First published in Socialist Review, 10th Year No. 1, January 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 68–74.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.
The intellectual arsenal of the Left today often resembles nothing so much as a warehouse of discarded ideas and surplus slogans, souvenirs of the ideological battles of the past. The truth is that socialist theory has been on the defensive for some forty years now. Then we could point to a handful of volumes – Marx, Hilferding. Lenin, Luxemburg. Trotsky and a few others – as having pinned down capitalism for all to see, and turn to building the revolutionary party. That job is still to be done and is important, but anyone watching the disarray of the Left within the Labour Party or its ludicrously egotistical posturings outside, or the intellectual and organizational confidence with which the Right rumbles through conference after conference must doubt that the revolutionary party is the summum bonum, or even of much importance at this moment.
The Left needs, above all, to know what it is fighting for – and not only in general terms: which of its programmatic positions are cardinal, which ephemeral: where it should be stubborn, where not. It is time for the Left to cease being the mastadons of revolution and for it to come to grips with contemporary capitalism and its mode of survival.
Lenin told us that “the highest stage of capitalism” was imperialism: Strachey – in a new book  – that imperialism is no more, while Crosland has already affirmed that capitalism itself passed away long ago, partly, no doubt, because its imperial base was shaky. What, if anything, has happened to imperialism is of importance to socialists: if Lenin and Strachey are both right today (and the stress is on today), capitalism is on its deathbed. We should stop prolonging the agonies of the Labour Party and investigate the economics of prefabricated barricades. If Lenin is right and Strachey wrong, we should want a far closer analysis of the subtleties of an imperialism that can – so we might be told – rule India, indirectly but nonetheless effectively, and yet chooses to adopt the barbaric crudities that featured in its relations with Cyprus, Kenya and now Central Africa. Finally, if Strachey is right and Lenin wrong, is he next admission to be that Crosland is also justified in shouting paeans to the passing on of capitalism to, it is hoped, eternal hell-fire? The problem is important.
There is no point in following Strachey through the laybrinthine apologia with which he surrounds his central theme. Sometimes, indeed, it is difficult to make out whom lie is trying to please. Is it the oil barons, Labour’s leadership, his own Marxist past? He pleads for enlightened self-interest on the part of the oil monopolists: anti-imperialism is good business, he implies, for “it will be by coming to terms with Arab nationalism, that we shall be enabled to carry on for many years yet, a highly profitable business in oil” (pp. 175–6). He goes out of his way to give a plug to nuclear weapons (although preferring circumlocution to a frank statement) (p. 226) and uses every Tory argument in the process, including that faded lily “self-respecting British independence in defence” “for the sake of genuinely good Anglo-American relations” (p. 227). He justifies his own and the Labour Government’s record in Malaya and the Tories’ in Kenya with equal impartiality (p. 256) and even reiterates support for the deposition, by force, of the democratically elected Government in British Guiana (p. 257).
One could go on, but probing the limits of Strachey’s cachectic morality is a distasteful task and not the most rewarding. There’s more to be salvaged from his debates with Lenin on imperialism.
Strachey agrees with Lenin that, broadly, imperialism is a stage in the development of capitalism in which a number of structural changes – monopolization, for example – have occurred and which have made it imperative for capitalism to invest in the backward areas of the world rather than at home. This export of capital entails and is generally accompanied by armed colonization, i.e. political rule, the main purpose of which is to stand guard over the investments. He elucidates the thesis with an interesting account of the occupation of Egypt and South Africa (Chapter V).
For Lenin this was the highest, or last, stage of capitalism; for Strachey merely one stage in its development. Judged by almost any criterion Strachcy is right: imperialist power in the political sense has retreated from most of the colonial world; what remains is quickly disappearing, notwithstanding the frenzied brutality of the Tories during some parts of the process. Even in the economic sense, there has been a significant withdrawal over the last few decades – although here the picture is less clear.
So far the argument – and the facts – are with Strachey. And no wonderLenin lived world convulsed in imperialist war, the extent of which could not have been foreseen. In his own lifetime he witnessed the world being carved up to almost the last morsel. Borne on the movement that was soon to explode in revolution in Russia and in the rest of Europe he can be excused the optimism which led him to underestimate capitalism’s powers of recovery and to believe that it had reached its last stage.
But we can t indulge in fantasy more than forty years later. We have to concede that imperialism as defined by Lenin is on the way out, barbarically at times, but nonetheless on the way out. Why? What has taken its place?
Strachey attempts the answers. imperialism declined, he says, because
three new factors were emerging. There was, first, the appearance on the world stage of forces of colonial resistance to imperialism. Second, anti-imperialist, democratic pressures grew up within the remaining capitalist empires! second (sac) these pressures began to modify the distribution of the national income and so make non-imperialist policies possible. Third, a major non-capitalist society, in however ugly a form, appeared upon the world scene. (p. 135)
There is no doubt which Strachey considers to be the decisive factor. Nowhere in the book do the first and third achieve more than passing mention. The burden of the argument is borne entirely by factor No. 2, the emergence of “democratic pressures to which the whole of Chapter VII is devoted.
His thesis is simple. imperialism was invoked by the pressure of surplus capital in the advanced capitalist countries. Even Lenin admitted, he quotes triumphantly, that
if capitalism could develop agriculture, which today lags far behind industry everywhere, if it could raise the standard of living of the masses, who are everywhere still poverty-stricken and underfed, in spite of the amazing advance in technical knowledge, there could be no talk of a superfluity of capital. (Quoted on p. 110)
In other words, there were other investment outlets, there would be no need for imperialism and the system would rot from within. Lenin said “if”; Stiachey asserts that, in the event, the “if” proved redundant. Other outlets have emerged since then, lie declares, not because capitalism looked for them or even wanted them initially but because
an all-pervasive democratic political environment has permitted the growth of counter pressures – industrial and political – which have enabled the wage-earners and farmers to force up their own standards (p. 111).
He concludes that Lenin, like Marx before him “overlooked the economic consequences of democracy” (ibid.).
Notice what has happened to the nature of capitalism at Strachey’s hands – the subtle transformation. It is wrong to believe, he implies, that capitalism is a system built upon an inescapable contradiction, namely between the productive potential and the consuming capacity it generates at any level of mass consumption, between capital and labour however well off the latter might be. He implies that it is wrong to see, resulting from this contradiction, a built-in tendency to generate capital surpluses, which can only be liquidated by convulsive means. All we need is better arithmetic: given that such and such a quality of pounds sterling represents so much surplus capital available either for export (= imperialism) or for home investment, by how much must we raise living standards purchasing power = potential profit-bearing revenue for the capitalists to entice it to stay put? Alternatively, by how much must “democratic pressure be raised to drive the locomotive of private enterprise forward? Under Strachey’s probe capitalism has lost its dialectic, lost the frenzied dynamism and permutability which constantly thrust it away from this ineluctable contradiction between production and consumption. It has become a tool, intricate hut still a tool, incapable of swerving from the groove struck by any gov3rnment. 
So Strachey, having wished away the nature of capitalism, can now pose “democratic pressure” as the alternative to imperialism, or in his words: “Hobson was right in seeing that radicalism and imperialism were alternative solutions to the same problems” (p. 112). But he does not simply leave it at that. He asserts flatly that “foreign lending could and did provide a method of preserving an extremely unequal distribution of the national income, thus averting social reform ...” (pp. 116–7)
One question clamours for attention: has social reform played ins-and-outs with imperialism in fact or only in Strachey’s imagination?
First – the evidence: the period of classic capitalist imperialism covers the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the present one, rising to a crescendo – in terms of capital exports – in the years immediately preceding the first world war.
These were also the years of the sharpest increase in real wages. To quote an authority Strachey would hardly dispute, the late Professor G.D.H. Cole:
Real wages rose sharply at three points-between 1861 and 1864, between 1868 and 1876, and, apart from two brief set-backs in the early and late nineties, through the whole period from 1882 to 1900. (Short History of the British Working Class Movement 1789–1947, p. 267)
In terms of radicalism, this period covered the great trade union struggles for legal recognition in the seventies, the important measures for social reform embodied in the Reform Act of 1884, the Redistribution Act of the following year and the local government Acts of the ’eighties and ’nineties, it culminated in the greatest and most concentrated period of reformist advance in British working class history-not excluding the post-war Labour Government – namely, the Liberal administrations of 1906 to 1914.  It saw the genesis of the Labour Party itself.
The facts are conclusive. They demonstrate that far from imperialism being pernicious to reformism, they are compatible. They suggest that Empire might have acted host to parasite Reform. And why not? There’s logic to it. If, as Strachey agrees, imperialism’s economic effect was to stimulate a depressed capital market by creating a demand for temporarily unrequited exports (the locomotives, mining and cargo handling equipment, etc., in which capital exports were embodied) by the same token it stimulated the labour market by providing employment, initially in the export industries and, subsequently. throughout the economy as the effects of increased activity spread. it was this long-term full employment (according to the standards of those days) that sustained the British workers’ confidence in their power to effect improvements in conditions in the here and now, which in turn sustained the successful reformism that made Continental socialists despair of the British Labour movement.
But neither facts nor logic are for Strachey. He is determined to show that imperialism and social reform are mutually pernicious. that reformism is both answer and heir to imperialism. He cannot admit that they are twin products of the same stage in capitalist evolution, or that, since reformism is so very much with us and imperialism declining, it is simply a case of the former having changed its material base.
We are now back to where we parted from our Mernber for Dundee West. Two questions were than at issue: why has imperialism retreated? and what has taken its place? Strachey’s answer to both was “ democratic pressure,” an answer which, insofar as it has any meaning at all, is based on a downright falsification of history. It is now our turn to expound.
Imperialism while it lasted relieved the congestions of an enclosed capitalism; it helped to evacuate the accumulation of surplus capital both through investing it abroad and through the consequent chain reaction within the home market. But it c uld not last long: it encouraged imperialist rivals and local aspirants to capital accumulation (the first world-war; the nationalist movements of the nineteen-twenties); it resulted – after a time – in net capital imports to the metropoli (culminating in the great slump of the ’thirties) which of course made nonsense of its alleviating effect; finally, it aroused national and social revolutionary movements of such magnitude as to threaten its very existence (from the Russian revolution onwards). True, it has postponed stagnation for a generation, but not for ever. Stagnation returned to stay and now would not yield to the tried remedies. Meanwhile, imperialism reaped the whirlwind of world war II.
War came and went, but not entirely. Arms budgets are the highest ever in peacetime; production, finance, government and politics are to a large extent structured around them, feeding on them; they absorb and destroy significant proportions of the capital surpluses generated year in year out within the system; under their stimulus the economy Is buoyant and the capitalists confident in its – and their – continuance. Where imperialism righted capitalism’s bias to over-production productively, therefore imperfectly and temporarily, the arms economy looks to doing so destructively. therefore perfectly (but, for reasons I cannot adduce here, not permanently). If, then, imperialism made capitalism act willing host to reformism, its arms economy today provides even more sumptuous living for the parasite. Reformism is not and has never been inimical to imperialism as Strachey would have it in defiance of logic and fact, it thrived off it and has since adapted itself to changed circumstances. Reformism is now tucked well in with capitalism’s permanent arms economy.
To sum up: Lenin was right in believing that
as long as capitalism remains what ills, surplus capital will never be used for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the living of the masses, who are everywhere still poverty-stricken masses. (quoted on p. 110)
but not in his prediction that
it will be used far the purpose of increasing those profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. (ibid.)
In other words, Lenin held fast to the core contradiction in capitalism although lie was overtaken by events in his description of its temporary solution. Strachey, on the other hand, while undoubtedly right in pointing out that things aren't exactly what they used to be, carefully bungs the baby down the plughole and declares that democratic pressures have changed the system fundamentally. Next stop – Crosland!
All Alice Strachey can now perceive of the enemy in his solipsistic Wonderland is its smile, the rest – teeth, claws, etc. – have disappeared. But if there is no class structure, no class struggle, what is there for workers to live for? wonders Strachey. After all an uninhibited “I’m all right, Jack” society can be terribly unstable, terribly dangerous for the privileged. “We have a desperate need,” he solemnly advises his friends (in the City, the Clubs and the Commons), “for a national purpose or ideal which stands outside and beyond the workings of our economic system: an ideal for the sake of which the system is worked.” (p. 231)
And so, he proposes the curtailment. “or even in the end,” “over the decades,” the abolition of “large unearned inherited incomes” (p. 235), the perfection of “our democratic institutions” (p. 238), the enlargement of educational opportunities (p. 240), support of the arts and the conservation of natural beauty spots (p. 243) etc., until the culminating violence to our credulity is reached: “The highest mission of Britain in our day is to help the under-developed world” (p. 244)! “It will be,” pontificates John (Macmillan) Strachey, “by serving the peoples of the world that we can be great”. (p. 247) Really!
We can leave him now, oblivious to a world in which capital is still monarch, shorn of Empire it may be but yet more terrible than hitherto, more refined and still more barbaric, more firmly bedded in blood and filth than it has ever been. We can leave him pondering the mysteries of “democratic pressures” while we turn to the job of imbuing the Labour movement with the consciousness of its collective power and human destiny. While he balances his moral sensibilities towards the backward world with his nuclear advocacies at home, we reaffirm our belief in workers' control, peace and international socialism.
1. John Strachey, The End of Empire, Gollancz, 1959, 30/–, being the second volume in a series designed to disarm the Left of its ideological and analytical equipment.
2. What a far cry from the days when Strachey fought vigorously against the same mechanistic theories he has adopted today. See, for example, his Nature of the Capitalist Crisis.
3. See e.g.. John Saville: “in terms of social policy, the Labour Government showed much lcss originality and initiative and were more in the stream of tradition than were the Liberals before 1914”. (The Welfare State, New Reasoner 3, Winter 1957–8, p. 16)
Last updated on 17 February 2017