This is part one of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview, which will be published in next several days. The interview begins by addressing how imperialism is defined. —Eds
Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.
The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.
How do you define imperialism?
John Smith: The most succinct and concrete definition of imperialism that I can come up with is the subjugation of the entire world to the interests of the capitalist ruling classes of a handful of oppressor nations. This contains both the economic and political dimensions of imperialism—‘subjugation’ denotes the political subjection of governments, states and peoples to imperialist rule, while ‘interests of the capitalist ruling classes’ refers to their economic interests, essentially their appropriation of the lion’s share of the surplus value generated by the workers and farmers of the world, not just by those resident in their own countries. The summary definition also speaks of the ‘ruling classes of a handful of oppressor nations’, rejecting the influential view (which exists in many variants and whose most prominent exponents are Leslie Sklair and William Robinson) that these ruling classes have merged into a ‘transnational capitalist class’, and it therefore implies that the interests of these ruling classes may not coincide, that inter-imperialist rivalries persist. Furthermore, the definition advanced above can be developed to take account of ‘sub-imperialism’, that is, when the capitalist rulers of a subject nation in turn subject other, even weaker, nations and peoples to their political and economic domination.
What is/are the difference/s between the definition you are using and other definitions?
JS: The definition provided above is concrete in that it applies to now, as opposed to a generic definition applicable to all manifestations of imperialism throughout the ages. In the above definition, ‘imperialism’ is an analytical category that can be developed into a theoretical concept. In contrast, trans-historical, generic definitions of imperialism can only ever be descriptive, highlighting superficial features which different manifestations of imperialism in different periods of human history appear to have in common. As Lenin pointed out in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism. But ‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality.” The essence of contemporary imperialism is to be found in the contradictory social relations specific to capitalism, not in “human nature “or any other ahistorical abstraction.
That’s not to say that generic uses of the term are useless, or that the noun “imperialism” (and even more so the adjective “imperialist”) cannot be used to describe diverse forms of chauvinistic behavior and mentality—but unless we are conscious of the difference between imperialism as a descriptive term and as an analytical category, we will inevitably fall into the ‘vapid banality’ that Lenin warns against.
What’s really involved here is the need to go beyond the sterile formal logic so characteristic of bourgeois social science and learn how to think dialectically. If imperialism predated capitalism, pedants ask, how can it be intrinsic to capitalism? How can it be true that its essence must be found in capitalist social relations and not human society in general? To answer this question I like to use the analogy of patriarchy. It, too, predates capitalism—indeed, as Frederick Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, what he called “the world-historic downfall of the female sex” coincided with the transition from fiercely egalitarian hunter-gatherer era to the earliest class-divided society. Not only did patriarchy predate capitalism, like imperialism, it was a necessary precondition for the rise of capitalism. Upon its arrival, and as part of the process of establishing its supremacy, this higher form of social organisation discarded elements of the pre-existing feudal or communal society which were inimical to its own nature—and internalized, made into its own, whatever was favorable to its further development. Both imperialism and patriarchy fall into the second category, which is why it is possible to say that both of these phenomena preceded capitalism but have long since become inherent qualities of capitalism. There are many people in subject nations (not least, their capitalist elites) who oppose imperialism but do not oppose capitalism, just as there are many feminists who oppose the oppression of women but do not acknowledge that this oppression is rooted in capitalist social relations. So it is that bourgeois nationalism, just like bourgeois feminism, is inherently conflicted and cannot provide a path towards liberation.
What aspects/factors have you taken into account while defining imperialism?
JS: Well, I think it is necessary to take everything into account! No single aspect of reality, especially not one as qualitatively important as imperialism, can be understood unless we have at least a working concept of the total system of interaction of which it is a part. This is an unavoidable difficulty which bourgeois social science attempts to evade by artificially dividing social science into mutually-exclusive “disciplines”, e.g. “politics”, “economics”, “sociology”, “anthropology” etc., each offering rival explanations of social phenomena, using incompatible methodologies, and expressing themselves in terminologies which are mutually unintelligible. The fatal limitations of such pseudo-science have become impossible to ignore, and so “multi-disciplinary” approaches have become more popular—but without the rigorous application of dialectical logic, this inevitably involves arbitrary or prejudiced selection of facts and results in eclecticism and indeterminacy. The one exception to this is the pseudo-science known as “economics—its high priests resist the contamination of its mathematical abstractions with concepts borrowed from politics, sociology, history etc. Their arrogance knows no bounds, and they sense they would not survive a serious encounter with other disciplines.
So, I have consciously attempted to apply everything that I have learned about human evolution over the past several centuries, especially about the evolution of global political economy since World War II, and most especially about its evolution since the 1970s, the dawn of the so-called neoliberal era. Of course, “taking everything into account” doesn’t get us very far, it is nothing more than a condition for our arrival at the beginning of the road to wisdom; further progress requires sifting, ordering, arranging and analyzing the mass of data, testing concepts against facts and using concepts to penetrate through the surface appearance of facts, searching for what Evald Ilyenkov called the “cardinal points of interaction “of the system being investigated.
To this end, I zeroed in on what analysis of facts soon revealed itself to be the most dynamic and significant transformation of the neoliberal era, namely the large-scale shift of production processes to low-wage countries, a development which was and is touted by capitalism’s apologists—and by far too many who call themselves Marxists—as definitive proof that, thanks to capitalist development, the imperialist North-South divide was fading into history. Instead, as I showed in Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, this development signifies the culmination of capitalism’s imperialist evolution, a qualitatively new stage in capitalism’s internalization of imperialism, in which the plunder of nature and super-exploitation of living labor now takes place primarily within the bounds of the capital-labor relation rather than through so-called primitive accumulation, territorial conquest and other forms of naked plunder, which capitalists inherited and enthusiastically adopted from the past and which they have far from abandoned.
What are the limitations of/problems with other definitions of imperialism?
JS: The liberal/mainstream notion of imperialism that permeates academia and bourgeois political opinion (and which, as I argue in Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, contaminates much of what in Europe and North America presents itself as Marxist political economy) proceeds from the elementary observation that the various empires that have existed during the past three millennia share one obvious characteristic, namely territorial conquest accomplished through military force. This is seized upon as the defining characteristic of imperialism, and the dismantlement of the territorial empires and granting of formal sovereignty is then taken as proof that imperialism belongs to the past, not the present. Such an approach rests on a complete divorce between politics and economics—imperialism is defined exclusively by political domination and the application of military force; the motive for such behavior might be economic, i.e. plunder of resources etc., but it might just as easily be geopolitics, megalomania, divine right or anything else.
The Marxist concept of imperialism is diametrically opposed to this. Capitalism’s imperialist impulse is rooted in the contradictions of the capitalist value relation. As Marx explained, increasing productivity of labor (through the substitution of living labor by dead labor, i.e. machinery) and falling rate of profit are two sides of the same coin; and as Lenin explained, capitalists in developed capitalist nations are obliged by the class struggle to purchase social peace by using some of their profits to bribe privileged layers of the working class. As a result, these capitalist ruling classes are compelled to augment the surplus value they extract from workers and farmers at home with ever-increasing flows of wealth from abroad. Both of the trends pushing in this direction became pronounced in the closing decades of the 19thcentury, provoking intensified empire-building and setting these rival ruling classes on collision course with each other, leading to the first imperialist world war.
Is there any fundamental difference between the way you define imperialism and the way Lenin or Marxist-Leninists defined imperialism?
JS: No, I don’t believe so, but what is different is the world of the 21stcentury compared to the world as it was 100 years ago. When Lenin, Zinoviev, Bukharin and other Bolshevik leaders developed the Marxist theory of imperialism, the relation between the handful of oppressor nations and the great majority of oppressed nations was a relation between countries and continents where capitalist social relations were fully established and where they were still embryonic, and the techniques of imperialist plunder that were available to the oppressors were largely those they had inherited from the past—brute force, usury, etc. Also embryonic was the rebellion of the colonized and enslaved peoples; this subsequently became vastly more powerful, forcing the imperialists to modify the forms of their domination by handing formal political sovereignty to venal and corrupt elites while negating any meaningful economic sovereignty. So, there has been substantial change in the external forms of continued imperialist domination, and the spread of capitalist social relations in the dominated countries has opened up new ways for imperialists to siphon wealth from these countries, but the essential nature of the imperialist relation has not fundamentally changed since Lenin’s time. On the contrary, capitalists in North America, imperialist Europe and Japan are today vastly more reliant on flows of surplus value from so-called developing nations than they were 100 years ago; in other words, they are even more parasitic than ever they were; and the world is as divided as ever it was between, in Lenin’s words, “a handful of oppressor nations and the great majority of oppressed nations,” with the significant change that the hard-fought struggle by the peoples have emancipated the national bourgeoisies of the oppressed nations, in other words a place has been found for their snouts in the trough, while the impoverished and dispossessed workers, farmers and small producers still await their day of liberation.
“Marxist-Leninist” refers to the ideology espoused by the bureaucratic rulers of the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and all those around the world who look to them for leadership, but in my opinion, there is no Marxism or Leninism in so-called “Marxism-Leninism”. We cannot get anywhere until we call things by their true names, so I insist on describing both the Moscow or Beijing varieties of these ideologies as Stalinist. This might upset some people or be misinterpreted as factional name-calling, but the alternative is to perpetuate an extremely harmful falsehood—one which is energetically promoted by bourgeois politicians and opinion-formers of all types, from the liberal left to the far right, all of whom are aware of how much damage they can do to the revolutionary workers’ movement by identifying socialism, communism and the liberatory ideas of Marx and Lenin with the disgusting brutality and corruption of the bureaucratic castes which once ruled the Soviet Union and which continue to rule over China (indeed, the capitalist ruling class presently in power in Russia is almost entirely composed of former “Marxist-Leninists”).
“Marxism-Leninism” served the rulers of the USSR and PRC not as a guide to action, but as a cloak of deception, a means of legitimizing their rule. They claimed allegiance to the same theories and philosophies as do I, but their doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism stands in the clearest possible contradiction with everything that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin stood for.