Imperialism and "State Capitalism"

Jozef (Joseph) Stalin

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


While we are predominantly interested in capitalist imperialism, we cannot avoid discussing the activities of the so-called “socialist” nations (such as the Soviet Union, China, etc.). Given that modern imperialism has an economic base caused in developed capitalism by, in part, the rise of big business organised on a wider and wider scale, we should not be surprised that the state capitalist (“socialist”) nations are/were also imperialistic. As the state-capitalist system expresses the logical end point of capital concentration (the one big firm) the same imperialistic pressures that apply to big business and its state will also apply to the state capitalist nation.

In the words of libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis:

“But if imperialist expansion is the necessary expression of an economy in which the process of capital concentration has arrived at the stage of monopoly domination, this is true a fortiori for an economy in which this process of concentration has arrived at its natural limit ... In other words, imperialist expansion is even more necessary for a totally concentrated economy ... That they are realised through different modes (for example, capital exportation play a much more restricted role and acts in a different way than is the case with monopoly domination) is the result of the differences separating bureaucratic capitalism from monopoly capitalism, but at bottom this changes nothing.

“We must strongly emphasise that the imperialistic features of capital are not tied to ‘private’ or ‘State’ ownership of the means of production ... the same process takes place if, instead of monopolies, there is an exploiting bureaucracy; in other words, this bureaucracy also can exploit, but only on the condition that it dominates.[Political and Social Writings, vol. 1, p. 159]

Given this, it comes as no surprise that the state-capitalist countries also participated in imperialist activities, adventures and wars, although on a lesser scale and for slightly different reasons than those associated with private capitalism. However, regardless of the exact cause the USSR “has always pursued an imperialist foreign policy, that it is the state and not the workers which owns and controls the whole life of the country.” Given this, it is unsurprising that “world revolution was abandoned in favour of alliances with capitalist countries. Like the bourgeois states the USSR took part in the manoeuvrings to establish a balance of power in Europe.” This has its roots in its internal class structure, as “it is obvious that a state which pursues an imperialist foreign policy cannot itself by revolutionary” and this is shown in “the internal life of the USSR” where “the means of wealth production” are “owned by the state which represents, as always, a privileged class — the bureaucracy.” [“USSR — Anarchist Position,” pp. 21–24, Vernon Richards (ed.), The Left and World War II, p. 22 and p. 23]

This process became obvious after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the creation of Stalinist states in Eastern Europe. As anarchists at the time noted, this was “the consolidation of Russian imperialist power” and their “incorporation ... within the structure of the Soviet Union.” As such, “all these countries behind the Iron Curtain are better regarded as what they really [were] — satellite states of Russia.” [“Russia’s Grip Tightens”, pp. 283–5, Vernon Richards (ed.), World War — Cold War, p. 285 and p. 284] Of course, the creation of these satellite states was based on the inter-imperialist agreements reached at the Yalta conference of February 1945.

As can be seen by Russia’s ruthless policy towards her satellite regimes, Soviet imperialism was more inclined to the defence of what she already had and the creation of a buffer zone between herself and the West. This is not to deny that the ruling elite of the Soviet Union did not try to exploit the countries under its influence. For example, in the years after the end of the Second World War, the Eastern Block countries paid the USSR millions of dollars in reparations. As in private capitalism, the “satellite states were regarded as a source of raw materials and of cheap manufactured goods. Russia secured the satellites exports at below world prices. And it exported to them at above world prices.” Thus trade“ was based on the old imperialist principle of buying cheap and selling dear — very, very dear!” [Andy Anderson, Hungary ’56, pp. 25–6 and p. 25] However, the nature of the imperialist regime was such that it discouraged too much expansionism as “Russian imperialism [had] to rely on armies of occupation, utterly subservient quisling governments, or a highly organised and loyal political police (or all three). In such circumstances considerable dilution of Russian power occur[red] with each acquisition of territory.” [“Russian Imperialism”, pp. 270–1, Vernon Richards (ed.), Op. Cit., p. 270]

Needless to say, the form and content of the state capitalist domination of its satellite countries was dependent on its own economic and political structure and needs, just as traditional capitalist imperialism reflected its needs and structures. While direct exploitation declined over time, the satellite states were still expected to develop their economies in accordance with the needs of the Soviet Bloc as a whole (i.e., in the interests of the Russian elite). This meant the forcing down of living standards to accelerate industrialisation in conformity with the requirements of the Russian ruling class. This was because these regimes served not as outlets for excess Soviet products but rather as a means of “plugging holes in the Russian economy, which [was] in a chronic state of underproduction in comparison to its needs.” As such, the“form and content” of this regimes’ “domination over its satellite countries are determined fundamentally by its own economic structure” and so it would be “completely incorrect to consider these relations identical to the relations of classical colonialism.” [Castoriadis, Op. Cit., p. 187] So part of the difference between private and state capitalist was drive by the need to plunder these countries of commodities to make up for shortages caused by central planning (in contrast, capitalist imperialism tended to export goods). As would be expected, within this overall imperialist agenda the local bureaucrats and elites feathered their own nests, as with any form of imperialism.

As well as physical expansionism, the state-capitalist elites also aided “anti-imperialist” movements when it served their interests. The aim of this was to placed such movements and any regimes they created within the Soviet or Chinese sphere of influence. Ironically, this process was aided by imperialist rivalries with US imperialism as American pressure often closed off other options in an attempt to demonise such movements and states as “communist” in order to justify supporting their repression or for intervening itself. This is not to suggest that Soviet regime was encouraging “world revolution” by this support. Far from it, given the Stalinist betrayals and attacks on genuine revolutionary movements and struggles (the example of the Spanish Revolution is the obvious one to mention here). Soviet aid was limited to those parties which were willing to subjugate themselves and any popular movements they influenced to the needs of the Russian ruling class. Once the Stalinist parties had replaced the local ruling class, trade relations were formalised between the so-called “socialist” nations for the benefit of both the local and Russian rulers. In a similar way, and for identical needs, the Western Imperialist powers supported murderous local capitalist and feudal elites in their struggle against their own working classes, arguing that it was supporting “freedom” and “democracy” against Soviet aggression.

The turning of Communist Parties into conduits of Soviet elite interests became obvious under Stalin, when the twists and turns of the party line were staggering. However, it actually started under Lenin and Trotsky and “almost from the beginning” the Communist International (Comintern) “served primarily not as an instrument for World Revolution, but as an instrument of Russian Foreign Policy.” This explains “the most bewildering changes of policy and political somersaults”it imposed on its member parties. Ultimately, “the allegedly revolutionary aims of the Comintern stood in contrast to the diplomatic relations of the Soviet Union with other countries.” [Marie-Louise Berneri, Neither East Nor West, p. 64 and p. 63] As early as 1920, the Dutch Council Communist Anton Pannekoek was arguing that the Comintern opposition to anti-parliamentarianism was rooted “in the needs of the Soviet Republic” for “peaceful trade with the rest of the world.” This meant that the Comintern’s policies were driven “by the political needs of Soviet Russia.” [“Afterword to World Revolution and Communist Tactics,” D.A. Smart (ed.), Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism, p. 143 and p. 144] This is to be expected, as the regime had always been state capitalist and so the policies of the Comintern were based on the interests of a (state) capitalist regime.

Therefore, imperialism is not limited to states based on private capitalism — the state capitalist regimes have also been guilty of it. This is to be expected, as both are based on minority rule, the exploitation and oppression of labour and the need to expand the resources available to it. This means that anarchists oppose all forms of capitalist imperialism and raise the slogan “Neither East nor West.” We “cannot alter our views about Russia [or any other state capitalist regime] simply because, for imperialist reasons, American and British spokesmen now denounce Russia totalitarianism. We know that their indignation is hypocritical and that they may become friendly to Russia again if it suits their interests.” [Marie-Louise Berneri, Op. Cit., p. 187] In the clash of imperialism, anarchists support neither side as both are rooted in the exploitation and oppression of the working class.

Finally, it is worthwhile to refute two common myths about state capitalist imperialism. The first myth is that state-capitalist imperialism results in a non-capitalist regimes and that is why it is so opposed to by Western interests. From this position, held by many Trotskyists, it is argued that we should support such regimes against the West (for example, that socialists should have supported the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). This position is based on a fallacy rooted in the false Trotskyist notion that state ownership of the means of production is inherently socialist.

Just as capitalist domination saw the transformation of the satellite’s countries social relations from pre-capitalist forms in favour of capitalist ones, the domination of “socialist” nations meant the elimination of traditional bourgeois social relations in favour of state capitalist ones. As such, the nature and form of imperialism was fundamentally identical and served the interests of the appropriate ruling class in each case. This transformation of one kind of class system into another explains the root of the West’s very public attacks on Soviet imperialism. It had nothing to do with the USSR being considered a “workers’ state” as Trotsky, for example, argued. “Expropriation of the capitalist class,” argued one anarchist in 1940, “is naturally terrifying” to the capitalist class “but that does not prove anything about a workers’ state ... In Stalinist Russia expropriation is carried out ... by, and ultimately for the benefit of, the bureaucracy, not by the workers at all. The bourgeoisie are afraid of expropriation, of power passing out of their hands, whoever seizes it from them. They will defend their property against any class or clique. The fact that they are indignant [about Soviet imperialism] proves their fear — it tells us nothing at all about the agents inspiring that fear.” [J.H., “The Fourth International”, pp. 37–43, Vernon Richards (ed.), Op. Cit., pp. 41–2] This elimination of tradition forms of class rule and their replacement with new forms is required as these are the only economic forms compatible with the needs of the state capitalist regimes to exploit these countries on a regular basis.

The second myth is the notion that opposition to state-capitalist imperialism by its subject peoples meant support for Western capitalism. In fact, the revolts and revolutions which repeatedly flared up under Stalinism almost always raised genuine socialist demands. For example, the 1956 Hungarian revolution “was a social revolution in the fullest sense of the term. Its object was a fundamental change in the relations of production, and in the relations between ruler and ruled in factories, pits and on the land.” Given this, unsurprisingly Western political commentary “was centred upon the nationalistic aspects of the Revolution, no matter how trivial.” This was unsurprising, as the West was “opposed both to its methods and to its aims ... What capitalist government could genuinely support a people demanding ‘workers’ management of industry’ and already beginning to implement this on an increasing scale?” The revolution “showed every sign of making both them and their bureaucratic counterparts in the East redundant.” The revolt itself was rooted “[n]ew organs of struggle,” workers’ councils “which embodied, in embryo, the new society they were seeking to achieve.”[Anderson, Op. Cit., p.6, p. 106 and p. 107]

The ending of state capitalism in Eastern Europe in 1989 has ended its imperialist domination of those countries. However, it has simply opened the door for private-capitalist imperialism as the revolts themselves remained fundamentally at the political level. The ruling bureaucracy was faced with both popular pressure from the streets and economic stagnation flowing from its state-run capitalism. Being unable to continue as before and unwilling, for obvious reasons, to encourage economic and political participation, it opted for the top-down transformation of state to private capitalism. Representative democracy was implemented and state assets were privatised into the hands of a new class of capitalists (often made up of the old bureaucrats) rather than the workers themselves. In other words, the post-Stalinist regimes are still class systems and now subject to a different form of imperialism — namely, globalisation.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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