"Ultra-imperialism": a debate

Submitted by martin on 28 June, 2003 - 2:43

"Ultra-imperialism": a debate from Workers' Liberty Australia no.31

As usual, a leading WL spokesperson has put their finger on something very significant, something much of the Left has missed. And again, as usual, WL takes it too far and onesidedly, leading to the article missing what's correct in the reaction of the rest of the Left. In the meantime, uncharacteristically, WL passes up the opportunity to get really stuck into the contradictions in the Cliffite position.
Martin [Thomas]'s picture of the "imperialism of free trade" [in Workers' Liberty 2/3] seems to me to resemble Kautsky's "ultra-imperialism". Lenin demolished that almost 90 years ago and nothing that has happened since has invalidated his overall analysis. On the other hand, while "ultra-imperialism" (a stable alliance of all the major powers to exploit the Third World for their joint benefit) is impossible, there's no law of history that says you can't try. And this explains what's going on in the world today.

In his longer journal article (the introduction to "Kautsky's Ultra-imperialism" in British Workers' Liberty 2/3), Martin outlines the way the Western alliance in the Cold War organised an "imperialism of free trade" in its domain and how, since the end of the Cold War, the process has become both qualitatively deeper and completely global. He does not, however, address the arguments put up by the a number of Left tendencies contending that the Western alliance is falling to pieces under the pressure of competing imperialist interests and the lack of a unifying external enemy.

Certainly Martin is correct in identifying how Uncle Sam has taken on the role of keeping order in the Empire. The intervention in Somalia is perhaps the paradigm case. And definitely all the great powers were behind Uncle Sam in the Kuwait War, despite misgivings on the part of some. The problem is that this ultra-imperialistic alliance is not only unstable, but is in the process of breaking up before our very eyes.

The British SWP is, I believe, correct in interpreting events as the US being in a position of unchallengeable military power, but declining relative economic power. This can be seen in the massive & continuing deficits the US is running on its current account and the immense & unprecedented US national debt which is building up. Sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost. In these circumstances, the US finds it increasingly necessary in the pursuit of its interests to exceed the requirements of "keeping order". As a result, the other imperialist powers are increasingly raising objections.

In the Bosnian War, the three communal factions each had different imperialist backers, and efforts to find a solution within the context of the existing order were hampered by their conflicting interests. In the Kosova War, conflicting imperialist interests also played their part in making the situation worse. And in the recent Iraq War, the conflicting interests between the major powers were so obvious that they were commented on extensively by almost all observers. The US Government acted in Iraq in a destabilising way, asserting its own interests above & beyond the interests of its ostensible imperialist allies. In fact, some of the more bellicose voices in the US Government are now calling for France to be deprived of its status as an ally and treated as an adversary.

This is not a proof that there is no "ultra-imperialistic" alliance, but rather that there is such an alliance, but it is breaking up. Basically, it could not long survive the end of the Cold War, especially as the US is being increasingly forced to attempt to win back on the battlefield what it is losing in the marketplace. The process of break-up still has a way to go and there will doubtless be attempts to patch things up, but they are the political manifestations of economic processes which are ongoing. The prime threat to the ultra-imperialist economic order is increasingly going to come from Uncle Sam. This fact is increasingly recognised even in the serious capitalist media, where many commentators are openly worried about the growing unilateralism of the US.

What are the implications of this analysis for the working class? Basically, we are in a period of increasing inter-imperialist conflict, the logical end point of which is war. With Germany providing the economic and geo-political weight, France providing diplomatic cover & a degree of weight itself, and Russia providing a large nuclear arsenal, there is an outline of a potential anti-US alliance which may be formed under the pressure of a rampant US recklessly advancing its own interests in violation of all others'.

The British SWP reach conclusions about this not radically different from those of the straight anti-Americans - but they are making a dangerous mistake. The mistake is not in saying the wrong things about the US, or in criticising it too vigorously or not vigorously enough, but in neglecting the imperialist interests & machinations of the other great powers. The massive opposition in Europe towards US policy is an exciting development and provides the working class movement with great opportunities, but only as long as national opportunism is avoided.

When Left organisations in Europe call on their own governments to "stand up to the US", (and, according to my information - I would be glad to be proven wrong - the British SWP signed a statement to that effect over Iraq) alarm bells should ring loud and clear. Capitalist governments know only one way in which to "stand up to" another country and that way is not in the interests of the working class. What on the surface looks like an appeal for peace is actually taking early steps on the road to war - a war between Europe and the US.

To the extent that these appeals by subjectively Leftist organisations actually have an effect on the State, they can only serve to support military build-ups by the "peace-loving" French capitalist class which waged war for decades in Vietnam & Algeria, or the "peace-loving" German capitalist class, producer of the most infamous regime in world history. Regardless of their effects on the State, however, these appeals disarm the working class by lining European workers up with their own masters rather than the one force which can destroy US imperialism forever, the workers of North America. And make no mistake - it is a choice. If the Left in Europe lines up with their own capitalist classes, it will make the job of the Left in the US just so much harder, since nothing can be calculated to do more to drive the workers of North America into the arms of Uncle Sam than the European Left joining a new "sacred union" against a threat from across the Atlantic.

What is necessary is a global working class movement against imperialism. The prime enemy in our sights is inevitably Uncle Sam, but other imperialisms large & small need to be seen as among our enemies, not our allies. In the course of this, we need to recognise that the "ultra-imperialist" alliance exists, but is breaking up. The last thing we need to do is resurrect Kautsky, almost 90 years after he was proven wrong.

In Solidarity,


A Reply
Martin Thomas

First I should say that I agree one hundred per cent with "a bloke's" conclusions: that the left must and should avoid a Yankophobia that soft-pedals opposition to, or plays into the hands of, imperialist centres other than the USA - the sort of politics represented on the anti-war demonstrations in Britain by platform speakers leading chants of "Don't attack Chirac".
Analytically, however, I disagree.
I am proud to consider myself a "Leninist", or at least someone trying to continue and develop Lenin's politics and ideas. Even so, I think that to suppose that Lenin could in 1916 write something that could "prove wrong" and "demolish" assessments of the world of 2003 is attributing to him a truly ludicrous degree of foresight and insight.
This is the idea which I developed in Workers' Liberty 2/3, and which "a bloke" condemns as betraying shocking irreverence towards Lenin.
"In the western of the two 'camps' into which most of the world was divided during the Cold War... something pretty much like Kautsky's 'ultra-imperialism' did emerge... It was not constructed [as Kautsky had seen it hypothetically being constructed] by the different capitalist states all sensibly coming to agreement to avoid the costs of an arms race, but in another way. It was constructed, after two world wars, within one 'camp' of a bigger-than-ever arms race between two camps, and under the hegemony of a sort of hyper-imperialism, the USA's..."
That may be right or it may be wrong, but to try to settle the question by study of Lenin is foolish dogma-worship. Lenin never addressed the question, never could have addressed the question. His demolition of Kautsky's speculations in 1916 - which I agree was devastating at the time - has no power whatsoever to resolve the question.
The further oddity of "a bloke's" polemic is that after accusing me of insufficient deference to Lenin, he repeats the crime himself. His argument, he says, is not "that there is no 'ultra-imperialistic' alliance, but rather that there is such an alliance, but it is breaking up". So it was all right to reject Lenin's "proof" that no such thing could exist, his "demolition" of the idea that it could exist, for the second half of the 20th century; indeed it is still all right today ("there is such an alliance"); we only become unpardonably revisionist if we diss Lenin in respect to the coming years, and deny that "ultra-imperialism" is breaking up right now.
So let's forget the references to Lenin. A substantive argument still remains. Is it the case that the USA is indeed hyper-imperialist? That it has unparalleled world power, and that its recent wars are expressions of the arrogance that comes with consciousness of such super-hegemony?
Or, on the contrary, are the recent wars a matter of a declining USA desperately trying to stall that decline? A USA "increasingly forced to attempt to win back on the battlefield what it is losing in the marketplace"?
In my articles in Workers' Liberty 2/3 I argue for the first account (US hyper-imperialism). In a sense, my argument is that there is more truth to the vague-left conventional wisdom ("the USA is taking over the world") than I had previously thought, although I try to explain why I still reject the Yankophobic political conclusions usually drawn from that conventional wisdom.
This does not mean that US hyperpower is solid for the indefinite future, or that the alliance structures constructed under US leadership, UN, NATO, IMF, WTO, G8, etc., are without internal conflicts. In my article I write that "any phase of 'ultra-imperialist' collaboration [is] inherently conflict-riven and liable to be totally disrupted in a later phase".
Right now, France and Germany are plainly alarmed at US arrogance, and striving to build up the European Union into an effective rival to US world power.
However, I doubt that they can do that at all quickly. Not only Britain, with its peculiar US links, but also three of the other bigger states of the European Union, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, sided with the USA over Iraq.

Ultra-imperialist alliance
I also doubt that the level of internal conflict in the "ultra-imperialist alliance" is, as yet, higher than in the Cold War. The general picture since 1989-91 is of a strengthening of institutions like the G8, the IMF, the WTO, etc, not of them falling apart. I do not assert that the world will continue on those lines forever. I assert only that it is going on those lines at present.
There were plenty of conflicts within the "western" bloc during the Cold War, and some of them caused by the pressure on that bloc of the Cold War.
In 1956 the USA came out openly against Britain and France over their Suez war, and forced them to withdraw. From about that time, the USA cautiously, but clearly, sided with the Algerian independence struggle against France. In 1965 France withdrew from NATO's military structures, and forced NATO to move its headquarters to Belgium.
From 1967 the European powers were fairly openly in conflict with the USA over Israel/Palestine, the USA supporting Israel and the European powers (sometimes with the exception of Britain) leaning more towards the Arab states and, later, the PLO. If anything comes of the current "roadmap" - and, admittedly, there are plenty of signs that nothing will - it will represent a considerable closing of a long-standing antagonism between big powers.
From the early 1970s, Germany was in conflict with the USA over its "Ostpolitik". The conflict became quite sharp for a period in the 1980s, when the USA wanted a hard line against what Ronald Reagan called the "Evil Empire", but Germany wanted conciliation and collaboration.
In NIcaragua's civil war, in the early 1980s, the USA supported, indeed ran, the Contras, while the European Union backed the Sandinistas.
Conflicts exist. Conflicts will continue to exist. If France and Germany get anywhere with their current plans, they may increase. But the present level of conflict is not new.
Is it really true that the USA is in economic decline as a capitalist centre? I doubt it. Since the mid-1960s US-based manufacturing has lost large proportions of both US home markets and world markets. But that is not the same thing.
The list of the biggest multinationals - counting all their international operations, not just their domestic ones - is still dominated by US-based firms. What Peter Gowan calls "the Dollar/ Wall Street regime" still dominates world finance.

US Hyper power is debtor nation
The USA has a huge foreign debt. That is a great element of instability in the world system. Whether it is an element of relative economic weakness for US-based capital is another matter. If I owe the bank $1000, I have a problem. If I owe the bank $1 billion, the bank has a problem. The US government, and US-based capitalist operations, owe the capitalist world many, many billions - and the world has a problem.
In short, I think Susan Strange's arguments, developed in the 1980s against conventional wisdoms of both right and left, have been vindicated in the last two decades.
The other question is whether the USA's military operations actually serve "to win back on the battlefield what it is losing in the marketplace". The Iraq war may - if its sequels go well for the USA - benefit US-based capital by giving it contracts in Iraq, and preferential access to Iraqi oilfields. It may also, again if the US strategists' calculations prove right, which is a big if, pave the way for reopening Iran to US capital, and thus depriving European-based capital of the big advantages which it currently enjoys there.
But the Kosova war, for example, has not benefited the USA particularly. All over Eastern Europe, it is EU interests which dominate "in the marketplace". The USA's Cold War military spending, which helped to drive Stalinism to ruin, has enabled marketplace gains primarily for European-based, not for US-based, capital.
In the meantime, US military hyper-spending, advantageous though it is to many US firms with military contracts, is overall, probably, a drain on US capitalist development. Which means, in the long run, that it can undermine US hyperpower.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.