Below is a further contribution to the Imperialism Study Group. It looks at the book Rosa Remix and Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of imperialism. Tomorrow we’ll be putting up a second piece by Walter, commenting critically on David Harvey’s view of imperialism, following on from John Smith’s examination of Harvey’s work on the subject here.
by Walter Daum (September 2017)
Rosa Remix is a book of essays on Rosa Luxemburg published in 2016 by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation), an educational arm of the German Left Party (Die Linke) which set up a branch office in New York a few years ago. It is ironic – galling, actually – that this foundation, which takes thoroughly reformist positions, names itself after Luxemburg, a forthright revolutionary one of whose best-known works, Reform or Revolution, excoriates reformism as incompatible with socialism.
Rosa Remix is downloadable at http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/rosa-remix-3/. The book was published “with support from the German Federal Foreign Office” and has been promoted and distributed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The book’s articles by various authors purport to apply her work to today’s world, almost a century after her murder at the hands of Social-Democratic authorities in 1919. I mainly want to deal with what writers make of her analysis of imperialism. But first, an indication of the inappropriateness of the publisher is the reference by the editors to one article, which “discusses how Rosa’s theories of small reforms and class collaboration can make us better understand the types of alliances we need to seek.” Really? Rosa Luxemburg had theories – more than one yet! – of class collaboration??!
The article referred to is by Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin magazine in the U.S., who indeed is a reformist and practices class collaboration – he supported, for example, the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, the quasi-social-democrat and apologist for American imperialism. But Sankara did not go so far as to attribute such views to Luxemburg. He correctly points out, in regard to alliances (he is dealing specifically with climate justice), that “Lenin and Luxemburg would remind us that this has to be movements spearheaded by workers, in alliance with much broader layers, but fundamentally reflecting their interests.” And he adds: “We can look to Luxemburg and say no to ‘class collaborationism’.” So much for the editors’ version of “Rosa’s theories.”
On imperialism, three contributors take up Luxemburg’s main work on the subject, The Accumulation of Capital, on the centenary of its first publication. There is much essential analysis in this book. But anyone who writes about her theory of imperialism ought to deal with her claims that Marx erred in his analysis, particularly in the reproduction schemes in Capital Volume II, and that capitalist reproduction and expansion depends on the continued existence of non-capitalist economies that it feeds off. Luxemburg did indeed demonstrate that imperialism can exploit non-capitalist producers. However, her theory that doing so was necessary for capitalism was challenged theoretically from the start and has been disproved in practice by the fact that the countries suffering from super-exploitation today are all capitalist, by (almost) any definition of that term.
One author, Raphaële Chappe, deals with the problem very coyly. “The existence of a clearly-defined non-capitalist sector,” she writes, “… is not as clear-cut as it was at the time of Luxemburg’s writings.” And: “More generally, following the worldwide expansion of the capitalist more of production, the non-capitalist sector has arguably shrunk.” Well, “arguably” and “not as clear-cut” are weasely ways of avoiding saying that Luxemburg’s theory of the necessity of non-capitalism has been bypassed by history. Chappe writes this in dealing specifically with the Greek crisis, in which “creditors imposed harsh austerity terms, requiring deep budget cuts, lower social spending, and steep tax increases.” This is indeed a typical way for present-day capitalism to squeeze out more surplus-value, and it is consistent with the thrust of Luxemburg’s analysis – but it does not amount to exploitation of non-capitalist sectors. The burden of this stepped-up exploitation is on ordinary Greeks, many of them workers who create the surplus-value that the bourgeoisie is grabbing more of. It does not depend on extracting value from a non-capitalist economic system.
Another author who deals with imperialism is Patrick Bond from South Africa, who effectively dissects his country’s sub-imperialist exploitation of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa (and more generally the BRICS’ pretensions to anti-imperialism), as he often does. But here he also seems to be trying to shoehorn the data into Luxemburg’s particular theory, even though he says (in parentheses) that her “orientation to [Marx’s] reproduction schemas” was “ultimately mistaken.” He repeatedly quotes her statements to the effect that “capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist relations.” But the main examples he provides are those of extractive industries that strip the continent of minerals, and he vividly describes the infamous massacre of platinum miners at Marikana in 2012. How is this an example of “super-exploitative relations between capitalist and non-capitalist spheres” being confirmed in Africa today?
A third article on imperialism is by Richard Wolff (whom the New York Times a few years ago named “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist” The title of Wolff’s contribution, “One Hundred Years of Capitalism’s Global Relocation,” sounds like his take will be something like John Smith’s in emphasizing the transfer of so much production to the super-exploited Global South. He does do that, but with a strange twist: he contrasts the “old centers of capitalism” (presumably the imperialist North) with the “new centers,” the South. And he claims that “capitalism’s center and periphery [are changing] places after 250 years.” But this is wrong, or at best poorly put: the North still remains the center of capitalism, since that’s where the imperialists are located and draw the bulk of their surplus-value to.
Wolff seems to think the roles have more or less fully interchanged: “In the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism in the old centers compensated its often militant working classes for higher exploitation by rising real wages and improving job conditions. Since the 1970s, capitalism offers that deal only to the people in its new centers.” The Bangladeshi workers whose lives are constantly threatened by industrial disasters, and the Chinese migrant workers whose colleagues throw themselves out of factory windows in desperation, might see differently the “deal” that capitalism offers.
Wolff recognizes that capitalism’s transformation has led to a great decline in labor’s share of global output, and says that this decline “already has deepened levels of income and wealth inequality within capitalist economies in both old and new centers (although not between them).” But that last phrase (“not between them”) is also wrong. China has narrowed the economic gap between itself and the imperialist countries (in terms of GDP per capita), but other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have sunk further toward the bottom. Moreover, the narrowed gap with respect to China has mainly benefited the small ruling and middle classes: wage rate differentials remain horrendously high.
He says the center-periphery place-changing “could well destabilize the whole system,” and he hopes that the growing numbers and consciousness of “the critics of capitalism, enlarged and emboldened by rapid growth in their numbers” (presumably the working class) might “convert destabilization into system change.” Coyness again, avoiding naming the goal of working-class revolution. But that is how Marxists become most prominent and how reformists deal with assuming the name of a revolutionary.
Like the others, Wolff tries to link his analysis of imperialism to Luxemburg’s: “let us carry forward her kind of analysis.” Among other things, he credits her for “integrat[ing] foreign trade and imperialism into economic theory further and with more insight than most economists including Marx had yet done.” She may well have done that, especially since Marx did not live to see the imperialist epoch. Nevertheless, it is not carrying forward her ideas to argue that the center of imperialist capitalism has moved to the Global South. I suspect she would have had a much clearer idea of who does the super-exploiting. The imperialists can still say, as Brecht put it, “If someone’s doing the kicking, it’s me; and if someone’s getting kicked, it’s you!”