Against imperialism

The sixth part of 20 chapters on some of the basic politics of Socialist Labour for discussion by its members.

What does “imperialism” mean?  There is an old meaning, going back to ancient times. Imperialism meant a state using military power to conquer other peoples. In that sense it applied to the empires of ancient China, Persia, Rome and the like.  Britain was under Roman imperial rule for nearly five hundred years and later was ruled from France by the Normans after 1066.

At the end of the 19th century the big European powers had largely finished dividing up the rest of the world between them. The Marxist thinkers of that time—people like Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg—used the term “imperialism” to make sense of the new forms that capitalism competition was taking in the early 20th century. The European states used their military power to protect and support their companies at home and across their individual empires.

That competition took the most brutal form in the First and Second World Wars. Millions upon millions of corpses were piled up as the most powerful industrial states fought, using every dreadful means that modern science and industry could provide, to divide and re-divide the world – primarily to benefit their own national companies.

Imperialism, in other words, was not just powerful states dominating less developed countries, but the shape of modern capitalist competition. After the Second World War, the US and Russia emerged as the two strongest powers. They divided the world between them, building two “blocs” that threatened each other with nuclear extinction. This went on for almost half a century. Then, with the “fall of Communism”, US capitalism set out to remake the world to fit the needs of its own big corporations – now in many cases in competition with Chinese companies.

Imperialism is still the way that the world is organised.  It is the way that all states, to a greater or lesser extent, protect the interests of their local companies.  Countries such as South Africa and Nigeria are far from being neo-colonies, but are sub-imperialist powers.  Their states are used to protect the economic interests of their indigenous companies, such as Nigerian banks and Dangote Cement, across sub-Saharan Africa.  Nigerian troops were sent to Sierra Leone, Liberia and more recently Mali.  This is mainly to show the power of the Nigerian state as a warning to anyone who wanted to threaten the interests of Nigerian based companies.

At the same time many countries are dominated economically and culturally by larger and more powerful countries.  Many socialists in Britain consider that Britain is the 53rd state of America.  The British Government has certainly supported the US in all its wars since the second world war, especially the invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.  British television is also dominated by American films, much as many Nigerian films are shown in many other African countries.

We live in a global village and no country can be fully independent.  All countries depend on global trade and are members of many international bodies.  The rapid spread of Covid-19 shows how interdependent we all are.  Imperialism describes the way that the global market is divided up between companies operating in many different countries.  What happens in the global market affects us all.  When the price of oil goes down this effects half of the Federal Government’s income.

But in our daily lives and with almost all strikes, it is Nigerian workers and Nigerian bosses that are involved.  The recent attempt to increase electricity prices was not the fault of ‘imperialism’ but was a local decision by the government to support the private electricity companies.  The class struggle in our part of the world is predominately within Nigeria.  But it is affected by external events, so the dominant ideas of neoliberalism support the Government’s economic ideas and encourage the ending of subsidies, increasing university fees etc.  In turn, the level of strikes in Nigeria has an impact across Africa and the rest of the world.  The defeat of the ASUU strike was a defeat for Nigerian workers, but also for workers across the world.  Similarly, the January 2012 general strike and the #EndSARS protests of late 2020 were an inspiration to workers across Africa and the rest of the world.