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Anti-Imperialism and Socialism—A Reply to Charlie Post

The struggle for consistent anti-imperialism is a question of the first order for the socialist movement. A contribution to the current debate about the legacy of Karl Kautsky, focusing on the concept of the “labor aristocracy.”

Matías Maiello

June 23, 2019
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I thank Charlie Post for his reply to my previous piece on anti-imperialism. This important debate also includes the recent contribution by Louis Proyect.

In his article, Post begins by pointing out a series of points that we agree on, linking the struggle for socialism with the struggle against imperialism. I would like to begin with these agreements to highlight the importance of an anti-imperialist perspective.

The ongoing debate about Karl Kautsky and the claims to his legacy by the editors of Jacobin, a magazine linked to the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), go hand in hand with this tendency’s determined support for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders within the Democratic Party for the 2020 presidential elections. With such politics, it goes without saying, there is no room for anti-imperialism. In the last few decades, Sanders has been fundamentally aligned with the Democrats’ imperialist policy, having voted for the vast majority of U.S. military interventions, with the exception of the authorization for Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq in 2002.

While Trump is pushing to construct a border wall and threatening Mexico with sanctions, Sanders has spoken out against a policy of “open borders,” at a time when thousands of desperate people are fleeing misery in Mexico and Central America. This exodus is to a large extent a product of the policies of successive U.S. administrations and a whole series of coups, military interventions, blockades and a supposed “war on drugs” that continue to this day. In February, Sanders effectively legitimized the coup attempt in Venezuela organized by the State Department when he demanded to “allow humanitarian aid into the country,” when everyone knew that Trump was maintaining brutal economic sanctions that contributed to the terrible situation of the Venezuelan people. Moreover, Sanders could muster only a very timid defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar when she received all kinds of Islamophobic attacks from Republicans and was condemned by the Democratic leadership for the “sin” of criticizing the policies of the state of Israel.

In this context, the debate about Kautsky has largely ignored the question of imperialism. This omission had its political expression when Eric Blanc argued that Sanders’ “political limitations” on “foreign policy issues” are “hardly a serious reason to withhold endorsement.” Or when James Muldoon advocated a supposed “democratic road to socialism” as elaborated by Kautsky without dedicating any attention to the fact that Kautsky took on the task of justifying the Social Democratic Party’s alignment with the German Empire in the World War I.

Engel’s assertion that “a people which oppresses another cannot emancipate itself” is conspicuously absent here. But it remains a very concrete reality, both historically and today. The “neoliberal model,” which Vivek Chibber identifies as the main enemy right now, had its laboratory in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship, led by the “Chicago Boys” trained at the University of Chicago. From there, it was generalized in different countries around the world, starting with the United States and Great Britain. To impose this model, Thatcher’s victory in the Malvinas War against Argentina (also known as the “Falkland Islands War”) was fundamental, strengthening her government to subdue the British miners. These scenarios were possible thanks to bloody dictatorships across South and Central America, supported by the CIA and the State Department in the 1970s and 1980s, with a total of about 400,000 people killed, detained and tortured, according to recent estimates (in Spanish).

Today, as the nationalism of the great powers returns to the center of international politics, now in the form of “trade wars” (which are fundamentally a fight for technological supremacy in strategic sectors), the struggle for consistent anti-imperialism is a question of the first order, both in the central countries and in the periphery. Gathering forces for this struggle, we believe, is of the utmost importance.

On the Concept of the “Labor Aristocracy”

Having said that, we would like to enter the debate Charlie Post has proposed on the concept of the “labor aristocracy.” Lenin explains this as follows:

Capitalism has now singled out a handful … of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world. … Out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. … They are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.

According to Post, “The theory of the labor aristocracy, in all of its variants, is without factual-empirical basis and rests on questionable theoretical assumptions.” For the imperialist companies, “total profits accrued from the Global South never accounted for more than 5% of total wages in the Global North” and are ultimately insufficient to explain the wage differences between them. “These empirical errors are ultimately rooted in … an idealized vision of competition, notions of ‘monopoly’ (or ‘oligopoly’) ignore how real competition throughout the history of the capitalist mode of production has produced growing inequality and periodic economic crises.”

The first thing we have to point out is that when Lenin speaks of bribery “in a thousand different ways,” he is not referring exclusively to the question of wage differences (much less to nominal wage differences). Nor does the concept of a “labor aristocracy” encompass all—or even a large part—of the working class of the central countries, as Post’s calculation suggests, but only a small minority. Otherwise, this would contradict the whole policy of the Third International, which placed its bets on the proletariat of the imperialist centers as key to world revolution. At the same time, Lenin did not argue that the resources for such “bribes” were derived exclusively from profits from foreign direct investment of individual companies headquartered in this or that imperialist country, as Post’s formula maintains.

The Bolshevik leader explained,

What is the economic implication of ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the 1914–15 war? … The war is being fought by all the Great Powers for the purpose of plunder, carving up the world, acquiring markets, and enslaving nations. To the bourgeoisie it brings higher profits; to a thin crust of the labour bureaucracy and aristocracy, and also to the petty bourgeoisie (the intelligentsia, etc.) which ‘travels’ with the working-class movement, it promises morsels of those profits.

As we can see, Lenin was referring to the plunder and subjugation of entire nations, for which political-military power is always a key element. Far from explaining “bribery” with a direct relationship between imperialist profits and wages in the imperialist countries, in this case, Lenin went as far as to speak in terms of “promises.” It is a much less direct relationship than Post is attempting to claim. For Lenin, this relationship is determined by economic, political and ideological elements.

From our point of view, the question we have to ask ourselves is not whether the profits of the imperialist multinational corporations in the oppressed countries are sufficient to explain the wage differences between the center and the periphery. If so, we would be denying the differences in labor productivity in different countries. We can agree with Post on the relevance of differences of productivity to explain wage differences, but for us, this is only part of the answer—all the more so when we consider that there is no necessary relationship between productivity growth and wage increases. Whether this happens also depends on the relationship of forces between classes.

To decide whether Lenin’s definition of “labor aristocracy,” determined by multiple elements, is relevant today, we would have to answer the following questions: (1) Has capitalism “now singled out a handful … of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world,” extracting profits over and above those obtained by the exploitation of their own proletariat? (2) If so, does there exist in those countries, as Lenin claimed, an “insignificant minority of the proletariat and of the toiling masses” who are privileged (compared to the rest of the workers of that country and of the oppressed nations) and strongly linked to the petty bourgeoisie “in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook”? (3) Does this sector play an important enough role that the bourgeoisie considers its privileges not a direct product of the local or national relation of forces, but a “bribe” to encourage its collaboration with the union bureaucracy proper (whose norm is direct corruption) and with the imperialist state?

Privileged Nations and Imperialist Oppression

Let us begin with imperialist plunder. Without attempting to deal with this problem exhaustively, we will point out a few indispensable elements that need to be considered and that go beyond the flow of profits that result from investments in the periphery, which Post has put at the center of his argument.

The control of raw materials—including freshwater, mining resources and fuels like oil, natural gas and uranium—is a fundamental privilege for which, without doubt, military power is key. It would be impossible to understand American geopolitics and recent wars such as the Iraq War or the struggle for domination in the Middle East, which have left hundreds of thousands of dead, without considering the key (if not exclusive) issue of who controls energy resources. This is not only a matter of direct military interventions: In Brazil, for example, the Lava Jato (car wash) operation planned by the country’s judiciary together with the U.S. State Department always had among its objectives the appropriation of Brazil’s pre-salt oil reserves for imperialist multinationals.

One of U.S. imperialism’s pillars is the dollar’s role as a global reserve currency and its weight in international trade and finance. All other countries are obliged to finance the United States’ trade and fiscal deficits. Ultimately, the only way the United States can maintain the dollar’s preeminence is to use weapons. At the same time, the United States, the EU and Japan are the base of operations for the large banks and financial institutions that suck of the wealth of the peripheral world. Thanks to this, for example, Argentina is now being governed, de facto, by the IMF.

In terms of “net financial transfers,” including inflows and outflows, illicit and legal (“development aid,” wage remittances, net trade balances, debt services, new loans, direct foreign investment, profile investment and other flows), “emerging” and “developing” countries lost $3 trillion to the rich countries from 1980 to 2012, according to the study “Financial Flows and Tax Havens: Combining to Limit the Lives of Billions of People.” On average, from 2000 to 2012, these transfers accounted for as much as 8% of the affected countries’ GDP.

It would be a mistake to disregard these and other privileges of certain nations when analyzing the concept of “labor aristocracy.” Even if we essentially reduce everything to an effect of differences in labor productivity between countries, we would still need to explain the origin of the greater investment that historically gave rise to these differences. In doing so, we would find that imperialist multinationals have molded the economies of the dependent and semicolonial countries in such a way that they serve the needs of imperialist capital itself. In the process they have extracted potentially investable funds from these countries by appropriating and transferring profits, as well as plundering them with debt. This results in deformed economic and social structures that perpetuate backwardness and dependence.

Changes and Continuities

To deal with the second aspect we listed, the existence today of a minority of the working class in the imperialist countries with privileges in comparison to the rest of their country’s proletariat and that of the oppressed nations, it is necessary to start with important changes that have taken place in recent decades.

The restoration of capitalism in China, Russia and Eastern Europe, along with the proletarianization of hundreds of millions of people in India and China, contributed to the multiplication of the labor power available to capital in the 21st century. This process exerted enormous pressure on the wages and working conditions of all workers, including those of the imperialist countries. The results of this are wage stagnation, precarity and structural unemployment, which form the basis of the current repudiation of “globalization” among broad sectors of the white working classes in the central countries, and which are a key factor in understanding the crises of hegemony that their political regimes are facing, as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and others. But we also saw recently how, in the face of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to deepen these policies, an important phenomenon of class struggle developed in the heart of Europe, the rebellion of the Yellow Vests.

Now, having pointed out these changes, we must emphasize that the downward pressure on wages and the threats of relocation continue to be based on the worst working conditions in the periphery. We can find some suggestive ideas on this in John Smith’s analysis of the current development of global value chains organized by multinationals by outsourcing production to local suppliers in peripheral countries. This allows the multinationals to pay lower wages—with worse working conditions—than if they hired directly. It also makes it possible to externalize the commercial risk and the responsibility for workers (e.g., severance pay), as well as to transfer costs and the risks of fluctuations in demand. The multinationals thus exercise a “global labor arbitrage” to improve the rate of exploitation.[1]

For a graphic image of the consequences of these mechanisms, we can look at the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the capital of Bangladesh, where the eight floors housed textile workshops producing for European brands such as Zara and North American ones like Tommy Hilfiger. This was a real social crime in which 1,133 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured.

In addition to the multinationals’ global supply chains, there is the growing polarization of employment within the imperialist countries themselves. According to Michel Husson, “In all advanced countries, the same phenomenon is observed: employment increases ‘at both ends’. Highly skilled jobs are progressing at one end of the scale, precarious jobs at the other end” Both this element and the mechanisms of global labor arbitrage are indispensable when we consider the current foundations for the concept of the “labor aristocracy” today.

Imperialism, Bureaucracy and “Labor Aristocracy”

We will now turn to the third aspect that we mentioned: the role of the “labor aristocracy.” On the basis of an interpretation of Ernest Mandel’s work, Charlie Post counterposes Lenin’s concept to an explanation based on Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike,” which he says

provides the basis for a more realistic account of the emergence of the labor officialdom and reformism in the working class. Ultimately, the material roots of both the union-party bureaucracy and reformist consciousness among broader layers of working people is the necessarily discontinuous nature of class struggle under capitalism.

These elements that Post points to are part of the equation, but they are not enough to explain the development of the workers’ movement, neither in the 20th century nor in the current one. Since Luxemburg wrote that great pamphlet, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions,” there has been a qualitative shift in the process of the stateization of the organizations of the workers’ movement, beginning with the trade unions. In the imperialist era, characterized by competition between great powers and their respective multinationals to plunder the peripheral world and gain privileges, the capitalist state cannot limit itself to “waiting” for the consent of the masses. It is forced to organize it. This is why it inserts, as never before, its tentacles into “civil society.”

To account for this, Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of the “integral state,” using this controversial formula: “The State (in its integral meaning: dictatorship + hegemony).” Both Gramsci and Trotsky pointed to the role of the labor bureaucracy as a “political police,” as agents of the bourgeoisie within the mass organizations.[2] The “labor aristocracy” is characterized by Lenin as the most solid social base of those bureaucracies; its salaries, “way of life” and “conception of the world” connects it to the “middle classes” (i.e., petty bourgeoisie).

Many of these characteristics can be found in dependent and semicolonial countries that today, unlike in the early 20th century, have acquired certain “Western” features (according to the geographical metaphor of the Third International). As Post points out, every reformist bureaucracy—wherever it may be—identifies with the capitalist state. That is why the labor aristocracy’s material foundations are so different in the imperialist centers, since they are based on the plunder of other countries. When, for example, the bourgeois nationalist government of Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company, which belonged to British imperialism, there was an enormous difference between the alignment of the bureaucracy of the Mexican trade union federation CTM with “its” state and the expropriations, on the one hand, and the complicity of the British Labour Party with the actions taken by “its” imperialist state against Mexico, on the other. The fundamental consequence of this “social chauvinism” or “welfare chauvinism,” as some call it, cannot simply be reduced to reformism in general.

All this does not reduce the importance of intervening in the trade unions in the imperialist countries. On the contrary, it poses the need to understand the phenomenon as the basis for building up class struggle, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary currents within them. Lenin, who had never considered (as certain caricatures would suggest) that the privileged layers of the working class in the imperialist countries were incapable of struggle, fought within the Third International, alongside Trotsky, for the tactic of the Workers’ United Front, popularized under the formula “March separately, but strike together!” “Strike together” means confronting the capitalists together, which implies demanding that the reformist leaderships participate in the struggle; “march separately” means that the strategic objective is to win over the reformist workers for the revolutionary party, based on their own experiences with their official leaderships.

A Fundamental Struggle

With this article we have developed some elements that we hope will contribute to the debate. We believe that the concept of “labor aristocracy” provides a more solid foundation for understanding the material basis of the bureaucracies in the workers’ organizations of the imperialist countries.

Now, either with the concepts developed by Charlie Post or the ones presented in this article, the question is whether we give the strategic struggle against imperialism the centrality it deserves. This is even more relevant today when many leaders and intellectuals who claim to be socialists want the most politically conscious sectors of the youth in the United States, who are beginning to sympathize with the world “socialism” as an alternative to capitalism in decay, to rally behind the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.

As the Trotskyist Fraction—Fourth International, an international organization with roots in Latin America, working together with the comrades who publish Left Voice, with our humble forces we want to help develop an anti-imperialist perspective. We believe this fight is essential for the emergence of a working-class, socialist and revolutionary left in the United States, which is obviously of great importance to socialists around the world. If we agree on this, then we surely agree that uniting our efforts is a key task today.


[1] For a critical review of Smith’s work, see the review by Esteban Marcante: “Las venas abiertas del Sur global” (Spanish).

[2] Today more than ever, the role of the trade union bureaucracy is to guarantee the fragmentation of the working class (precarious and permanent, unionized and nonunionized, immigrant and native, etc.). To this we must add the development of bureaucracies in other mass movements (students, women, etc.), in many cases in the form of NGOs, civil associations linked to the state, etc.

published simultaneously in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda.

translation by Nathaniel Flakin.

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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