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Imperialism: How does it task us?

Louis Sterrett

Platypus Review 132 | December 2020

This following is an edited transcript of remarks given by Platypus member Louis Sterrett on the panel, “Imperialism and the Left,” hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Chicago on January 16, 2020. An audio recording of the panel can be found here: https://platypus1917.org/2020/01/16/imperialism-and-the-left-uchicago-1-16-20/

Imperialism, as it was grasped by the best Marxist theory of the Second and Third Internationals and even by many bourgeois theorists, definitively came into its own at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Imperialism’s emergence gives us a look into the crisis of the Second International and its subsequent split. This characteristic of imperialism as a lens for understanding the Left’s capabilities in theory and practice continues to this day.

Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the Second International after the death of Engels, defined imperialism thus: “Imperialism is a product of highly developed industrial capitalism. It consists in the striving of every industrial capitalist nation to bring under its control and to annex increasingly big agrarian [Kautsky’s Italics] regions irrespective of what nations inhabit those regions.”[1] For Vladimir Lenin, this was an inadequate definition, as it reduced imperialism to a matter of state policy regarding territories: it was not a matter of new policies but that of the “transformation of competition into monopoly,” which is “one of the most important—if not the most important—phenomena of the modern capitalist economy [...]”.[2] If Kautsky’s definition is inadequate, let us look to Lenin’s definition:

“We have seen that the economic quintessence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism. This very fact determines its place in history, for monopoly that grew up on the basis of free competition, and precisely out of free competition, is the transition from the capitalist system to a higher social-economic order. We must take special note of the four principal forms of monopoly, or the four principal manifestations of monopoly capitalism, which are characteristic of the epoch under review. Firstly, monopoly arose out of the concentration of production at a very advanced stage of development. This refers to the monopolist capitalist combines, cartels, syndicates and trusts. […] Secondly, monopolies have accelerated the capture of the most important sources of raw materials, especially for the coal and iron industries, which are the basic and most highly cartelised industries in capitalist society. […] Thirdly, monopoly has sprung from the banks. The banks have developed from modest intermediary enterprises into the monopolists of finance capital. […] Fourthly, monopoly has grown out of colonial policy. To the numerous ‘old’ motives of colonial policy, finance capital has added the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for ‘spheres of influence,’ i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopolist profits and so on; in fine, for economic territory in general.”[3]

Lenin adds that imperialism’s “intensification of contradictions constitutes the most powerful driving force of the transitional period of history, which began from the time of the definitive victory of world finance capital.”[4] The emphasis on history comes about because it is understood as the time of the unfolding of freedom. Now, is Lenin merely against imperialism, or is he doing something more?

In critiquing both Kautskian theory and imperialism itself, Lenin recognized this transformed quality because it also pointed to new conditions of possibility, necessity, and desirability for freedom in transformation. On the Left this attention to the question of freedom has been lost over the last century of consciousness for the Left—often sidelined by the question of justice. Lenin writes, “Capitalism in its imperialist stage arrives at the threshold of the most complete socialisation of production. In spite of themselves, the capitalists are dragged, as it were, into a new social order, a transitional social order from complete free competition to complete socialisation. Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few.”[5] This “most complete socialisation of production” is bound up with the contradictions from which it emerged: namely that of bourgeois social relations and industrial forms of production. Marxism’s concern with the negative conception of the class of the proletariat has to do with its embodiment of this contradiction. If the commodity form in contradiction can be made conscious, it could push this contradiction, adjudicate it politically, and overcome itself as a class.

Imperialism’s complete socialization of society forms a totality that is both true and false. On the banks’ attempt to gain economic advantage through various spheres, Lenin writes, “The result is twofold: on the one hand the merging, to an ever greater extent, or, as N. Bukharin aptly calls it, the coalescence of bank and industrial capital; and on the other hand, a transformation of the banks into institutions of a truly ‘universal character.’”[6] The “universal character” of banks, which is noted by Marx as giving “the form […] but only the form”[7] of socialized production, is the other dialectical side of capitalism’s antinomy of capital and labor. This instinct of the banks to attain the greatest economic advantage by grasping as many spheres as possible is an opaque symptom of the necessity of the proletariat’s political and economic leadership of society, and thus also the overcoming of the proletariat through its own leadership. The class standpoint of the bourgeoisie is inadequate to the task. Despite the greatest efforts in science on the part of the bourgeoisie, society remains blind to itself so long as the proletariat does not lead it. This is due to the proletariat’s unique standpoint and historical mission. Lenin attacks Kautsky’s renegacy on the point of imperialist socialization because Kautsky stops short here, instead promoting an “ultra-imperialist” peace under capitalism. Georg Lukács, in attempting to learn from Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, writes:

“[...] bourgeois thought remains fixated on these forms which it believes to be immediate and original and from there it attempts to seek an understanding of economics, blithely unaware that the only phenomenon that has been formulated is its own inability to comprehend its own social foundations. Whereas for the proletariat the way is opened to a completed penetration of the forms of reification. It achieves this by starting with what is dialectically the clearest form (the immediate relation of capital and labor). It then relates this to those forms that are more remote from the production process and so includes and comprehends them too, in the dialectical totality.”[8]

The task of leading society through this form of socialization is later addressed by Leon Trotsky. When anticipating the cries of protest from capitalists, that they will hand over their ledgers and bookkeeping for inspection to prove the impossibility of the demands of the proletariat, Trotsky writes:

“No office-holder of the bourgeois state is in a position to carry out this work, no matter with how great authority one would wish to endow him. All the world was witness to the impotence of President Roosevelt and Premier Blum against the plottings of the 60 or 200 families of their respective nations. To break the resistance of the exploiters, the mass pressure of the proletariat is necessary. […] The working out of even the most elementary economic plan—from the point of view of the exploited, not the exploiters—is impossible without workers’ control, that is, without the eyes of the workers penetrating all the open and concealed mechanisms of capitalist economy.”[9]

The problem is not one of policy of the capitalists but rather that of politics. In other words, it is not a question of what to do, but who does it.

Thus the capitalists have ripened the fruit of society to the point that it is ready for the taking. So long as it is not taken, so long as it becomes overripe, society will continue to suffer from its own unrealized potential. With the breakdown in the world revolution starting in 1917, the proletariat remained only a class-in-itself, instead of becoming a class for-itself. The lack of a real socialist party that grapples with the world has implications for the appearance of society in total, including the consciousness of the proletariat which breaks down into an antinomy of theory and practice, or theory-ism and actionism. In the middle of the 20th century Max Horkheimer, in conversation with Theodor Adorno, noted that the appearance of the object fundamentally changes without a political party that can offer such leadership: “We have asked about the relationship between theory and practice if there is no longer a party. Now there is no party and this means that two sources of uncertainty are involved, if we continue to operate in the realm of theory. Firstly, because what is produced in the way of theory no longer has anything in common with Marx, with the most advanced class consciousness; our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat. Secondly, it seems then as if we are working on a theory for keeping in stock.”[10] The best of the Frankfurt School dealt with the depth of the problem with an honesty that seems vacant in today’s dead Left. The lack of a party brings proletarian consciousness to a standstill that cannot be overcome with a waving away of the historical problems that the present has inherited.

The Platypus Affiliated Society is the host of the conversation on the death of the Left, and it held its first public forum almost 13 years ago to the day on the topic of Imperialism, which offers us a view of the recent “Left’s” approach to the phenomenon. On that panel, Chris Cutrone said that, “The Left has lost its basic orientation towards freedom, a problem going back at least as far as the 1930s. The perspective the Left once had on the question and problem of freedom has become occluded in the present.”[11] To this, Adam Turl, of the now-defunct International Socialist Organization, responded: “I think the Left has more to do than examine our mistakes and despair. The Left is about a process taking place in society, about people radicalizing and struggling against injustice.”[12] Dismissing history leads to a false mediation and leaves the present to drown in its own opacity. When one reads Lenin’s words, that “Imperialism is the eve of the proletarian social revolution. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale,”[13] one feels a distance between today and a century ago. This is not simply a temporal distance, but one that registers the deep historical regression that few want to accept. |P


[1] Karl Kautsky, Die Neue Zeit, 32nd year (1913 – 14), II, 909; quoted in Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1939), 91.

[2] Lenin, Imperialism, 17.

[3] Ibid., 123 – 24.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 606.

[8] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1971), 185.

[9] Leon Trotsky, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, eds. George Breitman and Fred Stanton (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977),157 – 58.

[10] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 2011), 99.

[11] “Imperialism: What is it? Why should we be against it?,” hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society in 2007; in The Platypus Review Reader, ed. Spencer A. Leonard (Ann Arbor: Platypus Publishing, 2015), 37.

[12] Ibid., 38.

[13] Lenin, “Preface to the French and German Editions,” in Imperialism, 14.

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