Larry Everest (RCP-USA), Joseph
Green (CV), James Turley (CPGB)
Image: Soldiers in Petrograd hold up a
banner reading “Death to imperialism!
Victory to the Red Army” (1920)
Platypus Review 59 | September 2013
On April 6, 2013, a panel on “What is Imperialism? (What Now?)” took place during the Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panel was motivated by the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aimed to discuss whether we are any closer to understanding what imperialism is and the relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. This panel brought together Larry Everest from the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), Joseph Green from Communist Voice, and James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was moderated by Lucy Parker of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Video is available here.
James Turley: Imperialism poses a series of problems for us as Marxists and they can broadly be divided into theoretical problems and political problems. The theoretical problems are characterized by the sharp inequalities between states, and this is as much a feature of the global order as the very obvious inequality and exploitative relations between classes. This arrangement has serious effects on how the class struggle plays out in different countries. Imperialism also poses a problem of the historical periodization of capitalism. This is the problem of imperialism as a particular stage of capitalism. Even if imperialism is not a particular stage, it is still in this historical sense a kind of carbon dating mechanism. With regard to political problems, it is clear that imperialism, as a system of unequal relations between states, is a way in which state power is organized globally. In this sense, the paramount political problem facing us as Marxists and revolutionaries, if we want to overthrow capitalism globally, is that the highest level of state power requires a serious political challenge.
Another issue which has come up, particularly in the last ten years, but which really has existed since at least the early days of the Comintern, is the attitude that we take to forces that are not strictly speaking of the Left but that nevertheless confront and oppose imperialist powers in military conflicts or in other ways. This issue, of course, has caused a serious division on the Left. The guidebook for how we have traditionally dealt with this as a movement is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), which is a sort of brief and very empirical analysis of the nature of imperialism. The background for Lenin’s work was the much larger debate over colonial policy and imperialism in the Second International that began in 1896. Karl Kautsky, who was the foremost theorist of the Second International, wrote a series of articles called Socialism and Colonial Policy arguing that early empires — such as those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch — were effectively pre-capitalist in nature. They did not export capitalist relations of production, but rather were coercive, absolutist exploitation operations. According to Kautsky, these empires gave way, with the ascent of England as an imperial power, to what he called “Manchesterism.” This was free-trade imperialism. Instead of having coercive and brutal operations — this is Kautsky’s view by the way, it is obviously not true — what you had was the elimination of trade barriers and the expansion of capitalism as a system. Kautsky was writing in 1896 and 1897, by which point it was clear that the mechanisms which led to the First World War were accelerating, and the German state was attempting to acquire colonies. Kautsky’s argument is that the Scramble for Africa and similar forms of late-nineteenth-century imperial expansion are an expression of pre-capitalist forces in Germany and other states, and that this imperialism is actually reactionary with regard to “Manchesterism.” Continue reading