Imperialist Anti-Capitalism?

By Radhika Desai [1]



The Russian Revolution broke out amidst a world war between imperial countries and a critical part of its legacy lies in the challenges to imperialism it inspired and enabled in the century that followed. In the centenary year of the revolution, however, the western left finds itself dominated by theoretical positions which lionise capitalism as Promethean, neglect the critique of imperialism and reject autonomous development independent of imperial capitalism – which have also disabled it from mobilizing the discontents of capitalism, leaving them prey to an array of right wing forces.


It is unlikely that the left would have greeted the Russian Revolution’s centenary with unmixed pride under even the best of circumstances. True, it was the first successful revolution against imperial capitalism. It undermined the elite, secret and annexationist ‘old diplomacy’ and opened the way to the ‘new diplomacy’ of greater openness, self-determination and anti-imperialism. It forced Wilson to follow the Bolshevik publication of the secret treaties between major powers with his ‘fourteen points’ (Mayer 1959: 265) for a new international order. It made possible the rapid planned industrialization without which allied against Hitler would not have been possible. And it served as a beacon to socialists and anti-imperialists for decades to come.

However, it also gave way to an ‘institutionally paranoid’ regime under Stalin (Lewin 1995, 2005) which subordinated the international communist movement to its purposes, making grievously mistaken decisions that proved costly to the left (Claudin 1975). And though it mutated into a somewhat more benign bureaucratized polity under Brezhnev, the decade after his passing proved, under the façade of reform, to be one of abdication by a communist party leadership unable to sustain its political commitments (Kotz 1997). This revolutionary experience contains too many object lessons in ‘how not to do it’ for any serious left to be celebrated unambiguously. Indeed, we should not expect otherwise since it is in the nature of revolutions to breed aspirations ahead of their time. Were we to conclude ‘storming the gates of heaven’ should not be undertaken because of the insufferable losses it inflicts on us, we would only condemn our descendants to suffer forever.

However, the centenary of the Russian Revolution finds the western left consumed by even greater ambivalences than this brief balance sheet suggests, ambivalences which arise less from any details of the Soviet experience than from shifts in the left’s understanding of capitalism, imperialism and their relation.

The Russian Revolution emerged out of the first major crisis of capitalist imperialism, the Thirty Years’ Crisis of 1914-1945 (Mayer 1981). It combined both domestic upheaval and international instability, class struggles and international struggles (between and against imperial nations) in a single explosion so great that it not only encompassed two world wars and the greatest crisis of capitalism but was also bookended by the landmark revolutions of the ‘short twentieth century’ (Hobsbawm 1994), the Russian and the Chinese, incubated anti-imperialist forces, both socialist and nationalist, more widely, and radically undermined the imperial order objectively and ideologically. The impact of this single anti-imperialist swell was so fundamental that we are only now, in the twenty-first century, becoming aware of some of its consequences.

The revolutionary and independent states that issued from it put the policy autonomy they regained from their formal and informal imperial masters to good use in projects of development. Though the results of these experiments fell short of expectations, and were riven with contradictions attributable more to the dysfunctional consequences of bureaucratic administration than the experiment itself, by the twenty-first century it was clear that the combination of revolution, independence, and the developmental impulse that these unleashed, had been pregnant with profound outcomes: enough of these countries, with China far in the van, were posting economic growth rates that began to shift the world’s economic centre of gravity away from the west for the first time in the history of capitalism.

However, just as these developments were maturing, major parts of the western left had manoeuvred themselves into positions from which this development could not be recognised, let alone appreciated or celebrated. Until the 1970s at least, most of the western left had considered anti-imperialism and solidarity with the Third World its foremost badge of honour despite its divisions over the Russian and then the Chinese revolutions, and at least attempted to understand the dynamics of post-war imperialism and nationalist responses. In the decades that followed, however, most of the western left forsook the category of imperialism altogether and sought to confine itself to an exclusively anti-capitalist politics.

However, capitalism and imperialism remain inextricably intertwined, and the left’s unwillingness and inability to oppose the latter has also had serious consequences for its ability to oppose the former. If after decades of neoliberalism and the already decade-long crisis of western (not ‘global’) capitalism find the western left so enervated at home that the most reactionary right forces have been reaping the political harvest (Desai 2017), this is not unconnected with the western left’s international postures. These have involved ritualistic indignation at imperialist interventions which are often outweighed by equal if not greater outrage at ‘dictators’ in the Third World. In this short essay, I attempt to outline why this is so and how it is connected the western left’s inability to assimilate the Russian revolution and the string of exclusively Third World revolutions – socialist and nationalist – that followed.


Neoliberalism and Multipolarity

For decades the western left failed to contest the neoliberal order even though its deregulatory thrust not only failed to revive robust growth, as it had promised, merely promoting volatile financialization instead, but also imposed heavy costs on societies around the world – high unemployment, stagnant wages, skyrocketing inequality, recurring financial crises, erosion of social services and political repression, to list but a few. The 2008 financial crisis, and its European sequel of 2010, were indictments of the neoliberal path as great as any revolutionary could wish for. However, though the Arab Spring, left wing mobilizations on Europe’s periphery and the rise of entirely new leftward-moving formations such as Die Linke, Syriza, Podemos, Cinque Stelle and the Corbyn-Sanders lefts gave some hope, neoliberalism appeared, at worst, to suffer from a ‘strange non-death’ (Crouch 2011).

After all, during the neoliberal decades left of centre and social democratic parties under leaders like Blair, Clinton and Schroeder had moved to the right, making terms with, rather than challenging the neoliberal order in a dismaying spectacle, often after bruising internal battles which discredited more left-wing alternatives for a generation and more. While currents further to the left have been critical of this development, they too made their own terms with neoliberal capitalism, as we shall see below.

The ironic result was that social discontent in the neoliberal decades remained localised in a strike here or a social movement there, without integration into broader national left platforms and, when it swelled in the wake of recent financial and economic crises, it was mobilized by a new reactionary right-wing anti-establishment politics manifest in the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the dramatic rise of right wing and fascistic formations in key European countries, especially in the run-up to the elections of 2017. Most of the left was implicated in the establishment whose authority had broken down.

While neoliberalism’s domestic contradictions failed to issue in political challenges, its international contradictions were more fecund. They have yielded the shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity away from the west. Though western powers sought to impose some or other version of neoliberalism on the rest of the world, important countries could either resist it (China), adapt it (India) or reject it after an initial debilitating subjection to it (Russia from the end of the 1990s  and many Latin American countries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries). At various points in the neoliberal decades, these countries taken as a whole began to grow markedly faster than the financialising west. By the early twenty-first century (O’Neill 2001) it was clear that they would soon be weightier than the west in the world economy and this expectation has not yet been belied.  Indeed, the gap between these growth rates was only further widened by the recent western financial and economic crises and a ‘multipolar’ world was being increasingly acknowledged in their wake.

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Both mainstream and left discourses have attempted to dismiss the importance of this development either by casting doubt on the extent and character of the growth of these contender economies (as Woodward 2017, chapter 2, details for the Chinese case) or by assimilating it into an aspect of US dominance, as the idea of ‘Chimerica’ (Ferguson and Shularick 2007) did. Such ruses never quite worked, however. As Wolfgang Haug points out, even on the eve of the 2008 crisis, Ferguson and Shularick considered the relationship between China and the US perfectly balanced only to turn around a year later and see its imbalances as the focal point of the crisis (Haug 2012, 10-11). In reality, as Haug noted, the two giant economies remained intertwined in complex ways, but ‘the power relations between them had shifted in China’s favour’ (11). After 2008, China reduced its dependence on the US market through a massive investment programme and an expansion of its domestic market. And, while continuing to invest in the US dollar, it also proceeded to build ‘structures of a world market under the world market’ (11).

Though Haug registers the facts of the matter in as clear-eyed a way as possible, he is prevented from recognising the meaning and import of contemporary multipolarity. That requires us to shed what Friedrich List called ‘cosmopolitan’ (List XXXX, XX) habits of mind of recent decades recognise the ‘materiality of nations’ as Marx and Engels also did (Desai 2012). Contemporary multipolarity is historic in at least two critical senses. Firstly, it continues a longer and deeper trend in the development of world capitalism in which productive capacity has spread not with markets (‘globalization’) or imperialism (UK or US ‘hegemony’). These cosmopolitan visions presume a seamless unity of the world economy which it never had because it was always divided into national economies in which states played critical roles. Rather, productive capacity has spread through a dialectic of uneven and combined development (UCD) which has ultimately governed relations between states in a capitalist world.

In this dialectic, on the one hand, dominant capitalist powers have sought to preserve their dominance and the unevenness of world capitalist development on which it is based to create and maintain relations of economic complementarity with weaker countries such that high value production remains the privilege of the imperial core and low value production reigns elsewhere. The full range of practices that we call imperialism – including formal colonialism – have historically been employed to achieve this effect. However, other countries cannot be expected to, and do not, take this lying down. Those willing and able to do so, seek to reject these subordinating complementarities and construct, though combined development –  autonomous state-led industrialisation and development – relations of similarity with the advanced countries (Desai 2013 and 2015).

Until 1917, instances of such combined development included capitalist cases such as the US, Germany and Japan; the Russian Revolution added non-capitalist or ‘communist’ forms to the historical repertoire of combined development. Of course, success is not guaranteed: the record of combined development is littered with more failures than successes and the path taken by even the most successful of today’s emerging economies, China, is replete with economic and political contradictions, as Haug (2012) notes. What is certain, however, is that no development is possible without such attempts.

In this perspective, China is only the strongest among the most recent contenders. The multipolarity of our own time recalls how the industrialization of new powers in the late nineteenth century undermined British industrial supremacy, marking the first multipolar moment of the capitalist world (Desai 2013). Since then, thanks to contender industrialization in the USSR, recovering post-war Europe, the PRC, the developing world, the ‘Asian Tigers’ and others, it has been getting progressively more so.

The further extension of multipolarity in the twenty-first century is historic in at least one other critical sense. For the first time in the history of capitalism, the challenge to the supremacy of established powers is coming from countries once colonized by them, formally or informally.

The first moment of multipolarity in the 1870s led, thanks to the inter-imperialist rivalries it triggered, to the First World War and the Thirty Years’ Crisis. Today the rise of the new contender powers, and the West’s inability and unwillingness to reconcile itself to that rise, are resulting in rising international tensions in a proliferating set of flashpoints: Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea are only the most prominent. There are also new challenges facing international economic governance, whether because emerging powers are challenging western dominance in the WTO, the IMF or the World Bank or, facing intransigent western resistance in these forums, they are establishing a range of alternative institutions such as the New Development Bank and the even more massive Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

However, the western left arrives at this critical international juncture invested in positions that are likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate the dangers this situation represents, let alone taking advantage of the possibilities for peace it offers. The reasons can and must ultimately be traced to how the Russian Revolution, and the later Third World revolutions and movements it inspired, have been assimilated by it.


Whatever Happened to Imperialism?

Perhaps the best way to understand this problem is to recall that 2017 marks not one but two important, and paradoxically related, anniversaries on the Marxist calendar: the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the sesquicentenary of the publication of Marx’s Capital. While their importance is self-evident, their paradoxical relation lies in Gramsci’s pronouncement that the Russian Revolution was a revolution ‘against Capital’, that it had not taken place in accordance with the expectation, practically an idée fixe of the Second International, that socialist revolution would first occur in the most, rather than the least, developed capitalist country.

It is not possible to explain why this expectation was not fulfilled, without understanding that nations, just as much as classes, are material products of capitalist development. Such an understanding was, as I have argued (Desai 2012 and 2013, 36-42), integral to Marx and Engels’ thinking as it was in that of the classical theories of imperialism that emerged in the early twentieth century, and should be counted as the first systematic theories of capitalist international relations (Desai 2013, 43-53). However, though these theories were formulated by its leading intellectuals, the Second international remained (in)famously oblivious of this materiality of nations and this proved its undoing when its vaunted internationalism collapsed in 1914 because its internationalist and revolutionary rhetoric could not account for the historical practice of securing working class allegiance through national reforms, a practice that gave ‘workers … a good deal more to lose than their chains’ (Joll 1955: 114). National questions further afield were not just ignored: many social democrats justified colonialism and its ‘civilizing mission’ because of its material benefits (Eley 2002, 91, 112).

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Backward Russia, however, could never ignore questions of imperialism and national resistance: Lenin had welcomed Japan’s victory over Russia and nationalist ferment in Persia and Turkey in 1905 and European workers’ ‘Asian comrades’ in 1908. By 1916 he had anticipated the idea of the Three Worlds. As the First World War strengthened anti-colonial nationalism, he assigned socialists distinct tasks in the three types of countries depending on their position in the world of capitalist imperialism: fighting both capitalism and imperialism in the imperial countries; working toward national ‘bourgeois-democratic reformation’ and linking imperial and colonial working class struggles in those that were neither imperial nor colonialized; and championing national liberation alongside revolutionary bourgeois forces in the colonial and semi-colonial ones (Lenin 1916).

The Bolsheviks’ understanding of their own hitherto unscripted revolution was forged out of these understandings which Trotsky systematised as UCD much later in his History of the Russian Revolution  (1934). This understanding of the nation in world capitalism and the dialectic of UCD which constituted the motor of its international relations, needed to be developed and theoretically secured. This possibility remained open as long as the Communist left predominated as it did until 1956. Until then, as the Thirty Years’ Crisis issued in the Chinese Revolution and decolonization, substantial parts of the western left, still largely Communist or fellow-travelling, originated the term ‘Third World’ to refer to the countries emerging from colonialism, supported its struggles, nationalist as well as socialist, and sought to theorise their developmental dilemmas. Thereafter, however, with the emergence of a New Left, a number of problems militated against the development of a historical materialist understanding of nations and of the dialectic of uneven and combined development between them.

Since official communism remained mired in Stalin’s rather schematic conception of nations, and since much of it was more oriented towards Soviet nationalities policy than towards the political economy of imperialism and anti-imperialism, it was largely discounted in the west. Nevertheless, as late as the 1970s some works did develop UCD: Tom Nairn’s The Breakup of Britain (1978) does not mention the term but clearly deploys the idea (see Desai 2008), while Michael Löwy developed it in relation to the possibility of socialist transitions in the Third World. Thereafter, however, Trotsky’s followers, the mainstay of a New Left allergic to the Communist legacy, became firmly trapped in the Eurocentric (Eley 2002, 91, 112) legacy of the Second International.

In this they were aided by the emergence of a ‘Marxist economics’ which, as I have discussed elsewhere (Desai 2010, 2015 and 2016) owed more to neoclassical economics and Schumpeter than to Marx’s critique of political economy and Marx. In it the Marxist conception of capitalism ‘in which the development of the productive forces is not guaranteed, which is inherently prone to crisis and can break down’ (Desai 2016, 142) is thus replaced with a neo-classical and even Schumpeterian one: ‘a Promethean system which ceaselessly develops the productive forces, contains no inherent contradictions and has practically miraculous self-correcting capacities when it nevertheless runs into crises for entirely contingent reasons’ (Desai 2015, 194). These shifts have had many and varied consequences for Marxist scholarship. For our purposes, two are important.

If capitalism is understood in such a neoclassical and Schumpeterian way, it needs neither the state nor imperialism to deal with the consequences of its crises and contradictions. This has fatal consequences for any Marxist understanding of specifically capitalist international relations. For such an understanding would have to arise from an appreciation of how relations between nations in a world of capitalism are driven forward by the contradictions of capitalism and imperatives that capitalist states face as a result. Instead, most western Marxists acknowledge that imperialism ‘can and does happen and it does aid capitalist accumulation when it does happen, but it is not required by the logic of capitalism’ (Zarembka, 2003, p. 8). On the other hand, leading sections of the left have come to champion a largely culturalist conception of the nation of which Benedict Anderson, who summarily dismissed hitherto-existing left traditions of attempting to understand its material basis (Anderson 1983, 1-3), became the standard-bearer.

Today, UCD is hardly mentioned by most western Marxists. A few deploy it partially, speaking of chiefly of ‘uneven development’. If they mention ‘combined development’, it is only to refer to the ‘the combination of the capitalist mode of production with pre-existing modes’ (Burawoy 1985, 99): ‘The “combined” component is ultimately contingent upon the power of a dominant economic bloc to extract surpluses from weaker blocs, themselves locked into non-capitalist social relations’ (Bond 2008, 3). Such writers confine themselves to registering western productive superiority in a one-sided way; they cannot contemplate any possibility of challenges to it through a strategy of combined development. Other writers so see UCD largely agentless sociological or economic process: For Neil Davidson ‘The detonation of the process of U&CD requires sudden, intensive industrialization and urbanization’ (Davidson 2009, 15) while, for Alex Callinicos it mimics competition between firms, and largely compounds the advantage of first movers (Callinicos 2009, 89). Though a smaller number of Marxist scholars do see combined development as a process and a project, they do not extend it beyond that of building socialism in backward countries (Löwy 1981). However, state-directed processes of industrialization, aimed at catching up to the technological and competitive level of the advanced producers, are not recognised as combined development, nor is their contribution, in common with the combined development of ‘actually existing communism’ in spreading productive capacity more widely. However, if this point is not grasped, there can also be no reflection on how they have transformed and, in the long run, even undermined the structures of imperialism and what this implies for socialist practice.

It is no wonder, then, that the study of the historical and contemporary experiences of combined development are studied in entirely separate literatures on ‘developmental states’ and ‘varieties’ and ‘models’ of capitalism  dominated largely by non-Marxist scholars. The reality of capitalist combined development and its anti-imperialist potential, however limited it may seem from the vantage of the ultimate goal of socialism, is ignored entirely. It was a short ride from this sort of New Left to the late 1970s when the leading parts of the western left developed a strong aversion to something it now derided as ‘Third Worldism’.

‘Third Worldism’ now became an epithet referring to the weak-mindedness of those easily impressed by ‘the image of guerrillas with coloured skins amid tropical vegetation’ (Hobsbawm 1994, 443) who would privilege the revolutionary potential of Third World peasants over that of First World workers because ‘the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core’ (Brenner 1977, 92). This rejection of ‘Third Worldism’ was not without its domestic consequences: it handicapped the left in challenging neoliberalism precisely because, along with ‘Third Worldism’ it also threw out the possibility of challenging international capitalism through national development, capitalist or socialist – some combination of state-led industrialization, development and redistribution. Such attempts, it now believed were dangerous because they ignored ‘the degree to which any significant national development of the productive forces depends today upon a close connection with the international division of labour’ (Brenner 1977, 92).

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This shift marked a theoretical degeneration. No longer a respectful or scholarly ‘discussion’ among Marxist revolutionaries or even committed democratic egalitarians, it developed into a direct assault, accompanied by systematic attempts at disqualifying opposed views, on decades of left understanding and dependency theory in which development was possible only through a rupture with the capitalist international division of labour which confined Third World countries to their lowly position, what Samir Amin called ‘delinking’ (1990). Also forgotten was the fact that while nationalist revolutions did not lead to socialism only capitalism, they did achieve levels of development impossible under colonial conditions and clarified the political terrain for working classes, giving them a single adversary. Such ruptures with the imperial structures of world capitalism now became something to fear: it would only increase ‘pressures to external political compromise and internal political degeneration’ that emanate from a world capitalist market dominated by the advanced industrial world (Brenner 1977, 92).

Such a position implied that all attempts to industrialize autonomously could only lead to economic failure and political degeneration and were to be avoided at home and condemned abroad. Thus, not only did the western left rely exclusively on capitalism to develop the productive forces at home, it condemned Third World efforts to do otherwise, much as the IMF and the World Bank do today. This amounts, as Ha-Joon Chang reminds us, to ‘kicking away the ladder’ (or protectionism and state-directed industrialization) on which the west had climbed to its prosperity, something which has a long and dishonourable pedigree: Friedrich List had used the same words to criticise English free trade ideology (Chang 2002, xx).

By the time the Cold War ended, the western left had ‘forgotten the critique of imperialism and abandoned all critical scrutiny of geostrategic realpolitik’ (Johnstone 2002, 12). Beginning with Yugoslavia, large swaths of it has supported western imperialism tricked out as ‘humanitarian’ intervention’ and added its (albeit rapidly dwindling) moral weight to the demonization non-western rulers who, while no angels, were targeted by the west only because they sought economic autonomy to some significant degree. This left

…focused on moral and ideological issues related to ‘identity politics’. With no clear economic policy of their own, left-wing parties were reduced to providing the ‘human face’ for neoliberalism. This took the form of receptiveness to cultural diversity and opposition to racism. In Western Europe, a Eurocentric campaign celebrating ‘human rights’ was used to discredit ‘Third Worldism’. The adversary was no longer social injustice caused by unchecked economic power but evil caused by bad people who adopted wrong ideas. The catch was that this approach, applied to foreign countries, can all too easily be used to justify intervention, leading back to imperialism at its most aggressive (Johnstone 2002, 12 Emphasis added).

Forsaking the possibility of autonomous development leaves the western left, ironically, without any plan for building a socialist economy beyond redistribution and democratization. For it has left the task of developing the forces of production to capitalism on the erroneous and Schumpeterian grounds that it alone can do so and, indeed, does so, perpetually and prodigiously. Without a non-capitalist way to build productive capacity, it has shackled itself to capitalism in perpetuity and has, by its own lights, no way out of it.



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[1] I would like to thank Alan Freeman for his comments on the penultimate draft, the Das Argument editorial collective for its comments on an earlier draft and Alan Freeman and Henry Heller for helpful comments on a still earlier one.