From Colonialism to Imperialism

Controversial Issues on National Question

Elif Çağlı

August 2002

Anti-imperialist struggle cannot be reduced to national liberation struggle

Kautsky and the like who consider imperialism not as modern capitalism, but merely as one of the policies of it do not oppose imperialism as a system. For example Kautsky advocates a policy of opposing its annexation policy only, not imperialist economic process as a whole. This is a completely reformist and pacifist way of thinking and lays the ground for a false “anti-imperialism” understanding. And Lenin’ criticism of Kautsky exposes such approaches:

The reply seems quite plausible, but in effect it is a more subtle and more disguised (and therefore more dangerous) advocacy of conciliation with imperialism, because a "fight" against the policy of the trusts and banks that does not affect the economic basis of the trusts and banks is mere bourgeois reformism and pacifism, the benevolent and innocent expression of pious wishes.[1]

We find it necessary to highlight some important points here. A political line confining the struggle against imperialism to the recognition of national self-determination cannot go beyond bourgeois reformism. Reducing the struggle against imperialism to opposition against annexations and thus not taking sides against economic foundations of imperialism is not anti-imperialist. A struggle which starts against annexations or national oppression can gain an anti-imperialist character only when it turns into a struggle against economic foundations of imperialist system. But this change of dimension of the struggle is neither the bourgeoisie’s nor petit-bourgeoisie’s problem. It is only but only revolutionary proletariat’s problem to turn any struggle against national oppression into an anti-imperialist revolt.

As in the case of Belgium, the bourgeoisie, who oppose annexation of its land by another state and protect its right of national sovereignty, in effect pursues its own class interests. But this is not anti-imperialism. It is only an attitude within the framework of capitalism against aggressor imperialist state. Therefore, while opposing, for instance, German imperialism, the bourgeoisie of Belgium tries to develop its good relations with British imperialism on the basis of their common interests. Class interests of the bourgeoisie never bring a breakaway from the capitalist system, but need the rights of sovereignty to be recognized by the powerful ones. So, it is downright class collaboration to reduce opposition of revolutionary proletariat to imperialism to opposition to policies of this or that imperialist state or to the level of supporting the rights of sovereignty of “its own” bourgeoisie.

Many colonial countries successfully concluded their national liberation struggles in 20th century, achieved their national (political) independence and established their own nation-states. But as time passed, it turned out that these countries became inevitably dependent on imperialist system when they continued to stay in the capitalist system and be a component of it. Thus, imperialism proved to be a system capable of maintaining its domination on countries which gained their political independence. Therefore, it was wrong from the standpoint of Marxism to consider the imperialist stage of capitalism in the framework of colonialism, and, describe it, for instance, as “neo-colonialism” etc.

Nevertheless, in real life, in actual needs of politics, concepts may experience a sort of deformation or, more correctly, be distorted. For instance, it was a widespread trend to describe imperialist system as “neo-colonialism” in 1960s when national liberation struggles in colonial countries were on the rise. And this description was considered very important by those forces that were waging struggle for political independence. This is understandable: these national liberationists were waging a struggle against colonialism which was a thing of the former period surviving in the imperialist epoch. But because of this anachronism, even when they speak of “neo-colonialism”, they were targeting the actual realities of the new period, that is, imperialism.

For example, according to Nkrumah, the leader of Gana’s national liberation, neo-colonialism is “the method of giving independence to Africa with one hand and take it with the other. ... a fake independence in which the neo-colonialist state grants a sort of sovereignty to the former colony to control it through extra-political means by making it a client-state.”[2] What Nkrumah said in his attempt to define “neo-colonialism” was nothing but the fundamental characteristics of imperialist epoch. What he did by these words was actually to reveal the mere anti-colonialist character of the struggles that are confined to the aim of gaining political independence, i.e. national liberation struggles, which could not change the imperialist system and inflict a real blow to imperialism. It is true that unless there is a definite breakaway from imperialist system which is a world system one cannot be independent from imperialism, which has been proven by various experiences. Therefore, the question of independence from imperialism cannot be reduced to the question of national independence; anti-imperialism is a question of social liberation.

Imperialist counties dictate not only economic terms on weaker capitalist countries. But this situation is a general law of capitalist order. Under capitalism, he who pays the piper calls the tune! No matter how much the bourgeoisies of various capitalist states who borrowed enormous amounts from major imperialist states complain about unequal relations or interference with their “internal affairs,” this is their capitalist system as a whole. Why should the working class be concerned with these complaints? Sharing the grievance of the weaker bourgeoisie or preaching a “fully independent and national order” within capitalism to the working class suits only the petty-bourgeoisie. In fact, burning problem of the proletariat in all capitalist countries, no matter big or small, is not economic “independence(!)” of its “own” bourgeoisie, but emancipation from the capitalist order of exploitation. In short, the goal of the working class struggle against imperialism is to put an end to the bourgeois order, to seize political power, i.e. the proletarian revolution.

One can find the most important issues regarding the debates on anti-imperialism dealt with in Lenin’s book Imperialism. Anti-imperialism cannot be expected from any section of the bourgeoisie! Lenin exposes the economic reality underlying this conclusion:

The enormous dimensions of finance capital concentrated in a few hands and creating an extraordinarily dense and widespread network of relationships and connections which subordinates not only the small and medium, but also the very small capitalists and small masters, on the one hand, and the increasingly intense struggle waged against other national state groups of financiers for the division of the world and domination over other countries, on the other hand, cause the propertied classes to go over entirely to the side of imperialism.[3]

As a matter of fact, a consistent anti-imperialism cannot be expected from the petty-bourgeoisie as well! What the petty-bourgeois democrats understand from anti-imperialist struggle is also superficial; because they overlook unbreakable ties between imperialist politics and fundamentals of the capitalist economic process. By suggesting “national capitalism” against imperialism, they spread out dreams of possibility of capitalism independent from imperialism. They are incapable of conceiving imperialism as a world system comprising indispensably all capitalist countries, or they are not willing to do so. Leaving nuances aside, the very essence of “anti-imperialism” understanding prevailing in all petit-bourgeois currents is a so-called opposition to imperialism which is not directed to capitalist process in side country, and therefore lacking an anti-capitalist content, and reduced only to foreign factor! For petit-bourgeoisie, anti-imperialism is to take attitude “against the policies” of colonialism and annexation.

Nevertheless, despite all their inconsistencies petty-bourgeois currents of opposition occupy quite a wide space, which is a reality of capitalism. As financial oligarchy creates reaction in every field and an increasing national oppression, this situation brings out an opposition on the part of the petty-bourgeois democrats in various kinds of capitalist countries. Lenin gave a concrete example on this subject. He refers to the political attitude of petty-bourgeois democrats in the United States during the expansionist war the USA waged against Spain in 1898. Instead of opposing the economic essence of the war, petty-bourgeois reformists contented themselves with describing it as unlawful (because of annexation) with reference to the constitution and condemned it as a criminal war. Polishing a so-called anti-imperialist attitude with high-sounding radicalism –using adjectives like criminal- is just in accordance with petty-bourgeois temperament and deserves mockery today, as it was yesterday. And Lenin did so; “In the United States, the imperialist war waged against Spain in 1898 stirred up the opposition of the ‘anti-imperialists’, the last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy”.[4]

Lenin ends his Preface dated July 1920 to his book Imperialism with the following words: “Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale..” As he emphatically explained, imperialist epoch is the epoch of proletarian revolutions. Because, this highest stage of capitalism means nothing more than maturation of conditions of proletarian revolution and formation of the material basis for socialism. While rising to the level of a world system, capitalism indeed heads for its end:

Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation.[5]

As the capitalist order of exploitation is embodied in the imperialist system at present age, the proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries will be an anti-imperialist revolution. What road to take in various countries in order to achieve this goal is secondary in comparison with the general character of the proletarian revolution. This is but the essence of the conception of permanent revolution advocated by Trotsky who carried the banner of revolutionary Marxism against the conception of revolution in stages which was turned into a dogma by Stalinism. In comparison with the developed capitalist countries, proletarian revolution has to overcome some extra problems which have not been solved yet in the medium or less developed capitalist countries. Revolutionary programme of the working class will include democratic tasks which this revolution will solve in passing. Last but not least: In our present world, it will only serve to cloud the revolutionary target of the working class to define proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries with not its real content but as “colonial revolution”, “revolution for national liberation”, “democratic revolution”, etc.

[1] Lenin, ibid, pp.270-71

[2] Cited in Basil Davidson, Afrika’da Milli Kurtuluş ve Sosyalizm Hareketleri, [Movements of National Liberation and Socialism in Africa] Sosyal Yay., 1965, p.124

[3] Lenin, ibid, p.285

[4] Lenin, ibid, p.287

[5] Lenin, ibid, p.205