Viewpoint: Why should we retain imperialism as a concept, when so many recent developments – the contradictory results of national liberation struggles, the fall of the Soviet bloc, the rise of new forms of sovereignty, and the consolidation of vast transnational corporations, financial institutions, and regulatory bodies, to name only a few – have challenged what Marxists have historically meant by the term?
Benita Parry: Although I think it is now acceptable to substitute capitalism for imperialism, I cite Daniel Bensaïd’s defense of its continued use:
Imperialism is the political form of the domination that corresponds to the combined and unequal development of capitalist accumulation. This modern imperialism has changed its appearance. It has not disappeared. In the course of recent centuries, it has undergone three great stages: that of colonial conquest and territorial occupation … that of the domination of financial capital or the “highest stage of capitalism” analyzed by Hilferding and Lenin … [and] after World War II, that of the domination of the world shared between several imperialist powers, formal independence of former colonies and dominated development.1
Bensaïd goes on to name the ways in which its hegemony is now exerted: by the control of markets, financial and monetary domination, scientific and technical domination, the control of natural resources, the exercise of cultural hegemony, and, “in the last instance, by the exercise of military supremacy (obvious in the Balkans and two Gulf Wars).”2 Apropos this last strategy, The Master List, compiled by William Blum in February 2013, lists 60 instances of the United States overthrowing, or attempting to overthrow, a foreign government since the Second World War; 40 of which, mostly in the Third World, successfully effected regime change.
In the contemporary Marxist discussion amongst political economists on imperialism, there are disagreements as to the correct readings of analyses made by Lenin, Kautsky, and Luxemburg. These revolve around questions about whether imperialism marked the monopoly stage of capitalism in which the “non-capitalist” realm was or is indispensable in providing resources, investment opportunities and markets (and, for what it’s worth, I believe Lenin’s conclusion was that imperialism is about the systematic exploitation of poor economies by capital of the imperialist core states); or if imperialism denotes interstate rivalry over securing the abundant raw materials of the colonies. However there seems to be no doubt amongst the warring protagonists that modern imperialism must be understood in the context of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production and the drive to the accumulation of capital, processes resulting in inequality in power, resources, and expectations at home and abroad. Rosa Luxemburg had argued that “capital needs the means of production and the labor power of the whole globe for untrammeled accumulation; it cannot manage without the natural resources and the labor power of all territories.” For this it had been necessary for metropolitan capitalism to destroy the natural subsistence economy in the newly acquired colonies, transforming these into private property, and destroying collective property.
The impact of this precipitate and enforced alteration issued in prodigious instances of combined and uneven development. These were graphically described by Leon Trotsky as a contradictory “amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms” – an urban proletariat working in technologically advanced industries existing side by side with a rural population engaged in subsistence farming; industrial plants built alongside “villages of wood and straw,” and peasants “thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow.”3 Expanding on Trotsky’s theory by addressing cultural phenomena, Neil Davidson notes how the notion of combined and uneven development takes account of the internal effects of uneven development in the creation of social formations that are “a changing amalgam of pre-existing ‘internal’ structures of social life with external socio-political and cultural influences.”4
As I see it, the recent developments which might pose a challenge to how we understand current imperialism, are precisely those that define its contemporary existence as a world order structured by the systematic exploitation of incipiently-capitalist economies by the core capitalist states. To take only one instance: the afterlife of national liberation and the establishment of nominally independent nation-states has overwhelmingly seen the implementation of radical programs frustrated by the covert and overt intercession of capitalist regimes, and a shift in class allegiance of major players who had held out the promise of socialism and delivered the punitive neoliberal policies demanded by the major powers. Indeed, as political economists maintain, the exchange of higher technology, higher value-added commodities in the First World, for low-tech, low-value products on the international market, has installed a new international division of labor polarizing the gap between skilled and unskilled. Such new mechanisms of wealth transfer from the poor to the rich countries contradicts the “myth of economic convergence” or the increasing international integration of economic activity claimed by mainstream economics, and marks what distinguishes capitalism in the neoliberal era. In a review of John Smith’s Imperialism in the 21st Century, Michael Roberts cites Smith’s assertion that the “super-exploitation” of wage workers in the “South” is the foundation of modern imperialism in the 21st century, evident in the fact that 83% of the world’s manufacturing workforce lives and works in the Global South.5
VP: Your mention of the enduring history of national liberation struggles in the present brings us to an important point. How do we differentiate between colonialism and imperialism, a common conflation? Does this conflation have effects on how to understand contemporary forms resistance to these phenomena?
The popular equation of imperialism with colonialism was given academic credence by postcolonial studies, long dominated by those adhering to a theory of knowledge centered on semantic uncertainty. This licensed prominent critics, using wild analyses of textual relics and ambiguous significations, to produce narratives of colonialism from which the specter of capitalism had been exorcised. By ignoring the capitalist penetration of nascent or under-capitalized realms and the semi-peripheries which were not occupied as colonies, they reduced the known history of violent conquest, gunboat diplomacy, coercions, dispossession, and exploitation to the exercise of cognitive and affective, i.e. cultural, domination, and in place of conflict installed an interstitial space of covert or subtle interaction within which the colonized exercised agency by way of irony and misprision.
Just as colonialism is not interchangeable with imperialism, so is anti-imperialism as critique and practice not synonymous with anti-colonialism. For one, moderate, bourgeois-led nationalist independence movements aspired to inherit the colonial state, and not to overthrow capitalism. For another, critics disposed to conflate the terms disregard the depredations and immiseration inflicted on the working classes and the poor within the heartlands of capitalism, as well as the long history of workers’ struggles in the metropolitan centers. This last exclusion has been attributed to this constituency’s indifference towards and even complicity with colonialism. This is a justifiable claim that unjustly erases a long tradition of anti-imperialism and support for the anti-colonial struggles from parties and organizations based within the metropolitan working classes, and representative of the politically conscious and the militant in this bloc. The consequence of such deletions is that an internationalist perspective on the fight against capitalism is lost.
This then raises the matter of contemporary resistance to capitalism, immediately visible in the anti-globalization movements of the metropoles protesting against environmental degradation, super-exploitation, third world debt, and the many other egregious consequences of the system. Within the peripheries, this is seen to be located in campaigns against the privatization of utilities (water, electricity), facilities (medical, educational) implemented by nominally independent regimes wedded to neoliberalism. Even though most of these struggles quickly dispersed, the energies and aspirations of participants make it impolitic to question its loose and impermanent format, or to be skeptical about the possibility that its traces. Because of the opprobrium properly heaped by the broad and specific left on “the Party” in its Stalinist manifestations, it is probably also ill-advised to urge a return to the concept of organized combat centered on the laboring class, urban and agrarian – rather than the multitude, the subaltern, the outcast, the destitute, the academic theoretician and so on – as agents of revolution. Yet it is a question that must be addressed – this because of the working classes’ structural capacity to challenge a system whose ultimate source of wealth lies in what Timothy Brennan has called “the continued primacy of material production in the world’s economy … the continued industrial and agricultural basis of wealth on a global basis, the size and significance of the global producers in its older manual sense of fabricating, planting, harvesting, transporting, and processing.”6 Those attending to labor as foundational to capitalism are not unaware that the Marxist legacy encompasses both those who question the ennobling value of work, and those who celebrate forms of labor that transcend alienation and enhance existence – consider John Berger’s work in this vein. But this belongs to another discussion.
VP: Regarding contemporary resistance: are there any strategies or tactics of anti-imperialist struggle that are worth re-examining today? The discourses of past movements often seem to appear to us as if from another planet, completely divorced from present conditions.
In my view, the richest legacy to explore are past forms of anti-imperialism when activists in the metropolitan core and its peripheries were united in devising international programs of action. Trotsky, Lenin, MN Roy and many others long ago argued that while conditions differed, the struggles of the colonial masses subjugated by the imperialist nations and their own ruling classes, and those of the wage-earners in capitalism’s centers, needed to be joined together. This is defied in my own disciplinary location of postcolonial literary studies, where the recent discussion on World Literature has led to the demand for a putative “South–South” solidarity criticism that would be, according to the South African scholar Isabel Hofmeyr, alert to local histories and the “lateral networks that fall within the Third World or Global South.”7 While one might laud such a move for its apparent challenge to Eurocentric thinking, this stance, because lacking any recognition of the structurally global nature of capitalism, appears to me isolationist in disconnecting the continents in the Southern hemisphere from the oppressed both in the metropoles and the remaining semi-peripheries.
Consider the paradox inscribed in the 1966 Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America held in Cuba and known as the Tricontinental Conference. While ostensibly a “Third World” alliance, its agenda declared a commitment to international solidarity across all continents, with the aim of advancing the unfinished project and practice of communism. This stated that the gathering articulated “a minimum programme … explicitly attempting to align anti-imperialism with a wider challenge to capitalism,” and goes on to cite the words of Mehdi Ben Barka, Moroccan socialist leader and initiator of the Conference, as blending “the two great currents of world revolution”: that born in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, and that representing the anti-imperialist and national liberation movement of the day. In recognizing a world larger than the designated three continents, this registers an internationalist stance – as does Che Guevara’s message to the Conference: “We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism – and it must be defeated in a world confrontation.”8 Earlier in the 1920s, José Carlos Mariategui, a self-educated intellectual and radical activist from Peru, had written: “we are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism with socialism … and because in our struggle against foreign imperialism we are fulfilling our duty of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.”9
Although the revolutionary masses of Europe were not always in sight, the conference endorsed the duty of comradeship with the legions of the oppressed and exploited in the imperial homelands, whose presence has always been and remains in full view. In the light of such affirmative statements of internationalism articulated by prominent thinkers and activists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, this alliance of radical national liberation movements in the era of decolonization gestures to an international theoretical project and transformative practice to “eliminate the foundations of imperialism.”
VP: Do you have any particular sequences or examples in mind?
Michael Löwy, for one, insists on the dialectical relationship between radical social movements in the core capitalist countries and national liberation struggles in the colonies, arguing that these were complementary in igniting militancy and generating international solidarity: for example, the uprisings in Indochina and the ferment in the United States during the sixties. This relationship can be seen in the many seeds of radical anti-colonial struggles sown in metropolitan cities, where intellectuals from the colonies interacted with local and émigré Marxists, socialists, and anarchists. The life of Mariategui, born in 1894, exemplifies the making of an internationalist from the Global South: when traveling in Western Europe, he met with Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky; while living in Italy, he came under the influence of revolutionary syndicalism, was in touch with Italian socialist leaders including Gramsci, witnessed the Turin factory occupations of 1920, and in 1921 attended the Livorno Congress of the Italian Socialist Party, where a split led to the formation of the Communist Party.
To Paris during the thirties, forties, and fifties of the 20th century came the future theoretician-activists from the Maghreb and the French colonies in central Africa; also Zhou Enlai from China, and from Latin America, Mariátegui, and the poet Cesar Vallejo. And from Indo-China came Ho Chi Minh who after lowly employment on a French Liner, lived in Paris from 1919-23, during which time he became friends with French socialists, joining them in founding the French Communist Party in 1920. To London came dissidents from the Indian subcontinent and the African continent; to Lisbon came the future revolutionaries from Guinea, the Cape Verde Islands, Mozambique, and Angola.
Portugal and its colonies offer another compelling instance of such core–periphery camaraderie. Eduardo Mondlane and Marcelino dos Santos from Mozambique, the one an anthropology student, later a professor at Syracuse University in the United States, the other studying at the Industrial Institute in Lisbon; Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Island, a student of agronomy and Agostinho Neto from Angola who attended medical schools in Coimbra and Lisbon – all furthered their political ideas and strategies for struggle in student and professional groups that included left-wing Portuguese intellectuals. It is tempting to connect this tradition of conversation between revolutionaries from colony and metropole. with subsequent demonstrations of concord when the Portuguese anti-fascist movement of the 1970s, which included working class organizations, made common cause with the insurgents in the African colonies.
Indeed their militancy inspired the Movimento das Forças Armadas, a group of lower-ranking left-leaning officers, some connected with the Portuguese Communist Party, to mutiny in April 1974; while the Guinea wing of the organization passed a resolution declaring that “the colonised peoples and the people of Portugal are allies. The struggle for national liberation has contributed powerfully to the overthrow of fascism and, in large degree, has lain at the base of our Movement, whose officers have understood the roots of the evils which afflict the society of Portugal.”10
One exemption from either core–periphery or inter-regional comradeship is the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952–1960). This appears to have been without either political or material support from outside – it also stands out for the scale and intensity of punishment inflicted on the rebels by the British whose resort to torture and execution quantitatively and qualitatively exceeded anything elsewhere in its vast empire – with the exception of India at the time of the 1857 rebellion. Although the British-educated Jomo Kenyatta was jailed for participating in its actions, historians have disputed the extent and significance of his role in the uprising, and instead concentrate on the singularity of a movement composed of and led by peasants, many of them illiterate. That the guerrillas referred to themselves as the Land and Freedom Army may resonate with the vocabulary of radical groups in late 19th-century Russia and anti-fascist combatants the Spanish Civil War, but must be regarded as locally invented, and acclaimed for joining the fulfilment of present material needs – Land – with anticipation of a future without oppression – Freedom.
VP: What about forms of international solidarity coming out of other traditions of revolutionary politics and analysis, or from artists and authors? The Spanish Civil War has regained its actuality in the present moment, for starters.
It’s true, I have focused on the bonds forged between colonial insurgents and metropolitan Marxists. This has for some time been challenged for excluding the role of anarcho-syndicalism in anti-imperialist struggles. A recent collection Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism, and Social Revolution centers on those revolutionary anarchists and syndicalists who envisaged the “completed and real emancipation of all workers, not only in some but in all nations, ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped.’”11 In a preface, Benedict Anderson, long an exponent of this position, allows that the ideology of anarcho-syndicalism could not match Marx’s “towering theoretical contributions,” but holds that it reveals itself as more seriously internationalist than its Marxist competitor.12
Drawing on empirical evidence, Anderson traces how anarcho-syndicalist ideas were carried by “the huge waves of migration out of Europe” during the 40 years before World War I: “Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, Jews and so on poured into the New World, round the Mediterranean, and into the empires being created by the Europeans in Asia and Africa.” Such crossing of state borders enabled activists to participate in political agitation and organization on non-European terrains: for example, Italian workers recruited for the gigantic construction of the Suez Canal brought anarchism to Egypt, attempted to unite foreign and local labor in trade union militancy, led strikes, and participated in launching a communist party. “Syndicalism showed up in the oil-fields along the Caribbean coast and in the largest urban conglomeration,” this partly due to close ties with the syndicalist Wobblies – the International Workers of the World – whose membership included a significant number of native Spanish-speakers and well as bilingual Anglos from the American border states between California and Texas. Well before any other political group, Anderson claims, the anarcho-syndicalists made determined efforts to reach out to, and create solidarity, with the indigenous populations.
For Anderson, the collection uncovers “something truly amazing – young Chinese, anarchists and not, joining the Republic of Spain’s struggle on the other side of the world.” This war, recognized as the supreme enactment of an international fight against fascism, has been subject to competing evaluations within the Left. Consider first Perry Anderson’s dyspeptic view of
the arresting phenomenon, without equivalent before or since, of an internationalism equally deep and deformed, at once rejecting any loyalty to its own country and displaying a limitless loyalty to another state. Its epic was played out by the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, shadowed by Comintern emissaries … recruited from across all Europe and the Americas. With its mixture of heroism and cynicism, selfless solidarity and murderous terror, this was an internationalism perfected and perverted as never before.13
I don’t think there’s much to disagree with here. But muted is the spirit of times which attracted volunteers organized in Brigades from Europe, the British Isles, Ireland, and the United States – the Lincoln Brigade included African- Americans – as well as individuals who were not representatives of their country of habitation, many of them Jews, from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq; from China; Japan, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and India (Mulk Raj Anand enlisted in the largely Comintern-run International Brigade).
The conflict and the defeat of the anti-fascist forces inspired Picasso’s Guernica and The Weeping Woman, Miro’s Reaper, as well as numerous paintings by renowned and forgotten British artists – sufficient to have prompted a 2015 exhibition British Artists and the Spanish Civil War. It was witnessed in the iconic images of Gerda Taro, David Seymour, and Robert Capa, as well as in many anonymous photographs; it produced thousands of posters, many a stylistic homage to the constructivists of the Soviet avant-garde art. The war was fictionalized, most famously in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, reported on by Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell, and celebrated in poetry and song where fidelity to a future commonwealth displaces attachment to an actual native land.
Also subdued in Anderson’s summation is the place this anti-fascist struggle continues to hold in the radical imagination: in Robert Motherwell’s series of paintings Elegies to the Spanish Republic, begun in 1940 and continued for decades after; in exhibitions and museum collections of photos and posters; in anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Brigades, in the fiction of Roberto Bolaño, Javier Cercas, Jose Saramago, and Antonio Tabucchi; in commemorations of Lorca; in a film haunted by the event, Pan’s Labyrinth; and in another where it is in the foreground: Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, which replays the Comintern’s treachery towards Trotskyists in the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification/POUM and the anarchist militia, without tarnishing images of the fighters’ political integrity, courage, and visionary horizons.
VP: By calling on these examples, isn’t there a danger of falling back into a nostalgia for a bygone era of political activity? Are there any prospects for internationalism in practice today? How might contemporary activists navigate this relationship to past movements and uncover potential resources?
It is easy to look back to exemplary instances of internationalist struggles, as I have done. The question of such forms of resistance now requires more knowledge than I have of the actual and incipient oppositional forces amongst the many constituencies worldwide who remain subject to capitalism’s oppressions and exploitation – for example, whether and where a proletariat has been formed or is coming into being. All the same, the prospect of an international body encompassing local and regional organizations should be considered, and this presupposes a willingness to examine the egregious conduct and consequences of former Communist Parties and Internationals, and to address what future configurations this might take on. But again, these forms cannot be predicted or worked out in advanced. There have been a company of thinkers within the Marxist tradition who invoke the prospect of social formations beyond the nation, intimating that internationalism’s fruition will signal its own dissolution in the emergence of classless and stateless polities, without any national connotation, this condition being the ante-room to an open-ended future with dreams and desires beyond those realized by the new dispensation.
Here again, Michael Löwy’s work has been particularly generative for thinking about types of political nostalgia, and for mapping unexpected genealogies of revolutionary practice. In his essay “Marxism and Revolutionary Romanticism,” for instance, he traces a recurrent strand within Marxism of “looking back” at earlier communist societies, beginning with Marx and Engels who presented “the problematic of the union between the pre-capitalist past and the socialist future mediated by the rejection of the capitalist present,” and extending to Rosa Luxemburg’s appreciation of the primitive community and Mariategui’s affirmative retrospect on pre-Columbian Incan communism.14
Löwy goes on to examine Gyorgy Lukács’s essay on Dostoyevsky as “a particularly brilliant and penetrating analysis of the revolutionary dimension of Romantic anticapitalism,” citing Lukács’s words about “a revolt against the moral and spiritual deformation of man that results from the development of capitalism” – such degradation is to be countered by “the nostalgia for … the Golden Age of the past that lights the road toward the future.”15 For Löwy, disillusioned by all hitherto attempts at socialist states, it is imperative that we rediscover “the romantic-revolutionary dimension of Marxism,” and enrich “the socialist perspective of the future with the lost heritage of the pre-capitalist past, with the precious treasure of communal, ethical and social qualitative values, submerged since the advent of capitalism in the ‘glacial waters of egoist calculation.’”16
Löwy speaks in emotive language of the ignominies and discontents of existence under capitalism, and not of an ontological human condition – just as when Chekhov is reported as saying, “You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that,” he was alluding to a way of life soon to be overturned by revolution, and not to some invariant situation afflicting all of humanity at all times.
VP: This is an important strand of Marxism, since it articulated the plural, non-simultaneous temporalities of history, and sought to reactivate missed encounters and pathways not taken at certain political junctures. Are there other thinkers in this connection, who might not be the first names that come to mind as reference points for a renewed anti-imperialism?
I find Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin to be critical sources for thinking about how the recovery of lost heritages can serve to harness pre-capitalist social formations and values to the present project of anti-imperialist transformation, one that – in Bloch’s language anticipates – the future as the unclosed space for new development.
Of course, the quest for golden ages is beset with dangers, and Bloch himself has exposed the fascist appropriation of anti-capitalist rhetoric and utopian imagery in the cause of reviving longstanding popular forms of “mystical” and “irrational” protests against the repressions of industrial capitalism.17 As a result, he insists that only an activist, refunctioning approach to the ideas which appear in the past can transform these into a living source for revolutionary action directed towards the achievement of an ameliorated future. Bloch powerfully frames Marx’s breakthrough was to wed utopian visions to a concrete, scientific analysis of the dynamics of capitalism and class struggle; and in unveiling how traces of the future are visible in what was inherited from the unfulfilled past, he foresees the redemption of age-old sufferings, tragedies, failures, and unrealized hopes in a world without exploitation, domination, or hierarchy, a place where we had never yet been and would feel at home. Although sometimes read as eschatological, Bloch’s vision of the future as end opening up endless new possibilities, and is worth reading closely:
it is only since Marx that the past has not only been brought into the present and the latter again into the contemplated past, but both have been brought to the horizon of the future … that is of an anticipatory kind which by no means coincides with abstract Utopian dreaminess, nor is directed by the immaturity of merely abstract Utopian socialism. The very power and truth of Marxism consists in the fact that it has driven the cloud in our dreams further forward, but has not extinguished the pillar of fire in those dreams, rather strengthened it with concreteness.18
Benjamin shared with Bloch the belief that there must be an absolute negation of the existing social order, and that the classless society at the dawn of history is the model of an authentic human community still to come. But there is also the sense that the past was also a place of oppression, sorrow, and unfulfilled hopes, to be redeemed by the “avenging class” … “heirs” of “enslaved forebears” who, not content with being the savior of future generations, will carry out “the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion.”19
Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto, 1977), 432. ↩
Neil Davidson, “Putting the Nation Back into ‘the International,’” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 22, no. 1 (2009): 9-28. ↩
Timothy Brennan, “Poets of Commodities,” talk delivered 2016; to appear. ↩
Isabel Hofmeyr, “The Complicating Sea: Indian Ocean as Method,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 3 (2012): 584-90. ↩
Vóz da Guiné Bissau, August 10 1974, cited in Basil Davidson, “African History Without Africans,” London Review of Books 21, no. 4 (February 1999): 27-28. ↩
Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism, and Social Revolution, ed. Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010). ↩
See in particular Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination, (London: Verso, 2008). ↩
Michael Löwy, “Marxism and Revolutionary Romanticism,” in On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 7. ↩
Ibid., 11. ↩
Ibid., 13. ↩
See Ernst Bloch, “Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics,” trans. Mark Ritter, New German Critique, no. 11 (Spring 1977): 22-38. ↩
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 3 vols., trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 884. ↩