Imperialism and method

Mike Macnair takes up the debate: he takes a closer look at Lenin's and Bukharin's methods and responds to the AWL's Paul Hampton

Paul Hampton’s second response to my series on imperialism contains more substance than his first, and Nick Rogers’ article also makes considerably more substantial points than have been made in the correspondence so far. Though they do not advance a common position, they do share some common features, which in my opinion involve both a misunderstanding of my series and an error of method.
To start with what seems to me to be Paul’s central point (Letters, September 16). I argued that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had broken with central programmatic positions of communism and Trotskyism. Paul interprets this alleged break as being the fact that AWL comrades argue imperialism sometimes does progressive things. He points out that the classical Marxist authors on imperialism shared this view, so no heresy.

That is not what I said. I said that the AWL had broken with certain points of the programme of the Comintern and Fourth International: the position that communists in imperialist countries must be defeatist in wars between their own country and a colony or semi-colony, contained in the 21 conditions for membership of the Comintern (and elsewhere) and in the Transitional programme, and the policy of the anti-imperialist united front, contained in the documents of the Third Congress of the Comintern and in the Transitional programme (Weekly Worker July 29). In the first place, the positions of the Comintern and Fourth International were not merely inferences deduced by later communists from theory, but deliberately adopted “manifesto commitments” which defined their international parties. Secondly, there is no doubt whatever that the AWL has broken from them. They say explicitly that these positions are wrong, though they avoid explicitly attributing them to their authors, Lenin and Trotsky and the other leaders of the early Comintern.

I am not engaged in heresy-hunting here. As I said in my first article, it is perfectly correct to change programmatic positions if they have been proved wrong or superseded by events. The question is whether the AWL is right to change these positions. The conclusion of my series was that it is right to reject the anti-imperialist front, but wrong to reject defeatism.

Scientific method and Marxism

We need to start from the programmatic conclusions in addressing the theory because of a fundamental question of method. Marx and Engels claimed to have developed a scientific socialism, as opposed to one based on an imagined utopia or a moral critique of existing society. The underlying claim is that it is possible by using scientific method to analyse the objective dynamics of a society, and that the project of socialism grows from these an understanding of these dynamics and deploys this understanding to enable us to make conscious choices that can change the world.

But what is scientific method? This is, of course, an issue very extensively debated. I do not propose here to enter the philosophical debate. I will simply postulate four elements of scientific method. (1) Criticism: no theory or text is authoritative because it is old, authored by someone famous, or agreed by the majority (etc). (2) Analysis: theories are to be put together with rigorous logic. Dialectical analysis does not in the least reduce this necessity: it merely imposes additional logical requirements. (3) Experiment: theories are to be considered as guides to action in the perceptible world and tested by reference to their success or failure in this respect. (4) Simplicity: where other things are equal - ie, two theories are equally logically coherent and have equal value as guides to action - the theory which minimises the number of unexplained first causes is to be preferred.

The critical issue in the present discussion is the requirements of logical coherence and experimental testing. There is a difficulty here with scientific method in the study of society. Physical laws and systems are relatively simple by comparison with biological or ecological ones, let alone social ones. These display high elements of ‘noise’: both random phenomena and ‘deterministic chaos’. Scientific method is nonetheless usable in relation to social laws and systems. Laws will be laws of tendency, not absolutes. To deal with the ‘noise’, the theory has to assess the dominant tendency or tendencies and draw predictive conclusions or conclusions for action from that. Without this judgement and conclusions, the theory is both untestable, and its logical coherence cannot be assessed.

The core of my objection at the level of method to both the AWL’s arguments and elements of comrade Nick’s response to my piece is that they fail to read the argument of Lenin’s Imperialism in this way - for dominant tendencies - together with the predictive results and the strategic/ programmatic conclusions of the theory developed by the early Comintern. As a result, the theory as read becomes scientifically untestable, either for internal logic or experimentally.

Bukharin and Lenin
When we come to read the theories in connection with their inner logic and strategic conclusions, the differences between Lenin’s argument and Bukharin’s become critical. Bukharin’s argument does not imply the conclusions reached by the Comintern at the Second and Third Congresses. Lenin’s does.

Comrade Nick argues that Lenin’s main target in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism is Kautsky and that there is not an implicit disagreement with Bukharin (Weekly Worker September 9). The starting question is why, if this was the case, Lenin set out to write a treatment of imperialism separate from Bukharin’s? It seems like duplication of labour. The answer is that Lenin was, when he wrote Imperialism, engaged in a sharp debate with the Kommunist tendency, of which Bukharin was a leader. The centre of this debate was the Easter Rising in Dublin. Very roughly, Bukharin - along with Luxemburg and Trotsky - argued that this rising was a dead end. Lenin, on the contrary, argued that the overthrow of capitalism was not possible without the uprising of the petty bourgeoisie, of which Easter 1916 was an example.

The fundamental logic of Imperialism and world economy leads to the conclusion, reached by Luxemburg rather earlier, that the development of the world economy is such that the independence of the nation-state has become a reactionary utopia. The fundamental task of the working class is therefore to break with ‘its own’ nation-states and act internationally as a class. These were conclusions actually reached by Bukharin and his co-thinkers. They led towards Trotsky’s use of the slogan of the united states of Europe. They implied a break with the Bolsheviks’ position on the national question. They implied Bukharin’s - and Luxemburg’s - opposition to the Bolsheviks making peace at Brest-Litovsk, and Luxemburg’s criticism in The Russian Revolution of the Bolsheviks’ proclamation immediately on seizing power of the right of self-determination.

Lenin’s argument, in contrast, identifies the parasitism of monopoly/finance capital and the tendencies towards super-exploitation of the colonies and inter-imperialist war as showing that imperialist is the “highest” - ie, terminal - phase of capitalism. Imperialism thus implies that the overthrow of capitalism is immediately on the agenda without having the consequences for nation-states and the relationship of the proletariat and petty bourgeois nationalism implied by Bukharin’s position. It thus offers a critique of Kautsky which - unlike Bukharin’s - also supports Lenin’s position on Easter 1916, the ‘united states of Europe’, and the national question.

When we come to the policy of defeatism in colonial wars, Bukharin’s argument supports it on the ground that the proletariat needs to break with its state and act internationally. But it does not lead to the anti-imperialist front, since the colonial proletariat also needs to develop class independence from the nation and the ability to act independently and internationally. Lenin’s argument supports defeatism in colonial wars, on the ground that the imperialists are the ‘bigger thieves’, and also leads to the anti-imperialist front, which is merely a generalisation of his position on Easter 1916.

How did the Comintern come to adopt defeatism in colonial wars and the anti-imperialist front, as distinct from the Luxemburg-Bukharin position? The answer is that Lenin’s views, especially on the national question and the ‘uprising of the petty bourgeoisie’, appeared to be confirmed by the course of the Russian Revolution, the civil war and the extent to which the Bolsheviks’ line became attractive to left nationalists in central Asia, China and India; Luxemburg was by 1921 dead, and Bukharin had effectively retreated from his wartime views by the end of the civil war.

However, the fundamental lesson of Stalinism is that the strategy of the worker-peasant alliance, the ‘uprising of the petty bourgeoisie’, the ‘turn of the Comintern to the peoples of the East’ and the anti-imperialist front does not work. We have now seen more than 70 years of efforts to make the strategy work. The best it has produced is Stalinist regimes, which turn out to be a road back to capitalism by a detour. It is important to be clear about this. It is a disproof, by repeated experiment, of the strategic conclusions which the Comintern drew from the distinctive features of Lenin’s account of imperialism.

Nick is critical of my characterisation of Lenin’s position as moralistic in two respects. The first is in relation to ‘parasitism’. My point here is simply that neither the ‘parasitism’ of finance capital, nor concentration, monopolies and cartels, nor large-scale overseas conquest imply that capitalism has reached its terminal phase. The reason is that these features are all endemic to capitalism. They are all found in the British capitalism of the 18th century, albeit in different legal forms and affecting different sectors of the economy from those found in the late 19th and early 20th century. In addition, the whole argument that finance capital is peculiarly parasitic, developed by Hilferding, seems to me to involve a highly questionable idea of an alternative ‘pure’ or ‘purified’ capitalism, which smells of the late 19th century anti-semites. David Harvey in The limits to capital (1982), chapter 10, draws out the differences between Marx’s approach to finance capital and Hilferding’s.

Here the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s arguments is that, though Bukharin shared Lenin’s analysis that imperialism was the terminal phase of capitalism, his argument can stand without it as a diagnosis of tendencies in the development of the world market. However, Lenin’s distinct position about the rising of the petty bourgeoisie cannot stand without this diagnosis.

The reason for this is that the class interests of the proletariat and petty proprietors are opposed. This proposition is not original but can be found in the Communist manifesto and in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte apart from elsewhere in the writing of Marx and Engels. In their different ways, Lenin recognised this in Two tactics and Trotsky in Results and prospects. One aspect of this opposition is that, as Marxists generally recognised before World War I, the interest of the proletariat is to be in the largest possible, multinational, state, in order to foster its own common action on the broadest possible scale. Another is that the petty proprietors do in fact have an interest in the exploitation of labour - that of their wives and children - which finds expression in nationalist purity politics (see my article on this, Weekly Worker July 22). A strategic alliance between the proletariat and petty-proprietor nationalists therefore needs justification. Before 1914 the justification offered in relation to Russia was the feudal-absolutist character of the Russian state regime. This argument would hardly justify support for the Easter 1916 Dublin putsch. The justification made available by Imperialism is that, since capital has entered its terminal phase, the proletariat has to attempt to lead the anti-imperialist nationalist movement of the petty proprietors.

Secondly, Lenin argues that a section of the working class is bought off by superprofits. Bukharin, in contrast, argues that superprofits enable the capitalist class of the imperialist country as a whole to grant reforms to the working class as a whole, and this produces working class nationalism, which is “the last chain which binds the workers to their masters”. In characterising Lenin’s version as moralistic, I mean to say that Bukharin’s analysis is more accurate. Lenin’s citations from Engels on the embourgeoisement of the British workers’ movement are, in fact, more consistent with Bukharin’s account than with his own.

In this respect Lenin’s view supports the violent splittism of the First and Second Congresses of the Comintern: by cleansing itself of corrupt elements, the workers’ movement will be able to move forward. Bukharin’s view is more consistent with the recognition that social democracy still had a real working class base and the policy of the united front adopted by the Third Congress. The Lenin version resurfaced as an argument for the ultra-left, splittist policy of the Comintern and Communist Parties in the ‘third period’ (1928-33) and has been episodically revived by the Maoists.

Working class nationalism and support for the existing state is, of course, a contradiction in the working class, and there are sections of the class which are more internationalist, etc. But these do not map onto the most weakly organised, and therefore worst paid, sections of the working class having better politics, which Lenin’s argument (as distinct from Bukharin’s) suggests. Examples are legion. The reason is that this is a political contradiction in class consciousness.

Neither of these points mean that I simply endorse Bukharin’s analysis of imperialism. The point remains the analysis of the theoretical grounds of the policy of defeatism in colonial wars and that of the anti-imperialist front.

The AWL and the classical Marxists
I am grateful to comrade Paul for the citation from Martin Thomas’s article in the February 1996 Workers’ Liberty. It is not cited in comrade Martin’s pieces in WL December 2002, and since there does not seem to be an index to Workers’ Liberty, without comrade Paul’s citation I would not have found this article without hunting through the whole back-run for something relevant to the issue.

Behind this small point is a larger one. I am unusually privileged in being able to afford to spare £70 for a back-run of Workers’ Liberty. Even so, Martin’s 1996 piece cites, for the AWL’s polemic against Amin, Gunder Frank and Trotskyist versions of ‘dependency theory’, articles in WL issues 4 and 6, both of which are no longer available from the AWL. The Bodleian Library’s holdings start at issue 12; and I think it would be beyond the requirements of left political-theoretical argument for me to search out which research libraries do hold WL issues 1-6 in order to look up what the AWL’s ‘real position’ on this is.

It is no big deal to me to be accused of not researching the AWL’s positions properly. But setting up your whole publishing record as ‘the real position of the AWL’ is anti-democratic: it implies that only old-timers in your own organisation, or academics (like me) who have the financial and library resources to make you the object of systematic research, are entitled to criticise your positions.
This is, of course, the point of programmatic texts like the CPGB’s Draft programme, and like the Programmes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party - Russian Communist Party, the several Theses adopted by the Communist International, the Transitional programme and the British road to socialism. They state, in a form rather more substantial than a ‘What we fight for’ column, the practical conclusions of theoretical analysis: the strategic, long-term, positions which form the agreed basis of an organisation.
Having said this, Martin’s article in WL 28, February 1996, is indeed a useful discussion of the classical theorists, and I can see from reading it why Paul might think that my outline account is merely a weaker version of the AWL’s criticisms. What I still do not find in Martin’s article is a willingness to address the operative consequences of theory. Martin criticises the notion of an absolute glut of capital, or overproduction, as driving imperialism, insisting that these are merely cyclical phenomena (it is not clear what his positive theory of crisis is, but it seems to be that of disproportionality). He fairly clearly rejects the terminal-phase argument. But then he weakens his critique by claiming that Lenin’s emphases are merely polemical insistence on one side of the tendencies, and that Lenin, unlike later epigones, always recognised the other side. Just as in Paul’s arguments, what is missing is the strategic political conclusions the Comintern drew from the theory, in Lenin’s lifetime and under Lenin’s leadership. It is this method which I call theological and citation-grazing.

Martin’s conclusions or alternative account (WL February 1996, pp30-31) contains four “laws, mutually contradictory tendencies” of the world economy: competition between states, uneven development, expansion, and combined development. On this basis there are a series of “regimes through which those mutually contradictory tendencies have been reconciled for different periods”. The first is the British-led imperialism of free trade in the early 19th century. Then competitive ‘high imperialism’ between the 1870s and 1945, as “Germany, the US, and other countries, outstripped or challenged Britain, but no one could replace it as the dominant power”. Then after 1945 a new “imperialism of free trade” led by the US, but in parallel with the “ultra-monopolist imperialism” of the USSR. The collapse of the USSR leads to a crumbling of US domination and “strong pressure towards the recreation of trade blocs and trade barriers” (this last position Martin has since retracted). What is lacking is an explanation for the transitions from one regime to another. In this respect the thesis violates the scientific principle of simplicity and fails to generate predictive conclusions: it cannot identify where we are going from here.

In general, Martin argues: “Imperialism does not create a fixed, but rather a fluid, hierarchy of nations” (p31). The point is given a sharp example: “If the centre of productive industry should shift to Asia and Africa, which it has not to this day, by what power would effete Europe prevent the Asian and African capitalists from taking possession and denying Europe its ‘dividends and pensions’?” (p29).

The problem with these arguments relates to something which is left unexplained by Martin’s sketch of a general theory, and which was also a critical element in Lenin’s and Bukharin’s claims that imperialism was the terminal phase of capitalism: the drive towards inter-imperialist war between the 1900s and 1945. To vary the example to a real-world one: by what power would the US prevent Asian capitalists from taking possession and denying the US its technical rents? The answer is, as long as the high-tech arms industry remains centred in the US and to a lesser extent Europe, and the US maintains massive military forces, the US can enforce its technical rents by military threat. This is the ultimate sanction behind the monetary manipulations which have already ravaged several east Asian economies and forced a good many local proprietors to sell up to US-based operators. It was also the ultimate sanction which backed British claims to ‘dividends and pensions’ before 1914.

Because states are not merely ‘nations’, but military apparatuses, the hierarchy of states in capitalist imperialism is neither absolutely fixed nor as fluid as Martin makes it. It is, rather, ‘sticky’. A very, very rough metaphor would be geological movement and earthquakes. At the end of the day the actual displacement of a world hegemonic state requires its military defeat or overthrow. And this is the reason why the first half of the 20th century saw two world wars. This point, of course, returns to the original argument of my series: I think that AWL comrades tend to dematerialise the state and not grasp fully the implications of the facts that states are bureaucratic-coercive apparatuses.

Nick shares with Martin the view that the recreation of formal colonial empires is impossible, in substance because imperialism created colonial nationalism, which led to the defeat of the old empires by bourgeois-nationalist movements in the former colonies; and that this, in turn, leads to the result that the imperialist powers can settle their differences without inter-imperialist war. I do not share this view.

In my view decolonisation resulted from a combination of US pressure on the former (primarily British and French) colonial powers, US geopolitics in relation to the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Soviet support for nationalist movements (as in Vietnam). The resulting independent states were almost all semi-colonial: that is, that though formally independent, they were actually subject to state-to-state dependency on the former colonial power or on the US. None of them, with the remotely possible exception of China, are in positions analogous to those of France and Germany in the 19th century. Nick seems to share this last understanding, but not the conception of the dynamics of decolonisation which underlies it.

In this context, I agree that direct recolonisation of, for example, India, in the short term, is unlikely. But this is not because formal empires have become impossible due to the victories of bourgeois national movements. The cause is that the US has more direct command of world politics and the world financial and trade regime than Britain had in the 19th century. There is no present space for any other state to opt out of the US-led regime in favour of its own protection regime unless the US consents. Even the EU is not in a position to do so, because the US has too much influence on EU internal politics.

In the very unlikely eventuality that the US state suddenly collapsed due to internal contradictions, the structure of the world order built round it would also collapse. There would then be a dynamic towards a struggle over who would emerge as the new world hegemon and what sort of world order they would create. In this case there would be dynamics towards trade blocs, recolonisation and inter-imperialist war.

This remote contingency is not a ground for present policy. The Socialist Workers Party, and much of the British left, responds to moves towards European unification with little Englandism, on the basis of the fear that a united Europe would set in motion a dynamic towards inter-imperialist war. It analyses Iraq as a process of recolonisation and hence infers that the policy of the anti-imperialist front should be applied. This is, as AWL comrades say, a mechanical-dogmatic and uncritical application of Bukharin’s and Lenin’s accounts of imperialism.

The practical significance of the analysis is that by the late 1990s it had become clear that world capitalism had not been set free for a new phase of growth, an imperialism of free trade, by the fall of the Stalinist regimes. On the contrary, the fall of the Stalinist regimes has tended to accentuate the internal contradictions of the US-led world order. These internal contradictions have been played out in the US not through embarking on wars of conquest as such, but through exporting destruction in order to keep its own financial system afloat. There is indeed a tendency towards war in the current decay of the US-led world order, but it is not a tendency towards inter-imperialist wars. It is towards one-sided wars of destruction like the US ‘military interventions’ of the last 20 years. And it is towards local and civil wars, tending to the decomposition of states into warlordism, as the world’s poor among themselves scramble for the few crumbs left behind after IMF ‘structural adjustment’ policies, etc, have hoovered up the goodies to keep the US economy afloat. The AWL’s version of the concept of sub-imperialism, and its own concept of ‘paleo-imperialism’, seem to me to utterly lack predictive power in relation to these developments.

How this issue feeds back into the original debate on Iraq is this. I have never suggested that imperialism as such is incapable of playing the ‘progressive’ role of extending capitalism. But this is not what is going on in the case of Iraq: rather the US presence in Iraq simply causes destruction and prevents the formation of an Iraqi state which could reconstruct. Nor is the US reconstructing the Middle East in the general interests of capital. Some US officials may have these ambitions. But the US state in its present form, and within the general framework of the US’s role in the world economy in the last 20-30 years, is simply incapable of doing the job. Nor is this an unpredictable result. It was entirely foreseeable, not just on the basis of the analysis put forward in my series, but also on the basis of the better part of 30 years of US military interventions since the end of the Vietnam war.

In this context, Paul says that I “emphasis[e] exactly the kind of facile anti-imperialism that implicitly promote[s] the islamist ‘resistance’ to the occupation in the name of a mangled ‘Leninist’ defeatism”. I invite readers, Paul included, to consult my draft Theses on the occupation of Iraq printed in the Weekly Worker (April 29) and available on our website, and see whether they think that this is an accurate characterisation of my position on Iraq. I think they will see that it is not. (These Theses were subsequently accepted with minor amendments by the July 24 aggregate of CPGB members.)

Other issues
Nick argues that Lenin genuinely identifies something new: the degree of concentration in the economy represented in terms of employment, the colonisation of Africa, the export of capital and the predominance of rentier income. He cites Lenin’s statistics.

The problem is that the statistics, other than for employment, show major absolute increases relative to the baselines of the 1860s and 1870s, but are not adjusted for the absolute scale of capitalist economic activity; in the case of rentier income the changing forms of rentier income are not addressed. In relation to Africa, the prior colonisation of India is out of the picture. And in relation to employment, it is not at all clear that the distribution is not a normal one. It is clear that there was something genuinely new going on in this period, but Lenin overstates the novelty (Harvey’s Limits to capital, chapter 13, draws attention to Marx’s discussions of many of the same issues). Lenin also overstates the terminal, ‘highest phase’ character of what was going on.

Nick’s third section looks at the relation between the epochal limits of capitalism, Marxist theories of crisis and my discussion of global hegemon states. These are very important issues, and the formulations in my third article are certainly insufficient. But the issue requires a much fuller discussion than can be given here.

Paul argues that my references to “Tourette’s syndrome, or Sean Matgamna’s alleged original Healyism” betray ignorance of psychology and are irrelevant to the discussion. It was no more than a side comment. However, my reference to “a kind of political Tourette’s syndrome” was - obviously - metaphorical. The metaphor draws on the most widely known symptom of Tourette’s syndrome - ‘coprolalia’, or the compulsive introduction of obscene language into inappropriate places. My point is that AWL comrades suffer from an apparent political compulsive behaviour in which they cannot disagree with people in print without calling them stupid, mad, anti-semitic, etc. As to Sean’s “alleged original Healyism”, Sean’s membership of the SLL in 1960-64 is a matter of public record from his own account of Militant in the 1960s on the AWL’s website (http://archive.work-ersliberty.org/publications/readings/trots/militant.html). The pattern in which the AWL violently exaggerates the significance of its disagreements with other comrades and organisations seems to me to be a fairly clear, if variant, form of the Healy tradition.