AWL, Iraq and 'new imperialism'

Mike Macnair argues that the failure of the AWL to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq is a symptom of their flawed analysis of imperialism

On Thursday July 22 I spoke in a personal capacity at an Alliance for Workers’ Liberty London Forum, debating with Clive Bradley for the AWL on the question, ‘Is Iraq turning into another Vietnam?’

The AWL is on record that Iraq cannot become “another Vietnam” (see Chris Reynolds’ article in Solidarity June 2004) and so am I (Weekly Worker April 17 2003). So you might suppose that there would not be much of a debate. In fact, though there was substantial common ground between us, there was a sharp difference of political line about what communists (Marxist socialists, in terms perhaps more acceptable to the AWL) in Britain should do about the occupation of Iraq. Behind this difference of line are deep differences of analysis of the world situation and the tasks of communists.

Troops out now?
The immediate political difference is clear enough. The line of the theses which I drafted on Iraq, published in the Weekly Worker (April 29) and adopted in a revised form at our July 24 aggregate, is that communists in Britain have two tasks. The first is to fight for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and an end to British support for the occupation. The second is to fight for the workers’ movement in Britain to give support to the Iraqi workers’ and progressive organisations - the trade unions and women’s organisations and the communist groups.

AWL comrades, in contrast, think that it is wrong to argue at present for the immediate withdrawal of British (and US) troops. Communists in Britain should campaign only for support to the Iraqi workers’ and progressive organisations.

The reasons AWL comrades gave for this view were various. Comrade Clive’s argument was essentially about British politics: campaigning for ‘troops out now’ would involve at least temporary tactical common action in Britain with advocates of an islamist clerical-reactionary regime in Iraq. Other comrades argued that the immediate withdrawal of British and US troops would result in the islamists massacring the workers’ movement.

A third and perhaps underlying analytical position for the AWL’s view was put most clearly by comrades Cathy and Paul. Comrade Cathy argued that the left had failed to face up to the fact that imperialism sometimes did things that were progressive. Comrade Paul argued that the position I had presented rested on the misconception that capitalism, and especially US imperialism, was in decline. On the contrary, we now had the apogee of the world market classically analysed by Marx. This development had been held back by the reactionary role of Stalinism until the 1990s, and capital was now setting out to “re-engineer” the Middle East in the interests of global capital: the results were messy and brutal, as the introduction of capitalism generally was, but ultimately in the interests of the working class as a class.

The argument from the point of view of British politics is pretty clearly sectarian. It simply takes the Socialist Workers Party line (we should focus only on defeating the occupation, and not raise awkward questions about the islamist militias, which might be exploited by pro-occupation forces) and turns it on its head. It prioritises preserving the ‘purity’ of the socialist alternative above immediate action for short-term goals. This sectarian character is consistent with the AWL’s successive arguments in 2002 that the internationalist wing of the Socialist Alliance should go its own way over the issue of the (non-existent) referendum on the euro, and in 2003-04 that the individual, George Galloway, was a fundamental political dividing line.

The argument concerning the risk of a massacre of the Iraqi workers’ movement is a bit more substantial. My response in the meeting was that, first, the occupying troops were actually promoting religious sectarianism and communalism and, second, there was no evidence that they were actually providing protection to the workers’ movement against the attacks of islamist militias. In fact, the occupying troops block the reconstruction of Iraqi political order. Thus, the longer the occupying troops remain, the greater the likelihood that when they leave the islamists will take over and massacre the workers’ movement.
A more fundamental point made by John Bridge at our aggregate is this. The call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops is not a question of waving a magic wand and it will happen tomorrow. It is a proposal for fighting for action by the British workers’ movement to force withdrawal. And if the British workers’ movement by its action forces a withdrawal of British troops, that in itself - because of who did it - will alter the political relation of forces in Iraq in favour of the workers’ movement. Regrettably, given the present relationship of forces, that is not very likely. The SWP’s Respect project has seriously weakened the anti-war movement. But then, in the present political relationship of forces, few communist political proposals have much chance of being implemented in the near future. If this was an argument against putting them forward, we should all be Blairites.
The argument that imperialist interventions sometimes play a progressive role raises much larger questions of working class political strategy. They are too large for discussion in a single article, but the issues are so important that it is worth attempting to outline some of them. This article will lay out the AWL’s analysis, as explained by comrade Martin Thomas, and set up the background to the question. A second part, to follow, will address in this context what exactly is wrong with the AWL’s analysis and what might be an alternative approach.
AWL and imperialism
The theoretical positions expressed in the meeting in the arguments of comrades Cathy and Paul are elaborated more fully by Martin Thomas in the December 2002 issue of Workers’ Liberty, the AWL’s occasional theoretical journal. (There is a longer pedigree of discussion in Workers’ Liberty, but the issue quoted above provides a relatively recent statement.) The major article by comrade Thomas is expressed as two critiques - of Antoni Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s book Empire and the ‘new imperialism’ concepts of SWP leaders John Rees and Alex Callinicos. The journal also reprints, with introductions by Thomas, an article by Karl Kautsky on ‘ultra-imperialism’ (famous among communists chiefly for having been the subject of furious polemics by Lenin) and Kautsky’s 1907 pamphlet Socialism and colonial policy.

Comrade Thomas’s argument runs roughly as follows. The old Leninist theory of imperialism addressed the world of competing colonial empires, which characterised the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. This collapsed in the 1950s because:

“Colonialism became, in general, too costly and risky for the big powers in the decades after World War II, as the colonies became more urban, educated and industrial. In a world of ‘universalised’ capitalism, they know that trying to impose governor-generals is an expensive, risky and fragile method of providing assistance to their corporations in the world market. So long as there are capitalist states in every country ... then that assistance can be ensured much more cheaply and reliably by market forces and para-market forces ...” (pp30-31).

The result is a world of capitalist nation-states, with US “globocop” military action used merely to secure the existence of such states. Opposition to US action “is not necessarily a certificate of positive virtue. The USA’s adversary may well be a ‘sub-imperialist’ or ‘paleo-imperialist’ power, one whose drive is for a more localised or primitive form of imperialism rather than for national or human liberation.” By “sub-imperialism” Thomas means countries which he characterises as regional hegemons, like India, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria (all the cases could be seriously disputed). By “paleo-imperialism” he means “attempts by smaller powers to offset their weaker position on the larger canvas of the world economy by small-scale regional conquests - Iraq in Kuwait, Serbia in Kosova, Argentina (1982) in the Falklands ...” (p31).

The US is the world’s biggest military power, but the world is not a US empire. To the contrary, “there is a network of cartels between the big-power governments (G8, WTO, IMF, etc), which has served, more or less, to regulate the ‘imperialism of free trade’, and the US has the loudest voice within these cartels”. But they “do not form a single compact centre, and ... they are not solely US-run” (p31). The EU and Japan would not have supported the US in the 1991 Gulf War, 1999 in Yugoslavia, or 2001 in Afghanistan, if these wars were not in the interest of big capital as a whole.
In this situation the response of the Marxists has two aspects.

“Our underlying goal is workers’ control, the political economy of the working class, the establishment of worldwide social standards and rights by international working class action, and the struggle for worldwide democratic socialist revolution, and global democracy. Every right of national self-determination, every other broad democratic right, is an important stepping stone for that battle” (pp29-30).

On the other hand, “We do not support smaller capital against big capital in the way that we support the rights of smaller nations against big powers. We do not support bigger capital either! Even if we surmise that a particular US ‘globocop’ action may ... bring some improvement on balance, we give no credit in advance to big-capitalist power. We seek to educate and mobilise the working class as an independent - which necessarily means, oppositional - force” (pp31-32).

The relevance of the Kautsky article should now be clear. Comrade Thomas argues in his introduction that in a sense the structured form of the ‘western camp’ in the cold war, now extended to cover the globe, “is a cousin of the ‘ultra-imperialism’ sketched by Kautsky”. Lenin’s criticisms of Kautsky thus may have been partly right in 1915-17, but Kautsky may be more helpful in addressing the world as it is.

These views are a pretty clear break with the programmatic positions of the tradition from which the AWL originally came, the Trotskyist variant of communism. The Platform of the Communist International, the Twenty-one conditions for membership of the Comintern, the 1920 Draft theses on the colonial and national question and many other Comintern documents are built on Lenin’s theory of imperialism and its strategic consequences. The abortive Trotskyist Fourth International’s 1938 Transitional programme is explicit that “The defeat of every imperialist government in the struggle with the workers’ state or with a colonial country is the lesser evil.” This is not to say that the AWL’s approach is wrong. If the world has changed, the programme must change: after all, the positions of the Comintern and Fourth International on imperialism were radical innovations on the positions of the Second International.

It is tempting to argue that the AWL’s positions on imperialism are simply ideology which ‘reflects the pressure of our own imperialist state’. This view is widely held on the left. But this raises the same question: is the AWL’s position right or wrong? In order to establish that a position is ideology in any useful sense, it is first necessary to establish that (a) it is false and (b) it is persistently defended after it has been shown to be false, so that the only explanation of its persistence is that it serves some particular interests.

Imperialism and the Marxists
Around 1900 a large part of the globe was parcelled out between European formal colonial empires - British, French, German, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Russian ... Beyond this, several formally independent states were subject to partial state-to-state dependency on various European powers through treaty arrangements and through financial and other mechanisms: most clearly the dependency of the Latin American states on Britain, but also the various concessions and capitulations affecting late Ch’ing China, the Ottoman empire, and so on. The USA was ‘imperial’ within its own borders, but had also begun to acquire protectorates: Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico ... There were some clear instances of what Lenin called “sub-imperialism”: thus, for example, Portugal was, and had been since the 17th century, a British protectorate, but had its own imperial possessions. The various empires were characterised by abandonment of the old (British) policy of ‘free trade’: instead various forms of protective tariffs raised barriers between them. Between the rival empires there was an arms race going on.

The Marxists were forced to address the division of the world into competing empires as an economic phenomenon by a debate in 1907 in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Second International, in which the right wing of the SPD and the international argued that socialists should support reform of colonialism, rather than oppose it outright. The arguments of the right derived partly from the ‘civilising mission’ - ie, progressive role - of capitalism in displacing pre-capitalist modes of production, and partly from simple economic arguments: the international division of labour had now progressed to a point at which the developed capitalist countries could not, without economic ruin, give up control of the production of primary raw materials in the colonies.

The left and centre-left in the SPD and International responded with a succession of pamphlets and books attempting to analyse the new situation, starting in 1907 with Parvus’s Der Kolonialpolitik und die Zusammenbruch (Colonial policy and collapse) and Kautsky’s Socialism and colonial policy. In 1910 came Hilferding’s Finance capital, in 1913 Luxemburg’s The accumulation of capital, and in 1914 Kautsky’s Ultra-imperialism. The precise economic mechanisms proposed by these authors differed, but they shared common underlying themes. Imperialist expansion was produced by the internal contradictions of developed capitalism. These resulted, in the developed capitalist countries, in a tendency towards capital becoming corporate and monopolistic and the creation of cartels, strengthening of the bureaucratic state, and increased interpenetration of banking and industrial capital and of capital and the state.

For Parvus empires resulted initially from the drive of capital to expand beyond national borders, leading to British exploitation of the world; then from British response to the growth of competitors in the form of a protectionist imperial system; then from French, German, etc reactions to the British imperial system. For Luxemburg disproportionality problems in the realisation of value - and for Hilferding the increasing organic composition of capital and the overproduction of capital in developed countries - drove the major powers to export capital to less developed countries. The interpenetration of capital and state is the reason this export of capital assumed a state-backed form (formal empires and treaty capitulations, etc). With the exception of Kautsky’s pamphlet, all these authors drew from the phenomena of imperialism, monopolies, etc the conclusion that capitalism had exhausted its progressive economic potential in the developed capitalist countries.

In 1914 the arms race between the competing empires led to the World War I. The Second International collapsed, as the majority of the socialist parliamentary parties voted for war credits and the bulk of the centre-left also collapsed into lines which were pro-war or conciliated/excused the war policy of their own country. The economic theory of imperialism, especially in Hilferding’s version, offered the left both an explanation of the war and an explanation of the political collapse of the International.

In 1915 Nikolai Bukharin published his Imperialism and world economy in Kommunist, a theoretical journal issued by a ‘left’ dissident tendency in the Bolsheviks. Imperialism and world economy is much more focussed on the development of a world economy and on imperialism as an aspect of this phenomenon than either Hilferding’s or Luxemburg’s books. After laying out the development of a world economy, Bukharin argues that it is this development which drives syndicates and cartels - and, in turn, a process of ‘nationalisation’ and statisation of capital. Imperialism expresses the contradiction between the growth of a global division of labour and global forces of production, and the continuation of bourgeois property and hence the nation-state. But this implies that there will be a drive towards competition on a world scale taking the form of war. In his final chapter, Bukharin explains the collapse of the Second International in face of the war by a solidarity between sections of the workers and the imperialist state, grounded on the ‘super-profits’ of imperialism. But the war itself proved to (sections of) the working class that this solidarity was illusory: it thus “severs the last chain that binds the workers to the masters, their slavish submission to the imperialist state” (p167 in the 1973 MR edition).

Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism was Lenin’s response to Bukharin, though by the time it was published in 1917 the debate between Lenin and the ‘left’ Bolsheviks - and beyond them, between Lenin on the one hand and Luxemburg and Trotsky on the other, over the Dublin 1916 Easter Rising - was largely over. For this reason, and also because it was originally written to be published legally under the tsarist censorship, the book is severely empirical in character. Lenin does not share Bukharin’s conclusion that the age of national economic development, and hence of national self-determination as a progressive slogan, is over; but he is not able to refute Bukharin’s theoretical grounds for his view.

Hence his argument focuses on the several symptoms of imperialism as a system, rather than on the dynamics of their interconnection. He insists that “in its economic essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism” (p148 in the Beijing edition); and “Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination instead of striving for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations - all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of capitalism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism” (emphasis added, p150). Moral indignation has replaced the analysis of objective dynamics which grounded the earlier Marxist authors’ claim that imperialism showed capitalism at its limits.

Like Bukharin, Lenin uses the ability of the bourgeoisie to ameliorate class struggle in the home country through imperialist super-profits to explain the failure of the Second International. Unlike Bukharin’s explanation, however, Lenin’s insists that only a section - the top layers of the working class, and the workers’ leaders - are “bribed”. In place of a misconception of the class, we have a moral betrayal by a section of the class, and the role of the state in mediating the false solidarity between workers and their masters has disappeared. The replacement of analysis of objective dynamics with indignation is again apparent.

The difference between Lenin’s and earlier conceptions of imperialism was converted into concrete politics in the 1919-20 ‘turn to the peoples of the east’, the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, the Twenty-one conditions, the theses of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 on the national and colonial questions, and those of the Fourth Congress (1922) on the ‘eastern question’. These meetings and texts projected a strategic relationship of alliance between the class struggle of the proletariat and the struggles of the colonised peoples against imperialism and for national independence. The Fourth Congress projected the idea of the ‘anti-imperialist united front’, including all forces willing actually to fight the imperialists. Unlike ‘official communist’ interpretations, and those of today’s SWP, the Comintern insisted that this was on the basis of strict independence of the Communist Party and its freedom to criticise its coalition partners. Otherwise, it is these original texts - not merely Stalinist reinterpretations of them - which form the basis of the modern anti-imperialist orthodoxy of the far left.

This is a difference between Lenin’s and earlier theories of imperialism, in that it is precisely only Lenin’s theory which makes imperialist capitalism both altogether parasitic and terminal for capital, because it is parasitic. It hence leads to the conclusion that the proletarian revolution is immediately on the agenda in spite of the continued global dominance of peasant and artisan petty production. Hence, in turn, it leads to the conclusion that the revolt of the small nations as a whole against imperialism is an essential component of the proletarian revolution against capital. This was Lenin’s fundamental conclusion about Easter 1916, and it can be seen as a generalisation onto the international scale of his peasant policy for Russia (alliance with the peasantry as a whole in the democratic revolution, leading to the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’). The same results do not follow from either Bukharin’s, Luxemburg’s or Hilferding’s accounts.

The failure of prediction
Until around 1950, Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the terminal, parasitic and regressive phase of capitalism appeared to have considerable predictive power. The world economy, international affairs and the politics of the imperialist countries remained highly unstable; fascism emerged; and by the early 1930s a movement towards a new world war was apparent. In 1939 it broke out, and turned out to be both more extensive and more destructive than 1914-18. For the first few years after the war, the European economies remained ‘flat-lining’, blocked from recovery by economic bottlenecks. In the colonial countries, the (apparently) victorious British imperialists, and the French and Dutch released by US-British victory, fought to re-impose their rule.

By the early 1950s, however, it was clear that something radically different was happening. On the one hand, the USSR (contrary to Stalin’s original intentions) had created new Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe, while Stalinist parties had done so independently and against Soviet wishes in Yugoslavia, Albania, China, North Vietnam and North Korea. The world thus assumed the appearance of a ‘capitalist camp’ and a ‘socialist camp’.

On the other hand, within the ‘capitalist camp’ inter-imperialist state-to-state conflicts had been radically suppressed by the total conquest of Germany and Japan and the clear subordination of Britain and France (not to mention the smaller imperialist powers) to the US. US capital had nonetheless made, through the US state, very major concessions to its capitalist rivals, in the form of Marshall Aid, exchange controls and the acceptance of large measures of nationalisation and other forms of protectionism which were against US capital’s immediate interests. On this basis the European economies had begun to revive and were to continue growing strongly through the 1950s and into the 1960s. ‘Decolonisation’ had begun, with Indian independence. It was to continue, partly through conflicts and partly by agreed decolonisations, into the 1960s. Through the 50s and 60s the regime of managed trade, exchange controls and Keynesian demand management allowed substantial growth in the forces of production in both the former imperialist and the former colonial countries.

These developments were a radical failure of prediction for the Leninist theory of imperialism as capitalism in terminal decline, and for Trotsky’s “death agony of capitalism”.

For those social democrats who employed Marxist ideas, the failure of Lenin’s theory of imperialism to predict, even conditionally, the course of events was no problem: the communists were wrong and 1914-45 merely an aberration.

For ‘official communist’ (Stalinist) theorists, there was a problem. But it was heavily mitigated by the apparent success in Yugoslavia, China, etc of the practical policy which flowed from the Leninist theory, the anti-imperialist united front. (This was by now more comfortably integrated in Stalinist theory as a variant of the people’s front.) Soviet theorists developed, to explain the situation in the imperialist countries, the theory of a new ‘highest stage’: ‘state-monopoly capitalism’, in which the integration of the state and monopoly capital was deepened beyond that of classical imperialism.
For the anti-Stalinist Marxist left (Trotskyists and others) the problem was more severe, and remains a problem to the present date. It has a practical aspect and a theoretical one. The practical aspect is that the Trotskyists were completely unable to discover a practical meaning to the idea of the anti-imperialist united front which was separable from the anti-imperialist People’s Front in its Yugoslav, Chinese, etc interpretation. As a result Trotskyism, which had had a strong presence in Latin America and several other colonial and semi-colonial countries in the 1930s and 1940s, became marginalised in the most of the colonial world in the 1950s and 60s.

Theoretical problems
The theoretical aspect is this: are there epochal limits to capitalism, and if so, what are they? The underlying reason for supposing that there are is that there have turned out to be epochal limits to prior (European) modes of production (slavery gives way to feudalism, feudalism to capitalism). On the other hand, if there are not epochal limits to capitalism, the claim of Marx and Engels to have discovered a ‘scientific’ socialism (one which has predictive power) as opposed to a ‘utopian’ socialism (one which is grounded merely on a moral critique of capitalism) is false, and the whole Marxist theoretical apparatus should be discarded.

Marx and Engels suggested two sorts of epochal limits to capitalism. The first is that the forces of production grow beyond the point at which the law of value remains a rational economic regulator. In the result, the forces of production become forces of destruction and the overthrow of the capitalist order becomes a necessary act for the self-defence of society.

Hilferding’s, Luxemburg’s, Bukharin’s, and Lenin’s theories of imperialism all find in imperialism the symptoms that capital has reached this epochal limit. The growth of cartels, monopolies and state intervention are all symptoms of the irrationality of the law of value in a highly developed capitalist society. The imperialist arms race, and the world wars, are instances of the forces of production turning into forces of destruction. If these are not symptoms of the epochal limit to capitalism, what could be is seriously open to question (it would have to be something more catastrophic than 1914-45), and thus if there are epochal limits at all.

Marx’s and Engels’ second limit to capitalism is that capital raises up, in the proletariat, its own gravedigger. As society becomes increasingly divided into capitalist and proletarian, the proletariat will increasingly assert its own interests against capital, which will decreasingly have the support of the petty proprietors. Capital will eventually be unable to stand against the proletariat.

The standard objection to this argument was that the instance of Britain showed that, as the proletariat grew, it became reconciled to capitalism: not increasingly inclined to overthrow it. Engels suggested that this was attributable to the global ascendancy of British capital. Thus he commented in 1882 that “There is no workers’ party here; there are only conservatives and liberal-radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_09_12.htm; quoted in VI Lenin Imperialism chapter 8). Until August 1914 it was possible to believe that this was a British peculiarity, and even one that was declining (with the emergence of the Labour Party, the socialist groups and radical syndicalism). August 1914 made clear that - whatever the problem was - it went well beyond Britain, and Bukharin’s and Lenin’s theories of imperialism generalise Engels’ view to explain the collapse of the Second International.

Theories of imperialism thus play a much larger role in Marxist theory than simply accounting for the early 20th century colonial empires. The question posed in relation to alternatives to Lenin’s theory is thus not just, how well do they account for the factual course of development? - but also, how far do they offer an alternative theory which is either (a) consistent with the general claims of Marxism, or (b) offers a superior alternative to Marxism as a whole?