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Imperialism and False Consciousness

In an earlier entry I suggested that the failure to express a truly anti-imperialist politics amongst progressives––amongst even those who profess "anti-imperialism"––is often due to a failure to understand and theorize "imperialism."  The refusal amongst certain sectors of the mainstream left to recognize the intervention in Libya, for example, as an instance of imperialism follows from the inability to conceptualize imperialism.  Thus Gilbert Achcar could veil his capitulation to imperialist logic with anti-imperialist trappings.  Jean-Luc Nancy, recently critiqued by Badiou, makes the same mistake.  And both Achcar and Nancy are symptoms of this widespread failure to truly appreciate the concrete reality of imperialism and then, upon this concrete understanding, to construct an anti-imperialist politics.

I think we can trace elements of this theoretical failure to certain overlapping strains/tendencies of academic marxism, predominantly an implicitly eurocentric marxism, that downplays the connection between capitalism and imperialism/colonialism.  "Political Marxism", best represented by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, is one of these strains.  The practice of "Marxology", where scholars treat the works of Marx and Engels as sacred texts and ignore the method that transcends the doctrine, is another problem.  Then there are the multiple positivist marxisms, the political economies devoid of historical materialism that rely on the statistical and reified data of vulgar economics, that contribute to the breakdown of a holistic theoretical analysis.

Instead of examining why these academic strains/tendencies fail to properly comprehend imperialism, which is the business of entire books (many already written), I want to investigate something more fundamental.  These tendencies are not, in my opinion, the ultimate cause behind this breakdown of a truly critical anti-imperialism.  Rather, I think these analyses emerge from a general consciousness that is produced by imperial and colonial privilege.  In his most recent book, for example, Samir Amin speaks of how "the essential contribution furnished by Marxists of the Third World… is, as a rule, poorly understood and badly received in the West." (Amin, The Law of Worldwide Value, 92)  But why does Amin claim that this happens as a rule?  Why is it that marxists based in the centres of world capitalism often refuse to understand (and their lack of understanding can be demonstrated by their poor responses and willful misapprehensions of non-eurocentric marxist theory), and thus receive, the radical theory that emerges from the peripheries?  I would argue that this is a general rule because, as aforementioned, the consciousness produced by imperial and colonial privilege, just like the consciousness produced by bourgeois or petty bourgeois privilege, often leads to an inability to accept critiques that threaten this very privilege.

(Although I might be accused of ad hominem reasoning by rejecting peoples' arguments because of their sometimes unquestioned commitments to imperial privilege, I believe it is necessary to point out that the so-called circumstantial ad hominem––the supposed fallacy that attacks an argument/position because of its connection to a possibly problematic context––is a fallacy that has been called into question as a fallacy.  Unlike the abusive ad hominem, where an argument is made simply by insulting the individual who makes the argument (i.e. "you're stupid so your argument is stupid"), the circumstantial ad hominem's status as a fallacy has been debated, often by marxists.  Since as marxists believe that class position partially determines consciousness, and that knowledge is classed, we believe it is both and responsible to ask why, for example, a scientist who is funded by a specific corporation is producing research that justifies the activities of that corporation.)

What I find rather telling, and extremely disappointing, is the prevalence of a supposedly "marxist" viewpoint, that is anything but historical materialist, that goes out of its way to dismiss any theory that interrogates the global contradiction between the imperialist centres and peripheries of global capitalism.  What is most telling about this viewpoint, however, is not the tangental arguments and diversionary "proofs" it is able to mobilize (all of which shift the argument down a rabbit trail of spurious appearance that often has nothing to do with the original terms of the argument), but the fact that it implicitly proves one of the main points made by anti-imperialist theories: the consciousness often produced in the centres of imperialism, sometimes called a "labour aristocracy" consciousness, is demonstrated by the uncritical refusal to actually appreciate theories that call the privilege behind this consciousness into question.  None of this is to say that everyone who lives at the centres of imperialism is privileged and not exploited––the arguments made by the best anti-imperialist theories tend to examine the contradictions of global capitalism as part of multiple contradictions of capitalism––but that a certain culture and general consciousness is produced, due to the situation of global capitalism (imperialism), in those nations that direct and benefit from imperialism.

Marxist theorists sometimes like to speak of "false consciousness", of a way of seeing the world produced by the ruling ideas of the ruling classes, that often affects even those who are exploited by capital.  This false consciousness, this "common sense" way of making sense of reality, is what limits the radical imaginary.  Thus the imagination of marxists who cannot understand how their societies might benefit from imperialism––how they themselves might benefit from a liberal culture that is only possible because of the enforced lack of this culture elsewhere––also refuse to theoretically understand the very structure of imperialism.

If we add this false consciousness to the false consciousness that is encouraged by the strictures of academic intellectualism then the refusal to truly engage with the marxist theories and movements that emerge from the global peripheries makes sense.  None of this is to say that intellectuals cannot be exploited, that some of us do not also sell our labour-power in increasingly neo-liberalized universities (I work in a casualized contract context, for example, so I'm well aware of this issue), but that we exist within a certain culture that produces a certain consciousness.  Moreover, I would argue that this culture flourishes because of imperialism: I have a good friend and comrade whose research, for example, examines how the Frankurt School's concept of "the culture industry" or "one-dimensionality" makes the most sense if understood within a third-world marxist theorization of imperialism.  And the argument of the culture industry does not claim that people living in the countries where this culture industry thrives are no longer exploited, just that it is extremely easy for us to accept the terms of this exploitation––especially easy if the most vicious contradictions of capital can be muted with social democracy, liberal culture, and a lifestyle politics that is only possible by generally [note that I write generally] exporting the most terroristic contradictions elsewhere.

What makes this false consciousness especially offensive, however, is the fact that it leads to some very bizarre assertions about world capitalism and imperialism.  For instance, I have heard some people who reject every attempt to theorize the labour aristocracy actually claim that the factory worker in North America is more "exploited" than a peasant in any given South Asian country.  They try to prove this claim by looking at positivist approaches to statistics, suddenly becoming like bourgeois economists, and produce very narrow and critically limited interpretations of surplus extraction.  But this is not historical materialism, nor is it especially scientific, since it is based only on numerical appearances rather than concrete analyses.  The medical scientist does not create a good theory of medical science simply by the numerical representations of, for example, CAT scans but by always contextualizing this within an investigation of the body itself.  Nor did Marx rely only on economistic formulae when he wrote Capital: this always emerged from his dialectical/historical materialism and he understood, as did Engels when he defended Capital in Anti-Duhring, that the numerical formulae were not the ultimate proof––hence the reason to talk about history and society and to actually examine the world rather than the appearance of the world.  Again, as Amin qualifies in his new book and thus closes the door on any positivistic attempts to ignore and obfuscate what he is trying to argue:
"The subtitle of Capital––'A Critique of Political Economy'––does not mean a critique of 'bad' (Ricardian) political economy, with a view to replacing it with a 'good' (Marxian) one.  It is rather a critique of so-called economic science, an exposure of its true nature (as what the bourgeoisie has to say about its own practice); and so of its epistemological status, an exposure of its limitations, and an invitation to realize that this alleged science, claimed to be independent of historical materialism, cannot possess such independence.  Political economy is the outward form assumed by historical materialism (the class struggle) under capitalism.  On the logical plane historical materialism is prior to economics, but class struggle under capitalism does not take place in a vacuum: it operates on an economic basis, and shapes laws that appear economic in character." (Amin, The Law of Worldwide Value, 10)
This false consciousness, when it makes economistic claims that the exploitation at the peripheries is not as complete as the exploitation at the imperial centres, is ultimately absurd––another reason why, at the end of the day, it is utterly false, illogical and uncritical.  For if it was really true that the peasant is not exploited as much as the labourer in the first-world factory, then one would imagine that the first-world factory labourers would rather be peasants living in South Asia, which is clearly not the case.  Of course, the counter-argument would be that I'm misunderstanding the actual meaning of surplus-value and exploitation but that is my entire point: we cannot speak of exploitation and oppression simply as numbers but as facts that exist in the real world––in history and society.

And really, if it was the case that more surplus can be extracted from the factory worker, then why the rush on the part of some nations to control and carve up the resources of the majority of this world's nations?  Why the fostering of underdevelopment, why the attempt to deal with this current crisis through military intervention?  Or why, in a word, imperialism?  But a consciousness that rejects any serious theorization of imperialism and its connection to capitalism, that refuses to understand how those of us at the imperial centres often benefit from a culture/context produced by imperialism, can understand imperialism as nothing more than a militaristic aberration performed for dubious reasons.  Hence, as I have already complained, the propensity amongst certain sectors of the left to be able to adopt a coherent and critical anti-imperialism in cases like Libya.


  1. Hi Josh -

    I know we've had this debate many times and we'll likely have it again but can you point me to some specific examples of eurocentricism in Political Marxism? Can you engage with the material to prove your point? I am aware of the critique (though a new generation of poltiical Marxists, notably Robbie Shilliam have filled in the blanks - I recommend looking Shilliam's work up - his book is at Scott but out at the moment)...

    The accusation, as far as I know, against political marxism is two-fold. One is that the leading lights (Wood, Brenner, Comninel, Lacher, Rosenberg) don't engage with the non-western world. This is plainly untrue. One can accuse Brenner's famous 1976 critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism (a polemic against world systems theory/AG Frank) of many things, but not eurocentricism. Likewise, Wood has been accused of eurocentricism over her Empire of Capital, when it seems to me that to assert that capitalism is uniquely European actually opens up the door to looking at non-"western" modes of production as sui generis, not part of a "stagist" pattern of history ala the second international. To assert that the territorial logic of imperialism predates and is different from the logic of capitalism, with which it synthesized, is not to deny teh connection. (Harvey does deny the connection, following Arrendt)

    Now one can disagree with the political marxist interpretation of the history of the last few hundred years. I think sometimes there are missing gaps. But I hardly think it can be called eurocentric. To wit, Wood extensively cites Amin in a few of her books, notably Citizens to Lords.

    Sorry to be pedantic...

  2. Jordy: if you're asking for specific examples, and cannot see how the entire approach of Brenner is eurocentric because of how it understand Europe in the context of the world and also reveals any epistemic basis for the emergence of imperialism, then you're ignoring my overall point. If you want evidence of *why* Brenner is eurocentric then read any of the innumerable critiques of Brenner made by anti-racist and anti-colonial theorists. Read "Eight Eurocentric Historians" by J.M. Blaut if you want a scene-by-scene breakdown.

    We've had arguments about this numerous times and you keep repeating the same song and dance. It has nothing to do with "not engaging" with non-Western world, but envisioning that world in a eurocentric manner. In the end the Political Marxist approach ends up, as multiple anti-racist theorists have demonstrated (apparently an entire tradition of marxism that, as I noted in this post, you don't want to take seriously), performing culturalism when it comes to Europe and capitalism.

    I do think that the Political Marxists bring up an important point about class and primitive accumulation, but their misreading of Europe and capitalism - their failure to understand the role of modern colonialism [which is not the same as imperialisms of the past] and its connection with the enclosure of the commons, allows them to also misunderstand the emergence of imperialism as part of capitalism. From this we have a failure to properly theorize imperialism, as the work of most Political Marxists (and their general rejection of the Leninist development of Marxism) demonstrates. Nor can their theory provide an epistemic account for modern racism.

  3. I take anti-racist Marxism very seriously. I think Amin's work is incredibly important even if I differ with his political economy.

    That said, I've read Blaut and other critiques and Wood demolished it, but again, we're working with completely different understandings of capitalism. As Wood points out, the critiques of the Eurocentric quality of Political Marxism can be turned around if one truly wants to be pedantic.

    I think that you're arguing in a fashion that denies people's good faith and have to go beyond conceptual critiques to concrete critiques. How is the (very loosely shared) ontological framework within which poltiical marxism works "eurocentric"? You make that claim, and perhaps by implication, point at their work, but I'm wondering what you're talking about?

    And finally, the last critique actually may have some merit, but I hardly see how it can be said to be eurocentric. In the end, I'm left with a concept that confuses me in terms of how you're using it.

  4. Woods says that capitalism emerging in Europe was a historical "fluke" but then she has to explain why this fluke happened there and nowhere else. There were reasons why it emerged in Europe first, and why this emergence also led to the forced underdevelopment of places elsewhere (and this was not a fluke), and these are very important to interrogate (and Amin does do this). Otherwise you are left saying that capitalism emerged from Europe because of cultural reasons - and that is where Woods goes down an implicitly eurocentric path without realizing it, her argument against Blaut (which come on isn't a very good argument at all!) to the contrary - because you cannot say, as a marxist historian who is looking at history to examine how something developed, that it was simply a fluke. Aside from the big bang, things do not come from nothing - especially in human history. Woods [who actually I do not think is as explicitly eurocentric as Brenner, and we must remember that Blaut's critiques focus primarily on Brenner] would never deny that class struggle is an important motor behind the development of capitalism; for that reason alone she cannot say its emergence in Europe, as opposed to elsewhere, was an historical fluke. Nor can she say, well capitalism is bad so I'm not being eurocentric by saying Europe was [culturally, again implicitly] especial: that is a pretty petty dodge, especially since the emergence of capitalism in Europe also led to Europe controlling the world. Was it European culture that allowed Europe and its antecedents to become the master of global destiny? Or was it perhaps something more fundamental [something in the arrangement of feudalism, compared to other more completed tributary forms, combined with the rise of modern colonialism] that allowed it to conquer the globe?

    As for differing on Amin's political economy, his theory of political economy is the groundwork of the rest of his work so if you reject that, then there is no reason to take him seriously. I think any rejection of his general position, not the specifics, does lead to a eurocentric dodge when it comes to understanding historical materialist political economy. You say you differ from him, but I think a rejection of Amin's general political economy also means, ultimately, a rejection of anti-imperialist political economy.

    Most political marxists also deny the theory of the labour aristocracy, because they deny the Leninist development of Marxism, and this in itself, as I have suggested in this post and elsewhere, amounts to eurocentrism.

  5. Why am I saying "Woods" and not "Wood"? WHY?

  6. The fluke to which Wood refers was in England, and was the unintended consequence of the loss of peasant land tenure and the marketization of rent. Her use of "fluke" is to imply that it didn't need to happen, and was a result of a unique balance of class forces.

    Hardly culturalist.

    And imperialism was about extracting surplus, but not in a capitalist sense. It just wasn't capitalist.

    I really think that you can't simply say that if you don't accept all the tenets of any thinker's thought, you reject anti-imperialism - was it not you who rightly critiqued sacred text Marxism? (And speaking of Marxology, Amin blurbed Marcello's book)

    Again - to be continued in person. I still have coursework. Cheers.

  7. I had a reply that got lost as my tab closed so apologies for repitition if it does appear but just want to quickly correct an impression - we should continue this in person.

    1) Wood uses fluke loosely. What she is referring to, following Brenner, Dobb, Hill, etc. - is that capitalism developed as an unintended consequence of the defeat of the peasants with the centralization of the English state far earlier than on the continent. Peasants were unable to be smallholders and were thus disposessed and rents became marketized, especially after the fluke of the privatization of church land after Henry VIII's abdication. This is to say that a unique balance of class forces, both vertically and horizontally, produced capitalism. The use of "fluke" then is to imply (against Weberian historical sociology) that capitalism cannot be "written back" into human history.

    And I agree that Wood is far less eurocentric than Brenner - and this is shown in Brenner's ludicrous Eurocentric "Economics of Global Turbulence" in which East Asia is not even a factor.

  8. I'm not saying all the tenets of Amin: read what I actually said... I said his general political economy because that is the basis of all his other claims. We accept Marx's general approach without all of his tenets.

    You're dodging the point of the "fluke" and shifting the terrain of the argument. "Unintended consequence" is exactly my point: where did that come from, did it just pop into thin air? Secondly, why did that happen only in England? That *is* culturalist: you're focusing on strands and not the underlying logic. This is the logic that explains the tracing of Wood's logic (as with Brenner, etc.) about the "unique" balance of class forces. The "unique balance" is precisely the point. Clearly she's right that it cannot be written back into human history (which is a point that should be taken against some of Baran and Sweezy's claims, regardless of the importance of other claims they make), but we still have to understand why that conjuncture happens in terms of *world* history, and in terms of modes of production: Europe's mode of production was not unique, it was only unique, as every culture is unique, in its characteristics.

  9. I can explain all of those things but really don't have time - but they are explained in her - and esp. Benno Teschke and Robbie Shilliam's work. I suggest Teschke's Myth of 1648. Nowhere does Wood (unlike Brenner, I think, who does reify England) put England in a vacuum.

  10. And also, all of this is missing the point (and perhaps reinforcing it) of this post. Political Marxism has been seen, across the board by every anticolonial and anti-imperial marxist worthy of the name "marxist", as being ultimately eurocentric. There has been loads of material written on this, and that feels onerous to reproduce here, but there is always a kneejerk reaction to accepting the point that they are making.

    In fact, there tends to be a willingness to accept the Brennerite description of the transition over the Aminist position, without any real critical reason aside from the fact that Brenner seems more palatable. and this willingness happens on behalf of western/northern/imperial centrist marxist political economists ALL THE TIME. So what sort of consciousness does this speak to? Again, this might be a circumstantial ad hominem but we also have to ask why so many economists are drawn to economics that reify capitalism and ignore all arguments to the contrary, mobilizing rather sophisticated "proofs" of their position over and over again.

  11. Almost forgot. You wrote: "And imperialism was about extracting surplus, but not in a capitalist sense. It just wasn't capitalist."

    Again, read what I said about imperialism. I said that the imperialism under capitalism was *different* from previous imperialism. That is, the imperialism today, and the era of modern colonialism preceding this imperialism and actually generating, partly, its existence, cannot be seen as the same as the imperialism of, say, ancient Rome anymore than a car been seen as the same thing as a chariot.

  12. Jordy could you please explain why imperialism was not about extracting surplus value in a capitalist sense and if it isn't capitalist then what is it? Also, would that mean that most of Western Europe was not completely capitalist until the late 1960's and formal decolonization had occurred? Also, then what is the status of imperialism today post formal decolonization? Is there such a thing? Is it capitalist? How is it different from pre-capitalist imperialism of the 1800-1970 variety?

  13. I am not sure if I understood an email from JMP directly...

    So I will try to quickly answer WD's question in short - though I'd reccommend the work of Teschke, Lacher, Peter Gowan, Hamza Alavi and others to expand upon it.

    Imperialism certainly buttressed early capitalism, but the capitalist world that was a conscious project of US imperialism (see Neil Smith's book on Roosevelt's geographer, the ideas of an "American Century") actually was in favour of controlled decolonization. And in turn, yes much of Western Europe internally and externally was not capitalist, and some still isn't (peasant agriculture predominates in Sicily)..

    US imperialism, post 1970 moved from an offensive imperialist project to fully subsume the world under capitalist social property relations to a defensive project- to act to extend and maintain the internationalization of capital, primarily, but not exclusively by gaining the consent of comprador ruling classes. But the real change, as I see it, towards the full americanization of global capital and american Imperialism came with the end of a parallel global competitor, the Soviet Union. This is where we see what Meszaros called the primary contradiction of today's capitalism, that for its "executive" maintenance it needs a global state, yet the US is unable to perform that function (or is it?). Also the introduction of debt-backed securities fundamentally altered, as many see it, how we can understand the law of value, since we have essentially fiat backed currency.

  14. Jordy what essay/book by Hamza Alavi do you have in mind because I have read his work before and I don't see much in common in your respective positions, but perhaps there is some essay that was published prior to his death that I am not aware of.

  15. Jordy: the capitalist world was only in favour of "controlled decolonization" after the anticolonial movements began and it understood, within the context of the cold war, that "colonialism by remote control" was a way to retain its power. To claim otherwise is to produce a rather conspiratorial approach to capitalism that imagines that the capitalist classes get together, define the way the world is going to go, and that the victims of their imperialism have no agency: they're just moved above and the decolonization movements, that supposedly America always supported, didn't realize themselves on their own but were simply pawns for American capital. They didn't, that's an historical fact, and one can even examine American involvement in the Philippines or Puerto Rico to see that America was actually very pro-colonial until it was taught, by the actions of the people it oppressed, that it was not profitable. BUT, only not profitable in those zones that: a) were settler-colonial states managed by competing imperialisms; b) WERE NOT IN NORTH AMERICA. To say that the US favoured controlled decolonization across the board is, if you consider that the US itself is a colonial state, patently absurd. If that was the case then it would be supporting decolonization movements on its own soil and it is not even doing that in a liberal capitalist, export of capital style, manner.

    Secondly, Lenin's analysis/theory of imperialism defines imperialism as this controlled decolonization, or the export of capital, as opposed to direct imperial/colonial settler domination [not that this goes away, of course]. So when you say that "imperialism buttressed early capitalism" you mean that modern colonialism, defined by direct settler occupation (that which produced the states on the Western Hemisphere, for example), is what buttressed early capitalism. The two are connected, they are both types of imperialism - but again, what you defined as "controlled decolonization" is precisely the imperialism you seem to spirit away.

    Now the reason why Lenin's theory of imperialism is important - I am not just citing him to throw out a name (arguments from authority aren't really arguments) - is the fact that it is a concrete analysis of a concrete situation that actually explains all of the expressions of imperialism that you mistake as "being" imperialism in your second paragraph. When you speak about how US imperialism moved from an offensive project in 1970 to one that fosters "property relations" and the internationalization of capital, you're explaining nothing more than the superstructural shifts of Lenin's understanding of imperialism: all of these are ways to manage the export of capital - but exported capital, as Lenin and others following Lenin understood, sometimes defined by the competition between competing capitalist states and their zones of control. In any case, the point is that your definition of imperialism is not a definition of imperialism itself but a definition of its characteristics, the clothes it sometimes wears but not its body.

  16. Josh: that's a fair critique - I'm not completely dispensing with Lenin's theory of imperialism (though I do think Bukharin's captures the present conjuncture in a superior fashion)

    Of course, the controlled decolonization was allowed to take place because of the agency of anti-colonial movements. One reason, however, that the US allowed it to take place - and yes, a lot of this was planned - was to ensure that the old colonial powers wouldn't present a threat.

    Again, I hardly have time to spell out the historical details here but William Appleman Willians' Tragedy of American Diplomacy does a good job. No one is saying that decolonization was a front for US interests - perhaps I wasn't clear - but there's a reason they pushed impor substitution and the alliance for progress/US style development, and bought of certain layers in he developing world, and then had people like Lumumba, etc. shot. If I come off like I'm asserting conspiracy, its because I have little space to really spell this out, but really, I can't emphasize more clearly that the uniqueness of post ww2 imperialism was largely planned by the "best and brightest"...I think looking at the specificity of the ideological practices of the executive body of imperialism's specific members is an important task for historical materialism. Again, I think Gowan, Williams and others do a good job. It should be presupposed in what I'm saying is that I'm making a generalization, to which they are obvious glaring exceptions.

    Where I differ with Lenin - and you can call me a positivist - is, again, around how much capital is exported inter-core and how mouch from core to periphery. And moreso, that imperialism that Lenin saw as the highest stage fell apart soon after he wrote that piece, only to mutate a few more times - hardly a "highest stage" - also monopoly capital/Hiferlding understanding of finance capital is one sided and undialectical (again why I prefer Bukharin)

    Also, I don't see the potential - right now - for interimperial rivalry. The BRIC countries are too heavily interpenetrated by US capital. There may be competition between capitals, but not between stat4es. And the imbrucation of all capitalist classes within US capitalist interests is far more intricate and colonial than even Lenin imagined.

    All and all, it doesn't seem that we fundamentally disagree here on the fundamentals (our accounts are complimentary unless the body sohuldn't wear the clothes)..

  17. Alavi's work on bonapartism helps make my case - I'm talking journal articles..i.e. 1972 in New Left Review. I'd like to read more of his work.

  18. I think that this response does not even reply to the points I brought up, Jordy, and in fact relies on arguments from authority, a fallacy at best, where it becomes about citing names. One of which is Bukharin, whose theory of imperialism is - for those of us who spend most of our academic careers studying imperialism - quite frankly a joke because it lacks any explanatory power. And obviously it lacks this explanatory power because your analysis of imperialism can only explain some phenomena.

    You claim that Lenin's theory is undialectical, yet it seems you have no understanding of Lenin's theory. How a theory that relies on the union of opposites - between the export of capital and the protection of monopoly - precisely "undialectical" when it fits the exact definition of dialectics?

    Moreover, Lenin's use of the term "highest stage" was somewhat rhetorical, first of all, and I don't see how it "fell apart" when the current crisis, and the very existence of institutions like the IMF and WTO prove this fact. I don't think you're getting what it means by the tendency of export of capital, or the fact that (and this is another dialectical point made in the Leninist tradition) this export is always defined by different levels of contradiction (again a dialectical point) - imperialist rivalry, etc. - and quite frankly no other theory can account for imperialism unless it begins with this insight. As I pointed out in my previous reply, your definitions of the "shifts" in imperialism never actually provide anything more than a formal definition of "imperialisms" not an essential definition - and the definition Lenin provides actually accounts for all of your descriptions. That is what makes a theory useful, otherwise we are left with spotty complexities and no ability to make sense of these things, to unify phenomena: this is something Lenin learned from, well, Hegel!


  19. [cont. from above]

    I will call you a positivist because, as I mentioned in this entire blog post, you're not even looking at the state of the world we're in. (You also just say, read this and read that at the expense of dealing with the arguments.) Do you imagine that all of the imperialist interventions are just aberrations, fun little adventures because of ideologies that emerge out of nowhere? This is clearly not, as you accused Lenin of failing to satisfy, "dialectical thinking" - I mean if you like dialectics, why take the positivist approach?

    The world is intricate and complex, but this is a dodge made by people who are *not* historical materialists (quite often post modernists and liberals) who claim you cannot speak of universal tendencies, or make any scientific pronouncements about the reasons for something's existence. Particularities exist but they only make sense in connection to universals: this is, again, a dialectical point and one that Lenin was keen on explaining throughout all of his writings on imperialism.

    You say you don't have time to spell out the historical details and then throw names, but I spend a lot of time studying the historical details of actually existing capitalism/imperialism and, really, I think you're weak on the history here: your over reliance on arguments from authority is getting annoying, especially due to the space it takes up on my blog. Not to mention that, as I have pointed out time and time again, it seems to be reinforcing one of the arguments I made in the post above. You also shifted the terms of the argument again, another fallacious way of arguing, to examining the ideological practices of imperialism.


  20. [cont. from above]
    Nowhere have I argued that imperialism hasn't shifted, that people were not involved in conceptualizing the shift, and that it changes its clothes. My point is that these changes are often forced by anti-imperialist struggle so the planning (I never said there was no planning) takes place afterwords in periods of realignment/crisis. I also think that ideologies proceed from material facts, they don't just pop into thin air, and these multiple imperialist ideologies emerge from Lenin's theory of imperialism as: monopoly capitalism/finance capital; the primary tendency to export capital (note that this is a PRIMARY tendency, there are secondary tendencies).

    And how is there NOT competition between state capital? Yes we are currently in a period where there is a high level of cooperation between capitalist states, but there is still inter-imperialist rivalry: hence the reason for the emergence of the Euro and then America's mediation of the Euro through the IMF. I think your problem is that you do not think through the multiple levels of contradiction (contradiction between imperialists, between centres and peripheries, between capitalists, between capital and labour) that define the structure of world capitalism. Thus, when things shift to different planes you cannot account for the shift, aside from talking about a bunch of names and books. The methodology of historical materialism is about thinking through contradictions (again dialectical, again what Lenin was doing with his "highest stage" article which, actually, is a translation problem and does not mean "highest" in the way you've suggested).

    Also, my previous response dealt with how you didn't dilineate between settler-colonialism and imperialism. I also mentioned, with that critique, that one of the reasons America "supported" some decolonization was because of its inter-imperialist tendencies - a point you decided to remind me about in this comment, as if I didn't mention it, in your claim about "old colonial powers." Yes, that was the very point I was making. It also proves that inter-imperialist rivalry existed then just as it still exists: one of those categories of contradiction that we, if we are to be dialectical/historical materialists, must take into account.

    In any case, the main point I am making is that you aren't providing any definition of imperialism: you're only providing formal descriptions. And, as I've said over and over, if you can't define what something is, and say it is only "complex", then you can't say why you're against it. So if at the end of the day, as your logic implies reductio ad absurdum, that imperialism is something we do to imperialist countries [imperialism has nothing to do with the export of capital from core to periphery but there's more export inter-core], then the people being bombed aren't the real victims, and third world poverty must be a part of their "culture"... all of which is a very eurocentric position to take and does not explain, except by ultimately appealing [implicitly] to culture, the reasons for global poverty. And this, at the end of the day, is what I was implying about the ultimate reasoning of some political marxists.

  21. I think my post got I'll reply brieflty.

    1) If you don't like the space being taken up by comradely debate, then let's hold off for now. But I wasn't accusing Lenin of being undialectical - his 1915 notebooks on Hegel are fantastic. I am accusing those from whom he derived his theoryt of capitalism from - Hilferding and Hobson especially, of being undialectical.

    Now I need to go have a meeting with the union bureaucracy and the US state department.

  22. It's not that I don't like space being taken up by a comradely debate, I don't like space taken up by a debate that: a) is only tangentally connected to the initial post; b) is actually reinforcing, in some ways, the consciousness I critiqued in the post. This feels less comradely, less of even a debate/discussion, and more of a knee-jerk defense of a political position that I have always found dubious. Maybe that's not the case, but the way the argument has shifted and has proceeded is quite frustrating.

    Saying that Lenin "derived" his theory of imperialism from Hilferding and Hobson, just to be clear, is like saying Marx derived his theory of capital from Smith and Ricardo. Lenin was actually correcting their analysis, and he also drew on Bukharin's analysis - correcting it as well. I also explained why it was dialectical: simply because he dealt with bourgeois theorists doesn't make it undialectical. If that was the case then, again, we would have to throw out Marx.

    Good luck with the bureaucracy and the US state department... That at York?

  23. Josh: You are far ahead of me in rhetorical skill, and I sometimes feel like I'm hit with a truncheon when I proceed (as NA mentioned in a note to both of us) with trying to give concrete data from material, as opposed to just speaking of tendencies, so I give up (though briefly, I can say that Hobson's well was poisoned, so even if Lenin does improve on it, the very idea of monopoly capital as originated by Hobson was flawed).

    The meeting is at the US consulate. Hopefully I'll get an Obama t-shirt.

  24. If I come off in my writing in a certain way then apologize: I take imperialism and anti-imperialism very seriously, as you do as well I'm sure, because it communicates directly to what is happening now. And I think that a correct theory of imperialism, like Lenin's, defines a correct approach to anti-imperialism. This is clearly the case when we examine how Lenin's theory created an understanding of imperialism and anti-imperialism during the last period of radicalism: no other theoretical tradition of imperialism contributed to this, and that is an important point we need to accept as marxists.

    And I would like to suggest that I'm not just lapsing into rhetoric (though I did in the first two comments), but have been trying to argue (especially in the last posts about imperialism) concrete details about a concrete world.

    Also, we could say Smith's well was poisoned, no? It's not about "improving on it" but doing the unity of opposites, between the Hobson and Bukharin line, that is the precise method of dialectical thinking. And forget Hobson but think about Lenin's concept of monopoly capitalism and what it means today: the IMF and WTO do exist.

    Hahaha: Obama t-shirt. I think they're still selling racks of those at every hipster t-shirt store on Queen West.

  25. One last thing - I really need to stop. You mentioned the WTO, IMF, Euro etc. I'd argue that this is competition among imperialists, not between imperialists. Again, I think the predominant contradiction or in Hegelese "barrier" of capital right now is that the US is required both to protect its own capitalist class, but also act as a superintendent of global capital. So within that contradiction there is plenty of competition and sometimes (as in Africa) taking opposite sides in 'small wars' - but I don't see naval vessels on the shores of Nantucket. Even Iran gives the US intelligence to help govern Iraq.


    Jordy your response I think raises only more questions and disagreements because I simply don't think you argument is actually sustainable without assuming a completely defeatist position. But lets go through 3-4 points.

    1. On Hamza Alavi: I am not sure how you feel like Alavi buttresses your argument in either his 1972 NLR or 1978 SR articles respectively. Can you please expand on this? I think that the connections you are drawing are not borne out in re-reading Alavi. Indeed, his argument about new imperialism is heavily flawed as he has to himself admit that his entire theory has to assume that all capital exports into extractive industries (oil for example) are an exception. Within a core-periphery argument this is a major exception and makes Alavi's own theory completely contradictory. Also, his argument about the development of a strong bureaucratic state does not aid in your argument at all, especially as many who ascribe to Lenin's theory are also sympathetic to such an argument.

    2. On Anti-colonial Struggles: I think you and I have vastly differing narratives of anti-colonial history as it seems to me that you seem to suggest that any anti-colonial victories in Asia and Africa were due to the Americans allowing them to take place in some kind of John McCain belief that American losses in anti-colonial proxy wars was due to a lack of American will, whereas I believe that the Americans fought any decolonization tooth and nail and resulted in the triumphant victories of anti-colonial peoples inspite of American interventionism. I would like to hear more about American activities that allowed anti-colonial struggles to win. I think your reading of anti-colonial struggles is not a generalization with glaring exceptions, but rather is again sign of a complete defeatism in face of the American empire and completely underestimates anti-colonial agency.

    3. On Lenin: First of all, what aspect of Bukharin's view do you like because it seems like the major aspects of his theory are the same as those of Lenin's, including Bukharin's acceptance of a theory of labor aristocracy based on super-exploitation of the periphery? Secondly, I think your objection to Lenin's book on the basis of its subtitle is not substantiated as that is not in fact the subtitle, but rather a poor translation. Indeed, it seems to me that your affinities are closer to that of Kautsky's theory of ultra-imperialism rather, than Bukharin's pre-Leninist analysis.

    4. On Inter-imperialist Rivalry: I completely do not agree with you here and I think again demonstrates this fixation on American imperialism. Today there have been several examples of inter-imperialist rivalry that have taken place, including divisions inside the imperialist camp on the revolutionary movements in Nepal and the Philippines. Indeed, you seem to suggest that all other imperialist powers have completely collapsed their own national interests with that of the Americans and I do not think that is borne out by facts either.

  27. Labour Aristocrat JLCApril 7, 2011 at 1:55 PM

    I'm not continuing this here, at least for now. Thanks for the critique.

  28. My name is Gerry Downing and I am the editor of Socialist Fight, a small Trotskyist journal. I was outraged at the stance taken on Libya by the left generally in Britain and France, in particular so this piece seemed very appropriate as an explanation to accompany our rantings against the pro-imperialist left. Can I use it in the next journal in an abridged form and if so how should it be credited? I will post the pdf to whatever address you wish. my email is,

  29. Sure. Send me an email (you can email through the "About Me" section) and I'll work out the details with you there.

  30. When you say "The practice of "Marxology", where scholars treat the works of Marx and Engels as sacred texts and ignore the method that transcends the doctrine, is another problem" do you mean that "Eastern Marxism" transcends Western Marxism (Euro-centric Marxism?) by taking account of the national characteristics of a country like Mao did in China with the Bloc of Four Classes and is not that an adaption to socialism-in-a-single-country which had disasterous consequences like Mao's reaproachment with Nixon while the vietnam war was still being fought?

  31. No, that's not what I mean. Marxology is an academic term for people who become scholars of Marx (and Engels) primarily at the expense of everything else, experts on their written word. In this sense they don't care about dialectics and historical materialism. That may indeed lead to adapting Marxism to take into account the concrete situation of a different context, but this does not mean that there is any such thing as a universal "Eastern" Marxism as there is a universal "Western" Marxism.

    As for Mao/China, the alliance of four classes was part of trying to understand the concrete characteristics of a concrete situation, but so was the GPCR and the communist party under Mao always believed that you could build socialism in one [or many "ones"] country. The alliance of four classes and the thesis of New Democracy was about doing precisely that. Where thy, and always differed, from Stalin [or rather Bukharin because this theory actually came from Bukharin] was in the conflation between socialism and communism (a hallmark mistake of Stalinism). Socialism can exist in single countries (and it obviously has, just as it obviously has failed) but not communism because the latter requires a classless society, which means the end of the state, and without a state during a period where there is still capitalism/imperialism elsewhere, there is no way communism, by its very nature, can succeed.

    Nixon's arrival in China was indeed disastrous and represents, according to many Maoists, the triumph of the right line (represented initially by Liu and then Deng) in the Cultural Revolution. To be fair there were important reasons, real politik wise, to meet with Nixon (China was denied a seat on the UN and was fearful of an attack from both the Americans and the Soviets who were already and fully state capitalist under Khruschev), and there are also the rumours that the meeting with Nixon actually helped create the policy that led to Nixon pulling out of the Vietnam War (some Vietnamese Comrades believed this at the time), but it was still representative of the last gasp of the Chinese Revolution.

    Most of us Maoists believe that, just as the Marxist method can be used to criticize Marx, the tools of MLM can be used to criticize Mao just as anyone else: at that point Mao was geriatric, some Maoists argue that he sold out at the end of the GPCR and, despite the fact that he was responsible for the extremely important theoretical understanding that initiated the GPCR, backed the rightists. Deng, for example, was nominated as Mao's successor when he was part of the Liu political line in the Cultural Revolution and, post-Mao, reversed all of the gains made before and during the Cultural Revolution, setting into motion the free-marketization of the countryside and the emergence of Chinese State Capitalism [note that Deng based his arguments on the alliance of four classes and New Democracy which he claimed was "socialism with Chinese characteristics", an argument that was attacked during the GPCR as being one of the capitalist road which is now proved by today's China]. In any case, this had nothing to do with socialism in one country because, by that time, China was nearing the end of socialism and the triumph of the right line of the party.


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