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To be a socialist one must be an anti-imperialist

By J. Sykes

Since the writing of The Communist Manifesto and the founding of the First International, proletarian internationalism has been a cornerstone of scientific socialism, and is a pillar of Marxism-Leninism. Today, in the era of imperialism, putting genuine proletarian internationalism into practice demands that we be consistent anti-imperialists.

Beyond any moral questions, there are two obvious, material reasons for this proletarian internationalist, anti-imperialist unity. On the one hand every dollar that goes to imperialist war is a dollar that could have been spent on people’s needs at home. But even more importantly, every blow struck against imperialism weakens the monopoly capitalist class here.

What imperialism is and what it is not

First, let’s be clear on what imperialism means. Understanding the link between imperialism and monopoly capitalism is essential. Indeed, imperialism and monopoly capitalism aren't just linked, they’re synonymous. Failing to understand this, some people think any kind of big country is an empire and that any empire is imperialist, from ancient Rome to socialist China. But this is an idealist and metaphysical view. In other words, this view fails to look at how imperialism develops historically, according to definite material processes. It should be obvious that the Roman Empire and the U.S. empire are qualitatively different.

If we look at imperialism historically, we have to understand its relationship to the dominant socio-economic system. V.I. Lenin developed the scientific analysis of imperialism in his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to help the working-class movement understand the demands that this new historical stage of capitalism placed on the socialist movement. In “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin writes, “Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism.”

Lenin goes on to explain that imperialism, as monopoly capitalism, has five principal characteristics:

“Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.”

This is the historical materialist view of imperialism as it exists today. Thus, Lenin points out that “Imperialism, as the highest stage of capitalism in America and Europe, and later in Asia, took final shape in the period 1898–1914. The Spanish-American War (1898), the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and the economic crisis in Europe in 1900 are the chief historical landmarks in the new era of world history.” The rise of imperialism in the U.S. led to the colonization of foreign territories and contributed to the development of oppressed nations within the borders of the U.S., such as the Chicano Nation in the Southwest, the African American Nation in the Black Belt South, and the Hawaiian Nation.

Dialectically, the era of imperialism has led to the development of four fundamental contradictions operating on a world-scale: the contradiction between labor and capital, the contradictions between the imperialists among themselves, the contradiction between the imperialists and the movements for national liberation, and, following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the contradiction between the imperialist and socialist systems.

It is important to note that some people choose to ignore the historical connection between the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. They argue that countries like China are imperialist, because they engage in foreign trade. Looking at the difference between the foreign policy of China and the imperialist countries will help us understand what imperialism is in practice, and what it isn’t. Basically, what these people fail to understand is that imperialism is fundamentally exploitative, extractive and violent.

Imperialism relies upon predatory loans, structural adjustment programs, unequal trade agreements, privatization and liberalization, to ensure that it can extract as much profit from its colonies and neocolonies as possible. Capital is exported to the underdeveloped countries in order to exploit cheap labor. By locking these oppressed nations and peoples into a permanent state of underdevelopment it is able to achieve a higher rate of exploitation than it can otherwise. This super-exploitation allows the imperialist powers to prop themselves up with these super-profits, using them as a kind of life-support, to prolong the existence of the capitalist system far beyond its natural lifespan.

This inevitably leads to the sharpening of the contradictions between the imperialists themselves and the contradiction between the imperialists and the movements for national liberation. For this reason, the imperialists must back all of this up with military force. For the U.S., this includes a network of military bases, spanning the world, and its military alliances, like NATO, which it dominates. It will not hesitate to intervene militarily, or to arm and fund its proxies, such as Ukraine and Israel. It will stage coups and assassinate leaders. There is no price in human bloodshed and suffering that is too high to protect U.S. hegemony and imperialist super-profits.

China’s foreign policy in the developing world is nothing like this. It is neither exploitative nor extractive and is based on equal and mutually beneficial trade agreements. It is also fundamentally peaceful. The countries that benefit from trade and development from China are not locked into underdevelopment by China. Nor are they targeted for Chinese military intervention, or coups. On the contrary, China provides an alternative to imperialist underdevelopment that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are glad to take.

China doesn’t do this because the Chinese are nice and the imperialists aren’t. The imperialists are violent, exploitative and extractive because they must be. The imperialist system is governed by laws, laws inherent to capitalism. China behaves differently because these are laws from which the working class has freed itself in the socialist countries. Socialism, and China in particular, is thus a counterbalance to imperialism in the world. This counterbalance causes the contradiction between the imperialist and socialist systems to sharpen, leading to a constant barrage of anti-China propaganda and increasing aggression from the U.S. towards China.

Imperialism and war

Beyond this question of what imperialism is and what it isn’t, there is further confusion about what it means to be consistently anti-imperialist in relation to the question of war. Because monopoly capitalism relies upon military intervention, that is, upon war, to further its aims, progressive people everywhere rightly oppose imperialist war. But it is possible to make a very dangerous error here.

There is a pacifist trend in the anti-war movement that originates in the ideology of the petite bourgeoisie. These people oppose all war, regardless of who is fighting and for what. They see the violence of the imperialists and the violence of the oppressed as equally bad. These are the kind of people who, in the face of Zionist apartheid in Palestine and the U.S.-backed genocide in Gaza, demand first and foremost the movement’s condemnation of Hamas. They demand peace, condemning both the reactionary violence of the oppressor and the revolutionary violence of the oppressed. There is a material basis for this kind of thinking. The petite bourgeoisie is a class stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are driven down by the monopoly capitalist class, but they also benefit from the exploitation of labor and support the capitalist system. By taking this pacifist approach, they wash their hands of the whole conflict, and try to cling to the status quo.

On the other hand, there are also social-democrats who turn a blind eye towards imperialism. These people believe that “socialism” can be built within the framework of monopoly capitalism, despite the super-exploitation of the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world. This is why the representatives of this ideology tend to lend their support to the U.S. wars for empire, while they clamor for “socialism” at home. They see “socialism” as social programs under capitalism, like Medicare, public works projects, the postal service, and fire departments. Their “socialism” doesn’t challenge the power of the monopoly capitalists but would merely regulate it. Based on the so-called “Nordic model,” this kind of “socialism” is really just imperialism dressed in red—they advocate socialism in words, but imperialist in deeds. This is what Lenin called “social-imperialism.” These reformists argue for class collaboration, denying that the contradiction between the working class and the capitalist class is fundamentally antagonistic. And so, these “socialists” don’t understand that the starting point of socialism is the seizure of political power by the working class.

Some of these social democrats are the “progressive except for Palestine” variety. They support progressive reforms that would help working and oppressed people, but when it comes to foreign policy, especially in regard to support for Israel, they hold social-chauvinist and downight reactionary positions. Right now, as Israel continues to wage a genocidal war against the Palestinian people, these so called “socialists” have nothing but praise for Zionism and the Israeli apartheid state, and nothing but scorn and condemnation for principled anti-imperialists who stand in solidarity for the unified Palestinian Resistance.

We must be absolutely clear: victory for the resistance in Palestine is a victory for working and oppressed people everywhere, and that victory is coming closer every day. History will remember the Israeli state together with apartheid South Africa, as a stain on history and a mark of shame to everyone who ever supported it. As PFLP leader Leila Khaled once put it, “The supreme objective of the Palestinian liberation movement is the total liberation of Palestine, the dismantlement of the Zionist state apparatus, and the construction of a socialist society in which both Arabs and Jews can live in peace and harmony.” When that day comes, not only will the Palestinian people be liberated from oppression, but a mighty blow will be struck against the monopoly capitalist class in the U.S. that relies on the Zionist state to maintain its hegemony in the Middle East.

Social-chauvinist thinking isn’t a new problem, but it must be addressed again. Indeed, Lenin fought these tendencies in the Second International. Lenin argued that true proletarian internationalism means that socialists should support the defeat of their own imperialist governments in their wars of domination and plunder. Lenin put it simply, saying, “During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.” During World War I, Lenin fought against those in the socialist movement who called for a “class truce” during the inter-imperialist war.

Some “socialists” even supported “defense of the fatherland” wrongly identifying the interests of the working class with the national interests of the capitalist ruling class. In his 1915 essay “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War” Lenin takes to task those “socialists” like Karl Kautsky in Germany and Leon Trotsky in Russia who opposed the slogan of revolutionary defeatism, that is, the call for the defeat of one’s own imperialist government and the demand to transform the reactionary inter-imperialist war into a revolutionary, civil war. In his 1916 article, “Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International,” Lenin further attacks these social-chauvinists, saying, “War is often useful in exposing what is rotten…”

But imperialist war is only one side of the equation. The reality is that some wars are unjust and others are just. Mao Zedong put it this way in his book, On Protracted War.

“History shows that wars are divided into two kinds, just and unjust. All wars that are progressive are just, and all wars that impede progress are unjust. We Communists oppose all unjust wars that impede progress, but we do not oppose progressive, just wars. Not only do we Communists not oppose just wars; we actively participate in them. As for unjust wars, World War I is an instance in which both sides fought for imperialist interests; therefore, the Communists of the whole world firmly opposed that war. The way to oppose a war of this kind is to do everything possible to prevent it before it breaks out and, once it breaks out, to oppose war with war, to oppose unjust war with just war, whenever possible.”

The wars carried out by the imperialists for hegemony, to divide and redivide the world, and to protect their super-profits, are unjust. They sacrifice the lives of millions for the sake of profit, to make sure the lines on the graph go up, and that the vaults of the shareholders are filled to the brim. This is why the U.S. gives billions in military aid to its proxies, like Israel, to maintain its foothold in the Middle East. No matter the war crimes or atrocities, the U.S. is always ready with its checkbook. These wars impede progress.

On the other hand, wars that oppose imperialism, that fight for national liberation from foreign capital and their domestic lackeys, are progressive, just wars. From Palestine to the Philippines, people are fighting tooth and nail to throw off the yoke of imperialism and colonialism, to achieve national liberation, independence, and dignity. These wars are just and should be supported.

During World War II, in “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War,” Mao put it like this:

“The specific content of patriotism is determined by historical conditions. There is the ‘patriotism’ of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler, and there is our patriotism. Communists must resolutely oppose the ‘patriotism’ of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler. The Communists of Japan and Germany are defeatists with regard to the wars being waged by their countries. To bring about the defeat of the Japanese aggressors and of Hitler by every possible means is in the interests of the Japanese and the German people, and the more complete the defeat the better.... For the wars launched by the Japanese aggressors and Hitler are harming the people at home as well as the people of the world.”

Because the anti-imperialist struggle is the strategic ally of the working class movement, Mao explains, “in wars of national liberation patriotism is applied internationalism.”

During World War II, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union transformed the nature of that war. The war began in 1939 as an inter-imperialist war for the redivision of the world between the imperialist powers, but once the Soviet Union came under attack in June of 1941, it was no longer correct to regard the war as a purely inter-imperialist war. The contradiction between the imperialist and socialist systems came to the forefront, leading communists to join in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany, the main danger to the USSR. Furthermore, communist-led resistance movements, particularly in China, Yugoslavia and Albania, were waging just wars for liberation against imperialist occupation.

Friends and enemies

At the core of all this lies an important point, that Mao summed up well: “We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports.” Who is the enemy? The imperialist, monopoly capitalist class. Who does the enemy oppose? Everyone fighting against oppression and for liberation, and everyone who challenges their hegemony. Who does the enemy support? Anyone who will serve their interests, who will help them in their drive for domination and exploitation.

Stalin makes this crystal clear in his 1924 book, The Foundations of Leninism, when he says, “The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement.”

Stalin gives the example of Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan: “The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.”

To clarify this point, Stalin contrasts the nationalist movement in Egypt to the Labor Party in Britain. He writes “the struggle that the Egyptians merchants and bourgeois intellectuals are waging for the independence of Egypt is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the bourgeois origin and bourgeois title of the leaders of Egyptian national movement, despite the fact that they are opposed to socialism; whereas the struggle that the British ‘Labor’ Government is waging to preserve Egypt's dependent position is for the same reason a reactionary struggle, despite the proletarian origin and the proletarian title of the members of the government, despite the fact that they are ‘for’ socialism.”

This may seem strange to some people, but the reason for this is simple. The monopoly capitalist class that is oppressing, in Stalin’s example, the Egyptian independence movement, is the very same monopoly capitalist class that is exploiting the British working class. Their defeat by the Egyptian independence movement weakens them, helping the British working class to overthrow them. There is a strategic alliance that is possible here, even among classes with different interests, because they share this common enemy.

U.S. imperialism is in a state of prolonged and inevitable decline. Since the historic defeat of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, the United States has grown more and more desperate. Like a cornered beast, it lashes out everywhere. For all of its snarling, biting and clawing, it accomplishes little at great cost. Its place of dominance in the imperialist system, established at the end of World War II, is slipping away. The labor movement is seeing an upsurge, the national liberation struggles are advancing, and the socialist countries are gaining strength. U.S imperialism fights on many fronts, and each defeat it faces is a victory for the working class here and around the world. Everyone who wants socialism should celebrate every blow struck against the imperialist, monopoly capitalist class.

J. Sykes is the author of the book “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting

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