Important signpost

Issue: 113

Andrew Murray

A review of John Rees, Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2006), £14.99

Imperialism has entered the public political discourse over the last five years in a way which would have seemed highly improbable for most of the preceding generation or more. It has leapt out of the history books and the realm of jargon back to the centre of public debate.

This is a consequence of the policies of George Bush and Tony Blair in the first instance—but also of the nature of the movement of resistance to them, which in Britain (and to some degree more widely) is identified above all with the Stop the War Coalition.

John Rees is, of course, well known to readers of International Socialism. However, he has become known far more widely (including to the reviewer) through his central part in the creation and development of StWC, the most important political mass movement in Britain for generations.

It is therefore more than appropriate that he should have written this popular and accessible book addressing the main issues in contemporary world politics—imperialism and the resistance to its expression, and above all that misnamed ‘war on terror’ which has already left an ineradicable scar on the life of this century.

With this volume Rees has performed a further service to the movement, including to those who will not share all of his assessments and conclusions. His aim is to present the present struggle in historical context, to outline the main economic and political forces shaping the world today and to address the issues confronting the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements.

His analysis of the role of oil in shaping the politics of modern imperialism, and of the rampant inequalities exacerbated by globalisation are among the strongest sections of the book and will help deepen understanding of those factors which impel imperialism, and above all the US, towards war.

Such an analysis is important because too often the Marxist left is content with repeating the undoubted truth that imperialism generates war without probing the specific reasons why that is occurring at any one conjuncture (and not another). Certainly many on the broader left have been astonished that the end of the Cold War has not led to the reign of universal peace which was promised at the time.

An assessment of the crisis factors underlying the post-1991 world capitalist economy, the re-emergence of anti-imperialist rivalry as a leading factor in international politics, and the competition to ensure control over the resources vital to growth and profit, while at the same time endeavouring to maintain a pan-imperialist unity in response to any threats to the ‘new world order’—these are the building blocks of ruling class politics today, and they are well-detailed in Imperialism and Resistance.

However, I think that we could with profit—at least in terms of political understanding in the broader movement—dig deeper, even in a book aimed at a general readership. In particular, it is important to address the basis of imperialism as a phase in the world capitalist economy and how that has been modified post-1991.

One of the simplest—and most useful—Marxist definitions of imperialism was given by the British historian Victor Kiernan: ‘Imperialism today may be said to display itself in coercion exerted abroad, by one means or another, to extort profits above what simple commercial exchange can procure.’ This definition has the merit of both indicating the taproot of imperialism, rather than concentrating on its expression in the development of monopoly capitalism and the export of capital, and laying stress on the political aspect of imperialism as a system of world domination—its coercive aspect.

In 1916 Lenin described imperialism as a system based on monopoly capitalism and the export of capital. He showed how important spheres of the world economy (for example, the oil industry) had been centralised under the control of a handful of large transnational monopolies based in the most advanced capitalist countries. In addition, he showed how the export of capital from these countries to exploit natural resources and cheap labour had become an essential source of super-profits to sustain the capitalist system. Today monopoly capital remains at the foundation of the world socio-economic system—but it is important for us to address what is new in the drive for super-profits.

For example, the annexation of millions—perhaps billions—of people anew to the system of capitalist exploitation of labour affects the working class everywhere directly and intimately. Less than ever is imperialism something happening to other people in other places.

Take the position of labour in the US itself. The intensification of exploitation is proceeding at a staggering pace. In the last 25 years the average US worker has been compelled to increase his/her working week by 40 percent. A worker working 40 hours a week in 1980 will therefore be working 56 hours today. At the same time there has been a general stagnation in real wage rates, a factor now causing concern to even bourgeois economists in the US. The increase in the rate of production of surplus value can easily be imagined. This circumstance, which can only be destructive to the family life, spiritual development and physical health of the US worker, can surely not be divorced from the tremendous pressure on wage rates exerted by capitalist competition as it moves jobs and investment to countries where super-profits can be extracted.

The result of this is as one would expect. The Financial Times recently reported that the great US monopolies were now enjoying the longest period of double-digit profits growth since records began (January 2006).

Many factors have powered this increase in exploitation—the removal of barriers to the movement of capital, the introduction of new production and communications technology able to materially affect the organic composition of capital, as well as the systemic changes, effected by different means, everywhere from Berlin to Beijing. Millions of people across the whole world are being drawn into capitalist exploitation as wage labour for the first time.

Consider the scale of what is occurring. The recently-retired chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, perhaps the single leading figure in US monopoly capital over the past generation, told Congress that ‘the addition of more than 100 million educated workers from former Soviet countries, large segments of China’s 750 million strong workforce, and workers from India ‘would approximately double the overall supply of labour once all these workers become fully competitive in world markets’. This, he added ‘has restrained the rise of unit labour costs in much of the world’ (Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2005). Greenspan spelt out the obvious fact that this process is restraining the wages of manufacturing workers—those whose jobs can most easily be shifted to the former Socialist countries, to Asia, etc.

The result? According to Greenspan’s own statistics, managers and supervisors are enjoying wage increases of 10 percent a year on average, while production workers’ pay is barely keeping up with inflation. This benign situation for capitalism will, Greenspan said, ‘persist for some time’.

It is this exponential expansion in the employment of wage-labour, driven by ‘globalisation’ which is the big story of imperialism on the economic side in the last 20 years, the counterpart to the US-led drive for a ‘new world order’ with its attendant wars. It will ultimately reach its limit, not when every sentient being is drawn into the system of wage labour, but rather when that system no longer has the ability to realise its surplus value—surplus value which does not exist in money form but rather as production and consumer goods for which there is no market—hence an immense crisis of overproduction.

In the short term this huge increase in the mass of surplus value being produced has helped abate symptoms of crisis within the world system by counteracting the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but already the struggles over trade, access to markets and other forms of inter-imperialist rivalry are becoming sharper once more. A little further down the road this struggle is likely to get more acute, in Asia in particular, and mark the passage from neocolonial wars to great power conflict. In my view, Imperialism and Resistance could have benefited from a more detailed exploration of these themes, although some of the points sketched out here are touched upon.

I have to enter one further point of reservation, beyond recording the fact that John and I come from different traditions within the Marxist left, something reflected of course in his handling of the Soviet Union and, to some extent, the Labour Party—the two questions which divided the left from the far left in the 20th century. Rees notes that the post-1991 situation has at least created the possibility of overcoming some of these differences, or of addressing them in a less adversarial context. This is one factor which has made the success of the Stop the War Coalition possible.

The point that needs comprehending in the context of the present book is the ways in which the collapse of the USSR and the associated states has had a dramatic impact on the shape of anti-imperialist politics in the world.

It seems to me undeniable that, in however a vacillating and sometimes self-serving way, the Soviet government did extend considerable military, diplomatic and practical support to a range of secular anti-imperialist movements around the world throughout the post-war period. The absence of that support after the late 1980s has had a range of consequences: it created the possibility for the First Gulf War; opened the space for the rapid development of anti-imperialist (and sometimes anti-democratic too) movements in the Middle East drawing their inspiration from religion; and made it more likely that the imperialist powers themselves would feel able to pursue different agendas in competition with each other.

This point is paradoxically highlighted by the two examples John cites of ‘democratic revolutions’ at the start of the book—the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998. In passing, this juxtaposition highlights the limitations of the ‘democratic revolution’ analysis, since in the latter case the ruling elite was reorganised, while in the former the entire political and economic power structure was swept away. The main point here, however, is the differential impact on world politics. The change of regime in Indonesia, while a half-step forward for the Indonesian people, had little impact on politics at a world level. The GDR had, however, taken a lead (doubtless at the instigation of the Soviet government) in providing support to national liberation struggles in Africa. It was deeply involved in assistance of all kinds to the ANC, SWAPO and, a little earlier, ZAPU in Zimbabwe, as well as to the post-colonial governments in Angola and Mozambique. The incorporation of the GDR into the Federal Republic had an enormous and negative impact on the struggle in Africa. Of course, the African people can and will find their own ways of overcoming these difficulties without European support, but the political strengthening of imperialism as a result of the collapse of the Soviet systems is, in the short term, undeniable.

A variation on the same story could be told with respect to the Middle East and the decline of secular resistance to imperialism at the expense of the rise of those drawing Islamic inspiration. At any event, not all ‘democratic revolutions’ have impacted on the development of world politics in the same fashion.

This analytical lacuna does not cast a very long shadow over the central thrust of the book, however. The mass movement can only benefit from drawing on the analysis in the concluding chapter, which addresses many of the issues of principle and tactic which have arisen in the development of anti-imperialist politics since 2001.

In particular, the treatment of the Muslim mobilisation in the anti-war movement, and the related issue of Islamophobia is masterly, and serves as a more general example as to how the working class and the socialist left should approach the question of alliances against imperialism today, when the forces mobilised against the depredations of the US-led world order are more diverse than at any equivalent preceding stage.

The emphasis placed on the right to self-determination for peoples and nations in the world today is also vital. This principle is no more an absolute for all times and places than any other is, but it is the key to unblocking the road to social advance at present and, I would guess, for some time to come. Departing from it certainly leads incrementally to support for the Bush-Blair world agenda.

Rees’s analysis here is all of a piece with his contribution to the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, in particular in ensuring that the movement’s requirement to be as broad as possible ‘did not preclude a radical approach’, and maintaining the focus on the US and British governments as the main enemy.

As he writes, ‘While not being anti-imperialist in declaration, a strong anti-imperialist current of opinion, often commanding majority agreement, was always present. This was not just a question of intellectual argument by anti-imperialists within the broader coalition, although this was vital as well. Crucially the agenda of the imperial powers themselves and the instinctive reactions of tens of thousands of activists drove the movement in that direction.’

It is true that events are themselves driving masses of people to exactly that understanding of the world, in the process creating a political crisis within the Labour Party and leaving behind entirely the once-powerful (just think of the Yugoslav war) voices of the pro-war and pro-imperialist ‘left’. But nor should the role of political leadership be neglected. This book will, I hope, extend the political understanding that its author has shown in practice to many more people as we build a still stronger movement—more united, more radical—for the battles ahead.