Lenin’s Anti-Imperialism

by Joseph Green, Communist Voice Organization (U.S.) on January 13, 2013

This article deals only with Lenin’s views on the close relationship of the class struggle in the colonies and dependent countries to anti-imperialism. It describes some aspects of his views, and refutes some common objections.

The Revolutionary Ferment in Asia

From his earliest comments on Asia, prior to World War I, Lenin noted that a vast revolutionary wave had begun to spread there. He connected the fate of the anti-imperialist struggle in Asia with this stirring of tens of millions of toilers. This was a wave of democratic revolution. As it spread through countries such as China, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Persia (Iran), it was directed not simply at foreign oppression and colonialism, but also at local tyrants and feudalists. Take away the internal revolution of those days, the democratic revolution, from the anti-imperialist movement, and not much would have remained of the vast revolt that was spreading across Asia. Yet today, Workers World Party (WWP) and other apologists of oppressive regimes advise us to separate the criterion of anti-imperialism from consideration of the internal struggle of the working masses inside Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

Today it is claimed that Lenin supported any war waged by the regime of a dependent country against the larger imperialist powers. The argument is, essentially, didn’t Lenin write in 1915 that “For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be ‘just’, and ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers”? This is interpreted as meaning that one needn’t be concerned with political issues about the war, since “who attacked first” is taken to stand for any such consideration of why the war is being waged. It supposedly suffices to note that one country is a lesser power or colony, and the other is an imperialist power. Moreover, Lenin’s quote has been taken to mean that one orients oneself especially to the regimes of these countries, rather than to the situation and action of the mass of people living in the oppressed country.

This, however, turns Lenin’s actual meaning on its head. His idea wasn’t that one can decide one’s attitude to a war without considering its political basis and the role of the various classes involved. His idea was the exact opposite. Lenin was stressing that the political and class base of the war should be considered, rather than reducing the matter simply to “who attacked first”. A few pages after Lenin wrote against the criterion of who attacked first, Lenin returned to the same example, with the same countries. He used this example to illustrate that war must be considered as the “continuation of politics by other (i. e. : violent) means”. He wrote that “In China, Persia, India and other dependent countries,. . . we have seen during the past decades a policy of rousing tens and hundreds of millions of people to a national life, of their liberation from the reactionary ‘Great’ Powers’ oppression. A war waged on such a historical basis can even today be a bourgeois-progressive war of national liberation.

Thus Lenin didn’t separate the question of right and wrong in a war involving the dependent countries from the question of the politics of the war. He instead referred back to the revolutionary ferment sweeping these countries, and his criterion was what was happening to the masses of people in those countries. The key political question wasn’t “who attacked first”, not because political issues were irrelevant, but because this wasn’t the main political issue concerning these possible wars. The basic issue was whether this was a war to defend the rising of the Asian peoples for progress, for a new life, for democracy and national freedom.

Lenin referred to a possible war by India or Morocco to gain independence, or by China or Persia to prevent partition by imperialism. This oriented the communists to deal with the anti-colonial revolt that would spread in the 20th century. But there are also wars by dependent regimes with a different character. It is notable that Lenin didn’t give the example of the Ottoman Empire, although Lenin had repeatedly denounced the Great Powers for seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and oppress its peoples. In fact, Lenin didn’t support the struggle of the Ottoman regime to preserve its territorial integrity during the first Balkan War of 1912. Instead he supported the struggle of the subject, and former subject, nationalities of the Balkans against the Ottoman Empire, even though the Great Powers wished to use these struggles to prey on it. This showed that one couldn’t simply reason from the fact that the Ottoman Empire had become a semi-colony, preyed on by the big powers. One had to consider the relation of any war to the class struggle in the Ottoman Empire, and to the revolutionary movement of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire (including the Turkish people as well as the subject nationalities).1

Class and Political Trends

Current events are full of surprising turns and rapid zig-zags. But Lenin laid stress on the long-term class and political trends that form the basis on which the day-to-day twists and turns take place. We have seen, for example, that in judging the real causes of a war, he dealt with the long-term politics that preceded it, often for decades.

The absence of class politics.

Today, the WWP advocates that the Taliban, and the Afghan mujahedeen who gave rise to them, were reactionary in the 80s and most of the 90s, but then began an anti-imperialist struggle with the advent of the recent Afghan war. Similarly, Saddam Hussein was a pro-imperialist butcher throughout the 80s, but with the Gulf War of 1990 he suddenly is “defending Iraq” against imperialism. Regimes and leaders are said to suddenly switch from pro-imperialist to anti-imperialist and back with every turn of current events. These fairytales aren’t so different from those told by the Washington establishment itself, which supports or condemns this or that regime depending on its attitude to the U.S. foreign policy objectives of the moment. A particular Afghan warlord may be denounced as a terrorist one day, and praised as a great democrat and moderate the next day, depending on whether he agrees to some U.S. deal. Arafat is described as a terrorist or an indispensable peace partner, depending on whether he is useful to the latest U.S. maneuver.

But the basic class nature of regimes and movements may, and generally does, continue through such twists and turns. The dance of alliances and conflicts between bourgeois governments and different politicians may change from day to day, even though the politicians and the governments are representing the same classes. Real shifts in the class stand of a country’s government don’t take place that often. They may take place in a revolution. As well, a revolution or a national liberation struggle may bring to power a government that relies, to a certain extent, on several classes for support. At a certain point later on, one class may dispense with its allies and throw the other classes out of positions of power. This may appear to happen suddenly, but the possibility of its happening is prepared by the way the revolution was waged. There are other situations too in which a shift in class basis can take place. But, during the supposed shift of the Taliban and of the Iraqi government, from pro-imperialist reactionaries to forces resisting imperialism, not the slightest change took place in the relationship of either the Taliban or the Iraqi regime to the masses. There wasn’t any change in their methods of rule, in their oppression of the working masses, or in their class basis.

Lenin put stress on showing the class trends that form the basis for politics. Unless the working class looks at events through the class prism it it will be unable to sort out the meaning of events and judge the real political trends that give rise to this or that war. It is the class prism that gives it the basis to intervene in its own interest in events and wage a revolutionary mass struggle.

The Revolt of the Peasantry

Lenin looked toward the toiling masses of the colonial and semi-colonial world as the base for the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. In these countries, there was only a small working class, and the peasantry was the great majority of the toiling people. The revolutionary force of the anti-imperialist movement depended on whether the peasantry rose up in struggle. In those areas where the peasant movement was weak or non-existent, the struggle was hamstrung. We shall see later on that, although Afghanistan gained its independence, the lack of a peasant movement set the stage for the tragedies of the last few decades. [See the middle of the section ‘Stalin and the Emir of Afghanistan’, where it describes the fate of the Afghan revolution of 1978, in the article Leninism and the Class Struggle.]

But for the peasants to rise in struggle, there has to be a struggle against the local exploiters of the peasants. Lenin emphasized “the need, in backward countries, to give special support to the peasant movement against the landowners, against landed proprietorship, and against all manifestations or survivals of feudalism”.

He pointed out that this required opposing those trends that, although opposed to foreign imperialism, sought to increase the exploitation of the local peasantry. Thus he called for a struggle against those trends “which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” Here too the intimate connection of class struggle and anti-imperialism is evident. Without the dealing with the class oppression of the peasantry by the landlords and tyrants it would be impossible to develop a strong revolutionary movement in the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Different Types of Revolution

Lenin didn’t consider the various anti-colonial and democratic revolutions in Asia and other dependent countries as simply a general struggle for liberation, but considered the class nature of these revolutions. From his first comments on the revolutionary wave in China and the rest of Asia to his later work in the Communist International, he distinguished between socialist and bourgeois-democratic revolutions. He noted that the vast predominance of the peasantry in the colonial and semi-colonial world was one of the reasons that the revolutions there were of a bourgeois-democratic character. He wrote of those countries that, “It is beyond doubt that any national movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, since the overwhelming mass of the population in the backward countries consists of peasants who represent bourgeois-capitalist relationships.”

Today most of the left doesn’t understand the distinction between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions. It is thought that to recognize the bourgeois-democratic nature of a revolution means to tell the workers and peasants to obey their local exploiters, to never confiscate a business or an agricultural estate, to give subsidies to the businesspeople, and to follow a wimpy, reformist policy that supposedly may have been necessary in the 19th century, but is certainly obsolete today. But that’s not at all the policy that Marx and Lenin advocated towards bourgeois-democratic revolutions. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s precisely recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of various struggles that can help prevent the masses from being subordinated to their local bourgeoisies.

Not socialists: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Ghadafi.

Not socialists: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Ghadafi.

There are a number of newly-independent regimes which came to power in the “third world” and then claimed to be socialist. The belief that the independence struggle was socialist, a belief that was especially strong if the struggle against foreign domination was combined with land reform, some measures of social relief for the masses, and the building of a state sector, helped subordinate the masses to their local bourgeoisie. Recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of the national liberation movement would have oriented the masses to the class struggle that would break out after independence or after overthrowing various local tyrannies. It explains to the masses why the national liberation and democratic struggle have led to a new differentiation between rich and poor, that this isn’t simply the result of someone’s personal treachery, that this doesn’t mean that the original revolution was simply a mistake, but that class struggle and revolutionary organization are needed.

It is common to judge whether various revolutions are socialist mainly on the declarations of various parties and the honeyed speeches of various leaders. This has led in the past to perpetual disappointment with the outcome of various national liberation struggles. It is thought that they would really have lived up to the socialist words of some of their leaders if only it hadn’t been for some betrayal, or some intrigue, or the result of CIA manipulation. It is believed that the differentiation of the small peasantry into rich and poor peasants was only the result of bad government policies or the lack of sufficient aid to the countryside. Lenin, on the contrary, debunked in advance the ideas that national liberation, land reform, or the confiscation of the big bourgeoisie meant the end of capitalism.

Independent Role of the Proletariat

For Lenin, the recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of the general anti-colonial movement brought out the need to develop the independent role of the proletariat. One could not expect either the peasant movement or the general democratic movement as a whole to safeguard the class interests of the proletariat. Thus it was necessary to strive to develop independent proletarian organization.

This didn’t mean opposing the democratic revolution. Such organization would seek to lead the democratic movement and the peasants onto the path of mass revolutionary struggle. Only the working class could provide a consistent revolutionary orientation to the anti-imperialist movement. But independent proletarian organization should also take up the specifically socialist tasks of developing the class struggle of the workers. It should foster, where possible, the organization of the semi-proletarian elements of the peasantry separate from the richer peasant proprietors. It should build solidarity with the world proletarian movement, and help create conditions for the later socialist stage of revolution.

Lenin sharply emphasized that the communists should not expect the general democratic movement to take up these tasks. Thus in 1912 Lenin looked toward the formation of a communist party (then called a “social-democratic labor” party) in China, writing that:

“The Chinese proletariat will increase as the number of Shanghais increases. It will probably form some kind of Chinese Social-Democratic labor party which, while criticizing the petty-bourgeois utopias and reactionary views of Sun Yat-sen, will certainly take care to single out, defend and develop the revolutionary-democratic core of his political and agrarian program.

Later, still emphasizing that importance of proletarian organization, he wrote that communists “must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.

The Role of the Bourgeoisie

Lenin talked of the temporary alliance with bourgeois-democracy, but it is often overlooked what he meant by the bourgeois-democratic movement of these countries. He regarded the peasantry, when it rose in struggle as a single class, without differentiation between rich and poor peasants, as the main contingent of the revolutionary bourgeois democrats in those countries.

Many on the left believe that if one identifies a struggle as a bourgeois-democratic one, it means that one intends to trail behind the ordinary bourgeoisie. This was not Lenin’s conception, either in a democratic revolution in a more developed country or an anti-imperialist struggle in a dependent country. He held that the proletariat was the only consistent fighter for democracy, that the peasantry (and entire petty-bourgeoisie) had a tendency to vacillation, and that the ordinary bourgeoisie was a source of instability and treachery. He wrote concerning China in 1912 that:

“The chief representative, or the chief social bulwark, of this Asian bourgeoisie that is still capable of supporting a historically progressive cause, is the peasant. And side by side with him there already exists a liberal bourgeoisie whose leaders, men like Yuan Shih-kai, are above all capable of treachery; yesterday they feared the emperor, and cringed before him; then they betrayed him when they saw the strength, and sensed the victory, of the revolutionary democracy; and tomorrow they will betray the democrats to make a deal with some old or new ‘constitutional’ emperor.

In 1920 he wrote about the bourgeoisie in the national movement of most of the backward and colonial countries, “perhaps even in most cases”, joining forces with the imperialist bourgeoisie “against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes”.

“Leninist” Objections to Lenin’s Views

These and other of Lenin’s views show that the class struggle is not just a minor aspect of Leninist anti-imperialism, but permeates it. Yet a number of pat objections have been urged against such a view of Leninism. Many of these objections consist of taking this or that particular principle of Leninism, and interpreting it in such a one-sided, exaggerated way that it clashes with all the rest of Leninism. Let’s look briefly at a few such claims.

The Meaning of “Our Main Enemy Is at Home

It is held that the principle that “our main enemy is at home” means that it isn’t the job of activists in the U.S. to question the nature of forces that are in conflict with the U.S. Our job is only to denounce U.S. government actions, and welcome any opposition to the U.S. as automatically progressive and anti-imperialist.

German socialist Karl Liebknicht issued a leaflet, “The Main Enemy is at Home!” in 1915.

Yet this turns the original meeting of the slogan “our main enemy is at home” upside down. This slogan originated in the inter-imperialist slaughter of World War I, where both sides were enemies of the working masses. The slogan didn’t mean that one should back one or the other rival imperialist. Instead it called for a revolutionary struggle against “one’s own” national imperialism, as part of a struggle of the world proletariat against all imperialisms. It included giving support, not to the rival bourgeoisie, but to the working masses of the rival country.

Lenin wrote in World War I, a situation where both major war coalitions were reactionary, that “During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government”. He pointed out that “Wartime revolutionary action against one’s own government indubitably means . . . really facilitating such a defeat. ” But the point here was to advance the revolutionary organization and struggle of the masses, not to help the war effort of rival reactionaries. In case anyone had any doubt, he remarked caustically, immediately after the words about “really facilitating such a defeat”, “(‘Discerning reader’: note that this does not mean ‘blowing up bridges’, organizing unsuccessful strikes in the war industries, and in general helping the government defeat the revolutionaries. )” Far from regarding “blowing up bridges” as a blow against capitalism and imperialism, he regarded it as help for the capitalist governments in their struggle to suppress dissent and revolution. He went on to repeatedly stress that the point was “co-ordination and mutual aid. . . between revolutionary movements in all the belligerent countries.

Today there are those who take sides in a war between two reactionary belligerents because they do not believe it is possible to encourage the working masses to organize in its own interests against both sides, such as against Western imperialism and fundamentalist reaction. But to cite “the chief enemy is at home” or the desire for defeat of “one’s own” government in a reactionary war as justification for this skepticism, is to mock the real content of these slogans. Lenin, in defending these slogans, urged the necessity to fight against those who “do not believe in the possibility of international revolutionary action by the working class against their own governments, and do not wish to help develop such action, which, though undoubtedly difficult, is the only task worthy of a proletarian, the only socialist task. ” He wrote this while a revolutionary situation existed in Europe. Today, there is currently no such revolutionary situation in, for example, the developed countries of Western Europe, Japan, and the U.S. This affects the slogans that should be given. But the general idea still remains. The task is to use the wars and war crises to encourage the development of independent proletarian movements in all countries, something which is hard but possible to do. We should not pretend that a revolution is imminent in places where it is not, but neither should we abandon the task of international solidarity precisely with the progressive movements in other countries.

Aside from the question of what to do when both sides are reactionary, as in World War I, there was the issue of how to deal with just movements against national oppression. Lenin emphasized the need for the communists in all countries to support the liberation movement of the colonial and dependent countries. Moreover, he held that “the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on”. “Special support” was to be given to developing a revolutionary peasant movement, as well as to the communist and proletarian elements. This clearly required that the workers and socialist activists in the oppressor country distinguish the different class trends in the oppressed country. They were not supposed to leave this for another time, or to activists from other countries. Lenin didn’t regard it as imperialist arrogance for them to seek to influence the movement in the colonial and dependent countries, but held it was their internationalist duty to do so.

Those who interpret such slogans as “our main enemy is at home” to mean simply trailing behind any trend in the oppressed or dependent countries are not strengthening the struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisie. They are weakening it. U.S. imperialism and other bourgeoisies do their best to slander, discredit, and undermine the truly progressive movements in the dependent countries. If activists in the U.S. were to ignore these movements and instead promote the reactionaries in these countries, it would amount to capitulation to U.S. imperialism, not struggle against it.

The Meaning of the Distinction Between Oppressed and Oppressor Countries

It is held that Lenin changed his mind about how to handle the class struggle in dependent countries when he developed his analysis of imperialism. When he stressed the distinction between oppressed and oppressor countries, this supposedly superseded the issue of the class struggle.

Now, it is true that the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations and countries is key to Lenin’s view of imperialism. With respect to the theses on the national and colonial question at the Second Congress of the Communist International, he stressed,

“First, what is the cardinal idea underlying our theses? It is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. Unlike the Second International and bourgeois democracy, we emphasize this distinction. . . . The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world, as we now see, being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces.”

But he went on in the same speech to discuss the class relations involved in this question, as we have noted above.

Lenin opposed the mechanical interpretation of Marxism that counterposed dealing with the class struggle to dealing with the issues of national oppression. In opposition to those who held that Marxism meant ignoring the issue of national oppression, Lenin highlighted the division between oppressed and oppressor nations. Today a certain type of opportunist “anti-imperialism” throws aside the class issues inside oppressed countries in the name of fighting imperialist oppression. This means once again taking the counterposition of the class struggle to the national issue as one’s banner, but this time from the other side, so to speak: championing anti-imperialism against the class struggle instead of the class struggle against imperialism.

Lenin, by contrast, showed the connection between anti-imperialism and class tactics.

The Supposed Abandonment of “Two-Stage Revolution

Similarly, it is said that Lenin changed his view about whether there were different class stages of the revolutionary struggle. The Trotskyists, for example, say that Lenin may at first have believed in what the Trotskyists describe as “two-stage revolution”, but he supposedly gave this up in 1917. But we have seen that the general framework of Lenin’s views on the struggle in the colonial and semicolonial world remained the same before and after 1917. Recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of the anti-colonial and democratic revolutions remained central to his views on anti-imperialism to the very end.

The Immediate Transition to Socialism

Related to this is the idea that Lenin replaced his former ideas about the character of the democratic revolution with the idea that the revolution in the backward countries could proceed directly to socialism. And indeed, at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin put forward the possibility that various backward countries, given both the most favorable outcome of the anti-colonial and democratic struggles and substantial aid from socialist governments, could avoid a lengthy period of capitalism and proceed directly into the struggle for socialism. But did this mean that he had thrown out the distinction between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution? If so, why did the bulk of his discussion of the national and colonial questions at this Congress dwell on this distinction?

The point is that there is no contradiction between recognizing the bourgeois-democratic nature of the anti-colonial and democratic revolutions, and seeing that a revolution, having gone through the bourgeois-democratic stage, might under certain conditions proceed directly to the struggle for socialism. Indeed, 15 years earlier in 1905, when Lenin was dealing with the character of the revolution that was to break out in Russia later that year, he raised a similar question about passing from the democratic to the socialist stage of the revolution. In dealing with this, he stressed the distinction between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution. But he did not say that there necessarily had to be an protracted period of capitalist development between them. He wrote that, “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organized proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. ” He distinguished sharply between the possibility of making this transition, given the most favorable outcome of the Russian democratic revolution and its support by socialist revolution in Europe, and the likelihood of such a complete and radical victory of the revolution. He wrote that, “. . . careless and unscrupulous people too frequently confuse two different questions, namely, the question of the direction in which the road leads . . . and the question of how easily the goal can be reached, or of how near the goal is on the given road. ” He pointed out that, “We are not in the least inclined to be unreasonably optimistic” about the outcome of the impending revolution.

At the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin and most other comrades may have been too optimistic about the likelihood of backward countries embarking on socialist transformation. This Congress took place in 1920, during the period of War Communism, and the economic difficulties facing this transition in Russia were still underestimated, to say nothing of the difficulties facing less developed countries. Moreover, the backward countries would not have substantial support from other socialist countries. Instead, Soviet Russia would find itself desperately short of resources needed for its own attempt to move towards socialism. Indeed, it would itself eventually degenerate into state-capitalism, rather than achieving socialism.

Be that as it may, there is a distinction between noting the possibility, under the most favorable conditions, of a rapid development from the bourgeois-democratic to the socialist revolution, and denying the existence of different class types of revolution. Lenin did not pass over this line. That is why there is such a strong emphasis, in Lenin’s contribution to the Second Congress of the Communist International, on the bourgeois-democratic nature of the anti-imperialist struggle

Pan-Islam and Different Imperialisms

Bob Pitt gives the idea of a supposed change in Leninism a different twist. He argues that the Second Communist International Congress overruled Lenin on the question of anti-imperialism and that there was an important change between the framework of Lenin’s “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” for the Second Congress of the Communist International, and the actual theses adopted by the Congress. Pitt is arguing for a WWP-style stand against condemnation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and he recognizes that this goes against the standpoint of Lenin’s draft. He argues, however, that:

“Lenin’s Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions from the Second Congress of the Communist International, with their emphasis on ‘the need to combat pan-islam and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc’, were in fact substantially amended by the congress. The final version referred to the necessity of opposing movements which tried to tie the struggle against European and U.S. imperialism to ‘the strengthening of the power of Turkish and Japanese imperialism, the nobility, the big landlords, the clergy, etc’, which gives this section of the theses an entirely different emphasis.”

Actually, even from Pitt’s account, it looks like the Lenin’s draft theses and the final theses were the same on this point. Both refused to support reactionary movements which tied the masses to their enemies, even if these movements spoke in the name of fighting American and European imperialism. Perhaps one might think the difference is that the final theses don’t refer to pan-Islam by name, but just to the mullahs? But they do — Pitt just left that out. The relevant passage reads in full:

“It is also necessary to combat the pan-Islam and pan-Asiatic, and similar movements which are endeavoring to utilize the liberation struggle against European and American imperialism for the purpose of strengthening the power of Turkish and Japanese imperialists, of the nobility, of the land landowners, of the clergy, etc.

But apparently what attracts Pitt’s attention is that the final draft refers to the fact that the pan-Islamic and pan-Asiatic movements may be used, among other things, to support Turkish and Japanese imperialism. Indeed, the issue of Turkish and Japanese imperialism is raised first in the sentence, and the local reactionaries only listed afterwards. “Ah ha,” Pitt seems to say, the key issue is simply that the pan-Islamic and pan-Asiatic movements are being used by one imperialism against another. If only they broke with Turkey and Japan, they would be real anti-imperialists, despite their support for local reactionaries. And, Pitt implies, the Taliban is free from any connection to any imperialists.

This type of reasoning goes against the clear meaning of the passage. It refers to the services of the pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish trends to the local landlords, nobility, and mullahs as well as outside imperialists, and it is irrelevant which is listed first in the sentence. Pitt is simply closing his eyes to whatever he doesn’t wish to see.

Still, let’s look a bit closer at this issue. In 1920, when the Second Congress of the Communist International took place, Turkey was fighting against partition by the European powers. As we mentioned earlier in this article, Lenin had for years denounced the European great powers for seeking to carve up Turkey, and that’s precisely what they tried to do after World War I. Turkey was at this time a weak and dependent country. Whatever the Ottoman Empire had been centuries earlier, early twentieth century Turkey was not one of the Great Powers: Lenin regarded Turkey as a semicolonial country. Yet the same Communist International Commission on the National and Colonial Questions which itself called Turkey a semi-colony, also recognized a Turkish imperialism, and it denounced the pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish movements as, among other things, a movement to strengthen this imperialism.2

Today, the Taliban and al-Qaeda aim at bringing about an expanded fundamentalist rule throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Moreover, they want to wield together the bourgeoisies of these countries into a major rival of Western imperialism. If this trend succeeded in taking control of several of the more powerful countries in this region, it would seek to build up its own form of imperialism. It is not at all clear how successful this endeavor would be. Nevertheless, the fact that the fundamentalist trend is currently at loggerheads with U.S. and European imperialism doesn’t mean that it is against all imperialism, any more than the fact that the pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish movements of 1920 were at loggerheads with U.S. and European imperialism meant they were against all imperialism. Thus, Pitt to the contrary, the final theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International actually strengthen the case against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, by pointing out that the need to fight those trends that, while they are against the most powerful imperialisms of the time, seek to build up other imperialisms as an alternative.


1. Centuries ago, the Ottoman Empire had been a major power in its own right. By the 19th century, however, it was quite weak and decayed. It began to be torn apart, both by the struggle of the nationalities it oppressed, and by the big powers of Europe. Lenin, writing in the early 20th century, denounced the predatory policy of the European powers but he didn’t take a hands-off attitude to Ottoman internal affairs. Instead he supported the right to self-determination of the subject nationalities in the Balkans and a struggle against the feudal landlords.

Thus, just prior to the first Balkan War of 1912, he wrote an article that denounced Russian efforts “to ‘grab a piece’ of Turkey” as “a reactionary great-power policy of imperialism. ” And he stated:

“Democrats in general and workers in particular . . . advocate the complete self-determination of nations, complete democracy, and the liberation of the Slavs [referring to the Slav nationalities in the Balkans] from all protection by the ‘Great Powers’.

“The {Russian] liberals and nationalists are arguing about different ways of plundering and enslaving the Balkan peoples by the European bourgeoisie. Only the workers are pursuing a genuinely democratic policy, for freedom and democracy everywhere and completely, against all ‘protection’, plunder and intervention!”

2. The connection of pan-Islamism to Turkey may seen strange nowadays in view of the fact that the Kemalist revolution established a secular state and repudiated the early pan-Islamist connection to Turkey. It emphasized a specifically Turkish nationalism which was not based on a Turkish citizen being Islamic or even necessarily belonging to one of the several Turkic peoples, who comprise a number of different nationalities spread throughout Asia. But back in 1920 this change in the orientation of the Turkish state towards Islam hadn’t yet taken place.

Originally published by Communist Voice. Images added by North Star.

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Ross Wolfe January 13, 2013 at 11:07 pm

A couple years ago I wrote up a piece “On the historical specificity of the Marxist theory of imperialism.” Feel free to repost it as a blog post here if you think it might be appropriate:

If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up. — Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist Development, from Lenin: Collected Works, Volume 22, pg. 266 (1915)

Modern imperialism is the social-economic policy of finance capital tending toward the creation of the most comprehensive economic territorial entities and world empires possible. It is characterized by the tendency to supplant free trade decisively with the system of protective tariffs and to subordinate economic life completely to the great monopolistic combines, such as the trusts, cartels, banking consortia, etc. Imperialism signifies the highest stage in the development of capitalism, in which not only commodity exports but capital exports as well occupy a place of quintessential importance. It characterizes an epoch in which the world is partitioned among a few great capitalist powers and in which the struggle proceeds along the lines of repartitioning it and partitioning the remaining areas. — Grigorii Zinoviev, “What is Imperialism?” (1916)

The historian or economist who places under one denominator the structure of modern capitalism, i.e., modern production relations, and the numerous types of production relations that formerly led to wars of conquest, will understand nothing in the development of modern world economy.  One must single out the specific elements which characterise our time, and analyse them.  This was Marx’s method, and this is how a Marxist must approach the analysis of imperialism.  We now understand that it is impossible to confine oneself to the analysis of the forms, in which a policy manifests itself; for instance, one cannot be satisfied with defining a policy as that of “conquest,” “expansion,” “violence,” etc.  One must analyse the basis on which it rises and which it serves to widen.  We have defined imperialism as the policy of finance capital.  Therewith we uncovered the functional significance of that policy.  It upholds the structure of finance capital; it subjugates the world to the domination of finance capital; in place of the old pre-capitalist, or the old capitalist, production relations, it put the production relations of finance capital.  Just as finance capitalism (which must not be confused with money capital, for finance capital is characterized by being simultaneously banking and industrial capital) is an historically limited epoch, confined only to the last few decades, so imperialism, as the policy of finance capital, is a specific historic category. — Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, pg. 114 (1917)

Modern imperialism is not the prelude to the expansion of capital, as in Bauer’s model; on the contrary, it is only the last chapter of its historical process of expansion: it is the period of universally sharpened world competition between the capitalist states for the last remaining non-capitalist areas on earth. In this final phase, economic and political catastrophe is just as much the intrinsic, normal mode of existence for capital as it was in the ‘primitive accumulation’ of its development phase. The discovery of America and the sea route to India were not just Promethean achievements of the human mind and civilization but also, and inseparably, a series of mass murders of primitive peoples in the New World and large-scale slave trading with the peoples of Africa and Asia. Similarly, the economic expansion of capital in its imperialist final phase is inseparable from the series of colonial conquests and World Wars which we are now experiencing. What distinguishes imperialism as the last struggle for capitalist world domination is not simply the remarkable energy and universality of expansion but — and this is the specific sign that the circle of development is beginning to close — the return of the decisive struggle for expansion from those areas which are being fought over back to its home countries. In this way, imperialism brings catastrophe as a mode of existence back from the periphery of capitalist development to its point of departure. The expansion of capital, which for four centuries had given the existence and civilization of all non-capitalist peoples in Asia, Africa, America and Australia over to ceaseless convulsions and general and complete decline, is now plunging the civilized peoples of Europe itself into a series of catastrophes whose final result can only be the decline of civilization or the transition to the socialist mode of production. Seen in this light, the position of the proletariat with regard to imperialism leads to a general confrontation with the rule of capital. The specific rules of its conduct are given by that historical alternative.

According to official ‘expert’ Marxism, the rules are quite different. The belief in the possibility of accumulation in an ‘isolated capitalist society’, the belief that capitalism is conceivable even without expansion, is the theoretical formula of a quite distinct tactical tendency. The logical conclusion of this idea is to look on the phase of imperialism not as a historical necessity, as the decisive conflict for socialism, but as the wicked invention of a small group of people who profit from it. This leads to convincing the bourgeoisie that, even from the point of view of their capitalist interests, imperialism and militarism are harmful, thus isolating the alleged small group of beneficiaries of this imperialism and forming a bloc of the proletariat with broad sections of the bourgeoisie in order to ‘moderate’ imperialism, starve it out by ‘partial disarmament’ and ‘draw its claws’! Just as liberalism in the period of its decline appeals for a well-informed as against an ill-informed monarchy, the ‘Marxist center’ appeals for the bourgeoisie it will educate as against the ill-advised one, for international disarmament treaties as against the disaster course of imperialism, for the peaceful federation of democratic nation-states as against the struggle of the great powers for armed world domination. The final confrontation between proletariat and capital to settle their world-historical contradiction is converted into the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to ‘moderate’ the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states. — Rosa Luxemburg, Anti-Critique (1915)

My reason for citing the above excerpts is that I feel that the Marxist theory of imperialism — as developed by Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin — has been widely abused in recent decades in analyzing the intervention of advanced capitalist states (the U.S. or members of the European Union) into less developed countries.  While there can be no doubt that there exist some parallels and continuities between the kind of self-interested exploitation of Third World countries, typically ex-colonies, that takes place today and the imperialism of old, these theorists understood it as a specific outgrowth of monopoly or finance capitalism.  If I might be permitted to grant this phase of capitalism a periodicity, I would probably place it between 1880-1929.  Since this time, capitalism has undergone not one but two drastic reconfigurations (Fordism and neoliberalism).  For this reason, I think that the term should not be so loosely thrown around in describing current affairs, as many of these categories need to be reworked to fit the present day.

There are many fundamental differences between the phenomenon Lenin et al. described as “imperialism” and what has more recently been dubbed “imperialism” (or, perhaps more fittingly, “neo-imperialism”).

Lenin understood imperialism to entail a certain underlying logic, the bloody competition between great capitalist powers to carve up the earth according to zones of influence and direct colonial administration in pursuit of new markets, raw materials, and cheap labor.  Moreover, he believed that this competition between the great capitalist powers of the world, which were at the time mostly European but also included Japan and the United States, would escalate to the point where an inter-imperialist war, by definition a world war, was inevitable.  This was a multipolar world, in which no one great power could be said to predominate completely, and in which large-scale alliances were formed in anticipation of major conflict that everyone knew was on the horizon.  Also, imperialism constituted the logical outgrowth of the shift from liberal capitalism, where the prevailing Manchester School ideology of “free markets” dominated and liberalism (quite contrary to its historical aspirations) held the reigns of state power, from 1848-1873, to monopoly or finance capitalism, where smaller competitors were gradually pushed out as major trusts swallowed up their rivals and cut deals with the governments in order to corner the market in the aftermath of the so-called “long crisis” of 1873.

What leftists generally understand imperialism to mean today is the more or less cooperative domination of either the single world superpower, the US, or in tandem with its various allies in NATO (another Cold War holdover) or the UN.  While military occupations clearly last over years of bloody conflict, the point is not direct colonial administration but the indirect establishment of quasi-independent regimes that will be “friendly” to US or European interests.  No one really believes that these various military interventions around the world are actually going to lead to an armed conflict between, say, the European Union and the US, or between Russia and the US, or even China and the US.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a decidedly unipolar order.  In terms of concurrent transformations in the organic composition of capital and the corresponding historical periodicities of capitalism, we seem to have reverted to a “neoliberal” valorization of free markets and the deregulation of capital flows.  There is some debate as to whether neoliberalism is merely an ideological pretext that masks deep complicity with state powers, or whether it is a socioeconomic reality, but clearly the form of capitalism that Lenin felt specifically motivated imperialism in his time does not exist today.


Arthur January 14, 2013 at 4:34 am

Both the article and comment by Ross Wolfe are implicit critiques of the reactionary positions presented as “Left” and even “Leninist” but they are far too abstract and idealist. People pretending to be leftists don’t side with the Taliban and Al Qaeda or the Baathists because they have an inadequate understanding of the finer points of Lenin’s views on imperialism about a century ago. They do it because they are deeply and virulently hostile all progress.

Also the main target should not be the very few who sided with the Taliban and Al Qaeda but the much wider sentiment that lined up with the “realist” US foreign policy establishment in opposing the liberation of Iraq. There is also a close connection with the opposition to “neo-liberalism” from the “anti-globalization” movement which fundamentally amounted to a preference for the kinds of barriers to free trade (and especially to free movement of capital) that were associated with the phase of imperialist wars that Lenin was writing about.

It isn’t good enough to treat these issues as questions of historical interpretation of Lenin’s views. We are in an immediate political fight with “anti-imperialists” who actively side with the US foreign policy establishment in refusing to assist the Syrian revolution just as they did over Libya, and previously over Iraq.


Aidan Xavier January 16, 2013 at 10:32 pm

The attack made against our post here was cowardly, and typical of the North Star. For all the quoting of Lenin you do, speaking from a Revolutionary perspective, it does nothing to benefit, you, a shame indeed.


Ben Campbell January 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Here is a link to your post, for anyone who would like to read both and compare, possibly discuss: http://crimesofcolonialism.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/syrias-national-liberation-and-imperialism/

However, this article can hardly be considered an “attack” against your recent pro-Assad post, as this article was written over a decade ago.


Michael Pugliese January 17, 2013 at 1:00 pm

The article cited by Ben , cites this http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/17/syrians-support-assad-western-propaganda . Contains this assertion,”“Some 55% of Syrians want Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war.” Based on a very flawed survey. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2012/jan/18/syria-ceasefire-in-zabadani-live-udates#block-4 No one can sensibly put a figure on it or claim that Assad’s supporters form a majority.

The 55% figure comes from an internet survey by YouGov Siraj for al-Jazeera’s Doha Debates. Just over 1,000 people across the Arab countries were asked their opinion of Assad and an overwhelming majority – 81% – thought he should step down.

However, al-Jazeera says the picture inside Syria is different: “Syrians are more supportive of their president with 55% not wanting him to resign.”

What is the basis for this statement? A look at the methodology of the survey shows that 211 of the respondents were in Levantine countries and that 46% of those were in Syria. In other words, the finding is based on a sample of just 97 internet users in Syria among a population of more than 20 million. It’s not a meaningful result and certainly not adequate grounds for such sweeping conclusions about national opinion in Syria. http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2012/blog1201.htm#syria_and_the_assad_poll Syria and the ‘Assad poll’

Another insidious myth is doing the rounds: that 55% of Syrians support president Assad. The figure was cited by Aisling Byrne in an article which I critiqued recently. Now, it has surfaced again in an article by Jonathan Steele for the Guardian.

While it is undoubtedly true that the Assad regime still has a measure of support within Syria, no one can sensibly put a figure on it or claim that Assad’s supporters form a majority.

The 55% figure comes from an internet survey by YouGov Siraj for al-Jazeera’s Doha Debates. Just over 1,000 people across the Arab countries were asked their opinion of Assad and an overwhelming majority – 81% – thought he should step down.

However, al-Jazeera says the picture inside Syria is different: “Syrians are more supportive of their president with 55% not wanting him to resign.”

What is the basis for this statement? A look at the methodology of the survey shows that 211 of the respondents were in Levantine countries and that 46% of those were in Syria. In other words, the finding is based on a sample of just 97 internet users in Syria among a population of more than 20 million. It’s not a meaningful result and certainly not adequate grounds for such sweeping conclusions about national opinion in Syria.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 January 2012.


Brian S. January 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm

@Brian Whittaker: You are quite right. Somewhere on this site there is quite a detailed discussion of this particular piece of mythology (including an exchange over sample margin errors). I don’t blame you for not knowing this – its burried in the mists of time and I wouldn’t know where to start looking for it (but it includes and exchange in which Binh corrected my overestimation of the level of support for Assad, so perhaps he can put his finger on it).
There are 101 methodological problems with inferring anything about Syrian opinion from this poll, but I think the clinching point is that the organisers of the poll don’t disaggregate % figures to this level – they clearly (and rightly) think that inferences below the regional level are methodologically unfounded.


Michael Pugliese January 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=1263#comment-2119 via “55% thenorthstar assad” googling.
John July 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm
Is this a good enough source for you? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/17/syrians-support-assad-western-propaganda

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm
Hilarious. A grand total of 98 Syrians in Syria participated in that poll:

Check your sources brother.

Aaron Aarons July 18, 2012 at 11:10 pm
If you take genuine unbiased samples of 100 each (to simplify) from a large population on a yes-or-no question where the population is about evenly divided, the standard deviation of the number of ‘yes’ results in a sample is about 5. This means that about 95% of the time, a sample of that size taken from the population will be within 10 of the average of the population. While it’s a bit more complicated in detail, it’s reasonable to say that the result, 55%, is highly probably within +/- 10% of the actual ratio one would find if one could question the entire population in the same way. In other words, if sample size is the only problem, the true percentage of people in the Syrian population who would give that answer is highly probably between 45% and 65%.

Brian S. July 19, 2012 at 6:41 am
@ Aaron Aarons: You’re right technically – although samples in a population of this size are usually much larger But there were a string of other methodolgical issues with this poll:
1. it wasn’t a survey of Syrian opinion but of opinion across the middle east, which was then broken down by region
2. it wasn’t an unbiased sample – it was drawn from a panel of 220 000 respondents who regularily participate in such polls; the sampling method isn’t clear (it looks as if it was largely self- selected);
3. The pollsters report the findings in graphs, only broken down to sub-region level (the Levant in this case) – suggesting that they don’t regard country level data as statistically meaningful. But in this case, because the question referred to a specific country, they did verbally indicate the Syrian results.
4. As a result there are no demographics or locational data on the Syrian respondents (e.g. could all have been from Damascus)
5. It was a telephone poll – with massive attendant biases: respondents had to have a working telephone connection in the midst of a civil conflict (and take into account the possibility of their line being tapped).
If only one of these problems were present,the poll might be taken as a very rough guide to Syrian opinion (and , as you suggest, indicate a country split down the middle). But with so many flaws it is totally worthless, and as Pham and I have said proves nothing more than that there are at least 53 people in Syria who support Assad. supporters in Syrian

Brian S. July 18, 2012 at 4:51 pm
Wrong on both counts. Clay Claiborne has done a good forensic analysis of Green Square to show that the “million Libyans” is a myth (but I concede that it was a big demo – I just want to know how come the regime could only pull this off once during a lengthy conflict); the Syrian poll is also an urban myth – all it proves is that at least 97 Syrians support Assad.

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm
If I’m not mistaken 97 Syrians was the pool of participants. 55% of 97 Syrians is a rather small number indeed.

Brian S. July 18, 2012 at 7:19 pm
Your right: I should have said “at least 53 Syrians support Assad”.


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