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 was not the case and in fact they repeatedly dealt with the case of semi-colonial countries. We have shown this with a number of quotes in Chapter 1 in “The semi-colonial countries: a modified form of imperialist subjugation or independent capitalist states?” Also Lenin himself referred to the significant share of the semi-colonial countries of the world population. 13 Let us nevertheless return to this subject once again.


At its fourth congress the Communist International discussed, in its “Thesis on the Eastern Question”, the issue of the struggle in the colonies and semi-colonies extensively and developed the anti-imperialist united front tactic. In clear contradiction to the false claims of the IRMT comrades and others, the Comintern explicitly integrated the semi-colonial countries in the overall issue of the struggle of the part of the world which is oppressed and exploited by the imperialist powers. Let us give only a few examples:

Since then the struggle against imperialist oppression in the colonial and semi-colonial countries has become far more acute as the result of an intensification in the political and economic post-war crisis of imperialism. 14

In opposite to those like the Cliffite IST tradition who claim that imperialism didn’t facilitate capitalist development, the Comintern already recognized this in 1922:

Precisely this weakening of imperialist pressure on the colonies, together with the steady intensification of the rivalry between the various imperialist groups, has facilitated the development of indigenous capitalism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries; it has outgrown the narrow and restricting limits of the imperialist rule of the great Powers, and this process is continuing. 15

The Comintern – again against the false claims of its revisionist critiques today – clearly recognised the existence of a working class in the colonial and semi-colonial countries and put it in the centre of its strategy:

The communist workers' parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries have a dual task: they fight for the most radical possible solution of the tasks of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, which aims at the conquest of political independence; and they organize the working and peasant masses for the struggle for their special class interests, and in doing so exploit all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp. By putting forward social demands they release the revolutionary energy for which the bourgeois-liberal demands provide no outlet, and stimulate it further. The working class of the colonies and semi-colonies must learn that only the extension and intensification of the struggle against the imperialist yoke of the great Powers will ensure for them the role of revolutionary leadership, while on the other hand only the economic and political organization and the political education of the working class and the semi-proletarian strata of the population can enlarge the revolutionary surge of the struggle against imperialism. 16

Trotsky who outlived Lenin for 16 years – a time in which a number of anti-imperialist struggles in the South took place – dealt with the issues of semi-colonies repeatedly. What is obvious from his writings is his understanding that the semi-colonial countries share the same essence as the colonies – i.e. their class characteristics as countries super-exploited and oppressed by imperialist states.

As for the colonies I would hesitate to say which one of them is most typical as a colony: this would either be India, a colony in the formal sense, or China which preserves the semblance of independence yet in her world position and the course of her development belongs to the colonial type. Classic capitalism is in Britain. Marx wrote his Capital in London by directly observing the development of the most advanced country—you will know this, though I do not remember which year you cover this in… In the colonies capitalism develops not out of its own fragments but as an intrusion of foreign capital. This is what creates the two different types.” 17

Trotsky expressed the same thought when he spoke in 1938 about Latin America as a quasi-colony of the United States:

The USA has no direct colonies, but they have Latin America and the whole world is a sort of colony for the United States…. 18

Of course, the same essence must not lead us to ignore the enormous differences between the various forms of colonial and semi-colonial countries as Trotsky explained:

Colonial and semi-colonial – and therefore backward – countries, which embrace by far the greater part of mankind, differ extraordinarily from one another in their degree of backwardness, representing an historical ladder reaching from nomadry, and even cannibalism, up to the most modern industrial culture. The combination of extremes in one degree or another characterizes all of the backward countries. However, the hierarchy of backwardness, if one may employ such an expression, is determined by the specific weight of the elements of barbarism and culture in the life of each colonial country. Equatorial Africa lags far behind Algeria, Paraguay behind Mexico, Abyssinia behind India or China. With their common economic dependence upon the imperialist metropolis, their political dependence bears in some instances the character of open colonial slavery (India, Equatorial Africa), while in others it is concealed by the fiction of State independence (China, Latin America).“ 19

So we see that Trotsky was fully aware of the existence of semi-colonial countries. But in opposition to its revisionist critiques today, he understood that these types of countries are essentially a form or a variation of colonies exploited and oppressed by imperialism.

When did the Epoch of Imperialism begin?

Before we continue this argument we want to briefly point out that there is a certain tendency amongst some centrists to confuse the date of the beginning of the imperialist epoch. As we have seen in the quote from the IRMT comrades Maziar Razi and Morad Shirin they speak about the period 1878-1938 as one and the same: “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. 20

A similar mistake can be seen in the writings of the Cliffite SWP/IST. Their main theoretician Alex Callinicos develops a new understanding of the imperialist epoch and classifies it in the "Classical Imperialism, 1875-1945" and "Superpower Imperialism, 1945-1990". 21

As it is well known, Lenin and all Communists since then dated the beginning of the imperialist epoch to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.


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. 22

This different assessment of the beginning of the imperialist epoch is not a pedantic issue about exact dates but reflects a different understanding of what the main features of this epoch are. While of course the Cliffite SWP/IST as well as the IRMT pay lip-service to a definition of the imperialist epoch as one of monopolization, in reality they – consciously or unconsciously – see the form of colonial domination as the main feature used to differentiate different epochs. For these revisionists the question of formal colonies or dependent countries is the essential question so they date the beginning of the imperialist epoch to the time when the Great Powers drive to colonize the whole world accelerated dramatically (around 1875). When most of the South got rid of the colonial domination and became formally independent but remained semi-colonies (i.e. after the WWII) the centrists date a new period – in effect a kind of new epoch.

For us on the other hand the decisive characteristic of the imperialist epoch is the rule of the monopolies which results in the super-exploitation and oppression of the (semi-)colonial world (whatever the concrete form is). This is how Lenin and Trotsky saw it, as we have shown with numerous quotes in this book.


Sometimes the Creation of ‚Independent’ States leads to a Strengthening of Imperialism.” (Lenin)

Does this mean that nothing has changed since the WWII? No, of course there have been tremendous changes; the national liberation struggles in the colonies which led to formal independence and a transformation into semi-colonial status, massive industrialization, the strengthening both of the working class in the South as well as of the native bourgeoisie – to name some of the most important. But the revisionists conclude wrongly from this that the essence of the relationship between the rich, imperialist and the poorer, (semi-)colonial countries has changed.

They do not understand that capitalism in general has massively transformed in the last century. One hundred years ago the working class had to fight nearly everywhere in Europe for fundamental democratic demands like the universal right to vote, to assembly etc. Today these exist for most workers (except for many migrants). One hundred years ago the working class had to fight nearly everywhere in Europe for their own flat or house. They could not even dream of their own car. Today many workers (albeit not all!) possess such in the imperialist countries. While no worker had a telephone at that time, today even a number of workers in the poorer countries own a mobile telephone.

It is a classic liberal argument with which all class fighters are only too familiar with: the liberals argue that the changes would supposedly demonstrate that Marxism might have been justified 100 years ago but does not correspond with the reality today. “<