Capitalism, the highest stage of imperialism? Warren and the Third World

A book review of Imperialism: pioneer of capitalism

By BILL WARREN (London, New Left Books, 1980). 274pp. £3.95

published in  Race & Class 24/2, Summer 1982.

Imperialism, says Warren, is good for us – us denizens of the Third World, that is – because it is the vehicle, the agent, the harbinger of capitalism. And capitalism, we have on Marx’s authority, raises the level of our productive forces and raises us from misery and tyranny and the dark night of our souls.* More, it creates a real proletariat who can make a real revolution, not the sort of half-arsed working class you get in the Third World these days, a working class sold on bourgeois nationalism and electing to fight ‘external alleged enemies’ instead of their own ruling class – thereby inveigling western marxists into con­ fusing ‘the socialist working-class movement in the industrialized capitalist countries’ with ‘the intrinsically bourgeois’ nationalist anti­ imperialist movement of the Third World.

•Marx also warned against ‘transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations

And if there is any lingering doubt that imperialism is good for us, Warren is quick to assure us that it is nevertheless temporary – for ,whatever Lenin may think, imperialism declines as capitalism ad­vances. Once, that is, imperialism has delivered itself of capital and set it on its way, it goes away and dies, letting a thousand capitalisms bloom – inter-dependently – ever after. Imperialism’s task in fact is almost over, for we are already in ‘an era of declining imperialism and advancing capitalism’. Capitalism, quite clearly, is the highest stage of imperialism.

Imperialism, in other words, creates its own contradiction in creating Third World capitalism, and capitalism creates its own con­ tradiction in creating the working class that is destined to overthrow it. The result: socialism.

Without imperialism, then, there is no capitalism (for the Third World); without capitalism, no socialism. So if we want socialism, we had better embrace imperialism.

That in essence is what Warren says to me – shorn of his marxist pretensions, his self-selective statistics, his calling to witness of reac­tionary writers (from Ram Mohan Roy and Ahluwalia to Gann and Duignan) and his much-vaunted iconoclasm (as though to break icons is in itself a revolutionary act). Perhaps there are other things he says which are significant, such as the cock-up that Lenin made about im­perialism to give imperialism a bad name and the moralism of the ‘development of under-development’ theorists that led them to throw away the capitalist baby with the imperialist bath-water. But these discoveries, momentous though they may be for the marxist playboys of the western world, have no bearing on the lives of Third World peoples for whom imperialism is, first and last, the palpable experience of foreign domination.

It is there in the rice they do not grow (let them eat wheat, says War­ren – on PL 480?), in the land they no longer own (but that transforms agriculture and makes for wage-labour), in the shanties they live in (capitalism’s ‘informal sector’), in the wages they cannot live on (poverty for some now means prosperity for all later: no exploitation, no capitalism), in the jobs they do not have (exaggerated), in the fuel and clothing beyond their reach (they have access to ‘durable consumer goods’ instead – ‘such as bicycles, sewing machines,  motorbikes, radios and even television sets and refrigerators’ -which ‘significantly enhance the quality of life of poor households’). It erodes their culture and humiliates them into political subjugation. And their hatred of it is a visceral hatred, individual and collective, transgressing class and in­voking popular national resistance.

It is the racial arrogance of western ‘marxists’ like Warren that inter­prets nationalism as the continuing ploy of a venal bourgeoisie and not the resistance of a people to unceasing oppression. The bourgeoisie did not create nationalism; imperialism did that. What the bourgeoisie did was to put it to its own uses, often under the rubric of socialism. But such uses have proved to be short-lived – for imperialism, in its War­ renite mission of advancing capitalism, was quick to cast the bourgeoisie in a collaborationist role and alienate it from the people – to install its own polities and regimes. So that, even as Warren was writing, nationalism in the Third World was increasingly taking the form of mass movements directed against its own ruling class and its imperial masters.

Warren’s failure to understand the dynamics of Third World na­tionalism is further compounded by his inability to distinguish between reactionary (bourgeois) nationalism and the revolutionary nationalism that combusted the revolutions of Ho  and Fidel and Cabral and Mao. It may be that such revolutions do not achieve for their societies the level of the productive forces that Warren’s capitalism could have assured them and therein provide ‘a bridge to socialism’. But what im­perialism brings into question is not the level of the productive forces but the ownership of the means of production – and what socialism of­fers is that such ownership shall accrue to the benefit of all the people and wipe out poverty, inequality and injustice. Socialism, for  ‘the damned of the earth’, is not just an economic project coming after capitalism, but an ideology of human worth whose time has come. And they at least – the workers and peasants of the Third World – are hav­ ing a bash at socialism while Warren’s appointed agents of revolution lie in Rip-van-Winkle sleep in the snug arms of Capital.

Equally spurious is Warren’s claim that capitalism in the Third World is economically, politically and culturally progressive in the way that western capitalism is. That capitalism is an advance on pre­ capitalist modes is not in dispute – any more than that the feudal mode is more progressive than the slave. But Warren’s measurements of capitalist progress in the Third World are not just platitudinous; they are also unilinear and one-dimensional – comparing not whole modes but the individual dimensions of each mode: the economic with the economic (unequal exchange is better than no exchange at all), the political with the political (bourgeois democracy is better than pre­ capitalist tyranny), the cultural with the cultural (individuality and ra­tionality are better than the herd instinct and superstition). Why not compare instead the economic, political and cultural to each other at once? Where in colonial capitalism, for instance, was there even a sug­gestion of political democracy except at its end? When did the colonies ever enjoy ‘the moral and cultural standards’ of capitalism: ‘equality, justice, generosity, independence of spirit and mind, the spirit of in­quiry and adventure, opposition to cruelty, not to mention political democracy’? And in the neo-colonial (or post-independent if Warren prefers it) era, why has all the GNP that, on Warren’s showing, the Third World has amassed led not to greater political freedom for the masses but less, not to a culture of equality, justice, generosity, etc. but to inequality, injustice, covetousness? And most so in those ‘newly in­ dustrialising’ countries – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil – where GNP is at its highest?

Quite clearly capitalism’s economic project in the Third World has not generated the political freedom and ‘the moral and cultural stan­dards’ that it did in the West.* The economic, political and cultural dimensions of capital have not kept pace with each other, do not have the symbiotic relationship that reinforces the capitalist mode and allows it to regenerate itself despite periodical crises (not least, by benefit of imperialism). On the contrary, they are in contradiction – precisely because Third World capitalism did not grow out of its own momentum, was not organic to its societies. Imperialism may have pioneered peripheral capitalism, but it neither declines nor allows capitalism to take indigenous root, as Warren suggests. If it did either of these, it would not be necessary to harness economic progress/ex­ploitation to political authoritarianism sustained by imperialist in­tervention.

To put it differently. The holistic view that Warren has of capitalism is applicable, if at all, to the West, where capitalism had its roots, evolved out of its own internal dynamic and was able to ameliorate the excesses of economic exploitation with political placebos and cultural anodynes. The political system mediated the economic system and culture legitimated it, keeping class struggle within manageable pro­ portions. Force, if used at all, was a last resort. In the periphery, on the other hand, force in all its guises has been the first resort, the sine qua non of capitalist exploitation – requiring the political system to be placed outside and above the economic, to act as a cohesive (and coer­cive) force maintaining the economic order of things. So that the resistance to economic exploitation has also become a resistance to political hegemony, initially expressed in nationalist and cultural terms. Hence the revolutions in these countries are not necessarily class, socialist, revolutions – they do not begin as such anyway. They are not even nationalist revolutions as we know them. They are mass movements with national and revolutionary components – sometimes religious, sometimes secular, often both, but always against the repressive political state and its imperial backers.