The war-like nature of imperialism
is unchanged after the collapse
of the old colonial empires

by Joseph Green
(CV #39, January 2007)


The old imperialism -- wars and colonies
Imperialism after the collapse of the colonialism empires
The outcome of the national liberation movement
Spheres of influence
The present-day world order
The NGOs
Imperialism as the last stage prior to the overthrow of capitalism
The class struggle as the transition to a new society

. The article below is based on a talk given October 15, 2006 at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group. It shows that imperialism has persisted as a world system despite the collapse of colonialism, and this imperialism remains the fundamental cause of the growing number of wars we see today.

. Our topic is the nature of imperialism today. The presentation will be based on the article "The Leninist theory of imperialism and the 21st century world" in the last Communist Voice (July 27). I will only deal with some of the points from this article -- perhaps some of the left-out points out will come up in discussion afterwards.

. The topic is timely, as in the days prior to this meeting, a number of events raised sharply the issues of war and empire:

* The US occupation of Iraq continues, and even the congressional election campaign centers in part on the issue of the major war there.
* The war in Afghanistan has been intensifying. Those who follow Canadian news have seen more about this, as it is a major political issue in Canada, which has troops in Afghanistan but not Iraq.
* The North Korean nuclear test has raised the question of sanctions and of whether the US will pursue regime change in Korea. The US government could probably have gotten North Korea to halt its nuclear program, but its primary pursuit was not that but overthrowing the Korean regime. Thus a year ago, several days after an agreement with North Korea that was paving the way for the end of the nuclear program, the US implemented severe financial sanctions on North Korea, making a mockery of its pledge to work for normalization of relations. The North Korean regime, however, is not a workers' regime, and it threatens other Koreans with its nuclear weapons.
* There is the issue of sanctions against Iran, and possible US military action. Here too the US places emphasis on its hegemony in the Middle East, and on regime change in Iran, and not on its stated concern for nuclear proliferation.

. Thus again and again the news centers on war. Many people had hoped that the end of the Cold War would bring a calmer world. There was no longer a fight between two superpowers, as US imperialism was the only remaining superpower. Would this mean that there would be a period of peace? Such expectations proved illusory. Like it or not, we are now in the midst of Bush's "war on terror", which is a series of wars and war threats.

The old imperialism -- wars and colonies

. A century ago, there was also a series of wars and war threats, and this was one of the reasons that, as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, there was widespread discussion of imperialism. Of course, back then various regimes called themselves empires, such as the British, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Moreover, the late 19th century had been a period of European arming and colonial expansion. By the turn of the century, the various colonial powers were bumping against each other in the pursuit of colonies and world domination. A series of wars ensued. There was the Spanish-American war, in which the US took over various of Spain's colonies, such as the Philippines and Cuba. There was the Boer war, where England maintained its colonial domination of South Africa. There were threats of wars between France and Germany over Morocco; attempts to partition or gain influence over parts of Iran, China, and the Ottoman Empire; and so forth.

. This colonialism and militarism brought forth talk of imperialism. The division of a majority of the world's population among the colonies of a handful of powers was its most obvious feature. Six countries, Great Britain, Tsarist Russia, France, Germany, the US, and Japan controlled the majority of the world's colonies, while even some small countries, such as Portugal, Holland, and Belgium, controlled their own overseas empires. All in all, the majority of the world's people lived as subject peoples in colonies or semi-colonies. And the forcible suppression needed to maintain these empires against their subject peoples, and the struggle between the great powers over who would control this or that area of the world, fueled a new period of military conflict, which led to World Wars I and II.

Imperialism after the collapse
of the colonial empires

. Today, there are few outright colonies left. The large empires in their old form have collapsed, brought down by the revolutionary movements and national liberation struggles of the 20th century. True, the struggles around the few colonies that remain play a disproportionate share in world politics, as is shown by the major role of the Palestinian issue in the Middle East. The issue of the right to self-determination remains important for the working-class movement. The way in which the right to self-determination now comes up, and the changes in the character of the national movements, were discussed in the article in Communist Voice, and perhaps we'll get to it in the discussion period. But here I'll simply note that the collapse of colonialism has changed the overall picture of the world.

. From a world where the majority of the world's people lived in colonies and semi-colonies, now a majority of the world's people live in old and new imperialist countries and regional powers.

. First of all, the traditional imperialist powers of the US, Europe and Japan are still here, still preying on the world's people; they are still the home for almost all of the very largest multinational firms; and one of these powers, the US, seeks to make the entire world into its own backyard.

. But after a century, there are also additional imperialist powers. It turns out that a number of former colonies and semi-colonies have become major powers in their own right. Of course, if this talk lingers on them, it's not because the old imperialists have become unimportant -- the old powers still play a vastly disproportionate role as world bullies. But the emergence of new imperialists and would-be imperialists is a major change in the world situation which has to be assessed, whereas the imperialism of the old powers is something that has been analyzed repeatedly for over a century. And a large part of the world's population lives in the new powers.

. Moreover, the point in noting that a number of former colonies and semi-colonies have become major powers in their own right isn't to justify the rivalry of the US and other traditional imperialist powers with China, India, Iran, and other formerly subjugated countries. It is important to oppose the chauvinist campaigns that the bourgeoisie organizes against these powers, in which it blames local unemployment on China and other countries, and creates an atmosphere of fear about the rest of the world. But it is also up to the working class to oppose all the reactionary powers, old or new. And only by recognizing the real nature of the new powers, and the class relations within them, is it possible to understand the obstacles that face the working masses of these countries, and to effectively organize proletarian solidarity with them. It is necessary to distinguish the working masses of these countries from the developing imperialist bourgeoisies.

. So what are some examples of the new powers?

* China, once a semi-colony preyed upon by just about every other power, has become a major power in its own right. Its economy is taking on a greater and greater world role; it is a nuclear power with a major army; it is not just an increasingly influential power in East Asia, but it competes for economic and political influence even in Africa and Latin America; it is a world power, a Great Power.
* India, once a colony, has a major economy. Its big capitalists not only dominate its own economy but buy and sell major companies in Europe and elsewhere. They make deals in the billions of dollars. India is a nuclear power, a regional power and indeed a major power.

. If India and China were the only countries that had gone from being colonies and semicolonies to being major powers, this would still be a radical change in the world. India and China alone have one-third of the world's population, and two-fifths of Asia's.

. But they are not the only countries that have made this transition. Some other examples:

* Turkey, for example, has been a major regional player in former Soviet Central Asia.
* Even the wars being threatened or waged today show that various formerly dominated countries have striven to be important powers. For example, Iran has become a major power in its region, although it is held back by the heavy pressure of US power.
* Iraq is now going through a devastating occupation and major internal troubles; it may even be dismantled. But this was the result of defeat in the Gulf Wars; prior to this it strove in the 1980s to be a major regional power; and to this end it fought for eight bloody years with Iran.
* Other world events also show the development of new regional powers. In trade negotiations, part of the "South" has more and more weight. But this is largely countries like Brazil, South Africa, and India. Their interests aren't the same as those of the smaller and weaker countries. One example of this concerns Bolivia. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, has sought to get a better deal on natural gas from the big energy companies. Among the recalcitrant companies is Petrobras, Brazil's semi-governmental energy company (which may be privatized or may retain some governmental ownership depending on the outcome of the ongoing Brazilian presidential election).

. It is sometimes argued that the masses in the new powers are often poor, so these countries can't be regional powers and certainly not imperialist ones. But, back a century ago, Tsarist Russia was itself a country with a notoriously impoverished peasant majority, and no one doubted that it was an imperialist country.

The outcome of the national liberation movement

. The national liberation movement of the 20th century and other world events broke up the old empires. However, the independence of the newly-liberated countries did not lead to full freedom for their inhabitants, but to wider and faster capitalist development. World capitalist growth since World War II has led to a greater and greater split between rich and poor, both between countries and within countries. There is, for instance, a growing split between rural and urban areas in China and India. There are growing splits between devastated regions, such as a large part of Africa, and rapidly growing areas, such as East Asia. This is what capitalism is.

. Also the newly-independent countries, when capitalism grows in them and if they have a certain weight, seek to become powers in their own right. They have become capitalist countries, if subordinate ones. If their size, or geographical conditions, or other features give them an advantage over other countries, they seek to be regional powers, and some may make it to the rank of imperialist countries.

. This situation looks different from the past. Why should the new situation, where few direct colonies exist, be called imperialism? Can there be an imperialism where the majority of the world's people live in either the traditional big powers or new big powers and regional powers?

Spheres of influence

. Yes, that is what the history of the last decades shows. For one thing, we see that the present world situation has seen a continuation of wars for spheres of influence and regional and world domination. As far as the new powers are concerned, this has often meant that a power seeking regional domination has come up against US imperialism, which is seeking to impose its world domination. Meanwhile the old imperialist countries still vie for spheres of influence; and they still talk of their areas of "vital influence".

. But more than that. The Leninist theory of imperialism didn't just point to the empires. It asked what lay behind the rush to empire, and the imperialist rivalries. It pointed to the development of monopoly capitalism as the key to the rabid imperialism of a century ago. If one looks at Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism, one finds that Lenin points to all the features of the imperialism of his time, such as the division of the world into empires, but stresses that "If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. " (Ch. 7, Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 266) He pointed out that there had been colonialism and empires before, rather it was the development of large-scale economic monopolization that signified what was new in the imperialism of his time.

. In Imperialism, Lenin showed how this monopoly capitalism operated, and pointed to the attempts of the monopolists to dominate not just the production of their own country, but world production; they sought to divide world markets between themselves He wrote about the division of the world between capitalist monopolies; the development of finance capitalism; and its exploitation of the entire world.

. This monopoly capitalism still exists. It has grown even larger and more powerful than it was a century ago. Its field of development now extends even more strongly across the world, as the bourgeoisie of former colonies and semicolonies develops rapidly. This is what provides the basis for the continuation of imperialism.

. This is why both the Democratic and Republican parties, since they both represent the capitalist ruling class, are imperialists, fighting simply over whether the US world domination should be striven for by unilateral or multilateral means. Democrats often fight Bush over who can fight the "war on terror" best. Thus Peter Beinert, one of the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council, recently wrote the book The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can win the War on Terror and Make America Great.

The present-day world order

. What does this imperialist world system look like? For one thing, today we can see the rape of the entire world by finance capital and large, multinational corporations. Moreover, a global system has developed, whereby world institutions like the IMF and WTO help extend the reach of the monopolies, and the rules of these world bodies help to knock back resistance by individual governments of the subordinate countries. Let's look a bit more closely at this system.

. While direct war between the old imperialist powers has been avoided since World War II, there has been a series of wars -- little wars, bigger wars between regional powers and the main imperialist powers, civil wars, even undeclared wars, war is incessant. At any one time, not one but many of them are going on somewhere in the world. Moreover wars are not just means of exercising power, but they are big business. Indeed, arms sales are one of the main world industries, and military budgets are huge.

. Aside from this, world governmental organizations have developed as a political tool of imperialism. Just like the collapse of the old colonial empires, the development of world institutions -- the UN, the World Court, the WTO, etc. -- differs from the old imperialism of a century ago.

. But far from bringing the end of international rivalries and the abolition of imperialist striving for domination, these world institutions have become one of the main voices of imperialism. While they are represent themselves as representatives of the world's people, they actually enforce the will of the strongest powers against the others. Power in these organizations is weighted according to the strength of the countries involved. Some have voting according to financial contributions, while the UN separates out a number of Great Powers as permanent members of the Security Council. And far from being peaceful, the world bodies are another means of pressure exercised by the strong against the weak. Indeed, at this particular moment, we can see that the UN Security Council, which claims to be a tool of peace among nations, often appears before the world as a military command center for deciding where troops should be deployed next, and which peoples should be economically squeezed until their governments do what they are told.

The NGOs

. Another aspect of the imperialist system, one not discussed in the article in Communist Voice, is the multitude of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It's not that everything done by NGOs is harmful -- they are involved in a good deal of work on everything from health and environment to human rights. But taken as a whole, they serve as a wing of imperialism: generally, but not always, the smiling, would-be humanitarian wing of imperialism. Their involvement with different spheres of work helps keep these spheres within the confines of what's acceptable to imperialism, and to the currently fashionable prescriptions of bourgeois economics. This occurs in two ways. On one hand, their programs are generally at least partially financed, and/or aided in other ways, by the imperialist governments, which thus have power over them. For example, the Bush administration has decreed that no support will go to any international health agencies that are in any way involved with abortion, and moreover has channeled funding to groups which push "abstinence only" programs. It has thus sabotaged various AIDS prevention programs and women's health programs.

. But there's more to it than that. Aside from the issue of direct governmental pressure on the NGOs, they are mainly directed by socially-minded bourgeois, and their private fund-raising is aimed in this direction. This is important as imperialism isn't just governments giving orders, armies crossing borders, and international sanctions, but is based on the class rule of the bourgeoisie, and the NGOs represent, to a large extent, the sphere of international civic activity of a section of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois-influenced intellectuals. The activists in these groups aren't all ill-intentioned people or bourgeois themselves; some are dedicated or even self-sacrificing people, who are seriously concerned about the plight of the masses in various countries. And they may see themselves as fighting to oppose bad government policies. But their work is kept within the limits of the bourgeois conceptions and framework of the NGO leadership.

Imperialism as the last stage
prior to the overthrow of capitalism

. There is more that could be said about the structure of imperialism. But the Leninist theory of imperialism didn't just describe and analyze imperialism, but pointed out the path to fighting it. It doesn't describe imperialism as an unbeatable colossus, but pointed out that imperialism was a transition to a new system.

. The idea wasn't that socialism would develop gradually out of the social and political institutions of imperialism. Instead, Lenin pointed out the passing over of capitalism to monopoly capitalism, to imperialism, shows that the capitalism was becoming ripe for overthrow. For one thing, the growth of monopoly, large-scale production, and government planning were signs that capitalism was outgrowing the days of individual competition. The economic preconditions for socialism were developing within capitalism. Monopoly itself showed that economic planning was becoming possible as well as necessary, and that planning would either be a brutal exploitation over the working masses, or private ownership would have to be replaced by social ownership of the means of production.

. The imperialist stage of capitalism has lasted far longer than Lenin and the other communists of his time imagined. But its basic nature hasn't changed. Monopoly capitalism remains, as Lenin described, a mixture of competition and planning in a way that is most painful for the masses. And its festering economic problems, the growing inequalities, the environmental devastation, and its tendency to war and oppression, shows the necessity for a change over to socialism.

The class struggle as the transition to a new society

. Moreover, if imperialism is based on monopoly capitalism, if it grows out of the existence of capitalism itself, then it follows that the struggle against imperialism must be based on the class struggle. It is the working class which is the most consistent opponent of imperialism, the class which is the most interested in bringing about the end of capitalism and the advent of the new society. True, nowhere today is the working class on the verge of a socialist revolution, but it is being pushed into various struggles. Through struggles on many issues, against political tyranny or against economic exploitation, against racism and national oppression or directly against various capitalist exploiters, carried out workplace by workplace or in national upsurges, the working class will gradually gain consciousness of the class contradictions that underlie imperialism and of its own role as the force destined to overthrow capitalism and thus end imperialism forever.

. The working class is presently disorganized, but one can see that conditions are being prepared for a new round of working-class struggle. The spread of capitalism throughout the world, and the intense exploitation of "globalization", has led to an increase in the numbers and world significance of the working masses. It is not just in the most economically advanced countries, but increasingly all over the globe that the working class has become the core of the exploited majority. The development of China, India, and other formerly subjugated countries into major powers has been accompanied by the growth of their working classes.

. The national liberation movement of the 20th century didn't bring class emancipation, but only eliminated one form of oppression. It led not to the hoped-for liberation of the downtrodden colonial working masses from all exploitation, but to the rise and strengthening of new capitalisms. The local exploiters have trampled brazenly through the newly-independent countries. And the multinational corporations have run from country to country, setting up sweatshops, bringing runaway jobs from places with high wages to those with low wages. But this extension of capitalism has also brought the working class and its exploitation into the forefront of the life of these countries.

. There is now, for example, a huge working class in China. And the day will come when it takes its place as one of the major players in the world class struggle, fighting for its own rights and encouraging workers elsewhere. The capitalists may have dreamed that China would represent an inexhaustible supply of desperate unemployed people. But already China, which had become the sweatshop for much of world production, is showing some signs of labor shortage. When the working class begins to rise in China and other countries where the multinationals had run for cheap and docile labor, this will help spur the working class to rise all around the world. This is not yet the situation, but the conditions are being prepared for it. No doubt the big corporations will eventually run from India and China and other places in search of new sources of super-cheap labor. But it's quite a difference between running from a minority of industrialized countries to countries containing the vast majority of the world's people, and running from countries containing this majority of working people to an ever-shrinking number of small and left-over places.

. The new rise of the working class will not be automatic. It's not sufficient that objective conditions are being created for the transition to socialism. It's necessary for the working class and progressive activists to consciously organize and to build a genuinely working class party. This must include dealing with revolutionary theory and discussing and understanding the lessons of the last century of revolutionary activity. Part of this is to rescue the anti-imperialist cause from the distortion which uses the slogan of anti-imperialism to support one imperialist bourgeoisie against another. Some do this to seek a shortcut around the class struggle, while others advocate only fighting the traditional imperialists and fail to recognize the rise of new imperialisms. But it is only proletarian anti-imperialism, anti-imperialism that is based on interests of the working masses and recognizes the new class features of the present world order, that can stand up against imperialism as a world system. It is such thorough-going anti-imperialism that must be restored to its rightful role as a spur to the organization and international unity of the working masses in struggle against their exploiters.

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February 25, 2007.