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Socialist Education: Imperialism

At the beginning of the Irish peace process, a Sinn Fein supporter suggested that the Socialist Democracy book analysing the process be burnt on the grounds that it was based on concepts of capitalism and imperialism that the Shinner had learnt about in university but were no longer applicable in the modern world.

Since then the views of the Sinn Fein member have become commonplace. The United States, once seen as the premier imperialist power, is now seen as the guarantor of peace in the North.

In the 26 counties, government, employers and Union leaders are all united in believing that that survival depends on placating the banks and bondholders and subsidising the transnational companies through low tax rates. The historic struggle for political independence is seen as irrelevant or as a mistaken  diversion.

Today within the socialist movement concepts of imperialism are often replaced by the concept of globalisation according to which class and national oppression are then seen as a conscious policy of one wing of capital that can be reversed through lobbying, demonstrations or electoral activity. This theory does not see imperialism as the result of an objective development of capital which can only be opposed by the mobilisation of workers seeking its overthrow, but as a result of subjective choices made by an 'unacceptable face' of capitalism.


Perhaps the most widely known theory of imperialism is that developed by Lenin. This theory has been challenged and there are competing Marxist analyses, but for revolutionaries its   abiding strength is that it draws together the tendency of capital towards monopoly, the growing supremacy of finance capital, rivalry between imperialist powers, the constant outbreak of war, and the pillaging of peripheral countries by the great    powers. As monopolies grew, the rate of profit fell and the composition of capital moved towards a greater dependence on parasitic finance capital. Finance capital was able to use the state to build in an ongoing exploitation of peripheral economies, quite distinct from the earlier smash and grab of colonialism. This struggle for resources led to constant rivalry between the imperialist powers which underpinned both world wars and the constant wars since then aimed at control of resources and    strategic control of areas of influence.

Lenin explained that; "monopoly has grown out of colonial policy. To the numerous 'old' motives of colonial policy,  finance capital has added the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence .... economic territory in general . When the colonies of the European powers, for instance, compromised only one - tenth of the territory of Africa ... colonial policy was able to develop - by methods other than those of monopoly - by the "free  grabbing" of territories so to speak. But when nine - tenths of Africa had been seized, when the whole world had been  divided up, there was inevitably ushered in the era of   monopoly possession of colonies and, consequently, of   particularly intense struggle for the division and redivision of the world."

The world today

How do these ideas hold up today? Capital has become concentrated in a small number of companies, the recent economic crash arose from the unrestrained operation of finance capital. Calls by the capitalists themselves for a rebalancing of the economy have failed utterly. War follows war, driven by the struggle of the imperialist powers to control the resources of poorer countries. The economic crisis is to be resolved by a process that involves massive flows of wealth from the  periphery to the centre, from the workers to the capitalists.

In Ireland the conflict in the North, seen for most of its history as a conflict between Republicanism and British imperialism, is now seen as a tribal conflict where the British, out of humanity, have tried to bring peace. No-one can explain why their efforts have led to the creation of a sectarian hell-hole or why they   constantly bankroll and sponsor the unionist bigots.

In the formally independent area of the country there are loud celebrations about the exit of the country from the bailout and the escape from Troika rule. Hardly anyone believes this nonsense. The Troika will continue with regular inspections and the European central bank has the country on a choke leash. Wealth will continue to flow from the workers to the rich and from the country to the banks, bondholders and the transnational companies. Without comment members of the Irish army are co-opted, under the command of British officers, to defend the interests of European capital across the globe.

Class Struggle

So ideas that suggest that imperialism no longer exists or that it has become a force for good are disproved by everyday reality. Why then does the ideology hang on?

The logic here is the logic of class struggle. Imperialism is seen as a progressive political force because the non-capitalist society in the USSR and its satellites collapsed and because the republicans, along with similar movements in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, were defeated and adapted to the politics of their enemies. The idea that Britain has no: "selfish. strategic or economic interest" in Ireland is simply laughable, but fits the class interests of the Irish capitalists.

Inside the workers movement the trade union leaders had run a mile from the national question. Their overall strategy was to demobilise their own members and put their faith in social    partnership with government and employers at home and abroad, and in the power of imperialism to modernise Ireland through membership of the European Union. The weaker the workers movement became the more other groups such as sections of the feminist movement put their hopes in capitalist modernisation from Europe.

One of the strengths of Lenin’s booklet:  Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism is that, by linking together all the aspects of class and democratic oppression and the culture of war as part of the underlying development of capital, he disposed of many of the reformist illusions of gradual progress and underpinned the need for a revolutionary alternative.  At the time the social democratic and trade union leaders across Europe were preparing to support “their” capitalists in the great slaughter of the First World War. Lenin’s alternative was the drive for workers revolution. When the Irish rose at Easter he applauded them, regretting only that they had arisen too soon.
Today the political and economic offensives against the Irish working class are all perfectly understandable within the framework of capitalist and imperialist oppression. To gain their full power these concepts require a new mobilisation of the working class and oppressed. Socialists can aid in that remobilisation by popularising the concept of imperialism and using it to undermine the rapidly decaying ideologies of social peace and class collaboration offered by defenders of the status quo.


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