Imperialism lives on
In the second of a short series of articles, Mike Macnair examines the role of the state in the global order and looks at alternatives to the 'imperialism of free trade' theory
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty opposes campaigning for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some of the reasons offered for this position concern the immediate situations in Britain and Iraq. But others go deeper into the theory of imperialism.
In part one (Weekly Worker July 29) I laid out comrade Martin Thomas’s arguments on the ‘imperialism of free trade’ (Workers’ Liberty December 2002), and set up the problem by looking at the origins of the Leninist theory of imperialism and its political implications, the failure of its predictive power around 1950, and the problems this posed for Marxists. This article will explore the explanatory power (or otherwise) of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ and other accounts of the post-war world order. A third article will return to questions of strategy and their implications for the AWL’s line.
The last 50 years
It may seem odd that in my first piece I closed the historical discussion 50 years ago. There is, however, a reason for doing so. This is that comrade Thomas’s reading of the structure of world economics and politics today is based on a particular view of what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. This implies that the AWL’s ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory, and rival theories, are to be judged for their predictive power in relation to the world system over the whole period 1945-2004. In fact, we should also consider the extent to which the underpinnings of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory and other theories actually succeed in generating an internally consistent and predictive account of the older period of competing empires between the late 19th century and 1945. Is each a scientifically superior theory which incorporates and subsumes the data dealt with by the older Marxist theories of imperialism, in addition explaining other data? Or is it merely an ad hoc add-on to ‘save the phenomena’ (like epicycles in the Ptolemaic theory that the sun and planets circle the earth)?
‘Imperialism of free trade’
The main distinctive features of the theory of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ identified in my first article were:
1. That inter-imperialist military-economic competition in the Leninist sense has been replaced by a “network of cartels between the big-power governments” - the international institutions. These are, however, not controlled by the US; rather, the US acts as a reserve ‘globocop’ “in the interest of big capital as a whole”.
2. That big-power state “assistance to their corporations in the world market” within this framework takes the form of “market forces and para-market forces”, rather than state-to-state action (colonies proper, or Lenin’s category of ‘semi-colonies’). The world is therefore “a world of capitalist nation-states” and conflicts between states are often simply conflicts between big and smaller capital.
How plausible is this as an account of the post-1950 international order? The first thing that has to be said is that states as such have almost disappeared from sight in Thomas’s analysis. They merely reflect the interests of particular big or small capitals. How they do so remains unseen. This was always a danger in the thesis, common to the classical Marxist theories of imperialism, that monopoly and finance capital was increasingly fused with the state. In Thomas’s analysis the result is that both the relative coercive power of states, based on their military capabilities, and state-to-state relationships are marginalised.
Unlike a business firm, the state is an apparatus of direct extra-economic coercion. The degree of genuine independence of states is given by the degree of their autonomous war-fighting capacity. This involves three elements beyond the simple possession of armed forces. The first is a domestic arms industry capable of repair and resupply for the duration of a war. The second is more general logistical and administrative power capable of securing the feeding, etc, of the troops and of the workers in the arms industry. In turn, it entails a relatively ‘balanced’ domestic economy which can stand up to blockade or ‘sanctions’: thus US and European agricultural subsidies are motivated by military-strategic reasons as much as by domestic political ones. The third is autonomous educational and training facilities to supply skilled personnel and (linked) ideological bases for the loyalty of the armed forces.
There is thus a contradiction between, on the one hand, the development of the world economy and the material international division of labour and, on the other, the independence of nation-states as states. This is the point made (most clearly among the classical Marxist theorists of imperialism) by Bukharin.
Relations between the ‘big powers’
With this in mind we can return to the internal relationships between the ‘big powers’. It is far from clear that this is one of ‘cartels’ based de facto on agreement on common interests. Like the British state’s naval policy before the 1920s, the US maintains an absolute predominance of its armed forces over potential rivals. Since World War II the US has maintained and still maintains a large ground army in Germany and military bases, mainly air and naval, on the territories of all the ‘big powers’ in the pre-1991 ‘capitalist world’ except France. It has dual control of British nuclear weapons. Of the capitalist states, only Britain and France are logistically capable of military action beyond their own borders without short-term US support. The Nato organisation is a hub and spokes arrangement with the US at the hub. Though France has been semi-detached since 1966 and since the fall of the USSR some western European Nato states have become increasingly willing to resist US proposals, the US (and Britain) have vetoed any attempt to create a ‘European pole’.
The US state has also applied considerable money and effort to developing pro-US trends in the political life of European states; as was disclosed for the earlier period after these funds and support efforts were shifted, in the late 1970s, from right social democrats to neoliberal politicians. The various ‘cartels’ on the economic front are, and always have been, in substance subject to US vetoes. There is a great deal more that could be said. The underlying point is that the relationship between the US state and the other ‘big capitalist’ powers is not a relationship between equals. It is, in fact, far closer to Britain’s relationship to Portugal between the 18th and the early 20th centuries.
In this context, the ‘consent’ of other capitalist ‘big powers’ to US military interventions, which comrade Thomas gives as a reason to suppose that these were in the interests of capital as a whole, does not imply anything of the sort. It says merely that US leverage is sufficient to secure ‘consent’.
If we are not concerned with a relationship between equals, a question is posed. Why did the US state not, after its victory over its European and Japanese rivals in 1945, consistently defend the interests of US capital against rival capitals? It is not, in fact, a difficult question to answer. In the first place, without Marshall aid and the concessions which went along with it to revive western European capital, the western European capitalist states would have gone the way of those in eastern Europe (been overthrown by communists) by the end of the 1940s. Secondly, the spoils of war were so great that US capitals could comfortably afford not to exploit the power of their state to its full potential. European and Japanese fixed capital had been physically destroyed on an enormous scale, while US capital remained substantially intact. The 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt), while it made substantial concessions to Britain, considerably weakened the imperial protection systems. US capital thus had very substantial space for expansion without insisting on a full free-trade and hard-money regime which would have reduced its rivals to semi-colonial status or - more probably - led to their revolutionary overthrow.
If this is the origin of the post-war system in relations between the ‘big powers’, does the fall of the USSR lead to its becoming generalised, or to its withering away or mutating? Again, the answers are not desperately difficult. On the one hand, the military verdict of World War II shows no sign of being reversed through large-scale rearmament and protectionism by a big-power rival of the US. None of the European countries individually could remotely embark on such a policy, and British membership of the EU has since 1972 paralysed any moves towards closer political-military integration which could create a rival to the US. (In contrast, widening and deepening the free trade zone and the single European currency are US interests which the US has supported.) Japan remains utterly vulnerable to US pre-emptive military action and, indeed, depends on US support against its Chinese neighbour.
In that sense there will be no return to the world of competing empires, except in the very unlikely contingency that the Chinese bureaucracy successfully manages the transition to capitalism (not yet complete) and China becomes a military rival of the US.
On the other hand, since the 1970s the US has increasingly used its leverage in the international ‘cartels’ to insist that other states must pursue a hard-money and free-trade policy, while the US itself continues to pursue a soft-money, protectionist and Keynesian demand-stimulus policy. This turn is not primarily driven by the direct interests of US capital as such. It does episodically have the effect that a low dollar (to some extent) stimulates US exports, but US big capital’s operations overseas are so extensive that there is probably not much net gain. It is in the interests of the US state as such - in the first place simply in financing its operations at the expense of non-US capitals, and secondly in securing domestic consent to its rule from the middle and working classes. Since the fall of the Soviet Union this trend has accelerated. The Bush administration’s overt ‘unilateralism’ is merely more politically explicit than the practical conduct of other recent administrations. US state actors, and the capitalists who pay them off, decreasingly see the need for the concessions made to European and Japanese capitals in the aftermath of World War II.
What about relations between the ‘big powers’ and the former colonies and semi-colonies? It must be said in the first place that comrade Thomas is correct to say that we live in “a world of capitalist ... states” (I leave out ‘nation-’ from the quotation because by no means all the existing capitalist states can reasonably be called nation-states, as opposed to multinational or sub-national states). Some orthodox Trotskyists and some ‘official communists’ hold that imperfect national independence, or the persistence within a state’s territory of pre-capitalist forms of production and exploitation, means that we have an ‘incomplete bourgeois revolution’. This is not seriously defensible in the light of the historical origins of the capitalist ‘big powers’.
However, it does not follow that the relations between the ‘big powers’ and the former colonies are merely analogous to the relations between big and small capital - say, between Ford (= US) and Morgan (= Argentina). They are more analogous to the relations between the Mexican maquiladoras, which merely assemble parts made elsewhere, (= [most] former colonies) and the manufacturers of the parts (= former imperialist powers). If Ford went bankrupt tomorrow, Morgan’s business would be affected only by changes in demand reflecting the macro-economic conditions which bankrupted Ford. If the maquiladora’s supplier went bankrupt, the maquiladora would close down. Similarly, the withdrawal of US support rapidly collapsed the South Vietnamese regime, and if the French state were to collapse tomorrow France’s former colonies in Africa would be at the very least severely destabilised.
In the first place, the large majority of the former colonies are actually dependent for arms on ‘big-power’ suppliers. India and Turkey, for example, have quite significant levels of economic and political autonomy. But neither has the independent military production capacity which France or the US had in the first half of the 19th century - the high period of British hegemony and ‘free trade’.
Secondly, there are also heavy levels of state-to-state financial dependence of the former colonies on ‘big powers’ through loans and ‘aid’ mechanisms, which are commonly either explicitly or implicitly tied to purchasing arrangements. Machinery of this type was characterised by Lenin as producing ‘semi-colonial’ status, and it governed the relations between Britain and Latin America and Iran, and between Britain and France and the Balkans, at the height of the colonial empires around 1900. From this perspective the old ‘official communist’ tag, ‘neo-colonialism’, was quite unnecessary: what happened in decolonisation was a shift from full colonial to semi-colonial status.
Thirdly, the ideological-legal structure of the ‘decolonised’ states was very commonly given by the former colonial power and the education and training of state officials, especially the higher ranks of the military, has involved and very commonly still does involve organised relations between the former colony and its colonial power.
Fourthly and finally, direct military interventions by the big powers in support of states in their former colonies have continued throughout the last 50 years. A few examples which are not US ‘globocop’ actions: British intervention in the Indonesian-Malaysian Konfrontasi in the 1960s and in Sierra Leone in 2000, and French interventions in Africa through the 1980s and 1990s. The former colonies are capitalist states, yes. But in the main they are dependent capitalist states.
Why then decolonisation? The answer is in fact fairly straightforward. It reflects the changed relations between the ‘big powers’ discussed above. Britain, France and the Netherlands could no longer afford the full-scale apparatus of a colonial state. Conversely, formal colonial annexation in the later 19th century was primarily a defence against big-power rivals and only very much secondarily a means of managing labour in the colony. The US was so dominant that it had no need to construct an imperial protection system, and had elected for reasons of the struggle against Stalinism to give the former imperial powers some slices of the cake. Decolonisation conveniently expressed both these choices. It also incidentally involved less stress on the political ideology of the US state than a formal empire would have: though the contradiction between the US state’s role as world hegemon and its political ideology of ‘freedom’, democracy and national self-determination became explosive in the Vietnam War and remain problematic even today.
That said, decolonisation was a dynamic in the post-1945 world situation and one that played out in rather various and by no means non-conflictual ways. Suez in 1956 was the last British and French attempt to act independently of and against the interests of the USA. However, the US did not generally insist on immediate decolonisation. Wars for independence continued through the 1950s and 1960s; Portugal only decolonised as a result of the strains of colonial war provoking a revolutionary crisis in the metropolis in 1974-75; Britain and France retain a number of small colonial possessions at the present date.
None of this proves that the Leninist theory of imperialism is right. What it does show is that there is a large class of political phenomena in the relations between states which are not and cannot be accounted for by the theory of the ‘imperialism of free trade’. The AWL deals with these issues as purely political ‘democratic questions’ without economic grounds - in effect an epicycle, or a violation of Occam’s Razor (theories should minimise unexplained independent causes). Further, since the theory does not attempt to explain what was wrong with Lenin’s theory of imperialism, it also fails to explain (a) the empires and inter-imperialist conflicts of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, or (b) the reconciliation of the workers’ movement to the capitalist state - both of which Bukharin’s and Lenin’s theories attempted to explain. It does not even attempt to deal with the question of the epochal limits of capital.
If the theory of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ is thus seriously problematic, the available alternatives raise other questions. There is, of course, endless published output on the question both from the academy and the far left. Here I can give only the barest outline sketch of some of the positions which have had strategic influence on the left or appear particularly theoretically illuminating. They fall, essentially, into four broad camps. The first option is simply to assert that nothing has changed and the apparent stability of the world order under the cold war is merely illusory. The second is to claim that the post-war order represents a deepening of imperialism. As a strategic consequence, the ‘centre of gravity of the world situation has shifted to the colonial revolution’, or it is necessary to overthrow imperialism as a precondition to liberating the minds of the working class of the imperialist countries. The third option is to relax the hypothesis of classical Marxist theories of imperialism that the phenomena of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th represent capital having reached its epochal limits. The fourth option is the hypothesis that the global strength of Stalinism as a result of World War II has stabilised capitalism.
The boys who cried wolf
The idea that nothing had really changed was the particular speciality of the Healyites (Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party) but it was also a temptation persistently affecting organisations which defined themselves by ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ or by non-Maoist left Stalinism, and the Trotskyists more generally. The result was a tendency through the whole period to predict that the next cyclical downturn in the world economy would convert into a 1929-style crash and a ‘return to the 30s’. Even Ernest Mandel, whose study of Marxist political economy had begun as a critique of doom-mongering, in his later years succumbed to building perspectives on predicting a rapid development of economic crisis, leading to political destabilisation in the ‘big powers’ which has not (yet) occurred. These repeated failures of prediction make the approach obviously scientifically valueless. They have also, however, had the unfortunate effect of marginalising Marxist political-economic analysis in the thought of the left.
The commitment of these forces to the dogmatic reproduction of ‘orthodoxy’ left out an important element of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. This was the role of imperialist super-profits in ‘buying off’ the workers’ movement in the imperialist countries. In its place, the whole explanation of the reconciliation of the workers’ organisations offered was the deficiency of the ‘subjective factor’: the role in supporting capitalism, variously, of Khrushchevite revisionism, Stalinism, Pabloism ... by this last we have reached the reduction to absurdity of Trotsky’s claim that the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of proletarian leadership.
The ‘centrality of the colonial revolution’
If the orthodox Trotskyists and similar groups abandoned the theory that imperial superprofits paid for concessions to the working class, the Maoists effectively reduced the whole theory to this tenet. Capital had become more centralised round the USA; the restabilised regime allowed for concessions to the big-power working classes; hence the centre of revolutionary struggle would be, for the foreseeable future, in the colonial world. Leftists in the imperialist countries were allowed at best an ancillary role of building solidarity with this struggle. In the hands of the Maoists, this was a generalisation onto a world scale of the strategy of ‘surrounding the cities’. But there were plenty of other leftists who were either influenced by Maoist ideas or held similar ideas: notably the Pablo-Posadas wing of the Fourth International (International Secretariat) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rather later, this became a form of political collapse of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ into forms of left Stalinism. It affected the Marcyite Workers World Party and the Spartacists from the late 1960s, the Healyite WRP in the later 1970s, and the US Socialist Workers Party and its co-thinkers, like the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, from around 1980.
In this version of the theory of imperialism the ‘actuality of the revolution’, the epochal limit to capital, was the irresistible advance of the anti-imperialist front, marked successively by the Yugoslav and Albanian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cuban, South Yemeni, and so on, revolutions, as well as by the ability of the ‘socialist camp’ to ‘win allies’ (like Ba’athist Iraq!) among the former colonies. The offensive of the European working class in the late 1960s and early 1970s cast some doubts on the theory, while Beijing’s pro-US turn in the mid-70s demoralised the orthodox Maoists. However, the outbreak of the Afghan, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions gave it a new lease of life. The fall of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and the market turns in China and Indochina should have knocked it on the head, and certainly shows that it is completely useless as a guide to action: clearly, neither ‘surrounding the cities’ nor building up a ‘socialist camp’ or global ‘anti-imperialist front’ leads anywhere except back to capitalism by a detour.
World systems theory
World systems theory started from the perspective of the ‘centrality of the colonial revolution’ to develop what is in substance a critique of the theory of imperialism as the terminal stage of capitalism. The classic books are Samir Amin’s Unequal development (1973, translated 1976), Immanuel Wallerstein’s The modern world system (1974) and Andre Gunder Frank’s World accumulation 1492-1798 (1978). Amin’s book is a theoretical argument for the proposition that an international market-based division of labour will entail the existence of a ‘centre’ which receives most of the benefits of the division of labour, and a ‘periphery’ which is (in diverse ways) deformed and exploited. His conclusion is the policy of the (colonial) south ‘delinking’ itself from the north. In this form the theory is manifestly merely a variant of colonial nationalism and Maoism and is disproved as a guide to action by the course of events after the 1970s.
Wallerstein and Gunder Frank, starting from the same perspective, set out to explore the pre-19th century history of world markets and international divisions of labour. Both, in different ways, trace the origins of a capitalist international division of labour in which a centre benefits at the expense of a dependent periphery to the 16th century development of capitalism out of feudalism. The implication for the theory of imperialism is that the idea of imperialism as the terminal stage of capitalism is indefensible. Wallerstein wrote in 2003 that “imperialism is an integral part of the capitalist world economy. It is not a special phenomenon. It has always been there. It always will be there as long as we have a capitalist world economy” (Monthly Review July-August 2003).
A great deal of academic ink has been spilt trying to reinstate the fundamentally national character of early capitalist economies and development against this hypothesis. It has to be said that it has failed to do so. The most productive recent historical work on the 17th and 18th centuries has worked with the assumption that capitalism was from the outset an international phenomenon. Historical work has also found in the early modern economy oligopolies (which the classical theorists of imperialism called monopolies) central roles played by financial intermediaries, and major interpenetration of big capital and the state. The thesis of imperialism as being, because of these features, the terminal phase of capitalism has been substantially refuted.
If capitalism is from the outset an international order, and automatically produces hierarchically uneven development, it follows that there will from the outset also be a world hegemon state - initially the Netherlands and, after the wars of 1688-1714, Britain. The theory thus provides an alternative explanation of later 19th century formal imperialism and the catastrophe of 1914-45. These reflected, not the terminal stage of capitalism, but the decline and death agony of British world hegemony. On this basis, we should see the present situation as reflecting a relative decline of the US, which will lead to a more ‘multipolar’ world before a new world hegemon asserts itself.
The proletariat as the only limit to capitalism
If 1914-45 was not the terminal crisis of a capitalism which had reached its epochal limits, it remained to account both for 1914-45 and for the subsequent period of dynamic stability. The most successful approach to this problem was the re-appropriation, most prominently by Ernest Mandel, of Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of long cycles in capitalism. It is familiar economics that capitalism is characterised by short cycles of expansion and recession or crisis: Kondratiev claimed that there was an underlying 60-year cycle, in the up phase of which expansion was stronger and recession weaker, while in the down phase recession was stronger and expansion weaker. Kondratiev interpreted the ‘long cycle’ in terms of large-scale technical innovations which reshaped world markets at a level deeper than the usual short cycle driven by the turnover time of fixed capital (machinery replacement).
At the time of Kondratiev’s original work, Trotsky was critical both of the supposed regularity of the 60-year cycle, which he thought tended to force the data, and of the technical driving force: he thought that it was more probable that major world events in the class struggle, like the revolutions of 1848 and their defeat, and geopolitical changes reshaped the world market on this deeper scale.
Mandel’s revision of Kondratiev incorporates the class struggle, arguing that major defeats of the proletariat enable a rise in absolute surplus value, which, in turn, allows the widespread adoption of major technical innovations driving a long up phase. The defeats of the working class in the 1930s and 1940s then enable the up phase of the 1950s and 60s. Other explanations of the up phase, like Michael Kidron’s ‘permanent arms economy’ are less successful in explaining the 1914-45 crisis. Like Mandel’s thesis, they eliminate the idea that imperialism and the 1914-45 crisis represents capital running up against the limit that the forces of production outgrow the capitalist order and turn into forces of destruction.
The effect of these views is to reduce the epochal limits of capitalism to one: the class movement of the working class. As with ‘the boys who cried wolf’, the role of imperialist superprofits in reconciling the workers’ movement in the imperialist countries to capitalism has disappeared - this time, however, not in mere silence, but because of the economic postulates of Mandel’s and other accounts of the up phase. In their place Mandel put a variety of mechanisms, but tended to fall back on the ‘crisis of leadership’. The International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and other ‘new left’ theorists instead appropriated Hegelian-Marxist arguments that working class consciousness is in the everyday recuperated within capitalism, so that the class only appears as a contradiction within capitalism in the moment of the actual strike struggle.
The strategic result of this approach was forms of spontaneist and syndicalist politics. These failed with the defeat of the workers’ offensive of the late 1960s and 1970s, but they are still with us: they are a significant element in the character of the AWL’s press and underpin, in an extremely distorted way, the SWP’s adulation of ‘those who fight’. We have again a theory which provides no worthwhile guide to action.
Stalinism stabilised capitalism
In a certain sense both the ‘crisis of leadership’ and Kidron’s ‘permanent arms economy’ theories involved the idea that the existence of Stalinism stabilised capitalism. In ‘crisis of leadership’ the Stalinists held back the masses; in ‘permanent arms economy’ theory the existence of the Soviet threat enabled the state spending on armaments, which mitigated the problems of underconsumption and disproportionality. Theories which more clearly asserted that Stalinism stabilised capitalism have been those of Hillel Ticktin and Wadi’h Halabi. All of these allow the bulk of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism to be left untouched. Imperialism remains the terminal phase of capitalism. But its consequences are temporarily averted by the role of Stalinist regimes over a third of the world.
Ticktin argues that the effects of cold war military expenditure on underconsumption and disproportionality problems were necessary but insufficient elements of capitalist restabilisation after World War II. Also critical was Stalinism as a threat, which thereby provided a “control mechanism over the working class” (Critique 35, p23). Any retreat from this orientation will ultimately let loose the demon of the working class militancy in the imperialist countries. Moreover, in spite of the ideology of the free market, capital in fact needs planning: “The capitalist system today can only exist in and through a form of organisation and management of the market. That form is provided in part by the structure of finance capital itself, but the main burden of ensuring the stability of the economy rests on governments” (ibid p29).
It follows from these views that the fall of the Soviet Union leads to an internal dynamic in the capitalist world order - in the first place towards classical crisis, in the second place towards resort to war, at least with third world countries.
Ticktin denies the existence of planning in any real sense in the Stalinist regime. Halabi, in contrast, started with a ‘workers’ state’ view of the Stalinist regimes and maintains that there was planning in these societies and still is - albeit more limited - in China and Vietnam. With this starting point, Halabi’s view of the stabilisation is very roughly that after the end of the post-war ‘replacement boom’ (replacing capital goods destroyed in the war) the sale of producer goods to the Stalinist regimes functioned to stabilise the capitalist economies. In this he follows Yevgeny Preobrazhensky’s The decline of capitalism (1931; edited and translated by Richard Day, 1985). Preobrazhensky had argued that quite small volumes of exports in department one (producer goods) had a multiplier effect which tended to produce capitalist growth.
Halabi argues on this basis that the planned or quasi-planned character of the economy under the Stalinist regime had the effect that demand for producer goods in these countries was smooth rather than cyclical. Stalinist purchases of producer goods from the capitalists then regularised the capitalist side of the world economy. As with Ticktin’s argument, the result is an expectation that the collapse of the USSR, etc will destabilise the world capitalist economy and hence the systems of rule based on partial concessions to the working class and to the colonial elites. There will follow a drive towards pauperisation and war.
Both arguments are in different ways incomplete. The critical issue is that neither provides an adequate explanation for the ‘downturn’ and ‘stagflation’ period of the 1970s and the turn - which Ticktin describes but does not explain - of international capital towards ‘finance capital’ and free-market ideology at the same period. The difficulty is that, by leaving out the ‘long cycle’ phenomena within capitalism which the Mandelite and world-systems theories do address, the causes of the failure of the international political-economic order of the 1948-75 period become problematic.
The result is very imperfect perspectives for the political-economic dynamics of the present. The tendency to attacks on the proletariat, and hence the objective need of the proletariat for a Marxist international movement, are correctly recognised, albeit in radically different forms: Ticktin seeks a new movement, Halabi the political and organisational revival of the old international ‘official communist’ movement. But there is undue optimism: the tendency to deproletarianisation and to various forms of petty-proprietor politics is absent from both perspectives. In addition, the weight of the ‘tradition of the dead generations’ in the form of the existing organisations of the working class and their structures and ideologies is similarly, in effect, brushed aside. This flows from the role of Stalinism in the theories: Ticktin overstates the irrationality of Stalinist ‘planning’, while Halabi, conversely, overstates its economic strength.
Three fundamental points should appear from this article. The first is that the AWL has hold of a fundamental truth. The ‘anti-imperialist front’ does not work as a global strategy. The second is that it has over-theorised this truth. Imperialism exists in the form of imperialist and dependent states, super-exploitation and super-profits, etc, not just the ‘imperialism of free trade’. The third is that a theory capable of grasping both sides of this contradiction will need to address the problems the alternative theories address, and the ghost at the AWL’s feast: the state.