Cartoon commies

For as long as there have been communists, so also have there been cartoonists. At times, cartoonists and communists have been one and the same. The young Friedrich Engels observed this in a letter written to his friend Karl Marx in October 1844:

I have been in Elberfeld, where I once again came across several communists I had never heard of before. Turn where you will, go where you may, you’ll stumble on a communist. A very impassioned communist, a cartoonist, and aspiring historical painter by the name of Seel will be going to Paris in two months’ time. I’ll direct him to you…[H]e may very well come in useful as a cartoonist.

Engels was something of a cartoonist himself. His caricatures of the Young Hegelians in »Die Berliner Freien« and of the anarchist Max Stirner have been reproduced down to the present. On the back of E. Voswinkel’s letter to Marx from January 1849, Engels drew a cartoon of Frederick William IV and the Prussian bourgeoisie apropos the elections to the Prussian Diet. Marx tried to get it published in the Brüsseler-Zeitung.

Engels' caricature of "The Free," the Berlin group of Young Hegelians (Words in the drawing, Ruge, Buhl, Nauwerck, Bauer, Wigand, Edgar [Bauer], Stirner, Meyen, stranger, Koppen the Lieutenant. The squirrel is the Prussian Minister Eichhorn

Lenin appreciated the odd cartoon here and there as well. Yelena Stasova sent him a cartoon in honor of his fiftieth birthday, which depicted the Marxists as children who came to congratulate the Narodnik Mikhailovsky on his fiftieth birthday in 1900. Stasova wrote that at the time of Mikhailovsky’s birthday the RSDLP had been in its childhood, whereas it had since matured. “This is the result of your work, your mind and talent,” she explained.

Upon receiving it, the Bolshevik leader decided to share it with his fellow celebrants and guests:

Comrades, I must naturally begin by thanking you for two things: firstly, for the congratulations addressed to me today, and secondly, even more for having spared me congratulatory speeches (Applause.) I think that perhaps in this way we may gradually, not all at once, of course, devise a more suitable method of celebrating anniversaries than the one hitherto in vogue, which has sometimes formed the subject of remarkably good cartoons. Here is one such cartoon drawn by a prominent artist in celebration of such a jubilee. I received it today with an extremely cordial letter. And as the comrades have been kind enough to spare me congratulatory speeches, I will hand this cartoon round for all to see, so as to save us in future from such jubilee celebrations altogether.

Nikolai Bukharin — the party’s favorite, and its leading economist — was also a quite talented caricaturist. Zinoviev, Lenin, and Dzerzhinsky all show up in his sketches. Bukharin made a few drawings of Stalin, the man who would later send him to be executed, during their brief alliance in the 1920s. Krzhizhanovsky and Mezhiauk contribute a few doodles as well. Have a look.

Cartoons are primarily illustrative. That is to say, they convey their meaning by means of pictures and not words. But text often accompanies cartoons and comic strips, either as a description of that which is depicted or as dialogue (the speech bubble between characters or the thought bubble for internal monologue). Continue reading

Towards a theory of the development of the world market and the world economy

Isaak Dashkovskii
Under the Banner of
(№ 1, 1927)

Translated by Noa Rodman with light edits by Ross Wolfe. Still waiting on a full copy of the Russian to go over some of the rougher sections. English is not Noa’s first language, to my knowledge. He’s a mysterious figure in general, who sometimes comments on my blog and occasionally Chris Cutrone’s, while also haunting the LibCom forums. Anyway, I’ve done what I can to clean it up.

First of three articles. Under the Banner of Marxism, 1927, № 1 , 86-117. See part two and three.1

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The most fundamental and dominant facts of modern economic life are the world market and the world economy. This is observed in countless written works, devoted to recent history of the economy and its modern situation. Even those authors, who, like [Werner] Sombart, tend to defend the paradoxical idea, that “the single national economy increasingly is becoming a completed microcosmos, and the internal market gradually outweighs for all industries the significance of the foreign market,”2 nevertheless have to recognize, that an essential condition for the growth of the domestic market is a “permanent and continuous extensive expansion of world economic relations.”

The development of international economic relations is a kind of dialectical process. As is known, exchange and trade historically occur “on the margins of social organisms.” International, intertribal trade is the starting point of the development of exchange, with which the capitalist economy also develops. 3 Later on capitalism gradually clears for itself a required “field of exploitation” inside the country, disintegrating the remnants of the natural order, paving the way of commodity economy throughout and transforming the latter into capitalist economy. During this period there occurs an intensive “formation of the internal market” for capitalism. When this work is done in enough depth and breadth, there comes the turn again of international exchange, on no longer primitive foundations, but on the basis of large-scale production and manufacture technology. Capitalism “pulls” all nations one after the other into the world economic orbit. The epoch of world economy arrives.

As troubadours of this international exchange act always the economists of those countries, which occupy a dominant position in the world market. Since the era of development of bourgeois political economy coincided with the dominance of England in the world market, it is only natural that the theory of the classics became the fighting banner of bourgeois “cosmopolitanism,” which essentially was the only adequate form of expression of the national interests of British capital. In the development of the “cosmopolitan” theory one can mention two stages: the first period associated with the names of Smith and Ricardo, characterizing the predominance of the interests of international trade in the strict sense, i.e., in terms of export of goods. Praising the benefits of international exchange both Smith and Ricardo refer negatively to the tendency to transfer capital and entrepreneurship abroad.

But in relation to this already Mill takes a step forward, pointing out that the export of capital is a powerful force for expanding the field of employment of remaining capital. It is quite fair to say that the more, to a certain extent, we will send capital out, the more we will have it and the greater the amount of it we will be able to keep in the fatherland.4 This evolution of the classical theory was closely related to changes in the economic environment. From export of goods British capital turned, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the export of capital. The pursuit of higher profits got the better over “attachment to the fatherland,” and Mill only registered a fait accompli. True, he has not yet completely done away with the old ideology and proves the benefits of export of capital by the consideration that the export contributes to increasing the amount of capital remaining in the fatherland. But this was already a simple tribute to prejudices, from which the later generation of economists managed to entirely escape.

In the theory of international economic relations as well as in all other matters of political economy, the classics remained true to their main method — to issue the specific laws of bourgeois economy to a natural order of things, to a pre-established harmony. The moving force of the development of world trade they saw in physical conditions of production, and not in the social form, which they take under capitalism. International trade spreads the frame of the division of labor, increasing its productivity. Growth of productivity is a simple consequence of technical factors — the division of labor, which therefore is the most natural order of things. Natural laws inevitably must forge a way through the artificial barriers created by the wrong policies of social organizations — the state, etc. Therefore the development of international trade is inevitable.

From the natural order of things proceeded, incidentally, also a prominent opponent of the classical school on the continent of Europe — Friedrich List. But he, in contrast to the classics, argued that the greatest economic benefits are obtained not from the division of labor between countries, but from the conjunction of labor within the same country, in particular from the conjunction of industrial and agricultural production. A clear case of how the meaning of “natural laws” is modified when they need to express opposing interests of different groups of bourgeoisie, in this case the bourgeoisie of England and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. True, also List did not depart from “cosmopolitanism” in relation to more or less distant future, when circumstances permit “universal” struggle. He also considered it necessary to flirt with “universal” considerations. “That the civilization of all nations, the culture of the whole globe is the mission of mankind, is a consequence of those immutable laws of nature, according to which civilized nations are driven by irresistible power to carry over their productive forces to the less civilized countries.”5

“Natural laws” unconsciously for their interpreters spoke in the purest language of bourgeois categories in those cases, for example, when the benefits of the international exchange strengthened arguments on the profit rate or wages. But since these categories in the representation of bourgeois economy had “antediluvian existence,” these same forces of development of the world market appeared independent of any form of social organization. They were rooted in the “immutable laws of nature.”

In his comments on Ricardo Diehl correctly notes that “​​Ricardo’s idea about foreign trade policy is closely connected with his theory of distribution of national income; he is in favor of free trade because it has the most favorable influence upon the distribution of wealth within the national economy” (K. Diehl, Erläuterungen, Bd. III, II Theil, 326 p.).

Only Marx put the question of the world market on a real scientific ground. He showed that the creation of the world market was not a function of “laws of nature” as such, but a function of capital, and moved, in this way, study on the ground of social laws, peculiar to a determined era. “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx asks. “Freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action.”6

And further, revealing the essence of protectionism, Marx finds it in a strong growth, despite the apparent contrast, with the system of free trade:

The protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade.

In this way, both seemingly mutually exclusive, systems of economic policy, lead, according to Marx, to the same result: the expansion of the scope of capital’s activity, the expansion of world economic relations.

A theory of the world market had no fortune in Marxist literature. Marx himself assumed to devote a significant part of his research to the analysis of foreign trade, international market and international economy. He mentions this in the first lines of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “I examine the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labor; the State, foreign trade, world market.” The incompleteness of Capital is reflected precisely in the last three parts of Marx’s plan. In particular the theory of international economic relations is represented there only in the form of passing remarks, which, however, are themselves of an enormous scientific worth and allow in general outlines to build a system of Marx’s views on this question.

Regarding post-Marxian economic literature, although questions of world economy also were and are paid a lot of attention, a general theory of international exchange remained poorly developed. The dispute about the importance of foreign markets for capitalism between Marxists and populists, renewed in our days around the theory of Rose Luxemburg, revolves mainly around the problem of realization, or the complication of specific questions of modern imperialism, involving the highly advanced monopolization of important sectors of the world economy, the strong influence of “supra-economic” factors , etc., conditions interfering with the economic laws of capitalism “in its pure form.” Meanwhile, without a “pure theory” of the global market one cannot understand the real binding of global economic phenomena, just as without a “pure theory” of commodity and capitalist economy one cannot understand the general course of economic life, relations, classes, etc. The theory of “realization” is only a part of this pure theory. The question about realization of surplus value cannot be separated from the question about prices, for it is only through prices that potential surplus value is converted into real profit. The formation of price in international exchange is impossible to understand, without having a general theory of international exchange, and international exchange is part of a wider field of international economic relations (including the migration of capitals, the so-called “exchange of services,” the movement of labor forces, etc.). In short, here is an untouched region of theoretical research, in which Marxist science has made only first steps. Continue reading

This Essay Has Been Re-Routed

Sorry for the inconvenience.  The now-completed essay can be found here.

On the Historical Specificity of the Marxist Theory of Imperialism

Nikolai Bukharin

Grigorii Zinoviev


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. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.

— Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist Development, from Lenin: Collected Works, Volume 22, pg. 266 (1915)

Modern imperialism is the social-economic policy of finance capital tending toward the creation of the most comprehensive economic territorial entities and world empires possible. It is characterized by the tendency to supplant free trade decisively with the system of protective tariffs and to subordinate economic life completely to the great monopolistic combines, such as the trusts, cartels, banking consortia, etc. Imperialism signifies the highest stage in the development of capitalism, in which not only commodity exports but capital exports as well occupy a place of quintessential importance. It characterizes an epoch in which the world is partitioned among a few great capitalist powers and in which the struggle proceeds along the lines of repartitioning it and partitioning the remaining areas.

— Grigorii Zinoviev, “What is Imperialism?” (1916)

The historian or economist who places under one denominator the structure of modern capitalism, i.e., modern production relations, and the numerous types of production relations that formerly led to wars of conquest, will understand nothing in the development of modern world economy.  One must single out the specific elements which characterise our time, and analyse them.  This was Marx’s method, and this is how a Marxist must approach the analysis of imperialism.  We now understand that it is impossible to confine oneself to the analysis of the forms, in which a policy manifests itself; for instance, one cannot be satisfied with defining a policy as that of “conquest,” “expansion,” “violence,” etc.  One must analyse the basis on which it rises and which it serves to widen.  We have defined imperialism as the policy of finance capital.  Therewith we uncovered the functional significance of that policy.  It upholds the structure of finance capital; it subjugates the world to the domination of finance capital; in place of the old pre-capitalist, or the old capitalist, production relations, it put the production relations of finance capital.  Just as finance capitalism (which must not be confused with money capital, for finance capital is characterised by being simultaneously banking and industrial capital) is an historically limited epoch, confined only to the last few decades, so imperialism, as the policy of finance capital, is a specific historic category.

— Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, pg. 114 (1917)

Modern imperialism is not the prelude to the expansion of capital, as in Bauer’s model; on the contrary, it is only the last chapter of its historical process of expansion: it is the period of universally sharpened world competition between the capitalist states for the last remaining non-capitalist areas on earth. In this final phase, economic and political catastrophe is just as much the intrinsic, normal mode of existence for capital as it was in the ‘primitive accumulation’ of its development phase. The discovery of America and the sea route to India were not just Promethean achievements of the human mind and civilization but also, and inseparably, a series of mass murders of primitive peoples in the New World and large-scale slave trading with the peoples of Africa and Asia. Similarly, the economic expansion of capital in its imperialist final phase is inseparable from the series of colonial conquests and World Wars which we are now experiencing. What distinguishes imperialism as the last struggle for capitalist world domination is not simply the remarkable energy and universality of expansion but — and this is the specific sign that the circle of development is beginning to close — the return of the decisive struggle for expansion from those areas which are being fought over back to its home countries. In this way, imperialism brings catastrophe as a mode of existence back from the periphery of capitalist development to its point of departure. The expansion of capital, which for four centuries had given the existence and civilization of all non-capitalist peoples in Asia, Africa, America and Australia over to ceaseless convulsions and general and complete decline, is now plunging the civilized peoples of Europe itself into a series of catastrophes whose final result can only be the decline of civilization or the transition to the socialist mode of production. Seen in this light, the position of the proletariat with regard to imperialism leads to a general confrontation with the rule of capital. The specific rules of its conduct are given by that historical alternative.

According to official ‘expert’ Marxism, the rules are quite different. The belief in the possibility of accumulation in an ‘isolated capitalist society’, the belief that capitalism is conceivable even without expansion, is the theoretical formula of a quite distinct tactical tendency. The logical conclusion of this idea is to look on the phase of imperialism not as a historical necessity, as the decisive conflict for socialism, but as the wicked invention of a small group of people who profit from it. This leads to convincing the bourgeoisie that, even from the point of view of their capitalist interests, imperialism and militarism are harmful, thus isolating the alleged small group of beneficiaries of this imperialism and forming a bloc of the proletariat with broad sections of the bourgeoisie in order to ‘moderate’ imperialism, starve it out by ‘partial disarmament’ and ‘draw its claws’! Just as liberalism in the period of its decline appeals for a well-informed as against an ill-informed monarchy, the ‘Marxist center’ appeals for the bourgeoisie it will educate as against the ill-advised one, for international disarmament treaties as against the disaster course of imperialism, for the peaceful federation of democratic nation-states as against the struggle of the great powers for armed world domination. The final confrontation between proletariat and capital to settle their world-historical contradiction is converted into the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to ‘moderate’ the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states.

— Rosa Luxemburg, Anti-Critique (1915)

My reason for citing the above excerpts is that I feel that the Marxist theory of imperialism — as developed by Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin — has been widely abused in recent decades in analyzing the intervention of advanced capitalist states (the U.S. or members of the European Union) into less developed countries.  While there can be no doubt that there exist some parallels and continuities between the kind of self-interested exploitation of Third World countries, typically ex-colonies, that takes place today and the imperialism of old, these theorists understood it as a specific outgrowth of monopoly or finance capitalism.  If I might be permitted to grant this phase of capitalism a periodicity, I would probably place it between 1880-1929.  Since this time, capitalism has undergone not one but two drastic reconfigurations (Fordism and neoliberalism).  For this reason, I think that the term should not be so loosely thrown around in describing current affairs, as many of these categories need to be reworked to fit the present day.

There are many fundamental differences between the phenomenon Lenin et al. described as “imperialism” and what has more recently been dubbed “imperialism” (or, perhaps more fittingly, “neo-imperialism”).

Lenin understood imperialism to entail a certain underlying logic, the bloody competition between great capitalist powers to carve up the earth according to zones of influence and direct colonial administration in pursuit of new markets, raw materials, and cheap labor.  Moreover, he believed that this competition between the great capitalist powers of the world, which were at the time mostly European but also included Japan and the United States, would escalate to the point where an inter-imperialist war, by definition a world war, was inevitable.  This was a multipolar world, in which no one great power could be said to predominate completely, and in which large-scale alliances were formed in anticipation of major conflict that everyone knew was on the horizon.  Also, imperialism constituted the logical outgrowth of the shift from liberal capitalism, where the prevailing Manchester School ideology of “free markets” dominated and liberalism (quite contrary to its historical aspirations) held the reigns of state power, from 1848-1873, to monopoly or finance capitalism, where smaller competitors were gradually pushed out as major trusts swallowed up their rivals and cut deals with the governments in order to corner the market in the aftermath of the “long crisis” of 1873.

What leftists generally understand imperialism to mean today is the more or less cooperative domination of either the single world superpower, the US, or in tandem with its various allies in NATO (another Cold War holdover) or the UN.  While military occupations clearly last over years of bloody conflict, the point is not direct colonial administration but the indirect establishment of quasi-independent regimes that will be “friendly” to US or European interests.  No one really believes that these various military interventions around the world are actually going to lead to an armed conflict between, say, the European Union and the US, or between Russia and the US, or even China and the US.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a decidedly unipolar order.  In terms of concurrent transformations in the organic composition of capital and the corresponding historical periodicities of capitalism, we seem to have reverted to a “neoliberal” valorization of free markets and the deregulation of capital flows.  There is some debate as to whether neoliberalism is merely an ideological pretext that masks deep complicity with state powers, or whether it is a socioeconomic reality, but clearly the form of capitalism that Lenin felt specifically motivated imperialism in his time does not exist today.

A Study of the Marxist (and Non-Marxist) Theory of Imperialism

The Death of Global Imperialism (1920s-1930s)

As part of my study of the spatial dialectics of capitalism, I have been reading not only the more recent Marxist literature by Henri Lefebvre on The Production of Space or David Harvey’s excellent Spaces of Capital, but also some of the more classic works on the subject.

Marx’s own account of the spatiality of capitalism can be found in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, his Grundrisse of the early 1860s, and his posthumously published Capital, Volume II.  In the Manifesto, he talks at length in the first section of the globality of capitalism, of the formation of the world-market as part of the historical mission of the bourgeoisie.  In the latter two works I mentioned, the spatial dimension of capital is raised in connection with the ever-improving means of transport and communication, in facilitating the circulation of commodities.  Marx explains the dynamic in capitalism by which it breaks through every spatial barrier that it comes across, such that it seems to embody a sort of terrestrial infinity realizing itself through time.

But I am interested in some of the later work that was done on the Marxist theory of imperialism, both before and immediately after the 1917 Revolution.  This would have an obvious bearing on the spatial extension of capitalism throughout the world.  In this connection, I have drawn up a brief reading list:

  1. John Atkinson Hobson.  Imperialism: A Study (1902).  Though a pacifist and political liberal, Lenin considered his study of imperialism vastly superior to Kautsky’s, which had by then joined forces with the bourgeois apologists.
  2. Rudolf Hilferding.   Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development (1910).  This book was extremely influential in its time, and established a number of concepts regarding monopoly capitalism and finance capital that Lenin would later rely upon.  The two chapters on “The Export of Capital” and “The Proletariat and Imperialism” are relevant to any study on imperialism.
  3. Rosa Luxemburg.  The Accumulation of Capital (1913).  This is Luxemburg’s greatest contribution to the economic theory of Marxism.  Though she and Lenin disagreed over some of its premises and conclusion, the book remains extremely important for the analysis of imperialism.  The chapter on “Foreign Loans” addresses this directly.
  4. Vladimir Lenin.  Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist Development (1915-1916).  This work scarcely needs any introduction.  The entire book is a study of imperialism as a stage in capitalist development.
  5. Nikolai Bukharin.  Imperialism and World Economy (1917).  This book, which includes a favorable introduction from Lenin, seems to me to perhaps be the most pertinent to my own studies, since it places the “world economy” as  a centerpiece for its analysis.

I am hoping perhaps a few of my Marxist friends will join me in reading some selections of these books.  In my understanding of the subject, the imperialism described by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Bukharin were very specific to the time in which they were living.  According to their theories, it involved vast capitalist trusts and cartels, gigantic monopolies, along with huge amounts of finance capital backing them through the banks.  I think that Lenin’s theory of imperialism is all too often invoked in describing present-day imperialist ventures.  It continues to be a force within the greater complex of capitalist globalization, which has been taking place ever since the social formation first emerged.  But historical conditions have changed since Lenin’s time, and in light of the neo-liberalist recalibration of capitalism, I think some of the fundamental categories we retain from Lenin’s analysis of imperialism might have to be rethought or slightly modified to accommodate present-day realities.

I personally am interested in the historical imperialism that Lenin et al. were studying, i.e. the form of imperialism that existed between 1880 and 1939.  Are there any other suggestions for reading on this subject? Ren, I’m looking to you.  But others are welcome to make suggestions as well.