From Colonialism to Imperialism

Controversial Issues on National Question

Elif Çağlı

August 2002


The Marxist conception of anti-imperialist struggle and the fact that it is not the same thing with national liberation struggle has been one of the least understood issues, resulting in many distortions. This controversial issue inevitably leads us to underline the importance of having a correct understanding of imperialism and particularly of its difference with colonialism. It has been long since first debates among Marxists over the question of imperialism took place at the beginning of twentieth century. But traces of different tendencies and some misconceptions that emerged in these debates can be felt even today despite the fact that so many events and important transformations took place in the meantime. For instance, a great majority of colonial countries that set the background for the debates on colonialism and national independence gained their national independence and established their own nation-states. However, no ideological and political clarity has been reached within Marxist ranks over these developments which occurred especially after the Second World War. The subject has been distorted in the sense that the kind of “dependence” based on unequal relationships of the imperialist system has been identified almost with the dependence of colonies to colonialist countries.

The natural outcome of that was a conception of the struggle the working class must wage against imperialism, namely anti-imperialism, as something different from the struggle for proletarian revolution. Those who hollow the Marxist content of anti-imperialist struggle reduced it to a kind of “national independence” struggle. Thus, a stage of “national independence” was erected in front of the working class even in those countries which, ceasing to be colonies, have founded their own states and begun developing on the basis of capitalism!

A Third World was invented as if to obscure the fact that imperialist capitalism is a world system consisting of capitalist countries at different levels of development. It was unfortunately not possible to accept this definition as a shortcut way of describing less developed capitalist countries (although it was also used for medium-developed ones!) as the problem was more complicated and the concept was not as innocent as it looked. Because there was a current called “third worldism”, and this current reduced the struggle for socialism to a kind of “independent national development” strategy. Those circles that adopted this version of Stalinism, promoted one section of the bourgeoisie in the so-called third world countries to the position of being anti-imperialist and busied themselves with “building” anti-imperialist fronts on this basis. And this was anti-imperialism in their view! Thus, a challenge from less-developed or medium-level capitalist countries against this or that imperialist country in order to get a better place in the table of harsh imperialist rivalry was considered as “anti-imperialism”. On the other hand, opposition of an oppressed nation’s bourgeoisie against colonialist states motivated by the desire of gaining political independence and a struggle within that scope, was promoted from the level of anti-colonialism to anti-imperialism.

Another false view put forward was as follows: “Imperialism was in fact based on colonial monopoly at the beginning of 20th century. Now that this reality has changed, we must have entered a new era of imperialism”! But expansionism of capitalism of the 20th century was already a new one compared to the preceding period. The concept of imperialism, in the sense of the highest stage of capitalism, did not define the colonialist period, but rather a new epoch characterized with incredible diffusion capability and great dominating economic power of finance capital. And this is not the whole story with the distortions! Independent nation-states which took a long way along capitalist development were declared as “semi-colonies” since they were dependent on major imperialist states. Or, even if the old colonialist era was over, since they were totally dependent on imperialism, less-developed capitalist countries were now “neo-colonies”. And imperialism was now “neo-colonialism”?!

What could be the concern of those circles that are not willing to give up this concept despite the fact that the period of colonialism ended? Why is the imperialist stage of capitalism still explained by such concepts that suggest the previous stage of capitalism despite a long way has been gone on the basis of imperialism? From the view point of Stalinism it is not difficult to find answers to these questions. Stalinist school of falsification is already notorious for its ability of fabricating every kind of stages erected on the road to the proletariat’s rule. But the worst is the lack of a sound attitude on these kinds of disputable subjects in the Trotskyist front which is expected to resist Stalinism with correct ideas. For instance, while colonialist empires were collapsing after the Second World War, the “contributions” of Ernest Mandel and some other Trotskyists alike who were trying to re-assess contemporary features of capitalism did not serve to clarify the issues. On the contrary, they fell behind even Lenin’s analyses in many issues, creating confusion on the fundamental political tasks of the working class in the imperialist epoch. So, they adapted themselves to petit-bourgeois nationalism in the so-called third world countries and national liberation struggles in these countries led by petit-bourgeois nationalist tendencies were presented as anti-imperialist struggles, just as the Stalinists did. Moreover, some of them were presented as the realization of proletarian revolution.

These are the main distortions and misconceptions created around the question of imperialism. Although they seem to be a matter of the past, these questions are still in front of us. Today, as it was in the past, the way of strengthening proletarian struggle for revolution lies in taking a correct Marxist position on every important question and clarifying our standpoint on that basis. We think that Lenin’s Imperialism analysis lays a fundamental starting point for theoretical struggle against confusions and misconceptions mentioned above. However both creators of these distortions and most of the advocates of misconceptions claim that they base themselves on Lenin! Therefore we must first lay bare clearly what we understand from Lenin’s analyses. While discussing on what the imperialist stage of capitalism exactly means, undoubtedly we cannot confine ourselves only to the facts of the past. We must not forget that Marxists in the debate on imperialism at the beginning of 20th century faced the task of foreseeing the tendencies of a new epoch which were not sufficiently mature at the time.

Colonialism was not a new phenomenon for them. Because, already in the period of mercantilist capitalism, commercial capital had coveted cheap raw material supplies of virgin lands of the world for gaining wealth. Powerful and leading states in world commerce were capturing these lands through colonialist wars, declaring these lands as their provinces of metropolitan countries and registering them with a position completely lacking political independence. On the other hand, the concept imperialism did not emerge in western languages at the beginning of 20th century. The roots of that concept went back to even Roman Empire; it was used in the sense of a general expansionism, a tendency of enlarging to a world empire. But, at the beginning of 20th century, question of imperialism which occupied Marxists’ minds and forced them to analyse it, emerged on the basis of new facts. For that reason, the difference between what the old meaning of the word imperialism suggested (tendency of forming an empire) and its new meaning (tendency of forming the empire of finance capital) had to be clarified.

However, at the beginning of this century imperialism was advancing on the basis of actual conditions determined by the facts inherited from the past. At that time, very large colonialist empires which especially arose by the conquests of colonies after 1870s were still on stage. But on the other hand, finance capital, which was a composition of monopolist banking capital and monopolist industrial capital, was gaining strength, and as a consequence of that a new kind of domination and expansionism was emerging. That was the reality of those years. It is unimaginable for Marxists of that period not to consider concrete conditions they were in, so it was inevitable for them to reflect this intermixed situation which was just the reality of that time in their analyses.

Lenin’s revolutionary Marxist theses aiming to understand the world in 20th century came to grips with complicated problems of a new historical epoch containing elements of the former. Although his imperialism analysis was developed to understand the new stage of capitalism, in some of his emphasises and formulations colonialism and imperialism appeared to intertwine. Although this may be regarded by some as faulty or causing confusion, it did not result from an essential misunderstanding of Lenin but from concrete conditions of that time. Under circumstances of an imperialist world war, in a world where colonies (countries which have not yet gained their political independence) and semi-colonies (countries which were in the process of loosing their independence) existed and expansion tendency of colonialist type was still effective, Lenin’s approach was correct.

As time passed, wars of major capitalist states for gaining new colonies or re-sharing the existing ones turned into imperialist wars waged to create new spheres of influence and to re-share them. Maturing of the imperialist stage of capitalism on the basis of its own characteristics laid bare that the essence of imperialist expansionism stands on not colonial monopoly, but establishing hegemony over less developed countries and areas. In the light of concrete facts we must emphasize that wars for national liberation of oppressed nations which have not political independence, so to say, their own nation state, are in fact a settling of accounts with the former colonialist period. As a matter of fact, after lots of colonial countries gained their political independence particularly after the Second World War, it was even clearer that the concept of liberation in imperialist epoch could not be restrained in the framework of a national independence question. In order to avoid a misunderstanding, we must add that national liberation struggles of the oppressed nations and colonies which have not gained their political independence yet still preserve their rightfulness as they were in the past periods. But in today’s world, “national question” is shaped directly on the basis of the characteristics of the imperialist stage of capitalism.

Pressure of powerful imperialist countries exerted on various nations, overthrow of governments in independent countries by military force, pitching of different countries against one another in regional imperialist wars, sharpening of national contradictions by imperialist forces are all burning realities of our epoch. Therefore it cannot be suggested that national question is now outdated or eliminated in the imperialist stage of capitalism. But on the other hand, we must not forget that here what we deal with is the national independence question of the oppressed nations without their own nation state and the wars for national liberation. If we talk about national inequalities at large, oppression, injustice, conflicts, it must be emphasized from the start that national question in that sense can only be resolved by the overthrow of capitalist system.

In imperialist epoch major capitalist forces do not need to colonize weaker nations, deprive them of political independence, of their own nation states in order to be able to subjugate them. Imperialist exploitation and hegemony mechanism fits quite well with the existence of politically independent nations with their own states. Suffice to have a look at the events in the second half of 20th century. For example, national independence obtained in former colonial countries did not disrupt imperialist system of exploitation at all. Likewise, national distinctions were stoked in regional wars incited for imperialist interests and nations once living under the same nation-state were pitched against one another, not to form new colonies in the end, but new nation-states within the spheres of influence of various imperialist states.

The justified endeavour to understand imperialist epoch in the light of all these concrete developments leads us to focus on Lenin’s works in which he tried to lay bare main tendencies of the new imperialist epoch of capitalism. Along this road we came to the basic conclusions that: 1) Imperialism is a world system based on the domination of finance capital. 2) Imperialism is not a new colonialist system, but a type of expansionism based on division and re-division of spheres of influences by international finance capital. From that point of view, it can be seen that Lenin’s analyses in regard to the essence of imperialism at the beginning of 20th century still enlightens us today.

It was the genius of revolutionary Marxist leaders like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to identify and analyse the main tendencies of the future within the facts inherited from the past. However, it is our task to show the ability of not falling behind the point they achieved and adopt an insistent and determined position on that point. We must not forget that many set out with the intention to find out the nature of the imperialist epoch and revolutionary tasks of the working class in that epoch have lost their way in the middle of their journey and ended up being an ordinary third wordlist or sympathiser of national liberation struggles.

In order to take a Marxist attitude on questions like national independence, national self-determination, wars, and more important, anti-imperialism, we must have a correct understanding of imperialism. I believe this is also essential for examining the analyses of the Comintern Congresses on national question and colonies in Lenin’s period. For that reason, I will first deal with basic characteristics of the imperialist system and the changes in the transition period from colonialism to imperialism. And then I will deal with the points mentioned above.