Imperialism versus internationalism
In this concluding article, Mike Macnair argues that our most powerful enemy is the imperialist state. That is why communists are revolutionary defeatists
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s theory of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ forms one of the grounds for its refusal to campaign for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and generally has the implication that we may “surmise that a particular US ‘globocop’ action may ... bring some improvement on balance”, though “we give no credit in advance to big-capitalist power” (Workers’ Liberty December 2002, pp31-32).
In the first article in this series I explained the origins of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, its failure as a predictive theory and guide to action around 1950, and its connections with the deeper issue of the epochal limits to capital (Weekly Worker July 29).
In the second I showed that the theory of the ‘imperialism of free trade’ also failed to account for important features of the post-World War II global order, and did so partly because the specificities of the state disappeared (Weekly Worker August 5). I looked at some alternative approaches to the problem and concluded that they had their own limits. In this article I will re-approach the question and show how the conclusions that can be reached have implications for our political line in wars like the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Epochal limits and the decline of capitalism
I argued in the first article that the deep significance of the question of imperialism was its link to the issue of the epochal limits of capitalism. The reason is that the underlying supposition of Marxism as a scientific socialism is that there are such limits. If there are not, the claimed scientific critique of capitalism is in reality moral-utopian, the theoretical apparatus of Marxism should be discarded, and the political activity of Marxists is pointless or destructive. This was the conclusion reached by the ‘analytical Marxists’ and the ex-‘official communist’ Democratic Left. We therefore need to begin with this question.
Marx and Engels proposed, as early as the Communist manifesto, two fundamental limits to capitalism: (1) capitalism raises up its own gravedigger, the proletariat; and (2) the forces of production grow beyond controllability by the laws of capital and turn into forces of destruction. Thus crisis produces starvation amidst and caused by plenty. We will return to these later. However, since these were originally proposed in 1848 as diagnoses of the state of the capitalist order at that date, it is unlikely that they can provide direct benchmarks for the extent to which capitalism is approaching its epochal limits.
The underlying reason for supposing that there are epochal limits to capitalism is that there turned out to be epochal limits to the slave mode of exploitation of classical antiquity, and to European and Japanese feudalism. Marx’s most general statement of the point is in the celebrated 1859 preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”
This statement (and much else of Marx’s and Engels’ occasional writing on the problem of transitions between modes of production) is strikingly unilluminating on the concrete forms of the “age of revolution”.
Some Marxists cast the problem away on the basis that the task of the proletariat is radically different from that of other classes, because it is the first ‘revolution of the majority’ - a view which also has support in Marx and Engels. But this collapses the underlying ground for supposing that capitalism will come to an end: the fact that prior social orders have come to an end. The Bolsheviks filled the gap with generalising on the French revolution (“the national and democratic bourgeois revolution”), which had a poisonous effect on their debates in the 1920s and has had continued adverse effects on Marxism since.
There is a lot of academic Marxist writing on the problem of the transitions from slavery to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism, of very varying usefulness. There is also substantial non-Marxist historical work on the topic, since, whether you are a Marxist or not, it is clear that something changed between classical antiquity and the European early Middle Ages and also that something changed between the European late Middle Ages and the 1800s.
The currently predominant academic Marxist view is that pre-capitalist economic and social formations are all non-dynamic, and only capitalism tends to develop the forces of production (Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The origin of capitalism  is an example). The economic ground for this idea is that peasants can withdraw from the wider social division of labour into household autarky, and hence that peasant-based economies tend to stasis. It cannot explain the archaeological and legal-historical evidence.
Some non-Marxist social historians have come up with the idea that social formations apart from the European Middle Ages are not dynamic, but that the European Middle Ages sees a dynamic social formation which tends to collapse into capitalism (John A Hall Powers and liberties ; Patricia Crone Pre-industrial societies ). The defect of this view is that the same dynamic tendency is visible quite strongly in early modern Japan and more weakly in pre-revolutionary China.
Declining class regimes and states
An alternative approach - more consistent both with the evidence and with the claims of classical Marxism - is this. There are indeed social class incentive structures which tend to promote growth of the forces of production, at least in the slave mode of exploitation in classical antiquity, in feudalism in both Europe and Japan, and in medieval Chinese society, and probably in other pre-capitalist class societies about which we have less evidence. The problem, however, is that the development of the forces of production comes into conflict with the particular rights of the existing class elite. There are two results. First, there is a rise of class groups subordinate to the existing class elite (since a growing surplus will support a wider surplus-eating elite) which begin to contend for enfranchisement in the power system. Second, the internal dynamics of the old class elite increasingly produce an inability of this elite to organise directly various necessary social functions.
Both trends result, not immediately in social revolution, but in strengthening of the coercive-bureaucratic apparatus of the state and its taking over tasks which have previously been organised directly by the old ruling class. The dynamic towards statisation is a continuing tendency in a declining class order. However, the state is originally created as a coercive apparatus by the old ruling class and retains ties to it. It thus positively resists the overthrow of this class, and attempts to artificially preserve and recreate it. This phenomenon is quite clearly visible in the Roman empire and in the rise of ‘absolutism’ in later medieval and early modern Europe and the Tokugawa Shogunate in early modern Japan.
States of this sort can outlive for very long periods the economic grounds of the classes which gave them their form. Thus the later Roman empire survived as the Byzantine empire into the 15th century. Much of the evidence used by academic Marxists for the ‘stasis’ of pre-capitalist societies - especially the Chinese case - may really be evidence for this role of old states holding back social dynamics. In the terminal phase, the state is so heavily engaged in holding up the old social order that the legitimacy of the state order collapses, leading to internal or external overthrow: this is what happened in the western Roman empire in the 5th century, in England in 1638-41, and in France in the late 1780s.
If we use this hypothesis to approach the question of the decline of capitalism, the critical evidence will be the extent to which (a) direct capitalist class management of social affairs is displaced by state management and (b) the interpenetration of capital and the state takes the form, not merely of dependence of the state on capital (which is normal), but of dependence of capital on the state.
On this basis it is clear that capitalism has been ‘in decline’ in Britain since about the mid-19th century. The critical evidence is the invention of the limited liability company. This is both a state subsidy to capital, and a system of state regulation of the direct managers of capital in the interests of rentier capital. At the same period we see the displacement of direct class control of various state functions by an increasingly professional-bureaucratic state.
The situation in Europe is obscured by the capitalists’ need for the strong state from the outset (Bonapartism) as an instrument of self-defence against Britain, but the emergence of an embryo welfare state in Germany in the late 19th century is an indicator that the threat of the workers’ movement was forcing an increasing dependence of capital on the state. In the US the early 20th century sees similar phenomena, most clearly after the ‘new deal’ era of the 1930s and the post-World War II preservation of the strong wartime state. The dependence of capital on the state has continued to deepen: thus Thatcherite efforts (and similar elsewhere) to “roll back the frontiers of the state” have not set free new autonomous capitals, but created a large range of state-subsidised capitals, often monopolists.
The terminal phase is a lot harder to predict. It involves a gradual, and often until the last moment imperceptible, decay of political legitimacy. Revolutionary crises are usually surprises. There are certainly some signs pointing in this direction in the large majority of the central imperialist states: cynicism about politicians and growth of abstention from voting; rise of far-right and to a lesser extent far-left votes; and, strikingly, the diversion of state funds into subsidising private suppliers through cost-plus contracts to a point at which the US attempted to invade Iraq “on the cheap” and has found its military nonetheless overstretched for other tasks.
However, it remains possible that the present capitalist state system could be replaced by a new American-led formal world empire. It is also possible, and indeed at present the most probable outcome, that the decay of the modern capitalist state system will end in a large-scale regression of the forces of production (decay into generalised warlordism and collapse) or in human extinction. The reasons for saying that this is the most probable outcome concern, on the one hand, the destructive dynamics of the attempts of the US state to save itself and, on the other, the dynamic towards irrationality inherent in a declining wave of capitalism and the continued political weakness of the organised workers’ movement.
States and the world market
Capitalism is from its beginning an international economic, social and political phenomenon. This is the fundamental lesson of the work of Wallerstein and Gunder Frank and of the debate and studies which have followed. Capitalist market structures naturally entail the production of winners and losers and the multiplication of initially slight inequalities. This was, in fact, a large part of the point of Capital volume one - as a polemic against Proudhon and other supporters of a purified capitalism. This in turn entails winners and losers on a world scale with increasing differences between rich and poor. Alan Freeman has rigorously demonstrated this point (see ‘Crisis and the poverty of nations’ Historical Materialism 29, 1999).
Capitalism is from the outset an international formation; but it inherits from feudalism the nation-state. There is thus an inherent contradiction between the world market and the nation-state, which drives towards a capitalist world state. The partial expression of this contradiction is the successive world hegemonies of the Netherlands, Britain and the US, each of which is closer to being a world state than its predecessor. The contradiction is also expressed in hierarchical state-to-state relations: colonialism and semi-colonialism.
However, each state is in the first place dependent on a particular group of capitals, and begins as a quasi-nation-state (‘quasi’ because the Netherlands is sub-national, while the British state is multinational). In the mid-19th century British capital began to enter a period of decline, and this absolute decline entailed relative decline compared to non-British capitals. British capitals responded to this decline by deploying the British world hegemony as an instrument of defence against rival capitals and against the workers’ movement; rival capitals responded with their own empires and imperial protection systems. These responses set up the conditions for the arms race of around 1900 and the world crisis of 1914-45. The upshot is a new world hegemony: that of the US.
In the terms of Marxist political economy, crisis flows from the declining rate of profit in previous lead sectors and from disproportionalities, and is overcome through the devalorisation of previously dominant capitals. But when the decline of a global lead capital is translated onto the world economic stage, this capital will use leverage over ‘its’ state to resist devalorisation. As a result, crisis within the world hegemon is delayed, and the international disproportionality overhang can only be overcome (British coal, rail, shipping, textiles, etc - capitals globally devalorised) through the overthrow of the existing world hegemonic state: which usually means, through war. The result is a prolonged and international ‘down phase’ corresponding to the down phase of Kondratiev’s long cycle, overtly affecting non-hegemonic states more sharply than the hegemonic state, until such time as the existing hegemon can be overthrown and replaced. This enables - as after World War II - a new ‘up’ phase.
It is the failure of World War I to overthrow the British empire which led to the instability of 1918-39 and to World War II. It is the reduction of Britain to dependency on the US, resulting from Nazi victories, which enabled the long up phase of around 1950 to around 1975. This in turn meant that the underlying conditions for profitability existed which allowed the policy of ‘containment’ rather than an immediate new war with the USSR, major concessions out of surplus to the European and US working classes, and concessions to European and colonial capitals.
From around 1970 conditions analogous to those affecting British capital from the mid-19th century have begun to affect the US. The dominant US capitals, in turn, have begun to use their state to protect them against rival capitals and against the workers’ movement. The result is neoliberalism and the turn from the policy of ‘containing’ the USSR, etc to the policy of ‘rollback’.
US capital, however, starts from a much weaker position of capitalism as a whole than the position of British capital in the mid-19th century. Primarily, it is already more heavily dependent on the state than British capital was in the 19th century; it has much lower internal political legitimacy as a world empire than the British state of that period; and it is also showing a terminal-phase symptom: that is, that it wishes merely to receive subsidies from the state without - as far as possible - paying it tax. Its response to date has been primarily to take back the concessions which its political representatives see as having been made directly or indirectly to the working class ‘since 1917’ - but to do so indirectly and at least cost to the US taxpayer.
Its self-defence thus has an internationally destructive character which seeks to drive the import of money capital into the US, where the European empires of the late 19th century were empires of the export of capital and had a (partially, contradictorily) constructive character. This destructive character is reflected in the effects both of the ‘Washington consensus’ and IMF ‘structural adjustment programmes’ on non-US economies, and of the direct effects of US and US-backed military interventions from the time of the Unita operation in Angola onwards - most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is not primarily a matter of the subjective intention of US capitalist or state actors. US state actors clearly do subjectively prioritise the blocking of developments which might threaten US interests at lowest cost (other than in subsidies to US capitalist actors), and are willing to accept merely destructive outcomes. But the real problem is that the objective situation of US capital and the US state precludes the US state playing a constructive role, even in the limited sense that British imperialism did in the later 19th century.
A capitalist way out?
Capitalism prepares the ground for socialism in two senses. The first is that it creates the material-technical conditions which could release everyone in the world from the long working day and thereby enable the end of permanent specialisations of workers versus managers, politicians, etc. In this sense and this sense alone Trotsky was right to say that “The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.” (The “rottenness” is expressed in the ‘great car economy’, the arms industry, the decline of education, and so on.)
The second way in which capital prepares the conditions for socialism is that it tends to expropriate the petty proprietors, converting them into proletarians, and in its own way to socialise production, thereby creating the fundamental condition for human cooperation. In this sense the objective conditions for socialism have not ripened. The contradiction between the nation-state and the world market, leading to ‘rich’ (imperialist) countries and ‘poor countries’ (colonies), creates in the colonies an artificial preservation of the peasantry and artisan class, and in the imperialist countries a large, new class of petty proprietors of intellectual property - managers, foremen, bureaucrats, and ‘self-employed’ in luxury and unproductive ‘service sectors’ (finance, advertising, etc) of the economy. It also creates political nationalism in both the imperialist and colonial workers’ movements. To a considerable extent these are results of deliberate acts by states, which (rightly) see imperialism as providing the means to support concessions which will pacify the proletariat, and a strong petty-proprietor ‘middle class’ as their necessary bulwark against the proletariat.
At a purely economic level, therefore, there is substantial space into which capitalism could in theory expand at the expense of petty proprietorship. Some expansion in this direction has taken place. Thus US trade policy aimed ultimately at the fall of the Chinese and Vietnamese regimes has promoted the development of native capitals in the ‘front-line states’, especially Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia; and the flight of capital from US and European high wages since the 1970s has produced further development of wage-employment in a series of colonial countries, albeit very unevenly. The rise of intellectual property is in part a form of protectionism, but it is also in part an expropriation of the ‘intellectual commons’ at the expense of the managerial and professional classes in the imperialist countries.
The condition for these possibilities to turn into a new long up wave, however, is the overthrow of the world hegemony of the existing US state and the devalorisation of the US dominant capitals - oil, aerospace, motors, petrochemicals and so on. Such a development would inevitably involve the reversal of the artificial privatisations of the 1980s and 90s and the bringing of further economic activities into the state or subsidised sectors: ie, a deepening of the dependence of capital on the state.
I have already argued in the second article in this series that such an overthrow is most unlikely to take the form of a return to multi-polarity leading to a new 1914-45. The relative weight in the international order of the US state is just too great. The alternative road would be one envisioned in a cloudy way by Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire, and in a liberal-utopian way (as the ‘international rule of law’ or ‘reform of the UN’) by the ‘official communist’ parties and other reformists. This would be the overthrow of the US constitution in order to convert the US state into a world empire. Like Augustus’s coup in ancient Rome, which disenfranchised the senatorial elite in order to preserve them but incorporate the provincial elites, a military figure would have to disenfranchise the major US capitals in order to preserve a bastardised capitalist order which could incorporate more effectively the elites of the subordinated countries.
There are contradictions within the US state which point in this direction: expressed in the deepening polarisation of US politics between the religious right and the liberal left, and the growth of militarism, hostility to ‘the corporations’, and the cult of the strong man in US culture. This is still, however, a low-probability outcome. Far more probable is a succession of larger and more destructive US military and economic interventions spreading destruction and warlordism across the globe, and on each occasion further destabilising the world economy and politics, increasing irrationalism and leading ultimately to a general collapse. This is due to the class and political-ideological effects of ‘long business cycles’.
Cycles and politics
Marx and Engels said, as I noted earlier, that there are two fundamental limits to capitalism: (1) capitalism raises up its own gravedigger, the proletariat; and (2) the forces of production grow beyond controllability by the laws of capital and turn into forces of destruction. The political problem is that in the short term these two are necessarily out of synchronisation.
It is familiar Marxism and, indeed, bourgeois economics, that boom conditions make the labour market tight. The result is that more people are drawn into employment and the bargaining position of the trade unions is strengthened. When there is a prolonged up phase, like the 1950s and 60s, these conditions are accentuated. However, in this phase of the economy capitalism appears to be doing fine. The result is an ascendancy of forms of ‘business unionism’ and reformism. At the close of the up phase, as in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the working class may challenge the initial attempts of the capitalists to take back concessions from a position of immediate strength, and this may indeed lead to serious political crisis. But this is not the same thing as a deep-going challenge to the legitimacy of the state power.
Slump conditions, in contrast, weaken the immediate bargaining position of the trade unions and the self-confidence of the working class. An increasing proportion of the population is thrown permanently out of work and forced into forms of petty-proprietor life, whether in forms of small business and the service class or in the smallest form of small business, pauperism and crime. In acute cases there may be real atomisation of the proletariat as a class, as in the current situation (70% unemployment) in Iraq, and as in Russia in the military demobilisation and dislocation of the economy of 1917-18. Slump is the point at which the forces of production mysteriously (except to Marxists) turn into forces of destruction and capitalism appears as irrational.
The trouble is that without a Marxist understanding it is not capitalism which appears as irrational, but the world. Prolonged downswings in the economy therefore create a growth of religion, superstition, and irrationalist and reactionary-utopian politics. These were a strong feature of the politics of the first half of the 20th century, and they are increasingly prominent today. Part of the difficulty in interpreting the invasion of Iraq is that the current US administration is on the verge of reactionary-utopian irrationalism in other aspects of its policy, and in its political base. Part of the difficulty in formulating a political line towards the occupation is the significance of reactionary-utopian irrationalism, in the form of political islam, in the opposition to it.
Afghans, Iraqis, etc have been cast into the abyss, and a miscalculation on the part of the managers of global finance capital could yet precipitate a general crash in the short term. But in general, the international order is in decay, not yet in open crisis. Nonetheless, the dominant underlying tendency of the capitalist order is towards irrationalist politics which lash out destructively, and therefore towards the abyss.
Fighting for the seizure of power by the working class is a long shot, because of the difficulties caused by imperialism and the continued weight of the petty proprietors and because of the negative effects of imperialism and of the long recessionary phase on the working class and its organisations. However, it is rationally justifiable to bet our activity on this long shot because the dynamics of continued capitalist rule lead towards truly disastrous consequences.
There are two fundamental strategic lessons to be learnt from the 20th century evolution of imperialism. The first is that the “forward march of labour” will inevitably be “halted” so long as capitalism continues on a world scale. The reforms gained by European, US, etc workers are not simply products of class struggle: they are products of national class struggle combined with (a) underlying boom conditions and (b) the use by the capitalist states of imperialist strategies to contain the working class. Every later 19th century carries with it a 1914-45; the reforms of 1945 to the 1970s carry with them their gradual reversal, already begun, and the present tendency towards general destruction. It is illusory, therefore, to argue from the possibility of capitalism playing a ‘progressive’ role by expropriating the petty proprietors to a strategy of building the workers’ movement and waiting for our time to come. On this front the AWL’s position is at best ambiguous, and the ‘imperialism of free trade’ idea incarnates this ambiguity.
The second is the lesson of the failure of the Soviet experiment and its post-1945 satellite experiments. Stalinism turns out to be a road back to capitalism by a long and bloody detour. The same is true of the ‘anti-imperialist front’. The dynamics of state-to-state inequality, dependency and colonialism are given by capitalism, not by the immediate decay of capitalism. The dynamism of capital comes from its core, even when this core is in decline. A strategy of escaping from capitalism to create a ‘socialist camp’ on the basis of backward and colonial countries therefore leads, not to encircling the capitalists, but to the capitalists encircling and reconquering the ‘socialist camp’. It follows that the struggle for proletarian internationalism - for the working class to begin to act, practically, on an international scale - is fundamental. On this front the AWL are unambiguously right.
Constructing proletarian internationalism
The decay of the US-led world order and the accompanying offensive of capital reflects global dynamics and is global in its scope. The organisations of the working class remain nationally limited and mesmerised by illusory alliances with the ‘national’ states and with petty-proprietor nationalism. The truth is that the proletariat can only become truly a class ‘for itself’, a potential claimant to rule society, insofar as it begins to think of itself, and to organise, as an international class. The problem posed is how to construct the international unity of the working class.
Constructing the international unity of the working class was the purpose of the four Internationals, three of which failed, while one was stillborn. The First International collapsed in factional struggles, as the wave of class struggles which had supported it died away. The Second collapsed in face of the outbreak of war in 1914, as its leading parties supported their own national capitalist states.
The Third, Communist International sought to avoid this fate by a rigorous centralism and programmatic commitments (the 21 conditions). But it was in practice dominated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, became an arm of Kremlin diplomacy, and was wound up in the interests of Stalin’s alliance with the US and Britain. The Fourth was stillborn in part because it was premature - in substance a (small) left external faction of the Comintern; in part because its ideas were radically incapable of dealing politically with the war. Efforts since 1945 to revive it have produced only talking shops (present-day Fourth International) or grotesque microscopic imitations of the Comintern with British, French, US or Argentinian sects playing the role of the CPSU.
The common weakness of the Internationals after the First seems to have been to create unity around programmatic declarations, involving only the ‘tops’ of the national organisations, rather than building unity around concrete practical tasks which could unite the ranks of the organisations directly. The partial exceptions were the role of May Day, and campaigns for the legal defence of victims of capitalist repression.
The problem behind this weakness is that the leap from tasks in the individual country to global tasks is just too great. There is a genuine practical unity, broader than the underlying problem of the world market, and some underlying cultural unity, affecting day-to-day politics and the tasks of the working class in Europe - or North America, Latin America, the Arab East and so on. The struggle for global class unity thus needs to be mediated by the struggle for continental or ‘global regional’ class unity. The early Comintern, indeed, showed a dynamic towards the organisations in Europe at least grouping themselves for common action. It was one which the centre suppressed on the ground that it threatened centralism.
Here, again, the CPGB and the AWL have common ground, though neither they nor we seem to have discussed the question of other ‘continentalisms’ beyond the issue of Europe. The opposition of the majority of the British left to the European Union claims to be ‘internationalist’. At best it is the ‘internationalism’ of the ‘anti-imperialist front’, which leads back to nationalism. In practice it is merely nationalist.
States and defeatism
A recurring theme of these three articles has been the role of the state. Imperialism consists of state-to-state hierarchies and dependency relations. These are grounded on economics, but not reducible to economics. There is a long-term tendency for capital as such to become dependent on the coercive-bureaucratic state. This tendency is the ground of classical imperialism, and of the post-war forms, and of the present decay of the US-led world system.
The critical global-strategic problem of the working class is the development of practical proletarian internationalism. But the fundamental obstacle standing in our way is the imperialist state system. It is the capitalist states which organise imperialism and its consequences, the capitalist state which is the immediate enemy of proletarian internationalism and the practical organiser of capital’s class war on the proletariat, and the capitalist states which threaten humanity with global war and barbarism.
The ground of proletarian revolutionary defeatism is this recognition that our fundamental enemy is ‘our’ national state. The AWL has reprinted segments of Hal Draper’s War and revolution: Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism (1996) to support its arguments against defeatism. The basic error of Draper’s book is that the bureaucratic-coercive state is dissolved into ‘the policies of governments’. The state has dematerialised, flatly contrary to Draper’s own analysis of Marx’s arguments in Karl Marx’s theory of revolution (1977-78). Revolutionary defeatism is not in general an argument for issuing calls for the defeat of our own state or for the victory of its opponent. It is an orienting position: we remain enemies of the state even when it is at war: we fight by all practical means to bring the war to an end.
We now return, finally, to the question of Iraq. We fight for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops. We do so in the first place because the British working class needs to learn to act effectively as the enemy of the British state. On several issues I have argued that the AWL is right. On this issue, however, it is committing an absolutely fundamental error.