Foster-Panitch debate on the relevance of "imperialism"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat May 31 10:50:34 MDT 2003

I want to urge comrades, even those without high-speed Internet access, to
listen to the debate between Leo Panitch and John Bellamy Foster that was
originally aired on Living Room Radio, a Pacifica station in California and
that is archived at: It raises some very
interesting questions that I want to take up, especially Leo Panitch's
problem with the usefulness of the traditional Marxist understanding of
imperialism. But first a word or two about the principals.

Panitch edits "Socialist Register", a yearly journal that was launched by
the late Ralph Miliband and John Saville in 1964. Panitch's co-editor is
Colin Leys, a fellow professor at York University in Canada, where the
journal is published, and with whom I have had a series of exchanges about
dependency theory and other issues alluded to in the Panitch-Foster debate.
Leys, who is a specialist in African development, started out as a
dependency theorist but became convinced somewhere along the line that
independent capitalist development was possible in Africa. This led him to
make some rather startlingly optimistic projections about the Kenyan
bourgeoisie that John Enyang, a Marxmail subscriber who grew up in Kenya,
dismissed with references to the discouraging economic data of his homeland
and to the writings of Franz Fanon.

Although Panitch appears to come from a more classical Marxist outlook than
many other figures on the academic left, he shares with Immanuel
Wallerstein and Hardt-Negri the belief that proletarian revolution is an
outmoded concept. Since he is also in favor of socialism, this has lent his
writings a certain disjointed quality. It is almost like reading a manual
about how to raise a family without finding a word about sexual intercourse.

Foster is the editor of Monthly Review, a journal that has tried to
maintain the viability of the theory of imperialism and which recently
convened a conference in Vermont titled Imperialism Today
( It was timed to coincide with
the publication of Harry Magdoff's "Imperialism Without Colonies", a
collection of articles that have appeared in the journal over the years.
Foster's reply to Panitch incorporated a lot of the observations that were
made a recent MR article titled "Imperial America and War" and that is
online. As will be obvious from my following remarks, I am in agreement
with Foster but have some additional comments that might help to clarify
the issues.

To begin with, Panitch says that the term imperialsim is inadequately
theorized today. It is analogized with ancient Rome, but presented without
any grounding in historical determinacy or political economy. According to
Panitch, the term began to fall out of favor with Marxists around 1970 for
these reasons. Of course, this would have been news to people like myself
back then who had about as much familiarity with Socialist Register or
Science and Society as they had with the man in the moon. Whenever I got
into a extended conversation with some undergraduate about the causes of
the Vietnam war, I always brought up the subject of imperialism. Little did
I suspect that there were well-intentioned left intellectuals out there
questioning the usefulness of the term.

One of them was John Willoughby, who wrote an article in the 1995 Science
and Society special issue on Lenin titled "Evaluating the Leninist Theory
of Imperialism". To put it bluntly, there is nothing that Panitch said in
his debate with Foster that wasn't already said by Willoughby. The main
problem with the Marxist understanding of imperialism, according to
Panitch, is that it is prone to economic reductionism. Although
Willoughby's remarks are focused on Lenin, they jibe with Panitch's
complaint. Willoughby writes:

"We cannot deduce imperial domination from capital export or capitalist
rivalry from the logic of uneven development without additional arguments
connecting the evolution of national social formations to the world
accumulation process. And this, in turn, means that the roots of
metropolitan territorial domination are still obscure. We have neither a
general explanation of capitalist imperialism, nor an accounting of its
heterogeneous character. This is a fundamental failing. No theory of
imperialism can be complete without a compelling explanation of the varying
forms of metropolitan capitalist state domination. And this requires that
attention be paid to the formation of varying political structures
throughout the world economy, an attention that is diverted by the
reductionist theories of capitalist imperialism and, in Lenin's case, the
actual definition of imperialism itself."

Most importantly, for both Panitch and Willoughby, this reductionism could
not explain why most capital flows remain with the advanced capitalist
world today. If imperialism is characterized by the export of capital, then
one might conclude that Great Britain is more of a victim of imperialism
than Tanzania since there is more direct American investment in the former
than the latter. Panitch says that imperialism might have been a useful
concept in the Victorian era when North-South ties were decisive but not
when you find a preponderance of commercial and military interpenetration
in the G8 nations through various trade agreements, bilateral investments
and partnerships in NATO. Prior to 1945, it made sense to speak of
inter-imperialist rivalries but it does not today. What you have instead is
a US hegemony that has effectively turned other major capitalist powers
into something resembling Canada. This is not exactly what Lenin was facing
at the outbreak of WWI.

What is entirely missing from Panitch's analysis is the role of the USSR
and the colonial revolution in effecting this rapprochement between the USA
and other imperialist powers. It was necessary for their joint survival to
create a united front that would stave off socialist revolution both in
Europe and in the South. In hypothetical but not far-fetched terms, try to
imagine what the world would have looked like in 1955 if Hitler had
successfully overthrown Bolshevism and created a client state in
Russia--ie., eventually what the west achieved. Next, a German nationalist
party that was more "reasonable" and willing to co-exist with the allies
overthrows Hitler. It easily could have brought the war to an end and left
in its place a status quo not too much different than that which followed
the end of the First World War, maybe this time one that put its former
enemies in a weakened state. Under these circumstances, would
inter-imperialist rivalries eventually have manifested themselves? You can
be sure of this.

Instead, we saw an entirely different alignment of forces. All of
capitalist Europe and Japan united with the USA to prevail over the USSR
and the colonial revolution. The Cold War was essentially an imperialist
crusade to eliminate the institutional foundations of collectivized
property relations and to prevent the rise of other Soviet type states. If
you total up the number of lives lost in this counter-revolutionary long
war, it probably compares with those lost during either World War.

Alongside this imperialist assault, you also had one directed against a
series of nationalist-minded or populist states that came into existence
largely as a result of the space provided by Cold War rivalries. This
includes Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Allende's Chile, the former Angolan colonies,
Nehru's India, and others too numerous to mention. They all became subject
to a combination of economic and military pressures from the North that
eventually led to their replacement by more pliant regimes and/or adoption
of neo-liberal policies. If one chooses not to describe this ongoing attack
as "imperialist", then choose another word that is more appropriate--just
as long as we understand the underlying process that can be easily
demonstrated through the kind of "political economy" and "historical
determination" that Panitch calls for.

Turning finally to the question of whether the presence of IBM plants in
Great Britain rather than Tanzania is supposed to prove anything or not.
This is a specious line of reasoning that reminds me of one I have heard
about whether the workers in the advanced capitalist countries are more
"exploited" than those in the Third World. Based on a schematic reading of
the chapters on the production of surplus value in V. 1 of Capital, some
Marxists argue that a worker in a highly mechanized factory in the USA is
more exploited than a Guatemalan coffee-picker because they produce a
higher proportion of surplus value relative to their wage. What this fails
to take into account is the overall ability of the worker to reproduce
their own existence, which is not only a function of the wage but the
material conditions of society as a whole. If your wage cannot pay for
adequate medical care, the amount of surplus value you produce is
irrelevant. To paraphrase Keynes, you will be dead-- but in the short run.
There is no greater form of exploitation than early death because of
inadequate food, shelter or medical care.

By the same token, if the USA fails to invest in Burkina Faso or Paraguay
at the same rate as it does in Canada or Great Britain, it does not mean
that these countries are not victims of imperialism. In nearly every case,
including these two nations of the South, an alternative development path
is forestalled because the imperialist North cannot tolerate any exceptions
to its rule. Even tiny Grenada was overthrown because the New Jewel
Movement had decided that the resources of society should have been
channeled to the poor. That Grenada today lacks foreign investment is not a
sign that imperialism is not operative. Rather it is a sign that there is
no material incentive to invest. Ultimately, capitalism is not about
development. It is about profit. If there is profit building IBM plants in
Great Britain, the capitalist will invest. If there is no profit in Burkina
Faso or Paraguay, it will neglect them.

With the declining availability of profitable spheres of investment, we are
faced with growing stagnation or what Andre Gunder Frank called the
"development of underdevelopment" throughout the 3rd world. It would appear
that no matter what people like John Willoughby and others said after 1970,
Andre (who is in hospital now and who our thoughts are with) appears more
relevant than ever today.

(Jim Blaut's reply to John Willoughby can be read at:

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