[Marxism] Lenin's definition of imperialism

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Thu Oct 25 18:18:03 MDT 2007

I thank Steve for his careful and well-reasoned reply to my points. 

I do not believe we disagree about the "fundamental" character of
inter-imperialist conflicts. Nor do we disagree about the fundamentally
national character of imperialist capital despite (as he notes) some
exceptions, and I would add some fairly easily observable alignments, i.e.,
there's a lot of companies that are quoted on both Wall Street and the
London Stock Exchange, which underlies the "special relationship." Britain
is the perennial jr. partner of Washington's imperial misadventures because
of the commingling of Britain's ruling class interests with those of the
U.S. rulers.

We also don't seem to differ that much on the reasons why the post-WWII
period produced no interimperialist wars, except I think he underestimates
the importance of decolonization, and the relatively greater degree to which
various imperialist powers (and not just one) operate in certain countries
or regions, for example Spain's penetration in Latin America, and how this
helps to ameliorate some conflicts and rivalries. But I would disabuse him
that I hold the idea that the world market and financial system in some way
automatically doles out superprofits "fairly" or "proportionately" or any
other such thing. It doesn't. But it is also not the monopoly that, for
example, control of India gave British capitalists.

Where we differ is on what I would call his "catastrophism." It is said that
the stock market has predicted nine out of the last five recessions, and if
that's true, then Marxists have predicted nine out of the last zero
cataclysmic depressions since WWII: they simply haven't happened.

And it's not just a question of the all-consuming crisis. He says, "Finally,
the labour aristocracy contained struggles of the working class, so that it
has generally, in the imperialist countries, allowed its organization,
struggle, living standards and conditions of exploitation to decline." 

I would not put this in this way. I do not believe that the standard of
living of working people as THEY perceive it has declined. Statistics show
that median household income has fluctuated in a narrow range since 1970 or
so, while the size of households has declined. Wages in the U.S. are very
highly age-stratified, which means that the wages of an average worker of a
given generation may well rise over time even if overall wage levels are
declining. And countless indicators of MATERIAL well being, in terms of use
values, has risen -- size of housing units, number of vehicles, number of
households with central A/C and heating, with color TV's, etc. etc. etc. 

I'm familiar with all the counter-arguments, especially that many more women
are working, but that is the problem with long-term comparisons of these
kinds of figures. What MAY at one point be viewed as extraordinarily
burdensome in another social context has become "the new normal."

What IS undoubtedly true is that labor's share of national income has been
declining and that there's been a growing polarization in incomes and
standard of living, and I'm not thinking so much of the few hundred
multibillionaires as the many hundreds of thousands of multi-millionaires
and the few million millionaires. The gap between the top few percent and
the rest of us has been widening for decades -- so much so that even a
figure like Alan Greenspan has expressed worry that the market's inability
to reduce relative inequality will undermine political support for the

Steve ticks off various things that have prevented "push coming to shove"
for what is now many decades, noting that this one no longer applies, and
that one has been exhausted. All true, or close enough as to not be worth
quibbling about. The problem with these sorts of predictions of catastrophe
is that I've been hearing them since the Nixon wage-price freeze in 1970,
and it is only later that it becomes clear WHY things did not work out that

As things stand now, I think capitalism there is more assurance that
capitalism will hit a brick wall not due to internal self-contradictions of
the system, but due to external constraints -- the limited resources of the
planet that are accessible to us and the fragile equilibrium of the climate
system and the biosphere. 

If the predictions about peak oil are right -- whether it comes now or in
five, ten or fifteen years -- then almost certainly there's going to be a
cataclysmic economic crisis and an absolutely desperate struggle for control
of the remaining oil that will be the end of capitalist civilization as we
know it -- whether in ruin or in socialist rebirth, I do not think we can
know with any certainty, but I suspect it will be both to some degree. 

I say IF the predictions are true because petroleum reserves are calculated
on the basis of current technology and economics. But it does seem to me
averting or postponing peak oil for many years, or substituting other energy
sources, would take such a series of qualitative technological leaps and
cause massive economic disruption anyways.

So perhaps in a sense I'm just as much a "catastrophist" as Steve except
that mine is not rooted in the internal contradictions of capitalism as a
social system, and more on the idea that a system that wants to expand
indefinitely on a limited material basis will sooner or later come up
against the limits imposed by that material base. 

This does not at all mean that I think it is impossible for the kind of
"internal" crisis that Steve thinks is inevitable to take place. I think it
is entirely possible. I think it is *possible* we may be entering such a
crisis even now -- it stands to reason that only so much liquidity can be
injected into the financial system before it bursts, and this has been the
response to every crisis for two decades at least, starting with the stock
market crash of 1987. But I don't know, and I'm not sure it is really
knowable in advance. And I find after hearing them so many times over the
decades that I can't credit an argument that THIS crunch/crisis/recession is
the cataclysmic one (just to be clear, I'm not imputing this view to Steve).

[I do believe the U.S. is in an economic slowdown whose true dimensions are
not showing up in the official statistics that rely on household and
employer surveys because of the large undocumented layer in the workforce
that has been precisely the hardest hit layer, especially in construction,
but this is for another discussion].

I guess in some ultimate sense I would agree with Steve that even if with
mega postponements and tons of luck, sooner or later capitalism will implode
from its own internal contradictions, if not over the next 20 or 40 years,
then certainly over a longer period. But I find it hard to believe that
capitalism won't run into the brick wall of its interactions with nature
first on that sort of time scale. 


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