From Colonialism to Imperialism

Controversial Issues on National Question

Elif Çağlı

August 2002

Imperialism and the change in colonial countries

“Finance capital has created the epoch of monopolies, and monopolies introduce everywhere monopolist principles.”[1] This is the briefest summary of 20th century. In imperialist epoch, it is possible neither to make a correct analysis of imperialism nor to develop an adequate anti-imperialism without taking into account the unequal but interdependent relations between countries at different levels of development. However, those Marxists who were carried away with the third-worldist tendency after The Second World War and especially in the 1960s sowed confusion about the inner laws of operation of the imperialist system.

Because of the sympathy and support for third-worldism, even bourgeois coquetries, whims in the guise of supporting “national” economy were applauded in the name of anti-imperialism. Medium or less developed capitalist countries of 1960s were categorised as oppressed nations under the label of “neo-colonies” or “semi-colonies”. Thus, the anti-capitalist mission of the struggle of the proletariat against capitalist system (i.e. genuine anti-imperialism) was abandoned based on the illusion that as if there was still a national question in these countries. The fact that imperialism is in fact an economic system that has its embodiment in every capitalist country’s internal functioning was obscured. A false anti-imperialism was created through hollow propagandism suggesting that there can be a “nationally independent” economic functioning even without leaving the system. Though the conscious creators of these kinds of political trends were the Stalinists, some other tendencies who called themselves Trotskyist also contributed to this confusion.

For instance, the description of “colony” which Mandel and his tendency helped popularised constitutes a typical example of this. It is not correct to insist on explaining the dependency of former colonial countries on the imperialist system with the concept of “colony” in a world where colonies have gone. In fact, this kind of attitude also comes to mean turning a deaf ear to Trotsky’s analyses. Just like Lenin, Trotsky also explained that imperialist epoch has a different quality from the colonialist period. In his article titled War and International, in 1914, he mentioned the general tendency of decolonization, caused by imperialism and the imperialist war.

But a redivision of colonies among the capitalist countries does not enlarge the foundation of capitalist development. … An additional factor of decisive importance is the capitalist awakening in the colonies themselves, to which the present War must give a mighty impetus.[2]

Mandel and others who think in a similar way tried somehow to accept only one side of Trotsky’s important considerations on the law of combined and uneven development, i.e. the “unevenness”, and obscure the other side, i.e. “the combined” development. They developed a definition of imperialist epoch that “prevents” (!), “retards” (!) the capitalist development in former colonial countries. The following quote from Mandel gives an example for hollow generalizations in contradiction to realities:

Yet, with the beginning of imperialist era, the operation of world capitalist market, let alone easing the “normal” capitalist development of less-developed countries, particularly a profound industrialisation, it constituted a factor hampering such a development. Marx’s formula that every developed country shows to the less developed the picture of their future, which preserved its significance throughout the age of free competition capitalism, has now lost its validity.[3]

As if the former colonial countries which gained their national independence in imperialist epoch would have developed more and would have been industrialized faster had they not got into economic relations with the developed capitalist countries and stayed isolated! Marx underlined an essential aspect of capitalist mode of production in saying that “every developed country shows to the less developed the picture of their future.” Capitalism would march towards being a world system incorporating every country and every region with different historical heritages and different levels of development. As a matter of fact, imperialist epoch verified Marx’s analysis of the course of capitalism. So, what is the difference between describing Marx’s important conclusions as “the formulas that make sense in the free competitive period” and saying “the law of uneven and combined development was discovered by Lenin”? To cut it short in the face of these empty muddles one should recall an important answer given to these kinds of assertions:

The export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported. While, therefore, the export of capital may tend to a certain extent to arrest development in the capital-exporting countries, it can only do so by expanding and deepening the further development of capitalism throughout the world. [4]

As Lenin indicates, the result of export of capital to colonial countries was the acceleration of capitalist development in these countries. And what happened? While these countries were driven into a staggering change because of capitalist development, their position, being a colony, could no longer be maintained. Sooner of later they had to take a seat within the family of modern nation-states as unequal elements in the face of powerful ones of the imperialist system. Was this situation the result of a somewhat easy granting of independence by the imperialist countries? Or, had the imperialist countries had to lay the material base causing this result by their own hands, no matter they like it or not, just because of the inner features of expansionism in the finance capital era?

These questions have been answered by subsequent events and national liberation struggles of the 20th century. However, Lenin drew attention to progressive tendency laying the material base for the future of colonial countries as early as 1916: “One of the main features of imperialism is that it accelerates capitalist development in the most backward countries, and thereby extends and intensifies the struggle against national oppression.”[5] Thus, the question of national independence which was created but could not be solved in the colonist expansion period of capitalism eventually became a burning question and was solved in imperialist epoch.

[1] Lenin, ibid, p.244

[3] E. Mandel, Marksizme Giriş [Introduction to Marxism], Yazın, p.62

[4] Lenin, ibid, p.243

[5] Lenin, “The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution”, CW, Vol. 23, p.78