that has been taking shape over the last twenty years. Neoliberalism emphasized even more of a float to world market prices and the end of state ownership and regulation of infrastructure items. The Neoliberal order has perhaps resulted in development which most strongly contradicts general theories of imperialism. What could be considered critical parts of the US economy – manufacturing capacity and software development - have been shifted to third world nations – some portion of these sectors are still in the hands of US companies while other parts are in the hands of “unreliable foreigners”.




Those on the list who have put forward the importance of imperialism has generally still avoided classical “anti-imperialist” politics. So the question