Hegel on acid - A response to 'Marxists and the so-called problem of imperialism'


A reply to a Wildcat (UK) discussion document of the late 1980s. This article makes some interesting observations on the subject, and avoids both a simple leftist anti-imperialist view or an ultra-leftist dismissal of the significance of imperialism.

Submitted by Red Marriott on January 24, 2007




The Wildcat discussion document reduces all social reality to "one fundamental contradiction: the invariant class antagonism between international labour and international capital" - we could call this 'communist fundamentalism', but we would have to keep the quotation marks in order to make it clear that we are talking about an ideology which uses communist language to express what the religious describe as the war between god and the devil. RB manages to sweep the real world - i.e. the sensous world which we move around in - into the dustbin of history, so that we are met by simple abstract forces. When I reach out for a cup of tea to refresh me as I write this, why silly me it is not really a cup of tea but a congealed form of human labour integrating the work of tea plantation workers, dairy workers, water workers, electricity workers, potters plus all the workers who make the means of production which these workers valorise. Cups of tea are ficticious categories, but despite their origin they do have a certain solidity (the cup that is, the tea has a liquidity), which is just as well because I need it to slack me thirst......

Ah, that's better, now where was I. I have called this piece 'Hegel on Acid' because RB's approach shows many of the traits of Hegel, in particular a reduction of everything to the abstract. In rejecting this approach, I definitely do NOT want to suggest that the contradiction between Labour and Capital does not exist, nor even that it doesn't permeate capitalist social relations. However, I do contend that abstract forms have to exist in a material way, that far from a cosmological struggle between the forces of light (capital) and the forces of dark (labour) meeting on metaphysical plane, we live in a world in which historical processes have provided the arena by which these antagonisms are played out. We have no need of paraphrasing William Blake in a modern idiom.

Imperialism, nations are real, and even though they are not bogies they still get up our noses. They are real and they have to be abolished. This is an aspect of our programme, but merely an aspect. When they are promoted as ends in themselves, sufficient in themselves to 'liberate us from oppression', we should be aware that we are being conned. Likewise, to liquidate ourselves into movements which simply assume the task of overthrowing nationalism or imperialism is to become hoodwinked by a capitalist faction which merely aims to use us as cannon fonder. In opposition to the old Maoist doctrine that "My enemy's enemy is my friend", and opting for the secondary contradiction to defeat the primary contradiction, we put forward proletarian autonomy we fight for our class interest, broadening our scope to the extent that we are able to broaden our specific struggles.

The Wildcat discussion document treats imperialism as an ideology, working from models derived from the late nineteenth century/ early twentieth century (Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Bukharin) - models which refer to a specific period of imperialism i.e that between the partition of Africa at the treaty of Berlin, and the collapse of that order in 1914. This is insufficient. RB rightly mentions that India and Indonesia were colonised by companies, but fails to point out that this was in a period when imperialism was generally carried out by companies i.e. directly by cliques of the bourgeoisie without the backing of the state - in other words by private capital. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, imperialism was essential in order for the bourgeoisie to gain mastery over the proletariat. Following the English revolution, the bourgeoisie were unable to simply consolidate their power. They were being squeezed between the remnants of the aristocracy, most of which had survived, although substantially weakened, and an underclass composed of artisans and wage-labourers. Their grasp of state power was weak and had to be backed up by the army, which is why Cromwell became their leader. It was essential that they consolidate their power against the landowners by developing a source of wealth. Thus we have Cromwell's 'Western Plan' which involved the development of colonies in Ireland, America, and the West Indies. The triangular trade of Slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar, cotton, tobacco from the Americas to Europe, and gin and guns from Europe to Africa, gave them a trade circuit by which they made their fortunes. This amounted to 'primitive accumulation', in that the slavery - chattel slavery - in the Americas provided the motor for this process. Several points have to be made about this.

Whilst the sheer brutality of slavery has been well chronicled, in many ways the conditions of life slaves were subjected to were not so different from that of workers being proletarianised in the industrial revolution. In fact, the crucial factor was the profitability of the plantation which depended on the competence of the plantation manager, the productivity of the soil and the state of the commodity market. Skilled slaves fared better than unskilled, just as other skilled proletarians do. Unskilled slaves were more easily replaced by raw slaves, and hence were more readily worked to death, or simply murdered in barbaric ways for the amusement of plantation managers. When we look at the level of murder carried out by bosses and foremen in Russian factories before the revolution, this underlines the fact that the difference between a wage-slave and a chattel-slave is merely formal. Many wage-slaves have been denied the 'right' to leave their job, just as chattel slaves.

However chattel slavery does have an important economic significance - in terms of the circulation of money, in particular the circulation of currency. Thus it was possible for the bourgeoisie to develop profitable enterprises in the Americas whilst keeping currency in Britain. During this period, the bourgeoisie had not developed the economy much either at the theoretical or practical level. By keeping the money circulating in Britain, they were able to confront the proletariat with ever increasing quantums of money circulating around them. The West Indian lobby was very powerful as a result, and was able to mobilise the state in defense of its interests. By the end of the eighteenth century, this faction of the bourgeoisie was able to finance the West Indian Marine Police, based in Wapping (1798). Their role was to police the docks, where proletarians were lifting more than half of the goods arriving in London. (Also at this time monetary wages were not greatly developed in London itself, dockers being paid in sugar. In the case of coal-porters, the bosses had contracts with publicans. The workers lived in the pubs, and were provided with food, drink and a bit of entertainment whilst they carried out the work for the landlord - the cash never passed through their hands).

The capitalist mode of production, in terms of wage-slavery was patchily developed. Certainly the anti-slavery petition which gained massive working class support was to some extent motivated by the fear that the bourgeoisie wished to extend chattel slavery to the metropolitan areas. No doubt some factions of the bourgeoisie wnated to do this, whereas those whose self-interest was more enlightened by the emerging economic 'science' saw the development of wage slavery and commodity relations had more sophisticated ideas.

British capitalism, then the leading capitalism of the world, made great changes at the end of the eighteenth century - it came into its own and made major reforms. They were frightened by the severity of the Gordon Riots of 1780, where the London proletariat emerged as a force in its own right, and equally frightened by the republican movements in the America and France. Several things happened. The WIMP was set up to police the docks, moving from a situation where they had to muster the militia to deal with labour unrest. This made the bourgeoisie less dependent on the good will of the petit-bourgeoisie. They built new docks surrounded by high brick walls (West India dock - 1800). They developed the wages system, extending the circulation of cash amongst the proletariat. This kept the petit-bourgeoisie quiet, as the cash now circulated through their hands before eventually returning to the coffers of the bourgeoisie. The 'anti-slavery' lobby i.e. the anti chattel slavery lobby grew in power, seeing chattel slavery as a fetter not merely literally on the arms and legs of the slaves, but also on the productive forces in an abstract sense. Liberals such as Wilberforce were by no means lovers of freedom, unless it was the freedom of the bosses, as he himself distinguished himself in the struggle against the major working class turmoil which emerged during this period.

Firstly, the slave trade was abolished. Looking at two texts of the time gives us an insight into this. On the one hand there is Mungo Park's account of his trips to West Africa, carried out under the auspices of the West African Company, primarily to conduct market survey's to check out the possibilities of developing commodity markets there. Another text, Equiano's 'Travels' is an account of an ex-slave who describes how he bought his freedom. Put to work on a boat which criss-crossed the Caribbean, making frequent visits to the American continent, he decided to try his luck as a 'commerce merchant'. From the meagre capital of threepence which he invested in a glass tumbler he eventually traded his way to the forty pounds necessary to buy his freedom (No doubt Thatcher would love this example of enterprise culture). The account of his travels - a popular anti-chattel slavery tract - end up with a call for the development of 'civilisation' in Africa i.e. the development of capitalist commodity relations.

From this stage, capitalism was committed to progress (I haven't discussed the impact of the French and American revolutions on this evolution, but they undoubtedly had a major affect). In South Africa, the criss-cross of Dutch and British capital, both operating through private capital, had developed a colony. In the colonies run by companies, the company was the state. When they recruited European labour, that labour was tied to the company for a set period (usually ten years) after which the settlers were free to move out of the company compound. In Australia, the British state acted the role of entrepreneur, using convicts to provide the primitive accumulation. Eventually during the nineteenth century the company colonies were 'nationalised' and became crown colonies allowing business to concentrate on production in specific areas. The state assumed the responsibility of ensuring preconditions for production - which takes on to the next point of discussion.

The State

It is important to clearly state what the function of the capitalist state is. It is the reproduction of the pre-conditions of capitalist society. This is done in a material way - i.e the state might use abstract concepts - in fact it must use abstract concepts - but it must confront the practical conditions which it finds. Thus it twists and turns according to the problems it confronts. Thus the preference of the bourgeoisie for democracy, as this leaves greatest room for maneuver, whilst at the same time maintaining permanent institutions which are not 'political'. The state can then change course with minimum disruption. In regions where the capitalist mode of production is weak, the bourgeoisie are unable to install democratic regimes and have to deal with military regimes or 'one-party' states (where the bourgeoisie have to unite in one party to survive). The tendency towards democracy is like the tendency towards a falling rate of profit - a veritable tendency which is not necessarily realised.

The capitalist development of the state grew out of pre-existing conditions. In some places (eg: Britain), the growth of capitalism was indigenous (though this is not to deny that it was part of a European movement). The state is rooted in pre-capitalist institutions which is why such profoundly anti-democratic phenomenon as the monarchy still exist, and are still important to the particular state. This is not to say that the monarchy is a strict necessity for the state, but that it is a contingent necessity. The bourgeoisie cannot simply toss it aside as an outmoded shell. The monarchy is the unifying factor of the different branches of the state. As such it makes itself essential to stable continuity. The bourgeoisie would toss it aside in a crisis, i.e. when that stable continuity no longer existed. In other places the state is a foreign import (eg the example of Indonesia). Here it is held together by a social layer that if not educated in the west, are deeply influenced by Euro-American culture. In yet other places (eg: Pakistan) there is an Islamic state. Here the principals of state-craft are derived from the Koran. Essentially this is a bodge, in that Mohammed had a concept of a universal state which would dominate the world as part and parcel of Islamic domination. The practice varies little from other states, but it does represent an attempt to merge an alien state with indigenous culture. Hence the anti-western ambience, which is riddled with contradictions absent in the other two examples. And finally there are the Modernist states (eg: the USA and USSR). Despite their differences, they share specifically bourgeois origins, based respectively on the concepts of Paine and Lenin. Naturally both are imperfect reproductions of ideological positions. In the USA, American nationalism has been based on the welding together of all sorts of ethnic groups to produce an anglicised American culture. In the Soviet Union, where the ethnic groups have been less affected by mass migration, we are dealing more with a socialised Russian culture.

None of these are nation-states. Britain is a conglomeration of nations, as is Indonesia. Pakistan is a result of the communal partition of the Indian sub-continent whereby mass migration was necessary as large numbers of non-muslims fled, to be replaced by muslims from 'India' who immigrated. The USA is continually struggling to become a nation, and the USSR is struggling to avoid becoming a series of separate nation states. Nationalism is a political programme which aims at the creation of a nation state, using certain perceived characteristics as the basis for the dissolution of inter-class tension.

The ideology of nationalism is that as 'we' all have certain characteristics in common, we should stick together. It has at its base the family. Nationalism always reinforces the family, because it is only through the family, and analogies based on the family that it can gain the sense of naturalness which is essential for it. Gaddhafi has explained this in his green book; family - tribe - nation. The family is the sacred altar of the nation. It is essential to the notion of nation. The family is the principal unit of reproduction, both in terms of reproducing human beings, but also reproducing culture and social relations - and reproducing property rights, which are generally inherited through the family. Also the family reproduces duties and obligations which pre-date capitalism.

Thus in Roumania we see the state run as a family business, while in the USSR previous nepotism has been exposed as new clans come to power. The family may be structured patriarchially or fraternally, and more often is the site of a conflict between the two, as rising generations take over from their fathers. The role of women may be prominent but never predominant. The family reproduces itself through the arrangement of marriages. All marriages are arranged, whether by family elders or market conditions. The bourgeoisie naturally champion the free market, which they are able to dominate. But they mask this behind notions of romantic love when it comes to the proles. The ability of the bourgeoisie to mobilise the workers behind a nationalist war, is dependent on their ability to present the war as the defence of the family - not the family in abstract, but that the worker must participate in the war to defend their own nearest and dearest - to prevent their mother, wife or daughter being raped. More recently women have been mobilised, aside from playing a role in militarised medical services and replacing men in the factories. But this is always more contentious as it raises the threat of dissolving the family and military discipline as the possibility of sexual encounters amongst front line troops breaks both the repressed homo-eroticism of most fighting forces, and weakens allegiance to family life (even if this exists in name only). The interweaving of sexism (including heterosexism), nationalism, racism and militarism find their nexus in the fabric of the family.

International Capital
International Capital lies at the other end of the spectrum from the immediacy and intimacy of the family. The former exists as an abstraction - a very real abstraction, while the latter is often passed over as being natural despite its artificialness. International capital, or capital in totum, or capital precisely as an abstraction, is a metaphysical entity which is realised through capitalist relations. It is everywhere and nowhere, which is continually materialised through the practice of the capitalist process. It does not operate through conspiracy, although it incorporates conspiracy. It is the operation of mutual interest between the owners of capital in relation to those who don't own capital. It is the domination of small capital by big capital. While much capital is fluid as finance capital (concerned with locating good profit rates), other capital such as industrial capital is more tied to particular structures i.e. specific industries (concerned with organising production). Yet more capital is static, i.e. bound to the state (concerned with organising reproduction).

International Capital does not simply consist of finance capital, as this is dependent on productive capital, which is in turn dependent on reproductive capital. International Capital is the inter-relation of all three. Depending on local and ultimately global circumstance, different capitals get an edge. The conflicts which emerge amongst the capitalists are not games of cricket. So in the Albanian Central committee of the ruling class, faction fights are fought out with gunfights. In Britain, things are more discrete such as the so-called suicide of Eric Miller. The ruling class deal with problems at a variety of levels on a daily basis. Thus a diplomat might sort out an inter-state question in the morning, plot boardroom manouvers in the afternoon, and spend the evening fretting over family matters. Meanwhile a proletarian may spend the morning visiting the authorities to make sure that their papers are in order, having had to emigrate due to the suction of surplus value from their native land, which has carried them in its wake. In the afternoon they have to deal with a boss which is not convinced of the necessity of taking the morning off, whilst in the evening they have to sort out how the family is going to manage with a half-day pay cut that week. And imperialism doesn't exist?

Imperialism exists in that surplus value is moved across state boundaries which make different zones of the reproduction of capitalist life. (It even affects local government boundaries, although in Britain this is to be reformed by the poll tax legislation.) By this process, stronger nation states become even stronger, and the weaker even weaker. Thus capitalist development exaggerates global differences. It is only where a state has been able to develop a process of primitive accumulation (such as the exploitaion of Siberia by the USSR in the thirties), that a state has been able to upgrade itself - i.e. at the direct expense of the proletariat. And this process can only happen in certain conditions - in this case the depression. In China, the cultural revolution meant that millions of youth and women were set to work to accomplish this primitive accumulation. This is internal colonialism or fascism. Bourgeois rights are put aside in favour of naked accumulation. The wages system is put on the back-burner as unwaged slavery takes over. Anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-sexism and all sorts of other antis take phenomena of capital and oppose them. These phenomena are real, but by struggling against a partial aspect these ideologies end up propping capitalism up. Thus Sivanandan is correct when he rejects 'anti-racist ideology', but this is not to deny that there is an anti-racist struggle, or anti-imperialist struggle etc. Because to really fight capitalism this can only be done by fighting its phenomena, as it only exists as a series of phenomena. To fight it as an abstraction of simply international capital vs international labour is idealist. All practical struggles are limited until they can unify themselves as global revolution. But unless the resistance starts at such a level there will be nothing to come together except ideas rattling together in the empty heads of intellectuals.

Thus when we participate in a practical struggle we are always looking for ways to generalise it, to shed ideologies which keep the struggle confined to the initial matter. But to generalise it in a concrete way. The struggle against imperialism must not be an anti-imperialist struggle - the example of Germany is good. We must struggle against all the phenomena of capital, though individual proletarians will find themselves active in particular areas depending on what life throws at them. Leftists will try to trap them in those areas, with all manner of non-sense. Communists do not. They draw the struggles together. This can hardly be done by dismissing every practical struggle as simply based on a phenomena, and only offering struggle in the abstract, against capital in the abstract. That role is best left to middle-class intellectuals who are pretty much irrelevant anyway.