Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 11)

John Smith’s ‘Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century’

The year 2016 marks the centenary of V.I. Lenin’s famous pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” subtitled “A Popular Outline.” The pamphlet has immensely influenced politics of the last century. This is largely but not only because the author the following year became the leader of the first socialist revolution as well as chief inspirer and de facto leader of the Third (Communist) International—also known as the Comintern. If Lenin had not led the first socialist revolution and/or had not lived to found the Third International, the pamphlet would still have had considerable influence but of course not the influence it has had.

A century after Lenin’s “Imperialism” appeared, Monthly Review Press published “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century,” by the British Marxist John Smith. As the title indicates, this book aims to do for the Marxist analysis of imperialism in our new century what Lenin’s “Imperialism” did for the last. Smith holds against innumerable critics that Lenin’s basic thesis was not only correct for its own time but also for our own, at least in broad outline.

But Smith’s book is more ambitious than that, and this is what attracted the interest of this blog. Smith is not entirely satisfied with Lenin’s work, which in the Third International, and the more loosely organized international Communist movement that continued after the Third International was dissolved in 1943, was often treated as virtually on a par with Marx’s “Capital.” Smith is dissatisfied with Lenin’s classic pamphlet because, unlike Marx in “Capital,” Lenin does not directly apply value theory. Value analysis is implicit rather than explicit as it is in “Capital.”

Smith in his “Imperialism” attempts to accomplish two tasks. One, he attempts to update Lenin’s “Imperialism.” More ambitiously, he attempts to “complete” Lenin’s work, bringing it into line with Marx’s “Capital,” first published 150 years ago this year. Smith explicitly puts value analysis at the center of his analysis of modern imperialism.

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2 thoughts on “Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 11)

  1. There are indeed some confusing issues for communists to sort through when it comes to geopolitics. I myself have felt torn between rooting for the Assad government and the YPG in Syria, even though some of their aims are mutually-exclusive and some of their alliances diametrically opposed to each other. I certainly hope that the YPG aren’t under any illusions about U.S. aid to them being anything other than opportunistic and liable to take a 180-degree turn at a moment’s notice, depending on the geopolitical interests of U.S. imperialism.

    I also like your point about how anti-imperialist movements have never been pristine and impeccable in their ideals, and yet now in hindsight it would seem ridiculous for communists to root for, say, the 8-empire dogpile on the Boxer Rebellion, even if that rebellion itself didn’t subjectively seem “progressive” in-and-of-itself.

    It seems to me that liberalism and its moralizing tendency have infected a large part of the radical left, and many self-professed communists have lost the ability to discern the differences between a movement’s subjective rhetoric and self-conception and its objective historical role. We should know full-well that social movements may think they are doing one thing, and may in fact have all of the rhetoric of one type of movement, but in spite of their best intentions might actually be accomplishing something entirely different. We should know full-well that there are stages to the development of societies that cannot be lightly skipped just because there are some educated foreigners in the advanced capitalist countries who can conceive of even higher stages for their own countries.

    Hence, the French Revolutionaries that thought that they were reinventing the Roman Republic, when in fact they were actually (despite their best intentions!) acting as the vanguard of capital.

    Hence, the communists who are confused by Nepal’s red flags and don’t realize that the objective historical task for the past decade there has been a bourgeois revolution against the old feudal monarchy, and that it would be silly to hold communists there to the same agenda or same standard as elsewhere, since even if they like us are aiming for communism eventually, they have much farther to go and a much earlier starting point.

    Hence, the communists who fault Assad for not living up to the *most* progressive ideals possible, when in fact his government should be judged according to whether it is *more* progressive than the next logical alternative (which is not liberal, multi-party, secular, feminist democracy, let us be frank, but instead something like ISIS or Hayat-Tahrir al-Sham), and thus whether Assad is moving Syria comparatively *closer* towards its next objectively necessary historical task.

  2. Hi Sam
    just a note about who’s exploited the most. The late Hosea Jaffe presented his results at a debate, I believe it was Rome in Italy, sometimes around 1984 (the title was “Which 1984?”), where he proved, mathematically, that surplus-value is globally produced in the imperialistic dominated countries and that all workers in dominant imperialist countries enjoy a condition of labour aristocracy, at best involved in a redistribution of global surplus-value. Anwar Shaikh was there, and others like Wallerstein, Amin and I don’t remember who else. Nobody could reply to Jaffe’s rigorous thesis. Only Samir Amin said that he reckoned something was not clear about the way Jaffe was accounting for constant capital, and that he would have gone back to that. He didn’t. I may still have somewhere the proceedings of that debate. I am not a mathematician myself, but since nobody has so far been able to prove Jaffe wrong, and unfortunately the man is not around any more, I stick to his logic. Ergo, Lenin is still valid.

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