An outdated dystopia
Review of Imperialism in the 21st century, by Doug Lorimer. Resistance Books, 2002, $4.95.
According to Doug Lorimer, the Cold War of 1947-1989 was a conflict between "the world's chief imperialist power", the USA, and countervailing forces.
Those countervailing forces he describes negatively as "an enormous wave of political rebellion and social insurgency" or "anti-imperialist rebellions", but positively as "the mass resistance of the Soviet workers and peasants and local worker-peasant movements under Stalinist leadership", "the Soviet workers and peasants in uniform", or "sections of the working class that were attracted to the Soviet alternative to capitalism".
The tussle, on Lorimer's account, went mostly the way of the countervailing forces. "The US defeat in Vietnam [in 1975] was the culmination of the shift in the international relationship of class forces to the detriment of imperialism resulting from the wave of mass insurgency... In a few countries, such as China, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, this mass insurgency led to the creation of workers' and peasants' governments". A new such "workers' and peasants' government", according to Lorimer on another page, was created in Afghanistan in the late 1970s.
Onwards and upwards! Yet, according to Lorimer, something then went wrong. Since the 1980s we have been in an era of "a sustained [imperialist] offensive to take back the post-war concessions [to] organised labour... [and] to the bourgeois regimes in the underdeveloped capitalist countries". The world is a US empire, "the last empire".
What exactly went wrong, Lorimer leaves mysterious. But he does indicate that the turning point came at the very height of the "shift in the international relationship of class forces to the detriment of imperialism", in the 1970s. At that very same time, the big capitalist economies ran into economic trouble, impelling the ruling classes to become more aggressive, and the countervailing forces were weakened.
"The Soviet model of 'socialism' with its bureaucratic mismanagement, political repression and low-quality consumer goods no longer appealed to broad masses of workers as an alternative to imperialist capitalism". Thus imperialists world-wide gained the same favourable absence of countervailing force that had already been secured earlier in the USA, where they had "completely marginalised those sections of the working class that were attracted to the Soviet alternative to capitalism and... therefore had no need to create a large 'welfare state'..."
By the logic of Lorimer's argument, he should severely condemn those too-fastidious workers whose new distaste for the USSR, on his account, opened the door for the imperialist counter-offensive. If only the workers had been less picky, and had remained as supportive of Brezhnev as some of them were of Stalin in the days of high Stalinism, then surely the "shift in class forces to the detriment of imperialism" could have continued.
However, Lorimer is not logical. He plainly accepts that the workers had reasonable grievances. The USSR did display "bureaucratic mismanagement, political repression and low-quality consumer goods" - or, to speak more exactly, totalitarian suppression of the working class and social and economic inequality in many ways worse than the West's.
When larger numbers of workers started to aspire to the old Marxist idea of the "free association of producers" (however confusedly understood) rather than accepting the USSR as a model of the alternative to capitalism, it had a very positive effect on "class forces". The period from 1968 through to the early 1980s saw huge workers' struggles, often winning considerable advances.
The most extensive gains for the "political economy of the working class" within capitalist economies had already been made in countries like Britain and Scandinavia, where labour movements were strong but Stalinist parties were weak. In Italy and France, where large sections of workers did support Stalinism, very little had been won in the way of "welfare states", the Communist Parties being more concerned with efforts, largely unsuccessful, to gain for themselves pockets of power in the state machine.
From about 1968 many fewer workers worldwide saw the USSR as any sort of model. The huge Italian and French Communist Parties condemned the USSR's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Revolutionary groups grew. Many revolutionaries and many workers still had their thinking shaped by Stalinoid ideas, but their aspirations reached beyond the model of the USSR. All to the good.
Two things turned the tide. Firstly, large outright defeats (Chile 1973, Australia 1975, Italy around 1979, USA 1981, Britain 1984-5), or ebbing amidst confusion and disappointment (France 1981-3), of those workers' struggles, fundamentally due to the fact that nowhere were the new revolutionary groups, doing their best to re-learn Marxist politics after decades of Stalinist stifling, able to get far enough to form any sort of revolutionary party.
Secondly, the Stalinist systems coming towards the end of their rope. The problem was not, as Lorimer presents it, one of workers fussily rejecting a progressive and workable, if not quite perfect, system. The system was decaying through its own internal follies. Forced-march industrial development by state command in semi-autarkic economies could produce results of sorts, in creation of bulk crude industrial infrastructure, in some countries for a certain period. Beyond that it revealed itself to be, in the interconnected and technologically-dynamic world economy of the late 20th century, as utopian (or dystopian) as the 19th century communist colonies in the United States.
The revolt of the Polish workers in 1980-1, and the inability of Poland's autocrats to stop Solidarnosc continuing as an underground trade-union organisation after 1981, together with the USSR's inability to napalm the peoples of Afghanistan into submission (1979-88), marked the beginning of the end.
Though workers would play a big role in bringing down the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989-91, and gain considerably in civil and class liberties by doing so, the downfall came at a time when the left was too weak to shape events (its disarray partly caused by the backwash from disappointed illusions in Stalinism and experiences like the Cambodian Stalinist regime's mass murder of its own people in 1975-9), and so the Western big powers gained politically. Many workers in the East who were active making revolutions on their cities' streets wanted some version of West European capitalism as a "realistic" alternative to their status quo. It was a mirror-image of the support by many Italian, French and other workers in the 1940s and 50s for the USSR as the "actually-existing" alternative to what they knew and hated locally.
The great lesson of the whole period is the need to build a revolutionary workers' movement based on a "Third Camp" stance - independent working-class politics - rather than encouraging workers to line up behind whatever option of the powers-that-be seems to be "alternative" to the one immediately facing us.
Yet that is not Lorimer's conclusion. In his scenarios for the world after the Cold War, the working class appears only as a component of "revolutionary mass political action" or an "organised, consciously anti-capitalist mass movement", without any indication of the positive aims of such action or movement. He replaces his "two camps" view of the Cold War world by a "two camps" view of the 21st century world, only the "two camps" are now not East and West, but South and North, or "semi-colonial" and "imperialist".
Lorimer's use of the term "semi-colonial" is strange. He applies it to all the poorer, ex-colonial states of the world except the Stalinist ones. He explains the term by a quotation from Lenin: these are states which are "formally independent, but in fact... enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence".
The full quotation from Lenin runs as follows (Moscow 1948 translation; apparently Lorimer uses a slightly different translation): "Typical of this epoch is not only the two main groups of countries, those owning colonies, and colonies, but also the diverse forms of dependent countries which, officially, are politically independent, but in fact are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence. We have already referred to one form of dependence - the semi-colony. An example of another is provided by Argentina".
Lenin is referring to a table of the world's states a few pages earlier, in which he shows that over 60% of the world's population in 1914 lived in colonies or colony-owning states, another 22% in "semi-colonial countries", and 17% in "other" countries.
Lenin enumerates the semi-colonies as three: Persia (Iran), China and Turkey. It was not just a matter of them being economically weak. China's economically important areas were carved up into "spheres of influence" of different big powers. Persia (Iran) was closely dominated by Britain and Russia. Turkey had its entire public tax revenues controlled by a big-power consortium, the "Ottoman Public Debt Administration", which took what the big powers wanted in debt payments and gave the Sultan only what they chose to leave over.
All three countries, wrote Lenin, were "almost completely" or "becoming" colonies. They were delayed in that process because no one big power had established enough hegemony in them, nor had agreement been reached on dividing their territories between the powers. In the event Persia (Iran) would come under British domination until the 1950s and China would suffer Japanese conquest. In Turkey, German influence would prove dominant in World War 1, bringing Turkey into that war on Germany's side. After Germany's defeat in the war, Britain and France would divide up between them the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire; they would also try to divide up much of Turkey itself (British forces were kept in Constantinople [Istanbul] for five years), but be defeated by Ataturk's Turkish nationalist forces.
So much for the semi-colonies. Of the "others", Lenin wrote: "Finance capital is such a great, it may be said, such a decisive force in all economic and in all international relations, that it is capable of subjecting, and actually does subject to itself, even states enjoying the fullest political independence" (emphasis added). It is that variant for which Argentina is cited as an example. Lenin also gives Portugal as an example of "financial and diplomatic dependence, accompanied by political independence". He describes Portugal as an "independent sovereign state"; indicates that "the Argentine bourgeoisie" (i.e. not any foreign power) are "the circles that control the whole of that country's [Argentina's] economic and political life".
At the time that Lenin wrote his pamphlet on Imperialism, some of his comrades were arguing for the Bolsheviks to drop their programmatic support for the right to self-determination of nations, on the grounds that, with the new Molochs of imperialism bestriding the world, no such thing was possible. In response to them, Lenin wanted to distinguish clearly between economic independence (impossible to attain, he conceded, in a highly interconnected capitalist world), and political independence (difficult to attain, but possible, and deserving support).
Lorimer obliterates the distinction that Lenin so wanted to make clear. He describes all economically weak countries as by definition semi-colonies - all of them, both the Turkeys or Irans and the Argentinas or Portugals - since they operate in a world dominated by the biggest concentrations of capital. Oddly, you have to suppose from Lorimer's account that even those Arab and African countries which were firmly within the USSR's sphere of influence during the Cold War, or India for example, were in his picture "semi-colonies" of the USA.
In the course of the 20th century it would turn out that there was more scope for "economic independence" than Lenin and his comrades expected. Although Argentina in 1914 was politically independent, British capitalists owned a huge share of its basic industries. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, not only Argentina but also pretty much every ex-colonial or ex-semi-colonial country took its basic industries into domestic (usually state) ownership, and created new industries under state or domestic ownership. Metropolitan-based multinationals continued to operate in those countries, but on different terms.
The local ownership did not make the countries "economically independent" - their capitalists still had to trade, negotiate credit, acquire technologies from abroad, etc., in a world dominated by huge metropolitan-based concentrations of capital - but it did about as much as political action by capitalist nation-states can do in that direction. Some countries of the South - Mexico, Brazil, India, Taiwan, Korea, others - became autonomous centres for the export of capital and the rise of their own multinationals.
In the 1990s there was a new flux of metropolitan capital into the South, buying up many important enterprises there previously owned by the state or by local private capitalists. Much-enlarged local state and private capital remains, however, dominant in those countries.
Given these facts, what is the political significance of Lorimer's obliteration of Lenin's distinction? It is to suggest the winning of "independence" (vaguely defined, with no distinction made between political and economic independence) as the main desideratum in most countries of the world. Since those countries already have political independence, and about as much economic autonomy as is compatible with integration into the world market, the call must be for them to replicate the Stalinist dystopia - to launch themselves on a course of forced-march industrial development by state command in economies largely walled off from the rest in the world.
The powerful middle-class forces in many countries of the South who adopted that Stalinist programme, or diluted versions of it, between the 1930s and the 1970s, no longer want it. The workers in those countries do not want it either. For the "insurgent masses" of this or that poor country to make a attempt to replicate the "Soviet model" may look romantic and commendably "revolutionary" from the distance and comfort of Sydney, but for the workers in the poor countries it is not attractive.
Lorimer's programme is not only dystopian but hopeless. All it can achieve politically is to compromise sections of the metropolitan left, morally and intellectually, by persuading them to support hold-out Stalinoid regimes and forces in the name of the struggle against "semi-colonialism".
Throughout Lorimer's pamphlet the working class appears only as a force reactive to the initiatives of others - oppressed by imperialist rulers, occasionally hitting back at them, supporting the "Soviet model" then becoming disillusioned with it, and so on. The essential Marxist idea, however, is that the working class can define and create, by its own independent initiative, new perspectives and a new social order. That idea should guide us in the struggle against imperialism in the 21st century.