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Imperialism and the Left

Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 128 | July 2020

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, former Chairman of African Socialist Movement of Sierra Leone, editor of Africanist Press; 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. Printed here are the opening remarks made by Sunit Singh. Complete video of the discussion can be found online at <>.

Anti-imperialism is the rock on which the Left was to shatter in the decades after World War II. Seduced by the romance of the age of decolonization, the Left liquidated itself, in the sense that it came to unlearn what had once been clear: Colonies were a symptom of the crisis of capitalism and the attempts of the Bonapartist state to manage that crisis. Marxist intellectuals of the era such as Aimé Césaire and Sartre found it easier to concur with the conclusion Hannah Arendt reached in her book On Totalitarianism (1951), in which she held that imperialism was an outgrowth of colonialism, than the conclusion of the Second International radicals, for whom imperialism was primarily a domestic issue.[1] Faced with the impossibility of trying to maintain the vantage-point of class-struggle, both Césaire and Sartre hoped to find a new subject in the erstwhile colonies to revitalize the struggle for socialism, which had been seemingly abandoned by the working class in the core capitalist countries.[2] The Cold War complicated matters by superimposing its own binarized framework of opposing imperialist and anti-imperialist camps. The vestiges of this binarized framework, as Moishe Postone noted in his 2006 article “History and Helplessness,” have made the contemporary Left a stalking horse of rivals to the U.S. as the sole superpower.[3] A result of the radical attenuation in its conception of imperialism is that the present-day Left concedes all concern with emancipation to conservatives as it waits for the decline of Pax America to create an opening in the shape of some kind of “objective” crisis. Such a view not only misapprehends imperialism as a series of historical cycles of different empires, but also obscures the obvious fact that the Left, as it exists, is ill-equipped to take advantage of any crisis of capitalism, objective or otherwise. What follows then is a brief, rather rough, historical sketch that seeks to uncover what the concept of imperialism meant to Marx and to his followers in the Second International, and how the Left later came to unlearn it.

The Concept of Imperialism

It is tempting to assume that our modern use of the words “empire” and “imperialism” in reference to colonies and colonialism is rooted in antiquity, and that a direct line of descent connects the Latin noun imperium to our use of categories such as “the British Empire.” However, as classicists are aware, there was little use in Latin of so imprecise an expression as the Imperium Romanum; rather, imperium originally referred to the authority of those who ruled, not to the state or countries that were ruled.[4] Although Henry VIII made Parliament declare in 1533 “that this realm of England is an Empire,” the formula “the British Empire” only arose with the union of the crowns of England and Scotland under James I in 1706 and 1707, even then it was far from commonplace to associate empire with colonies. When Louis XIV staked his claim to colonies in the New World, he was thought to be aspiring to an absolutist monarchie universelle, rather than a French empire. Later, in the 1760s, first the crisis of the American colonies, then the rise of a territorial empire in India, helped to make the expression “the British Empire” common coin; both Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke spoke of the crisis of the British Empire and William Pitt the Elder was heralded as its savior, with an inscription to that effect on Blackfriars Bridge when it opened in 1769. Yet Parliament failed to reckon with how the crisis in the colonies resulted from the stagnation of the revolution of 1688. Parliament also refused to accept its responsibility in subjecting imperial affairs to consistent, comprehensive scrutiny. Finally, when the French referred to their l’Empire français in the aftermath of 1789, the implication was simply that the state had always been the state of the French nation.[5]

Throughout the early 1840s, Heinrich Heine lampooned the imperialist ambitions of “General Field Marshall Theirs” and the chevaliers d’industrie, but it was not until the revolutions of 1848, which marked the downfall of the July Monarchy and the meteoric rise of Louis Napoleon, that English commentators started to make use of the word “imperialism” as a pejorative. Empire and imperialism had a clear referent: The Second Empire of Napoleon III.  With the revolutions of 1848, the French, Heine held, were fated once more to play the role of the lead actors “in the stupendous tragedy that the Lord suffered to play on the earth.”[6] Yet what unfolded, as Marx wrote, was not a tragedy but a farce. What made the reign of the nephew farcical was that he trampled on the values of the French Revolution, while the uncle, Napoleon, at least had the virtue of trying to uphold and extend the ideals of the revolution on horseback. Out of the wreckage of 1848, Louis Napoleon had stepped forward as a savior, promising to “save” society from “the enemies of society.” Behind his slogan of “property, family, religion, order,” he took aim against “the proletarian party of anarchy, of socialism, of communism.”[7] The Northern Star, a Chartist newspaper, pointedly remarked that although the French working class had been afforded the franchise, “The result, however, was, that by universal suffrage a decidedly conservative assembly was returned to represent the nation”; indeed, Louis Bonaparte was promptly elected and took the oath of office on December 20, 1848.[8] Later, the same newspaper asked polemically, who was it but the elected socialist Bonaparte who had crushed the French Republic and halted the reform of its institutions?[9] And when, in December of 1851, Louis Napoleon marked the dual anniversaries of the coronation of the Emperor Napoleon (1804) and of the French victory at Austerlitz (1805) by staging his own coup d’état, an editorial in another Chartist newspaper noted the apparent contradiction at work: “Although a Bonapartist revolution, the means by which it was in the first instance worked out were essentially republican and democratic.”[10] Meanwhile the Daily News reported, “The days of LibertĂ©, EgalitĂ©, FraternitĂ©, are over. The words are still extant, but the fact is extinct. As for socialism, so far as that word represents disorganization, anarchy, no-property, or equal division of goods—it died out years ago of its own rottenness… The idea that the government should furnish the people with work is also exploded… The most inveterate socialist… is Louis Napoleon, who, as already stated, is employing people by the thousands in order to use them.”[11] The revolutions of 1848 failed to achieve the “the democratic and social republic,” giving rise instead to its dialectical inverse, the imperialist or Bonapartist state, which sought to rule over, rather than through, society as a whole.[12]

Britain, of course, had no revolution in 1848. Though English radicals identified imperialism with the rule of Louis Napoleon across the Channel, there was soon reason to apply the category to the stratagems of Lord Palmerston, as he tried to sideline Parliament while making war in Afghanistan, China, and India. The similarities between Louis Napoleon and Lord Palmerston were readily apparent to Marx, who sought to make sense of the intrigues at Westminster for himself and the readers of the New York Tribune. Indeed, in the spring of 1857, Marx watched Palmerston dissolve Parliament after William Gladstone rallied to oppose the case for hostilities at Canton. The vote of censure, Marx remarked, had much to do with “the interests at stake, but still more to the character of the party on trial.” For the Palmerston administration “was not that of an ordinary cabinet. It was a dictatorship.”[13] Parliament had “abdicated its constitutional functions” in the course of the Crimean War and had never since found the heart to recover them. The “Chinese Election” that followed the dissolution of Parliament was fought over the case for going to war in China. Palmerston triumphed via jingoistic appeals directly to the electors. The election, in short, highlighted the imperative of expanding the vote as a means of consolidating the parliamentary-Bonapartist or imperialist state, not simply in Britain but on the world stage.[14] The imperialist or Bonapartist state that resulted from the failure of the 1848 revolutions, Marx concluded, represented negatively the need for socialism.

British soldiers during the Second Opium War against China

Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism

The scramble for colonies since the mid-1870s made the issue of inter-imperialist rivalries a more pressing matter for the Second International, founded in 1889, than it ever was for the First. Colonial policy, militarism, and imperialism were to play an important but subordinate role as aspects of the wider dispute over revisionism at the 1904 (Amsterdam) and 1907 (Stuttgart) congresses of the International. Troubled by the confusion evident in the Bax–Bernstein debates of the 1890s over a properly “socialist policy on colonialism,” Karl Kautsky reiterated the “orthodox” Marxist stance on the colonies in a series of articles written for Neue Zeit, which have been recently translated and turned into an object of critique by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).[15] After analytically separating the colonies that were founded in the age of the Bourgeois Revolution, which he concluded were based on work, from the exploitative and extractive colonies that were formed after the rise of industrial capitalism, Kautsky reiterated that the only tenable colonial policy for socialists was one of revolution. Lenin accepted the idea that the historical distinction between work and exploitative colonies were related to capitalist development, although, as is well established, in the course of the Great War he came to be deeply suspicious of Kautsky’s notion of “ultra-imperialism,” according to which the core capitalist countries might come together and agree to peacefully exploit the backward agricultural countries. Before the Great War, Lenin, Kautsky, and Luxemburg understood themselves to be allies in upholding orthodoxy as they tried to understand the race for colonies as a symptom of the ever-deeper crisis of capitalism that had taken shape as a result of the class struggles since 1848. Bernstein, by contrast, was muddying the waters in his dispute with the English Marxist Belfort Bax, through his insistence that there were colonies before socialism and there might well be colonies after. The growing importance of financial capital in the shape of monopolies, cartels, trusts, and exports of capital from the core to the periphery, Bernstein held, marked the socialization rather than the crisis of capitalism; the colonies, on this view, helped to smooth over the contradictions of capitalism. Such a conclusion led revisionists to argue that, since “everything tends to drive socialism into national channels,” socialism could only built on the foundation of national sections.[16] Lenin, on the other hand, concluded that the task for socialists was to achieve the self-determination of the working class not only in the metropole but hand in hand with the colonies—in one party.    

Colonial Aftermath

If we fast-forward to the aftermath of the October Revolution, there was an attempt by the incipient Third International to lend succor to the aspirations for independence in French and English colonies as a means to hasten the revolution in the metropole, but this project quickly derailed with the collapse of the world revolution.[17] The metropolitan orientation for the struggle for socialism was replaced by the hope that socialism might be brought about through a revolution in the colonies, or in regions later understood to be “underdeveloped” or part of the “Third World.” Similarly, the idea of the self-determination of the working class came to be replaced with an assertion of the abstract right of national self-determination. Without recourse to the seemingly intractable case of Israel-Palestine, as but one example, we might well ask, can one group claim the right to self-determination without infringing on the rights of the self-determination of the other? And can one affirm unequivocally that independence has left the colonies better off? Does a postcolonial melancholy not hang over India, Algeria, and Vietnam? While trying to stave off the threat of imperialism the Left of the late twentieth century itself fell into the trap of nationalism. Instead of rallying around the cry of cultural or neo-colonialism, the Left ought to confront with sober senses that decolonization and independence did little to ameliorate the cruelties and the contradictions of bourgeois society under capitalism, and that it has failed to render imperialism the highest — and thus, the last — stage of capitalism. |P

[1]. Even before he broke from the French Communist Party, Césaire held that imperialism in the metropole was the boomeranged effect of the authoritarianism and violence that was commonplace for centuries in the colonies. See his Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000 [1950]). See also Jean-Paul Sartre, “Colonialism is a System,” Interventions 3, no. 1 (2001 [1956]): 127-140 and Part II, “Imperialism,” of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt, 1951).

Whatever their differences within the Second International, Lenin and Luxemburg held a similar view of imperialism as a metropolitan issue. Cf. J. P. Nettle’s remarks on Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital in International Socialism, 16 (1964). For more on the concerns of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism, see Lou Sterrett’s remarks at another forum on imperialism held by Platypus at the University of Chicago on January 16, 2020, available online at <>.

[2]. On the search for a new revolutionary subject, see Jean-Paul Sartre, “Black Orpheus” The Massachusetts Review 6, no.1 (1964-65): 16-17.

[3]. Moishe Postone, “History and Helplessness” Public Culture 18, no.1 (2006): 110.

[4]. Much of this paragraph is a synthesis of Richard Koebner, “The Emergence of the Concept of Imperialism” The Cambridge Journal 5, no.12 (1952): 727.

[5]. It is somewhat unsurprising, then, that Napoleon chose the title Empereur des français for himself in 1804.

[6]. Heinrich Heine to the Augusburger Zeitung, letter dated July 29, 1842, in Lutetia or French Affairs: Letters from Paris, London: William Heineman (1893), 324.

[7]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, available online at <>.

[8]. “The Last Trick of M. Bonaparte,” Northern Star, November 8, 1851.

[9]. “The Factions and the French Republic,” Northern Star, November 29, 1851.

[10]. “The French Revolution,” Reynolds’s Newspaper, December 7, 1851.

[11]. “France,” Daily News, December 17, 1851.

[12]. That is, in promising to be all things to everyone, Bonaparte was in fact promising himself to no one, except himself. Bonaparte was neither “a bolt from the blue,” “the violent act of a single individual,” as Victor Hugo offered in his satirical account Napoleon le Petit, nor was he “the result of the antecedent historical development,” as Proudhon apologetically explained. It fell to Louis Blanc the socialist to write a report for the Daily News in London to explain why the working classes had not taken action en masse against the coup d’état. See Louis Blanc to Editor, Daily News, December 11, 1851.

[13]. Karl Marx, “Defeat of the Palmerston Ministry,” New York Tribune, March 25, 1857.

[14]. It was only later, in the 1870s, that ideas of empire and imperialism took on popularity in Britain. When Benjamin Disraeli floated the idea in 1876 of granting Queen Victoria the title “Empress of India,” there was little enthusiasm for idea, since the title seemingly implied a constitutional innovation. Yet Disraeli intended to embarrass the Liberal opposition. See the chapter on the historical significance of Disraeli to the emergent concept of imperialism in Richard Koebner and H.D. Schmidt, Imperialism: The Story and Significance of a Political Word, 1840-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

[15]. See the introduction by Mike Macnair to Kautsky on Colonialism, translated by Ben Lewis and Maciej Zurowski (London: November Publications, 2013). For more on the Bax–Bernstein debate, see chapters two and five of H. Tudor and J. M. Tudor, Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[16]. See the article “Der internationale sozialistische Kongress und die nationalen sozialistischen Parteien” written in 1907 by the British Labour Party leader J. Ramsay MacDonald for Sozialistische Monatschefte, quoted in Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 80.

[17]. See the set of volumes edited by John Riddell, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder, 1999).