Understanding imperialism as a global system


In several debates I recently conducted in which I condemned all forms of imperialisms, including Russian imperialism in Syria and Ukraine (not to mention the Russian repression against the Chechens and the Russian authoritarian, reactionary and economically neoliberal system, with a concentration of wealth in the country in the hands of a mafia business clique affiliated with Putin), several people claiming to be “leftists” answered that there was no Russian imperialism or that Russia was a power that opposed USA imperialism and should therefore be supported.

This kind of analysis is part of a completely distorted understanding of imperialism, which is reduced to one (United States) or few actors (Western states generally).

Several reasons can explain this reasoning, which I do not have time to discuss in details here in this article, but that is primarily rooted first in a misunderstanding of the capitalist system, and / or a legacy of the Cold War, which sees Russia and its allies (Iran and Syria in particular) as progressive and anti-imperialist states, against the United States.

This reasoning leads to hostile positions with regards to some popular uprisings, as it is currently the case with Syria and Ukraine or in the past with Iran in 2009.

For clarification, we do not deny the reality of USA and / or Western imperialism, and its willingness to influence certain revolutionary processes or uprisings through political actors subject to its influence, but often unrepresentative of the popular movements as in Syria, Iran and Ukraine.

USA Imperialism remains the most important through its military and economic power. The consequences of USA imperialism can be seen until today with its use of deadly drones in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, or in the ongoing negotiations for the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), the aim of which is clearly for the United States to rely on the European “partner” to reassert their hegemony against the rise of China, without forgetting the transfer of 60% of the American navy military capabilities to the Pacific to face the Chinese challenge, seen as the main economic threat by the United States.

Imperialism can also take the form of economic agreements, such as in the case of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) signed in July 10th 2014 in Ghana between the European Union and 16 West African States. The agreement aims at eliminating 75% of the tariffs on imports from the EU and to restrict their autonomy in trade policy beyond the WTO requirements.

That said, it is necessary to understand imperialism as a global system linked to the development and transformation of the capitalist system, and not limited to a few players. The increasing influence of China, which has become the world’s largest industrial and commercial State, and continues to experience significant rates of growth, despite a relative decline in recent years, and Russia, which saw the concentration of raw materials and industries in the hands of the state and / or its affiliates through a team of businessmen who are close allies of Putin in a patron-client relationships and the increase in prices of raw materials such as oil, must be seen in this perspective.

The modern or capitalist imperialism, which dates back to the development of slavery and materialises more and more later in the late 19th century, should be understood as the intersection and fusion of economic and geopolitical competitions. It is this dialectical relationship between these two logics that explains the current imperialists dynamics. Power relations actually change through time according to capitalist development in each country and the political situation and therefore as well as alliances. Similarly, we must understand that if capitalism tends to spread to the whole world, it does not spread in a linear and smooth way, as explained by the Russian revolutionary Trotsky in his theory of the “law of uneven and combined development “. Indeed States do not follow the same forms and stages of development and it allows some players to catch up on others, as exemplified by what happened with Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century or in the last decades with China, which competes with the United States as an economic power. Imperialism, defined by Lenin as the last stage or highest stage of capitalism, is also part of this dynamic of uneven and combined development.

Karl Marx argued that capitalism was rooted in two fundamental characteristics: 1) The exploitation of wage labor by capital, class fundamental antagonism 2) that the capitalist class is not a unified block, there are rivalries between capitalists fighting on leftovers and profits of exploitation. In other words, imperialism is a process of conflict between powerful capitalist states on the control of the spoils of the planet.

The failure of the American invasion of Iraq, which no longer needs to be proven and from which the Iraqi people are still suffering, and the global economic and financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 were severe blows both economically and for the prestige of the American neoliberal model on a global level, causing a relative weakening of its overall power, which not only left more space for other global imperialist forces like China and Russia, but also benefited regional powers, that are usually called sub-imperialism in their respective regions. In recent decades, we have seen the emergence of many major centers of capital accumulation that are newly industrialized countries and are politically influential and increasingly important regional investments. The ruling classes of these latters, often called “emerging countries” are not just simple instruments of Western imperialism and assert themselves more and more as regional powers with their own interests and with the ability to defend them such as Brazil in South America and South Africa as well in Sub Sahara Africa. This is particularly visible in the Middle East as a result of the relative weakening of American power after its failure in Iraq, where regional states like Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have played a growing role in the region and intervene in the revolutionary processes by their rivalries and competitions in supporting various actors in conflict with popular demands for democracy, social justice and equality. In a similar situation, a number of people claiming to be “leftists” have trouble denouncing the Iranian military interventions (through the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards) in Syria and Iraq as well as the economic assistance and political support provided to the Syrian regime or Hezbollah as forms of political interventions to maintain its political influence in the region.

In the region, the State of Israel is also at the service of Western imperialism, except that in this case it is in the framework of a colonial project of expulsion of the indigenous population, the Palestinians. Israel has actually been playing for decades the role of watchdog of Western imperialist interests in the region, a task particularly well illustrated by the editor of Ha’aretz newspaper in 1951:“Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive Policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. But if for any reasons the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”

The relative weakening of the United States globally is also seen in its foreign policy under the Obama administration by adopting a more “multilateral” strategy, pressuring other countries to collaborate on on a global level with the USA, and less on an unilateral way such as in the Bush period. The latest example is the will of the United States to build a broad coalition to fight against the “terrorism” of the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria.

It is also necessary to know that the various imperialists and regional bourgeois powers, despite their rivalries, collaborate when the global imperialist system is threatened, for example they all have a common interest in the defeat of the popular revolutions in the region, including in Syria, and in the maintaining of the status quo.

We should not actually believe that imperialist rivalries on the global level between Russia, China and the USA, as impossible to overcome when their interests are at stake and that the relationship of interdependence are actually very present. All these regimes are bourgeois powers that are enemies of popular revolutions, only interested in a stable political environment allowing them to build and develop their political and economic capital in defiance of the popular classes.

In conclusion, the role of progressive forces is not to choose between two imperialist or sub imperialists forces that compete for political gains and / or the exploitation of more resources or of other peoples, this understanding undermines the anti-capitalist struggle putting aside the fact that the struggle of the progressive forces must always be in favor of the interests of the working and popular classes in their struggle for liberation and emancipation against all forms of imperialisms and by their struggles challenge the global imperialist system. To choose an imperialism over another is to guarantee the stability of the capitalist system and exploitation of peoples.

Joseph Daher


One thought on “Understanding imperialism as a global system

  1. One should also look at concrete events with an analysis of each, independently one to another.

    Whilst the Syrian popular uprising was exactlythat, an uprising of the people with a high working class content, and with a democratic, revolutionary agenda, that of the Ukraine was not.

    The Kiev putsch was from the beginning led by the “pro-Europe” faction of the Ukrainian oligarchy, and was overwhelmingly petit-bourgeois in class composition. According to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, which closely monitored the Maidan from November, at no time did the working class make up more than 15% of the participants. 22% of the participants were small and medium size capitalists, while 28% were professional and technical cadre.

    As the Maidan progressed, and the influence of the far-right grew stronger, the participation of those from Kiev dropped from 50% to 12% at the time of the putsch, with a corresponding increase in the number of participants from small town and villages in west Ukraine increased.

    Those from the South and East Ukraine were primarily small and medium capitalists, with a very tiny percentage of workers.

    In addition, the Center for Society Research tracked the attitudinal and political demands of the Maidan. Consistently the three major demands an end to the repression, for a better life, and for the signing of the accord with the EU. Each of these demands had a roughly equal weight, and were linked together as a package.

    The conclusions that the “movementist left” drew from this middle class revolt was typical of the post-Marxist thinking which pervades sections of the mostly, but not exclusively, state-capitalist tradition of the IS or SWP variety. It goes without saying that the major role which US imperialism played in the creation of the Ukraine junta is best exemplified by the Victoria Nuland conversations where she got to pick “Yats” as prime minister, a conversation which took place 18 days PRIOR to the deposition of Yanukovych. These are the annoying facts that those who try to give the Maidan a “revolutionary” character simply refuse to answer or deal with

    Finally, one can support the workers’ resistance in the Donbass region, a resistance to the program of Anglo-European imperialism, without falling into either the camp of Ukrainian nationalism and westerner imperialism, or the camp of mistakenly seeing Putin and his government of oligarchs as somehow an “anti-imperialist” force.

    For a modern day interpretation of the actually existing mechanisms of imperialism, might I suggest you read “The Making of Global Capitalism” by Panich and Gindin. Lenin says that Marx and Engels didn’t live to see the age of imperialism. Lenin didn’t live to see the structure of imperialism following the Second World War. Neither did Trotsky. We, however are living in the midst of its worst crisis since the 1930s (though I would argue that at the level of social, political and economic contradictions globally actually far exceeds that of that period .

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