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Marxism and the Crisis of Imperialism

Marxism and the Crisis of Imperialism

The collapse of any social order inevitably is presaged by the failure of its normalizing institutions to command their accustomed ideological authority. All long-held values, titles, signs of respect, moral codes and norms of behavior are suddenly called into question. Uncertainty replaces “truth.” Chaos replaces order. The glaring gap between the ways in which the great masses of the people live their lives and the style of life to which the rich and powerful have become accustomed stands out in sharp relief as a commentary on what is more generally perceived to be an unjust social arrangement.

At the root of this phenomenon is the maturation of those fundamental contradictions inherent in society’s mode of production which have now ripened to the point where the prevailing relations of production stand in opposition to and indeed retard the further development of the forces of production.

Increasingly, the masses of people express their discontent with the prevailing order of things–even when the alternatives are neither apparent nor yet deemed acceptable. Increasingly, the rulers of society conduct their affairs with a sense of desperation about their ability to control the course of events or their prospects in the future. Identifying their own fortunes with those of humanity in general, and identifying the glimmerings of their own demise with the triumph of barbarism, the masters develop an apocalyptic vision of their own agonies. As the Wall Street Journal so succinctly put it not long ago while contemplating the developing dilemmas of imperialism, there is a “general collapse of established values and conventions of conduct; throughout the world, civilization is receding before our eyes”. Did not the masters of the Roman Empire view their own decline in a similar fashion?

But the ideological dislocations which daily erode the norms of accepted values and behavior are merely the orchestration for agonies with a more material base. The irrationality of society’s economic order daily becomes more apparent and with that development there is an erosion in the perceived legitimacy of society’s political institutions.

A revolutionary age has an additional character to it, however. Those forces capable of resolving the perceived contradictions are already on the stage of history. The old order is dying, but not by attrition alone. It is hastened on its way by the revolutionary self-actualization of those classes and forces whose destiny flows out of the very contradictions which have called them into being. It is a time for choices, a time in which “neutrality” and its ideological partners, cynicism and skepticism, have the objective effect of reinforcing the old social order.

A revolutionary age is, as Charles Dickens noted, “The best of times and the worst of times.” Can we not say the same of our own age?

Communism–the spectre which was haunting Europe in 1848 when Marxism can properly be said to have first appeared–has become a material force which is now shaping the entire world. The communist mode of production has been introduced, and more than a third of the earth’s population now live within its domain. (We speak here of communism and the communist mode of production in the sense used by Marx and Lenin, who viewed socialism as a lengthy transition period which constitutes the “lower stage” of communism.)

The capitalism of Marx’s time, already having assumed economic dimensions without historical precedent, has developed further into the behemoth of monopoly capitalism which now characterizes the capitalist world economy. But this enormous growth in industry and concentration of capital has done nothing to alleviate the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production. In fact, that contradiction–between socialized production and private appropriation–has intensified as capitalism has completed its journeys over the face of the earth and introduced its relations of production and appropriation with all its brutalizing ramifications for the producing masses everywhere that it has settled.

In Marx’s time, the first communists could see that capitalism was begetting its own grave-diggers–the proletariat. But as capitalism assumed its world-wide imperialist character, the overwhelming majority of humanity was drawn into the struggle to eliminate this system of massive exploitation and brutal oppression on a world scale.

The masses of oppressed and exploited peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America joined the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries as the gravediggers of capitalism. That profound slogan, “Workers of All Countries, Unite!” was extended in accuracy and power to “Workers of All Countries and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!”

The twentieth century was ushered in as the age of imperialism, summed up by Lenin as capitalism at its “highest stage”–and also its “moribund” stage. In those early years of the century imperialism seemed an invincible force. The capitalist powers dominated the planet in a manner far beyond the wildest imaginings of an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon. Well-equipped armies numbering in the millions were available to fight their wars of conquest and rivalry, goaded by the demands of the market place, capitalist industry, science and technology almost daily, it seemed, burst asunder barriers which had existed since the beginning of recorded time.

But every “advance” recorded by imperialism simultaneously hastened the day of its own destruction. In 1914, the inherent anarchy and irrationality of imperialism engulfed the world in a war whose carnage eclipsed the entire previous history of warfare. In four years, the insatiable drive for profit which is the inexorable heartbeat of the imperialist system wasted tens of millions of lives and destroyed accumulated wealth beyond counting.

And in 1917, the working class of Tsarist Russia rose up and carried out a revolution, announcing with a living manifesto that the reign of plunder of the bourgeoisie was coming to an end.

The century which began with the birth of modern imperialism has become the century of proletarian revolution, national liberation and the construction of socialism.

The new social order has come into the world in ways never foreseen by those who first uncovered those laws of historical development by which its ultimate appearance was foretold. Instead of appearing first in the most advanced capitalist countries, it burst into being in a comparatively backward capitalist country and has since scored its greatest gains in the most economically backward sections of the world. Instead of triumphing on a world scale or in a whole series of countries more or less simultaneously, socialism has clawed its way into existence one country at a time, each victory paid for in blood by the toiling masses a thousand times over.

Contrary to the Utopian dreams of many who see socialism as a paradise on earth, socialism has had to deal with an array of problems– economic, political and cultural–which constitute the legacy of its uneasy parentage. Socialism has come into a world whose hostility has not been confined to the realm of denunciatory rhetoric. It fought its way into the world and fights to survive in it.

But socialism grows in the twentieth century just as surely as capitalism declines. Entire peoples–even continents–feel the revolutionary impact of our age.

Imperialism has consistently attempted to stem the tide of history but each attempt has failed.

Faced with economic crisis in the 1930s, the like of which had never before been known, the capitalist “democracies” turned to new economic theories–such as Keynesianism–as a means of managing their essentially irrational economies with a measure of rationality. But the logical result of Keynesianism, the welfare state, cannot resolve the underlying contradictions of the capitalist mode of production even though it may, for a period, blunt their sharpest edges. In the final analysis, Keynesianism became the economic design whereby the modern capitalist state assumed its present bureaucratic vastness and endemic parasitism.

Fascism, as a means of imposing further political regimentation on the working class, rationality in the economy, and concentrated power in its rivalry with other capitalist countries, was also attempted, particularly by the German bourgeoisie. It failed–defeated in the first place by the socialist power of the Soviet Union.

Capitalist domination of the colonial and semi-colonial world–once seen by the ideologues of imperialism as the “solution” to the problems of class warfare at home–has come back to haunt the capitalist system in the form of the struggles for national liberation and control over natural resources. Everywhere in this “third world” of colonial and neo-colonial subjugation, the fires of anti-imperialist struggle burn brighter and hotter. From southern Africa to southeast Asia, from the Middle East to Latin America, the imperialists cannot know from one moment to the next where and when the next assault will come. At first, imperialism could defeat or deflect these assaults. But its victories could never definitively settle the issue, whereas its defeats became permanent. And of all these struggles, the critical one was in Vietnam, where protracted people’s revolutionary war defeated the massed armed might of US imperialism and destroyed, once and for all, the myth of imperialism’s invincibility. The impact of the Vietnamese revolution on the pace of revolutionary assaults on US imperialism is still being felt worldwide.

Broadly speaking, these are the objective historical conditions which determine the nature and direction of the groundswell now beneath us. Taken as a whole, they demonstrate that the twentieth century has been the most profound verification of Marxism.

But the irony of the present moment is that the crisis of imperialism has matured in conjunction with–and, indeed, to a certain extent, has been mitigated by–a crisis in the revolution.

That crisis, which is most clearly visible in the contention prevailing in the international communist movement, sets the conditions for the present tasks of communists in the US. This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough at a time when the US communist movement suffers profoundly from its historical discontinuity and when the legacy of pragmatism manifests itself in a glorification of the narrowest forms of practical political work as the magic elixir which will resolve the present dilemmas.

Unless US communists locate themselves in the international movement and begin to take responsibility for it, they will never build a revolutionary party with the breadth of vision required to lead the working class to power in the heartland of world imperialism.

How shall we more concretely identify and characterize the present crisis?

Politically, the international communist movement today is dominated by two contending opportunist lines.

The line of modern revisionism, headquartered in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), has abandoned the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism concerning the revolutionary character of the working class and has legitimized the view that the working class can fulfill its destiny as a class through a peaceful, parliamentary process. The objective effect of this view is to abandon the revolutionary goals of the working class altogether.

The “left” opportunist line, headquartered in the CPC, is expressed most forthrightly in the Theory of the Three Worlds. Its foremost political error is to deny that US imperialism is the main enemy of the world’s peoples. In fact, the CPC proposes an alliance between revolutionary forces and US imperialism in opposition to the Soviet Union which it designates a “social imperialist superpower,” a fascist society in which capitalism has been fully restored.

The essence of both these lines is class collaboration. The revisionist line promotes collaboration between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie by tying the interests of the working class to the illusion that a “reasonable” capitalist class will turn over the reins of political power– and along with it its property–out of respect for its own institutions of bourgeois democracy, or out of some perceived reluctance to plunge the world into chaos. On the other hand, the “left” opportunist line promotes class collaboration even more directly, by attempting to enlist the working class and all the oppressed peoples in defense of US imperialism’s interests against the “threat” of Soviet aggression.

Clearly both of these lines are shaped by narrow nationalist concepts of what policies are in the best immediate interests of the respective states.

The principal variations on these lines do not break with their essential opportunism. Eurocommunism, which is a variation of the revisionist general line, goes further in abandoning Marxism (the Spanish Communist Party has even stopped calling itself “Leninist” and all Euro-communists have scuttled the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat) while demonstrating various degrees of “independence” on questions speaking directly to state policies of the CPSU. The Albanian Party of Labor (PLA) is critical of China’s Three Worlds Theory but it also objectively serves the interests of imperialism by equating the Soviet Union with the US as a capitalist superpower and advocating a “united front against the two superpowers.”

The political crisis of the international communist movement is thus evidenced in the fact that the principal contention in the present period is not between Marxism-Leninism and a major deviation therefrom, but between two opposing opportunist lines. Each line claims to speak in the name of Marxism-Leninism but each advances, in various degrees, the politics of class collaboration.

Organizationally, the international communist movement today is characterized by division. There is no single center for the movement. In a number of countries, rival parties representing the contending lines vie for hegemony in the working class movement. In other countries, the principal communist organization is based on one or the other opportunist line.

Ideologically, the international communist movement–taken as a whole–has abandoned its responsibility for “clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement” and for guiding that movement. Mechanical materialism and idealism, empiricism and dogmatism, have replaced dialectical and historical materialism as the basic scientific methodology employed by those who have set the theoretical standard for the movement. Retrograde trends previously defeated–anarchism, social democracy and Trotskyism–have again been able to penetrate the communist movement and today wield an influence never imagined by their earlier proponents.

Marxist-Leninist theory has made certain advances in the last 25 years, particularly in drawing lessons from revolutionary national liberation struggles. However, in the main it has stagnated. It lags behind the pressing demands of the class struggle and thereby constitutes a material force fettering the worldwide development of the proletarian revolution. The indispensable leading role of theory within the Marxist-Leninist tradition is to illuminate the significance of new phenomena and experiences of the proletariat in the course of class struggle.

Here we highlight two questions to indicate the movement’s neglect of its theoretical tasks and the resulting negative political consequences.

First is the absence of a scientific theoretical construct for analyzing the political economy of imperialism in the period since the end of the World War II. A number of new phenomena cry out to be understood and placed in historical context. Never before has the world capitalist system been characterized to the extent it is today by the political, economic and military domination of one imperialist country. For 35 years, the hegemony of US imperialism in the world system has been so pervasive that the inter-imperialist rivalry inherent in the capitalist system has not manifested itself in a new world war; nor do the prospects for some other capitalist country or group of countries to mount a military challenge to the US in the near future seem at all likely.

Certainly, the inter-imperialist contradiction has not disappeared, as evidenced by the trade and monetary rivalries and conflicts over political policies that constantly crop up between the US, western European countries and Japan. However, the contradiction operates in a new context, with the contradictions between imperialism and national liberation and between imperialism and the socialist countries dominating world politics. This new context requires re-examination of the functioning of inter-imperialist contradictions in the contemporary world capitalist system.

Another important unexplained phenomenon of contemporary political economy is the precise method by which imperialism dominates and exploits the oppressed nations of the world. Clearly, any simplistic scheme limiting its analysis to generalizations about developed and undeveloped nations, or imperialist countries and the third world, is woefully inadequate to explain the phenomena of economic and political relations between the US and such countries as Chile, Brazil, India, South Africa, Israel, or Iran.

Marxist-Leninists of course look to Lenin’s classic work, Imperialism–The Highest Stage of Capitalism, as the starting point in understanding imperialism. But Lenin examined the growth of monopoly capital and the dynamics of imperialism principally within the largest imperialist countries, and wrote in a period when inter-imperialist contradictions dominated world politics. Marxist-Leninists today must build on a foundation laid by Lenin, and develop a theoretical framework based on Marxism-Leninism that explains contemporary realities.

The failure of Marxist theory to adequately explain new phenomena has left the door open for non-Marxist theses to prevail. Current Soviet theory holds that the imperialists, faced increasingly by an unfavorable balance of forces, will acquiesce in their own demise. Such backward concepts as a “world without war” under imperialism and a “non-capitalist path of development” for the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America flow from the revisionist outlook.

The CPC, on the other hand, argues that there is no theoretical problem, since the USSR is itself a capitalist country and hence imperialism today looks the same as in Lenin’s time, with two “capitalist superpowers” heading for world war. At the same time, the Three Worlds Theory, with its notorious distortion of Marxist categories, transforms an analysis of political economy into a catalogue of the size of countries instead of an analysis of their modes of production. It will require substantial theoretical and political effort to repudiate these backward lines and develop a scientific Marxist-Leninist analysis of contemporary imperialism.

The second area where Marxist theory has not kept pace with new phenomena is in the failure to summarize in a scientific, all-sided manner the historical experiences of socialist construction. At the time of the Bolshevik revolution, there was no experience with the realities of socialism and only a few inevitably general theoretical propositions about it. In the past 60 years, however, this situation has qualitatively altered and a vast body of historical experience, most of which could not possibly have been foreseen, has since been accumulated. This is the basis to enrich our theoretical understanding of the laws and contradictions which characterize socialist construction and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The CPSU, as the first party to hold state power, bears a particular responsibility in this connection. Operating, even while it was a genuine party, on the incorrect premise that a candid and all-sided summation of its experiences, particularly an acknowledgment and analysis of incorrect lines and other errors, would only provide grist for the imperialist mill, the CPSU established the negative tradition of declaring that all lines, decisions and actions taken in the name of socialism were always correct. We do not doubt that there would have been difficulties in doing otherwise. Imperialism developed a whole school of bourgeois scholarship to obscure and distort the Soviet experience and reinforce anti-communism among the masses. Trotskyism became adept at exploiting every error made by the CPSU and inventing others in its never-ending rearguard defense of its discredited line. Nevertheless, the loss of theoretical rigor, the deterioration of collective principles of work, the abuses of criticism/self-criticism and the commandist approach to inner-party struggle have had enormous negative consequences that far outweigh those which would have resulted if the movement had been candid about its shortcomings. Stalin’s “Economic Problems of Socialism,” written in the last years of his life, was a belated effort to begin the process of rectification of this error, but it came far too late. And since the mid-1950s, the CPSU has produced no serious theory of socialist construction, only rationalizations for its pragmatic policies.

The CPC appears to have devoted more attention to the question of the contradictions facing socialism, but whether the theories advanced– particularly Mao’s on the nature of class struggle under socialism–were scientific contributions to socialist theory or factionally inspired polemics against rivals in the party leadership must be, at the least, considered an open question in light of developments in the past few years.

The result of this theoretical vacuum is that Marxist-Leninists lack a rigorous and scientific theory of socialist construction and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, theoretical absurdities, such as the notion that the Soviet Union is a society “on the threshold of communism,” are palmed off as scientific assessments. On the other side of the coin, idealist conceptions of socialism go unchallenged, the “defenders” of a socialist country acknowledging no errors, its “prosecutors” declaring socialism null and void upon the discovery that real contradictions exist and are frequently handled incorrectly. This explains why the thoroughly unscientific thesis of the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union receives such wide support among communists.

The theoretical stagnation within the international movement on these and other questions has led to its widespread ideological disorientation. Contending “interpretations” of Marxism-Leninism vie with each other in eclectic fashion. The two leading parties pragmatically employ theory to suit immediate state political objectives. Flunkeyism– ideological dependency–in parties out of power is the reverse side of the nationalist deviations in the CPSU and CPC. While some parties hold to a revolutionary course and clearly uphold the vanguard character of the communist movement in their own countries as well as in the international struggle against imperialism, they are the exception rather than the rule.

All this has led some to conclude that there is a crisis in Marxism itself. Hardly a week passes without another commentary on (or contribution to) this “crisis” appearing in print somewhere.

By and large, these commentaries focus on a claimed lack of relevance of classical Marxist theory to the realities of the present-day world. Some argue that traditional Marxist theory and its insights on the nature of capital, imperialism, the working class, etc., simply do not explain the workings of contemporary monopoly capitalism with its computer technology, nuclear capacities, ecological terrors, the political sophistication of its ruling classes, etc. Others argue that until Freud is ideologically married to Marx, efforts to understand and change contemporary society are doomed to frustration. Some assert that Marxism is a “white European” philosophy inapplicable to societies in Asia, Africa or Latin America, while others argue that Marxism may be useful in undeveloped countries but has no relevance for the “sophisticated democracies” of Europe and North America.

Many of these views stand outside the mainstream of Marxism, but they have broad influence nevertheless, particularly among those who have come to the struggle against imperialism in basically a practical, political fashion without the benefit of a more solid theoretical and ideological foundation which only Marxism can provide.

Some of these views, on the other hand, emanate from and have currency even among those whose Marxist “credentials” are, if not impeccable, at least based on some work of substance. Social democracy has maneuvered its way back into the communist movement via the theoretical work of the Eurocommunists; one need go no further than the pages of In These Times, a newspaper whose ideological affinity with traditional social democracy is so blatant as to verge on the embarrassing, to note its enthusiasm for the innovations of the Eurocommunist parties. Herbert Marcuse and others of the “Frankfurt School” have provided anarchism with a more respectable ideological cover than it used to have, while respected Marxist scholars such as Paul Sweezey have tried to “solve” the problem of the Soviet Union by arguing as a “fruitful” hypothesis, in an article he himself titles, “A Crisis in Marxian Theory,” the view “that proletarian revolution can give rise to a new form of society, neither capitalist nor socialist.” (There are many variations on this last thesis, a point we will be devoting more attention to in issues to come.)

Yet if these ideologists have analyzed the present phenomena as a crisis in Marxism, we would locate the essence of the crisis and the solution for it in the communist movement. While social democrats, anarchists and Trotskyists are currently exploiting the crisis of the international movement in order to discredit Marxism, the communist movement itself must take on the task of rectifying not only the movement in general but its theoretical work in particular.

The crisis of the communist movement deprives the international working class of its leading vanguard. The proletarian revolution cannot advance effectively until Marxist-Leninists face squarely this crisis and assume responsibility to resolve it. This requires, in the first place, a rigorous summation of the lines which presently dominate the communist movement.


The clearest indication of the depth of the current crisis in the international communist movement is the absence of a leading revolutionary line and universally recognized leading center for the international movement. Instead, the communist movement today is characterized, in the first place, by the sharp contention between the two largest and most influential parties, a contention which manifests itself not only in party-to-party relations but in state-to-state relations as well. Each of these parties has set itself up as a headquarters around which there is an organized following of dependent “fraternal” parties, transforming the respective deviations into truly international phenomena. The backward ideological orientation of each deviation affects the entire international communist movement. In fact, it has caused the corruption of the general lines of most communist parties in the world and organizational chaos in many countries where rival parties contend for leadership of the working class and liberation movements.

In itself, contention within the communist movement is not a bad thing. The history of the communist movement is, in fact, the history of contention between lines for the correct orientation, political program and organizational forms which should guide the work of revolutionaries. Every major theoretical and practical advance in communism was made as the result of a struggle against and a break with incorrect ideas which, although they came before the working class movement in the name of socialism, inevitably revealed their bourgeois essence in both theory and practice.

Scientific socialism grew out of the struggle against Utopian socialism and anarchism, establishing for the communist movement such fundamental principles as those embodied in Marxist political economy, the leading role of the proletariat in making revolution, the struggle for state power as the key political task of the revolution and the recognition of socialism as a lengthy and complex transitional stage to communism.

Leninism emerged out of a whole series of struggles against the early revisionism of Eduard Bernstein, the trade unionism of the Economist tendencies in Russia and the social chauvinism of the Second International under the leadership of Karl Kautsky. From these struggles against what later became modern social democracy, the communist movement reaffirmed and established such principles as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Leninist party, the nature of imperialism as monopoly capitalism, and the revolutionary significance of the national liberation struggles of the peoples and nations of the colonies and semi-colonies.

The international movement which grew in the period after the Bolshevik revolution was forged and consolidated in the struggle against Trotskyism. From this struggle emerged the recognition that the building of socialism in one country–the Soviet Union–was a historical necessity, and that, for what would undoubtedly be a lengthy period, socialism would appear in the world in national forms. The struggle against Trotskyism also helped to establish the legitimacy of two-stage revolution in the colonial world and the necessity for forging a united front against fascism in defense of the Soviet Union and in defense of the democratic rights of the working class.

The modern international communist movement has been shaped, therefore, by these historic two-line struggles to demarcate Marxism from anarchism, social democracy and Trotskyism. Consequently, the present crisis in the communist movement does not lie in sharp theoretical and political contention per se, but rather in the fact that the two lines which dominate the communist movement are both characterized by opportunism. This is the principal source of the ideological confusion, political degeneration and organizational fragmentation which presently characterize the international movement.

Such a summation of the present crisis stands in sharp contrast with the summations which currently prevail in the international movement. The Soviet revisionist summation is that the crisis is caused solely by the “Maoist” deviation. This view utilizes the growing exposure and self-exposure of the “left” opportunist line to reinforce the principal theses of the right opportunist line.

The “left” opportunist summation is that the crisis is caused solely by the consolidation of revisionism in the CPSU and the parties in its camp and that today the struggle against that revisionist line has become, in effect, the struggle against a new capitalist system, even more dangerous and rapacious than its older rivals.

Other summations see the crisis as somehow stemming inherently from the nature of socialism or, what is really an expression of the same thing, the fact that socialism has been obliged to appear and develop in the world in national forms. Still others continue to see it principally as an organizational question and see the solution in some simplistic return to communist “unity” in which the current differences will somehow magically vanish.

By contrast, our summation of the crisis sees it fundamentally as a crisis of political line–in particular, the prevalence of two contending opportunist lines.

The importance of these varying views rests in the fact there can be no solution to the present crisis without a correct understanding of its cause.

The revisionist view is that the crisis will be resolved by drawing a line of demarcation with “Maoism” and uniting the movement around the policies and line of the CPSU. The “left” opportunists call for a demarcation not with the revisionist line (the CPC sees any party which is “independent” of the CPSU as having a generally correct line even when that line, as in the case of Yugoslavia, is classically revisionist) but with the Soviet state, i.e., Soviet “social imperialism.” Those who see the crisis as somehow inherent in the nature of socialism–and in this category we include all those who, while claiming to be Marxists, refuse to take responsibility for the future of the communist movement–are, naturally, obliged to sit on the sidelines waiting for a better set of conditions to appear before the question of socialism can be taken up.

But when the question is posed as one of political line, then the path for Marxist-Leninists becomes clear. First, it is necessary to draw lines of demarcation with the two principal deviations which dominate the movement, the two main opportunist lines. And second, it is necessary to rectify the general line of the communist movement so that a leading revolutionary line can be developed. It is only on the basis of a leading revolutionary line that the movement can be reoriented ideologically and reunited organizationally.

Nor can there be some mechanical separation between or stageist concept of this process. The very act of drawing lines of demarcation with opportunism implies at least the basic concepts of a Marxist-Leninist alternative line. Similarly, the development of a Marxist-Leninist line is actually the only sound basis on which a thorough demarcation with and scientific summation of the opportunist lines can be accomplished.