What is Anti-Imperialism? Notes on the decline of the Left

by Emanzipation und Frieden (Emancipation and Peace)

Thanks to korynmalius for the translation  (Original in deutsch)

In 1910, Finance Capital: A Study of the latest phase of capitalist development, by Rudolf Hilferding, was published. The author was a member of the SPD and became finance minister, in 1923 and again in 1928/29. In 1916, Vladimir Lenin, who was to be the leader of the Russian October revolution, wrote Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. This text founded what we know as Marxism-Leninism, it was the essential source of Soviet foreign policy, and serves many anti-imperialists, even today, as a basis for their political views. Although Lenin, already in 1916, wrote strong polemics against Hilferding’s party, he draws on him for this book, and broadly agrees with him. Thus, the spreading of the anti-imperialist world view to the whole society began, from the Left, the Centre and the Right. And although “Left” anti-imperialists, state-supporting bourgeois and Nazis imagined their respective political positions to be light years apart, they still shared this underlying anti-imperialist similarity.

The valorisation of capital as an evil conspiracy

Of course it is very fashionable, since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, to have something against capitalism, but what is re-branded anti-capitalism is nothing more than blatant resentment against capitalists. The existence of capital and its expansion remain entirely not understood. They hold evil masterminds and “greed” “responsible” for the crisis by means of their manipulation. They are accountable to the collective of “honest, swindled workers”. Labour is held to be a good thing, and something completely distinct from capital, although labour is what capital is, although purely accumulated. In “finance capital”, they see a completely different, especially harmful form of capital, which should “especially” not exist, although capitalism without fictive capital is unthinkable, today less than ever. Speculators are seen as monsters from hell, although the commodity-production of specific products for the market, that is, capitalism, is in itself already speculative. “Evil finance capital strangles good labour”, this absurd conception, unfortunately very catchy for the prisoners of the market economy, underlies the world view of regressive anti-capitalism (for more on this issue, see “What is regressive anti-capitalism?”). This conspiracy-theory way of thinking, which has never understood, what money and capital actually are, is less far away from antisemitic resentment than many of its supporters believe. It regularly culminates in the only supposedly critical question: “Money rules the world, but who rules money?” Each anti-imperialism is based on this pseudo-critique. Its central question is of very mediocre quality and sounds like: “How do the masters of money rule the world?”

Lenin’s imperialism theory

Already in Lenin’s theoretical thinking, there are oversimplifications and fatal misjudgements, which have essentially contributed to cause the catastrophic history of the Left during the 20th century. Lenin perceived something about the crisis of commodity-production: “the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still „reigns“ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined…”, he writes. But instead of connecting this to the Marxist idea that the commodity-producing society is prone to crises by principle, because it lives off abstract labour, which must always make itself superfluous, Lenin goes on to say: “and the bulk of the profits go to the „geniuses“ of financial manipulation. At the basis of these manipulations and swindles lies socialized production; but the immense progress of mankind which achieved this socialization, goes to benefit […] the speculators.” Lenin’s interest does not lie with the contradictions of commodity-production, but with the manoeuvring of the speculators. Consequently, he builds a somehow “other” capital: “finance capital”. Hilferding had also already written: “Finance capital […] is the climax of the dictatorship of the magnates of capital. At the same time it makes […] the internal domination of capital increasingly irreconcilable with the interests of the mass of the people, exploited by finance capital but also summoned into battle against it.” Lenin makes from two types of capitalists (industrial and financial capitalists), two types of capital: “It is characteristic of capitalism in general […] that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital […]. Imperialism, or the domination of finance capital, is that highest stage of capitalism at which this separation reaches vast proportions.” A characteristic of the anti-imperialist world view, which regressive anti-capitalism also shares, can be seen here openly: the separation between a so-called “productive” and a so-called “finance” capital.

In tight relation with Lenin’s definition of imperialism as the “domination of finance capital” stands his positive view of the “national question”. He speaks of “imperialist oppression and the exploitation of most of the countries and nations of the world, for the capitalist parasitism of a handful of wealthy states”, and, therefore, that “the national question […] is extremely important in itself as well as in its relation to imperialism”. It was not much longer before the Communist International discovered a passion for “the peoples oppressed by imperialism” which would bring its leader to become a hero of the anti-imperialist fight for freedom.

Each anti-imperialism applies itself positively to the obligatory group of the “people”. This is possible for it, as it imagines two differences which do not really exist: the one between a “normal” and “particularly bad” capital, and the one between a lot of “good” and a few “bad” nations. “Bad” nations are those which the so-called “rulers” of the “particularly bad capital” call home. These “rulers” are “the Imperialists” and are responsible for all the evil in the world.

The regressive anti-capitalism of international politics

The anti-imperialist world view does not only reside in the so-called “fringes” of society. The “centre” also thinks in anti-imperialist terms. The following quotes on the imagined “oppression by (foreign) finance capital” stem from very different political sides and clearly show how strongly these thought patterns are rooted, although with different intensities and expressions:

“The supremacy of finance capital over all other forms of capital […] means the singling out of a small number of financially „powerful“ states from among all the rest.”

“The fight against international finance and loan capital became the most important point in the program of the German nation’s struggle for its economic independence and freedom. ”

“The German bank is no longer a German bank […] It is not good that German global companies depend on foreign finance institutions regarding great projects and investments.”

The first quote is taken from Lenin, the second from Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), and the third from our German contemporary political idol Helmut Schmidt (Die Zeit, 15.07.2011).

The beliefs, behaviours and politics which are based on these ideas dominate a large share of society. Green bourgeoisie, pacifist Christians, the trade unionist who fights “parasites”, the politicians of all parties who defend “German interests” and the so-called “fringes of society” will always find themselves in agreement about imagined foreign oppression. The best example of this is the so-called “peace movement” which is periodically brought back to life again and again.

Let’s all of us good people link up arms…

The anti-imperialists see themselves particularly well as defenders of peace. It is conspicuous that they only then fight for “peace” – or at least for their representation of it – when it is against the US, Israel or the West. If they cannot hitch up on anything despite their best efforts, war and military action throughout the entire world leaves them suspiciously cold. That this world view is based on resentment, we can see it by example in the motto “No blood for oil”. As the US started the 2003 Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated under this banner. It proved itself capable of driving state-supporting bourgeois as well as anti-imperialists, Islamists and Nazis into rallies in the streets. We want to remain silent here for once on the positive relation to “blood”. We will talk here about the other fluid. That the oil from Saddam Hussein’s regime was sold to the West and was willingly provided in greater quantities by bypassing the embargo decisions, that it needed consequently no war for the US to get the Iraqi oil, was lost sight of. Also, the idea that half the worldwide demand for oil served to maintain transport, that a “war for oil” consequently would also have been so that German peace-lovers could fill their tanks every day, naturally had to be fended off. A call to boycott gas stations, shared thousands of times at peace demos remained as expected without resonance. It did not fit into the picture of “us good, them bad”. Also, ten years since the Iraq war – against which we could have definitely done something for other reasons – none of the so-called defenders of peace wonder where the US tanker fleet is indeed, which stole the oil from the “Iraqi people”. No-one wonders why, of all people, Chinese interests made the largest deal when the new Iraqi regime offered exploitation licences for the oil industry (see for example A Chinese Oil Company May Buy Exxon’s Iraq Stake, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 17.01.2013). Despite the fact that capitalism functioned differently to what anti-imperialists pictured, a so-called peace movement fished out the slogan “no blood for oil” once again in 2011. Also the fact that the Lybian regime of Gaddafi sold a large part of its oil to the West, therefore not necessitating a war, must not have been true.

…and stand by the inhuman regime

Some with full intention, others de facto, anti-imperialists supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. These would still be in power, if they had been successful. Such supports are no accidents of anti-imperialism, but logical consequences. A call from January 2012, signed by over a thousand people who are convinced that they were supporting freedom and human rights, says: “Stop the preparation for war! End the embargo! Solidarity with the Iranian and Syrian people!” In that respect the regimes in Syria and Iran are legitimised, they pursue “independent politics” and do not wish to obey the “diktat” of the US and NATO, that is why they prepare a war against these two countries and they hold them with Israel “in a state of emergency in order to wear them down.” This is in the choice of words the same “argumentation” which serves the Iranian and Syrian regimes. Nothing about the terror of these regimes at home and abroad, about their brutal repression also of their own people in revolt. Instead the call-out: “The preservation of the peace requires that the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states be strictly maintained.” A sentence, which could be attributed to the anti-imperialist Brejnev and Honecker, who also deflected criticisms of their rule in the same way in their days. When in the summer of 2009 millions of people in Iran rose up at the risk of their own life against the Islamic terror regime, radio silence reigned at best among our local “Friends of Peace.” Many declarations from the Iranian state open on this term. More about this in the pamphlet “Iran: denial of assistance – Resentment and manoeuvring. The tragedy of the pacifist Left.”

Such a resentment-filled view of the world is not able to take into account the open antisemitism of the Iranian regime, whose president thinks of “a small but treacherous number of people called Zionists”: “Although they are an insignificant minority, they rule an important part of the financial centres and of the political decision-making centres of a few European countries and of the US in a malicious, complex, and surreptitious way.” (UN Assembly, 24.09.2008) It’s only because of space reasons that we don’t reproduce other quotes from leaders of the Iranian Islamic republic. Because of their many similarities with this – also anti-imperialist – regime, anti-imperialists do not have any hope at all that there could be enough mobilisable potential in the Iranian population, in Muslim countries, in the West and throughout the world despite the crisis in order to throw the Iranian regime and its helpers a curve ball. Instead of supporting the demand “No nuclear weapons for Holocaust-deniers!”, they take the side of the people in power in this theocracy.

Easy targets: The US, the West, and Israel

To this blindness corresponds also a very narrow perception of the US in world politics. Purposefully the allusion to American human rights‘ violations and support for brutal dictatorships replaces any analysis and serves as the confirmation for a vehemently loved idea that the centre of evil seats in Washington. The fact that the US is a bourgeois democracy, which – if only half-heartedly, selectively and deceitfully – has laid down and still lays down certain dams against anti-semitic delusions, anti-American resentment cannot accept this idea. (See more about this in our pamphlet “What is anti-Americanism?”) In the process, anti-imperialists must tell themselves, that the US and the West at least sometimes let a dictator fall, while they themselves defend to the end of days the most bloodthirsty butcher – most importantly, he is an opponent of the West.

Anti-Western resentment is an integral formative part of this anti-imperialism. As Islamists sincerely believe that anyone who produces US films can only put them on YouTube if they have the permission from the state, Western anti-imperialists fantasise about some sort of “political bureau” of capitalism, which “manipulate the media in favour of capital”. In both cases the same reactionary understanding of politics and society is projected on the hated West. Anti-imperialism collective forces like class, state, people and nation, subscribes to the theory of collectivism, and thinks little of individuals or their liberties. It often develops into a proper hatred of “deviants” and intellectuals. In no way does it understand Antisemitism, be it entirely open resentment stemming from regressive anti-capitalism, or unreflective cries against the relations which culminate in a will to annihilate the supposed culprits. Because of that anti-imperialists are also completely confused when it comes to the Jewish state. In a complete mix-up between causes and effects they deem not the Iranian regime, but Israel as a danger for world peace, and insinuate sincerely that they want to launch into Iran “all-destroying warheads” (Günter Grass). (Read more on this issue in our pamphlet “What is anti-Zionism?”)

Anti-imperialism is only imaginary anti-capitalism

Capitalism is inhumane. Value and self-valorisation subject humankind and nature to their destructive strife towards maximal profit and never-ending growth. Capital undermines with labour its own substance and is consequently synonymous with crises. This is the case in Brazil, China, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Angola or Russia just as well as in the US and Western Europe. Anti-imperialists have yet to understand this.

In complement to their pseudo-critique, they propose pseudo-alternatives. While Marx and Engels once dreamt of an “association in which the free development of everyone is the condition for the free development of all” (MEW 4, 482), the anti-imperialist foreign minister of Bolivia David Choquehuanca, in July 2012 proclaimed a “Zona libre de Coca-Cola”. This would be the end of capitalism and the beginning of a “culture of social living” (Spiegel Online, 27.07.2012). The regime has banned Coca-Cola and then launched a national Cola drink on the market. Balm for the soul of every anti-imperialist in Stuttgart, who makes a great detour in the deepest abhorrence towards the globalisation monster McDonald’s, in order to finally feel linked in the kebab shop with the people fighting in the world. Critical thought does not tolerate anti-imperialist resentment.


Thank you dear Americans. And please stay another 70 years.