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Sunday, August 28, 2022

Imperialism revisited

The war in Ukraine has surfaced many of the ideological weaknesses of the left, including the Marxist-friendly, pro-socialist left. With the decline of many Communist Parties and the fascination of so-called “Western Marxism” and the few remaining academic Marx scholars with rethinking, reimagining, or otherwise reinventing Marxism, it is no wonder that today’s Marxist “theory” often seems to lack a mooring in either precedent theory or actual practice. This weakness is apparent in the writing and thinking on imperialism of many friends and comrades, including in their views on the Ukrainian conflict.

In March, I argued that debates over whether Russia-- a belligerent in the war in Ukraine-- was an imperialist country were neither productive of any useful conclusions nor sanctioned by an understanding of V.I. Lenin’s account of imperialism as expressed in his influential pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Rather than describing a club of wealthy states that met a strictest of membership criteria, Lenin sought to explain a stage of capitalism that emerged after the extensive, expansive, competitive growth of capitalism reached its zenith and begin to be replaced with intensive, concentrated growth typified by the monopolization or cartelization of industries.

The new stage, beginning in the 1870s, sprang from the logic of capitalism, most importantly the rise of monopoly, the domination of the economy by extremely large enterprises: “…the formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.”

Lenin enumerates other features of the new stage-- imperialism-- including the complete division of the world “among the greatest capitalist powers…” For Lenin, writing in 1916, and others like John Hobson, Rosa Luxemburg, and Rudolf Hilferding, the world was divided into the greatest capitalist powers [the colonizers], the semi-colonies, and the colonies.

No one in Lenin’s time seriously questioned that the late-nineteenth century saw a rapidly completing division of the world, especially Africa, with tensions growing enormously between the “great powers” over their territorial acquisitions. This was commonly dubbed the “new imperialism” to separate it from the earlier empires constructed in the inappropriately named “age of discovery,” a time when Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands conquered the new world.

In Hobson’s famous 1902 study, Imperialism, A Study, he documents 38 distinct regions in Asia, Africa, and even Europe that were “acquired” by a European Power between 1871 and 1901.

He also charts 13 Great Powers, 3 of which are non-European, and one-- Russia-- that is Euro-Asian, all of which held over half a billion people in colonial subjugation.

By 1916, Lenin additionally noted the rise of Japan into a great power, a country that defeated Russia in the interim and acquired Korea and other lands. 

Where Hobson counted China and Turkey as great powers with colonies, Lenin viewed them (and Persia) as semi-colonies because they were nominally “independent” but “subordinate” to the dictates of finance capital. It is well worth noting that this status-- specified by Lenin in 1916-- became the dominant form of imperialism in the post-colonial era. What we might call “neo-colonies,'' following Nkrumah, were called “semi-colonies” by Lenin. Imperialism today is determined by the dominance of economic and financial relations and more rarely by out-and-out subjugation and physical occupation.

It is even more noteworthy that the semi-colonial countries in 1916-- Turkey, China, and Persia-- themselves held colonies. That is, they participated in the imperialist system as both colonies (by means of their economic domination by greater powers) and as small-time colonizers. Lenin does not paint a simple, naive picture of solely state-victims and state-victimizers. Instead, the victimizer is capitalism in its final, imperialist stage. It is the system that generates the international monopolies that drive their home countries to expand and capture markets, secure the safety of capital export, and guarantee the availability of raw materials. Capitalism is the driving force behind the various states’ division of the world, according to Lenin.

Lenin’s contemporary critics debated on two fronts. First, they took issue with the theorem that imperialism was fundamentally based upon economic factors. Rather than economic self-interest, they suggested that imperialism sprang from national aggrandizement, innate human instincts, personalities, global insecurities, missionary zeal, etc.

Second, they disagreed that imperialism was linked to capitalism. And if it was linked, it was not intrinsically linked, as Lenin argued, and not a logical outcome of a specific stage of capitalism.

Joseph Schumpeter, later a prominent professor of economics at Harvard University, wrote an essay in 1919 that argued, contra Lenin, that capitalism, in fact, was actually antagonistic to imperialism-- capitalism as anti-imperialism! Paradoxically, this obscure paper was edited by socialist Paul Sweezy and republished in English in 1951 (Imperialism and Social Classes) in the high Cold War and the beginnings of rapid decolonization, no doubt as an answer to Leninism.

Bourgeois academic apologists for capitalism clearly saw, and see today, that the essence of Lenin’s theory of imperialism is that capitalism, in its monopoly stage, breeds imperialism. They grasp that the force of Lenin’s argument is directed at the economic system of capitalism and not at providing a criterion for states to gain membership in the imperialist club.

It is commonplace for liberals to attack the link between economic self-interest, capitalism, and imperialism by pointing out that individual empire-hungry nation-states participated in the imperialist system in spite of their economic shortcomings. For example, the once-prominent professor and economic advisor, Eugene Staley, writing in 1935, noted that Tsarist Russia, once a great predatory power by everyone’s estimate, “had no ‘surplus capital’ in any reasonable sense of that term; Russia had very little capital at all and borrowed heavily from abroad.” (War and the Private Investor. A Study in the Relation of International Politics and International Private Investment).

Were he alive, Lenin would not dispute this claim about Russia's economic backwardness, he would no doubt point out that it was irrelevant to his thesis. The point is that imperialism is the economic imperative forced upon all capitalist countries in the era of monopoly capitalism, whether it springs from weakness or strength. Whether a capitalist country is expanding or defending its economic interests, it must participate in the imperialist system. It matters little whether we wish to call one capitalist country imperialist, another imperialist, or all imperialists, it is the capitalist system that generates systemic imperialism. And it is that system that generates war in the age of monopoly capitalism. It is the system that is the target of Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism.

Yet, some comrades and friends try to enlist Lenin’s writings in support of Russian Exceptionalism. For the most part, they do not deny that Russia is a capitalist country. Nor do they deny that Russian capital has international objectives and global interests. Nor can they deny that in the short time since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russian capital has become remarkably concentrated.

Still, they believe that Russia’s relatively new and junior status in the capitalist pantheon excepts Russia from the imperialist architecture. They contend that Russia is not enough of a capitalist power to participate in imperialism. Both Stan Smith and Stewart McGill (Communist Review 104, Is Russia an Imperialist Power?) recently marshaled an impressive amount of evidence to show that Russia falls far short of other advanced capitalist countries in exhibiting the features that Lenin maintains are characteristic of the imperialist system. But that in no way shows that Russia stands outside of the imperialist system looking in.

Smith and McGill believe that relative economic backwardness disqualifies a state, even a capitalist state, from imperialism. But as the liberal, Eugene Staley, showed, Tsarist Russia-- though a paragon of great power imperialism by everyone’s estimation-- nonetheless, fails to measure up to those same features that Smith and McGill mistakenly believe define state-driven imperialism. A great power in the imperialist system need not be an economic great power to pursue imperialist ends. Moreover, ascribing this view to Lenin does a disservice to his views as expressed in Imperialism. Calling out “imperialist” countries by name was not Lenin’s project.

The tendency to see Russia as a non-participant in the imperialist game is somewhat understandable, but mistaken. Russia has, in recent years, commendably resisted US imperialism, sided with others resisting US imperialism, and offered aid to victims of US imperialism. But one would expect a rival great power to resist another great power and seek allies.

Neither Lenin’s analysis nor the events-of-the-day support a case for Russian exceptionalism. Andrew Murray, in a recent letter to the UK Morning Star (August 20), underscores the point succinctly:

[Lenin] wrote that “in its essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism.” It was not necessary for a state to be “advanced” to be under monopoly control. That was the case in the tsarist empire of Lenin’s time – definitely backward and replete with feudal hangovers, but also definitely imperialist.

 Capitalism in Russia had developed late and fast on a monopoly basis. To assert that “Russia is not and never was an imperialist state” to Lenin flies in the face of his writings.

 Is today’s Russia monopoly capitalist? Comrades seeking to deny that Russia is imperialist never offer a political economy of the country for fear of what they might find.

In fact, Russian capitalism is monopolist to a very high degree, with a huge percentage of key industries and banking in the hands of a very few oligarchic groups. Again, this despite the country’s relative backwardness. A later-arriving capitalist power, as it was in the 19th century, Russian monopoly is driven by the demands of competition, nationally and globally.

So Russia is a monopoly capitalist regime with a leader who seeks to emulate Peter the Great and who denies the principle of self-determination. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might actually be a duck.
Whatever kind of a “duck” Russia may be, it has not escaped the dangerous capitalist game of great-power rivalry. That is the point that should not be lost.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

No, to a New Cold War

Few people alive today would remember, first-hand, the ugly origins of the first Cold War. But surely events must have proceeded much as they are unfolding today.

Within the highest echelons of the US government, factions feared that they were losing control over global developments after World War II. The burgeoning credibility of the Soviet Union and the various Communist parties was earned by serving as the bulwark against fascism. Accordingly, they were seen as posing a challenge to the US and other capitalist powers. To many in the Washington centers of power, Communism conjured a far greater existential threat to the capitalist world order in the post-war era.

Those fears spread like a wildfire to all other elite factions. Fear of a threat --or fear of appearing to be “soft” towards that perceived-- threat captured commitment from the entire US ruling class. Those who embraced or tolerated Soviet anti-fascism were summarily cowed into submission, joining the broad consensus.

A compliant, lapdog media accepted the consensus and swung into line. Newspapers, radio and television stations parroted the Cold War line far and wide.

Cold War fear permeated every nook and cranny of social and institutional life.

Of course, some factions sought to turn a Cold War into a hot one. Still others sought to conduct a hotter war through proxies and covert actions. For some, the long-term benefits of profits from a war economy alone justified the Cold War. Many different goals, but a common purpose.

When the first Cold War ended, the defense spending of the US for the war’s entirety was conservatively estimated by one source to be 13 trillion in 1996 dollars (24 trillion today), with well over 100,000 US deaths, and with the deaths of untold millions elsewhere. With non-direct military spending added (the nuclear weapons r&d, the nuclear weapons industry, veterans’ benefits, other associated government expenses), the dollar cost would be much, much higher. Further, the lost incomes, benefits, and welfare from the investment of military funds which could have been invested into more productive and socially useful areas is incalculable. Few of us who are today absorbed with the environmental impact of Styrofoam cups have stopped to calculate the real and potential damage of the forty-plus years of Cold War environmental destruction and pollution by the belligerents.

We are now embarking on a new Cold War. It is not a matter of speculation or foretelling. The new Cold War is happening now.

The fear driving the new Cold War is unquestionably rooted in the rise of The People's Republic of China (PRC) and the defiance of a number of other independent countries, loosely or relatively more closely aligned with the PRC. Whether Western hostility, common interests, or some commitment to anti-imperialism drives them closer to each other, they are perceived by the US and its closest allies as threatening to the existing global balance of power, a balance arranged by and maintained by the US.

It doesn’t matter that none of the countries said to “threaten” the US pose any real military threat to the integrity or sovereignty of the US or its NATO allies; rather they are portrayed as outlaws-- as representing systems inconsistent with what are touted as historically validated Western values.

That these so-called values are neither historically validated nor appropriate for different social and cultural experiences is never considered. Instead, they are simply assumed, though they are largely founded on myth and arrogance. Despite the many hundreds of foreign military bases, the regular and frequent covert and overt intervention in nearly every country’s affairs, the economic and physical sanctions, the frivolous “terrorist” designations, and boundless sanctimony, the US and many of its European allies feel qualified to serve as judge and jury on the behavior of the world’s diverse states. Add hypocrisy to the list of Western sins.

It takes incredible hubris to abuse the political system of capitalist Russia as “undemocratic” when it mimics Western bourgeois democratic institutions, shares their flaws, and ill-serves the people in exactly the same manner as the corrupted, corporately owned “democracies” in the US and Europe.

Where Putin is portrayed as a “dictator,” though elected by the same flawed pseudo-democratic mechanisms employed in the West, the PRC government earns even harsher condemnation, earning the ultimate Cold War insult of “totalitarian” governance-- a charged, but fatally ambiguous memento of mindless anti-Communism. Cynically, NO high-paid courtier of the capitalist commentariat has ever noted that even Western opinion polling shows the PRC government to be more trusted, more highly approved than any of its Western counterparts. Apparently, the peoples of the PRC wholly embrace “totalitarianism.” Therefore, the people sorely need Western liberation offered by governments with little popular trust and minimal approval!

In the post-war period, fear of Communism soon reached hysterical levels. No claims about the Soviet Union were too ridiculous to make. No policy toward its government was too risky to take.

Some say that US and European vitriol aimed at the PRC today is unprecedented. That would be to belie the horrors of the rabid anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s.

Yet, events are moving quickly in that direction.

Professors, think tankers, and media pundits are stepping on each other in a rush to paint Peoples’ China as an aggressor, a danger, an existential threat.

A recent lengthy article in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal gives a foretaste of just how ugly things can get. Two academics and think-tank fellows, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, charge that “Mr Xi’s China is fueled by a dangerous mix of strength and weakness. Faced with profound economic, demographic and strategic problems, it will be tempted to use its burgeoning military power to transform the existing order while it still has the opportunity.”

To any casual observer of global politics, this description seems to capture Mr. Biden’s US better than it does Mr. Xi’s China. Mr. Biden’s US is mired in a nagging stagflation that only exacerbates a huge, fast-growing income and wealth gap. Racial, class, and political divisions pose challenges to a dysfunctional, discredited political system. Internationally, Mr. Biden’s US holds its allies together with a tenuous dollar-diplomacy that is failing to guarantee both the unity and stability of its capitalist allies. More than ever, fear of the US and its sanctions drives their allegiance.

The PRC, on the other hand, has just completed a campaign to eliminate extreme poverty, has tightened the screws on corruption, and consistently enjoys economic growth at least two percentage points greater than the US does. The PRC has few foreign military bases and has engaged in no major military action for decades, while the US has hundreds of foreign bases and has been at constant war over those same decades.

Do Brands and Beckley have the two countries confused?

The authors continue with further exaggerations, fables, and distortions.

Take this wild claim, supported by nothing and worthy of the most extreme Cold Warriors:

They want to absorb Taiwan, make the Western Pacific a Chinese lake and carve out a vast economic empire across the global south-- all part of the “national rejuvenation” that will return China to its former place as the most powerful country on Earth.

Like the fear-mongering of the first Cold War, these writers want us to see a benign PRC as an aggressor biding its time until it takes over the world-- an utterly ridiculous projection based on no historical evidence whatsoever.

But the real danger that these two distinguished professors pose comes from their zealous prescription of more US aggression, more weapons, more provocation-- in short, their irresponsible war-mongering.

They advise:

The US also needs to ensure that its military doesn’t have a glass jaw [incredible!]... the US must scatter those forces across dozens of small operating sites in East Asia. The few big bases that remain must be outfitted with hardened shelters, robust ballistic missile defenses and fake targets to absorb Chinese missiles… a ramping up production of key munitions, so that America has adequate stockpiles and active production when the shooting starts [my emphasis]…

No doubt these acts would be received well by the Communist Party leadership in the PRC.

They go on:

If Taiwan doesn’t pick up the pace [of military spending], there is nothing the US can do to save it. If Taiwan redoubles its efforts, however, then America should provide money, hardware and expertise to make the island a tougher target… The US can help by donating ammunition and sensors, subsidizing Taiwanese procurements of missile launchers and mine layers, matching Taiwanese investments in vital military infrastructures and expanding joint training on crucial defense missions [and on and on…]

No doubt Brands and Beckley’s recipe for Taiwan’s “defense” will be met gleefully by the weapons industry. No doubt the rest of us will see chicken hawks meeting Dr. Strangelove.

Brands and Beckley’s book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, is to be published on August 16. We can expect the mass media to fawn over the new book, adding even more fuel to the New Cold War.

With war raging in Ukraine, the escalating New Cold War against the People’s Republic of China manufactured by the US and its allies raises the risk to peace and raises the likelihood of global war to levels unseen in decades.

The absence of a mass antiwar movement further increases the risk of catastrophe.

Greg Godels