Imperialism: the historic debate in full daylight

Submitted by AWL on 29 December, 2013 - 9:56

Between 1898 and World War One, Marxists keenly debated imperialism. For decades almost the only living legacy of that debate was in various interpretations of Lenin's pamphlet of 1916, "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism".

Whatever the large merits of Lenin's text, to read it in abstraction from the debates of the time and of the previous two decades, which Lenin knew and assumed many readers would know, must impair understanding. Moreover, Lenin's text was mostly read "through" Stalinist renderings, and the Trotskyists of the day had urgent calls on their slight resources which came before the task of unpicking those renderings in detail.

Over recent decades more and more of the areas of shade around the old debate have been illuminated. I tried to contribute to that in an article in 1996. In 2011 Richard Day and Daniel Gaido published their 950-page selection from the debate: "Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War One".

Their excellent work extends the illumination greatly, and is now sufficiently current that second-hand copies are within the purchasing power of left activists.

Quibbles could be made about the selection. For example, Day and Gaido seem to have looked in the archives for articles labelling themselves as about "imperialism", although in the earlier years of the debate the German Marxists discussed what they would later call "imperialism" under the label "Weltpolitik" (world policy). (The word "imperialism" was taken to be jargon of British bourgeois politics rather than a general term). Thus the first 300 or so pages of the book are heavily weighted towards articles, sometimes relatively journalistic, on British imperial developments, and omit important writings of around or before 1900 which discussed "Weltpolitik" more generally. Nevertheless, the selection is immensely valuable.

It should be read by every Marxist who wants to use the word "imperialism" in her or his explanations and arguments, and to reckon that she or he knows what they are talking about.

The high point of Day's and Gaido's book is their presentation of the debate sparked by the Morocco crisis of 1911 and going through the German Social Democratic Party congress in Chemnitz in 1912.

Hugo Haase moved the majority motion. "Everywhere the striving to acquire new spheres of power and influence in other countries, especially the annexation of overseas countries to one's own state, has become dominant. This imperialist idea has currently seized the whole world... It springs from the economic development of the great capitalist states...

"Powerful upswing in world traffic... An export of means of production, an export of capital, is also taking place at an ever-growing pace...

"Countries previously totally excluded from industry... have been dragged into large-scale capitalist business...

"Colonial policy... displays the features eminently characteristic of imperialism - especially violence... Under the rule of imperialism, violence is an 'economic power' of the first rank...

"The idea of a Greater Germany [appears as] merely the product of an absolutist disposition... But [as] Luxemburg [and others have] pointed out... the question under discussion [is] much greater - namely, the onset of a new phase of capitalist development...

"As a consequence... the arms race developed on an ever-larger scale... The competition in the arms field must ultimately lead either to a world war or to a financial collapse... German Social Democracy has always voted on principle against the arms race...

"Imperialism drives the capitalist system to its highest stage; it is ready to make room for another system, the socialist one..." (p.627-44).

A series of analytic issues flickered on the edge of this summary, but Haase was not wrong to present it as commanding a wide consensus inside the Marxist movement.

The debate shows us why Marxists like Lenin were so shocked when the German and other Social Democratic parties supported their own governments in World War One. It also shows us the merits of a culture of Marxist discussion in which, even in sharp polemics, socialists took each others' ideas seriously. Haase quoted Luxemburg approvingly; Karl Radek, in a fierce blast from the left in the run-up to the congress, started by summarising the theoretical debate with acknowledgements not just to Parvus but also to Kautsky, Hilferding, and Bauer.

Another theme which would figure largely in Lenin's 1916 polemic, which restated previously-established ideas of Marxist analysis against those who had discarded them in order to adapt to wartime bourgeois politics, was also well-established by 1912: the connection between imperialism and the rise of large capitalist corporations dominating whole markets. "The watchword of capital is no longer free competition but monopolies, including the monopolisation of foreign markets through the creation of colonies" (Radek, p.548).

In the early years of the debate, some socialists had thought that imperialism was a policy only of a faction of the bourgeoisie, and an unrealistic one. In part the argument was skewed by the term "imperialism" being a coinage not of Marxists but of British bourgeois politicians, and those self-styled "imperialist" politicians defining "imperialism" by a project which was indeed particular and unrealistic: the conversion of the British empire into an Imperial Federation with uniform tariffs against the rest of the world.

But at Chemnitz no-one contradicted the view which Anton Pannekoek put crisply: "imperialism [is] a necessary... development of capitalism, not in the sense that some other form could not be conceivable or construed, but in the sense that this path was the one actually pursued. We can demonstrate that imperialism damages the interests of broad strata even among the bourgeoisie. But the fact remains that the whole bourgeoisie supports this policy... We want to struggle as brusquely as possible against this brutal, dangerous form of capitalism, but not by trying to drive capitalism back to an earlier form... There is only one way: beyond imperialism to socialism".

Indeed, elements of the analysis were shared with a much broader range of leftish opinion. Day and Gaido include (p.314ff) a review in 1906 by Otto Bauer of a book on British imperialism by the liberal Gerhart von Schulze-Gaevernitz. Schulze-Gaevernitz deplored imperialism as the policy of the "rentier state". Bauer, a very mainstream figure in Social Democracy, took that assessment by Schulze-Gaevernitz as no more than admitting the obvious, and used his review to flay Schulze-Gaevernitz on other grounds: that he failed to see that "the navy and the colonial governments are a world police force that enables capital to invest safely all over the world"; that some industrialists, as well as financiers, were heavily committed to imperialism; and that British workers opposed imperialism.

Eduard Bernstein, who had helped spark the debate on imperialism back at the end of the 1890s when he horrified his comrades by claiming that "savages" had "only a conditional right to the land occupied by them", spoke at Chemnitz as an outrider on the right of the SPD. He backed Haase's motion, wishing only that it had also included a call for international courts of arbitration to settle disputes between the big powers. (Haase retorted that US president Taft had come out in favour of international courts of arbitration to settle all questions, then quickly rejected arbitration when a dispute which he considered important arose, with Britain over the Panama Canal). In Bernstein's mind British imperialism was not so bad, but, yes, Germany's imperialism and arms race must be opposed.

The outspoken Social Democratic right-winger Ludwig Quessel, who said that socialists should "stand behind the German government when it champions equality of rights for our industry", got no applause at Chemnitz.

With hindsight the debate helps us learn lessons from why the socialist parties of that era collapsed so shockingly in 1914. The whole movement, with flickering and ambiguities on the edges, had accepted an analysis which should flatly have ruled out those parties' support for their countries' governments in 1914.

In the drive to draw active conclusions from that analysis the pre-1914 socialist left made criticisms and clarifications which the socialist mainstream deflected and havered over. It established ideas which got lost in mid-20th century socialist regressions and are only now being re-learned. And the 1912 left itself, as we shall see, was not yet sufficiently sharp and confident about active conclusions.

A debate between the left and the mainstream for which Haase spoke had raged since the "Morocco crisis" of July-August 1911. A rebellion challenged the Sultan, who ruled under informal French and Spanish overlordship. France and Spain sent troops. Germany sent a battleship, ostensibly to protect German "trade interests". Britain sided with France against the perceived German challenge. Eventually Germany agreed to a formal French "protectorate" in Morocco in return for France ceding territory in West Africa to Germany.

The Berlin Social Democratic (SPD) paper published a wheedling article by Bernstein which complained of all the governments acting immorally by disregarding the deal which had ended the previous "Morocco crisis" in 1906; and the SPD put out a mass broadsheet written by Kautsky which denounced the German action on the feeble grounds that it would not benefit even most of the bourgeoisie and concluded by appealing to middle-class opponents of imperialism to back the SPD.

Rosa Luxemburg angrily declared that the broadsheet "places itself in the comical situation of pretending to know the interests of the bourgeois classes better than those classes do themselves" and "says not a single word about the native peoples of the colonies".

Other polemics followed from Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Radek, and Paul Lensch, editor of the main newspaper of the SPD left, the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Gustav Eckstein wrote a defence of Kautsky. The SPD leadership balanced things by publishing an official SPD pamphlet on imperialism by the left-winger Julian Marchlewski (in hundreds of thousands of copies).

By the Chemnitz congress in September 1912 the debate focused on whether the SPD should campaign for international agreements to limit armaments.

Lensch spoke for the left in Chemnitz, since Luxemburg was absent through ill-health.

Like other speakers and writers from the left, he did not oppose arms-limitation agreements, or even rule out parliamentary initiatives by the SPD to "expose" the government for not exploring such agreements.

"By no means do I consider a temporary agreement between two capitalist states on questions of armament policy to be excluded... [but] here it is a question of an international agreement for general arms reduction. And I... certainly consider that to be utopian...

"Our task cannot be to correct world history's homework and say: 'Dear world history, here is your work back! It's swarming with mistakes...' We must deal with capitalism as it is...

"The counter-tendencies against imperialism are nothing other than counter-tendencies against capitalism as a whole - namely socialism! Social Democracy!...

"We have no special weapons against [the arms race], only the great and simple slogans: agitate and organise!"

As far as I can judge, the SPD mainstream commanded a majority at Chemnitz. Its motion agreed that: "imperialism... is a product of the capitalist economic system [and] can be completely overcome along with it". But "nothing must be left undone to lessen its dangerous effects".

"Marx and Engels", declared Haase, "always rightly warned us against embracing a fatalist conception of history... We cannot prevent every war, but we could in particular cases check the destruction".

Karl Liebknecht, soon to be the tribune of internationalist opposition to the SPD's capitulation in World War One, backed Haase, saying that Lensch and the left were "mechanistic". According to Trotsky, at the time Lenin, observing from afar, agreed with Liebknecht rather than Lensch and Luxemburg.

The left had made important points in the 1911-2 debate, ideas of general importance which largely got lost in subsequent decades and have been rediscovered only painfully and piecemeal by Marxists in recent times.

Radek said that the fact that a demand was "momentarily very effective for agitation" - as he implicitly conceded the SPD's arms-limitation demand was - could not be decisive. "Social Democrats must never adapt their agitation to the illusions of the masses... they must on the contrary, try to free them of all illusions by telling them in every action what is the case".

He further explained that socialists could consider partial arms limitation agreements possible, and welcome them, without making such agreements their own demand.

In the first place, those agreements would be "just means to put aside the smaller antagonisms in order to gather forces for the big battles". More fundamentally, "were the proletariat of two countries to... work together for a 'reconciliation' of their imperialist governments, that could not happen without the agreement being based on a common standpoint of the imperialist governments..." The "reconciliation" would be a "yellow reform", a reform which "leads away from the class struggle".

Lensch argued that the imperialist arms race obliged socialists to give up "old, comfortable, and easy" habits. They could no longer "praise the policy of foreign states in order to criticise more forcefully one's own government".

They could not endorse it when capitalist states made ostensibly "purely defensive" agreements "on whose design we had no influence, whose content we never know exactly and fully".

They could no longer say that they opposed "aggressive" wars but might accept "defensive" wars. "Actually, capitalist Europe is organised into two state-cartels ready to attack each other", and when the time came, "nothing is easier than to provoke an adversary into an 'aggressive' war". The working class must be what a later generation would call the Third Camp, standing against all rival capitalist blocs.

The old idea that Russian Tsarism was so great a reactionary power that defensive war against it by Germany must be accepted had been rendered obsolete by the revolution of 1905.

Mechanically copying what Marx or Engels wrote on foreign policy was now wrong. Those writings, "often published anonymously in bourgeois journals", were chiefly "written to show bourgeois democracy the direction in which it should influence the course of events" so as best to speed the creation of solid bourgeois nation states in place of antique princedoms and so "create the terrain for the struggle for socialism". "It is questionable whether the proletariat would have actually implemented the foreign policy advocated by Marx if it had been an independent social force", because then the choices and priorities would have been different.

The left also differentiated from the mainstream in its attention to the revolts of the colonial peoples. The SPD mainstream opposed colonialism, and Kautsky wrote a good pamphlet against it in 1907, but tended to base its anti-imperialism more on the costs of the arms-race, the illusoriness of the benefits promised by the imperialists to the metropolitan working classes, and the dangers of war.

Oddly, the same socialists sometimes neglectful of the revolt of the colonial peoples (as over Morocco in 1911) sometimes saw Japan as an "anti-imperialist" factor. Max Beer wrote in 1902: "China may perhaps still have some hope of becoming independent if it lets itself be guided by Japan". In a footnote on the same page (p.278) Day and Gaido cite Radek as postulating Japan as an anti-imperialist force as late as 1922. Kautsky, in one of his 1914-5 articles speculating about possible more benign paths for capitalist development, wrote of the happy possibility that history would "amalgamate Japan with China as a common people" (p.831). Socialists today minded to consider such powers as Iran as "anti-imperialist" factors should taken note.

The idea that imperialism signified a further, more advanced, "highest" stage of capitalist development, rather than an episodic policy, was more or less commonly agreed among Marxists by 1912, enough so to be written into the Chemnitz resolution. It got into the Chemnitz resolution thanks to argument from the left. But Haase, and Liebknecht too, charged the left with being "fatalist" and "mechanistic".

Bernstein, on the right wing of the SPD (but due to be expelled from the SPD in World War One because of his pacifistic rather than revolutionary opposition to Germany's war) put the idea more sharply. A left liberal had said that he "must approve the naval budget because it is a practical imperative". "Some people actually uphold the same view when they say, as the [left] just did, that on the basis of modern society the arms race is an absolute necessity". It was the course of history? Well, "world history has often taken false paths" (p.650-2).

The left, in response, developed an important idea from Marx: that "it is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by providing a struggle" (Poverty of Philosophy). Capitalist development is progressive because it produces the struggle against capital of its gravediggers, the working class.

Marchlewski: "Imperialism means historical progress insofar as it is the political expression of a more developed form of capitalism, and, in this sense - indeed, only in this sense - it is also to be developed by the working class. In the political field, imperialism gives as sharp an expression to robbery of the people as the trusts do in the economic field" (p.310).

Lensch: "We fight against imperialist development by trying to drive it beyond itself" (p.647).

Luxemburg (later, in the Junius pamphlet of 1915, not included in Day's and Gaido's collection): "The capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us".

Anton Pannekoek argued that imperialism "places the working class in a new fighting position. Earlier it could hope to progress slowly but surely... Today... its attack has been turned into a defence... Imperialism threatens the masses with new dangers and catastrophes... and whips them up into resistance... But these phenomena... can only partially be fought against in parliament... Mass actions are therefore the natural consequence of the imperialist development of modern capitalism and increasingly constitute the necessary form of struggle against it" (p.895-6).

Pannekoek wrote that in another but linked debate in 1910-2 between the left and the mainstream in the socialist movement, the "mass strike debate", about whether the SPD should push for escalating mass strikes or plod along in a more cautious "strategy of attrition" ("Die Massenstreikdebatte", ed. Antonia Grunenberg, Frankfurt 1970).

The left knew that to agitate for arms limitation deals was to trifle and feed illusions, but it was groping for how to answer the mainstream's charge of "fatalism" and "mechanistic" thinking. Karl Radek explained that the struggle for socialism could not delay until after SPD agitation had gradually gathered a majority of opinion for the socialist cause. "A major part of the working class can get rid of their indifference, their distrust in their own power, and become socialist, only in the process of the struggle for power by the Social-Democratic workers, and... therefore, the road to power and the struggle for power must not begin only after the overwhelming majority gathers under the banner of Social Democracy" (p.557).

Yet Lensch concluded his speech in 1912: "We are approaching a time of great mass struggles... If we extend our organisation, our political education, if we prepare ourselves - then all we must do is be ready!" (p.649, emphasis added).

Pannekoek, supporting Lensch, said that imperialist phenomena "drive the masses to revolt and they revolutionise people's minds... they... drive the masses into the streets... Our standpoint against imperialism means a very determined struggle, relentlessly and continually pursued in parliament but also... through actions of the masses themselves" (p.655).

But, as it turned out, this debate took place less than two years before World War One broke out. The "ever and more powerful demonstrations" which Pannekoek called for would not bring socialist revolution within that time.

Both left and mainstream tended to postulate a convulsive collapse of capitalist authority as coming soon, but only mistily. No-one could guarantee that the collapse would happen before the outbreak of war. Even it did happen, the SPD would surely need more aggressive tactics than "ever and more powerful demonstrations" to take power.

If the mainstream saw the left as saying "be more militant, argue for socialism, and wait for the crisis to help us", then there was some justice in the perception. As there was also justice in the left's perception that the mainstream was saying: "Yes, capitalism is heading to war. But who knows, there might be other possibilities. Let's see if we can win some broad support by agitating for arms-limitation deals".

Despite saying again and again that they feared war soon, and despite the fact that debate had been fierce for over a year, the left proposed no alternative to Haase's motion at Chemnitz. Lensch said: "it can only be a question of here of beginning the debate on imperialism, and the coming years will force us to discuss this issue often enough". Pannekoek: "Naturally, this discussion can only be a preliminary debate" (p.645, 653).

Quite likely the left feared that a motion of its own would be heavily defeated, and the defeat would make it harder for them to get a hearing in subsequent debate. But that calculation could have had great weight only if they did not really believe that the crises would come as soon as all that.

And what did the mainstream think? Day's and Gaido's collection includes an citation by Radek from a 1911 polemic in the mass-strike debate by Kautsky (not included in Grunenberg's collection mentioned above). Kautsky had written: "If the people see the cause of a war not in their own government but in the viciousness of their neighbours (and what government is not trying, with the help of its press, its parliament, its diplomats, to impress this idea upon the mass of the population), under such circumstances... they all become first of all patriots, including the internationally minded, and if some individuals had the superhuman courage to rebel against this... the government does not have to lift a finger to render them harmless. The angry crowd would kill them itself" (p.613-4).

The mainstream did not argue, and did not believe, that agitation for arms-limitation deals would stop war. But here they were, in a lead article in the SPD theoretical weekly Die Neue Zeit, saying more or less explicitly that if war came, and failed to arrange itself so conveniently that the war were small and unpopular, then they would see no choice but to go along with it.

Both the mainstream and the left said, in effect, that war was probable, and soon. Both had no answer other than to propose things which they admitted would not stop war - agitation for arms-limitation deals, or mass actions - and to hope for the best.

Some socialists were thinking about the awkward, ugly questions of what they would do if war came. At the Stuttgart congress of the international socialist movement in 1907, Lenin and Luxemburg had moved a successful addition to the anti-war resolution:

"In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule".

In Day's and Gaido's collection, debate about imperialism is really almost always debate about the arms-race and the war danger. Yet the collection shows that in the SPD (all the items collected are from German or Austrian debate, bar two articles from France) the thought in Lenin's and Luxemburg's addition remained on the fringes of consciousness.

Why were the Bolsheviks different? In large part, because they had learned from conditions in Russia always to factor catastrophe, collapse, revolution, crisis into their perspectives, as well as more or less steady evolution.

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