On May 26, 2020, the Northwestern chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a forum titled Imperialism and the Left. Panelists were asked to address: What exactly is imperialism? What constitutes (if at all) effective resistance to it? How has the Left historically understood imperialism? Has that understanding been lost? The speakers were Chernoh Bah of the Socialist Party of Cote d'Ivoire; Bill Martin, emeritus professor of philosophy at DePaul University; Johnny Mercer of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; and Sunit Singh who teaches at the University of Chicago and is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society.
Johnny Mercer: A little bit of background: I am a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and I have been a supporter of the Socialist Party of Great Britain since I was 17. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was very radicalized by the Iraq War, and particularly what we saw at the time as the betrayal of the Labour Party by supporting that war. Tony Blair radicalized a lot of my generation and prompted us to form the politics that we have today.
A little about the Socialist Party of Great Britain for those of you that haven’t heard of us. We were founded in 1904as a breakaway from the SDF. At the time, the SDF, the Social Democratic Federation, was dominated by a man named Henry Hyndman. He controlled the party’s printing press and the breakaway was caused partly because of Hyndman’s domination of the party, and partly because the SDF was descending into reformism. Those who that stayed called themselves the “possibilists” because they maintained that what they were doing was possible within the context of capitalism by pursuing reformism, and we became known as the “impossibilists,” which was somewhat of a slur at the time. But we co-opted the slur and now proudly refer to ourselves as being in the impossibilist tradition. The SDF eventually merged into the Labour Party--the same Labour Party that, led by Tony Blair, brought Britain into the Iraq War.
The SPGB maintains that socialism is a moneyless, stateless, worldwide society based on production for human need, and democratic control of the means of production. We are a legalist organization of equals who maintain as Marx did that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. The party has remained consistently critical of Leninism, coining the now widely-used phrase “state capitalism” to describe the USSR as early as 1918, obviously just the year after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. Unlike Lenin, but like Marx, we use the terms socialism and communism interchangeably, to refer to the same moneyless, stateless, worldwide social system.
So, imperialism: we maintain that the working class, having only their labor power to sell to survive, have no country. War and imperialism for us are a natural and inevitable extension of the war of the marketplace. In other words, nation-states create wars in the pursuit of natural resources, trade routes, labor markets, and spheres of influence. At certain times, it is inevitable that some capitalist nations dominate others, but we don’t accept Lenin’s notion of imperialist and anti-imperialist nations as kind of fixed categories. The problem with Lenin's analysis of imperialism, as far we can see, is three-fold. Firstly, we hold that it lacks internationalism. Rather than seeing the world as divided fundamentally by wage labor and capital, workers and the bourgeoisie, it seeks to replace this analysis with the notion of imperialist nations and anti-imperialist nations. The anti-imperialist nations engage in a national liberation struggle to free themselves from the domination of the imperialist nations. As far as we’re concerned, national liberation is the right of the domestic bourgeoisie to conduct their affairs without interference from foreign capitalists.
Secondly, we disagree on Marxist grounds with Lenin’s economic analysis, that goes behind the notion of imperialism that Lenin posits. Accordion to Lenin, there were these super-profits, which is the concept that workers in imperialist countries partake in the exploitation of workers in non-imperialist nations by taking some of the surplus value that is created in the third world or in the non-imperialist world and partaking in the exploitation of these countries. The idea is, basically, that it’s a bribe. There is a top section in the working class in the Western world or in the imperialist world that receives extra capital that is exploited from the third-world working class, that they get in exchange for supporting capitalism and imperialism and reforms. Therefore, Lenin thought that national liberation struggle would deprive the western capitalists and their ability to bribe the western working class. So, we disagree.
Firstly, Lenin’s analysis ignores the labor theory of value. As Marx taught us, labor power’s value is determined like all commodities by the amount of labor power that’s invested in it. So higher wages reflect higher training and skill. It almost requires a kind of conspiracy theory to suppose that capitalists give their workers more than their labor power in order to bribe them. It led to the support of the creation of new capitalist nations to benefit the local capitalist class. So instead of the international working-class struggle, it became about the creation of new capitalist nations. Finally, Lenin’s analysis assumes a form of economic determinism, it assumes quite wrongly that workers are less likely to support reformism the poorer they become; the poorer workers become, the more they’re going to become radicalized. Obviously, quite often the opposite is true. In any case we think that the working class will only support socialism if they understand the case for socialism. So, we posit an analysis that is based on revolutionary activity coming out of class consciousness rather than an economic determinist analysis.
I think it’s worth talking about the legacy of anti-imperialism and where it ended up. Everywhere you look, whether it be in Northern Ireland or South Africa, for workers, at best anti-imperialist struggle has led to the creation of new capitalist states to manage their exploitation. At worst, it’s led to the most violent form of inter-working-class sectarian bloodshed. For example, you have the Marikana massacre in 2012 in South Africa, where 112 workers were shot down. So what was the legacy of the ANC bloodshed, of all the ANC struggle? It boiled down at the end for the rights of black workers, black miners to be murdered by black police, African police, instead of the white police. Or we could look at Ireland, where the Leninists in the various IRA factions, particularly in the 1970s, mostly radical Leninist students joined these IRA factions and conducted all sorts of massacres against working class Protestants and British civilians. A notable example would be the Kingsmill massacre of 1976, where a busload of factory workers returning from a night shift were murdered. Eleven Protestants were killed; one worker was set free because that worker happened to be a Catholic. So, what of those brave Leninist anti-imperialists in Ireland now? In the case of Gerry Adams and company, they now have comfortable, well-paying jobs in Stormont, where Sinn Féin, like all the other parties of Irish capitalism, manage the exploitation of Catholic and Protestant workers alike. So, against Leninist anti-imperialism, the SPGB maintains the working class have no country to fight for. Our interests lie with that of working people everywhere, and the abolition of the wages system and the war and imperialism that naturally and inevitably come with it.
JM: Bill mentions that he considers China to be a capitalist nation and I am interested to hear from whether he also considers China to be an imperialist nation. And Chernoh talks about China, Chinese Imperialism, or Chinese capitalism’s role in Africa, in Sierra Leone. It strikes me as one of the interesting things about the Left, and one of the reasons why I am slightly cynical of this idea of these kind of fixed categories of imperialist nations and any imperialist nations, is that the Left has never seemed to be able to agree on which nations are imperialist and which nations aren’t imperialist. For a long time, particularly from the Maoists, it was said that China was this oppressed nation that needed to be liberated from the imperialist nations. Now of course in the natural development of capitalism, I would say, as a Marxist and a member of the SPGB, in the natural development of capitalism China has now entered the imperialist world stage and is exploiting workers all over the world and oppressing nations or oppressing people all over the world.
From the SPGB’s point of view, we would say that there’s somewhat of an antagonism between Lenin’s idea of super-profits and Marx’s idea of the labor theory of value, as I said in my opening address. Labor power is a commodity like any other commodity and it’s natural that it goes for different prices because some workers have skills that other workers don’t, and that doesn’t rely on this idea of the workers exploiting other workers—workers sort of somehow partaking in the exploitation of other workers. And this to me seems like quite a central bone of contention between what I would consider the orthodox Marxist opinion and Lenin’s conception of imperialism.
Bill made some very interesting points about “foolish wars” and about Donald Trump’s use of the term “foolish wars.” It’s very interesting that Trump seems to be rustling a lot of feathers among the ruling class. I’ve reflected on the hatred amongst the vast majority of the mainstream media that Trump receives, and his hatred within the Democratic Party establishment, and also within the Republican Party establishment. I’d be interested to hear more from Bill about why has that come about? If we’re going to employ a materialist analysis, what are the material circumstances that have changed in America that mean that some subsection of American capitalism supports the Trump project, if we’re withdrawing from the world, taking a step back, and not engaging in these pointless conflicts?
Q Was the role of the USSR in Eastern Europe after World War II—so since 1945—imperialist?
I think that by any definition that’s been advanced of imperialism, capitalist nations engaging in imperialism, it strikes me that the USSR definitely did engage in imperialism in Eastern Europe. I think all kinds of anti-imperialist struggles against the USSR had pretty much the same features as you’d find in any anti-imperialist struggle in Africa. For example, South Africa or Ireland, where you see that there is a proletarian element to the struggle and there’s also a bourgeois element to the struggle. Ultimately, of course, in the absence of a globalized socialist movement it ends in a bourgeois way. If you take that solidarity union in Poland, or you take elements of the Prague uprising, it clearly is a working-class resistance that also existed against the USSR.
I am from the north of England, from Yorkshire, where the Sheffield steel industry, largely as a result of the trade unions artificially increasing the demand for labor-power through trade union activity, that basically led to the collapse of the Sheffield Steel Industry. And now the Sheffield Steel Industry exists in China because capitalists are constantly going all over the world looking for the cheapest labor power on the market possible. The same way that if they looked for the cheapest coal possible, or the cheapest bricks possible. So I’m just curious to know why anyone would think that a capitalist would purchase somebody’s labor-power for more than its true value and how that mechanism actually takes place in capitalism, because as I said it does fly against Karl Marx’s labor theory of value—and just basic common sense, the basic stuff we know about how capitalists operate.
Q Capitalism for Marx is characterized by an industrial reserve army or a condition of permanent unemployment. It is in response to the threat of unemployment that workers organize themselves in unions to control the labor market. When labor as a commodity, labor-power, is scarce, its price rises regardless of what goes into it—more skills for example. This undermines the power of individual capitalists. The state could step in to break unions, but perhaps an easier way to deal with workers was to export the unemployed or export capital, as Lenin puts it. Can you clarify how you see Lenin at odds with Marx?
JM: To be clear, I do accept, as Marx accepted, that supply and demand affects the price of labor power and I also accept that unions can step in to have some control over supply and demand, but that to me isn’t the same claim as the one being made. which is that the capitalists somehow take this surplus value that they get from the non-imperialist nations—these super-profits—and use it to artificially inflate or boost up the working class of the West. I just haven’t heard a convincing argument or an explanation as to how that mechanism actually takes place. That they would deliberately pay more, without being forced to by unions. And even if they are forced to by unions, I’d like to see an explanation that can actually trace back this surplus capital coming from these super-profits from third world countries or from these non-imperialist countries. It might not sound like a very politically correct thing to say, but the reason that people are paid less in third world countries is because of the way in which those workers don’t have the same skills. The more logical explanation is that there’s more skill and there’s more labor embodied in labor power in Western countries due to the uneven development of capitalism.
Q Sunit made the point earlier that the issue of imperialism is primarily one in the home country rather than in the colony and it is about a crisis of capital in the metropole and the need to export capital rather than how it might be perceived in the present day, as the drive to exploit of resources, as Chernoh indicated. Might this not mark a reversal of historical socialism’s understanding of imperialism?
JM: I think insofar as capital is exported, of course, capitalists look for new opportunities or markets, wage labor, they’ll look for new opportunities to exploit labor, or to purchase raw materials or whatever it is. I think insofar as it’s happened, it has developed western countries, but it’s also been at times against the interests of the Western working class. Maybe we can wind back and talk about labor theory of value. Labor is a commodity that’s determined primarily by the amount of labor power that’s embodied in that commodity. But, for Marx, it’s also a peculiar commodity, precisely because it can create more than its value. And so, when the working class organizes in unions, they’re getting a better share of the surplus value that’s been exploited from them. That is not the same as saying that the working class somehow are part of a chain mechanism that exploits the third world.
Just to be clear, I’m not making any normative claims about the justice of all of this. without saying that capitalism is a very uneven system on a global scale.
Q could you explain your notion of historical debt and what that means for the Left?
JM: The problem is that everybody does do it and everyone has done it. Are you in the business of chasing around the world and getting every nation state or every people that has ever oppressed, or exploited, or murdered another group of people, to pay the debt back? It strikes me as a particular way of rearranging capitalism at the expense of organizing the movement for socialism.
JM: As an Anglo-Saxon, I never did anything to the Normans, but if you look at the British ruling class, it’s still disproportionately of Norman French blood and not of the Germanic Saxon blood that I come from. My granddad was one of the few people that still talked about living under the Norman yoke. It just strikes me as a kind of unending cycle. I am not saying that just because it happened in the past it’s therefore all in the past. I accept that the legacy of these things continue to exist. If we take up for example the issue of repatriations for slavery, I wouldn’t be opposed in principle to repatriations for slavery, though as a socialist and as a member of the SPGB, I don’t support reforms to capitalism. But let’s say I was in Congress and I got to have the decisive vote on whether—I work with low income, mostly African-American kids, low income black kids on the South Side of Chicago—if I had the vote of whether to take some money from a bunch of capitalists in Washington that used slave labor to build up those countries and give a bunch of money to kids on the South Side of Chicago so we could buy new sailing boats and teach them to sail, I wouldn’t be against that, I wouldn’t be opposed it. But I would support it because I’d consider it a victory for the working class in terms of the working class getting back through some state reform some of the surplus value that has already been stolen from them. And that’s very different, it seems to me. One of the problems with this idea of repatriation is it implies a kind of just capitalism. That there was something unjust about the capitalism that existed before, that modern capitalism can somehow redeem. Whereas I think as a Marxist, the only thing that can redeem history is socialism.