Monday, 18 June 2007
a review of Imperialism and Resistance by John Rees by DAPHNE LAWLESS taken from UNITY: Cracks in the Empire In Marxism, theory cannot and never should be divorced from practice. Analysing and describing the cracks in the empire is one thing. Learning how to deepen and widen those cracks, building the right political tools to do the job, and perhaps eventually smashing it altogether – that's an altogether different story. Those of us who do aspire to change the world have to learn to do both at once. If the question is learning how to amalgamate theory and practice, there could be few people who show a better example than John Rees. Rees is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. On the side of concrete activism, he is the national secretary of the radical-left political coalition Respect, and a leading figure in the Stop The War Coalition. On the side of theory and expanding the knowledge of activists, he was the long-time editor of International Socialism journal, and has written a classic textbook explaining the dialectical logic which lies behind Marxism. What might be called the “classical” Marxist theory of imperialism originates in two major texts by Russian revolutionary leaders. The theory put forward in Nikolai Bukharin's Imperialism and World Economy and Vladimir Lenin's Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism was, briefly, that the motor of imperialism was the accelerating growth of huge capitalist corporations. As the corporations grew, they came to more and more dominate the state systems of their home countries, taking effective power out of the hands of kings, parliaments and presidents. But as these new huge corporations competed for markets for their products and sources of raw materials and labour, the entwining of state and corporate power meant that economic competition became military competition. Capitalism was seen by Bukharin and Lenin as not only inevitably causing exploitation and economic disaster. It was also responsible for inevitable wars, which became increasingly bloody as the wealth of the capitalist states and their capacity for mass destruction grew. Both were dedicated practical revolutionaries, and their theory of imperialism points towards a simple practical point – that the struggle against capitalism is the same as the struggle against imperialism and war, that the two cannot survive without each other. In the modern era of American hegemony over most of the capitalist world, some writers have suggested that Lenin and Bukharin's theory is out of date – that economic competition no longer means military competition, that empire is no longer the same thing as capitalism. John Rees, who wrote an introduction to a recent new edition of Bukharin's pioneering work, is obviously concerned with defending the classical Marxist theory of imperialism. In his new book, Imperialism and Resistance, he does his best to update Lenin and Bukharin's theory, to apply it to the modern era of global consumerism, oil wars, and the rise of the first serious threats to the economic dominance of the United States. But he is also very careful to draw out lessons for the struggle on the ground. Rees starts from the Marxist basis that there are now three global powers – the global corporations, the capitalist states, and the world's working class. He argues that the essential basis of modern imperialism is the compromise formed among the Western powers after the end of World War Two – to accept the leading role of the United States as the dominant economic and military power, pooling their resources under American tutelage. Rees shows argues that this system was based on the assumption of overwhelming American economic and military supremacy. The military supremacy remains, but the economic dominance is long gone. From producing 50% of the world's industrial output in 1945, the USA produces not much more than 20% today. From the days when the world monetary system was based on the 80% of the world's gold in American hands, the euro looks like challenging the sacrosanct status of the US dollar as the world's preferred reserve currency. Rees argues that it is not necessarily possible to be sure that world oil reserves are running out, since oil companies are notoriously untruthful about the precise figures of such things. Nevertheless, it is increasingly obvious that the USA's oil in particular is running out. From importing no more than 10% of its oil before World War Two, the USA has imported more than half of its oil since the late 1980's. As America becomes more dependent on imported oil, it loses many of its advantages against Chinese and European capitalism. Rees argues, in fact, that the American recession that killed the “dot-com boom” of the late '90s was provoked by such a simple matter as Venezuela's decision to cut oil production in 1998. (Sadly, one of the few times Venezuela is mentioned in this book – a topic that I will explore more below.) What remains the same between the days of Kaiser Wilhelm and the days of George W. is that capitalist states, as Rees puts it, “use military action to redraw the basis of economic relations”. The recent American adventures in the Middle East can be seen in this light as a part of a two-pronged grand strategy to protect American dominance. Firstly – and obviously - by putting the oil fields of that region under American control. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – by discouraging the other great and middle powers from even thinking of crossing the mighty USA. Rees argues that America has an interest in keeping Europe fragmented, China and Japan cowed, and the rest of the world dependent. The debacle in Iraq has increasingly made this a difficult task. If anything, the sight of American military power continually humiliated by the fragmented and impoverished Iraqi resistance is exacerbating America's failures to bend Russia, China and other competitor states to its will. Rees makes a convincing argument that the worsening economic problems of the United States directly result in an increase in tension and hostilities between the various great and medium powers – especially since measures taken to ensure the growth of the American economy increasingly come at the expense of other nations. Here is also where the “third superpower” - the world's working class – comes in. Rees points out that, while the Bush regime and its backers claim to be helping spread “democracy”, actual democratic rights in the United States and other Western nations are increasingly being eroded. As Bukharin foresaw, elections in imperialist states no longer make any real difference. Almost all parties seriously competing for power, including those who were traditionally “social democratic”, now accept the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism and globalisation at gunpoint if necessary. The effects of neo-liberal economic policies – in particular, stagnation of working-class living standards as the wealth of our rulers rockets to unheard-of levels – have also eroded what loyalty the masses feel towards the system that rules them. This alienation is the real target of the so-called “war on terror”. In the name of defending “us” from “terrorists”, methods of social control such as incarceration without trial or even torture are increasingly not just accepted but promoted by our rulers. But these methods are not aimed at al-Qaeda – they are aimed at the state's own people. Whereas during the long postwar boom the working class could be won to imperialism by reformist social gains, in the new era our rulers can only intimidate us with fear and bamboozle us with propaganda. Neither of these are likely to be effective in building a social base in the long run. Domestic alienation from the “security state” and from the consequences of neo-liberal economics manifests itself in growing anger at the grass roots, in many places welded together into a formidable anti-war and anti-capitalist movement. Whereas the first four chapters of his book discuss why imperialism is going into crisis, the last three discuss how the working masses of the world can build a movement against it. Rees devotes an entire chapter to discussing the history of democratic revolutions. He makes the same point made by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his theory of “permanent revolution” - that the struggle for democracy has to be the same as the struggle for radical social change, or it will inevitably be co-opted by the old order. Watching how revolutionaries in post-apartheid South Africa or post-Stalinist Poland became administrators of capitalism almost as oppressive as those they replaced shows us this danger in perfect clarity. Workers must therefore remain independent from other classes in struggle – and revolutionary workers must remain independent from reformist ones – to provide a clear alternative leadership to the broader democratic forces. But thankfully, Rees does not make the sectarian error of confusing “independent from” with “opposed to”. He expands this argument with the example of socialists' attitude towards political Islamic movements. Many supposed socialists or radicals have been convinced by imperialist propaganda that “Islamism” - a term covering forces as diametrically opposed as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda – is the number one evil of humanity, and that our own capitalist rulers can act as the guardians of democracy and freedom in combatting it. Rees argues convincingly that the Islamist political movements of today come from the same social layers that in the 1960s would have been supporting left-wing nationalist movements, or Stalinist/Maoist guerilla forces. Vietnam's victory over America was a crushing defeat for imperialism and a blow for freedom, despite the NLF's Stalinist politics. So too, no matter how despicable we might consider the Iranian regime's support of holocaust denial and homophobia, if we are serious about spreading liberation around the world, it is vital to stand in defence of Iran from aggression. Only then can we have any hope of splitting the forces who defend the Iranian state – to apply the theory of permanent revolution, to turn the struggle for liberation from America into the struggle for liberation from the clerics and the Iranian capitalist class who back them. In contrast, no liberation for the people of Iran could ever come on the end of American or Israeli bombs – and certainly nothing will ever be accomplished if socialists say “they're all as bad as each other” and sit with folded arms. The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht said that “the main enemy is always at home” - and in the era of globalisation, the reach of global capital is always in our homes, on our streets, in our workplaces, on our televisions. We can summarise Rees's strategy for building a worldwide resistance movement against imperialism as “organise separately, but march together”. Socialists, while having to put their own particular analysis and represent all the oppressed consistently, have to work with all forces who fight against this global enemy. This book is a vital piece of analysis which should be read, understood and then acted upon by any serious activist for worldwide system change. However, there is one gaping hole in Rees' analysis. He correctly points out that imperialism breeds its own potential gravediggers on the military front and on the economic front. Workers and other oppressed groups are inspired to fight when imperialism loses on the battlefield, and more determined to fight when the boss makes them pay for the crisis of the system. But workers also need a political inspiration. Some of the reformist left have been sucked into the idea (perhaps stemming from nostalgia for the Cold War?) that a better alternative to a single world hegemony would be a revival of serious inter-imperialist rivalry – as if a “strong” Europe or China would be any better for the workers and oppressed of the world than US supremacy. What can inspire the anti-imperialist movements to imagine a better world, not just new bosses same as the old bosses? There is one state in the world currently which is led by a broad, democratic, radical-left movement - the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It is a shocking and unfortunate fact that Rees' analysis leaves out Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular almost entirely – except for a few tangential mentions. Venezuela under Hugo Chávez doesn't look a lot like Red Petrograd in 1917. But the Bolivarian revolution is a political challenge to world imperialism just as much as Hezbollah and the Iraqi resistance are a military challenge, or China and Europe are an economic challenge. America's dependence on oil has come back to haunt them, as their fourth-largest supplier is now led by a political movement which talks about “socialism in the 21st century”, about Trotsky and permanent revolution, about building grass-roots democracy as an alternative to empire. The social missions and the communal councils - the possible basis for a new form of workers' and popular power – are funded by the very oil which is indispensable in keeping the USA's war machine moving. Rees obviously understands the need to build a radical left coalition with socialist leadership in order to fight imperialism. That is what the Respect coalition is all about. But while Rees and his comrades cheer when a force like the German Left Party or the Portuguese Left Bloc takes 10% of the vote, a movement socially quite similar has actually taken power in one country. If George Galloway became Prime Minister of Britain, surely John Rees would be over the moon – despite Galloway's well-known weaknesses. Why then is Hugo Chávez – a figure surely no less radical – not worthy of serious discussion in a book on resistance to imperialism? In the struggle to build a movement which can not only oppose imperialism but actually hope to overthrow it, the threat of a good example is always vital. By not taking seriously the Bolivarian project – undisputably a radical socialist project, as full of weaknesses and inconsistencies as it is – we run the risk of giving away the ideological leadership of the movement to non-socialist forces. Hezbollah are probably well described by John Rees as “trade unionists with guns” - but if the United Socialist Party of Venezuela does come to life as a bottom-up, democratic, broad socialist ruling party, then surely it will become a whole lot more. Socialists have to take the political struggle as seriously as the military and the economic. While the system is cracking in Baghdad and Beirut, the forces currently rising in Caracas could become the tool that will smash it altogether.