Within the Western or Northern Left, there is a tendency to think of imperialism only when its violence rises to the surface, if at all: the invasion of Iraq, the coup in Bolivia, the attempted coup in Venezuela, and so on. Opposition to such developments is certainly necessary for a principled anti-imperialist line. However, when we reduce our notion of the imperialist system to the violence which upholds it, we limit our ability to understand the system itself. And that’s precisely what has happened, perhaps expectedly so given the complexity of global capitalism today. Colonialism has given way to ever more insidious forms of domination and super-exploitation; consequently, we have forgotten what it means to be anti-imperialist. More pointedly, we have forgotten our political and moral responsibilities to the Global South. Perhaps this is in part due to the relentless assault of neoliberalism within our own borders, but the unfortunate truth is that most of us have lost sight of what exactly imperialism is, as well as our own role in it, and our politics have suffered a great deal for it. The South has suffered a great deal for it. This piece, which will be the first in a series on imperialism in the 21st century, aims to re-introduce imperialism to the American Left at this very critical moment in time. I will also argue that relentless and unequivocal opposition to US imperialism is the principal political responsibility of the American Left today.
Much of Lenin’s work has resurfaced lately, but his work on imperialism has been notably absent. We will return to it here because it serves as an excellent framework of understanding for our subject matter, and also in hopes that his insights become as definitive for struggles in the North as they have been in the South.1 In chapter seven of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he defines imperialism briefly as the monopoly stage of capitalism, within which industry and finance are dominated by monopolist entities and the colonial powers have completely divided up the territories of the world. However, he emphasized that such a brief definition is ultimately inadequate, instead reverting to a short list of characteristics:
- The concentration of production and capital has developed monopolies which dominate markets.
- The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation (on the basis of finance capital) of a financial oligarchy.
- The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities.
- The formation of international monopolist associations which establish global dominance.
- The [colonialist] territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers.
So, Lenin identified imperialism not simply as a policy or characteristic of individual nations, but as a stage of global capitalism with specific characteristics, which in turn give rise to what we understand as imperialist policy. Opposing imperialism, then, is about much more than opposing war. We must attack the war machine at its root, or its material basis, anyway: without confronting the system which gives rise to war in its entirety, anti-war efforts will inevitably fail, their consequences temporary at best.
For Lenin, and really for anyone participating in politics in the early 20th century, this system was quite easy to identify. During his time, the empires of the European colonial powers were alive and well. Take Africa for example: with the exceptions of Ethiopia and (to a lesser extent) Liberia, the entire continent was colonized. Though the resources stolen varied throughout the colonies, every colony was (or was intended to be) at its core a brutal machine of resource extraction, ravaging land and labor alike. Raw materials extracted from Africa would then be exported to Europe, where labor was much more expensive, and natural resources were scarce. These raw materials would then have value added to them in European factories, where they became intermediate or final goods ready for consumption or use in other manufacturing processes. This was no secret; the colonial powers did this in broad daylight with no shortage of legal or ideological justification. Thus, a strong anti-imperialist stance and even the provision of material support to anti-colonial & anti-imperialist struggles in the periphery were common characteristics of communist and socialist parties in the 20th century. By the mid-late 20th century, the African colonies won their independence, and they remain (formally) independent today.
Without this formal colonialism, our ideological task is a bit more difficult. Without a visible exploitation of the periphery by the imperial core, the American Left has become overwhelmingly concentrated on exploitation within our own society. Given our relationship to other societies (as beneficiaries of their exploitation), this concentration is dangerous to say the least. Colonialism was not simply destroyed: it was both defeated and preserved by opposing forces which arose within the imperialist system itself, and it was largely preserved by forces which Lenin successfully identified as the bases of imperialism—finance and monopoly capitalism. Many formerly colonized African nations are still firmly under the direct or indirect control of their former colonizers. This occurs via various political and economic institutions such as powerful multinational corporations, loans, currency2, or European ownership of the means of production. Consequently, they have been integrated into global capitalism in such a way that mirrors their colonial role, as sites of resource extraction and labor exploitation. Still today, the poorest countries in the world are all former European colonies. So, at first glance it may appear that Lenin incorrectly named colonialism as an integral characteristic of the last stage of capitalism, but in typical Marxist fashion, he was only wrong in such a way that proved him right.
Whether anti-imperialism is our principal political responsibility may seem like a point of contention for some, but once we consider our position in the world, this should become quite apparent. While the US has only 4.25% of the world’s population, and roughly 2.5% of its extreme poverty, the American empire spans the entire globe, and dominates political economy the world over. This is evidenced not only by the extreme violence the American capitalist class routinely exerts on nations who, for one reason or another, refuse to “play ball.”3 It is also, and perhaps more so, evidenced by the nature of international finance and trade today, which is dominated by US-led institutions (see: IMF, World Bank, US dollar/dollar hegemony), and which said violence often protects and enforces (we will take a closer look at some of these institutions and their interrelatedness to imperialist violence in pieces to come). Many workers in the US are struggling. However, insofar as socialists consider all workers equally important, perhaps with more consideration given to those who are more exploited or oppressed, and almost all of the world’s workers—to include those who are most exploited—live in nations other than our own, dismantling the US empire is of utmost importance.
Furthermore, the benefits of our hegemonic status are not only shared within the American capitalist class. So long as material abundance in the North depends on exploitation in the South, as it does today, all classes within the imperial core—to include the ones that work for a living—enjoy the fruits of US imperialism.4 As the American Left attempts to carve out a pathway to labor struggles and an independent electoral presence of some sort, we must keep this unfortunate truth in mind. If we do succeed in these endeavors, how do we avoid falling into the Scandinavian trap, i.e., the trap of imperialism with healthcare?5 If we simply aim to capture a larger piece of the imperialist pie, we cannot call ourselves socialists (at least not socialists of the international variety).
The point is not that we should stop seeking better lives given the current circumstances. That said, we must keep in mind that concessions won from the capitalist within the imperial core are precisely that—within the imperial core. As such, they are necessarily soaked in the blood and sweat of working people in the periphery. To win such concessions without unequivocal and unrelenting opposition to the exploitation and murder of workers in the South, without continuous support for the rights of all nations oppressed by US imperialism to self-determination, and without a clear, principled strategy which reflects these positions, this is not socialism. It is the perversion of socialism, the inevitable result of attempting to break free from class divisions without first breaking free from colonial ideology. I will conclude with remarks made by British imperialist Cecil Rhodes after meeting with impoverished unemployed workers in East London: “…I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘Bread! Bread!’…I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”
Will we be content with our bread?
1From Cuba to Burkina Faso, Marxism-Leninism has a long, rich history of informing the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the Global South.
4This is not to detract from the many struggles workers face here, but it is necessary to acknowledge when other workers have it worse, especially when we benefit. Just to provide an illustrative example, take a look at your smart phone. Your battery is made from cobalt, and about 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from Congolese mines. Median personal income in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is about 1/100th of the median income in the US.