Originally published by Red Fightback here, where you can also listen to the article as audio.
All the social-chauvinists are now “Marxists” – don’t laugh! – Lenin
What is imperialism?
Food travels from the far corners of the globe to your local supermarket round the corner while kids in those far corners must slog 5 miles a day for clean water or die: this is a telling symptom of imperialism. But what exactly is that?
There is a common misconception that the USA is just ‘first among equals’, as if the global economy is like the football world cup – some teams are better than others, but they all play by the same rules, have 11 players, have a shot at the trophy etc.
In reality, there are a group of imperialist countries that live parasitically upon most of the rest of the world – Britain, its former settler-colonies (the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), Western Europe (e.g. Germany, France, Switzerland), and Japan – and so are of a totally different class to the others. These countries are usually either former colonial powers or settler-colonial states (built on a legacy of genocide and slavery) – but direct colonisation is not now central to the way modern imperialism functions. What makes them ‘imperialist’ is the fact that they continue to live parasitically upon the Third World by forcing debts upon them with all-encompassing strings attached, i.e. opening their resources (land, labour, raw materials) to control and exploitation by foreign corporations. A comprehensive analysis of global financial flows found that in 2012 the exploited countries, including China, lost $2.0 trillion in net resource transfers to ‘rich’ (imperialist) countries. Thus, there is a division between oppressed and oppressor nations which comes with a whole load of implications for how we think about global politics. The world is roughly divided into four categories of nation:
- There are socialist countries, where the working class is in power both politically and economically (e.g. Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).
- There are imperialist countries, a mere handful, which dominate most of the rest of the world and depend parasitically upon them (mentioned above).
- There are neocolonies of the imperialists – these make up the vast majority of nations in the world. These form a wide range from very weak ‘puppet’ states to much stronger (economically and militarily) ones that are at times able to exert pressure on the imperialists in favour of their own interests vis-à-vis regional rivals (NB: their status as tools of the imperialist nations doesn’t preclude them at times from acting somewhat independently – after all, they are neocolonies as opposed to direct colonies).
- And finally, there are national bourgeois states, almost always post-colonial and often (whether on principle or from sheer pragmatic self-interest) anti-imperialist, but nevertheless still capitalist (e.g. Syria, Iran, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe).
Within each category, of course, there is a range of states with some fitting the description more than others. Moreover, these categories are not fixed and static, but in continuous flux (this point is addressed in more detail below).
The most powerful capitalist nations have certain economic features in common which make them imperialist, and here we must reiterate that we refer to Lenin’s formulation of imperialism as a stage of capitalism. The laws of capitalist production mean that all capitalists are forced into a constant state of competition. Fluctuations in the market and intense competition create a tendency towards consolidation and monopoly. In these countries, the major corporations have eaten up competition to such an extent that there are only a handful left to dominate the major industries and thus form monopolies and oligopolies. Furthermore, a few select finance corporations (including banks) dominate the heights of the economy. Governments in these countries act in the interests of these finance oligopolies and monopolised industries, due to the influence these oligopolies and compete against other countries. Their national economies rely on growth, which means rivaling each other to gobble up the resources and labour of weaker countries. Those countries which resist suffer financial and military attack. And when there are no countries left to divide between them, and the imperialists are able to build up comparable military forces, or the balance of forces between them has changed, world war is liable to break out between them, as new circumstances force the question of a redivision of territories. Today, the US is currently the most dominant imperialist power – with approximately 800 military bases around the world. Through NATO, it has commandeered the militaries of many European countries, including Britain (though this pact between imperialists established by overwhelming US power since WWII has been coming under increasing strain and is liable to burst at some point – see analysis of inter-imperialist rivalries here).
So,what is Britain’s role in this?
There is a myth in common currency that Britain is no longer an imperialist nation: that it beneficently freed its subject peoples and now just bumbles along innocently minding its own business. This is not at all true. Britain clung on to its colonies as long as possible, only giving them up when the colonised took up armed resistance. It still has colonial vestiges in Ireland, Argentina, Spain and islands dotted across the globe. And as a junior partner to the US, it leans on American global military might. But it is nevertheless an imperialist power in its own right.
The US’s neocolonial Empire is a successor to Britain’s direct colonial control of a quarter of the Earth’s land mass, but Britain is still an active participant in imperialism: through the predatory debt traps and structural adjustment programmes of the IMF and World Bank; through its global dominance in certain finance sectors (insurance, accountancy), the tentacles of its banks stretch all around the world (HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds); through its corporations, which extract resources such as oil (BP, Shell), minerals and metals (Rio Tinto, Glencore, Lonmin), food (Unilever, Tesco, Associated British Foods), tobacco (British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands), and diamonds (de Beers) in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and through its manufacturing corporations who exploit labour there, including child labour (FCUK, Topshop). Britain is also one of the world’s foremost arms dealers and provider of mercenaries, supplying the likes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel with the means to attack Kurds, Yemenis and Palestinians. All of this is important to note, as imperialism can in no way be reduced to war, however it is backed by either the threat or actuality of military force.
Britain is the original imperialist in the modern sense, and it continues to be a vicious terrorist regime, a serial killer of peoples which helps enforce a global system of extracting value and profits from a mass of toiling people forced to struggle for a basic modicum of dignity in their lives so that a British ruling elite can live in obscene extravagance. And when those people try to resist the pillaging of virtually everything of value they produce, when they even just try to build bonds between each other to gain strength in solidarity, they are treated savagely: families are ruthlessly torn apart, vast numbers of people are brutalised and tortured, just to intimidate them into not even thinking about fighting back, let alone waging an actual struggle.
Not only that, but British media (BBC, Guardian, C4 etc), the regime’s voices, tell us brazenly that Britain is concerned primarily with humanitarianism, that it is concerned for the welfare of the people whose very lives they’re actively destroying. And it calls those who resist every name under the sun, accuses them of every imaginable crime, and slanders their leaders.
Every time this cold-blooded regime sets its crosshairs on a new target, too many people say, ‘wait a minute, let’s hear them out. I don’t believe all of what I hear; I’m not an idiot. But there’s no smoke without fire. I know we’ve made mistakes in the past and done bad things, but we’re not as bad as others. We’re not as bad as the USA. And we’re certainly more democratic, freer and morally superior to [insert current target]’.
Propaganda and anti-imperialism
There is an important point which many on the ‘left’ do not understand: if we are to consider ourselves anti-imperialist, one of our key duties is to resist giving our consent to the manoeuvres of the imperialist countries in which we live, and combat narratives which justify sanctions and intervention. The mainstream ideas promoted by media outlets owned and controlled by the ruling class (i.e, the imperialists) will naturally be those favourable to imperialism. Articles on Bolivia or Venezuela give various examples of this. When these ideas appear in political discourse and become accepted, people will more easily consent to measures like sanctions or intervention.
Here, Chomsky makes a good point (that he increasingly doesn’t put into practice): if you’re in an imperialist country, what positive effect could you have by attacking anti-imperialist countries and their leaders for (in your view) contravening human rights (or whatever your criticism is) while they are in situations of extreme precarity? It emboldens your own country and contributes to their drive for war. It cannot possibly help the people in another country.
If you live in one of the richest countries in the world, and your country exploits and imposes crippling sanctions on other countries (and is not itself the victim of any sanctions), while working class people in your own country are downtrodden, exploited and unhappy with the system to the extent that protests are a constant feature, and once in a while violent riots break out (without even foreign funding!), consider that it’s snide, at best, to take such a superior attitude to your country’s enemies – who are subject to your country’s sanctions, propaganda, and sabotage.
‘Neutrality’ is not a progressive option here either. NATO members are the dominant economic and military force on the planet, so, in any conflict with nations outside the bloc, there is a highly asymmetrical power relationship. In other words, it’s usually a David and Goliath scenario. However, in every case, we find a whole tranche of the left peering down their noses and pontificating ‘neither these nor those’, falsely equating one side with the other. The truth is that, as even Corbyn has ironically pointed out, in a glorious self-own, ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’. And yet, when pointing out that parroting imperialist propaganda against socialist and oppressed nations is objectively siding with the oppressor, too many throw up their hands and claim they don’t support either side.
It’s possible they feel very clever when they say ‘neither this nor that’, and fantasise that they have a clean conscience. ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’, ‘neither ISIS nor Assad’ – they think that supporting perpetual conflict between the two means they have less blood on their hands than those who support (critically) the vastly more progressive side, and a side whose victory would mean an end to the bloodshed. And they think that offering feeble objections to bombs and war while regurgitating and validating the arguments being used to justify bombs and war means they’re neutral.
They simply fail to challenge the narrative of those beating war drums and leave their falsehoods intact. After all, why would imperialists and their media outlets lie about countries they want to conquer and exploit? Again, these so-called leftists can understand media bias when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn/Bernie Sanders, but not a foreign country where people generally have darker skin. To expose the imperialist lies of their state would be to expose their own complicity in imperialism and their enjoyment of privileges that go along with it (higher wages, cheaper products and a level of infrastructure many in the Global South dream of). While of course in the long term all workers would benefit from the defeat of parasitic and exploiting imperialist governments, in Britain the only way to achieve effective working-class internationalism is through uncompromising anti-imperialism.
We have a saying in Britain, ‘who smelt it, dealt it’. The number one strategy of demonisation by the imperialists is projection: accuse enemies of everything that they themselves perpetrate. This means that even if all of the accusations are true (hint: they aren’t), the enemies can at worst be only as bad as the imperialists and on a much smaller scale.
And this is the result: the imperialists sanction and embargo countries as a collective punishment for populations who do not overthrow their own governments. The recent US embargo against Venezuela has harmed poor communities the most, putting a strain on medical supplies. This is war by other means and softens the target up for boots on the ground and/or bombing. The bombs destroy precious infrastructure as well as murdering indiscriminately. That infrastructure is always hard to come by for underdeveloped and overexploited former colonies (as these targets usually are).
After the bombs, the boots on the ground occupy territory as a hostile invading force aiming to intimidate local civilian populations into acquiescence – the use of torture here is key. Once the existing state is defeated, its remaining structure is dismantled, and martial law is enforced. Finally, a compliant regime is installed and the feeding frenzy begins: a privatisation bonanza for transnational corporations. And in this aftermath, the ‘humanitarians’ still crow about how dictatorship and tyranny was overthrown – as if anything could be as comprehensively dictatorial and tyrannical as this.
Those gunning for the liquidation of the Syrian government seem to have learnt nothing from Iraq or Libya, once one of the most prosperous and stable countries in the region and now a war-torn hellscape where racist lynchings take place in the streets. Even more recently, the imperialist coup against socialist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has resulted in violent pogroms against indigenous communities, and the reversal of his progressive land and welfare reforms. It is the working classes and especially their most marginalised sections who are devastated by these ‘humanitarian’ interventions and destabilisation campaigns. There is no real progress under imperialist domination.
Another major tactic of left-wing apologists is to deny that targets of imperialism are targets at all. They portray them as complicit and even allied with the same ones they’re being sanctioned and/or bombed by. It’s true that targets of Western imperialism can sometimes support the interests of Western imperialism in an attempt to improve their own position, but this doesn’t disqualify them from our support when they’re under threat (though Rojava is a rather different case, as discussed here). Hafez Assad (father of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad) allied with the US in the first Gulf War against his rival Ba’athists in Iraq. There, Saddam had previously invaded Revolutionary Iran, having been helped into power by the CIA in the first place. Neither were compliant enough for the imperialists though, whose demands are exacting. And look at the result in both Syria and Iraq? We can only imagine how much worse Syria would be if it were now fully in the hands of ISIS and al Qaeda (aka al Nusra) as the anti-Assad left would inevitably have it. There are countless other examples. The point is that targets of imperialism don’t enjoy their status. They’d rather not suffer the sanctions and sabotage that come with it. They do their utmost to negotiate and are sometimes willing to concede in order to secure a modicum of mercy and freedom to simply trade and normalise relations. This explains the behaviour of Gaddafi in the 2000s (taking responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, being friendly with Blair and Obama etc), for example, much better than charges of straightforward hypocrisy or betrayal.
On other issues, recognition of media distortion is widespread. It’s easy to see the agenda of journalists who focus on alleged past crimes of a victim of police brutality or murder. Bourgeois socialists like those who populate the Labour left generally understand that you shouldn’t blame the victim when it comes to workers e.g. ‘They shouldn’t have collectively bargained for higher wages if they didn’t want to get laid off’. And yet, when it comes to imperialism, it’s a different matter entirely for them: ‘Oppressed nations must have a spotless record if they expect to gain our support.’
To sum up: the world would be much better off if certain leftists – including many self-described “democratic socialists”, the likes of Novara Media and Paul Mason, and assorted Trotskyists – saved their ‘nuance’ for when the target of their ‘critical’ support is not in mortal danger, and even better still if they dared to stick their necks out and give full-throated resistance against imperialist aggression without prefacing it with umpteen excuses, extrications and disavowals designed to keep them in at least some of the good graces of ‘polite society’.