Review: On Imperialism and Opportunism

V. I. Lenin On Imperialism and Opportunism
with an introduction by Torkil Lauesen
Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2019

The bulk of this pocket-sized book is taken up by a collection of writings by Lenin on the connections between imperialism and opportunism, that is, how the receipt of super-profits based on colonial and imperialist exploitation led significant elements of the working class in the imperialist countries to abandon proletarian internationalism for national chauvinism and the pursuit of sectional advantage.

These texts were originally compiled by the Communist Working Circle, a Danish anti-imperialist organization that provided significant material to national liberation movements in the Global South. This reprint does not include Gotfred Appel’s original introduction. Instead, the essays and excerpts by Lenin are accompanied by a new introduction – itself the length of a short book – written by Torkil Lauesen. There is much that LOOP agrees with and finds useful in Lauesen’s introduction. Lauesen’s introduction is ambitious, attempting not just to provide a context for Lenin’s writing, but also to advance our understanding of imperialism in its current epoch. The historical survey Lauesen provides to contextualize Lenin’s writing is not extensive, but contains valuable discussions and tidbits, the most impressive being his critical assessment of Rosa Luxembourg and his comments on the political consciousness of WWI veterans. Most significantly, unlike the vast majority of authors writing on imperialism now, Lauesen is clear about the effects that the centuries-long robbery of the Third World has had on the class structure of the imperialist countries:

“It was only after WWII, however, that it became clear that Lenin’s description of a labor aristocracy had begun to cover the great majority of the First World working class.

Today, the labor aristocracy is not merely a thin upper stratum of workers in any given country, nor is social chauvinism a passing trend (as the term “opportunism” may falsely imply). The contradiction “bourgeoisie – working class” in the imperialist countries is no longer the dominant factor in the two classes’ respective development. The contradiction between them is primarily influenced by the fact that they stand united in another, more primary contradiction, namely, that between the exploiting nations and the exploited nations.” (pp. 56-57)

This clarity places Lauesen a significant cut above authors such as Intan Suwandi, whose recent book on commodity chains published by Monthly Review neglects this issue entirely. LOOP expects Suwandi’s perspective on global value transfer to receive a much warmer welcome in Western “left” academic circles due to its bracketing of embourgeoisement, but Lauesen’s attention to this problem makes his work significantly more valuable – and substantially more political. From this analysis, Lauesen correctly concludes that both the revolutionary past and revolutionary future lie in the Third World:

“Revolutionary socialism died out in Europe and never got a foothold in North America, instead gaining its strength in the Global East and South. It is noteworthy that virtually all revolutionary attempts in the last hundred years have occurred either in the world periphery, or in the semi-periphery of the imperialist centre (in the second place, not only in Russia, but less successfully with the struggles of the New Afrikan, American Indian, and Chicano/a people in the U.S., the Basque people, and the Irish for national liberation). The Russian Revolution signaled a decisive shift in the centre of gravity of the communist movement, from Europe to the periphery. This change came to shape the history of revolution in the twentieth century.” (p. 50)

The second half of Lauesen’s introduction discusses a wide range of issues. LOOP might take up some of these topics – such as the reproletarianization thesis and Lauesen’s distinctive theory of the “parasite state” – in later articles dedicated to these issues. Of particular value here is Lauesen’s discussion of social expenditures by the state in the Global North as compared to the Global South.

Against the claim by First Worldists that the welfare state has in the last few decades been decimated by neoliberalism – and by extension, the claims by some that the material basis of the labor aristocracy has been eroded – Lauesen contends that neoliberalism’s supposed decimation of the welfare state in imperialist countries (a national chauvinist discourse) is a myth. Lauesen provides data (pp. 60-1) demonstrating that the commitment of First World states to a “welfare system with public health, education, social security, and pensions” has continued under neoliberalism, concluding that “between 1980 and 2014, average social expenditure in the OECD countries increased from 15.4 percent of GDP to 21.6 percent of GDP” (p. 58).

Some points of disagreement

In revisiting the introduction, the editors might have considered including material from Socialism and War, “Under a False Flag,” “An Open Letter to Boris Souvarine,” “The Main German Opportunist Work on the War,” “The Voice of an Honest French Socialist,” and “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War,” among others. While we expect the intended slight physical size of the book limited space for inclusion, these essays also contain material relevant to our current moment and are worth reading alongside those included in On Imperialism and Opportunism.

But the most disappointing thing about Lauesen’s introduction is that it marks a missed opportunity. On the first page, Lauesen notes that “the connection that Lenin posits between imperialism and opportunism… is more pronounced than ever.” With this opening statement, one would expect Lauesen to describe contemporary manifestations of opportunism and their roots in imperialist parasitism.  We would expect him to investigate and expose the opportunism of First Worldist “socialists” and their organizations, who distort Marxism to defend the sectional and imperialist interests of the labor aristocracy. We would expect him to discuss the scourge of red-brown alliances – the often surreptitious, but even at times flagrant collaboration between fascists and First Worldists that has corrupted the anti-imperialist movement in the Global North. Yet this valuable task is not taken up.

The closest Lauesen comes to this is in his discussion of national (chauvinist) populists like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Syriza in Greece. But instead of examining these populisms as a species of opportunism, Lausen suggests that they represent “a left tendency in the North’s working class” that has emerged in response to neoliberalism’s opposition to the welfare state (p. 66). These movements do not signal a progressive wind in the Global North; there is nothing “left” about an imperialist – and in the United States, settler colonial – petite bourgeoisie seeking to renegotiate the terms of their class collaborationism. Lauesen concludes about these national socialist populisms that

“These have won some support by picking up old social democratic positions. In the short run, their strategy might allow minor improvements for their respective national working classes. However, in a longer and more international perspective, it makes no difference to, and rather tends to obscure, the battle between imperialism and the real proletariat in the [Global] South concerning the abolition of capitalism. The only true anti-imperialist socialist strategy is to support that struggle.” (p. 66)

We agree with Lauesen’s last sentence, but the criticism preceding it is far too muted. The issue here is not that these politics obscure imperialism, but that these are politics of imperialism. Social democracy in the imperialist countries – with the labor aristocracy as its mass base – is a politics that is based upon, shores up, and entrenches imperialism. Imperialist, settler colonial, and anti-migrant policies are not the result of short-sightedness, but expressions of a class stand. Such politics are part and parcel of the labor aristocracy’s class struggle, in alliance with their bourgeoisie, against the global proletariat. Lauesen neglects this crucial point. Moreover, Lauesen does not address in this same context the significant connections between settler colonialism and opportunism.

In attempting to reckon how revolutionaries in the imperialist countries might make an appeal to the labor aristocracy and their organizations, Lauesen adopts a moral voluntarism. He proposes that “an appeal to reason, compassion, and solidarity, rather than simply the wallet, must make some impact if only the ‘left’ were brave enough to prioritize it” (p. 70). But the problem anti-imperialists face in the First World is not insufficient bravery on the part of its variegated “left.” Our obstacle is that the metropolitan so-called left, including almost all who pass themselves off as Marxists, act as representatives of the labor aristocracy and advocate for the political interests of that class – interests that lie with the intensification of imperialism’s oppression and exploitation of the working class and peasantry of the Third World. Neither the bourgeoisie nor their junior partners are going to expropriate themselves due to renewed humanist commitments. The challenge we face as communists in the imperialist countries is that we swim in a sea of enemies. And we will for some time.

LOOP warmly recommends this book as a targeted anthology of Lenin’s writing on the material relations between imperialism and opportunism and as a useful educational resource. Lauesen’s introduction, which goes beyond contextualizing Lenin’s essays to put forward original contributions and discussions rooted in an anti-imperialist perspective, significantly elevates the collection. On Imperialism and Opportunism can be purchased directly from the publisher’s website.