9. Revisionist Critiques of the Leninist Theory of Imperialism


Let us now deal with some criticism that has been raised by various centrist currents against the Leninist Theory of Imperialism. What these centrist criticisms have in common is that they deny implicitly or explicitly the fundamental contradictions of the imperialist epoch of which the super-exploitation of the semi-colonial world by monopoly capital is one of the prime features. Related to this is their open or hidden ignorance of the existence of the labor aristocracy as a top layer of the proletariat which is bribed by the monopolies. Centrism denies or ignores these essential features of imperialism because clear recognition of these would oblige them to openly struggle against all political, ideological and organizational currents related to the labor aristocracy. It would also oblige them to openly struggle against their own imperialist powers with all the consequences including defending all semi-colonies attacked by their imperialist power and calling for the defeat of the latter.

Centrism is not capable of such a consistent internationalist position. The reason for this is that it reflects in one or another form a petty-bourgeois class viewpoint. To be more precise, it reflects the pressure of the labor bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy as well as of the progressive intelligentsia which again adapts to the capitalist class and its state. Therefore they usually ignore the lower and oppressed strata of the proletariat. For the same reason they usually negate openly or implied the need to smash the capitalist state and the necessary violent character of the armed uprising and the socialist revolution in general. This is why the Bolshevik Party wrote in its Programme of 1919 that “the ‘centrist’ movement is also a bourgeois distortion of socialism. 1

The Essence of Centrism

In an Open Letter in 1920 Lenin explained the class difference between Marxism, that is Bolshevism, on one hand and Centrism, that is Menshevism, on the other hand and hence the duty of communists to decisively break with the latter:


In fact, a struggle is going on between the revolutionary proletarian elements and the opportunist petty-bourgeois elements. Today as in the past, the latter include the Hilferdings, the Dittmauns, the Crispiens, numerous members of the parliamentary groups in Germany and France, etc. A struggle between these two political trends is in progress in every country without exception. This struggle has a long history. It grew extremely acute everywhere during the imperialist war, and has become aggravated since then. Opportunism is represented by elements of the “labour aristocracy”, the old bureaucracy in the trade unions, co-operative societies, etc., by the intellectualist petty-bourgeois strata, etc. Without the elimination of this trend—which, by its vacillation and its “Menshevism” (the Dittmanns and Crispiens fully resemble our Mensheviks) in fact exerts the bourgeoisie’s influence on the proletariat from within the working-class movement, from within the socialist parties—without the elimination of this trend, a break with it, and the expulsion of all its prominent representatives, it will be impossible to rally the revolutionary proletariat.


By their constant veering towards reformism and Menshevism, and their inability to think and act in terms of revolution, the Dittmanns, the Crispiens, etc., without realising the fact, are actually carrying bourgeois influence into the proletariat from within the proletarian party—they subordinate the proletariat to bourgeois reformism. Only a break with such and similar people can lead to international unity of the revolutionary proletariat, against the bourgeoisie, and for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. 2

Trotsky, who experienced the various forms of centrism for much longer, gave in 1929 a comprehensive definition of centrism. He described it as a political expression of the interests and moods of the petty bourgeois labor bureaucracy:

The main reservoir of international opportunism, that is, of class collaborationism, is the petty bourgeoisie, as a broad, amorphous class, or more correctly, a stratified accumulation of numerous subclasses left over from precapitalist production or newly created by capitalism, and forming a series of social rungs between the proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie. (…) The complete decline of the petty bourgeoisie, its loss of economic importance, deprived it forever of the possibility of working out an independent political representation that could lead the revolutionary movement of the working masses. In our epoch the petty bourgeoisie oscillates between the extreme poles of contemporary ideology: fascism and communism. Precisely these oscillations give the politics in the imperialist epoch the character of a malarial curve.

Class collaborationism in the workers movement has a more persistent quality precisely because its direct proponents are not the ‘independent’ parties of the petty bourgeoisie but rather the labor bureaucracy, which sinks its roots deep into the working class by way of the labor aristocracy.

The labor bureaucracy, by its conditions of existence, stands closer to the petty bourgeoisie (officialdom, liberal professions, and so forth) than to the proletariat. Nevertheless it constitutes a specific product of the working class movement; it is recruited from its ranks. In the primitive aspect, collaborationist tendencies and moods are elaborated by the whole petty bourgeoisie; but their transformation, their adaption to the peculiarities, to the needs, and above all to the weaknesses of the working class – that is the specific mission of the labor bureaucracy. Opportunism is its ideology, and it inculcates and imposes this ideology upon the proletariat by utilizing the powerful pressure of the ideas and institutions of the bourgeoisie, by exploiting the weakness and immaturity of the working masses. The forms of opportunism to which the labor bureaucracy resorts – open collaborationism, centrism, or a combination of both – depends upon the political tradition of a country, on the class relations of a given moment, on the offensive power of communism, and so forth and so on.

Just as under certain circumstances the struggle between bourgeois parties can assume a most violent and even sanguinary character, while remaining a struggle for the interests of the property of both sides, so the struggle between open collaborationism and centrism can assume an extremely violent and even desperate character at certain times, remaining within the limits of petty-bourgeois tendencies adapted by the labor bureaucracy in different ways for the maintenance of their positions of leadership in the working class. 3


Centrism’s basically opportunist essence does not hinder it from vacillating sometimes to radical, even revolutionary positions. In fact this combination of fundamental adaption to reformism with inconsistent zigzags to the left is characteristic of centrism. This is why Trotsky arrived to the following – as he called it – “scientific definition” of centrism:


Centrism is the name applied to that policy which is opportunist in substance and which seeks to appear as revolutionary in form. Opportunism consists in a passive adaptation to the ruling class and its regime, to that which already exists, including, of course, the state boundaries. Centrism shares completely this fundamental trait of opportunism, but in adapting itself to the dissatisfied workers, centrism veils it by means of radical commentaries. If we proceed from this scientific definition, it will appear that the position, of our hapless critic is in part and in whole centrist.” 4


Prior to continuing past this general characterization of centrism, including concrete criticism, we need to undertake a further differentiation. We said that centrism is an expression of petty-bourgeoisie. Given the context of this book it is important to point out the difference between the class position of the petty-bourgeoisie in the imperialist and the semi-colonial countries. In the imperialist countries the modern petty-bourgeoisie often exists in the form of the middle class (salaried or self-employed). Political trends related to these layers are often marked by adaption to the prejudices of the dominant class in these countries – imperialist monopoly capital. Therefore centrism in the imperialist world is often colored with spotting of pacifism, liberal secularism, ignorance towards the lower strata of the working class including migrants, softness towards their own imperialism and labor aristocracy, etc. Centrism in the semi-colonial world adapts too to non-proletarian layers. But given the nature of the semi-colonial countries as nationally oppressed and super-exploited by imperialism their opportunism can adapt towards imperialism (which is often channeled via interwovenness with NGO’s or the sections of the labor bureaucracy which again is connected with social-imperialists like the leaders of the US trade union federation AFL-CIO) on one hand. But it can also often adapt towards bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism as well as religious fundamentalism which is directed against imperialism on the other hand.


Coming from such a class analysis of centrism it was obvious for the Marxist classics to define it as a “non-revolutionary, non-Marxist” current inside the workers movement. 5


Denial of Concept of Semi-Colonies

One of the essential pillars of the revisionist rejection of the Leninist Theory of Imperialism is their refusal to understand the so-called Third World countries as dependent semi-colonial nations. Such wrote the late SWP/IST leader Chris Harman:


Talk of the state as ‘semi-colonial’ or ‘neo-colonial’ reinforces such a misperception. Imperialism is an enemy anywhere. But most of the time the immediate agent of exploitation and oppression is the local ruling class and the national state. These collaborate with one or other of the dominant imperialisms and impose the horrors of the world system on the local population. But they do so in the interests of the local ruling class as well as its imperial ally, not because the local rich have temporarily forgotten some ‘national interest’ they share with those they exploit. 6

He argues that since the colonies gained formal state independence it would be wrong to call them “semi-colonial”:

But in some of the most important cases independence did mean independence. Governments proceeded not only to take seats in the United Nations and set up embassies all over the world. They also intervened in the economy, nationalising colonial companies, implementing land reforms, embarking on schemes of industrialisation inspired by the preaching of the Latin American dependency theorists or, often, by Stalin’s Russia. Such things were undertaken with varying degrees of success or failure in India, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Indonesia, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Taiwan and South Korea, as well as by the more radical regimes of China, Cuba and Vietnam. (...) To call regimes like Nasser’s Egypt or Nehru’s India ‘neo-colonial’ or ‘semi-colonial’ was a travesty. 7

Armed with such arguments, the IST leaders claim that Lenin’s theory of imperialism is no longer relevant for today’s world:

The very strength of Lenin’s approach rested on its insistence that the great Western powers were driven to divide and redivide the world between them, leading to war on the one hand and direct colonial rule on the other. This hardly fitted a situation in which the possibility of war between Western states seemed increasingly remote and colonies had gained independence.” 8

The same line of argument is repeated by John Rees, who was a long-time leader of the SWP/IST and currently leads – together with Lindsey German – the British group Counterfire:

Since the Second World War formal colonies have largely gained their independence. Oppressed nations have come and gone, fought their battle, and joined the international system of states in more or less subordinate ranks. This process began with the American colonies in the 1770s and ran through to the liberation of Ireland and India, among many others, in the 20th century. But that does not mean that the national question has disappeared--merely that it has, like imperialism itself, evolved new forms. The indigenous ruling classes that took the place of their colonial overlords have often struggled to suppress new nationalist forces within their, often artificial, boundaries. So it was, for instance, that the new post-independence Indonesian ruling class fought to suppress the East Timorese. Equally these new ruling classes have struggled with the still ever-present economic and military strength of the major powers. And this returns us to the need, as Lukács argued, to assess each anti-imperial struggle from the standpoint of the whole contemporary alignment of forces in the imperialist system.” 9

The same political logic is deployed by the British-based Committee for Marxist Revival (CMR), respective its main component, the Iranian exile group Iranian Revolutionary Marxists' Tendency (IRMT). They argue that the relationship between the imperialist states and the South has fundamentally changed since the times of Lenin and Trotsky so that their theoretical model is no longer accurate today:

Although we are dealing with the same mode of production and epoch as that of Lenin and Trotsky, the world long ago entered a period that included important changes in the relationship between the imperialist countries and those they dominate. This theoretical viewpoint therefore needs an overhaul to make it relevant to a changed world. 10The authors of this article, Maziar Razi and Morad Shirin, go on to explain the nature of this supposed fundamental change in the relation between the imperialist and the semi-colonial countries:

Trotsky's position on the war between Fascist Italy and Ethiopia, and the British threats against a semi-Fascist Brazil, are similar to Marx's position, for example, on the Russo-Turkish War in 1878. This is because the conditions had not changed fundamentally between 1878 and 1935 or 1938. The pace of development during those 60 years had not produced a qualitative change in the class structure of these societies.

They claim that this change consists of the following:

The main difference between then and now


We believe that when comparing the general international situation vis-à-vis the national and colonial question during the early twentieth century with today's conditions there is one main difference: the Comintern was dealing with dependent countries as opposed to independent nations.

This new development, in turn, has had the following consequences: the indigenous bourgeoisie rather than European rulers has come to power; the indigenous bourgeois state apparatus and army uphold the status quo; capitalism had become the dominant mode of production in the former pre-capitalist societies; the growth and economic importance of the working class (rather than peasants); growth in industrial rather than agricultural production; shift to urban rather than rural living; and last, but not least, class struggle - especially of the proletariat - within the ex-colonial nation.” 11

This whole argument is completely wrong from the beginning to the end. Of course it is true that most colonies have become formally independent states. Hence the working class in the South is often faced with native capitalists and a native government attacking them. However, while for Marxists this should be starting point for the analysis of the relationship between the South and the imperialist powers, the centrists thinking ends with this superficial description.

Did Lenin and Trotsky know of semi-colonies?

Let us start with the strange assumption of the centrists that Lenin, Trotsky and the Comintern were only dealing with colonies. This is simply wrong and a trick to declare the Marxist classics positions as sound for the past period they were living in but as no longer relevant for the present period today.

At the time of Lenin and Trotsky significant parts of the capitalistically less developed nations were not colonies but semi-colonies: these were mainly; nearly the whole of Latin America, Ethiopia, Liberia, Saudi-Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Thailand and China. In these countries more than 560 million people lived in 1913 which constituted 31.3% of the world population at this time. 12

While these are historical facts which can hardly be denied, could it be the case that Lenin and Trotsky did not know about them? Of course this