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.
The place of Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ in history
To understand the place of Lenin’s pamphlet in the history of Marxist economic thought, you have to keep in mind the circumstances in which it was written and why Lenin wrote it in the first place. The highly organized Lenin always had a specific political purpose in mind when he decided to embark on a major writing project. (1) Lenin, who had been a leading figure in the Second International, wrote his work as European capitalism was tearing itself to pieces during the “Great War.”
The leaders of the Second International had for some years been aware that the European powers were drifting towards a major war among themselves. Lenin was therefore not surprised by the coming of the war. What did surprise him was the collapse of the Second International, the international organization, founded in 1889, that all socialists in the world belonged to. (2) When the war erupted in Europe in the summer of 1914, most of its national sections supported their own countries against other countries, effectively bringing the Second International to an end.
Most devastating to Lenin and all other socialists who remained true to the struggle for a socialist society based on collective ownership of the means of production by the associated producers was the position taken by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the epoch of the Second International, the SPD was considered to be the leading Marxist party in the world—in terms of organization, its influence over the working class, and its development of Marxist theory.
German socialist Karl Kautsky, considered the leading Marxist theoretician both in Germany and in the world, made the lame excuse that the International was designed for peacetime, not wartime! What good is a revolutionary workers’ international that operates only in non-revolutionary, peaceful times?
Therefore, virtually everything that Lenin wrote in the years immediately following the outbreak of the war was tied to the collapse of the Second International and the struggle to build a new, Third, International, which would hopefully avoid the contradictions and mistakes that had destroyed the Second International. The new international, in Lenin’s view, would have to be based on the lessons of the Second International’s failure at the decisive moment. At the center of Lenin’s analysis, was the phenomenon Lenin and other leaders of the Second International had come to call “imperialism.”
What was imperialism in terms of economics, and what political attitude should the social democrats—as Marxists called themselves in those days—have taken towards it?
As the war progressed, the political stability of every European nation was rapidly undermined as the initial wave of chauvinism that had swept the European working classes evaporated under the pressure of trench warfare.
Trench warfare is probably the best antidote for patriotism and chauvinism that has ever, up to the present, been invented. Nowhere was this more true than in Russia, which was seen as the weakest link in the imperialist chain. As we now know, Russia was on the eve of what was to become the Great October Revolution, whose one-hundredth anniversary (Nov. 7, 2017) we will be celebrating within the next few weeks.
It wasn’t only Russia that was approaching revolution. Revolution was knocking at the door of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was destined to vanish from the maps of Europe. Perhaps most importantly, it was approaching in Germany, then as now Europe’s most industrialized nation.
Therefore, when Lenin wrote “Imperialism” the Great War had put the overthrow of capitalism in Europe and on a world scale on the agenda, not only in the historical sense—which could be a period of many decades or even a century or so—but more or less immediately. With socialist revolution approaching rapidly in Europe, it would not be long in the event of the success of the European socialist revolution before the United States, then the most industrially developed country in the world, would also be drawn into the movement.
In Russia, the immediate tasks of the coming revolution were democratic, not socialist—the replacement of the Czarist monarchy with a democratic republic, the transfer of land from the semi-feudal aristocracy to the peasantry, the winning of basic trade union rights and the eight-hour work day, and the liberation of the numerous nations enslaved by Czarism. The victory of socialism in Western Europe would soon put the transition to a socialist revolution on the agenda in Russia as well.
Of course, there was always the possibility that the revolution would fall short and that capitalism could then survive for a historical epoch after the war. Lenin explained somewhere that there is no crisis that is absolutely hopeless for the capitalist class. If capitalism is not overthrown by the workers in a revolutionary crisis, the capitalists will always find a way to impose their own solution, which could last for a more or less prolonged period, though not forever due to the basic contradictions of the capitalist system. And so it was to be with the revolutionary crisis provoked by World War I.
But like revolutionaries have to be, Lenin, as were Marx and Engels before him, was a revolutionary optimist, both in terms of short-term revolutionary prospects and the long-term future of the human race. However, Lenin’s pamphlet does contain hints of the future that was in store for capitalism if the revolutionary wave arising out of the trenches of the Great War fell short. This, unfortunately, was the course history took leading to the world we face today. This is the subject of Smith’s “Imperialism.”
The circumstances under which Lenin wrote “Imperialism” were radically different than those that prevailed when Marx wrote “Capital.” Let’s briefly examine what these differences were. At the very beginning of their joint political activity as newly minted socialists—called communists (3) in those days—Marx and Engels believed that the overthrow of capitalism in Western Europe was near. The belief of the two young German revolutionaries was based not only on the natural optimism of youth but also the hunger and economic depression that had for many years gripped the European continent.
Soon thereafter the revolutionary wave of 1848 broke out, seeming to confirm the perspective of the young Marx and Engels. But then, contrary to the hopes of the two friends, the revolutionary wave of 1848 subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Marx and Engels attributed this to the industrial upswing that began in 1848, just as they had traced the outbreak of the revolution in France in February 1848 to the London financial crash of October 1847.
However, it gradually became evident to Marx and Engels that this wave of capitalist prosperity sweeping Europe was only partially cyclical. More fundamentally, it reflected the dramatic expansion of the world market caused by the gold discoveries made in California in 1848 and Australia in 1851. (4) Though they remained revolutionary optimists, Marx and Engels were also revolutionary realists who never hesitated to come to terms with whatever reality they faced.
At first, Marx and Engels still believed that the revolution would break out anew when the upswing in the industrial cycle that had begun in 1848 reached its conclusion in the next inevitable cyclical crisis. Marx, therefore, decided that the best thing he could do in the meantime was to work on his still developing critique of bourgeois political economy. As part of this new perspective, Engels reluctantly decided to join his father’s textile business in Manchester so he could make some money and help the financially hard-pressed Marx to carry out his great work.
As it turned out, the next cyclical crisis that broke out in 1857, though initially quite violent, was short-lived. A new vigorous economic upswing began within a few months of the London crash of October 1857. Marx and Engels were forced to acknowledge that the gold discoveries in California and Australia had led to a “second 16th century,” opening up a prolonged period of prosperity and accelerated capitalist development.
Marx was obliged to adjust to the slower than hoped for course of historical development towards a socialist revolution. While the brevity of this crisis indicated, contrary to Marx’s hopes, that a near-term socialist revolution was not in the cards anywhere in the world, the new insights into the workings of the capitalist system that Marx had gained during the crisis inspired him to return to his economic work, which finally bore its initial fruit with the publication of Capital, Volume I, in 1867.
The year that followed the brief crisis of 1857 was to be Marx’s annus mirabilis that was to take him far beyond the limits of radical Ricardian economics, his starting point. The fruits of this amazing year included Marx’s distinction between concrete labor, which produces use value, and abstract labor, which produces value, and the distinction between value and the form of value, where the value of one commodity is measured by the use value of another, putting the theory of money and price on a solid foundation.
Above all, he developed his revolutionary theory of surplus value, based on the distinction between labor and labor power. With this discovery, socialism completed its transition from the utopia it had been when Marx and Engels had begun their political activity to a science. This was to be the most important consequence of the crisis of 1857.
Smith’s “Imperialism” is written under quite different circumstances than either Marx’s “Capital” or Lenin’s “Imperialism.” While socialist revolution does not appear to be as close as it was during the Great War, today’s decaying capitalism—especially in Europe and the United States—is a far cry from the rapidly expanding capitalism of the 1850s and 1860s that confronted Marx when he wrote “Capital.” And while the situation in Europe and the United States is still not revolutionary in the immediate sense, the political stability of capitalist rule throughout the world is rapidly eroding, and class struggle in its various manifestations including the struggle of ideas is rapidly intensifying.
This was shown vividly by the surprise victory of the Brexit vote last year in Great Britain, and confirmed in a quite different way by the surprisingly strong performance of the Labor Party under the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn (5) that occurred earlier this year.
Now, just as I am putting the final touches on this post, the German elections held this past month (September 2017) have come in. The far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany broke through gaining almost 13 percent of the vote, making it the third largest party in the German parliament. The breakthrough of these modern-day German nationalists—called Nazis by some—came at the expense of the center-right Christian Democrats and their more right-wing sister party partner, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, and of the center-left Social Democratic Party.
This forced the German Social Democrats to break their “Grand Coalition” with the Christian Democrats. The Free Democratic Party also made gains by running on a platform that rejected the merger of the German budget into a European Union budget. Though less extreme than the Alternative for Germany, the Free Democratic Party also reflects the rising Trump-like nationalist sentiments laced with racism toward Middle Eastern immigrants.
On the other the hand, the Left Party—heirs to the old Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany, which is itself a combination of the German Communist Party and a fraction of the SPD willing to work with them—plus some left-wing members of the SPD and the middle-class Green Party ran lackluster campaigns that did not take rising anti-immigration racism head on and made only slight gains, with the Left Party polling at just over 9 percent.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel—described by some as leader of the “free world” for the duration of Donald Trump’s stay in the White House—will be able to remain in office, she is greatly weakened. Despite its formal victory, her party suffered its worst results since the Federal Republic of Germany was created after World War II by the NATO occupiers on the ruins of Nazi Germany. For their part, the Social Democrats, fearing further losses and even collapse as a major party in Germany if they remained in Merkel’s government, have been forced against their will into the opposition.
Merkel is expected to form a coalition with the right-wing, quasi-nationalist, “pro-business” Free Democratic Party and the relatively liberal—in the U.S. not European sense of the word—“Green Party,” which is supposed to be concerned about protecting the environment above all else. This is not a natural alignment.
The result is that Germany will now have a weak parliamentary government with a strong extreme right nationalist party in the wings. The last time those conditions existed in Germany was in the 1920s just before the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. This does not mean that the rise of a new Hitler and Fourth Reich in Germany is imminent. To say that would be to concede defeat before the battle has even begun. But it does mean that in Germany the post-World War II political stability is breaking up just as it is in other European countries and the United States.
But what about the political trends in the United States, the center of the empire that has dominated the world since 1945, and expanded further after the counterrevolutionary events of 1989-91 in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe? The U.S. presidential campaign was dominated not only by the election of the ultra-rightist racist Trump but also, more significantly, by the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination that was ultimately won by “corporate Democrat” Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders is an unusual U.S. politician insomuch as he is a life-long socialist. While this would not in itself be considered unusual in virtually any other country, in the U.S. elected socialist politicians have always been rare. This has been especially true since the end of World I and even more true since World War II.
Who is Bernard Sanders, known as Bernie Sanders? He is a self-described socialist—though these days he emphasizes that he is a “democratic socialist” who advocates a Western European-style welfare state and not collective ownership by society of the means of production.
Sanders successfully broke the U.S. anti-socialist taboo in electoral politics by getting elected as mayor of the small city of Burlington, Vermont. Vermont is a largely rural state dominated by the beautiful Green Mountains. It has no large cities. While Sanders’ election as a socialist mayor of Burlington might be dismissed as a fluke, he then went on to be elected to the U.S. Congress and then to the U.S. Senate.
Sanders is formally an independent but has caucused with the Democratic Party, first as a congressman and then as a senator. During his presidential campaign, he temporarily shifted his registration to Democrat but has since shifted it back to “independent.” He is now seen as the leader of the left wing of the Democratic Party.
Much to the disappointment of some of his young followers, Sanders has made clear that he won’t join efforts to build a new working-class party—or even a middle-class “peoples party” to the left of the Democratic Party. Instead, Sanders aims to push the Democratic Party to the left, transforming it into a champion of a Western European-style welfare state. While most of the old capitalist countries have center-right, purely bourgeois parties, they also have center-left, pro-capitalist social democratic parties that draw their support from the trade unions and historically have grown out of the workers’ movement.
U.S. voters, in contrast, have the center-right, conservative Democratic Party and the extreme right-wing Republican Party, as “realistic” alternatives. (For the origins and evolution of U.S. political parties, see here.)
The increasingly besieged U.S. trade union movement supports the center-right Democratic Party in an attempt to stave off the union-busting, far-right Republicans. So do all non-white and non-Christian minorities as well as the LGBT movement. However, the policy of relying on the Democrats to protect the trade unions and stave off far-right racists and anti-gay bigots in the Republican Party has not been working.
The Republicans, using gerrymandering and voter suppression combined with appeals to the racism and homophobia infecting the white population, have achieved a stranglehold on all three “branches” of the U.S. government—both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, and now the White House. Polls show that the majority of American voters do not support the policies of the extreme right Republican party but also distrust the right-of-center, warmongering Democrats and would like to see a third alternative to the Democratic-Republican political monopoly.
If Sanders and his supporters are successful, they will transform the center-right Democratic Party into a center-left pro-labor party, somewhat like the present-day center-left German Social Democratic Party. This would mean that the SPD, which began as a revolutionary Marxist workers’ party, and the U.S. Democratic Party, which began as a party of slave owners committed to defending and extending African chattel slavery, would have evolved into identical “center-left”—that is thoroughly bourgeois but labor-based—political parties. It would be difficult to imagine two political parties more different in their origin.
Therefore, if Sanders succeeds, this will be a startling development indeed. It is ironic that the Sanders-inspired campaign to transform the Democratic Party into something like the German SPD is occurring just as the German Social Democratic Party is in steep decline in its own country. When Sanders announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign was largely seen as a “propaganda campaign” that had no serious chance of winning. But to the astonishment of the pundits, and quite likely himself, Sanders quickly emerged as the conservative mainstream Hillary Clinton’s only serious challenger. All other potential Democratic candidates quickly either withdrew from the race or never entered it.
Sanders defeated Clinton in party primaries in many key industrial states including West Virginia—center of the U.S. coal-mining industry—and completely unexpectedly in Michigan—center of the U.S. auto industry and the once powerful United Auto Workers Union. Both states went for Trump in the general election—expected in West Virgina but surprisingly in Michigan, where Trump won a razor-thin narrow victory—at least according to the official returns—over Clinton.
As the campaign progressed, Sanders, who advocated “single-payer” health care and free education through the university level, quickly gained popularity, especially but not only among young people. Sanders’ base was largely white—showing that many white workers and other white working people were willing to vote for a self-described socialist for the most powerful political office in the land.
In the course of the campaign as he and his program became better known, Sanders gained increasing support among people of color as well—especially young people of color. Today, Sanders, who was little known beyond Vermont before last year’s election campaign, has become the most popular politician in the United States. This in sharp contrast to the very unpopular President Donald Trump and the perhaps even more unpopular Hillary Clinton.
It is widely believed that Sanders was the genuine winner in the struggle for the Democratic Party nomination and was unjustly denied the nomination by the “corporate Democrats” who completely dominated the party machinery and rigged the primaries against Sanders. Indeed, the claim that Trump’s victory is due to “Russia’s attack on our election” is based on the claim that the so-called Podesta e-mails, which contained damning information on the Clinton campaign, were obtained by Russian intelligence (6) and then leaked to Wikileaks with the specific aim of defeating Clinton and electing Trump.
But Clinton supporters cannot deny the truth of the evidence, whether it came from Russian intelligence or some other source such as a person working for the Democratic National Committee disgusted by the Clinton campaign tactics. The e-mails proved that the Democratic Party machine and then-Democratic Party National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz violated the party’s own rules in order to ensure that conservative Clinton and not Sanders was the Democratic nominee for president.
As a result of the Democratic National Committee success in getting Clinton nominated, U.S. voters were given a choice between the conservative warmongering Hillary Clinton and the extreme right-wing, racist Trump. Trump was even able to pose as a “peace candidate”—for example, advocating better relations with Russia and not calling for a “no-fly zone” in Syria. Polls show that if Sanders, who also advocated a more cautious foreign policy than Clinton, had been the Democratic nominee, he would have easily defeated Trump. Then, instead of having a racist ultra-right demagogue as president, the U.S. would have had its first socialist—though not in the sense of the socialism this blog stands for—president!
If it were only a matter of his personal popularity, Sanders’ success would mean little in the longer run—especially since Sanders is now in his mid 70s. At best, this would mean that “socialism” was no longer a scare word in the U.S., which of course would represent progress. But much more is involved. Polls consistently show that more young U.S. people of all “races” prefer “socialism”—long a dirty word in the United States—to “capitalism.” This is a new development in U.S. history.
But these polls are not the only sign that U.S. politics are undergoing a sea change. This is shown by the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA is a historically social democratic formation that until now has acted as a faction in the Democratic Party. While DSA has existed since the 1970s, it has long been viewed as moribund. But since the Sanders campaign, the DSA has grown from a few thousand members to tens of thousands of young people including many trade unionists. Unlike DSA’s traditional members who are hardened social democrats committed to working within the Democratic Party, these young people are a leftward-moving mass whose ultimate political destination is yet to be determined.
The DSA recently voted to withdraw from the so-called Socialist International, which in the political sense is the “corporate descendant,” so to speak, of the old Second International. More politically defined, though much smaller U.S. socialist organizations such as the Party for Liberation and Socialism, which describes itself as Marxist-Leninist, and Socialist Alternative, which describes itself as Trotskyist, have experienced a wave of growth since the 2016 election and the massive series of demonstrations against Trump and all he stands for by many sectors of U.S. society—including most recently the National Football League, not traditionally seen as a stronghold of left-wing radicalism.
A youth radicalization with a difference
The current youth radicalization is distinguished from other recent ones in that the leftward-moving young people are specifically interested in “socialism,” as opposed to “democracy,” as was the case in the 1960s, or anarchism more recently. The “anti-globalization movement,” which briefly flourished in the period between the Seattle anti-globalization demonstration of 1999 through the events of September 11, 2001, and the Occupy Movement that began in 2011 in the wake of the bail-out of Wall Street financiers by the Obama administration, was largely dominated by various forms of anarchism.
Back in the 1960s, the main radical U.S. youth organization was called Students for a Democratic Society—not students for a socialist society. This was not accidental. Among many leftward-moving youth of the 1960s, awakened to political life by first the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow legal segregation and then the Vietnam War, “socialism” as opposed to “democracy” was one step too far.
To find anything like the growth of interest in socialism today in the U.S., you have to go back to the 1930s when the combination of the Depression and the successes of the Soviet five-year plans caused hundreds of thousands of young people to join the U.S. Communist Party or its Young Communist League youth arm. Most who joined the CPUSA or YCL did not remain members for long.
Still, the Communist Party plus YCL approached a membership of 100,000 by the end of the Depression, with membership in the party eventually peaking at around 75,000. Thousands of other young people joined the U.S. Socialist Party, the Trotskyist movement, or other smaller socialist organizations. But even in the 1930s, it is doubtful that the majority of U.S. young people preferred socialism, however defined, to capitalism.
Before the 1930s, the last period in U.S. history when a socialist organization attracted tens of thousands of young people was the heyday of the U.S. Socialist Party led by Eugene Debs, which flourished from the turn of the 20th century to World War I. The era of “Debsian socialism,” unlike today, was a time of rapid growth of U.S. capitalist industry. The chief problem confronting U.S. socialists at that time was not so much the lack of jobs and opportunities for young people but how to unionize a rapidly growing industrial working class against the stubborn resistance of the bosses and their agents in the Democratic and Republican parties. This vital task was not to be accomplished until the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today’s newly minted socialists will soon enough run up against the questions that confronted earlier generations of socialist youth, both in the United States and around the world. They will also have to reckon with new questions raised by the extreme stage of decay of U.S. capitalism, such as de-industrialization, that did not confront earlier generations. In retrospect, however, the 1930s Depression, when huge numbers of factories were shut down temporarily, was a preview of the era of decline of American capitalism that was still to come.
In addition to the destruction of so much of U.S. industry and the consequent lack of decent, good-paying jobs for young people, the problem of climate change—highlighted by the recent hurricanes hitting the U.S. and the Caribbean, devastating the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, combined with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, has highlighted the problem of human-caused global warming. Human-caused global warming was also occurring in the 1930s and even during the time of Debs, but this fact and the danger it represented was not yet generally recognized by scientists
The current surge in the U.S. socialist movement has centered around issues like the struggle for single-payer health care, already won in all other rich and some not-so-rich capitalist countries. It has also centered around repeated attempts of the Republican Party leadership and Trump administration to deprive millions of people of the health insurance they now have; the extreme racism of Trump and his administration; attacks on women’s health and the right of abortion; attacks on immigrants especially from Latin America; and Trump’s extreme “Islamophobia”—all combined with the growth of the still small but already dangerous U.S. fascist movement underlined by the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This last development would not be so alarming if it were not for the fact that the fascists are getting back-handed encouragement from the president of the United States. For example, Trump claims that both sides—the KKK and neo-Nazis and anti-fascist demonstrators—were equally responsible for the violence and that many “good people” marched with the fascists.
In reality, the counter-demonstrations were entirely peaceful while a woman counter-demonstrator was deliberately run over and killed by a young Nazi. The fundamental issue, however, is that despite the current cyclical “boom,” whose arrival is announced through the current synchronized upswing now visible in most industries and in all major national capitalist economies, the great majority of jobs created in the U.S. are low-wage and part-time. If current long-term trends continue, young people will have a lower standard of living than their parents had for the first time in U.S. history. This is why there is mass sentiment in favor of socialism once again in the U.S.
It is also worth noting that the current cyclical boom has not prevented the growing political crisis—both in the U.S. and the other imperialist countries. including Germany. Despite the sloppy, completely non-Marxist claims about the “ever-deepening economic crisis” that appear in the newspapers and websites of many small socialist groups, we are most certainly not in the crisis phase of the industrial cycle. If we were, it could plausibly be argued that the political crisis now gripping the “Western world” will fade as soon as the crisis is replaced by a new cyclical upswing.
The assertion that we are in an economic boom may seem like a nonsensical statement to many people—especially but not only young people who can’t get a decent job or any job. But the difference between the “boom” and the “crisis” will become clear enough as soon as the boom is replaced by a new cyclical crisis. Remember, this outcome is not a matter of if but when. And if past experience is any guide, the current changes in U.S. and world politics will only accelerate when the next economic crisis arrives.
Already, today’s young U.S. socialists are running up against the question of imperialism and imperialist war. What is the meaning of the word “imperialism” used by many socialist old-timers, including in this blog? What position should young people take on the wars now raging in Syria and Yemen and threatened new wars targeting Iran, Venezuela and North Korea?
Should young socialists support wars against dictators and Islamic fundamentalists?
Many of Trump’s mainstream Democratic Party opponents and some socialist old-timers argue that these countries are led by dictators supported by a fascist or fascist-like Russia headed by its supposed dictator President Vladimir Putin. This is combined with the claim that “fascist” or at least “authoritarian” Russia succeeded in installing Trump in the White House with the hope Trump will install a similar regime in the U.S., thereby spreading authoritarianism around the world.
The right-wing, corporate Democrats then paint themselves as leading a resistance movement to the Putin-backed would-be Trump dictatorship. During her second debate with Trump, Hillary Clinton charged that he was actually a Putin puppet! Not that he was influenced by Putin, or being blackmailed by Putin, but was his puppet!
Is there any truth to these claims? Is it possible that the Russians do have some damning information on Trump—for example involving ties to the Russian mob or maybe his sex life—and is using this information to blackmail him into seeking better relations with Russia? And if the Russians are blackmailing Trump, is this a bad or good thing? For example, could Russian blackmail of Trump possibly block a nuclear attack against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
However, despite claims by the Democratic Party leadership that Trump is under the thumb of Putin, the war against Afghanistan that began under Republican George W. Bush and carried on by his Democratic successor, Barack Obama, continues. Trump had hinted he wanted to end the war but decided instead to follow the advice of U.S. generals, which was to escalate the war.
Obama presided over a huge troop surge aimed at crushing the resistance in Afghanistan and promised to end the war one way or another by the end of 2014. After failing to crush the Afghanistan resistance, he then broke his promise. It was then announced that the war would continue indefinitely.
Recently, Trump announced that he was re-escalating the Afghanistan war, and thousands more U.S. troops are on the way. The U.S. has also engaged in open warfare in Iraq and Syria in the name of a war against ISIS, or Islamic State. U.S. firepower destroyed the Iraqi city of Mosul in the guise of “liberating” it. The Syrian city of Raqqa, controlled by ISIS, is as I write being similarly destroyed and “liberated.”
In Raqqa, the U.S. wants to overthrow the ISIS government—the Caliphate—while at the same time making sure that the “dictatorial” Baathist government of President Basher Assad does not reestablish its authority there. In addition, the U.S. is attacking the city and people of Raqqa as part of its broader aim of establishing a puppet regime and dismembering Syria.
Some Syrian emigrants living in the U.S. and other countries support the claims backed by both the U.S. media and some socialists that Assad is a terrible dictator—one of the worst if not the worst in world history—who uses secret police to suppress all opposition and practices torture on a large scale against political prisoners. The Assad government is also charged by the Democrats, Republicans and some U.S. socialists, as well as the mainstream media and some Internet progressive media, with having used sarin nerve gas against Syrian civilians, killing many children.
Other Syrian emigrants strongly deny these charges and support President Assad as the democratically elected president of Syria, a view supported by many other U.S. socialists. What are the newly minted U.S. socialists to make of these radically conflicting claims about a country they know nothing about?
In Venezuela, where the government of President Nicolas Maduro—successor to the popular Hugo Chávez government—is being attacked in the U.S. media for building a dictatorship. The media, including sections of the progressive Internet media, back an opposition that claims to be fighting to defend democracy in Venezuela against Maduro. Some U.S. “progressives,” including supporters of Bernie Sanders, back the “democratic” Venezuelan opposition.
However, the “democratic opposition” is also supported by President Donald Trump. Why the racist reactionary Trump would support a democratic opposition in any country is itself an interesting question. Recently, Trump went further and hinted that he is not ruling out the use of military force against the Maduro “dictatorship.”
President Maduro, however, enjoys the enthusiastic support of many U.S. socialists who consider his government both democratic and socialist. Moreover, Maduro clearly has the support of the vast majority of working class and poor people in Venezuela.
In these cases, the U.S. attacks governments that claim to uphold democracy, hold elections, and proclaim socialist goals. But occasionally, the U.S. clashes with forces that oppose democracy, not to say socialism, in principle. This is the case in Afghanistan, where the resistance is dominated by the Taliban, and recently in the now destroyed city of Mosul and now in Raqqa, where the resistance is headed by ISIS.
Instead of democracy or rule by the people, the Taliban and ISIS agree with the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, who lived shortly after the time attributed to Christ, that God and not man—still less woman—should rule. But God can only exercise his rule through his Earthly representatives the clergy that supports ISIS. ISIS and the Taliban completely reject any form of feminist ideology, since God put women under the command of men. God, according to the theologians of ISIS, apparently also has little use for gay people. Therefore, ISIS in its role as the direct representative of God on Earth executes gay people, throwing some off high buildings.
In addition, ISIS has carried out terrorist attacks and encourages more terrorist attacks against Christians, Jews, and secular “pagans” who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. ISIS points out that the armed forces of the “infidels” in the West are attacking Islamic people in Iraq and Syria—which happens to be true—so it is the duty of Muslims who live in Western countries to attack Christians, Jews and secular pagans whenever they get the opportunity to do so. ISIS’s idea of the “good society” is the seventh-century Arabia described in the Koran, which among other things included slavery.
ISIS members following the commands in the Koran—or so they claim, since I admit that I am not a Koranic scholar—have enslaved the women of a small Kurdish tribe the Yazidis because ISIS charges that their religion worships Satan. Many in the West, including some avowed socialists, have compared the ideology of ISIS to the Nazis. But is ISIS really comparable to the Nazis? And if not, what does distinguish ISIS and similar organizations from the infamous German fascist party once led by Adolf Hitler?
A Russia-U.S. alliance against Islamic terrorism?
Steven Cohen, is a liberal historian of the Soviet Union and Russia and author of a sympathetic biography of the Russian revolutionary, Marxist theoretician and Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938)—though Cohen’s biography is not free of many anti-communist prejudices and misconceptions. Cohen argues that Russia under President Putin and the U.S. under President Trump should form a broad alliance against Islamic terrorism—the biggest threat, along with the threat of a U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation, that the world is facing today. This alliance, according to Cohen, should be something like the alliance the U.S. and Britain formed with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and fascism in general in World War II.
Just like the Soviet-U.S. alliance saved the world from the nightmare of universal fascist dictatorship, Cohen argues that a new alliance between the United States and Russia will save the world from the “fundamentalist-terrorist” faction within Islam. What should be the attitude of socialists towards these types of arguments?
Earlier socialist generations faced similar questions. In the mid-1930s, the African country of Ethiopia was under the rule of an absolute monarchy headed by Halie Selassie (1892-1975). Under this monarchy, feudalism and even slavery still flourished. There was not a hint democracy, even in principle. Ethiopia was attacked by fascist Italy in 1935, which seized it as a colony. Italy was widely denounced for its “fascist aggression” against Ethiopia by supporters of the British, French and Belgian “democracies.” However, the very same “democracies” happened to hold the rest of Africa as colonies.
Did these “democracies” really have any right to denounce fascist Italy for doing on a smaller scale what they were doing on a much larger scale? Though Italy was indeed then under the rule of the original fascist, Benito Mussolini, couldn’t it be argued that Italian fascist capitalism was still better than the feudal-slave society that existed in Ethiopia at that time. In Italy under Mussolini, there was neither legal serfdom nor chattel slavery.
Some Italian socialists actually made these arguments. However, most socialists of that time—whether supporters of the Socialist and Labor International (social democratic successor to the Second International), or the Third or Communist International, or were followers of the exiled Leon Trotsky, who was attempting to form a Fourth International—agreed that Ethiopia should be supported against Italy.
But even if it was wrong to support the attack on Ethiopia by fascist Italy, what about the war waged by democratic Italy in its war against Libya in 1911 that ended with Libya becoming a colony of Italy? “Democratic” Italy—even before Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922—did nothing to establish democracy in Libya. Nor in 1935 were “democratic” Britain, France and Belgian making any moves to establish democracy in the parts of Africa they ruled.
And what about the war between Japan—which contrary to widespread belief was not a fascist dictatorship in the 1930s but had a parliament and a constitutional monarchy—and the corrupt dictatorial Chinese government of Chiang Kai-sheik? Chiang’s regime used secret police, torture and murder and was notorious for its corruption. Everything that Syrian President Assad is accused of doing Chiang was guilty of in spades. In addition, in 1927 Chiang killed tens of thousands of workers in Shanghai as his Nationalist Party troops entered the city they claimed to be liberating. What position should socialists have taken in the war between constitutional parliamentary Japan and Chiang’s dictatorial brutal and corrupt regime?
To complicate matters further, Japan was actually supporting an alternative government to Chiang led by the former “left opposition” to Chiang within the Nationalist Party. In addition, Japan claimed to be leader of a rising Asia against the white racist, imperialist Western colonial powers?
Most socialist supporters of the Socialist and Labor International, the Third Communist International, and a majority of Trotskyists, including Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) himself, supported the struggle led by Chiang and his Nationalist Party against Japan. The position held by most 1930s socialists was made a little easier by the fact that Chiang claimed to be upholding the struggle for a unified democratic China on the basis of Sun Yat-sen’s (1866-1925) “three principles of the people,” which can be seen as a kind of Chinese socialism. The widespread view in the West that Japan was at the time allied with Nazi Germany also helped solidify socialist support for Chiang’s China against Japan.
But what about the Boxer Rebellion—still largely reviled in the West—which swept China at the turn of the 20th century? In the late 1890s, the so-called Boxer movement arose in China—actually called the “Militia United in Righteousness.” Militia members were called Boxers in the West because they practiced martial arts that reminded Westerners of the sport of boxing. The so-called Boxers believed they were under the protection of the traditional Chinese gods who would guarantee their victory over foreigners and the Chinese Christians, who were viewed as traitors to China and its gods.
The beliefs of the Boxers show a strong resemblance to the beliefs of ISIS fighters today. Just as the Boxers hated Christians as representatives or collaborators of Western colonialism, ISIS today sees the “Crusaders”—Christians—in much the same light. The ISIS fighters believe they alone are the people of God loyally carrying out the will of God as revealed in God’s book the Koran. Since ISIS believes that they and they alone are God’s true representatives on Earth, their eventual victory over Christians, Jews, secular pagans and other enemies of God is guaranteed.
In China, the “Righteous Militia”—the Boxers—launched attacks against Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians, killing many of them, and then attacked the foreign embassies—called legations in those days—in Beijing. These attacks by the “fanatical” anti-Christian, anti-foreign Boxers put Western diplomats and their families in grave danger.
The dying Qing dynasty, then dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi, at first opposed the Boxers but then decided to make common cause with them in a desperate attempt to drive the colonial powers out of China. For this decision, the Empress Dowager Cixi is even today demonized in the West as one of the most evil persons who ever lived—along with Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi, President Assad, and Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The Boxer movement, in addition to upholding “fundamentalist” religious beliefs, was allied to an autocratic monarchy representing a social and economic system that was the negation of any conception of democracy, let alone socialism.
Coalition of the willing—1900 version
Though there was no United Nations at the time, an “eight-power coalition of the willing,” to borrow a later term, formed to save the world from the Chinese empress and her terroristic Boxers. The eight “coalition” countries were the United Kingdom, then the chief colonial power in the world; Russia, whose government was strongly committed to Christianity if not exactly to democracy (7); France, which after Britain held the most colonies; Germany, which was in the process of replacing Great Britain as Europe’s leading industrial power; industrializing Japan, which was beginning to acquire its own colonial empire; Italy; Austro-Hungary; and last but not least the country replacing Britain as the leading industrial power in the world, the democratic United States. (8)
The Boxers and the Chinese government were charged with murdering innocent Chinese Christians and Western missionaries whose only crime was to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Chinese people in order to save their immortal souls. China under Cixi and the Boxers was pictured as a country in the throes of irrational xenophobia—hatred of foreigners—that could simply not be tolerated by the civilized world at the turn of the 20th century.
The eight powers easily defeated the Chinese government of Cixi and the Boxers. But the struggle against Western and Japanese colonizers that already had been occurring under various banners since Britain’s infamous “Opium Wars” in the mid-19th century continued until China, as Chairman Mao put it, finally “stood up” in 1949.
Struggles against imperialism by oppressed peoples are often fought under the banner of democratic or even socialist ideas. This, for example, has been the case in Cuba since the Batista dictatorship was overthrown in 1959. Many socialists today are on the “same wavelength” as the Cuban government headed by President Raul Castro and the Cuban Communist Party—though some democratic socialists complain that Cuba is a dictatorship that allows only the Communist Party to exist.
But the oppressed nations and peoples are not always led by people who speak our language and share our aims. Sometimes, as we have seen, resistance to imperialism is led by political forces such as absolute monarchies, slaveholders and reactionary religious sects like the Taliban and ISIS that are the negation of all that socialists believe in. What stand should we take when the “democratic West” goes to war in the name of “democracy” against these types of forces?
While most socialists who were then organized under the banner of the Second International opposed the imperialist war against the reactionary monarchy of China and the Boxers as a colonialist war of aggression, the right wing of the Second International began to argue that imperialism had a civilizing mission. These socialists claimed that Western capitalism was bringing the benefits of progressive capitalism and Western civilization to the “uncivilized nations.” If these countries were ever to achieve socialism, didn’t they have to go through a stage of capitalism in order to become civilized?
A majority of the leaders of the Second International, especially the main theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party and the International as a whole, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), rejected these arguments. However, the openly pro-imperialist, pro-colonial racist right-wing Social Democrats who supported the “civilizing mission” of imperialism were tolerated as a legitimate current within international socialism.
Later came the Great War, and the whole Second International was ripped apart as various sections of the international supported their own imperialist governments against other imperialist governments. After this occurred but before the Russian revolutions of 1917, Lenin and his supporters drew the conclusion that the Third International they were trying to build would have to exclude such racist, pro-imperialist, pro-colonial forces.
Finally, let’s examine the current crisis involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea—against the “international community.” The North Korean government, which I have seen described variously as a government of the “far right” but more often as “Stalinist,” a “hermit kingdom,” a “family dictatorship,” or a “totalitarian dictatorship,” has acquired both atomic and hydrogen bombs. The North Korean government now has or is rapidly acquiring the ability to deliver nuclear weapons to targets around the world, including within the continental United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is regularly ridiculed and demonized and described as a “madman” in the media. How these commentators have become so well informed about the Korean leader’s mental health is not explained. In this respect, the demonization of Kim is much like that of President Assad, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi, and, in her day, the Empress Dowager Cixi.
North Korea, just like Iraq, Syria and Libya, is often described as a “renegade” or “rogue” country, though exactly what they are renegades against is never mentioned. The leaders of such “renegade countries,” from Empress Dowager Cixi to Kim Jong-un, are described as “mad,” “crazy” or the worst “dictator” ever. In contrast, Western leaders such as Winston Churchill, who was a racist, used poison gas against Iraq, and to the end opposed the granting of independence to India, are treated as “great” humanitarians and democrats.
The U.S. is now headed by President Trump, who has threatened to completely destroy North Korea—not just its “regime” but its people. These threats are justified in the name of preventing the Korean people from acquiring the kind of weapons the U.S. alone has actually used.
It is relatively easy to dismiss Donald Trump as a racist warmonger and someone widely believed to be suffering from serious mental disorders. No young socialist will be inclined to take Trump’s arguments seriously. But what about the arguments of China, whose government and ruling party—the Communist Party of China—has never renounced Marxism-Leninism, and the government of Russia, which denounced Marxism-Leninism, castigating North Korea for acquiring a nuclear capacity?
The governments of both Russia and China have voted with the U.S. in imposing sanctions against North Korea aimed at forcing the Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. However, China and Russia have urged “moderation” on Trump while continuing to vote for sanctions against North Korea. In contrast, neither China or Russia has proposed sanctions against the U.S. in the United Nations Security Council, though the U.S. has far more nuclear firepower than the Koreans have any prospect of obtaining.
Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin, in contrast to Donald Trump, are widely seen as mentally stable and responsible leaders. Why then do the governments of both Russia and China deny the government of North Korea the right to establish a nuclear deterrent while they themselves maintain nuclear deterrents capable of delivering nuclear bombs to the United States?
The leaders of the nuclear-armed “international community,” headed by the U.S. nuclear superpower but also including the governments of Russia and China, have what appears to be a weighty argument against “allowing” North Korea to acquire these terrible weapons. They argue that if “we” allow North Korea to acquire a nuclear capacity, how can we deny other countries the right to acquire them as well? Instead of five fingers on the “nuclear button”—or eight if we count Israel, India and Pakistan, which maintain nuclear forces capable of hitting neighboring countries—we will have 10, then 20, and eventually a hundred or more hands on the button.
Even if the leaders of North Korea are responsible people, the argument goes—and those bourgeois “experts” who study the country seriously say they are—few people are willing to vouch that this is true about the present occupant of the White House. In any event, as more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons, more and more fingers will be on “the button.”
Sooner or later—assuming the world survives Donald Trump, which is not guaranteed— our luck will run out and some crazy leader somewhere will push the button and civilization will end. On the other hand, if we strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons and ICBMs and freeze the situation, we have only five fingers on the button plus an additional three fingers—Israel, India and Pakistan—capable of doing major damage to civilization. This situation is not good but it is better odds than a hundred or more fingers capable of destroying civilization with a push of a button.
Isn’t this logic sound? Or should socialists support the right of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and indeed all other countries that are threatened by imperialist aggression to defend themselves against the real danger that the nuclear-armed United States presents to their very existence—not only to their “regimes” but to their people? Or should we join the leaders of China and Russia and demand in the interest of the survival of civilization that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons?
At the end of the day, the answer different socialists and tendencies within the socialist movement give to the above question depends on the viewpoint presented in Lenin’s century-old pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.”
Smith’s ‘Imperialism in the 21st century’
Unlike Anwar Shaikh, who has been an economics professor at the New School for most of his adult life, John Smith has been a political activist. According to the blurb on Smith’s book, he received a PhD from the University of Sheffield only in 2010.
In contrast to Shaikh, Smith is writing a book for political activists who are educated in Marxist economics. While you do not have to be a professional economist to understand Smith’s book, it does help to have a basic knowledge of both Marxist and marginalist economics, since Smith critiques marginalism throughout this work. For persons with no background in either Marxist or marginalist economics, this book will present challenges, though nothing on the level of Shaikh’s “Capitalism.” For example, there are no mathematical equations, functions, and variables represented by the Greek alphabet and cursive symbols. If you are a fan of mathematics and mathematical symbols, you will be disappointed by this book.
However, Smith’s politics may put off some readers. Since the decline and collapse of the old British Communist Party, the British left has been dominated by small Trotskyist groups. By “Trotskyist,” I mean groups that describe themselves as Trotskyist. For purposes of this blog, this is the only definition of Trotskyism I will employ.
It is well beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to answer the question of to what extent any of these groups are actually in accord with the historical Leon Trotsky’s views and theories. Nor am I interested in exploring the question of Trotsky’s role in the Russian revolutionary movement, the October Revolution, or the Soviet Communist Party, or in his political activities after he was expelled from the USSR by the Soviet government in 1929.
This is not say that these questions are not of interest to the current generation of young socialists. Rather, it is to say that this blog will make no attempt to answer them. Here our only interest in Trotsky is his contributions to economic theory such as his writing about the so-called Kondratiev cycle.
Keeping our definition of “Trotskyism” in mind, which is similar to our definition of Marxism for purposes of this blog, I think Smith can be called a “quasi-Trotskyist.” Smith until relatively recently apparently belonged to or was at least in political solidarity with a group that was allied with the U.S.—not the British (9)—Socialist Workers Party.
Founded in 1938, the U.S. SWP was considered for many years to be the flagship of the Fourth International, also founded in 1938 by Trotsky and his supporters as the successor to the Third International. Trotsky held that the Third International under the political domination of J.V. Stalin and the bureaucracy they held Stalin represented had lost its revolutionary character. The Trotskyists charged that instead of working for world revolution like they had done in its early years, under Stalin the sections of the Third International now acted as “border guards” for the Soviet Union.
Therefore, Trotsky and his followers drew the conclusion that a new, “Fourth International,” had to be built. However, unlike the First, Second and Third Internationals, the Fourth International never gained much support in the international workers’ movement and therefore does not represent an important stage in the development of that movement. It can also be argued, and this my personal opinion, that the Fourth International was never more than a political sect—or collection of political sects—and was an “international” in name only.
The U.S. SWP was forced to disassociate formally from the Fourth International in 1940 due to passage of reactionary legislation in the U.S.—the Voorhees Act—like the U.S. Communist Party was forced to dissociate itself from the Third International. But the SWP remained in political solidarity with the Fourth International for many decades.
However, in 1984 the SWP leadership criticized and rejected Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”—considered central to Trotskyism by virtually every self-described Trotskyist—and stopped referring to itself as Trotskyist. In 1990, the SWP went further and formally withdrew its political solidarity with a remaining fragment of the Fourth International led by the United Secretariat.
In its place, the SWP created a new international organization whose British section Smith belonged to for a time. However, despite its repudiation of “permanent revolution,” the U.S. SWP still publishes Trotsky’s works and claims to be in agreement with most of his political activity and other theoretical writings—especially after he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917.
All this would not be worth mentioning in this review except for the fact that Smith quotes U.S. SWP leaders on the subject of imperialism and refers to the U.S. SWP and its international affiliates as “the Communist Movement” with a capital “C”. This is not the usual use of the term and is used in the sense Smith uses it only by supporters of the U.S. SWP. The more usual use of the term is to refer to parties formerly affiliated to the Third International and calling themselves the Communist Party of [some country]—for example, the Communist Party of the United States.
The Belgian Marxist economist Ernest Mandel, who though he was a central political leader of the Fourth International from the 1960s to his death in 1995, also had gained widespread recognition as a major Marxist economic thinker and theorist that extended far beyond the Trotskyist or quasi-Trotskyist movements. The U.S. SWP leaders, at least up to the present, have gained no such reputation. Smith may be on his way to achieving such recognition.
Over the last several years, the U.S. SWP has adopted a series of positions that are quite different from those traditionally associated with that party and other Trotskyist or quasi-Trotskyist groups. For example, the U.S. SWP, reversing its past position of opposing the Zionist colonization of Palestine by Jewish settlers, now strongly supports Israel’s right to exist and has demanded that the Palestinian movement recognize Israel. Going further, it supports the right of Jews around the world to “return” to Israel-Palestine, an idea central to Zionist ideology, though the U.S. SWP now holds that Zionism no longer exists.
More recently, the U.S. SWP claims that the main threat to democratic rights in the U.S. does not stem from the Trump administration at all but from a motley coalition of liberals; the “petty-bourgeois” or “middle-class” left, defined as all leftists who do not support the present political course of the U.S. SWP; the Democratic Party; and “sections of the Republican Party” that are trying to repress the rights of U.S. “conservatives.” By “conservatives,” the U.S. SWP means “conservative” Republicans as defined in the mainstream media and the “Caucasian” working-class supporters of President Trump. As used by the mainstream U.S. media today, the term “conservative” refers to extreme right-wingers who usually have racist views. Occasionally, the term “conservative” is extended by the media to refer to outright fascists.
The U.S. SWP leaders claim that “anti-conservative forces” are trying to reverse the “democratic election” of President Trump by Caucasian U.S. workers—though they ignore the fact that Trump got almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, according to official returns. While Trump’s installation as U.S. president may have been in accord with the U.S. Constitution, it certainly was not in accord with the elementary bourgeois-democratic norm that the candidate who receives the most votes assumes office.
Smith does not support such views but rather the views that the U.S. SWP has traditionally been associated with and are far more compatible with the views and politics held by most members of the Monthly Review School. But when reading the quotes of U.S. SWP leaders, I urge readers to take the quotes on their merits only, regardless of your views on these leaders’ current political or past political policies or the history of Trotskyist and quasi-Trotskyist movements in general.
Smith also repeats the analysis of the Chinese Revolution put forward by the U.S. SWP, which is quite different from the analysis put forward by most Monthly Review writers, who tend to be highly supportive of the policies followed by Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party in the course of the Chinese Revolution. This will no doubt put off some of Smith’s potential readers. Again, it would be a mistake to dismiss Smith’s economic arguments because of his political views on the Chinese Revolution.
However, on questions of economic theory, which is our real interest here, Smith stands closer to this blog on some crucial questions than most academic Marxists, including Anwar Shaikh, or for that matter most supporters of the Monthly Review School. For example, Smith refers to “surplus value” and never the vaguely defined “surplus” as most Monthly Review writers do. In contrast to most academic Marxists, including Anwar Shaikh as well as the Monthly Review School, Smith describes capitalist cyclical crises as crises of overproduction.
Here we see that Smith’s background as a political activist free of academic pressures enables him to describe the periodic capitalist economic crisis in language much closer to this blog and the positions of Marx and Engels as well as the Marxists of the Second and Third Internationals.
The main question Smith takes up in his important book is a statement made by Marx in “Capital” to the effect that workers in advanced England are more exploited than the workers in more backward capitalist countries. Smith, in contrast, associates himself with what he calls “dependency theory,” which has long been supported by Monthly Review writers.
Smith contrasts himself to “Euro-Marxists,” or sometimes “orthodox” (10) Marxists,” who argue that once the greater skill and productivity of labor in the “advanced countries”—often called “civilized countries” even by Marxists a century ago—of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan are taken into account, workers in these countries are more exploited than in the countries of the “global south”—the oppressed countries.
The Euro-Marxists base the argument referred to above on Marx, and now I will quote Marx’s statement in full from Volume I of “Capital”: “It will be found, frequently, that the daily or weekly, &tc., wage in the first nation is higher than in the second, whilst the relative price of labour, i.e., the price of labour as compared both with surplus-value and with the value of the product, stands higher in the second than in the first.”
In other words, although wages in terms of money—definite quantities of gold bullion—and in terms of real wages and of value are higher in an advanced country than in a capitalistically underdeveloped country, the rate of surplus value defined as the ratio of unpaid to paid labor might well be higher in the capitalistically developed country than in the underdeveloped country.
Therefore, the argument goes, workers in rich capitalist countries can be exploited more than the workers in poor capitalist countries. Using this quote, the Euro or “orthodox” Marxists—to use Smith’s language—conclude that workers in imperialist countries such as the United States, Western Europe, and Japan are more exploited than nations of the global south—for example, China, India and Bangladesh. This is the view Smith argues against.
To be continued.
1 Lenin wrote “The Development of Capitalism in Russia,” published in 1898. It, along with “Imperialism,” is considered Lenin’s major economic work. The former work, unlike the latter, was a full-scale book, and was part of the struggle waged by the Russian Marxists against Russian populism—later the Socialist Revolutionary Party.
The populists asserted that since there was no room on the world market for another major capitalist country, it was mathematically excluded that capitalism could ever take hold in Russia. Lenin’s book demonstrated that capitalism was indeed developing in Russia, including in Russian agriculture. Therefore, the arguments of the populists about the impossibility of capitalism developing in Russia were not only false in theory, they were being repudiated in practice.
Another example was Lenin’s work “Materialism and Empiriocriticism,” which was also a full-length book. After the first Russian Revolution of 1905 was defeated, an era of reaction set in. Even among the Bolsheviks, a mood of concessions toward philosophical idealism and religion, closely linked to philosophical idealism, developed.
Lenin’s rather long work on philosophy at first glance seems remote from immediate political concerns of the time. But Lenin considered the struggle to defeat the reactionary trends toward philosophical idealism and religion to be a crucial political task. (back)
2 The Second International was founded in 1889. For all practical purposes, it collapsed on August 4, 1914, when its leading section, the German Social Democratic Party, voted for war credits in the German Reichstag. This represented the close of a whole epoch in the history of the workers’ movement, the likes of which was not to be seen again before the surrender of political power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991. That ended the epoch in the history of the workers’ movement dominated by the Russian Revolution of November (October in the old Russian calendar) 1917—resulting in the marginalization and/or outright collapse of many if not most of the parties closely associated with that revolution.
Beginning in 1923, the social democratic parties—made up of socialists who rejected the Third International—operated as the Socialist and Labor International. Since 1951, this organization has been known as the “Socialist International.” This organization is sometimes unofficially referred to as the “Second International” but in reality is in no way comparable to the Second International as it existed between 1889 and 1914, which was a highly progressive and necessary stage in the development of the international workers’ movement. (back)
3 In the epoch of and immediately preceding the 1848 European revolutions, the term “socialist” referred to all people who acknowledged that there was a major social problem in capitalist society and proposed various solutions to it. For example, Bernie Sanders is a socialist in the 1848 sense. Communism was a tendency within socialism that held that the collective ownership of the means of production was the necessary solution to the underlying social problem—the exploitation of the growing working class by an ever richer minority of capitalists.
Marx and Engels as well as the English utopian socialist Robert Owen were communists. If we use the same terminology today, Bernie Sanders is a socialist because he realizes that something has to be done about the consolidating of almost unimaginable wealth in the hands of a tiny handful of super-rich capitalists while the majority of the world’s people are falling deeper into poverty. But since he sees the solution as a West European-style welfare state and not the collective ownership of the means of production by the associated producers, Sanders is not a communist.
By the time the Second International was founded in 1889, the word “communist” had died out. Instead, Marxists preferred to call themselves social democrats, which sounded far more respectable than “communist,” with all its extreme revolutionary connotations. Engels, who lived until 1895, reluctantly went along with this new terminology. Expressing his unease, he pointed out that the aim of the Marxist movement was not to achieve a democratic socialist state but rather abolition of all state power in a society where the associated producers would collectively own the means of production—communism. Perhaps he suspected the reluctance to use the word “communism” indicated a less than revolutionary attitude among the Marxists of the time. They were attracted to Marxism as a science of society but were lacking in revolutionary spirit.
In reality, the Second International was developing as a coalition between communists in the 1848 sense—and the post-1917 sense—and reformist socialists, who sought to reform capitalist society but not overthrow it. The term “social democratic” as used at that time was broad enough to cover both.
However, in the light of the events of 1914 and of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin suggested that the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks) rename itself the Communist Party, returning to the terminology that Marx and Engels had used in their youth. Officially, the Bolsheviks were still named Social Democrats at the time of the October Revolution of 1917, but the following year the party changed its name to Communist. Later in 1919, it was made a requirement for membership in the Third International that all national sections use the name “Communist” and not “Social Democratic” or “Socialist” in their official names. (back)
4 Marx referred to the 1848-51 gold discoveries as a new 16th century. The gold and silver discoveries in the new world that ended the shortage of money metals of the 15th century ushered in the birth of bourgeois society—capitalism. Marx hoped that the rapid acceleration of the development of capitalism that had occurred in the wake of the gold discoveries of 1848 and 1851 would accelerate capitalism’s ultimate downfall. But the new perspective that Marx and Engels adopted implied that capitalism would be around for many decades. The struggle for a socialist revolution was now a long-term struggle and not a short-term prospect. (back)
5 British Labor Party leader Jeremy Coybyn, though a socialist in the sense the term was used in the epoch of the 1848 revolutions, is not a communist. In this respect, he is far closer it Bernie Sanders than he is to Lenin or Fidel Castro. The main difference between Sanders and Corbyn in class terms is that Corbyn is a leader of a political party that was created by the British trade unions, while Sanders remains a leader of a political party that was created by slave owners and then transformed into a purely capitalist party after the defeat of the Democratic Party-led slaveowners’ rebellion—the U.S. Civil War. (back)
6 It is really not of much interest to the U.S. and world working class whether or not Russian intelligence played a role in making available the Podesta e-mails to Wikileaks. The Russian capitalists are indeed class enemies of U.S. workers and all the world’s workers, above all the Russian workers. However, it is the U.S. capitalists not the Russian capitalists who are the chief class enemies of the U.S. workers and of the workers and people of all nations that are oppressed by the U.S. world empire. The U.S. capitalists are vastly richer in terms of capital and more powerful than the Russian capitalists in terms of military power.
It is pretty clear that the Russian capitalist government favored Trump in the recent U.S. election. Trump signaled that he wanted better relations with Russia than advocated by the warmongering Hillary Clinton. And the Russian government, encircled by the U.S. empire and its military wing NATO, hoped that chauvinistic, racist, “America First” Trump would accelerate the breakup of the U.S. empire. Trump’s election, Moscow calculated, would oblige Germany and the other European imperialist powers to adopt a more independent stance toward the U.S. This would, the Kremlin hoped, lead to the eventual breakup of NATO, greatly easing imperialist military pressure on Russia.
However, by associating themselves with the monstrous racist Trump—and similar racist politicians in Western Europe—Russia’s capitalist government is squandering the political good will that Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union won by championing the national liberation movements of the oppressed countries, both politically and through extending material aid. The only way Russia will repair the damage caused by Moscow’s current policies will be by repudiating the counterrevolution that occurred under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and returning to the road of the October Revolution, whose 100th anniversary will be celebrated by Russian workers and workers and oppressed peoples of the world in a few weeks. (back)
7 The Russian Empire conquered and oppressed many nations both in Europe and Asia and thus became known as the “prison house of nations.” (back)
8 The United States had a less than ideal democratic record itself. In 1900, the system of legal segregation of African Americans, known as Jim Crow, presided over by the misnamed Democratic Party and tolerated by the Republican Party, was consolidating itself in the former slave states. Indeed, many of the statues of Confederate “war heroes” being removed at last date from that time.
African American men were stripped of their right to vote in the Jim Crow states where most of them lived—while women of all races were denied the right to vote in the United States as was the cases in all the other “capitalist democracies.” The native people who had managed to survive the genocide by the European settlers who founded the United States—the so-called Indians—had been driven into reservations and denied citizenship and the right to vote, as well. They were not to receive U.S. citizenship until 1924. This is not to mention that labor rights—the right of workers to form trade unions—were largely absent then just as is the case today. (back)
9 The British and the U.S. Socialist Workers Parties, despite the similarity of names and origins in the Trotskyist movement, have different political histories. The forerunners of both were supporters of the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. However, the founders of what was to become the British Socialist Workers Party refused to support the Korean resistance to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Korea that began in 1950. This resistance was led by the Korean Workers Party headed by Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of the current Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The forerunners of the British Socialist Workers Party held that both “Russia,” as they called the multi-national Soviet Union, and “North Korea” were “state capitalist.” Since the war against Korea was a struggle between different groups of capitalists, the leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party reasoned, the world’s workers should remain neutral.
The U.S. SWP, on the other hand, defended the view of Trotsky that the Soviet Union under Stalin (who was still alive) was a degenerated workers’ state. They believed that Kim il-Sung and his Korean Workers Party headed a deformed Korean workers’ state similar in its political and economic structure to the Soviet Union under Stalin and Stalin’s successors.
The U.S. SWP supported the struggle of the Koreans headed by Kim il-Sung against the U.S. on two grounds. One was that Kim il-Sung’s government represented a deformed workers’ state that had to be defended against capitalism, and two that Korea was a country oppressed by imperialism and therefore had to be supported against imperialist attack. It is the traditions of the U.S. SWP that are closer to those of the Monthly Review school and not those of the British SWP that Smith identifies with. (back)
10 I don’t much like the way Smith uses the term “orthodox Marxist” here. Originally, the term was used by those in the SPD and Second International who defended Marxism against Eduard Bernstein. The orthodox Marxists, including Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and the young Russian Marxist V.I. Lenin, polemicized against Bernstein, who led a revisionist criticism against “orthodox Marxism.”
I believe Smith is actually supporting the orthodox Marxist position on imperialism, though it is true that the Monthly Review School, which Smith now appears to be loosely aligned with, taken as a whole departs quite a bit from orthodox Marxism as defined by both the Second and Third Internationals. However, by using the term surplus value rather than “the surplus” and clearly describing the cyclical crises of capitalism as crises of overproduction, Smith is actually defending orthodox Marxism against the heterodox Marxism that dominates academic Marxism and the Monthly Review School. (back)