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You are here: Platypus /Imperialism and the Left

Imperialism and the Left

Chernoh Bah, Bill Martin, Johnny Mercer, Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 129 | September 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 of the Socialist Party of Cote d'Ivoire; Bill Martin, emeritus professor of philosophy at DePaul University; Johnny Mercer of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; and Sunit Singh who teaches at the University of Chicago and is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Printed here is an edited transcript of the event. Complete video of the discussion can be found online at <>.

Opening Remarks:

Johnny Mercer: A little bit of background: I am a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and I have been a supporter of the Socialist Party of Great Britain since I was 17. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was very radicalized by the Iraq War, and particularly what we saw at the time as the betrayal of the Labour Party by supporting that war. Tony Blair radicalized a lot of my generation and prompted us to form the politics that we have today.

A little about the Socialist Party of Great Britain for those of you that haven’t heard of us. We were founded in 1904as a breakaway from the SDF. At the time, the SDF, the Social Democratic Federation, was dominated by a man named Henry Hyndman. He controlled the party’s printing press and the breakaway was caused partly because of Hyndman’s domination of the party, and partly because the SDF was descending into reformism. Those who that stayed called themselves the “possibilists” because they maintained that what they were doing was possible within the context of capitalism by pursuing reformism, and we became known as the “impossibilists,” which was somewhat of a slur at the time. But we co-opted the slur and now proudly refer to ourselves as being in the impossibilist tradition. The SDF eventually merged into the Labour Party--the same Labour Party that, led by Tony Blair, brought Britain into the Iraq War.

The SPGB maintains that socialism is a moneyless, stateless, worldwide society based on production for human need, and democratic control of the means of production. We are a legalist organization of equals who maintain as Marx did that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. The party has remained consistently critical of Leninism, coining the now widely-used phrase “state capitalism” to describe the USSR as early as 1918, obviously just the year after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. Unlike Lenin, but like Marx, we use the terms socialism and communism interchangeably, to refer to the same moneyless, stateless, worldwide social system.

So, imperialism: we maintain that the working class, having only their labor power to sell to survive, have no country. War and imperialism for us are a natural and inevitable extension of the war of the marketplace. In other words, nation-states create wars in the pursuit of natural resources, trade routes, labor markets, and spheres of influence. At certain times, it is inevitable that some capitalist nations dominate others, but we don’t accept Lenin’s notion of imperialist and anti-imperialist nations as kind of fixed categories. The problem with Lenin's analysis of imperialism, as far we can see, is three-fold. Firstly, we hold that it lacks internationalism. Rather than seeing the world as divided fundamentally by wage labor and capital, workers and the bourgeoisie, it seeks to replace this analysis with the notion of imperialist nations and anti-imperialist nations. The anti-imperialist nations engage in a national liberation struggle to free themselves from the domination of the imperialist nations. As far as we’re concerned, national liberation is the right of the domestic bourgeoisie to conduct their affairs without interference from foreign capitalists.

Secondly, we disagree on Marxist grounds with Lenin’s economic analysis, that goes behind the notion of imperialism that Lenin posits. Accordion to Lenin, there were these super-profits, which is the concept that workers in imperialist countries partake in the exploitation of workers in non-imperialist nations by taking some of the surplus value that is created in the third world or in the non-imperialist world and partaking in the exploitation of these countries. The idea is, basically, that it’s a bribe. There is a top section in the working class in the Western world or in the imperialist world that receives extra capital that is exploited from the third-world working class, that they get in exchange for supporting capitalism and imperialism and reforms. Therefore, Lenin thought that national liberation struggle would deprive the western capitalists and their ability to bribe the western working class. So, we disagree.

Firstly, Lenin’s analysis ignores the labor theory of value. As Marx taught us, labor power’s value is determined like all commodities by the amount of labor power that’s invested in it. So higher wages reflect higher training and skill. It almost requires a kind of conspiracy theory to suppose that capitalists give their workers more than their labor power in order to bribe them. It led to the support of the creation of new capitalist nations to benefit the local capitalist class. So instead of the international working-class struggle, it became about the creation of new capitalist nations. Finally, Lenin’s analysis assumes a form of economic determinism, it assumes quite wrongly that workers are less likely to support reformism the poorer they become; the poorer workers become, the more they’re going to become radicalized. Obviously, quite often the opposite is true. In any case we think that the working class will only support socialism if they understand the case for socialism. So, we posit an analysis that is based on revolutionary activity coming out of class consciousness rather than an economic determinist analysis.

I think it’s worth talking about the legacy of anti-imperialism and where it ended up. Everywhere you look, whether it be in Northern Ireland or South Africa, for workers, at best anti-imperialist struggle has led to the creation of new capitalist states to manage their exploitation. At worst, it’s led to the most violent form of inter-working-class sectarian bloodshed. For example, you have the Marikana massacre in 2012 in South Africa, where 112 workers were shot down. So what was the legacy of the ANC bloodshed, of all the ANC struggle? It boiled down at the end for the rights of black workers, black miners to be murdered by black police, African police, instead of the white police. Or we could look at Ireland, where the Leninists in the various IRA factions, particularly in the 1970s, mostly radical Leninist students joined these IRA factions and conducted all sorts of massacres against working class Protestants and British civilians. A notable example would be the Kingsmill massacre of 1976, where a busload of factory workers returning from a night shift were murdered. Eleven Protestants were killed; one worker was set free because that worker happened to be a Catholic. So, what of those brave Leninist anti-imperialists in Ireland now? In the case of Gerry Adams and company, they now have comfortable, well-paying jobs in Stormont, where Sinn Féin, like all the other parties of Irish capitalism, manage the exploitation of Catholic and Protestant workers alike. So, against Leninist anti-imperialism, the SPGB maintains the working class have no country to fight for. Our interests lie with that of working people everywhere, and the abolition of the wages system and the war and imperialism that naturally and inevitably come with it.

Bill Martin: I am a philosopher and a musician. I got my PhD in 1990 and immediately took up the only, as they say, real job I’ve ever had which was at DePaul University in Chicago. Twenty-eight years of interesting times: I was around for the Norman Finkelstein crisis and I was part of that whole scene. DePaul is known as very multicultural and also politically correct. In graduate school, I had the great privilege to work with Jacques Derrida, and I wrote my dissertation on his work. And I also worked with the leading analytical philosopher Donald Davidson and have written a great deal about him. I was associated with Maoism and with the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party for a long time. I was never a member of it, but I was a very close fellow traveler, and I even wrote a book together with Bob Avakian, the leader of that group. I broke with that in 2008a combination of writing something that was very critical that was rejected and moving in other directions.

I worked with a group called Kasama for a few years after that, which was an attempt to kind of go in a Badiouian, post-Maoist direction and I sort of had made a big shift from Derrida to Badiou, although I still love Derrida and think he has a lot to contribute. And my own work in recent years is trying to put together, and I know this will sound crazy and we won’t even be able to talk about it, but Buddhist philosophy, Badiou’s contributions, and still trying to understand the Maoist experience in China and elsewhere. A little more than four years ago I got involved in what I am calling “the Trump clarification” to try to understand this whole period, and Iam about to finish this book and send it to a publisher. And I’ll come back to that because it sort of relates to what I’m thinking about imperialism.

Does imperialism as Lenin described it still exist? Well, I think in some respects it does. What imperialism gives us is a mode of production that’s fully global—it’s the beginnings of what we call globalism today, it wraps a whole world in a single set of capitalist social relations and evermore seeks to get into every nook and cranny of everything in terms of commodification on a global scale. It’s still involved in the extraction of capital and the spread of capitalist social relations, although, as they say, in a form of combined and uneven development. Even in China for example, where I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last few years, it’s that sort of case where there’s a great deal of advanced technology right next to an open sewer, somebody peeing on the street—so it’s that kind of mixed sort of thing.

On the division in the working class, I don’t know that I quite agree with Johnny, and maybe we can talk about this. I did agree with Lenin’s thesis that it creates this division in the working class and that it does create, internationally, something like a privileged class in the imperialized countries of those who are of the dominant nation of those countries, and that this creates something like a kind of debt, as Derrida called it in Specters of Marx, but I’ll come back to that.

I think that, on Lenin’s understanding of imperialism, yes and no—in some ways more than ever. In other ways I think there’s been a transformation in the division of the international working class. I also think there are a lot of additions to imperialism, which means that it’s not necessarily not imperialism anymore, but it’s sort of imperialism plus, what would I prefer to call postmodern capitalism. This includes neoliberal globalism, but it also includes the way that many of these institutions of what we used to call superstructure are so fully integrated structurally—for example the media—to where they’re not what Marx thought as simply mouthpieces of the system but they’re fully functioning parts of the apparatus and the functioning of the overall system.

I think that in this Trump period, what we’re seeing is the possibility not of internationalism so to speak but of at least anti-interventionism. I think we’re going to be in a period where unfortunately people aren’t taking up the ethics of internationalism, but at least people are thinking “we should pull back for a period, we should get out of all of these entanglements.” I don’t think most people understand them as entanglements that have benefited them and that they need to then address in an ethical way, or the politics of that in a real sense—really recognizing internationalism. I do think it’s a good thing that there’s a general understanding that the so-called imperialist countries, especially the United States, should really just pull back into themselves for a while. So there’s some feeling for non-intervention and anti-intervention.

US Army Special Forces soldiers in Raqqa, Syria during May 2016. Photo by
Delil Souleiman (AFP).

A year and a half ago, Trump used the expression “foolish wars”—that we need to stop these “foolish wars”—in the State of the Union Address. I don’t know if any president has ever referred to wars that way. That the wars that the United States has waged are foolish. I take that as a good thing. The flip side of that is that the party that is most fronting—and I’m not letting Republicans off the hook, since I don’t see Trump especially as being a Republican either—but the party that is just doing the most to front for U.S. imperialism, for neoliberal globalism, for postmodern capitalism, for everything bad in my view, is the Democratic Party. And—I would hate to see them come back into full power. At least there’s a disruption there [with Trump], there is a reaction there, and there is a clarification—I call it the Toto Effect. Toto is pulling back of the curtain on some of the things that are going on and I want to see that continue.

Just two more things very quickly. In Lenin’s view, you might say that the privileged class of US imperialism is—beyond middle classes and the actual capitalist classes—the white working class. But there have been some transformations there where the so-called white working class in the United States and especially from the moment that Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables,” and especially in this moment where, for example, the opioid crisis, especially in the Midwest and in places like West Virginia, is at about twenty times the level of the crack epidemic in southeast Los Angeles back in the early and mid-90s. There has been a lot of change and these people are not exactly riding high on the benefits of imperialism these days. It doesn’t mean they might not have been riding high at some moment, and there’s something by-and-by that has to address that, but it’s also the case that a Left that just goes on and on and on and basically accepts this idea that these people are the “deplorables.” Well, the Left is on the wrong side of things, in my opinion, and nothing good will come out of that.

The other thing that I want to say is on China. I don’t know if any of you have read the work of George Friedman, I find it very interesting. He claims to be non-ideological, but he’s obviously in a certain sense ideological for the United States and ideological for capitalism, though not necessarily as a Republican or Democrat. One of his arguments from a book written about ten years ago, which is called The Next 100 Years, was that China was going to fragment by the year 2020—well, here we are. He has a newer book that just came out at the end of February, it’s called The Storm Before the Calm, and he thinks that as divided as American society is now, we’re really just at the beginning of the divisions that we’re going to see, and I think he makes a very strong argument for it.

When I first started going to China in 2012 and 2013, I would talk with a lot of people from many different walks of life, and many of them agreed that China would not only fragment, but that it could even be in a condition of civil war in the coming years because of the gross inequalities between the better-off coastal cities and the interior. So I thought, “well, I guess he [Friedman] was just wrong,” that Xi Jinping was a smart guy, that they knew what they were doing, etc.—I’m not saying he’s a socialist, I think China’s a capitalist country—but they are pretty smart, so maybe they found a road around this. But now of course I don’t know.

The other thing is that the kind of fragmentation that Friedman proposes in this decade in the United States, it looks like you might say the schedule for that has moved up a little bit. He thinks that it’ll become most intense around 2024 to2028 or so, that the next election will involve what he calls someone who will be an automatically failed president but who will represent the way the US has been governed for the last 70 years—he has this whole cyclical view of things. And I think that’s fascinating, but I wonder if the Coronavirus—I myself don’t believe it’s the “it changes everything” moment—but I do think maybe it’s moving up the schedule on the kinds of fragmentation that are possible. So then again, my question is Well, what do the Democrats and almost everything that calls itself the Left contribute in a good way to what might be coming down? I’d say nothing--absolutely nothing.

I’d rather see what I call “the Trump clarification” and disruption keep going than to see the Democrats get a new lease on life. When you look at the leading Democrats, what do they do? All they do is bitch and moan about Trump. If you say: “Well what have you done? What have you done to help anything?”—it’s nothing. They think they are doing something to help by just griping about Trump all of the time. Well that seems like a petty and small. They see most of the people in the U.S as deplorable and stupid—I’ve heard this repeatedly—and they think they can contain it to some minority of white cis-males or whatever language they want to use for that. It doesn’t work that way, people are smarter than that. They realize that whatever color they are, whatever gender they are, etc., they’re being called stupid and they’re being told “just put the technocrats back in charge; we’ll work out the problems for you; in universities put Title IX full back in charge; we’ll take care of everything,” and I would hate to see the disruption of that end, so Iam hoping that will continue, and I think it’s also our best chance for curbing militarism.

Chernoh Bah: I come from Sierra Leone. It is one of those African countries that was considered or counted as a British colony; we still consider it a British colony. It supposedly got what they call independence in 1961.From 1961 up until now, we’ve been governed by the equivalent of the ANC, the African petty bourgeoisie. I represent, on this stage, the African Socialist Movement. I have served as its chairman for a couple of years now.

The African Socialist Movement is an African working-class movement and it is responsible for the introduction of socialist ideas in contemporary Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone had a war between 1991 and 2001. Hollywood produced this movie called Blood Diamond, and that conflict to a large extent advertised Sierra Leone to many people who were not aware of that country. After 2001, in what we call the post-war environment, we decided to form a political movement which organized many people who were members of the various fighting factions. Some of them could be described as child soldiers in the past, so we felt that one of the interventions we had to make in a post-conflict environment—especially one that was fought around control of national resources, diamonds, exploitation of mineral resources, and all of that—we needed some kind of an organization that will reorganize the various energies and experiences of young people who were trapped in that conflict with us—active combatants or victims of various sorts.

Within the first three years, we were able to mobilize between seventy to one hundred thousand members. And we can say that, within that area, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, what they call the Mano River region of West Africa, we have what could be counted as the largest organization with a socialist expression. Our socialism is basically informed by the experiences that we all went through—the post-war and growing up in Sierra Leone in the early nineties. The conflict politicized us, but my own political understanding came at the point where I started questioning my role in Sierra Leone and trying to find some answers about this period of conflict and violence. I became, by accident, a participant of that chaotic development, both as a fighter in the conflict, and then as a journalist. My journalism became part of an instrument that I used to expose the horrible atrocities and the conflicts that were happening and all of that.

From the nineties up until now, I became one of the individuals who became part of that larger movement that is fighting against multinational corporate exploitation, that is fighting for what we call good governance, in our own sense, democratization. In this sense, we felt that a handful of individuals who are less than one percent of their population, because of their relationship to multinational companies and the IMF and World Bank, have hijacked the state and they are responsible for the exploitation of resources. And the consequences of that exploitation, the consequences of that colonial legacy,  is what we have been dealing with for the last fifty years of what they call “independence.”

We understand imperialism as an ongoing phenomenon--it is not just argument around what is the place of the working class in this kind of environment. But we came to this realization by understanding that we grew up in a place where there are diamonds, gold, all kinds of mineral and energy resources, and then you talk about the paradox where the vast majority of people, more than ninety percent, live in abject poverty. Where, for example, the life span is below forty years for a man in Sierra Leone. So, we have these huge indices of poverty, high death rates, and we have one of the highest infant and maternal mortality statistics, and we talk about a population that lacks basic conditions of human existence and all the things that people take for granted here—electricity supply, access to safe and clean drinking water. We have a situation where more than ninety percent of the country is unpaved, housing problems, and all of these kinds of situations. The consequences of that is what we see now with the short life span and all of these other conditions.

We started questioning what is responsible for this kind of situation. We have an African middle class—what we call middle class in this case just for convenience—but we have a handful of politicians who are brought to power through rigged elections because they represent the agenda of the IMF and World Bank. Our struggle has been a struggle for actual independence. If we define that situation as neocolonialism, and we take this from Nkrumah’s assessment of the post-colonial African environment, where in the early 1940s to 1950s, post-1945, independence movements and the African liberation movement never paid attention to questions of class. They organized around race issues, organizing the whole of the African population against what they consider as white colonialism. And then what that meant was that we never paid attention to the class character of the movement. What we ended up with was leaders who actually do not represent the interests of the people, and that has been the ongoing struggle.

So, in the African Socialist Movement our first priority is to define what we mean by independence, and the question: How can we talk about independence in a territory where the economy, both extractive sectors of the economy and productive sectors of the economy, are largely under the control of multinational corporations? And then you have a national economic program that talks about privatization, neoliberal programs pushed into the country by IMF and World Bank. So, what that has done is the ongoing, historic transfer of natural resources, diamonds, gold, aluminum, and bauxite, to corporations.

In Sierra Leone, over the last ten or more years now we’ve mapped out a total of more than seventy multinational companies—some owned by the British, some the United States, and different European nations. And now increasingly, corporations owned by China, who are involved in exploiting natural resources, mineral resources, and environmental resources—timber and all of these kinds of things. The conditions of existence of the people—their living conditions—have worsened. Our primary struggle is to explain that situation, to define it—and then we talk about what is a way out.

When we talk about socialism in a place like Sierra Leone, what we actually mean in this case is to ensure that a vast majority of the people have access to safe and pure drinking water, access to healthcare, access to social services that are required for human existence at a basic minimum, and that will mean the conquest of power. Our movement has been there since 2001, and we are actively involved in the political process, struggling for control of national resources, and defining what it will mean to have an independent national economy. How do we harness the energy and the vast natural resources that are being exploited by multinational corporations? What that does is it only allows a handful of individuals who work for the interest of these corporations to be in power, and it builds repressive institutions of police and military and all of that.

For us, imperialism is that dynamic situation that has prevented the vast majority of people from realizing the purposes of our own existence and benefiting from these natural resources. And we use Sierra Leone as an example, but what I’m describing now is true for many of the countries we have also operated in. Apart from the national questions that we face in Sierra Leone we also run an international organization, we realize that the struggle that we are involved in Sierra Leone is the same as the struggles of African workers in places like Guinea-Conakry, where we have tremendous experience in working to build our movement across borders. The same for Liberia, where you have the Liberian rubber plantation that is owned by Firestone and has been there for more than one hundred years. The Liberian-American Mining Company controls the iron ore in Liberia. We have mapped out all of these multinational corporations from Sierra Leone right up to Nigeria. Our movement, apart from just focusing in Sierra Leone, we also actively engaged in working with other groups across Africa and also where those groups do not exist to establish branches of our movement in some of the African territories that we think the questions we face in Sierra Leone are also evident there.

We believe in internationalism, we also believe that the defeat of global capitalism, imperialism itself, is impossible without the liberation of Africa. And that is a wider question that we can talk about, what is the place of African workers in the global socialist movement? And how the organization of socialist internationals and the socialist movements across North America and Europe have also—in their role in anti-colonial struggles in the sixties—how that also affected our ability to identify real working-class movements in Africa leading up to the independence struggle. We also offer our own critique of what we consider the Left movements in North America, and also in Europe, as against the way they solve the African question and how central Africa is to the global movement against imperialism.

During the first ten years of our struggle in the post-war environment, we were talking about British mining companies, the role of the British in the conflict in Sierra Leone, and the role of British multinational companies at a time when the Labour Party for instance was in power. Tony Blair of course was central to the conflict in Sierra Leone, and up until now, he’s also essentially providing public relations and helping to define or helping to attract what they call foreign direct investment to intensify multinational corporate exploitation. These are also issues we contend with in terms of how do we build allies across the outside of Africa when it comes to the question of struggling against multinationals or what we call new manifestations of imperialism and imperialist exploitation.

What has made all this more complex is the role of China and how that has intensified the struggle between what you may call traditional imperialist nations—Europe and North America—and increasingly, China and other Asian nations. And what does that mean in terms of redefining our relationship with China while looking back at the history of China’s role in the anti-colonial movement in Africa. So, these are questions of theory and also practice as we understand it.

But I would like to talk about the ANC since Johnny mentioned it. At the same time the Marikana incident happened in 2011, we had the same incident in Sierra Leone, where miners were equally brutalized and killed by policemen who were African policemen—policemen who were in uniform. I think that goes beyond just the question of national consciousness or the limits of the nation-state, but it deals with fundamental questions of class. And it also allows us to reexamine the Pan-African movement generally, which is why we always try not to define ourselves as Pan-African, because we think it embraces everyone regardless of their class character, their class orientation, or who they represent. We have to differentiate between ANC and PAC and other expressions of liberation that existed there in South Africa and perhaps why the ANC appeared to have emerged as the independent leading voice of that struggle, and whether that is actually appropriate historically to ascribe you know that victory to the ANC and how that has affected the general aspiration of real working class people from breaking out of the economic misery that apartheid and legacies that the colonial state has imposed on them. Maybe a reexamination of that would also help us understand the tendency for xenophobia in South Africa and in other places.

Sunit Singh: Speaking as a long-time member of Platypus, it is a little strange to re-inhabit this topic, which was the subject of our very first public forum. A number of my comrades have since spoken on various other iterations of this panel in other venues, Lou Sterrett and Ben Blumberg, and I don’t want to reproduce their talks. Although, after all issues taken with Lenin’s pamphlet on imperialism, I ought to have taken more from them.

      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.

      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 Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, 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 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.

      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 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 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 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 in the work to achieve the self-determination of the working class not only in the metropole but hand in hand with the colonies—in one party.

      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 for the colonies has been successful? 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.


JM: Bill mentions that he considers China to be a capitalist nation and I am interested to hear from whether he also considers China to be an imperialist nation. And Chernoh talks about China, Chinese Imperialism, or Chinese capitalism’s role in Africa, in Sierra Leone. It strikes me as one of the interesting things about the Left, and one of the reasons why I am slightly cynical of this idea of these kind of fixed categories of imperialist nations and any imperialist nations, is that the Left has never seemed to be able to agree on which nations are imperialist and which nations aren’t imperialist. For a long time, particularly from the Maoists, it was said that China was this oppressed nation that needed to be liberated from the imperialist nations. Now of course in the natural development of capitalism, I would say, as a Marxist and a member of the SPGB, in the natural development of capitalism China has now entered the imperialist world stage and is exploiting workers all over the world and oppressing nations or oppressing people all over the world.

From the SPGB’s point of view, we would say that there’s somewhat of an antagonism between Lenin’s idea of super-profits and Marx’s idea of the labor theory of value, as I said in my opening address. Labor power is a commodity like any other commodity and it’s natural that it goes for different prices because some workers have skills that other workers don’t, and that doesn’t rely on this idea of the workers exploiting other workers—workers sort of somehow partaking in the exploitation of other workers. And this to me seems like quite a central bone of contention between what I would consider the orthodox Marxist opinion and Lenin’s conception of imperialism.

Bill made some very interesting points about “foolish wars” and about Donald Trump’s use of the term “foolish wars.” It’s very interesting that Trump seems to be rustling a lot of feathers among the ruling class. I’ve reflected on the hatred amongst the vast majority of the mainstream media that Trump receives, and his hatred within the Democratic Party establishment, and also within the Republican Party establishment. I’d be interested to hear more from Bill about why has that come about? If we’re going to employ a materialist analysis, what are the material circumstances that have changed in America that mean that some subsection of American capitalism supports the Trump project, if we’re withdrawing from the world, taking a step back, and not engaging in these pointless conflicts?

BM: I am very interested in what Chernoh has to say about China’s role in sub-Saharan Africa these days. Of course, sometimes people are hesitant to express what they’re really thinking, but I have talked with many in China who have gone to Africa as part of NGOs that are supposedly doing some very humanitarian sort of thing, and others who are basically Maoists who are being clamped down on in China these days, but who say that, “well they’re just part of an imperialist venture.”

On Lenin and super-exploitation, have there been moments in this history when workers in the first world were paid actually above the value of their labor power at the expense of workers in the third world? It seems to me there were moments, and a lot of this has to with the question of the capitalists maintaining workers in one way or another and obviously in the Western countries and in Japan the capitalists have, during certain periods and because of certain very hard-fought struggles, created life maintenance systems that go not only far beyond what you’d see in what we used to call the third world, but wherein the third world there’s a situation of not even maintaining people in such a way that they could actually count on living for very long, and so I would call that super-exploitation.

The question, and this goes to Sunit. Is there something in history—and I’d like to hear more about this article by Moishe Postone that Sunit mentioned on this question—is there something in history that makes a certain demand, a debt so to speak, that has to be addressed in order for emancipatory movements to go forward?

Just quickly, I was de-platformed by CounterPunch, and now at OffGuardian, over whether this Trump disruption, as I’m calling it, is real or not. I have a lot of people saying, “well it’s not real, he’s a political theater, he’s really just another member of the ruling class.” I don’t think that, I think he’s a rogue of some sort. I’m not saying he’s an emancipator by any means, but I’m saying he’s a rogue of some sort. And why has that come about? Because I think certain cycles of how things are working are coming to a close. And it’s not like Trump has a great sense of this, or anybody really, but it’s a moment when all of this can be clarified and disrupted, and it’s a moment that people who do have an emancipatory perspective should be beginning to look at the new ways to intervene, it’s just that the Left is worthless for that, in fact worse than worthless.

CB: I think that the Chinese question is basically one that we have to speak clearly about and try to have a conversation around. I think one of the reasons, in my own view, why the question of China is becoming a problem for us, is the fact that we are still thinking about the role that China played in the anti-colonial struggle in Africa for example. You look at Zimbabwe, Namibia, and even in Guinea-Conakry most of the infrastructure that you see in what is considered post-colonial Africa may have been built by Chinese expats in the 60s, and 70s, and 80s. You can look at football stadiums, parliament buildings and all of this in Conakry, in places like Zimbabwe, and even in Sierra Leone—this happened in the context of decolonization and in the context of what became known as the Cold War. So that history aside, when we put that in retrospect, what is happening now with the kind of relationship that we have with China is a completely different situation. Which is why people like us will now be looking at China the same way we might look at the British, or the way that we might look at US corporations or US relations with Africa

China’s contemporary role with Africa is basically one that is built with the African governments, many of whom are leaders who do not represent the aspiration of their people for emancipation and to break away from the IMF and World Bank regulator economies. What you have is a situation where China, the United States, and Europe are basically struggling for control of territory and space, economic space and economic interests.

And I think what is becoming more obvious is the fact that we are now witnessing the situation where African armies are being trained and also armed by China. For the last ten years most of the arms supplies that went to Sierra Leone in the postwar environment were purchased from China. In 2012, for example, the Sierra Leonean state spent over five million dollars buying arms and ammunition from China rather than spending money on education or healthcare. When you look at that and you look at the number of Chinese corporations in Sierra Leone, the number of corporations that are exploiting our bauxite and aluminum resources, mineral resources, and timber—the largest concentration of timber shipments that went out of Sierra Leone over the last five or seven years went increasingly to China. The same for the iron ore. It is difficult not to see China’s contemporary role in Sierra Leone and many parts of Africa as being within the same trajectory that might also define the British relationship, it’s the same multinational corporate exploitation, and one that is built with neo-colonial regimes led by individuals who are very oppressive—basically dictators. And you have this situation in Sierra Leone where China will give incentives to the repressive state, a government that is also suppressing our rights to free speech, our right to organize people. And what that does is that it empowers the state, it builds state capacity to repress workers and violate workers, that’s one aspect of the contradiction.

Another question of contradiction is where Chinese workers are increasingly being shipped into many parts of Africa to provide labor, so basically that creates its own issues of unemployment, issues of conflict between African workers and Chinese workers. And not to mention the assorted abuses and lack of trade rules, you have a situation where domestic products like African fabric are being reproduced by China and then sold and shipped into the country as Chinese produced commodities and sold at a price that undercuts local markets and local producers. What does all this mean for the African struggle against capitalism?

SS:  I will try to really be brief— my question for others is how they relate and understand the struggle against imperialism with the struggle against capitalism.

Johnny suggests Lenin was an advocate for national autonomy, but at the end of chapter one in Socialism and War,Lenin is very explicit that the idea of cultural or national autonomy is conservative and reactionary and that the objective of socialists ought to be to overcome that kind of narrow parochialism of nationalism which he understood itself as a kind of symptom of capitalist development. I’d like to have others respond to how they understand that kind of a statement about national autonomy. I’d also like to respond and throw in a few things into the debate about how we understand imperialism: whether the hallmark of whether a country is imperialist or not is the export of capital. If that is what one takes Lenin to be saying, one would actually be hopelessly lost in precisely the kind of debate that it seems that we are engaged in, parsing whether China is imperialist or not. I take Lenin to be arguing that the issue of imperialism is really a historical, epochal transformation of capitalism since the industrial revolution that necessitates export, the investment of capital outside of the nation or the metropole. And that it isn’t so much a matter of categorizing countries as imperialist or anti-imperialist, but rather that we live in the age of imperialism.


Does the history of world capitalism since 1945 retroactively prove Kautsky correct against Lenin on the question of ultra-imperialism? And there’s another related question: Was the role of the USSR in Eastern Europe after World War II—so since 1945—imperialist?

SS: I am happy to take up the first half of that. I think that the issue is not whether Lenin was right or whether Kautsky was right—certainly that wasn’t Lenin’s point in critiquing Kautsky. I think Lenin would accept that the idea of ultra-imperialism could be right. Lenin saw Kaustsky as being evasive about the task of socialism and the opportunity that World War I represented to realize the revolution. So, it was a matter of judgement, and whether imperialism in this sense, in Lenin’s sense, sets stage for socialism—what happens if Socialists don’t take up that task, won’t it result in a kind of over-ripeness. I think that the core capitalist countries peacefully dividing up the world was always a possibility, but that was never the issue. The issue was how to make revolution.

BM: Can I add a couple things to that and ask some questions also? Do people here read the work of Kōjin Karatani? The Structure of World History? Because he talks about one mistake that he thinks people make in these kinds of discussions, which is that we don’t address capital, what he calls the Borromean knot of capital/nation/state.

For me, there is this question of the historical debt, and when the slate is wiped clean or things start over again. For example, my parents may have benefitted from super-exploitation outside of the United States and therefore I may have benefited in terms of certain opportunities, but there comes a point where that has sort of run its course and it’s over now—which I think is what something like the widespread opioid crisis in certain parts of the United States is about. You can’t really say that these people are benefiting a whole lot from white privilege and that sort of thing anymore. It does seem like there are certain things there that have run their course and that the Left, especially in its attachment to identity politics categories, at best obscures all of that and at worst actually is really explicitly creating a kind of anti-emancipatory politics. All this is then left to conservatives, and—I don’t know, but maybe we ought to think about what we mean by conservative for that matter.

JM: Just to answer the second question, I think that by any definition that’s been advanced of imperialism, capitalist nations engaging in imperialism, it strikes me that the USSR definitely did engage in imperialism in Eastern Europe. I think all kinds of anti-imperialist struggles against the USSR had pretty much the same features as you’d find in any anti-imperialist struggle in Africa. For example, South Africa or Ireland, where you see that there is a proletarian element to the struggle and there’s also a bourgeois element to the struggle. Ultimately, of course, in the absence of a globalized socialist movement it ends in a bourgeois way. If you take that solidarity union in Poland, or you take elements of the Prague uprising, it clearly is a working-class resistance that also existed against the USSR.

I am from the north of England, from Yorkshire, where the Sheffield steel industry, largely as a result of the trade unions artificially increasing the demand for labor-power through trade union activity, that basically led to the collapse of the Sheffield Steel Industry. And now the Sheffield Steel Industry exists in China because capitalists are constantly going all over the world looking for the cheapest labor power on the market possible. The same way that if they looked for the cheapest coal possible, or the cheapest bricks possible. So I’m just curious to know why anyone would think that a capitalist would purchase somebody’s labor-power for more than its true value and how that mechanism actually takes place in capitalism, because as I said it does fly against Karl Marx’s labor theory of value—and just basic common sense, the basic stuff we know about how capitalists operate.

BM: If I could answer that very quickly because I think that’s sort of directed to me. Well, why would they pay more? Because they’re working things out in their accounts and so, it’s probably less true in the UK, but in the US you have a working class where parts of it were subsidized to the point where their standard of living was basically that of what we would ordinarily call middle-class and why is that? I mean I thought Lenin more or less had an explanation for that. They’re bought off, their loyalty to the nation, rather than to their class, is paid for on the backs of those elsewhere who are more exploited and then it balances out. I don’t think it’s any kind of conspiracy theory but—and that may be wrong, and I guess you’re saying that’s wrong—but I think that’s the argument.

JM: My point is twofold. I think it’s wrong, I also think it’s a dangerous idea, it’s a destructive idea and I’m not saying that you’re deliberately trying to destroy the working class movement, but I do think it’s an idea that retards and has retarded the working class movement. It led to this Maoist idea, for example, that trade unions ought to be opposed in Western countries because they somehow are part of the mechanism of imperialism and I think that’s not only wrong in the objective Marxist economic analysis sense, it’s also wrong in the more normal sense that it retards the internationalism and organization of the working class.

Capitalism for Marx is characterized by an industrial reserve army or a condition of permanent unemployment. It is in response to the threat of unemployment that workers organize themselves in unions to control the labor market. When labor as a commodity, labor-power, is scarce, its price rises regardless of what goes into it—more skills for example. This undermines the power of individual capitalists. The state could step in to break unions, but perhaps an easier way to deal with workers was to export the unemployed or export capital, as Lenin puts it. Can you clarify how you see Lenin at odds with Marx?

JM: To be clear, I do accept, as Marx accepted, that supply and demand affects the price of labor power and I also accept that unions can step in to have some control over supply and demand, but that to me isn’t the same claim as the one being made. which is that the capitalists somehow take this surplus value that they get from the non-imperialist nations—these super-profits—and use it to artificially inflate or boost up the working class of the West. I just haven’t heard a convincing argument or an explanation as to how that mechanism actually takes place. That they would deliberately pay more, without being forced to by unions. And even if they are forced to by unions, I’d like to see an explanation that can actually trace back this surplus capital coming from these super-profits from third world countries or from these non-imperialist countries. It might not sound like a very politically correct thing to say, but the reason that people are paid less in third world countries is because of the way in which those workers don’t have the same skills. The more logical explanation is that there’s more skill and there’s more labor embodied in labor power in Western countries due to the uneven development of capitalism.

SS: Although we’ve sort of moved on, I wanted to just say something about this question of the labor aristocracy that Lenin evokes—this expression by Daniel De Leon. There is one way of reading that where the labor aristocracy represents a layer or stratum that has been bought off by capital. There is another way to understand that as the existence of a labor aristocracy itself representing the extent of the crisis of capital, and that the issue is not that there is a labor aristocracy but that, even though there is one, labor as such does not benefit from the colonies and from super-profits. For Lenin, it is the case that individuals benefit but appropriation remains, as he marks out, private. So, individuals benefit but the working class as a whole does not. The issue of labor aristocracy is not so much one of who benefits but of the crisis of labor and the possibility of the advance of the crisis of capitalism—that as the crisis advances there will always be the possibility of the creation of something like a labor aristocracy which is distinct from a labor bureaucracy, which existed in the Soviet Union.

When Platypus originally hosted a panel on imperialism, it was in response to the anti-war movement, primarily in the United States. Then, the memory of the New Left anti-war movement was prevalent in reflecting on the tasks of a new Millennial Left. We asked the question, what should the role of the Left be and what should the role of Marxism be in relation to such struggles in the imperialist center? I wonder where we stand today, thirteen years later, on the other side of the Millennial Left. What do the panelists think would be the way forward for the Left in imperialist countries and what could be the role Marxism could play? And another question, this is more directed to Chernoh, and it’s about the criticisms that the African Left has on its counterparts in the West. Could you contrast this line of criticism with the political legacy of Nkrumah, which seems to be more based on the idea of an Africa that could liberate itself more or less independently, and whether this still holds?

CB: I think that what I would say when we look at the discussion that has been ongoing, from the African point of view, I think these are questions about the place of the African working class—if we can call it this, I hope I won’t be defined as being sectarian in this case—but what is the role of Africa in the global struggle against imperialism and against capitalism in itself. Because when people talk about the theory of labor value and the question of trade unions in a place like Sierra Leone, it is very complicated because you’re talking about mine workers who are not even paid the value of their labor, so how do you aggregate labor value in that case. When we started organizing one of our main hindrances was the organized labor movement in itself.

Post-1945, the labor movement in Sierra Leone was co-opted, in the course of co-opting the labor movement you have a situation where trade union leaders are members of all the boards.. What that meant was that you could not have a genuine struggle or demand for increase in wages even for public sector workers, let alone what you might call informal workers in a place where industries are absent, where the large percentage of work is concentrated around the collection of raw materials—mines and all of that, and then the shipment of that raw material to industrial centers in the West. I have run into people who will dismiss the possibility of talking about socialism in African environment where industries are absent. Yet apart from South Africa many of the countries in Africa do not have industries, do not have factories, do not have all of that.What they have are individuals who have been lumped under the category of informal workers.

So, this is problematic, but we still believe that the struggle against imperialism can be impossible to realize on a global scale without factoring in the role of what you might call the large army of informal workers, or people who might not fit under that formal category of workers as you know it in the West. In order for you to talk about increasing wages, better conditions of service, or aggregating labor value in an imperialist center in itself—improvement in the condition of the working class in the West—you have to also talk about that chain of exploitation that facilitates the transfer of resources to that factory where workers are engaging in the transformation of that raw material into finished products. So this becomes more problematic for us, how do we translate some of these theoretical positions in a place where the question of survival and the question of open exploitation and violence—as we experience it—is more obvious than just a debate around what Lenin might have thought about the situation and what Marx might have.

Does that open up any criticisms of the Left in the West for you, outside of Africa?

CB: It also minimizes the possibility of that global solidarity that might be needed because then it talks about differences in terms of interpretations of lines. We have run into this difficulty with groups in different conferences—from the Left Forum to different congresses that we’ve attended in Europe and different parts of the world—so we don’t want to think that it’s a failure, perhaps it’s an inappropriate understanding of the local context in which some of these struggles are unfolding. I don’t know how to define it but we do not feel that the African question, if we can call it that, has been appropriately addressed—both in the past, in the days of the First International, Second International, and even in contemporary times. I would like to hear people’s thoughts about that.

SS: I think that we might also recall, for what it’s worth in this discussion, the Trotskyist idea of combined and uneven development. To think about how capitalism in fact retards the development of what were called exploitive colonies or those countries that become the fixed sites of raw material extraction. I think that there’s something worthwhile in thinking about how underdevelopment is a function of capitalist development rather than a sign of backwardness. That it’s in fact through the combined and uneven development of capital that you have the kind of contrast that we have been trying to make sense of. I’d still like to ask, if there were a socialist revolution in Sierra Leone tomorrow, what would that mean or change for the world?

A question about the Millennial Left: How has the Left changed since the Iraq War, which was the last big moment for the language of imperialism?

SS: It is interesting that we’re having this debate about imperialism now because it seems, as Bill’s been pointing out through anti-anti-Trumpism, as if the Democrats finally have their anti-war president in Trump that they had longed for in Obama. Yet, in a strange way, I wonder if there is much of a discussion about imperialism amongst Millennials, who all seem to accept this idea that there is something like neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism. But it seems vague and none of it is as pressing a matter as it was at the height of the anti-war movement. What has changed is that the Leftist organization that was central to the anti-war demonstrations, the ISO, has since folded, and has done so without notice. Where does that leave the Left today?

BM: If I could just add to that, in my articles, I have asked repeatedly whether what I call the dim Left, in other words the Left that’s completely folded, whether they would accept this or not, but they’ve basically just folded into the agenda of the Democratic Party. If I say anything about the destruction of Libya with the tremendous complicity of Hillary Clinton, really at the direction of Hillary Clinton, there’s really more or less no response whatsoever. They don’t even know what I’m talking about or why it would be interesting to even think about that. “Well, Trump’s a warmonger,” they’ll say. Well okay, why is it that when Trump says we ought to pull out of Syria they go crazy, and say “that would be completely irresponsible to the international community.”  Just outrageous bullshit. My guess is the remaining members of the ISO are going to just drift in that direction as well now and they’ll go into the DSA and they’ll say they’re against militarism but then in fact they’ll support it.

If I could say one more thing on this super-exploitation question and how does that work. I think that one way it works is through the state. If you look at housing policy, for example in the United States after the Second World War, and the question of, in a certain sense, rewarding the working class that went and fought in that war, there was a clear divide. This goes to what we used to call the national question in the United States—of white people who are maybe more recently arrived, Irish and Italians, etc., Eastern Europeans, or African Americans, or other brown people, etc., but if you look at the way that was shaped, for example, it is very explicitly shaped in terms of houses in the suburbs for white people and apartments in the inner city for black people and that was an explicit policy that addresses this question of how do you bind people in this knot of capital, nation, and state using the idea of nationality. And it seems to me that this is a way in which people are rewarded in a way that isn’t directly expressive in some straightforward way of what they have created with their labor power. Even apart from the question of why it is to begin with that some people are given the opportunity to create, to use their labor power in a way that produces more value, and others are in a situation of—what was that term we used to use from Andre Gunder Frank, enforced dependency. It seems to me that all those things work through some combination of capital, state, and nation and that it does result in these divisions that aren’t directly expressive of some mechanical working of the law of value.

Sunit made the point earlier that the issue of imperialism is primarily one in the home country rather than in the colony and it is about a crisis of capital in the metropole and the need to export capital rather than how it might be perceived in the present day, as the drive to exploit of resources, as Chernoh indicated. Might this not mark a reversal of historical socialism’s understanding of imperialism?

SS: Well, in short, the emphasis on exploitation in the colonies or developing countries, is itself a shift in focus from what socialists understood historically as the object of critique. The issue was not simply exploitation but rather was the domination of capital. and trying to address the exploitation of capital can itself reproduce capital at multiple levels.

JM: I think insofar as capital is exported, of course, capitalists look for new opportunities or markets, wage labor, they’ll look for new opportunities to exploit labor, or to purchase raw materials or whatever it is. I think insofar as it’s happened, it has developed western countries, but it’s also been at times against the interests of the Western working class. Maybe we can wind back and talk about labor theory of value. Labor is a commodity that’s determined primarily by the amount of labor power that’s embodied in that commodity. But, for Marx, it’s also a peculiar commodity, precisely because it can create more than its value. And so, when the working class organizes in unions, they’re getting a better share of the surplus value that’s been exploited from them. That is not the same as saying that the working class somehow are part of a chain mechanism that exploits the third world.

Just to be clear, I’m not making any normative claims about the justice of all of this. without saying that capitalism is a very uneven system on a global scale.

BM: If we go back to this question—and Sunit put it this way a good while ago—that the argument from Lenin is that there is an epochal shift in the way that capitalism is working and it is fully globalized now, it has brought the entire world under a single mode of production, and this fact creates new phenomena. Before we go back to Marx 101 on the labor theory of value, I believe Lenin is arguing that there are some qualitative differences that come about once this epochal shift is made, and I would say maybe there are even further epochal shifts. Obviously, we can’t buy into this idea anymore that it was the so-called highest stage, if only!

JM: It strikes me that we’ve got two potential solutions to the problem. You can talk about the national liberation struggle or you can talk about the union struggle. You can talk about the organization in China or Sierra Leone of the working class into trade unions. And it strikes me that socialists should support the latter, not just out of solidarity and decency towards our fellow workers in those countries, but also because by those countries organizing in unions, that will develop capitalism in such a way where the Sheffield steel worker might once again be able to compete with his labor power on the global market. That is a very different approach to the approaches being historically put by Lenin and particularly by Mao.

Bill, could you explain your notion of historical debt and what that means for the Left?

BM: The last book I published is called Ethical Marxism and it brings together themes from Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and all these other figures who we’ve talked about, including Sartre. A lot of what I was thinking there came out of what, for me and my generation, was a very formative experience, which was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War, to me, is a case where something horrible was done to the people of Vietnam and the People of Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, —for no reason whatsoever. There is absolutely nothing that justifies the horrible things that were done to those people. And that constitutes a debt that remains for something called the United States, and obviously the ruling class of the United States is in the lead of that, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. Our country did something to their country that was absolutely wrong and absolutely unacceptable and that we owe a debt.

SS: And is there a critique of the Vietcong and the NLF in there somewhere?  All of this talk of Vietnam accepts a sort of national framework for our discussion that I find difficult to concede in a discussion about anti-imperialism.

BM: I agree with that, but the fact is the United States killed millions of people in Southeast Asia, in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. Do we just say, “Well, everybody does it?” Or that “the NLF did some bad things?” How should we address that?

JM: The problem is that everybody does do it and everyone has done it. Are you in the business of chasing around the world and getting every nation state or every people that has ever oppressed, or exploited, or murdered another group of people, to pay the debt back? It strikes me as a particular way of rearranging capitalism at the expense of organizing the movement for socialism.

BM: You may be right and no I am not about that. But I am about the fact that the Vietnamese people never did anything to the people of the United States. Does that not have a meaning in the way we think about this?

JM: As an Anglo-Saxon, I never did anything to the Normans, but if you look at the British ruling class, it’s still disproportionately of Norman French blood and not of the Germanic Saxon blood that I come from. My granddad was one of the few people that still talked about living under the Norman yoke. It just strikes me as a kind of unending cycle. I am not saying that just because it happened in the past it’s therefore all in the past. I accept that the legacy of these things continue to exist. If we take up for example the issue of repatriations for slavery, I wouldn’t be opposed in principle to repatriations for slavery, though as a socialist and as a member of the SPGB, I don’t support reforms to capitalism. But let’s say I was in Congress and I got to have the decisive vote on whether—I work with low income, mostly African-American kids, low income black kids on the South Side of Chicago—if I had the vote of whether to take some money from a bunch of capitalists in Washington that used slave labor to build up those countries and give a bunch of money to kids on the South Side of Chicago so we could buy new sailing boats and teach them to sail, I wouldn’t be against that, I wouldn’t be opposed it. But I would support it because I’d consider it a victory for the working class in terms of the working class getting back through some state reform some of the surplus value that has already been stolen from them. And that’s very different, it seems to me. One of the problems with this idea of repatriation is it implies a kind of just capitalism. That there was something unjust about the capitalism that existed before, that modern capitalism can somehow redeem. Whereas I think as a Marxist, the only thing that can redeem history is socialism.


BM: I do think one difference here is that I tend to look at things through the eyes of philosophy and not political economy first of all. And so, when I think about what redemption means, I’m thinking about it in a more philosophical sense. Maybe even a little bit more of a Jewish and Christian sense that I think is reflected in Marx.

JM: Would Marx have called that Idealism?

BM: It doesn’t matter to me that he would have called it that. The idea of the resurrection of the body is a materialist idea.

SS: There is a distinction between a messianic conception of redemption and the historical conception of redemption that Benjamin talks about in the “Theses on The Concept of History.”  There is a different model of redemption. One that is in history, rather than at the end-times, right? We don’t have to wait for the messiah, but rather we have to redeem the suffering in history. And that bears a different conception and orientation toward world politics, as he calls it.

BM: I agree with that entirely, it’s just that if you start talking about terms such as “justice” and “redemption,” of course very soon somebody is going to say, “well, isn’t that Idealism?” I think is terrible about the Left these days is that they’ve really learned to hate philosophy. They really reject philosophy and just frankly despise it and hate to have it brought up even.

SS: There is a rank anti-intellectualism to the Left.

BM: Yeah. We used to be very snooty and think we were the intellectuals and the that the right were the dumb ones... But now the Left is outdoing the so-called conservatives. Which is why I think we ought to talk about what the conservatives are about as well.

JM: I’d be interested to hear from Chernoh. Do you have that kind of campus politics in Sierra Leone, or is it a form of stupidity that you have to be wealthy enough to buy or something? Does it exist in your country, and is it something that you come up against as a leftist and as an organizer. I suppose it could be loosely defined as a sort of postmodernist, identity politics of no-platforming—anti-debate, anti-discussion, anti-intellectualism.

CB: I think that in many parts of Africa, some of the hindrance to the kind of intellectual debates that you might have is the fact that people are organized around ethnic questions—where ethnic questions are paramount and the theological questions become the point of organizing people. But what we have succeeded in doing now increasingly with the advent of new tools of mass communication, social media and all of that, you can take the debate out. Because the media cannot determine exactly what kinds of discussion should be part of the debate.

When we started talking about socialism in Sierra Leone, one of the reasons we had to define ourselves as such is because we have two dominant political parties that have been there for the last fifty or sixty years now, in the post-independence history. The two existing middle-class neocolonial parties have organizing along ethnicities, they tend to describe, socialism, as “oh, it’s the Soviet Union” or “it’s the equivalent of totalitarianism.” We’ve never had anyone who’s described themselves as a socialist who has been in power, so, if we’re talking about the failure of political leadership in Africa, we’re talking about the failure of individuals who are actually opposed to the idea of socialism.

I think every environment has its own kind of sectarian, factional politics, so the role of the Left is to study the objective conditions in that situation and see how they can intervene. I don’t know how that is possible in a place like the United States.

BM: Could I interject, Chernoh? You are also at Northwestern University, which is really one of the headquarters of the worst of this identity politics stuff. Have you come up against that at all?

CB:  One of the professors said to me in a casual conversation that the department thinks I have strong views, and I replied by saying, “I haven’t expressed my views in this department because I just consider myself as someone who’s passing by.” For the most part, I’ve tried to close my eyes, so to speak, to what is happening and to see myself as someone in transit. And I keep my sanity by paying more attention to politics back home, and publishing, and also because I have the responsibility of providing an explanation on a regular basis of current events in my country and responding to political questions and issues. I try to remain oblivious to the dynamics on campus and even wider American politics.

A comment and a question: One can imagine that a socialist America would offer favorable cooperation if not exactly reparations to Southeast Asian countries to help make up for past crimes and damages, as would European countries and Japan to former colonies and neo-colonies. But this would be done from the standpoint of a global dictatorship of the proletariat, not nationalism or internationalism. And now a question for Chernoh: What do you think of the world working class and migrant workers participation in metropolitan struggles for socialism? Historically, immigrant workers were often involved as militant leaders in socialist politics, but not so much in recent decades despite increased globalization.

CB: I can talk about that based on my own individual experience as someone who was sent out of Sierra Leone in the late 90’s as a consequence of my work, and I went to Guinea-Conakry—which is a neighboring country, a French speaking colony—then while in Guinea we were able to organize. As a newspaper editor who has been forced into exile I was also able to organize other journalists from Liberia and Ivory Coast who were equally in exile In Conakry to build the first English speaking newspaper. It went beyond a newspaper and became an organization that defended the rights of refugees and through that process we did a lot of work with organizing refugees from across three different countries. By then, we’re talking about a refugee population of over one million people. And they were faced with all kinds of terrible treatment—police brutality in refugee camps, rapes, sexual violence and all of these kinds of things. Through our work we were able to highlight some of these violations to the point that it became an international conversation.

But beyond that, that was my first experience from working with workers from different parts of Africa, from different microstates in Africa, who were faced with the same kind of histories of violence and living in an area where we were all refugees. I don’t know whether that answers the question.

JM: It has been a really interesting discussion. Chernoh, you’re the first socialist from Sierra Leone I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak to so, thank you very much it’s been fascinating; I’d like to hear more from all of you folks and read more of your writings about your experiences in your respective fields and countries.

There’s a lot that we seem to agree on and there’s a few things we still seem to disagree on. I think one of the questions that’s come up, although we haven’t really had much of a chance to talk about it, is the hopes for socialism in one country or the hopes of even there being some sort of dictatorship of the proletariat in one country. It strikes me that it’s very much true that we can’t achieve socialism in a country like Britain or America without countries like Sierra Leone and all the other African countries joining us, and vice versa. We have to organize as a class collectively and capitalism is a global social system, socialism will have to be a global social system to replace capitalism.

Capitalism, in a very bloodthirsty and uneven way, has brought the working class and is increasingly bringing the working class face to face. Unions are becoming more and more international, non-revolutionary unions even are becoming more and more international because they’ve been forced to in a response to global capital. Therein lies the material circumstances by which we can build a global socialist movement. It strikes me that in order to do this we need to extend our solidarity to our fellow workers and put the case to our fellow workers for socialism. That is to say, we can’t continue to do what a lot of political parties and Leninist political parties have done historically and that’s patronize our fellow workers by kind of coaxing them into socialism with reforms. Instead we need to put the case for socialism—a moneyless, stateless, voluntary society based on production for human needs—to our fellow workers on a global basis. That goal strikes me as fundamentally at odds with the goal of national liberation. National liberation struggles, as I said everywhere it’s been tried at best it’s meant that the domestic capitalist class has got to manage liberal capitalism and at worst it’s ended in state capitalist dictatorships or sectarian bloodshed.

Just to finally answer the question down here in the chat, “Is the Chinese state a different kind of obstacle to politically organizing the global working class versus the US state?” It strikes me that it is a different type of obstacle, not least of all for the Chinese working class, who have to live under this state capitalist regime where they don’t have the right to assemble or the right to organize. There is a difference, and a fairly meaningful difference, between living in a capitalist dictatorship and living in a capitalist liberal democracy, and it’s the legacy of state capitalism and of these national liberation struggles that thought that we could achieve socialism, however temporarily, in one country. That ultimately the working class have been left in a worse position than they would be left in under a liberal democracy, and that strikes me as a fact.

Thanks again to Platypus, a really fantastic organization who are prepared to hold the mantle that Marx held and that the Founding Fathers of America held and that everyone who’s been interested in emancipatory politics has to hold, which is that we have to be able to get together and discuss openly without shouting each other down and no-platforming each other.

SS: Well, Johnny’s stepped off, but I was going to say “yes” and “no” to what he said. On the one hand, he said to achieve socialism in Britain or in America you need socialism in African countries, in Sierra Leone. I think that the traditional view of the Left was that if America or Britain or Germany were to go socialist, then there would be little choice, in fact, for the rest of the world but to follow. There would be a concern in fact that the colonies and backward countries would in fact represent centers of counterrevolution. Again, I think that, in the many historical inversions that have come to be, this has been lost sight of and now there is a certain kind of primacy to the idea that you have to have a revolution first and foremost in what we’d refer to as developing countries.

Both Johnny and Sunit spoke about national independence versus trying to overcome capitalism and I was wondering if Chernoh had any thoughts on that.

CB: We think that one of the main problems of the African anti-imperialist, pro-independence, and pan-African movement itself was a failure to prioritize the questions of class. Nkrumah himself became aware of this question only when he was already kicked out of power; it was while he was in exile in Guinea that he wrote Class Struggle in Africa. It was then that he realized that the struggle had to be rooted among the African working class. So, what we have post-1945, up to the Manchester pan-African conference, was basically an assortment of individuals with different class aspirations, and the people who ended up leading the African liberation movement, or who ended up as the leaders of the various what they call independent nations in Africa, were people who were not from the working class. Where you have genuine working-class movements, like in Sierra Leone, you talk about Wallace-Johnson and the West African Youth League. Wallace-Johnson started the first working class trade unions. But by 1938 the British had already imprisoned Wallace-Johnson and destroyed the West African Youth League and they had also brought in a member of the Labour Party, Edgar Perry, to de-radicalize the labor movement, and so that’s why we tend to say that after 1938 you cannot talk about the real anti-imperialist struggle in Sierra Leone.

So, the individuals who emerged as the leaders of the neocolonial state were people who were programmed by the British to take over the colony on their behalf. So, we still have the same multinational corporations who were transferring diamonds and natural resources, so the emphasis on class is basically a critique of what they called the independence movement, how did we end up with flag independence—with a situation where African countries, after fifty years we cannot get out of the questions of poverty and what you called super-exploitation. These vestiges of colonialism are still there and they are guarded by the state and up to now you cannot talk about independent elections or a real sovereign state—where the economy is largely in the hands of multinationals, in the hands of corporations and economic policy which are dictated by the IMF and World Bank.

So, how did we get to that is a problem with the independence movement, so in Africa where we had leaders like Nkrumah who appear to have led an organization of an assortment of different class aspirations and all of that, we saw when he tried to implement a socialist program how close we are to remove those leaders in power, we witnessed the same thing in the Congo with Lumumba. I think Cabral summed it up correctly by saying that for the African intellectuals to be of service to the African revolution they have to commit class suicide.

The pan-African movement in itself was largely organized around racial questions—organizing all black people against the colonialists, direct colonialism was clearly identified as being led by whites. And now we have more than 50 years of African leadership, people from our own communities, and indices of poverty and underdevelopment have exacerbated. So how do you explain that kind of situation, it’s the question of the path towards independence, and whether we have independence or not.

The transition in Africa was not a transition to independence; it was a transition to a new form of colonial control, a new form of imperial control, neocolonialism, and we see this represented in corporations, the same bourgeois leaders, the same kind of policies. Ours is a critique of the post-colonial state-- if it is really a post-colonial state.

SS: I wonder then Chenoh whether you might not then actually have to take another step based on what you’ve said. It was already self-evident to someone like Fanon, as early as the early 1960s, in what direction African independence was headed, and he has his critique of the nationalist bourgeoisie. What I am getting at is that I wonder if you might not have to take the step to concede that independence was never the solution to the issue of imperialism. That if the issue was framed in terms of anti-colonialism, then independence might seem like the logical solution, but the conflation of imperialism and colonialism has had enormous consequences on how nationalist movements in the 20th century understood what it was that they were after. The issue of anti-imperialism has been a disaster for the Left and there is enormous disorientation and confusion about what it means, what it means to oppose it, what anti-imperialism might mean. And we might do well to remember what Adorno says in his aphorism “the savages are not more noble,” that a modicum of a rise in the standard of living might do more for the former colonized world than parroting anything about socialism. The Left has seemed to have forgotten its own history on anti-imperialism.

CB: I think conceptualization is where we get issues, no one is opposed to the idea of philosophizing, but I think you’re right in that Fanon talked a lot about this in terms of the pitfalls of national consciousness and all of this. These are real questions that we still grapple with. Nkrumah himself, like I said, was not clear on these questions until after he was kicked out of power and then spent a lot of time in Conakry reflecting on what must have been some of the limitations and pitfalls and all of that. But I think his proposals around a continental kind of government, African unification, what would that mean because then when you talk about you know a country like Gambia which is a very small strip of land, most of these small territories in Africa cannot sufficiently have a real economy by itself, and much of what we talk about regarding trade, if we talk about it in the real sense of the world, is not actually trade that’s happening across African countries, it’s a relationship between Africa-Europe, Africa-the United States, and most of it is exploitation of resources and transfer of wealth. So how can you build a sustainable gross domestic product, real GDP in that kind of environment, it’s impossible with little microstates, so I think the question of independence here is for me about how do you build an economy that will address all of these questions of everyday life.

SS: Can that be done in the absence of the dictatorship of the proletariat?

CB: I cannot put that beyond independence. I cannot put that beyond being independent, control of national resources, control of at least the developed sectors of the economy. The skepticism I have about that is, demographically and geographically, the size of many of the micro states in Africa in itself prevents the development of a robust economic arrangement. Population sizes, some of them are even drought-driven landlocked countries and all of that. How do we get rid of the frontiers, those barriers that inhibit the collectivization of resources, human and material, those are the challenges with both the artificial and other non-artificial borders that we have ideologically or in our brains, whether they manifest themselves though issues of ethnicity or they are hangovers of the colonial partition in itself?

I cannot imagine any way of dealing out of that situation without having self-determination, independence, and control of our resources and sense of unity, what would that look like and how can that be coordinated and managed, are things that we have to debate. But I want to have a situation where the women who go to deliver babies, we will stop the high rates of maternal mortality that we have in Sierra Leone, good hospitals, good roads, electricity supply, safe and clean drinking water, these things are absent for more than 90% of the African population, and the paradox is that you have a country like Nigeria that produces oil and you talk about lack of electricity. So how do you solve that kind of situation outside of the control of the resources?

Having a government that is responsive to the needs of its people and in most cases, it comes down to a situation where elections, who governs through elections, and the credibility of elections.

Perhaps we could bring the discussion back to the topic of socialism and the history of all this. Sunit brought up an interesting point about re-questioning the aim of independence and in many respects, his is a critique of what the Left thought its goals were. And this came up earlier with the issue of Vietnam, and ultimately there too, the question was whether we can learn anything from the Left in Vietnam; whether it offers a model to be reproduced or not; whether it was a success or failure. These are all questions that could be taken up precisely to reflect on what it would take to revitalize a socialism today. So Chernoh, you mentioned the establishment of a basic—what you could call liberal society—as a baseline aim for organizing any kind of socialism. Is there a sort of Third Worldism at work there or is there a truly global aim of a socialist party that used to exist in the Second International? And Bill, similarly, as someone with a Maoist background, whether you would see the intractability today of independence struggles, for example, or what this category of Third Worldism would mean to you in changed conditions.

BM: I think this independence question is brilliant—even if there was some meaning of national liberation before, it’s very hard to imagine what it is now. In the case of Venezuela for example, again I think we’re at a time where things just have to, in a way, fall back to non-interventionism. By the way, I have this argument with my wife quite a lot because she says, “well Maduro is messing up this, that and the other thing.” And I can’t disagree with that. Certainly, he is, and it looks like his regime is very corrupt and it was built on the basis of Chavism and that was a kind of oil-redistributionist kind of thing that isn’t really socialist. I won’t say that it was nothing. I think on the whole that there was a lot good going on there. But in any case, all I really want to say to that is just the old, “US hands off of Venezuela” just stay the hell out of it regardless. I’m not one who’s going to justify—I suppose this is a sort of dogmatic position of mine—but I won’t accept US intervention anywhere on any basis whatsoever, including some invasion from another planet like in Independence Day.

But in terms of colonialism and independence and Maoism, it's not a matter of advocating anymore any kind of Maoist model or Maoism or the Chinese model or anything like that. But there is that question, Mao talked about these three mountains that needed to be climbed for there to be revolution in China and he called it a new democratic revolution. There’s a lot we could talk about there, but the three mountains were what he called: semi-feudalism, semi-colonialism and foreign domination, which he called imperialism. And he didn’t see any response that didn’t include China breaking away from these three things and in particular, again, becoming an independent country that wasn’t just a playground for foreign domination.

SS: I thank Bill for his comments, but also want to respond to the appealing take of opposing all interventions, even those that are ostensibly founded on humanitarian claims, as they were in Somalia, the Balkans, Darfur, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. If I could again play the role again of the historian, historically on the Left, non-intervention or opposing all intervention meant you oppose intervention because you don’t want to cede over to the capitalist state what the Left itself should oppose. So, in the case of Venezuela, it seems that the Left cannot, but should object to the intermingling between Ahmadinejad and Chavez; there would be reasons for the Left to oppose the mashup of the theocratic state in Iran and the Bolivarian revolution. But the Left is in no condition to oppose those things on its own and so opposing interventionism is itself somewhat hollow today. I think that the issue of the role that the US plays in the world is quite different now and the Left is often left fighting the last war and that the anti-imperialism of the Vietnam era is not adequate to the unipolar world in which we live.

I am not particularly sanguine about the rise of China as a rival to the US, as I don’t know that anyone can think of China as exporting socialism or trying to affect the dictatorship of the proletariat, either in Hong Kong or elsewhere. The point of the Hong Kong Basic Law that is under threat right now was—the reason that the can was kicked down the road for 40 years—was that it wasn’t clear in 1997 whether Hong Kong would become socialist or whether China would resemble Hong Kong by 2047.

BM: I don’t disagree with any of that. I do think that the rise of China is the outstanding question globally of our time, but what would you say to do about it? I could say I don’t like the theocratic regime in Iran, I don’t like what Maduro has done, but I also don’t want to give aid and sympathy to anybody who would think, “Well yeah, we better send some Americans down there and do something about it.” Right, we agree on that?

SS: I think the question is what is the opposition to the US, whether it leaves the world in any more of a propitious place to achieve socialism, whether it leaves socialists in any more of a propitious spot than it would otherwise. And the nature of the opposition to the US has changed since the Vietnam era, though this was, probably never as clear as the anti-war protesters made it out to be then. Did the US really lose in Vietnam? 

BM: They are making Nike shoes there. | 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).

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