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Imperialism: Then, and Now

By Daniel Swanson

Ba. young Vietnamese cabin-boy, left his ship in New York just before the outbreak of World War I and went to live briefly in Harlem, which was already a lower-class black slum. This quiet, sensitive young man was only in Harlem briefly, but he carefully observed the overcrowded apartments, the refuse piled high in the streets, the broken lives of the people who lived there. He registered his outrage in his diary and in letters to friends. Many years, wars, prison terms and changes name later, Ba, now calling himself Ho Chi Minh, led his people in a victorious revolution.

WHEN LENIN wrote about imperialism in the early years of this century, he was describing a specific phase in history. In the last few decades of the 19th century, the European powers reversed their previous commitment to free trade and an enlightened colonial policy, erected tariff walls and began a new scramble for overseas territories. By the turn of the century, most of the Third World had been divided among the great powers and the growing rivalry, punctuated by periodic near-clashes over colonial interests, pointed to the outbreak of World War I.

Lenin traced this classic imperialism to a growing concentration of economic power within the capitalist countries. Giant capitalist monopolies, coordinated by banks, sought more profitable trade and investment opportunities overseas as well as sources for raw materials. Powerful capitalists forced their governments to secure foreign territories, ward off opposition from both Third World peoples and the other imperialist powers, and increase the pace of investment and exploitation. Lenin predicted that the continuing struggle for colonies would lead to the outbreak of world war.

This classic imperialism evokes images of British freebooters robbing southern Africa of gold and diamonds, of French colonialists shipping Vietnamese peasants to rubber plantations, taking away their names and assigning them numbers, of Chinese coolies building railroads and Indians pulling rickshaws in Bombay, of Rudyard Kipling, and of sugar plantations in South America. This is the imperialism that high school history textbooks actually label as such.

The classic imperialism of outright colonies, governors-general and armed garrisons has ended. A few tattered remnants have survived, such as the three Portuguese colonies in Africa, but the great majority of Third World nations won their independence in the great wave of nationalist fervor and imperial retrenchment that swept the world in the two decades after the end of World War II. Nominal independence for many Third World nations has changed the character of the imperialism Lenin described. It has not ended it.

The force of Lenin's analysis derived from his explanation of the retarding effect of imperialism on the retarding effect of imperialism on the evolution of Third World societies. Some of his contemporaries also tried to locate the mainsprings of expansion within the imperial countries, but it was Lenin who showed how imperialism stunted and distorted the economic and political development of Third World countries, stalling or diverting them from the normal path of development.

Not only did the imperial powers plunder the material resources of their colonies, but, more significantly, the forced upon those colonies a social system tailored to their own interests, and not to the long-range interests of Third World people. The imperialists created local client elites, built factories and developed plantations, produced products and crops: all with the objective not of bettering the condition of the people, but of supplying the needs of the mother country. As the colonial societies became further mired in the slogh of stagnated development, Lenin realized they would never reach a level of balanced industrialism. He expected that revolution in the advanced countries would end the imperialist equilibrium, but he might just as easily have recognized the need for revolution in peasant societies.

At any rate, Lenin put his finger on the most important aspect of imperialism-- not only did it rob its victims, it then broke their arms and legs, creating twisted cripples incapable of growth. The distortion extended to the sphere of culture and ideology as western ideas and values were forced on colonial societies. Vietnamese peasants worshipping French heroes and Chileans seeing Gone With the Wind in Santiago theaters were being silently robbed of the opportunity to draw upon their own past and to develop their own culture in terms of their own experience.

THESE FEATURES-- economic, political and cultural distortion--persist unabated in many Third World countries today. The primary imperial power and the method of domination have changed, but the result is much the same--these nations, although nominally independent, are still controlled from without. The United States has assumed the position formerly held by England, France and Germany at the imperialist summit. Garrisons and outright colonies are no longer needed; American investment and influence and aculture can usually penetrate the Third World unaided. But American military stands ominously in the background, ready to re-open the channels of direct domination if problems appear. Interventions-- Guatemala (1954), Cuba(1961) and Indochina(1961- )--demonstrate that American imperialism can revert to classical forms if the need arises.

Skeptics, pointing to a relatively low rate of American investment in the Third World (considered against the scale of the entire American ecomony) have argued that an end to American foreign adventures would matter little to the Third World. Even if profits sent back to this country were retained in South America or Asia, they say, the poor countries would still be poor and backward.

This analysis ignores the primary effect of imperialism-- its distortion of the economy and culture of the countries it penetrates. In Cuba before the 1959 revolution, for example, the second and third biggest industries were gambling and prostitution, patronized by foreigners; the central question is clearly not merely exploitation in some financial sense, but the quality of life in a nation under American hegemony. North Vietnam is still in some sense poor and industrially backward, but the North Vietnamese have freed their country om foreign domination and are developing their society and culture in accordance with their own needs and aspirations. Even more than a tragedy of what is, imperialism is the tragedy of what could be, and in that sense, is no different today from its classical predecessor.

"At the front, thinking of my family, scratching the names of my wife and son on the bottom of the trench I said, 'How is it possible that I, anti-patriot, anti-militarist, who acknowledged only the International, come to attacking my companions in misery and perhaps shall die for my enemies against my own cause and my own interests?'" --a French syndicalist, after the World War I mobilization

Lenin's analysis of imperialism was cogent and accurate in many respects, but it was flawed in one critical way. Lenin saw that imperialism benefited only the capitalist class, and he assumed, following Marx, that the working class of European countries would recognize their bonds with each other and with the Third World. Thus they would prevent the outbreak of the coming war. Events initially seemed to bear him out: as the tempo of international crisis in the early years of the century became more brisk, the Second International of European socialist parties proudly and defiantly passed resolutions calling upon its members to resist imperialism, the armament race and war.

But as the ultimate crisis peaked in August 1914 the solidarity of the International dissolved. Socialist representatives in European legislatures bowed to the wave of nationalism sweeping through their party memberships. They were buffeted about by it themselves, and in almost all cases they voted for credits to finance a war they had struggled for years to prevent. Nationalism had triumphed in the industrial countries: if German and French workers fought each other despite their common interest, they would be even less conscious of their ties to people in the Third World.

Lenin's analysis broke down because it failed to account for the strength of nationalism among people in the advanced capitalist powers. Internationalist sentiment persisted on the Europeanleft after the war, but it never gained enough leverage to deter imperialism. Internationalist and anti-imperialist feeling in the United States was even more helpless in the face of the emerging American collossus several decades later.

Almost all Americans were diverted by the Cold War. They were deceived by their country's new brand of imperialism; on the long and brutal Indochina War removed the blinders from enough of them to create a significant anti-imperialist movement in this country.

Paradoxically, nationalism--which aided imperialism in the metropolis--worked against it in the Third World. But this was a very different sort of nationalism, a wish for an end to foreign domination. Patriotism in the United States means support for U.S. Marines landing at Santo Domingo; patriotism in the Dominican Republic means opposing those same Marines.

Broadly speaking, Third World nationalism in the past two decades has tended in two seperate directions. Socialist revolutionaries in Vietnam and Ba, for example, have fought for national self' determination, but they have viewed their struggles as only one arena in a world-wide struggle. Authoritarian nationalism, on the other hand, if it looks beyond its own borders at all, looks for territorial gain. Juan Peron in Argentian and Gamal Nassar in Egypt may oppose American and European domination over their nations, but they oppose it in the name of Argentina or Egypt and not in the name of international brotherhood. Authoritarian nationalist regimes, lacking a coherent view of the world and their tnterdependent place in it, generally fail to develop their nations industrially. They find surviving on charisma alone difficult. As a distorted and useless response to imperial domination, authoritarian nationalism merely underscores imperialism's crippling effects in subject nations.

Despite many setbacks and false starts, despite the American military interventions and the Nassers, the imperialist hold on the world is loosening. Vietnam's success in resisting the U.S. military has encouraged other Third World peoples and given birth to an anti-imperialist movement within this country. Disheartening events like the overthrow of the Allende government are certainly great defeats, but they are not permanent. The United States cannot continue to twist the lives, thwart the aspirations and deny the humanity of the majority of the people--brothers and sisters--who share this planet with us.

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