Contra the Leninist Position on Imperialism

Our initial aim before publishing in English the text on the war in Ukraine “War and Crisis” was to compose, together with other comrades, a larger, comprehensive article which would include, in addition to the text on the present situation, a critique of imperialism and anti-imperialism on the basis of a particular understanding of capital, the state and the global market. An understanding of capital as a social relation of production, of the state as the political form of the rule of capital, and of the world market as a distinguishing feature and an essential element of capitalism and as a necessary condition for the existence of nation-states. Further, the article would include a polemic against left nationalism and the various forms of warmongering and “holy union” between classes, as well as a defense of revolutionary defeatism. Unfortunately, circumstances did not allow this article to be completed as a single essay and its parts are being published as independent texts.

Antithesi & Friends

The concept of imperialism was used in the twentieth century to describe two main phenomena: on the one hand, the military aggression of capitalist states (imperialist wars, military occupation and territorial conquest) and, on the other hand, the global expansion of the capitalist mode of production in all its economic, political, social and cultural aspects.

Given that Marx considered as inherent aspects of capitalism its global character and expansion, he did not need a specific concept to refer to these phenomena. Moreover, although he vehemently attacked the violence, oppression and exploitation of colonialism, he also thought that the process of capitalist modernization creates the conditions for a historical situation in which humanity can create an emancipated form of society (although he did not consider that it was necessary for every pre-capitalist social form to go through the process of capitalist “primitive accumulation” on the path towards emancipation).

For this reason, when we encounter the concept of imperialism (or alternatively the concept of empire) in Marx, it has a completely different meaning from the one it took on in the twentieth century: it is used as a synonym for Bonapartism or Caesarism, i.e., for an authoritarian political regime acting in favor of the interests of the bourgeoisie in general. The term imperialism is therefore used in Marx because of its direct reference to the regime of the Roman Empire (imperium), where power is concentrated in the person of the Emperor, who prevails over the warring factions of the patricians. In the Marxian concept of imperialism or Bonapartism, the power of the parliament and more generally of the liberal institutions of democratic representation is superseded by the executive, the administration of the state is made independent of the dictates of the individual factions of the bourgeoisie, while the leader, in whose person the state power is concentrated, attempts to win over the “lower classes” through benefits and demagogic slogans which, of course, do not in the least affect the capitalist exploitation of labor (a phenomenon which in modern terminology is called “populism”). In this way the state appears as a neutral institution that is lifted above society. As Marx writes in one of his writings on the Paris Commune, imperialism is the supreme form of bourgeois state power: if the state was originally used by the bourgeoisie for its emancipation from feudalism, in fully developed bourgeois society the state takes on the character of the national power of total social capital over labor through imperialism/Bonapartism, as it is lifted above the interests of one or the other section of the bourgeoisie.

However, the concept of “imperialism” takes on a very different meaning in the twentieth century. The key feature of this new concept was first formulated by the English liberal socialist economist John Hobson in his magnum opus entitled Imperialism, published in 1902. Although he was not a Marxist, John Hobson strongly criticized Say’s law that “supply creates its own demand” and became known for his underconsumption theory for the explanation of the Great Depression in the late nineteenth century. Underconsumption according to his theory was due to the great inequality of income distribution. The limited income of the many is accompanied by the excessive savings of the wealthy few, which are stagnating as it becomes difficult to invest domestically with sufficient profitability. According to Hobson, this is the driving force of imperialism, defined in this case as the search for new markets and for investment outlets through colonial expansion to export surplus capital, which is aimed at solving the crisis created by underconsumption within the country concerned. Hobson saw imperialism as an unnecessary and immoral element of capitalism from which capitalism could be rid of. In particular, he proposed the elimination of surplus capital through the redistribution of income and the nationalization of monopolies, i.e., through the reform of capitalism without the need for its revolutionary overthrow.1

Apart from the liberal socialist Hobson, a number of Marxists, such as Parvus, Kautsky, Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, gave a similar meaning to the concept of imperialism without necessarily all of them being directly influenced by Hobson (e.g., Parvus and Luxemburg). The common content they all attributed to imperialism had been the attempt to find a way out of the crisis of reproduction of capital by expanding to new markets for the export of commodities and capital—regardless of the interpretation each of them gave to the crisis (crisis of underconsumption in the case of Luxemburg, crisis of overproduction in the case of Parvus, disproportionality between sectors of capitalist production in the case of Hilferding and Lenin, and so on).

The most important and influential theoretical work on which more or less all the above Marxists were based was Rudolf Hilferding’s book Finance Capital, first published in 1910. In this work, Hilferding, influenced by Parvus and Hobson, introduces the concept of financial capital as the latest “stage” or “phase,” as he calls it, of capitalism. As he wrote:

Finance capital signifies the unification of capital. The previously separate spheres of industrial, commercial and bank capital are now brought under the common direction of high finance, in which the masters of industry and of the banks are united in a close personal association. The basis of this association is the elimination of free competition among individual capitalists by the large monopolistic combines. This naturally involves at the same time a change in the relation of the capitalist class to state power. […]The policy of finance capital has three objectives: (1) to establish the largest possible economic territory; (2) to close this territory to foreign competition by a wall of protective tariffs, and consequently (3) to reserve it as an area of exploitation for the national monopolistic combinations.2

Finance capital is the ultimate stage of capitalism and at this ultimate stage, according to Hilferding, capitalism has the following characteristics:

  • the formation of trusts, cartels and generally monopolistic enterprises (which abolish capitalist competition),

  • the fusion of banking and industrial capital into finance capital,

  • the abandonment of free trade and its replacement by protectionism in favor of domestic monopolies,

  • the subordination of the state to monopolies and finance capital,

  • and the formation of expansionist policies of colonial annexation and war whereby states support the movement of “their” capital. Competition between individual capitals is transformed into geopolitical rivalry between the nation states in accordance with the power of each.3

Hilferding later described this capitalist phase as “organized capitalism.” There is an affinity with Marx’s notion of imperialism/Bonapartism in the sense that, as Hilferding points out:

Economic power also means political power. Domination of the economy gives control of the instruments of state power. The greater the degree of concentration in the economic sphere, the more unbounded is the control of the state. The rigorous concentration of all the instruments of state power takes the form of an extreme deployment of the power of the state, which becomes the invincible instrument for maintaining economic domination.4

But this is clearly a colossal mistake: the fact that the State assumes the character of the national power of total social capital over labor and rises above the interests of the separate sections of the bourgeoisie is by no means necessarily identical with the abolition of competition and with the complete fusion of State and monopolies, nor with the concentration of power in the hands of the so-called “capitalist oligarchs” (whose dictatorship can thus be replaced by the dictatorship of the party leaders over the proletariat).

In essence, Lenin adopts this position of Hilferding in its entirety in his work Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism and develops it further. Briefly, the definition he gives is the following:

Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.5

According to Lenin, imperialism is decaying capitalism, as any monopoly in the conditions of the private ownership of the means of production tends to decline. Also, imperialism is already dying capitalism because monopolization signifies a necrosis of competition due to centralization, and therefore no further development of the productive forces. Production is socialized to such an extent that it contradicts the private ownership of the means of production. Thus, according to Lenin, the road to revolution is opened. However, revolution does not appear automatically but requires the conscious, organized revolutionary action of the working class under the guidance, of course, of the party.

Lenin argued that imperialism is necessarily the ultimate stage of capitalism and that this stage had already been underway since the beginning of the twentieth century. But apparently he has been proved woefully wrong since a century later there may well still exist global monopolies but this has not prevented the reproduction of an infinite number of smaller capitals that exploit millions of proletarians every day. Apart from the fact that the Leninist theory of imperialism enshrined a conception of revolution as the transfer of control of monopolistic production from the hands of the capitalists to the hands of the party leaders, it has also formed the ideological basis for the legitimation of the support of leftist parties towards small and medium-sized capitals against monopolies and banks, a long-standing position of both the Communist Party of Greece and of the broader Greek and international left, which is of course in no way against capital as a social relation and against wage labor.

Moreover, Lenin argued that at the stage of imperialism capitalism becomes parasitic as

the exploitation of oppressed nations—which is inseparably connected with annexations— and especially the exploitation of colonies by a handful of ‘Great’ Powers, increasingly transforms the ‘civilized’ world into a parasite on the body of hundreds of millions in the uncivilized nations. The Roman proletarian lived at the expense of society. Modern society lives at the expense of the modern proletarian.6

So the immediate aim at the imperialist stage is the exploitation of weak countries. This is realized through imperialist conquests that establish an unequal international economic reality in which the imperialist states have a dominant position and the states and peoples subordinated to the imperialists have a subordinate position.

Therefore, the main assumption of the Leninist theory of imperialism is that the underdevelopment and suffering of the peoples of the periphery is caused by the dependence of the countries of the periphery on the countries of the metropolis. This is achieved by the “plunder” of the periphery and by the “operation” of foreign capital dominating domestic capital.

Apart from the fact that the “parasitism” thesis is clearly counterrevolutionary, since it presents the proletarians of the developed capitalist countries as exploiters of the proletarians of the less developed capitalist countries, it is also wrong. Because of the high productivity of labor in the developed capitalist countries, the degree of exploitation of worker in these countries is much higher than that of workers in the less developed capitalist countries. Also, such a position on parasitism leads to the support of national liberation movements, i.e., to the strengthening of nationalism and ultimately to the support of the establishment and development of capitalist relations in the “undeveloped” countries.

An event of decisive importance for the spread of anti-imperialist politics and the course of national liberation and anti-colonial movements was the 6th Congress of Comintern in 1928, which adopted the position that imperialism was an obstacle to the industrial development of the colonies. By that time, many communists had adhered to the older, Marxist position that assumed that colonialism would in the long run lead to industrialization, which in turn was seen as a necessary condition for general human emancipation. Comintern’s position reflects a contradiction central to Marxist theory and dialectics, namely the dialectic between capitalism (and its main contemporary political form, the nation-state) and emancipation. On the one hand, it strongly affirmed the Marxist conception of the progressiveness of capitalism insofar as the intense and rapid development of the capitalist mode of production was promoted under the pseudonym of “socialism,” while, on the other hand, the global expansion of capitalism, under the name of “imperialism,” was blamed for delaying and blocking the process of modernization in the colonies, which would eventually lead to general human emancipation. Through a move which ruptures this dialectic, the good side of capitalism that brings development and thus brings the possibility of emancipation—and which is carried out by a socialist, i.e., state-capitalist, regime, which at some point in the process will become communist—is separated from its evil, destructive and exploitative side, which must be fought and which is given the name “imperialism.” The latter (the unequally developing capitalism) must be fought by the national liberation movements, which in the process will establish modern nation-states, and which are the natural environment for the development of capitalism in its progressive form. This conception both reflects and misinterprets the Marxian dialectic between capitalism and progress, depriving it of its dialectical character: Marx’s position that the workers’ movement must exploit the currently evolving contradictory historical process of capitalist development is a far cry from the Bolshevik position that this process of capitalist development must be organized and promoted by the proletarian movement, through political revolution and the dictatorship of the party.7

According to the so-called “Marxist-Leninist” theories of imperialism and of state-monopoly capitalism, large monopoly enterprises merge with the state, resulting in the formation of a “single, nationwide capitalist economy.” As the monopolistic form of production abolishes the compulsion on individual capitalists to increase their profit by developing the productive forces of labor, the only thing that can concern the state monopolies in the world market is the struggle for politically secured spheres of production and for the realization of monopolistic surplus profits. The stagnation of the monopolistic phase of capitalism imposes a kind of antagonism on the world market, which takes the form of war and its content is the “division of the world among the great powers.”8

However, the state, every state, however small or large, has as its structural characteristic the tendency to expand spatially and/or economically. This is the basic component of nationalism, it can be found since the beginning of the era of the nation-states and it is not a particular characteristic of the state at the stage of imperialism, as it is implied. Moreover, capitalism did not have to reach some “special,” “advanced” or “ultimate” stage in order to start “dividing the world”—and here we are referring to inter-state rivalries and not to some alleged conspiracy to cancel out capitalist competition. On the contrary, the struggle for “the division of the world” has nothing specifically capitalist about it; it was the content of the conflict of kingdoms and empires before the rise of capitalism and did continue during its rise, even during the so-called “free trade” period that preceded the so-called “imperialist stage,” when the British Empire was reigning supreme.

The acceptance in whole or in part of Leninist positions on imperialism necessarily leads to problematic and misleading conceptions:

  1. One of the driving forces of the capitalist mode of production is the competition between capitals in their quest for maximum profit (the other one being class struggle). Monopolies exist, and for Marx they arise both “naturally” within the capitalist mode of production, insofar as the process of the expanded reproduction of capital is a process of concentration and centralization of capital; and “artificially,” e.g., in the case of the ownership of resources which are thereby monopolized (and which can range from technological patents to the ownership of high-yield land parcels). For Marx, however, this by no means abolishes competition and by implication the “law of value.” The equalization of the rate of profit between firms should not be understood as establishing a stable equilibrium where firms all achieve the same rate of profit, but as a situation of constant movement of capital achieving different rates of profit both within the same industry and between different industries, in which the average rate of profit is merely a “center of gravity” around which the various rates move. 9 In showing in the third volume of Capital that price-setting practices (as well as variable levels of excess capacity) are consistent with the law of value, Marx points out that in the capitalist system labor productivity and the rate of exploitation are the ultimate regulators of the process of capital accumulation. Monopoly can only be understood as a particular form of appearance of competition. It cannot escape competition because the objectives of each capital—to achieve the highest possible profit—are in conflict with the objectives of every other capital, due to the fact that the mass of surplus value of total capital is quantitatively limited, just as the bases of surplus value production in terms of use-value (mass of labor power, duration of the working day, intensity of labor, productive force of labor) are limited. Monopoly profits cannot be absolute. Nor can they be permanent, as this would imply that the competition of capital for higher return on investment (movements of capital between different sectors due to differences in profit rates) would be eliminated.
    On the contrary, Hilferding and Lenin, who regarded monopolies as the annulment of competition, actually adopt the vulgar economic concept of “perfect competition” against which the “monopoly market” is opposed.
  2. Since capital is a social relation, the notion of its “export” from the strong to the weak countries is a huge distortion, which leads to ideologies about “empire,” “transnational centers of power,” etc., which obscure and mystify the class opponent and ultimately act as a deterrent to the unfolding of the proletariat’s class struggle against the, first of all domestic, capitalist bosses. Indeed, it is implied that as individual capitals crossing borders retain their nationality, their competition with domestic capitals replaces or even is equated with class struggle, which is thus paradoxically transformed into a struggle between nations, conducted by interclass national subjects. A misconception develops that the working class and the bourgeoisie of one country are exploiting together their counterparts in other countries. Michael Heinrich writes the following on the issue: “[T]he characterization of imperialism as ‘parasitic’ is problematic not only due to the moralistic undertone, but also because it is not readily apparent why the exploitation of a foreign working class should be any worse than the exploitation of the domestic working class. What Lenin intended as a continuation of Marx’s analysis ultimately has almost nothing to do with Marx’s critique of political economy.”10

Dependency theory

A development of Hilferding’s and Lenin’s theory of imperialism was the so-called “dependency theory” formulated in the 1960s and 1970s by a number of theorists such as Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank. This theory introduced the notion of dividing the world economy into three zones according to the level of capitalist development: center, semi-periphery, periphery.

According to dependency theory, surplus value is transferred from the peripheral countries to the countries of the center. The countries of the periphery are kept in a permanent state of underdevelopment in order to serve the interests of monopoly capital originating from the countries of the center. This allows foreign monopoly capital to exploit the periphery without competition from local capital.

In this way the (non-Marxist) concept of the exploitation of the countries of the periphery by the countries of the center is introduced. The theory of dependency leads not only to a new categorization of states but also to a new categorization of social classes in each country.

Thus both the working class and the bourgeoisie of the center are distinguished from the working class and the bourgeoisie of the periphery. Indeed, according to dependency theory, the working class of the periphery can ally itself with the corresponding bourgeoisie within a common anti-imperialist front, just as the working class of the center can ally itself with the corresponding bourgeoisie in favor of the imperialist politics of the state to which it belongs.

The error of dependency theory is that it implies an instrumentalist theory of the state. The state is presented as a political entity independent of capitalist social relations that can either be used by monopoly capital to serve its particular interests, or by a class alliance of workers-capitalists in the peripheral countries that will promote development policies and thus bring socialism closer. Consequently, apart from an instrumentalist theory of the state, the theory of dependency implies the acceptance of the theory of stages towards communism. In our view, the state is the political form of capitalist social relations: a capitalist state. In this sense, every state serves the reproduction of capitalist social relations as a totality. This does not mean, of course, that every nation-state serves the reproduction of global capital in general. States are in competition (but also cooperation) with each other in order to attract global capital within their national borders and thereby maintain and expand their share of global surplus value. This involves both the creation of the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital within state borders and the strengthening of accumulation based on the exploitation of labor within the borders of other nation-states. Obviously, not all states have the same possibilities of choice as regards the strategies of accumulation they can adopt.

Historical reasons and the success or failure of each state’s strategy of accumulation are reflected in the uneven development and the formation of a constantly evolving hierarchy of capitalist States: the formation of a capitalist “center” and a capitalist “periphery.” 11 In this sense, every state is imperialist since the essence of imperialism is not monopoly capital but the competitive process of the reproduction of total capital. Apart from being wrong, dependency theory leads politically to class reconciliation and the deepening of national divisions within the global proletariat.12

If we accept the concepts of “dependency theory” we end up having trouble understanding reality. We would have to accept that the breakup of Yugoslavia, for example, was entirely due to the influence of foreign powers and not to the conflict dynamics between competing nationalisms and capitals in the constituent federal states. We would have to accept that all wars that break out are between puppet states which always have great powers and their interests behind them. That the revolts in developing countries are instigated, without the workers, the inhabitants, the ruling classes of the respective countries playing any role. Class struggle disappears.

Also, the contradictory character of this theory can be detected if the efforts of weak countries to join transnational economic organizations such as the eu, the World Trade Organization, etc., are examined. The obvious conclusion is that these organizations do not exist solely to serve the interests of the capital of powerful states. Their purpose is the interest of capital in general, i.e., of each ruling class, whether Albanian or German, in its struggle to exploit the working class. The wealth and accumulation of capital comes from the exploitation of labor and not primarily from the plunder of weak countries.13

Anti-imperialism

Theories of imperialism have taken a central place in the analyses of a large part of the class movement. Since imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, the anti-capitalist struggle also had to be transformed into an anti-imperialist one, which gradually became a central ideology (in the sense of false consciousness).

Instead of revealing the class antagonisms within societies, what prevails is the rallying of the nation against the evil imperialists. Usually, anti-imperialist politics is limited to opposing big capital or the multinationals of the big capitalist countries, giving an alibi to the domestic small or big bosses which it classifies as the underdogs:

The problem, then, is no longer that capitalism has reached every remote corner of the planet and has suffocated every field of human activity, turning everything it touches into a commodity. The problem for anti-imperialists is that capitalist expansion is being implemented unevenly and asymmetrically, that in some powerful states capitalism is established while in others—the dependent ones—it is strangled and unable to develop sufficiently. We can only exclaim in surprise: so what? In the ‘dependent’ countries are there not still commodities and wage labor; is it not true there as well as in the ‘imperialist powers’ that some have the means of production and some have only their own labor power to sell, some give orders and some are obliged to obey? Do not the same relations of exploitation prevail, and possibly in an even harsher form? Does not the same commodity fetishism prevail as it also prevails in the developed countries? Or have people there gained control over their lives and no one has bothered to inform us?14

The opposition to anti-imperialism goes in parallel with the opposition to nationalism and this is because the anti-imperialist ideology functions as a means of inscribing the national ideology within the radical movements that claim human emancipation originating from all kinds of oppression. The anti-imperialist and national liberation movements are the main mechanisms for subordinating the demands and aspirations for social change, freedom, emancipation and communism to capital and its state and, consequently, for neutralizing and effectively eliminating them through their alienation and their transformation into movements claiming rights from the capitalist state and all sorts of identity politics.15

Capitalist war means social peace

“We are now facing the irrevocable fact of war. We are threatened by the horrors of invasion. The decision, today, is not for or against war; for us there can be but one question: by what means is this war to be conducted? Much, aye everything, is at stake for our people and its future, if Russian despotism, stained with the blood of its own people, should be the victor. This danger must be averted, the civilization and the independence of our people must be safeguarded. Therefore we will carry out what we have always promised: in the hour of danger we will not desert our fatherland. In this we feel that we stand in harmony with the International, which has always recognized the right of every people to its national independence, as we stand in agreement with the International in emphatically denouncing every war of conquest. Actuated by these motives, we vote in favor of the war credits demanded by the Government.”16 And this is how the Social-Democratic Party of Germany sent the German proletariat in 1914 to the massacre of the First World War.

A few days earlier, a French nationalist assassinates Jean Jaurès, a pacifist, anti-militarist leader of the French Socialist Party, who was trying to organize a general Franco-German strike against the coming war and a general French strike in case France declared war. In the funeral oration delivered by the leader of the General Confederation of Labor (cgt), Léon Jouhaux, who was against the declaration of a strike and in favor of participation in the war, said, among other things: “in front of this coffin I cry out our hatred for the imperialism and coarse militarism that have provoked this horrendous crime… All working men… we take the field with the determination to drive back the aggressor.”17 With Jaurès and whatever influence he might have exerted in the midst of a nationalistic upsurge gone, the socialists in parliament decided to suspend any activity that would sabotage the national war machine, sending with their blessings the French proletariat into the slaughter of the First World War.

What is interesting is that in both Germany and France, the leaders of the organized working class evoked the “invasion” in order to capitulate to the bourgeoisie of their country. But the same appeal is also made by the bourgeoisie whenever it wants to impose national unity in the context of a military conflict. National war is always presented as a defensive action against the invaders, whatever form they may assume. And for a victorious war social peace must prevail.

In Germany during the First World War this pact of class cooperation was entitled Burgfrieden (loosely translated as: “peace reigns in the castle”), while in France it was called Union Sacrée. In both cases, the trade unions and the social democratic parties declared an armistice in defense of the fatherland, pledging that no industrial action would be waged and no demands would be raised by the working class until the end of the war. This was of course accompanied by martial law and harsh censorship, since any criticism of the government, the war or the pact of class collaboration itself was strictly forbidden at the point of a gun. In this context, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were imprisoned from 1916 until the end of the war.

Προπαγανδιστική κάρτα υπέρ της Ιεράς Ένωσης στη Γαλλία.

The same path of class collaboration was followed by most of the Social-Democratic parties and trade unions of the countries involved in the war. Exceptions were the Bolsheviks, the Italian Socialist Party, the Serbian Socialist Party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Socialist Party of Bulgaria, the Socialist Party of the usa, the International Group founded by Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mering, and the multiethnic workers’ organization Federación de Thessaloniki. At that time there was no socialist party in Greece. The Socialist Workers’ Party of Greece was founded in 1918 and in 1924 it was renamed as the Communist Party of Greece. The Federación had been the Ottoman part of the Second International since 1911 and at the outbreak of the Great War it maintained an internationalist, antiwar position.

In any case, the Second International collapsed. This meant that millions of proletarians were urged by their own organizations, which were supposed to represent their class interests, to become the prey for the cannons of capitalists: 10 million dead soldiers and 20 million wounded, half of them crippled for life; 10 million civilians dead from bombing, starvation, and disease. A massive slaughterhouse of human beings…

Obviously, the Second International was not a unified whole. There was a right wing with representatives like Ebert (later to become president of Germany when Luxemburg and Liebknecht were assassinated), the center with reformists like Kautsky and the revolutionary left wing with leading figures such as Luxemburg and Lenin. Only this left tendency preserved the proletarian internationalism that was supposed to inspire the whole of the Second International. All the rest joined the battle alongside the bosses to break any proletarian bond that could endanger the imperialist plans of the bourgeoisie (camouflaged as “defensive stand”). Of course, one could say that this was not something unexpected on their part. Class collaboration was probably part of their reformist program in any case.

But apart from this, there was in the Second International itself a position which would sooner or later torpedo any claims to proletarian internationalism. As we have seen above, in the quote from the German Social Democrats, the part of the International that had enlisted in the capitalist war argued that it did not violate any of the principles of the International since it defended the right of peoples to national independence and self-defense. Hence this persistent talk of “invasion,” even by the Germans, although it was Germany that had formally invaded France.

Already from the end of the nineteenth century, the organized labor movement supported the national liberation movements, on the one hand because they were considered to be a modernizing force, in the sense of promoting the development of capitalism as a necessary stage for socialism, and on the other hand because, although they had bourgeois characteristics, they involved large sections of the proletariat who could potentially create a socialist perspective by accelerating the collapse of capitalism. Such an example was the national liberation movement of Poland (Poland was divided between the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires), which led to the split of the Polish Socialist Party (1894) between the patriotic right wing and the left internationalist wing. Similarly to 1914, the leader of the proletarian internationalist tendency was Rosa Luxemburg, who together with her comrades promoted class solidarity between Polish and Russian workers, the socialist perspective and the universal struggle against capitalism, warning that the class question should not be buried under the national one since, after all, Poland’s national independence was not in the interest of anyone apart from its bourgeoisie. On account of this consistent proletarian position, they were vilified within the Second International by the right-wing patriotic wing of the Polish party as “police agents” and as a “nefarious gang”!

Over one century after these events and after the First World War, there is no doubt that national liberation movements and national wars not only do not serve proletarian interests, but actually annihilate them, since the proletariat is de facto aligned with the bourgeoisie either with the aim of establishing a new “independent” nation-state or with the aim of defending an existing “independent” nation-state. The term “independent” is put within quotation marks, because in the context of capitalist inter-imperialist antagonisms, every nation-state is bound to the chariot wheels of the one or the other stronger imperialist power. Thus, the usa, for example, can give its fervent support to a national liberation movement in line with its own interests and fiercely fight another one which is backed by Russia, and vice versa.

The creation of nation-states is a rather recent episode of history in the course of the rise of capitalism.18 We could say that the nexus of nation-states of the modern world and the antagonisms between them is a form of the existence of total social capital. Any active participation of the proletariat in these nationalist antagonisms merely reproduces its position as the exploited class under the domination of capital. No proletarians have ever been emancipated through a national liberation war; on the contrary, every national liberation war has paved the way for the consolidation of a new bourgeois elite with national characteristics and a capitalist program (even if there were “revolutionaries” and “heroes” of the national liberation movement in its ranks). Therefore, the self-emancipation of the proletariat would require the elimination of every nationalist element, everything that seems to bind it to a “homeland,” i.e., it would have to turn against its exploiters, present and aspiring, and transform immediately the national-liberation war into class war. It should smash to smithereens social peace, which is an indispensable complement to capitalist war.

The militarist circle-A’s

After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, it was not long before some texts of Ukrainian anarchists appeared, declaring that they had taken up arms to defend Ukraine and the Ukrainian people against Russia which “has a long-term plan to destroy democracy in Europe.” They even called people to support them financially, to send them weapons (!), but also to join the “International Legion of Territorial Defense,” created by Zelensky himself, against Russian imperialism. In fact, what they have formed is a regular military unit, like all the rest, fully integrated into the national army of Ukraine within the framework of the country’s Territorial Defense. These propaganda texts, accompanied by the necessary heroic photos of some heavily armed men waving anarchist flags, spread like wildfire across all Western media networks, both mainstream and related to the antagonistic movement. This is of course something to be expected: anything that promotes nationalism, even if it originates from anarchists, anything that encourages joining one of the two sides in a national war, is not only legitimate for capital and its state, but the only acceptable position.

But what has happened in Ukraine while these anarchists have been fighting alongside the national armed forces of Ukraine “defending the freedom of us all”? First of all, martial law has been declared: this means that the laws protecting the workers and their representation by their trade unions have been largely suspended, allowing mass dismissals and work suspensions, the extension of the working day from forty to sixty hours, the unilateral cancellation of collective agreements by the bosses, the non-payment of wages, the compulsory change of the object of work according to the military needs of the state, the reduction of holidays, etc. In this context, hundreds of enterprises in Ukraine have unilaterally suspended, either in whole or in part, the collective agreements that had been in effect until the outbreak of the war, especially the clauses concerning trade union activities, social benefits, safety conditions and working hours. Among these enterprises are ArcelorMittal, the country’s largest steelworks, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the National Railway Company of Ukraine, the port of Odessa and the Kiev metro. Under martial law, strikes and demonstrations are also banned, and all men between 18 and 60 years of age are banned from leaving the country.

The destruction of constant and variable capital due to the war is therefore accompanied by favorable arrangements for the bosses in the workplaces. It is no coincidence that the government of Zelensky brought, in the midst of the war, a law for approval to the parliament imposing the complete deregulation of labor relations, which he was trying to pass since April 2021. At that time the law had not passed because of the reactions of the trade unions and of the opposition. But now the government of Ukraine got rid of the various obstacles, such as the bargaining power of the workers or the existence of the opposition, and has succeeded in imposing social peace through war. The aforementioned law, which is embedded in the general ideological framework of “desovietization,” was approved in the summer of 2022 through a rapid parliamentary process. The central core of this attack on the Ukrainian proletariat is that workers in small and medium-sized enterprises up to 250 employees will no longer be covered by collective labor agreements but will enter into individual contracts with the corresponding capitalists, without enjoying any protection from labor legislation. This means that over 70 percent of the Ukrainian labor force will have individual contracts, a development which will ultimately lead to the total devaluation of the labor power of the largest part of the country’s proletariat. The only thing that could stop this process would be a mass rebellion against martial law, i.e., the disruption of social peace, which would probably be opposed by the nationalist anarchists since, if they had aspired to such an event, they would never have willingly joined the Ukrainian army nor would they have propagandized this position. No matter how much they may appeal to Kropotkin19 or Bakunin (or even Makhno!), their active participation in the capitalist war is aimed directly against proletarian interests.

On the other camp, we are confronted with the Western leftist supporters of Putin who argue in favor of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Using the reactionary ideology of anti-Americanism and the anti-nato narrative as a vehicle, they defend the military operations and nationalism of Russia, a capitalist national formation which, like any other such formation, bases its existence and reproduction on the exploitation of the largest part of its population: the proletariat. They are such odious enemies of the proletarian movement that they have even turned against the recent uprising in Iran after the murder of Mahsa Amini by the police, claiming that it was instigated by the Americans. They actively support any butcher, as long as he/she qualifies as anti-America, turning against proletarian interests, exactly like the Ukrainian anarchists mentioned above. Their supposed concern, as leftists, for the working class is simply a lie since they openly support the obliteration of its power and of its very own existence—as one of the two antagonistic poles within capitalism and as variable capital—through its active engagement in the interimperialist wars.

In the slaughterhouse of capitalist war, we are always on the side of the deserters

“We don’t want to run away,” say the Ukrainian anarchists who have joined the country’s Territorial Defense. At the same time, according to official sources, about 7 million people have fled the country since the beginning of the war. Mostly women and children, since it is prohibited for men to leave the country. The fact that the state has imposed martial law imposing a ban on leaving the country, compulsory conscription and constant border controls shows, if anything, that a significant proportion of men aged between 18 and 60 have no desire to be minced in the nationalist war machine. Many have tried to cross the border hidden in suitcases, boxes, trunks and even dressed as women. Some have succeeded, others have been caught by the border guards and have been forced into compulsory conscription. Transwomen did not manage to escape the clutches of the war machine either, since for the state and the army they are men and therefore forbidden to leave the country.

From a proletarian internationalist point of view, we ought to promote and support the decision and action of those people who, either for reasons of self-preservation or for political reasons, refuse to sacrifice themselves for the “fatherland” and escape the national war effort. We ought to promote their example as a true proletarian practice against the dominant ideology of militarism and nationalism that has even hidden behind the images of the red and black flag.

As long as the war and its extreme horrors are prolonged, the ideology of sacrifice for the “fatherland” may crumble and collapse and desertion practices may emerge within both armies, as it has actually happened in the previous months. In the Ukrainian army, which despite Western support is still weaker than the Russian army, desertion phenomena are quite frequent. In many of the cases it may not be desertions with a purely internationalist content, but rather a flight from an army that sends them untrained and unarmed on suicide missions like sheep to the slaughter. Even so, they are certainly a crack in the war frenzy and an example of resistance against state-military power.

In the Russian army, there are also thousands of soldiers who refuse to return to the Ukrainian front, claiming that they are being led to their death sentence. In September 2022, Putin announced the imposition of a partial mobilization, involving some 300,000 reservists. This announcement triggered a huge wave of people fleeing Russia (it is estimated that over 300,000 people have left the country up to the time of writing this text) fearing that the conscription would be generalized or that the borders would be closed. Demonstrations against the mobilization have broken out in many regions of Russia and were met with a brutal crackdown by the cops. Also, several attacks on recruitment offices have taken place (recruitment offices in Russia have been burned down regularly since the beginning of the war). Three days after the declaration of mobilization, Putin signed a legislative amendment stipulating a ten-year prison sentence for deserters.

The acts of desertion in wartime constitute one of the most radical acts of opposition to the nationalist ideology. This is the reason why historically deserters in wartime have been subjected to extreme violence and repression by the state and military authorities.

Revolutionary defeatism

Revolutionary defeatism was the position of revolutionary internationalists in the First World War, in contrast to that part of the Second International which decided to participate actively in the slaughterhouse. Since then, revolutionary defeatism has been the standard position of every communist or anarchist internationalist confronting the capitalist war.

Revolutionary defeatism does not mean pacifism. It means the transformation of the national war into a class war, i.e., the subversion of the social peace that the bourgeoisie attempts to impose by force in order to successfully wage its war. It means class struggle against our own bourgeoisie and solidarity with the proletarians of other countries who are also developing their own struggle against their own bourgeoisies. We fight against our own bourgeoisie not in order for it to be defeated by the most powerful state, i.e., the state that will be able to discipline its own proletariat more effectively, but in order to defeat the interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole, as these are also expressed in the national war. Revolutionary defeatism is the active mobilization against forced conscription, the support of deserters, the support of the struggles in the workplaces against wage reductions, against the increase of working hours or the imposition of forced labor on account of the war. Revolutionary defeatism is the sabotage of the war industry, the spreading of internationalist propaganda to the soldiers of all opposing camps, the cooperation and practical solidarity with the proletarians of all the countries involved and the circulation of struggles, the expropriation of goods for the satisfaction of proletarian needs and any other action that could contribute to our goal, which is none other than the development of the revolutionary movement against capitalist social relations that involve wartime inter-proletarian mutual slaughter.

Revolutionary defeatism means for us here today, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, that we have to intensify the class struggles where we are, especially when the states we reside are actively involved in the military conflict and the effects of the war on our class are already devastating. Not, of course, to support one side or the other—that is the job of all kinds of nationalists, be those anarchists, leftists, or rightists. But on the contrary, to disrupt precisely the prevalent nationalist monologue and to impose what has always defined the interests of our class: the struggle of life against death.

3 November 2022


  1. Hobson was also openly racist and an advocate of eugenics for the gradual elimination of “degenerate or unproductive races.” He proposed restrictions on the emigration of a large number of Jews from the Russian Empire to Western Europe at that time as detrimental to the interests of local workers and was openly anti-Semitic, portraying Jewish bankers as parasites manipulating the British government.↩︎
  2. R. Hilferding, Finance Capital, Routledge, 1981, p. 301 and 326.↩︎
  3. R. Hilferding, „Der Funktionswechsel des Schutzzolles“, Die Neue Zeit, Wochenschrift der deutschen Sozialdemokratie, 21. Jahrgang 1902–1903, 2. Bd. Nr. 35, p. 280 and J. Milios, D. Sotiropoulos, Imperialism, financial markets, crisis, Nissos, 2011, p. 30 (in Greek).↩︎
  4. R. Hilferding, Finance Capital, p. 370.↩︎
  5. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Progress, 1963, p. 265.↩︎
  6. V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin Collected Works vol. 23, Progress Publishers, 1964, p. 105.↩︎
  7. Marcel Stoetzler, “Critical Theory and the Critique of Anti-imperialism,” in Best et al., The Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Sage, 2018, p. 1471.↩︎
  8. Neususs, Imperialismus und Weltmarktbewegung des Kapitals, mentioned in Anders Möllander, “Monopoly and socialism in Lenin’s analysis of Imperialism,” Tekla 1, 1977 (in Swedish).↩︎
  9. Ibid.↩︎
  10. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, 2012, p. 215.↩︎
  11. We do not use the terms center-periphery in the sense given to them by dependency theory but just as labels denoting the different levels of capitalist development.↩︎
  12. The elaboration of this section comes from a note written by one of the authors of this text in a journal he formerly participated in.↩︎
  13. “The export of capital supposedly necessitated by imperialist policies did in fact occur, but the greater portion of this capital export went not to colonies and dependent territories but to other developed capitalist countries that also pursued imperialist policies. That means that the cause of the capital export could not solely lie in the absence of profitability in the capitalist centers, since that would mean there couldn’t have been any capital exported to other centers. Besides, such capital export was not secured by the imperialist policies of the home country.” Heinrich, op. cit., p. 216.↩︎
  14. Yfanet, “There is only one enemy…,” Nation, anti-imperialism and antagonistic movement, Thessaloniki, 2007, p. 45 (in Greek).↩︎
  15. As Marcus Stoetzler notes:

    Lenin stated in his 1920 ‘Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions,’ written for the second congress of the Communist International, that in ‘the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate,’ ‘all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement,’ but also ‘struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements’ including ‘Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.’ Apart from the mechanical conception of historical evolution that undergirds this position, it wrongly presupposes that bourgeois nationalists in such countries are genuinely happy to forfeit alliances with clergy, pan-Islamists and other reactionary elements in order to enjoy socialist support. The shift towards support for ‘bourgeois-democratic liberation movements’ coincided with the Soviet government’s ‘rapprochement with bourgeois regimes (above all, Turkey and Persia), while communist militants in those countries were shot and imprisoned’ (Loren Goldner, “ ‘Socialism in One Country’ Before Stalin, and the Origins of Reactionary ‘Anti-Imperialism’: The Case of Turkey, 1917–1925.” Critique, 38(4): 631–661).

    Another important observation of Marcus Stoetzler is that anti-imperialism was also part of the ideological agenda of the far right. The idea of a struggle between “pro-people” and “plutocratic nations” appeared in the protofascist milieus in Germany, France and Italy during the First World War and became a feature of the rhetoric of Mussolini and Gregor Strasser among others. As he notes:

    Their fight against a decadent ‘West’ was evoked by ‘conservative revolutionaries’ like Arthur Moeller van den Bruck and Ernst Niekisch in the 1920s; their fascist anti-imperialism was ‘nothing but the “foreign-policy version” of fascist anticapitalism’ (Fringeli, 2016: 42). On the opposite shores of the Mediterranean, beginning in Egypt as a response to the abolition of the last Ottoman caliphate by the modernizing Turkish state in 1924, modern Islamism including its jihadist offshoots developed in parallel with, and drew inspiration from the same ‘conservative revolution’ impulses, including the ultra-conservative version of resistance to ‘cultural imperialism,’ i.e. liberal modernity. When after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the bourgeois-nationalist regimes of the Near East that had—with Soviet support—combined anti-imperialist ideology with a pretense to some form of socialism disintegrated, the pan-Islamism that Lenin had warned against finally became a prominent phenomenon. German ‘conservative revolution’ and fascist ideas influenced the development of anti-imperialist thought also in Bolivia in the 1930s and 1940s and spread from there to other Latin American countries (Goldner, 2016: chapter 4). By circa 1935 the leaders of the Soviet Union had realized that support for the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ more often than not helped fascists rather than themselves, so they abandoned the notion for almost two decades. It returned in the 1950s to dominate Soviet foreign policy.

    Op. cit., p. 1472.↩︎

  16. Quoted in Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, chapter II.↩︎
  17. The first part of the passage is quoted in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War in the entry on the “Union sacrée.” The second part is quoted in Wikipedia’s entry on Jean Jaurès.↩︎
  18. According to Fredy Perlman, nationalism in itself was established at the end of the eighteenth century, with two events that signaled the arrival of the nation-state: the independence of the United States in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. F. Perlman, The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism, Black and Red Books, 1985.↩︎
  19. In World War I, Kropotkin supported the Entente, the alliance between Great Britain, France, and Russia, against the Central Powers, namely Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, arguing that any attempt by Germany to invade Western Europe should be crushed. In this context, he advocated active participation in the war, in stark contrast to the anti-war and anti-militarist positions of the greater part of the anarchist movement at that time.↩︎

Comments

One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Walter Daum,

    There is lots to chew on in this piece, but for now I’ll just mention one. Antithesi writes: “Because of the high productivity of labor in the developed capitalist countries, the degree of exploitation of worker in these countries is much higher than that of workers in the less developed capitalist countries.”

    The assertion that workers in the most developed countries are more exploited than those in the “Global South” is fairly common, made by prominent Marxists like Michael Heinrich, Charles Bettelheim and Ernest Mandel. But, like here, normally no evidence is provided. There is some data showing that the productivity gap between North and South is less than the wage gap – why else would so many capitalist firms have shifted production to countries like China, where wages have been one-tenth or less of what they are in the U.S.? That implies that the rate of exploitation in the South is greater.

    So I would be interested to see an argument for the assertion above.

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