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Marxist Theory Today: Notes on 21st Century Imperialism

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NDMLP-Sri Lanka

{The CPA (M-L) recommends the following article from the New Democratic Marxist-Leninist Party of Sri Lanka to our members and friends. Avoiding hyperbole and dogmatism, it is respectful of various views on contemporary imperialism held by the parties within the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist movement. It highlights the continuity of and changes to imperialism that have occurred in the second half of the 20th century and the first nearly two decades of this century. 

Last year, the CPA (M-L) published a major study on imperialism and Australia’s place in relation to it. That publication, Australia and Imperialism in the 21st Century is once again recommended to all who are searching for the correct strategic approach to deepening the Australian people’s struggle for independence and socialism.  It is available as a pdf download on our website.}

Transformation of capitalism into imperialism, which Lenin recognized as the highest state of capitalism, is inevitable. Lenin’s understanding of imperialism enlightened the working classes of capitalist countries and inspired national struggles against colonial rule to weaken imperialism.
The development of imperialism was neither territorially uniform nor temporally linear. Following the collapse of colonialism after the Second World War (WW2), imperialism, to retain control of the global economy, renewed its strategy. Replacing colonialism with neocolonialism also led to the replacement of European colonial powers with the US as the dominant power. The continuing crisis of imperialism led to its adoption of the strategy of globalization, the rise of neo-liberalism, and the re-emergence of fascism. Thus the functioning of modern day imperialism differs in important ways from that of imperialism in the colonial era. But that does not change the essence of imperialism or capitalism.
Rigidly defining imperialism in terms of a set of features fixed in time will be counterproductive, as definitions are beneficial when they help us to understand phenomena but not when they restrict our thinking and make us dogmatic. Hence it is useful to understand imperialism dialectically and in terms of its salient features, taking into account its mutability and define it in an inclusive fashion that could accommodate likely developments.
The following features of imperialism as set out by Lenin serve as a valuable reference point: (1) Concentration of production and capital to a level that it gave rise to monopolies which dominate economic life; (2) Merging of bank capital with industrial capital leading to the emergence of finance capital controlled by a financial oligarchy; (3) Export of capital gaining primacy over the export of commodities; (4) Formation of international monopolist capitalist cartels seeking to share the world among themselves; and (5) Territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers.
It is thus appropriate to understand imperialism as the stage of capitalism where a small number of monopolies and finance capital establishments dominate the economy, the export of capital acquires precedence over export of goods, and international cartels effectively carve up the world among themselves through the agency of capitalist powers. The ways in which imperialist institutions and the state function have, however, changed as imperialism adapted to changing global conditions.
Today’s imperialist system is more complex than what it was less than 50 years ago. Its salient features include the continuing growth of finance capital alongside the growth of giant monopolies into entities free of control by banks, and financed directly and indirectly by private savings and public funds. Speculation, now a major driving force of finance capital, compounded the vulnerability of the system, with advances in information and communication technology making the transfer of capital much easier and faster, and economies of countries highly susceptible to manipulation by big investors as well as speculators.
Rapid and unrestricted flow of capital across national borders in the past several decades has been accompanied by increased transfer of labour across national borders, driven by economic need, political instability, wars and civil wars. Economically backward countries were forced to open their natural resources and labour to neocolonial plunder, thereby subjecting them to imperialist re-colonization via control over natural resources including water and agricultural land. Meanwhile, nearly all capitalist countries adopted market fundamentalism as the guiding ideology of their economic and political systems at the expense of public interest and democratic institutions; and the state has been compelled to minimise its social role, with multinational corporations and international financial markets subverting the sovereignty of the state.
Monopoly capitalism, while preserving its essential nature, has become even more ruthless so that the five features identified by Lenin remain valid under neocolonialism and the now shaky scheme of imperialist globalization. The capitalist state is now an agent of imperialism that imposes the monopoly capitalist will on its people. The US, which in the period between the two World Wars grew to become the strongest capitalist economy, also became the most influential political force and militarily power in human history. US imperialism used the challenge posed by the ‘Socialist Bloc’ that emerged in the wake of the Second World War as pretext to set up US-dominated military, political and economic global alliances. Although such alliances did not eliminate imperialist rivalry, confrontation has been subdued unlike in the periods leading up to the World Wars.
Imperialist states lacked unanimity in the way they addressed colonial hangovers, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, and the ‘communist threat’; and US hegemony is still resented. The European Union, set up in 1957as the European Economic Community, was a partly successful bid by Europe to become an economic power on par with the US and free of political control by the US. Nevertheless imperialists have been together in resisting left ideology, especially in the neo-colonies.
Khrushchev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union led to a split in the socialist camp and in the international communist movement in 1964. Restoration of capitalism under Khrushchev occurred under the guise of a call for ‘peaceful coexistence’ of the socialist and imperialist systems. Such tolerance was, however, absent towards Albania and China which upheld revolutionary struggle as the path to socialism. The split hurt the left movement globally and weakened anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. Khrushchev’s fall did not mean a change in course of the Soviet Union; and the imperialist Cold War against the Socialist Bloc turned into rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union for global influence until the latter fell apart in 1991. The collapse of the socialist regimes in East and Central Europe was rapidly followed by privatization and flow of foreign capital.
Capitalism was restored in China under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping but more gradually and cunningly by calling it “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. Internationally, a vast majority of Marxist Leninists accept that capitalism has been restored in China. But there are still others who plead that the socialist features of China are stronger than what seem to be capitalist features. It is true, however, that China has accepted the imperialist world order, and state capitalism in China is collaborating with growing capitalist sectors, local and foreign. What is in question is China’s place in the global imperialist order.
By the end of the 20th Century all socialist countries but North Korea and Cuba had accepted capitalism as their economic system. But that did not mean the end of the imperialist economic and military alliances designed originally to combat the Socialist Bloc. Those alliances exist and new ones have been formed based on new-found threats, real and imaginary, that are mostly creations of imperialism. Real wars of aggression have been launched in the name of the war on terrorism.
The imperialist project of globalization initiated in the 1980s combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union was expected to lead to a uni-polar world dominated by the US. But that was not to be. The miserable failure of globalization in South America, its prime trial ground, also resulted in a decline in US influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The global capitalist system was also haunted by a series of crises through the 1990s, notably the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and continues to be plagued by crises in the 21st Century. Notably, the 2007-2009 financial crisis which struck the US hard in 2008 grew into a global economic crisis with a lasting impact on the Western capitalist system and threatens the survival of the European Union as an economic entity. The crises have been compounded by the influx of refugees of war waged by imperialism in Afghanistan in 2001 followed by wars in Iraq, North Africa, and Syria.
There is pressing need for strong anti-imperialist international action to resist imperialism and overcome imperialist subversion and aggression. That the people will win if they dare was demonstrated not long ago in Gaza, and that countries that dare to stand up to imperialism will not be cowed easily has been seen in Syria, North Korea and Iran. The lack of strong working class based anti-imperialist international organizations implies high prices for any significant victory. In this context, not only Marxist Leninists but all left and anti-imperialist forces need to correctly assess the global situation and identify the principal enemy of the people internationally as well as in any local context.
Certainly, capitalism to grow cannot confine itself to a country and a strong capitalist country will become imperialist at some stage unless socialism interrupts such transition. One should also note the changing role of the state in advancing the interests of monopoly capitalism, which Lenin defined as imperialism. The neocolonial mode of imperialism, the emergence of the more complex trans-national corporation from multi-national corporations (with roots in colonialism) and neoliberal ideology have combined to undermine the role of the state.
While the headquarters of MNCs and TNCs have home countries, the control that the state has over the companies has been on the decline. Advances in communication and information technologies have enabled MNCs and TNCs to wield considerable control individually and collectively over the state in countries where they operate as well as in international policy making bodies. Thus anti-imperialism in the current neocolonial context should combine opposition to the imperialist powers that exploit and oppress the Third World with opposition to the MNCs and TNCs in whose interests the imperialist powers act.
The pecking order among imperialist powers changed rapidly since WW2 owing to the rise of the US as the dominant economic and military power, the loss of colonies and economic weakening of European powers. Despite the weakening of the US economy and the rapid recovery of the economies of Germany and Japan, the US remains the leader of the group of major capitalist countries of North America and Europe, and Japan constituting a mighty imperialist camp which accommodates client states including Australia and Israel, and now India, as strategic partners.
In Russia and China, capitalism resulted from the subversion of socialism and thus lacked several key features that marked the transformation of capitalism into imperialism in the leading capitalist countries of North America, Western Europe and Japan. The fall of socialist rule in Eastern and Central Europe did not give rise to powerful capitalist economies from among them on par with West European rivals. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left Russia as a military power but with a weak economy, further weakened by liberal economic reforms and opening up of Russia to foreign capital under Boris Yeltsin. The economy has since recovered, but still relies much on export of natural resources and primary goods. Russia, which owing to its large residual military power ranks among global powers, it is not a fraction as assertive as the Soviet Union was in global affairs. It has, however, well stood up to economic threats in the form of sanctions and military threats by the US and allies.
China grew into an economic power owing to its trained and disciplined labour force developed under socialism and by drawing on its large reserve of cheap rural labour seeking to escape rural poverty following the dismantling of the agricultural communes in the 1980s. The rise of the service and finance sectors of Western capitalist countries at the expense of manufacturing helped to transform China into the world’s largest manufacturing economy and largest exporter of manufactured goods. Controlled opening of the economy to foreign capital ensured that China was in control of its industrial development and that its export-driven economy withstood global economic crises better than the capitalist West. But economic growth was accompanied by lack of attention to negative socioeconomic impact, by way of social inequality, economic insecurity, environmental degradation, mass migration to the cities, want of urban housing, corruption and poor industrial relations. For a country still considered to be a developing country in view of its low per capita GDP, the consequences can be grave in the medium and long term.
Several countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa became strong economies in the Post Colonial era. Of these, India, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa are territorially large. Some of them have been notoriously assertive and interfere in neighbouring countries. Israel and South Korea, despite their small size, have strong economies and pursue militarist policies which menace neighbouring countries. Oil wealth and US pressure encouraged small Arab countries like Qatar and UAE to interfere in the affairs of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Colombia, a large country with a struggling economy, remains a threat to neighbouring South American regimes disliked by the US. Pakistan and now India are proxies of US imperialism in Afghanistan. If export of capital is a criterion, Singapore holds more foreign direct investment than all countries listed above except China; and South Korea and Taiwan are not far behind Russia.
Capitalism can either expand or perish and, to sustain profit, it needs to expand. It strives for greater access to resources and markets and seeks monopoly. Thus undoubtedly a powerful capitalist country is potentially imperialist, and competing interests make it necessary for imperialist countries and ones aspiring to be imperialist to form alliances.
There is little unanimity among political commentators or even Marxist Leninists on the list of countries that can be called imperialist. All accept that the US is a major imperialist power and generally agree that the US and its allies constituting the G7 (really G8 less Russia which since 2014 is effectively out of the group of key capitalist countries) comprise an imperialist alliance dominated by the US. Many would extend the list to include all countries of the EU; others include all NATO countries; yet others include all US allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, Australia and New Zealand. Other Asian, African and Latin American allies also seem eligible to join the list. Despite deep differences and antagonism among several of the US allies and the prospect of some spinning out of the US orbit, countries in the groups identified above are either partners or clients of US imperialism. In fact, most are neocolonies of US imperialism; and it is desirable to distinguish between partners and clients. Despite changing loyalties in a rapidly changing global milieu, it is possible to identify US-led imperialist alliances and key actors that constitute such alliances in specific contexts.
After WW2, the Soviet Union led an alliance called the Socialist Bloc even after it gave up on revolution and socialism. The Warsaw Treaty, a political and military alliance, was essentially East and Central European (and later included Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam) and remained more or less intact but for the estrangement of Albania in 1961 and its withdrawal from the Warsaw Treaty following Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) was a response to the Marshall Plan designed to assert US imperialist domination of post WW2 Europe. Both organizations came to an end with the fall of socialist regimes in Europe.
It will be useful to note here that from the time that WW2 ended, the US and UK had been developing military plans to dismantle the USSR by wiping out its cities with a massive nuclear strike. Successful detonation of a nuclear bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949, however, frustrated their plans. ( ).
We need to distinguish between imperialist powers that work as partners and countries with varying degrees of capitalist development that belong to imperialist alliances.
We also need to distinguish between different types of economic, military and political alliances of countries, i.e. between alliances of an imperialist nature and those which are not imperialist in nature. We should be aware of the possibility that a country which is not imperialist could be in an imperialist controlled alliance and the possibility that one or more countries that one identifies as imperialist may play key roles in alliances without an imperialist aim or even serve anti-imperialist purposes.
Arguments have been presented to plead the case for naming or not naming a country as capitalist or imperialist. Such debates could take long to resolve. But there are issues on which decisions need to be taken at a local, national or international level, sometimes urgently. In such contexts the stand that a Marxist Leninist takes vis-à-vis a particular regional or global power can be very much contextual. There is the risk of falling victim to subjectivity in such matters, and exigency can get the better of principled long term view of matters.
As in the case of other definitions, like that of a nation, for example, rigid adherence to a set of rules does not help one to appreciate problems holistically and in context. There is a tendency to use economic criteria like export of capital or the emergence of finance capital as the key factors that decide whether a country is imperialist or not. Some give prominence to military might; such an approach ignores the reality that it was the military might that defended socialism in the Soviet Union and that without possession of a nuclear weapon the Soviet Union would have been subject to nuclear blackmail by the US and UK. One should, thus, be cautious and consider context before pronouncing judgment on any country.
At this stage, it will help us to use a comparative approach to examine the conduct of capitalist countries in different global and regional contexts. We are aware of the difference between the approaches of imperialism in the colonial era and after. Imperialist  powers operate in ways similar to corporate cartels. The national character of imperialism has considerably yielded to collective interest. That is not to say that there is no rivalry or national considerations despite the role of MNCs and TNCs in global capital. Even within imperialist alliances there is tendency for national interests to dominate. But from the point of view of the oppressed nations and people of the world,
imperialism dominated by the US has to be seen and contested collectively.
It will still be useful to study how rivalries within the imperialist camp work and examine if there is room for anti-imperialist forces to take advantage of such rivalry or play one imperialist power against the other the way some nationalists under colonial rule did until the end of WW2.
Some are firm in the belief that there are imperialisms besides the US-led imperialist camp. Others argue that emerging capitalist economies are potentially imperialist. There are also differences in opinion about which capitalist economies are imperialist or close to becoming imperialist or potentially imperialist. Such differences are relevant to the extent that the impact of any capitalist country on oppressed nations and people and implications for the anti-imperialist campaign and the socialist cause.
Understanding the economic, political and military roles played by major capitalist countries individually and as alliances in different parts of the world could, even if it will not settle the debate on which countries are imperialist, help us to achieve consensus on the stand that we take on specific international issues. Hence the International Affairs Study Group of the NDMLP, commencing in this issue, will present studies of the role of foreign capitalism in major regions of the world.


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