Defining Imperialsim Today

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Mel Rothenberg

“We must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

“(1) The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation on the basis of this ‘finance capital,’ of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.”–Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Collected Works, Vol. 22; 266

“Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are perhaps the most important actors in the world economy. They straddle national boundaries and the biggest TNC’s have sales which exceed the aggregate output of most countries. The foreign content of output, assets and employment in many of them is large, in some cases ranging from 50% to over 90%. The largest 600 industrial companies account for between one fifth and one-fourth of value added in the production of goods in the worlds market economies.” United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations, Transnational Corporations and World Development, ST./CTC/ 89 (New York; United Nation, 1988, 16

THE SEVENTY YEARS separating the above two quotes remind us that while much has changed, much remains the same. The fundamental economic dynamic fueled by the drive to accumulate capital continues, and this is what makes Lenin’s definition seem so prescient.

The Shifting Political Context

At the time of Lenin’s words, on the eve of the first World War, the world was divided into empires controlled by the United States, Russia, Japan, England and the other European powers. The Bolshevik revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union set in motion forces that were to undermine the existing division of world. World politics was subsequently dominated by imperialism’s efforts to defeat communism.

Breaking the brief interlude of the anti-fascist united front, the imperialists quickly renewed the anticommunist crusade at the end of World War II. This renewal was marked by the emergence of the United States as the unchallenged political and military leader of international capitalism.

At the present moment the imperialists, having won the cold war, face no organized, global challenge. Their international economic program, which at its core is the removal of all political and social barriers to the accelerated accumulation of capital, faces only localized and disintegrating resistance.

Imperialism has successfully reconstructed the world market around the three centers of international capital–the United States, Japan and Western Europe, and their respective regional economic spheres of control. On the political level, however, their triumph is far from consolidated.

The crusade against communism gave the imperialist bloc a certain moral and ideological coherence, and in particular legitimized U.S. military and political hegemony.

With this rationale gone, competition between the various major capitalist conglomerates, transnational in their scope of operations but still nationally based and integrated, has become more unrestrained. This has already began to shatter the political coalition among the major capitalist states.

The limits of U.S. military power, evident in even the hollow victory in Iraq, have become obvious to all. On the horizon are the huge, impoverished but rapidly industrializing states of China and India, well integrated into the world capitalist market, but only poorly integrated in the new world political order.

Communism has been broken in Eastern Europe but politically the region remains volatile, particularly among the old Soviet and Yugoslav Republics, which lack a solid, reliable bourgeois governing elite.

The destruction of the traditional way of life of hundreds of millions around the world, the inevitable consequence of imperialism’s march, itself threatens imperialist rule. This destruction–violent, cataclysmic, brutal–leads to profound social instability manifested in massive and often violent resistance to the emerging new world order.

At present this resistance characteristically takes the form of retrograde and savage nationalist and ethnic conflict accompanied by the rise of religious fundamentalism, and as such cannot pose a fundamental political challenge to imperialism. However, it prefigures the possibility of a revived international anti-imperialist movement, and makes a mockery of the “end of history” rhetoric so current just half a decade ago.

What Are We To Do?

The collapse of the international communist movement has profoundly disoriented and demoralized existing anti-imperialist forces.

I believe, however, that rebuilding an international anti-imperialist movement remains our central task. Under current conditions even getting started is extraordinarily difficult–but there is a vast potential provided a coherent strategy of resistance can emerge.

The emergence of viable strategy depends crucially on the development and crystallization internationally of new organized political forces with a shared anti-imperialist vision and the capacity to unite the widespread, but fragmented, anti-imperialist struggles.

This is not about to happen in the immediate future. In the meantime, how can we in the United States effectively promote anti-imperialist politics?

For the next period opposition to imperialism in the United States will be based on humanist and moral impulses and pro-democratic sentiment, rather than on an articulated social-economic program.

The left’s main role will be to mobilize broader progressive circles who do not have a consistent anti-imperialist perspective. Consequently they do support certain U.S. military initiatives, often under the cover of UN or, most recently, under NATO sponsorship.

These pro-imperialist impulses co-exist with a tradition of anti-imperialist sentiment. This is true particularly among students, people of color, and sectors of the religious community. After all, this anti-imperialist tradition was responsible for, and was immensely strengthened by, the anti-Vietnam war movement. This is what we
have to build on.

There are also burning social and political issues which are directly tied to imperialism. Immigrant rights is the most important. Here a clear anti-imperialist perspective is crucial to counter the vacillation and chauvinism one encounters in most liberal circles.

We should be able to link this perspective with the small but growing cross-border labor organizing work of progressive trade unions. Cross-border work provides an area of concrete activity in which the relation between class and anti-imperialist politics can be made manifest. My view is that in these areas U.S. socialists are most effectively advancing anti-imperialist politics.

Even among activists where class issues are most evident, there is no escaping the fact that socialist and consistent anti-imperialist politics remain a distinctly minority viewpoint. We must be engaged with the dominant politics of the liberal milieu without being engulfed by it.

When the dominant liberal sentiment is pro-imperialist–as it was at the beginning of the Vietnam war, and as it was throughout the war against Iraq–we must oppose it, but in a way which looks toward a change in that sentiment, as occurred during the Vietnam period.

We should avoid the ultra-left error of directing our fire at the vacillation and confusion of progressive opinion rather then at the schemes of the ruling class. Rather we must seek to strengthen and unite practical and concrete initiatives against imperialism across ideological differences, and have confidence that anti-imperialist
practice is the best way to promote anti-imperialist politics.

I think this perspective should also inform our attitude towards differences within the left. These differences, when strategically substantive and not merely sectarian posturing or left-wing demagoguery, generally reflect contradictions between a hard anti-imperialist line and popular progressive sentiment. Such tension can be creative and is in any case inevitable.

Most often, however, our weak and marginalized left lacks a solid orientation to international developments. Different groups compensate for this by relying on traditional anti-imperialist slogans, usually abstract and drained of meaning, and/or catering to the liberal mood of the moment. I think most of our differences within the left over Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq are more a reflection of this reality then the results of a fundamentally different and coherent analysis.

ATC 60, January-February 1996