At the Second Congress of the Communist International, in the debate on the national and colonial question, just after his book Imperialism had been translated into German and French, Lenin warned delegates they should “establish concrete facts and to proceed from concrete realities, not abstract postulates”.
Alex Callinicos’ book, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity 2009) is a deeply flawed book. It does not proceed from material realities of the modern world, but rather from texts written a century ago. For Callinicos, the most important thing is to demonstrate how his current politics achieve continuity with his pastiche of the classical Marxist tradition. Hence the old analysis must still be true, even when the evidence is against it, so that the SWP can claim the mantel of orthodoxy.
Callinicos is well aware of the central limitations of earlier analyses of imperialism, even at the time. He states (2009: 10): “The classical Marxist theory of imperialism sometimes conflated the historically specific with the universal: thus the theory of finance capital that Lenin took over from Rudolf Hilferding extrapolated far too much from characteristics that were distinctive particularly to late nineteenth century Germany. Furthermore, the treatment of economic crises by the theorists of imperialism was generally problematic. And, quite simply, they were overtaken by how capitalism changed in the course of the twentieth century.” Callinicos (2009: 49) also rightly rejects the principal political conclusion Lenin drew from his analysis of imperialism, arguing that “the theory of the labour aristocracy is untenable on both theoretical and empirical grounds”.
Callinicos’ defence of the classical theories is bizarre in places. He is formally correct (2009: 44) to argue that “Lenin did not claim that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism; the original title of his pamphlet, Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism, was changed only after his death”. However Lenin used the “highest stage” designation in his wartime writings, as well as in the Comintern. At the Second Congress he stated that “the economic relations of imperialism form the basis of the international situation as it now presents itself”, adding that “in the course of the twentieth century a new, highest and final stage of capitalism has taken shape”. Similarly, the idea that capitalism had reached its highest or final stage was a commonplace in pre-war Marxist writings on imperialism as demonstrated in Day and Guido’s collection, Discovering Imperialism (2012).
So what remains of “classical Marxist theory of imperialism”? For Callinicos (2009: 51, 66) first, “inter-imperialist wars of the kind that erupted in August 1914 are thus a necessary consequence of a world economy dominated by competing capitals”. Second, “uneven development was for Lenin the economic basis of military rivalry”. This minimal justification allows Callinicos to argue that the same “project” applies to the modern world.
However Callinicos is aware that the world economy is in many respects very different from the one analysed by the classical Marxists. He argues (2009: 176, 179) that “the growing tendency of industrial firms to fund their investments from retained profits, thereby loosening the relationship between banking a productive capital that Hilferding had posited”. He is also correct to point out that “the picture that Lenin had pained of an imperialist system based on the export of capital to the colonies – even in his time… only a partial truth – was completely at odds with the economic patterns that developed after 1945”.
Callinicos (2009: 214-17) eliminates almost all the candidates challenging US primacy. Although the EU boasts a larger GDP than the US, “there are structural reasons for doubting that the EU is likely in the short term to develop into a major ‘peer competitor’ of the US”. Such a change would “depend on the EU developing military capabilities to match its economic power”. He adds that “it seems even less probable that Japan will break loose from the American hegemony any time soon”. Russia, “with a shrinking population and share of global GDP, and deprived of economically and strategically crucial regions such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan, is in no position to mount a global challenge to the US”.
Even his treatment of China’s rivalry with the US is half-hearted. Callinicos (2009: 210-11, 219) states that “economically the two states are interdependent… the arrangement is a mutually beneficial and hence stable one”. He indicates some elements likely to exacerbate tensions, such as China’s economic expansion, Taiwan and its efforts to ‘soft balance’ the US. However he accepts that “none of this means that the Chinese leadership is set on a path of challenging US hegemony”. He falls back on a veiled warning that “quite independently of the intentions of China’s state managers, the revival of Chinese economic and military power threatens to destabilise US hegemony”. The separation between agency and structure is stark.
Callinicos therefore manufactures a series of elisions to cover his approach. He cannot claim that great power rivalry today is leading to another world war, so instead he formulates a separate “logic” of geopolitical competition, which he then links to any tensions, disagreement between the US and other powers, to indicate potential rivalry. He believes (2009: 136) that throughout modern history, a “symbiotic relationship” emerged “between state-building and geopolitical expansion on the one hand, and capitalist economic development on the other”. Such vague abstractions provide no orientation for over two hundred years of capitalist development, never mind a guide to action.
Callinicos’ weasel words are best summed up by his invention: “the partial dissociation of economic and geopolitical competition”. Thus in 1914, the economic competition of the previous period of uneven capitalist development led to war. But after that, the cold war meant these drives dissociated. And a century on, economic globalisation and heightened competition still does not lead the big powers to war – though the possibility remains. The point is not that great power rivalry is obsolete, which Callinicos ascribes to others such as Hardt and Negri, and Panitch and Gindin, amalgamated with Kautsky and Norman Angell. Such a conclusion, ruling out the prospects of war indefinitely – would be absurd. It is not a position defended by anyone. The point is the current and immediate likelihood of war and how that shapes working class politics.
The disconnection is evident in the political conclusions Callinicos draws from this analysis. Hamas and Hezbollah are spoken of in awe, while the best anti-imperialists appear to have been the Islamist “resistance” in Iraq. There is no sign of the independent working class movement in this scenario, since the SWP’s “anti-imperialism” embraces any force as long as it is anti-American. Callinicos cannot find a rational basis for his argument that the “classical” view still applies. Rather he takes refuge in texts in order to avoid drawing conclusions from current realities. For all his erudition, it is a miserable effort and a regression from the classics.