Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

World Imperialism and Marxist Theory: On the International Line of the Communist Movement


First Published: Theoretical Review, No. 9, March-April 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This article concerns a question of critical importance for the contemporary communist movement. I refer to the question of the character of world imperialism today as perceived by Marxist-Leninists. This question is at the center of much current debate within the communist movement, particularly in light of the erroneous Chinese theory of “three worlds”, and efforts to combat it. The recent visit of Deng Xiaoping to the United States has served to intensify the discussion. These struggles are vital to our movement because they not only concern problems of our international political line, but also concern fundamental issues of Marxist-Leninist theory and strategy for party building and class struggle in the United States.

Imperialism as a World System

As Lenin told us 70 years ago, imperialism is not a foreign policy of one or another country, but a particular stage in the history of the capitalist mode of production. The idea that imperialism is a world system is often treated as a fact so obvious that it requires no further comment. Unfortunately, the misuse of the concept of imperialism in much current communist debate is strong evidence to the contrary.

To understand imperialism, contemporary world capitalism, it is above all necessary to grasp the dynamism of the capitalist mode of production itself. This dynamism is manifested in a two-fold tendency of capitalist expansion.[1]

First, there is the tendency to reproduce capitalist production relations and productive forces on a national scale. I say “national scale” because nations or national entities are the best geographical framework of the capitalist mode of production. Lenin noted this when he remarked that the rise of capitalism and the rise of nations were parallel processes. This tendency, also called the tendency to create a national market, acts to break down or absorb all obstacles to capitalist expansion and capital accumulation.

The second tendency is the tendency of the capitalist mode of production to become world wide, to transcend national boundaries. This tendency internationalizes capital; it acts to produce and reproduce capitalist production relations and productive forces on a world scale.

Imperialism as an international phenomenon means, for example, the unfavorable flow of capital to nations with more developed productive forces from the “under-developed” nations, thereby drawing the latter into the world market, into the unequal exchange between “raw materials” and “finished products” which works to the disadvantage of those nations whose productive forces are “underdeveloped”.

What are the effects of these two contradictory but inter-related tendencies of the capitalist mode of production?

Looking at contemporary world imperialism, we can say that the first tendency acts to create in each national entity which is part of the world imperialist system a complex social formation dominated by the capitalist mode of production. In this social formation each of the levels which constitute it, the economic, the political and the ideological, becomes a site of class struggle in which contradictions between the classes, increasingly the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and their respective allies, are fought out.

The second tendency, the reproduction of capitalist production relations and productive forces on a world scale, also therefore reproduces class struggle on a world scale. At the time it gives rise to an inter-related international hierarchy of national entities. This is because capitalism develops unevenly – in some countries productive forces are developing, in others the development of the productive forces is blocked. These developments are determined by the character of the production relations and the differing places and roles assigned to the various national entities by the structure of the hierarchy. This international hierarchy is dominated by a hegemonic power, whose economic, political and ideological strength and influence are decisive for the maintenance and control of the world system.

The structure of world imperialism means that the system as a whole assigns a definite role to each nation included in it, in accordance with its economic, political and ideological characteristics. Some countries function primarily as providers of minerals and other raw materials for the world market, basic foodstuffs, etc. Others, Brazil for example, or, until recently, Iran, performed a role as political gendarmes, maintaining imperialist relations in South America and the Middle East respectively.

The hierarchy of world imperialism acts to accelerate the development of productive forces in the “developed” imperialist countries while retarding the development (reinforcing the dependency) of nations whose productive forces are less developed. This is how unequal development operates: to reproduce capitalist inequality on a world scale to the advantage of the bourgeoisie in the “developed” imperialist nations who benefit not only from the exploitation of their own workers, but also from the exploitation of the workers of the world.

The history of the twentieth century has been shaped by two processes: proletarian revolution and national liberation struggle on the one hand, and the struggle for hegemony within world imperialism on the other. The hegemonic power, the apex of the imperialist hierarchy, is occupied by that social formation which, by its economic power, its political-military strength, and its advantageous relations with other elements of the world imperialist system, is vital for the maintenance and reproduction of the system.

Today the majority of the world’s peoples live in an imperialist system in which the hegemonic social formation is the USA. Among the elements which enable the USA to exercise hegemony are the size and extent of its capital export, the role of the dollar and US capital on the world market, and US military strength and technical superiority in military matters.

The two tendencies we have described, taken together, give rise to world imperialism. Each social formation within it is thus necessarily involved in a complex series of inter-relationships and class and national struggles. The character of any social formation can only be judged then, not just by the balance of class forces within it, but also by its place in the hierarchy of world imperialism, its role in world national and class struggles. These two criteria: the balance of internal class forces and the role and place in class and national struggles on a world scale, taken together, provide the basis for communists to evaluate and characterize nations from a scientific perspective.

An important consequence of this analysis is a recognition of the fact that a country cannot break with imperialism merely by changing its foreign policy or its attitude toward one or the other major “powers.” As Charles Bettelheim explains:

A dominated country, or a previously dominated one that does not alter its situation in the international capitalist division of labor, merely reproduces its unfavorable situation: the more it increases the production of the products that its “place” assigns it, the more does it participate in the worsening of its own unfavorable situation...

And, he adds, “a country cannot escape the effects of imperialist domination and exploitation except through a long and complex struggle.”[2]

The Notion of “National Imperialisms”

If imperialism is indeed an international system, then what are we to make of the repeated use in current communist debate of the notions of national imperialism, such as “US imperialism,” “soviet social-imperialism,” etc? Clearly a term like “US imperialism” had great ideological value in the mass struggles against the war in Vietnam.

However, here, as in too many other cases, communists have carried over these popular mass ideological notions into their theoretical discussions and debates. And, as might be expected, in theory, ideological notions act to block the production of knowledge.

The notion of “national imperialisms” serves to disguise the international character of imperialism – to obscure the multiplicity of relationships characteristic of world imperialism. It treats imperialism as a relationship between two states (the US and Vietnam, for instance), rather than as between two locations in a world structure of multiple relationships.

In light of the international character of imperialism, the notion of a “national imperialism” is a contradiction in terms. One nation cannot be imperialist in isolation, it can only participate in international relations which are imperialist in character, determined not by its own policy, but by the balance of class and national struggles on a world scale.

Likewise, a nation does not become free simply by breaking all connections with US imperialism. For example, since the US is only one element in a world system to which that nation is still tied by a thousand economic and political threads, as long as it produces for the world market and participates in the international division of labor, it will be unable to significantly alter its place in the imperialist system.

At a time when many forces, particularly the Communist Party of China, are exploiting the ignorance within the communist movement about the nature of world imperialism, the continued use of notions of “national imperialisms” is a serious obstacle to greater theoretical and political clarity within the communist movement on this problem.

But before we abandon the notion of “national imperialisms” we should give it another look. For its origins were not entirely with the mass movements of the 1960’s. In fact, it has a long history of usage within the world communist movement. During the first world war, Lenin and Bukharin wrote at length in the course of developing a Marxist theory of imperialism. In their works the distinction between the theoretical concept of imperialism as a world system, a stage of world capitalism, and the ideological uses of the term “imperialism” in agitation and propaganda is quite clear.

Unfortunately, the development of Marxist theory and practice did not proceed smoothly (does it ever?!) once a Marxist theory of imperialism had been established. As in many other areas, theory and theoretical concepts fell into disuse and their places were filled by ideological notions. With regard to the theory of imperialism, a number of specific factors contributed to reinforcing the notion of “national imperialisms.”

Changes in the Soviet Union

First, this notion had existed previous to the Leninist theory of imperialism in bourgeois and social democratic approaches to this question. While Bolshevism represented a genuine break with social democracy, it was not a total break with social democratic economism and reformism. And increasingly in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, the theory and practice of the Communist International slipped back into ideas and practices characteristic of its predecessor, the Second International.[3]

A decisive factor in the breakdown of the Leninist theory of imperialism was the developments in the Soviet Union, itself, in this period. Charles Bettelheim examines these changes at great length in his Class Struggles in the USSR, which we have reviewed elsewhere.[4] For now, we want to look only at the particular factors relating to the resurgence of the notion of “national imperialisms.”

The result of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the civil war in the Russian empire, was a specific form of state power never before seen in the world (with the possible exception of the Paris Commune) – the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the form which the dictatorship of the proletariat took in the USSR, a significant section of the party, especially the leading strata, merged with, and in fact came to constitute, the state apparatus.

With a necessarily large state apparatus and a relatively small and inexperienced party, the dangers inherent in this situation were great. Lenin repeatedly warned of the bureaucratic tendencies organic to the Russian state bureaucracy and the danger that these tendencies would be carried over into the party to the degree it became merged with the state.

Bettelheim argues that precisely this eventuality came to pass. The dominant element in the party-state apparatus fusion increasingly became the state apparatus, with the consequent transformation of the practice and outlook of key sections of the party from that of proletarian revolutionaries to that of state functionaries.

The effect of this process of ideological transformation on the Bolshevik understanding of imperialism was significant. The awareness of imperialism as a world system appropriate to an internationalist proletarian revolutionary came to be replaced by a conception of imperialism as policies of national and international alliances appropriate to statesmen and state bureaucrats. The perspective of class struggle came to be replaced by considerations of Soviet foreign policy and state interest.[5]

Given the predominant place of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik )(CPSU(B)) in the world communist movement, it was unavoidable that this particularly national, as opposed to international, perspective on imperialism was passed on to the communist parties of the world. It is therefore necessary to examine this notion of “national imperialisms” as a “theoretical” orientation and as a strategic line of the communist movement.

The Example of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform)

A good example of the use of this notion in the communist movement is found in Andrei Zhdanov’s speech to the founding conference of the Cominform in 1947. The speech by Zhdanov, who was a member of the politbureau of the CPSU(B) and head of the Cominform, is valuable both for its clarity and for the way it foreshadows many elements of current Chinese thinking on the world situation.

Zhdanov argued that the post-war world was divided into two camps: the imperialist and anti-democratic camp, and the anti-imperialist and democratic camp. Included in the former were the US, the countries of Western Europe, Latin America, etc. Included in the latter were the USSR, Eastern Europe, Finland, Indonesia and India.[6]

Zhdanov’s criteria are apparent to anyone familiar with the international situation in this period. Anti-imperialists were distinguished from imperialists by their attitude toward the Soviet Union, by their sharing a common foreign policy, by their common opposition to the “main enemy” – the United States. Finland, Indonesia and India became anti-imperialist not by a change in the class which held state power or any change in their place in the imperialist system, but by the state policies of those countries in the international arena.

These criteria were applied not only to turn national entities firmly within the imperialist system into “anti-imperialists”, but it also was employed to turn what had formerly been considered “socialist” countries into “imperialist” ones. In this respect, too, the Cominform foreshadowed current Chinese practice. I am referring, of course, to the case of Yugoslavia.

The contradictions between the USSR and Yugoslavia in the immediate postwar period reached a stage of open polemics in 1948. The degeneration of state to state, and party to party relations led to a Soviet-inspired Cominform resolution which insisted that a “fascist type regime had been installed in Yugoslavia.” Asserting that Yugoslavia was a capitalist country it argued:

It is clear to every Marxist that there can be no talk of building socialism in Yugoslavia when the Tito clique has broken with the Soviet Union, with the entire camp of socialism and democracy, thereby depriving Yugoslavia of the main bulwark for building socialism...[7]

This quotation encapsulates the non-class, national perspective on anti-imperialism. It displaces the main bulwark of socialism from the Yugoslavian working class and peasantry to Soviet aid. Building socialism, in Zhdanov’s speech, like anti-imperialism, had ceased to be a question of class struggle and become instead one of state foreign policy.

This approach to Marxist theory and analysis is representative of the devolution of Marxism-Leninism – the return to the theory and analysis of Social Democracy in the pre-World War I period. In his preface to Bukharin’s pamphlet Imperialism and the World Economy, Lenin, in 1915, characterized Plekhanov’s use of the term imperialist. “The scientific concept of imperialism,” he warned, had been “reduced to a sort of term of abuse applied to immediate competitors, rivals, opponents...”[8]

Such a characterization accurately reflects the kind of use to which the terms “imperialist,” “capitalist” and “fascist” were employed in the Cominform analysis. They were deprived of their revolutionary, scientific, analytical character and functioned as terms of abuse. This is not to say that Yugoslavia was not then, and is not now, a capitalist country. It is, however, to insist that the process by which this conclusion was reached by the Cominform had nothing in common with Marxism-Leninism.

One more point before we leave this episode in communist history. The replacement of class criteria in theory with national criteria in assessing the character of a particular country produced parallel effects in the strategic line of the communist movement. The class struggle became subordinate to the national struggle, class questions secondary to national interests.

Here is how Zhdanov in the same speech defined the tasks of the communists of Western Europe:

Upon the Communists devolves the special historical task of leading the resistance to the American plan for the enthrallment of Europe... At the same time, Communists must support all the really patriotic elements who do not want their countries to be imposed upon, who want to resist their enthrallment to foreign capital and to uphold their national sovereignty.[9]

Zhdanov’s call is not for a strategy of class struggle, but one of class collaboration. In the interests of “national unity” against the main danger – the US imperialist threat – the communists were to subordinate their energies to united work with the “progressive” sections of the bourgeoisie. The parallel between this strategic line and that contained in the “Theory of Three Worlds” should be obvious.

The “Theory of Three Worlds”

The “Theory of Three Worlds” is the latest development in the efforts of the Communist Party of China (CCP) to break with the conception and line on the international situation proposed in the Soviet Union by Khruschev and his successors. This debate “on the general line of the international communist movement” has been going on for twenty years, and in that time Chinese thinking has undergone significant changes.

In the beginning, China targeted the Soviet Union for its capitulation to imperialism and for its advocacy of class collaboration as a strategy for communists in the capitalist countries. To Soviet arguments for peaceful coexistence and peaceful transition, the Chinese counter-posed the need for proletarian independence and proletarian revolution as strategic goals of the world communist parties.

The Chinese broke with modern revisionism and its international line and sought to develop a new international line, one based both on Marxist-Leninist principles and the reality of advanced imperialism. This effort was caught up in the Cultural Revolution and the intense struggles which accompanied it. Perhaps only now is it becoming possible to evaluate the Cultural Revolution in all its positive and negative features.[10] In any case, one of its consequences was the theory of two “superpowers” which, in 1974, was transformed into the “Theory of Three Worlds.”

Ironically, the latest pronouncement of the Chinese, this “Theory of Three Worlds”, raises class collaboration and the abandonment of revolutionary struggle to heights undreamed of, even by the Soviet revisionists. This aspect, the strategic aspect, has occupied the most attention in recent debates on the “Theory of Three Worlds”. Yet, the “Theory of Three Worlds” is not just a strategy for communist practice, it is also a “theory” – a conceptual system and methodology for characterizing the countries of the world.

Any critique of the strategy without an accompanying critique of its theoretical underpinnings will not get us to the heart of the problem. For it is precisely the absence of clear class criteria in its concepts and methodology which enables the ”Theory of Three Worlds” to produce a strategy of class collaboration. The theory and the strategy are inseparable: those who claim to uphold the theory while opposing its strategic implications are only fooling themselves.

This understanding is central to the current debate: the world communist movement cannot develop and advance a revolutionary strategy unless, and at the same time, it theoretically grasps in a Marxist-Leninist way, the nature and dynamic of contemporary world imperialism.

Though the “Theory of Three Worlds” repeats in a new and different way the erroneous approach of the Cominform to dividing the world, the end result is the same. For China, the first criteria by which a nation is judged is its attitude to the main enemy – in the present context, the Soviet Union. As with the Cominform this assessment disregards class criteria and instead makes questions of foreign policy central to its analysis.

Nowhere is this, more apparent than in China’s treatment of the USSR and Eastern Europe which is strongly reminiscent of the process by which “socialist” Yugoslavia was transformed into “fascist” Yugoslavia in 1948. China’s increasing differences with the Soviet Union in the 1960’s were paralleled by an ideological campaign in which the USSR was turned first into a capitalist, then into a fascist, social-imperialist power. Curiously enough, the same campaign that began with a critique of Soviet capitulation to capitalist revisionist Yugoslavia in the late 1950’s has now turned Yugoslavia in the late 1970’s into a strong “socialist” state led by that “outstanding” Marxist-Leninist, “comrade” Tito.[11]

The question can be asked: what distinguishes Yugoslavia and Romania on the one hand from the USSR, or better, Hungary and Bulgaria on the other? The balance of class forces, social relations or place in the world economy? By posing the question in this way, a contrast is apparent. For the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds,” these factors are irrelevant. In place of class questions, they ask policy questions: what is the foreign policy of the state, its attitude toward the USSR, etc. Yugoslavia’s “socialism” is not a product of its class struggle, but of Tito’s line on the Soviet Union.[12]

The same approach is taken when China deals with Iran, Japan, NATO, Zaire, and even, as Deng’s visit shows, the United States. For anyone who reads Beijing Review (Peking Review) it is abundantly clear who has forgotten Mao’s warning: “Never Forget Class Struggle.”

This approach is not unique to the “Theory of Three Worlds;” we have already seen it in the line and practice of the Cominform. What is original in the international line outlined in the “Theory of Three Worlds” is its second set of criteria, which represents the abandonment of another of Chairman Mao’s warnings: “oppose the theory of productive forces.”

The second set of criteria employed in the Chinese analysis is quantitative in nature: the degree of development of the productive forces in each country determines whether it is to be placed in the “first,” “second” or “third” worlds. This is not the place to discuss how such an analysis violates the principle that production relations rather than productive forces are primary. What is important for our purposes is how it obscures the character of world imperialism itself.

By lumping countries together only by the degree of development of their productive forces, regardless of their other differences, the “Theory of Three Worlds” fails to establish the real material connections forged by imperialism to weld the world system together. In place of the specific chains of the imperialist system, the “Theory of Three Worlds” substitutes a non-Marxist, non-class theory of the relations between countries.[13]

The basic error made by the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds” in this regard is their frequent use of the term ”exploitation” to characterize relations between countries of the different ”worlds.” They often speak of the two superpowers as the “biggest international exploiters” and of the “third” world as “exploited” by the nations of the first and second worlds.[14]

Rather than illuminating the character of imperialism, such language actually serves to conceal what is going on. As Bettelhiem explains:

The concept of exploitation expresses a production relation – production of surplus labor and appropriation of this by a social class – it necessarily relates to class relations (and a relation between “countries” is not and cannot be a relation between classes).[15]

We should not be surprised that the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds” have basically confused class relations with relations between nations. Having abandoned class analysis for interests of national policy, such a confusion is to be expected. Like the concepts “socialist,” “capitalist” and “imperialist,” the concept “exploitation” has ceased to be a rigorous scientific Marxist concept, and instead has been reduced to an ideological notion, concealing more than it explains.

Two errors, two “concealment effects,”[16] result from the formulation that the nations of the “first” and “second” worlds “exploit” the “third” world. On the one hand, it produces the illusion that the workers and the bourgeoisie of the former countries cooperate or share in this exploitation. Such an illusion in turn constitutes an obstacle to the recognition on the part of the workers of all countries of their common interests, because it pits one section of the class against another.

The flip side of this first illusion is the second, that the workers and the bourgeoisie of the “third” world and to a degree the “second” world suffer a common “exploitation” at the hands of the “two superpowers,” and therefore share a common struggle and a common enemy. The effect of the first illusion is to divide the international working class; the effect of the second is to unite workers in “second” and “third” world nations with their own bourgeoisie.

These concealment effects demonstrate the organic unity which exists between the “Theory of Three Worlds” and its strategy. Operating on the basis of a non-Marxist, non-class conceptual system for characterizing the world’s nations, an equally non-class strategy targets both superpowers or only the USSR as its main enemy. Missing in both approaches is the centrality of class criteria and class struggle.

In a nutshell we can say that once nations, not classes, become the basic unit of conceptual analysis, as with the “Theory of Three Worlds,” sooner or later nations, not classes, will become the basic unit of strategic analysis as well.

The Strategy of the “Theory of Three Worlds” and Proletarian Internationalism

The “Theory of Three Worlds,” as we have seen, is founded on two sets of criteria and a corresponding methodology which depart significantly from Marxism-Leninism. To this theoretical deviation corresponds a strategic deviation as well, which we can identify by the term class collaboration.

Below are the words used in the article “Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds is a Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism” to characterize the tasks of the working class in the “second” world. Note the striking similarity to Zhdanov’s speech delivered forty years before:

the proletariat in the second world countries must hold high the banner of national independence, stand in the van of resistance to the threats of aggression from the two superpowers, and especially from Soviet-social-imperialism, and under certain conditions, unite with all those who refuse to succumb to superpower manipulation and enslavement and actively lead or take part in the struggle.

Added almost as an after-thought is the sentence: “This will also help promote the revolutionary situation in these countries.”[17]

We will examine the accuracy of that last point in a minute. But first we must discuss communist strategy and proletarian internationalism. What is the relationship between the duty of communists to fight for revolution in their own country and at the same time support the world revolutionary movement? Lenin offered this answer in 1917: “He is not an internationalist who vows and swears by internationalism. Only he is an internationalist who in a really international way combats his own bourgeoisie, his own social chauvinists, his own Kautskyites.”[18]

For Lenin the struggle against ones own bourgeoisie was the heart of proletarian internationalism, because by this means> communists in one country could render the maximum possible support to the world revolution. For proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds,” on the contrary, the practice of supporting one’s own bourgeoisie is proletarian internationalism because it renders the maximum possible support to the struggle against the Soviet Union.

But the class collaborationist character of the “Theory of Three Worlds” is still more evident in practice. Listen to the self-criticism made by the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of France (PCMLF), a proponent of the “Theory of Three Worlds,” issued at its Third Congress in 1978. The Party, the resolution states, directed its main effort at the two “superpowers” and did not take as its principle target the “enemy which on a daily basis confronts the working class and the whole people: the exploiting bourgeoisie.” The resolution continues:

Further, under abstract, patriotic pretexts, the party erroneously was involved, more or less openly, in an alliance with the bourgeoisie to defend national independence; which came down to calling on the working-class to place itself at the mercy of its principal enemy.[19]

How the “Theory of Three Worlds” will “promote the revolutionary situation” in France is something only its supporters can explain.

Several more quotes are necessary at this point to place the “Theory of Three Worlds” in historical and political perspective. The Communist Party of Australia (M-L), a leading proponent of the “Theory of Three Worlds” explains its strategic relevance for proletarian revolution in Australia. After dividing the Australian bourgeoisie into a section of “traitors” tied to foreign imperialism and another section, the national bourgeoisie, it writes:

Our knowledge that we are a second world country clarifies our immediate task, which is to win independence from superpower control. Having won that independence we consolidate it and protect it in the course of struggling for socialism. But it would be wrong to demand immediate transition to socialism as this would strengthen the traitor class, by driving into its arms the entire national bourgeoisie and the working farmers. This would lead to the failure of the revolution.[20]

Compare that quotation with this one, written by Earl Browder in 1944:

It is my considered judgment that the American people are so ill-prepared, subjectively, for any deep-going change in the direction of socialism that post-war plans with such an aim would not unite the nation but would further divide it... Adherents of socialism, therefore, in order to function actively as bearers of unity within the broad democratic camp, must make it clear that they will not raise the issue of socialism in such a form and manner as to endanger or weaken that national unity.[21]

What these two quotations share is not simply a political line which seeks to unite the workers with their own bourgeoisie, but also the insistence that communists must indefinitely postpone any open campaign to win the working class to a communist program of struggle against that bourgeoisie. In the “Theory of Three Worlds” we can see revealed a “left” variant of Browderism, in its most blatant form.

At one time the anti-revisionist movement used to laugh at Gus Hall’s clumsy calls for American communists to unite with “powerful sections of monopoly capital” in the struggle for detente.[22] After Deng Xiaoping’s visit we have a special obligation to see that the same class collaborationist shoe is not forced to fit our movement as well.

These comparisons should demonstrate that we have, indeed, come full circle. The polemics initiated by the Chinese twenty years ago revitalized the communist movement because they pinpointed and denounced the class collaborationism of the modern revisionists. Today, it is none other than the Communist Party of China which is attempting to lead the anti-revisionist communist movement straight into class collaborationism. From the United Front Against Imperialism of the 1960’s has emerged the United Front with Imperialism of the 1980’s.

Consequently, the world communist movement is again at the cross-roads. In 1914 the international situation and the class collaboration of social democracy necessitated a decisive break with the Second International. In the early 1960’s too, the class collaborationism of modern revisionism and its international line called forth revolutionaries ready and willing to break with it. Such a time is again upon us. Communists must decide between continuing with the class collaboration of the “Theory of Three Worlds” or breaking with it.

The reason such a decision has become necessary is that significant sections of the world and American communist movements, led by the Communist Party of China, have taken up theoretical and political positions which are fundamentally at variance with Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism.

Genuine Marxist-Leninists have no choice except to unite openly around a line which upholds Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism while demarcating ourselves from those who will not do so. A centrist position on this critical issue is not a viable alternative. It is most strange therefore, to find a position being put forward which indeed tries to incorporate or fuse both lines – proletarian internationalism and class collaboration.

The proponents of this effort refuse to criticise the “Theory of Three Worlds,” and frankly adhere to the “oppose the two superpowers” variant of it. They also refuse to criticise Chinese foreign policy and only with great reluctance concede that the CP(M-L) has made “errors” in not upholding proletarian internationalism; finally, they refuse to demarcate themselves from the betrayal of proletarian internationalism inherent in the non-Marxist, non-class theories of “superpowers” and the “three worlds.” Instead they propose nothing less than that US communists sidestep these issues by holding to the narrow formulation “The chief responsibility of US revolutionaries is to overthrow US Imperialism, while fighting against all imperialism.”[23]

These comrades want to have their cake and eat it too. They think that simply affirming an opposition to class collaboration in the US will excuse their support for the theory which has led communists around the world, and in the US, to that very same class collaboration to which they claim they are opposed. They think it will relieve them of their responsibility as communists to actively oppose that theory and its practitioners, here and abroad, who have done such harm to our movement.

Clearly, three years after Angola, the US communist movement cannot continue to avoid this issue any longer. The not so subtle retreat into the variant of the “Theory of Three Worlds” which targeted both “superpowers” and not just the USSR as the main danger will not render the “Theory of Three Worlds” any more scientific: it will not restore class struggle to its central place in communist theory and practice. Nor will it absolve its proponents from their complicity with the betrayal of proletarian internationalism.

Instead honest Marxist-Leninists must break with the theory of national imperialisms, and its latest variation, the “Theory of Three Worlds.” The communist movement requires the construction of an advanced theory of contemporary imperialism, with the political line, strategy, and tactics necessary for a genuine struggle against it.

“US Imperialism is the Main Enemy of the Peoples of the World”

At this stage in the party building movement, the most important step we can take to combat class collaboration and the “Theory of Three Worlds” is to put forward a political line which correctly embodies both a Marxist-Leninist critique of these errors and presents a clear and principled revolutionary alternative.

The chief line put forward in opposition to the “Theory of Three Worlds” states: “US Imperialism is the main enemy of the peoples of the world.” This line grasps an essential feature of the necessary critique of the “Theory of Three Worlds,” but by itself, it is inadequate to defeat the number of erroneous interpretations, essentially derivative of the three worlds theory, which dominate the anti-revisionist communist movement.

The inadequacy of this line can be located in the following areas:
1) It fails to deal with the character of imperialism as a world system;
2) It does not directly indicate the nature of the relationship between the United States and world imperialism;
3) It does not provide a basis for characterizing other countries in the world imperialist system;
4) It ignores the problem of characterizing the USSR and its allies;
5) It does not reaffirm the centrality of proletarian revolution both for our own struggle and for proletarian internationalism.

To overcome this inadequacy, to supplement what is positive in this political line, we present the following points for discussion.

1) The conception of imperialism as a national phenomenon (“US Imperialism”) is antithetical with Marxism-Leninism. Imperialism is a world system. The dynamic of this system flows from the two major tendencies of the capitalist mode of production: the tendency toward maximum expansion within each social formation, each geographical entity, and the tendency toward world wide expansion.

The first tendency leads to the formation of nations and national entities. The motive force in the development of these national entities is the class struggle (the primary aspect) and the effect of the world imperialist system in its national aspects (the struggle between nations) (the secondary aspect).

The second tendency leads to the formation of a world imperialist system, a hierarchy of social formations, dominated by a hegemonic power. The motive force in the development of imperialism is the class struggle (the primary aspect) and the struggle between national entities (the secondary aspect).

2) Today the majority of the worlds peoples live in the imperialist world system dominated by the hegemony of the USA, whose economic, political (including military) and ideological strength is decisive in the maintenance and reproduction of the relationships characteristic of the world system.

3) Any social formation within the imperialist system can be analysed primarily by two sets of factors, which correspond to the two tendencies characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. The first set of factors relates to the balance of class forces, productive relations and productive forces, and the direction of their development within that social formation.

The second set of factors refer to the place and role occupied by that social formation within the world imperialist system and the reciprocal effects, class,, economic, political and ideological of the social formation and the world system on each other.

4) The communist movement requires an accurate and sophisticated analysis of the character, role and inter-relationships of the USSR and its allies. The ultimate conclusions of that analysis cannot be predicted in advance. However, at this point we can say with assurance that the manner in which the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds” and the “USSR as imperialist superpower” theses have arrived at their conclusions, their conceptual system and methodology, are not only unconvincing, but essentially non-Marxist.

Their conclusions are not the product of rigorous theoretical and political study and struggle, but are preconceptions cloaked in pseudo-theoretical justifications, added on later as window-dressing. In the United States these conclusions function to justify, by targeting the Soviet Union, the abandonment of ideological struggle against our own bourgeoisie and an ideological accommodation to bourgeois anti-Sovietism.

5) Finally, in the face of class collaboration with the US bourgeoisie as a programmatic line of both the Communist Party, USA and the Communist Party (M-L) (to name only the two most prominent groups) it is necessary to reaffirm Marxism-Leninism’s strategic orientation. The primary political task, the ultimate goal of the communist movement, is to prepare the working class for proletarian revolution. Such preparation requires the principle of proletarian independence at all times, even when the working class must make temporary alliances with other class forces.

These two principles – proletarian revolution and proletarian independence – must always be affirmed. When in a relatively stable conjuncture such as the present, communists can never lose sight of our long term strategic goal, nor neglect in our intervention in the class struggles of the workers, to prepare the workers, if only ideologically, for this eventuality. And even when the workers movement is weak, communists must uphold the necessity of proletarian independence, so that the movement does not become or remain ideologically dependent on bourgeois or petty-bourgeoisie forces.

We present these elements of a political line as the best weapon we know to isolate and defeat the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds.” We are aware, though, that there are a number of honest Marxist-Leninist groups who have not been convinced of the necessity of drawing a clear line of demarcation with the “Theory of Three Worlds” class collaborationists. They ask: Why is it necessary at this time to break with the proponents of the “Theory of Three worlds” in the absence of a widespread, well understood analysis of imperialism, the Soviet Union, etc.?

To this question we have the following answers:

First, our immediate response is yes, we agree on the need for an advanced Marxist-Leninist analysis of imperialism and the Soviet Union. Precisely for this reason we must break with the non-Marxist, non-class “Theory of Three Worlds” which constitutes a major obstacle to the development of that analysis. As long as significant sections of our movement are hamstrung by this erroneous theory, the movement as a whole cannot advance its theoretical and political understanding.

The second response flows from our understanding of Lenin’s characterization of true internationalism, as quoted above. Although we are speaking here of two inter-related questions, the main enemy of the peoples of the world, and the main enemy of the US working class, for the US communist movement the second issue must always be primary. This is what Lenin meant when he said that the true internationalist is the one who combats his/her own bourgeoisie. In the same article Lenin characterizes the exposure of the bourgeoisie of an opposing country on the part of socialists as “imperialist intrigue, with and not an internationalist duty.”[24]

We must break with the proponents of the “Theory of Three Worlds,” because they are unable to break with imperialist intrigue, with the constant speculation on the relative threat of the Soviet Union to this or that country, to this or that liberation struggle. They are either unwilling or unable to direct their primary attention and energy toward fulfilling our necessary obligation to our own working-class and the international revolutionary movement – the struggle against our own bourgeoisie.

But the question still remains, what if the USSR is, in fact, a social imperialist power? Will not the adoption of the political line we have put forward be a serious mistake?

We think not, for the following reasons:

The majority of the peoples of the world live in the imperialist system dominated by the United States. The fact that another imperialist system exists would not change that fact. It would add an important external factor acting on the first imperialist system, but it would not render our theory invalid.

Second, if a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the Soviet Union as a social imperialist power were to be produced and accepted, it would in no way resemble the ideological system which functions within the “Theory of Three Worlds.” Rather, it would more closely resemble the above outlined theory as it would be the product of a similar theoretical conception and similar methods of analysis. Thus, adopting the picture of imperialism presented above will help us to more quickly resolve the issue of the character of the Soviet Union, as it will furnish us with the Marxist-Leninist tools we require.

Finally, the political line we have proposed is not closed; it does not presume to resolve every problem our movement currently faces in the international arena. Therefore, it does not foreclose the necessary debate or theoretical struggle, but rather welcomes it. What it does is reassert the conditions necessary for a revitalized communist movement to once again fulfill its proletarian internationalist obligations.

In the context of the current conjuncture, the proletarian internationalist responsibilities of our movement are as follows:
1) to direct our main efforts against the US bourgeoisie;
2) to render whatever support we can to communist revolutionaries around the world; including support in the struggle against modern revisionism and against the “Theory of Three Worlds”;
3) to render whatever material, political and ideological support we can to those class and national liberation forces fighting to break free of the imperialist system; and
4) most importantly, to establish the necessary political and theoretical basis and unity with which to create a genuine communist party in the United States.

Without the last task, without a genuine communist party, the US communist movement will be unable to fulfill any of its other obligations in a truly effective, truly internationalist manner. Reciprocally, clarifying the international situation, and drawing clear lines of demarcation with those who betray proletarian internationalism is an important and integral part of the necessary struggle for the party.


[1] For the best discussion of this, see Charles Bettelheim’s “Theoretical Comments”, in Arghiri Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (MR, 1972).

[2] Ibid, p. 296.

[3] For a discussion of the devolution of the line of the Comintern and the connection between the Comintern’s line and that of the Second International, see the essay, “Note on ’The Critique of the Personality Cult’” in Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism (NLB, 1975).

[4] See the review in Theoretical Review #8, “Stalin and Historical Reality,” and in this issue, “Stalin and Problems of Theory”.

[5] Our analysis here has nothing in common with the various Trotskyist approaches. Trotskyism starts from the premise that the problems in the development of the Soviet revolution flowed from the effort to build socialism in one country. We, on the contrary, trace these problems back to the political and theoretical practice in the party, in terms of its relationship to the masses on the one hand and the state apparatus on the other.

[6] Andrei Zhanadov, The International Situation (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947), pg. 17-18.

[7] White Book on Aggressive Activities By the Governments of the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Albania Toward Yugoslavia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia, 1951), p. 175.

[8] Lenin, Collected Works (Progress Publishers, 1964), vol. 22, p. 103.

[9] Zhadanov, op. cit., p. 47.

[10] For the latest approach to the Cultural Revolution, see Charles Bettelheim Chaina Since Mao (MR, 1978), and the review of it, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” in this issue of the Theoretical Review.

[11] Peking Review, December 8, 1978.

[12] For an interesting speech by Huang Hua, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, on Yugoslavia, delievered in 1977, see Issues and Studies, vol. XIV, no. 1 (January, 1978).

[13] For another discussion of the “Theory of Three Worlds”, see “The Albanian Critique of the Theory of Three Worlds,” in the Theoretical Review, #3 January-February 1978).

[14] See, for example, Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds is a Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism (Foreign Languages Press, 1977).

[15] Bettelheim, “Theoretical Comments,” p. 301.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Chairman Mao’s Theory, etc., p. 63.

[18] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 209.

[19] l’Humanite Rouge # 25 (16 fevrier au 2 mars 1978).

[20] Quoted in In Struggle!, Against Right Opportunism in International Questions (In Struggle!, 1977), p. 8.

[21] Earl Browder, Tehran, Our Path in War and Peace (International, 1944), p. 67.

[22] For example, see Gus Hall, The Big Stakes of Detente (New Outlook, 1974).

[23] “Opposition to Revisionism is not Ultra-Leftism,” in OC Bulletin #l, p. 8.

[24] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 209.