Men of the London Rifle Brigade with troops of the 104th and 106th Saxon Regiments, IWM
Why do socialists defend bourgeois nationalism?
by Philip R. Hall
This was the key document of all the anti-colonial movements: ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Whatever else was written afterwards, in the end, it relied on this tract as its foundation.
Walter Rodney, Eduardo Galeano, Gunder Frank, Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh and the rest of the political theorists writing in the developing world, all understood capitalism as a global, interlinked system that could only be overthrown somewhere, if it could be overthrown everywhere. They were internationalists, but they were also pragmatic.
My parents, Tony and Eve Hall, were intellectuals in the Leninist sense. They were always concerned about praxis, about ‘What is to be done?‘ <<Что делать?>>. I inherited that approach from them. It is the question I have asked myself constantly my whole life. What is to be done to overthrow capitalism and create a humane socialist society?
My parents were more concerned with the practicalities of strategy and mobilisation than with abstract theory. This attitude contrasts with that of many Marxists in Europe. These Marxists, on the whole, are academic Marxists. They do not lead social movements, they merely interpret what Lenin called the current conjuncture and comment on the intentions and actions of social movements.
The task facing the anti-colonial socialists and communists in the 20th century needed to be backed up by a working system of thought that helped supply practical answers, and that system owed more to Lenin than Marx. The questions liberation strugglers asked were practical:
How do we overthrow the Portuguese colonial regime?
How do we overthrow the Apartheid government in South Africa?
What kind of society do we want to build after liberation?
What should the position of women be after the liberation?
What should be the role of the African liberation struggle be within the broader, global struggle?
In the 60s and 70s, Frelimo, the ANC, the PIAGC and MPLA were all aligned with socialist policies and they called themselves revolutionaries because no one fights a war of liberation in a colonised country in order for only a few local people to get rich.
The people who fought the anti-colonial wars were the ordinary people. There must be some benefit in liberation for them as well, not just for a future elite. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, a fairer society meant wealth redistribution, which, in turn, meant socialism, or, at the very least, an advanced social democracy and putting the good of the people first.
Leaders of the liberation movements in Africa, like Marcelino dos Santos, were applied political scientists in the sense that they were interested in affecting change above all else.
Lenin’s book, ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, borrowed from the ideas of John A. Hobson. Hobson analysed the phenomenon of imperialism in economic terms. Lenin tried to answer the following question:
Why did the working class of Europe agree to fight each other?
The moment of the famous football match at Christmas between German and British soldiers was a frightening one for the ruling classes of both Germany and Britain. After all, it was that same war that precipitated the Russian revolution.
Clearly, working people on both sides of that war had a lot in common with each other. Often they had more in common with each other than they did with their own rulers and military commanders. Class hatred was strong in Britain; hatred of the generals, sipping their port and smoking cigars in the rear while they sent ordinary men over the top to die, was burning hot.
Historians cite the Christmas truce during World War I as a beautiful interlude; as a lovely moment when peace broke out before the inevitable recommencement of hostilities. In fact, for our ruling class, it was a nightmare moment. Revolutions start this way. If only Tommy and Fritz had decided not to go back to fighting each other!
Why then did the ordinary German and British soldier pick up their rifles and start firing again? The great guns started shelling again.
The reason why the working class of both countries continued to fight each other, according to Lenin, was because key sections of the working class in Britain and Germany benefitted just enough from imperialism to cause them to switch sides and side with the ruling class temporarily.
The rising tide of surplus from imperialism was floating more boats; skilled workers in Great Britain were getting a trickle down of blood money. They were receiving a small fraction of the vast wealth extracted, at first from slavery, and then from the extraction of wealth colonisation of countries and even continents. The British worker drank tea from Ceylon sweetened with sugar from the United States or the Caribbean.
The skilled British worker, much more so than many of his counterparts in Europe, benefitted from the empire. This explains why there was no revolution in the UK after the 1640s despite the all the economic ups and downs. There was just enough to live on in Victorian and Edwardian Britain in order to stave off civil war. A labour aristocracy would refuse to politicise trade unions. They were interested in perpetrating the status quo, not in upsetting it. They would take–and history has shown this – the side of the bosses if push came to shove. They would focus exclusively on getting good deals for their members, and only where those deals are available.
Who then, according to Lenin, became the exploited class with the potential to rise up and overthrow capitalism and establish a new kind of egalitarian society. They were the exploited of places like India.
The real revolutionaries are the most exploited people on the periphery of empire, and in the centre, not the better off working class benefitting from empire. We see in Europe that, so long as ordinary people have enough to eat, a car, a home and the possibility of advancement, they will not join together to overthrow capitalism and install socialism. The riots in France taking place at the moment are not riots in favour of a different form of society, or riots against the exploitation of the oil wealth of Congo Brazzaville. They are arguments for a new social arrangement; for a readjustment, that’s all.
The new revolutionary proletariat were people like the miners and workers in South Africa, in Chile, in Guatemala and Mexico and so on. Revolution would come at their instigation, because no one in the metropolises of capitalism cared about them, not really, not even the workers. The point of oligarchic global capitalism is to extract ever-increasing amounts of labour surplus from workers everywhere, but mainly from workers, smallholders and landless peasants in the developing world.
Cuba would have its revolution as a result of these contradictions, and later Vietnam too. The focal point of exploitation shifts to the periphery. The contradictions of capitalism intensify, and so that is where the action is. That is where the iron fist of the capitalist state falls to crush opposition. Millions of people in the developing world, in the Middle East and Latin America and Asia, are killed by US bombers and weapons, but there is no bombing in London or New York. The centre must hold, even if it costs a little. Since WWII, Global Research (based in California) estimates that the USA has been responsible for the death of over 20 million people.
There is very little real revolutionary potential in any strike or action carried out in a country like the UK, not even arising out of something like the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s.
According to Lenin, in order to be successful, revolution had to be global, because the deeply exploited workers in the periphery (the textile workers are now in Bangladesh, not Lancashire) would organise and politicise and, in the struggle against exploitation, in a Frierian way, start to work out the real causes of their oppression. In doing so. the exploited discover the roots of imperialism sunk into their own countries and subsequently join arms in a loose alliance with people in other countries experiencing the same oppression in order to fight against that oppression.
Moving on from Lenin, workers would understand through the struggle against their governments that they were facing a global ‘hydra’, not simply a local unfair ruling elite. The poor of the developing world, the theory went, would oppose the capitalist class in alliance with the most exploited and oppressed sections of the population in the imperial centre. This is why people like C. L. R. James considered the Black population of the USA to have such revolutionary potential. Why he considered it to be the vanguard of the US proletariat. These are the people who were, and many still are, at the sharpest end of capitalism.
In fact, it turned out this way in Africa against the Portuguese. The struggle against Portuguese colonialism by the liberation movements precipitated the overthrow of the dictatorship in Portugal itself.
The lesson people took away from Vietnam and Cuba and China and the other revolutions was that national struggles of liberation against imperial domination, whether imperialism took the form of colonialism, or neo-colonialism, was that a radical transformation of the nationalist struggle into a struggle for a fairer society would inevitably take place. The objective being a socialist society. Unless, that was, outside agents of imperialism could divert that struggle into a sterile populism. In other words, people like my parents and their friends saw national struggles of liberation against imperial domination as inherently progressive and transformative.
The US and the UK obviously agreed with this Leninist vision and sought to counteract it. The ruling elites in the USA and Britain were Leninists too! In opposing nationalism in the developing countries, the USA and UK and their allies did atrocious things: They supported the contras in Nicaragua. They supported coup d’ etats in Iran, in Chile. They supported genocidal dictators like Suharto. They propped up anachronistic monarchies in the Middle East. They supported the Apartheid regime to the hilt, almost to the bitter end. They supported the Portuguese colonialists fully against the nationalists fighting for independence and once the Portuguese were cast out, they funded shadowy and bloodthirsty organisations like UNITA and RENAMO.
Back in the metropolises of capitalism, theorists were working on how to co-opt more people into supporting the status quo. The final version of this pragmatic, anti-Leninist and anti-Marxist strategy was developed by John Rawls through his Theory of Justice.
Rawls tasked himself with finding ways to diffuse the possibility of global alliances between people struggling against the same enemy in both the developing and developed world. Rawlsian theory was designed to prevent these alliances. In this sense, Rawls, like all of them, are Leninists. This is because they actively believe Lenin is right.
In the present day, shameless political chameleons and servants of the ruling class of the western countries that get into positions of power in the state through the machinery of PR, understand Rawls’ simple idea and try to implement it. They provide a little support and subsidy to those who could potentially be the most radical opponents of corporate oligarchical capitalism. The ones who riot and protest at the drop of a hat. Rawls, of course, did not extend his theory to encompass the global system of capitalism. He was working to save it, not sabotage it. To extend his theory would have meant mean preventing hyper-exploitation on the periphery.
At the same time, the strategy in the centres of capitalism developed by the think tanks was to attempt to create strong comprador elements in all the countries it wanted to keep open to extraction and exploitation. It did this with the help of a global financial system through mechanisms developed by the IMF and the World bank. US and UK corporations themselves created strong vested interests in their continued presence in different developing countries through an extensive range of different tactics all backed up with the threat of military intervention and subversion: they used bribery and corruption, cultural and educational exchanges, military aid.
Thinking members of the ruling oligarchy in the US and UK gave the elites in Africa and Latin America (and many other parts of the world) a very strong vested interest in maintaining their alliance, even when that meant the beggarment of whole nations: The most classic examples were the famous ‘Banana Republics’ of Central America.
This was the pattern then, the buying off of elites in the developing world and the provision of social support to those whose need was most dire in the richer countries. In the late 80s, 90s and noughties, there was a cause for great disappointment. In Angola, South Africa and in country after country, the ruling elites aligned themselves with foreign capital largely above the interests of their own people.
Nevertheless, the idea remained: a bourgeoise nationalist government which opposed imperialism would be intrinsically good. Good of itself. Because, in Leninist terms, it was the beginning of opposition to capitalist imperialism. To put a break on capitalism and to roll back imperial power, even when it is only a bourgeois nationalist government doing so, is, de facto, a good thing because it is about defending the interests of the bourgeoise of a country and putting them over the interests of imperialism. It was about keeping the wealth inside the country.
There are people in the UK and US who are not immediately against Russia at the moment. This is because they are true internationalists who oppose the current hegemonic imperialism of US capitalism. But it is difficult for the majority of the population of these countries to understand what is happening. For example, why isn’t everyone in the developing world immediately dead set against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine? In the ‘West’, many citizens may think that what is happening is a simple gross violation of Ukrainian national sovereignty.
However, those of us who have lived through the seventies and whose point of view is fixed firmly in the developing world; and those of us who are still compos mentis and retain our historical memory, place imperialism much higher on the league table of evils than the evil of a resurgent, socially reactionary, corrupt Russian nationalism.
Deeply unattractive and revanchist though Russian capitalism may be, it is not yet fascism or tyranny; it is a bourgeoise nationalist country acting as a firebreak against US imperialism. This is the 64,000 dollar question: Is a bourgeois nationalist government that opposes imperialism always good?