Against Anti-imperialism

W P Cockshott

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At a recent Open Polemic conference I criticised a contribution on imperialism for being a collection of outdated platitudes, and marveled that not only did our ruling class live in the dream world of a now lost empire, but that these fantasies seemed to be shared by Marxists as well. For this I was roundly criticised by the CAG representative among others.

I was being naive in pointing to the loss of empire. I had apparently forgotten such basic Marxist Leninist concepts as neo-colonialism and unequal exchange. Recognition of the imperialist character of the UK had to be seen as fundamental point for communists.

1.  Dreams of the Empire

Why are communists in Britain oblivious to the most obvious, significant and remarkable historical development of the last fifty years: the collapse of the European world empires?

This deliberate myopia is all the stranger, when one remembers the tremendous part played by international communism in this happy event. Indeed, following the counter revolutions in Eastern Europe, the overthrow of imperialism and the establishment of a world wide system of capitalist nation states, can be seen as the one lasting achievement of the old communist movement.

As Britain sinks to the status of a third rate industrial power and the bourgeoisie console themselves with the 'heritage industry', our communists remain equally nostalgic. It is understandable that older communists will have a tendancy to refight the battles of their youth,but it is ludicrous to see young comrades, who never knew the empire, repeating the same old platitudes about anti-imperialist struggle.

It all goes to show, that for British communists, theory is not a means of investigating how the world is changing to get a glimpse at the future, but is a decoration, used to give meaning to pre-given political attitudes. One word shows why they must go on dreaming of imperialism: Ireland. Lacking any political program of their own, they identify instead with the only serious political opposition movement that the state faces : Irish Nationalism. This is but an aspect of the general collapse of the European communist movement in nationalist politics,1 and reflects the same ideological vacuity.

To justify support for a movement whose politics are founded on a petty European border dispute, that has nothing whatsovever to do with socialism, and which is indeed antithetical to working-class struggles, resort has to be had to anti-imperialist phraseology. But what now passes as the 'Marxist-Leninst theory of Imperialism', has nothing to do with Marx, precious little to do with Lenin, and is instead a concoction cooked up by Kruschovite revisionism and bourgeois nationalists during the '50s and '60s.

The notion of neo-colonialism for instance, once had a purpose: to justify a diplomatic alliance between the USSR and new bourgeois leaders like Nasser and Nkrumah. As a policy it was terrible. Anti-imperialist alliances with the national bourgeoisies in Egypt, Iraq etc, did the working classes of those countries no good at all. And the Soviet alliance tended to be dumped by the bourgeoisies once they established themselves. Politically, it never offered any perspective of independent proletarian politics.

2.  Delusions of inequality

The theory of 'unequal exchange' is even more anti-working class, designed to destroy the confidence of the workers in capitalist countries by portraying them as exploiters of the third world. It has nothing in common with Marx's economic writings, which go on at great length to show that capitalist profit can not arise through inequality in exchange. He argued that it arose instead, in the process of capitalist production. Unequal exchange theory is a regression from scientific political economy to the medieval Thomist doctrines of just price.

True enough, if a worker in the US buys a shirt made in Mexico, it will contain more labour than one made in the US, and is likely to be cheaper into the bargain. Does this turn the US worker into an exploiter of Mexican labour?

The unequal exchange theorists will say yes. Since the terms of trade are `unequal'. Goods containing 100 hours of US labour, when exported to Mexico exchange for goods containing perhaps 400 hours of Mexican labour. Thus even allowing for the fact that she only gets back in wages about half the labour she puts in, worker in the US can obtain for an hours work goods that took a couple of hours labour by Mexican workers.

But the labour that contributes to value is socially neccessary labour.

You will recall that I used the word ``Social labour'', and that many points are involved in the qualification ``Social''. In saying that the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour worked up or crystallised in it, we mean the quantity of labour necessary for its production in a given state of society, under certain social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed. When in England, the power loom came to compete with the hand-loom, only one-half the former time of labour was wanted to convert a given amount of yarn into cotton cloth. The poor hand-loom weaver now worked seventeen or eighteen hours daily, instead of the nine or ten hours that he worked before. Still the product of twenty hours of his labour represented now only ten social hours of labour, or ten hours of labour socially necessary for the conversion of a certain amount of yarn into textile stuffs. His product of twenty hours had, therefore, no more value than his former product of ten hours. ( Karl Marx, Wages Price and Profit, Moscow 1981. page 28)

As less developed economies are opened up to competition with developed ones, this process repeats itself. Labour performed in pre-state of the art conditions, is devalued. But this is an inevitable effect of the exchange process. For in exchange, the social status of private labours, is established by equating use values, and this presupposes self-identity. Thus the equation

1 kilo of maize = 1 kilo of maize

must hold. So as the Mexican maize market is opened up to the products of US agriculture, 1 kilo of maize produced by a peasant in Chiapas becomes equivalent to 1 kilo of US maize that might embody only a 10th or a 20th as much labour, and with this the labour of the peasant is further devalued.

With the devaluation of labour goes a devaluation of labour power - a decline in wages. Thus over the last decade hourly wages in Mexico have fallen from over $3 per hour to $2 per hour, whilst US wages have risen from $8 per hour to $11 per hour. Because of inflation, this actually represent a fall in real wages for the US worker, and was thus a still greater fall for the Mexican worker. The devaluation of the labour of countries with a slower development of productivity is reflected too in the repeated devaluations of their currencies - something all too evident with the peso.

But all this is due not to a law of inequality, but of equality. ``The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange ... is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham''2. According to Marx it is in production not circulation that exploitation arises. Marx's economic writings are one long polemic against the sort of moralising socialism that demanded the installation of a regime of 'fair exchange'. Capitalism, he said, rests on just such exchange.

3.  Lenins `Imperialism', Stalin's fantasy

Lenin's short pamphlet on imperialism, beyond some dubious economics 3 , had the undoubted political virtue of providing both an explanation of the World War and a moral standpoint for root and branch opposition to it.

To Lenin, imperialism was the key to revolutionary strategy. He argued that it was a war between empires to redivide the world and that such war would lead to revolution. Imperialism as the age of war and revolution, provided the justification for and strategy of the new communist international. The prediction was that another imperialist war would not be long in comming, and that this would allow revolution to spread.

The Commintern were right on both these counts, as the second world war and its crop of revolutions bore witness. Whilst more observant leaders of the CPSU realised that a 3rd imperialist war was improbable, Stalin thought he would strike it three times lucky. In 1951 he was predicting the imminence of new imperialist wars 4 - Britain and France, he said, would soon be at war with America defending their empires.

With 20-20 hindsight we can assess the accuity of his foresight. Far from fighting to extend their empires, the imperial powers found them unsustainable. Holland first, then Britain, France and eventually Portugal gave them up. In Britain the process was set in train by the principled anti-imperialism of the Labour Party which dissolved the Empire in India at its first opportunity. In other cases it took defeat in guerilla struggles to produce the same effect. But the ultimate cause, beyond such immediate factors as the opposition of the workers movements to imperialism and the aid of the USSR to anti-imperialist movements, was the development of the world economy.

As Luxemburg had argued, imperialism had its origins in the fact that capitalist commerce could not penetrate non-commodity producing societies by purely economic means. Extra-economic coercion was required to separate the producers from their means of production, tax them, and force them into the market economy. That demanded gunboats, armies and Governor Generals in plumed hats. But once precapitalist economies had been destroyed and the market set in their place, the paraphanelia of imperialism was obsolete. The normal process of capital accumulation could continue without it,

It is 1995 not 1895 and the new world order is global capitalism not imperialism. An Engels or a Zola would find nothing unfamiliar in the degradation and exploitaion of today's Djakarta, Shanghai or Mexico. The new Manchesters share the industrial dynamism, sweatshops, oppulence and pauperism of the old. To advance anti-imperialist rather than simply anti-capitalist slogans now, is either meaningless or reactionary. The only courses of economic development open are integration into the world market or socialism. Anti-imperialist sloganising obscures this by implying that there exists some third way short of socialism.

Whilst imperialism is dead, international finance and multinational firms go, of course, from strength to strength. Banks based in Tokyo, London and New York extract billions in interest payments on sovereign debt each month. But this does not mean that Japan, Britain etc, exploit third world countries. That is to abandon all class analysis. The capitalist classes of Japan and Britain participate in the exploitation of workers and peasants in the third world - but the working classes of the Old Industrialised Countries gain nothing from this. Far from being a bribed labour aristocracy, their own subjugation to capital becomes more complete, threatened as they are, with their jobs being moved to the Newly Industrialised Countries.

Five questions

For those who think imperialism still exists some questions:
  1. In the absence of empires dividing the world, are wars to re-divide the world still imminent?
  2. When can we expect the reconquest of India?
  3. If wars leading to revolution are not imminent, on what do you base your strategy?
  4. What is the political and economic content of `anti-imperialism', i.e., what changes in economic or state structure do you struggle for other than those implied by an anti-capitalist strategy?
  5. What extra allies does an anti-imperialist strategy bring to the struggle for communism that a simple anti-capitalist strategy would not?

W P Cockshott 24 Jan 1995


1 It is of course to theircredit that their nationalist deviation keeps them in opposition tothe UK state.

2 Capital I, p 280, Penguin edition

3 The late Bill Warren, one of the CPGB's most capable theorists pointed many of these out inImperialism pioneer of capitalism, Verso 1980

4 Economic Problems of Socialism, Chapter 6.

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