On Imperialism and Nationalism: An Interview with Mike Macnair (The North Star, 09.09.2014)

An interview with Mike Macnair, originally published in Croatian in Zarez and then as an English translation on The North Star.


Q: This interview will be based around your article “Rethinking Imperialism” (which I’ve personally found extremely interesting and it made me think a lot about certain issues).  So, maybe we can start with what exactly is imperialism today? Marxist thought in 21st century is still kind of build around, what you’ve called on one of your lectures, “youth nostalgia” of 20thcentury anti-war and national liberation movements. But as they’ve all failed and never produced any kind class or communist consciousness is there any “use” of Marxist theory of imperialism in 21st century?

MM: The short answer is yes, there is a use for Marxist theory of imperialism today. To elaborate, two issues are involved: the first the utility of some theory of ‘imperialism’, the second the utility of Marxist theory in general and therefore of Marxist theory of imperialism.

The first point is that it is merely plain and obvious that some countries hold other countries in political subordination, mostly through ‘indirect’ means, and that the USA operates a limited-sovereignty doctrine in relation both to ‘third world’ countries and its subordinate allies, just like the old ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ of limited sovereignty in the Warsaw Pact, albeit this limited-sovereignty doctrine operates under a variety of names. It is equally plain and obvious that there is geopolitical competition between the USA, Russia and China, and in a much more limited way between the USA and its subordinate allies France and Germany. Thirdly, it is equally plain and obvious that a for a country to be placed low on the geopolitical ‘pecking order’ entails relative poverty, a deeper impact of global financial crises, and the adaptation of the subordinated country’s economy to the needs of a country or countries higher up the geopolitical pecking order, albeit geopolitical alliance needs may result in exceptions (South Korea and Taiwan provide examples of such exceptions, driven by US geopolitical interests in the encirclement of China).

The formal colonialism of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries in my opinion was a particular sub-form of the general form. The sub-form had its origins in the British acquisition of control of the north Indian military labour market in its wars with France around 1800, and subsequently resulted from the relative decline of British global control after 1850, leading to other powers (initially France) getting in on the game of territorial acquisitions on a scale larger than merchant/ naval bases and plantation colonies, in imitation of British India, and to Britain extending its own territorial acquisitions in response to competition. The crisis of British global imperial power in 1940, the British agreement in that year to hand over to the US, and creation of US dominance in 1941-45, removed the grounds of the particular sub-form, but not of the underlying phenomenon. Hence any attempt to understand the world or to act in favour of preferred changes will require some theory of the phenomenon.

The second point is that the course of events since 1989, and, indeed, since the turn of US policy towards ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘human rights’ in the late 1970s – 1980s, has provided an experimental demonstration of the straightforward falsity of marginalist equilibrium theory economics. I mean by this that they have shown that a deregulated market economy does nottend towards free growth, but towards the cyclical return of financial crises (crashes) and towards social polarisation between grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty. These are the fundamental claims of Marx’s critique of the economics (‘political economy’) of his own time, and their empirical confirmation in the late 20th to early 21st century requires us either to take Marx’s critique seriously – revising it as much as may be necessary – or to devise some other approach to political economy which rejects marginalism and equilibrium analysis.

My own view of this, for what it’s worth, is that Marx’s approach is the necessary starting point, because the subsistence costs of labour are, as Guglielmo Carchedi has argued (Behind the Crisis (2011)), a biological floor on the minimum possible wage level, so that marginalist theories of the wage, which are fundamental to the theories of equilibrium, are radically false; but that Marx’s theory does require revision – in some respects in the direction of Emmanuel Farjoun and Moshé Machover’s Laws of Chaos (1983), but also certainly to fully incorporate the role of states, from which the three volumes of Marx’s Capital abstract.

If imperialism obviously exists and has profound effects, and Marx’s critique of political economy has to be taken seriously, then it follows that we need Marxist theory of imperialism.

I add, but will not elaborate here, that it seems to me that the fundamentals of the politicalclaims of the ‘Marx-Engels party’ are confirmed both positively and negatively by the course of events: that is, that getting beyond capitalism and its tendencies to crises and polarisation both on national scales and on the global scale (to war and imperialism) will require a leading role for independent political organisation of the wage-earning class as such; and that this independent political organisation of the working class requires both a radical commitment to political democracy, and international solidarity of the working class as such. I have argued these points more elaborately in my book Revolutionary Strategy (November Publications 2008). Again, the implication is that Marxist theory is useful; but here ‘Marxist theory’ is necessarily counterposed to the dominant interpretations of it on the left.

Q: What is real anti-imperialism for you?

MM: I think this question is not well posed. I do not in any way deny the real opposition to imperialism of nationalists, ‘national liberation movements’ and so on (including the islamists, in spite of the fact that they are actually funded by allies of the imperialists in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf).

Nor do I deny that a country can escape from subordination by becoming an imperialist power itself (as in the case of Japan in the late 19th century, and perhaps in the next period that of China). Equally, a subordinate country can substantially mitigate its subordination by alliance with the dominant imperialist power, as in South Korea and Taiwan, though the problem with this approach is that it is like the ‘human capital’ illusion, investing in skills which are then devalorised by new tech: the interests of the centre may change abruptly. Thus Argentina in the 1890s, Greece today, in spite of doing what the global centres advised in the preceding boom, were pauperised when financial crisis at the centre meant that routine and necessary credit facilities were not rolled over to lower-ranking countries. In most cases, however, nationalist, third-worldist and ‘national roads to socialism’ projects are illusory and utopian, since production is international in character.

The problem is that the project of ending imperialism in general requires passing beyond capitalism. There has never been a capitalism without imperialism, which began with the late medieval Venetian and Genoese republics, and there never will be. The most basic reason is that the territorial state which discriminates against non-national firms is essential to the existence of credit money, which in turn is necessary to generalised commodity production (capitalism).

To escape from this infernal logic requires a transition beyond coordinating our global common productive activities through money exchanges. This in turn requires political democracy much more thoroughgoing than what is on offer as ‘democracy’ according to the ‘western’ imperial ‘democracies’ and their ideologues, and in particular de-propertising both information, and managerial jobs and public office.

The reverse side of this coin is that the pursuit of radical democracy itself requires present opposition to all forms of discrimination on national or ‘racial’ grounds, which in turn implies opposition to all sorts of regimes under which one territorial state holds others in subordination.

All of this is, of course, put rather ‘mildly’. If anything, the recent history of US policy since the turn after their defeat in Vietnam is towards inflicting on targeted countries nothing but destruction, without even the creative aspect (infrastructure development, and so on) of the ‘classical’ European colonial empires. Iraq and Libya provide recent examples.

Q: In your article you were kind of reviving the work of Karl Kautsky on imperialism and colonialism. Usually, when discussing imperialism from Marxist perspective, we are referring to works of Lenin or Luxemburg and their differences. So, what can Kautsky offer here and why do you think that his work on this subject has been forgotten?

MM: I think Kautsky’s views on imperialism are pretty much complete rubbish. I have elaborated on this point in my critical introduction to Ben Lewis and Maciej Zurowski’s translation of Kautsky’s 1898 series on the issue as Karl Kautsky on Colonialism (2013). But it is necessary to engage with this rubbish for two reasons.

The first is that the ‘orthodox’ or ‘Leninist’ narrative of imperialism as the ‘highest stage of capitalism’ actually depends on Kautsky’s false historical arguments for the existence of a non-imperialist capitalism in the past. These false arguments are interconnected with Kautsky’s defence, in his The Class Struggle (1891), of the idea of socialism in one country. More generally, it is a bad mistake to start with Lenin and the Third International without understanding the prior history of the debates on the issue of which these were part. Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido have done Anglophone activists a great service by translating a large amount of material from 1898-1916 in their book Discovering Imperialism (Brill 2012).

The second is in a sense a broader version of the same point. The reality is that we cannot really understand Bolshevism in general if we are committed to the ‘orthodox’ narrative of the failure of the German SPD in 1914 in terms of the pre-1914 SPD ‘centre’s’ alleged ‘passivity’, undialectical reasoning, and so on, and therefore to cutting off reference to the pre-1914 ideas of the SPD ‘centre’ (and even of Engels, who in the ‘orthodox’ narrative allegedly ‘vulgarised’ Marx); because, as Lars Lih has shown, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were connected to the ‘centre’, not to the SPD’s ‘left’. In fact, this commitment to ideas descended from the SPD’s ‘left’ is, I think, one of the roots of the notorious sectarianism of the modern far left: the commitment to anti-parliamentary ‘direct action’ seems to lead naturally to a ‘party’ which attempts to artificially initiate such action and thus to a top-down bureaucratically controlled sect, like Luxemburg and Jogiches’ Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, or Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labour Party.

If, then, we have to throw out the standard far-left narrative of the failure of the SPD and Second International, we have to pay all the more attention to the things which were wrong with the ideas of the SPD ‘centre’ round Bebel and after his death, Kautsky. In my opinion these were primarliy on two issues. First, a misunderstanding of the nature of parliamentary constitutions and of the role of the civil state bureaucracy and the judiciary in capitalist control of the state (I have written more on this in Revolutionary Strategy and in “Law and State as Holes in Marxist Theory” (2006) 34(3) Critique pp. 211-236 and “Free Association versus Juridification” (2011) 39(1) Critique pp. 53-82; Ben Lewis is currently working on Kautsky’s book Parliamentarism, direct legislation and social democracy). And second, misunderstandings of both the national question and the question of imperialism (the present topic) which have at their root Kautsky’s argument in The Class Struggle (1891) for socialism in a single country (detailed study by Eric van Ree, ‘“Socialism in one country” before Stalin: German origins’ Journal of Political Ideologies, 15:2 (2010), pp. 143–159).

Q: Marxism tends to focus on capitalism at the expense of understanding pre-capitalist societies. Do you think this is a problem in marxism that hinders a more nuanced and historically coherent understanding of imperialism?

MM: I think that to the extent what you say here is true, it is true only of certain particular schools of Marxism. It is certainly not true of Marx and Engels themselves; and there has been very important Marxist work on pre-modern history. Consider, for example, G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981) or Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free (1973) for two particularly illustrious examples, or Jairus Banaji’s Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour and Aristocratic Dominance (2001) or Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005) for recent ones. In fact, even many non-Marxist ancient historians and medievalists now operate to a considerable extent basically with historical materialist paradigms: it is only with modern history from the 1600s on that ‘economic history’, ‘social history’ and ‘political history’ can be cantoned off from one another and Weberian, marginalist or Foucaultian critiques of Marxism used to shape micro-studies.

The problem is that a substantial part of the post-1956 ‘New Left’ in effect swallowed, inappropriately, academic Popperian and Weberian critiques of the ‘historical materialism’ element of Marx’s argument, and combined this inappropriate concession with appropriation of the ideas of the young Lukács and with the ‘Engels and Kautsky vulgarised Marx’ paradigm originally from the SPD left (it is worth noticing that – as Ben Lewis has discovered – Parvusused this paradigm in 1915 to argue, for a German-defencist line in World War I). The result of severing Marx on capitalism from history, whether in favour of a ‘Hegelian-Marxist’ or ‘Frankfurt school’ reading, or in favour of analysis of the dynamics of ‘pure capitalist’ political economy in abstraction from real existent capitalism’s actual inheritances from, and interpenetration with, prior social social orders, is, as your question suggests, an obstacle to understanding a great deal about capitalism, including imperialism.

Q: How would you comment on recent focuses of imperialism such as conflict in Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq? How do you comment analyses of these conflicts that are coming from the left? Do you think that there are any “realpolitik” solutions that the Left should support?

My theoretical approach to imperialism is an individual view. It is not the collective view of the Communist Party of Great Britain as a group or of the Weekly Worker as a newspaper. CPGB’s collective view is expressed in our Draft programme (available at http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/about-the-cpgb/draft-programme) at sections 1, 2, 3.1.5 and 3.5.

That said, since the Iraq war CPGB has pursued collectively on questions of imperialism a two-sided policy which insists that we have both, as communists within an imperialist country (Britain was only not engaged in overseas wars of intervention for one year in the whole of the 20th century, 1968) to build the most effective possible opposition to our own country’s wars of intervention; and at the same time to build solidarity with whatever small possibilities of independent working class political organisation exist in the countries targeted by imperialism. This approach has been most clearly expressed in our commitment to the campaign ‘Hands Off the People of Iran’ (website: http://hopoi.org/) which campaigns against war threats, sanctions and so on against Iran while at the same time promoting solidarity with Iranian working class and related organisations, though we have also participated in the mobilisations called by the Stop the War Coalition (e.g. recently on Gaza). My theoretical approach to imperialism is not necessary to this policy, which can be justified on other grounds, but it is consistent with this policy.

I make these points because I do not think that my theoretical approach to imperialism leads to different conclusions to those which have been expressed in articles in the Weekly Worker on the issues of Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq in recent months, and there would therefore be no point in my repeating what you can find in these.

Finally, however, you ask “Do you think that there are any “realpolitik” solutions that the Left should support?” I have to say that the evidence seems to me to be that in the current state of affairs – the destructive interventions of the US in its period of decline (‘Imperialism, capitalism and war’ Weekly Worker 2 August 2012) – left support for any sort of realpolitik solutions seems to be even less than usually useful. The imperialists’ interventions merely produce destruction; their nationalist and islamist opponents merely exacerbate the results by producing fragmentation and sectarianism (also true, of course, of nationalist, religious, etc, supporters of imperialism, like the Maliki government in Iraq or the ‘Maidan movement’ in Ukraine). It seems therefore to be only through class-political independence of the working class that the possibility exists of overcoming the tendency to fragmentation. I will admit that this remains a slight possibility because of the weakness of the workers’ movement and the left and its continued overshadowing by Stalinism.

Q: Are you going to write a sequel for “Rethinking Imperialism?” 

As I indicated at the beginning of that article, it was a (partial) report of work in progress; in fact, that article was a write-up of an oral presentation to Communist University in August 2013. The work originated, as I said in the article, with my debate with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in 2004 (which is available at the Weekly Worker website). I then did some provisional ‘working up’ of the more abstract level of theory for a paper for the Critique conference in March 2007. Since then I have been working on rendering the arguments more rigorous and backing them up. The project in draft is still unfinished (currently 80 pages of draft), since it is unavoidably a major project, and I can only work on it in time taken (a) from my academic work, which is on legal history, and (b) from journalism of various sorts for the Weekly Worker.

Besides the article ‘Rethinking imperialism’ which you have read, I have also used parts of the argument in ‘Imperialism, capitalism and war’ Weekly Worker 2 August 2012, in “’Anti-imperialist united front’: No inherent connection with the working class” Weekly Worker March 21 2013, and in my introduction to Kautsky on Colonialism (above). I also have an article accepted for publication in Critique on ‘Die Glocke or the inversion of theory’, on the pre-1914 anti-imperialist lefts who became pro-Germans in 1914 (Parvus, Konrad Haenisch, Heinrich Cunow, Paul Lensch, Max Beer).

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