Friday, June 1, 2012


[Here's an old Wildcat text, and the little covering note added when it was posted to intsdiscnet last year. (It created quite a stir.) "This text was written by a Wildcat member for a conference held in London in 1988. It was criticised quite heavily, not least by other Wildcat members, in particular for its attacks on Marx's method. Nonetheless, the basic argument, that the theories of imperialism are not useful to communist and should be abandoned, expressed a 'commonly' held position."]





This essay suffers from the usual problems caused by Wildcat’s lack of resources. There are some missing components, and it needs some editing. In spite of these, it is an important contribution to the necessary theoretical work of the communist movement. It was originally intended as a discussion of the problem of Imperialism. However as the essay explains, in the course of writing it I became convinced that Imperialism is a red herring. Instead it discusses the real issue, Nations and Nationalism. In passing it glosses over other important issues such as Decadence and the Marxist Method. The purpose of this essay and the meeting it was written for is to contribute to a discussion about an international Platform to form the theoretical basis of a regroupment of revolutionaries with the aim of assisting the centralisation of the international class struggle.

Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels had little to say on the subject of Imperialism. Their remarks on colonialism and foreign trade, particularly the section on counter-tendencies to the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in Capital 3 (cited in [1] p15) have been well explained by their epigones, and used to give authority to their own investigations. Their 20th century successors have been in a better position to shed light on the developments which led to August 1914, so I concentrate on them in the next section. More significant are Marx and Engel’s views on Method, which underly much subsequent work. The errors of Lenin, for example, cannot always be conveniently explained away as a departure from the Method of Marx. We don’t want to get Marx off the hook. Before calling ourselves “Marxists” we need to work out how much of Marx and Engels’ method or methods we should adopt. In The German Ideology (1846) Marx polemicised against his Hegelian class mates and outlined the materialist conception of history. “The premisses from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premisses from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live , both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premisses can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.” (In [2] p160).

But Marx’s ideas are often very difficult if not impossible to verify in this way. Take the following extracts from the Preface to A Critique of Political Economy. “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of the development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. ... new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve.”. ([2] pp389-390). See also Engels, The Dialectics of Nature.

In 1846, Marx seemed to be breaking with Hegelian ideology. But throughout the rest of his work, the ghost of dialectics seemed to keep whispering in his ear. It is unfortunate that Marx died before the philosophical routing of Hegel which took place in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. The above passage from the “Preface” shows well the elegant seductiveness of dialectical thought. We should be as wary of it as we are of modern physicists who claim their theories must be true because they are elegant. Look where dialectical reasoning led Marx. The statement that mankind only sets itself such problems as it can solve is patently false. The problem of travelling to distant galaxies in a short time has been set, but cannot be solved. And there is no empirical evidence for the view that history proceeds according to a pattern of forms and fetters. “Relations” and “forces” of production are arbitrary abstract categories. As we see in the subsequent section, dialectical thought helped lead Marx’s disciples astray.

.. .and their followers.

The more radical elements within the Second International had good organisational and political reasons to see themselves as the successors of Marx and Engels. Around the turn of the century, various debates took place among these radical social democrats about imperialism and nationalism. The most famous of these is Lenin. This is a pity. Lenin argued that Imperialism was in part a conscious strategy to buy off the working classes in the Imperialist countries. His evidence is one quote from Cecil Rhodes ([3] p93). From Rhodes’s opinion that Imperialism would help avoid revolution in Britain, Lenin derived his theory of the Labour Aristocracy, which shows his moralism at its crudest. But he also quotes Engels to the effect that the workers of England “merrily share the feast” of England's colonies. He condemns the “economic parasitism” by means of which the English ruling class “bribe the lower classes into acquiescence”. What infantile, petit-bourgeois rubbish! The ruling class in all countries pay workers as much as they think they have to, calculated from a) the need for workers to stay alive and, to a greater or lesser extent, healthy, b) the shortage or otherwise of workers capable of doing the job, and c) the class struggle. Where does a wage rise gained by struggle end and a bribe begin? How can British workers deduce what proportion of their wage packets are the proceeds of the exploitation of the colonies, and should they hand that proportion back to their employers, declaring their refusal to be bribed? In reality, if you accept the idea of dividing the working class up into more or less exploited sections, it is not necessarily true that “As far as capital invested in the colonies, etc. is concerned, however, the reason why this can yield higher rates of profit is that the profit rate is generally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is the exploitation of labour, through the use of slaves and coolies, etc..” ([4] p345)..

In reality, workers in the “advanced” countries often produce more profit as a proportion of their wages than those in “backward” countries. Lenin bases his views on off-hand remarks by Marx and Engels and ignores the better worked— out passages which can be u6ed to develop an analysis of the world economy without the concept of Imperialism (see for example [5]). We need waste no more time on Lenin.

Bukharin is more difficult. Though he supports Lenin’s theory of the Labour Aristocracy, he does have a deeper understanding of the more serious aspects of Marx’s ideas. In fact he has a dialectical approach, claiming to see a contradiction between nation states and international capitalism (Imperialism and World Economy [6]).

Capitalism has created the world economy, the basis of communism, but “national economies” and “state capitalist trusts” contradict this, leading to imperialism and war. Imperialism was written in 1915, and his desire to show that imperial½m is inevitable is obviously the result of the war, and his rejection of the possibility of a reformist solution to it. The reason he has to show a dialectical contradiction between nations and the world economy is in order to reject the theory of ultra-imperialism, which held that capitalism could gradually evolve into One Big Company, abolishing war. But his rejection is clumsy. “The development of world capitalism leads, on the one hand, to an inter- nationalisation of economic life, and, on the other, to the levelling of economic differences, — and, to an infinitely greater degree, the same process of economic development intensifies the tendency to “nationalise” capitalist interests, to form narrow “national” groups armed to the teeth and ready to hurl themselves at one another at any moment”. ([6] ppl06—107). This is because , he says, state capitalism is the capitalism of existing, national states. Though the economy is increasingly international, “Acquisition, however, assumes the character of “national” (state) acquisition where the beneficiaries are huge state companies of the bourgeoisie of finance capital.” ([6] p106). Considering how central it is to his theory, he is obliged to explain what he means by “national”, which he puts in inverted commas throughout the book. The reason he does so is clear from the footnote on p80 which is the only place he attempts to explain his crucial concept. “When we speak of “national” capital, “national” economy, we have in mind here as elsewhere, not the element of nationality in the strict sense of the word, but the territorial state conception of economic life.” What is also clear is that he has only the haziest notion of what national capitals are. This undermines his theory rather seriously. Bukharin assumes that capital is divided into particular “narrow “national” groups” when this is what he has to prove in order to refute ultra—imperialism. He underestimates capitalism’s flexibility, its knack of continually revolutionising the productive forces. Is there any reason why single capitalist firms should be tied to one state? Is it impossible for capital to dissolve particular national states and replace them with larger entities, such as the European Community? Is there any limit to the size of such entities? Bukharin answers yes, but doesn’t explain why.

Luxemburg’s most important contribution to the debate on Imperialism was her opposition to the idea that Imperialism could be opposed by supporting national liberation movements. On the contrary, she argued, Imperialism tends to make national liberation reactionary and impossible. Her empirical observations of the effects of Polish national liberation movements on the class struggle in the Russian Empire expose a chink in Marx’s armour. In “Foreword to the Anthology” (1905) ([7] p95) she argues against support for these movements. She fearlessly ai~tack3 Marx for supporting Polish nationalism until his death, and accuses him of mechanically applying his own theory! If Marx can’t use his own method correctly, what chance have we? She shows he was wrong by looking at the facts of Poland’s integration into the Russian Empire, tending to unite the working class of Russia and Poland, and of how Polish nationalism acted against that unity during the revolution of 1905. Luxemburg rejects “eternal truths” like support for national liberation in favour of an empirical, case—by—case approach, and claims this is the Marxist method. So far from deducing that national liberation has always been anti— proletarian, she claims that there was a case for supporting certain liberation movements in the 19th century. Luxemburg’s arguments were seriously debated at the time, and many social democrats, including a significant section of the Bolsheviks, supported her views against Lenin’s “right of nations to self—determination”. Eventually Lenin’s views won the day, and the Communist International supported national liberation movements and thus the massacre of the proletariat in China, Germany, etc. etc.. The most obvious reason for Lenin’s success was the power of the Soviet Union. Another reason for the weakness of opposition to Lenin’s petit— bourgeois liberal position was the inability of his opponents to break from liberal democratic aspects of the Marxist tradition. Marxists, Marx and Engels included, have tended to argue that the bourgeoisie “betray” the ideals of their own revolution. At the other end of the scale, we are familiar with the beliefs of certain ex—members of Wildcat that the bourgeoisie aren’t really democratic. Many of the weaknesses of Luxemburg’s positions derive from this type of error. She defends the proletariat as the true defender of democracy against Absolutism, and even as the bearer of Western Civilisation against Czarist barbarism. We know where this position led, but we sometimes like to forget who invented it. The bourgeoisie did not betray the revolutions of the 19th century. It simply defended its class interests against the proletariat, and used it as cannon fodder against inconvenient historical entities. An examination of Marx and Engels’s own accounts of the bourgeois movements of the 19th century shows they were wrong to support them. This is not an “eternal truth”, but it’s at least 200 years old. Democracy leads Luxemburg to make major concessions to the idea of national self-determination, arguing that the working class constitutes the “majority” of the nation. Rather than simply showing nationalism is the enemy of the working class, period, she claims the bourgeoisie distorts or makes meaningless the idea of nationalism. This leads to the weakest but most famous of her arguments against Lenin — national liberation is impossible because of the domination of the planet by imperialism. (The National question and Autonomy [7] pp l30-l3l). We reject nationalism as anti—working class not because the bourgeoisie betrays it, not because it’s impossible, but because it ties the proletariat to its class enemy and divides it amongst itself. Luxemburg does not start from an internationalist position, but from a longing for “the harmony of interests of all nationalities” as “the national policy of the proletariat” ([7] p168). She assumes that nations are real. However, she could claim Marx as a progenitor even whilst arguing with some of his conclusions. The idea of progress, the idea the proletariat should support the revolutionary bourgeois smashing of old feudal fetters, and its democratic corollary, were defended by Marx better than anyone. We must rescue these ideas from the gnawing criticism of the mice and give them to the cat.

What is Imperialism?

In this section, I briefly go through some of the most important definitions of Imperialism to see whether any of them are any use to our analysis of the modern capitalist world.

Imperialism = Empires

This nominalist understanding of Imperialism is clearly useless, since it makes nations with clearly defined Empires like the USSR more imperialist than those with few formally-defined colonies like the USA. It would make Portugal imperialist until 1974 but not Spain. Obviously, if we accept the bourgeois picture of the world divided into nations, we can easily see that some nations dominate others by means other that crude military colonialism.

Nations tend to dominate others

Again assuming the reality of nation states (though unlike Bukharin, I examine this assumption in depth in subsequent sections), even making this assumption, this definition is no use either. Almost every country is more powerful than others, and tries to dominate them. Russia tends to dominate Vietnam, which tends to dominate Kampuchea. India, apparently ignorant of Marx’s advice that a nation which rules another can never itself be free, leans very heavily on Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and would do so on Pakistan were not the latter dominated by the USA. Even the smallest countries harbour imperialist designs on their neighbours, e.g. Albania wouldn’t mind Kosovo, currently in Yugoslavia. “Nations tend to dominate others” leads to the view that nearly all countries are imperialist, and is therefore no good.

International Capitalism in the Epoch of Decadence

Defining Imperialism as international capitalism also lacks utility. When the left communist paper Teachers Voice called for “Imperialism Out of the Gulf”, it didn’t mean International Capitalism out of the Gulf. It meant a specific policy of a specific section of world capital, or to put it another way “Yankee Go Home”. Imperialism is only useful as a definition if it means a specific type of capitalism. If this is worth fighting more than humdrum ordinary capitalism (i.e. more than just waging a permanent and total war against) then we will have found a useful definition. The only possibility for defining Imperialism as international capitalism is to use it as a synonym for Capitalist Decadence. This theory depends on Marx s teleological view of history as a succession of stages, of modes of production each giving birth to its successor, each having a given historical “task”. We can either accept or reject the idea of refutation as a criterion of meaning — the idea that a statement is meaningful if you can say how to prove or disprove it. If we reject it, on what grounds could we accept or reject Marx’s teleology? Why not, for example, accept the Roman paradigm of history instead? The Ancient Romans were quite convinced that history was a series of increasingly degenerate stages. But if we accept refutation, how could we refute or verify Marx’s vision of history? It’s difficult to reconcile Decadence with the materialist conception as defined in The German Ideology (see section 1). The most coherent argument for Decadence derives from the view that capitalism created the world economy and thus completed its historic task. But this is difficult to measure. Capitalism is still increasing its domination of the world. Pannekoek used the theory of Decadence to excuse his participation in Parliamentary Social Democracy up till 1914. This illustrates one of the major problems with Decadence — if you get the date of capitalist decadence slightly too late, you could end up supporting one faction of the bourgeoisie against another. Decadence was of little use to Pannekoek and the German and Dutch Left in any case - they supported national struggles until after world war two. How to tell if your mode of production is Decadent. Easy - just look at the relations of production. Are they forms for the development of the forces of production, or fetters on that development? If the latter, your mode of production is decadent. It’s as easy as that! Capitalism develops the proletariat, among other things. It might be argued that its worth supporting at certain stages for this reason. But a proletariat capable of supporting capitalism in order to further develop the proletariat would be conscious enough to overthrow capitalism and abolish itself. Capitalism develops the productive forces anyway, without conscious proletarian support. Old dynasties did not need to be overthrown by the bourgeoisie in order to develop the productive forces — they just became bourgeois themselves. Japan is a shining example. There may have been a time when it was in the proletariat’s interest to support the bourgeoisie. This is a subject for empirical research. It was certainly before the French Revolution of 1789. No bourgeois struggles since have been worth supporting. Marx’s dialectical mumbo-jumbo was a cover-up for Victorian Progress ideology. The theory of Decadence is an attempt to incorporate Marx’ s mistakes into the communist platform. We don’ t want them in ours.

The Ideology of Imperialism

At the end of the last century, some of the rulers of some of the most powerful capitalist states consciously decided to try to tie their working classes to the class enemy by means of the ideology of Imperialism. The conquest of Africa and Asia by the mother country was supposed to turn the proles into more acquiescent subjects, particularly if they felt they had material interests in colonialism. This ideology has been effective. British and French workers, for example, have been fairly saturated in the ideas of imperialism for a century or so, and this has helped the bourgeoisie get them to die by the million for “their” respective nation states, and suppress the possibility of revolution. The Falklands war was a sobering reminder of how easy it is for the bourgeoisie to whip up patriotism among the masses of the imperialist heartlands. But pernicious and effective though it may be, it has been no more so than any other form of nationalism. For example, anti-imperialism, the belief of workers in the struggle of oppressed nations, greatly helped the Vietnamese bourgeoisie invade Kampuchea after the Vietnam war. Whereas the American working class, according to the Leninist mythology dupes of Imperialist ideology, have still not accepted the idea of fighting another war after their resistance helped end the one in Vietnam. Imperialist ideology is no worse than any other nationalist ideology. A clear illustration of the irrelevance of the distinction between Imperialism, anti—imperialism, and nationalism, is the case of Germany.

As Socialist Workers Party hack Chris Harman admits in his history of the German Revolution, the Comintern supported Nazis as a national liberation, anti—imperialist struggle in the oppressed nation of Germany in the 20’s. It was occupied and oppressed by French and British Imperialism. Cominternists and National Socialists fought Imperialism side by side. Within a decade, this anti—imperialism had become German Imperialism. Thus the ideology of Imperialism is useless to us, if not to the bourgeoisie. In a published text or platform, this section would be expanded to discuss the legacy of anti—imperialism, showing how it has been used by the international bourgeoisie to suppress the class struggle in countries from Argentina to Algeria, Zimbabwe and Zaire. However this is hardly necessary in a meeting of communists. I would briefly mention here that I would also go on to say anti—imperialism is fraying at the edges, mainly because you can’t eat national liberation. The first example I know where a conscious rejection of a particular nationalist ideology has taken place is recently in Algeria. Rioters explicitly identified with the intifada of Palestinian proletarians against the Zionist state. This is not far from seeing the Arab nationalist bourgeoisie and the Zionists as the same enemy. No wonder Arafat has been buzzing around the capitals of the Middle East recently.

Hilferding’s Definition of Imperialism

“The policy of finance capital pursues a threefold aim: first, the creation of the largest possible economic territory which, secondly, must be protected against foreign competition by tariff walls, and thus, thirdly, must become an area of exploitation for the national monopoly companies.” (Hilferding, Finance Capital cited in [6] p107.). Hilferding’s definition, on which most of his successors depended, depends on the concept of nation states. Rather than seeing Capital moving around the world in search of profits, he defines Imperialism in terms of national monopolies exporting Capital and commodities. Nations are more basic than Capital. But Imperialism was not always carried out by nations: “India” and the colony which became Indonesia were founded by companies. But I am jumping ahead of the argument. As we saw with Bukharin, nations are hard to define. He hurriedly offers “the territorial state conception of economic life.” ([6] p80). Does he mean that nations are whatever the bourgeoisie think they are, and they make wars on the basis of their “conceptions”? Nation states start wars, and Hilferding’s definition can only be understood as the policy of states, particular coalitions of capitalist groups with sovereignty (the monopoly of armed force) over a particular acreage of the earth’s surface. I am not going to deny that these coalitions exist. But I am going to address the question of how fundamental these particular formations are, as opposed to others. Is the bourgeoisie split into national sections above all others? Unless they are, the above definition of Imperialism, though by far the best, is as non—functional as all the others.

The Internationalist Approach

There is a widespread assumption among Marxists that capitalist organisation is based on the nation state. The feudal world had no conception of nations because it was ruled by a global religious hierarchy which had no intrinsic territorial limitations. The ruling classes of the ancien regimes had no nationality - neither the Pope, nor the Bourbons, nor the Hapsburgs. These interrelated divinely appointed rulers did not belong to particular bits of the world. England has not had English monarchs since the 11th century.

The emergence of nations is explained by B Anderson in [8] as the result of three main factors. One is the collapse of religion. According to Anderson, the existential angst caused by the decline of religion partly explains the rise of nationalism as a substitute community. The destruction of communities in general by capitalism partly explains nationalism. Capital replaces various kinds of community with its own invention, the national community. Another major factor is the print industry. The Latin market became saturated, and it was economical for printers to create fairly large reading groups based on fusing numerous dialects together into languages: English, German, French. Luther’s translations of the early 16th century did more to create the “German nation” than all the politicians who succeeded him put together. But the most interesting factor noted by Anderson is the conscious creation of nationalisms by the ruling class. Pre-national dynasts deliberately promoted nationalism. Anderson gives plenty of empirical examples to support his argument – the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, Chulalongkorn — all promoted “official nationalism” to preserve their power over labour and other classes. Nineteenth century nationalisms became models. Since 1918, these models have been adapted by bourgeois students from around the world at European Universities, and taken “home” to create nations. This has led to the creation of some rather arbitrary nations. Anderson points out that Indonesia “does not remotely correspond to any precolonial domain”, and goes on to describe its enormous variety of peoples, cultures, languages and religions, how the people at one end have far more in common with their neighbours across the national frontier than with their fellow “Indonesians”, and how its shape is determined by the last Dutch conquests. ([8] p110).

The bourgeoisie is a global class. Nations did not emerge before capitalism. There were bourgeois before capitalism in every part of the world. Consciously or not (and there are numerous examples of conscious conspiracy), capitalism created nations. This suggests, though does not prove, that they are not essential to capitalism. Some nations are less arbitrary than others. The shape of Chile, for example, is the result of communication lines in the various provinces of the Spanish Empire. But the current nations of Latin America emerged after several attempts to create larger ones. Uniquely among the authors mentioned in this article, Anderson asks the right question: What are nations, and where do they come from? Bukharin, following Marx and Hilferding, assumes their reality, thus the “world division of labour” between them, and is thus able to invent the myth of Imperialism. Partly a spontaneous false community caused by the decline of other communities (though unlike religion, “Bash the Argies” does not express the heart of a heartless world) , partly the result of the linguistic centralisations brought about by the emergence of the mass production of vernacular (non—Latin) books in the 16th and 17th centuries, and partly as the result of conscious decisions by a) the old non—national dynasties, and b) the modern international bourgeois intelligentsia, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self—consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist”. (E. Gellner, Thought and Change cited in [8] p15). Anderson starts by showing that nations are imagined communities (we tend to think we have something in common with our fellow—nationals, most of whom we will never meet), and then tries to work out how they were created and by whom. The consequences can be summarised thus: The Bosses Have no Country. If nations are imaginary, and the bosses have no country, does it follow that the national divisions of the world and their disputes, including massive wars and the nuclear stockpile, are all the result of a massive conspiracy? Do the international capitalist class stage wars in order to attack the class struggle, devalue capital, and all the time know they are united against us? Do they approach world wars in the same way as a game of cricket? The question is not - do the bourgeoisie think they are divided into nations? But to some extent, we would expect their consciousness to bear some relation to the reality if nations really are fictions. There are examples of international conspiracies which reveal inter—bourgeois faction fights which. are not national fights. There is the House of Windsor! Hitler collaboration prior to world war two. There was in all likelihood some collaboration between the various “bourgeoisies” during the war. Surely Hess did not fly to Britain off his own bat? On the other hand, the Allies hung some of the top Nazis after the war, though this is exceptional. Our approach does not depend on the bourgeoisie’s consciousness of its own international interests. Some are more conscious than others. George V and Jacques Delors are more internationalist than Galtieri. Whether or not Galtieri knew he was acting in the interests of British and international capital by attacking the Falkland Islands, this is the reality. The best examples of Machiavellian nationalism are in Russia. The Romanovs decided they were Russian nationalists out of conscious choice. Stalin introduced Russian nationalism back into the Soviet Union in order to attack the class struggle and win the war. Stalin was an internationalist who consciously promoted nationalism because it was in the interests of capitalism. Why should we think most of the world bourgeoisie are any less Machiavellian?

But whatever their origins, nations have a certain solidity. State capitalist trusts do exist. There is a faction of the international bourgeoisie coalesced around the Brush state. This "trust” is more solid than a company like IBM. IBM managers can leave and form new companies or join them. Thatcher can hardly become Prime Minister of another country. But alongside this solidity, there is considerable flexibility. The EC is emerging slowly but surely as a new capitalist entity, more powerful than any of its component nations. When Anderson asks rhetorically “would anyone die willingly for Comecon or the EEC?” he implies that only the nation can inspire the self— sacrificing stupidity that capitalism demands. But people died for the Soviet Union before it officially turned itself into a nation, and some probably died in Afghanistan for Comecon, under the name “socialist fraternity of nations We should not be complacent about the emergence of EC-ism. If people can die for the rights of the Falkland Islanders to remain British, they’ll swallow anything. The bourgeoisie are organised into all kinds of supra—national entities. The Guradian recently had nightmares trying to work out what “nation” ConsGold belonged to — Britain or South Africa? (See diagram on following page). Like other capitalist entities, nations have a certain reality. But inter—bourgeois faction fights can be more important than nations, and the bourgeoisie’s common interest against our struggle is always more so.


Capitalism is not a contradiction between a socialised international economy and national forms which contradict it. It can abolish this contradiction. Our aim is not to free the productive forces from their fetters, but to destroy them and build communism. For this reason, we should reject the theory of Decadence and significant aspects of Marx’s method which underly it, though leaving open the question of whether their was ever the possibility of a joint struggle between capitalists and workers prior to the French Revolution, until further empirical evidence emerges. Imperialism is a non-issue. National states exist, and have a certain importance among coalitions of bourgeois interest groups against each other and against the proletariat, but nations did not predate capitalism, are not essential to it, and were created, and can be abolished by, Capital. Other entities may be more important capitalist coalitions in the future. Machiavellianism is an important feature of the way the bourgeoisie operates. Having thrown various bogies into the waste disposal unit of history nations, progress, decadence and Imperialism, we are left with only one fundamental contradiction the invariant class antagonisms between international labour and international capital. This must remain our reference point in our analysis of the changing world around us.

RB. London, 25 11 88.

1.The Economic Foundations of Capitalist Decadence. CWO London 1985.

2. Selected Writings. Karl Marx ed. D. McLellan, OUP 1977.

3. Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism. V.1. Lenin. Peking 1973.

4. Capital Volume 3. Karl Marx. Penguin Books 1981.

5. Development and Underdevelopment. 0. Kay. MacMillan 1975.

Imperialism and World Economy. N. Bukharin. Merlin, London 1976.

The National Question. P. Luxemburg. Monthly Review Press 1977.

8. Imagined Communities. B. Anderson. Verso London 1983.


In case anyone's failed to notice, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the 'French Revolution'. This is usually seen as a series of political and social events beginning with the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and culminating in the declaration of the Republic in September 1792 ('Year 1'), or perhaps Napoleon's seizure of power in 1799, depending on the political complexion of the historian involved.

The significance of (some, carefully chosen, of) these events for the bourgeoisie is quite clear - it was during this period that the French nation was created. This was an event which inspired nation-building bourgeois across the world. It is no coincidence that so many nations use some kind of tricolour as their national emblem. What the anniversary celebrators don't want us to think about is that every nation can only exist in so far as the class struggle can be suppressed. Most of the world's nations claim to have been brought into existence by some kind of 'revolution' which overthrew an evil and corrupt 'ancien regime'. Frequently the 'revolution' is just a coup d'etat or institutional rearrangement, but often it is a bloody counter-revolution. Every new-born nation must be baptised in working class blood, and France was no exception.

The purpose of this article is to make clear that the proletariat has always had to fight independently for its interests against the bourgeoisie. It is not a question of whether or not communism was possible. Even if it is not possible to create communism, proletarians still have an interest in having enough to eat and not being massacred in wars. 'Progress' for the bourgeoisie has never meant improvements for the proletariat. It has simply meant a more rapid numerical growth of the proletariat and the further development of exploitation, starvation and war.

For leftie historians the working class progresses from 'apolitical' food riots to the modern labour movement and universal suffrage. For theorists of capitalist decadence, including Karl Marx, the working class had to support various fractions of the bourgeoisie in the creation of nation states while capital was in its ascendant phase. Against both of these positions we assert the 'Invariant Programme' of rioting, looting, machine-breaking, resistance to work and insurrection against all states.


We must start off by completely rejecting the notion that the two sections of the ruling class who fought over possession of the State were two separate classes - the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. That is, we reject the notion that France between 1789 and 1793 underwent a 'bourgeois revolution'.

The bourgeoisie did not need political revolutions to establish its domination over society since it was able to establish its mode of production side by side with the old feudal system. The feudal system was not so much overthrown as 'corrupted' from within by the gradual development of trade, money-lending and the beginnings of industry in the cities. As early as the 16th century the Absolute Monarchs of Europe were no longer feudal kings but bourgeois who fought their wars and ran their State bureaucracies not on the basis of feudal service and loyalties but on the basis of money. As a result, they were either heavily in debt or themselves became money-lenders, like the Pope.

When the 'bourgeois revolutionaries' in France started flogging off the church lands and monasteries in 1789 they were only doing what Henry VIII had done in England two and a half centuries earlier.

What is also important is that on the eve of 1789 the French ruling class was NOT divided into an 'aristocratic' land-owning and church camp and a party of 'bourgeois' industrialists and merchants. The expansion of capitalist enterprise (whether overseas trading or industry) was carried on by nobles as much as by the 'bourgeois' nouveaux riches. At the same time, many non-nobles preferred to invest their capital in land, titles and government stock. So many ennobling offices were for sale that anyone with enough money could join the nobility. A particularly cushy number was the position of 'King's Secretary', a sinecure which conferred hereditary nobility on the purchaser and his family, a snip at 150,000 livres. On the ideological level, the 'Enlightenment' was as much a product of the liberal nobility as of any other bourgeois fraction.

The involvement of nobles in 'Revolutionary' politics cannot be ignored. It was the Comte de Mirabeau who emerged as the leader of the National Assembly (the parliament formed in June 1789), it was the Marquis de Lafayette who became the first commander of the Paris National Guard, it was the Vicomte de Noailles who introduced the decrees proposing the 'abolition of feudalism' on 4 August 1789, and it was Talleyrand (a bishop!) who proposed the selling off of church land.


If the feudal nobility did not exist as a class, the proletariat certainly did, and may even have been a majority of the population.

In 1789, France was second only to England as an industrial country, large manufactories promoted by the State had already appeared. Real industrialisation had not yet begun, though. In 1789 Great Britain had 200 mills on the Arkwright model. France had eight. There were no factory towns and no modern industrial proletariat.

In most of the country industry was still largely carried on in cottages, or by master craftsmen and their journeymen in small medieval city workshops. But the old guilds had declined and no longer protected the journeymen who were becoming reduced to the status of wage earners with little chance of ever becoming masters. The smaller masters were also being proletarianised as their interests separated from those of the merchant manufacturers.

The fabled 'sans-culottes' of the Paris faubourgs (poor districts) were by no means exclusively proletarian, they included small shopkeepers and artisans, but it was undoubtedly the proletarian majority which gave the specific character to 'sans-culotte' struggles.

The overwhelming majority' of the French population (around 85%, of 23 million) lived in the countryside. Undoubtedly many were petty bourgeois peasants - that is peasants who have an interest in high food prices. Many more, though, were either poor peasants, (that is, peasants who were well on the way to proletarianisation, such as sharecroppers) or simply rural proletarians ('landless labourers'). Many of these were destitute : in 1777 over a million people were officially declared to be beggars. Many peasants still relied on pre-capitalist forms of land ownership and village organisation for their, survival. All this meant that the content of struggles in the countryside was very confused, with the struggle of the proletariat frequently being mixed up with 'kulak' struggles or the struggle to defend pre-capitalist conditions.

The peasants were no longer serfs, although on the royal lands serfdom had only been abolished as late as 1779. Statute labour, however, still existed and took on an enormous variety of forms: work in the Lord's fields, work in his parks and gardens... There were also a bewildering array of taxes to be paid, in addition to land-rent. The peasant paid for the right of marriage, baptism, burial; he paid on everything he bought or sold. As the position of the land-owners declined their extraction of 'feudal' dues became all the more rapacious as it was the only way they could maintain their profits.

A whole new profession of lawyers had come into being, the 'feudists', whose job was to help the land-owners revive old feudal obligations and maximise existing ones. Not surprisingly, revolts by the peasantry took the form of refusals to pay some or all of these exactions.

All sections of the proletariat were precariously dependent on the price of bread which could fluctuate wildly depending on the state of the harvest. Hardly a year passed without some part of France being plunged into famine conditions. High points in the class struggle tended to correspond to bad harvests across the whole country, e.g. 1788.

The struggle often took the form of attempts to force reductions in the price of bread and other necessities by collective force ('taxation populaire'). Typically people would invade the flour markets and besiege bakers' shops forcing dealers to sell the goods at a 'just' price.

A particularly widespread example of this was the 'flour war' of April-May 1775 which gripped Paris and its neighbouring provinces for over a fortnight and caused panic in the Court. It spread into Paris itself and resulted in the siege of every baker's shop in the city centre and the inner faubourgs. The movement was only crushed by the massive use of troops and hundreds of arrests.

Similar outbreaks of 'taxation populaire' continued during the 'Revolution' period, in 1789, 1792-3 and 1795. The target of these movements was the prosperous peasant, the grain merchant, miller or baker. Whether the bourgeois in question supported the old or the new regime was unimportant.


The immediate cause of the political crisis in the State was the enormous debt created by France's participation in the American War of Independence. Half the state's revenue was being used to pay interest on loans.

On Feb 22, 1787 the Assembly of Notables was convened at Versailles. This was an obscure aristocratic body which had not met since 1626. Nothing was decided, all that happened is that it became public knowledge that the national debt had reached 1.5 thousand million livres. This was an incredible figure.

On Aug 8, 1788 Louis XVI was obliged to convene the Estates General and to fix the opening for May 1, 1789. This body had not met since 1614 but was different in that it was elected and was supposed to represent the three 'Orders' of society - the Clergy, the Nobility and the so-called Third Estate. The Third Estate was what in Britain would be called the Commons. That is, in theory, everyone else, in practice, the non-aristocratic bourgeoisie. The elections were indirect but nevertheless provided an opportunity for the radical bourgeois to propagate their program and ideology throughout the whole of society.

It was increasingly necessary to channel working class discontent into support for reforms since things had already reached the stage where any disorder on the streets of Paris risked turning into a proletarian rising. For example, the magistrates of the 'parlement' (Courts of Justice) of Paris got themselves exiled to the provinces on two occasions (1787, 1788) for being mildly critical of the Court. Their first return resulted in a few disorderly celebrations by lawyers clerks and university students but on the second occasion they were joined by proles from the faubourgs, resulting in violent rioting in which guard posts were looted and burned.

A week before the Estates General was to meet, the famous Reveillon riots broke out when the Electoral Assembly meetings were held in Paris. At one of these meetings a paper manufacturer by the name of Reveillon (together with another called Henriot) made a particularly offensive speech to the assembled proles. He said that wages in industry were too high. The reaction was swift, an effigy of Reveillon was hung in the Place de la Greve and Henriot's house was burnt down. The next day a crowd went to Reveillon's factory and made the workers stop work. Then they plundered the warehouse. Much fighting with troops ensued and Reveillon's house was burnt down that evening. A few days later a mob tried to storm the Bicetre prison. Even during this movement, which was clearly for proletarian interests, a bourgeois political influence was emerging. Insurgents shouted 'Long live the Third Estate' and 'Liberty... No Surrender'.


Meanwhile the inhabitants of the countryside had not been idle. Starting in December 1788, there was a massive movement of attacks on grain boats and granaries; assaults on customs officials and merchants; 'taxation populaire' of bread and wheat; and widespread destruction of bourgeois property. This occurred in virtually every province. North of Paris the starving rural poor attacked the game laws and hunting rights of the nobility by indulging in unrestrained poaching.

In the spring of 1789, after lying dormant for almost a century, peasant anger against royal taxes and seigneurial dues began to be expressed explosively all over the country. The peasants burned the chateaux and with them the hated manorial rolls on which were inscribed the details of the dues and obligations. It was this which caused the National Assembly to issue its decrees of August 4 and 5 which abolished, or in most cases made redeemable into money, all seigneurial burdens on the peasantry. The peasants, however, carried on refusing to pay anything. Three years later the Jacobin government had to annul the peasant debt.


Some six weeks after the opening of the Estates General, the Third Estate constituted themselves and all who were prepared to join them as the National Assembly with the right to recast the constitution. The response of the Court was to gather troops to invade Paris and dissolve the National Assembly (still based at Versailles). This led to the first of many popular calls to arms. On July 12 crowds gathered in the gardens of the Palais Royal, the home of the Duc d'Orleans (whom many radical bourgeois wanted to place on the throne) to hear 'patriotic' orators. Marchers paraded along the boulevards and Besenval, the commander of the Paris garrison, withdrew to the Champ de Mars, leaving the capital in the hands of the insurgents. They proceeded to destroy the 'barrieres', or customs posts, ringing the city. These were despised because of the tolls they imposed on food and wine entering the city.

Men armed with pikes and cudgels spread themselves through every quarter, knocking at the doors of the rich to demand money and arms. Gunsmiths' shops were looted and pikes began to be forged in the faubourgs. The next day the monastery of the St. Lazare brotherhood was broken into, looted, searched for arms and grain, and its prisoners were released. Fifty two carts laden with flour were dragged to the Halles for free distribution.

In many ways the actions of the masses were similar to the glorious few days of 'mob rule' which had shaken British capitalism nine years earlier in the London 'Gordon Riots' in which half a dozen prisons were completely destroyed and the homes of the rich pillaged and burnt on a massive scale.

There were the same mass releases of prisoners, for example - not just 'political' ones, either. In Paris, however, the movement was nowhere near as extreme - 'Nothing was touched that day, either at the Treasury or the Bank' said the British ambassador. This was partly because the bourgeoisie were better organised to control things. The patriotic bourgeoisie formed a provisional city government based at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). Thoroughly alarmed by what was happening, they began to enroll a citizen's militia (the National Guard) to uphold bourgeois order. On the 13th the debtors' prison of La Force was seized and all the prisoners released, but an attempt to free prisoners from Chatelet prison on the same day was crushed by the National Guard. It is also known that around the same time the National Guard carried out several night-time summary executions of looters. They challenged passers-by with the words 'Are you for the Nation?'. Shortly afterwards, similar militias were formed all over the country to fight the insurgent peasants and rural proles.


The insurgents continued the search for arms and ammunition and this was one of the main reasons why the Bastille Fortress was attacked on 14th, this and its strategic military importance (rather than because It was a 'symbol of Absolutism'). They were short of powder and it was known that large stocks existed in the Bastille. At the same time its guns were trained ominously on the St. Antoine faubourg. So, after 30,000 muskets had been removed from the Hotel des Invalides across the river, the cry went up 'To the Bastille!'. After much fruitless negotiation between City Hall and the Bastille's governor, the impatient crowd took the place by storm at the cost of 150 lives. These the governor, the Marquis de Launay, paid for when he was dragged away from his bourgeois protectors outside City Hall and beheaded in the street.

The Bastille's surrender had remarkable political results. The National Assembly was saved and received royal blessing. Many Court supporters fled the country, or tried to. Among these was the notorious grain speculator Foulon who was dragged back to Paris and hung from a lamp post by the angry mob. In Paris, power passed into the hands of the Committee of Electors, who set up a city council (the Commune). The King himself came to Paris wearing the red, white and blue cockade of the patriots. But he continued to plot against the Assembly and in October once again tried to end the situation of bourgeois dual power by a show of force. The Flanders regiment and the dragoons were called to Versailles.

Once again the patriots called on the masses to save them, but this time things were more under control. Leading patriots like Danton, Marat and Loustalot had been inciting a march to Versailles for some time. On Oct 5 a crowd of working class women marched to City Hall and forced open the doors demanding. bread and arms. They were quickly enroled under suitable leadership. The patriots had again managed to divert class hatred away from themselves onto the wicked aristos. Later on, men began to march as well, and, a few hours later, were followed by the National Guard to prevent any mishaps. The National Guard arrived at the Palace just in time to save the royals from the mob and the king was brought to Paris as a virtual prisoner. The constitutional monarchy was firmly established.

The bourgeoisie could now return to the problem of the proles. The Paris municipality, using the excuse of the killing of a baker on Oct 21, went to the Assembly to beg for martial law. It was voted for at once.

The new regime was not simply based on force, however. Despite the notorious division of citizens into 'active' (propertied) and 'passive' categories and the gradual erosion of democratic rights throughout 1790, there remained a high level of participation in the State. This occurred through the local government bodies known as Communes which were composed of smaller 'districts' or 'sections' based on regular general assemblies. The districts played an important role: they appointed magistrates, organised the National Guard and armed 'the people' for patriotic purposes. It was by means of these bodies that bourgeois orators such as Danton and Marat were able to gain such an influence. In addition, numerous Clubs and 'fraternal' societies were formed which after 1790 opened their doors to wage-earners and craftsmen.


But while the bourgeoisie carried out their great program of modernising the State, the working class never completely abandoned its struggle, particularly as inflation and food shortages began to bite again in mid 1791.

In Paris there was a large scale strike movement for higher wages which began amongst journeymen carpenters and quickly spread to other cities. The City Council condemned their strike as illegal and rejected their demand for a minimum wage as contrary to liberal principles. But they dared not use too much repression in case the movement spread. Their fears were well grounded. In June the master blacksmiths, in a petition to the assembly, warned of the existence of a 'general coalition' of 80,000 workers including joiners, cobblers and locksmiths as well as their own journeymen. The Assembly responded by passing the notorious Le Chapelier Law which declared all workers' associations of any kind to be illegal. It was to remain on the statute book for almost a century.

In August 1791 food riots again convulsed the whole country, lasting until April the following year.


On 22 August 1791, the slaves of San Domingo (now Haiti) revolted. Each slave-gang killed its masters and set the plantation on fire. Within a few days, half of the North Plain - the most important sugar and coffee growing area in the French empire - was a flaming ruin. The revolt quickly spread to maroons (escaped slaves living in the hills) and poorer mulattos (people of mixed race). It was to lead to a many-sided war that eventually forced the Convention to agree to the abolition of slavery in the colony in Feb. 1794. This was done to encourage the slaves to fight for France against Britain which had declared war on France at the beginning of 1793.

As with the class struggle in France, the revolt had quickly acquired a bourgeois leadership just as steeped in the ideas of Liberty and Equality as their class brothers in Paris and Marseilles. The most famous of these was Toussaint Breda (later "L'Ouverture"), a "senior executive" amongst slaves who had organised the labour of several hundred others and had originally protected his master's property from destruction. When this stratum finally came to power they did everything they could to rebuild the sugar economy and keep the old plantation owners in place (as later Lenin would strive to keep the old factory bosses). A savage code of labour discipline was enforced against considerable resistance from the ex-slaves who said "moin pas esclave, moin pas travaye" - "I'm no slave, I won't work".

In Paris in January 1792 the shortage of sugar and other colonial products caused by the slave revolt in San Domingo caused price fixing riots to break out in various parts of the city. In February there were similar riots in which cart loads of sugar were seized even though they were under military escort. The struggle of the slaves had found an international echo!


In April 1792 the government of the Girondins (moderate republicans) declared war on Austria. This was partly necessitated by the fact that the French noble emigres were plotting with Austria, Prussia, and the German Princes to invade France and re-establish the Old Regime. It was also a good way of creating national unity. Early defeats in the war brought radicalisation, in a purely bourgeois republican sense. In August and September the monarchy was finally overthrown and the republic established. The parliament underwent another metamorphosis, this time into the National Convention. The distinction between active and passive citizens was abolished. The King got the chop.

The French army was ineffective and still staffed by royalist officers. Dumouriez, the Republic's leading general was shortly to desert to the enemy. Only unprecedented and extreme methods could win the war. The nation's resources were mobilised through conscription, rationing, a rigidly controlled war economy and the virtual abolition of the distinction between soldiers and civilians. By March 1793 France was at war with most of Europe: and had begun annexations (France was entitled to her 'natural frontiers'). In June the Convention decreed the 'levee en masse', which called up three quarters of a million men. Shortly before this, the Girondins were overthrown after finding themselves increasingly out-manoeuvred by the Jacobins who alone had the popular support to win the war.

The war dramatically worsened conditions of life for the poor. In November 1792 a new and more extensive movement against food prices began spreading to eight departments, starting amongst foresters, craftsmen and glass factory workers in Sarthe who raided the local markets under arms. In many regions prices were forced down and the National Guard were powerless to intervene. In others, the local National Guard even joined the movement (out in the styx they were less loyal and petty bourgeois than in Paris!).

In Feb. 1793 Paris was shaken by a far larger price reduction movement than the one a year,earlier. It lasted only one day but affected all 48 Parisian sections, taking the form of a mass invasion of grocers' and chandlers' shops. Barere, on the Committee of Public Safety, spoke darkly of 'aristocrats in disguise' and insisted that such luxuries as sugar and coffee were unlikely objects of popular passion.

These struggles, together with the demands of the war economy, were instrumental in forcing the convention to pass the law of the General Maximum of Sept. 29, 1793. They were also encouraged by a massive demonstration of sans-culottes who, on Sept. 5, went to the convention accompanied by the left wing municipal leaders Roux and Hebert to demand price controls. This law imposed a ceiling on the prices of most commodities of prime necessity, as well as labour power. This led to an important strike movement in Paris in the summer of 1794.


In many agricultural districts the law was applied far more vigorously to wages than to prices. In Paris it tended to be the other way round at first because of the strength of the class struggle. War production meant that labour was scarce so workers frequently had to be paid higher than legal rates despite restrictions on labour mobility. But the price controls began to be relaxed in March 1794 and more and more groups of workers began to press wage demands. In June the arms workers struck and soon the movement spread to building workers, potters and government employees. On July 7, even the Committee of Public Safety's printers went on strike. In the midst of all this the Paris Commune published new wage rates strictly in line with the law, obliging many workers to take a 50% pay cut.

At the same time the bourgeoisie as a whole were dispensing with the Jacobins who had outlived their usefulness (the war was over). Robespierre and his associates were expelled from the convention and arrested. Having temporarily escaped they took refuge in the City Hall. On the same day it was besieged by angry workers. The sans-culottes could no longer be roused to support the left against the right and jeered the councillors of the Commune as they were led off to be guillotined.

At first the workers were allowed decent pay rises but these were quickly eaten up by inflation as free market conditions returned. The closure of government workshops led to a rise in unemployment.

The sans-culottes attempted to rise for the last time in May 1795 with a massive political and military demonstration marching on the convention to press their demands, which were as confused as ever. The most popular slogan was 'Bread and the Constitution of 1793'. But this time the bourgeoisie didn't have to give an inch because they were able to confront the marchers with a regular army loyal to the state. The insurgents gave in without firing a shot, so as to avoid bloodshed, and slunk back to their hovels. Savage reprisals followed. The days of mass struggle in France were over for another 35 years. The country was prepared for the massacres of the Napoleonic wars.

It was the war economy that had been the greatest achievement of the French bourgeoisie in the 'Revolutionary' years. They had layed the foundations for modern warfare, both as a means of carrying on capitalist competition and as a means of dealing with the proletariat, a class who were becoming everywhere more numerous and troublesome.

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